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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cambodia Reemerges

Our visit to Indochina began three weeks ago when our plane touched down one early Sunday morning in late January in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Having spent the night in the Singapore airport and having caught an early 6 AM connecting flight, we groggily stumbled outside of the clean and quaint Siem reap airport to be warmly greeted by Den, our tuk tuk driver from our hotel.   Den a small, polite man who was also cheerful in demeanor greeted us with the sompiah, the traditional Cambodian greeting where one presses his or her hands together in front of the chest and bows the head. Moments later we were whisked away on his tuk tuk and taking in the fresh, dry and cool morning air around us as we witnessed communities slowly getting going for the day. After the bustle and craziness of Manila traffic that we had left behind the night before, the quiet calm of Sunday morning in Siem Reap was a welcome change. Having left behind the Philippines and then China two weeks before that, we realized that we were now stepping into yet another kind of Asia. As we whizzed by small farming villages and approached Siem Reap in the tuk tuk, Derek leaned over and said, “I love Cambodia already.”

Angkor Wat at sunrise
It seems that Cambodia has experienced a boom in tourism in recent years. It may not yet attract the numbers as its northwestern neighbor Thailand, but it definitely gets its share of visitors from all over the globe. This was apparent to us immediately as we arrived in Siem Reap and saw that we were in good company with fellow tourists from the US, France, Germany, China, Russia, Australia and so on. It’s true you can hardly go more than ten feet down the main street before you are bombarded by locals offering massage services, tuk tuk transport for the day or hoping you will stop in their shop to buy a Northface knock-off backpack for $15. US dollars are the main form of currency in Cambodia and although you sometimes may get change in Riel, the local currency, all ATMS dispense dollars and most transactions down to even the grassroot level are done in dollars. Although there are no McDonalds or Starbucks in Siem Reap, gourmet sandwich and salads and Mexican food are all within a two minute walk. Siem Reap is indeed a town for tourists. Of course the main reason why we all come to Siem Reap and Cambodia for that matter is the nearby magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat. For me it was magical seeing the sun poke up behind the Angkor Wat temple at 6 am and then spending the day climbing up ruins to the treeline and imagining we were kings admiring our kingdom below. I was fulfilling a dream coming to Angkor Wat and I didn’t mind sharing it with others.

Derek climbing up to the treeline to view the kingdom below
 

Cambodia's future
Cambodians are gentle, quiet and polite people, particularly adults. Children we encountered seemed to come out of their shells a little more and loved greeting tourists and showing us around. I was a little surprised initially to see so many children out and about in the middle of the day and not in school. Keiko, a Peace Corps volunteer from Seattle we met, explained that many children, particularly in rural communities, go to school for half-days. This allows them to help their parents at home or in the fields for part of the day. Some children may go to school in the morning, some in the afternoon. Indeed, children really are the backbone of Cambodia and while it’s true that every country sees hope and future prospects in their children, this case is even more acute in Cambodia where 50% of its population is under the age of 22. This is a sad and sobering result of the civil war and the terror of the Khmer Rouge that ravaged Cambodia in the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s. Rarely did we see people over the age of 40 during our week in Cambodia. 

From Keiko; our encounters with locals; and a booklet called “Dos and Don’ts in Cambodia” (yes- there was such a thing- and quite informative too!), we learned about some proper etiquette in Cambodia. Although it’s a country with a very young population, certain elements of society are still quite conservative. This comes from the fact that a majority of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, which I have learned is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. I got an understanding of this rich history while visiting a local wat or temple in Siem Reap. A beautiful and colorful mural told the story of Buddha in several panels around the perimeter of the temple. Unknowingly I committed one of the “Don’ts” of Cambodia by approaching one of the male monks and asking him a question about the mural’s story. You see, it is taboo for a woman to speak to a monk or for him to even look at a woman. To be fair, he did approach us, but he had another man (who was not of the cloth) in tow and he was probably trying to engage in conversation with Derek. Then, while on a bus trip from Battambang to Siem Reap, Derek had a very chatty and friendly monk sit next to him whose English was so good that he had started an English language school. Derek soon learned from his friendly monk about the gender etiquette. Derek asked what would have happened if his girlfriend had sat next to him? Without offering much reason, the monk replied, “I just couldn’t.”  This he said before calling his sister on his cel phone and having Derek chat with her in English for a few minutes! So it seems that Cambodians live with a long, proud history of tradition that is now intertwined with elements of modernity. Certain traditions and etiquette are deeply engrained and common place. Keiko explained that had I unknowingly sat next to the monk, the entire bus would have collaborated together to make sure that the monk’s honor and my humility would have been spared.
Enlightened One
Den
Our week in Cambodia was all too short and provided us only with a sampling of its rich history; its quiet and warm people; and its stunning scenery. I envied Keiko and her boyfriend Tyler a little for having had the opportunity to spend two years experiencing Cambodia. Both Derek and I realized that one week was too short to visit it. On the day we left, it was only apt that our friend Den, out first introduction to the warmness of Cambodia, brought us to the airport. As we exchanged email addresses and said our goodbyes, I bowed to him with a sompiah and Derek shook his hand. It seemed silly that I was feeling regretful and a little choked up about leaving Cambodia after only one week. I guess we’ll have to find a way to come back again and get a greater sampling of it.

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