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UNFORGETTABLE CAMBODIA

Lyn Hancock

I cannot forget her.

The image of a child standing bare-footed in the diminutive door frame of a tenth century temple in Cambodia remains etched in my mind as a symbol of this country’s recent re-awakening.

Her soft pink blouse and pastel floral skirt, even the dainty flower in her hair, complements the rose-pink sandstone of this exquisite little temple, Banteay Srei. It is called Citadel of the Ladies, my guide tells us, because the elaborate figures carved on its sandstone walls are beautiful “like ladies”.  My guide book says that they are so fine and beautiful they must have been carved by women not men.

Behind the child, a woman perhaps her mother, pulls weeds from the stone building blocks of the temple. She, like many others in this haunting land, are working with international aid agencies to restore the fabulous stone monuments of the mighty Khmer Empire which flourished in South East Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries but were largely concealed by jungle till French explorers re-discovered them in the 19th century.

As the tourists jostle past, the child remains silent, looking down at the ground, almost motionless like a statue herself. You wonder why she is not at school but education is expensive and often unavailable in this impoverished country.

I am riveted by her face. Her long black hair pulled back from her head isolates the sadness in her big brown eyes, a sadness and a silence that for me symbolizes the turbulent history of Cambodia.

The temples of Cambodia have been ravaged by time and climate, buried by jungle, looted by treasure-hunters, and destroyed by conflicts. The people of Cambodia have been ravaged by centuries of invasion by neighbours, by decades of civil war, by years of enslavement, torture and genocide by their own government, by bombs and landmines planted for other people’s battles, by political corruption which continues today.

Tourism provides hope for a better future. Only recently have visitors been free to travel safely in this beleaguered but beautiful country where 85% of its people are still farmers and life goes along largely as it did centuries ago.  Now is the time to go to Cambodia before unavoidable development turns it into a destination like anywhere else.

I know only one or two words of Khmer but with gestures I ask the child if I may take her picture. I trust her hint of a smile is acceptance.  To show thanks, I give her a pencil clearly marked Canadian with a red maple leaf but I agonize if this will encourage begging in a land where it is refreshing to find that most people, despite poverty and maimed limbs, welcome you with a smile, enjoy seeing themselves on a digital camera screen, are curious about where you come from, enjoy the fact that their pictures may go around the world, and ask for pencils, paper and food more than they ask for money.

Reluctantly, I leave her to catch up to our Khmer guide (“Call me Mr. Vee”), as he points out the intricate three-dimensional sandstone figures which clothe every centimetre of the temple walls. His telling of action-packed stories from the great Hindu myths, Ramayana and Mahabharata, is as richly detailed as the carvings which illustrate them. I marvel at the knowledge of this young man, the passion and pride he has for his culture and the country he calls Kampuchea (the original name for Cambodia though it is somewhat tarnished by association with the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of the fanatical Pol Pot).

But as I follow the crowd in a circle around the sanctuary towers, I am drawn back irresistibly to the little girl. She is still standing framed in the doorway, more exquisite than any apsara (heavenly dancer) carved on a temple wall.

The apsara dance with its stylized hand movements, sequined lame costumes and stupa-like headwear is unique to Cambodia, a link to its glorious past, but almost all apsara dancers and teachers were killed during the brutal Pol Pot years (1975-79) when millions of educated people were exterminated. Not till 1981 did the training of dancers resume. After a day looking at apsara dancers on temple walls, tourists can enjoy their live performances at night in restaurant theatres such as Angkor Village Resort in Siem Reap. 

Most tourists come to Cambodia to ogle Angkor Wat, a temple city 35 km southwest of Banteay Srei close to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is one of the architectural wonders of the world and with a rectangular area of 1.5 km from east to west and 1.3 km from north to south is considered the world’s largest religious monument. In December 1992 it was further recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The five famous corncob-shaped towers at the summit of the third level of Angkor Wat represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the home of the gods. You have to do a lot of climbing to get to where the gods live. Most of my companions used their arms and legs like spiders to heave themselves step by step up a near vertical slope. Mr. Vee told us that the steep uneven steps and the narrow passages of Khmer temples are meant to make us go slow to show our respect for the gods and for religion which permeates every part of Cambodian life.  (Amiable Cambodians have the ability to mix and match elements of three religions, Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism in their culture.) Having previously sprained my ankle doing something far less arduous, I decided to forgo a visit to the gods and study bas- reliefs instead.

The bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat are more than 700 metres long. If you have time for only one panel, see the Heavens and Hells gallery as it will probably change your life. Scenes are carved from the sandstone in minute and frightening detail. Lying around palaces in Heaven looks a bit boring compared to punishments in Hell which are made to fit the crime. Gluttons are sawn in two. Vandals have their bones broken. Those who steal strong liquor or seduce wives are torn to pieces by birds of prey and thrown into a lake of slimy pus.  Rice stealers have red-hot irons thrust through their abdomens.

It’s easy to get templed out in Cambodia. We had risen that morning long before dawn to join the crowds to see Angkor Wat at sunrise and after a 14-hour day spent exploring the vast complex of Angkor Thom and the Jungle Temple of Ta Prohm, most of us opted to return to the opulence of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor for a swim and a sumptuous banquet rather than wait at Angkor Wat to watch sunset.

Mr. Vee whose family survived the communist Khmer Rouge years by pretending to be peasants is probably the best guide you can get in Cambodia. He prefers working for companies such as the one I chose - World Expeditions - which specializes in high quality, small group adventures that involve local people and their cultures first hand. As he says, always politely, “You came here to learn about my country. If you want to go back to your hotel at noon and then spend the rest of the day swimming and shopping, get another guide.” 

Mr. Vee is almost as intense in his appreciation of famous film star Angelina Jolie who is the current darling of Cambodia because she starred in Lara Croft Tomb Raider (part one) which was filmed in Cambodia, she adopted a Cambodian orphan, donated $2 million US to the Children’s Hospital, bought a house in Cambodia and has earned a Cambodian passport and Cambodian citizenship.  She also has full Khmer lips, says her adoring fan.

Everyday Mr. Vee would enliven his commentary with some reference to Angelina Jolie. We walked where she walked (or flew or jumped) on location for the film Tomb Raider (part one). We had our pictures taken against the gigantic buttress roots of a tree that were slowly but inexorably strangling the central courtyard of the Jungle Temple Ta Prohm. It was here that Mr. Vee had helped the director translate instructions for the Khmer extras who had to tear down a wall in one of the film sequences.

We took pictures of the pond in front of the entrance to Angkor Wat where in the film the floating villages of Tonle Sap were located. “The computer made the Angkor pond look as big as Tonle Sap, our biggest lake (which swells to 13,000 square kilometer in the wet season),” Mr. Vee chuckled. We even went to the same riverside bar that Angelina frequented. 

But it was Angelina Jolie’s sympathy for Cambodian children that struck chords in my heart.  Kids who never seemed to be in school waved at us from the riverbank, from their dugout canoes, from their floating villages as we took the public ferry from Battambang to Siem Reap across the flooded fields and through the flooded waterways of the Tonle Sap river and lake. Children hefted babies onto their hips and ran to meet us from their homes on stilts while we biked along dirt roads between temples and rice fields north of Siem Reap.

Kids posed for my camera and even thanked me for taking their pictures while their parents displayed hand-woven silks, silver and wood carvings, or sold seafood, chickens, fruits and vegetables at the not-to-be-missed markets (the Old Market in Siem Reap and the Russian Market in Phnom Penh). They bantered with us as we exchanged our snacks and drinks for the frangipanis they placed in our hair at hillside temples.

And they stole our hearts when we visited the Sunrise Children’s Village in Siem Reap (there’s another one in Phnom Penh) as part of our tour.

In 1993 Geraldine Cox, an Australian living and working in Sydney, met 24 orphans whose families were amongst the millions of victims displaced from a refugee camp near the Thai border where they had fled the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

As Geraldine wrote, “I couldn’t begin to imagine the mental scars they carried - torture, starvation, death, disease and running for their lives.” Tourists who can bear to visit the Toul Sieng Genocide Museum (S-21) and the Choeung Ek Memorial (the Killing Fields) at Phnom Penh can see for themselves what happened to the families of such children. Geraldine raised money (she still does), set up The Australia Cambodia Foundation Inc. and became ‘Big Mum’ to these orphans.  The civil war was still ongoing and she had to move the children several times to avoid the fighting and landmine explosions.

She and her sponsors now provide a safe and loving home for about 200 orphans and disadvantaged children between the ages of nine months and 22 years in two Sunrise Villages (Phnom and Siem Reap). The kids go to a government school in the morning and classes at Sunshine in English, computers, sewing, traditional music and dance, and carpentry in the afternoon. They also have a farm where she hopes to teach agricultural skills and grow food to feed children at the orphanage yet have enough leftover to sell. On Sundays, their only day off, Geraldine encourages the older children to help local villagers do a variety of community services such as repairing houses, carrying water from wells, and planting rice.

One of her original orphans, Sim Sitha, left Sunshine at the age of 18 and now has a good job as a web designer. Sitha has already bought a one-hectare rice farm in the countryside for his old age. You can learn more of the children’s stories – their unhappy beginnings and their successful endings - by reading their profiles on the Sunrise Children’s Village website or her book Home is Where the Heart is or her award-winning film My Khmer Heart. 

We visited the Sunrise Children’s Village in Siem Reap as part of our World Expeditions tour. We could not fail to be moved by how kind the kids were to each other. Older ones helped the younger and newer ones in one large loving family. These kids had finally found a home and they made us feel at home. Many of them put on a spontaneous show of traditional dance and music. All of them gathered on stage at the end to sing in newly learned English “If you’re happy and you know it, stamp your feet (or clap your hands or…).” There was such sincerity, exuberance  - and noise - at the end of each verse that some of us were moved to tears.

I asked Darren Rose, an Australian who manages Sunshine why he lives in Cambodia and does what he does. “I came to Cambodia for a holiday, I met the people and when I went home I couldn’t get them out of my mind so I went back.” 

At dinner on the last night of our tour, Mr. Vee thanked us for choosing Cambodia as a travel destination then he pleaded, “Please tell the world that we are a small country but we have big hearts.”

You can go to Cambodia for its well known temples and museums, for its little known beaches, birds and national parks, but for me personally, there is something about the people that calls me back. I have that little girl’s picture on my desk.

Lyn Hancock - 2005

 


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