Category Archives: Cambodia

Photo: Girl at Angkor Wat

This little girl was waiting for her mother to finish work and was much more interested in the orange slices than the crumbling history around her.

Summary of Cambodia

I can’t pretend I got a good grasp of Cambodia due to the fact that I only spent five days there.  But I enjoyed what I did see…

Highlights:

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Angkor Wat Archaeological Park- I heartily agree with the consensus whereby if you find yourself in South East Asia you should go see it.  I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Prices- I’ve gone through all of Asia remarking at how cheap everything is, but things hit rock bottom in Cambodia.  The funny thing about this is as a result Cambodia was probably the most expensive country in the region I visited, as it’s all too tempting to pay the few extra dollars- sure you can get a room for $3 but $10 gets you what is essentially a hotel room in the West with air conditioning, so why not?

Hungarians- For reasons I can’t completely work out, most of the people I hung out with in Cambodia were Hungarian.  As in there were eight of them at my guesthouse, a few I ran into at Angkor, and six of us on the bus ride to Bangkok!  Kind of an interesting surprise.

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New music- If you travel in this part of the world, you will inevitably run into someone selling music and movies for your iPod on the streetcorner.  Cambodia takes this a little bit further in that there are some very nice stores set up for this particular practice, and they sell albums at a dollar a pop so I visited one inquiring as to whether they had the new U2 album that had been released two days prior.  They did of course, and I spent a happy amount of time getting new tunes for my iPod and movies for my computer.  After two months, trust me, this was very exciting.

Lowlights:

I’m not going to lie, Cambodia’s recent history and poverty today are not particularly pretty.  The country was decimated and destroyed not too long ago and is on the long road to recovery, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see plenty of poverty around you from kids trying to sell you trinkets instead of going to school to musicians missing limbs and playing on the streets.  It’s heartbreaking.

I did have an interesting conversation with a guy who worked at my guesthouse though about this, who is going to school at night to study tourism in hopes of being a hotel manager (and said this in the same tone you hear from a guy in the US who tells you he is studying business in hopes of going to Wall Street).  He asked me how many beggars I saw compared to other countries in the area and I had to admit, lots of people try to sell you stuff but there is pretty minimal outright begging.

“That’s because we are people who insist on keeping our dignity,” he told me.  “The best thing you can do to help us is visit Cambodia, and tell your friends back home about our country so they visit as well.”

I found this comment to be so, well, different from what one usually hears that I am repeating it here. visit Cambodia!

Back to Bangkok

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It is a well-known secret in South East Asia that for years the Thai airlines actively subsidized nations around them to not build their roads.  The reason for this is because the roads were so absolutely terrible that they could run a nice monopoly on flights from Bangkok for all the tourists.  This is finally changing, but the last infamous holdout was the road between Siem Reap and Bangkok, which on the Cambodian side was an all-dirt, potholed affair beyond measure.

Flying to Bangkok from Siem Reap costs $150, the bus is $15.  And they are finally paving said road, so guess which one I did?  That’s right, the one that took nine hours instead of two!  It seemed a bit not in the right spirit to only see Siem Reap in Cambodia after all, and besides which the road was fine after a half hour of dust tops.  In a few more months it won’t be an issue, though I hear they scam you a bit coming from Bangkok to try and get you into a guesthouse that pays commission to the driver.

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A roadside market where we stopped to try and get rid of spare Cambodian riel (you switch buses at the border- the Cambodian one is an old not air conditioned affair, the Thai one is a modern air conditioned one).  See the pineapple?  I ate one as breakfast, for the lofty price of $1.  I am so missing South East Asia…

Crossing the border between Cambodia and Thailand is the difference between night and day- the Cambodian side is in scant shade with immigration officials known to ask for weekend “overtime” and whatever else in fees (which is why I went Friday!), and the Thailand side is in a cool air conditioned building that hums with efficiency (or is that the air conditioning?).  I subsequently spent the rest of the day marveling at how modern Thailand seems to me now after Laos and Cambodia, Bangkok in particular.  Whoa, a convenience store and fast food chains?  A somewhat stable currency?  I don’t need to provide my own toilet paper all the time?!  Craziness.

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Anyway, once in Bangkok I spent most of the weekend preparing for my flight to Europe on Monday by resting (my foot still hurt a little when I was walking a lot, and I can’t afford to not walk a lot in Europe!) and shopping.  Preparing for Europe from Thailand is a bit like preparing for an Arctic expedition due to the simple reason that it never gets cold here- I haven’t worn long pants in two months, had only one fleece jacket that I’d held onto, and no close-toed shoes at all.  I realize the thing to do around here is normally to head to the weekend market, but it gets really hot nowadays during the day in Bangkok (35C, ie mid-90sF and humid) so I retreated to the giant air-conditioned mall in Bangkok called MBK.  It reminds me more of an indoor market than a mall in the West anyway.

I’m not one for much shopping so I took care of things pretty easily- new pair of fake Birkenstocks for $5, a decent pair of walking shoes for $7, that sort of thing- but the last thing I needed to track down was a sweater as these are somewhat elusive creatures in Bangkok.  I finally found a little stall selling these gorgeous warm ones which confused me due to an “American Eagle- $89.95″ tag attached to each one (you get knockoffs galore around here, but usually tagless), until I noticed the “Made in Thailand” tag on the inside.  Difference between buying a sweater in the US and buying one over here where it was excess from the factory?  Just over $70.  And I’m not posting pictures now of all my purchases by the way, on the grounds that everyone will see them often enough in the pictures to come.

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Another Bangkok tradition for me by this point- the sushi bar just a road off of Kao Sahn Road, which sells delicious sushi plates for $7 and plays French jazz of all things.  One of those places one hopes to find in a round the world trip, and I will miss immensely.

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And last but not least, today was my last day here in Asia so I needed to mail my carefully selected souveniers home (a Thai cookbook, a Lao scarf, and a Cambodian painting of an elephant).  The Thai post office was an interesting affair as due to the painting my stuff didn’t fit into any of their boxes, so the mail clerk made me the box pictured above.  And proceeded to close it so thoroughly that I have absolutely no idea how my parents are going to open it when it arrives on their doorstep in a month.  Total cost of personalized box and shipping overseas via economy air?  About $8- for some reason surface shipping was more expensive.

Anyway, I have to stop this now and make sure my affairs are in order to head to the airport- my flight to Europe leaves in a few hours and it wouldn’t do to forget anything!  The summaries I wanted to write will have to wait for a colder continent… goodbye Asia…

The Ugly Side of History

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When taking a break from seeing Angkor Wat, the first thing any tourist goes to see in Siem Reap is the Cambodia Landmine Museum.  If you think this sounds depressing, well, first of all of course it is but second of all everything relating to modern history in Cambodia is going to be depressing.  This is the country of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge after all, who killed 800,000- 2 million people (25% of the population) in the late 1970s through forced labor, starvation, and blunt extermination.  Compared to other countries in the region, I had to look hard in Cambodia to see anyone who looked qualified to be a grandparent or even my parents’ age.

So where did the landmines come from?  A lot were from the Khmer Rouge during their regime.  A lot more were laid by the Vietnamese who invaded Cambodia in 1979- the Khmer Rouge fled into Thailand so a lot of mines were laid on the Cambodian-Thai border.  All in all it is estimated that up to six million landmines still exist in Cambodia, and several thousand people are still maimed or killed each year.  They organize into bands playing Khmer music around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap (not much dignity in being an ourtright beggar) and trust me, if you are around here and never find yourself parting with a few dollars I’m pretty sure you have no soul.

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The Cambodia Land Mine Museum was founded by a former child soldier recruited both by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army who laid landmines, and is now devoted to the arduous task of de-mining. (It should be noted that all tourist areas of Cambodia have been very thoroughly de-mined years ago, and no forgein visitor has ever been killed by a landmine while in Cambodia.) The museum is mainly a collection of old defused mines from all over Cambodia, which originate from all corners of the globe.

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I spent a long time looking at this picture, depicting scenes of fighting around Angkor Wat in 1985.  I mean, I was just shy of existing in 1985, yet you walk around Angkor today and would never guess this was happening just a few years ago where all the tourists are today.  I made a mental note to keep this in mind when my future kids someday tell me they want to backpack through Iraq…

It should be noted by the way that Angkor Wat was the scene of some of the most intense fighting by the Khmer Rouge- Pol Pot held it up as an example that Khmer people are capable of doing anything.  Apparently the irony of using a masterpiece of religious architecture as a reason to promote your atheistic farming commune was lost on them.

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And last but not least a bumper sticker you see a lot in Cambodia these days saying “I support the KR trials.”  While the brutality of the Khmer Rouge was primarily in the 1970s there were still some strongholds up until the late 1990s in Cambodia- Pol Pot died a natural death in 1998- and UN-backed trials to address the genocide are just beginning.  The first trial is set to begin in April and naturally dominated the headlines of the English newspaper every day I was in Cambodia.

The trials are not without controversy for several reasons, the main one being that they are proceeding at a very slow pace.  Most of the defendants are getting up there in the years and there are still a lot of Cambodian politicians who think it would be best to let them quietly pass away.  We’ll see what happens.

Needless to say, you brood a lot over tough topics when visiting this country, and pray such things will never happen again.  But for now in this part of the world all one can do is wait for the wheels of justice to turn and try and make things safer, defusing one landmine at a time.

Angkor Wat Archeological Park

The following is going to be really long and filled with pictures, but I don’t care because I took over a hundred in three days and they’re all spectacular. So you’re just going to like it, deal?

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If you ever come to South East Asia, it soon becomes evident that the consensus is you are required to see Angkor Wat, a series of ancient jungle temples in Cambodia, to the point where yes you should take that flight from Laos for your last week on the continent to see it. And frankly I’m included in that number after having visited- I mean, have you seen a better place in the world to play Indiana Jones? I even had a dorky hat!

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Because we begin, it is important to note that when people say “Angkor Wat” they’re often referring to a greater area known as Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, a bunch of temples built by various Khmer kings about a thousand years ago. Angkor Wat proper is the largest of them, which looks like this-

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From the inside, Angkor Wat looks like this-

image383When built around the year 1100A.D., Angkor Wat and its surrounds were the largest city in the world (Europe wasn’t much to write home about in this era). The temples were also all originally Hindi and show a heavy Indian influence due to numerous Indian traders around at the time, but later became Buddhist when the population converted.

Anyway, once you’re done with Angkor Wat you can travel through the Banyon Gate…

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And check out the Banyon Temple, filled with enigmatic faces-image343

And don’t forget to admire the carvings…

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And do that again and again and again, for three days. A large fraction of people are too exhausted after the first day but I loved it, and ended up exploring for three. I fell into a great rhythm whereby every day at nine my motorcycle taxi who I hired for $12 a day would pick me up, I would clamber all around a temple until I’d seen enough while he waited in the shade, and then we would move on to the next one. When not in the temple itself you usually get accosted by at least one Cambodian child trying to sell you cold water or postcards which was a bit heartbreaking. Poverty is never very far off in Cambodia.

Anyway, a few more favorite pictures-

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One of the most beautifully preserved temples, a decent motorbike ride away from most of the temples.

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One of many monkeys wandering around the area, who are smart enough to steal water bottles from tourists and drink from them. Because these would not be proper jungle temples without monkeys.

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Having fun exploring a temple still overgrown with trees, which drip down the temple walls with their roots. Everyone feels obliged to mention that this is the very same temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, which I’ve never seen but I mention because the guy who took this picture told me I was having a Laura Croft moment.

On the note of restoration, well, beyond the main temples hardly any has started really due to lack of funds. The ones currently being restored are being done in conjunction with aid from another country (Japan seemed the most prominent), but the ones still awaiting funds for restoration just have wooden beams propping up the walls that look ready to collapse. Oh, and because this is Cambodia you can walk anywhere and there are signs telling you to please not touch anything, but it’s not like anyone’s stopping you.

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This is apparently the most famous place in the Tomb Raider temple, as proven by the fact that all the Westerners needed a picture of this overgrown tree (as opposed to the dozens of other trees, lots of which looked a lot cooler). The main temples are indeed very touristy, from backpackers like me who hired a motorcycle taxi to round German couples named Boris and Helga who talk too loud to Japanese tour groups who only put down their cameras to flash peace symbols for other people’s cameras. The trick is to make sure you spend time at the lesser-known temples, which are often just as spectacular albeit a little smaller. But often you can have the temple to yourself, sitting in a musty old windowsill. I did that a lot, imagining what it must have been like to be in the middle of bustle and noise a thousand years ago, what the reaction would have been if I told them no one was around anymore except a girl from a continent that hadn’t been discovered who was enjoying the history for a few minutes.

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And then I would wander off again, looking for the X marking the spot and mindful to not tell the evil monkey of my plans. Indiana Jones has got nothing on me!image350

Welcome to Cambodia

I was running out of time, so last week when I sat down to count out the days I had left it soon became evident that I needed to catch a flight out of Vientiane if I was going to get to Cambodia for any length of time. As luck would have it there was one seat left the next week to Fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia, but the bad luck stated this flight would leave at 630am.  I almost audibly heard the guesthouse owner’s friend the taxi driver laugh with glee at the thought of what he was going to charge me for the 430am ride to the airport, as he really had a monopoly at that hour.

Anyway, here is the Lao Airlines plane, aka the first turbo prop plane I’ve taken in memory-

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Now I have to say, I am left without conclusive evidence as to the safety record of Lao Airlines from my experience.  They sort of mentioned at the beginning that there were exits somewhere and seatbelts were a good idea… I started idly wondering if the plane was as old as everything in Laos until I realized this was one of those “thinking too much” moments people keep warning me about, so I decided to nap.  My favorite napping position on a plane involves elegantly sleeping while leaning on the tray table until the stewardess tells me to put the tray table up as we’re landing, so I was busy napping happily until… my body received a jolt from landing wheels.  Which has never happened to me before on the five continents I’ve been to.  Who would have guessed international airline regulations are subject to cultural relativism?

But anyway, Cambodia.  As an introduction, I should tell you that I was a touch paranoid about visiting thanks to Mr. McGee, my favorite teacher in 8th grade science who joined the Peace Corps in Cambodia after teaching me.  His descriptions of Cambodia around the year 2000 were, I must say, pretty grim, and knowing the recent history of the country with the Khmer Rouge wasn’t helping my perceptions either.  I needn’t have worried though- due to the influx of tourism Siem Reap is the sort of place even my dad would call “nice.”  It’s more French than Laos was to the point where the riverside area could almost pass a town in that country, there is lots of development, and it’s the first place I’ve been where the average age of tourists was over 25.  Who would have guessed?

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The best night shot I have of “Pub Street,” which technically has a Khmer name  but no one knows it anymore.  Pub Street is actually filled with more restaurants than pubs.  It should also be noted that it is typically more expensive to eat here (ie Cambodia, not just Pub Street) than even Bangkok, which doesn’t make sense because Cambodia is overall cheaper.  The reason, it turns out, is twofold: first of all due to cheap prices it’s much too tempting to “upgrade” your lifestyle a bit, and second Cambodia de-facto uses the US dollar as its currency (its own, the riel, is used as change- 4,000 riel= $1USD).  Right now the USD is doing quite good against currencies like the Thai baht, so Cambodians are definitely benefiting.

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View from my guesthouse window which I took one afternoon when it suddenly got so dark and windy I excitedly began thinking it might rain.  I haven’t seen the stuff since an hour-long downpour on Ko Samui about six weeks ago and I’m starting to miss it- heck if it’s somewhat cloudy I feel it’s so dark I can hardly see- but it’s not scheduled to rain for another few months yet so sure enough it didn’t this time either.

It should be noted by the way that after two months of rain I’m beginning  to think the concept as far-fetched.  You mean water falls from the sky?  Shenanagins, next you’re going to tell me there are some places in the world where you can walk on water and drink it from the tap and not die!

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Speaking of water, I saw this little commotion at the market and fell in love with it- it’s the iceman!  Remember how a century ago in the USA you had a guy who’d come around with blocks of ice every day? (Ok, you don’t remember, but you’ve heard stories.) Apparently they still do that in Cambodia.  And he has got to be one of the most popular guys in town because it’s always a million degrees here.

So that is my introduction to Cambodia.  Now to get onto the main stuff and reason I came here, the magnificent Angkor Wat…