Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, November 27, 2008

The rundown

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.

Strange Arrival

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. My first view of Cambodia was one of the strangest landscapes I had ever seen. The eeriely masssive Tonle Sap lake dominated the scene. The water was a kind of grayish color matching the sky. The land was flat, muddy and flooded. Nothing seemed arable nor hospitable. After hearing countless stories of the beauty of Angkor, I was very surprised at the sight.

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 prices were only listed in dollars and the riel/dollar rate was an especially bad airport rip-off rate. Anyway, we shook off these early mishaps and shared a taxi with another couple to a popular hostel. 

Siem Reap   

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. The only problem was that the hotel wouldn't take riel and that's all we had. 

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. It was refreshing to have a friend along who knew something about Cambodia. We took the taxi back and went to the night market again. After sitting down for a drink, it started pouring. A couple drinks later when we were ready for bed, the walk home was a muddy mess. We went to bed happy to be reunited with friends and excited for Angkor the next day.

Beautiful Angkor  

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. This temple was also great for pictures and getting lost. The narrow walkways were all so similar looking, it was easy to get turned around and separated from the group. Last and my favorite was Ta Prohm, famous for its trees. Many of the trees are gigantic, so old and tall that you really have to strain your neck to see the tops. Also making it stand out is the amount of rubble. Many of the temples are well maintained, but this one had entire walls crumbling. Plus, many of the trees were growing on the walls. One of the trees in particular garners the place lots of fame. The tree is literally sitting on top of the wall with the roots extending to the ground. It makes for an awesome picture and thus all the tourists congregate there to do just that.

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. Midway through we had to stop for gas. I was surprised to see him open the trunk. That was my first and still only exposure to a trunk accessible gas tank.

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! After eating we headed to the market to pick up gifts for the orphans Cloud taught. Although all the goods seemed from 1990s, they were fairly expensive  for Cambodian standards. Cloud picked up some toys and we tuk-tuked to the pastor's house, who lived across the steet from  the orphanage. Unfortunately, he was back in Korea, but we still went inside to drop off the gifts and look around. One of the few churches in Cambodia, it was small and simple. The main room of worship was void of chairs and even a cross. However, it seemed like a happy place, as the caretakers were friendly and all smiles as they showed us around.

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.

Battambang Bamboo

We headed to the river park to play cards. We taught Tommy to play Gin Rummy and he showed us the local game called twelve. While relaxing we saw a bamboo raft flow float by with its timber cargo. Feeling a bit jealous, we decided to seek out our own bamboo transportation. Before we did this we had a bamboo drink, which was delicious. The best part was that the bamboo was grinded right in front of you upon ordering. Satisfied, we took a tuk-tuk to the outskirts of town to a semi-derelict train track. The trains in Cambodia are abyssmal, and people have compensated for this fact by making their own bamboo trains. Extremely lightweight and holding up to about 20 people, they can be lifted off the tracks for incoming bamboo trains to pass by. The bamboo train etiquette forces the train with the lighter load to do the lifting, while the heavier load waits for the track to be fully cleared of train and cargo. The trains are mainly used to transport rice from the outskirts of town to city center, but also transport people and tourists for a small fee. Since our crew was only 6 people, our journey included much unloading and lifting off the tracks to make way for bigger loads. No bother, the experience was unique and thrilling. We ended our journey at a bridge overlooking a flooded rice plain. A man was wading in the brown water looking for fish while children swam with delight alongside him. The whole scene set against an ominous grey sky was picturesque, so we took some pictures, as good tourists do.

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. I'm not sure if it's a lack of shaving skill on their part or my skin.  My face is very accustomed to my electric razor and maybe sensitive to the sharpness of the barber shop straight edge. Once I stopped bleeding, we returned to the hotel for TV watching, which is a true multicultural experience. Like Thailand, you can tune into French, Spanish, English, Thai, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese and Korean programming all in one sitting. Best for me was the variety of soccer matches on at a given time. I watched a little bit of a Zimbabwe, Zambia (I actually don't remember which African countries were playing, but I like the Z alliteration) match and fell asleep.

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. Everyone on the bus was freezing and the driver would not turn it down. I passed the time losing to Helen in Gin and conversing with an overly-talkative Irish guy named Connor. Cloud began getting sick to his stomach from one of our recent meals. Needless to say, we were happy to arrive in a rainy Sihanoukville. We hired a taxi to take us to a friend's recommendation, Monkey Republic. After a great meal at a restaurant across the street, we checked out the beach for tomorrow's accommodation. A shortwhile later after a battle with a monstous cockroach and endless amounts of noise, we ditched Monkey and headed to a cheaper, quieter place, closer to the beach. It remained all of these things until 7 a.m. construction woke us up.

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. I enjoy diving to an extent, but would like it much better if I were good at it. At first, I was only bothered by depressurizing while descending. I conquered that task, but now I'm incredibly annoyed by my bouancy problems. Bascially, I'm terrible at floating in one spot. I'm always drifiting upwards and then expending energy and oxygen trying to regain my position. All of this equates to short dives. Instead of close to an hour, like most skilled divers, I dove for 45 minutes the first time and only 35 the second. Overall, I spend too much time worrying about my floating rather than enjoying the scenery and the sensation of breathing underwater, which is pretty cool.

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. As the name suggested, the place was quite nice. High ceilings, tile floors and a balcony made up for the non-working TV that the staff didn't feel like fixing.

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 rooms are empty except for a cot, and a gruesome photograph of the prisoner left for dead after the Khmer fled the facility. Even stranger is the feeling of normality everywhere outside the museum. From inside the museum you can hear the playful cries of children just beyond the walls. 

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! We could have stayed at the museum longer. No bother, instead, we were treated to long lines, a hefty departure tax and overpriced food.

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.



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jbburghardt on

That sucks it was bittersweet ....
But still SUPER cool that you got to go! I am SO jealous about your Korean travels. Maybe when I accrue enough PTO I can come visit. When is the 'off season' anyway?

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