Kep, Cambodia

Kep is a quiet seaside retreat not so much discovered, as yet, by the tourists. Its beaches are not that great. The seafood is more than abundant and crab is their specialty. We splurged ($25) on a guesthouse with peach colored bungalows and thatched roofs. A deep blue pool is surrounded by terra cotta tiles. Organza curtains flutter around the bamboo gazebo. It’s hot and humid here, but this was one of our best days in Cambodia.
Lush is an understatement for this tropical region. There are jack fruit and mango trees. The palms fronds flap their leaves together in the ocean breeze. A fragrant six- foot jasmine like bush grows nearby. The mountains inland are a national park.  Cambodia is still more 19th than 21st Century. The young man that lives down the trail beyond our resort passed by this morning on a farm wagon still pulled by oxen.

David and I rented a motorbike this afternoon and cruised the newly resurfaced roads near the ocean. There are many 1-3 acre parcels where once stood  lovely seaside mansions during the French Colonial era—some of them designed by architect, Le Corbusier. They were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and 80’s. Many peasants have taken over the parts that are livable. Beautifully crafted stone fences and elaborate iron gates still remain. Mature landscapes have returned to their wild and natural inclinations.  Someone or agency is busy clearing the lands and hanging for sale signs so if you know of anyone looking to build their seaside villa on a bargain piece of land, this might be it. Of course, to get here, we endured a two-hour spine jarring tuk tuk ride on a road in process where, when someone passed us, we had a brown out of red dust.

Yesterday we ate Green Papaya Salad and Crab cooked in Coconut and Lemon Grass sauce.

I love the Cambodian people especially in the countryside. They don’t need to meditate—so easy going and ready with smiles. When I ask a driver how much to pay for some extra service he gave us, he smiles and says, “Oh, you decide, madame.” No haggling.

The Khmer women of both Cambodia and Thailand are well, lush, lovely, perhaps the most delicate and graceful creatures we’ve ever seen.  When I think of the history of this country, my mind says, “who could possibly want to hurt these people?” 

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Kampot River Ride

DSC00537Les Manguieres is a resort I found on the internet . . .”one of Cambodia’s best kept secrets”. And indeed it is. The resort is on the Kampot River about four miles out of the town of Kampot and about 15 miles from the ocean. It is best known for its red, green, white, and black peppers that grow on nearby plantations in the foothills of the mountains.

The assistant manager of the resort, a Cambodian woman who looks about 16, helped us arrange a biking and kayaking excursion on our first day there. Our plan was that we would ride their bikes about 3-4 miles through the local village; then meet the resort’s boatman who would ferry a kayak up river to us. The bicycles were rusted, one gear Chinese specimens probably manufactured during the Ming Dynasty, but they worked.

With her carefully drawn map in hand, we rode through the village accompanied by curious young boys pointing the way to the confused looking “farangs” or foreigners. We arrived at the local school just as the kindergartners were getting out. It looked much like our schools, but parents waited on motorbikes squeezing up to three little ones on for a ride home. “Hello!” Hello!” they called; little hands waving. It was my movie star moment as the gappy toothed kindergartners gathered around my bike to see themselves in the pictures I took. Their innocence and unadulterated joy was worth the price of the plane ticket.

We rode on to the third bridge where our boatman was waiting. With a chorus of birds to accompany us, we paddled first into the mangrove backwaters that the locals call the Green Cathedral; then out into the open river for a much needed dip. A smiling, toothless grandmother came out to wave at us, and other local children splashed into the water as well. I know I sound a little spoiled but the Cambodian version of a kayak is more like a small bathtub which works if quick turns aren’t required.

The main diet here is fish as well as rice, watermelon, mango, pineapple, and bananas and of course, pepper. The broad, salt water river is teeming with fish of various kinds unlike our own. It is so hopeful to see a river that actually feeds its community.
the green cathedral

To see with new eyes

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“The heart of the question of our reason for a quest is how to renew our vision. To see with the eyes of the heart.”
Phil Cousineau from The Art of Pilgrimage

Most advertised travel in today’s modern world is “more of the same” indulgences in luxuries that make us feel we’ve been pampered enough to return to our stress filled lives. We may travel out of the country to see  the world, but surround ourselves in safe, clean environments and people of our own economic status and cultural persuasion.

I travel not to escape the world but to embrace it more fully. I like to challenge those fears that lie in wait in the back of my brain shouting ( whispering?), “You can’t do that. It’s too dangerous. It’s too expensive and you’re not good enough.”

There is a different relationship to time on the road, a freedom of thought I don’t usually have at home or don’t allow myself–encumbered with obligations, details, expectations, gardens, and relationships. As we get older it’s easy  to think smaller, safer, and our minds shrink in their capacities. I want to break away from stultifying old habits and the addiction to comforts that strangle us “To see with the eyes of the heart.”

Belief and experience are two very different things. A belief comes from something we’ve read in a book or heard on television or radio and accepted as fact. But it’s not enough. Experience is something actually perceived. If you had never tasted an orange, I could fool you about its characteristics; but if you had already eaten one, I could not deceive you. You would know, you would have had the experience of it.

There are those, especially in the West, who are skeptical about anything beyond a full stomach and a balanced checkbook. But there are places on this earth that are power spots, revered temples, places where great souls have walked and their essence remains like the perfume that lingers on a woman’s dress.  I know it’s true because I’ve experienced it.

I’ve always had a longing for that deeper meaning in life I suppose I yearn for a certain transformation by traveling–enlightenment for lack of a better word. Pilgrimage was actually the motivation for travel as early as the 11th Century. Yes, it’s true that one doesn’t need to wander about the world in order to grow and develop his/her deeper spirituality. I don’t expect to achieve enlightenment by any stretch of the imagination, but the effort is still worth it; and besides, the food of Asia is worth every aching muscle, every annoying price negotiation, every hard mattress.

Postcards, receipts, even stories told can only convey an infinitesimal part of what I’ve encountered both in the world and within myself. It is a lonely feeling to come back to the ones I love and respect wanting to share some of that experience, but who has time to stop and listen?  I lie awake at night trying to piece together those memory bits sleeping in the grooves of my brain somewhere beyond understanding and just out of reach of the words to express. Memories that haunt my dreams–the Muslim call to prayer amidst the clamor of traffic and commerce in Kolkata–the ancient jacaranda tree I could see and smell from my hotel balcony-the children splashing and bathing on the ghats of the Ganges that felt strangely familiar.
There is something sacred waiting to be discovered in every journey even a trip to your local market.  If you’d like to travel with me, come on. My husband, David, and I are bound for Southeast Asia and India. I hope to take you along  in these blog posts.