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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cambodia 1.14 - Part 2: Kampong Khleang & Photo Album

I gave it a lot of thought prior to arranging the trip to Kampong Khleang.
It was off the beaten path, and I was somewhat nervous about not knowing what to expect.

If we thought we saw enough of the Cambodian Countryside earlier today, we soon realized that we had not seen anything yet.  It took another hour and half from Beng Mealea to reach Kampong Khleang on a bumpy narrow dirt road.
As we got closer to the village, there were rolls of elevated wooden shacks that were beyond disrepair.  Bicycles, motorcycles, push carts, occasionally 4 wheel vehicles, dogs, cows, roosters, piglets, and children with bare feet or completely naked were roaming in the middle of the road creating a dusty cloud.

We were both a bit shocked by the severity of the poverty.  We had visited poor countries before, but not like this.
There were no posh 5 star hotels or preppy resort towns to shield us away from the brutal reality.
We sat in the back of the car in silence.
I was not sure how I felt, but I was trying to act normal and unaffected as I knew Hans was definitely feeling uncomfortable.

After it seemed like a long time, we reached Kampong Khleang.  We were the only tourists there.  Our driver led us to a dock.
A pre-arranged boat was waiting for us.  Two young boys were our captains.
Along the muddy Siem Reap River to the endless Tonle Sap Lake, we saw the fishing village and river life.
We were astounded by what we saw.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, moving, powerful, and everything else that I was not capable of describing.
I did not feel that we should set foot in there.  I feared that our "civilized presence" would pollute their world.
Many fishing and farming boats passed us by.  Locals looked at us with curiosity.  Children smiled and waived at us.
How could a world so dilapidated be so beautiful?
How could everything so melancholic be so peaceful?
I live in a modern society that sophisticates and masks human conditions and emotions.
Here in Kampong Khleang, everything was stripped down to the bare basics with no pretense. 
I was being confronted by the rawness of it.
I could barely look at it, but I could not turn my eyes away.

As we cruised on the water, another worker's boat packed with mostly young men passed by.  The gave us blank stares.
A scary thought entered my brain: "Nobody knows we were here.  If we were robbed, killed and dumped in the river, no one would ever find out."  I felt uneasy.
Trying to calm my overstimulated imagination, I went to the front of the boat and tried to strike a conversation with our captains.  Unfortunately, the only English they said was "YES", and I could not even find out their names.  I would guess the older one driving the boat was maybe 15 or 16 years old, and the little one was probably just over 10 years old.  They looked out to the water with no facial expressions.  I could not tell if they were shy or indifferent. After about 30 minutes on the boat, we turned around and headed back to the village.  I started to feel more relaxed.

After the boat ride, we told the driver that we would like to walk around the village before we hit the road again.  We saw some young monks meditating in a temple.

While we were taking pictures of the village, a little girl walked towards me holding hands with her younger brother.
The little girl had a pink eye, messy hair, and a dirty dress on.  Her younger brother was completely naked.  They had the most precious smiles that just melted my heart.  The little girl was curious about my camera.  I showed them the pictures I took.  They looked at them with wonder.

I felt unprepared.  I felt the urge to help these people, but I would not know what they needed.  I was also nervous about my footprint in the village.  Somehow, I thought that Kampong Khleang was so enchanting and fragile that it should be left undisturbed. 

Finally, we were ready to leave.  From Kampong Khleang, it was a little less than one hour before we reached Siem Reap.
Our driver stepped on the gas, drove through the roads as he honked the horn.  We were nervous that he would hit a kid or some animals.
When we got back to Siem Reap, we hit the rush hour.  All the vehicles were fighting for their space on the roads.  There were no traffic rules in Siem Reap.  Honking the horn meant: "Get out of my way."  Whoever drove the bigger vehicle won.

Our driver dropped us off near the old market.

Tonight, we went to Khmer Family restaurant on Pub Street.  We had fried shrimp with pepper sauce (loved it!), Coconut chicken with watercress (just okay), Amok fish (safe bet), roast honey duck (the meat was chewy and way too sweet), and coconut milk with some unknown fruit jelly for dessert (yummy).

The massage became the nightly ritual after dinner.  At Madam 1, Hans had another foot massage and I had a Khmer massage.

It was strange how easy it was for us to slip back to the world that we were comfortable and familiar with.
Yet, the haunting images of Kampong Khleang will stay with us forever.
This was one of the most incredible experience I have ever had.

1.14.10 Part 2

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