After the 25 minute tuktuk ride from the airport, after checking into the Santa Clara hotel located on the river halfway between the Angkor Wat ruins and downtown Siem Reap, I went for a walk. And noticed the gorgeous dragonflies, red and gold, and remembered as a boy how I would follow them in fields and marvel at them. Butterflies circled me too, doing their spiral dances. A good sign that this trip would be special for me. Much older now I still felt blessed by their presence, and took a few pictures.
These little marvels would buzz the hotel pool as well, a pool I would find magical given its infinity-edges and dark blue tile. When I wore one of the bamboo hats into the pool, with it’s brim pulled down to shade my face, the sun danced on the underside of the brim, reflecting off the pool’s surface, some kind of ancient oriental dance of light.
This would be a trip of dancing light, and dragonflies, and stone castle temples in ruins.
A trip watching carefree children playing or serious as they marched or biked or scootered to and from school in their white shirts and dark pants.
A trip of young couples posing for their wedding pictures in the morning, ready if nervous for their honeymoon that night, and modern Buddhist temples not as impressive as the ruins and still holy places to bow and pray and light incense.
And a young tour guide who told me that he was willing to die to save his country from the crooked politicians. And a flood of Chinese tourists swarming the ruins in buses from their luxury hotels. And friendly locals who made their living as servers or cleaners or tuktuk drivers or store clerks or fruit sellers or souvenir sellers.
A country that still had land mines in the countryside, so don’t go off the path the books warn, and the signs. (I also let the Chinese go in front of me, just in case.)
This is a country with entire villages floating in rivers and lakes.
A country proud of its food offerings, its Amok dishes (a light kind of curry), its fresh vegetables and fish and its rice. I was fearful to try too much, especially with my sensitive stomach, but all the food I tried was good and did not upset my stomach too much. I had a vegetable cashew dish, a fish amok dish, and from a road vendor a wonderfully sweet and unique bamboo rice treat steamed with coconut milk and black beans.
A country full of wonderful people but a country that suffered a terrible blow in the seventies, when a fanatic Maoist doctrine was instigated by intellectuals who took power, and all the rich and the educated, the teachers and the writers and the shop owners and the landowners were all killed (except the educated ones in power of course), and the cities were emptied – the people forced to go become farmers or die. Millions were killed outright, many others died of starvation.
The Teachers. They killed all the teachers!
Why? Because you don’t need an education to farm the land or fish the lake. And the Khmer Rouge rulers didn’t want educated people arguing against their actions.
I was told by an expat living in Siem Reap that the confused state of the country today is because the children of that terrible time are now adults. Adults who grew up in misery, without the guidance of their parents, children displaced by fanaticism, children who lost their culture and are only now slowly regaining it back as adults.
The writer in me, when I hear their story, cannot help but rhyme Siem Reap with ‘see them weep’.
But they aren’t weeping – they are full of life and busy making their livings, and their loves and their children.
And do you know what I heard more than one local say to me when I passed? Young men, with a friendly nod. At first when I heard it, I thought I was mistaken. But the second time I heard clearly them say to me, “Hello Teacher.”
And only just now, writing this, am I struck by the terrible sad meaning in that respectful greeting. Brings tears to my eyes.
THEY KILLED ALL THE TEACHERS!
But that was before and now they welcome teacher-writers like me.
And I had the most magical time in Cambodia, letting my imagination run free.
I’ll let pictures tell the rest of my visit.