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Out of desperation, I took a teaching job in Korea. In exchange for me signing a one year contract, they flew me to Asia, and gave me an apartment and a good salary.

I was miserable in Korea. To keep myself busy I studied Korean language and began working on a masters thesis, tracing the origin of the Korean language from Lake Baikal in Russia, which is a common origin for Manchurian language as well as many tribal languages spoken by nomads in central Asia and the Asiatic parts of Russia.

I published one article on the subject, comparing Korean and Chinese, and received a lot of recognition for it. But because I am more practical than theoretical I also received a lot of criticism for what I wrote. That and a lot of my articles are very insulting and if people don’t like it I threaten to Kung Fu their ass. I can beat up most of the serious linguists I know.

I was offered a scholarship to do my PHD at Dong-A university in Busan, Korea. But I didn’t fancy spending five more years in Korea. I also didn’t want to be in a classroom teaching Korean kids. And I didn’t want to do all my research from a book. I wanted to be back in the field. If westerners don’t use deodorant, we reek, and most Asians don’t. But, for whatever reason, if Koreans smoke or drink alcohol, they stink way worse than other people. And of course they eat kimchi three times a day. I quit after seven months and returned to Thailand. I had a lot of unfinished adventures there.

My first order of business was to hook up with my old friend, Dave, who is the other half of our small production company called Two Guys from Brooklyn Productions. We had met years ago, in an Akha tribal village. He was doing a film. I was writing. We always said we’d work together again. Our first story was a documentary on the Long Neck Karin, one of the most exploited hill tribes in the world. Refugees from Burma, they are locked in tourist villages, like human zoos, where people pay money to gawk at them. You can google “Antonio Garceffo Long Neck Karen” and find the story.
Next we did a documentary on a Spanish monk, named Kru Pedro, who taught ancient spiritual Muay Thai. I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai in an experimental program called ALG Automatic Language Growth. It was something I had read about when I was at graduate school in Germany. I got heavily involved with the program and began working on a book on Thai linguistics. To date, I have published a number of articles on ALG as applied to Thai language. At one point I went to stay in a temple in Khmer Surin, a part of Thailand which used to belong to Cambodia. I was there studying with one of my best friends, a Khmer monk, named Prah Sameth, also I was there to train with Tony Jaa’s martial arts teacher, “In the Footsteps of Tony Jaa.” While there I also did an article on the difficulties of constantly switching between Khmer and Thai, two languages, which, without sharing a common origin, share 30% of their vocabulary. It’s a long funny story, “Tongue Tied in Surin.” All my linguistics articles are actually pretty funny.

In Thailand I signed a one year teaching contract but lasted only three weeks. That was my record. I quit the job and went to Philippines to study martial arts and write on an island called Palawan. Somewhere in here I worked on a Discovery Channel show called “Fight Quest.” Then I went to Cambodia to do a show for History Channel. After the show, I returned to Thailand briefly writing and studying more Muay Thai. I went back to Philippines to write on an island called Coron. In Philippines I write a lot about the indigenous people. There are countless tribes here, nearly a hundred, and an incredible number of languages and dialects. There are also a lot of martial arts, so Philippines is a good place for me. On my way back to Thailand I lived with a martial arts master, named Master Frank, in Manila. We are still friends and I still study Kuntaw with him.
I left Philippines and worked on a show called “Human Weapon” in Cambodia. I was employed for about three months writing and doing field research, although I only appear on screen for about two seconds. Very cool, one of my jobs was to find and fight every master in Cambodia and write my opinion of them. It took weeks of following up on rumors and traveling into remote rice paddies and villages to find these guys. Most of them were pretty fragile from malnutrition and never having recovered from the Khmer Rouge years, so I only played around sparring. The wrestlers were good, though. And try as I might, they made me look pretty silly, wrestling in the mud in their villages.
I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks to explore Kampuchea Krom, a Khmer province which was given to Vietnam fifty years ago. I also documented Vietnamese martial art and sparred while I was there.
Somewhere in all of this I turned 40. I went back to Cambodia to work on a History Channel show called “Digging for the Truth,” and got about fifteen minutes of screen time. My big break. Also, my last date with Hollywood. Since then, we have kissed and flirted, but not yet married. I have come close to getting my own show, but it hasn’t happened. I do, however, have an internet TV show, called “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which airs on youtube. So, that is better than nothing.
I went back to Thailand to follow up on the most important and life changing adventure of my life. We are getting to the most important part of the story here.

Because of the Monk, Prah Kru Bah, who took me in when I lived in the jungle on the Burmese border, and because of the numerous tribal stories I had written, I had always been very interested in the war in Burma. A westerner I knew in Chiang Mai several years before had been heavily involved with the Shan State Army. There are a lot of Shan people living in northern Thailand. In fact a lot of my friends at the monastery and around Chiang Mai were Shan. They are extremely good looking people. I call them the proto-Thais because they were the original Tai people who migrated down from China to settle in Burma. The Thai, The Shan, and The Lao are all part of the Tai ethnic group and share a language which is 70% similar. The culture and the religion are also very much alike.

Through a series of events which I can’t publish yet, I wound up making it to the Shan State Army rebel stronghold inside of Shan State, Burma. The Shan share no similarities at all with the Burmese. They were never a part of Burma until the British drew a line on a map, around the end of World War Two. In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma, and General Ne Win took power. He began waging war, akin to genocide, against Burma’s many ethnic people. Since then, several million have fled across the border to become refugees. No one knows how many were killed exactly, because journalists and international organizations are banned from Burma, but we have been able to document countless cases of whole villages being burned and the villagers executed. The army uses gang rape as a weapon, and I interviewed a 14 year old girl, who at age eleven, was gang raped while her parents burned to death inside of her house. She could hear them screaming.
Since 1962, the Shan formed their own army and have been fighting to form an independent country, called Shanland. The right to secede from the Union of Burma was guaranteed them by the British, but so far neither Briton, nor the world has done anything to enforce this agreement.
I hit it off with Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the Shan State Army. He invited me to wear a uniform and to come and go as I please in Shanland. When I am inside, I carry my cameras and document human rights abuses. I film interviews with the refugees. The Shan State Army base has become a safe zone for refugees, driven from their villages by the government forces. They have a school and a temple there and a dormitory for about 650 orphans. Many of the orphans actually have one or more living parents but the parents gave the children to the army so that the could be raised in safety and educated in the Shan State Army school, which is the best quality school in Shan State, offering a curriculum in four languages: Shan, Burmese, Thai, and English. In Shan State, it is illegal to teach Shan reading and writing, so for most kids, they don’t learn to read and write their native language.

If you are a parent, could you imagine things being so bad that you would give your child to strangers in the hopes that they would survive? Once a Shan person goes to live on the rebel army base, they can never re-enter Burma because the Burmese would capture them and torture them to find out information about the rebels. The parents don’t have phones or mail service. After a long trek, often several months of hiding, slowly making their way through the jungle, to hand their child over to the Shan State Army, the parents say “good-by” to their children, and they will most likely never see them or hear from them again.

When I am in the base, I do interviews all day, and often break down in tears. I interviewed two small boys whose parents were murdered. When I asked them, they couldn’t even remember the name of their village. They had blocked out the first several years of their lives. After they left, I told my translator hwo upset I was that two little boys should be made orphans for absolutely no reason. He said, “It’s normal.” My answer was, “It shouldn’t be.”
After more than forty years at war, there are very few Shan who remember a time of peace. “It’s normal.”
When I am inside I teach hand-to-hand combat to the soldiers. Outside, I publish my videos and articles and try to raise awareness of the Shan situation. I also coordinate donations through a great NGO who have the guts to go inside and render medical aid to the children. Most big NGOs and the UN won’t help the Shan because they have rules in their bylaws which say they can’t break the law and that they can only render aid if the government invites them. In the case of Burma, the government is doing the killing, so that invitation has been lost in the mail. Other large NGOs, who solicit millions of dollars from Americans every Christmas, have a policy of not aiding armed groups. “If the Shan lay down their weapons, we will come help them.” They said. Obviously if the Shan laid down their weapons, the Burmese would kill them all, and there would be no children to help. The orphan dormitories are surrounded by trenches in case the base comes under attack again.

There are two small NGOs who are willing to risk their lives running aid missions into Burma. I have been in the filed with them both and I have great respect for them. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) run training programs. The leaders of the tribal armies each send a few of their men to get trained as Rangers. The FBR teach them field medicine, patrolling, navigation, and photography. The men learn to do human rights abuse documentation. FBR even gives them cameras. If you have seen the movie Rambo IV most of the actual footage of atrocities was shot by FBR teams who risk their lives to get in and film. They also give direct medical aid when they can and provide physical security when they can. Many of the refugees only made it to the Shan base because an FBR team found them in the jungle and rescued them.

I have become very close with some of the young teachers in Shanland. It breaks my heart to see their students playing football on a field surrounded by landmines and knowing that if those mines were removed, they would all be killed. The day after Chidlren’s Day, the Burmese forces surrounded the base, waiting to ambush families who were taking their children home after the festivities.

I started a project called “In Shanland.” Basically I publish one video on youtube for free and one article for free which I send to about 4,000 people and organizations. I send out one article and one video per week, and will do so for a year. Hopefully by the end of the year, the project will have gained momentum and someone important will have heard about the Shan and come help them.
I have spent some time in Philippines, attending paramedic school. I am taking as much training as I can in emergency medicine but also going to be taking courses with the police and army to get trained in close security and renew my training with heavy weapons. I plan to go back into Shanland in October or so. After I finish my training in Philippines, I may take a paying job somewhere in the world to help me continue my volunteer work in Shanland. The amazing part of this story is that I don’t work for any aid organization. I am self-funded and a number of nice people around the world have written in, making donations, helping me get through school. Among them are several deposed Shan princesses. The world is so strange. And people are inherently good.

If I weren’t so poor, I never would have reached out, asking for help. And I never would have proved just how wonderful and caring people can be. After I return to Shanland, I think I will carve out a niche for myself as a combat medic, doing aid missions in trouble zones all over the world. I love the Shan. But their plight made me realize that there are groups of displaced, stateless people all over the world and because of uncomfortable politics no one is helping them. Darfur is probably the example most people will know, but there are many, many others. And it doesn’t matter what color their skin or what language or religion, people are people, and more importantly, kids are kids, and they deserve the right to live and grow in safety.

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Most of us have some aspect of our personality or our life that we wish to change. We want to lose weight, quit smoking, save money, or develop the discipline to meditate daily and heal our minds. Some people wish to become less materialistic and to appreciate the simple things in life. Our biggest holidays, Christmas and Thanksgiving and Chanuka are good opportunities to overeat, overindulge, overspend, over-consume, and overdo. What most westerners need is a prolonged fast, a quiet return to the simple life and an escape from the modern world of consumer culture. The Buddhists have such a holiday.
Toward the end of July, travelers may have noticed inordinate numbers of monks crowding the bus stations of Cambodia’s and Thailand. Most of the monks were given special leave to visit their families, in preparation to the Buddhist lent, a three month celebration of faith, when they would not be permitted to leave the monastery.

Anyone who has tried doing business in South East Asia during rainy season, you will find that things slow down immensely. Actually, the slow down, at least in part, is based on the observance of the Buddhist holiday, Vassa (called Phansa in Thailand), the Buddhist lent, which is primarily practiced in Cambodia, Thailand, Lao, and Burma. The Buddhist lent is often loosely referred to as the “rain retreat.” The period of deep religious dedication begins on the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month.
The word Vassa is actually an old Pali word which means rain. The holiday is divided into two parts. The first part, for the entering of the rainy season, is called “Choul Phrah Vassaanother. The second part, for the exit of the rainy season, is called “Cheanh Phrah Vassa”. While lay people are free to chose what level of discipline they wish to exert in following the rules of the lent. For monks, however, strict observance is mandatory.

Non-monks often use this Lenten period to renew their spiritual practices and give up some of their luxuries, such as meat, alcohol, or smoking.
During the lent period, normally from August to October (depending on lunar months), monks aren’t allowed to sleep outside their temple, neither are they permitted to wear “regular clothes.” The tradition stems from a story abut how Buddha remained in the temple during rainy season to prevent stepping on any insects of sprouting seeds. They are, however, permitted to go out during the day. Monks use this period of restricted movement to do intensive study, meditation, and prayer. This is also a time when they would teach the sacred scriptures to younger monks.

Buddhist lent is the most important religious holiday for monks, novices, and lay people. Monks stop wandering and stay on the temple grounds. Novices benefit because they receive additional education. Laypeople stop doing evil and cut back on bad habits. Some people take this opportunity to purify themselves and start a new life.

A few days before the Buddhist Lent, Cambodian people buy pairs of big candles decorated with dragons or flowers. One candle is for the buyer and one to get a husband or wife in the next life. The day before Buddhist Lent, the 15th day of the dark moon, commemorates the first sermon of Buddha to his first five disciples. Crowds of people gather in the temple in order to listen to the Dharma. In some parts of Cambodia there are grand candle processions, with the people walking three times around the pagoda with the lighted candles.
And thus begins a three month period of abstinence, sobriety, and meditation. If you really want to understand the southeast Asian culture, and if you want to stop gambling or drinking shoe polish, Buddhist Lent could be like a low-cost spa treatment to get your life back on track.

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The fishermen turn away from the blast. After the hand-grenade has exploded, they can simply pick the dead fish off of the top of the water. Hand-grenade fishing is much easier than fishing with nets. But, it is one of the most destructive activities ever envisioned. Not only do the edible fish float to the top, but the blast also kills scores of inedible and endangered fish, as well as completely wrecking the choral reef, which would take decades to regenerate.

Fred, a big, friendly American, who owns the SCUBA diving tour company, Eco Sea, in Sihanoukvile, was teaching me about the problems threatening the undersea environment, while suiting me up for an environmentally friendly diving expedition.

“Don’t worry the boat is equipped with a chemical toilet.” said Fred, “Just don’t swim underneath while someone is in the bathroom.” He warned. Wow! Modern diving was more dangerous than I had remembered. “Nothing is released in the water,” explained Fred, stilling my fears. “But we don’t want you to bang your head on the underside of the boat.” One of the first things I noticed about Eco Sea was that they adhered to all of the same PADI safety standards as I would expect in a first world country. This was no fly-by-night operation. The equipment had all been
checked out and tagged as serviceable.

“Can I see your Open Water card?” asked Fred. I handed him my card, and his eyes got huge. “Nine-teen eighty-three! That was a long time ago.” He exclaimed. “Yes it was.” I answered, not really wanting to be reminded of my age. “You have a lot of experience.” He said, testing me. They probably get a lot of dive cads purchased on Kaoh San Road in Thailand right next to the street stalls where you can by a PHD from Harvard for twenty dollars. “Is this a fake?” “Actually, my card isn’t fake. But I only dive about once or twice a year,” I explained. “But I still remember which end of the tank the bullets come out.”

“We’ll keep an eye on you.” Said Fred, checking his insurance policy.

“Thanks.” I said, taking out my notebook. ” Would you mind telling me what other services you have?”

“Well, we have emergency medical training, and carry a massive medical kit.”

“Can you do liposuction?” I asked, exposing my belly flab.” “I meant, we could treat anything up to and including trauma.”

“My mother didn’t love me, that was very traumatic.” Fred was silent, but his face said, “I don’t blame her.”

“We give you lunch and breakfast on the boat.” He continued. “And, we offer night dives, certification courses, advanced open water. Really, we can accommodate almost any request.” “How about a kosher vegan meal?”
“Almost any reasonable request.” Fred clarified. He threatened to force a pen in my ear, but he backed off when I promised not to write about it. “For Kosher or Vegan meals you need to call ahead.” Said Fred, accommodating
me. I made note in my book, call ahead. “Did I just lose points?” He laughed good naturedly.

“Yes, but it doesn’t have to be permanent.” “What do you mean?” “Can I have a baseball hat?” I asked, pointing at a very cool black hat, marked Survivor Cambodia. “But there were only thirty of these ever made.” he protested.
“Up to you.” I said, as an implied threat. “Maybe you are so rich you don’t need any new customers.” Years of working as a union organizer for the Teamsters had taught me a lesson or two. But, Fred knew how to play hard ball.

“Ok if you are going to be a baby about it.” He said, handing me the hat. “And a T-shirt.” I added, pushing my luck. Fred handed me the swag and made some comment about wanting to get back to the interview before he was left wearing a barrel with some shoulder straps.

Due to concerted efforts by the government and NGOs alike, guns are becoming much less common in Cambodia. But hand-grenades seem to pop up more frequently than they do back home. They are common enough that a bar I frequent in Phnom Penh has a sign with a picture of a grenade, with a big red ex through it. No Grenades Allowed. “I heard from some environmentalists that hand-grenade fishing was pretty common in Cambodia. Have you come in contact with that?” I asked.

“Yes.” Answered Fred. “They also do cyanide fishing.” He went on to tell me how destructive grenade fishing was to the environment. “Coral needs a very delicate balance to survive.” Apparently, Fred felt that blasts of C-4 and shrapnel weren’t exactly the best way to preserve the natural world. “But in the places where we dive, they stopped fishing. And in the few years that I have been running dive tours, we have actually seen the fish populations increase.”

SCUBA diving is an environmentally friendly activity. For one thing, divers don’t touch, damage, or otherwise alter the natural world. Secondly, divers produce all of those great underwater photos which make us aware of our natural world. Few people are able to care about endangered species like manatees and sea otters until they see photos of the cute little animals teetering on the brink of extinction. Divers are like the ambassadors of the non-terrestrial world. They go out, explore the undersea world, gather information, and upon their return, teach us all through media like Discovery and National Geographic television. This prompts viewers to donate money or push for legislation, which protects the environment.

“And it is a chain reaction, with direct, positive economic impact to the very fishermen who were displaced by the divers,” Fred explained. “The fish populations in the dive sites increase, reaching a point of saturation. So, the fish move to other areas, where the fishing is still going on, thus increasing the catch.”

Fred knew a lot about the environment, and cared deeply about the preservation of the Earth’s oceans. Eco Dive is a member of Go Eco, an organization which evaluates and certifies businesses as eco-friendly. Fred was in contact with other people concerned about the environment. Apparently they would communicate their ideas to one another, and decide how best to proceed. “A friend of mine is experimenting with a porous ceramic form, which can be dropped into the ocean to promote the growth of new coral reefs,” Fred told me.

Unfortunately in developing countries, environmental issues are not the only negative forces impeding the development of eco-tourism. Fred also told me great stories about pirates in the waters between the disputed Cambodian islands and Vietnam. Corruption is also a problem as the tourist police, whom I saw sleeping in hammocks on their boat, demanded a bribe of beer. “It’s a tax, not bribe,” corrected Fred. “Does it go in the general operating fund of the government?” I asked, giving it my own litmus test to determine if it was a tax or a bribe. “The beer?” “Maybe they could deposit it in the bank. You’ve heard of liquid assets.” “No, they drink it.” Oh yeah, that’s a bribe, I thought.

Out on the boat, Fred’s business partner, Dive Master Kyoko, ran through two separate safety briefings. Kyoko later told me that she had come from Japan to help promote Japanese tourism in Sihanoukville. About half of the group were not certified, and had come out to do snorkeling. My guide from Phnom Penh tours, Thavrin, had never been SCUBA diving or even snorkeling before. But he could swim, which made him part of an elite minority in Cambodia. Adventure sports are still a new concept in a country where much of the population still lives well below the poverty line. So, I was extremely proud of him when he announced, at the last minute, that he would go out on the boat with us. I helped him put on the unfamiliar equipment, and just as I thought he would be fine, he spit out his snorkel and tore off his mask.

“The mask is pinching my nose, and I can’t breath.” he complained. “Breath through your mouth.” I suggested. Not fully convinced, he gave the mouth breathing thing a trial run. “I guess that will work.” he said. “But won’t I get water in my mouth?” “You’ll need to put the snorkel back in.” I instructed. He was puffing on his snorkel like Cheech Marian and wheezing like Darth Vader when he jumped into the water, and nearly panicked. Thinking fast, Kyoko threw him a buoyancy device. At first, Thavrin clung to it for dear life. But, eventually, he relaxed enough to let go of it. By the end of the day, he was an expert snorkeler.

After we dropped off the snorkelers, we headed over to the dive site. On the way, Kyoko warned us that the water was choppy, and that we needed to suit up as fast as possible, or we would get sick. I of course took my time. Suddenly, I became extremely unwell. Finally, I vomited. The scary thing about vomiting is that you are going to have to put the regulator in your mouth in order to breath. Or maybe the scary thing is that someone else is going to have to use that regulator after you. Anyway, all I wanted out of life was to jump in the water, but I couldn’t till I had finished emptying
the contents of my stomach. The nuns back at Catholic school had insisted that we wait a half hour after eating before swimming. How long after vomiting did you have to wait before going SCUBA diving?

My answer was immediately. I jumped into the water. My dive partner, Rolf, an eighth year university student from Germany who hadn’t chosen a major yet, jumped in soon after me. “Did you have to eat rice for breakfast?” He shouted as he surfaced. “Sorry.” “If you run out of air I am not buddy breathing with you.” He warned. I released the air from my buoyancy compensator and slowly drifted under the sea like an old man easing into bath water. Only a few feet below the surface we were already oblivious to the violent and choppy waves above. The boat was leaping two meters in the air. But we were floating in that amazing and comfortable neutral buoyancy, which makes the undersea world look so unreal. If you become sea sick your instinct might tell you to cancel your dive. But, that would mean waiting on the boat for forty-five minutes, getting sicker and sicker. I think it is much better to just go ahead and dive.

Under the sea, I saw things I had previously only seen in dive magazines. Barrel sponges, sea cucumbers, sea anemone, large fleshy growths which covered the rocks and turned them into giant brains, and tubular growths,
which fed on tiny life forms extracted from the water. There were large barrel sponges covered with a type of parasitic worm which swayed in the gentle current like hair blown in the breeze. I swam past a large, man-eating Venus flytrap, which slammed shut its vice-like jaw with when an unwary diver swam too close. Ok, I made that last one up. But I really did see one of those giant monster clams you see in movies. I waited for it to open its lid to check for debris. It didn’t seem to be the one that ate Tokyo, although, it was clearly related.

The sea anemone, as Fred later explained, was a very interesting life form. It existed in a special symbiotic relationship with the fish that lay their eggs on the anemone to keep them safe. And, in return, the fish eat the parasites, which harm the anemone. Fred explained that the presence of these animals was a sign of a healthy reef. After we returned from our two dives, Fred and I had a burger, while he told me about his vision for a better, cleaner ocean.

One of the GO ECO criteria was that a business had to be involved in community activities. On this note, Fred organized the first ever beach cleanings In Sihanoukville. Twice annually, he also organizes a reef cleaning. Fred also works with the department of fishery, helping them to draw maps of the coastline, as well as the reefs themselves. According to Fred, protecting the ocean’s eco system is particularly important in Cambodia, where 60% of the dietary protein comes from fish.

If we all stopped using petrol as of this minute, it would probably have a positive impact on the environment. But, then, how would you get to work? By the same token, you can’t tell the fishermen to stop fishing, because this is how they earn their living. Fred’s idea was to train them as dive masters. In fact, one of the two dive-masters on Fred’s boat is the first Cambodian dive master ever. And, he used to be a fisherman. “This way, they can learn about and help to preserve the ocean. At the same time they are gaining a way to make an even better living by being a dive master.”

The dive master working for Fred earns a multiple of what he earned before, and he can work shorter hours, without risking his life, returning home for dinner each night. Again, Fred pointed out that fewer fishermen would mean a decrease in competition and an increase in the size of the fish population. The remaining fishermen could then fish more efficiently and earn more money.

An increase in diving and a reclaiming of the reefs will also increase tourism, bringing a much-needed economic boost to the depressed local economy. “The tourist dollars are definitely helping.” Said Fred. “A few years ago, when anyone came to Sihanoukville, everything was covered in a heavy cloud of dust because the streets weren’t even paved. Now there are restaurants internet shops, lots of businesses and most of them employ Khmers.” Fred believed that there were better schools and that the life of the average person in Sihanoukvile had improved dramatically. “Tourism could
help to save Sihanoukille, and all of Cambodia. But now, they need to get more tourists to visit.”

“Do you want me to cut out the part of the story where I threw up?” I asked. “That might not be a bad idea.” Said Fred.

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“Gi gong. Gi gong!” I repeated, switching to Khmer. “I want to ride a bicycle around Angkor Wat.” I insisted.”But it is more than thirty kilometers.” Protested the clerk at the bicycle shop. “And besides, it is raining.”

Thirty kilometers isn’t a huge distance for a bicycle. But, he did have a point about the rain. “When do you think it will let up?” I asked, considering postponing.
“In a month or two.””Give me a bicycle now.” I decided. I paid my two dollars rental, and made the clerk’s day. Now, when he went for lunch with his colleagues, he would have a great story to tell.

Cambodia is great for adventure tours, but if you are afraid of water, (is that called hydrophobic?) you shouldn’t come in the rainy season. The air temperature is always pretty high, so a cool drizzle feels good. Besides, twenty minutes into a bike ride I am usually dripping with sweat anyway.

The bicycle, a cheap Chinese copy of a mountain bike, was easily the worst bicycle I had ever ridden. Neither the gears nor the brakes worked, which was a lot of fun in the rain. The seat post and wheels were bent, and the rear axles made a loud klunking noise with each revolution of the wheel. The chain also went completely slack at times, causing the pedals to spin independently. They would usually come around and crack me on the shins. It was a lot like when I was learning Khmer Kickboxing and had to kick tree trunks with my shins. “You will be a champion some day,” said Thavrin, who would be my companion for the entire Cambodian adventure.
I’ve had better bicycles. But no bicycle ever gave me as much as this one did, taking me around Angkor Wat. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and I was there on a bicycle. Not bad for a boy from Brooklyn who
once believed you would fall off the Earth if you went beyond East 78th Street.

Khmers think foreigners are all insane. In Khmer culture, anyone with enough money to go on vacation could afford a driver, or at least a car. They don’t quite understand why we would chose to ride a bicycle. For me, aside from a need to work off all of the free four-star meals I had been eating in this
trip, I feel a bicycle is the best way to tour anything. It is faster than walking, which can sometimes get tedious. You can barely walk thirty kilometers in a day, much less stop off and look at interesting temples. A car is too fast. And there is something both decadent and displeasing about stepping out of an air-conditioned vehicle, snapping a digital photo, and then driving to the next interesting temple. A bicycle is somehow more honest.

From the town of Siem Reap to the Angkor Wat complex is only about two or three kilometers. Less than one kilometer out of Siem Reap, the noise level drops to zero. You follow a beautiful, tree-lined path to the moat. No matter how many photos you have seen of Angkor Wat, nothing will prepare you for your first glimpse of the actual temple. It rises up like some beautiful creation of the gods.

Entrance into the park is free for Khmers. For foreigners, it costs $20 for a day pass, or $40 for a three-day pass. The park is so incredibly large, that it cannot be seen in a day, or even three for that matter. If you have already paid thousands of dollars for a plane ticket to Cambodia, you might as well stay the extra two or three days and really experience Angkor Wat. Once again, like all of the temple complexes in Cambodia you are free to wander and do pretty much whatever you want to inside of the park. But, it would be recommended to hire a guide. English speaking guides run about $20 per day. Guides for other languages are more expensive. The guides will explain the intricacies of ancient Khmer architecture, as well as all of the legends from the Ramayana and elsewhere, which appear on the walls of the great temple. Without a guide you are just wandering aimlessly about, snapping photos of interesting stoneworks, which will all look the same to you when you get the photos developed after you return home.

At the park entrance, the guard told me I had to buy a ticket. Since I had a krama, a traditional Khmer scarf, wrapped around my head, and I speak Khmer, I tried to get in for free.

“I am Khmer.” I told him. “I don’t have to pay.”Many Khmers have never heard a foreigner speak their language, and the guard was noticeably taken off balance. Finally, he formulated the question that had been running around his head. “If you are Khmer why is your skin so white?” “My father is Chinese.” I said. “But your Khmer doesn’t sound perfect.”
“My mother died in the war.”This almost convinced him. But then he asked. “Why do you have round eyes?”
“I was adopted by an American family.” I said.

I don’t think he actually believed the story. But there must have been nothing in his training course to prepare him for a foreigner trying to pass himself off as a half Chinese war orphan. Finally, we both burst out laughing, and I felt a little guilty about my clumsy attempt at deception. Of course, the joke was on me, because now I had to shell out $40 for a
three-day pass. “Tell your mother she can get in for free.” He told me, as he waved me through.Maybe he had believed me after all.
Once through the gates, there is a choice of two routes to take, the Grand Loop or the Small Loop. I chose the Grand Loop, which measures about thirty kilometres all the way around the complex. Roughly the first kilometer takes you past the main Angkor Wat temple, which you are familiar with from
postcards and T-Shirts. And, if you have had the good fortune of living in Cambodia for a year and a half, as I have, you will have received at least one gift, a dinner plate, paperweight, or toothbrush, which bears the sacred image. Angkor Wat is the symbol of Khmer pride; its image even adorns the
Cambodian flag. The time of the Angkor Empire, 1100 AD ,is also referred to as The Glorious Age, when Khmer civilization was at its peak, and Cambodia was more than twice its current size.

According to my guide, Samban, from Phnom Penh Tours, in ancient times, Cambodia bordered China, Thailand, Lao, and Myanmar. Effectively, there was no Vietnam at that time. Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, was part of Cambodia. But, eventually, the Kingdom of Vietnam encroached on Khmer soil, until Cambodia no longer reached to China. Later, the French ceded the lower half of Cambodia, called Kampuchea Krom, to Vietnam. Thailand also infringed on Cambodian territory, even occupying Angkor Wat for some brief periods of history.

Although Angkor Wat is both a world heritage site and the single most important artefact of Cambodian history, the temple is not some isolated relic. It is a living, breathing part of modern Khmer life. Bamboo huts of neighbouring villages are built right up to the moat of the ancient temple. Hawkers earn their living selling products to the visitors, with constant shouts of “Mr. OK, you come eat, drink, ok.” The moat is so large, that people make a profession of fishing in it. Children ride bicycles along the great stone walls, but not the whole thirty kilometers, only foreigners were that dumb, and we saw several others doing the same as us.

One of the nice things about travelling by bicycle is that you are guaranteed a warm reception wherever you go. I wanted my first day at Angkor Wat to be about the people who lived along its perimiter or made their living directly from the Temple. On a bicycle it was easy to stop and converse with people anytime we chose. And of course the Khmer people were always willing to chat.

The first people we stopped to talk to were a group of small children doing traditional fishing. They waded into the marshy areas on the fringes of the moat carrying a scoop-shaped screen made of woven bamboo. They stooped down, and pushed the screen, like a sledge, through the water. Similar to panning for gold, when the screen was full, they would pick through the silt and weeds. After discarding the muck on his screen, a small boy put a handful of tiny fish in a plastic jug. “Do you do this for business?” I asked him. “No, for soup.” He answered.

The children tried to teach me to use the screen but I couldn’t get the hang of it. The trick was to trawl jut deep enough to collect water, but not so deep that the screen fowled on the long weeds growing up out of the water. Even for experienced fishers the job was not very rewarding. After hours of fishing, the children had collected about thirty fish, each the size of your thumb.

We crossed over the bridge at the North Gate of Angkor Tom. The tops of the railings along the sides of the bridge were seven-headed naga (giant serpents from Hindu/Buddhist mythology). The thirty-meter long naga were supported by stone figures, each of which depicted a different character from Hindu/Buddhist mythology. The figures fighting for good were on the left side of the bridge. And the evil characters were on the right.

At the end of the bridge we passed beneath a massive stone arch, which displayed bas-reliefs from the myth, entitled, The Churning Sea of Milk (Go Samut Duk Dah). Set atop the arch was a Buddhist satva. Samban explained. “A
satva is someone on his way to becoming Buddha. The Dali Lama would be an example of a Satva.”

We rode on to a lesser-visited attraction, which is not on the itinerary of the one-day tourists. Samban led me from the road, down a quiet green path. We climbed up an embankment, and stood atop a stone parapet. In the ground below us gaped an oval shaped hole reminiscent of an ancient area. The pit was approximately three meters deep, and the area measured approximately 100m squared. “It is believed,” said Samban, “That the ancient Khmers would drive wild elephants into this put and train them for the army.”

At that moment it dawned on me that not only were the ancient Khmers gone, but the elephants as well. In addition to being home to the most powerful empire in Indochina, Cambodia had also been home to elephants and tigers. But, like so many other resources in the country, countless years of civil war, poverty, and corruption have driven the animals nearly to extinction. Back on the bicycles we enjoyed the serenity and invasive green of the Khmer rainy season. It would probably have been better to ride a bike on a sunny day, but at least the rain kept us cool. In the dry season the heat would have been oppressive.

Our next stop was at Preah Khan, which was originally built as a Buddhist temple in 1191 by King Jaya Varaman VII, who instituted Buddhism as the national religion of Cambodia. But, when he died, King Jaya Varaman VIII
changed the national religion back to Hinduism. The new king ordered the faces of the Buddhist statues destroyed. Today, the temple is adorned with 15,000 faceless Buddas.

The temple was topped by a tile roof, and constructed of heavy stone blocks connected with metal joints. Temples were protected by tremendous bas reliefs of the three mythical animals garuda (half man/half bird), naga, and lions. These were the symbols of power and were permitted to remain on the temple after the ascension of Jaya Varaman VIII. All three figures garuda, naga, and lion have since been accepted by both Buddhist and Hindu kings of Cambodia.

Both the enormity of these temples and the beauty of the detailed craftsmanship is difficult to take in. That devotion to a god unseen drove men to create such structures is unfathomable today, when most of us can’t be bothered to go to church. But, one of the most amazing aspects of the temples is that no one ever lived in them. Even monks and kings were housed outside, in wooden structures. The temples were strictly the dwelling places of the gods.

Many of the temples were surrounded by a moat and enclosed behind stonewalls, which bore a martial appearance. Reminded of European castles, I asked Samban if the temples had played any military role, if perhaps in times of war, they would have been used as fortresses. Any discussion of Cambodian history always tuns to the unhealed scars left by the Khmer Rouge. The Angkor Empire had departed from the Earth hundreds of years before anyone had heard of Pol Pot. But the precious stones of Angkor Wat were witnesses to genocide.

Samban explained that during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, form 1979 to 1987, the Vietcong turned these temples into garrisons. Siem Reap was the primary battleground during the war between the Khmer Rouge and Lon
Nol, 1970-1975. So, obviously tourists weren’t able to visit the temples at that time. During the Khmer Rouge period, 1975-1979, no foreigners were even allowed to enter Cambodia. The first tourism officially began in 1987, when
the Vietnamese government created a state-run tourist agency. At that time, there were very few tourists, and mostly from Communist Block countries. But the area around the temples had been so heavily mined by Vietnamese
soldiers that you couldn’t visit most of them. Siem Reap remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 19991 when UNTAC arrived (The UN peace keeping mission).

“In the 60s there were tourists here,” exclaimed Samban. But then, because of the KR, the temples were neglected or destroyed. “I saw photos of the temples in 1989. They were completely overgrown, reclaimed by the jungle.” On the way back to our bicycles we stopped off to interview a band of musicians, all landmine victims. They were seated on the ground, displaying their amputations, playing traditional Khmer instruments. One man, Wan Yun, was only 32 but already blind in one eye and was missing a leg.

“Did this happen to you in the army?” I asked. “Yes.” Answered Wan Yun. He looked sad, but he was still smiling politely,
which is the Khmer way. One would think that working at Angkor Wat he would be tired of tourists, but he seemed genuinely excited to be talking to me. Maybe it was because most tourists just walked past him, or gave him money,
without taking the time to recognise that he was a human being who needed to talk.

In most countries, asking if someone had been in the army was enough. But in Cambodia the next question had to be, “Which one?” In recent memory, Khmer men and women have served in the Royal Army, under King Norodom Sihanouk, the Republican army, under Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, The Khmer Serai (free Khmer army) under a number of different leaders, the Kampuchea army, under the Vietcong, or finally, the Royal Cambodian Armed
Forces, under Prime Minister Hun Sen. If you conducted enough interviews, it was not difficult to find men in their early fifties, who had served in several, or all of the Cambodian armies.

Wan Yun told me that he had been injured in 1993, while serving in Hun Sen’s army, fighting the Khmer Rouge near the Thai border. Two years ago, he had been taken into a government program, and was taught to play music. Now, he
and the rest of the band members lived in a government-run shelter, and supported themselves by performing for tourists.

Two massive, headless guardians protected the entrance to the temple. “I brought a tourist here in 1999,” explained Samban. “She was shocked when she saw the heads were missing from the statues. After she returned to her
country she sent me copies of the photos she had made here in 1969. The heads were on the statues at that time.”
“Who stole them?” I asked. “It could have been a number of people.” Answered Samban. “The Vietnamese took a lot of our historical artefacts with them when they left. It also could have been Khmer Rouge.” “Could it have been some poor people who sold them for food?” I suggested. “Absolutely not!” Samban was emphatic here. “Poor people have no idea the value of these artefacts. They would also have no idea how to sell them.” “How are they sold?” I asked, just in case things didn’t work out as a writer, maybe I could become a temple raider. “The artefacts have to be transported to Thailand, then smuggled across the border, and sold on the Thai black market.” The border with Thailand was still quite porous, but in the Khmer Rouge time, before 1994, it was even worse, with KR cadres passing back and forth at will. It is also a well-known secret that Thai border police accept bribes. Some Khmers go as far as saying that the Thai allow the transport and sale of the Khmer artefacts out of spite, just to rid the Cambodians of their cultural heritage.

Regardless of Thai complicity, to take a massive stone sculpture and transport it through numerous military blockades and police roadblocks, before even getting to the Thai border, would require permission and protection from someone high up. Said another way, the sculptures weren’t sold by a poor farmer trying to feed his starving family. They were sold by powerful people, Vietnamese or otherwise, to buy a new Land Cruiser, while the family of the poor farmer continued to starve.

The sheer mass of the temple construction is impressive enough. But, then you see the intricate details. Every inch of the lintels is covered in bas relief depicting the Ramayana, the central myth of Hindu and Buddhism. The walls inside the temple were rough and pockmarked. Samban explained that they were once covered in bronze plates, many of which were gilded. In the entire Angkor complex not a single metallic plate remains. They were all stolen.
The rain let up, and we continued on our bicycles, burning off the 18,000 calorie meals we had been eating. At the twenty-kilometre mark the tour ended. Now, we had about fifteen kilometres to ride back to town, and return the bikes. On the way, we passed some men throwing fishing nets from an embankment. We stopped off to get our second fishing lesson of the day. “Do you sell these fish?” I asked. “No, we just catch them for our mothers and wives.” Answered one of the men. “And if we don’t, there is trouble at home.” he joked. The men explained that they were full time farmers and just enjoyed fishing. Seeing them standing side by side, laughing and talking I realized that for these men, throwing their nets out together was a social occasion, the equivalent of an afternoon in the local pub. They could meet their friends and discuss the things that mattered to them, as well as those that didn’t. But unlike westerners in a pub, these men were burning calories, not absorbing them. And they were earning money, not spending it. Even the rural poor had a lesson to teach the west. Working a full day they could collect about half a kilo, or about $1 worth of fish. Many poor Khmers exist on a diet of almost nothing but rice. Even in Phnom Penh, some of the boxers I train with only get about 100 grams of meat a day, not enough to build muscle. These fishermen were luckier than inland farmers because the fish would add much needed protein to their diet. Clumsily, I took the net from one of the men. They all laughed at how out of my element I looked.

“You don’t have a wife or mother, do you?” asked one of the men. “No.” I answered. “That’s good,” he said, “Because you would never be able to feed them.” The net is large, perhaps three meters squared. The edges of the net are
weighted with bits of metal. The secret, apparently, is in the packing. The fishermen knew exactly how to gather and fold the net, wrapping it over the left shoulder and left elbow, and then dividing the weighted bottom between their left and right hands. They would twist at the waist, and launch the net into the air. The trick here was to throw the net high enough that it would open completely before hitting the water, but not so high that it would begin to ball up before submerging. Once thrown, the net would be retracted using a lanyard attached to the left wrist.

When it came my turn to throw, I was surprised at how much the net weighed. In fact, I handed my phone and valuables to Thavrin. “Just in case I wind up following the net into the water,” I said. I could just see me throwing myself off balance, falling in the lake, getting tangled in the net, and then drowning in three feet of water. I put my pocket-knife between my teeth just in case.

“Ang ay dong ut ite?” I asked my teacher. He jut stared at me, wonderingly. “Am I doing it right?” I repeated, after temporarily removing the knife from between my teeth. “Yes,” he said with a big smile. We both knew he was lying, but he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I made a feeble attempt at a throw, and the net became hopelessly tangled.

“How did I do?” I asked Thavrin, hoping he would use Khmer decorum and find something positive to say about my failed effort. “Your gums are bleeding.” He said, pointing at the knife marks on my mouth. My cell phone rang. It was my sponsor, Long Leng. “I have been trying to reach you all day,” he began. “Have you been going to look at the
attractions so you can write something?”

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The school looks like some bombed out tenement block in Sarajevo. There is no glass in the windows. The walls are pealing. Dirt clings to the dark spots on the floor, where the rain pours through the gaping holes in the ceiling. Twenty students, ranging in age, from eight to twenty-one, struggle in the dim glow of the single 60 Watt light bulb, to read their tattered textbooks. Nearly half of the students have no books at all. At the front of the room, a young Khmer teacher leads them in an English grammar exercise. In other classrooms, students are learning Japanese and Chinese. When classes finish, at eight o’clock at night, the students will begin their long walk home, down dusty, unpaved roads, devoid of street lights. Some of them live as far as eight kilometers from the school.
This is the scene at the Toul Ampil Language College, near the killing fields, in Phnom Penh. The history of Cambodia’s auto genocide is not hidden. It is discussed openly in families. And the children know that the journey to and from school takes them past the site of their grandparents’ murder, as tens of thousands of their relatives were slaughtered at this location, a mere 25 years ago. What the children don’t know, however, is that with each tiny step, they drag their nation a step closer to becoming a modern, industrialized country.

Unlike classrooms in richer countries, like the US or Taiwan, students are extremely respectful of their teachers. They are grateful for an opportunity to learn. And they know, all to well, that learning of any kind was denied their parents. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, schools were closed, in 1975. At that time, learning, even reading, became a criminal offense. Officially, schools re-opened in 1983, under Vietnamese control. But most residents of Phnom Penh will site 1987 as the year schooling actually became available to to the general population. In the provinces, schools took even longer to re-open. Once schools were opened, the battle still wasn’t won, as most families were too preoccupied with their own survival to send their children to school.

A 38 year old magazine editor, named Neehan, told me. “We couldn’t go to school because we couldn’t afford a notebook or a pencil. Some people couldn’t go to school because they had no clothes.” Neehan later managed to obtain a pencil, and started school. “I used that pencil for two years.” He laughed. “By the end, it was so small, I could barely hold it. But if I lost it, that would have been the end of my education.”
Cambodia is a country which has seen a number of new beginnings. Pol Pot declared 1975 the Year Zero. But, the Khmer Rouge regime only lasted till the Year Four, when it was toppled by the Vietnamese invasion. 1980 was the beginning of a new era of Vietnamese domination, which ended Officially in 1987. 1997 was a year important in the the self rule and democratization of Cambodia. Whichever date is accepted as the birth of “The New Cambodia,” Cambodia can be seen as one of the youngest nations on Earth. They are now struggling to catch up with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, who are light-years ahead, in terms of economics, politics, and development.

Nearly half of the population of Cambodia was born after the Vietnamese invasion. Said another way, nearly half of all Khmers are under the age of twenty-five. In Phnom Penh, the percentage of Khmers attending university rivals percentages in many western countries. It seems that almost every young Khmer is attending college, university, or school of some kind. English, computer science, and business seem to be the most popular majors. In interviewing students, I asked them why they were studying. All of them listed as their first, or second reason, “because I want to help my country develop.”

The Khmers are fiercely patriotic, and willing to sacrifice for the good of their country. In a country where political activism may be a dangerous, even lethal, way to bring about change, young people see education as a way of raising the quality of life for the Khmer people, but without calling dangerous attention to themselves.

The universities are full of dedicated, older students, who did their primary chooling on their own. A 42 year-old Khmer friend, who is now pursing a masters degree, told me. “During the Vietnamese occupation my brother and I studied English in the basement, with a book we had found. If anyone had caught us we could have been killed.” This story is not unusual among older students.

The twenty-somethings are the first generation of Khmers to attend university, after completing high school. They are well aware that they are a privileged group, and new pioneers in the field of learning. Every young Khmer grows up with knowledge that his grandparents, uncles, aunts, or other relatives were murdered. My friend, Sameth, told me, “Thirty members of my family were killed by the Khmer Rouge.” They also grow up with the knowledge that there parents had no access to schooling. Unwilling to waste this precious gift, the young Khmers are seizing every opportunity to help their families, and advance their country.

Tou Ampil Language College is an example of the dedication and hard work being done by Khmer twenty-somethings. The college was founded by 24 year old, kakada Chhim, a student at the National Institute of Business. Kakada
finances his university studies by driving a moto-taxi. The idea to start the college came to him after taking a foreign tourist to the Killing Fields. Beggar children surrounded kakada’s passenger, harassing him for money. “I didn’t want those children to grow up to be beggars.” Said Kakada. “But they are very poor, and need some way to get money. I thought, maybe if I could teach them to speak English, they could get a better job.”
kakada had a meeting with the local school principal, and arranged to rent the building, for a fee of $20 per month, and open a night school for local
residents. Children attend classes, two and a half hours per day, six days per week. Kakada said that he would have liked to have made the school free,
but he had to charge a small fee, in order to cover expenses. Most children pay a modest tuition of 5,000 Riels ($1.25 USD) per month. But, if the
children cannot afford to pay, scholarships are liberally awarded. “If the children tell me they can’t pay, I will go and visit their home.” Said Kakada. “I will see how they are living, and read their family book. Sometimes I find a family with nine children, and only an income of $20 per month. In that case, the children can study for free.” kakada also offers similar scholarships to provide needy children with textbooks, pencils, and paper, all of which are unattainable for many poor Khmers.

The teachers at Tou Ampil language college are also dedicated twenty-somethigs. They are all Khmer university students, or even graduates, who dedicate their time to teach the children. “I have no money to pay them a salary.” explains kakada. “But I try to give them a little money each month to pay for their gas.” For Khmers, who sometimes earn as little as $30 per month, even $5 worth of gasoline would make a significant dent in their food budget.

In addition to attending university,and running the school, kakada still teaches classes, as it is hard to find teachers. Kakada’s days are full, as he also teaches English to the employees of Happy Guest House, in the early mornings. The fact that the employees are willing to add two hours of English lessons to their fourteen hour work day says a lot about the work ethic of the young Khmers. “Those girls know that they need to learn English so they can make a living.” Explains kakada. “But they come from the provinces, and are only semi-literate in Khmer. I don’t want them to loose face. But every day, I try to teach them some Khmer while they are learning English.”

On the way back to Phnom Penh, from Toul Ampil Language College, Kakada took the long way round. “There is a more direct road.” He explained. “But it is not safe at night, as bandits will attack your motorcycle.”

Bandits? The problems faced by young Khmers are inconceivable to westerners. Who puts in a fourteen hour work day? Who of us couldn’t afford $1.25 per month for English lessons? Who has ever used a single pencil for two years? When were we ever in danger of being killed because we knew how to read? With odds so thoroughly stacked against them, one would think that the Khmers would just give up.

But the Khmer young people aren’t quitters. They know that education means freedom. It means advancement. And it means that the next generation of Khmers will be born to educated parents. It means closing the gap between Cambodia and the developed countries. And hopefully, it means an end of suffering.

(The Toul Ampil Language College is desperately in need of funding as well as volunteer teachers. They also need computers, books, pencils, pens, paper, and other school supplies.

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The smiling boys formed a lined in orderly fashion, and waited patiently for their turn to punch me in the stomach. There were about five of them, but luckily the oldest was probably only about twelve.”Me next!” Shouted one boy, he reached back so far, on preparation for the knockout blow, that he almost fell over.

“Don’t hurt your hand.” I warned, as the blow landed solidly on my belly.

“We thought you were dead,” said one boy. “But now, we know you were just kidding. And we are glad that you are alive.”

My guide from Phnom Penh Tours, Thavrin, and I were at Pnom San Tok temple, 120 Km outside of Phnom Penh. When we pulled off the highway, every kid in the village came running out to greet us. It looked like a crowd of about fifty screaming children who mobbed our Land Cruiser. One of the bigger boys even jumped onto the rear bumper. They were all laughing and shouting, so I wasn’t frightened so much as curious. When Thavrin opened the door, and began speaking to the boys, I understood. The boys in this village picked up
extra money by leading tourists up the mountain to the temple. As foreign tourists rarely visit, they were all very excited to earn a day’s wage. They were pushing and fighting their way to the front to be chosen. One clever young man was walking on his hands to attract our attention. Finally, Thavrin selected an eleven-year-old boy, named Mai Lin, much to the chagrin of the other boys, who would have to wait in disappointment for the next tourists to come.
Half-way up the mountain, I realised two things. Mai Lin had no idea how to get to the temple. And Thavrin did. He had chosen a kid from the village only because it was the polite thing to do. Khmer culture has very intricate rules of politeness, of which the Khmers themselves seem to be unaware. That is to say, they always know and complete their cultural duty, but they couldn’t always explain to you why they did this or that. In Thavrin’s eyes,
it wouldn’t be right to bring a tourist to the village without sharing some small money with them. At the top o the mountain, Thavrin paid of Mai Lin, and he skipped back down to the village, a hero.

The unwritten rules of Khmer society also dictate who can make money and where. There is only so much cash to go around, and it would be unfair for to have double while another person goes hungry. For this reason, at the top of the mountain, we were met by a completely different set of boys, whose job it was to lead tourists through the temples, explaining the history as they went. These boys would never dream of leading tourists up the mountain. And the boys in the village would never encroach on this informal guide service. In Khmer society, everything is always balanced.
This temple, like so many in the Buddhist world, boasted an actual footprint of the Buddha. So many temples maintain the distinction of having a footprint of the Buddha, that even I, a lapsed Roman Catholic, couldn’t doubt his divinity, because no human could have walked that much.Behind the temple proper was a smaller temple, which featured “the milk of the mother.” Thavrin explained, “If we are in the jungle, and we meet a tiger or a dangerous situation, we pray to the mother for help. After, if we survive, we come here to give thanks to the mother.” The temple featured two tremendous, stone breasts, covered in metal. The breasts were not identical, so Thavrin explained. “One represents the breast of a virgin, and one the breast of a woman who has already had children.”

The most interesting feature of this temple was that this was the place where the king’s father, His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, had served as a Buddhist monk. There was a striking photo of the King as a young man, his
innocent face not yet marked by years of worry and endless political intrigues where he was forced to use his cunning brain to first win, and then maintain the sovereignty of Cambodia. For many reasons, the King had been a personal hero of mine since I arrived in Cambodia nearly eighteen months before, and seeing this rare photo of a young Norodom Sihanouk was very special.
The boys told us a legend of the temple. There was a wishing well where you could toss coins and ask for a blessing. Apparently, long ago a woman came to the temple and tossed in a coin. Suddenly two tigers appeared. But,
instead of being afraid, the woman began dancing with the tigers. A king witnessed the tiger dance, and fell in love with the woman. He married her, and instructed her to teach the dance to all of the Khmer girls. Today, the dance is called Kontai Rai, and it is still widely known.

Now, why were a group of nice boys pummelling me at a holy Buddhist temple? The boys had been half following, half leading us through the temple, explaining their version of the history. One of the boys made a comment that I looked very strong. Another boy said, “I think I saw him fight Eh Phou
Thoung in a movie.” Eh Phou Thoung is the Khmer boxing champion, and we had, in fact, made a very bad kung fu movie together the previous year.

A light of half recognition went off in the faces of the other boys, and
they stared at me wonderingly. “Yes, that was me.” I said.
“Can you beat eh Phou Thoung?” They asked.
“Of course not.” I laughed. “He killed me in that movie.”
“I thought you were really dead.” One boy confessed. “But now I know you were just pretending.” He finished by adding, “I am glad you are still alive.”

“Me too.” I answered. “Me too.”

The number one tourist destination in Cambodia is Angkor Wat. But along the three hundred kilometer route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap there are some excellent temples to see. If you make the long drive, or better, bicycle ride, take a little time to stop off and see some of the less famous sites. The Khmers in these small villages are not as jaded as residents of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap and still make a big deal when they see a foreigner. You will be greeted with smiles, as well as people falling over themselves to be your tour guide.
Following Rd Number 6, approximately 80 KM North East of Phnom Penh, in Kompong Tom Province we stopped off at Kuhat Ngor, an 11th Century temple. Much of the temple was overgrown, and blended beautifully with the jungle setting. Directly beside the temple was a monastery, where modern monks lived and studied. The temple is a massive stone structure, which contains reclining Buddas, on the spot where the Hindu god, Shiva, once resided,
before the Khmers changed to Buddhism. Beneath the pedestal, the earth was marked by a gaping hole where treasure seekers had defiled the temple.

“Every temple in Cambodia they do like this.” Explained Thavrin. “They dig up the earth, looking for buried treasure.”

It is a well-known “secret” that nearly all rural Khmers bury their life savings under their homes. Banks have been known to go bust in Cambodia, and country people everywhere distrust large, city-based institutions. This explains the financial squirrel behaviour, but one question still remained.

“Did they ever find anything buried under a temple?” I asked.
“As far as I know,” answered Thavrin, “No.”
“How many temples are there in Cambodia?”
“Well, at least they are persistent.” I said, in defence of the tomb
robbers. “No one can call them lazy. If I dug up a hundred temples and found no treasure, I would quit, but these guys just kept going. You have to respect that.”

Actually, the west promotes a dual standard when it comes to tomb robbing:
When Angelina Jolie does it, it is O.K., but if I did it, it would be a crime.
Someone needs to explain that one to me.”

The one true treasure mystery in Cambodia concerns the king’s crown. It
disappeared during the Khmer Rouge time, and to this day, it has never been
found. Maybe we need to get Tomb Raider on the case. It’s out there, all
covered in gold and jewels. Maybe you could be the one to find it. Do you
want to buy a treasure map?

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After a short journey, I arrive at Ream National Park. My companions – two young Irish women – and I are sleepy-eyed as we climb out of the mini bus. As I breathe in the fresh, morning air, I suddenly get my first glimpse of Ream National Park, and I feel my drowsiness drift away.

We have a few minutes to wait whilst our guides prepare the boat. I sit on the porch and watch two cute children trying to catch fish. They are using a small net attached to a long pole, which reminds me of a fishing net I had as a child.

Finally, we are ready to go. We set sail in a small motorboat down the Prek Tuk Sap River. The sun beats down, but we are sheltered beneath a canvass roof. The scenery is spectacular. The banks of the river are lined with mangrove forests. Occasionally, we spot beautiful green kingfishers are purple jellyfish whilst monkeys hoot in the trees.

Ream National Park is the most established National Park in Cambodia. Located 18 km from Sihanoukville, the park has been open since 1993. Ream covers 21,000 hectares; 15,000 hectares of land and 6,000 hectares of river and sea. Here you will find secluded beaches, tropical jungles and wide rivers. Over 155 species of bird call Ream home, as well as Sun Bears, the endangered elongated tortoise, eagles and even dolphins.
As we lazily glide along the river, we pass people digging in the river bed for shellfish and fishing from small boats. The friendly Khmers smile and wave as we slide past them.

After a couple of hours, we arrive at Koh Som Poch Beach. Once on the sand, our guide tells us that we have an hour to swim or sunbathe whilst he and his helper prepare lunch. The two Irish women immediately plunge into the sea. I, however, sprawl out on the sand, listening to the waves on the beach and the wind in the trees.

I am roused from my doze by the promise of lunch. Before long, we are all enjoying a delicious barracuda barbecue on the beach.

Once we have fed and rested, it is time to go trekking. We walk for about an hour through tropical jungle rich with plant life. The buzz of cicada beetles is loud and exotic and beautiful butterflies flutter through the forest.

Just as I am beginning to get tired, we arrive at the Thmor Thom fishing village. A Khmer woman greets us warmly and presents us with coconuts to drink from. The water is slightly sour, but very refreshing.

After a short rest, we wade through the impossibly hot water to the waiting boat. On the way, we stop to admire a sunbathing hermit crab.

The journey back to the boat station is very relaxing, and both of my Irish companions drift off to sleep. I am enchanted by the hornbills, which occasionally fly close to our boat. Our guide’s assistant skillfully crafts grasshoppers and birds from palm fronds as presents for us.
Before long, we arrive back at the bus station. We have a few minutes to wait for our mini bus to arrive. I sit talking to Ment, one of the park rangers. He is a man in a dilemma. “I love my work,” he tells me. “But I cannot afford to work here, my wages are too low. I want to drive a cyclo in Phnom Penh. That way, I can earn enough money and talk to tourists every day.” Poor Ment cannot even afford the taxi fare back to his home in Sihanoukville. Luckily, our driver agrees to give him a lift.

On the way back to Sihanoukville, Ment tells me that Ream’s population has doubled in the last eight years. This means that resources such as wood, herbs, fish and fruit are seriously over-used. There is also the problem of illegal logging and poaching to deal with.
The Cambodian Ministry of Environment is responsible for the protection of National Parks. Unfortunately, they receive no international funding and there is not enough money to help combat these problems. “Or pay the rangers properly,” Ment adds bitterly.

Fortunately, with the revenue from tourism coming in, Ream’s future finally seems bright. Logging and fishing have been curbed. The depleted forests are regenerating, providing much needed habitat for many birds and animals.

As with many tourist attractions, Ream has to maintain a delicate balancing act between man and nature. Fortunately, Ream finally seems to be winning the war.