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March 24, 2014

Mrs. Chatterbox and I have toured with busloads of people, but we were surprised when we discovered our trip to Thailand and Cambodia would be different. At three of our destinations (Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Siem Reap)  we would have our own private guides. At first we were hesitant but it worked out wonderfully; our guides were knowledgeable and personalized our excursions. Kong, our Cambodian guide, was exceptional and surprisingly pro America, although we did learn something unsettling about his past.


Kong picked us up at Siem Reap Airport and we were immediately impressed with his English and cheerful demeanor. He shared a wealth of knowledge as we toured Angkor Wat. Along the way he nearly made Mrs. C. faint when he pointed at a palm-size black and yellow spider dangling from a branch close to her head, but moments later he recoiled at a tiny green caterpillar inching up a nearby wall. “Spiders don’t bother me,” he stated, “but I’m allergic to caterpillars.”


The first hint of Kong’s admiration for America came when we passed over one of the stone bridges crossing the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. The bridge, dating from the 12th century, was composed of stone sculptures of gods and warriors pulling a massive snake to symbolize the churning of the oceans. Like the Buddhas of Thailand’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya, most of the sculptures were headless. Many were contemporary replicas. Kong made a point of informing us that most of the missing heads had been stolen and were displayed in museums around the world. Only one country, he stressed, had made an effort to find these fragments in its museums and return them to Cambodia—the United States. I admit I felt good about this.



I tend to have artistic and historical conversations with our guides but Mrs. Chatterbox often engages in more personal discussions. When it comes to listening, Mrs. C. has Dumbo-size ears.  On our tour of Tonlé Sap Lake she passed time by learning about our guide and his life.


Kong was the proud father of four young boys. His mother was an award-winning cook famous for preparing traditional Cambodian meals. His father had been a policeman. Kong explained that Cambodian policemen didn’t carry guns. They patrolled villages where they were raised and knew everyone. We smiled when Kong told us that cops often wore flip flops on their feet and if they encountered wrongdoers they were likely to say, “I knew your mother before you were born and if you throw rocks again I’ll tell her what you’ve done.” Or, “If you scare your neighbor’s chickens one more time I’ll hunt you down and scratch you!”


Today Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, but the country did not fare well after the Vietnam War. In the mid 70s Pol Pot came to power. Pol Pot was determined to make Cambodia into an agricultural paradise and he pulled people from villages and cities and forced them into farm labor camps. To avoid foreign domination of industries Pol Pot refused to purchase goods from other nations. Because of governmental mismanagement and profiteering, many people died. Pol Pot also resorted to ethnic cleansing and it is estimated that nearly three million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, perished in “killing fields” under his leadership.


Cambodia doesn’t appear to be consumed by its troubled past. People are poor but those we encountered went out of their way to be friendly. When asked, Kong told us he’d love to visit America some day, although he didn’t think it financially possible. He admired our many freedoms and vocational opportunities. He loved American movies and wished more Americans would travel to his country. (Most of the tourists we encountered were Chinese.) I kidded that it was good business to speak glowingly of all nationalities, but I quickly realized his admiration for America was genuine.


When I learned of the unsettling incident in Kong’s life, I couldn’t help but ponder his pro American attitude. While a boy in the late 70s his father, a policeman, was placed in front of a firing squad and executed by the Khmer Rouge communists for being an American sympathizer. A lesser man might have blamed America for his father’s death, and for the bombing of his country and for refusing to prosecute the war in neighboring Vietnam to a successful conclusion. Another individual might have cursed America for abandoning sympathizers to the tyranny of a demonic madman. I don’t know how it he managed it, but Kong was not such a man.


I know the future will contain moments when I’ll be dissatisfied with my life, when I’ll ponder things I wish I had, when I think about people I should have forgiven or from whom I should have sought forgiveness. During these rare moments I know I’ll think of smiling Kong. I’ll remind myself that happiness isn’t something that falls like rain; it needs to be actively pursued. I’ll consider how blessed I am that my country never enshrined in stone anything resembling the Khmer Rouge proverb:


To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.


How fortunate I am to reside in a nation whose Constitution protects the inalienable rights of its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thank you Kong for sharing your proud heritage, for reminding me of things I take for granted and for renewing my gratitude for all that I have waiting for me back home.  




We really did leave a mess in southeast Asia.
By: PT Dilloway on March 24, 2014
This is a very moving post, and one that has made me thankful.
By: Shelly on March 24, 2014
Well said CC, well said.
By: Cranky on March 24, 2014
What an amazing story of Kong. He is indeed an amazing example of how some people view the opportunities that we so often take for granted. Great telling of a poignant life. Oma Linda
By: Oma Linda on March 24, 2014
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharal Nehru -- I appreciate your travel notes and stories are told with eyes wide open. Thank you!
By: Daniel LaFrance on March 24, 2014
What a lot I learn from your posts. This one is absolutely fascinating and does indeed make one grateful for the great privilege of being born in free.
By: The Broad on March 24, 2014
thank you for sharing this individual with us.
By: TexWisGirl on March 24, 2014
When you write your memoirs of your travels, this story needs a prominent place.
By: mimi on March 24, 2014
thank you for sharing your experiences and life pholosphy-and telling us about Kong. What a lovely person to have survived horrible experiences and still have a positive outlook on life.
By: Kathe W. on March 24, 2014
I've always wanted to visit Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge will kill someone for wearing eyeglasses because that was a "Western Influence." What a horrible regime.
By: Michael Offutt on March 24, 2014
You never fail to bring out the true wonder of your travels. It's only partly the places you go. It's mostly the people you meet. Fine post.
By: Hilary on March 24, 2014
An inspiring post, Stephen. I think you're right; we take a lot of freedoms for granted in the western world, and sometimes fall into the trap of assuming happiness is mainly about wealth and prosperity.
By: Bryan Jones on March 24, 2014
Interesting post. I often wonder how people who have endured like the Cambodians can manage, and realise how selfish and self centred it is to moan when we are lucky enough to live in decent countries. We have a friend from Pakistan who says if we knew what Pakistani politicians were like we'd never complain about our own!
By: Jenny on March 24, 2014
Good post, Stephen.
By: Catalyst/Taylor on March 24, 2014
Thank you Stephen for a very moving post. What a special man Kong is and how wonderful Mrs. C took the time to encourage his story. We just don't realize how blessed we are.
By: Akansas Patti on March 24, 2014
Wow Mrs Chatterbox sounds cool, I would have no interest in hearing about Kong's background at all. Good for her! We all take a great many things we have for granted.
By: LL Cool Joe on March 24, 2014
What a wonderful man!!
By: fishducky on March 24, 2014
You had more than a tour guide. You made a good friend.
By: red on March 24, 2014
Wow...what a post! Your story today took me from laughing about your description of Cambodian policemen (flip flops, LOL) to your poignant character description of your guide.
By: Pixel Peeper on March 24, 2014
Human's cruelty towards each other is shocking! S
By: on March 24, 2014
Too cool! The guide becomes the adventure.
By: Val on March 24, 2014
Kong's story is touching, and he seems like a well-adjusted man. If some group shot my father for supporting another group, I would certainly blame the shooters. Thanks for the stories! :)
By: Lexa Cain on March 25, 2014
Great post Stephen. Your reflections based on your time with Kong are inspirational. Thank you.
By: Tom Cochrun on March 25, 2014
very moving post Stephen
By: Fran on March 26, 2014
A wonderful, inspiring story. And a good reminder that it can be very worthwhile to get to know someone on a personal level.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on March 27, 2014
He has a wonderful smile.
By: John on March 28, 2014
What a great story!
By: The Bug on April 4, 2014

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