How to say hello in southeast Asia

One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.

Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.

In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand.  A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.

If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”

In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.

It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.

It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.

It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.

Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.

As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.

Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.

Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!”  If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk  a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk  driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.

There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of  Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.

If Walt Whitman  was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.

I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Life and Death and Rebirth of Cambodian Rock and Roll

In 1932, in a remote province of Cambodia, a boy named Sinn Sisamouth was a born. Sinn was musical and bookish–he’d sing traditional Khmer songs to the people in his community, he learned to play the guitar and, like many good Cambodia boys at that time, he was interested in sacred Buddhist texts. In 1951, Sinn left his province to study medicine in Phnom Penh. He kept singing, though, and he started writing some of his own songs as well. Sinn finished medical school, became a nurse, married a girl, had four children and, along the way, Sinn Sisamouth became the most famous and prolific singer-songwriter that Cambodia has produced.

By 1975, Sinn was a central figure of the Cambodian rock and roll and pop music scene–think of him as a kind of poet laureate of Cambodian music at the time.  He sang traditional Khmer songs, ballads, straight-up rock and roll, covers of American pop songs (sung in Khmer and English), A-go-go songs and Latin and jazz-inspired songs. He sang duets with many other Cambodian singers and he fronted a four-piece rock and roll band. It’s believed that over the course of his short life Sinn wrote over 1,000 songs. From what I can tell he was loved by a wide range of people that included King Sihanouk and the Cambodian royal family as well as ordinary people on the streets of Phnom Penh, Battambang and rural villages throughout the country.

When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April of 1975, they were looking for the likes of Sinn Sisamouth–he and his cadre of rock and rollers represented everything that the Khmer Rouge wished to destroy. Sinn escaped to the country for a time, but the Khmer Rouge asked him to come back to Phnom Penh where they (falsely) promised him safety. All we know after that is that Sinn Sisamouth was executed in the Killing Fields. His bones are most likely mixed in with the tens of thousands of other Cambodians in the mass graves at Choeng Ek.

Sinn Sisamouth was at the center of a vibrant rock and roll scene in Phnom Penh from the early 1960s until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began systematically killing musicians and destroying their recordings. From what I can tell we have access to only about 500 of the 1,000 or so songs that Sinn Sisamouth wrote. The rest were destroyed in the purges. In fact, if you listen to a Sinn Sisamouth song on ITunes or Spotify, what you are actually hearing are recordings that have been transferred from the few cassette tapes and LPs that survived the Khymer Rouge.

That’s a haunting, sad fact.

I’ve been listening to Sinn Sisamouth songs pretty much non-stop for the past week and I find them comparable to the finely-wrought songs of Elvis Costello, Burt Bachrach, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchel. Imagine losing one, or all of them, in a violent purge of artists and intellectuals.

The tragedy of Sinn Sisamouth’s life was repeated in the lives of many other Cambodian rock and roll musicians.

Ros Sereysothea was just an ordinary girl from a remote Cambodian village, but she sang beautifully and in 1967, when she was 17, Ros made her way to Phnom Penh where she quickly established herself as a cornerstone of the Cambodian rock scene and sang many wonderful duets with Sinn Sisamouth.  After the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Ros fled to the countryside where she hid until she was discovered by a regime member in 1977. Like Sinn, the details of her death are unknown and her remains have never been found.

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And don’t forget Yol Alarung.

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The first time I heard a Yol Alarung song I thought, “Oh, he sounds like Neil Young and Howlin’ Wolf (an interesting combination). And then I found the image above and thought he looked like a mash up of Keith Richards and Johnny Rotten, but I have to emphasize here that one of the things that makes pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian rock and roll so good is that it’s not just mimicking American rock and roll. There are clearly influences, but what the Cambodians were doing was nodding to American rock and then extending it and making it their own. They sing in Khmer and English, they play clean, creative guitar riffs,  push out funky, psychedelic keyboard lines and all that’s backed by solid, interesting rhythm sections. I had to resist that temptation to compare what the Cambodians were doing to the Americans and now that I’ve listened to Cambodian rock pretty much non-stop for the past week I can make a pretty fair assessment that they were, by and large, really operating on their own and creating their own brand of rock and roll. This was certainly the case with Yol Alarung. His tune, “Jeas Cyclo” is probably my favorite Cambodian rock and roll song. You can hear some American rock and roll influences, if you listen closely you can hear Yol looking forward to late 1970s and punk as well incorporating elements of psychedelic rock of his time. Plus, I just love anyone who can write lyrics like this:

 

Riding a cyclo
To central Market
Checking out girls
Wearing maternity blouses
Those maternity blouses
Thought she was knocked up
But she’s not
It’s just a popular new style

Riding a cyclo
To the old market
There’s plenty of girls
They’re all powdered up
Wearing pig tails
They crouch to sit
While buying rambutans
They’re wearing maternity blouses again oh!
Every day I ride a cyclo and check out girls
If this makes me poor, that’s all right

After reading those lyrics–and maybe you have listened to the song as well–it’s not hard to figure out that someone like Yol probably had no truck with the Khmer Rouge, so Yol, like Sinn Sisamouth and Res Sereysothea was taken by the Khmer Rouge and disappeared never seen or heard from again.

Imagine an entire generation of musicians just . . . gone.

If there’s any good news here it can be heard in the likes of bands like Dengue Fever–an LA-based band that combines Cambodian and psychedelic rock.

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Tiger Phone Card” is a good place to start if you haven’t heard them before. Dengue Fever is led by the Chhom Nimol, a talented singer who was born in Cambodia and lived in refugee camps with her family before immigrating to the US, and brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman. Like their Cambodian predecessors, they sing in Khmer and English and seamlessly combine the best elements of American and Cambodian pop.

One of the few regrets I have about our time in Cambodian is that I didn’t really get a chance to hear any live Cambodian rock and roll. There were opportunities, but it’s kind of hard to prowl around rock and roll clubs with kids in tow–one of the few drawbacks of family travel.

Next time.

National Day, Vietnam and a few more thoughts on Cambodia

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City today, 2 September 2016. Seventy-one years ago, to the day, a young Ho Chi Minh climbed onto a primitive wooden platform in Hanoi and declared Vietnam free of French rule by reading the American Declaration of Independence. As he read our sacred document, American war planes flew by and tipped their wings in approval. A lot of good that did Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people. Twenty years later, the first American Marines climbed ashore in in Danang . . . you know the rest.

 

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The view from our balcony of fireworks celebrating N

 

It’s sobering, I have to say, to be an American traveling through southeast Asia. For most of my adult life I’ve been conceptually aware of the effects of the wars we waged here during the Cold War era, but when you see it, walk through it, talk to people who suffered through it . . . that’s just an entirely different thing.

 

In a previous post, I told the story of our family’s visit to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. At the end of that post, I asked my readers their views on our decision to take the children to those places. Many of you got back to me (thank you for that) and the overwhelming consensus was, yes, it was the right thing to do, especially since we talked about what we witnessed and helped the kids process the experience. Here’s a follow up to that:

 

When we were in Siem Reap, we met to young Colombian nationals who had crafted a career for themselves as photographers and videographers. They were wonderful, smart, interesting young people. We got to talking one evening about Cambodia’s history. I told them about our experiences in Phnom Penh and one of them told me this story:

 

An American travel group brings American teenagers to Cambodia to build houses for people in the villages and to cycle through Cambodia. The American kids spend a month or so here, and they have a blast. At the end of their time in Cambodia, they tour used to take the kids to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, but after a while, they started getting complaints: the kids said it ruined their time Cambodia because it was so sad and that they wanted to leave the country feeling good about the places. So, the tour group started making the visits to the Killing Fields optional and, soon, no one even opted to visit.

 

I’m sure you can imagine my thoughts on that. So, given that and given our experiences (which I are best represented in Atticus’ post), and upon a lot of reflection and some experience in Cambodia, I’m of the mind that if you are an American and you spend any time at all in Cambodia, you are just shy of being morally obligated to go to these spaces of public memory because, as Atticus writes, “I hope that you tell other people about this horrific thing because they ought to know.” And, if that’s all we can do, then we should do that.

Cambodia Countryside

It’s 9 pm and I still can’t get the smell of the fish market we visited this morning out of my nose. This country gets into inside of you and you can’t shake it out.

We pedaled out of Siem Reap this morning shortly after the sun came up and then returned in the dark.

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Eleanor expertly riding through the city streets

Our van lurched down the uneven dirt road and as the lights of Siem Reap came into view I felt like I was returning to the twenty-first century.

Over the course of the day we cycled down country roads that took us through remote country villages, into the grounds of Buddhist monasteries and through local markets teeming with live fish jumping out of their pails, bales of basil, morning glory vegetables and dragon fruit.

Through all this, I’m learning that there are at three Cambodias–two I’ve seen and one I’ve heard about.

There’s the Cambodia that we interact with in the central business district and the near-city neighborhoods. These are spaces given over to commerce and tourism and they are here for people like us to experience a sort of branded version of Cambodia. It’s made for us to feel comfortable, but no so comfortable that we feel like we are in the US. It’s a landscape of tuk tuks, street vendors and outdoor markets and cafes. It’s bustling, energetic and exciting, full of t-shirts, bracelets, faux Ikat and Batik material, straw hats and cheap watches.

It’s also a far cry from the Cambodia that we saw as we cycled and paddled through the countryside today.

We didn’t have to get that far outside of Siem Reap to see this other Cambodia. From our hotel in the central business district we pedaled up the river road and across major thoroughfares for about 5 km.  A few turns down side streets and the asphalt turned to a pock-marked red clay road.

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Atticus at ease on his bike on a country road

The middle-class looking, concrete houses we passed soon gave way to homes made of wooden lattice and corrugated metal. Children, some naked, some fully clothed played outside, ran in and out of homes and rode their bikes up alongside as they passed us by. The further we got from the city, the more people waved and cried out, “Hello! How are you?” and they laughed when we sang back “Sousday!” which means “Hello” in Khmer. We ate noodles from a street vendor and we sampled all manner of sweets–fried bananas and sweet potatoes and sticky rice in bamboo sticks–prepared by people on the side of the roads. We saw rice farmers gathering up their harvest. We passed a pond of lotus flowers and we watched as old men and women sped by us on scooters, some chewing on what looked like betle plants. We passed by homes that were blasting funky Cambodian pop songs from their speaker systems (I could hear it 400 meters down the road!).

After lunch, we boarded a wooden ‘fast boat’ that took us to lake Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Tonle Sap is sourced by snow melt from the Himalayas–all that water gathers here and creates floodplains that allow the Cambodians to grow rice and wetland areas that are so important that UNESCO designated it a bioreserve in 1997. From Tonle Sap, the water feeds into the great Mekong River and then finds its way back to the ocean, in the South China Sea.

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Map of Tonle Sap–Siem Reap is just north of the lake

Tonle Sap is also home to Cambodia’s ‘floating villages,’ our afternoon destination.

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Atticus guiding his kayak through the floating villages

Sujata writes in great detail about our experience at the floating village, but here, let me just note that, aside from the villagers’ use of motor boats, what we saw there was people living a life very similar to the kind of lives their ancestors probably lived two or three hundred years ago.

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The boat that took us to the floating villages
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Eleanor and I on the boat

That brings me back to the three Cambodias. At a certain point, one can experience this country, or any given developing country for that matter, and think something like this: “Well they are poor, but they seem so happy and they are so nice to us! There’s naked babies frolicking in front yards, families hanging out together on a weekday morning and women pumping water from wells. How quaint!” You have to resist this temptation, though, and simply ask, “Why doesn’t the Cambodian government provide these people with, what to us are basic necessities–asphalt roads to move their goods to market, catches for the torrential rains that fall nearly every day, public water and a kind of health care system where old folks don’t have to ride on the back of scooters with IVs hooked into their arms?

Because it turns out that the babies are naked because the parents are poor, the dad is home on a weekday because there’s no work and the water that’s pumped from the well still needs to be boiled so the children don’t get dysentery. One in eight children in Cambodia dies before their fifth birthday–this is the second highest infant mortality rate in the whole world. If a Cambodian makes it past five they can expect to live to about 68.

This evening, back in Siem Reap, we got caught in a massive downpour that lasted for at least an hour. Sujata asked me if I had ever seen rain like that. I hadn’t. When it ended we went outside and found the streets completely flooded. The drainage ditches that line the major thoroughfares of the city had overflowed and cast up to three feet of water onto the city streets. (During the day, the water there is slightly fetid, so I’m assuming it’s a kind of a sewer.

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Eleanor and Atticus enjoying the rain

 

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A little rain never stops Siem Reap folk from getting where they need to go

Part of the reason people don’t complain about the lack of government services is the government, the Cambodian People’s Party–run by a gentleman named Hun Sen who has been the leader of this country since the Vietnamese ‘liberation’ in 1979–rules with a benevolently iron fist. I talked with enough people and read enough to decide not to publish this post, for instance, until we were out of Cambodia.  For the first week I was here, I was felt slightly paranoid for thinking this, but then I found myself drinking with two Colombians who have lived here for two years and confirmed my suspicions–people who speak out sometimes disappear. I wasn’t worried about that happening to me, but I wasn’t taking chances. Cambodia’s twentieth century, in other words, has taught the Cambodians to be quiet, not ask question and toe the line.

During our bike ride through the countryside we stopped at a village, some 15 km from Siem Reap. (I’m not going to give the name of the village). Had our guide not taken us off the dirt road and onto the narrow footpath that led past a grove of trees and into the village, we never would have even know that people lived there.

We met up with the co-founder of an NGO (I won’t give the NGO’s name, either) who introduced us to the people who lived there and showed us some of the water filtration systems that the NGO had installed for some of the people in the village.

The highlight of this stop was when our guide took us to a small wooden workshop where six women from their late twenties to late fifties were assembling animal ‘stuffies’ to be sold in the markets of Siem Reap and beyond. The women greeted us with warm and loving enthusiasm–how weird I must look to them. One of the women came up to Sujata, put their arms together and pointed out that their skin was the same color. They asked our kids how old they were, wondered to our guide if Atticus is a boy or girl (he gets a lot of that here) and looked into our eyes for a longer time than most westerns are comfortable gazing into the eyes of strangers. I met and held their gaze, and I left there hoping to god they’d make it, because if it were not for the NGOs that worked in the village, these good people would lead exponentially more difficult lives.

I have to learn to hold their bravery and their graciousness in the same mind that I hold the rotten hand they’ve been dealt by their leaders.

Beyond this village there’s a third Cambodia. It’s not a part of Cambodia that I have seen or probably ever will see. I only know about it from our guide who mentioned, in passing, that the villages 50 to 100 km beyond the larger cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang are even more isolated and that the people who live out there are even more vulnerable than the village we visited.

I’m finishing this post in the Siem Reap airport. We will soon board a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and then we’ll spend a week in Vietnam. I still have a few more posts on Cambodia that I’ll publish in Vietnam.

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Our tuk tuk ride to the airport–Goodbye Cambodia!

I ask a waitress in Siem Reap to turn off “Hotel California”

Earlier this week, we ate a late dinner at a place called Jungle Burger in Siem Reap. I was enjoying a cold Cambodian lager and a veggie burger until I started paying attention to the music playing over the sound system: Billy Joel, Rick Springfield, Lynrd Skynrd and Bob Seeger (I actually like Bob Seeger, but I don’t need to listen to that here).

And then “Hotel California” came on and I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of that great scene in The Big Lebowski, when The Dude asks the cab driver to turn off “Hotel California” and is unceremoniously tossed out of the cab. It felt for a moment, as I sat at Jungle Burger, that The Dude and all the rock and roll gods were imploring me to take action.

So I did.

I politely signaled to the waitress who politely walked over to our table. I asked her if she had control of the music and she said she did. I asked “Can you put some Cambodian rock and roll on? We really don’t want to listen to this crap.” Her eyes widened with delight, she turned on her heels, ran to the back of the bar and, voila!–“Hotel California” is replaced with funky, Motown-inspired Cambodian pop and I went back to enjoying my beer.

If you don’t know Cambodian pop, and if you are tired of hearing “Hotel California,” when you are just trying to enjoy your Guinness, Dales or Anchor Steam, tell your bartender to trade in that 1970s crap (why do they keep playing those songs in public?) for some cool Cambodian pop. They can start with Dengue Fever, a great LA-based band that churns out high energy, danceable American-Cambodian rock and roll. They’ll have you up and dancing and calling out for another round of Cambodian lager.

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Sujata took this photo to commemorate our victory over the ghosts of rock and roll past

There’s also a cool documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll that you can watch when you get home.

So get out there and stand up for a world free of “Hotel California”!

Smiling Buddhas

We left Phnom Penh late last week and rode a bus up to Siem Reap, a small resort town in the northwest section of Cambodia. We’ll decamp here for nearly a week and after spending two days here now, I’m glad about that. I was happy to leave the pollution and the street-level chaos of Phnom Penh behind and trade that in for the relative peace and tranquility of Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a tourist destination because it backs up against Angkor Wat, a sprawling complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples that date back nearly 1,000 years. Sujata writes at length about our visit to Anghor Wat, so I won’t go into too much detail here, except to say a few things about the last temple we visited, Angkor Bayon, a Budddhist temple that sits in the exact center of the larger Angkor Thom complex. Here are a few photos from Angkor Bayon:

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As opposed to the stately and somewhat formal structure of the Angkor Wat temple, Angkor Bayon feels like a kind of first-century Buddhist fun house. I climbed steep and slippery steps that Buddhist monks and practitioners had been climbing on and off for the past 900 years. The people who designed these temples had much smaller feet than we do so the steps are very narrow. I had to walk up with my feet at a 45 degree angle to the rise of the steps. Our guide, San Pork, said that’s because they didn’t eat KFC and McDonalds, to which I replied, “Oh that just makes your waist bigger, not your feet.”

The distinguishing feature of Angkor Bayon is the smiling Buddha faces that are carved into the stone–there are 54 towers with four faces on each tower and that makes for 216 different smiling Buddhas.  If you look closely you notice that some of the Buddha’s eyes are closed while others are open. Those with the closed eyes are still meditating and seeking enlightenment and those with the open eyes have found enlightenment. The Buddha faces are very close to the pathways and as you walk through the complex you get the distinct sensation of multiple Buddha faces staring down at you in loving wonder. I sought out places to stand where I could see multiple faces:

The architects of Bayon clearly wanted practitioners to feel a close proximity to the Buddhas. As I was walking around I was thinking that if they were just a bit higher and therefore more remote from my sight, the whole experience would have been different. I loved the intimacy and the closeness of the place, and as I walked through the temple complex I felt a true sense of peace and protection.

This is the fifth UNESCO World Heritage site that we have visited on our trip and, for me, it was the most moving.

One final note: In “The Figure in the Carpet,” a short story Henry James published in 1896, a literary critic finds himself perplexed (even obsessed) by a famous writer’s latest novel. Try as he might, he can’t seem to crack the code or the meaning of the novel. He gains an audience  with the novelist who reveals that the secret to the ambiguity of the novel is like the figure in a complex Persian carpet. The critic spends the better part of the rest of his life searching for the meaning in the novel, the elusive ‘figure in the carpet,’ but never gains the understanding that he seeks.

It’s nearly six weeks into our adventure and, at least for the time being, I’m thinking of travel as a kind of search for figures in a complex carpet of experience.

It’s not that I spend every waking moment, like James’ narrator, trying to interpret and find meaning in the experiences we are gathering. That, in and of itself is a slippery slope into self-absorption. Much of the time, I’m simply letting the experiences wash over me–staring out the window on a long bus ride and watching the countryside slide by, moving through an outdoor market and taking in the colors, sounds and smells, walking over dusty paths and feeling the dust gather in my shoes, sipping a beer at the end of a long day of sightseeing or waking in the middle of the night and needing a moment to remember where in the world we are. I value these unmediated moments where I just let the experience wash over me, free of interpretation.

Other times, though, I’m thinking it through and examining the ‘figure in the carpet,’ or asking myself hard questions about the history and contexts of the place we are visiting as well as what it means for me–a white, privileged tourist–to be in these spaces. That was certainly the case when we visited the killing fields last week, and it also happened as we roamed around the Angkor Wat temples.

We visit the killing fields outside Phnom Penh

We just got back from a tour of the Killing Fields and before that we spent the morning in the Cambodia Genocide Museum. Needless to say, it’s been a tough day. Right now, all four of us are slouched into the couch of our flat, quietly reading and writing. There really isn’t much to say. We are physically and emotionally drained and after a day like this, words, ideas, even thinking itself, just seems so useless.

Our flat is on the same block as the Genocide Museum so after our breakfast and coffee we spent two hours there. The Genocide Museum is the site of the notorious S-21 complex—a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and torture center for people who they perceived to be enemies of the state but who were, by and large, just ordinary people living ordinary lives.

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One of the cell blocks of the S21 compound–the large photo is shows the four children who made it out of there alive.
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One of the cells where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were held
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Barbed wire placed outside the cell blocks so prisoners could not escape

Our tour guide was a young Cambodian woman who led us through the rooms where people were electrocuted, shackled and maimed, and about halfway through the tour she started telling us about her mother who was living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and, within hours, force marched the entire civilian population of the city from their homes and into the country side where they were either executed or forced to work in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge targeted urban populations because that’s where the intellectuals were—the doctors, professors and lawyers whose soft hands and white collar professional positions made them enemies of the Khmer Rouge and who were rounded up and killed.

1975 was not that long ago—I was 10 years old–so just about anyone you talk to here in Phnom Penh can tell you a story about a family member who was force marched out the city on that date. Some of them survived and made it back, many didn’t. In fact, over the course of four years 40 percent of Cambodian society was either executed or died from starvation, untreated disease or, in some cases, simply losing hope in life. So, part of the reason Cambodia is struggling today is because it lost, not just nearly half of its population, but the part of its population that held nation and community building talents. Imagine losing an entire generation of our doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, chemists and biologists.

 

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Signage outside one of the cell blocks. Probably the most appropriate signage I’ve ever seen.

In the Genocide museum I stared for what seemed like minutes at walls filled with candid, headshot photographs of the victims as well as the members of the Khmer Rouge who committed the atrocities. We have these photos because the Khmer Rouge, like many other fascist dictatorships, kept copious records of their own as well as their enemies.  In 1975, many of victims as well as Khmer Rouge soldiers were my age or just a little bit older. Beautiful, young people who should have been sitting in cafes, reading Camus and Hesse, studying for exams, flirting, racing their scooters through these narrow streets, traveling the world, living their lives. Instead, they were either forced to join an army run by a genocidal mass murderer or, worse, tortured and summarily executed by their own country men and women.

We left the Genocide Museum, ate some Khmer food, and then got in a taxi and set out to see the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek. After a 30-minute drive down Street 217 we made a left-hand turn onto what seemed an ordinary residential street, and in less than two minutes we pulled into an ordinary parking lot, stepped out of the car, walked through a large, ordinary-looking gate, paid our fee, were handed audio recorders and headphones and sent on our way to hear about the very extraordinary things that happened here because it was in this compound where the Khmer Rouge executed about 20,000 ordinary people in the most brutal manner over the course of their four-year reign of terror of this country from 1975-1979.

In a word, what happened here is simply beyond human reason so all I can really do here is describe what I saw and learned and how it made me feel.

Since everyone is issued a headset and headphones, the first thing I noticed as I started walking on the path that lead me around the compound was how quiet it was. Part of that was because there were no tour guides explaining what happened here. It’s just a bunch of stunned people stumbling from one sad site to the next with blank, dazed expressions plastered on their faces. The oppressive heat, combined with horrific stories you are hearing about mass murder and complete lack concern for human life leaves everyone numb. If I wasn’t staring in wonder at the mass graves and the glass boxes filled with bones or articles of clothing that had been left behind by the executed, I was looking off into the distance, or down at my shoes, trying as best as I could to not weep.

Here’s a photo of a mass grave on the left and a close up of the thousands of bracelets visitors have left behind:

At Choeng Ek, the earth itself seems to still be sick from what happened there. Every so often after a heavy rain, it wretches up bones and clothing from the victims.

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Victims’ clothing washed up from rains. Recently-discovered bone on top of glass case

The Cambodian government has done the best it can, I guess, with making this place peaceful and a place of meditation and reflection, despite that, though, I found it to be hot, harsh and unsettling. On the backside of the site is a vine-choked lake surrounded by invasive grasses and unpleasant-looking trees. A rough gravel path leads you around the lake and the narrator of the audio tape asks you listen to stories of survivors and meditate on the dead as you walk through the ‘tranquil’ site. I found it neither tranquil nor a place that encouraged peace.

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There is a stupa on the grounds (in fact, it’s the first thing you see when you walk through the gates) that the Cambodian government erected in the early 1990s to memorialize the people who died here. In a clear reaction against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s banning of religious practice in the country the stupa combines elements of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. If you look at the photo of the stupa below, you’ll see the figure of Garuda—the eagle who Vishnu rides upon in the Hindu tradition—and above that, you can see depictions of Naga, snake-like beings who protected Siddhartha after he found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. As you get closer to the stupa and gaze through the glass paneling you see 5,000 skulls from the people who died on this site staring back at you.  That said, this is not Gettysburg or Vietnam War Memorial, thoughtfully and aesthetically planned to memorialize the dead.

You might be thinking how the children did with all this. To this point, I’m honestly not sure. We spent a good part of yesterday preparing them for what we were going to witness and hear about today. At the Genocide Museum, they don’t hold anything back—there are graphic photos of the victims displayed throughout and even the empty cells, where the Khmer Rouge shackled and tortured people conjure up horrific feelings. It’s all very close in there and I think this was the most difficult part for the kids. Choeng Ek is, of course, outdoors and you can move along the paths as you like, or sit down on the bench if you like, so I think that made it easier for the kids. Atticus, who is naturally sensitive to injustice, was off by himself most of the time, quietly shuffling down the paths or sitting on a bench as he listened to the audio guide.  He keeps asking me who the good guys were-“Were the Vietnamese the good guys, Dad?” he hopefully asks, wanting this to be a Manichean struggle, like in Harry Potter.  At a certain point I just said to him, “Son, there are no good guys in this story.” Eleanor, who bobs on the surface of life a bit more than Atticus, seemed a little less affected by it all, but, like I said, I can’t really tell at this point. At one point our guide in the Genocide Museum, sensing the the children’s anxiety about the photographs of people being tortured, asked us if we wanted to take the kids out to the courtyard for a break.  As I was finishing this post later in the day, Eleanor began expressing anxieties about what she saw:  those bad men aren’t going to come and get us, are they mom? There may be nightmares tonight. Hers and mine.

When I walked back out the gates toward the taxi, I looked down at my own shadow, happy to see it there and sorrowful for all the people who lost their lives on those grounds.

I’m curious, though, how you folks who are reading this post feel about this: should we have taken the kids there? Was it irresponsible to have them confront all this unmitigated suffering? What would you have done if you were here with your children?