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My First Backpacking Adventure

Guns and Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 2 February 2010 | Views [1856] | Comments [3]

Kurt and I met up with his Cambodian buddy (Hack) and our friend Russ on our first full day in Cambodia. We hung out the first day catching up with Russ and made plans to meet up with Hack later that evening. We bought a bottle of Whiskey and Hack and his friend picked us up on their motorcycles. They brought us to a local spot which consisted of mats laid out on one side of the road, with street vendors on the other side. He brought along 3 of his buddies from the army, his best friend who works as a tour guide at a temple and his new girlfriend. So we drank and ate on the side of the road communicating through gestures or through translation from Hack or his best friend. Hack is a very friendly guy who has had a tough life. He lost his leg, as well as his brother and sister to a land mine in the rice fields around his home when he was only about 10 years old. His parents spent all the money they had on his hospital bills allowing him to get a prosthetic leg. Kurt met him at the “Open Minds” volunteer center where Kurt was teaching English and Hack was learning. His dream is to set up an NGO in his village where he can teach the young children English. We finished our liter of Jim Beam quickly with the army boys leading the charge and we decided we should go to a Karaoke Bar. So we got on, 3 to a scooter, and headed off to the Karaoke Bar. Drunk driving is ignored it seems in Cambodia, and Russ and I got on with Hack’s best friend who only had one drink. All three of the army boys were already drunk by this point. We got to the place and it looked like a regular whorehouse. Girls were lined up all around with numbered buttons on. We tried to explain to Hack that this was not where we wanted to go, but he reassured us that you didn’t have to pick any of the woman. So reluctantly we went in. You get a private room to sing Karaoke in with your friends and get to order bottles of booze and pay for whatever snacks you eat. They sent in a line of girls for us to choose from, supposedly they will sit with you and sing and who knows what else, but we sent them away and got down to a little singing. The English selection wasn’t very good and soon Russ and I had enough. We decided to head home, while Kurt went out with Hack and a few others to a Disco Bar.

The next day Hack picked us up at 7am and we had a full day at the temples. They are massive. Spread over many kilometers there are all kinds of ruins built by hand over 1000 years ago. The pictures I took don’t do it justice, they are beautiful. From what we read, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built to be a “complete microcosm of the Hindu universe”. It must have been 35 degrees out plus humidity and we were completely drained by the end of the day. We went out for pizza and icecream that night which tasted great, but close to midnight it all came back up for me. My stomach felt really bad and I didn’t have the greatest sleep. We were supposed to meet up with Hack again at 7am to go to his village. As bad as I felt, I had been looking forward to going to the village and decided I couldn’t miss it. We were taken into Hack’s house where his parents and some of his brothers and sisters live. The house is raised above the ground and consists of 2x4 floorboards with one large open area. It was separated by sheets to make two bedrooms with the kitchen in the back. There was no furniture, and we all sat on the floor on bamboo straw mats. One of his brothers is a monk and he came to visit as well with two fellow monks. We prayed with the monks briefly, bowing down three times from our knees, facing them. They did some chanting as a prayer before they ate. I guess monks are only allowed to eat meals between about 6am and noon. Other than that they only can have small snacks like crackers. So the custom is to serve the monks first, and everyone else in the room watched them eat. Once they ate their fill, the food was passed on to the men. The women served us and encourage us to eat as much as we wanted while they still hadn’t had anything yet. Finally when we were done we went outside to sit in hammocks while the women ate whatever was left (In this case there was quite a bit) and cleaned up. This was a pretty standard meal of sticky rice, fish soup and a stir-fry beef vegetable. It was decent food, but my stomach was still feeling queezy and I didn’t eat much. I had Hack explain to them why I wasn’t eating much so they weren’t offended. I guess they really enjoy when guests eat a lot, even though they don’t have much, it is respectful and encouraged to eat until you’re full. After a little nap on the hammocks we broke out the Johnny Walker red stripe which we had brought with some coke. A bunch of Hack’s buddies came by and we got to drinking. I only had two glasses and began to feel much worse so I sat out for most of the rest of the festivities, lying in a hammock. There were a fair number of guys and whenever someone went by on the country road they were called over for a drink so the bottle went fast. After this Hack had the bottle filled with traditional rice wine. I didn’t try any but Kurt liked it and Russ thought it was disgusting. The boys went through about 7 bottles of that and then got palm wine. They brought 10 liters of it in plastic bags. Kurt and Russ both agreed that this stuff was gross and their drinking slowed considerably at that point. During this time, Hack was cooking different foods for us to enjoy with the drink. The feast included pig’s stomach with an ant dipping sauce, snake and various styles and sizes of fish. I tried a bit of the pig’s stomach and snake but didn’t feel good enough to do much more than lay on the table or a hammock. Hack dropped us off at his uncle’s house where there was a beautiful view of the sunset over the rice paddies. His uncle wasn’t home, and Hack was going back to his house to continue drinking with the boys, but he assured us we could wait for the sun to set in his uncle’s house. Soon about 8 curious village kids started running in and out of the house to catch glimpses of us. Eventually they worked up the courage to come close enough to poke us and give us high-fives. They all had dirty clothes, hands and especially teeth but they had lots of energy and the innocence only children can have. We played games with them and they taught us how to count to 5 in Khmer. It was a wonderful experience. Eventually a couple old ladies came by to see what all the commotion was about, but they were all smiles when then saw us playing with the kids. After the sun set we said goodbye to everyone and headed back into Siem Reap.

The next day we headed out to Phnom Penh. We met a lot of western people who were living and working in Phnom Penh. They told us that it is the NGO capital of the world, and that there were many opportunities to get a job for a non-profit company or teaching English. For our first full day we decided to shoot some guns and then visit the Genocide museum and killing fields. I know, it was an odd combination, but we wisely chose to start the day instead of end it with the gun range. They give you a ‘menu’ of weapons you can shoot along with prices and the amount of bullets you get. Russ had done a similar thing in Vegas and surprisingly he said the prices were similar too. It was very expensive. We decided to all take turns with a K-57 handgun, AK-47 and Max 60, which is a 50 caliber machine gun set on a tripod. It was a rush to feel the power behind those weapons, especially the Max 60, and luckily it was easy to put thoughts of war and genocide out of our mind and enjoy the thrill. Our $160 went very quickly and soon we were on our way to the killing fields. There were hundreds of killing fields around the country where the Khmer Rouge sent educated people and former government employees to be murdered. It was a brutal communist regime that attempted to ‘cleanse’ the people of all culture and education and transform the entire country into a homogenous mass of rice farmers. The government only lasted three years before it was defeated by the Vietnamese army, immediately following the Vietnam War. In that time the Khmer Rouge managed to kill off half of their countries population, about 2 million people. The genocide was massive and to save bullets, the way they killed people was horrific. They dumped the people unceremoniously into mass graves. Many have been uncovered as you walk around the field, but many more are still buried. Looking at the ground you can see bones and tattered clothing seemingly growing from the earth. The forces of erosion continue to uncover more and more bodies. The genocide museum is located in a former high-school that was converted to a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. People were brought there to be tortured and many were killed. It is eerie walking through the buildings knowing so many people suffered so much in those rooms. After that sobering experience we were pretty drained and had an easy night that ended with a wonderful foot massage.

Yesterday we arrived in the costal town of Sihanoukville which has a wonderful vibe to it. We had a very fun night last night and look forward to relaxing here a bit before heading into Vietnam. Unfortunately I have had some major problems with the photos. Trying to back them up I have managed to infect my ipod with a virus and had to reformat my camera. I can't access any of the photos I took in the last 5 days at all, and I'm worried they might be gone. I really hope I will be able to get at them once I get back home, and if not I'll have to rely on Kurt's photo's to remember that part of the trip. I think from now on I will be just buying new memory cards and not play around with trying to transfer the photos. The computer down here can't handle the transfer very well. I'll post what's on my camera now which is only the gun range and killing fields. There's some great pictures of the village I wish I could post, but that will just have to wait till I get back and can share pics with Kurt.

Tags: cambodia, genocide museam, gun range, killing fields, phnom penh



Hey Hart --- your story is spreading thanks to 2 friends whom you know from birth. What a time you're having, and as the parent of two other world adventurers I commend you for exploring the planet. Life-changing, man.
And for someone who's apparantly drunk or hungover most of the time, you're an incredibly gifted writer. Your description of the Killing Fields experience is powerful and the daily adventures with such a cast of characters is delightful to imagine. Hack's story is one you'll not forget -- how great to be meeting such people. Happy and safe travels, bud. We cheer you on!

  frederick Feb 3, 2010 6:19 AM


Hey Cousin
There are certain places that relate to world events that words, as much as they describe an image,can't tell the whole story. I suspect that your description of the killing fields only touches on what you saw and experienced being there. Keep the stories comming and I can't wait until you are home to hear more of them.

  Bruce Wynes Feb 3, 2010 9:47 AM


what a series of powerful experiences you have described, hartley. your descriptions of the amazing temples, the horrific killing fields,and the generous, spirits of the cambodian people are so vivid.....feels like we are with you. so glad you are writing and hope you can reclaim those pics! travel safely - sending love, mom.

  victoria Feb 4, 2010 1:54 PM

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