Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
17Trip End Ongoing
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This entry is the middle portion of the Southeast Asia trip. We started in Bangkok, went north to Chiang Mai, then east to Luang Prabang, Laos. After a great couple days, we went south to Cambodia where we met two friends. After almost a week in Cambodia, we headed back to Bangkok where we departed back to Korea. The Thailand and Laos portions of the trip are already written and can be viewed in previous entries. I hope you enjoy this Cambodia edition.
As we descended into Siem Reap, the contrast with Laos was stark. Laos was beautifully forested with the majestic Mekong running between tree-covered mountain peaks
As with Laos, we deboarded on the runway. The airport was beautiful and small, able to service about four to five flights at a time. Inside we were forced to stand in long, slow visa lines. The cost was $30 USD and the atmosphere was not friendly. Out of immigration, Helen decided to exchange $100 USD, while I had a strange resistance to the idea. Outside of the airport I soon realized why. Cambodia was operating with both USD and Cambodian riel. Major transactions were conducted with dollars and change was handled with riel. Since 4,000 riel is a dollar, riel replace US coins. Thus, if you are buying something for $5.25, you will pay $5 US and 1,000 riel.
We decided to wait around the entrance for a bit to catch our bearings and decide where to stay for the night. When we tried to buy a water, we were given our first lesson about the strange Cambodian currency system. By paying in riel, which Helen just exchanged for, we were being charged double
The road into the city was lined with massive, expensive hotels. Once the country was stabilized after years of dictators and Angkor Wat (largest temple in the world) opened to tourism, Siem Reap boomed. Millions of visitors from all over the world come to Cambodia solely for the world wonder. Many people never venture anywhere outside the hotel and the temple grounds. When we entered the city, I was immediately struck by the mud. It had recently rained, and their was dirt and mud everywhere. The road was virtually covered in it.
At the hostel we discovered there would be no room for us and our friends coming later. We departed with the couple and left them with the cheap place with free bikes. We went to a place around the corner which had a pool table, internet and a crocodile pit out back. That's right, a restaurant behind us had dozens of the crocs in a concrete pit, mostly waiting to be eaten...strange
Once rested, we decided to check out our new temporary home. We quickly happened upon a night market and decided to eat. While eating a boy tried to sell me some photocopied books about Cambodia for very cheap prices. The books looked interesting, but I already had too many to carry. I denied the request, but made the mistake of talking to him. He wouldn't leave me alone to eat my food. This would be the beginning of what we would discover to be the darker side of Cambodia. In every major touristy area, many poor childern are spending the majority of their time selling goods rather than going to school and playing. Many develop a very aggresive style, not letting a sale slip away easily, often getting irritated or angry with the foreigner. After our annoying dinner, we discovered a cool night market where we bought some gifts and some cheap beer, 60 cents a draft. We went back to the hotel, played some pool and caught our ride to the airport.
Cloud and Sharon Arrive
Helen and I made a sign to welcome the happy couple from our school in Korea. Cloud had been in Cambodia before doing service work with orphans and had made some good friends
The next morning our same taxi driver picked us up and we headed to the temple. At the gate, everyone had to pay a $20 entrance fee, which is free for Cambodians. Driving to breakfast, it was clear why so many people visit. Massive moats surrounded the main temple (all dug by peasants/slaves) and beautiful foliage and ancient architecture abounded.
We divided our time amongst the three most famous temples: the main angkor temple, Bayon and Ta Prohm. The first is absolutely unbelievable for its size and symmetry. It was great fun walking around, taking pictures and exploring this spiritual place. The second temple is famous for the faces. Carved into the temple are dozens of the same face. Most of the temple towers are complete with four faces looking in each direction
Next stop: Battambang
After finishing with the third temple, we had some lunch and decided to go. We had many hours ahead of us in a taxi to our next destination. Before we could go anywhere we had to wait in a gas station. Our taxi driver had a friend who would take us. This friend was not ready when we were though. So, we spent about an hour in a crowded gas station staring out at the hot, dusty streets. We were very excited when our new driver arrived. Even though he spoke almost no English (He didn't even know dollar amounts) and played poppy Cambodian music. We were as happy as people can be about an upcoming 4-hour cab ride on bumpy roads.
Oh man, the roads were bad. The first two hours were on loose gravel with unfinished bridges every few miles. Not only were the road conditions bad, but they were packed with all kinds of vehicles. Scooters, trucks, cars, donkeys, you name it, people were trying to drive it on these long stretches of terrible road
The Stung Sangke Hotel was an amazing sight for us weary travellers. It was huge and gorgeous. The lobby was ordained with a grand staircase, marble, chandeliers and intricate Cambodian art. Built for foreign diplomats, it housed the only casino in town. We definietly couldn't afford this place, but we had Tommy. He is Cloud's friend, a local business owner and English speaker who befriends the missionaries who come to help serve the community. Cloud befriended Tommy on his first trip to Cambodia when he came to teach English at the orphanage. Last time Tommy had promised he could get a 50% discount from his manager friend at the hotel. After a long heated discussion, Tommy prevailed. We paid $50 for two nights saving $70 off the listed price.
Living the life in Battambang
Our room was beautifully furnished complete with robes and sandals for lounging. Located on the second floor, the best part was the outdoor pool only a couple doors down. Even though it was closed for the night, the young care-free staff turned on the lights. I made good use of the diving board, teaching the staff how to throw a frisbee to me while I jumped off. We had some dinner at a local restaurant owned by one of Tommy's friends, zoned out to one of the dozens of international TV channels and went to bed feeling like royalty.
The next morning we ate a traditional meatball and noodle soup...delicious
Finished at the church, we went across the street to the orphanage. Immediately after parking outside the gate, the children recognized Cloud and started saying hi and giving hugs. This was a powerful experience. Not because they were poor and orphaned children in Cambodia, but there behavior. The typical Cambodian traveller sees the dark side of the country's children: namely aggressive child beggars. These kids were phenomenal though. Their tempermant was so gracious, kind and thoughtful. It felt as if you were interacting with enlightened monks. In a way maybe we were. When Cloud presented them with their presents they were all smiles and "thank you's." Yet, they were patient enough to wait to play with the toys later. Most children would have ripped the package open on arrival and began playing. These kids seemed to be more interested in us, the human interactions, than toys and games. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I loved every second of that short visit (15 minutes). I was inspired and awed by the behavior of these children who had next to nothing materialistically, yet had so much positive energy to share with the world.
We headed to the river park to play cards
After our bamboo fill, we headed back to the hotel and ate at the hotel restaurant serving typical Khmer (Cambodian) food for slightly inflated prices. Later, we visited a local barber shop for earwax removal (apparently it's common in Cambodia) and a shave (I hadn't shaved all trip). I've now received two shaves while travelling, the other in Thailand, and it's been an incredibly bloody experience both times
To the beach we go!
The typical Cambodian itinerary includes the wonderous Angkor, the unsettling Khmer Rouge killing fields and the relaxing beaches of Sihanoukville. Having already strayed off the beaten tourist path in Battambang, we decided to join our fellow tourists for some surf and turf. Our taxi ride to Phnom Penh was insane for a different reason than the last one to Battambang. Instead of dirt roads, donkies and road construction, we were gifted beautiful tarmac for the entire ride. Unfortunately, our driver had some sort of death wish. He drove so fast and furious, it felt like we were at the Autobon. He passed every vehicle on the road and spent so much time in the middle or other lane it was better just not to watch. On the brightside, we did arrive fairly quickly. We weren't too thrilled about where we arrived though. Phnom Penh is big, poor and dirty, very dirty. We got out of the taxi, bought a bus ticket, and were leaving within about 15 minutes. I went into a convenience store and when I came out had to chase the bus down.
The airconditioning on this 3-4 hour ride was absurdly cold
Thoroughly frustrated, we checked into a beachside bungaloo called Tranquility and went back to bed. When we woke up the weather still sucked, but having little else to do we swam, ate and drank. This would normally be a great relaxing beach vacation, but the place never warmed to us (literally and figuratively).
Our best day in Sihanoukville was spent on a boat. While Cloud had to spend the whole day sick in bed, Helen, Sharon and I went snorkelling and scuba diving. I was the only westerner on the adventure, since our guide was also Korean. This made our expedition numbers 3 Koreans, 2 Cambodians and one American. On our trip out to the dive spot the sun started shining. We passed one of the strangest sights I've ever seen, the most expensive hotel in Cambodia. It's a five-star, ludicrously expensive man-made island hotel that looks like a castle and is only accessible by boat.
The last time I dove was two years ago in Kenya
Finished with the diving, I felt free. No longer bothered by heavy equipment, I busied myself with snorkeling and doing backlflips off the top of the boat. I was also able to join Helen and Sharon as they played in the ocean. It was fun to coach Helen into taking her life jacket off and try to tread water on her own. For a beginner, she did pretty well (she just started taking lessons last year). After a wonderful day at sea, we ate at a Korean restaurant, played cards and drank some cocktails with Connor, the Irish bus companion.
Back to Phnom Penh (PP)
The bus back to PP was as noisy as the bus to Sihanoukville was cold. Loud TVs played repetitive Cambodia songs the whole way. When we arrived we were surrounded by dozens of our closest friends offering us rides anywhere we wanted to go. We managed to escape the crowd and find a bus to Siem Reap for Cloud and Sharon. They would be flying out later the day. Helen and I eventually hired the most persistent driver to take us to our guidebook recommended place, the Royal Guesthouse
We relaxed in our royal room and then wandered around the city. Despite a bad first impression, the city had many fine attractions worth walking for. The river, though brown, was wide and full of interesting boat traffic. There is a large palace and some well-kept museums. We checked out the National Museum, which was nice, but incredibly cluttered and lacking in info. After we treated ourselves to some Irish grub, quite tasty. With plans to go out and experience the night life, we went home and napped, waking up the next morning...oops.
Saving the best for last
This is not just a cheesy cliche to keep you reading. My favorite part of PP and possibly all of Cambodia was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Although it took us a long time to get there, it was worth it. I thought we could walk there, but I was judging distances pretty inaccurately. After exploring a mall, a grocery store and walking for too many hot blocks, we finally hired a Tuk-tuk.
Upon arrival, amputees and other unfortunates, most likely around for the Khmer occupation, beg for money. Formerly a High School, the Khmer Rouge used Security Prison 21 (S-21) as an interrogation facility, torture center and extermination camp. Of the 17,000 people imprisoned in four years, there were only 12 known survivors. In the first building, I was struck by the simple gruesomeness
The next building was shocking for the amount of detail. Every victim was photographed and catalogued. The record keeping was pretty astounding. Thankfully for family and friends, most of the victims are known. The amount of information about the regime, torture methods and victims was fascinating and impressive. I wanted to stay for much longer, but we needed to catch our flight. Due to time, we didn't get to look at the other buildings.
Leaving with a sour taste
On our way back to the hotel the tuk-tuk driver got lost and wouldn't listen to me about where to go. Finally, he stopped and asked another driver who told him to do what I had already told him. Back at the guesthouse, we quickly packed all of our stuff and took another driver to the airport. When we arrived at the airport, we realized my watch was an hour fast and we were plenty early...ahh
By the time I was boarding the plane for Thailand, I was happy to be leaving the country. Although I am glad I went, I don't think I will ever go back to Cambodia again.