Spots of Time

March 02, 2004

You Want Cold Drink?

Greetings from Mumbai, India! Over the next few months I will be exploring this huge, crowded and utterly unique subcontinent. However, as I have been here less than 24 hours, and am currently experiencing sensory overload, this week's story keeps us in Cambodia.


The air was still. Sitting in front of the lily-covered pond, the slow movement of the water hypnotized me. A fish swallowed a surface bug, causing ripples to extend in its wake. In the reflection of the pond was a wavy picture of stone spires and palm trees. Moving my eyes up I beheld the magnificence of Angkor Wat. The most famous of the Ankor temples in Cambodia, it was framed by two spindly palm trees. There was a hushed silence as the crowd of tourists waited for the sun to rise, cameras in hand. Then, from somewhere behind me I heard:

"You want cold drink?"

Suddenly the air was alive with vendors.

"You buy film?" "You want cold drink?" "You buy from me yes?" "T-shirt?" "You buy T-shirt sir?" "Very cheap - you buy from me!" "Maybe later?" "You remember me for later, yes?" "I see you first, you buy from me!" "Postcard?" "Coffee? Breakfast? Film? Guidebook?"

Travel documentaries, National Geographic articles, and guide books show you gorgeous pictures of far off lands, crumbling temples, stunning sunrises and smiling people. They make you feel the tranquility of a place, the charm, the beauty. In short, they make you want to go there and see it for yourself.

Upon arrival, however, most people are in for a bit of a shock. You quickly realize that you are not alone. That hundreds, thousands - perhaps millions of other people perused the same article, saw the same documentary, read the same book - and that they have all decided - like you - to come and visit. At the SAME TIME.

Welcome to the Cambodian temples of Angkor. Stunning examples of ancient stone work. Awe-inspiring visuals of the tangle of jungle and stone. Beautiful incorporations of Hindu and Buddhist religious symbolism. And absolutely full of OTHER people.

The nerve! The gaul! Don't these people have jobs? Have families? Have lives? Shouldn't they be at home somewhere tending to babies, grandparents, gardens?

I think this shock and surprise is very apparent if you have only seen pictures of Angkor Wat. The most famous of the Cambodian Angkor temples, it is almost always shown - in photographs and film - with a lone monk climbing a steep staircase, unveiling the 6 crumbling spires amid a pink, yellow and purple hued sunset. Or, perhaps two little children playing in front of one of the ancient entrances. Or, even more likely, with absolutely no people visible whatsoever. This is what I pictured in my head before we arrived. This was what I (naively) expected. This was what I wanted.

Imagine my shock and surprise to see hundreds and hundreds of people milling around - the grass, the stairs, the gates and the temples. Individual tourists each vying for the "perfect" holiday shot of their family, huge tour groups of French ("Fromage!") or Koreans (Kim Chee!) or Americans (Cheese!) posing for pictures, backpackers consulting guidebooks, vendors hawking souvenirs. It was loud, it was crowded - it was chaos.

While the other tourists were a mild annoyance, it was the vendors who really began to get on our nerves. The enterprising Cambodian people had long ago learned that lots of tourists means lots of money and they were quick to fill in any and all "needs" that these tourists might have. That is understandable. However, the concept of "needs" appears to be very different from one culture to another.

At the temples, vendors were quick to notice our fatigue, thirst, hunger, and even retail needs - usually hours before we noticed it ourselves. "Hello mister!" they would cry out, the second our feet were over the threshold of the temple and onto what was apparently an invisible but understood "let the games begin!" line.

"You buy cold drink?"
"You buy from me mister?"
"You want food?"
"You want scarf?" "Two for one dollar!" "Ok, three for one dollar!"
"You buy from me, I see you first!"
"Postcard mister - see, cheap cheap!"
"No, no these are different, better - you buy from me yes?"
"Maybe later?" "Maybe you buy from me later?"
"You remember me yes?" "If you buy, you buy from me yes?"

Having traveled in Asia for many months by this time, at almost no time was this amusing, fun or even welcome - for me. My brother, his first time in a third world country, was much nicer. After politely say "no" to a little girl selling a Lonely Planet guidebook (and showing her that we actually had our own copy), he patiently stood there as she showed us every book in her collection - Rough Guides, Frommer's Guides, Lonely Planet guides in French, in German, in Spanish, etc - each time saying no. He might have even walking away smiling. At first. But, by the end of the first day even he had his fill. By the third day we were joking about just how far away we would be before someone would call out in their piercing voice, or which of the dozens of vendors it would be to make the call.

To be fair, this situation is not unique to the temples of Cambodia, or even to third world countries. Most famous touristy sights have the requisite vendors - the water sellers, the postcards. the snack food, the souvenirs. However, in few places are the vendors so vocal, so insisting and so numerous.

Which brings me back to the visions of the Ankor temples I beheld prior to my arrival in Cambodia. Like so many other tourists, I often tried to capture that "perfect" shot. However, try as I might, something (or more likely someone) always got in the way. During our entire three day visit to the temples, only ONCE were my brother alone at a temple (at it was quite a minor one at that).

While I realize that the reality of a place is far from picture perfect postcards and breathtaking professional images - I still have one question left to ask. This question has been disturbing me for a while now, and if anyone can answer it, I would be most grateful.

If these temples, monuments, shrines and ruins - and the hundreds like them all over the world - get thousands of visitors every day, are open every day, and set almost no limitations to where visitors can go once in the park - how the HELL do photographers, documenarians, and filmmakers get those tranquil, solitary and above all, people-free, shots?

And, can they be sued for false advertising?

February 24, 2004

The Road to Cambodia

The road to Cambodia is full of pot holes - huge gaping voids. More dirt than rock, more outback than highway, its roads rival those of the poorest African countries and rank among the worst in the world. The dry dusty red powder that blankets the roadways is constantly circulated by passing carts, bikes, trucks and cars - coating the surrounding vegetation like rust-colored spray paint and making it difficult to keep anything clean.

Despite the relatively straight stretches of road, drivers navigate like drunk men, swerving and swaying from side to side, right side and left, in an effort to keep axels intact and tires inflated. Their cars or bikes or trucks are their livelihood - a broken axel is more than the loss of a vehicle - it means the difference between having money for food and not having it.

In our ten day journey through Cambodia, Sasha and I spent four of them traveling on what passes for the country's roads. You can see a lot from the road.

The road to Cambodia is void of more than just asphalt and concrete. It is a void of human souls. A war torn country, its people are scattered like a thousand puzzle pieces, with half of them missing or broken. Everywhere you go you see men and women with missing limbs - victims of still buried land mines. Every family has a story about a missing sister, brother, cousin, uncle, or mother - a genocide to rival that of the Jews in Europe, yet few know more than loose details.

The road to Cambodia is like a trip through time. Air-conditioned Toyota Camry "taxis" pass men transporting squealing pigs on motorbikes, trucks piled high with watermelons, bags of rice or laborers, and two-wheeled wooden oxcarts reminiscent of the Middle Ages, strapped to miniature horses driven by young men sitting on bales of hay.

The road to Cambodia passes through the ancient temples of Ankor, a civilization of ancient wonder, whose million inhabitants far surpassed the population of London during the same time period. A civilization that rivals any of the Ancient Wonders of the World, yet was missing from the Greek's ethnocentric list of locals. A piece of history that somehow managed to withstand sacking from the Siamese and Burmese empires, as well as the more recent Khmer Rouge.

The road to Cambodia is lined with fuel stops - thought not the kind a Westerner would recognize. Rows of two-liter bottles, rescued from Coke, Sprite and Johnny Walker Black line the streets, and fill the tanks of motorbikes whisking tourists from temple to temple, site to site. Dollars are the currency of choice and every shop keeper and stand owner has a tale of woe to share with you, hoping you will buy from them. The sad part is, the tales are all real and all too plentiful.

The road to Cambodia is lined with the signs of political parties - Sam Rainey, Cambodia People's Party, and Democratic People's Republic. A casual visitor might imagine a country embracing democracy, a country trying to get on their feet after years of civil war and strife. But front page pictures in the newspaper show the current leaders - men formerly associated with the Khmer Rouge, the military force that, under the leadership of Pol Pot, massacred millions of Cambodian men, women and children. How can a new world begin when the old world never had to answer for its crimes? And, continues to rule, full of smiles but short on memory?

The road to Cambodia if full of people missing arms and legs, missing parents and children, missing husbands and wives. I see it through the eyes of a white wealthy stranger, someone who has never had to endure civil war, poverty, or fear that my neighbors might sell me out to the authorities (whoever they happen to be at the time). I see it also as a friend of a Cambodian refugee, a now US-citizen who fled her war-torn land as a child, never to return. A kindred spirit, a woman who shares my birthday and my love of travel, I always wondered why she never came back, why she never talks about her experience or that of her family. In every female face at Tuol Sleng genocide museum I saw what could have been hers - and in every story told I wondered. I think maybe I understand - when you have been to hell and back there is no reason to make a return journey.

The road to Cambodia is full of faces - most of which I will never remember. Yet, one stands out. The border town child, her face full of smiles, despite the fact that I did not buy from her. Instead I talked to her and her friend - some in English, some in Thai and all in smiles. As we were about to leave, she tapped on the window of the mini bus and beckoned for me to open it. When I did she took my wrist and put on a pink woven bracelet. I protested, but she said, "no charge for you." She smiled and said, "When you come back - I will remember you." I almost cried as the bus pulled away.

I'm sorry to admit that her name is already a memory, and her face is fading fast. Yet somehow I know, I will always remember her, too.