Cambodia ’05

You cannot ask Cambodians visiting Cambodia how their trip went. Perhaps they can tell you and perhaps they can’t, but whatever they tell you will rarely approximate the truth. Someone asked me for highlights, and I answered, “Biking in Angkor.” It was perhaps, could have been one, convenient to say, easily understood. But imagine a rickety bike, whose chain keeps dropping. Imagine Japanese, Canadians, Koreans, Germans, Filipinos, Spaniards–a veritable United Nations flashing by every unlikely corner. Imagine a road frequented by busses, cars, motorcycles, motorcycle-driven buggies. Imagine this road singular, gently winding, tree-lined, forested, temple-d. Now imagine Angkor. Imagine a city of stones, imagine kings long dead, a people long conquered, a land long lost. Imagine every few kilometers you turn the corner to meet a new era, welcome a new king, centuries ago. Imagine you are his children. The sun beats down. The trees move in the winds. You are his children. The city of Angkor is alive today. It is a strange kind of life that she is experiencing, buffed and buffeted and offered as a curiosity to the world whilst her children begs for food in her leaves. Yet Bayon still smiles and the apsaras still dance. And at the end of every day in Angkor, if you listen to your blood, you find you can always climb one more step.

And still, this might not tell you of biking in Angkor.

You rent a bike from your guesthouse, for 1 US dollar a day (4000 riels). The bike will have a basket in front for you to put your shoulder bag in, that you will wind securely on the handle. You walk the bike to the intersection, through the intersection, because if you ride through the intersection, you might be killed in numerous ways, all of which involves some type of vehicle bearing down on you at death defying speeds. As you bike towards Angkor, you find you might not know the way to Angkor, and you yell the question at a passing biker (“Which way to Angkor?”) and they yell back (“Turn left and go straight.”) and you look perhaps a trifle unconfident and they say, bless them, “Follow us.” There are two of them on one bike. The skinny one is peddling the not-so-skinny one.ight not tell you of biking in Angkor.

So we followed them, which was a good thing. They knew how to turn left.

From there the road is straight into Angkor and the only thing left is, as you approach the guards sitting by the road, if they stand up to ask for your Angkor Day Pass, as you bike past, to yell (“I’m Khmer.”) They will either sit back down in agreement or, if they run after you, be sure to continue yelling (“I’m Khmer, I’m Khmer.”) Best to do this in Khmer.

So we biked. It is not possible to get lost in Angkor. You follow the circuit, going from one temple to the next, each clearly marked by wooden or cement posts along the road. When stopping to explore each temple, lock your bikes to each other. If you came back and some enterprising soul had stolen three interlocking bikes, you have no recourse but to admire their tenacity.

If the chain falls off your bike, stop, and slip it back on.

If you happen to be leaving Angkor at the time when everyone else is leaving Angkor and the night is dark and your bike light happens to fail, bike off the paved road, or as close to the edge of the road as possible, and pray.

And if you happen to have some Sin Sisamouth with you, it will be unforgettable….

I went to Cambodia this time with friends, met other friends, and we said a million things, over and over. The same sentence, or sometimes entire exchanges, bore repetition a million times. Cambodia feeds you a script.You cannot turn here, coming from America, without having something to comment on.

The heat, the dust, the dirt, the pollution.

The language, the people, the manner of dress.

The food, the fruits, the roads, the cars.

The moto-doups.

You don’t need time to discover Cambodia. In one day, Cambodia will throw herself at you, assault your five senses, and if you were prey to a sixth, that will be replete as well.

I love this land. I cannot say country because I don’t believe the current state of our land fully qualifies us for any moniker remotely indicating a nation or state operating under anything passing for a governing body. But this land, however naked of order, and this people, however maltreated and squeezed of her humanity, this land and this people remain the cornerstone of that thing I venture to call my soul and I adore this corner of earth that saw the beginnings of my life, of the lives of my loved ones, even as she also saw the end of so many others. Choking as I was in her dust and drowning as I was in the filth of her multitudinous sorrows, I can still see the city that was my first remembrance of childhood. Back then, 20 or so years ago, she was just a ghost, lately resurrected, her boulevards empty of a million footsteps. But she was my Phnom Penh, and since I knew no other, her broken walls, her scarred columns, her defunct bridges were simply the order of things–an accommodating, if weary, playground for children whose parents were not much more than ghosts themselves. Today, I can spend a week and not list all the changes that 20 years have wrought on Cambodia’s capital. But my seven year old self with her seven year old eyes carried with her a faint but eternal picture of my last Phnom Penh, and on any given evening, from my house by Kirirom’s Theatre, I can still find Vimean Aekareach , and from there, the Royal Palace, Chan Chaya , the riverside onto Chrouy Chongvar…and I have my city back again.

We went to Cambodia with some money that friends had sent along for us to “tver bon”. Their goodwill carried no specific instructions, only that we should “do good.” We went through Phnom Penh, Siem Riep, Battambang and did the best we could.I took some of the money and walked up and down my village, giving here and there to the villagers, some of whom had known me from infancy. I told them, when they gave me thanks, to send the good tidings on towards my friend, and wish him well.

In one of the village’s huts, I met a little boy, not more than 7. He was sitting on the ground, skinning a small catch of frogs on a wooden board. My aunt told me their family was the worst off this year because the mother and father kept getting sick and was unable to farm their fields. I saw a rail thin woman, sitting on a wooden bed outside the hut. My aunt chatted with the mother and I watched the little boy preparing the family’s dinner. He had a sweet face, lively eyes that invited my audience. When we left, I handed him a small sum of money.

The little boy looked at me, and then looked at his mother. It was not until his mother nodded, that he accepted the money.

Of all the tales I carry from Cambodia, of mosquito bites and ice cold showers, of dusty roads and pock-marked streets, tales of near-death rides in crazy traffic with crazier drivers, of criminal government and dirty politics, of heartburn and upset stomachs, there is not much that hasn’t been enumerated times over by fellow travelers. Yet there is something about our land that compels you to speak. It is not a place you can dismiss, if only for the grace of a small child who, in the face of utter need, can still hesitate to accept your hand-out.

In this land of a millions tears, a million heartbreaks, there is a million forbearance, a million kindness, a million thanks and well wishes.

I’ve said before that Cambodia is to be experienced and not told. I still believe that holds. Yet here I am sitting at a keyboard, facing a blinking cursor…because I cannot help but want to tell, and of all the things I want to tell, there is only one thing, and it is the same.

I was born in the province of Takeo, in Srok Tram Kok, Khum Ta Phaem, Phoum Por Preah Sangh, by a little pond called Trawpeang Dar Skor. The pond has long dried, and a little knoll of dirt has taken its place, but my aunts and cousins can take me to the exact plot of land and tell me of the exact day and time of day of when I came to be, and I do not cease to marvel that, in the midst of Cambodia’s eternally damned current events, they would take the time to remember this.

From Phnom Penh, you take National Route 3 to Takeo, all the way to Sala Deum Chrobok (before you reach Ang Ta Soam), where you turn right onto a little dirt road that will take you past Wat Por Preahsangh, and a little ways further in, you will spy the roof of a jaetdey (actually, you will find two jaetdeys because there is a rift somewhere in the family line, and apparently the remains cannot rest peacefully together–I have some thoughts on this, but when in Rome, if you cannot do as the Romans do, I suppose you keep quiet, especially if you happen to love these Romans and do not want to hurt their feelings.)

Beyond these two warring jaetdeys, you will find my grandmother’s house, a one roomed hut on wood and cement stilts, roofed in bricks and tin and boasting a little trawpeang in front. My grandmother will likely be resting beneath the house, a tiny figure, shrunken and distilled to not much more than bones. She broke her legs two years ago trying to avoid a cow and has not walked since, though I have heard they still put her on a motorcycle and take her to the wat now and again. She felt my arms and legs and asked me if I was truly Sdeung since I seemed thicker than before. She recently lost her sight. My grandmother is 94, the youngest of seven children and the only one remaining of her siblings. She’s a devout Buddhist, knows her Pali backwards and forwards, can smoke a pack daily if allowed, and retains a remarkably acerbic wit.

1.10.05. Por Preah Sangh. 3 a.m.

I woke, bladder full, to the sounds of various animals: pigs snoring, rooster wings (the roosters start crowing at 1 a.m.–at least in my village–which seems to me a despairingly early hour to be waking up), insects chirping conversation, all in sublime disregard of their slumbering humans. A ring of men was still playing cards on another bed. I slipped on flip-flops and went around the side of the house to pee. It was pitch black. There is no darkness like a country’s darkness. I don’t believe I understood pitch black until I came to Srok Khmer. It is a wall of black, the purest absence of light you can imagine, stretching in front of you, around you, as far as your eyes cannot see. Much as I knew my way around the house by daylight, I was absolutely convinced every step I took in the inky molasses nocturne would be my last. I gave up trying to make it to the outhouse which lay some intolerable meters beyond the abyss. I squatted by the peang (cement water barrel.) When I was done, I gingerly stood, looked up….

…to where the stars hung like diamonds in the bright dark night…

My breath stilled. I wanted to cry. The night fell away. There, just beyond the outlines of the coconut and palm leaves, was the universe as I’d never seen, laid out in an unbelievable canvas of a million jewels, each brighter than the next. The stars glittered and winked and danced, so close my impossible heart whispered that if I just reached out my hand….

I stood for a time in Por Preah Sangh’s 3 a.m., gathering dew in my hair, starlight on my face, struck breathless by the immeasurable gifts that life and time can lay by the wayside. I felt the soil with my toes, imagined my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandmother standing where I was, in another time, awashed in the same stars. I felt wonder and a depth of gratitude, and could do nothing but say thank you, and hello. I would never be afraid of the ghosts who walked here. When I could move, I went to get the camera. I tried to take a picture of the stars, with Canon’s digital 4.0 mega pixel ELF. I took pictures of my grandmother sleeping, of my aunts sleeping, of my uncle, my cousins, my nieces and nephews, all bundled in a row on the wooden bed underneath the house, a hair’s breath away from a myriad bounties. I took pictures of the village’s men playing catay, who had been playing since dusk rolled in, who had been playing every night till dawn breaks over the fields. Much as they loved their game, I knew they were there, every night since I’d arrived, mostly to guard me from any possible mishap that an ex-pat’s nights in a remote Cambodian village might invite. They joked with me and told me to show the pictures to my mother waiting for me in the US, my mother who is their aunt, their cousin, their friend…I snapped shot after shot. I would be going back to Phnom Penh the next day, if only to give them some sleep.

The rooster resumed his crowing. Across the village, his friend replied, and so on and so on. Somewhere else a motorcycle came to life and a man left to make his family’s living. I inserted myself in between the bundled row of my family and closed my eyes.

Morning would come to find us centuries hence.

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