Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mambua, "Lotus Seed," of Lao and The Kingdom of Cambodia

In the south of Lao the Mekong fans wide. Scatted throughout the raging river are a series of sandbars and islands called Si Phan Don, or "Four Thousand Islands." The Mekong is truly a force in the wet season, a powerful, flooded river, running muddy and thick with sediment. At the end of Lao and at the Cambodian border, the river turns to rapids. From our grass bungalow on the island of Don Det, we could always hear them - a constant roar, an ever present  rushing in the distance. Don Det is a skinny three-kilometer stretch of land occupied by lazy, hammock-lounging tourists (myself included), fisherman, rice farmers and cross-eyed buffalo. There's not much to do, but that's the beauty of it. During the days I wandered over the muddy path that draws the island's circumference. I waded through a lotus field just past its prime and stepped over soft, pink-white petals. I saw children fishing at the river's edge, naked from the waist down and tugging at their bamboo poles. I cycled over a bridge connecting Don Det to Don Khon (another island) and sat beside the rapids. I read the last of the books we brought while swaying in a hammock.

From the deck of our bungalow, which overlooked a bend in the river and faced northwest (the direction of the monsoon winds), we watched rain swallow land. The monsoon storms were so intense and so ferocious that we were forced to hide in our grass shelter. On our last night on Don Det (also our last night in Lao) the sunset was absolutely breathtaking. The Mekong reflected the setting sunlight in the sky, its surface a rippled rainbow, an abalone shell of color in motion. The sky sparkled, orange, indigo, red, an opal of iridescent light sinking slowly west. On Don Det we ate mambua, fresh from the lotus field and sweet as sugar peas, and admired a mighty river, we read, rested, looked upstream, imagined the villages and cities that rest along the Mekong's bank and said goodbye to Lao.


Now, we are in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Cambodia has been so devastated - by bombings during the War in Vietman, from Civil War/Pol Pot's bloody regime (the Khmer Rouge) and from the years of famine that followed. And yet Cambodian people are so, so kind. I am constantly taken aback at the warm welcome we receive, both in the city of Siem Reap and outside of it, where life is certainly much harder. Siem Reap is a bubble in Cambodia, a bubble surrounded by poverty. Though we are met with kindness - with wide smiles and shouts of "Hello! Hello!" - it's hard for me here. There are so many people scarred by war, so many landmine victims - children and adults - without an arm or leg, or both. Every time we go out to walk the streets of Siem Reap we see the hard history of this country, and I want to weep. I don't understand why landmines were buried in the countryside in the first place... I don't understand why the Khmer Rouge killed and tortured so many people... and the questions weigh heavy and all around us.

We bought a book from a man who lost his arms as a boy. He carried a sign that told his story. "I am not a beggar," he wrote, "I am a proud man who wants to work to support my family. You can help by buying a book and will make me happy man." I placed my hand on the stub that should have been an elbow and said, "Good luck to you." I sat, pushing food across my plate, wondering how he ate, how he dressed, washed or made it through any of the daily motions we so depend on hands for. We walked passed a band of musicians (all victims of landmines) playing traditional Khmer music, a simple repetitive beat played by elbows, knees and wrists. At dinner we met a man, our waiter, who told us a little about himself: He rides his bike 20 kilometers to a village outside of the city; his father was killed by Pol Pot; he is now responsible for his brother, sister and elderly mother; he makes $40 a month. But, he is learning English and is hopeful. So, we see much pain (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but we also see resilience and pride.

Of course, we came to Siem Reap to see the Temples of Angkor (Ethan's second journey to Angkor!), and wow, they are beyond words, but we are also learning about and confronting the complexities and struggles of a world so completely different from our own. We have decided to take a rest day, a break from the majestic temples in the forest, and spend the day in town, getting lost and found, open to whatever the day may bring.

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