Friday, November 25, 2005

Stuck in a Cambodian Prison

What would you do? One of the students in the trip you lead gets a little silly and while running after a monkey, knocks down a pillar in an ancient Siem Reap temple. It starts a chain reaction that destroys several hundred years of civilization in a matter of seconds.

Poor Beau. Stuck in a Cambodian jail. All other 57 students made it back to Vietnam. Did the one thing you don’t do in a Buddhist country: mess around in a Buddhist temple. Bad things are bound to happen.

Or so the ship thought. You see, Beau lost his passport in Phnom Penh. He wasn’t sure where it was in the afternoon. He might have lost it in the morning at the hotel. Or he might have been pickpocketed the night before. Whatever, he was really stuck in Cambodia. It is one of the worst things you can do on Semester at Sea, losing your passport. Because you need a visa to enter Vietnam, and you need an exit visa to leave Cambodia, and because it takes a few days to get a new emergency American passport, and because it was a Cambodian holiday, Beau didn’t make it to the ship. It wasn’t that big of a deal, just an expensive pain in the arse. He’s an adult who can take care of himself; he would meet us in Hong Kong once the paperwork was straightened out.

But the ship didn’t know this. So we agreed as a trip to tell the story that Beau was arrested in Cambodia. We would be vague with the details, “I didn’t see it, but I think was climbing the temple to take a picture,” or, “I saw him pretending to be Sarah Croft earlier and next thing I know you hear this crashing sound.” But he had knocked something, and didn’t come back to the ship.

Boy, was that fun. As trip leader, I must have had dozens of incredulous students come up to me to confirm the rumor they had heard about our trip, and of course I played along with it. Not all the students in the joke could keep a straight face – one student told me I convinced her to lie to her best friends on the ship, whoops – but enough students believed the story that, now that he’s back aboard, Beau is still asked about his prison experience. It was worth it.

Besides, our story made him look cool. Losing your passport is careless and a pain. A very nice girl lost her passport in Venezuela and was unable to leave the ship until Cape Town three weeks later, missing Brazil as she couldn’t get issued a visa in time.

Such was HCM24. Somehow I managed to trip-lead one of the most popular SAS trips, to Phnom Penh and Angkot Wat. The four trips to Cambodia were so popular that one of them had 100 students sign up beyond the maximum number of 60 per trip, growing to the point they added another trip leader - Tina Trap on our medical staff.

I had been selected to trip-lead a small, four-day camping safari in Kenya, but as you probably know, we never made it to East Africa and all my efforts would have to wait until Cambodia. A week before the trip, I started building excitement amongst our group by announcing over the closed-circuit TV system that HCM24 would be the “Best Trip Ever”. As a result, the entire ship was aware of HCM24 a week before arriving in port, and as mentioned in previous entries, several members that didn’t make the trip articulated their concern that we (I) was rubbing on their faces. That wasn’t my intention, so I stopped the campaign immediately and apologized.

But it served its intended purpose, and everyone involved felt pretty good about going on the trip. My leadership style has completely relaxed since my days as an RA at Stanford, which means that basically anything goes as long as we’re respectful to the people and places that we were going. That also meant that we wouldn’t be doing head counts or really checking for people until flights, so if people missed the bus, they’re adult enough to take care of themselves. We just didn’t want to wait around for people.

Our group arrives in Phnom Penh, and we have two hours to waltz around before heading over to a boat ride up the Mekong River. Phnom Penh (which sounds like a drum beat at the end of a bad joke, as in “I just flew into Cambodia today. Boy, my arms are tired.” phnom-penh) is under construction, and is probably well on its way to becoming a big metropolis in the next few decades. The city is also underwater, which is normal during the rainy season.

Over the centuries, the country has changed back and forth between Buddhism and Hinduism depending on the emperor of the day, and the temples and artwork are a striking mix of what appears to be Indian and Burmese architecture. With monkeys all over the place.

After our a fun meal trying to that involved somewhat randomly picking items in a Cambodian menu, we hit the Mekong for the sunset. The timing of the ride was perfect, because as we watched the sun do down along the temples and stilt houses along the river, we could see, quite literally, a wall of water approach us. It was so precise and linear that we could predict the arrival of the monsoon to the second… five…four…three…two…

We all, needless to say, got soaked, but we were soon back on the bus, bonding to “Tiny Dancer” on our way to an over-the-top yet delicious Cambodian buffet. One of the problems with many SAS organized trips is that they pamper you too much, and this was one of those trips. The hotels they put us in were ridiculous, and perhaps a few hundred dollars could be shaved off the trip if only we were treated to something a little more modest.

We visited the concentration camps and Killing Fields on day 2. I’m not ready to talk about that. I had consciously not done any research on Cambodia before coming, in order to view everything for the first time and not put up an emotional shield. I’m not sure that ultimately was a good thing. It does hit you hard. The pictures and the stories of torture and the mass graves and the teeth and bones on the ground and the walls of skulls hits you hard. Everyone you talk to mentions they lost a parent or a sibling or a son during the Khmer Rouge. Everyone. Yet they talk about it so matter of factly. You leave with a terrible feeling, knowing that 2.5 million people were killed.

Moreover, there’s an academic reason I’m not ready to talk about it. I found out coming back to the ship that there is a serious academic debate on the history of the Khmer Rouge, and that perhaps the total number of people dead was more towards the hundreds of thousands, not in the millions. Not that this diminishes the gravity of the situation. It’s just that I want to do this story justice. It is important to too many people to do otherwise.

The second half of the trip was very happy. We traveled to Siem Reap, home of the temples that inspired the Jungle Book (and were also the set of Tomb Raider). These are magnificent temples, and watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat was the highlight of the trip to Cambodia for most people. The temple is huge, discovered by the west in the mid 19th century, but built about 1000 years earlier that as a Hindu temple. You think to yourself how amazing it must have been to be the first westerners to encounter the temple going through the jungle. One of the temples has been kept exactly as it was found, and the trees growing in the temple walls are breathtaking. They are more of an attraction than the temple itself, and ironically, as they grow, they destroy the temple even further. I’m not sure how they are going to deal with the problem, say, 100 years from now, as trees die down and grown in the places. Is it just going to be a pile of rubble someday?

I was wondering which would I rather visit, Bagan in Myanmar or Siem Reap in Cambodia. I decided a few massive temples was slightly cooler than thousands of smaller ones. The problem is that Angkor Wat is setting itself up to be a Vegas-like resort town, and they are over 20 massive new hotels being built around the temples. I’m not sure that is the way to go – I hated the area around the hotels. The sense of adventure was completely lost in them, and we you can see that soon that area will look like a “Angkor Wat Hotel and Casino” in Vegas. Actually, why doesn’t Vegas have a Cambodian Temple sort of casino yet? Hmmm…

That was just a blip on a fabulous port. Hanging out with the students was a lot of fun (though I was glad that it would be my last SAS-run trip), the sites are impressive, and the Killing Fields stay with you long after you leave them. It is an amazing place.

I can’t wait to come back.


Anonymous said...

When you read the SAS Position Report, it ALWAYS says: departed Port XXX at 23:00 with all passengars onboard, etc. So SAS never mentions any students that missed the ship!

Anonymous said...

i was in cambodia for a month in january and the killing fields are awful and the poverty is just as bad, theirs kids begging every were and kids going through rubbish for food, we made friends with a few kids that sold books from 11am till 9pm every day and there baskets of books are so heavy plus their so lovely, no kid deserves this kind of childhood some thing needs to be done !!!!