Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pools and Leisure in Cambodia

It has been quite a while since my last post, but since I have been back in the US after a trip to Cambodia, I haven't really felt like I have been "abroad" anymore.  Oddly, even though I was still travelling, I didn't feel as motivated to blog, take pictures etc. because it felt like I was finally home.  In a gray area between being home yet still having to visit organizations and work on my presentation of learning for our DC portion of the trip.
After the end of China and moving to our last village called Caicun, another farming village outside the city of Dali in Yunnan, we took a plane over to Cambodia for a week of poolside leisure before jumping into our last core country: the United States.  We stayed in an eco-friendly hostel much like in Costa Rica, owned by a Swiss German couple.  Very personal feel, banana smoothies by the pool, very much different from Indian slums or a South African township.  Almost too much leisure as time seemed to lag in the Cambodian heat and humidity.  It was a tourist trip, and after little experiences such as a cooking class and pottery introduction, we made sure to hit the biggest tourist destination in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat. 
Angkor Wat’s beauty truly goes way back and although it looks monotone, as I looked more I saw many shades of whites, grays, blacks that endured centuries, and the depth and intricacy of the stone carvings.  Unfortunately as a tourist destination everyone can see the sites, so many were somewhat crowded and I felt as though to experience the site fully I needed more solitude.  In such majestic temples I wanted to wander on my own but as part of the group I needed to keep up and we couldn’t roam as much ourselves- not to mention the crowds of other tourists looking for pictures too.  It is almost a shame that we visited at the end of the trip as I felt that my overall energy was waning, anticipation to see parents, summarize our learning from the trip in our final presentations.  I expected to be full of vibe, fully awake in the presence of such amazing temples but I really wasn’t, and much of the responsibility falls on me.  After such a long trip travelling, so many sites, the extraordinary became ordinary and I couldn’t wrap my head fully around the site’s aura. 
Around town I preoccupied myself with tourist oddities- fish eating at my feet, looking at artwork, cooking class.  The entire town has been transformed for tourism- markets, shops, land mine victims selling books for the travelers.  I even saw a man jumping through a ring of fire on the side of the street in the hopes of money from foreigners.  Our floating village tour didn’t feel real, genuine, as we stopped to see crocodiles sitting cramped in a stagnant pool, waiting to be sold.  Shops littered the central docking area as tourists scattered; one woman pointing at different objects to bring back as souvenirs, with seemingly little care as to what she was even buying.  I felt the incredible awkwardness of sitting on a boat knowing that we paid to drive and see a lifestyle that has now become a way to make money.  And with only a day to visit, trying to “understand” a culture becomes near futile, a mere excuse.  I always came into a conflict with myself of expecting to see “traditional” clothing, culture, etc, when in many ways I have no idea if such tourism actually helps the people at all.  I was careful not to point the camera at the little kids’ faces for sake of decency, careful not to disturb someone for a shot of “poverty” to bring back home.  It is such a delicate issue for a tourist, how I want to travel and how I want to affect others while I try and make my own experience.  And as I sat looking into the eyes of children holding snakes around their necks as they floated in metal bowls down the brown river, asking tourists for a dollar in exchange for pictures, I couldn’t help but feel sad.

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