One of the many blessings of time in Bangkok was my father coming to visit. He and I made a commitment several years back to build our relationship, in part, so I could share the rich life I’ve been afforded because of the father he chose to be. Stated diplomatically, he was not always the likeable, easy-going parental figure my younger self wanted, but the father who through conviction and fortitude shaped who I am today.
I could think of no richer experience to explore than travel through the Orient and my exciting, but abstract world of Peace Fellowship, Resologics, and Mediators Beyond Borders International.
I met up with my young old man at the expansive Suvarnabhumi Airport around midnight, in spite of the multiple international exits and people corrals which are wholly unconducive to connecting weary travelers and their waiting recipients. I had given him zero information about Bangkok, but he had no choice but to find me … and my welcome sign with his name, “Ricky Martin,” in huge letters!
That night, we caught up over a cocktail on my 20th floor balcony overlooking the park-like campus of Chulalongkorn University. It made sense to have a sleep-over in my Spartan dorm because we left for Cambodia on the first plane out from the airport from whence he came.
Jedi Mind Tricks and the Zen of Asian Navigation
The first challenge of our adventure began sooner than expected at immigration. The grumpy, stoic visa officer stopped me because I didn't have a full page available in my passport. “Just put it on top of this boring one here, it doesn’t even say Argentina on it…” Humor, however, is in short supply with Cambodian officials. Being stuck in Phnom Penh Immigration was not on the itinerary, so some creative storytelling and Jedi hand waving was required before this penitent man could pass. They tried to extort us both on the cost of the visa. Ricky wouldn't stand for it, but I was happy enough to be allowed to pass and considered the $5USD ‘tip’ a worthwhile investment.
This time there was a guy at the exit holding a sign with my name on it, and we were taken for a forty-minute drive to the nicest $40 hotel I’ve ever stayed at. The building was turn-of-the-century New York loft with brick, steel, and glass throughout. Their rooftop bar was a multi-leveled lounge connected by an infinity pool wrapping the corner of the 8-story building on two sides and rocking an 8-inch-thick, clear acrylic wall on the other. Looking through the glass added 10 lbs. to the bather, which when added to the 10 lbs. Bangkok already generously added to my gut, the result was less than scenic. Luckily, the sky reflecting off the Mekong river in the distance through the buildings was far better vista.
Exploring South-East Asian cities via taxi requires a Zen-like patience that I am yet to master, and Phnom Penh is no exception. In the Thai, Burmese, and Khmer languages there are often multiple, phonetic spellings in Roman letters for the local place names -- making pronunciation of where you want to go a crap-shoot. Showing the name on a map assumes that either taxi drivers can read Roman letters, read at all, or they know how to read and follow a map. Many are first generation drivers finding work in a city they did not know. Making it past the tacit agreement on destination is followed by a flustering negotiation of price which can be all over the map, pun intended, but not much fun included.
Our first day involved lunch by ourselves on the riverfront unattended by the six or seven staff more intent on lounging and watching their mobile phone TV than serving food or beer. Pricing was in US dollars which are used interchangeably throughout Cambodia with local Riels. Later, we realized this area was an evening destination and all but deserted by day.
We shook the lukewarm welcome off and tuk-tuk’ed down the road to the Royal Palace Gardens -- an obligatory tourist stop of beautifully manicured, patterned gardens and impressive temples containing diamond bedazzled Buddhas and solid, silver-tiled floors which have miraculously survived Cambodia’s troubled past. That evening we relaxed with poolside Pina Coladas and watching the colorful sun setting through the haze and sporadically developed Phnom Penh horizon.
Moving Forward through the Past
Spontaneous travel, while exciting, is not synonymous with inexpensive travel, so our early morning flight to Siem Reap cost thrice what it could have been, but well worth the expense. Again, we were welcomed at the airport by a sign and a driver who became our dude for the remainder of the trip. This factored because the tourism-supported town is laid out to require local transport.
Tickets to Angkor Wat and the other monuments are purchased at a decentralized office twenty minutes from the city center and another twenty minutes from anywhere you intend to be. Day passes require a passport, $37 USD (cash only) and are unique in that they have your photo printed on them. No messing around here.
The entrance to the 400-acre temple complex of Angkor Wat is guarded by two large, reconstructed stone Naga -- mythical river cobras with multi-headed snaky-lion faces. Their thick scaled bodies serve as the railing for the over 1000-foot-long masonry bridge transporting visitors over what was historically a vast, lake-like moat. Closer inspection of the spectacular monument revealed its intricacies: every solid stone column and available surface adorned with either ornate, decorative carvings or playful Apsaras, fairy goddesses dancing bare-breasted throughout the holy site. Headless Buddha statues line every colonnade speechlessly recounting the site’s centuries spent transitioning between glorification and neglect. Built a millennium ago as a Hindu temple, it has also served Buddhist faithful, hosted military forces, misguided governments, and looters.
My father and I explored the ancient campus, capturing photos as the declining sun threw ever-changing shadows on the sandstone temple facades. As I plopped myself at the base of a seminal Bodhi tree to sketch, a Khmer family with two little daughters came and sat with me to watch and enjoy the day’s closing. The father offered me water from his bottle as a gift which I readily accepted though I had my own. As the sun finally set, my new family and the rest of the visitors were ushered out and replaced by mischievous monkeys who crept in, eager to make the best of the unfortunate treasure trove of food and trash left behind.
That night, we had dinner with Dr. Noah Taylor with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. They bring together community leaders and militia members from active conflict regions throughout Southeast Asia like Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines to earn a Master’s degree in Peace Studies. The program is largely donor-funded as students are only asked to pay a fraction of the actual tuition fees. But the result of seeding peace-literate leaders with graduate degrees in conflict afflicted areas feels exciting and a worthwhile investment. He took us out for authentic Khmer cuisine, and we solved the rest of the world’s problems over a few martinis before parting ways.
Mindfulness at Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial
Our tight schedule had us back in Phnom Penh the following day for a much heavier experience than our fluffy first visit -- a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial. The compound was once a high school before the Khmer Rouge military converted it into a prison for torturing and forcing confessions from alleged political dissidents. The original plumeria trees still bloom in the school’s courtyard despite witnessing unimaginable atrocities. A perfect white fragrant flower fell next to where we were sitting, so I picked it up to press it my journal.
Though many died within the confines of schoolyard walls still fortified with barbed wire, most were taken out of the city to be executed. Only a handful of the tens of thousands imprisoned survived. The qualifications for internment ranged from having soft hands, wearing spectacles or being named in someone else’s forced confession. From 1974-79, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, and his military government sought to shift Cambodia to a strictly agrarian society by eliminating anyone with a professional, educated or ethnic background; exterminating nearly two million of his own people (or half of the population) in the process. My dad and I sat for a moment in the garden for a mindfulness meditation before entering and again on the way out.
Geeking out on resiliency, mediation, and peace-keeping
That afternoon, we met up with another Rotary Peace Fellow, Savath Meas. My colleagues at Mediators Beyond Borders are partnering with Savath and his Cambodian Center for Mediation to support their strident efforts to nearly single-handedly further the field of mediation. Their aim is to apply dialogue facilitation and consensus building in rural communities to peacefully resolve Cambodia’s ongoing land rights issues. As development begins to accelerate, Cambodia has been forced to discuss where farmer’s rights, foreign investments and long term sustainability meet. These issues do not fit neatly into the legal system creating a perfect opportunity for mediation to take a leadership role.
One challenge Savath faces, however, is his own organization’s sustainability. Most of his staff and co-mediators are either volunteers or working with barely more than their costs covered. The work they do is mostly unpaid and requires them to raise funds each time they are asked to assist. He and I naturally transitioned into business marketing and we also spoke about my work with Resologics. We don’t just resolve conflicts as mediators for teams, we work to building conflict resiliency within teams as coaches and charge for on-going services. There is no shortage of local NGO’s which could benefit from such training, have funding and CMM could charge for. It felt great to geek out on mediation and topics of viability and sustainability with my dad there to listen in and participate with this very important part of my life.
We gently rinsed the magnitude off our day on a sunset boat cruise down the Mekong river, the very same river I was on just weeks before in a Northern Thailand. At this juncture, the expansive blue waters of the Mekong met up with the slower moving, muddied water of the Tonle’ Sap tributary. Ricky Martin and I shared a few beers on the roof deck surveying Phnom Penh and place where we first ate lunch from afar. The enthusiastic boatman, Sanseyha, joined us for a bit and was keen to show off his English and shared his dreams of coming to the States someday. The wind picked up and few flashes of lightning streaking on the horizon signaled the need to take our party downstairs as the sky opened up to a refreshing downpour. The cleansing shower lasted only an hour and had ended prior to disembarking at the makeshift dock. Feeling complete, we headed back to Bangkok before dawn the next morning just in time to make my 9am class.
Scott Martin is a Los Angeles, USA based peacemaker, landscape architect, and explorer. He is currently involved with Rotary International as a Peace Fellow, deepening his knowledge of people and how they interact in conflict.