The purple plane and purple and gold vestiged flight attendants had my middle daughter take notice. The color of royalty has long been her passion. It clearly marked we were changing cultures- goodbye red lovin' Vietnam, hello purple Kingdom of Cambodia.
Once we descended from the clouds it was clear the change had in fact happened. It was just 50 minutes ago we battled with thunderheads as we ascended to the skies- telltales of the approaching Vietnam rainy season. Now we descend into parched and dusty with a cloudy brown lake our welcome mat against the sandy agrarian landscape. Our aerial view shows farms divided by dirt paths, there are very few paved roads.
The airport architecture is simple with a splash of exotic. The rooflines curl up like Aladdin's shoes. The airport is warm, very warm. Thank God. When people are starving the airport should not be chilled. I am soon conscious that I have done anything but starve and every fat cell on me feels like an ounce of concrete I must now carry in the heat. My capillaries dilate trying to bring my blood to the surface to cool. This autonomic reaction does nothing to cool me but does make my appendages swell and my wedding band indents into my skin accordingly. My pee is clear, yet I don't seem to be able to quench my thirst.
The visa process is easy thanks to us stashing our passport regulation sized pictures 4 months ago in a memorable place. The border control agents seat 20 across behind a tall counter. Agent 20 individually takes our paperwork and passport. Individually is the way you roll here. All over Asia they do not like the family batch processing system we typically employ in the west. As long as your kid can walk and hold their own passport they face the uniformed-face-with-a-rubber-stamp on their own. After depositing our documents we go now empty handed to a sea of un-queued people standing and staring 19 border sentries further down the line at Agent 1. The passports work their way down and you can occasionally catch a glimpse of your cover as it passes along the studying, stamping men. Agent 1 elicits a flashback to the 70s E. F. Hutton commercial- when E. F. Hutton talks, people listen. All eyes are on him. He reads out a name in distorted English while holding a passport up, picture page on display. A man breaks out of our human bait ball to retrieve his documents. The lucky man is wearing a t-shirt that reads SILENT BUT DEADLY and has a picture of two mosquitoes on it- the small black Dengue one with striped legs and the larger traditional sized Malaria/Japanese Encephalitis one. Thank you Mr. SBD for the reminder that the sky can fall at any moment. I wouldn't want my adrenal glands to think they are on vacation. While we wait for our passports I put my tendrils out into the atmosphere. This is a free democratic country, so why do I smell communism? Control and censorship is in the air. Nonetheless, the border agents are kind and helpful and smile when appropriate. The Chinese border agents maintain their title as gold in the stone-faced-stiffed-legged-marching soldier wannabee competition. I guess they are just traditionalists.
Our drive to town is in a van with purposefully disengaged seatbelts. This has become a key indicator for us. It has a direct relationship with the ability to brush your teeth with the tap water. We ride by the hospital and there is a big sign shouting Dengue Fever Epidemic. My adrenals yet again awake and this time spew a shot of adrenalin. I must be mindful to break out the DEET perfume as soon as we get to the hotel. Bathing in DEET isn't high on my list, but it's a question of short-term survival versus long-term health. I get the feeling this particular question is very low on the scale of questions in this category the masses of this country face. Even still, my family is my priority and we did a full-scale test in Vietnam that confirmed mosquitoes will travel far and wide to bite them. Areas designated as mosi free by many will deliver half a dozen bites to our kids. There must be some enhanced CO2 releasing in the gene pool so this sh** is on my radar. I have done what I can to mitigate the situation. We started on Malarone, a Malaria prophylaxis two days before our Cambodian flight. I lamented over this option concerned that I would wig out and the kids would be tired and nauseous but am SO glad we went for it. Five out of five of us have had no side effects. Not even one Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds dream.
We are covered for Malaria, and thanks to a jab, also for Japanese Encephalitis. But there is no pharmaceutical protection you can take for Dengue. Calling all scientists- please find a vaccine and treatment. Calling all pharmaceutical companies- please give notoriety, fortune and fame to the scientist(s) that find a cure. Google Dengue map and see how widespread this illness is. Until a preventative is found you just DEET yourself and if you get bit on a weird spot even after DEETING like right between your fingers or on your forehead like my kids have now numerously experienced here in Dengueland then you hope for the best. If you get it there is no treatment. You suffer through with drip hydration in the hospital and pray you aren't one of the rare cases that turns to hemorrhagic fever. With both Malaria and Dengue, the insect is just a carrier. It needs to bite an infected person to then be able to carry the sickness to you. Seems like it should be the same odds as winning the lottery, right? That's what I am hoping…but being in an epidemic zone changes the odds. This plus the fact that Dengue mosis go for the healthy, well-nourished kids…. We are in Cambodia and I think that makes mine the local chateaubriand. I have my precious cuts of beef in safari cloth long sleeves and pants despite the mercury dancing at 47 degrees in the sun.
I am comforted by imagining the mosquito exoskeletons burn up like vampires in the sun. All the wildlife is engaged in a similar battle. The cows look like giant greyhounds. The tarantulas and crickets we were hoping to try are nowhere to be found- it is only in the rainy season that you can get these protein french fries outside of Phnom Penh. Wild dogs roam everywhere and they seem to be faring the best. I develop here an intense appreciation that people eat what their environment makes accessible to them. In the UK or America, farmers decide what to farm. In places like this options are limited. Of course you eat these plentiful dogs. They roam the street and get food where they can serving as the regional pigeons. Their value should not be placed above human life and once lived a good life their bodies should not ceremonially placed to waste into the ground when they can feed people. I get it. The locals do tend to eat the animals that are on their way out. We saw them all closing in on a freshly dropped dead cow. It looked like a scene from the Night of the Living Dead.
We form an easy friendship with our guide. We hire one whenever we go somewhere that we feel historical learning will be greatly enriched by local scoop. It's like bringing in a guest home school speaker. This guy is excellent and so chill. We start picking through his brain to tap into the pulse of public opinion and the information flows. He spent his childhood with shells raining down upon him and his family. His mother was a midwife so he lived with his family in a hospital and escaped gunfights more than once on his belly crawling into the jungle for safety. He has seen unthinkable things. He was young, but his parents had a front row seat to the infamous and genocidal Khmer Rouge led by Saloth Sar, alias, Pol Pot. The madman must have had a thing for alliteration. I am sure he must have been the inspiration for at least one of Batman's nemesis.
Pol's street name was derived from politique potentielle, the French version of his Chinese pet name. The Chinese along with the Communist French and Vietnamese greatly influenced his personal madness manifesto. His doctrine was even more Maoist than Mao. He concocted a play on words from the French Revolution term- Year One (marking the "new France"). He called his version Year Zero and actions accompanying this effort made the French Reign of Terror look like a ride at Epcot. He told the inhabitants of Phnom Penh and all other towns and cities in his control to evacuate quickly because the Americans were on the way to bomb and it would only likely last a few days so bring nothing (America had gotten permission from Cambodia to bomb the Viet Cong's Ho Chi Minh trail which ran through sections of Cambodia). His evacuation was a ploy to break his people from gathering in cities and behaving like capitalists. When he still could not keep Christmas from coming this Grinch went further to implement his vision and classified people as full-rights, candidates and depositees (people removed from cities and deposited into communes). Depositees were deemed as unsalvageable and marked for destruction. In a super scary state of the union he told the masses over state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build the new agrarian communist utopia and to those of you who don't cut the mustard, "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss." In fulfillment of his madness hundreds of thousands of depositees were then taken out in shackles to dig their own mass graves, then they were buried alive. The soldiers were told that bullets were not to be wasted. These mass graves are what we all now know as The Killing Fields.
The Khmer Rouge also sorted people by religion and ethnic group. They especially targeted Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christians, Western-educated intellectuals, educated people in general, people who had contact with Western countries or with Vietnam, disabled people, and the ethnic Chinese, Laotians and Vietnamese. Tens of thousands of monks were slaughtered- some say as many as 50,000. The temples, or wats as they call them, were decimated. I don't know why an agrarian society would do this but food sources were destroyed, fruit trees cut down, fishing outlawed, and planting and harvesting of rice disallowed. Medicine and hospitals were abolished and any offers of outside aid refused. It seems like the guy just couldn't get everyone to buy into his commune dream so he erased the entire nation like he was wiping clean an etch a sketch. He just needed a few Adams and Eves as base level for breeding. Perhaps he was also a protégé of Hitler? Property became collective and children were raised on a communal basis- goodbye Mom, Dad and the family unit. He didn't just have his new world proposition driving his destruction. He was also insanely paranoid and tortured anyone who tickled his spidy senses. Thousands were accused of association with previous governments and executed. The cities were turned into ghost towns and people in the countryside were dying of starvation, illness, or simply killed. Meanwhile, I was riding my bike thousands of miles away with playing cards clothes-pinned on the spokes to make cool sounds. I don't know what to say about that, it really confounds me. Just a few years later I would enter my hippification years and dream about becoming an agronomy major at Penn State, travelling in a VW bus across the USA and elevate the idea of communal living hanging out in my mind with girlfriends wearing cotton tie dyed skirts and good looking guys sporting long hair and white gauze shirts. I had no clue these ideals were mutanized and in forceful violent action elsewhere in the world. Bloody hell. Pol Pot made amazing progress towards wiping clean the national etch a sketch in a relatively short amount of time. He killed off 25% of the entire Cambodian population in just 3 years, and with minimal bullets. He's a major chocolate starfish. Today Cambodian statistics eerily reflect his presence in history with 50% of the population just under 25. Sobering. Today nature even reflects his years in reign, barely any wildlife remains in the Cambodia.
In 1979 the Vietnamese ousted Pol and his Pot of Rouge and installed a puppet regime with a Hanoi based administrator oversight. Our driver in Vietnam fought in this war. God that's weird. Vietnam had reprogrammed thousands of Cambodians they snatched back in the 50s and now brought them back to Cambodia as their champions of change. They then allowed a multitude of Vietnamese citizens unrestricted access to live in Cambodia so they could also support Hanoi's goals. This is still an issue today. Cambodia is totally Vietnam's b****. China also uses Cambodia. It is all very cell block 6. Cambodia's gentleness combined with vulnerability makes them so beautiful, but leaves them susceptible.
They are a gentle, their massages are gentle. There is always a connection with prevailing culture and massage technique, always. It is my duty to explore it. The Cambodians are the Tibetans of this region of Asia and I suspect greatly fear a similar fate. It's not just massages that reflect these country's core values. It is also their brand of Buddhism that I find acts like a mirror. The Cambodian Buddhist monks are for the most part gentle souls adhering to all 227 rules of monastic discipline as well as the 10 basic precepts. These include the five precepts that all Buddhists should follow. The five precepts are no eating after noon, no participating in any entertainment (singing, dancing, and watching movies or television), no using any personal adornments, no sleeping on a luxurious bed, and no handling money. In addition, a monk also is expected to be celibate. They are prohibited from even touching a woman. I have had audience several times and always have to place an item passing from me to them or vice versa on a cloth they then drag towards them. They are also supposed to avoid all involvement in political affairs and consequently not vote or hold any political office, witness a legal document or give testimony in court. This is all in such interesting contrast to the Buddhist monks we encountered in other places that reflect their prevailing cultures. Japanese monks are fully engaged in marriage, wealth and intellectual concerns. I had quite a lengthy cerebral chat with one was so intently intellectual he made meditation into a scientific process and had yearly MRIs of his brain to study impact and changes. The Chinese monks are very disciplined and withhold traditional precepts but also have as part of their identity the creators of kick ass Kung Fu. Grasshopper was one of these kind of monks. Martial arts were developed as a tool for self-protection and focus. Force is a constant overhanging presence in China- this seems to connect somewhere somehow. My conclusion from my study in World Tour Buddhism? The Buddhist Middle Way has more than enough latitude for the Cambodians to adopt a little self help kick ass into their doctrine.
The more I learn about Buddhism on this trip the more I come to understand it not as a religion but more a philosophy to help one live a prosocial, harmonious, peaceful life. The hundreds of symbolic chatchkies I think serve to distract and alienate many from understanding it. The golden statues seem to elicit a little bit of fear for us Christians. We imagine Moses trembling atop Mount Sinai getting the flame engraved 10 Commandments with the deep male voice shouting "thou shall not have false gods before me." But Buddhists keep these symbols not because they are praying to them. They do not believe that Buddha is present in them at all. Buddha is not present anywhere anymore- he is gone. Poof-sh**-Nirvana. It is the teachings that he left behind that they show their great respect to and the philosophy they subscribe to for guidance and growth in their life. The statues are just symbols of these teachings that anchor and honor them. This is why Buddhism can so easily co-exist with religions like Hinduism and Christianity because it is not God/gods based at all. Questions of a supreme being are left to you. At its core, Buddhism focuses on how to view events in a way that reduces your suffering. I could go on, but that is another post.
The Middle Way. Siddhartha Gautama (called Buddha) coined the phrase the Middle Way to describe the characteristic of the path he discovered that sounds a whole hell of a lot like what we would describe as wisdom. It is a path of moderation that lives between the extremes of austerity and sensual indulgence, eternalism and annihilationism. Using your wisdom to deal with things in a moderate balanced way. So my point that kicked off this Buddhist diatribe is that 95% Buddhist Cambodia should employ this concept of the middle way just like Captain Jack Sparrow employed the pirate code of parlay. They must do what they need to do for survival...and that may mean trading in a tad of gentleness for some take charge of your destiny. In exploration of my thought I found that some monks agree with me. There is a growing interest group called the "young monks" movement. It is a small group of politically active monks getting vocal about their opposition to the current government. This is mostly happening around the capital at Phnom Penh. Despite the frowns of many senior monks, some monks are even taking the opportunity to vote. Go monks, go. Won't you send out an Om and show them some love for their bravery in facing and driving a change.
So what is the deal with the current regime? Why do we want them kicked out? The current regime is officially (wink, wink) a "constitutional monarchy". The King's main job is to be the national centerfold. His father was much more than a model and very well respected. He reigned pre and post Pol Pot and did the politics dance quite elegantly with local allies namely China. The nation mourned when he passed just last year. His poor son has big shoes to fill and must feel like one of Henry the VIIIs wives in terms of keeping his head attached to his neck while maintaining relationship with the government. Ah, the government….Prime Minister Hun Sen. A true Darth Vader. For some a misunderstood hero who served in Pol Pot's army and engaged Vietnam to help overthrow him, bringing a degree of peace and prosperity to Cambodia. For others, the epitome of the dark side with a respectable record in corruption, force and intimidation. He seized control of the government ousting a fairly democratically elected delegate during the UN monitored democratic election. This really bred hope and confidence in the Cambodian people (sarcasm). He is cemented in place deploying classic communist control tactics and the masses know the UN and no other country is going to be able to be their protector. Hun Sen's games are patronizing. He does things along the same lines as writing his running mate's names at election time in disappearing ink and arranging tiptoeing bushes to relocate the voting stations so they cannot be found. Vietnamese in exchange for favors dress up in I AM CAMBODIAN T-shirts and wear fake nose and glasses to register illegal pro Hun Sen votes. Ay carumba. Fake democracy is SO MUCH worse than fake communism. Fake elections have been happening ever since the UN imposed democracy. There is one scheduled for July and the empty promises and intimidation tactics are already starting. I wish I could say it will be interesting to see what happens, but it is highly likely that it won't be interesting at all, but rather sadly predictable. Don't be fooled if you see on international news that Hun Sen yet again wins. Just cringe and use your own way of sending power and love to the people here.
Over 90% of the people in Cambodia are Khmer- descendents of the ancient empire. The pronunciation is NOT koo'mer, or koo mare'…its koo my'. You can see shadows of Khmer traditions amongst the ruins and it reveals quite an exotic people. Think the bright colors of India with elephants, monkeys and temple guarded tigers then add slo mo temple dancers with fingers curled backwards in perfect Cs and faces reticent of an expression opium induced. The wildlife is all gone and the temples broken, but the Khmer people are not. They go on. While the government is far from what you hope for them, people in the city have some electricity for a small refrigerator, a TV and for maybe even a laptop. They also have plumbing and there are plans to eventually get the sewage to route somewhere other than in the river. The people outside the city use car batteries they take to a charging station for energy and cook with wood and coal. They have no plumbing so carry water and spread their poo on the fields. Pretty much all of the Siem Reap and country dwellers live in huts on stilts and made of straw. There is usually a nice hammock underneath which enjoys the shade. Sacking out in shade during the heat of the day is a must. The poorest of the poor that do not live hand to mouth but rather starve are in the countryside out of view. Tourists will be relatively comfortable and unconfronted by realities like this unless they want to go looking for them in Siem Reap. The hotels are modern and the town has Pub Street, which is good fun and offers shops, restaurants and bars snuggled next to massage places. You can have a gentle massage for next to nothing and fish eat the dead skin off your feet while catching a buzz then top it all off with some shopping. I don't in any way want to deter anyone from coming to see this country. It feels very safe. The Dengue is equally an issue in most of Asia and South America. The government is for the people to be frustrated by- it poses no harm to a tourist. There is no greater place to gain satisfaction from interacting with the locals and spending money here.
Head bowed and palms and fingers matched together with the top of them brushing my nose in Cambodia. Latitude 13.40, Longitude 103.81.