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December 28, 2014

I’m sitting in the Trans Moldavian Airlines guest lounge waiting for a seaplane to take me to the luxury resort in the Maldives where I shall end my holidays, and thinking back to yesterday and the wonderful and powerful end to my time in Cambodia.

But first – a word about my hair.

There are two kinds of thick hair. One where there is a larger than average number of strands of hair, the other is that each strand is thicker than average. I am very lucky, so says every hair professional who’ve gotten ahold of mine, because my hair is thick in both ways. I guess I’m grateful, and its really a silly thing, but the worst thing about travel for me is what happens to my hair. The water quality and lack of proper conditioner dries it out, thickens it up and at certain points it is actually heavy to hold my head up.  I don’t think I’ll stop traveling over this, but man is it bothering me today.


I started yesterday with a combodian cooking class alongside Lorna from Malta and Elsa from Belgium Our instructor, who told us he was 26, but I’m guessing he was about 20 was a graduate of the Friends School, a program which helps street children learn skills.  Our teacher has a Facebook page on which he posts videos of cooking lessons and a dream to open his own restaurant.  “I am not going to marry until I have a restaurant.  No wife for me.” I’m not sure the restaurant was the only thing keeping him uninterested in a wife….

We started the day with a walk through the market.  Neither the touristy Central or Russian markets, but a very local space filled with strange varieties of fruits and veggies, fly ridden piles of meat, and noodles galore.  The smells were divine and revolting and Else spent the visit with a kerchief over her nose.  The stone pathways were thick with muck and I dodged puddles with my sandaled feet.  Monks and children wandered through it barefoot and unfazed.

We went to a rooftop kitchen in a residential neighborhood where our teacher (I am bad with the Cambodian names) prepared our lesson and Lorna, Elsa and I got to know each other.  Lorna, a nurse, had been volunteering at a local orphanage and knew Else through another volunteer who was meant to join us, but had come down with Dengue Fever.  So that’s going around apparently.

The orphanage thing is interesting.  There are signs in the hotel and many of the Oxfam sites advising tourists not to visit the orphanages -that ultimately our tragedy tourism causes more harm than good for the children.

Our lesson commenced and we made lovely spring rolls and fish amok (fish steamed with spices in a banana leaf) which we ate for lunch.  With promises to repeat what we learned at home and to keep in touch we all went our separate ways for the afternoon.

My way, for my last afternoon in Cambodia, was to take in the hard truths of the country.  My hotel arranged a driver to take me to the infamous Killing Fields.  There were, sadly, many killing fields around the country, but one has become the symbol for them all.  You drive about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, through increasingly impoverished neighborhoods, until you come upon what, if you didn’t know better, would seem like a lovely park.  The audio tour, led by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, has selections to play at several stops along a path.  The field is marked with many ditches, now grassy, which were the sites of mass graves.  Signs warn visitors to avoid stepping on bones or teeth that may turn up on the path after rains or wind.  Several graves on the site have not been emptied.  there is a stupa in the center which houses hundreds of skulls and bones of the victims.  I wandered slowly through the site, listening to the audio explanation and stories of survivors.  Each visitor wandered in silence, sometimes with tears. It was incredibly powerful.  From there, my driver headed back to the city and began, unsolicited, to tell his story. He lost his family, was in a forced work camp and beaten daily.  Starving, one of his friends picked a piece of fruit they were harvesting and was shot on the spot. He laughed a bit as he told the story and sounded optimistic about the future.  He’d just bought the car he was driving after 10 years of working for someone else and his son was going to university.

He dropped me at the Genocide Museum.  A former high school, the buildings were used as a prison and torture chamber. Photos of the violence hung in the cells alongside photos of the many victims.  A group of saffron-robed monks were visiting at the same time as I was and they pulled out cell phones and photographed the site for themselves.  As I left I met Chum Mey, one of only seven known survivors of the prison.

The intensity of the afternoon and an early departure meant a welcome night in the hotel.

I’m now in the Maldives, paradise like none I’ve ever experienced.  But more on that later.  Now I sleep.

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