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Saturday, May 13, 2006


Blowin' in the wind

When I was in Malaysia last year, I met Normand and Ursula who have become dear friends. I have written about them before. Like me, they have retired to travel. They recently visited Cambodia. Ursula sent me the email she sent to all her friends describing their travels. With her permission I am using her email as the basis of this week's blog. I thought you might like to get someone else's perspective on this country. Ursula's first language is not English. However, I have kept my editing to a minimum to retain the flavour of her writing.


The last time I wrote, we were in Bangkok. We are always happy to be there.

We planned to go for a wedding in Cambodia; the son of our best friend Charles married a Cambodian girl. Unfortunately Normand had very bad back pain and was unable to travel then. He takes rest and some therapeutic massages at Wat Pho helped him to recover, but not on time to join the wedding in Phnom Penh. Two weeks later Charles came back from Phnom Penh with the pictures from the wedding and we had the chance to live it through his stories.

Our computer had some very serious virus problems (I told them to buy a Mac—John), we spent three days and many hours at the computer clinic and after they changed all the programs three times we are very happy to have it again, it is a great help for us. With the Wi-Fi connection we are more vulnerable to catch bad things, so we have two anti-virus programs now.

Bangkok offered us once more many faces, markets, a riverside Thai restaurant on the road where we ate papaya salad and sticky rice every day, traditional Thai music in the park, boat rides on the river, Chinatown with all those products we don’t know. While Normand recovers, we take our time to write, answering many letters and messages which we neglected during the time we travel.

And the time came when we packed our back sack, happy to take the road again. By bus we went to Aranya Prathet. Here a motorbike tuk tuk brings us to the Cambodian Border. In a few minutes the road condition changed completely, we enter in a visibly poor country. We spent the night in Poipet, very small town, where the Thai people play their chance and money in the casinos.

The next morning we had difficulties to find a bus to go further. Finally after one hour of discussions and searching, we decided to go sitting on the back with one of the pick ups with the Cambodian people. After 4½ hours on this road, we understand, why the tourists take those minivans for $10. We were completely brown-reddish, covered with the dust from the road. We paid only $4 each, but the Cambodians pay 2000 reil, 50 cents only, ha-ha.

Siem Reap, small very fast developing town. Every body is after us to bring us to Angkor Wat. The first day we spent it by discovering the town and we visited the Miniature Angkor Wat, constructed by a today old man. He speaks very well French and it is a pleasure to listen to his stories, so many things he lived in this country for 40 years of different wars. Our first contact with so many atrocities we discover little by little during our journey.

The next morning we went to the Angkor Wat, many of you have seen it already; I can hardly find the words to describe it to you. It is a real beauty; it is something that touches you deep in your soul, such marvelous temples for the glory of their Gods. Unfortunately the greatness and the holiness of those temples are no more respected today. Too many tourists are walking over those sacred stones and fragments of statues of Buddha, Lingams and Yonis. They come like bee swarms in bunches, creeping in every single space, stealing images here and there with their super cameras. No, the Gods are no more here, gone forever. But we found very quiet places and moments where we had the chance to concentrate on all the fantastic work, the deepness and the spirituality of the place. On the first day we walked 12 kilometers through Angkor, feeling it, spending hours in contact of those stones which tell us so many things. Because of the very hot weather, 38 degrees, we decided to visit the two days after with a tuk tuk, which brought us to the temples outside of Angkor. We had more time to spend on the temple sites and less walking on the hot road. After three days we were full of impressions and very glad to have had the chance to visit Angkor and its beauty. Maybe frustrated to know, that almost all the money goes to Vietnam and the Cambodians seems to have like nothing from the dollars of the thousands tourists who visits Angkor every day.

On Saturday evening Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician gives a cello concerto and information of his foundation Kantha Bopha, four pediatric hospitals here in Cambodia. It is very impressive to listen to him, to hear the truth about the medical situation in Cambodia; about the money he receives by almost only donations to treat every year 600,000 sick children. Every month 2,500 children would die if it wasn’t for Kantha Bopha. All services in the four Kantha Bopha hospitals are free. 95 percent of families in Cambodia are too poor to pay for child care. The Kantha Bopha is their one and only chance to grow up healthy. 'Beatocello' is the Mother Teresa of Cambodia. For those who are interested to know more about Kantha Bopha, here is the web site: http://www.beatocello.com.

Two days later we went to Kantha Bopha to give our blood. They need a lot of blood to treat the children affected by the hemorrhagic dengue fever, which is endemic in Cambodia; blood is the only treatment to save their lives. Again we are impressed about this very respectful work.

During the six days we were in Siem Reap, we were brought to the small land mine museum; it belongs to a man who joined the Khmer Rouge when he was 9 years old. I will not go into details, the story is too sad and heavy at the same time. Today, this man’s life is destroyed. He’s in danger of death every hour, but today he works by himself alone, without any sophisticated tool to search for hidden land mines and UXOs in the soil. In his house he and his wife welcome other victims of landmines, but there are too many now, he needs help, but he is alone with all those miseries. Between 4 and 6 million mines lay buried in the Cambodian soil, still today. More than ten years after the entry of democracy in the country, every day 2 Cambodians are victims of those mines, consequences of the war, imagine: over 700 victims each year. We will be in contact with those victims all over the country, they are present and testimonies of the madness of mankind. Nobody can say I am not responsible, we are it all in different ways and once you become conscious of the problem, you are never more the same, knowing means you are part of it.

Our journey continues to Phnom Penh, this time we chose the comfortable air con bus, but on the way, the air con breaks, for a while we have to accept the difficult condition. The windows cannot be open. Very soon, the conductor find the problem, a fuse is broken. In the next village he will change it, we are safe. The route is very nice, not dusty at all. We see a little bit of the real Cambodia as it is still today out of the big centers. Bullock carts, bamboo and straw houses, people carrying water to their homes, children playing naked on the roadside, rice fields as wide the eye can see, dry, very dry. Colorful markets, everybody wears a hat, cycles, motorbikes, boats, only few cars, another world, time stood still somehow. But smiling faces all over, they did not lose their smile, they have nothing or only the most necessary to live, but they smile. We, in our 'sophisticated' society, we have everything and much more, but we lost our smiles. Normand and I, we tried so many times to catch a smile from another western tourist, but almost never we succeed it. When we smile to Cambodians, we harvest the most beautiful and sincere smiles.

Phnom Penh, we stay near the Orussey market, here is the real Cambodian life. We could stroll through those markets for hours. There is always something to see and to discover. The city is ours for sightseeing on foot.

Here I find a very nice and modern dental clinic to fix a crown which is moving since weeks. The dentist made a very professional job and with the cleaning together I pay $27. Real economy when I compare the price in Canada or Switzerland. It is good to know.
Visit of the Royal Palace with its silver pagoda, amazing masterpiece of art. In the evening we like to be with the Cambodians who come to the riverside to enjoy the fresh air after the very hot working day. We eat for the first time lotus flower seeds, very exotic and delicious too.
The visit of the national museum takes us all day long. Here we see many of those statues we missed in the Angkor Temples. They are here, dead treasures, because, once you are in a museum you are definitively dead forever. We sit in the museum garden near the fish ponds, decorated with old stones, stones who have their own stories, but nobody is listening to them any more, people passes by, without touching them with the smallest look.

Saturday, the day our friend John comes to town from Kompong Chhnang where he teaches English in a monastery. We find him in the internet café and happy, we spend some hours together before he goes back.

As usual, I visit a hospital; here it is L’hopital de la Calmette. The test shows, that I have amebas in a cystic form. Again I need some antibiotic to kill them. The doctor recon forts me, here in Cambodia almost everybody has them…but I think for myself, it is not a reason that I catch them too… Normand’s test is negative, very good. I can see that the hospitals here are much like in India. The best way to avoid them is to be very careful.

We had also the honor to meet Jeremie and his young and beautiful Cambodian wife Vannary. We eat together in a French restaurant. During hours we exchanged our life and ideas. We are glad to see them, even we had not the chance to assist their wedding ceremony.

Another bus day, 7 1/2 hours, through villages, rubber plantations, cows on the dry fields, people preparing their fields for the coming rainy season. Again, the air con breaks down and we are in a mobile greenhouse… in an overfull bus, without any possibility to open the windows, we reach Kratie, we look all like steamed lettuce.

Kratie is a small town, very pleasant and here we are on the side of the beautiful Mekong River, for the fifth time we see it again. Very happy to be here, but it is so hot, no wind at all. On this time of the year is dry season and the water of the Mekong is very low. We walk many hundred meters to reach the water. We stand in the Mekong, the water is warm like in a bathtub. From here we observe the sunset, children and women come for their bath, men are there to wash their cows, and time stands still one more time.

We came to Kratie to meet a Swiss missionary. In my village: Gstaad, in Switzerland, I know a missionary, she was in Kratie after she worked in the refugee camps at the border in Thailand for many years, and Daniel is in her footsteps now. We found him, alone in a traditional Khmer house where he lives since almost 4 years. We had the chance to exchange together for two hours, a very precious moment. We were very lucky and happy to know him more and also the work he does here in Kratie.

Almost no tourists come to Kratie to meet missionaries, but for the freshwater dolphins Irrawadi, which are living in the Mekong River. A big business is made around them, particularly with the motorbikes and their drivers. We decided to rent our own motorbike to be free and take our time here. So, like easy riders we discovered the countryside of Kratie. Fifteen kilometers out of town we see the boats waiting for us to go on the Mekong to watch the dolphins. It was too artificial, and we have such a nice souvenir of our daytrip with Peter, Sarah and Campbell on the Mekong River in the 4000 Islands in Laos, that we didn’t go. Instead of dolphin watching we stopped by some small rapids to observe the people preparing for the coming New Year, people are coming here for fishing and enjoy their picnics.

We had a nice day, small villages, laughing children, busy markets, roadside restaurants, take a nap in two hammocks offered by two young ladies to us. Beside us, the majestic Mekong, silently but so strong, and full of life, it flows 42,000 kilometers until it reaches the sea in Vietnam.

On our way back we have a flat… in the middle of nowhere. But there comes an angel on a bicycle, without speaking he signs us to follow him, a few 300 meter further was a small straw house. Here we met a friendly man; he was the 'flat repairer'… once more we are blessed. He speaks well French, is handicapped by a landmine, but we feel not any kind of bitterness in him, he is happy to be alive. After a long chat with him and a professional patched pneumatic tire we continue our road home.

During the night we had a wonderful rain which cools down the air. And early in the morning, it is a little bit 'fresh', but still 32 degrees. We take the bus to go back to Phnom Penh. First we planned to stop in Snuol to meet another couple of missionaries with two children there. But our timing is not good, they left for a forum in Phnom Penh, and we have no news from them. So, we went back to the capital.

Palm Sunday, we are looking for a church, but the only one we find is closed. Nobody can inform us where we could find another one. Every body likes to help, but no one is sure. People sent us to the big Buddhist temple, so we visited it. We meet a young doctor and we speak a long time with him. Today, we are asking us, if he was really a doctor or, as so many others, received his diploma without studying medicine? Anyway, he was a nice man and we could well exchange with him.

Since three days we are in Sihanoukville now. From our balcony we see the Turkish blue sea, the sky full of stars in the night and an almost full moon. The beach is covered with fine white sand. It is not only a vacation place for western tourists but also a beloved holiday station for the Cambodians. Today is the beginning of the Buddhist New Year and many people are already here. For us it is the Easter holiday. We like the place, we take long walks on the beach, and from time to time we are cooling our body into the crystal-clear water, it is like a bit of paradise here. It is not too touristy and overdeveloped like other places in Thailand or Boracay in the Philippines.

Easter Sunday, we would like to go the church. By motorbike we go to the 6 kilometers out of town church. We just arrived when they come out of the church… too late. But, we had the chance to speak for a while with the French priest. He arrived in Cambodia in 1957. And now we know that every church has been destroyed under the Pol Pot regiment. Christianity was forbidden for many years in Cambodia. Even he was caught by the Khmer Rouge, 4 days in the jungle, before they let him free and he escaped to Thailand. For fifteen years he worked in the refugee camp too, before he came back to Sihanoukville.

In our passport we have a brand new visa for Vietnam. On April 20 we are leaving Cambodia already, one month passes to fast. We are happy to be here, those people are worth to be visited and to listen to them, they have a very heavy past but they are strong and full of hope. I wish that they can be free of all the corruption one day, they have the right to have a decent life like every body in this world should have. How many liters of water have to flow in the Mekong until they are 'free'? I don’t know it, but in my heart I love them and wish them the best…

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

I am asking you, all of you, to listen carefully to this old song “Blowin' in the wind” by Bob Dylan, and make for those few minutes place in your hearts for all those innocent people who are still suffering today, suffering for atrocities they never asked for. Become conscious of all the injustice in the world is not enough to help them, I know, but thinking about them and even pray for them, is a very little compassion for them, and that, all of us can do it, at least once every day.

Dear friends, humbly, I share those thoughts with all of you. We are glad and thankful that we had the chance to meet every one of you at least once in our life. We wish you happiness and a joyful heart.

Best Regards,

Normand and Ursula

PS: For those who don’t know the song 'Blowin' in the Wind', many people sang it throughout the years, I think however the versions of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and also Peter Paul and Mary are the best.

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