After being ruled by a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom, torn apart, pushed and pulled by Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, France, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communists), and even the Muslims and Americans, it’s a pleasure to see Cambodia now living in peace. I’ve wondered that its history may be the reason for today’s embodiment of kindness and sunny energy.
In contrast to Vietnam with a population of 91 million, Cambodia’s 15 million makes it a small country. There’s much to recommend it: monumental temples, glowing green rice fields, a love of dance and traditions, and a courtesy grown out of terrible suffering and killings. I became familiar with it in 1970 with the devastating Vietnam War. Then came the reign of the Khmer Rouge led by a former teacher, Pol Pot, influenced by China’s Mao. The cities were emptied. The educated had to pretend to be peasants, had to work and live in the fields. If found out, they were viciously killed. A quarter of the population were exterminated. The years between 1975 and 1979 were insanely bloody and brutal. The entire population was forced to work the land or died of starvation and disease.
This period of time is documented in Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father,” a true story of she and her family's unbelievable experiences. I can’t recommend this book enough. Knowing what this country went through then made me respect and feel tender toward these hard working folks now.
Imagine having a history of this sort. As is said, “From the mud the beautiful lotus grows.” Cambodia’s nightmares are turning into long held dreams of a peaceful existence. The monarchy has been reestablished and worship has resumed, education is free and dance again becomes the way of entertainment and telling stories. Unfortunately the latest leader came from the Khmer Rouge regime so all isn’t perfect yet.
I found so much grace in Cambodia. A constant reminder of how much respect is valued is when being greeted before speaking, the hands are pressed together in the prayer pose with a slight bow of the head. It sends such a sense of regard and brings the mind to focus on the moment. As we started our tour, this one action made me slow down and become more observant.
Starting in the north, tourists converge on the city of Siem Reap to see the many temples. The word Wat means “temple” and the word Angkor means “city.” The magnificent and famous Angkor Wat dominates the sky and features magnificent bas-reliefs lining the walls that tell of Hindu stories. Nearby Anghor Thom (great city) houses the temple of Bayon, breathtaking in its intricacies. These temples are still surrounded and made to be protected by water filled moats. All were built by different kings between the 8th and the 16th centuriesand uncovered from their tree-covered slumber in the early 1900’s. The jungle overgrowth has overtaken much of the ruins of the temple of Ta Prohm, a popular site. Another is the small temple of Banteay Strei, distinguished by is glorious pink sandstone. Ordered by the king In the 12th century the national religion was changed from Hindu to Buddhism. I find it interesting that other countries are helping Cambodia restore their thousands of monuments.
We stayed at the Sofitel Hotel in Siem Reap which reminds me of an Hawaiian hotel, its buildings spread out along ponds of water lilies, accessed by long covered walkways and lush tropical gardens surrounding the property. There are close to 100 hotels around burgeoning Siem Reap for the many tourists now visiting the massive collection of temples. This hotel is an excellent contrast of present day living to the past.
So many facts about Cambodian history are complicated. It’s bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, all taking pieces of the Cambodian Kingdom over the years. Today, the government is a constitutional monarchy, a king without power, private property is allowed and a public that votes. The possibility of the radicals coming back is ever-present in their minds, the opposition party agitating for a change in government.
In the middle of the country is the Mekong Delta with its large Tonle Sap Lake, river and its tributaries, which advance and recede during the two seasons, rainy and dry. The Mighty Magnificent Mekong River joins after coming all the way from Tibet, it being one of the longest rivers in Asia. Rice, the wetland grass and a major export, is perfectly adapted to these floodplains. Along these areas and inland the houses are built on high stilts, for flooding times and for cooling the house from underneath. This style of architecture remains today, excellent air conditioning for city buildings. There are 49 floating schools accompanying 172 floating villages on the rivers, amounting to 1.2 million people.
After boarding our Viking Cruise boat, the next days were filled with informative fun shore excursions. We docked for 2 nights at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Tomorrow we leave to cruise down river...and Vietnam again. We'll stop mid-river where the Vietnamese will check passports, all done by our two excellent Viking guides, Bob and Tommy (not their real names as they have Vietnamese names). Cambodia has been an eye-opener, full of history, poor but loving people (and lots of info on the usual corruption). It's an important player in Southeast Asia as the little sister always influences the entire family.
Right now I'm on the top deck, the open sun deck with soft breezes blowing around me. It's a place of teak floors, wicker couches and chairs and those wonderful chaises that remind of the old days of the ships crossing the Atlantic. I see the Mekong over the railing, hundreds of clumps of water hyacinths floating by. When the rivers feeding the Mekong are at low water level, the plants that grow on top of the water float down stream. I reflect on many of the fascinating moments we've experienced.
Yesterday we visited the Buddhist Udon Monastery...we went inside before their lunch time and were given blessings from two monks sitting peacefully crossed-legged in front of our group of 50. I wandered
around and took photos of multicolored panels covering the walls that tell stories of the Buddha. The monks never connected with anyone, keeping their eyes downcast. As all got up, we were offered to have our pictures taken with the oldest monk. Diana and I stood behind him with our hands pressed together in the traditional bow. As I walked away the old man turned, looked up at me directly with such wise eyes and gave me the biggest brightest smile. I've carried that moment with me, even now I can feel it. Later we went into the building where the monks were having lunch, the food cooked and given to them by the nuns. One of the nuns smiled at me and motioned for me to come join them in eating. Without speaking, so much is spoken with love.
We visited the King's Palace today, a multi-building complex of gold spires, curlycue roofs and spender all-round. Cambodia’s King gets $200,000 a month to go visit the folks around the country, spreading goodwill…not a bad job!
Last night our guide surprised us with a decorated cake, candles and speech about who he called "The Gang of Four.” We were celebrating our 80 years...and the birthday song finished us off with the spirit of our friendship lasting so long.
I found it interesting to note some of the different foods eaten: mangosteen, durian, tarantula, fried cricket (they call it their KFC), frog, water beetle, and water snake, plus the usual pork, beef, chicken and fish. Fishing and farming support the majority of workers, rice the staple of their diet. Oxen are used for work in the fields, so are elephants. As in all travel, the facts are there but it’s the small details that bring it alive.
In the years to come, without intervention, more than a third of the delta could be underwater. Salt water pushed inland by recent droughts endangers the rice growing agricultural areas fed by the Mekong River. For now, low-tech preventive measures include planting mangroves and earthen dikes to help keep the sea back. Some farmers are also switching from rice cultivation to raising shrimp, which thrive in salt water. Today, 70% of Cambodia’s population makes a living in the rice fields.
One of the best ways to see this area is by boat. So much of it’s history, culture, politics and cuisine is built on the mighty Mekong River and its tributaries. Soak it up. It will leave you touched by unseen hands of kindness. I loved Cambodia and its people.