Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’

August 18 thru 21

Bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, 6 hours. This wasn’t so much a tourist bus as just a straight up commuter bus, a mix of 80% locals 20% backpacking foreigners. Since Siem Reap attracts more wealthy tourists and the state of the roads is abysmal, most fly out of the airport in town and usually never see Phnom Pehn at all (it’s a city known more for its history as the sight of the death of hundreds of thousands and less for its lovely buildings). Anyways back to the bus. We were gifted with 2 hours of Cambodian karaoke on the tvs. While culturally interesting to watch for the first 15 minutes I soon wanted to tear my ears from my head. Thankfully I had earplugs in my bag and I did not care if anyone saw me put them in. After Cambodian ktv the driver put in a 1980s Chinese horror film. It was a traditional style one complete with kung fu magic, jumping zombies, vampires, evil spirit babies, and alternate portals with glowing green lights. This was dubbed in Khmer as well, but way more entertaining than the karaoke. I almost think I’d seen it in Taipei before but I couldn’t be sure because all of those films are almost the same.

Finally arrived in Phnom Pehn. Argued with the tuktuk drivers over the price to go to the hotel I had booked (I didn’t really want to wander the city looking for an available room) on the internet the day before. So I finally go…and I just want to say…Lonely Planet…you’d been pretty handy all trip, but here, you let me down big time. I had had really good luck just randomly picking hotels and getting nice clean rooms with ac, cable tv, hot showers, all for 10 or 15 dollars. Here…I knew it was not a good sign when no one spoke English, they dug through a giant bin of keys all scribbled on with markers and finally handed me one. Broken tv, no toilet paper, weak ac, no handle on the faucet, and questionable blankets. Lovely. But it was too late to change my mind. Spent the night, checked out at 7am and the guy asked me “Why so early…you stay 3 days?”…I reply… “Not here, I don’t.” Took a tuk tuk to the waterfront. Found a nice hotel, 15$…no window, but practically the Ritz compared to the other one.

While Phnom Pehn is not on most tourist to-do lists, it still seemed a pretty decent city (I even saw a Starbucks *gasp*). There were scenic things and markets and restaurants…has the same…throw your trash in the street philosophy as Vietnam but not too stinky. Checked out the National Museum, the Royal Palace, and the Silver Pagoda.


The National History Museum
DSC06927French colonial architecture leftover.

DSC06934Royal Palace

DSC06936Buddha ironwork on a door

DSC06941Outdoor hallways with pieces of mural

DSC06945Funeral stupa outside the Silver Pagoda

DSC06950Silver pagoda in the background

DSC06952Processional banners for the king, sitting in a neglected corner of the grounds

Tired and sweaty I walked to a café in a side street. I sat outside to take advantage of the breeze. Big mistake. “Miiiiiiisss….missss”. Here we go. “Miss you want paper? You want book? Sunglasses? Fan? Hammock?”  I was panhandled by 5 separate kids in 45 minutes and 2 adults. Then I made the mistake of actually acknowledging one kid, “What books do you have?”. “This one very good, about Cambodian history” “How much?” “10$”…”No thank you, I’ll pay 3.” Kid is instantly annoyed…”I no make profit, I paid 2$ for this book. You pay 9$ Very good copy”. I then point out that I have a book, a real book, and I paid 6$ for it. Why should I pay 10$ for a photocopy that has smeared words…point to the inside. I don’t even really need a book, I was just being nice and might read it later 3$ is my only offer. Boy gets sullen. He stands there for 5 minutes silently. Finally he says, “Ok 5$”. “No. Please leave now”. Then, I get to hear some great things. A 7 year old cussing me out in really good English…so now his English is good apparently. This is definitely not the way to get someone to buy things. He leaves.

Another 30 minutes, another little boy comes up, this one is smaller maybe 5 or 6…I still do want a book. “Miss, you buy this book..3$”…He must have heard me earlier. Why not, he’s polite. He’s not quoting ridiculous prices. He doesn’t complain when I want to check the copy to see if all the pages are there. So I pay him and get the book. I settle in to read when I hear…Smack! I look up and the kid with the bad mouth has punched the other little kid in the face. Whoa whoa…I am not here to incite children to punch each other. He cries and cries while clutching his box of books. The other kid laughs and runs off. I try to buy the kid some ice cream but he sniffles and says he has to get back to work. These kids are smart, funny, hard workers, its only too bad their focus is not centered on something else. That said, I never saw a kid who looked truly hungry, maybe a bit dirty but while this instance really really got to me, for the most part you had to take the kids with a bit of a cold heart…because they were going to sucker some tourist somewhere, it just usually wasn’t gonna be me.

Met some interesting people, ate some fondue, had some unbelievable sweet lemon pie at a bar that reminded me of Nashville. Bought some dragon fruit, wandered some markets arguing with men about 2$ statues of Buddha. “I give you very good price…8$”….uh no. I go next door…”I give you price…2$”..ok thats more like it.

On my second day in Phnom Pehn or third. I’m not really sure anymore. I decided to do the “sad day”. Why a “sad day”? Because its really not fair to travel to foreign countries and see only the picturesque. You need the full picture, and in that case alot of the picture in Cambodia is taken up by the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

Background note. The Khmer Rouge was a communist political party in Cambodia that led from 1975-1979. During these few years they uprooted almost the entire country in the name of “agricultural reform” it quickly failed leaving a government paranoid and trigger happy. Killing all intellectuals, government member, middle class, even their own. 1-3 MILLION people died in this time period. What really horrifies me is that this is a modern era, only 20-30 years ago. A time of world wide information and communication. In a nation next door to Vietnam, this exists and was largely ignored by larger world powers.

Anyways, I started my morning with a long long motorbike ride out to  Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields). Driven to a largely agricultural part of town behind a dump there was a dirt road with green grass that led to a meadowy tree area. In the middle was a towering stupa…funeral monument. Inside the stupa organized by age were 5000 skulls. In addition to this you could wander around the area where you’d occasionally find signs saying nonchalantly “This was the tree the Khmer Rouge beat babies to death against” or “This is a tree they hung speakers from that played music so that surrounding locals wouldn’t hear the moans of the people buried alive”. Walking along, amidst the bees and trees you’d think it was just another field but then looking down at the dirt worn away on the path you notice bits of white rock sticking out, curved pieces and knobbly pieces…and then you realize. It’s not rock. Its bones. Much of the area was not dug up because it was simply too large of a task. Better to let them be. 15,000 unknowns. And we walk around on them all. The most eerie part is being at a location with several dozen other people and not hearing a single word spoken the entire time out of respect.

After this, I continued on with my sad day and had my driver take me back to town to the Tuol Sleng museum. It was originally a highschool. Except now the outsides are wrapped in rusty bobwire since it was converted to the S-21 Prison in 1975. Tiny cells made in the classrooms, rooms with red stains, and hundreds and hundred of pictures of inmates. Women, children, men, teenagers. Not just Cambodians but westerners were imprisoned and killed as well. At the end of the war when Vietnam invaded only 12 people survived of the 17,000 that were once there. Having seen enough I headed back to my hotel for a shower and a nap.


And thus, worn thin from weeks of haggling with children, carrying my shoe festooned backpack from hotel to hotel and endless undecipherable tourguides…I was ready to go home.

Home to Taipei that is.

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August 15 thru 18
Cambodia from the second we crossed the border was a very, very different country from that of Vietnam. There were few elements of modernity here. No booming construction, no cars even, and very few paved roads. People lived as they have for hundreds of years in bamboo stilt houses. They have oxen tied in the yard and small gardens growing in the soggy ground. Instead of being met with young men shouting “cyclo? Motorbike miss?” at rest stops we were met instead with children offering fruit and giant bowls of spiders and crickets to eat….yes giant fried tarantulas. And yes, they were for eating. And no, I did not eat any.

While Cambodia was drastically poorer than Vietnam, in whole, I found the people a lot more welcoming and friendly. In Vietnam they’ve become very used to the presence of foreigners and I feel like they see us merely as money, big dollar signs. While Cambodia, still recovering from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s has only in recent years been stable enough to actually welcome larger numbers of foreigners. While Cambodia has its own currency: the riel, the dollar is mostly used. Everything is quoted in dollars, ATM’s give dollars and change is generally given in riel…25 cents being 1000 riel…but there are 100 riel notes which are…3 cents?

My hotel in Siem Reap was friendly and lovely. The Mandalay Guesthouse…check it out if you’re ever in town its around the corner from the old market. The next morning I had a strong coffee then braced myself for the daily bartering for transportation. 6$ for a guy to motorbike me around for the whole day, but I insisted on a helmet as well (apparently an unusual request)…helmet adds a $1 apparently haha whatever, I am not going to the hospital for brain injuries in a 3rd world country. I pointed to the places on the map, and we were off zooming down quiet tree lined roads for miles and miles headed straight for Angkor Wat.

While I had experienced numerous ruins, temples, palaces and Asian treasures…it was still breathtaking. A mist hovering above the lotus ponds, little naked children laughing and splashing about, orange robed monks walking with briefcases along the side of the road, men sleeping in hammocks strung in shady spots along the roadside, and little monkeys throwing rotten mangoes. My mind took a thousand pictures that will never compare.

While Angkor Wat is the supposed “jewel” in the crown of Siem Reap and it is certainly the largest and in the best condition, I found a lot of the smaller, more derelict temples more moving and beautiful. I did Angkor Wat till noon the first day, dying in the powerful sun. Every single inch of the massive, massive temple is covered in beautiful carvings, there are little nooks with Buddha statues, a pervading smell of incense, and towering stone sculptures.

Afterwards, I headed back to my driver to continue down the road to another temple that was a bit shadier. This temple was the site for the Tomb Raider film and is falling apart as the jungle grows within the walls. Ta Prohm is a tangle of tree roots, moss, and “danger, no entry signs” That said, it’s a bit busy for my taste, with people crawling all over the tumbled down stones. Not accessible by road you enter by walking down a dirt path flanked by landmine victims playing music and beggar children who have fashioned themselves crowns of palm leaves as they sing in unison for you while shouting, “Money! Money!” between choruses. Exhausted by the discovery that I had exited the wrong jungle path and had to retrace almost my entire trek through the temple, I told the driver, “take me some place you like” however while headed towards town we were doused by rain. Soaked to the skin (the only time it ever rained in 3 weeks) I headed back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.

An evening of pizza, gin and tonics, and later beer with local ex-pats. I experienced more of a typical Siem Reap evening. Khmer food, Angkor beer, and joking about all sorts of things with Italians, British, Spanish, and Australian people who were kind enough to let me tag along with their local group.

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Angkor Wat, beyond the first gate. There was a local family picnicing

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There was a sad horse tied to the tree for photo-ops or rides. Poor horsey.

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Looking back from the temple steps at the entry gate…I’d like to call this the walk of sweat and boiling brains.

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Note the guy talking on his cellphone. There were alot of guys like this who would suddenly start giving you a guided tour of the temple…the thing is you have to stop them before they DO actually give you a tour and then ask for money. I did alot of:  I DON’T WANT A TOUR! I want to ignorantly walk about and admire….IN SILENCE. THANK YOU.

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Local girls in traditional dress. They were beautiful…like gorgeous butterflies.

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I was always amazed that every inch of all of these massive temples was covered in exquisite carvings like these.

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Ta Prohm, is in the jungle and a bit more derelict than that of Angkor Wat. Still beautiful though.

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This is the tree in Tomb Raider where Angelina Jolie falls through the earth or something. I dunno. I never saw the movie but there were a ridiculous amount of people here taking pictures with some roots that looked just like 100 other roots in the temple.

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Since I am now on vacation technically…I am leaving on Monday to go to Vietnam and Cambodia for 19 days. I am traveling with my friend Axel, and we’re doing Vietnam top to bottom, then hopefully we’ll take a boat over to Cambodia and check out the sights there. Why Vietnam? Its a bit off the path, its a bit untraditional, I feel as if its overlooked amongst Thailand and other South East Asian destinations. Why not Vietnam? I want to extend my knowledge of the country beyond that of cheesy war flicks shown in the movies. People didn’t stop living there after 1975, theres a country, a people, a culture still thriving with a vast history. Cambodia is the destination I particularly pushed for. After seeing some photographs from a friend a few years ago that were breathtaking, I need to go see it for myself. Hopefully I can capture some of what he saw as well.

So I got my impossibly small backpack, a camera, and some American cash and I’m ready to go.

Our tentative schedule? While Axel is so gung-ho about seeing everything, I’m sure some of this will have to be adjusted or our legs will fall off.

We’re traveling down the coast from Hanoi to Ho Chih Minh (Saigon) then on to Phnom Pehn in Cambodia. The dates are prospective though, we might take more time in one place or skip another depending on how we’re feeling, but this’ll give you a rough idea. We are traveling Aug. 3-21
3 Hanoi
4 Hanoi
5 Halong Bay
6 Hue
7 Hue / Hoi An
8 Hoi An / Tuy Hoa
9 Tuy Hoa – Beach
10 Saigon
11 Saigon
12 Cu Chi-Vietnam war tunnels
13 My Tho –Mekong floating towns
14 My Tho
15 Travel to Cambodia, on to Phnom Penh
16 Rest in Phnom Penh
17 Angkor Wat/Siem Reap
18 Angkor Wat/Siem Reap
19 Angkor Wat/Siem Reap
20 Phnom Penh
21 Phnom Penh

Wish me luck. A bit nervous, a bit excited. It should be great. Any advice is welcome.

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