Trying to Understand the Bottom of the Pyramid
Our IMBA group has spent the last two days in and around Seam Reep, Cambodia. A highlight was touring Angkor Wat, the most famous and best restored temple among the 95 that make up this 12th century complex. Certainly the glory that was the Empire here in the 1100s matched or eclipsed that of Europe. The past grandeur and advanced building technology and the present state of struggle and poverty present a stark contrast.
The poverty is palpable. At the same time, it is difficult to describe the level of energy, innovation, activity and optimism that we encounter. The local food is delicious; spices infuse the local fish, vegetables and fruits with palate-surprising flavor. Some of the students availed themselves to the cultural experience of having the dead skin on their feet nibbled away by fish. This costs $3 for a half hour, which includes a beer, which I am told you really need. The big selling point on the signage is “We do not have piranhas,” which is to guarantee that you will walk away with all your toes. I was tempted, but gave this a pass.
We witnessed the equivalent of New Year’s Eve on Sunday. At 8 am on Monday morning (by the authority of a Fortune Teller) the Year of the Horse begins. New Year’s Day holiday is a time to return to your village and spend time with family. New Year’s Eve is a day of preparation, which included shopping for food, but first a village gathering to chant at the Buddhist temple and give gifts to the monks. On Monday evening thousands of people will be on the grounds of the Ankgor Wat Temple for an elaborate fireworks display and the temple itself will be elaborately lit.
Our group spent our second day here away from the larger city and inland around Great Tonle Sap Lake. We visited a village built on stilts in anticipation of the rainy season during which the water turns roads into waterways and mangrove trees are submerged. Currently the lake itself is quite low, although we were able to take two small boats out to see fishing and some of the floating villages. In the entire area the population is impoverished and lives without clean water, sanitation and enough food. It was disconcerting to view and more than one student indicated discomfort at feeling like a powerless voyeur. Our own search for clean toilets (of which there were none) emphasized to us the bubble of relative affluence in which we live.
A midday thunderstorm interrupted and deferred our visit to one last temple in the jungle — Beng Mealea, a relatively recent discovery overgrown by trees and vegetation. Dodging puddles, we had an Indiana Jones experience, climbing over walls and hanging on huge tree roots. In all of these temples the carvings on sandstone are intricate bas reliefs that tell the stories of the Hindu gods. The artistry is still beautiful and clearly readable after 1000 years. By our second day we could recognize many of the characters and symbols. Of course, Budda in many forms was prevalent in all.
This afternoon we stopped at two markets. The first was a permanent covered market where Cambodians shop for everyday items such as fish, rice and vegetables, as well as single-serving shampoos, clothing and sweets. Many recognizable U.S. and European brands were in evidence. The second was a pop up night market along a busy highway. At the latter locals were cooking crickets, silkworms and a variety of meats and fish. There were also prepared fruits and vegetables. A hot spiced mango was a favorite as well as fresh sugar cane juice. Families were picnicking on mats along the roadside. Anghor Beer was the beverage of choice. Our guide assured us that this Night Market was growing, although the New Year’s Eve the setting might have been more festive than usual.
We arrived back at our hotel smelling of fish, tracking mud, but with more food for thought than we can process in a few short and busy days. Having a clean bathroom, a refreshing shower, a bottle of clean water and a delicious dinner with an ice cold beer had enhanced significance for everyone.