Winding Down in Asia

It probably started by visiting one of the Killing Fields, one of the places in Cambodia where some of the 3 million people who died during my lifetime were tortured and killed. It probably was fueled when I visited the Angkor Hospital for children where over 400 children are treated each day. There I learned that more than 1 in 8 children in Cambodia die before their 5th birthday. It might have been being on my own again after my Aussie buddies left town. It might have been being away from home on Mother’s Day or just being really tired from riding a bike in the heat and humidity of the temples of Angkor Wat. It may have been from the huge thunder and lightning storm that kept me at the bed and breakfast for dinner instead of a walk into town. For whatever reason, last night was the first time that I started to feel ready to leave the traveling life and head home. I think there’s a time in a journey of any length when you feel the end coming and I guess last night was it for me.

Now, after a good night’s sleep, messages from my children, some Skype calls and a new day, I’m back on the happy train. I am realizing though that in just a few days I’ll be leaving Asia behind after so many months in different countries. I’ll miss so much from the juicy, tropical fruits I have every day to the smiling and friendly people that live here. I’ll have to get used to paying more than $3.00 for a lunch or more than a few dollars for a massage. All the more reason to enjoy these last few days in Cambodia.

On the last day of our bike tour that ended here in Siem Reap, our merry band got a taste of life in the villages of Cambodia. We had a local guide take us to many places on our last day, most of which were home based businesses that were started after the people moved back from hiding in the mountains during the Pol Pot regime of the 1970’s and created new lives in new villages. There were people making the round rice paper wrappers that are used in spring rolls, people making paper thin slices of bananas to dry, a family run rice wine business and a home where sticky rice was stuffed into tubes of bamboo and cooked over a hot fire. They all worked hard and long days under the steamy conditions of Cambodia to feed their families. The most fragrant stop was a fish paste “factory” where drying fish sat in open tubs covered in salt.

The most moving place was a monument filled with human skulls and bones to honor the 10,000 people who died in one village. The atrocities described in bas relief and English words brought tears to my eyes. As we peddled through the villages, it was so apparent how few older people there are in Cambodia. More than half of the population now is children. At the children’s hospital, they said that over 4,000 doctors were killed in those years. Such atrocities are hard to understand but the Cambodian people who I have met have all been cheerful and pleasant people, somehow able to carry on. An older man was at the monument talking to us in Cambodian. Our guide said he had lived through the terror but we didn’t have the time to hear his stories.

I learned even more of the history of Cambodia yesterday when I visited the temples of Angkor Wat, considered to be one of the architectural wonders of the world. I signed on for a mountain bike tour rather than join a bus tour or hire a private guide. It was a good choice. Despite the high heat and humidity, bikes are naturally air-conditioned to a degree and there’s nothing like riding a bike through a jungle path and coming upon an ancient temple almost swallowed up by giant tree roots. It sure beats getting off a bus and following the crowd down the road!

Actually, our first temple was Angkor Wat itself surrounded by a giant moat and with lotus shaped towers looming on the horizon for miles. We walked through rock ruins, up stairs and along walls filled with stories carved in bas relief. There were hundreds of images of dancers carved into the walls all showing different dance positions, costumes and jewelry. It’s hard to imagine that such a huge and detailed building could have been constructed in the 1100’s. Indeed, there was a flourishing society in this area. The original residents were Hindu but under the 7th king converted to Buddhism (which is now practiced by 85% of the contemporary Cambodians) although the temples show elements of both religions.

We rode our bikes along the wall surrounding the next temple of Angkor Thom seeing water buffalo in the river down below us. Inside the gate was a favorite temple called Bayon. There were 37 statues left of the original 54 carved with giant faces on each of their four sides. That’s a lot of big heads! Here the carvings on the walls depicted every day life in Cambodia at the time from birthing scenes to cooking and playing chess. There were also carvings of the battles fought at sea depicting alligators and boats.

After a few less well known temples and gates, we came upon the temple made famous by the Tomb Raider movie where giant tree roots strangle the stone walls. It’s a maze of rooms, including an echo chamber where a thump on your chest makes a loud drum-like sound. This one is being renovated by India and it’s a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle of ancient stones.

It took a whole day to see the temples and an easy 15 kilometers peddle back to Siem Reap. After a jump in the pool to cool off, the heavens opened up with a huge thunder storm that lasted into the night. This morning, I decided to see the relics of the temples in the air-conditioned comfort of the National Museum. After learning so much already and seeing the temples themselves, it was an interesting time seeing the statuary up close and with good descriptions and videos. It helped me to put together more of the history of Cambodia and also helped to tie together my understanding of both Hinduism and Buddhism which I have been experiencing across Asia. I realized part way through the museum that anything made in the 13th century or beyond looked new. That’s a new way of seeing things!

Indeed, perspective is what it’s all about. Today, as I walked back down the humid streets, salty sweat sliding into my eyes and slithering down my back, I was feeling gratitude for the experiences that I am having here. Where else can I see snails for sale on a pushcart (I tasted one yesterday that was quite delicious), have a cold towel scented with wintergreen handed to me on a wooden plate as I entered the haven of an ice cream shop and enjoy a cup of mango sorbet for $1.00. The tuk-tuk drivers share their huge smiles even as I decline a ride and my guidebook teases me with all kinds of different options for tomorrow. Like the Cambodian people, but on a simple human scale, life has turned itself around for the better.

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4 Comments

  1. bikermom67

     /  May 14, 2012

    Dear Ellen,
    I’m late to the party, but will catch up on your delightful blog! Meandering MS is in Memphis. Jean Jacob and I drove downtown yesterday and visited with Jane, Mary, Penny, Barb and Pat. When I asked about you, they immediately reminded me about your blog. So far I think they’ve had a windy, rather boring ride up from New Orleans. We assured them that the best part of the trip begins when they ride out tomorrow. It’s pretty and interesting from here on up to MN. You certainly are having experiences of a lifetime and I’m so happy for you in fulfilling this dream. Take care and keep on writing so we can travel vacariously thru your eyes and words.
    Love you,
    Clark

    Reply
  2. Candice Stein

     /  May 14, 2012

    How quickly we can forget horrific events. Good to be reminded. And can’t help but think about what a wonderful ambassador you are. Wishing you the best with your remaining days of travel.

    Reply
  3. Connie oconnor

     /  May 14, 2012

    You’ve inspired me to travel your Asian areas when possible. I’m doing the tour of Colorado this summer and a boat tour next year from Prague to Paris and then I’d like to travel to your areas!! I’ll miss your reading your adventures!! Connie

    Reply
  4. Barbara

     /  May 15, 2012

    Beauty and tragedy all at once. To see it all first hand and up close! It sounds like folks in all your travels have lives that we would consider difficult but they are so happy……bring some of that back with you please.

    Enjoy the rest of the trip. It will be good to see you.

    Reply

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