Five days is not enough time for Cambodia. We came with laser-focus: to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The flights booked, the countries skipped, even the malaria medicine, all were in the service of our pilgrimage to the ninth-century Hindu temples of one of the world’s great civilizations, which had since been colonized by the jungle. Our pilgrimage was ultimately successful. Three full days were spent exploring crumbling towers overtaken by tree roots, archaeologists, and monkeys. We walked some, we biked some, we even tuk-tuk’ed it some. I even got my one luxury hotel squeezed into our trip, complete with a garden-enclosed swimming pool and a spa.
You’d think that I would be satisfied.
Except that Cambodia was a marvel of a country. For the first time in weeks, we weren’t hustled, we weren’t in a throng of tourists, and we weren’t walking dollar signs. As we cruised up the Mekong River from Vietnam, concrete houses and speed boats gave way to thatched roofs and golden temples. Children ran down to the river’s edge to wave at us; as the sun set, boys led their cattle to the river for a cooling bath. They giggled and waved as we snapped pictures. This was the ridiculously bucolic place I had imagined as Vietnam! And then Phnom Penh was surprisingly cosmopolitan and lush. Sidewalk cafes, river-front verandas, international restaurants, and an opulent royal palace made us wish we were spending more than a day.
That day, though, was loaded with the complexities of Cambodia. We toured the Royal Palace and the National Museum, but we also toured the Killing Fields, the site of Pol Pot’s genocide of his fellow compatriots. The stupa here is filled with thousands of skulls–only a small fraction of the millions of Cambodians massacred. What is strangest is that the Killing Fields are in the middle of a suburb of Phnom Penh. Aside from the area of the memorial, they are pasture fields for cattle and a playground for local kids. Ask the little boys running around where they are from, and they respond, eerily, “I am from here, the Killing Fields.” The area of the museum itself is quite small, but lest you forget the magnitude or the recentness of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, shards of worn fabric poke out of the ground at every step. These are the clothes that Pol Pot’s victims wore when killed, just barely masked beneath the surface of the earth.
Ross and I were still processing the juxtapositions of Phnom Penh when it was time to catch our share taxi to Angkor Wat, a five-hour drive on Cambodia’s only paved road. We had paid extra for the transport of our by-now-bursting bags (this was the end of the trip, after all), but what this had actually bought us was the entire back seat. Given that one gentleman was uncomfortably squeezed on top of another in the front, we invited him to share our spacious ride. As he climbed over the front seat, he introduced himself in English. This was Ratha, and he would prove to be the most memorable part of Cambodia.
Ratha is 35, the same age as Ross. As a boy during Pol Pot’s rule, his father sent him to a Buddhist monastery to become a monk; this was the only way to ensure that Ratha wouldn’t be recruited as a child soldier. He was sheltered there for years, and in the process he became the first in his family to be educated. Along with Hindu mythology and Buddhist philosophy, Ratha taught himself history, literature, and multiple languages (German, English, even ancient Sanskrit). He remained a monk into his twenties, when Cambodia finally reached a truce in its decade-long civil war. But Ratha and his fellow monks made the mistake of protesting the corrupt “democratic” elections of 1998. Ratha explained to us that all of his fellow monks–his dear friends–were gunned down and killed by the government. Ratha, however, was spared, and he was smuggled into Thailand by a UN-affiliated NGO. Here he lived in hiding for several years; his family thought he had been killed and held a funeral for him. He had no way to communicate that he was alive and sheltered by a Thai monastery.
While in Thailand, he won the affections of a German woman working for his NGO. She flew him to Germany; she wanted to marry him. After all he’d been through, you’d think that he would have jumped at the chance to flee Cambodia and possible persecution (or execution) forever. But Ratha found Germany like a prison: so cold, so serious, too much work. He chose instead to return home to Cambodia, where the government accused him of being a “false monk” and required him to renounce that life. He obliged to save his life. No longer a monk, Ratha decided to moved to the city–Siem Reap, the nearest town to Angkor Wat–to start a new life. He married a widow ten years his elder, with her own children and her own house. He loves her, but he is also practical: He was starting a new life, and she had the wherewithal to help him with that. But now, with her three older children and their nine-month-old son, Ratha and his wife are struggling to get by. As a teacher in a government school, she makes only $30 a month. Ratha’s work at a private school teaching English brings them about $100 a month. Still they need more, but without formal education (his years of study as a monk don’t count without an official university diploma), Ratha cannot find other work. And so Ratha moonlights as a translator, a tuk tuk driver, and now even an Angkor Wat tour guide.
After our five-hour car ride, we hired Ratha to take us around the temples for our first day. We were regaled with blow-by-blow recounts of the Hindu tales the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha. We were regaled with detailed lessons in Cambodia’s ancient and modern history. We were taken to a dance performance, we learned about Ratha’s dreams of becoming a published poet and writer, we were even invited to his house. By the end of the day, we were friends…and we’d fallen in love with his home.
As he took us around Angkor Wat, Ratha explained to us, “I want you to see the real Cambodia, the good and the bad.” He made sure of it. And like Ratha, despite the horrors of it’s recent past, we can’t wait to go back. Because five days is just not enough.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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