Eli and his grandparents are flying in and out of Thailand to get to Bhutan. It was either that or India, and well…for many reasons…Thailand was a better option for them. One of the reasons is that any layover in Bangkok can include a hop-skip over to Siem Riep for a few days to see the Khmer temples collectively known as Angkor Wat (although that is just the largest temple in what is an enormous area covered by many temples and earthworks.)
Chris and I spent 9 days in Cambodia when we went on our trip. It was a confrontation with extremes, and we had to face a real hero’s journey to get there and to get back out, much like a mythological story. After clearing the border of Thailand/Cambodia, we were loaded into the back of a pick-up truck; that is where we sat for 7 hours as we moved over bombed out roads, across bridges with no road (until planks were laid down on the supports at truck-wheel width) that were guarded by “trolls” of men with guns extracting bribes from the driver. The heat and the stress of that trip made me exceedingly grateful to get to our run-down guesthouse and into bed.
Everyday we went from temple to temple to temple, exploring the history and archaeology of the area. Anyone who thinks that civilization is more advanced now, or that people who lived in the past are somehow more primitive, has never been to Angkor Wat. Blown away is a complete understatement. Buildings aligned as perfect mandalas with walls a MILE LONG on each side of a perfect square, adorned, down to the last millimeter, with bas relief engravings of Khmer mythology and ornamentation. It is unimaginable until you have seen it with your own eyes. No images prepare you for it, much like what is said about the Grand Canyon, the Taj Majal, and the Pyramids.
But surrounding the buildings are people…like at any site. But not just people. People without limbs. Children begging who have lost legs to landmines. Older people also maimed by war. We saw our first day at Angkor two beggars sitting together; neither had arms, but they were playing drums with their feet. The people you meet in town who have grown up in this country are hard on the exterior, but deeply soft once you talk with them. Our hotel owner had run into the forest during the Khmer Rouge rampages and lived by stealing from farms and eeking out an existence from wild food until it was safe for him to return to the town he grew up in. His parents had been killed. Grandparents too. This was not an uncommon story, he said. If you ran into the forest, you survived.
It is obvious to even the most unobservant visitor that this is a country of people who are, if they are 40 and older, walking-wounded. And if they are young-people, the generational trauma runs deep in much the same way as the epigenetics of holocaust survivors tells us.
So, to travel in Cambodia is to hold those extremes in your mind… the unbelievable beauty of the Khmer culture (c. 1000 AD) and the unbelievable horror of the Khmer Rouge and their reign of terror over their own population in the late 1970’s. It creates a bitter-sweet emotional response while you are there, and it never really leaves you. The beauty and suffering, all wrapped up in one place.
Now you can fly in/out of Cambodia to avoid the bribery and tourist traps at the border that were such a frustration for Chris and I when we went. Apparently, though, the roads are now paved and tourist buses go from Bangkok to Siem Riep in air-conditioned luxury. I don’t know, though. Some of our best horror stories, the currency of long term travelers with other long term travelers, come from the border crossing out of the country… complete with gun toting teenagers, threats to our person and that of our truck driver, and bribes extracted from us, paid under duress. We were so grateful to cross-back into Thailand, that’s for sure. But the experience, in all of its complexity, has never been forgotten. I sure hope that the beauty is still there, and that the pain is slowly, slowly dissolving into history as the generations move, one to the other.