Our plane lands in Phnom Penh in 3 hours ... how many times have I made this journey over the past 19 years? In all its forms: by air, by land, even by sea... going back to the vortex, back to the "Heart of Darkness" where so many have struggled and died in a vast karmic swirling over millennia of human history along the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Where cultures have met and clashed and mingled, where "elephants have fought and trampled the grass" of the common people over untold generations.
This trip coincides with the annual Water Festival and Boat Races which I helped re-start in 1990, after a 17-year hiatus due to the war in Southeast Asia.
I’m accompanied by Dawn Mardya Millay (photo) who was born in Cambodia with a cleft face which required numerous surgeries. Raised in Maine by a single mom in a household of adopted siblings, several of them blind or with even more serious challenges, she is now a graduate of the prestigious New England School of Photography, a world-class photographer who has already journeyed to Greece and Guatemala, documenting masterfully with compelling visuals (for a treat, visit www.mmillayphotography.com).
"Mardy" was one of the first 10 children to be adopted from Cambodia in early 1990. When I arrived in January 1990, the Viet Namese had just exited the country after a 10-year occupation (having liberated it from the Khmer-Rouge rein of horror 1975-1979 when up to 3 million of Cambodia's 8 million people perished through execution, forced labor, starvation and disease).
Meeting me at the airport today will be one of my all-time best friends, "Lady By", Mme. Eng By Pheng. She was one of half a million Khmer refugees who in 1979 massed at the Thai-Cambodian border seeking food and medicine, and to be reunited with family after the horror of the Khmer Rouge years. Of these, Thai soldiers forced 30,000 at gunpoint over remote jungle cliffs back into Cambodia. "Lady By", with a baby on her back and another in her belly, was one of the survivors. We met in the Khao I-Dang Holding Center for Illegal Aliens, at the time the largest refugee camp (125,000 souls) in the world. Working together in pubic health in this huge camp we became fast friends forever. After raising her daughters in the USA and having a successful career in research, she has returned to Cambodia to make a life and to teach.
Lim Huy (Bou Ming Ty), a young man I met first in 1979 when he was an orphan starving on the border, will also join us. He grew up in Paris, became an optician, and married a lovely Khmer woman whose family he has set up in an auto-repair business in Cambodia.
We’re also joined by Christy and Harold, young retirees seeking to make a difference and coming to check things out in Cambodia in case it "captures" them as it has so many.
My godson Chris Grace and his friend, newly graduated from college, will be with us on their adventure through Asia.
I first came to Cambodia to help alleviate the misery, illness and trauma - and I stayed for the beauty, the joy and the HOPE... Now, all these years later, my refugee friends are returning, the adoptees are returning, and I can savor the sweet rewards that come of seeing people regain their lives and grow into people who now want to help with the work Airline Ambassadors International does so well.
So it looks as though I’ll hit the ground running - going straight to the river for a pass or two in the canoe as they paddle upstream past the two million spectators jamming the riverbanks between racing heats to reprise my favorite role, the "neak raum kandal tuk!" (“the person who dances in the middle of the boat"), clowning for the spectators who throw fruit and cheers to encourage the paddlers.
We're landing! Let's go! Welcome back to Cambodia!
(Dr Daniel Susott, AAI Medical Director)