Saturday, December 11, 2010

Part II of My First Post: Traveling through a Historic City

Hello from Cambodia!

I apologize for not keeping up with this even though I said I would make a weekly post. It was inevitable that I would not have time though. There wasn’t enough time for me to start my field research so I decided to intern at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). I started two weeks ago and I am happy to be part of the staff. However, before I start talking about my current life, I still need to finish what I started. The first post was only a fraction of my month-long journey across Cambodia.

I left off with visiting Kampong Som. It was a pretty sleepy town because we went on a weekday. The ocean was gorgeous and watching the sunset as the rain started to clear up was also beautiful. I really appreciate the organic beauty of nature and you can experience it in Kampong Som. On the first day, I got sick. We either ate at the wrong place and/or my stomach was still adjusting to the new environment. I remembered just stopping in the middle of my meal and my uncle could see there was something wrong by the look on my face. My stomach couldn’t happen whatever I ate so bad that it would not even let the food digest so up it went out of me. TMI? I’m sorry, but I’ve never gotten sick like that to the point of where my body did not want the food reaching any other part of my system. But it was a lesson learned and I became even more paranoid and cautious afterwards. It was expected though since my body is in a new environment. Luckily, we spent only two nights there.

We left for Phnom Penh after because my grandma had to meet up with her Cambodian designer. We repacked our suitcases again and this time, we left for Siem Reap. It was about a 4 hours drive and the countryside is just beyond beautiful. I get motion sickness very easily, but the scenery made up for some of the bumpy, unpaved roads. The fields were very lush during that time of the year as the planted rice grasslands are just ready to be harvested. The tall coconut and/or palm trees with the mountain range shadowing in the background made the scenic drive absolutely beautiful. We arrived to Siem Reap around 4:30ish, just before sunset.  My grandma wanted to see Angkor Wat even though we knew it was too late to walk into the temple. As we drove by the mega structure, the beauty and sophistication of Angkor Wat struck my heart. Being in awe was an understatement. I was proud. I was speechless. I was home. Even thinking about it now overwhelms me with tears. There’s something very charming about Angkor Wat, drawing you in with its cosmic symbolism design.  The palaces and temples are built in the middle of large lakes to guarantee the fertility of the soil.  The Khmer empire was one of the most powerful dynasties between the 9th and 13th century. It was more modern than the city of London with its hydraulic engineering scheme, becoming the largest rice production empire during that time. The designers of the temples created its own architectural design, building temples that have last longer than any other buildings in Cambodia. What the China Wall is to Chinese people, the Angkor Wat is to Cambodians. But with every experience in Cambodia, I also witness a downfall and that is the state of the country now. From being one of the most powerful empire in Indochina to being a developing country today. It is really a struggle. I absolutely love Cambodia. I love the culture. I love the PEOPLE. I love its beliefs and value systems. But I am not in love with the current state of Cambodia, mainly the welfare of Cambodians. There is a connection I feel with every Cambodian here. They are “my people.” It makes it devastating to visit Angkor Wat and then see how the majority of people live here.

My relatives and I at Neang 12 Temples
Bayon Temple

We checked into a hotel and rested up for the next day. 6 o’clock in the morning and I am up and one of the late ones, which I found very irritating at first, having been used to waking up around 7 or 8 back in the States. Also, because my grandma is a beauty queen and takes forever to get ready so I’m usually waiting for her when I can be asleep. She’s cute. We actually shared make-ups--Estee Lauder, or I used hers. But people wake-up according to sunrise, especially those in the countryside to make use of their day and the sunlight. I was very excited, like an anxious little kid ready to get start the first day of school, or a dorky kid like me at least. I’ve seen images and video clips of people walking towards Angkor Wat and I wanted that moment too. I had to keep my mouth shut when we entered so that I wouldn’t be charged $30 an a foreigner for an entrance ticket. They questioned my grandma immediately because she’s very light-skinned for a Cambodian, but of course, she passed the test! Turns out, as long as you’re Cambodian regardless of where you were born or live now, you can get in free of charge.

The Walk
I have a video of my walk leading up to the magnificent temple (I’ll put it up once I have the time to upload it since it took nearly 2 hours just to put up these pictures). At first, you walk along the reservoirs, where the image of Angkor Wat is beautifully reflected upon the blue water. I'm sure you can google that exact image I just described. Actually, here it is: click here. Angkor Wat was once a palace, temple, and monastery—all in one, where an estimated 20,000 people used to live in this one mega structure. As we are walking up, my grandma is telling me a myth about why these large holes in the stone exists and according to legion, the builders used to be really big people and would pick up these stones with their fingers. The myth was busted by our tour guy and he said that elephants used to drag these stones from the mountains. These stones were carved out of mountains, which is one of the reasons why this structure still remains today. Our tour guy gave us an hour tour of the stories behind the carvings on each wall. The carvings on the wall are very intricate and detailed. I wish I could have lived back then or do a reenactment of life during the Angkor era. Words really cannot describe how happy I was there and how happy I was to see the excitement on my grandmother’s face. I am just going to have to post a video on my next post because it was truly magnificently ineffable, like a Stendhal moment.

My uncles and I climbed up unto the second floor and there was just another world. The temple is huge. I didn’t even get to see every little bit of it because it was very tiring to climb the little steps. I was such an obvious outsider, trembling because I am afraid to fall, while the little Cambodian kids just hop down the stairs as if it wasn’t anything life threatening.  Unfortunately, on this journey, I did not make it to the top level of the temple. I was wearing what I thought was a very conservative shirt, because it did not reveal anything but my arms, but even that was too much. I was denied access into the 3rd floor because it is very religiously holy up there and the revealing of my arms was inappropriate. I was very mad because 1) there was never any announcement at the entrance and 2) I couldn’t walk back to the car because it was such a long walk and climb! Nonetheless, I was still satisfied with my visit and it was getting very exhausting anyway, especially in the glaring hot sun.  

It’s getting late so I am going to have to finish my post on Siem Reap tomorrow, but I hope you enjoy this and the pictures for now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Part I of My First Post

Hello everyone!

First off, I just want to say that I miss everyone and I really appreciate those who have made an effort to keep in touch while I am traveling as I was having difficulty finding good internet connection.

I was planning to write a weekly post on this, but it was very difficult to get some alone time to just sit down and write while constantly traveling with others. I am going to cut this into parts as I have a month worth of experiences, opinions, etc. to share. I hope you are willing to listen :) To fully describe the culture shock I am experiencing, I will also create topic blog post about subjects such as, the enforcement of law to how people drive here (the driving here really confirms the stereotype about Asians being bad at driving :( ). At this point, I will say that even though the flow of traffic is chaotic, it also has its own system that has become practical for people here.

As I am trying to organize my thoughts, which will certainly sound scattered and unorganized, I realized that it is fine since it will mimic my feelings about transitioning here. As a Cambodian-American, I find myself enjoying Cambodia, but at the same time, I feel angry and flustered at times. I cannot describe the feelings I felt when I first saw the infamous and historic, Angkor Wat. It brought tears to my eyes. I was truly in awe. Adjectives, such as, “gorgeous” and “majestic” would be an understatement. Not to sound like I have an identity crisis because I lived in a bicultural setting in America, but seeing Angkor Wat really connected me to my Cambodian side. After what the Khmer Rouge regime did to our own people, I felt proud to see another side to the Cambodian story. Cambodia was really ahead of our time. They developed a system of irrigation for rice production earlier than when most people thought irrigation was developed (see documentary). At the same time, this is why I feel frustrated being here and seeing how Cambodia is now. If you want to experience how it is living in a classist society, then come to Cambodia. There is such a huge rich/poor gap, but thank god, there is an emerging middle-class. After a month of traveling, I have handed out an approximate total of $200 to people in poverty. Simultaneously, I do not want to contribute to a sense of dependency because I have realized that asking for money is becoming more of an occupation here. However, the issue of poverty will be a separate post.

The first day I arrived in Cambodia, I had to switch out my shoes and wear rain boots because my carry-on was overweight. Even though there is a monsoon season here, people do not wear rain boots! Everyone stared at me as I walked through the airport. Wearing rain boots was also a bad choice as I felt the hotness and humidity immediately as I stepped out of the airplane. A driver from the American Embassy picked me up. I naively realized that I would have to speak ONLY Khmer here and I was so used to mixing in English back at home. Speaking Khmer can also be a separate post within itself. Today, I was asked if I came from Thailand and France. I have everything but an American accent. Ha! I was also told that I have a beautiful accent, which is laughable because anywhere I go, I struggle with having an accent and end up feeling like a FOB. However, the driver was very accommodating and cute as he tried to speak about American issues. I realized that the outside world knows more about American politics than Americans, themselves. Sadly, Americans are also not as aware about other nations’ political situations. Ironically, I also tried to relate to him by asking about the political situation here.
We ended up staying and recuperating in the capital, Phnom Penh, for awhile. Distant relatives coming from all over Cambodia, such as a district in Battambang to relatives who reside here came to visit my grandma. It had been about 30 years since she has been in her country. Thirty years apart from family members and close friends. Tears of joy were abundant as she reunited with each person. Imagine being your age now and seeing someone close to you 30 years later. You were once young and now you both are old and the 30 years that have past are evidence in every slow moment and wrinkles in your face. Not only is it a culture shock to transition into a developing country, but I have also experience the shortness of the timeline of life. Every story that my grandma and her love ones share shows how much of a lifetime they have lived as I am only beginning to start a new chapter. You really do not know someone unless you have experience a whole lifetime with that person. I have realized that my grandma more than just my grandma. Anyways, going on an emotional tangent can also be a separate post lol. I’m sorry, but feel free to stop reading or just skim through this. I just have so much to say!

The view from my hotel in Phnom Penh

After staying in Phnom Penh, we went to visit a beach town called Kampong Som or Westernly known as Sihanoukville. Our travels revolved around places in Cambodia that my grandma has never visited so it was quite a trip. On our way to the beach, we stopped by Pich Nil Mountain, which had a sacred, religious shrine. Every passerby stopped for a moment to pray for a safe trip on my way to whichever destination. It is respectful to ask what Americans would consider “Mother Nature” or the gods of the land for a safe entry and return into the territory. On every mountain top, Cambodian seem to always built large, monumental statue of Buddha as a way to maybe be closer to the Theravadas.

Me and my grandma :)
My grandma and relatives. Everyone wears flip flops here!
It was pretty quiet at the beach. We went on a weekday, but it was one of the first times that I have experienced the meaning of poverty here in Cambodia. People in poverty in America can survive with the social benefits that they receive, but people here do starve as you can see with your own eyes how skinny and boney a person can be. However, it was very nice to relax at the beach after the plane ride. This is the type of feeling that I am experiencing in Cambodia; the combination of enjoyment seems to always mix in with a sad awareness of social issues.

After a little afternoon drizzle

To be continued...
P.S. I know I am an English major. Forgive any grammatical mistakes and I'm sure there are plenty.