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Published: February 28th 2006
Cambodia can be hard to love.
After getting off the boat from Chau Doc, Vietnam I had my first taste of those legendary Cambodian roads when we were herded onto a bus. 90 minutes later with my teeth nearly shaken out of my skull we rolled into Phnom Penh an hour later than expected. A murmur broke out amongst the tourists on the bus- Star Mart? Shell Stations? In Cambodia? I had been dreaming of 24 hour convenience stores, I had not seen one in Vietnam and I wasn't expecting to see them in Cambodia or anywhere else besides Bangkok, but there they were like manna from heaven. I confess I got a little teary-eyed.
The bus dropped us off at the Capitol Guesthouse, which I knew was a dump but more importantly it is the center of the cheap accommodation area so I started off looking for a place to stay. This is where having a Lonely Planet comes in handy. I was feeling very anti- Lonely Planet at the time because I think the hotel recommendations are not very good- the rates increase dramatically with a Lonely Planet mention and the quality isn't up to par from
my experience. So there I was, with all my stuff and without a map. It was getting dark and I guess I was walking in the wrong direction because all the guesthouses I passed by advertised "massage"and "karaoke", which is not a good sign for finding respectable accommodation. So I checked into this nice hotel and screwed up my budget even more.
I saw a Lucky Burger right across the street, and I was a little rice'd out at this point since Duc and I ate rice for every meal for like a week straight so a burger sounded pretty good. Turns out Lucky Burger is the Cambodian attempt at fast food! They have combo meals and everything, with the fast food uniforms and one guy mopping the floor even had the fast-food employee walk. I spent a considerable chunk of my teen years flipping burgers so I know that walk. The only big differences from a US style fast food joint is that they don't ask you what kind of soft drink you want- the only choice is Coke, and the portions are almost microscopic from the Super Size standard. I was the only foreigner in there so
I think it was a good cultural experience.
So after only one night in Phnom Penh I went to Kampong Cham first thing the next morning for a homestay. The road was pretty good, its sort of hit and miss in Cambodia. The homestay was great, its definitely worth it to see how 85% of Cambodians- basically everyone who lives outside Phnom Penh or another big city- live without electricity or running water. I stayed with Don, an American and his Cambodian wife Khieng, but unlike most expats the American actually lives like a Cambodian. We ate great food and I saw life in the village and out in the fields, it was dry season so there's not a whole lot of work to do but they're still out there all day, every day. Khieng told me about growing up under the Khmer Rouge. She and all the other children were not allowed to eat fruit they found out in the jungle so they were hungry all the time. She told me of a time she was caught "stealing" fruit from the tree and she narrowly escaped execution. Khieng's mom came and gave a talk, that woman works so
in case you couldn't tell from 50 yards away
hard she was part of a special corps of super hard working individuals under the Khmer Rouge. That's pretty hardcore! Don told me when he was digging in his garden out in the backyard he kept finding pieces of cloth and tiny little bottles, it turns out they were clothes and perfume bottles of people rounded up and sent to the killing fields nearby.
The major difference I noticed from the Cambodian countryside and the Vietnamese countryside was the reaction to my presence. In Vietnam everyone is friendly and curious, and in Cambodia they are completely terrified of foreigners. I would wave and say hello and they would stop and stare but not smile or say hello or anything like that. Pol Pot told everyone in his lil camps to hate everyone with white skin, especially Americans, so sometimes they would ask me questions through Khieng- "why is she wearing shorts? Isn't she afraid of getting tan?" "aren't you afraid of getting kidnapped?" uhh I'm more afraid of getting killed in a traffic accident, or the bomb "where are you from?"and after I said "United States" they would shut down. I mean, I totally understand they're still spooked and
Random street in central Phnom Penh
Vietnam's squeaky clean compared to Cambodia
I would be too but it was just a major change from Vietnam.
Khieng started talking about "homemade cars", I was intrigued and there it came, coming around the bend. Its something straight out of the Beverly Hillbillies, a massive truck put together with any parts they could dig up and you're standing there mesmerized and impressed by their ingenuity until you are completely engulfed in a cloud of black smog that those homemade cars are constantly producing.
Everyone knows about Cambodia's horrible past a mere 30 years ago, but Cambodia today isn't doing too much better. The gap between the very few and very rich and the extremely poor masses is enormous. In Phnom Penh you see Lexuses (with LEXUS written in huge letters on the side) and Hummers and Land Cruisers all over the place. In the country they have nothing, and the poor are repeatedly getting screwed over by the rich even today. The corruption has such a huge presence, it would almost make you laugh if it didn't make you so sick. The US Government, along with a whole lot of other governments, keep giving foreign aid to Cambodia with one condition- "to further
democracy in Cambodia" except for China who gives them money no strings attached. None of it reaches anyone who needs it. Why doesn't the US stop giving aid to Cambodia? Don said, "because it doesn't want China to own Cambodia". That was the best answer I'd been given in a long time. In Vietnam the government gets electricity to pretty much everyone out in the boonies.
The attitude among the poor people in Cambodia today isn't good. The national motto seems to be "wait and see". People still disappear today for saying too much just like it was under the Khmer Rouge, but Khieng says they can say "just a little bit more". Post Khmer Rouge the UN started a democracy in Cambodia, a country that hasn't had a democracy in its thousands year old history, and as soon as it was started the UN got out instead of helping the democracy get started properly. The Khmer people probably don't even want a democracy. Its a bad situation, and it doesn't look like its going to get better any time soon as long as that foreign aid keeps coming in. Its pretty messed up that Cambodia is basically in
Phnom Penh is a good place to take pictures of ghosts
the exact same spot it was in right before the Khmer Rouge took over.
I went to Sihanoukville, the Cambodian beach resort, for a couple of days. It's a dump, the beach is dirty, the food is gross and expensive, and its full of billboards and public service advertisements reminding you that yes, sex with children is still illegal and you will go to prison back home and everyone will hate you and rape you and stab you, and pathetic 40 year old hippies who are so wasted they look like they're 80 . They would come up and talk to me and start talking hippie, and I would give them a look like Eric Cartman would give them, and then put my iPod on but they wouldn't notice so I would walk away and I still don't think they noticed. They're probably still out on the beach talking to me. But I was in an obscenely nice hotel with a pool so I hung out there for a couple of days.
Move over Disneyworld, Cambodia is the new happiest place on earth! Everywhere you go people will offer you happy shakes, happy pizza, happy cigarette *wink wink
*. LOL!!! WEED. Oh, to be 14 again.
Back to Phnom Penh for a couple of days. I'm still not sure about this enigma of a city. It has a lot, you can be in a really nice supermarket and swear you're back at home, and they you walk outside and someone maimed by landmines will start tugging on your shirt begging for money. The moment you start to appreciate the French Colonial architecture someone is right there with you to bring you back to the Cambodian reality. I was mostly just wandering about Phnom Penh listening to the Dead Kennedys, so about the only tourist thing I saw in was Tuol Sleng, aka S-21 prison, the Khmer Rouge torture chamber. If you thought your high school was hell, you ain't seen nothing yet. Thousands and thousands of people went in, and 7 people came out. It was definitely the saddest place I'd ever seen.
Don't forget to pack a wife.
Then it was off to Siem Reap to see the premiere destination in Cambodia, nay the entire South East Asian region, Angkor Wat.
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