It's a strange feeling to wake up in the morning, look down and wonder where your arms have disappeared to. The two bulging pistons I left with not 11 months ago have morphed, rather successfully, into a couple of peperamis that would barely suffice for a small s***zu. In fact the big question is whether I will reach 30 before my waist line does. Even the mosquito, formerly the scourge of my smooth skin has taken less interest recently for fear of striking bone and doing itself an injury.
I digress. Since we last spoke we have made it over the border to Cambodia - a trip memorable for my sudden realisation that the old Val Doonican song 'Father and Son' is actually meant to be a father and son talking to each other. Years of listening to the tepid Boyzone version had apparently not made this clear to me and it took the dulcet tones of Val...or whatever his Islamic name is, to make me realise. Well I never.
Cambodia is far less frenetic than Thailand (although there is still an inordinate number of Kamikaze drivers, particularly in the capital Phnom Penh) and for my mind is a far more interesting landscape to gaze upon. You find the people less pushy and there seems to be far more genuine warmth towards you that is not just dominated by the drive to make another dollar. No doubt a product of their atrocious recent history, but more on that later.
Anywho, in Siam Reap there is but one thing to do: the Temples of Angkor Wat...or as the British like to call it Angkor Wat What Tally Ho'. It was always going to take something fairly spectacular to rival Macchu Picchu in our hearts, but we may just have found a worthy contender in Angkor Wat. Yes Macchu has the spectacular setting, but the exquisite craftsmanship in the stonework of the Hindu Gods at Angkor just blows your mind. Added to that, the scale of the place (the main temple is the largest religious temple in the world), particularly if you include the surrounding temples, is barely fathomable and in the day we explored the site you could argue we barely scratched the surface.
After an early breakfast we met our guide at a considerate 7am, forgoing any semblance of trying to hit sunrise at 5am after having fallen for that trick at previous historical sites. As it happens the clouds would have had the last laugh anyway, so we felt pretty smug at only having to get up at 6am. Our English speaking guide, Siya, appears to be typical of a great number of Cambodians we have met, in that he is actively trying to make something of his life through hard work and educating himself. All the more poignant in modern day Cambodia as this is something that would have seen him systematically tortured and killed under the Khmer Rouge Regime of 1975-79 when approximately 2 million Cambodians died. His English is impressive and particularly when compared to Thailand, where despite being on the tourist trail, the number of times we encountered little or no English was surprising (not that this is a bad thing at all). It therefore makes you all the more astonished by the proficiency the vast majority of Cambodians demonstrate in another language, young and old alike. Knowing their past, and that the country is still bearing the scars makes you all the more fond of this affable nation of people. it also has the capacity to pull at your heart strings when you walk past those debilitated by landmines (many mines are still active around the country having yet to be cleared) playing musical instruments or the gorgeous young children who relentlessly follow you in the hope that you will buy some of their handiwork. Despite being careful with every pound we have spent this year, we have found it difficult not justify regularly giving a little extra where we can and have found it hard to stomach when we haven't. They call those born in 79 (my year of birth) and after the ''Lucky Generation', which is optimistic to say the least. It appears that the word 'relatively' should be inserted before that title.
Back to Angkor and the contest between nature and man's creation is a sight to savour. To gaze upon the roots of a Banyan Tree entwined with the brickwork just hints at the grand history of the place and combined with the obvious spiritual significance of the site (you encounter several orange robed monks wandering) you realise this is a special place. It may just lose out to Macchu Picchu in a 12 round spilt decision, but here you have an archaeological gem that, although damaged and looted in places, we are in fortunate is in any condition for us to visit. A definite highlight of the year.
Two more quick things to inform you of from our pilgrimage to Angkor: firstly, the cheeky monkey that stole our coconut rice in front of one of the temples...an actual monkey who when we protested bared its surprisingly large and sharp teeth at us. Secondly, the Cambodian tradition of eating anything and everything includes such delights as fried bugs, duck embryos and tarantulas. Well the latter involves a leap of faith I'm not prepared to make, but we did both chow down on a nice crispy cricket. The food odyssey continues.
Day 2 in Siam Reap was left for a wander around this buzzing little town and its cute coffee shops and markets in the morning. In the afternoon we joined one of the volunteers from our guesthouse who was offering her time at a local school for poor and vulnerable children run by Buddhist Monks. It survives solely through donations. The school building is effectively a corrugated iron shed, separated into classrooms by large metallic sheets that under the beating sun transform themselves into large microwaves...further from a new 4.5 million pound all singing and all dancing Drama Theatre you could not get. It's a wonderful and happy place, despite the less than salubrious surroundings, and headed by the gracious and humble yet eminently impressive Mr. Daro and I urge you to visit should you drop by this way. Not wanting to waste the talents of 5 Regina Court's number 1 Drama Teacher it was with startling speed that I ended up at the front of the class teaching two, hour long English lessons with help from Kirsty....well I suppose I better get back in the swing of things. The Cambodian kids are incredible - they show you respect by honouring you at the beginning of the lesson and blessing you at the end, but what is even more striking is their eagerness to educate and willingness to educate themselves, to challenge themselves and their desire to empower themselves. While both Kirsty and I, coming from educated backgrounds, have sought to broaden our horizons by travelling and perhaps more spiritual enlightenment, the Cambodians seek to do it through knowledge. For them it is about learning another language, learning about other countries and learning new skills. Perhaps the spiritual side of things has already taken care of itself through all the hardship that they have had to overcome. I have complete and utter admiration for them, and when you flick through their immaculate hand written exercise books, the admiration only grows. Mr Daro, like all monks, is dressed in the traditional orange robes, but don't think this stops him from laughing, joking and generally demonstrating a passion for life. He even makes time after teaching to head to University to study..another example of Cambodian self improvement. His and his student's warm welcome really touched us both and we will be donating what materials we can to the school on our return to England.
Actually on the subject of monks, the whole orange robe thing can be a little mis-leading. While we assume it is a sign of a simplistic and wholly spiritual life we have thus far seen monks buying cds, monks on mopeds, monks withdrawing money from an ATM, monks on mobile phones and monks eating in a well known burger chain. Go figure.
And so you find us in Phnom Penh after probably the most moving day of our time away. Today we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the S-21 prison (now the Tuol Sleng Museum), both remnant of the Khmer Rouge regime. Why visit such harrowing and depressing sites? Well, so taken as we are with Cambodia and its people, we feel it is important that we understand why the country is as it is. As you approach the Killing fields the view is dominated by the white stupa that serves as a memorial to the 17,000 who were executed here and houses almost 9000 human skulls that have been excavated. Many of which show the damage of the fatal blows that were struck whilst they were made to kneel. It is chilling. The hollows of the eyes look out from the glass tower imploringly almost asking for help. It's a place for pause reflection and commemeration. As you wander around the site you pass pit after pit that were used for make shift mass graves, whilst signs tell you of the brutal customs that the guards practised on their scared and blindfolded prisoners. The prison, a converted school, houses the instruments of confinement and torture. Many were killed for no reason other than as an example to others. Of all the thousands that were incarcerated there it is thought that only 7 people who went in came out alive.
It's fair to say a few tears were shed today and the whole experience is proving slightly overwhelming to even document in this blog. It's difficult not to be profoundly affected by the place and when you think back to Mr Daro and all the other people we have met, all who have been affected in some shape or form by the Pol Pot years, it's difficult not become emotional and consider how your life could be so different.The western world is fond of saying 'never again', but you wonder how then that the Cambodian genocide was allowed to occur. Worse still I begin to fear that in twenty year time another 29 year old teacher travelling around the world will experience the exact same feelings in regard to Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe.
Apologies for the more down beat nature to the ending of this blog, but we couldn't pass through this wonderful place without dealing with the reality. I think it is a sign of how far we have come that we could actually quite happily spend a serious amount of time here. It is a world away from our life and lifestyle at home, but the more we have travelled the more we have realised that it is the people that make a place not the shops, restaurants or bars and hence our attachment to the people of Cambodia.