The Lover

After walking through the lively and vibrant Sa Dec Market, we visited the former home of the eponymous lover from Marguerite Duras' famous novel. This semi-autobiographical tome draws upon her experience growing up in Vietnam where, as a teenaged girl, she became romantically involved with a Chinese man twelve years her senior. From what I understand, the novel - despite its Lolita undertones - is largely romantic and tragic, because ultimately the literary couple doesn't end up together. But throughout her life, Duras - as many of us do, changed her own story multiple times.

Displeased with the film adaptation of The Lover (which our guide screened in the dining cabin one night and a fellow passenger subsequently deemed "soft porn"), she later published The North China Lover, which was billed as a more detailed and "truer" account of the relationship. Notebooks that were posthumously made public, however, paint an altogether different portrait, with one passage describing the "revulsion" she felt after their first kiss (see: Wartime Writings). These lesser known writings hint at possible sexual and emotional abuse, even prostitution.

Duras passed away in 1996, and with her left the truth regarding the nature of the affair. Undoubtedly, how she felt about it as an adolescent, as it was unfolding, differs from how she must have felt as an adult. She was seventy when the first fictionalized iteration was published; seventy-seven when the second came out. Both novels probably served as attempts to come to terms with the relationship; to figure out and clarify her feelings, perhaps even find some profound conclusion.

As we toured the beautiful old home, with its floors warped with age, intricate craftsmanship belying aristocratic wealth, and black and white photographs of both Duras and Huynh Thuy Le, sipping jasmine tea while listening to our guide wax romantic about the ill-fated lovers, I was reminded of my own failed relationships.

Each time things doesn't work out we want there to be some deeper meaning or lesson learned, so it's not just time wasted and feelings spent. But maybe a solution or antidote doesn't exist. Maybe the leftover pieces are just a burden that remains with us. For as Duras' experience seems to suggest, even a lifetime is not enough to make sense of something so raw and intimate. 

A River Economy

Having grown up in Seattle, I'm used to living by water. But seeing the lifestyle that its proximity fosters, even from the very window of our cabin, was another matter entirely. As we got closer to (and finally reached) the Mekong River, the economic activity that our ship passed only intensified - at one point there was enough boat traffic it was like driving on the highway back at home during rush hour! The color of the water is a result of the rainy (read: muddy) season. Some photos below.  

Fish farming. 

Fish farming. 

Sacks of rice being unloaded via conveyor belt.

Sacks of rice being unloaded via conveyor belt.

We passed many barges practically weighed down to the very water level with soil.

We passed many barges practically weighed down to the very water level with soil.

A woman taking a break at a floating market.

A woman taking a break at a floating market.

A little boy grins at us from the back of a vendor's boat at the floating market. These boats have long bamboo poles on which they hang examples of what they're selling. (Although a hat affixed to the pole means that the boat is for sale).

A little boy grins at us from the back of a vendor's boat at the floating market. These boats have long bamboo poles on which they hang examples of what they're selling. (Although a hat affixed to the pole means that the boat is for sale).

A boat leaving the floating market. 

A boat leaving the floating market. 

Phnom Penh in Photos

The Cambodian capital had a much different vibe from quiet Siem Reap; it reminded me a lot of Taipei with all its greenery and claustrophobic streets. Upon arriving we had some free time, so the majority of the group went to check out the Royal Palace - a complex, really, of gilded, elegant structures with high peaked roofs and colorful embellishments. To my surprise it's still in use. The current king, at sixty-three, is still single and childless, so he will likely select one of his nephews to be his heir. 

Inclement weather slightly disrupted scheduled activities, but we still managed to squeeze in a cyclo tour around the city's main sights before departure. A 'cyclo' is essentially a bicycle with a seat for a single passenger affixed to the front. It was a bit nerve-wracking being in the face of honking traffic but our drivers proved most trustworthy. 

Side view of the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace. It gets its name from the thousands of silver tiles that comprise the floor, and houses Buddhas and other trinkets made from precious materials. 

Side view of the Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace. It gets its name from the thousands of silver tiles that comprise the floor, and houses Buddhas and other trinkets made from precious materials. 

Detail of a restored portion of a mural at the Royal Palace. 

Detail of a restored portion of a mural at the Royal Palace. 

The cyclo drivers sizing us up. I had the sense that they were all jockeying to have me as their passenger because I was the smallest. 

The cyclo drivers sizing us up. I had the sense that they were all jockeying to have me as their passenger because I was the smallest. 

This cheeky little boy was running around naked (don't worry, his mother was nearby) in the area that we stopped to admire the Independence Monument. 

This cheeky little boy was running around naked (don't worry, his mother was nearby) in the area that we stopped to admire the Independence Monument. 

A view of the parliament building on the left, ironically located just next to a casino (gambling is illegal). 

A view of the parliament building on the left, ironically located just next to a casino (gambling is illegal). 

Blessings

Disembarking at Kampong Chhnang, we were received by little local girls bearing flowers and intricately folded leaves. A team of rickety carts awaited, each pulled by a pair of oxen. The animals seemed well-fed enough, but they had curiously flappy skin hanging from their necks. With two passengers per cart, our group became a slow-moving caravan that attracted much attention as we trundled along past rice paddies and new houses being built on stilts.

We reached the temple a bit behind schedule, so the monks had already eaten, but local women were already preparing rice noodles for their next meal. We received a water blessing from a bespectacled monk, who tied bright colored strings to our wrists (left for women, right for men) that are meant to be kept on for at least three days.

Once back on the ship we stopped at nearby Koh Chen island, where the prominent local industry is metal smithing - particularly copper and silver. We entered one household workshop where several family members, male and female, used mallets against various tools on thin sheets of metals, expertly lending the medium spectacular shapes and designs.

Walking further into the village, all the while drawing the curious eyes of the local children, we met Oum Son Thon, an 82 year-old Khmer Rouge survivor and math teacher. Seated on the wooden pews of in his outdoor classroom like pupils from a bygone era, we listened to his experience under the Pol Pot regime, a time of fear and terror, which set the tone for the following day.

Oum Son Thon takes us through some math problems after giving us his history lesson. 

Oum Son Thon takes us through some math problems after giving us his history lesson. 

Soldiers hung speakers from this tree to drown out the sounds of the victims. The stupa containing excavated remains is visible in the background. 

Soldiers hung speakers from this tree to drown out the sounds of the victims. The stupa containing excavated remains is visible in the background. 

Having reached Phnom Penh, one of our first excursions was out to the Killing Fields - the only preserved mass grave site out of over 400 used by the Khmer Rouge. Some of the graves on site have been excavated. Every year with the rains the mass graves get shallower; upon visiting one can see scraps of cloth from the victims' clothing protruding from the soil, and occasionally bones and teeth too.

A puppy and its mother frolicked near the tree adorned with bracelets, where soldiers smashed babies against the trunk before killing their mothers. Another grave is demarcated, this one for the headless bodies of Khmer Rouge soldiers given the ultimate punishment. A large 'stupa' contains skulls and remnants recovered from the excavation; a memorial for the lives lost where one can buy incense and flowers.

A look inside the stupa. 

A look inside the stupa. 

Artist and former prisoner Bou Meng thanks us for purchasing his memoir.  He is younger than Oum Son Thon but the torture he went through in the prison aged him.

Artist and former prisoner Bou Meng thanks us for purchasing his memoir.  He is younger than Oum Son Thon but the torture he went through in the prison aged him.

Back in the capital city we stopped at what was formerly the S-21 Jail, now a museum. Here we met several other survivors - one, a boy recovered by the Vietnamese army when they stormed Phnom Penh, the other two adults who'd been imprisoned, tortured and interrogated. They've returned to this place of trauma to share their stories.

Cambodia seems a place of inherent tension working toward reconciliation; where former Khmer Rouge leaders run the current government and live side by side with those whose families were killed by the regime. We hear multiple times that the latter often would like nothing more than to exact revenge, but the prospect of a life sentence stops them.

Reflecting on all of the lives lost and families shattered, I am grateful to have known three of my four grandparents; to have grown up without fear. My country is not perfect but, then, whose is?

On Board the Toum Tiou II

I'd never been on a cruise prior to this trip, partially because of the prohibitive cost, but also it seemed like the laziest mode of travel. I pictured the Carnival ships on infomercials that are essentially floating Vegas resorts, and I didn't understand the point of experiencing something so mundane (eating! drinking! gambling! swimming pools!) in the middle of the ocean, when you could just as well do all those activities at home for much less money. But when I saw the discounted package for this particular cruise and the itinerary (sunrise at Angkor Wat; killing fields outside Phnom Penh), I was intrigued.

Our ship, the Toum Tiou II, has fourteen cabins spread between two levels, a dining room and a sun deck replete with wicker furnitures, lounge chairs and a bar. The crew of sixteen takes care of everything from maintenance and housekeeping to multi-course meals. Having done my share of frantic, backpacker-style travel, I have to admit that it's nice not to repack and move every couple days; to know that a delicious meal will be waiting at the appointed time; and to have all excursions and transportation ready and taken care of. The first night on board, my birthday, the chef presented me with a cheesecake after dinner. The lights were dimmed, and the staff emerged with a guitar, serenading me before presenting a traditional Cambodian scarf.

Although the ship can accommodate twenty-eight passengers, we are a modest group of ten - two couples from Canada, another from Australia, and a pair of sisters from Finland. My mother and I are the only Americans, and I am, by far, the youngest passenger. Over the course of our voyage we've become a new sort of makeshift family, sharing stories, medicine, travel advice. It will be sad to part ways in Ho Chi Minh City in just a few days.

Getting our first view of the ship. 

Getting our first view of the ship. 

Our cabin. We also have a bathroom with flush toilet and shower (with light up shower head). 

Our cabin. We also have a bathroom with flush toilet and shower (with light up shower head). 

The kitchen, where our awesome staff churns out delectable multi-course meals. 

The kitchen, where our awesome staff churns out delectable multi-course meals. 

Cambodian Village Life in Photos

As our ship sails toward the Vietnamese border, I'm reflecting on the diverse snippets of life we've seen between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. From floating villages to towns of varying sizes, every place we've seen offers evidence of traditional lifestyles merging with modern technology. Below, some photos.

This goofy 65 year-old demonstrated how he climbs palm trees via bamboo ladders to harvest the juice for wine and sugar production. 

This goofy 65 year-old demonstrated how he climbs palm trees via bamboo ladders to harvest the juice for wine and sugar production. 

A scene from Chnok Tru, one of the largest floating villages on the Tonle Sap River. 

A scene from Chnok Tru, one of the largest floating villages on the Tonle Sap River. 

A coppersmith and her daughter. 

A coppersmith and her daughter. 

A man juicing sugar cane. 

A man juicing sugar cane. 

Local girls waving hello from a resting tuk tuk. Children are, without fail, very excited to see foreigners. 

Local girls waving hello from a resting tuk tuk. Children are, without fail, very excited to see foreigners. 

Temple Hopping

The 4am wakeup call on our first day in Siem Reap was mitigated by the fact that, after spending close to 20 hours in the air over the course of the previous day, I was woefully unadjusted to the time zone. Any worries about inclement weather that day, which the weather app perpetuated with the cloud and lightning bolt icon for the entire week, were assuaged when we actually stepped outside and saw stars twinkling above.

Approaching Angkor Wat's main gate, our guide used his phone as a flashlight so that we wouldn't trip over tree roots or the uneven pavement. Passing the moat that borders the temple grounds, I could just make out the silhouettes of the iconic ridged turrets as the sky began to lighten around them. The gate opened on to a vast grassy expanse, the main temple looming ahead at the end of the paved causeway. The further we went, the more the pink and purple hues framing the temple like a halo intensified. It always surprises me how quickly sunrise comes after first light.

Details at Angkor Wat. 

Details at Angkor Wat. 

We explored the main temple, admiring the ornate carvings that depicted ancient stories, before climbing the steep stairs that led to the highest level. With all the intricate details, I'm amazed that it only took 37 years to complete.

Ta Prohm. 

Ta Prohm. 

Exiting through the less used east gate, we continued our temple tour to Ta Prohm, made famous by its appearance in the film Tomb Raider. It was in much worse condition than Angkor Wat; piles of rubble where structures had collapsed were everywhere, but so were restoration crews. Also called the Jungle Temple, in many areas the roots of deciduous 'spung' trees covered walls and structures like giant tentacles. It was peaceful and quiet, even with other tour groups around.

Some of the Buddhas of Bayon. 

Some of the Buddhas of Bayon. 

Our last stop was Bayon, known for its myriad smiling Buddha faces. The crowds here were rowdier and pushier, but I still managed to get some nice photos. Unlike Ta Prohm, Bayon had virtually no shade, so we were grateful for the nearby stand selling fresh smoothies.

A young girl holding a basket of souvenirs. 

A young girl holding a basket of souvenirs. 

Particularly at Angkor Wat, young children were everywhere selling souvenirs. Ten postcards for $1! Seven magnets! 8 magnets! The parents force them, our guide said. And so they don't go to school. To buy from them is to encourage the system, and so I hid behind my dark glasses and turned them away, but it's hard.

See more photos on Flickr.