Dodging Landmines and Motorbikes

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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
February 7th 2012
Published: March 5th 2012
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One of the many signs reminding us of some of the problems the country currently faces.
After finishing up at the temples and saying goodbye to Siam Reap we boarded a bus to Battambang. The usual route for temple-goers is to experience Angkor Wat and then head straight to Phnom Penh to see the capital. As we had plenty of time on our visas to explore Cambodia we thought we would take the time to see Battambang before heading to Phnom Penh. Battambang is a 3 hour bus ride from Siem Reap, around the north west end of Tonle Sap lake. We arrived in the mid afternoon to find, well, not much. We spent a good hour wandering around trying to find a guesthouse that we considered suitable before choosing a location a minute from the main square and the market. After settling in we decided to go out and explore some of the town. We walked up and down the main street, took some side streets for variety and had some delicious coffee at a very expensive cafe. We ventured out to the riverside market for dinner and indulged in some good old fashion street food. Usually delicious and always cheap. Unfortunately for Matt his delicious dinner also came with a side of food poisoning. We
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Although we had seen our fair share of temples, they never cease to amaze.
woke the next morning and debated staying indoors all day to let the ailment pass, but around noon Matt began feeling much better so we decided to explore the area surrounding Battambang. We had heard that the countryside was beautiful and that there were a few key sights to see just a few kilometers from town. We haggled for a price with a tuk-tuk driver and by 2pm were on the road to see some temples. Yes, even after Angkor Wat we still went to see more temples. The temple was atop a hill and the only way to get there were the 358 steps that led up to the front gate. The temple itself was beautiful but what we both took away from the walk up the stairs and around the grounds were the numerous warning signs saying “DANGER. MINES!!” Many tourists do not realize that Cambodia is still littered with unexploded land mines left over from the war. Before leaving Siam Reap we were able to visit the landmine museum which gave anecdotes from survivors of land mine explosions as well as gave cold hard facts about the prevalence of land mines in the country. The mines were
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Temples have a habit of being at the top of an abnormally large set of stairs
laid by foot soldiers from the Khmer Rouge Cambodian soldiers to protect borders and camps as well as other mines dropped from planes by the USA in part to combat the Khmer Rouge and in part due to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Unexploded land mines are a terrible reality for those living in Cambodia. There is still believed to be between 3 – 6 million unexploded pieces in the country today. The province of Battambang was the most heavily bombarded and currently contains the country’s most unexploded mines. In the Battambang province, 1 person is killed or injured every 3 days because of land mines. With this knowledge, we remained on the guided path around the temple but were certainly aware of the reality that lurks in the jungles and throughout the fields in the area.

After seeing the temple we got back in the tuk tuk and headed a few more kilometers down a bumpy dirt road towards our next destination. Yet another temple atop a massive limestone cliff has caught the attention of many tourists. The modern day temple sits over 1,000 steps up from the road and as impressive as it was, that was not
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The view from the top of the temples
the sole reason we had come to that area. Just a kilometer walk from the temple is the site of what is now called, “the killing cave”. Nestled into the limestone wall is a cavern big enough to fit a house. What makes this one unique however is that at the top of the cave is a chasm in the roof, which today gives you a glimpse of a clear blue sky. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, however, the chasm was used as an execution location. Prisoners would be walked to the top of the hill, placed next to the hole and bludgeoned with a rock, stick, club, butt of a gun, or anything in the surrounding area. If the blow to the head did not kill them, the fall to the bottom of the cave certainly would have. After the Khmer Rouge regime, the bodies of 3,000 Cambodian civilians were found at the bottom of the cave. Today, there is a glass shrine filled with some of the bones and skulls from the victims found there. With heavy hearts, we left the cave and made our way back down the temple stairs. Not on our agenda
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The bats leaving the cave to hunt for some dinner.
but recommended by our tuk tuk driver, we waited around to see the bats. Not really sure what was going to happen or where the bats were coming from or going to, we sat patiently and waited with an ever-growing group of tourists. Sure enough at 6 pm sharp bats began pouring out of a small opening in the cliff face. A stream of bats so thick it looked like smoke was streaming out of the hole and it seemed as though the line of them would never end. We left about 20 minutes after they began and there was no end in sight. We then drove to a nearby field to see the bats from afar. The pattern line of flight undulated as they flew and darkened full streaks in the sky. The sky itself was darkening so we made our way back into the city for the night. Pleased with our adventures on the outskirts of Battambang, however not so pleased with the city itself, we booked our bus tickets to Phnom Penh for the following morning.

We arrived in Phnom Penh in the mid afternoon and ignored the usual pestering from tuk tuk drivers asking where
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We wanted to get closer but we afraid of being run over
we wanted to go. We were happy to walk but more so we had no idea where we wanted to go. We set out on foot from the bus station and made our way through the alleyways and streets to the backpacker’s district. As every other building was a guesthouse we had ample choices but settled on the solid $6/night room. That evening we explored the city by foot wandering the main streets and experiencing the insane traffic and even more impressive roundabouts. We were pleased to find so much green space in downtown Phnom Penh. In the middle of some of the busiest streets in the city were large parks and recreation spaces that did not go unused. Around 5pm it seems as though everyone in the city comes to the parks for a daily dose of exercise. Groups of people numbering up to 50 or 60, step classes, dance classes, or simply just moving their feet in some sort of way or another was wonderful to see, although the music that blared from the speakers was entertaining more than enjoyable. As we continued our walks down the street, the Cambodian people continued to enjoy their afternoon as the

The boardwalk and palm trees lining the river front in downtown Phnom Penh
sun set behind the city’s skyline. We eventually made it to the waterfront area where a wide walkway and more green spaces made for a very pleasant stroll along the river. While looking for things to do in Phnom Penh, we had come across a pub near the riverfront that offered a trivia night every Thursday. Luckily for us, it was Thursday. As we were both starved of our daily dose of jeopardy and hadn’t frequented a trivia night in some time we figured we would hunker down, grab a few beer and enjoy a night at the pub. The trivia was great and the teams of people were equally intelligent and entertaining. It was an Aussie run bar and often frequented by expats, so the genre of questions were pretty standard for our liking. By the end of the evening we had won a can of Cambodia beer, a Cambodia beer glass (that Liza can add to her collection, although this one isn’t pilfered) thanks to Matt winning a game of heads or tails, a few shots thanks to an entertaining answer that made the host chuckle, and a 3rd place ranking at the end of 6 rounds. The
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One of the boys happily enjoying his lunch
3rd place prize was a free entrance to a movie theatre in town, which had already been included on our list of things to do! The following evening we used our free passes to see a movie. The movie theatre however, was something much different from what you would expect. It was built on the second floor of a house and included a large screen at the front of a room with pillows, chairs, and futon mattresses sprawled along the ground for the viewer’s comfort. With the air conditioning on and a full bowl of popcorn, we thoroughly enjoyed the movie “Life in a Day”. The movie was a documentary of videos that were all recorded on July 24th 2010. People all over the world recorded themselves on that day and sent the footage in. The movie is a compilation of some of the amazing stories and anecdotes that were submitted. The movie gave us a chance to reflect on how similar and different people’s lives are all over the world and forced us to contemplate the way in which we live our own. We highly recommend taking the time to watch it.

The next day was to be
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Feeding this many children is quite the process. Who knew?
our last in Phnom Penh. We didn’t have a whole lot on the agenda so we let our feet be our guides. We wandered through some of the local markets, which we have both come to appreciate as much as, if not more, than the tourist markets for the local culture, the crazy foods, and the overall hectic-ness of daily life in SE Asia. We were also on a hunt for insulin. Liza, being the responsible diabetic that she is, had only one bottle left and was running low. Expecting it to be easy to find we were getting frustrated when not a single pharmacy seemed to have it, or know what it was. We kept being told to go to the Olympic Market. Thinking that we were being sent to yet another local market to buy insulin left us feeling a little hopeless and a bit wary of the types of insulin that are available in Cambodia. Sure enough, as we headed towards the market we came across a street filled (and we mean FILLED – at least 15 different stores all in a row) with pharmacies. The insulin was easy to come by, the brand was correct, and
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Not sure who enjoyed this activity more - Liza or the little girl.
our burden of the day was lightened considerably. Enjoying the movie from the previous day as much as we had, we went back again. This time, the movie playing was called “Happy”. It is a documentary about what makes people happy. As simple as it sounds the messages and stories were complex, heart warming, and heart breaking all at the same time. Unbeknownst to us we had wandered into a viewing that was run by the local Christian Fellowship in Phnom Penh. After the viewing we were invited to stick around with the group and discuss our opinions of the movie, its messages, and its relation to the bible. We were much more vocal for the first two sections of the discussion than the last. After yet another extremely enjoyable experience at the theatre, we made our way to the guesthouse. Although we had planned on leaving the following morning, we had come across a charitable organization in the city called Choice. The group happened to be running a trip to the local villages the next day and were looking for volunteers.

Choice is an organization that was started by an expat in Phnom Penh. The aim of the
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Matt made friends with these three early in the day playing volleyball together and finished the day by helping them with their english.
organization is to provide support for some of the most impoverished people in and around Phnom Penh. Choice helps over 180 village families and their children by giving them medical supplies, access to fresh drinking water, meals, and providing schooling opportunities for the children. Every day Choice sends a truck with gallons of fresh drinking water and stops off at the villages. On every other Sunday a team of volunteers is sent out to hand out and give explanations for medical supplies, more drinking water and assist families with their children. On the other Sundays, volunteers are enlisted to help organize and run a typical “school” day for the children of those villages. We were lucky enough to be able to join the Choice regulars to help teach the children English, art, and give them a sense of childhood and camaraderie that they might not be able to get at home. We were driven about an hour out of town and shown some of the villages before heading to the school. The villages are no more than plastic tarps and wood on the side of the road. These families are too poor to have land, so they take to squatting
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Happy to be turned around, upside down. A good end to the school day.
on the side of the road on government land and erecting things that barley resembles houses. We were shown some houses (from the van) that were no bigger than a closet in North America and told it housed a family of 5. After seeing the incredible poverty that these people were faced with we were dropped off at the community centre where the school is run. There are a handful of regular volunteers that act as teachers, organizers, chefs, and any other job that you might think is necessary to run a school. There were 50 children from ages 3 to 10 running around when we arrived. The toys of choice were usually a ball, an unripe mango picked from the tree, or simply just chasing one another around. When we got there, the kids were just gearing up for lunch. The food provided here was most likely the only food they would get that day. We set up tables, put out dishes, grabbed fresh drinking water and served lunch to the kids before setting up for the afternoon lessons. After lunch the kids were split into three groups and each taken to a different classroom. One room was for English, the other was for Art, and the third we never saw, so it still remains a mystery but the kids seemed to love it. Perhaps it was gym.

During the lessons the new volunteers were able to just walk around the classroom and help out wherever help was needed. We began our afternoon with the art class, colouring pictures, using finger paint, cutting and gluing shapes to paper, and generally making a mess. The kids loved it. We loved it. The English class that we sat it on was learning about the letter “b”. We repeated Ball, Banana, and Boy at least 50 times before helping the kids write out the letter and colour in pictures. The kids loved having some extra volunteers around to practice their English with. We counted to 10, introduced ourselves, and generally just had a great time. The afternoon went by quickly as we made new friends, witnessed pure happiness from the children, and hoped that our presence there had somehow made a difference. The kids were all driven back to their respective villages at the end of the day before we went on our way back to Phnom Penh. The ride to the city was quiet with reflection on the day, hoping that the kids can experience that joy again, and wishing that the lessons they learn with the help of Choice can make a difference in their lives. Although not planned, it was an excellent way to spend an extra day in the big city. We readied ourselves for a bus trip the next morning and tucked in for the night.

More information about Choice can be found here:

Note: Some of the most important attractions in Phnom Penh are those dedicated to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge Regime in the 1970s. We have not included the experience we had with the S-21 Museum or the Killing Fields because we felt they deserved a post of their own. Be forewarned, it is not for the faint of heart.


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