Posts Tagged 'siem reap'

On Not Riding A Bike In Siem Reap

I have a deep dark secret: I don’t know how to ride a bicycle.

It’s what I like to think is the last relic of the child I was: hysterical, terrified, subject to daily sobbing break-downs until the age of 8, my parents called in for concerned conferences with teachers. I was afraid of everything, and that included learning to ride a bicycle. My parents couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to force me—or themselves to teach me.

So I never learned. The older I got, the more ridiculous it became. Every once in a while I’d try, boyfriends valiantly declaring they’d teach me. It always ended in me flush-faced, ashamed, the jack-o-lantern cackle of crackheads at the park we’d hang out it, laughing as I fearfully raised one foot, then the other, then wobbled and swerved. It always ended in tears, and I’d be embarrassed about that too.

So when my two friends wanted to rent bikes to cruise around Siem Reap, when they smiled so sweetly and suggested, “There’ll probably never be a better place to learn. Flat roads, old cruiser bikes—a lot better than a roadbike in Oakland.” I nodded at the logic. Yes, I thought, the time has come to finally learn.

I’d actually thought about it the day before, as we rattled in our tuk-tuk through the temple sites. We were trapped on a painful tour, which actually felt more like a school field trip—our guide a well-meaning fellow who insisted we take photos at all the popular spots (“Stand sideways here, so it looks like your nose is touching the statue’s”). A girl had passed us on a rented bicycle, sundress and a basket, steering with one hand as she ate a pineapple wedge with the other. She looked so leisurely, so relaxed, in her own world of solitude with the trees, the stones, the road.

I’d wanted to be on that bike more than anything.

“But I have to warn you guys,” I told my friends as we walked to the rental shop. “I turn into a five-year-old when I try to ride a bike.”

“It’s gonna be fine,” they reassured me. “You’ll pick it up no problem.”

I had a knot in my stomach as they tested the different bikes, adjusting seats and cruising slowly down the dirt road and back. I distracted myself with plans for a blog post, a tender and life-affirming meditation on overcoming fear, letting go of old identities, on the role of place—on how, I imagined, being in a different environment could help you to find yourself or lose yourself, parts of yourself you don’t like—or maybe discover a new version of yourself. Yes, something like that, I thought as my friends paid the rental fee.

We walked down to a shady street with only occasional traffic, bicycles and motorbikes passing every few minutes. I felt nervous but confident as my friends gave me pointers, suggestions, but most of all encouragement. “You’re totally gonna get this,” Suki assured me with her sunlight smile, as Alicia held on to the back of the seat like a father, explaining the science of forward momentum to reassure me.

I wobbled around, lifting feet to the pedals one at a time, then both for quick moments of breath-held balance. “Oh, your so close!” Suki exclaimed behind me. “Any minute you’re gonna take right off!”

A frustration started to mount. It came, it seemed, from some very deep place. As I went back and forth down the country road, the feeling grew. It began to turn into anger, a seething self-hatred I haven’t felt in years but know too well to mistake. A burning began behind my eyes.

“Goddamnit,” I kept muttering under my breath. I knew logically that I could get this—I’m an able-bodied person with full control of my limbs. But my forearms tightened as I gripped the handlebars, staring down at the dirt before me—I couldn’t bear to look up at the world. You’re defective, a voice said.

I know this voice. It’s a tape I like to think I’ve outgrown, that I like to think I’ve smashed the casing of, pulled out the shiny reel, spun it like a fat black spiderweb, like I’d do as a kid—then crumbled and thrown away. I like to think I don’t even own a cassette player anymore.

But it’s there, always there (“What we really have is a daily reprieve…”)—perhaps collecting dust but still waiting for something, feet on pedals, to push play. The more I tried to ride that goddamn bicycle, the louder and clearer the voice became.

The good news is that today, I know it’s just a tape. And I told myself that, sweating in the morning heat: These are just old beliefs. They aren’t true, and you can choose not to believe them.

A motorbike and a bicycle passed concurrently, raising a plume of dust. I glanced up. I saw five faces, turned back over their shoulders to look at me. The expression wasn’t of pity or amusement or superiority—it was of concern. They’d seen me, these strangers, glimpsed a very private and shame-filled and ultimately very true part of me, on a roadside in their city.

I put my feet down, stood up. “I can’t do anymore guys,” I said in a shaky voice. I grabbed my purse, not wanting to look my friends in the eye. “I’m going for a walk; have a good day.” I rushed away.

The tears came freely as I kept my head down, walking through the roads of outer Siem Reap. Tinsel New Years decorations hung from doorways as amplified voices of chanting monks filtered through the trees, along with the lethargic sunlight.

“Fuck, fuck fuck,” I chanted to myself. There I was, 28 years old in Cambodia, and still feeling like a little kid, like that girl I used to be and hated.

Can travel really change us? Can discovering new external landscapes help us to discover new landscapes inside ourselves? Does anyone really ever “find themselves” traveling? Is it all one massive distraction from the pain of it, the pain we’ve nestled away, the way they say we store memories in our knotted muscles? Can travel be a kind of accupressure? What are we hoping to find, and what are we hoping to get rid of?

I walked. I passed a group of half-clothed children playing with a ball. They smiled and waved, “Hello!” and giggled when I said hello back. I passed a cemetery, where a shirtless young monk hung his orange robe on a clothesline, then lit a cigarette and stared. A skinny-ribbed dog sniffed through a pile of rubble, a magazine of tired black nipples. She looked up at me with startled eyes, flinched at the sight of me, lowered her head and stepped backwards.

I wanted to take that dog, to sit down and let her lie her head in my lap. I wanted to sit like that, the two of us in the trash and smashed cement, a random road outside Siem Reap.

But I just kept walking.

A Vision at Sunrise, Angkor Wat

I had a vision.

Standing on the ancient stone of Angkor Wat, watching the red fist of a sun rise, reach up through the horizon’s haze to ignite the sky, to silhouette that crumble of bygone glory, to light the ponds in the earth red too, to make them become a mirror between the lily pads—there, I had a vision:

What would happen if everyone put their cameras down?

Few things get me out of bed before 7am, and watching the sun rise at Angkor Wat is one of them. Yes, it’s touristy. But it’s one of the wonders of the world (depending on what list you consult; on the List of Me, it’s there), and getting there before the tour bus hordes, when the day was still cool, early, innocent and young—that sounded worth it.

I didn’t expect it to be so goddamn beautiful. I didn’t expect the sun to blaze like that, be red and burning like that, to glare against the expanse of ruin and palms.

I glimpsed it as I came through the gates. I gave it a quick glance and a gasp. As I scurried along the stone wall, rushing past Apsara carvings and other tourists, I reached in my bag. I pointed the camera, saw the landscape through the viewfinder, clicked. I did this before I even looked at the image myself, gave myself time to soak it in, breathe it in—to simple see it.

We moved down towards a pool of water, “a very good place for photos” our well-meaning guide assured us. Through the politely jostling throngs, we could see that, yes, it was a good photo op. So good, in fact, it was the same image on the postcards that little girls in sweatshirts and messy ponytails clutched, tugged at you—“Lady, you buy, 10 postcards, $1”—a voice too low and raspy to belong to a child.

I watched us all there, taking turns and swapping camera, posing with smiles, embraces: “Look at me, I was here.” It seemed more important to get the photo, the proof, the documentation, than it did to bear witness to the immense and startling beauty of it—to just be there.

What would happen, I wondered, if we all put our cameras down, just for thirty seconds, and stood and watched?

I suspected a silence would fall. I suspected some of us might start crying. I suspected something huge would wash over us, come up from inside us, that kind of humbling you feel in the presence of the world’s greatness, that particular pang in your heart when you see something so beautiful it overwhelms you—a feeling you think is private but that really might be communal, like a great inkwell a monk tattoos from, writing our particular fates with shared blackness.

But that’s just a guess. Really, I wouldn’t be able to know, won’t ever know. We all kept clicking at the blaze of a red sun, in the shadow of Angkor Wat.

The Lucky Ones at the War Museum

Instruments of death don’t die. They rust.

Fifteen minutes from the happy pizza restaurants and nibbling-fish pedicure tanks of Siem Reap’s Old Market area is the War Museum. It’s not much of a museum, per se—it’s a grassy field filled with mango trees and the skeletal carcasses of tanks, missiles and planes used during the Cambodian civil war (the 1960s Lon Nol era through the fighting of the mid-90s). The “exhibits” sit exhausted and silent in the heat of the field. They’ve been striped for parts, all that’s left of them slowly turning brown, the same brown as the the earth.

“The memorials in Cambodia are so raw,” Anna’d remarked. “At Auschwitz, everything is behind glass or protected. You felt more separated. But in Cambodia, at the Killing Fields or S-21, there’s less between you and the stuff you’re seeing.”

I thought of Anna’s comment as I walked into the War Museum, past the massive helicopters that slept like corpses in the entrance. I’ve never been to Auschwitz or any similar genocide memorials, so I don’t have anything to compare the ones in Cambodia to. But there’s definitely a rawness. And it’s a rawness you feel in the whole country, not just at the memorials, but that the memorials seem to capture, to be the pure essence of, in a way that reminds me of whiskey distillation—too pure, the uncut soul of the thing, that if’s not diluted could kill you.

A guide approached us, a young man in a fake Lacoste shirt, frayed stitching and tell-tale grin on the alligator’s face. He was missing an arm; a nub extended beneath the sleeve, a little past his shoulder, and you could see it move around in there as he walked.

A sign announced that guides were free, so we went along with him, assuming a small tip would be expected. He spoke English well and was knowledgeable about the artifacts, mute metal that sat, refusing to decompose. Small wooden signs had explanations penned in a haphazard English.

“What is your nationality?”

“USA,” I replied. A pause. “We’re American.”

“Ah. America is rich country. Cambodia is poor. So if a pilot not fight well, if a soldier not hit target, he get killed—it a waste of ammunition. The pilot, they cannot eject from the plane, they trapped. The soldier get locked inside the tank, and if he don’t fight good, he stay in and die. We find still the bodies in many of these tanks.”

We stared at the machines; they reminded me of dinosaur bones or the great cranes at the Port of Oakland—metal with so much power, sitting still.

As we walked, he told us the story of how he lost his arm: when he was 14, his dad brought home a landmine. He was trying to dismantle it; we couldn’t make sense of why. The bomb exploded, killing his parents and two siblings, and leaving him with a belly full of shrapnel and one less arm.

“I’m lucky I’m okay,” he told us. “But I am very lonely, I have no family.” He went on to explain the difficulties of life as an amputee in Cambodia, with discrimination and lack of healthcare. He paused, looked at us. “You are very lucky, you have family.”

Types of landmines

We kept moving. He pointed out common types of landmines, explaining which countries they’d been made in: Russia, Bulgaria, the US. He told us 1-2 people a day in Cambodia are still injured by unexploded ordinances. “You are very lucky, your country no have landmines.”

As he stood talking, I slid a modest note into the “Donations for Landmine Victims” box. He watched me. When he finished explaining the table of empty shells, he pointed to the box. “This money go to the government first, then the people. The government take a lot.” I squinted my eyes, nodding slowly. It’s true—there’s a lot of corruption in Cambodia. But I could also sense where this was going. “It better you give to the people.”

I cocked my head as he lead us away. Everything I’ve read in every country I’ve been to—including the sign at the guesthouse I’d just left (that among other things encouraged me to not have sex with children)—tells you not to give directly to people but to worthy, legitimate organizations. It was unsubtle foreshadowing.

He kept us moving at a steady pace. I thought of my guide at the pre-Angkorian temples a week earlier—also missing an arm but older, darker, a man who only spoke Khmer. I thought of the way he’d clasped his phantom hands behind his back, and the way it made something in me pound, then sink.

This guide didn’t clasp his hands. He was wearing short sleeves.

We paused under the hot breath of the sun. “How many sibling you have?” he asked each of us and we each responded.

“That good. You lucky. I have no brother or sister now.”

We came to a row of wooden shacks, displays of exploded bombs. They looked like peeled fruit, like some modern-art interpretation of peeled fruit that you’d see in some chic lounge, that was trying to make some sort of terribly deep and obvious statement. But this wasn’t art and it wasn’t a lounge—it was a shack and twisted metal.

They’d sawed the blown bits of his arm off with a wire. Because he was young and still growing, he had to go back every four years, to have the bone re-sawed. He couldn’t afford to get the shrapnel from his belly removed; at $100-200 a pop, he said he’d had to leave it to float around in there.

“In America I hear they make a machine arm.” He looked around at all the dead, rusted machines. “Maybe soon they make it in China. It will be cheaper there, and if I work enough, one day I can get. This is my dream: you come back and I can give you a hug with my robot arms.”

We got to the end of the tour. “It is good if you give a tip,” he told us flatly, “so I can pay for my surgery. Many people give $20-30 each person.”

Suki and Alicia looked at me. They’d each been in the country less than 24 hours. I considered the fact that a construction worker makes $3 a day, your average tuk-tuk driver $5. I considered the fact that my daily budget was $30.

He stood a few steps back, staring at us, waiting. “Can you give us just two minutes?” Suki asked.

We whispered, gathered bills. We gave him a fair tip, said thank you.

Then he walked back to our tuk-tuk, heavy with sweat, our ankles covered in dirt the color of rust.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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