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Published: June 17th 2016
Long Boat off the Islands of Cambodia
Such a lovely slow way to see the coastal islands
Cambodia part two:
Our tour guide Saul startles awake on the public bus as we make our way to the city of Kampong Cham. He is a bit discombobulated because he can’t remember a thing that happened at the bus depot this morning, we literally had to pour him into his seat. Drink much? So of course we tease him. He finally cracks a smile and for the rest of the trip he turns on the charm and gets all social and chatty with us.
Saul tells us about Cambodian life. But he chooses his words very carefully, making it obvious that free speech is still not a luxury here. He describes a typical day for a Khmer citizen, how much money is earned, what they eat, how they live. He says that life is a struggle for most...getting a little better for some, like himself who was a tuk tuk driver for twenty years earning a tiny wage to keep his mother afloat. When he married and had a young son, he wanted more for them, so Saul taught himself English and never let up pursuing this tour company for a job. Hired, he hasn't looked back and
I loved the tarantulas. Very tasty and I'm okay now with the idea of sustainable insects as food
is extremely grateful for his fair wage, but admits that after 7 years, the difficult clients are wearing on him. Saul glances over at our tourmate I've nicknamed "the Hag" who has been telling her new seatmate about her daughter's famous ex boyfriend for the past two hours. I don't think he speaks English.
I like this new Saul. He is finally relaxed and engaged.
He leans in and quietly tells us about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. He warns that outside the confines of the bus he will not talk about the regime, so don't ask him anything. We are intrigued and pepper him with questions. It’s all so fascinating and gruesome at the same time. The regime was far more brutal than I ever knew, or at least what was reported by outside media.
Those dark years are still evident today. While the majority of Cambodians go about their day in a peaceful manner, there is still this evil underbelly, as gangsters and shysters swirl around hidden in plain sight. Corruption and plutocracy rule. Saul offers up his humble opinion on the current state of Cambodian affairs, and why he believes the citizens of
Sunset on the Mekong
While crossing the shaky bamboo bridge I tried to snap a picture of the Mekong River.
Cambodia won’t ever band together for an uprising to evoke change. Short version; the Khmer Rouge are still very much in control here and the people are terrified of them.
Meanwhile, our attention hasn’t been on our tour mate I call "the Terrorist" so he starts to fidget, and grabs the remote control from the hostess to crank up the volume of the overhead TV screen. Saul stops talking and stares at him sadly before taking his seat. I have to calmly pat my seat mate I nicknamed "the General" on the arm to ensure she doesn't fly over the seats to strangle the Terrorist, who is cackling loudly to himself as the Thai actors kick the stuffing out of each other.
I think the bus ride was the tipping point where Saul decided to concentrate his efforts on us, his enthusiastic charges, thereby ignoring the Hag and the Terrorist And their spouses. This is probably a bad strategy. The Hag has already announced she will not be tipping Saul, citing his strong accent for ruining her trip. The Terrorist informs us that he plans to pass on his superior business knowhow to Saul instead of a tip.
Saddest place on earth
The skulls from the Killing Fields are all displayed in a stupor. It was so beyond sad.
I roll my eyes.
The public bus picks up locals along the route making it more stuffy and crowded, but tolerable. I feel bad for our little German girls, both are severely motion sick from the weavy bus. Luckily we stop several times for access to drop toilets and snacks. Most of the roadside eateries are bustling and there isn't enough time to use the toilet and
get something to eat before the bus driver is leaning on his horn aggressively. So we subsist on baggies of cut-up mango or pineapple and rice biscuits to snack on.
At one stop, Saul purchases baggies of different insects for us to try.
Everyone is freaking out, except me and the General's son I call "the Kid". I’ve already committed to sampling them all, and to not be outdone the Kid commits too. Hey, why not? If it's the end of the world as we know it, we could all be forced to consume this sustainable protein, so might as well get a taste for them now, right?
My squirmy tour mates peek over the seats and demand to know what each bug tastes like as I try them.
So many happy smiling faces. This lady was prepping for her day, peeling mangos and chatting away with me.
I can't say gross. Everything was surprisingly tasty. The Tarantulas were my favourite, like a chewy beef jerky. I didn't enjoy the scorpions as they tasted like chemicals, and the cockroaches were a little too crunchy for me, like having a mouthful of popcorn casings stuck in your teeth. I'd hazard to say they'd be good in fried rice. Crickets were also yummy because they tasted like sesame snacks, second to the bamboo worms which were kind of like Lays potato chips. I did take a pass on those gigantic water bugs though. Too weird looking.
We arrived in Kampong Cham in the late afternoon and the entire city is on lockdown.
Saul arranges for some bicycles and then goes to his room, leaving us to fend for ourselves. The General, my roomy Ant, and I are all starving so we go on the hunt for somewhere to eat. Ever polite, we invite the couples to join us but they veer off in the opposite direction citing they saw a bar somewhere down the street. Saul had already pointed out that the bar does not serve food.
The intense heat of the day radiates off the French
Face wash of Talc
Most of the young Cambodians were having so much fun covering each other in talc and water.
architecture buildings. It looks like it would be a fascinating town but it’s now eerie as our voices echo down the empty streets. We finally convince a bored French man to open his restaurant and he serves up dry baguette and day old fish Amok to us. I get this premonition that I might be sorry tomorrow.
Saul reappears and explains why the town is empty. He tells us that most Khmers head to Angkor for New Year and the ones left behind party out on an island connected by a gigantic bamboo bridge. He asks us if we want to go. Hell ya! So we bike along the cool breezy Mekong River riverfront until we see a span of bamboo. I'm in a state of awe at the very sight of it. There are massive amounts of trucks and cars, tuk tuks, scooters, and a wall of pedestrians happily crossing. What is the maximum load for this bridge? Anyone know? Anyone care? We leave our bicycles behind and hire tuk tuks to go across. This bridge was like a rickety amusement park ride. Ant screamed the entire crossing which made me laugh hysterically. There is this loud sickening,
Faces of Angkor
The lovely carvings were so amazing. As usual I'm wishing I had more time to enjoy them
crunching & creaking noise underside that makes you believe you will topple into the water at any moment. But we get across. Conclusion: Bamboo is amazing.
On the island, everyone is in a frenzy. There are towers of speakers blasting techno and rap music at cringe worthy decibels. The teenagers are three or four to a scooter and everyone is covered in talc. Of course since we are the only tourists around, we are immediately converged upon and covered in talc.
Unbeknownst to us, the Terrorist has bought two super soakers and hidden them in his wife's gigantic Birkin. the poor Khmer teens come running at our Tuk Tuks full speed only to get blasted in the face by the cackling evil Terrorist. Their reactions of sheer shock and joy are priceless. One point for the Terrorist.
We had so much fun but I wake up the following day with rumble guts and a fever. Oh God no
. But now's the time to rally or this long public bus ride is going to be miserable. I take out my arsenal of medications and start popping pills. In the meantime, Saul surprises us by commandeering a private van.
Once we ditched the hell couples, our group was able to have a wonderful time.
That has air conditioning. Hoorah!
We are headed for the Chambok district to a homestay village in squished luxury.
The little German girls are still a sad shade of green so they get the front seats, much to the Hag's dismay. I personally try to nap and not eat anything to avoid any potential explosions. The Terrorist senses I am under the weather so he comes to sit with me and practice his stand up comedy routine. When that doesn't get the desired reaction, he begins to rip apart his wife Imelda's six suitcases and hat boxes piled behind us looking for something important. Things are strewn around the bus. He's even woken the slumbering General with all this commotion. She starts in on him. Finally Saul barks from the front of the van for him to knock it off, and the Terrorist sits back down defeated and pouts.
Somehow we fit more items into the van as our trip progresses, about six flats of beer, two chickens - live, and a Styrofoam cooler full of ice that is now blocking our only exit off the bus. My guts churn.
Our homestay is way off the beaten
ah. In the 40 degree heat, when I wasn't in the water I was chilling in this chair on our private island
track. This is upsetting for the Hag and she complains about how bumpy the road is. Wear a bra woman! A few cows look confused as we go by, standing in their water source that has long dried up. Why is this landscape so harsh and dry? I thought Cambodia was all thick jungle. Saul explains that back in the eighties the Vietnamese took advantage of Cambodia’s instability and stole all the mature trees from the forests around here. This community regrouped and tried to eke out a living by farming but the skyrocketing temperatures and torrential winds from the lack of trees made it near impossible so they’ve had to adapt once again, this time educating themselves and finding innovative ways to become self sufficient, including eco tourism.
The villagers greet us warmly and escort us to their open community hall. There we hang out and talk to those that have gathered, the younger teens eager to practice their English, Saul translates for the rest. They want to know about us and our lives. We ask about theirs. The women immediately start cooking and delicious smells waft from the communal kitchen. Even with my gurgle guts, I can’t
Really enjoyed the show in Siem Reap, the costumes and dancers were fascinating and talented
wait to try their local cuisine. Dishes like chrysanthemum shoots are served in heaping plates. The Terrorist throws a fit. He doesn’t want any of it and he lies across the bench seat under the table with his arms crossed in protest. We ignore him. Ant and I both take a bite of the delicious food and then rush off to the long drop toilets with only seconds to spare. Whew. Minutes later, one of the German girls is barfing in some of the thickets nearby. Poor Saul tries to explain to the community elders what the hell is going on with all of us, their brows noticeably furrowed.
After dinner, the children assemble to put on a traditional dance show for us. They are all so serious in their cute costumes but then giggly after when we fawn over them like celebrities. So adorable. Later we look like the pied piper as they skip and dance around us as we all walk down to where we are staying for the night.
The Terrorist and Hag are mortified by our simple lodgings, but its too late to do anything about it now. They excuse themselves in a huff
Vats of tasty insects at the roadside stands for you to try. All were delicious, except scorpions
off to bed with their spouses. The rest of us stay up and socialize with our hosts, everyone in the neighbourhood flits in and out, helping themselves to the cold beers we brought. We sit cross legged on raised platforms and watch all the action. Fireworks explode overhead, and down by their temple, music blasts as the teenage boys have a dance off, the teenage girls stand around and giggle. Feral dogs bark at imaginary things. Scooters scream up and down the lane leaving clouds of dust.
At one point, the men take our gift chickens and start hacking them up, feathers float by in the wind. They make us delicious fried chicken to snack on. We play an assortment of drinking games, the weirdest one being "spin the chicken head." I guess no part goes to waste around here. Saul gets quite drunk and we laugh our heads off as he tries to translate the official rules of any game we attempt to play. I'm enjoying it all but my guts are still on fire so I excuse myself to retire early. One of the men politely escorts me back in the pitch dark. Our accommodations are simple
Our Homestay homestay
What a lovely place to stay, I had a very good sleep even though I despise being awoke by roosters
huts, raised off the ground on stilts With rickety stairs. When it is super rainy here, I assume the height is a good thing. Each of us is given a mat for the wooden slate floor and some mosquito netting overhead. The long drops and washhouse are outback, next to a tied up cow, we brush our teeth by flashlight. We've technically displaced this family, but they happily sleep in hammocks under their house. The money they receive from us staying with them is equivalent to about one month wages. They constantly thank us with prayer hands. We do the same, as the feeling is mutual.
The next day we head for Phnom Penh. Yay my rumble guts are gone and I’m feeling terrific!
But can I just say, the traffic in this city is stupid mental. Our van is surrounded by some kind of scooter tsunami, it takes hours to crawl a few blocks across the city in stifling heat. At the same time, the Terrorist demands to be put up in a five star hotel. He hasn’t spoken to any of us since yesterday. Saul immediately starts making phone calls to accommodate his demands which are
Attack of the Tourists
The Terrorist bought super soakers for him and the Ostrich and they surprised the Khmer teens and doused them.
ridiculous especially when we are staying at a really nice guesthouse. Our hosts are friendly and the place is clean, trendy, and is in a perfect locale for sightseeing. Oh well, good riddance.
Us girls invite the Hag and Ostrich out to an upscale restaurant alongside the river with an enticing western menu and more importantly, a fantastic perch for people watching. They share a two dollar salad and complain about our trip, and Saul. We try to get them to refocus on the positive parts but they aren’t having any of it. Then they try to stiff the waitress by complaining of hair in salad, goz in drinks, etc. The General and I embarrassingly pay their bill after they leave. That will be the last time we go out of our way to be nice to them. They are terrible people.
Later in the day, Saul arranges for our air conditioned van to pick us up so we can travel in style to the S21.
I don't know why, but I’m surprised by the location of this genocide museum, it is right in the middle of the city and fairly ambiguous, the jagged barbed wire the
We boarded a lopsided boat and took a cruise to see the palace lightshow and fireworks from the water.
only thing that hints to a dark past. As I enter I can feel the pure evil and sadness. But life just carries on around it. The Hag is already whining about the heat and veers off when she spots the audio tour cassettes in different languages. After a debate with her Ostrich over the $3 price, she tells me she would prefer to listen to the recording rather than listen to Saul. Right in front of Saul. I walk away.
Saul puts on his official tour guide shirt and starts to tell us about S21. The Museum is a former high school which was converted into a prison and interrogation center in August 1975 by the Khmer Rouge Regime. The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms were converted into tiny prison cells and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned and later murdered at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
The buildings are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. It is very somber and sad. The pictures of
While touring the site I met one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouges regime, he was humble about his experiences and spoke candidly about his life.
those who were imprisoned have innocent eyes, yet knowingly aware of their upcoming fate. A few Expats also got mixed up in it, and were killed for being spies. In the center courtyard some mature fruit trees provide shade as the birds chirp unmolested. It seems peaceful amongst the bleeping horns and traffic. I spot a man sitting behind a desk and I approach cautiously to read the English sign in front of him. Chum Mey was one of the survivors of this awful place, and has written a memoir. I buy one. I ask him what he thinks about S21 today, he states it’s surreal although he knows it did actually happen. He was kept alive because of his mechanical skills but wonders if he was spared for reasons he may never understand. His book outlines the atrocities he witnessed that haunted him for years. He says he doesn’t dream about that time anymore. Instead, he is trying to live his best life now. I think that's a great lesson for all of us.
The Killing Fields are located farther aloft of the city centre but it has a distinct somberness here, a sadness mixed with the oppressive
Probably one of the most freaky things crossing this bridge but the bamboo is so strong and although you feel like you are going to fall through at any second, you get across.
heat. We assemble under a shady tree. Saul begins to explain the significance of this empty field. Choeung Ek has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims. The utmost respect is given through tribute sections throughout the park. Dozens of mass graves are visible above ground and many which have not been excavated yet. Commonly, teeth and clothing surface after heavy rainfalls due to the large number of bodies still buried in shallow mass graves.
The Hag yawns loudly then wanders off to a bench, the Ostrich dutifully follows. I have no idea where the Terrorist is, he disappeared after being reprimanded earlier for taking pictures at the S21, and for going out-of-bounds here at the park. Saul pleads with us to stick together so he doesn't have to repeat himself, and right on queue the Terrorist pops up and demands Saul repeat his whole spiel. It’s a no. The Terrorist starts to pout and stamp his feet until Imelda yanks his earlobe and whispers some kind of threat into it. Not one more word is uttered by the Terrorist.
Saul finds another shady spot and we gather around to hear his life story.
Long Tail boat heaven
On Bamboo Island, we parked the beast and spend the day enjoying the lovely beach
He was born somewhere in the jungle while his mother was on the run from the regime. They had killed her husband for pretending to be a farmer when he was actually an engineer. She was in trouble for not reporting her husband as a traitor, so she left her daughter with a cousin and walked from Kampong Cham to Battenbong nine months pregnant. She ate bugs and drank rainwater. After giving birth to Saul, she stumbled into a Red Cross encampment for help.
Saul says his earliest memory was of his mother showing a picture of her daughter to any new aid worker that came to the camp. One day in frustration he said to his mother, "You need to stop. She's lost." His mother reluctantly agreed but said she would ask one more person and then she would never ask anyone again. The aid worker she approached took one look at the photo and said, "Yes! I know this woman. She lives in Battenbong." There was a reunion shortly after and Saul and his mother eventually moved into the daughter's home, she was married with children by then. The daughter told how she ran away from
Most of the elderly Khmers watched in amusement as the younger ones doused themselves in talc and water
the cousin's home after she found out that he had been the one who reported her father to the Khmer Rouge in a jealous, drunken fit. She believed her mother was alive and they would reunite in Battenbong, and they did. The Hag and Ostrich scoff and mutter under their breath that his story is a crock of shit sympathy grab, and loudly demand that Saul just get on with the tour.
Saul shakes his head sadly and indicates with his hand and in a whisper that he believes his father may be buried here in these mounds of dirt. I am stunned. Saul wipes his eyes with his scarf and walks off.
Back in Phnom Pehn we spend our evenings on the riverfront eating local food and using tuk tuks to zip around to the different tourist sites. We even hire a top heavy riverboat for a little starlight cruise. Again, everything is super pleasant because there are no bugs, and although it’s sweltering there is a bit of a hot breeze coming off the waterway. One of the evenings, the Kid and I are waiting for his mom at a local café when some lady boys
Always a lifeguard
Can't help but lifeguard in any situation. Especially when the whole reef is covered in sea urchins. Only one casualty.
notice the handsome feller and sashay up to say hello to us. At first, he's flattered and puts on his best Australian machismo and tries to pick them up. I smirk with amusement to see how long it takes for him to realize. Suddenly he goes all beet-red, comes off his seat and runs down the street. They all burst out laughing with me, and I buy them all an iced coffee. You can't get that kind of amusement if you plan it.
Our Cambodian experience ends in the seaside town of Sihanoukville, named after the King’s family. The air goes from popcorn fart dry to muggy and thick, indicating tropical coastland is immanent. Our hotel is a fancy 3+ with a pool but we all run like lunatics to the ocean so we can frolic on the miles and miles of white sand gloriousness before the day ends.
Unfortunately, the strip is an absolute disaster zone. I guess with New Years in full swing and the beach jam packed, no one is too worried about cleanliness. Garbage is piled everywhere and the smell of rotten fish and urine is so overwhelming you can't help but gag. As
The Killing Tree
How the Khmer Rouge killed the babies and small children? Why hurl them against a tree, of course. Oh my heart.
the ocean turbulently crashes in all muddy and full of plastic, kids play in the shallows as feces spews from an overflowing sewer. Aggressive nail polish girls chase me as I gingerly step over swill. I'm going to get a weird infection just from walking barefoot. Each establishment on the beach is crammed full of Khmer holidaymakers with some kind of death wish.
As the sun sets, thousands of Papa San chairs with stained cushions are oddly arranged on the filthy beach. Seriously hungover expats make a beeline for them, as the music gets louder and louder. The crowd gathering is a mix of vacationing Europeans, a few manbun overstays in elephant patterned clown pants and matching dreadlocked girlfriends. Fat Russians leisurely lounge while being rubbed down by young Khmer girls and pale Brits scorched like lobsters are peering out from the shacks before they gingerly emerge.
We take up position in the center of it all and have a wonderful seafood dinner while blending into the building ambiance. Tourists buy gigantic fireworks and light them off uncomfortably close to our table. The street kids wind their way amongst the chairs looking for things they can snatch. Women
Well why not? They are pretty cute and fuzzy though, so I wasn't happy about eating one. I did anyways.
with tiny BBQ's balanced by wood on their shoulders offer squid on a stick for a few interested patrons. It's all stimulus overload.
It's Saul's birthday the following day and he has booked us a private boat so that we can cruise around the islands and snorkel. We are so excited. Then the Terrorist drops out and the Hag tries to ruin our plan by saying she found a cheaper boat tour and therefore won’t be going either. We all agree to pay our captain a few dollars more so the trip is back on. The Hag is foiled.
Our day was absolutely perfect. We are dropped on the golden beach of Bamboo Island. The ocean was so warm under the overcast skies that we played monkey-in-the-middle and volleyball in waist deep water for hours. It’s just us, but a few locals join in. After a lunch of BBQ fish and salad, we raise anchor and go snorkeling around a few interesting coves. The conditions are perfect, no jellyfish, the water is crystal clear and reefs interesting. We bob on our lifejackets, drink beer, and chat. Unfortunately, there are telltale signs of a dying ecosystem in these parts,
Museum in PP
A fascinating walk through the eras and dynasty's that ruled this area. So much of their artifacts are damaged or broken. A place to store these items is definitely necessary.
we see troller boats, and I know with the amount of spiny sea urchins that cover the reefs, it has been severely overfished here. We all wave at the Hag and Ostrich as they go by in an overcapacity party boat, they look miserable amongst the twenty somethings dancing to techno and puking over the side.
Tomorrow I go to Vietnam. I’m excited to see a new country. Best part, no more Hag and the Terrorist. We put on our brave faces one more time because Saul has committed us to having his birthday dinner with them. The Terrorist and Imelda are a no show, and the Hag storms off in a huff with the Ostrich when she realizes Saul didn’t reserve a table at the cheap restaurant she told him about.
We secretly exhale and carry on to have a wonderful birthday celebration for Saul, complete with cake, sparklers, silly string, drink buckets, and many beer towers. We feed the begging children leftover cake, and set off gigantic fireworks, and clink together our glasses in thanks and cheers to Saul for the many fun adventures in Cambodia.
Weeks later I get a panicked email from Saul.
Capital of Cambodia
Phnom Penh was a bustling interesting city with lots of monuments and statues. Seeing them from tuk tuk was an extra special experience
The Hag has lodged a complaint with the tour company demanding he be fired immediately. The General, Ant, the Kid, me and the German girls all counter with our own complaints against the Hag and the Terrorist. The tour company sides with us and drops the disciplinary action, and Saul gets his job back.
I think from now on, I'm going to travel solo.
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