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Bitter Sweet: A Memoir of Travel in Cambodia

by Cheryn Flanagan

We left the bright colors of yellow and red in Thailand and arrived to the olive drab palette of camouflage in Cambodia. I was traveling in SE Asia for 5 weeks with my boyfriend. We left the U.S. jobless due to the recession, amidst the war on terrorism, with Anthrax in the mail, George W. in office… and I was turning 30. What better circumstances to escape to foreign lands? We bought plane tickets to Siem Reap at a travel agency in Bangkok and were off to Cambodia to see the magnificent Angkor Wat temples.

We flew into Siem Reap on a humid, still afternoon in January. On arrival, we paid our $20 admission fee, were quickly processed by immigration officers dressed in military-style uniforms and were ushered into a fine cloud of dust swirling around the parking lot. $5 will get you a nice, air-conditioned car with a young, polite driver for the 15-minute ride to town. Our driver's name was Van Seng. He was an overly cautious driver, spoke good English and seemed very comfortable with those uncomfortable silences. He would become our driver to the Angkor temples for the next 3 days. Due to this, my memories of him primarily consist of the coarse, wavy black hair on the back of his head and the teenage acne I could see on his face in the rear view mirror.

As we drove down the main road into town I gazed out the windows with anticipation. There were colossal luxury hotels lining the road alongside neighborhoods of thatched roof shacks that leaned against each other like houses made from playing cards. There were families of 4 with deep brown skin riding together on a single motorbike and freshly killed pigs stacked like sacks of flour on wooden carts on the road before us. We were unprepared for Cambodia in many ways, starting with not having determined a place to stay. As we made our way to town, we quickly scanned our guidebook for the cheapest guesthouse we could find with the greatest number of amenities such as an indoor bathroom or hot water.

When he dropped us off, Van Seng quickly secured work for the next 3 days. It's not possible to get to the Angkor temples on your own unless you rent a motorbike, which is technically against the law but possible to do by bribing the local police. However, if you don't know this or feel more comfortable playing by the rules, you must hire a driver with car or motorbike. As he helped us get our packs out of the trunk, Van Seng said, "If you don't need me, I will not have any work." In a moment we were made responsible for his livelihood or lack thereof. In the course of our visit to Siem Reap, there were similar instances like this, mixing up an emotional stew of pity, generosity, guilt and frustration.

Our first meal in Cambodia took place outdoors in the darkness of a power outage, lit only by a few, small candles. Firecrackers were exploding in the dusty dirt road next to us as heavy machinery, large trucks and motorbikes occasionally passed by several feet from our table. A team of zealous waiters wearing bright orange, tropical print shirts hovered nearby. After we ate, the wait staff gathered around us to ask the names of simple items such as trousers, mosquito coils, a candle and ashtray. We spoke with two boys in particular, Van and Cheat.

Van's disposition was childlike. His face was on the round side, and peaceful in appearance with deep brown eyes and soft features. I was surprised to find out that he was 18-years-old. I thought he couldn't be older than 14 or 15. He already spoke English well enough to communicate with us, but as every other young Cambodian friend we made, he was modest about it apologizing, "Sorry I do not speak English well." Cheat (pronounce Chee-et) was Van's sidekick. He was shy and was almost always by Van's side. His facial features were much more distinct - broad nose, strong cheekbones and a pronounced brow with deep-set eyes. He was the first to approach us, pointing at the candles on our table quietly asking, "Excuse me, sorry, what you call?"

Cheat carried a tiny notebook in his pocket to record the new English words he learned from tourists. After making my entry in the notebook, he said I was, "Everlasting in his heart." I was touched that a simple action on my part was rewarded with so much appreciation. I was also impressed this word was in his vocabulary since he previously asked me how to call his trousers. He and Van left their loved ones and homes in far away villages to work in Siem Reap. They live on the restaurant premises, sleeping on the floor at night, with the hope to make a better life for their families thanks to the brand new, booming tourism industry.

In recent years, Cambodia was not a travel destination at all. The Khmer Rouge controlled the country through terror in the 70s, and held a presence in the country until the 90s. They were an extreme group lead by Pol Pot, a radical Marxist-Leninist who was advised and supported by the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties. On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized the capital city Phnom Penh and began a genocidal four-year plan that would take the lives of close to 2 million Cambodians. Cities were evacuated forcing people to walk for days into the dry, hot countryside with little or no food and water. Their only possessions were those they could carry on their backs. Many died from disease, starvation, exhaustion or executions at mass gravesites.

Survivors' stories tell of long, backbreaking hours of work in forced labor camps growing rice or digging irrigation ditches. Families were split apart as children were sent to distant labor or training camps and adults were sent for re-education or execution. Men and the educated were particularly targeted as they were perceived as most threatening to the socialist movement. Today, the population is largely young and illiterate. But now, the long and bloody rule of the KR is over. Despite recent history, the heavily land mined countryside, and its reputation for lawlessness, Cambodia is becoming a popular destination for tourists.

The temples of Angkor are the main draw of tourism in Siem Reap. The temples were built between the 9th and 14th centuries, constructed of stone that was hauled by elephants from nearby mountains. They were originally dedicated to Hindu gods, later to Buddha. The structures are a display of exceptional artistry and craftsmanship, every inch covered with bas-reliefs and carvings. The community in Siem Reap still gathers to the grounds of Angkor Wat for Sunday picnics and to swim in the large moat surrounding it. The temples are an important part of their spiritual and family lives, paradoxically happening in tandem with sightseers and busloads of packaged tourists snapping photos of themselves grinning in front of the sacred stone ruins.

We purchased three-day visitor passes for the Angkor temples. As we drove there, Van Seng outlined the itinerary for the day, which would end a full 10 hours later at the top of a temple during sunset. Armed with several bottles of water, American dollars and cameras, we entered the Angkor complex along a shady, tree-lined road through the South Gate. Van Seng dropped us off at a temple called The Bayon and was to meet us on the other side - whenever it was we got there. Eventually we emerged into a clearing where drivers wait for their passengers amidst crude food stalls and souvenir stands.

It was prime hunting ground for the large groups of young children who lie in wait for tourists like lions in tall grass stalking prey. "One dolla, one dolla," they hollered while crowding around us, proffering souvenirs such as postcards, sarongs, flutes, bracelets, Khmer scarves, sarongs and swaths of decorative fabric. They were persistent and followed us around, tugging on our shirts and our hearts with their pleas. I bought some woven bangle bracelets thinking I could discourage the relentless peddlers by pointing at them to say, "Look, I already have those!" But they just smiled and said their bracelets were, "Same, same but different."

Other children followed us around to "practice their English" while acting as volunteer tour guides. Our first and last impromptu guide ended the tour in a shady area of ruins where he politely demanded a monetary donation so he could continue with school. Later, we learned from Van Seng that public schools cost nothing. Even so, many families keep their children home because they are more valuable as workers. We saw many of them in school uniform selling souvenirs at Angkor during their break hours. When we asked them why they weren't at home studying or playing, they told us in wearied voices they had to work for their families.

I tried to picture myself as a child, doing their job. But I couldn't imagine the blond piggy-tailed girl, who liked to search puddles for tadpoles, trudging around in the heat selling souvenirs to support her family. It was easy to look past their scowls and grumbles when I didn't buy something from them. They were only acting like children, although some times it was easy to forget that they were just kids. After a while, I looked for ways to avoid them. I made a game out of trying to shake one little girl - me hiding and she seeking. She was a good player and always managed to find me. I felt guilty for trying to hide from a little girl but felt worse from constantly telling her, "No."

We spent our nights hanging out at the Angkor Diamond Hotel bar drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and chatting with the staff. They thought we were millionaires because we were well fed (they said this while pointing at our bellies) and because we were able to travel to a place like Cambodia, so far from home. Many of them said they've never even been outside of Siem Reap. At first we chuckled at the irony of their assessment, we were far from rich. Some months, we lived paycheck to paycheck. I didn't have the heart to let them know that I had no job waiting for me back at home and yet I was still able to travel around the globe for an extended holiday. I realized that they were right; we were millionaires. My problems back at home suddenly seemed insignificant.

We easily made friends with the wait staff at our frequent hangouts -- we were all eager to learn about each other. I got the feeling that most visitors to Cambodia didn't give these people the time of day. After a few nights, the managers of the restaurants cringed when we appeared on the threshold. Our arrival meant an interruption to the work of their staff. We noticed them loitering in the distance to keep an eye on their workers. Our friends became nervous in our presence; they constantly looked over their shoulders to make sure their conversations with us went unnoticed.

On one occasion, we met a waitress at the Angkor Diamond Hotel who asked us to send a letter to a "diplomat" who had befriended her and used to send money. She explained that the Cambodian postal system is so slow that sending letters was useless. She was to bring the letter with her the following night so we could mail it when we returned to Bangkok. We never saw her again. When we asked about her, we were told she was sick. Then we were told that she no longer worked there. My intuition told me that she had been fired. It was nothing for us to drop a letter in the post, and we were happy to do it, but she probably lost her job for making the request. I began to feel self-conscious on the bar stool I had come to call my own and sensed a bit of resentment and envy lurking behind the Cambodian smile. Some of the friends we made stopped talking to us, but most of them appeared to treasure their time spent with us, just as I did.

To me, Cambodia is a land of extremes. Sprawling luxury hotels, and their clientele, sit majestically alongside dilapidated shantytowns, and the impoverished Khmer. The contrast between the daily existence of the travelers and the locals could not be more radical. Tourists invade their country with wallets full of money and stomachs full of food, and the struggling Cambodians are there to serve them. I could not fault the Khmer people for dark feelings lurking in their hearts, and it wasn't often that I encountered any.

As our journey came to an end, I was eager to leave but sad to say good-bye. We were templed out, drained of cash, emotionally sapped and in need of a hot water shower. My heart was full of fondness for the Khmer people yet heavy with thoughts of their anguish. But mostly, I was full of admiration for their will to make a better future. Having endured years of colonization, internal political struggle, the Khmer Rouge, and extreme poverty, the people of Cambodia are working hard to remake themselves. For me, the beauty of Angkor's people overshadowed the splendor of the Angkor temples. When I arrived in Cambodia, I didn't know what to expect, and I left with much more than I could have imagined.

The author maintains a website at: http://www.flushleft.com/index.html

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