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May 25, 2013

Cambodia is peace. The people are sweet and helpful. The tuck tuck driver doesn’t mind if you don’t pay him today; he trusts you to pay him tomorrow. The souvenir vendors take no for an answer. The only cops in sight are traffic cops—no guns, no razor wire only sweet openness.

Restaurant and bar owners are more than willing to sit and chat. We had a fun chat with the Canadian manager of the Under Construction Bar, which has to be the cheapest, funkiest decorating around. We took pics of the toilet fountain, had a few beers and an appetizer of sausage and fries. Equally good was my lunch of vegetable curry and a watermelon shake chaser. Frozen pureed watermelon is a lovely thing.

Today we took a long ride out to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. These are the temples we visualize. They are the ones overgrown by jungle and in states of decay. This state of decay has a charm and realism to it that those temples restored do not have. As with many places, the fallen pediments, statues and walls form the skeletons of glory. The once strong and powerful eventually all crumble and fall and as they do a different sort of power returns, the power of nature. Khmer was once a powerful nation that moved from Buddha to Hindu and back. It fought and won land from other nations. It fought with and against the Chinese. It built and built again the temple mountains of ruler gods.

On the way to Koh Ker, Rat our tour guide warned us not to stray into jungle as it was still heavily mined.  Several nations, including eventually the US, worked to clear the terrain. The organization now funded by the US starting with a single soldier from Pol Pot’s reign. As a soldier of eight or ten years old, he sowed mines.  As an ageing man he took it upon himself to start digging out the very mines he’d sown so many years ago. Without funding, without help, armed with a single knife he removed the mines. Eventually he was discovered and funded. Others joined in including Rat’s sister who leads the only female mine clearing team. Rat is clearly proud that she has been honored for her work but still questions why she would do it.

She said, “Do you remember our village when we were kids? We would hear the explosions and a cow or a pig would die. But sometimes it was a person.  Do you hear that now? I never want to hear it again.” Rat added that there were frequent explosions when he was a kid and the people would go and search because if it was a cow they could get the meat for a meal. One time a man went out and found it was his brother who had been killed.

Rat is not Rat, of course. Rat is simply one small part of his name that tourists can pronounce and remember. He’s working on his Master’s Degree and will do well; he is keen to find the right words.

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