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A history lesson (for me)

December 26, 2014

I woke on the day after christmas to head back to Phnom Pehn.  Siem Reap was a dream, but the reality of life in Cambodia was visible everywhere.  The poverty in this country is overwhelming and everywhere there are signs of it’s past. Everyone over 40 has a harrowing story to tell.  Everywhere there are twisted bodies with lost limbs, acid burns, blindness or worse.  There are schools and, as I’ve mentioned, most of the children I talked to said they were in school (apparently they run in shifts so students can work part of the day as well).  One girl, trying to get me to buy her wares at a temple followed me for a long time saying please help me. Finally, after I’d said no for the umpteenth time, she said “it’s very expensive for girl’s to go to school.  I just want to go to school.”  Oh – she knew the way to my heart (and I suspect that of many other women travelers) and I walked away with a couple scarves I didn’t want.

Arriving in Phnom Pehn, I was met by a driver of about 50 years old. The minute he found out I was American, he began to talk. “Americans don’t know – it is very bad here,” he said. He proceeded to tell me about losing his family when he was young – they were all killed, he lived by hiding in the woods with his uncle.  He told me about the Russians and the Chinese influences in the country. He pointed out the massive Office of Anti-Corruption building which lay opposite a Rolls Royce dealership.  “But it’s better now, no?” I said.  He laughed at me. People still die, he explained.  Just one at a time.  “America doesn’t care.”  I don’t know how much of what he said was accurate, but I do suspect that we don’t really care.

I splurged for my last days in Phnom Pehn and booked a lovely resort. It turns out, I prefer more modest accommodations. There is a guard at the door and we are instructed not to have guests come into the hotel.  The beautiful pool has pagodas with sheer curtains and uniformed staff to cater to every need.  The high walls keep the sounds of the city out.  As I sat with my delicious lime tea, I felt like I was fiddling while rome burned.  I have too much liberal guilt for this kind of a place.

After a quick shower, I headed out for a walk about the neighbor hood.  As I left the hotels front gates the guard called after me not to take a photo.  I asked what he meant and he said “oh of course you can take a photo, but be careful – they will steal your camera.” These warnings had been so often repeated to me.  I wondered through the monuments in the national museum and along the water for a while til I saw a small pizza shop.  And it was lunch time.

Normally I wouldn’t get pizza anywhere but New York or Rome, but the “happy” herb pizza had been haunting me.  Happy herbs are not technically legal in cambodia, but they are everywhere, including on the pizza.  One small pizza came with a free beer. It had onions and an egg as well as the special herbs dusted on top.  It was fine. I have no idea if it had an effect on me or not, but I headed back for a nap, so it probably had the same effect that pot has on me anywhere else in the globe – it made me sleepy.

In the evening I headed out for a gorgeous sunset cruise on the Mekong, alongside Tina and Amit, an Indian couple living in Qatar and staying at the hotel.  They were lovely company and at the end of the ride we exchanged contact information and connected on Facebook.

They headed to the Night Market and I to the Foreign Correspondents Club, the famed gathering place of wartime writers now a hotel and restaurant, where I had tropical cocktails overlooking the Mekong and fancied myself a tough girl war reporter holding my own with the cigar boys.

Today is my final day in Cambodia and I have a busy one planned – one that will find me, I hope, facing the hard truths of this country and celebrating its beauty.

It’s been a wonderful trip.

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