Friday, December 31, 2010

Hard on the Heart

"Leave all your love and your longing behind;
You can't carry them with you if you want to survive."
(Florence & the Machine)

When we were traveling around Thailand, we met two German girls who had traveled for two months in India. One remarked that, whileamazing, it was also "hard on the heart." While I'm sure India might be much worse, Cambodia was very hard onmy heart--it is one of the poorest countries in the world.It's also a beautiful country: we spent several days in Siem Reap, while not my favorite city in the world, Angkor Wat was really amazing.

Despite the insane amounts of tourists (Chinese and Korean and Australian and Japanese and...) sunrise at Angkor Wat was a breath taking experience...I felt like Aladdin looking at the Taj Mahal from him humble abode.I also liked a temple called Na Phrom, that had been overtaken by trees. The guidebook said something about this temple showing the "awesome power and fecundity" of the jungle, and it's true. It reminded me how much I love ruins and archaeology: it just boggles my mind how much history is in these stones. I liked just sitting on some of them and soaking it in, imagining the lives that had gone by these very rocks and woods.
The ruins were awesome, the people, not so much. Not just the tourists (although they were difficult, but also amusing: one time a group of young Chinese guys surrounded me, each wanting an individual picture with me. One was particularly scandalized when I was taller than him, and made me stand a few steps down. I felt kind of beautiful, haha); the locals too. Constantly being swindled, begged for money, yelled at, called "hey lady" and seeing the many victims of the still-present landmines was hard. It was even harder to see all of this surrounded by such beauty.
After Angkor Wat and the downright stress of Siem Reap (which for me was made worse by a persistent cough, an unfortunate experience with couch surfing i.e. the floor and a nasty cockroach-ridded bathroom along with a puking roommate, being lectured by little kids on how much money I have, and the constant threat of being ripped off) we set off for a rural province called Ratanakri.
While very impoverished, it was so beautiful--we saw waterfalls, elephants, mountains and crater lakes, all marred by the Red Dust of Ratanakri (which still is present in my pack, somehow) and the little kids with distended stomachs on the side of the roads. Although it was also more exciting by the fact that we got lost while navigating our own little...wait for it...motorcycle! I made Courtney drive; she has experience from her 4-wheelers at home, and I can barely handle my mountain bike so I thought it would be safer.

Travel around Cambodia was always an adventure: one time, my pack got soaked in fish sauce, leaving me with wet spots in the exact place where pit stains would be; my cousin's packed got completely covered in the Red Dust; we were constantly being shuffled from bus to bus; on one bus every time we moved the other passengers (all Cambodians) laughed hysterically and got a huge kick out of watching us eat the weird food they offered; at a bus stop we watched a slave monkey; another bus stop we ate rice out of strange tubes and played with little girls whose teeth had rotted out (my heart still breaks). Don't even get me started on the bathrooms we had to endure.
After some time spent in Kratie, watching the most beautiful sunsets on the Mekong, and another day in Phnom Penh, we sailed down the Mekong towards Vietnam.

Cambodia was the most stressful time of the trip; it was heartbreaking, and I went through a small personal crisis brought on by (my new favorite book) Three Cups of Tea. As an English major, I know the best books will make you laugh, cry, and cause an existential crisis, or at least make you think--and this book sure did. So I think the poverty I saw was even worse in my eyes after that.
Unlike most of the other countries I've visited, I didn't feel much of an emotional wrench when I left Cambodia. The food was okay, the people, while friendly, were still scarred by the recent Khmer Rouge, as was the landscape. Even Angkor Wat was not immune to the Khmer Rouge, and as a result much of it was irreversibly damaged.
Seeing the scars of such a recent war also kind of woke me up, and visiting Vietnam would do the same thing. Living in the Western United States, all of that seems so far away--civil wars, wars fighting for freedom, lost boys...

I know poverty and all that exists in the United States, but it was startling there. People all over the world are still fighting for our freedom while we stress about what college to go to. It's very illuminating, and let's just say I was VERY grateful this Thanksgiving! (Which incidentally took place while we were in Cambodia--and I managed to get both my siblings, both my parents, and our pets on the web cam via skype!)
I sound like I've never travelled before; I'm not even sure Cambodia is the poorest country I've been to. The other countries certainly had their issues; Thailand is still being inunduated by protesters, as was Peru and Ecuador while I was there. And Vietnam, while generally peaceful, is communist, which seems to enhance corruption in the state (you'll read more about that later, aren't you excited?).
Looking back, I was kind of glad to see the end of Cambodia--Vietnam, despite the troubles with our visa (we were only given a two-week visa rather than the standard 30-day; thanks to being too trustworthy and getting ripped off), felt like a fresh start.
Stay tuned for our Vietnamese adventures!

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