Monday, January 23, 2012

Back home now from the Skyros-led Adventure in Cambodia... wow oh wow, where to start? I suppose with first impressions, and lasting memories too: paradoxes and contrasts. Splendor, squalor, and spirituality, all shaken chaotically together. Our ten day journey was a daily fascination of culture shocks. A million motor-scooters whirling like mosquitoes around Phnom Penh streets, long hours of bus travel past a timeless landscape of fields, stilt houses, and water buffalo, to arrive at a five-star hotel with a vast pool in gardens that nightly turned into a glittering fairyland - juxtapositions of ancient & modern, poverty & money, past & future, which are part of every culture, in Cambodia are vivid and violent. Reverence for traditions - buddhist, hindu, even ancient animism - jostles with insistence that this is a young country with a vibrant future. And it is young, still teenage: it was 1993 when monarchy was restored after the terrible years of Khmer Rouge and the war with Vietnam which left 3 million dead and touched every family in the land.
They don't pretend to forget. The message of the Genocide Museum, a stupifyingly sad collection of memorabilia housed in a school-turned-torture chamber, reads Keeping the memory of the atrocities alive.. plays a crucial role in preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on earth.
And with temples and paraphernalia of holiness everywhere, it's hard not to wonder how such cruelty could happen. Maybe humans aren't meant to stifle emotions behind that famous Angkor smile, maybe there's good reason the friezes show Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, seated next to his 'beloved brother' Murugan, God of War. The more direct reason is of course more sinister: the national shift to communism that allowed Pol Pot's extremist policy of 'rupture' was caused by Nixon's covert, illegal, carpet bombing of Cambodia in 1973 - an outrage supported by Kissinger, whose reward of the Nobel Peace Prize inspired Tom Lehrer to pronounce political satire now obsolete. And the rest is ghastly history.
Recent past is close to the surface everywhere but our journey revealed many layers of history and it's impossible to fully summarise ten days of amazing experiences, a full notebook and 200 photographs, so here's a list of some of the many memorable aspects and precious moments:

~ the meditation led by Michael at Ta Prohm where spong trees swaddle the ruined temples, while monkeys hooted and cicadas shrilled as dusk deepened

~ the local children jostling around the charnel house in the Killing Caves, irrepressible symbol of hope for better future

~ the Circus School in Battambang - the dazzling skill & exuberance of these children from the streets

~ champa blossom fallen everywhere, called the yoni flower...

~ luxuries! khmer massage, hotel breakfasts of papaya and dragon-fruit, restaurant suppers of Fish Amok - a speciality of Cambodia, local fish in seasoned sauce of coconut milk and spices.

~ Apsara dancers, exquisitely performing traditional story-routines, in costumes based on the temple friezes of these heavenly half-goddesses
~ the floating village on Tonle Sap lake, where life goes on the same as the water level sinks and rises

~ Kulen National Park, the massive reclining buddah carved into ancient rock, the waterfall, and the sudden monsoon downpour
~ 360 steps to the five temples of Banan, with extensive views of beautiful forests with minefield warnings...

~ water lilies, puce and spiky, on long stiff stems

~ Water of Hope, bringing wells to the rural communities of this country, poorest in southeast asia, high infant mortality rate, and still bereft of supportive infrastructure we met Narong who runs this project here.

~ our writing night in the poolside bar

~ Banteay Srei, the beautiful 'Lady Temple' with its elaborate exotic, and some erotic, carvings smothering the red limestone walls
~ our wonderful guide Soriya who shared his sensitive feelings and sense of humour as well as his extensive historical & political knowledge

~ and my group of fellow travellers, expertly led by Michael Eales. Great to spend time with you all, here's hoping to meet up again with all my new friends.

Like a Kate Winslet speech, my list could go on and on... I'll end back at Phnom Penh airport, where I bought two last souvenirs: a pack of postcards showing smiling children among the fields and flowers of this beautiful country, seemingly living in rural innocence - and a local paper with front page story about a group of villagers shot by the private army of an encroaching Rubber Company when they tried to protect their cassava harvest. Rights workers condemned the violence, but the provincial governor made no comment. Which of these contrasting aspects is the real Cambodia? It's another paradox.


Dhimmiwit said...

What an absolutley amazing country Cambodia seems, though home to one of the darker episodes in our history!
I actually just popped here to say I've started reading Frozen Summer which has been lurking around for ages and came from I know not where- and I am lovin' it!! Thank you :)
Some people can read a book of 250 odd pages in a day but not me! I'll get a few weeks out of it (it took me a full year to read Lord of the Rings)
Bye for now :)

Crysse said...

Yes, amazing indeed, I'm still slightly reeling from the experience... and thanks for your comments on the novel. xc