Monday, May 30, 2011


We had to delay our travel plans to Sihanoukville and Siem Reap by one day, thanks to a little inconvenience that my mom termed "the real Cambodian experience". On Sunday we left Phnom Penh to travel to the beach town by bus, a four hour ride. We left in the morning and were there by lunch, whence we checked into our lovely hotel that was within walking distance of Serendipity Beach. The beach is beautiful. It is also filled with hordes of mostly women and girls (a few boys) who hound you to buy their bracelets and fruit and pester you to let them give you massages and manicures. It seemed that one or two girls selling strings of bracelets was connected with a woman offering pampering services, and they were probably mother and daughter.They are relentless, more so than any other place I've seen in Cambodia, but they are also very savvy, and there is obvious competition. One girl who claimed to be 14 (she was definitely more like 12) attached herself to us, and even gave us each a bracelet free of charge, was all cute smiles and flattery when speaking to us. But the moment a younger girl came over with her own bracelets, the older girl's face flashed into a scowl and she angrily told her off in quick Khmer. Then she turned to us, her face transforming into that sugary-sweet smile as fast as she had flipped a light switch, and she laughed with innocence and resumed her pretty English words.

beautiful Serendipity Beach

That evening, Lauren and I decided to go to Independence beach to catch the sunset. When we got there the beach was empty except for Cambodian families that were picnicking in the cool evening air. We walked along the beach, taking in the sound of the crashing waves and the sun descending through the golden clouds. It was just beautiful. It reminded me a lot of sunsets in Hawaii that I love so much, and yet it was so different. We walked barefoot in the sand away from the families till we were alone on the beach and in our thoughts. There was just an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility in the moment, and the sunset was so beautiful, I think it requires a few photos, though none have truly done it justice.

On our last day, we decided to check out another beach, called Sokha Beach. Sokha Beach is more excluded, due to the fact that the Sokha company (something to do with petroleum) bought probably the nicest portion of the beach, built an expensive resort just dripping with opulence on it, and now charges too much if you want to come and use the beach. But we wanted to see what it would be like without the crowds (read: beggars). To get to the beach, Lauren and I took the road less traveled, and by that I mean we climbed up and down and over rocks, all along the water's edge till we reached the beach. It was a little frightening at times trusting my slippery flip flops, but it was so spontaneous and fun. As we reached the end, we ran into some local kids fishing in the pools for crabs.

The beach was nice, but it seemed so out of place in Cambodia. We found ourselves missing the crowds of women and their incessantly insisting children. Even stranger still, was that right next to Sokha resort stood a shantytown, probably illegally right on the beach. Such are the contrasts of Cambodia: extreme opulence and extreme poverty; foreign oasis and low living conditions of the locals. We longed for the people and simplicity of Serendipity Beach.

Sihanoukville was lovely. It was a bit touristy for my liking, but we had fun and I would love to go back. I loved being able to swim in the ocean and the breezes that came with it; a welcome respite from the humidity of the inland cities.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


We walked over to Wat Langka at our usual time, a little after 5 o'clock in the evening. We climbed the steps of the temple and into the sanctuary room, where the familiar orange mats and cushions had been placed neatly in three rows for any and all who want to come. There was only one other woman in the room, and she sat very still in the depths of meditation. We chose our usual spots, sat down, and closed our eyes.

My mind wanders a lot. I like to let it wander. As much as I try to focus on my breathing in meditation I always find myself thinking of this and that. I think about being in Cambodia. I think about my family and home. I think about China. I think about myself. I can be focused on the in-breaths and the out-breaths from my nose, but always in the back of my mind are thoughts. And as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I am not a very flexible person. Even sitting cross-legged is a bit of a struggle and ungainly. But, during meditation, I try my best to sit as comfortably as I can while looking a bit like the part, and I can always find a way to find peace.

My mind was restless, and my body was being fidgety. I stared at the woman silent as a stone and at Lauren perfectly poised, and I uncrossed my legs and let out a big sigh. I stared out the open window at the grey sky that was being flooded with pink as the sun went down. I decided to go for a walk, so I stood as quietly as I could and tip-toed out of the temple. I have seen people walk slowly in rounds around the temple before; it must be some prayer method. I walked around the walls of the temple on the balcony that looks over the garden of stupas below and the fledgling skyscrapers of Phnom Penh (there are few) in the distance. I was strolling in circles when I turned the corner and came across a monk. He was older, wore glasses, and his robe was a darker, more burnt color of orange. I smiled and said hello, tips of my fingers to forehead, and he nodded back. Then he began to speak to me in English. We were talking a little when I asked him if he was going to meditate. He never really answered that, but his next question of me was, "Do you know how to sit properly?" I laughed awkwardly and replied that no, I didn't really know how to sit properly for meditation. Then he motioned for me to come with him for he was going to show me how.

Lauren joined us, and we each grabbed a mat and a cushion and sat just outside the temple in order to not disturb those inside. Then began our private teach on meditation, how to do it correctly, and why we do it. The monk showed us the proper way to sit, right foot in front, left foot tucked in the bent right knee. If you are really seasoned you could venture to put the left foot on top of the right knee, as the monk himself demonstrated, but that is way beyond my body's level of flexible skill, so I stuck with the first posture (which even that was a little uncomfortable to work into). Then he showed us how to hold our hands. You gently cup your right palm over the left, and touch your thumbs together at the tip, forming a rectangle. You let your hands rest in your lap. Your back must be straight and erect, but not too tense. Then, you close your eyes.

You ignore everything in the world around you; the only thing on your mind is your breathing, only the in-breaths and the out-breaths at your nostrils. Nothing else. You let go of everything. You let go of the past, because it is in the past, and you should not worry about it anymore. You let go of the worries of the present and the worries of the future. All that matters is this moment right now, and your breathing.

You let go of pain. You do not feel pain, nor does it belong to you. There is no me, no I, no my. It is not your pain. You observe the pain, but it is not your pain. That is the source of all our suffering—me, I, my. But it is not yours. It is fleeting. You observe it detached, you do not judge it. And you release it. You notice the air rising and the vanishing. Not me, not my; you notice the pain but it is not your pain. My ankles and my feet began to hurt from sitting in this position for so long, but I willed myself to ignore it. But as the monk spoke, it was like feeling no pain and yet an innumerable amount of pain all at once. One moment I would feel it and I would inhale and try to focus on other things, like the monks voice, but the next moment the pain would be gone. If I can sit very still, it's like it's not even there. It reminded me of the advice from a travel book on Japanese hot baths; the war is so scalding hot, but as long as you don't move, your body can handle it. As soon as you move you feel the heat. It was the same with sitting on the mat.

Meditation has many benefits. Above all, it nourishes your mind. Educate the mind, shape the mind, liberate the mind. That is the goal of meditation. It is hard at first, but with practice it will be easier. Sitting will be easier and more comfortable, and meditating will be easier. Every little bit is essential, every posture crucial. We must always strive to correct ourselves when we feel ourselves slipping in the posture. Constantly check and correct yourself. For meditation, it is worth it. There is a peace and tranquility that flows throughout your body when you open your eyes to the world again. You move as if on a cloud, graceful and smooth as silk. You are relaxed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


On Tuesday, we were woken early in the morning to the sound of drumbeats and clanging bells. It was Visaka Bochea, the day that Buddhists commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. A little while later, as we sat outside, began the deep, sonorous chanting of the monks from Wat Langka, the temple that lies across the narrow street from our hotel. The colorful banners that the monks had hung the day before swayed in the wind as the drums and bells continued to sing all day long. I took a peek inside the gate and saw the doors and windows of the temple wide open, and the sanctuary room was filled to capacity with the faithful. All day they were there, praying, listening to the monks. Come nightfall, the whole city is adorned in colorful, mismatched lights such as only Cambodians can make pretty. You can feel the celebration in the air, and you can see it in the crowds of people that gathered in the "parks" that create divisions in the road and the way they dance and blast their music on sub-par stereos. Quality doesn't matter, though; it's all about camaraderie.

That night, we headed to the rooftop of the FCC (Foreign Correspondent's Club) for dinner. We were treated with the most breathtaking views of the Tonle Sap River right in front of us and the Mekong River in the distance. The moon was full, and it reflected as bright as the sun would on the calm water below. In the distance, clouds clashed and produced the orange glow of lightening streaks. It was the most amazing phenomenon; the sky was clear above our heads and we couldn't hear any thunder, but you could see the jagged bolts as if through a screen far away. It was mesmerizing.

Lauren and I ventured over to Wat Ounalom, where the head of Cambodia's Buddhist brotherhood lives. It was midday, and we were pretty much the only ones there. We crept up the stairs to the main temple, and inside we found an ornate shrine covered in religious relics and flowers. There was another surprise in the temple hall; if you look closely, you can see a young monk fast asleep on a mat in front of the shrine:

We tiptoed to the exit in order not to wake him; he just looked so peaceful. Outside, we came across an older nun. She beckoned to us with her toothless smile and produced two thick red strings of yarn. One after the other she tied the red cloths around our wrists, smiling and babbling on in Khmer. The bracelets are supposed to provide protection and strength. Last year, a Buddhist nun tied these red bracelets around our wrists at Angkor Wat, but mine has since stretched out, so I don't wear it for fear of it falling off. But now my right wrist stands adorned with a new, tighter bracelet, thicker than the last, but its purpose is the same.

We walked to the sanctuary on the ground floor where we found a few older men conversing with a monk of the temple. When the monk saw us enter, he too stood up and presented us with the red bracelet which he tied around our wrists right next to the one from the nun. To receive twice the blessings of the monks, and not five minutes between them! I hope this means we will be blessed with extra protection and extra strength. The second bracelet is a little thinner than the first, but this helps me to tell them apart. I suppose it doesn't matter which is which, but for some reason I feel that I should be able to identify them. They feel very special, perhaps because of the seemingly spontaneous way in which they were presented to us.

I was quietly taking a picture of a some incense sticks in a quiet courtyard of stupas and a small temple when a booming voice called out (more like grunted) and possibly caused me to jump ten feet in the air. I turned around to see the owner of the noise, an elderly man, standing on the steps of the little temple and waving his arms at me. I thought he was complaining that I shouldn't be taking pictures in such a sacred place, so I hastened to throw my camera back in my bag. But he kept motioning, and in very broken English indicated that if I wanted to, I could enter the temple. I cautiously walked up the steps (I could easily have been misinterpreting him) and he proceeded to open the door that had been locked. He pulled the door aside to reveal a tiny room with a Buddha shrine in the center. The man motioned me in, so I ducked my head at the narrow doorway and stepped inside. The man followed behind and sat on a mat on the ground, indicating I should do the same. Still a bit unsure of what was going on, I crouched down. A moment later, I heard Lauren being hustled into the same space by a young woman who was smiling and chattering in Khmer (it seems to be a trend here...). We both looked at each other confused, though intrigued. The man lit two incense sticks and handed them to us, whence we held them in front of the golden Buddha so that the smoke may carry our prayers to him. Then the old man took a bundle of incense sticks and dipped them in a goblet of water, and proceeded to spray us while chanting. I have no idea what he said. He kept chanting and chanting, flinging water droplets on us as we sat silent, transfixed. Then he took each of our right hands, palm side up, and said a prayer over them. The only part of the prayer that I caught was the end, when he chanted, long and drawn out, "sok sobbay", which I only know as a greeting and a return greeting: "How are you? I'm fine, thank you." Then he splashed water on our upturned palms and indicated that we should rub it all over our faces. The water was refreshingly cool and smelled of incense. I felt as if I'd been baptized, but I think it's more of a general blessing ritual.

We walked out of Wat Ounalom dumbfounded. We were blessed twice by monks and their protective red bracelets, then we were blessed a third time by the man in the little temple. I've never had that ceremony performed on me before. I wish I knew what it all meant, what the man was chanting, but I suppose the mystery is part of the intrigue. This is a culture and religion so much different than the the two in which I was brought up. I'm drawn to its beauty, its complexities and simplicities, its shining colors, and its foreignness. I want to immerse myself in it and make it a part of my life just as Judaism and Christianity are. I'm thankful for this ability to incorporate so many different factions of my life that I love and make them one. Where others see a contrast, I create a melting pot. Buddhism is playing a greater and greater role in my life, and I welcome it with open arms. I sit in the meditation room of Wat Langka and stare at the paintings on the wall that tell the story of Buddha, I stare at the shining gold Buddha at the front of the room and the shimmering gold curtain that shelters him. Somehow being in this temple makes me reflect on how all my religions play a role for me. I can hardly believe each day that, at 5 o'clock, I am meditating in a beautiful Buddhist temple in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this mysterious, enchanting, and wonderful country that is so foreign and yet so comfortable at the same time. It is then that I realize that this is my greatest blessing.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Return to Phnom Penh

I'm back in Cambodia! Lauren and I landed around midday on Saturday after a loong trip and lots of in-flight zhou breakfasts from Los Angeles to Taipei to Phnom Penh. But as we sat in the taxi to our hotel, it felt like I never left. There are a lot of new, modern buildings, but I can still recognize where we are and certain landmarks. Everything even smells the same, and it feels right. It's weird though, being here without the Cambo Crew from 2010. I find myself pointing things out to Lauren like, "Last year I went here with everyone.. and I did this with them..."; I miss everyone from PWP 2010, and every experience that we shared together, but I don't doubt that Lauren and I are going to have an amazing time.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the area close to our hotel, re-familiarizing ourselves with the excruciating heat. LA is hot, but Cambodia takes the cake. It'll take a few days to get used to. There is a temple across the street from the hotel that last year we always saw young monks looking out of the windows or hanging their bright orange robes on the balconies to dry, but we never ventured inside.

But yesterday the gates were open (were they always open? Maybe we just never noticed) so we decided to tip-toe in and check it out. A group of young monks were standing around and stared at us, obviously foreigners, but they gave us no trouble, so we took off our sandals and walked inside the temple. The air was so still, so quiet even though we're in the center of a city. I think it's one of the most beautiful and cleanest temples I've ever been inside, everything perfectly placed. The floor is covered with red carpet, and at the front of the room sits an elaborate golden shrine to Buddha, every statue glistening. In front of the shrine, someone has placed an arrangement of flowers that were so fragrant you could smell them from the back of the room, incense, bottles of water and cans of coke. That I've never seen before! We sat inside with our legs tucked under, feet pointing away from Buddha as is respectful, while some monks who were about our age came inside and started to talk to us. They were very nice and eagerly said that anything we wanted to know about Buddhism, they could tell us. Their English was halting and broken at times, and you could see the effort they put into forming the words, but they somehow managed to find a way. They told us there was a meditation session in the temple upstairs at five o'clock, and that we were welcome to come. Suddenly, the monks motioned that we should get up and leave, and we saw what seemed to be an important, high-ranking monk approaching the temple with his small retinue. We scrambled to put our sandals on back outside, and ducked out of the temple.

As we left, some dark clouds began looming. We were just getting back to the hotel when they opened up and the afternoon downpour began. This is the pattern of day that I remember from last year; hot and humid, and around 4 o'clock the sky darkens and it begins to rain. But the storm was quick to pass, as they always are.

At 5 we returned to the temple. We took off our shoes again and walked inside, and saw that someone had perfectly placed orange mats with orange or purple cushions on the floor. We were the only ones around. We each chose a mat and sat down, facing Buddha, and began to meditate. Well, I don't really know if what I was doing is meditating; mostly I just sat there with my eyes open and let my thoughts wander. It was so peaceful. At some point, the high-ranking monk from earlier stood at the back, watching us. I held up my hands, fingers to forehead, as a sign of respect. The monk stood with his hands clasped behind his back, and he gave me a smile and nod of his head. I closed my eyes and began to meditate again, but when I opened them again, the senior monk had gone.

In the evening, we took a tuk-tuk to Friends Restaurant for dinner. It's the place where they take Cambodian street kids and train them to be servers or chefs, and they all work at this restaurant. The food is amazing, and the staff are so nice. After dinner we decided to walk back. It's the King's birthday and a national holiday, so everyone was out dancing and playing. There were fireworks, and the royal palace was lit up with lights. We walked in silence, drinking it all in, trying to figure that this was real and we really had come back. I suppose I sort of can't believe it yet; less than a year and I've already returned. But I'm so happy I have.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Well, it's over. And I know it's been a while since the program actually ended, but I guess before now I haven't really had a chance to sit down and just reflect on it all. I honestly don't know where to begin, so forgive me if everything just seems like rambling and mixed up.

What will I remember most? Everything. At least, I hope so. I'm afraid that one day I won't. I want to remember everything from the awkward first few days of class in LA to our last meal as a family at the Ethiopian restaurant after our presentations. Every moment was special, meaningful. I can't help it, but now that I'm back in the US I find myself looking at people, strangers, and thinking You have no idea where I just was, what I did, the things I saw and what I heard. You have no idea. Then I find myself severely missing Cambodia and our time there; if I know one thing about myself it's that I definitely get nostalgic about things pretty quickly, and I wish a million times over that it were one, two, three weeks ago so that I could start it all over again. I start to get sad, because it's over, but then I have to tell myself: What a great opportunity. It's over, but think about all that you learned and all that you experienced, and use it, embrace it, remember it. And I know that everything I learned and everything I experienced I did not have three weeks ago, and then I can smile because it's over.

I wish I had felt this way after China. I don't think I really knew what to feel on May 28, 2008 when I landed in San Francisco after being gone since August 28, 2007. I miss Cambodia, a lot, but I have no regrets. I love thinking back on our trip, even if it makes me sad for a moment. I think about it every day, every day I think about the people there. Those are the memories most prominent in my mind now, the people whom we talked to and interviewed, and those I pray stay with me for a long time. I won't forget the Cham Muslim woman I interviewed, my first (and only) interview, even though I felt she was holding back. I won't forget everyone at DC-Cam who suffered through our questions and archival demands and long drives out to the provinces. I won't forget Sokly, my monk friend I met at the National Art Museum and who is now my email pen pal :)! Most of all I won't forget the two women from Takeo province, the one passionate, determined teacher and her sweet, forgiving friend, my adopted "grandma", Lok Yeay, if you will. I won't forget her. She held my hand during our interview and just smiled at me. Even though I looked like a German who dressed like a Cambodian, she called me granddaughter (according to Kosal). I think of her very often, I'd love to go back and find her and really talk to her. She touched me more than anyone else, I think. I'll never forget her smile and her kind eyes.

I certainly won't forget S-21 or the killing fields. The minute I got home and saw my best friend I took the book on the Cambodian genocide I had gotten from DC-Cam, thrust it into my friend's hands, and said, "Here, learn about this." When I look at people, people I know and strangers, here in the US I think, among other things, What do you know about Cambodia? What do you know about the Khmer Rouge? Nothing. I find myself burning with a desire to tell everyone about everything I learned in four short weeks, everything I saw. More than that, I'm burning to just talk about Cambodia. It's like a bad itch you can't scratch away. I want people to bring it up so I can talk about it, I want to show them my pictures and narrate them and just talk to people all about it. I want them to know about Cambodia as I now know about it. All of a sudden Cambodia is fixed in my mind, fixed in my life, and I need other people to know about it. I think the killing fields made me feel this way. Or the faces of those we talked to. Or the stories themselves. Maybe it's just a combination of everything.

I sat in the backseat of the car with my family, my real family, driving from Beaune, France, to Lake Annecy. I slumped against the window, staring out at the beautiful hills. On my iPod came a song that, because I like to do this, I had had on repeat for our long drives out to the provinces in Cambodia. To me that song had seemed a perfect background music to the kilometers of rice fields and whatever thoughts from the day that were dancing around in my head. Five hour drive to Kampong Thom, three, four hour drives to Takeo and Kampong Chhang, I mostly listened to this one song, thinking or not thinking, sometimes just staring out the window. Now as I sat in the car driving through the French countryside, rice fields became grape vines. Villages with wooden houses perched high on stilts became little towns built of stone and ivy. Instead of pagodas, orange and gold piercing through the green like elegant raised hands, somber churches, bells tolling. Now I sat comfortably in the back, the warm sun streaming through the window, and I thought of bumpy unpaved roads and rolling clouds that gave way to afternoon thunderstorms. The song ended, and I put it back on repeat. The perfect soundtrack to my thoughts and my reflections.

My heart bursts with joy whenever I think of Cambodia. It makes me feel so many things, happiness, pain, hope, nostalgia, practically every emotion. I like that. Things that stay with me most are things that can give me such feeling whenever I think of them. That's usually how I judge the extent to which something means to me, by what it makes me feel and by just how much. I want to return to Cambodia. I want to tell everyone I know about it and it's past. I could spend days talking about it, even just thinking about it, and I'd be happy. I'm always thinking of Cambodia now, and I'm always feeling so many things. At the end of the day, everything is good. Even if I miss it and I'm mad it went by so fast, those feelings turn to reflections on everything I learned and was so lucky to experience. Cambodia is so often present in my mind, so maybe all this isn't really over.

Monday, June 14, 2010

City of Temples

Ah, the end of our trip has come, and we head to Siem Reap to see the famed Angkor Wat! I've been looking forward to this, and yet as it drew nearer part of me did not want it to come, because with our brief two-day outing to Siem Reap also comes the end of our time in Cambodia, for we leave on Tuesday. Still, I was excited.

We arrived very early Saturday morning, and instantly went on the tour of the many temples. Siem Reap really is the city of temples. First stop was the temple of Banteay Kdei, a Buddhist temple built by the king Jayavaraman VII in the 13th century and the site of Tomb Raider. This was our first taste of the Angkor temples. After lunch in the city, we set off for the main attraction, what we've all been dreaming about and waiting for; Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat literally means City Temple, and it truly is the mother of all temples (mai wat). It was breathtaking. We pull up in our van and first you see the gate, though really it's a long wall with columns. We crossed the ancient bridge over the man-made moat and passed through the gate and then: Angkor Wat itself. Sandstone towers and all. Once again, purely breathtaking. It is darker than I imagined, and our view partly obscured by the restoration scaffolding in the front, but it is imposing nonetheless. One thing that I didn't know was that Angkor Wat is actually a Hindu temple, not a Buddhist temple. The kings of the Khmer empire would go back and forth between being Buddhist and being Hindu, depending on which had the most influence on the king at the time. Angkor Wat was built by king Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Our guide walked us through and explained the carvings in the sandstone corridors, depicting scenes from the Churning of the Sea of Milk story and stories of the Hindu god Vishnu. We trudged through heat and humidity, climbing to various levels and towers. At one point, all of us were blessed by a monk in the temple and given a red cloth bracelet. Unfortunately for me and two others, when it came to climbing the steep steps to the tallest of the towers and of the temple, apparently jean shorts that don't go below the knee and a sleeveless shirt are too indecent. We were forced to stay behind as the rest of our group got to ascend to the top and all its wonder. I usually consider myself a generally modestly dressed person, never one to raise eyebrows with the amount of skin exposure, so I was pretty miffed and surprised when I was barred from going to the top. I guess that's an incentive to come back?

After the beautiful Angkor Wat we returned to our five-star hotel that we got for a much reduced price, thanks to the connections of Kosal. I decided to splurge along with everyone else and opt for a spa treatment! Best decision ever made. I got the "Sweet Scent Special", which was first a jasmine-salt body scrub, then a jasmine body wrap, then finally a jasmine oil massage. So much bliss and relaxation that I never thought possible! I actually fell asleep when I was all bundled up in the wrap (when have I not?), though I have no idea for how long. It took me a while afterward to realize that I actually had dosed off. For a while I was at that point of subconscious where I felt completely removed and outside of my body, dreaming and yet not dreaming, my mind wandering without a care or thought to where it was going. I think this is my way to meditation.

We went to dinner with Kosal and his long-time friend Sumai, who is also his sister's best friend, at a Khmer BBQ restaurant. It's kind of like hot pot, but better! The pot is shaped almost like a bunt cake, a bowl around the edge with a raised hump in the middle, and it sits over burning coals. The soup broth, noodles, and vegetables all go in the lower part, while the meat cooks on the raised part above the broth, seasoned with a nice slab of lard. So juicy! We had beef, pork, chicken, and even crocodile meat. I will say crocodile tastes sort of like chicken, but it's very tough. I didn't care for it, but the rest was amazing.

The next day, more temples! In the morning we went to Angkor Thom, which I think I like better even than Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is beautiful, but at Angkor Thom we were allowed to climb all around the temple and ruins without restraint; it was much more fun and adventurous. Less crowds, too. Then we made a brief stop at Banteay Srei, a small Buddhist temple which we were told is famous because it's pink, but really was orange. In the evening, we took elephant rides up the mountain-temple of Phnom Bakheng to see the sunset, except there was no sunset thanks to the clouds. Boy, though, the elephant ride was... interesting. I went first with Shoshana and Francis. The three of us climbed to a platform to get on a seat that was strapped around the elephant's back. Apparently our elephant was female, which was why we were able to go three at a time. The others went two at a time on male elephants; the females are stronger. Francis insisted on sitting in the middle because she was scared, and I thought, how bad can it be, of course I don't mind sitting on the edge. Well, if you go on an elephant ride, I highly recommend you don't sit on the edge. The second we sat down and it felt off-balance, I got scared! My feet were dangling, I didn't know how far to the right I should sit or if I should lean forward or backward! I think there were a good five minutes at the beginning where the three of us were just shrieking and laughing with absolute terror. Then the thing started to climb the mountain. It's a thin trail that zig-zags up, so half the time my side of the seat is tucked nicely against the side of hte mountain, while the other half i'm hanging over the edge and down right afraid. The entire time I was either stifling screams or laughing from nerves! There were definite moments when I doubted the sturdiness of our elephant and the power of the seat to stay on her back. At one point when we stopped, our elephant literally grabbed at a tree and tried to uproot it. I swear after the handler made her let go I felt/heard her slip on the ground. Yikes! The experience was exhilarating, to say the least! We did have fun making fun of each other and we took a video to document our fear, and it really was funny. Was it fun? All I can say is I was glad when we reached the top, unscathed. Would I do it again? Now that I can say I've had this experience, I would not. I don't even want to think about how those poor elephants are mistreated, and don't want to encourage it. I'm glad I did it, but I don't want to again. It was very scary, and very sad.

At the top we played around the temple of Phnom Bakheng. We climbed the steepest steps to the top (how did people back then climb them? Aren't they supposed to be much shorter than us??) in hopes of seeing at least a glimmer of what could be considered a sunset. Mostly, though, we took a bunch of goofy photos as a group. I really do love this group; we have so much fun together!

Thankfully, we hiked down to the bottom of the mountain. Back at the hotel, we all jumped in the huge pool, and here we got our sunset. The clouds overhead turned absolutely red and orange, literally it looked like the sky was on fire. I've never seen anything like it!

This was our last night in Siem Reap. The visit was too short; the city is so beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Kyoto in comparison with Tokyo; the old capital, way too many temples to count, and more of a nature-feel than Phnom Penh. Lots more tourists, though. I think what's more sad about leaving Siem Reap is the fact that we're leaving Cambodia altogether tomorrow. It honestly feels like these two and a half weeks went by like two days. I'm not ready to leave yet!

To the Sea

On what turned out to be my last trip to the province for interviews (thanks to a brief bout with illness on Friday), we traveled to the southwestern province of Takeo for interviews and then to the pretty coastal province of Kep to see the Pacific Ocean from the other side. In Takeo we met our interviewees at a memorial stupa and former killing fields. We interviewed two older ladies; the main interviewee has lost almost all her teeth (if not all) and is a former schoolteacher. She was probably about five feet tall. I think she was the first interviewee, at least for me, that really gave her whole story and showed her emotions. She was very passionate and eloquent, and had zero qualms about admitting her anger at the Khmer Rouge and want of revenge. Although she is a Buddhist, she does not want to forgive; she wants them to be locked up forever and she wants them to suffer for what they have caused. She was so direct, so certain. The interview got very emotional at times; the woman cried when describing how she was separated from her parents and constantly felt she would never see them again; the thought of her parents is what drove her to fight to stay alive. Even though she was imprisoned in an intense labor camp and came very close to being executed, she found a way to live. Later she found out her father was killed in the killing fields near where we sat; that is why she now lives in that particular village, to be close to her father and about 40 other family members that were killed at the site.

The second old woman sat quietly for most of her friend's interview, occasionally giving her word, until the end when we asked her specifically a few questions. I sat nearest her. She kept smiling at me, and at one point just took my hand in hers and held it tight. I don't think I was tearing up or looked like I was in danger of doing so, but she still held my hand. It was a very sweet gesture, and the look in her eyes was of pure compassion. After the interview we were laughing with our two adorable interviewees and the quiet woman who held my hand said that while Jessica and Francis (both Chinese) looked like they could be Cambodian, I looked German! I told her that I was at least 1/8 German, so that was pretty spot on. She did say, though, that my appearance could be Khmer, because I was wearing loose pants and a silk scarf tied around my neck. She patted my arm over and over, saying how German I looked, how Khmer I dressed, how very pretty my face. I fell quite in love with this old lady :).

After the interview we were informed a little bit more of the backstory of our two old ladies than they had told us. The animated, outspoken schoolteacher, after the Khmer Rouge, would be prejudiced against children of former Khmer Rouge cadres in school. On the other side of things, the quiet old woman who held my hand lost all nine of her children under the Khmer Rouge, and never once has she shown the need for revenge. She lost everything, and she still is so compassionate and kind to everyone, bringing small gifts and snacks to visitors and villagers. She is well-liked, and, I think, well taken care of. Suddenly her warm smile and comforting touch meant so much more, knowing what she's been through, what she's lost. Before we left, I took a picture with her. Again, she held my hand tight as she stood next to me, smiling and complimenting me in Khmer. Professor Kosal, as he took the picture, kept saying "picture with Grandma, Grandma with Granddaughter", and perhaps I was her granddaughter for that moment, in both her eyes and mine. I wish I now knew her name.

After the interviews we drove west to Kep and to the edge of the sea. We stopped for lunch in a small restaurant literally in the ocean; half of it was raised on stilts above the water. Lunch was possibly the freshest meal I have ever eaten. One moment we're sitting at the table overlooking the choppy waves, watching two or three people checking crab traps in the water. The next moment Kosal walks in carrying a basket filled with live crabs, and no one is in the water anymore. A few minutes later, the crabs return, this time steamed red and served on a large plate. As one girl put it, "that's probably that fastest something has gone from death to my mouth". You can taste the freshness, and what a difference it makes!

The coast is beautiful. I really don't mind driving far, because I like to watch the scenery. It's so different from the US; there are endless and endless fields of rice paddies with palm trees peppered along the way. Every so often a hill rises up in defiance of the flatlands around it, often with a pagoda perched on top and neatly surrounded by trees. The countryside is so beautiful. It does remind me of China, especially of Guizhou when, in the afternoon, the clouds roll in and the rain starts to fall. Most afternoons this happens, and it is still beautiful. I don't think there could be any type of weather that would make this country ugly. Then again, I do find beauty in the soft grey and barrenness of winter in New England, so maybe it's just me that finds every part of nature breathtaking. Cambodia truly is, though, and I am thankful for the long bus rides that allow me to stare out the window for hours and hours, rain or shine.