For the Appeal
By the time I’d entered Cambodia, I’d passed through a doorway.
Not of the physical type, nor the gateway to another country.
But a doorway of perception, where just beyond its threshold lay a new way of seeing.
I’d moved quickly across the landscape – 50 miles in three hours, nonstop.
A gathering of clouds whispered above the palms, and a light rain began to fall. As it did, I tilted my head back, and welcomed each cooling drop like silvery liquid trinkets from the sky.
That’s when they’d made themselves known.
“Sok sa dai! Sok sa dai! (Hello! Hello!),” came the initial shouts from Cambodia’s children. It was the first of a flood of many tiny greetings.
As I cycled through a succession of villages, they fled to the road by the hundreds. All of them seemingly waiting to greet the random cyclist. All of them running from simple huts, to the edge of the roadway, if just to hold out their hands or shout out welcoming calls of glee.
It was a scene I’d witnessed a thousand times throughout Southeast Asia. A scene, I might add, that I never tired of.
These tiny voices brought a kind of settling to my mind, and I welcomed them into my heart, as I did the falling rain.
Despite the rain, it was Cambodia’s dry season, a time when the harvested rice fields gave way to a tannish-brown stubble. Near their edges stood simple stilted huts that were surrounded by a patchwork of small garden plots.
I’d cycled 105 miles that first day. And did so with a certain ease. This is how I spent my time. Pedaling through the hours, then days, until the days had turned into months. This for nearly two years. I no longer questioned it. It was simply what I did.
By midday next, I’d cycled upon the traffic-choked fringes of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Before I would navigate a tangle of intersections in the heart of the city, I would cross the Mekong one last time.
This before it flowed east, and branched like a watery sea fan through the delta lands of Vietnam.
I stopped for a moment on a small bridge to gaze out over its tea-colored waters.
When I did, my vision was hijacked by a riverside slum: a gathering of tin dwellings, and impossibly ill-constructed shacks. Catching a speck of movement from the corner of the scene, my eyes landed upon a young boy crouching above a small dirt drainage. He was evacuating his bowels into an open ditch. When he’d finished, he descended the garbage-filled slopes into the astoundingly polluted waters. There, he took his morning bath.
What I was observing was “extreme poverty,” a termed coined by Jeffrey Sachs, (economic advisor to the secretary general of the United Nations).
During a recent interview about Cambodia on PBS, Sachs stated that this “extreme poverty” was “not the poverty of inconvenience, not the poverty of jealousy, not the poverty of wanting to catch up with one’s neighbor. But the kind of poverty that threatens to take life. And not just threatens … takes millions of lives (around the globe) from those too impoverished for an adequate diet, that are too impoverished to see a doctor, that are too impoverished to gain access to clean water that they need for survival.”
In short, he was talking about much the of poverty I’d observed for the last seven months.
Only this time I was done observing. This time, I’d come up with a plan.
Obviously I couldn’t do everything for everyone, but I could do something, for someone. For me, that something meant spending a week volunteering to teach English to a group of impoverished rural children near Siem Reap.
Shortly thereafter, I stashed my bike, hopped on a bus, and made for the north-central city of Siem Reap, a city made famous by its proximity to the temples at Angkor Wat.
The volunteer program I would take part in was the brain child of Andy Booth.
Booth, a successful businessman who’d retired at age 37, was the founder of SAGE Insights, a full-service travel company whose proceeds are dedicated entirely to growing sustainable business in the region, and helping Cambodia’s neediest children through educational and social projects.
Andy believes that “a lasting solution to poverty lies in providing the tools and knowledge to a population to help themselves.”
I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
A day later, I arrived at the Prey Chrouck School, 40 kilometers outside of Siem Reap.
The school consisted of 637 pupils, four toilets, no running water and no electricity. Most of the students were the impoverished children of subsistence farmers.
As I ducked beneath the 6-foot door frame into the classroom, all eyes widened.
“Goot monning teechaah!” they shouted in unison, after they’d jumped to their feet.
“Sok sa dai!” I bowed, greeting them with palms pressed together. This released a cascade of giggles. Their eyes began to race, setting off mumbles and murmurs around the room. My intuition told me that this was speculation. Speculation of whether the new teacher’s-assistant was born of a giraffe, or more likely, about which of them was going to have to cut a hole in the ceiling to accommodate him.
With little time to waste, I went straight to it, driving home the hard work of spelling words like, “cat” and “pig.” These were funkified foreign words to the native Khmer child, and they wobbled off their tongues like a row of stumbling ducks.
No sooner had we mastered those words, then we began busting out with a rendition of “Ol’ MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Although I’m sure they all wondered what an “Ol’ MacDonald” was, when it came to the “meow, meow” here, and an “oink, oink” there part, there was instant recognition. And with this, the crowd went wild.
I finished out my short time at the school, assisting students, or performing simple tasks that included sharpening pencils, passing out papers or pinning the letters of the alphabet to the wall.
As dull as it sounds, I took pride in each tiny task.
All of it culminating into a small collection of memories of immeasurable pleasure.
When the students finally gathered to say goodbye, I reached out my hand.
Reluctant at first, they began reaching back. Before long, a small stampede moved in and began grasping, as if only to claim that they’d touched the freakishly tall stranger before he left.
• • •
Only a madman left Siem Reap without seeing the temples.
Though I’d have a hard time proving to anyone that I was actually sane, the next morning, just before sunrise, I grabbed my camera and jumped in a tuk-tuk bound for Angkor Wat.
Upon arrival, I witnessed my first spectacle.
It was not a temple, but the vision of my iPod music player after it had slid from my pocket, flew from the tuk-tuk, and skipped across the pavement at more than 20 mph. (The beginning of the end for iPod number 3.)
Scooping it from the road, I stepped into the first temple of Bayon. When I put on the headphones, I found the music player to be oddly stuck on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of The Moon.”
And thus began the other-worldly soundtrack that matched Angkor’s mind-melting imagery with a type of immaculate seamlessness.
Racing the rising sun up a set of stairs, I was delivered to the foot of Bayon’s 216 mammoth stone faces. I lifted my camera, and fired it like a submachine gun.
All of these temples (I’d learn later) began with King Jayavarman VII. Back in the day, he was literally “the man with the plan,” who’d initiated the glory days of the former capital in about 1100 A.D.
Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, then Buddha, Angkor Wat’s name implies a virtual “Temple City.” During its height, it was the largest city in the world, with over a million inhabitants.
Jayavarman got his architectural groove on by employing huge armies of Classic Khmer architects, all of whom became adept at utilizing sandstone as their three-dimensional canvas. Carefully carving this sandstone into countless structures, statues, murals and relics, these Khmer architects created such works of beauty that the thought of their original magnificence seemed fully capable of blowing a man’s head clean off his shoulders.
In fact, had Jayavarman been alive today, surely he’d have a qualifications heading on his resume that read something like: “Building temples that have continuously blown minds for over 800 years.” (Millions and millions served).
I finished my day, traipsing through the tree-enshrouded temples of Ta Prohm, and Prah Keah, then the main temple of Angkor Wat. By the end of the day, I had gazed upon such an extensive array of axial galleries, terraces, and towers that it left my feet achy and eyes crossed.
Through all of it came the crowds.
Hundreds of tourists pouring from buses, and marching throughout the temple grounds like battalions of army ants wearing matching shirts and shorts. They were joined by small roving platoons of children, who continuously pedaled postcards, trinkets or magically appeared to charge modeling fees at those picture perfect spots.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, Angkor Wat received a paltry 586 visitors in 1986. Today, that number is likely to exceed 700,000. Despite its crowds, Jayavarman’s Angkor will be a multisensual experience that will forever be burned into my brain.
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
March 7-29, 2007
Mileage log: 14,590-14,750
Elevation: Sea level-75 feet.
Where: Neak Luong, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat