|On Sunday, January 7th, around midday, we walked across the Thailand-Cambodia border into the Cambodian city of Poipet. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries on the planet. This becomes very apparent once you cross the border. Dozens of Cambodian children, some carrying babies, surrounded us asking for money and/or food. They will follow you for a few minutes, maybe pulling gently at your pants leg, always looking up with those cute, adorable faces, saying -- "Please madam." "Please monsieur." (Due to Cambodia once being a French colony.) "Can I have some money." "Can I have some food." They are not rude or offensive, anything but, and once it becomes apparent they you are not going to give them anything, they will say -- "Have a good day." "Good luck to you." Then they will playfully run away, looking for the next person they can ask.
A traveler we met from Britain, Nile, had a great idea for handling begging. He carries around a bag of fruit and hands it out to those who need it. Giving food instead of money goes a little way toward not starting a cycle of dependency for the children, which can carry over into adulthood.. Also you are making sure they get some food. If you give them money, it may go to a begging "pimp", who they are begging for, or it may go to feed a glue sniffing habit. If you do give money to the children or the many land mine victims who are forced to beg to survive, make it a small denomination to avoid making tourists more of special target than they already are.
In Poipet we exchanged some US dollars for the Cambodian currency, the Riel (r). One US dollar buys you about 3,900r. Besides the riel, the US dollar and the Thai baht are also widely accepted throughout Cambodia.
We then boarded a small bed, 4x4 pickup truck. Believe it or not, we actually had to fit nine people in the back of the truck -- and with all our gear as well as the gear of the six people in the cab of the truck! Joel, literally, had a 10-inch square available for him to sit on in the back corner of the truck. (He let everyone else get on first. Who said chivalry is dead.) He had to hang his legs out the back of the truck and hunch his upper body over the tailgate just to squeeze in. Not that Lisa, or anyone else for that matter, had a good seat. At times Lisa carried the guitar of a Scottish guy on the truck, and at other times her legs were draped over the lap of Maria, a quiet German girl who was also with us on the road from hell. Nine people and about 15 backpacks in the back of a small bed pickup truck will go a long way to towards making everyone "very intimate". But wait. It gets worse. Much worse.
The road we had to drive on from Poipet to Siem Reap is a joke. We have never seen such terrible road conditions in our life. Huge potholes cover a dusty dirt stretch through the rice paddies of Western Cambodia. The "road" looks more like a lunar landscape than anything fit for a motor vehicle to drive on. And the dust, oh my God! Joel and the other two guys facing out the back ate dust the entire way. They had to keep their eyes and mouths shut to stop from going blind or swallowing a mouth full of dirt. As night fell on our motley crew, getting along as best we could, all signs of Joel's body disappeared as he became covered in a layer of black dirt. The only way the others could tell he was still there was when he turned around he would smile and all you could see was his white teeth set against the black canvas of the night.
Falling off was a real possibility. Probably in an attempt to quench this fear, we developed a rating system for the potholes. After we would all go airborne for a few seconds, everyone would gather their wits and yell out a score. "Wow, that one was an eight!" "No, it was a nine!" We reserved "a ten" for any pothole that actually threw someone out of the vehicle. Thankfully, there was no ten.
But here's the real kicker -- the thing that really made this experience "over the top". Guess how long we had to sit in these unbelievably uncomfortable positions? Guess how long Joel and the two other guys in back had to "eat" dust? Seven hours!!! Seven frickin hours!!! We look back on it and we still can't believe we made it. It is one of those things you get into, and you want out, but there is no way out, so you just grin and bear it.
With all that said, with all the pain, the bumps, the bruises and Joel pulling grit and gravel out of his ears and eyes for days, guess what? We actually are glad we did it. How is that possible? Well, it was something that had to be experienced to believe. You are sitting in the back of a pickup truck, making your way through rural Cambodia and the sights, sounds and sensations that take over your body are like something out of Apocalypse Now, or Heart of Darkness. Every village we would pass, every one, the children of the village would run after the truck yelling and screaming, "Hello! Hello!" The naked bodies juxtaposed in front of grass shacks and rice paddies. Naked men waste deep in murky streams throwing nets out into the water, hoping to collect a few fish to feed their families. Sometimes you would catch a whiff of a smell so bad, you thought you might actually have to puke off the side of the truck. Often you would catch glimpses of things that couldn't even register in your brain. Things so strange, so bizarre they must be unreal. But after a double take the image would still be standing, forcing your mind to accept it as reality. That is what we mean when we say it had to be experienced to be believed. You can see poverty on television, you can read about it in a book, or see it in a movie, but until you experience it, it isn't really real. When you see it first hand, when you taste it, touch it, feel it, it becomes a part of you. Something changes in you and you will never be the same. That is why we were glad we actually did it. That is why we are glad we are in Cambodia. We are truly learning important lessons about ourselves.
Late Sunday night, we pulled into the Fresh Air Guesthouse in Siem Reap. We gingerly removed our battered bodies from the truck, dazed and confused, too tired to resist the "touts" practically begging us to stay at their guesthouse, and we collapsed into our dreams.
Monday, January 8th, we hired two motorbike drivers from the guesthouse and went to see some of the Temples of Angkor. The temples of Angkor were built between the 9th and 14th centuries, when the Khmer civilization was at the height of its extraordinary creativity. Unparalleled in South-East Asia, Angkor rates among the foremost architectural wonders of the world.
We bought a three-day pass for our exploration of Angkor, although it would be easy to spend a week or more if you try to see it all. Our first day, after passing through the North Gate, was spent primarily at Bayon temple. It is the second most popular temple behind Angkor Wat. It's a place of slanted corridors, flights of stairs that seem to rise right up into the sky and most of all, an assortment of 54 massive towers decorated with over 200 strangely smiling, enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion.
No matter where you are in the complex, it always feels as if at least 12 faces are smiling at you. It is an eerie, yet strangely exhilarating feeling.
After spending a good two hours in Bayon temple we explored some of the smaller temples around Bayon and called it a day for the temples.
Monday night Lisa found a wonderful statue of a dancing Cambodian Princess.
Tuesday, January 9th, we again returned to the Temples of Angkor. We started out by visiitng Ta Prohm, a temple that has not been restored. After Ta Prohm we took a little break and Lisa got a flute lesson from a cute Cambodian girl.
Later we visited the most popular temple in Angkor, the world famous Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat, a breathtaking structure, was constructed as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1112 to 1152. Most experts assert that Angkor Wat is the greatest architectural achievement ever created by the human mind.
After spending most of the afternoon at Angkor Wat, and then watching the sun set on the horizon perched in its rafters, we returned to the guesthouse.
That night Joel was awakened by a noise outside our window. He focused as hard as he could through the relentless blackness of the night. He stared at the window curtain covering the window and the bars that protected the room from the outside world. A slow grating noise pierced the night. Could it be the screen window being opened? The bars that covered the window would stop anyone from entering the room, but they would not stop a perpetrator from grabbing the money belt that had be foolishly left on a table, within arms length of the window. Joel's heart was pounding, his eyes focused in like a cat. Then the curtain was every so slowly opened by a dark hand. The perpetrator’s eyes had the advantage of being accustomed to the black night. All Joel could see was the hand. What was behind it? Did the other hand hold a gun or a knife? After a brief moment of indecision he decided to sit straight up and face the intruder. Still without being able to see anything but the hand, Joel just stopped and stared into the black abyss. The intruder's vision must have not been so impaired, because suddenly, in direct opposition to its slow entry, the hand disappeared in a flash.
Joel leapt to his feet, scrambled to find the flashlight and shined it out into the night. He heard a ruckus of confused noise and then it was gone. As Joel's heart rate began to return to normal, Lisa awoke to hear his wild tale. Needless to say, we shut the windows and fastened their locks, ignoring the stifled heat that rose around us. A lack of circulation was better than trying to sleep with one eye open.
Probably due to our wild night the night before, on Wednesday, January 10th, we decided not to return to the Temples of Angkor for a third day. Maybe we should have. Instead of resting, which was the original plan, we ended up fighting most of day. Maybe it was the oppressive heat, maybe it was the stress of the hard-core travel in Cambodia, maybe it was constantly having to have your guard up against danger that you can feel all around you. Or maybe it was all the warnings we have heard -- land mines, guns, grenades, bandits, corrupt cops, remnants of the Khmer Rouge, kidnappers, dengue fever, malaria, or the feeling of isolation that can occur when you are "out there". You are truly on your own when you travel in a place like this. You really do have to take care of yourself (and each other).
Whatever the reason, whatever one person said, the other person took it the wrong way. This is not uncommon among travelers. It is tough to be together 24/7, no matter how much you care about the other person. Once we overheard three long time traveling companions as they were arranging a room with reception at a hostel. The receptionist asked, "Do you all want to be in the same room?”, and all at once they blurted out, "No!".
After we both realized how stupid we were being, we talked things over and resolved our differences. Out here all we really have is each other. It's just easy to forget that sometimes.
Thursday, January 11th, we got up at 5:30 AM. At 6:00 AM we took another small bed pickup truck (this time with 11 people in it, and all our gear) to a floating village at the northern head of Tonle Sap, a huge fresh water lake that covers part of northwestern Cambodia. Mercifully the truck ride only took about an hour. At the floating village we boarded a passenger speedboat that took us on a five-hour cruise across Tonle Sap. It must be a strange sight indeed for all the rural villagers along the waterway, who witness the boat passing. Perched atop the boat, lying on its roof are dozens of westerners, using their multi colored backpacks as pillows. There is a rumor floating around the travelers that more than one of these floating rattletraps has sunk. If you were sitting inside, subjecting yourself to the dangerous overcrowding of the boat's interior, there is no way you would get out if the boat went down. We decided to join the other travelers on the roof.
After completing our crossing of the Tonle Sap, the boat worked its way down the Sap River to the capital city of Phnom Penh. After being literally surrounded by touts as we debarked, we followed a pair of touts to their motorbikes and jumped on, packs and all, for a downtown tour of Phnom Penh. We found a nice room at the Indochine Hotel, right on the waterfront.
Thursday night we explored a little of Phnom Penh, had a Happy Pizza for dinner (it is common to use ganja in Cambodian cooking) and then returned to Indochine for a good night's sleep.
Friday, January 12th, we hired a taxi driver from the Indochine to drive us to see the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Our driver was a charming young man named Millan Lov. Millan is a budding young entrepreneur, who went in with two other guys to buy a car and start a taxi service. He speaks excellent English, and of course Khmer. He is professional, courteous and we were more than happy with his service. If you are ever in the Phnom Penh area and need a great driver, hire Millan. If you do, tell him we said hi.
The Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, a modern tyrant, used his security forces to turn it into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It quickly became one of the largest centers of detention and torture used during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructuring of a society ever attempted; its goal was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within two weeks of Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge (April 17th, 1975), the entire population of the capital and provincial towns were forced to march into the countryside and placed on mobile work teams to do slave labor. Disobedience of any type brought immediate execution.
The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed "Year Zero". Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. The country was shut off from the outside world. It is still not known how many Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Yale University researchers undertaking ongoing investigations concluded in early 1996 that the figure is a least 2 million, and may be even higher.
A visit to the former Tuol Svay Prey High School, then S-21 and now the Tuol Sleng Museum, is a depressing experience. The ordinariness of the place makes it even more unnerving. The plain school buildings, the grassy field where children used to laugh and play, was turned into a place of horror. Instruments of torture lie in crude cells with walls of horrific black and white photographs exhibiting the carnage. This is humanity at its worst. Don't go if you have a weak stomach.
Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women children and infants detained and tortured at S-21 prison were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. They were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets.
The remains of 8985 people were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in a one-time fruit orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone, teeth and bits of clothing are scattered around the pits of death. Over 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind a clear glass monument, erected in 1988. Visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek was another depressing experience, but nobody said learning about the world would be easy.
During our stay in Phnom Penh, we learned from the locals about the corrupt nature of the police in Cambodia. Millan said the only thing the police are good for is "shaking you down" for money and cigarettes. A strange form of street justice has taken over Phnom Penh. Millan told us how the locals deal with criminals in a "close and personal" way. If the locals catch a robber in the act, they don't get the police. Instead they impose their own form of justice -- they stone and beat the robber to death. It's a form of self-imposed order in the void of any concrete law and structure.
He also told us how hard life is for the average Cambodian person. You would think that the recent defeat of the Khmer Rouge, the remnants of which have been beaten back into the hills of northwestern Cambodia, where they are still exerting some guerrilla tactics, would have brought better times for the Cambodian people. Not so says Millan. He told us of the rampant corruption within the government. The current Prime Minister, who Millan said no one really ever votes for, continues to win the elections he controls and rigs. This is a guy who takes his military helicopter the short 20 km jaunt over to his posh private golf course, while the average Cambodian lives in total poverty. (He probably uses the helicopter because the roads are so bad, due to his government's filtration of all the road taxes the locals pay.) He had to move from his Phnom Penh residence, out to a huge, heavily guarded estate, after someone threw a hand grenade into his living room.
Cambodians don't like the monarchy either. Millan told us that every time there is trouble in Cambodia, like the fighting in 1998, the King always flees to China. He said a good way to know if anything is going "to go down" in Cambodia, is to watch when the King leaves the country.
Saturday, January 13th, we went to the Russian Market, a huge conglomerate of food stalls and local wares and The Royal Palace. Before going back to our hotel room, we both got one hour massages at the Seeing Hands Massage Center for $3.00 a piece. This place was wonderful and all massages are given by the blind. The proceeds from the center go toward helping disabled Cambodians. We even tried to get our massages on Friday but the place was booked solid. For anyone sore, like us, from riding on the bumpy Cambodian roads, a stop at this place is a must.
Sunday, January 14th, we had a scare. Lisa slipped on the stairs coming out of the bathroom into our room. She landed very hard, right on her middle back, right on the spine. For the next minute, or so, it was very scary. Lisa couldn't move and Joel didn't know if he should try to move her or not. We were both laying on the floor, holding each other, scared out of our minds. We think what scared us the most was what would we do if we had a major medical emergency like the one we might be facing. Medical care in Cambodia is nonexistent. We would really be screwed! Thankfully, gradually Lisa got some movement back. Joel was able to lift her onto the bed and after icing her back and stretching it out under the shower, our fears began to subside. Lisa is ok, a little sore and bruised, but ok. We both definitely walked a little more gingerly down from the shower for the rest of our stay.
Later in the day, Lisa felt well enough to visit The National Museum, so that is what we did.
Monday, January 15th, we awoke at 5:30 AM. At 6:00 AM we took a mini-bus from the hotel to the bus stop for Capital Tours. There we boarded a larger bus and left Phnom Penh at 7:00 AM. The bus ride from Phnom Penh took 7 hours to get to the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
Void of our experiences on the ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap, the ride from Phnom Penh to the border would have been the worst driving experience of our lives, because of the continued terrible road conditions in Cambodia. But because of our earlier experience, it felt more like a luxury trip. At least we were in an enclosed vehicle and we had our own seats. (Well, at least part of a seat.)
At 2:00 PM we debarked from the bus, strapped up our backpacks, and walked across the Cambodia-Vietnam border. As we looked back and said goodbye to Cambodia, our hearts were filled with a little sadness. Of all the places we have been so far, Cambodia may be the one we will miss the most. The guidebooks will tell you that Angkor Wat and the revitalized city of Phnom Penh are the major draw cards, and they were awesome, but for us the best part of Cambodia was the people. The people of Cambodia are incredibly friendly, warm and genuine. The have come through decades of incredible hardship still wearing a smile. It is amazing that a country with so little material wealth has so much to offer. We encourage all of you to visit Cambodia. Not only will you get a wonderful feeling from your travel dollars helping the local economy, we are sure you will have an amazing and fulfilling experience. We certainly did.