I find myself feeling a little overwhelmed trying to guest blog about our first week visiting Emily and traveling in SE Asia. Perhaps it is sensory overload…or jet lag….or touring with a daughter who is not quite the same person that left us six months ago. I don’t know….maybe it’s just the food!
So, after twenty-seven hours of travel (including a seven hour layover in Hong Kong) we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia last Thursday where we enjoyed a tearful reunion with Emily in the Le Méridien hotel lobby. We knew she was well and thriving, but here she was….right in front of us…embraced in hugs. It just felt so incredibly good! She was well, she was thriving, and she was a bit different.
With six months of travel behind her, and one month of living in Siem Reap, we found Emily to be confident, comfortable, and definitely in control. It was as though the time had arrived in our lives where the child takes care of the parents! Emily had our itinerary in order, negotiated the fares for our tuk tuk rides, took us to her favorite restaurants, and even accepted the restaurant bills….of course she promptly handed them to me! Guess we haven’t completely given up control!
Our time in Siem Reap was absolutely remarkable on so many levels. I could write volumes on the thrill of traveling in tuk tuks around the crowded city streets lined with rubbish and completely devoid of traffic lights and rules;
or of the phenomenal ancient Khmer Empire temples and ruins of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Srei.
But I think what made the biggest impression on us was meeting the people, and witnessing their continuing struggle to regain a semblance of their former society after the brutal and repressive rule of the fanatical Khmer Rouge (KR) in the late 1970s.
As Emily described in her post Teacha Emily Takes Cambodia, the KR sought out and killed anyone with an education, capitalist background, or ties to the previous government. Every teacher, doctor, nurse, politician, business leader, etc. was systematically murdered. The KR emptied the cities and forced the people to work in rural communal farms. Property was seized, money and religion abolished, and children were taken from their parents. In short, in four horrific years of rule, the KR not only eliminated 25% of the Cambodian population, they also practically wiped out an entire culture….one that had evolved over a thousand years.
Given the fairly recent history of the KR regime, it is difficult to be in Cambodia and not think about it constantly. I found myself observing every person who looked my age, wondering how they survived, and how they moved on. I asked our Angkor Wat tour guide if his parents ever talk about that time. He mentioned his parents were luckily able to hide the truth about their professions but that his grandparents, who were teachers, were killed.
How does a country recover from the loss of virtually all of its educated citizens? Imagine your life without access to medical care, schools, an income, or even a home. No infrastructure….no services.
So it’s understandable that almost forty years later the country is still struggling to recover. Siem Reap, having the good fortune of being located near a great tourist attraction in Angkor Wat, has attracted significant foreign investment and seems to be rapidly growing. Nice hotels, cafes, and fairly decent roads are plentiful. Tourism is a big business here, providing good jobs and opportunities for the local citizens. I was impressed by the large number of NGO’s in Siem Reap. Many of the cafes, services, and entertainment venues support various children’s organizations. Young foreigners are everywhere (and from everywhere), working and volunteering in the community. Even the fellow we met in the line at immigration was there for a conference on infrastructure.
It does, however, take time to get accustomed to the widespread poverty that seemingly permeates every aspect of this community. A typical city block will have rudimentary shacks, modest concrete or wood homes, and a smattering of upscale residences. Transportation is dominated by motor bikes, tuk tuks, and Toyotas, with the occasional appearance of a Bentley or Mercedes. Although we saw a couple of gas stations, most motor bike owners buy gas from family owned roadside stands selling fuel in used liter sized Fanta bottles. Of course once the bike is filled, the bottle is tossed to the street or in the river. I’m not sure how trash is (occasionally) disposed of, but it appears most families gather their garbage and burn it…including the plastic bags and bottles, creating a constant (somewhat toxic) smokey smelling haze.
So with all that being said, I have to say that the highlight of our time in Siem Reap was visiting the ECC School and Po village community that Emily worked in this past month. We got the complete tour of the dilapidated facilities, met several other volunteers (from Argentina, Holland, Morocco, Italy, Germany, and Denmark), many of the students (from Cambodia..lol), had coffee in a couple of the local establishments, and even paid a visit to the local Crocodile farm!
The children were wonderful. Most were not at all shy about approaching us in order to practice their English (and of course to meet teacha Emily’s parents). Our favorite was Srey Nei, a beautiful little 10-year-old girl with an infectious smile. She kept us throughly entertained at a small coffee shop before class started, and even fixed Robin’s new $3.50 watch! Of course she is an aspiring tour guide, as are many of the students.
It’s hard to believe that just a month ago Emily had arrived at ECC. We initially had a few worrisome communications from her about the living conditions, and wondered if she would stay the entire month. Now here we were, watching her last day of class in person, handing out awards to her best students, and saying farewell. She was obviously going to miss this place, and her kids, desperately.
I think perhaps she’s found her calling….