cambodia

Family Ties

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After the madness of Phnom Penh, I headed south via bus and tuktuk to the small ocean town of Kep. It seemed laid back enough that I decided to brave renting a motor bike. I rode down from my mountainside bungalow to the waiting white sand beach. What I forgot was, it was the weekend. Hundreds of Khmer families come to the beach on the weekends. All along the coast, not directly on the beach, but set back from the beach are platforms with hammocks hanging from the side walls. Families rent these covered platforms for the day, sitting in the shade by the ocean, eating fresh crab, drinking and relaxing. I felt like I’d walked in on someone else’s summer vacation.

Sometimes, when you’re traveling, you work hard to see how people do the work of their daily lives, and forget see how they enjoy their lives and each other.

From Kep, I travelled north and west to the ultimate Cambodian tourist destination, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. After a day of temples and lots of people, I wanted to get back into the countryside, so with the help of a local guide, I headed out of town. We visited a small village east of Siem Reap and home to two families who produce all of the fresh rice noodles for the entire province. Given the number of noodles consumed daily, you would assume this was a factory operation, but that is definitely not the case.

Under a tin roof hut with wood smoke filling the air, a family of six were working in a quiet rhythm. A young son pounded the rice mill. Another sat on a wooden press over a large kettle on an open fire, squeezing the rice flour and water mixture into noodles. A young woman used a reed basket to scoop and drain the noodles. An elderly gentleman cut banana leaves to line flat baskets, and two woman, a mother and daughter, scooped handfuls of the fresh noodles, twirling them into bundles and artfully laying them in the baskets. This well oiled family machine produces about 1000 pounds of noodles every day, completely by hand.

Today, I took a cooking class. Ben, as he calls himself, runs the school and picked me up a motorbike. After a visit to a local market outside of town, we headed to meet the woman who would help me learn to cook traditional Cambodian food, in a traditional way - over a wood-fired clay brazier, using a mortar and pestle, and cleaver as my only tools. We pulled up to the hut, and Ben and I worked on three dishes, under the watchful (and smiling eyes) of the “chef.” As we were talking, I asked Ben about his family. He said he was not married, but had 65 children. I said “65?” He said yes, all of the children who benefit from the proceeds of the cooking school and tours he runs, are his children, his family. He provides a home and kitchen for orphaned children and children from families in need, including those with HIV. As of today, that was 65 children and counting.

Whether east or west, developed or developing country, I think family (whoever you decide to include in that definition) is what gets us up each day, helps to get the work done and are the people you turn to after it is done.

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Lessons from the Past

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Phnom Penh is an exploding, vibrant, chaotic, city. Like its predecessors on the way to development, Hanoi and Bangkok, it is a crush of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, bicycles, new high rises agaInst crumbling ruins, high end-foodie restaurants and local food carts. It is one of those cities that requires you to steel your nerves before you walk out into the crush of humanity and traffic. I almost always prefer to walk, rather than take a tuk tuk (although given the heat -102 degrees, I did think twice).

I headed towards the Mekong Riverfront in the center of town to visit the National Palace, residence of the ruling King; the Silver Pagoda (the entire floor is made of silver tiles with several famous Buddha statues inside); the National Museum, a beautiful archive of Khmer and Angor history, and restored temples. The ubiquitous question “Tuk tuk, Madam?” followed me everywhere, but I resisted. 

I stopped at the Wat Ounalom, the center of Cambodian Buddhism, a complex of over 40 buildings. Behind them main temple is a small shrine, with an ancient inscription over the door, and a toothless old Cambodian man guarding the entrance. I climbed the stairs and he unlocked the shrine and led me inside. He grunted and urged me to kneel. I placed a few Riel in the offering dish and he proceeded to grab my hands, turn them palms up, splash them with water and then told me to rub my face. He recited some words in Cambodian, blessing or curse I couldn’t be sure. When he finished he squeezed my hands and gave me giant toothless grin. I’ll take that as a sign it was a blessing.

It was hard to remember, as I moved through this city of half a million people, that only 40 years ago, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the population was only 50,000. Most historic and religious sites had been looted and destroyed and all of the intellectuals, civil servants and religious leaders moved to the villages or killed. 

While I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it, on the morning of my last day in Phnom Penh, I decided to visit Tuoi Sieng, the genocide museum. The museum is at the site of Security Prison 21, formerly a high school, where thousands of Camodians were tortured and killed, upwards of 100 a day during the final years of the Khmer Rouge. When the prison was liberated, only seven prisoners remained. They had saved themselves because they were painters or photographers and were used to document the prison by the Khmer Rouge. The museum includes room after room of gripping black and white photographs of men, women and children, almost all killed. The space is bleak and the contrast of the old school yard and the instruments of torture sill hanging from the walls is so incongruous as to seem unreal. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty we humans are capable of, and a place I will never forget.

As I walked out of the museum, back into the throws of the city, I was reminded that despite all that this country has seen and suffered, they are once again growing and thriving. Maybe this is the greatest answer to those atrocities - resilience.

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