English lessons in Angkor Wat

Everything I know about Cambodia, I learned in the last 24 hours from Vanna, my tour guide, and lonelyplanet.

What’s ironic and sad is that Cambodia was once the capital of mainland SE Asia owing largely to its irrigation systems. Today, Cambodia is a poor country where people can not drink their tap water.

At its peak though, Cambodia, from Angkor Wat (“the king’s palace”), controlled what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Siem Riep, where Angkor Wat is located, translates to “Thailand defeated”. How ya like them apples?

Yesterday was my first day visiting the temples. Already a three-day pass seems too short. I thought one week would be plenty of time to visit Angkor Wat and learn history in Phnom Penh, but there is never enough time.

The tourist trap restaurant inside the grounds where I was dropped for lunch played a video about Angkor Wat. Built at the same time as the Notre Dame cathedral, Angkor Wat once housed 700,000 people within its grounds and Angkor Thom nearly a million, while London claimed only 30,000 citizens. More than 40,000,000 people lived within Cambodia’s kingdom, while only 14,000,000 live here today. China, Thailand, Vietnam, France and Japan each in turn occupied Cambodia, while its own Khmer Rouge moved and murdered people across the country.

My tour guide Vanna said he’s asked himself many times if Pol Pot was really Cambodian.

Vanna told me some of his story, before we toured the temples yesterday. He’s 47, lost both parents when he was 12 during the Pol Pot regime and bounced around with different people before landing in a refugee camp on the Thai border in ~1982. There for the next five years, volunteers taught Vanna how to read and write in Cambodian and speak English.

Which he does well. At times, I felt I was taking an SAT prep instead of touring temples. Every explanation, Vanna ended with, “do you understand?” “Do you know what _____ means?”
All. day. long.

“So the Japanese felt remorse. Do you know remorse? It means when someone feels bad.”
“Naga means cobra and rainbow. Do you know rainbow? It means the 7 colors after the rain.”
“Look over there. Those are swans. Do you know what a swan is?”

“Yes dammit. And that’s a goose!” I yelled to no one. Aloud I said “Yes, yes” and “Thank you. I understand.”

Vocabulary lessons aside, I couldn’t help but like Vanna, like you can’t help but root for Cambodia, after all it has been through.

Who doesn’t love an underdog?

do you understand?

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