Thursday, July 15, 2010

Temple Prasat, Poverty and Phrom Da,

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. 
John Steinbeck 

The thing about travel and more importantly an investigative journey is that things will get unpredictable.  Passing the border between Vietnam and Cambodia is a study of contrasts.  While in Vietnam, you are likely to be accosted by people trying to sell you stuff at a very high pace.  It is partially because of the need to make money in the market economy in Vietnam.  It is still a poor countryside, but it is less poor than 20 years ago.  Cambodia on the other hand has been through some very rough times.  From the French, Americans and Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese having sent the country into years and decades of war and turmoil, this country is gradually emerging out of the dust of anguish and suffering into a new century as embodied in their crown jewel, Angkor Wat.  

Angkor Wat however illustrates how far the country has fallen from its greatest time period when the Khmer Empire controlled much of this part of the world.  Cambodia is a complex country, now suffering from poverty, corruption, foreign investors controlling assets, and of course the notorious sex industry that is emerging as Thailand has been slowly trying to control the more illicit and illegal activities.  As one country begins to control the trafficking, the problem shifts into other countries.  More of this later.      

In Apocalypse Now, there is a line, "Never get out of the boat."  Well, we got on a boat and off the boat.  Phrom Da, Cambodia.  Instead of a tiger, we encountered both a monument to the power of ancient Cambodia and the reality of present day Cambodia.  

In order to get to the temple, you must ride some boats in Angkor Borei.  I was in a boat running after the lead boat.  To the left is the temple on top of the hill. 

As you can tell, the temple is placed very prominently on top of a hill.  The region in which it is located is basically one huge flood plain.  It is also the key region for rice production.  This is why it was key to the economic growth of this ancient culture.  The temples located in this area are considered older than Angkor Wat.  They were constructed perhaps from the 6th or 7th Century during the Funan reign.    

This is a picture from the side of the temple in which a statue of Buddha probably was placed.  It has since been taken.  The black stain is due to bombings by the US Air Force.  The area is only 30 kilometers away from the Vietnam border. 

Damage to the temple was largely the result of American bombings.  Unfortunately, this temple complex is small, and it is not protected by UNESCO.  

There is a smaller temple complex down the hill.  We were largely accompanied by an entire village of children.  The biggest observation that I had was that they were very friendly, but barefoot and poor.  

Like all ancient sites, we were surprised by the contrasts of the past with the present conditions. 

Poverty and Happiness

One of the things that was immediately noticed was the level of poverty.  There was obviously no electricity, running water and other resources.  Some of the homes were constructed of corrugated steel siding, and the elevated nature of the homes indicated that this area was prone to flooding.  And yet despite all of this, the people seemed to be very happy.  Tourists are not often seen in this area, and the people genuinely were friendly.  

Life in these villages is obviously very hard.  Every need must be taken care of by hand.  

Yet, despite all of this, the children were actually very happy and followed us up the hill to the temples.  It was like you had an army of children clearing our path of millipedes and insects.  

This kid is playing his flute.  His friend is curious.  

The one thing about Cambodian kids is there cuteness rating.  Very high on the cuteness rating.

Tanya is getting to know the kids.  

Brian is giving out Polaroid portraits to the kids, and some candy.  He ended up with a tribe for the day. 

As you can tell, Western tourists are very interesting to these kids. 

And a few of them followed us as we got on our boats to get back on the bus.  

Happiness is a relative thing.  The people in this remote village had low living standards by Western ideas.  However, what is happiness?  This is a difficult thing to measure.  Does happiness increase because you are more affluent?  I'm not sure of this.  The children seemed more well adjusted that many affluent children that I have encountered in America.  

The gap between the rich and the poor is very pronounced in Cambodia.  You go from a location in which people are very friendly but very poor to a 5 star hotel in Phnom Penh in which people are busy with themselves; it is very jarring.