Cambodia - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Phnom Penh


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February 21st 2012
Published: February 21st 2012
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Cambodia:

Cambodia is one of those countries that are filled with contradictions. You’d expect it to be overtly corrupt, dangerous, non-English speaking. I didn't experience any of that. Well, before I continue, let’s end with leaving Thailand. I took the bus out of northern Bangkok to Siem Reap. To get there I took the very modern sky bridge and then a taxi to the bus station. The online time said the bus left at 9:30. Luckily I showed up at 8:59, which gave me a whole minute to catch the bus, which actually left at 9:00. To get to Siem Reap I needed to take a bus to the border, then walk across the border, then take a bus or taxi two hours to Seim Reap. Well, the actual bus ride took 5 hours, crossing the border took almost an hour, and the ride to my hotel took about three hours.

Cambodia was noticeably different than Thailand when I crossed over the border. You can only buy Cambodian Riels in Cambodia. In fact, they mark everything in dollars too, defeating the point. The exchange rate is fixed at 1 USD:4000 KHR. I met an official guide from Cambodia who walked me through the process of entering Cambodia, exchanging money, and getting a bus. The department of tourism noticed that there were a lot of rip off artists at the borders and didn’t want tourists' first impression of the country to be getting scammed or overpaying for basic services. To get my visa I had to fill out a form, pay the visa fee, and supply a picture. The Cambodian police officer gave me my change. When I noticed it was a little short he just smiled and gave met the rest.

The road from the border to Siem Reap was one of the straightest roads I’ve ever traveled. It never seemed to end. I took a small bus (really a large van) with a bunch of Swiss travelers, an Englishman, and a few Germans. Cambodia is definitely a developing country as most of the homes were effectively shacks with dirt roads leading to them. I saw a few huts. Most places also had a cow, but these have to be the most malnourished cows I had ever seen, since you could see the rib cages on most of them. When I arrived at my hotel I unpacked and then headed to the Italian restaurant across the street for a pizza and some wine. I was still getting over the bacteria infection and didn’t want to take any chances. Plus, my appetite was back and pizza looked like a good choice.

The next day I went to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the pride of Cambodia. It was designed in the 12th century and has served as a place of worship for both Buddhists and Hindus. The grounds are amazing. The main temples are surrounded by a huge moat. It just makes one ask how it was possible to carve something so amazing out of stone. It was easy to get lost in the ruins as I found out. As I was walking on the outskirts of the temple, four childen came up to me and started singing. It was a beautiful song. I gave them some money and they continued the song. Some other tourists saw them performing for me and started taking pictures. Then suddenly you could hear the sound of a motorcycle and the kids disappeared in seconds. The motorcycle was the police. He looked at me as if to ask if I knew where were kids were. I just smiled. He knew he would never find them and left.

My driver, Tina (a guy), took me around the local areas in his tuk-tuk. Around 12:00 I went to get a bite to eat. The guy from England, Gabriel, from my bus showed up. He was doing the tour using a bicycle to get around all day. I invited him over to eat with me and we had a good talk on traveling and what was happening in the world. While we were eating a Cambodian girl who spoke excellent English approached us. She was only 8 and was selling postcards. She was trying to get Gabriel to buy some. When she found out he was from England she said that the capital of England was London, hoping to impress Gabriel. Gabriel still wasn’t buying the postcards so I told her that if she could name the capitals of 10 countries I named at random that I would give her 10,000 riels ($2.50) and she could keep the postcards to sell to someone else. Well, I ended up paying her the money. She got all 10 right! So let’s play – Are you smarter than a Cambodian 8 year old?

What’s the capital of:

1. England

2. France

3. Italy

4. Spain

5. Portugal

6. Poland

7. The United States

8. Australia

9. Canada

10. Iceland

See the answers below.

This girl was 8 years old and went to school in the morning. Then she sells postcards in the afternoon to support her family. How many American 8 year olds know the capital of Poland or Iceland, or the capital of Australia? Did you? Shamefully, I have to admit that I missed one.

After lunch Gabriel and I toured the temple that was right by where we ate. One of the temples had a Hindu ritual taking place so we watched that for a bit. I then went to get my tuk-tuk driver to head to the next site. About a mile into the ride we ran out of gas. My tuk-tuk driver and I had to take the carriage off of the moped and he went to get gas while I waited. Such is life.

That night I went to mass at a chapel in Siem Reap. There were no pews, just some mats to sit on. There were a few sisters from the order Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) . After church I went back to the Italian restaurant across from my hotel one last time. I was just craving Italian.

The next morning I took an early bus to Phnom Penh. The bus ride was ok. The road was similar to the one from the border to Siem Reap. It’s just one lane in each direction with the occasional dirt patch. Cars are constantly passing each other making it three lanes. Phnom Penh is a very simple city. It has some French colonial architecture. The riverfront area is really nice though. It has a huge sidewalk where a lot of familes walk or where you can see guys playing a sort of hacky sack game. There are a lot of restaurants too.

Phnom Penh was one of the main stops on my trip. I had read about the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the killing fields and to the S-21 torcher prison. The Khmer Rouge was one of the most vicious groups to ever control a country. The genocide took the life of one out of every four people. The regime also fought against the Vietnamese, which caused the US to turn a blind eye to what was occurring in order to prevent another incursion of US troops in SE Asia. It’s hard to imagine 75,000,000 Americans being killed, but that’s the per capita equivalent. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who was educated or even looked educated. Anything perceived to be a threat to the regime was eliminated, along with the families as to prevent retaliation. The killing fields contained mass graves of tens of thousands of bodies. You can still see teeth and bone fragments in the ground that still come up after the monsoon season. The park asks you not to touch them and that someone will attend to the fragments later. It’s unconscionable that human beings can be so cruel to other human beings. The sad thing is that many of the Khmer Rouge goons were just kids themselves. They were mostly illiterate peasants who could just take orders and were brainwashed to think that the elites were keeping them down. The pictures at the S-21 prison were hard to look at. It was such an eerie place. The Khmer Rouge was eventually pushed out of Phnom Penh to the countryside. Many of the leaders escaped trial too and blended in with society. Where is the justice?

My tour guide asked if I was interested in going to the Lighthouse Orphanage in Phnom Penh. There are a little over 100 kids there from the age of 5-15. My driver took me to get a 50kg bag of rice first to give to the orphanage (about enough rice for 1 day) and then we headed over. Most of the kids were at school, but some stayed around. The lady I met when I arrived gave me a tour. The kids were all pretty happy. I played basketball and soccer with two of the guys and tried to teach them how to play ‘horse’. When I went back to the table I showed one of the kids my iPhone. It was all over after that. For the next hour they passed around my iphone playing Angry Birds. These kids love Angry Birds! They were so polite too. They would offer my phone back to me occasionally, surprised that I would let them play as long as they wanted. Watching them have so much fun was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

My last day in Phnom Penh consisted of going to the national museum and the Royal Palace. The palace grounds looked amazing, as if Edward Scissorhands cut the place up.

Here are the answers to the country capitals:

1. London

2. Paris

3. Rome

4. Madrid

5. Lisbon

6. Warsaw

7. Washington D.C.

8. Canberra

9. Ottawa

10. Reykjavik

Next stop – Vietnam!


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21st February 2012

The same girl
Tree years to go I was in Siem Riep and I met the same girl.She was 5 yers old ,could speak quite a lot english selling wooden bracelets that time.She knew even Helsinki ,where I am from.So I did buy some.Later she asked me to buy more but I had no more money with me.So she said: borrow your friends.They start very early the busineseducation in Kambodia.But she was sharming.I could regonnice her and the place backround from your picture.
21st February 2012

Cambodian Girl
Hi Risto, Thanks for the comment. I was totally blown away by this girls' ability to speak really good English, and know those capitals. Shamefully, I got Australia wrong. Oh well, it's just Australia....haha. Ted
21st February 2012

Tuol Sleng
Hi Ted: So glad you got to see Tuol Sleng. Absolutely horrifying. On another unrelated topic, when I was in Cambodia in 2009, while you could get Cambodian money, the ATMs gave you US dollars, so I never used anything but US$. BTW - I knew all the capitols. But I've never played Angry Birds! David
21st February 2012

To be technical about it, there is no capital of England...
only of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So that was a trick question! As for eight year olds knowing capitals, I would be surprised it they knew their own capital; especially here in the US. Anyway, thanks for the detailed blog. That's great the tourist authorities recognize the rip offs at the border and are trying to do something about it. You mentioned the road to Siem Reap...has it been paved so there are no longer all the pot holes? Most people who visit Angkor Wat go into great detail about the temples, but you mostly talked about you encounter with the children. You seem to have a way with kids. Have you thought of volunteering for a month or so at an orphanage?
22nd February 2012

Re: Cambodia - Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Phnom Penh
Thanks for the email. I figure anyone can google the sites if you want to see them. The real story is the people and what they've been through. In Cambodia there are so many street vendors who are kids. I think there's a big story behind that (education, poverty, ect.), and it needs a human face. -Ted
8th March 2012

Namaste!
14th October 2012

Smart Children!
Funny you posted the little girl who "knows her capitals". I met a little girl at one of the temples who could recite the alphabet in about 4-5 different languages! I was so impressed! Amazing trip you took - thanks for sharing. Michelle

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