Sunday, March 06, 2011

Siem Reap, Cambodia - February 20, 2011

We took a break from overseeing boat work in Phuket to do some travelling in SE Asia. First stop, three days to see the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The temples and ancient waterworks were very impressive, but between the crowds (2 million visitors a year), the heat, the dust, and the swarms of children begging you to buy a little something, some might prefer the Discovery Channel.

The area has significant charms. The tourist infrastructure - put in place in the last ten or so years after the cessation of civil war/occupation - is phenomenal, with hotels, a lovely new airport, lots of English speakers, an entertainment district, and, for $10 - 15 per day, your own private transport and driver to visit the ruins and whatever else you fancy. The transport is a tuk-tuk, a motorcycle with a covered cart, and as you canter along the flat roads - some tree-lined, others so dusty you have to cover your entire face to survive - it feels downright comfortable as your sweat evaporates in the breeze. At many of the temples there was live local music - similar to Javanese gamelan - being performed by small orchestras of land mine victims.

After what the country has been through, it is gratifying to see that some of Cambodia is reaping the benefits of this historic resource. When the US withdrew from Vietnam, leaving miles and miles of active minefields behind, Pol Pot and the Communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and in four years killed off an estimated 1.5 million people. All of the capital was evacuated on one April day in 1975. The city people - doctors, lawyers, merchants, teachers, artists, the Chinese, the sick, the elderly - were forced out into the countryside where the farms were undergoing socialist collectivization. Those who survived have harrowing tales to tell. As Americans who lived through this era, it was very difficult to respond when our guide asked us, "Where was the world when all this happened?"

Now, despite a reputedly corrupt and autocratic regime that is waging a war against Thailand over who will control the revenue of some ancient temples near the border, the Angkor area is humming with good works, international funding and NGOs with wonderful projects ranging from new museums, temple restorations, deactivating land mines, teaching and marketing native crafts for employment, microfinance to generate small business, educating children so they won't have to beg. The world - or some of it - is trying, and it felt good to be spending our tourist dollars here.


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