Step One: Take Family to the Other Side of the Planet
In Los Angeles International Airport, a family with three young teenagers might be going anywhere. We are sitting on the floor at gate eight in terminal two. We have outgrown any destination starting with "Disney", but the children aren't ready for solo trips just yet. Our domestic travel has been modest. Almost all of the foreign soil the children have seen is Mexican.
Gate eight is used by an airline serving eastern Asia. This will be a boys-and-girl-meet-world journey, an adventure and teaching opportunity before the forces of adulthood burst open our familial pod. In three years, Connor and Griffin will graduate high school. In five years we will all be legal adults.
Our destination is also at a threshold. It is beautiful, tropical, full of potential but still dependent on foreign aid. Half the people there have been through hell; all of them are grateful that hell is gone. Now they are trying to choose what they will be. They have discovered oil. Pumping should start in two years. In three to five years, their economy may be self sufficient. The future arrives quickly at home and abroad.
A boarding call brings us to our feet and we shuffle in line toward the jet way. The EVA steward tears our ticket stubs, officially starting a trip where the locals will be surprised to see a whole American family visiting - almost as surprised as our friends were when we told them we were going to Cambodia.
The most common reaction was "Why?" The first runner up was "Wow!" I liked both of them. In travel circles, Cambodia is sometimes mentioned as an undeveloped version of Thailand that is going to be built up soon. It is a sleeper destination awaiting discovery.
Outside of travel circles, "Cambodia" may as well mean "killing fields." It's an edgy choice for adventurers and backpackers, but not a first choice for quality time with the family. The irony is that we chose Cambodia after our Thailand plan started looking too dangerous.
In March red-shirted Thai protesters held the largest demonstration in the country's history. They were protesting a military coup staged five weeks prior. Not all the protesters liked the booted prime minister, but they certainly did not appreciate the military voiding the popular vote. The demonstration turned into an occupation of Bangkok's financial district. Several office buildings and hotels were shut down.
Protest is usually tolerated, noted, and dispersed by an understanding Thai government. We expected the problem would be gone by our arrival in June. If the protest continued till then, we would just avoid the problem area and go on with the trip as planned. The protesters armed themselves with smoke bombs, firecrackers and sharpened sticks. How bad could it get? We bought our tickets and made reservations for lodging.
A month later the red-shirts were still there, now under police siege. The police armed themselves with guns. Counter-demonstrators clashed with the red-shirts and tensions gave way to bombings. On April 10th, police moved in to storm the barricades and shoo the red shirts away. They were met by protesters who may have had more than pointy sticks. Twenty five people were killed and several hundred were injured. This was no longer a typical Thai protest. The last straw was a bomb blast near Chang Mai, one of our planned stops. Chang Mai is all about tourism, not politics.
We pulled the plug on Thailand. Now what?
The first leg of our Thailand itinerary took us to Taipei,capital of Taiwan. We could still fly there and just change the second leg from Bangkok to who knows where. Among the options reachable from Taipei, Cambodia looked like the best combination of exotic, historic, incompletely developed, and reasonably politically stable. And cheap. We booked passage and made reservations to stay in two cities and one nature preserve.
I did some reading on Cambodia, which I won't bore you with here. I'll do that later. However, I will say that the reading broke down into four categories: the golden age of temples, the French colonization, Khmer Rouge, and rebuilding. One of those jumps right out at you, doesn't it? Reading about the killing fields is like reading about Nazi death camps: it is gruesome and fascinating. But at some point you get used to the raw brutality, as you would a powerful stench. It's arresting, but once you realize that the accounts don't apply directly to you, you start to develop a little context. By the end of our trip, I felt like I had a lot.
For now, picture the country's history as eight centuries of peace and temple building, five centuries of obscurity and attacks from both borders, about a century of French protection, then a couple unsteady decades before the lights went out for four years. In the darkness, they attempted a social equality that fell barely short of the pure equality found in hell. The lights started reappearing in 1979. They are still coming back on. But I get ahead of myself. We haven't even arrived yet, have we?
Landing in Phnom Penh sounds simple. It is simple. Thousands of people do it every day without much comment. But landing skips right over some of the strangeness that the previously homebound traveler encounters that both prepare him and wobble him a little off plumb before he finally sees the brown and green patchwork out the airplane window resolving itself into flooded rice paddies around Phnom Penh airport.
Skipping to the landing doesn't do justice to thirteen hours of coach seating with an eight inch entertainment display eighteen inches in front of your face. We were fed twice by perfectly comported stewardesses who all appeared to speak at least three languages. It is odd to be waited upon by someone who makes you feel dense. I would prove my extreme density in the final hours of the flight.
I had been checking in on the video channel that showed an airplane icon on a map, a representation of our current location and the curving path we had taken from home. First, the airplane icon was absolutely crawling. You could stare at it for minutes and not discern the slightest progress. Second, the path was an insane sine-wave around the Pacific's periphery when there is a very straight line on the very flat map that would clearly get us there very fast. Cambodia's latitude is well south of California. But we flew north along the US and Canadian coast, skirted just below the Aleutian Islands and finally headed south roughly parallel to the coasts of Siberia, Korea and Japan. I thought "Perhaps we need to refuel somewhere," which did not make sense because Hawaii is right in the middle of the Pacific and loaded with jet fuel. Then I thought "Perhaps the pilot doesn't know how to swim."
I actually asked one of the stewardesses why we were flying a non-straight path. She explained that we did not have permission to fly over certain airspace. I nodded as if that had made some kind of sense. Bear in mind that by this time I was loopy from napping in the seated position, two in-flight movies and a few hours of irrelevant reading.
I don't even remember when the truth smacked me on the back of the head. Perhaps the world is not flat and cartographer Mercator's excellent attempt to make it so is a sucker-punch. That would make me a huge sucker. Any idiot with a globe and a rubber band would tell you that the fastest way from Los Angeles to Phnom Penh is exactly where we flew. The stewardess' answer probably referred to the fact that we appeared to veer a little to avoid flying over Japan.
Our seven hour layover in Taipei was spent in a hotel inside the airport terminal. Leaving the airport would have involved passports and customs both coming and going. It wasn't worth it. Besides, it was the middle of the night. We did not know how much we might have slept on the plane and we didn't know when jet lag might smite us down hard.
In the morning we took a much smaller airplane for the second leg to Phnom Penh. To get there, we flew right over Vietnam, a sliver of land shaped like a rampant dragon that we tried to bomb into freedom. It didn't work. In the seventies I delivered newspapers with new, color photos showing that we had been mercilessly bombing not only Vietnam, but other little countries called Cambodia and Laos.
We bombed the crap out of Cambodia. The number of bombs we dropped on Cambodia was more than were used by everyone participating in World War II. Most of them were in the east, near the border with Vietnam. Fortunately, it was not a densely populated area. Unfortunately, we also dropped land mines. Thousands are still there among the thousands more left by the Cambodian Army and Khmer Rouge. The mines are armed and alive, waiting for a person, animal or vehicle to apply pressure on the fatal square inch. The war officially ended decades ago, but there is a lot of killing yet to be done.
Flying into Cambodian airspace, other exotic thoughts started to compete for attention, like Cambodia's Sap River reversing directions twice a year, the Tonle Sap lake more than doubling in size seasonally, Angkor Wat, the politics, the amount of rain that is about to fall on our heads, the lesser temples, and how this is all going to affect our wonderful family.
The welter of facts and images is pushed aside by trepidation as we approach Phnom Penh, a city whose alliteration calls to mind no happy headlines but almost echoes a name that made the city most recently famous: Pol Pot. He was born Saloth Sar. He was puritanically evil, telegenic in interviews (YouTube), and remorseless. But all that will have to wait because when I stepped out of the airport and breathed the same hot, humid air that he breathed as recently as 1998, I had only one thought: we have landed in Phnom Penh.
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Published on 12/11/10