Published: September 10th 2008July 22nd 2008
Unknown? At least to me. Wild? Probably to everybody. From Pol Pot and Year Zero to King Jayavarman II and the ruins of Angkor, there is much to see and learn in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Still a millionaire by local standards with eager eyes, it was time to set about this new country.
There we were. Paleface 1 and Paleface 2 among the very tan. Maybe just naturally dark. Riding this bus they called a boat. Or maybe this boat they called a bus. People were getting seasick so it had to be a boat. Maybe it was just years and years of wear and tear on the shocks and everything else of this imported city bus that was not built to off-road on a main highway. Anyways, I was happy with the good night sleep I got the night before in Stung Treng. A fan, TV, semi-powerful shower (even if the water wasn't hot), clean beds, the life of luxury for $4 each and then my alarm went off. Seven a.m. Time to jump on the bus to Ban Lung to check out the nature. Swerving and hopping and avoiding huge potholes, it was like I was back
on that undersized Boston Whaler heading for Catalina in relatively poor weather only it wasn't the fog obstructing our vision, it was the clouds of dust we threw up on these "groomed" dirt roads. I was just as sore when we landed at our destination and the prize at the end of the tunnel was equally as sweet.
After a short walk through the city looking at the forests or jungles extending in every direction, Loic and I saw a place to stay for a few days. What is that? That looks pretty familiar. Is that? No. That has to be, right? Can't be. Is that a basketball hoop? It was. Dirt as the pavement, wood as the backboard, and a flat ball, but it was 10-feet high and I was very stoked. It had been over three months since I saw one of these. In between Loic trying to juggle the thing like it was a soccer ball (or football I guess) and chasing it down, I got to shoot for awhile and then crash for the next day.
Time to jump on a motorbike (definitely the best mode of transit) to see the countryside. First, we
stopped at a small village, which was amazing to see and not too far outside of Ban Lung. The houses were on stilts (they provide great shade for the swine, but I think were more importantly made for the inevitable floods these wet countries are prone to) and the people went about their agricultural routine very peacefully like we were not even there. The sun was heating up quickly, so it was off to the Cha Ung, Kachanh, and Kateing waterfalls. All nice in their own way, but taking a "Cambodian Shower" at Cha Ung was definitely the highlight. In between trips to the waterfalls, we stopped at a rubber tree farm. Not sure if that's what it was called, but I was just amazed at how many there were and never had the slightest idea of how rubber was made. After lunch, where the hosts threw on some kind of Asian dubbed version of Top Gun when they saw the foreigners crusing in, we went to Boeng Yeak Loam, which is also known as Crater Lake. After all day in the sun and a quick jog around the lake, this surprisingly warm half-mile in diameter pool was just what
The Warped Mirror
The creamy puffs of endlessly floating marshmallows in the clear blue sky looking so dense that I could either take a huge bite or bounce around on them as if I was in some virtual Super Mario Brothers world looking for the feather to help me fly down.
was needed. It was nice to just sit and admire the lake as it reflected the creamy puffs of clouds almost perfectly as if it was a slightly warped round mirror.
The next day didn't let up as it was INDEPENDENCE DAY! The 4th of July! I knew it would be quite different from the year prior, but was happy to celebrate it on the other side of the globe. It started off early and light and ended late and dark. The 4th, local booze, some French, some Swiss, some Cambodians, me, fried crickets, and bamboo soup. Another day on the road.
It was time to head for the center, Phnom Penh. It is not the center from a geometry standpoint, but it is the capital and the roads (it is plural because there seem to be two) form an X with Phnom Penh right in the middle. Everything seems to lead there. It was a long, bumpy excursion with a quick stop in Kratie to check out the Irrawaddy dolphins. Quick note on Kratie (and some other parts of Cambodia for that matter). Pyjamas seem to have caught on like wildfire. Just walking down the street to
Looks pretty official, huh? For those of you traveling to Cambodia or Laos: As of the date I write this, at the border crossing you can get a visa upon entry when traveling from Laos into Cambodia, but not vice versa. I am sure things will change soon and am pretty sure flashing a little extra money could get it done as well, but they claim heading north from Cambodia into Laos, you can't get one. You can always get one in advance very easily for any of these SE Asian countries before entry though.
check out the local market or look for a place to stay and the women and young girls everywhere are wearing long-sleeved tops and cotton pyjama pants with teddy bear or rainbow prints regardless of the time of day.
Phnom Penh was similar to the other capitals I had been to, but had a river and a lake, which made the stay much more enjoyable. In fact, the first of several stays here. Many of the guesthouses backed up to the lake to create a sense of distance and a small country town feel that helped escape the loud sounds of the inner city. The only downfall was many of the three minute walks to dinner or to meet up with people people was filled with "conversations" with the locals similar to this like I was cruising through a gauntlet: "Tuk-tuk?" "No thanks." "Tuk-tuk?" "No tuk-tuk." "Need a tuk-tuk?" "No thanks. Your friend sitting next to you just asked me." "Tuk-tuk?" "Nope." "Weed? I got weed." "No thanks." "Tuk-tuk?" "No tuk-tuk." "Need a tuk-tuk?" "No." "Weed?" "No." "Anything? Tuk-tuk, weed, girls? I got it all." "Nope. Going to eat." "Tuk-tuk?" "No, I don't want girls or weed." "What? You
After three months, I finally found a more or less regulation height basketball hoop. Granted, the surface was dirt and the ball was flat, but who was I to complain?
want them?" "Nope." "Tuk-tuk?" "Yeah." "Okay, two dollars." "You don't even know where we are going." "Okay. Where?" "Right there." "Two dollars." "What? That is less than 10-feet away..."
You get the point.
The most heart wrenching experience of the journey so far was the trip to S-21, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was at S-21 that I learned about Pol Pot, Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge, and another ugly side of mankind. I won't go in depth on each of these, but wow, it was heavy. I definitely recommend reading some about these. In short, S-21 was where Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge followers imprisoned, tortured, and killed upwards of 17,000 innocent Cambodians (and a few foreigners) that were "betraying" his party. After walking through each of the buildings, I arrived on the floor that made me end my tour. Here were pictures of the few survivors (the picture that was taken when they arrived and pictures of them now), with some quotes on their time in the prison and since. This is where it got really real and I had to step out. After that, it was off to Choeung Ek,
Downtown Ban Lung
In the Ratanakiri Province.
also known as The Killing Fields where many of the murdered were buried. The weather was rightfully gloomy and gray all day with intermittent rain and I was looking forward to brighter days.
With sunshine on my mind, we headed south to Sihanoukville. Coastal Cambodia. I happily said goodbye to my time in landlocked countries, landlocked provinces, landlocked cities, and everything in between. As we came over the final hill, I could taste the salt in the air. The sea, at last.
"Can I please have 10 of those small lobsters and four draft beers?" "Seven dollars please." That is not exactly how the conversation went, but it is what resulted.
Chillin' on the beach, swimmin' out to empty fishing boats, eatin' like a king. Rough times. Avoiding the locals hounding you to buy bracelets or have pedicures while lying on the beach wasn't particularly enjoyable (telling them I was a guy and don't wear bracelets or have pedicures didn't work), but there is always a little bad with the good. Renting bikes and biking around the city and the outskirts is something that one should definitely do. While staying at Ochheuteal Beach was great, there is
Otres, Victory, Independence, and the countryside that need to be seen.
The last night on the beach was Bastille Day, which is pretty much the French version of Independence Day. In other words, an excuse to party. Me, some French, and an extremely fun couple from Quebec whom I met in Don Det enjoyed the sea breeze late into the warm night before it was time for my 7am bus trip 10 hours north to Siem Reap with a quick, compulsory stop in Phnom Penh.
Finally, Siem Reap. The home of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the many other mystical temples scattered around the city. These temples made me feel like I was back in Indiana Jones (the bus ride is about as bumpy as the Disneyland ride too for that matter, expect this one includes blaring Cambodian music and the bus driver honking his horn 50% of the trip at nothing and for no reason whatsoever except to let everybody know he is there).
Back to the temples. They were simply incredible. Traveling back in time for three long days to wonder around possibly the most fantastic sites I have ever seen. I don't have the
The Village Life
A small village outside of Ban Lung.
words in my lexicon to describe the place, much less get into how awestruck I was at how they built these places. All made of stone. All to the finest detail. All replicated over and over. All done hundreds and hundreds of years ago without any of the technology we have today. The stories that the pictures told along the sides of the walls. The sheer magnitude of the structures. The perfectly equidistant spacing as you ascended to the top. I finally saw what draws so many people to this World Heritage Site.
My time away from site seeing in Siem Reap was fun as well. For one thing, I found something that had sadly managed to escape me for almost four months...Mexican food. My friends from Quebec kept telling me about it and I was very happy when I stumbled across it. It had truly been too long. Well, after a couple of days here, my time in Cambodia was pretty much coming to an end. I waved goodbye to my buddy Loic (along with his cousin and friend who joined us for several days) as he was off to Thailand and I headed back to where else,
but Phnom Penh.
Only a one night stop there, before I prepared for my next destination. I bought a bus ticket that was supposed to take me to Kep. Close to the supposed border crossing in Prek Chak that would get me where I wanted. A bus ride, followed by a tuk-tuk ride, then a motorbike ride surprisingly brought me right to the border gates. I found my passport, grabbed my gear, and said good morning Vietnam...
[Sidenote #9: The American dollar (USD) is more popular in Cambodia than it's own national currency, the riel. If you go to a bank and withdrawal riel, you will actually save some money (not much, but worth it since it requires no effort), but most people use USD. The exchange rate is about $1 to 4,100 riel so it converts pretty easily as the locals round each $0.25 to 1,000 riel. For instance, something that costs $2.25 = 9,000 riel and so forth. Most of the time, they just have prices listed in USD and seem surprised when you pay in riel.]
[Sidenote #10: Don't book flights when you have just traveled and are extremely tired. I won't go into
Shower Time...Cambodian Style
Taking a quick rinse at the Cha Ong Waterfall in Ban Lung.
details, but you might book it for the wrong month and it is too late to change it so you just have to watch your ticket and money go to waste.]
There are more photos below