February 22, 2006
See Cambodia in ten days and...Feb/12-22
After skyscrapers, traffic jams and the endless shopping malls of Bangkok it was quite a shock to arrive to the quiet and modest Phnom Penh. The motorcycle is the most common vehicle, often loaded with 5 people and an array of bags. Roads are still muddy and full of potholes. There are no shopping malls and plenty of other things you soon forget.
Visiting Cambodia reminds me of my previous visits to Vietnam and Myanmar, which also seem to be light years behind the trendy neighbour Thailand. In good and bad... Nevertheless, I have found people of these countries warm and welcoming, gentle in a heartbreaking manner. The poor conditions and terrible governments are not able to kill everything...
I spent one day in the splendid National Gallery photographing Khmer Buddha statues I have admired since my childhood. The thousand year old Buddhas look exactly like cambodians who watch them! Gentle wide faces, full lips and mysteriously smiling eyes. The building itself is remarkably elegant with red roofs and a garden with lotus ponds.
The next morning I took an early boat towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. I really should avoid boats. I had bad luck with a boat like this last time I went to Myanmar. This time the air conditioning was out of order, and I caught a cold - in the tropics. When the boat arrived to the Siem Reap harbour (nearest town to Angkor Wat), after six hours of suffering, I had fever and difficulty to breathe.
On the way I noticed how empty Cambodia is, incontrast to the rich and populated neighbouring countries. Like in Vietnam and Myanmar, elderly people are few. One third or one fourth of the population got killed under the bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge. A fact which went unnoticed by the rest of the world for four long years.
I gave myself a treat by staying in a quiet and stylish French owned hotel surrounded by a lush tropical garden. It had a pleasant salt water swimming pool I could only watch from my terrace. After a sleepless night, a tuk-tuk driver took me to a fine clinic. Surely not affordable by locals, I thought sadly. A young doctor told me I have bronchitis, and gave me five bags of pills. After taking some of them I noticed my hands were trembling so much I could not take a single photo. And I was two miles from my goal, the fabulous temple area of Angkor Wat, one of the miracles of the world.
Back in the 1980´s I learned that the most negative side of travelling alone is when you are ill and don´t know anybody around. Luckily the Thai mobile net worked in the Cambodian side of the border, and I could exchange text messages with homefolks, and feel I´m still on the same planet. During the next days recovering, I had new ideas for my next exhibition. Thanks to the broncitis, I had to stop and could rethink many things.
Then I finally got to Angkor Wat with Mr Soben and his charming tuk-tuk. We drove 120 kilometers on jungle roads, and I stepped a thousand stone steps of ruins and temples during the first day the doctor allowed me to work! I photographed people (Angkor is popular for local wedding photo sessions), ancient trees growing from ancient ruins, delicate dancers carved in stone, and landscapes. When I got back in the hotel, I was half dead again. But after looking at the the results from my camera, I took my pills and went to bed happily, with lungs whistling ”River of Kwai”. I got what I ordered!
I spent three days in temples and enjoyed every second of it. In the evenings I went out to eat and discuss with local people. One day I accompanied Mr. Soben to his favourite place. It was a simple hut run by chinese women, who were creators of culinary marvels I have never tasted before. Our georgeous meal with fresh coconutmilk as drink cost 5 USD. I will never forget this meal, and the pleasant conversation with Mr. Sompat - about life and death in Cambodia.
He gently offered me the meal, but I objected and told that we have a habit in Finland that I have to respect, otherwise I get bad luck. The one who does not have kids pays. He could not but obey. Bad luck is a serious matter in Asia.
One of the nights I saw shadow puppet and dance performances by an art school of orphans, organized with French support. At least some of the children of a war torn country can avoid prostitution... One of the little dancers caught my eye with her unbelivable grace and determination. Dance IS a language, and she spoke with every gesture. Her eyes followed me all the way back home.
Posted by marita at February 22, 2006 03:16 PM