Existing Member?

Meditations around the world My 8-month Trip to Southeast Asia.


CAMBODIA | Friday, 5 January 2007 | Views [2579] | Comments [1]

Hey there party people. Happy 2007 again. Here is my latest travel news. Almost three weeks in Cambodia. It was an interesting experience, heart wrenching at times and overhwelmingly impressive at others. The history is definately not boring and its residue flavors every aspect of current society.

It was a windy and cool early morning when we left our guesthouse in Trat, Thailand. The 5:20am pickup arrived and to our delight it was a wonderful new Mercedes minivan with plenty of headroom and legroom. Our host told us this is the van in which we would be traveling to the Cambodian border. Ten minutes later we stopped at the bus station, hesitated a moment, then were told to evacuate this luxurious ride and get into the nearby ghetto van. Early and cranky, we transitioned to the cramped and dirty minivan and made our way an hour to the border. A wonderful four year old Thai child was graciously sharing his mother's seat and half of Leslie's. Good times as the child was plagued with some infectious disease and spent the hour coughing and sneezing all over Leslie and the passengers in the anterior seats.

At the border we sqeezed our way through the migrating Thai and Cambodians to get our exit Thailand stamp. Eyeballed by the line of locals as we walked, we crossed the bridge over into the happy land of Cambodia, immediately greeted by lacklimbed young men and a barrage of drivers and "friendly" Cambodians wanting to assist us in complete altruism. I kept wondering why their hands remained continuously extended...

We lost ourselves in the crowd of backpackers filling out forms and processing visas, Handing over the $1200Bhat visa fee each($34US), we then queued again to get the official stamp while strange Cambodian "helpers" snatched our passports from our hand and limbless boys pathetically mumbled alms requests in our ears. A crazy 20 minutes later we were walking our luggage to the minibus we had previously booked. We were excited to be on a wonderfully roomy Mercedes minibus again, all with our own seat and waiting for some Korean girls to finish geting ripped off in their negotiations. Finally we headed out into the heart of Cambodia happy as peaches growing in the late summer warmth...or so we thought.

Two miles into town, we made a stopover at a dirty guesthouse. Our eyebrows raised as we were informed to once again vacate our present happy state and get into what looked like a dirty junked broken down rusted out minivan for the next seven hours of our trip. Terribly unhappy about it, we quickly lugged our bags to the other van and waited, enjoying the best seat this hunk of junk had to offer. The Irish girl we were traveling with boasted that this was van of the year in 1982! Wonderful!

As the van began to fill, we were kindly requested to vacate our most posh seating to sit in the back on the cramped and uncomfortably broken back seat to give our present seats to a Cambodian family who had "requested" our seating. Looking at my tickets I saw no sign of seat assignment so I kindly refused to move into the dismal rear. Fortunately, our van was filled with Westerners and we all stood our ground to have our own seats. We thought the man was joking when he said that they fit six Cambodians in that broken back seat -until we saw it for ourselves! These people fit 20 passengers into a minivan for a 7 hr and more drive over unpaved and uneven roads.

The situation escalated and we were threatened that we would not leave until the next day, but we held ground and were on our way a few hours later (including a 77 yr old French man slamming doors and cursing them out in French and an Italian screaming at them that the seat was broken and that he is bigger than the wee Cambodians they cram in the bus). Of course, we did stop again a few miles down the road to pick up a 350 pound (175Kilo, 25 Stone) French man. And yes, the body odor was there too. So that added to the comfort of the fact that there was no air conditioner on the bus and the unpaved roads added a nice film of red dust over all of us.

The road was being worked on, I will give them that. Not very quickly, granted, and none of the road was paved or even smooth, but the ditches were paved, so they have a foot in the door there. The bridges have not been built yet as we saw coming around a curve, and we enjoyed four river crossings by small ferry boats. This was actually kind of fun and became a nice time to stretch our legs and view the river, which was absolutely gorgeous. This southern Cambodia area was some of the most beatiful country I've seen, lush and green with palm trees swaying in the wind.

There were no modern towns or cities, but we did pass through many villages that subsist, by the looks of it, in the same way they have for hundreds of years. The sunbleached palm thatched roofs and bamboo-and-wood stilted shanties housed, we learned, dozens of people both inside and underneath. The children we saw dilligently playing in the mud fields, digging holes and running around naked. The average income in Cambodia is about $273/year and I highly doubt these village people make so much. They know nothing of sanitation and drink from the same muddy water into which they defacate.

After the long hot and dusty seven hours we arrived in Phnom Phen at rush hour. We quickly learned that these people have never been to driving school, nor have they ever heard of traffic laws. The onslaught of scooters came at us like a preyed upon school of ocean perch and the tuk tuk and moto drivers had to be beaten out of the way so we could even exit our van. We remained with our two friends we had started the morning with (an Irish woman and a Swedish man). We finally, after deliberation before many curious faces, found a driver speaking English and made our way to the guesthouse. And we slept.

The next day we relaxed and uploaded pictures for six hours in the internet shop. Leslie had a little side adventure looking for the bank and crossing streets(which is no undaunting task!). The next day we hired a driver to take us to the S-21 detention center (a high school converted into a Angkor/Khmer Rouge tourture facility). This was the lovely accomodations where prisoners (mostly anyone of a different political party or anyone having the gaul to have an education) were held and abused until they were driven to the killing fields for their execution. Needless to say it was not a cheery place.

We followed up this bit of sunshine with a ride out to the killing fields. Over 2 million people were exterminated execution style in Cambodia between 1976 and 1979 before the Vietnamese army came in and pushed the Angkor party out of office. Fortunately that name (Angkor means "organization") is no longer in use. The party is now the communistic Cambodian People's Party and they still have control of the country through "democratic" elections. There are signs for the party posted throughout the country. It is led by many of the people responsible for such horrible genocide and who have never been brought to trial. Corruption is still rampant and there is little evidence that the government is doing anything to improve the poverty and squalor in which most of the citizens live. At the killing fields there are still bones and clothing rising out of the ground where the mass graves of the victims lie. We saw teeth and other small bones scattered about the ground. They say under the water of the lake at the site there are tens of thousands of unexhumed bodies still remaining.

Just a few days until Christmas, it was hard to feel the cheer. This was about to change though, as we were invited to a Christmas Party that night by the owner of our guesthouse. Traditional Khmer dishes were served on the rooftop of a nearby building and the music and libations coursed through the night. After dinner our host, Narin, led us in some party games in the most flamboyant style he could muster. Leslie participated in the potato rolling game and almost won if it were not for an awkwardly elipsed potato. In this game the participant ties a string around their waist and a potato to the dangling end of the string. This potato must be swung between the legs sans hands to "croquet style" smack another potato forward to the finish line. The game turned out to be great fun as the swinging motions encouraged some fairly provocative thrusting. Jingle all the way.

On Christmas day we were woken by the prancing and pawing of little rodent foots in the sophet of the ceiling above us. This was quickly followed by the screaming Cambodian children on their daily morning exhuberant salute to the rising sun. We never learned if these kids were responsible for the screaming cats outside our door or not.

Full of Christmas cheer, we excitedly and gratefully opened the gifts that Mom and Dad had sent via Leslie. We would have hung our socks, but they were all dirty and a little stank. (Thanks for the presents Mom and Dad!) We spent lunch having burgers and fries at the only really cheery and festive christmas place in town -the McDonalds ripoff of a fast food hamburger joint -upside down M and everything (uh, thats a W for you slow ones...). They had a nicely decorated fake tree and garlands and wreaths and some festive christmas tunes sped up just a little fast, making all the children inside run about like little whirlwinds. There was a skinny cambodian Santa Claus and to add to the flair and flavor of the season, a group of Catholic nuns came in for a burger run and unknowingly posed by the christmas tree for us to photograph. We celebrated Christmas also by finding the National Museum and, with help of a guide, got the low down of the ancient history of the countries temples and chronology of design.

The riverside of Phnom Phen was a crazy mix of upscale international restaurants and poverty on the sidewalks with dirty and limbless children and adults begging for money. The beggers in Phnom Phen make more money than the doctors. Given the winter season, as night descended on the land we noticed (very comfortably in our short sleeved shirts) that many of the Cambodians were bundled up like Albanian refugees fighting off the winter blizzards. The temperature may have descended to the low 70's.

Having seen enough of this crazy capital city, we headed northward on another adventure bus for the six hour ride to Siem Reap. Well, supposedly six hours. We made a delayed stop every hour due to an overheating engine. After time for the drivers to do some fancy ghetto mechanics, all the passengers got behind the bus to give it a push start as the driver had to pop the clutch. Yes, this was a full sized 55 passenger city bus. The unlucky passengers were those pushing behind the tailpipe as it belched out a thick black cloud of exhaust upon combustion. We felt fortunate to get a free sauna experience on the bus as the overheating engine prohibited the use of airconditioning and we sweltered with the unopenable windows.

Finally we made it up to Siem Reap and were ascended upon by shouting and rowdy drivers vieing for our attention and hire. They use sophisticated sales tactics like "I saw you first" and "I know you, man." We got a free ride to what turned out to be the farthest guesthouse we could find, and crashed for the night. The next day fortune brought us to a new guesthouse and a very nice tuk tuk driver whom we hired for the next few days to take us on our tours of the Angkor temple ruins (10th to 13th centuries, moving from Hindu to Buddhist influence). The temple ruins demonstrated the power and might of these ancient kingdoms and still remain a most impressive sight. The design of many of the temples were curious with stairs so steep and narrow that none but an agile mountain goat could feel comfortable in ascent. On one extra precarious set of stairs I watched and waited along with a small crowd of other tourists as Leslie unsteadily descended the near verticle stairway, aided by a rope and a prayer. The crowd held its collective breath until Leslie descended that final step, and then broke out in laughter and applause as the timing of a message being recieved by Leslie's phone rang out a loud and joyful celebratory tune. Perfect timing.

After three hard driving days of temple touring, we decided to take the weekend off for the New Year's celebrations. We moved our guesthouse again into town and spent a few days relaxing and enjoying the cuisine and markets of the town. In the evening we were glad to find that the main culinary street, "Pub Street" was blocked off to the relentless tuk tuk drivers, beggers and peddlers. This was a nice relief from the constant badgering of vendors and beggers we had been unable to escape during our temple touring. On New Year's Eve the street turned in to a wild party scene, with full half-stack speakers set up in each corner of the street blasting all the club tunes and, to my great pleasure, Sweet Home Alabama. I bragged that I was probably the only person in the crowd who had been born there.

The festivities escalated toward midnight with fireworks being (unprofessionally) shot directly above the street, resulting in a shower of hot ash on the celebrants below. Most of this was doused by the constant showering of water by friendly people on the balconies above, but the ash that fell in Leslie's hair was missed by this dousage and as I looked, I saw smoke billowing from Leslie's hair. Had I thought more quickly, I might have put out this fire with my beer (supposedly good for hair), but my reaction was just to smack her on the head which luckly did the job. Soon after this I was challanged to a dance-off 80's style by a wee drunk Scottsman. I busted out my break-dancing skills and quickly had a crowd about me cheering and clapping. He backed down without so much as a robot or a moondance. My middle school skills are still coming in handy.

On Tuesday we used the final day of our tourist temple passes to visit some far-away temples and an even further away mountain river sporting carvings in the river rock next to and in the bed of the stream. These were linga carvings that represented fertility and it was believed the carvings would help the fertility of the rice fields into which the stream emptied. Silly rabbits.

A bit templed out and tired of the overbearing tourist scene (and tired of feeling like "walking wallets") we decided to take a boat ride over to the "french colonial" town of Battembang, the 2nd largest city in the country. There is very little "colonial" feel left here but we will come to that in a moment. Now about that boat ride...

The day started out well enough - bus was supposed to pick us up at 6 a.m. - didn't leave until 6:45 a.m. I spent the 45 minute wait in the lobby of the guesthouse by swatting mosquitos with our awesome mosiquto zapper tennis racket -the electric chair for mosquitos. (My main downfall from my Buddhist practices! I however still concede that some bugs need to die, especially those transfering deadly diseases! Perhaps complete liberation still evades me for now...)

We were finally jammed onto the overfilled minivan with about 20 Barang (Westerners) inside, Leslie sitting on a engine lump as I nestled onto a 2 year old's plastic chair. We drove through a narrow pennisula with some of the most hideous dirty and overcrowded living conditions we'd seen yet. The ground was covered in layers of garbage (they don't believe in trashcans) and the roads were unpaved and pot-holed.

We were brought to the pier and were pleasantly surprised when we saw the boat we were to board; a giant luxury cruiser. Once we disembarked and retrieved our backpacks from the van our hopes vanished as we were guided not to the luxury cruiser, but to a small bench-seated longboat that seemed to be already filled with passengers. Yet as to Cambodian custom, we boarded the boat and watched as the boat was overloaded with people both inside the cabin and on top of the roof. So filled was our boat that we bottomed out in the mud and it took the straining of a small army of Cambodians to push us out of dock.

Cruising at a speed of about 3 knots an hour the boat consistently scraped bottom due to low water levels. The three hour journey ended up taking 8½ miserable, hot, cramped hours. We passed many floating villages during our cruise. On our journey we saw wonderful sights such as a young schoolgirl hanging hiney off the school boat to have a pee in the water and naked people bathing in that same water. We were able to stretch our legs for a bit as we floated up to a houseboat/shop. The masses exited the boat and overwhelmed the bouyancy of the floating shack. The toilet, a simple hole cut into the wooden floor to the water below, inundated the innocent traveler occupants, covering them in the returned human effluent. We quickly made a purchase of pineapple and cookies and reboarded the boat before we lost our seating or our hygine.

The journey was long and hot but at times very interesting as we observed the way people live in these floating villages, complete with adrift caged pigs and satallite tv dishes on the makeshift shack-boats. We finally made our way to a steep metal staircase leading up to safety of Battambang.

Battambang, known for its French Colonial architechure, is the gateway to the most heavily landmined areas of Cambodia. Unfortunately the U.S. is responsible for the aquistion of most of these over 2 million mines. Hospitals still see several victims daily with loss of limb and occasionally life due to these sporadically placed mines.

The history of the country is written on the faces of the people and dispair has replaced hope in the eyes of most. Jobs are scarce at best and tourism is the most lucrative occupation, though this town sees a low volume of toursits. The gap between the "haves" and "have nots" is cavernous, and it is rare to see Cambodians that "have." One poor case we saw was of a feverish young girl with a very sick baby whose only sustainance was suckling a dirty bottle of sugar water. We saw another similar case but the woman was missing both of her legs.

The repute of the architechure of the town did little to charm this sad and oppressed experience of life. The genocide of the 70's remains evident in the fact that all the profesionals including doctors and even Buddhist monks were executed during the "social cleansing" carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Visiting a Buddhist temple in town, we had a short tour and a long conversation with a very friendly 26 year old monk who was remarking that he had no master under whom to train, making the practice very difficult.

Cambodia is in many ways a country of children trying to find a way to live. Throughout Cambodia there is a heavy air of both pollution and suffering. Pharmacies are more prevailant than restaurants given the constant need for medicine, though most cannot afford the few dollars that these lifesaving medicines would cost. On a positive note, we did however find a wonderful coffee shop that became a needed daily refuge from the poverty of the town. We left Cambodia feeling a helpless compassion for the country and its inhabitants. Though glad to have journeyed through this land (we will miss the ubiquitous baggettes), our return to Thailand was a literal and figurative breath of fresh air. The juxtaposition of Thailand and Cambodia makes Thailand seem an immaculately clean and well ordered society.

We are currently in the small provencial city of Buri Ram and will be making our way north over the next few weeks to the country of Laos. We hope to get deeper into the natural environment as the journey unfolds. Laos has many opportunities for trekking and is reputed to be quite beautiful. Thailand has doubled its entrance fees for its National Parks, making many visits to these beautiful forested sights a no-no for we budget travelers. This is very saddening for people like me who love to frolic in nature's playground.

Tags: On the Road



Dear meditators,

Good trip. Good experiences. Good meditations on realities of contact. Good meditations on what are the sufferings of poverty . This is the compassion step
as you consider it as helpless. But the compassion is a ocean of power to help to fill up the carvernous gap between the " haves" and the "haves not ".
The big gap is still to work between the right view and
the wrong one.
I'm agreed with you when you said :



  IN Jan 12, 2007 4:39 AM



Travel Answers about Cambodia

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.