Next stop, Kampot on the southern coast of Cambodia, a quiet, riverside town best known for its eponymous Kampot pepper. We had a very peaceful and relaxing few days at the Ganesha eco-resort, a much needed change of pace after so much urban sightseeing. We rode bikes, canoed through the mangroves, napped, played cards, enjoyed the warmth and quirkiness of our lovely French hosts, and stressed over which of the many hammocks, hanging beds and relaxing spots to choose from… so many, so little time. We had our hands-down best lodging of the whole trip… a three story circular stone tower with hammocks and panoramic views of the surrounding rice paddies and distant Bokor mountains on the third floor (this became boy headquarters and yoga central). As long as you don’t mind sharing your bathroom with frogs and your bedroom with large geckos, waking to 5 a.m. Call to Prayer at the neighboring mosques, and spirited Cambodian weddings with loud PA systems that pulse with music all night on weekends, you will love Ganesha. And we did!!!!
We have spent a great deal of time getting around cities in tuk-tuks. It is a great way to see a city and to experience the chaos of the urban landscape. Here are a few photos. I have found it is best to sit on the bench that faces away from the driver and the oncoming traffic. This helps when, for example, you are the only vehicle going in completely the wrong direction around a very busy city rotary.
Interestingly, Phnom Penh was one of the cities the kids were most looking forward to visiting based on the reading they have done. Henry read several age-appropriate historical fiction and non-fiction novels about Cambodia set in the era of the Khmer Rouge. (“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung and “Never Fall Down” by Patricia McCormick are good for teens and advanced pre-teen readers, and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner is appropriate for younger readers, Braxton enjoyed this one.) We also watched the movie “The Killing Fields” prior to our trip. Given this preparation and their interest and maturity, we decided to include a tour of the Killing Fields on our itinerary.
The Killing Fields refer to the sites throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot tortured and executed 1.7 million people – 21% of the population – between 1975-79. The best known one is Choeung Ek where 17,000 men, women, children and babies were brutally executed after being tortured first at nearby Tuol Sleung, a former high school turned prison and torture camp. These were very powerful and moving exhibits. Nothing can prepare you for seeing the glass memorial stupa containing 8000 human skulls, the mass graves, the huge vats of clothing, the 8 x 10 photos of every prisoner who passed through, including young children, the seemingly normal school where classrooms were turned into prison cells and torture chambers. While we had our reservations about exposing the kids, in the end I’m very happy they experienced this. I think they are too. How can you understand Cambodia without understanding this genocide, and how can you begin to understand genocide without understanding the horror? As the narrator of our audio-tour pointed out this was not the first or the last genocide, and to prevent future atrocities, anywhere, one needs to understand these past events. “For your sake, remember us and remember our past as you look to your future.”
Add to all this the perspective we enjoyed of our charismatic tuk-tuk driver “Tree” whose mother was a nurse under the Khmer Rouge and whose family is very poor. He explained the intricacies of dealing with the corruption of the system and the “rich ones” every day as he tries to provide for his family and rise out of poverty. You begin to understand yet another layer of the complexity that is Cambodia. While not necessarily condoning the violence, there are a great many poor in Cambodia who continue to support the ideals of the Khmer Rouge and who themselves were KR soldiers or who are descendants of this largely peasant group. It is much more complicated than we would have imagined, and still seems quite tenuous.
While emotionally challenging and certainly draining, this day was actually a highlight of our time in Phnom Penh, allowing for great conversations with the kids and amazing learning opportunities for all.
We took a detour from Phnom Penh and spent several days in the city of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for touring the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat, the previous center of the Khmer Kingdom. Angkor Wat is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Below are Braxton’s impressions:
Angkor Wat is a series of beautiful temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia. They were built by the Khmer people as early as the 9th century. The buildings are crumbling and in some places the jungle is breaking up the rock. It was amazing how much art they had in there. A lot of the art was a style known as bas relief. Bas relief is a carving in stone that often tells a story. They had it on almost all of the walls and sometimes it went all the way around the perimeter of the temple. Lots of the temples were bringing Hindu beliefs and Buddhist beliefs together. They often had stories of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer) in the bas reliefs. All three are Hindu gods. Vishnu is often found holding a mace, a sphere, a conch shell, and a disc (he has four arms). Vishnu is also usually found riding on a Garuda. A Garuda is a mythical part bird, part snake, and part human creature.
Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful places ever. It is also considered to be the eighth wonder of the world. It is most beautiful when you see it at sunrise like we did. I hope you will be fortunate enough to go there some day.
We had a great time in Phnom Penh. It is a vibrant, bustling city demonstrating the extremes of both poverty and excess. You see it all…from a picturesque promenade along the riverfront, the magnificent Royal Palace, exciting street food (including fried bugs, frogs, birds, snakes and tarantulas – and we did watch a British woman eat a tarantula)…. to small child vendors wandering the streets alone at night, seedy tourists plying the sex trade, and widespread begging. We learned a great deal in this city. We were introduced to the glories of the ancient Khmer civilization at the National Museum and Royal Palace, as well as to the horrors perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
From Braxton’s journal entry on the National Museum and Palace:
Vishnu is the Preserver of the Earth. Shiva is the Destroyer. Brahma is the Creator. They are all Hindu deities. Vishnu has four arms that are usually holding a conch shell, a ball, a mace, and a wheel. Shiva is usually holding a trident. Brahma has four faces looking in the cardinal directions. We quizzed our dad on what Vishnu is usually holding. He got three wrong, two right, and we had to tell him the last two.
At the Palace we went into a room that had what the royal people wore. They had a different outfit each day. The other room that we went to had an emerald Buddha. In the emerald Buddha room the floor was made of real silver tiles but they were covered with rugs. There was a life sized gold Buddha encrusted with diamonds (almost 10,000) but I couldn’t see the diamonds.
We love crossing borders, especially the international boundary experts among us. Here we are about to cross the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand. Mostly we have flown across borders (as in the airport photo below) with the exception of the crossing from Nanning, China to Hanoi, Vietnam by night train when we were awakened twice in two hours to exit the train with all of our luggage and deal with customs and immigration on both sides of the border. Needless to say, the daytime crossing of the Mekong by boat was much easier.
OK, OK, since so many people want to know… we did not actually eat the rats. They were not offered to us and were instead eaten by the guides and village women who were cooking. Unfortunately, they are probably used to westerners squealing and then photographing their dinner, one of their only sources of protein. Honestly, it just did not seem that gross in the middle of the jungle. Several claim that they were fully prepared to eat them…
Here are a few more photos of this lovely trek.