BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Monday, July 2, 2007

Crossing the border to Vietnam

SIEM REAP, Cambodia - Hordes of street hawkers greeted me at the bus station here where I was to take an eight-hour trip to Vietnam.

The vendors offer everything under the sun -- from bread and vegetables to Cambodian beads, fans, hats and scarves of all colors.

But I don't really need anything to remind me of my visit here. Siem Reap is equally cheerful yet depressing, cold yet warm, silent yet friendly. These contradicting qualities make this western town of Cambodia difficult to forget.

I will always remember my friendly guide, he whose eyes are filled with hope for the future yet unable to conceal the sadness about his country's dark past. The smiles of school-age girls scattered around the muddy streets of Siem Reap as they struggle to make a living will stay in my memory for a long time. Beggars with missing legs or arms -- victims of the Khmer Rouge's land mines -- are all over. They call out to foreigners for a dollar or two.

How can one forget these vivid portraits of poverty, of desperation and of pain? In this country, the disparity between rich and poor nations is vivid. The difference is stark and telling.
The roads are muddy, filthy and dirty.

Potholes are everywhere and the sad thing is, the potholes seem to extend beyond the physical. Cambodians are very much a wounded people, no thanks to their country's bitter past.

Still, I left Siem Reap with hope for them. Someday, I know, they will conquer the monsters of the past and kill all the demons of yesterday.

Excitement filled me as I stepped on the bus. As with any other trips, I felt a strong sense of adventure to discover more, to see what lies out there, to knock myself out of the daily routine, to search for more stories, to yearn, to learn and unlearn, to affirm the joy in traveling, to enjoy everything new and foreign and to find my place between reality and the sun.

It was a grueling, eight-hour trip to Ho Chi Minh. With me on the bus are tourists and locals alike. A Mexican couple brought cans of Angkor Beer for the trip.

As we drove along, I thought I was back in Mindanao where acres and acres of rice fields stretched out into the horizon as far as the eye can see.

Houses on stilts lined the unpaved roads. The trip seemed to take forever, with the bus moving at a very slow pace. The scenery hardly changed even after several hours into the trip. I wonder what lies ahead. Where's my next stop?