Friday, March 15, 2013

Angkor What?

*Sorry for the delay of this post. It was partly because of my crazy schedule and not finding time for it. Enjoy!*

On day 2 of port in Vietnam, I woke up at 6 am with Cassie and Kayla and got a little breakfast and then got ready to get on the bus for the Cu Chi/Cambodia Combo SAS trip. There were 28 of us total, which we were all super excited about because the group was a great size. We were able to meet new people, and the group as a whole got along really well. The bus left at 7:30 and we had a 10 minute bus ride to boats on the Delta. We took 2 motor boats an hour and a half up the Delta to the Cu Chi tunnels that were left over from the Vietnam War (or as they called it, the American War). We walked around the camp and were shown different traps and hiding spots of the guerillas before having the chance to crawl through one. I have never felt so claustrophobic in my life, and I have no idea how guerillas with guns and other weaponry were able to manage their way through the tunnels. Our guide even said that they had to widen the tunnels for tourists, and even still it was a very tiny hole to get through. 

What made the guerrilla camp extremely eerie was the shooting range at the far end of the property. Tourists had the opportunity to pay for the bullets and shoot rifles, AK-47s and hand guns. While we were walking through the camp, the gun shots would echo making it feel as if we were there during the war. We also had the chance to see a demonstration of all of the different traps the Vietnamese had made. Obviously, this is a Vietnamese run site, but the traps that killed American soldiers were so upsetting to look at. Below is a pictured trap that would be hidden by grass, dirt and leaves. When the soldier would step on it, he would fall through the hole while the rolling pin of nails would pierce his entire body. There were multiple traps that were similar to this, and I think I can speak for the entire group that this was something that made us feel extremely uneasy and upset. 

After the tunnels, we drove about an hour to the Cao Dai temple. This temple is a mixture between Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. We got there during one of their services, and we were able to stand along the balcony and observe. I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, but they prayed the entire time we were there. Sometimes they would stand, sometimes they would kneel, and sometimes they would be bowing. It was a beautiful service, and an incredible opportunity to watch. Our trip liaison had done SAS 10 years ago and had done a similar trip where she visited the temple. She said it made a huge difference to see the service happening, because when she went it was empty.

After the temple, we had lunch and then drove roughly 3 hours to the Cambodian border. We drove another 2 hours to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh and checked into our hotel. We had an amazing dinner at the hotel, and then a group of us took a tuk tuk to the downtown area. We walked around the area and found some movies (Les Mis, What to Expect when you’re Expecting, Gangster Squad, Argo and Pitch Perfect. I already owned  Pitch Perfect but I watched it too many times and broke it (yes, that’s a real thing)) This was the first place I have seen where there is an entrance to a fancy restaurant with outdoor seating, and sitting on the ground next to a table is a mother and baby begging for food. The juxtaposition was so alarming and overwhelming. We were out at around 11:30 sitting by the river talking when a little girl no older than 6 came up to us to sell us bracelets. We began talking to her, and were a little concerned she was out so late by herself. She told us she was selling these bracelets to put her through school, and almost immediately all of us were buying bracelets. It is entirely possible we were scammed, but one thing that we have had to learn is these people rely on selling their products for a living, so even if our collective $10 didn’t go towards her schooling, it may have gone towards her meal for the next day. 

The next day was Valentine’s Day, and it was not spent traditionally. After breakfast we hopped on the bus and drove to the killing fields. Cambodia’s history is very much a secret, and before this trip I had no idea what the killing fields were. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge Regime was led by Pol Pot and modeled itself on Maoist China. They immediately evacuated the cities, and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country's agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine, and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western. At least a million Cambodians, out of a total population of 8 million, died from executions, overwork, starvation and disease. It is estimated close to 2.5 million were killed in total. 

This killing field we visited had a monument in the middle with 10,000 human skulls dug up from the ground in memory of those who had died. We walked through the grounds and some of the mass graves were sectioned off and had plaques saying what they had dug up. Headless bodies, naked women and children were all found. There was also a killing tree, where the children would be bashed against in order to kill them. These children were killed because Pol Pot did not want them to one day take revenge for their parent’s death. While we walked past the tree, the school next door was having recess, and much like the guerilla camp, it was really eerie to hear the laughing and screams of children while we stood next to a mass grave for children.


After the killing field, we went to the S-21 prison where Pol Pot had taken prisoners for interrogation and torture. Walking through the prison, the size of the cells were maybe the size of a twin bed, and there would be 8 or 10 people crammed into 1. There were bloodstains on the floor, and some of the torture devices were still intact. Over 15,000 prisoners were sent to the prison, and out of that there were only 7 survivors. These survivors were saved because of their skills, and there are only 2 alive today. We had the chance to meet one of the survivors, an artist who was kept alive so he could paint portraits of Pol Pot and the rest of the regime. He was selling an autobiography so I bought one and he let me take a picture with him. 

After the prison, we went to the Russian market where we got pretty good at bargaining. We then drove 6 hours to Siem Reap. Along the way, we stopped in “Spiderville” where their specialty is fried tarantulas. I am NOT a spider person, so I kept my distance, but some of the guys in the group did. Not only did they have the dead ones, but little kids would chase us around with live tarantulas and throw them on us. Needless to say, I was not a fan.

When we got to the hotel, we had dinner and then the group all decided to go swimming in the pool and have a relaxing night. The next morning, we had a 4:30 wakeup call so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Even though it was super early, it was amazing to see. 


After the sunrise, we went back to the hotel for breakfast and then went to Angkor Thom, another famous temple in Cambodia. We had the morning to walk around, and it was stunning. There were faces carved into the stone which were still intact, and there were also very intricate carvings along the walls. We also found a lot of monkeys hanging around!

We spent the morning there, had lunch and then went to Angkor Wat for the sunset and had time to actually explore. It was a beautiful sunset, much like the sunrise, and I am glad we had the chance to go back and actually look at it. It took us roughly 3 hours to walk the perimeter of the temple, as well as the inside.

After Angkor Wat, we went to a touristy restaurant/cultural show for dinner, and then went back to the hotel. We then went to the night market for a bit before returning back to the hotel because we had had such a long day. The next morning, we had a 7:30 wakeup call and then we went to a temple called Banteay Srie. This temple was unlike the others because of the red stone they had used rather than the grey. It was much smaller than the others as well. Raj decided to make it a game to photo bomb people’s pictures, so it made the morning go by much quicker. 

 We went back to the hotel for a while and packed up, had lunch and used the pool. Before we went to the airport to fly back to Ho Chi Minh City, we went to a water village on Tonle Sap Lake. The water was extremely polluted, and I feel we could have done without going to the village. The boats took us to a market house on the water where we were bombarded by people trying to sell us things. Not only were they people in the markets, but other boats with mothers and babies hung along the edge of the deck, begging for money. The children were holding snakes and would let you take a picture with it for $1, which a few people in our group did. The mothers would also hold their naked babies in front of us, trying to guilt us into giving them money.

The most heartbreaking thing we saw was a little boy in a saucer with holes in it, begging for money. Every now and then, he would take a cup and try to empty his “boat” and then he would paddle back to us and beg again.

To me, this picture sums up Cambodia. The entire country was so young and poor, and the children are responsible for bringing in money for the family. Cambodia was the most eye-opening experience I have ever done and was overall the best part of the voyage so far. It honestly hasn't even sunk in what I saw. It was so heart-breaking driving through the streets and the countryside. Just 30 years ago, the government in power murdered 1.7 million people because they were educated and didn't want an uprising. 40% of the country has power, 10% of kids get past high school. Wherever you go, children are peddling you for money, trying to sell you anything they have. Ignored babies and mothers sleep in the streets next to outdoor restaurants where tourists go. They're all underfed and in poverty, and little kids eat anything off the ground. There are parts of the country citizens aren't even allowed to visit because the government doesn't want them to see how poor parts of the country are. It was so surreal to see this level of poverty and 3rd world country, it wasn't anything I have ever had the opportunity to experience, and it's difficult to wrap your head around it.

Its places like Cambodia that make me feel good I am going into non-profit work so I can try to help in any way I can. I hope you all are so grateful for what we have because we take so much for granted; we don't even realize just how well we have it made.  Semester at Sea is an amazing experience, and I really wish I could put into words what I have seen so I can share with you just how amazing and beautiful this world really is.


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