Phomn Penh and Siem Reap - Cambodia
Trip Start Sep 15, 2009
10Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Spring Guest House
Cambodia, a country that was not part of the original plan but a necessary diversion in order to renew our Thailand visa and, as many travelers advised, a super addition to our itinerary. Cambodia was a mixed bag conceptually having received really high marks from many travelers and as many words of caution from other sources. Our research results varied from an Australian issued travel warnings that warned of potential life threatening experiences, to multitudes of travelers reporting that Cambodia offers a beautiful experience and has no more risk than places we'd traveled already. We were also considering the fact that we were currently in Thailand and there was concern about the rising tensions between Thailand and Cambodia regarding a former Thai Prime Minister Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled from Thailand as a fugitive and was recently appointed Economic Adviser in Cambodia. We finally decided Cambodia is a place not to be surpassed so we pushed forward with a backup plan (just in case they close the Cambodia-Thailand border) to travel through Laos back to Thailand so we could renew our Thai visa and catch our flight out of Bangkok to Tokyo for the next leg of our adventure.
We flew into the Cambodia capitol of Phnom Penh from Bangkok and our first interaction with Cambodians unfortunately was yet another scam. Passports cost $20 US, but we didn't have any US dollars so we asked if we could pay in Thai Baht, the equivalent being about 660 B. Officials at border patrol demanded 900 Baht, almost 50% more given the current exchange rate. Of course, the new charge of 900 Baht was not posted anywhere. As it turned out, ATMs in Cambodia all dispense US currency since it is a stronger currency then the Cambodian Riel, so we were able to get the correct US amount and save our Baht for our return to Thailand. Happily our experience in Cambodia was relatively scam free after that, the Cambodia lonely planet guide was excellent at giving us the heads up on a few other tactics used by local tuk tuk drivers (tuk tuk is essentially a moped pulling a chariot with seats, this is a key form of short transportation in Cambodia and Thailand) so we were able to play the game with relatively little frustration. We wondered why so many scams are in the making, which frustrates travelers who are a very important source of income for many, but as we learned more it became clear. The average Cambodian is very poor, those that have jobs are averaging $40 US per month, that's less than many westerners make per hour. Most scams are only for a few dollars, which to many westerners won't break the bank, but to them it's a week's salary. There really is no justification for it but this thought process weighs well against the frustration.
Our first day in Phnom Penh proved to be a somber one as we learned about Cambodia's history, so much so that I'm going to elaborate on it in this post in hopes that somehow it touches our friends and readers around the world and promotes compassion and peace rather than anger and aggression. We visited two locations associated with the atrocities that took place in Cambodia in the mid to late 1970's: the Choeung Ek Extermination Camp, or locally referred to as The Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Prison, or locally known as S-21 Prison. We started off with a tuk tuk ride to The Killing Fields about 15 Kilometers outside of Phnom Penh.
Once we arrived at the Killing Fields our mood quickly changed as we learned of the mass genocide that took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. We started at a building where the story was told of the Khmer Rouge's coup overthrowing the government in 1975. Over the following 3 years and 8 months the regime would implement one of the most radical, brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Under the leader Pol Pot, the regime attempted to equalize all citizens to peasant status and completely revamp economic strategies. After the take-over of each urban area, soldiers were sent through all the cities to inform all residents that they were required to immediately leave their homes and take everything they own to head out to the countryside. Their fabricated excuse to motivate everyone to evacuate was that the US was coming to bomb the towns so everyone had to leave for "only" 3 days. But three days passed, and the people were never actually allowed to return to their homes. If they refused to comply and put up a fight they were labeled a traitor and thrown in prison. The next step in their process was to weed out all the educated, wealthy, distinguished, religious people of any kind and have them imprisoned. This was to quickly eradicate anyone who had the ability to organize any sort of revolt. It was believed that these individuals were not likely to easily accept their imposed transition to a peasant farm worker so it was easiest to just permanently remove them. All across the country education was stopped and schools were converted to prisons where innocent citizens were held along with their families. People were jailed for a little as speaking a foreign language or wearing eye glasses (which indicated that you must have some kind of money if you can afford them). Young boys were brainwashed, converted to Khmer Rouge soldiers and forced to torture and kill, including often times their own friends and family. In fear of any sort of revolt being organized all prisoners were considered suspects so they were interrogated and tortured beyond belief.
In the 3.5 years more then 19,000 innocent Cambodian men, woman, and children were slaughtered in the one extermination camp we visited alone.
Although the top dog Pol Pot died in 1998 of natural causes, several other key leaders are on trial right now for the crimes committed during this period. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/17/war-crimes-tribunal-cambodia
We continued on to the S-21 Museum, which was a school converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge. I'll spare some of the most gruesome details in this post, but be warned if you ever visit S-21 museum, there are no holds barred from actual killing tools to blood stained cell floors to graphic pictures.
The following day we headed to Siem Reap on a long bus ride. It was actually a great way to travel as we got a great view of the countryside and a glimpse of what life is like for folks outside the city and tourist areas. I spent the better part of 6 hours just looking at the beautiful countryside, villages, and everything in between. Cambodia's interior is generally flat and mostly wetlands. This is great for growing rice which is a staple food here. Picture wetlands for miles with the odd palm tree towering into the sky. Some bushes and trees here and there but sparse.
What really amazes me about this place is that everyone seemed so content, children were laughing and playing, adults often were sitting in the shade chatting with smiles on their faces and laughing. After spending a week in Cambodia I'm amazed that those who have had such a hard go at it and have so little are so happy and so welcoming. When I think about the people I see every day in North America who have road rage over having to wait a few extra seconds for someone to decide which direction they are going, or angry because someone scored the last doll at Walmart and now they need to trek to a different store to get exactly what their spoiled child wants.... man it's a serious reality check. And I'm not just writing about others here, I'm as guilty as anyone else. Bottom line is everyone's reality is relative to their experiences and unfortunately even with all the media and other sources of information most of us remain ingnorant of the greater relativity to which our lives should be compared. If only we could all take the time to visit less fortunate countries there might be more patience, compassion, and generosity across the globe...
Ok I'll get off my soap box now and circle back to our adventures in Siem Reap, our final destination in Cambodia. Siem Reap was way more built up than I expected, we found a bustling town with everything from 5 Star hotels to clubs, to any cuisine you wanted. There were thousands of vacationers of all ethnicities streaming the streets and, of course, the incredible temples of the Angkor Era which were the main attraction and the focus of our visit. We also met a really great guy named Bruno through couchsurfing that is now living in Siem Reap, who helped us get set up with a brand new guest house before we even arrived. Angkor Park Guest house was new with large rooms fully loaded for just $12 US per night ($7 if you can do without AC). After a night without, we decided to add the extra comfort for $5 and were quite happy. Bruno also organized a dinner/drinks gathering one night with a bunch of "Couchsurfers" from all around the world. We've been doing this in several countries and it's always great to hear other peoples' travel stories. Thanks Bruno!
We were greeted by a tuk tuk driver, which was arranged by our driver back in Phnom Penh. We were mentally well-prepared for the pending scams of A) them overcharging for driving us to the temples in future days and B) overcharging for guide services, and 3) convincing you your guest house has no vacancies, so they can take you to a different guest house where they receive a commission for bringing you there (often a driver will take you to their "preferred" guest house instead of where you ask them so travelers really need to be firm on where you want to be taken). The tuk tuk drivers may provide the "Free" ride from the bus terminal to town but once in-route let you know the "Free" ride comes with an expectation to use their services later. As it turned out we already had a great local guide lined up (Cha Cha), through a friend of Beth's (Thanks Charmaine!) as well as a guest house reservation so all we needed was a driver. The tuk tuk that picked us up actually turned out to be a team, the driver up front and with the English-speaking business man sitting with us in the back who quickly got frustrated as we played the system with him. We eventually agreed to use his driver for the following day at the going price of $12 (instead of $20 he started with) while he continued to press us to negotiate further for even more of the following days in the morning. I was not impressed with his attitude so needless to say that would be the end of our engagement.
We arrived at the Angkor Park guest house, dropped off our bags and headed out for dinner. The guest house is right on the south corner of town so within a few feet we were in to the thick of things.
The next morning we met Cha Cha and our tuk tuk team to head off to Ankgor Wat and other temples. Although our unfriendly business man was insistent on putting a plan together for the following days of Temple visits we basically blew him off and headed north for the awesome temples. We got to know Cha Cha a little bit on the ride there and found him to be an incredibly friendly person who had a rough life and a big heart. We learned that almost his entire family was basically eradicated during the Cambodian atrocities of the late 70's. Only he, a 3 month old at the time, and his grandmother survived. So he was raised by his grandma in his earliest years, then by monks at a local monestry where he learned English with a British accent. Cha Cha is a farmer, farming rice mainly and also raising animals in a village outside Siem Reap. He has a second "job" where he volunteers teaching English to the children of his community and neighboring communities. This he does out of the goodness of his heart, 5 hours per day, 6 days per week where he helps more then 200 poor and underprivileged children the important skill of speaking English. (Learning to speak English opens up a world of opportunities they would have never had otherwise.) He created the school from a donation from abroad, and he only allows children to enroll in the school if are truly in financial dire straights, and need a helping hand. So we arranged with him to end our day touring the Angkor ruins a little short so we could spend the remainder of the day with his students.
The Temples around the Ankor are ancient built between the 9th and 13th centuries when the Khmer civilization was at the height of it's creativity. There are many temples East and north of Siem Reap (somewhere around 100) each uniquely architected. The Kings of the time seemed to have a desire to "one up" the last creating bigger, more elaborate designs. As you'll see in the pictures we too many of them have been damaged significantly over the last few hundred years mainly due to vegetation growing in and amongst then but also due to weather as most of the monuments are made from sandstone which is fairly soft.
It's recommended to spend at least 3 days touring the temples so we purchased a 3 day pass. Since Cha Cha was only available for one day we decided to hit the best 2 temples of the lot, Ankgor Thom and Ankgor Wat (Ankgor means City, Wat means Temple, and Thom is some dude's name ;-).
We then headed out with our tuk tuk to Cha Cha's village about 45 minutes from the temples to help teach English class. After a highway, windy back streets, and a short walk we arrived at a small Cambodian village set amongst the banana and coconut trees. As we made our way along the village path, virtually everyone stopped what they were doing and offered a wave and friendly smile. Cha Cha's school was simple in design, essentially an open space consisting of a series of wooden posts with a roof top. The classroom furniture consisted of rows of long bench-top desks, chairs and a whiteboard.
The following day Beth and I decided to make the trek to the temples on our own.
For our third and final day of temple sightseeing we reverted back to the tuk tuk system. We quickly found ourselves a friendly driver and negotiated a fair prices for our day's adventure. We visited four temples in a short time, Preah Khan, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, and then we watched a semi-spectacular sunset at Pre Rup.
Cambodia was such an amazing experience...in the end, we were happy that we had a surprise kink in our original Thailand travel plans and we were forced to make a detour into a bordering country. With our flight back to Bangkok to see northern Thailand upon us, we both wished we had more than a week in Cambodia.