Friday, June 17, 2011

A couple of days in Cambodia blew my mind

We returned from Cambodia a couple of days ago and it has taken me that long to process the experience enough to present some coherent thoughts. Well, at least I hope they're coherent. I'm still making sense of it. The experience itself was dream-like.

Your humble author, 5:30 a.m., Angkor Wat, Cambodia.  Before coffee.  Not awake.

First and foremost, Cambodia is beautiful. It is a gorgeous, voluptuously verdant land. Similar to the rice-paddy and fruit-tree landscapes of Vietnam's southern Mekong area, but greener, more watery, and full of more trees. It is sparsely populated, so you see a lot more space everywhere between houses.  After living in the confines of Vietnam for awhile, just being out where I could see land horizon to horizon was rejuvenating. 

However, as beautiful as it was, I could never for a second get the gruesomeness of war and the hopelessness of brutality out of my mind.

While surveying the watery green countryside, my mind kept interjecting thoughts about all the bombs dropped on this country (more than the US dropped in all of World War 2).  The country is sparsely populated for a couple of reasons, one being it got blown to hell.   While looking out the bus window (and I strongly encourage people to take the bus for the views [no trains carry passengers now]) I couldn't help but imagine this luscious landscape being destroyed so completely, so technically, so impersonally.   This juxtaposition of beauty and destruction colored my entire (though brief) trip.  I really just wanted to see the countryside and visit the temples, then go back home.

Ta Phrom near Angkor Wat.  Roots eating ancient stone.

But something compelled me to want to probe even further, into the brutality and hopelessness that accompanied all that destruction.

After seeing the temples and ruins, we decided to spend some time in Phnom Penh both to see the city and also to visit the Killing Fields, just about 15 kilometers outside the city. And this brings me to the second reason the country is so sparsely populated -- why you can see big yards, open fields, and lone houses: so many, millions, of people were just... slaughtered.  The movie does a good job of depicting what went down, but "it" remains so far removed still.  Seeing the toothless, bashed skulls, the clothes; walking around and realizing you have to be careful not to step on bones still protruding from the ground; listening to children playing and laughing, within earshot; seeing a family tend to some fish traps quite possibly just beside a mass grave; hearing the exotic birds singing amidst the solemn quiet of it all -- I don't know the word for the feeling. 

Hang felt sickened by it; I was just deep in thought, in feeling, my senses open, my heart and mind befuddled by it all: so beautiful, so poignant, this place where being and nothingness manifested for a time.  It was just a few years ago, really.

Bones one the foot trail though Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields

Time, though, bends like toffee in Cambodia.  Everywhere you look, history looks back at you, not as something "historical" might, like that "in some year, so and so did such and such", but instead, it looks back at you with eyes, with cut limbs, with the interrupted lines of an incomplete carving that some artisan long ago abandoned before he could finish it. 

Yes, that is the word.  Interrupted.  The place feels interrupted.  Broken, discontinuance.  That is how the place is and that is how I felt.  It's not a bad feeling; it just is what it is.  It's like looking at broken mirror, each of the shards of which reflect something different.  One shard, something beautiful, another, something unfathomably brutal.  Sometimes, both of these in the same reflection.

Looking down a hallways, Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
 All in all, it was a short but profound trip.  I echo here Lonely Planet's entreaty to stay longer than a couple of days.  It's worth it and lord knows that the people could use the dollars and positive press.  This post is probably my darkest -- after all, Cambodia is what "the heart of darkness" was all about in Apocalypse Now -- but I want to reiterate something: from little I saw, I'd put Cambodia is one of the prettiest places I've seen.  Of course, looking at it all from trails, bus windows, and Tuk-tuks (moto remorks) isn't the same as getting out in it: it looks like some pretty difficult country.  But then again, that difficulty is what makes adventures.

A cow-driven pottery seller in Phom Penh, nearly the same from since a long time ago