After my time in Laos, I flew to Siem Reap to meet some dear friends and visit the incredible temples of Angkor Wat. This UNESCO world heritage site is the largest complex of temples in the world. Built in the 12th century as a Hindu “divine city” devoted to Vishnu, it gradually changed to honor Buddhism. Now in ruins, Ankgor Wat remains one of the most beguiling places on Earth.
My friends and I had a wonderful time there, especially when we went to the main temple at dawn. Days were very hot and the Cambodians often hit us up with desperate pleas to buy their trinkets, which was emotionally hard for all of us (it is much harder to be a Cambodian person, of course). The place was also swarming with selfie snapping tourists…but I enjoyed the experience overall.
Me with my friends from high school – awesome Jersey girls
Our next adventure was a boat ride through a small part of the largest lake in SE Asia. During the rainy season, Tonle Sap swells to 12,000 square kilometers, 5 times its dry season size. While there, we visited the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, which offers a rich home to a tremendous number of pelicans, eagles, king fishers, and much more. This watery area is HUGE, and houses thousands of people in 170 different floating villages. It was a great day, and something new for me to see the happy water people living so close to nature. They may be poor in some ways, but they are rich in others!
This is Choum, our guide. He is one of most incredible people I met on my entire trip. His family lived through the Khmer Rouge years and almost died of starvation. He had to drop out of school as a child to work in the rice fields. Determined to learn to read and write, he became a monk at 20 and spent 10 years in a Buddhist monastery. He learned a bit of English while there, and had only been out of that cloistered environment for about a year when we met. He loves his job as a water bird guide, has very high vibe energy and a brilliant smile!
Tonle Sap floating village women make money by harvesting a local reed, drying it, dying it in bright colors and then weaving it into baskets and mats. They work together as a collective in a stilt building right over the water. This woman was using her right big toe as an anchor for threads in her weaving and sewing process.
After saying a poignant goodbye to my friends, I was back on the road by myself again. I headed south on an overnight bus to the Gulf of Thailand for the only beach excursion on my trip. Since I didn’t have time to go back to Thailand to sample the famous beaches there, I elected instead to stay in Cambodia and explore a bit. I ended up on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem for some sea and sun. It’s a tiny place with a bit of partying going on but mostly it’s tranquil and beautiful. There’s also quite a bit of trash there (depressing – what are we doing to our planet??), so I spent a few hours cleaning up garbage one day. I also went snorkeling (I was underwhelmed) and saw the amazing bioluminescent plankton one night! That was really exciting for me…
Pnom Penh bus station, where I had an unexpected layover at 5 am before continuing on to Sihanoukville and the island beyond.
This crab parked itself on the steps of my bungalow one night. I almost stepped on it…
At the Eco-Sea dive center and resort, Koh Rong Sanloen, Cambodia
After a few glorious days on the beach, I had to get to a major city to fly back to Singapore. A few of my friends were in Phnom Penh, and it was much closer than Bangkok, so I got into a mini van and headed to the city. Once there, I went to the Killing Fields of the blood thirsty Khmer Rouge. I also visited the notorious torture chamber and prison known as S 21.
After the US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country. From 1975-1979, 2-3 million people either starved or were executed. That number represents almost one third of the entire popluation. On my visit I shed some tears, but mostly I prayed. I prayed that we all choose love instead of hatred and fear, and that forgiveness would help heal the country. There have been many programs for reconciliation and healing here, including circles, art, rituals, and plays. I had the honor of meeting Mr. Chum Mey, one of the few survivors of the prison (there were only 12 documented cases of survival, out of 12,000 to 20,000 inmates kept there). He was there selling his book about his experience. He is so grateful to be alive! A sobering day of introspection to be sure.
This is the Buddhist stupa (pagoda) which memorializes all of the people who were killed at the killing fields. There are over 300 places like this all around Cambodia. This one is the best known, and the place with the largest memorial and museum. The pagoda is filled with bones and skulls found here. They rise up out of the ground when it rains.
Skulls and instruments of killing in rows and levels inside the pagoda.
On the left is a Spirit House, or shrine where people leave bracelets, ribbons and prayers. On the right is a box filled with femurs, tibias and other large bones that once belonged to Cambodians (often intellectuals and city dwellers). One could be killed for having glasses or soft hands by Pol Pot and his army of young peasant boys and men. The Khmer Rouge era was truly a macabre, surreal Communist dream gone horrifically awry.
Me with Mr. Chum Mey. I felt so much love and respect for this man.
Another day, as I was entering the city by bus, thousands of people were pouring out of huge factories. One was called United Apparel.
When shopping in the US, I have often talked in my head and heart to the people of the 3rd world who made my cheap clothes for me. I thanked them and wished them well. This week, I got to see them. It was about dusk and there were throngs of people biking, walking or standing while crammed into the back of trucks…on their way to homes without clean water or basic sanitation. These folks are beautiful, vibrant people who laugh, joke and flirt with each other…but they are also very tired. They work hard for almost nothing. Let’s help them and honor them, while lowering our carbon footprint. Please watch this video! http://grist.org/living/watch-us-explain-why-your-8-shirt-is-a-huge-problem/