A Treatise on Coups and Khmers

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Asia » Cambodia
November 3rd 2006
Published: November 3rd 2006
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Chiang Mai, Thailand

September 21, 2006

Sean: Being a political science hobbyist, the idea that I would happen to be in a country during such a major government upheaval as a military led coup d’etat makes my heart run aflutter. To be present for history-in-the-making is not only thrilling, but a far cry from our usual modus operandi of arriving places and witnessing the past. I don’t have a death wish, mind you, and have no desire to antagonize armed troops passing by in their Hummers toting M16’s (the Thai military is rolling with US made stock, by the way), but I find this sort of thing quite interesting.

Having said that, I’ve got to tell you that the Thai coup of September 2006 has been pretty boring - a comfort, I’m sure, to our loved ones back home - but boring nevertheless. The indifferent people aren’t terribly upset that democracy has been suspended and martial law declared. The King, while only the head of state, garners much praise (this is actually an understatement; the people worship him) and he seems decidedly unruffled by all of these goings-on, so this has set the tone for the people. His support for the controlling general and the affirmation that this will lead to elections shortly, has also succored the masses.

To add to the benignancy of the situation (or at least the perception of it) the group that led the coup, in their official statement, even stated:

We ask for the cooperation of the public and ask your pardon for the inconvenience.

How thoughtful.

All well and dandy I suppose, unless you’re the one guy who is actually highly inconvenienced by this whole awkward affair - the gentleman who is now unemployed - the (former) Prime Minster Thaksin Chinnawat.

Scratching a little deeper and you find out that this is the 18th coup that has occurred in Thailand since 1932 (the last being in 1990). Perhaps this is why the people just seem to have taken this all in stride, especially here in the north where we are. In fact, the day after power was wrested from the previous leaders, the tourism economic engine barely sputtered and kept running as smoothly as a brand new Mercedes. Having just arrived in Chiang Mai, we were planning on taking another cooking class. Not only did the class proceed as planned, but there was nary a ruffled brow among our teachers as we discussed
Cooking Class DishesCooking Class DishesCooking Class Dishes

These were our morning dishes: fish cakes, chicken in green curry, tom yam soup, cashew chicken with peppers, fish souffle and rice. As if that wasn't enough, we still cooked 3 more dishes after lunch.
pad thai and local politics, both fairly calming subjects that never elicited a strong response. As long as the king was A-O-K, had given his blessing and assured future elections, then life would go on as usual. This seemed to be the unanimous opinion.

So, while CNN was gravely reporting on the political ramifications from this interesting coup business, we took our second cooking class on this trip. We had spent the previous day scoping out the different cooking schools in Chiang Mai (it’s a big business here, so there are several) and as they all offer pretty much the same format, we chose the school based on that day’s menu.

Just like in Laos, we were taken to the market in the morning (unlike last time, though when we had the instructors all to ourselves, we had to share this time with two other Australian girls). And compared to our class in Luang Prabang, this was a highly efficient and slick operation. Not that we felt cheated, but the instructors here have been teaching these same dishes daily for years and there were a ton of helpers around who already cut everything up for you. All you had to do was man your wok and dump in the ingredients as you were instructed. Very, very easy…almost too easy.

Shannon: Personally, I find chopping food something of a ‘zen’ activitiy - relaxing and it takes very little thought. So in that respect, I wouldn’t have minded a cooking class that let me do everything for myself. But the tradeoff was that, by having the ingredients all prepared ahead of time, they were able to demonstrate more dishes than if they had let us slow-poke novices do it ourselves. Just like our previous experience, we had a great time preparing a huge feast for ourselves: 8 dishes in all, plus we made our own green curry paste and had a short lesson on making garnishes - it’s all about presentation after all. On the whole, the class was an extremely good value. And the trip to the market was - again - so helpful. I learned so much about Thai ingredients (who knew that they had so many different kinds of eggplant??).

Sean: We learned a lot (at least I did) and it was hoot to be mixing up all our food for the day. I couldn’t

The coolest looking fruit on the planet (dragon fruit comes in second).
even finish all the stuff I cooked for myself (if you can believe that).

The main reason we actually popped into Thailand from Laos (instead of going straight into Cambodia) was to see a good friend of ours from New Orleans who is vacationing here for a few weeks. Scott (not our other good friend Scott, who we met up with in Korea) was taking a well deserved break from the hectic shipbuilding industry in southern Louisiana by wandering through the Land of a Million Smiles. We caught up to each other here in Chiang Mai and saw the limited sights of the town while catching up over noodle dishes and numerous cups of coffee. We hadn’t seen him since the Wicked Witch of the East, Katrina, barreled through the gulf and flooded the city we used to call home, so it was really good to run into him here. We also got to find out how much truth there is in the news reports covering the one-year anniversary of the now infamous hurricane from someone who is still living in the City that Care Forgot. Scott had hooked up with another traveler, Don, in the weeks before he met us, and the four of us spent some interesting hours chatting about all manner of topics. Needless to say we had a great time.

Bangkok, Thailand

September 25, 2006 (Happy Birthday, Ma)

Sean: We’ve spent the last few days in Bangkok, and to be perfectly honest, haven’t been all that impressed. Bangkok has become (and for the better for its residents) a typical, high-rise business center in the heart of Asia. Now I’m all for countries and cities improving their standard of living, so I’m not going to bemoan some arbitrarily defined “lost” character that the city doesn’t seem to have anymore, but it is a bit dismaying that its as pricey as it is. As an example, I tried haggling with a market seller on the famed Kho San Road (the historic, quintessential center of the entire backpacker universe) but she just wouldn’t come down at all. I tried explaining that the prices for her clothes were more expensive than back in the States, but she wouldn’t believe me. I guess she’s never heard of Old Navy.

Shannon: Perspective is everything, and in this case, ours has been colored by the much nicer experiences
No Shortage of Grilled CalamariNo Shortage of Grilled CalamariNo Shortage of Grilled Calamari

Served cut up with a killer chili sauce. Fantastic.
we had in Chiang Mai. For instance, there we found a really nice place to stay for 250 baht (less than $7). Arriving in Bangkok and looking around, we finally settled on a place for 800 baht. It’s an OK place, but nothing to write home about and doesn’t have nearly the amenities that the other place had. Coupled with higher food prices and average-attractions, let’s just say that Bangkok’s charm has eluded us so far.

Sean: This sort of economic growth happens everywhere (I’m sure China will someday be considered an expensive destination), but with costs being higher than in other parts of the country (and without an appreciable rise in value), Bangkok seems like it’s a ‘skippable’ city to us. Having said that, though, it is a great travel hub for the region and you can get some amazingly cheap airfares to just about anywhere so we’re planning on using this burg as a center for our explorations into the adjoining countries.

Buriram, Thailand

September 28, 2006

Shannon Putting Bangkok in the rear-view mirror, we’ve now traveled almost to within spitting distance of Cambodia to a smallish-town called Buriram, located on Thailand’s eastern border
Phnom RungPhnom RungPhnom Rung

The detail - like other Khmer temples - is absolutely amazing.
between the two countries. Before we make the leap into the heartland of the Khmer empire, we decided to warm up the camera with a smaller Angkor-era attraction: Phnom Rung. Built over a period of time between the 10th and 13th centuries, this was one of several far-flung temples brought to us by the builders of Angkor Wat. As we learned in Laos, the Khmer Empire ruled over a huge expanse of mainland south-east Asia and encompassed almost all of present-day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia as well as a good part of Vietnam. The main temple building at Phnom Rung was built in the heyday of the empire, and thanks to a 17 year restoration effort, is one of the best preserved Khmer-era buildings anywhere.

Phnom Rung is situated on the top of an extinct volcano, a fact that seems to be highlighted in just about every piece of literature written about the place. That description conjures up romantic visions of a temple set amid an ancient fire-spewing crater, perhaps not still smoldering, but surely very atmospheric. The reality is a bit less dramatic: from the surrounding plains, you arrive at the temple grounds after a short drive up
Separated at BirthSeparated at BirthSeparated at Birth

Roadside Americana meets ancient Khmer statuary at Phnom Rung.
a modest hill. It’s a nice hill, granted, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed after the buildup. Still, though the setting was a bit over-hyped, the temple was worth seeing.

There is a very good museum on site which, among other things, explains the process that the Thais used in their restoration work. In the centuries between when the temple complex was built and 1971, when restoration work began, Phnom Rung had fallen into serious disrepair. Many of the temple buildings had collapsed, the site was overgrown and filled with debris, and some of the most impressive sculptures had been looted. After meticulously cataloging and coding every stone, the restoration group completely disassembled what remained and then set about building new foundations. Once that was complete, the giant puzzle was reassembled and strengthened where necessary. Hidden beams and columns now carry the weight where needed, but unless you look very closely, you would never know it. For engineering and construction geeks such as ourselves, we thought it was pretty interesting. It reminded me a bit of the incredible work the Egyptians did moving whole temples to higher ground in anticipation of the flooding from the High
The Good Part of the Road to Siem ReapThe Good Part of the Road to Siem ReapThe Good Part of the Road to Siem Reap

Cambodia has 12,323 miles of roadway according to the World Fact Book. Only 1,996 of it is paved. Under the heading "Highways from Hell?" our guidebook says "Cambodia has long been home to the most miserable road system in Asia". Gee, no kidding.
Dam at Aswan. Very cool stuff.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

September 30, 2006

Shannon: At some point on our 5 hour trip from the Thailand border yesterday Sean and I looked at each other and said, “Sometime in the future we’ll look back on this and laugh.” The word ‘future’ being the operative word in that sentence because at the time we were anything but amused.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up to the beginning.

Our goal yesterday was to cross over from Thailand into Cambodia, and good luck prevailing, hopefully make it all the way to Siem Reap by nightfall. As I’ve read in numerous other travelers’ reports, Cambodia doesn’t exactly make a great first impression: the border officials are notoriously unscrupulous and the roads vary from passable (your standards quickly diminish) to unbelievably bad (in the rainy season it’s not unusual to be asked to get out and push when your vehicle gets bogged down in the mud). We chose to hop over the border not far from Phnom Rung at a little-used border crossing (between Chom Jom on the Thai side and O’Smach on the Cambodian). We knew that
Rice PaddiesRice PaddiesRice Paddies

With 5 hours to do nothing but stare out the window, this was a pretty familiar sight.
this would probably be a bit of a mixed bag - as relatively few foreigners cross here, we figured the border guards would be less-likely to use the high-pressure extortion tactics common at other crossings, but the road leading into Cambodia might be a bit worse than the well-used Poipet crossing further west (and scam-central, according to what we have read).

Getting to the border from the Thai side was a piece of cake, as traveling in Thailand seems to be (we’ve decided that there really isn’t much street cred to traveling through Thailand; it’s really just too easy). Two bus trips, both simple to complete, took us from where we were staying in Buriram to Surin and then to the border with Cambodia. Formalities on the Thai side were an in-and-out-in-less-than-a-minute type efficiency. It took us a bit longer on the Cambodian side, as there was the inevitable request for a bribe.

Cambodian border guards are known for trying to extract a little extra money for themselves; perhaps their government pay is too meager and they therefore feel “forced” to do this, or maybe they’re just greedy, I have no idea. But here’s how it works: The
This Little Piggy Went to Market...This Little Piggy Went to Market...This Little Piggy Went to Market...

Sean and I were pretty amused to see this sight, which actually turned out to be fairly common in Cambodia. I guess it keeps them from moving around...
official rate to get your visa on arrival at the border is $20, payable in US dollars. In the past, border guards would make up their own prices and travelers were either forced to argue the point or resign themselves to paying whatever rate was quoted. Officials in Phnom Penh have cracked down on this - correctly sensing that shaking down tourists was bad for the country’s image - by clearly posting the prices at the border crossings. So that forced the border guards to get a little creative: they will now try to get you to pay in Thai baht, figuring that most people will either not know the proper exchange rate or won’t have any US dollars on them so will just pay whatever is asked. I’ve heard of them asking for as much as 3,000 baht ($77) but 1,000-1,400 baht ($26-36) seems to be the most common.

This is a pretty well-known routine, easy to find out about if you do even a little bit of research, so rather than argue what the real rate should be in baht, we came prepared with some good ‘ole US greenbacks. Sean and I approached the Cambodian visa window,
Cambodian Gas StationCambodian Gas StationCambodian Gas Station

I guess Johnny Walker bottles are exactly a liter because they're very popular as petrol containers.
filled out our paperwork and began the conversation on payment:

Cambodian Border Guard: “Cambodian visa is 1,000 baht”
Sean: “How much in U.S. dollars?”
Border Guard: “No pay in U.S. dollars - pay in baht.”
Sean (lying): “I don’t have any baht. We just changed our money on the Thai side, so all I have are U.S. dollars.”
Border Guard (a bit insistent now): “No, you pay in baht.”
Sean: “I don’t have baht, just U.S. dollars. How much in dollars?”
Border Guard: “$25 for visa.”
Sean (pointing to sign): “But the sign says a visa is $20.”
Border Guard (after a pause): “OK. But maybe you give me $5 for drinks.”
Sean (handing over $40 for the two visas): “No. No more money. Sorry.”

Sean: The guy asked for the $5 with a bit of a sheepish grin - a last ditch effort to make a little extra. I guess I don’t blame him for attempting to augment his skimpy paycheck (I read that public sector employees make around $20 per month), but certainly armed with this tidbit learned from other travelers and the internet, we weren’t going to voluntarily part with any extra dinero.

Fill 'er UpFill 'er UpFill 'er Up

Gassing up the tuk-tuk. Will that be two bottles of Johnny Walker or one?
that wasn’t even the most interesting part of the day.

When we completed the border formalities we were ushered over to the only taxi for miles (brought from somewhere magical just for us - I’m sure there’s a queue of them out of sight around the corner), where, after some hard bargaining that included our feint at setting out on foot, we got him down to $40 - the going rate according to some of the information we read. A bit pricey to go the roughly 100 miles, but this is Cambodia; there’s not much you can do about it.

It was the next 5 hours that made the day something for the record books. The “road” was one washed out, rutted and horribly pitted dirt track that lasted 5 agonizing, bone jarring, stomach lurching hours.

Shannon: I had read that the road was pretty bad, and indeed it became a jolting, pitted dirt surface literally within feet of the border crossing. What I didn’t realize was that it was only going to get worse: where we started out swerving around puddles and bumping across the washboard texture, we would later contend with sections so washed out that local entrepreneurs had fashioned “bridges” (jumbles of wood covered with a few planks) over the most egregious areas and were collecting “tolls” to cross. (A few of the more cheeky souls were even attempting to charge to cross the obviously-government built bridges). Flipping one of the toll operators a 500 riel note (about $0.12) was enough for them to remove the obstruction in the middle of the “bridge” to let you pass, so it seemed like a well-known system and our driver had come obviously prepared with a nice stack of these bills.

But the paltry excitement that came with these few diversions deflated quickly each time and all that was left in their wake was the constant gripping of the door handles and seats while trying not to hit our heads as we continuously bounced around in the back seat. Starting out from the border, it first seemed to be something of an adventure. It didn’t take long for our bemused smiles at the state of the road, though, to turn into resigned glances as we tried to deal with the tedium of traveling over surfaces too jarring to do anything but hang on and look out the window at the passing rice fields. And I kept searching my memory - did someone else say they did this trip in 5 hours? Or was it 7? What time of year was that - the rainy season, or the dry? Amazing to me was the fact that we were attempting these roads - not in a 4 wheel drive vehicle, mind you - but in a Toyota Camry. What started out as something that seemed fairly expensive ($40) now seemed almost cheap, considering how much damage this trip was obviously doing to this guy’s car.

Sean: Our Thai driver drove like a possessed demon seemingly trying to best whatever record there is for this rally event. We didn’t mind even though we were flying around the back of the car (the seatbelts must’ve been an expensive option he chose not to indulge in because they were nonexistent). As uncomfortable as it was, it had the effect of “ripping the band-aid off quickly”. There certainly wasn’t any complaining from your two favorite protagonists as we didn’t feel the experience warranted a stop-and-smell-the-roses type outlook. It still sucked though and the five hours seemed interminable. The Japanese sure know
Angkor Wat in 1:25 ScaleAngkor Wat in 1:25 ScaleAngkor Wat in 1:25 Scale

An extremely nice guy, he spoke no English, but was so excited about showing us his painstaking replicas of the town's architectural treasures.
how to build a good Camry, but I don’t think this one is going to make too many more trips with our guy at the wheel. Every few minutes I kept thinking that the rear axle must have separated in protest that time.

The last hour was on NH6, one of the country’s major east-west highways. Even though it would more appropriately be called a “country lane” back in the States, at least there was some asphalt and the remaining dirt sections had been recently graded.

Finally arriving in Siem Reap was a huge relief.

September 30, 2006

Sean: Sobering…sad…heartbreaking: How else to describe our visit to the Landmine Museum of Siem Reap?

Aki Ra, the proprietor, started life as a soldier. Unsure of his date of birth (but thinking it was sometime in 1973 - the same as mine), he came of age knowing nothing but war, famine and hardship. After the Khmer Rouge killed his parents for “simple crimes” at around the age of five, he was taught to lay landmines, rig booby traps, and fire rocket launchers by the local wing of the national militia. At the age of ten, he was given his own gun and became a soldier for the Khmer Army to fight against the Vietnamese. When the Vietnamese finally overran this region in his 14th year, he was given the choice of fighting for them, or being killed - a simple decision. Now taking up arms against the Khmer Rouge (his old army) he remained with that outfit until the Vietnamese pullout in 1990. At that time he was again conscripted, but this time into the new Cambodian People’s military to continue fighting the last pockets of Khmer Rouge resistance. It wasn’t until 1993, with the arrival of UN blue helmets that he turned his war fighting expertise into peaceful purposes by aiding the international forces in clearing the multitude of landmines that had been laid by the different faction over the years (he himself had laid many of these mines during his disjointed military experiences). Vowing to try to “make his land safe for his people”, he has continued to clear the land of ordinance well after the UN-supported operations concluded. All this finally culminated in 1999, with the opening of his museum - complete with the casings of thousands upon thousands of ordnance pieces he’s defused in his life.

Reading his biography it’s one long adversity after another and he tells of the indescribable horrors his people had to endure under the Khmer Rouge regime. I hate paraphrasing his story, because I can’t come close to evoking the sadness and absolute horrors he learned were “normal”. While I was watching “Fraggle Rock” and riding bikes with my neighborhood friends, he watched a man be disemboweled in front of his family for taking a banana from a tree (all onlookers were made to cheer and clap as well - no crying allowed). If you’ve got a few minutes you can read his amazing story here.

Unfortunately, as they state at the museum, the landmines that litter the country have never honored the current peaceful atmosphere and don’t discriminate between soldier and civilian. Our tour guide, Poiy, a friendly and smiling 16 year old, was matter of fact about his own missing leg as he easily maneuvered around the grounds educating Shannon and I in the ways of incapacitating an opposing army’s personnel. Without a social security net in a country full of rampant poverty, he’s been taken in by Aki Ra (as have many child landmine victims) to make a living working at the museum and
Dangers UncoveredDangers UncoveredDangers Uncovered

At the mine museum, Aki Ra has set up a fenced area with some non-lethal ordinance to show how anti-troop measures can be effectively hidden from view. Now imagine walking through this at night.
receive an education. He quietly described all aspects of mine laying, from proper placement, to activation, to defusing and then even told us his story - an all too common tale of a ten year old child running through the jungle after a heavy rain and then waking up in his father’s arms being rushed to the hospital. Not surprisingly, he has no recollection of the event, but vividly remembers being rejected by the nurses because his father had no money. He was then taken back home where his father performed the life saving surgery - with a saw - to remove the protruding bone, stem the blood loss and treat the wound.

An all-too common reality in this country.

Shannon: For an extremely humble museum - nothing fancier than papers tacked up on the walls of a small wooden building - you can hardly forget the experience once you’ve been there. Walking into the small grounds, you see a handful of young kids, all with missing limbs, mingling with the tourists. Like our experience with Poiy, most visitors get a short guided tour of the grounds from one of them. They show you the different types of
Mines, Mines, MinesMines, Mines, MinesMines, Mines, Mines

The modest interior of the museum.
land mines and other booby traps, of which there are no shortage of examples lying around. Aki Ra has cleared thousands of mines, a small portion of which are strewn about in heaps. And hearing the personal stories of the kids is poignant, to say the least.

But as sad and powerful as our visit was, it wasn’t as depressing as many people would imagine it to be, considering the circumstances. Cambodia has no shortage of land mine victims - even one day in the country is enough to tell you that. Somewhere between 6 and 10 million land mines are still buried in the countryside, in a country that is slightly smaller than Oklahoma. Years of conflict and many different armies put them there; removing them takes time and money. Progress is being made, but it’s slow. You can measure it in the statistics of the victims: a decade ago, 300 people a month were killed or injured by land mines; today it has decreased to about 25-40 people per month. It’s a legacy of the wars that ripped through this country and leads to a dubious claim to fame: Cambodia has one of the highest number of amputees per capita (about 1 in 275 people).

And for many (most, perhaps) an already difficult life is made that much more challenging by a disability. Many of these victims won’t have much of a future in a country that is incapable of providing for their basic medical needs, much less their livelihood or education. But a visit to the Land Mine Museum demonstrates that the situation doesn’t have to be hopeless: one man - starting with nothing more than a bit of training from the UN in mine clearing - is making a real difference. Starting out by clearing mines, then branching out by building a modest museum, he’s now opened his home to a dozen or more kids affected by land mines. They work part-time at the museum, earn money by receiving tips, and go to school. Through his contacts with other aid organizations and tourists that have visited the museum, Aki Ra has also secured donations to send each of them to college in the future, provided that they meet the minimum requirements. And most of all, the kids seem happy. After showing Sean and I around, Poiy’s shy demeanor changed to that of a boisterous teenager as he joined in a scrappy volleyball game being played by the other kids.

A visit to the museum shows you a lot of things: you learn about the scope of the land mine problem in Cambodia, but are also able to put a human face on the tragedy. Too often, it’s easier to try to ignore those that make us uncomfortable, to pretend that they don’t exist as we walk down the street. But after meeting one survivor, I would guess that most people see things quite differently after they leave. Whether or not people choose to give something to the amputees they will undoubtedly see asking for money in the streets later is a personal choice. But if nothing else, it might enable people to look past the missing limb and see the person standing there.

October 4, 2006

Sean: So other than the scrappy little landmine museum, why go to all this trouble just to get to some backwater town in the middle of South East Asia? The answer: to see one of the most amazing temple complexes in the world; unrivaled ancient architecture that transports you to another era.

Stone FacedStone FacedStone Faced

Being monochromatic the faces are famously difficult to convey in 2 dimensions. Take our word for it that they were amazing.
Machu Picchu is to South America, the Pyramids to Africa; so Angkor Wat is to South East Asia.

We spent the last three days exploring the vast (a gross understatement) collection of Angkor (Khmer) era temples and can only say it is one of the most astounding sites on the planet. It’s nice to know that even after all this traveling we’re not so jaded as to be unaffected by what we’ve seen in the last three days.

Shannon: What amazed me the most was the shear size of the area containing the temples. Built over a period of more than 400 years, the successive rulers of the Khmer empire kept adding and expanding the area to contain dozens of major temples and many more minor ones. Angkor Wat is the most famous (colloquially lending its name to the entire area) and is indeed huge all by itself. But taken as a whole, the site is enormous. The park offers 1 day, 3 day and weeklong passes, but one day isn’t enough to see much.

Sean: We bought the three day ticket (40 bucks each) and headed out on bicycles to explore the extents of this city
Reading at Ta ProhmReading at Ta ProhmReading at Ta Prohm

I was just waiting for Shannon to get done taking pictures in this courtyard when I realized that I'd become part of a composition.
of the ancients. It’s an expansive place to investigate on a bike, but the region is as flat as a pancake and, with an absence of other pressing engagements, is a pleasantly serene way to take it all in.

On our first day, we set off at 6am to catch some of the sites before they became too crowded and pedaled off to explore.

Shannon: In the days when people still traveled with steamer trunks and valets, the choice way of getting between the major temples was atop an elephant. Over time, a ‘Grand Circuit’ and ‘Petite Circuit’ developed, depending on how much time the visitor had. Nowadays the elephants are mostly gone, except for the obligatory rides through the gates of Angkor Tom for the “I don’t care how much it costs, I came all this way and I’m damn well going to have my picture taken on an elephant” photo for those disgorging themselves from their air conditioned tour buses. And who am I to rain on their parade? They got their requisite picture and still probably beat us to some of the choice temples, as we pedaled along and choked on their fumes.

Front Gate of Angkor WatFront Gate of Angkor WatFront Gate of Angkor Wat

The amazingly large complex isn't even visible from this vantage.
wasn’t quite that bad, though. As Sean said, the terrain is flat and being under our own steam was a nice way to spend the day. And as we got further and further out of the mess of congestion around the “central” temples, there were fewer tour buses to contend with.

Sean: We read one account from the late 1800’s of a team that took 17 days to reach Siem Reap from Bangkok then hopped aboard their elephants for the hour journey to the temples. As two wheeled terrors, it only took us about 15 minutes to get to the main concentration of temples that include Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and a ton of other smaller shrines.

Shannon: We started out fairly small, visiting a few of the minor temples first. As the day wore on, though, and the crowds definitely started to thicken, we decided to abandon our ‘slow and steady’ approach in favor of more of a ‘tour group’ mentality. If you can’t beat them, why not join them, right? Frustrated by the hordes standing in every spot worth taking a picture, we decided to cast aside any notion of photography for the remainder of the
Along the Causeway to Angkor WatAlong the Causeway to Angkor WatAlong the Causeway to Angkor Wat

This picture doesn't convey how enormous this temple really is.
day and concentrated instead on doing a whirlwind tour of the temples. We scoped out the good shots worth coming back to in the days ahead and noted which ones we probably wouldn’t come back to at all. With all of the energy we had, we managed to cover the entire Grand Circuit in one day - and logged almost 40 kilometers on our bicycles that day. It was a long day, obviously, but well worth it.

Sean: On the second day, we again rented bikes and got out even earlier to make it to some of the previous day’s favorites before the tour busses arrived (it doesn’t take long because they get up pretty early, too). Firstly, Ta Prohm (being our number one) warranted the most early morning attention. With its temple in ruins and stones now intertwined with tree roots, it is the most picturesque and has the most ambience. Definitely worth the lost sleep as there were only a couple of other people milling about and the lighting really was better on this sunny morning. We were up with the serious photographers (big tripods, and even bigger lenses) so we knew we were doing something right.
Serious PhotographySerious PhotographySerious Photography

Up early with the big dogs.
Ta Prohm is what I think of when I hear “Angkor Wat”. Sure the actual Angkor Wat is impressively huge and in great shape, but it is Ta Prohm, tucked back into the jungle and overrun by banyan trees, that really takes you to another time and place. Over the ages the roots have become integral to the structures and so even if you wanted to clear them away, you couldn’t do it without the buildings crumbling - thankfully because that’s part of the charm.

We can’t delude ourselves enough to feel like the early explorers, trotting around on elephants, and hacking back the jungle with machetes, but just sitting there soaking it all up you can allow yourself to feel that your seeing something magical - under the heavy canopy, in the early morning mist, staring at the aged grey stones intertwined with the stark white banyan roots, you know that you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Shannon: The remainder of the day was spent burning up the rubber on our bicycle tires as we visited temples we had skipped over the day before. Though most of them follow roughly the same layout, they all vary enough
Behind the Scenes at Banteay SreiBehind the Scenes at Banteay SreiBehind the Scenes at Banteay Srei

Preserving the haphazard lean of the walls.
to have their own personalities. Most have been meticulously restored by different groups (not only here, but everywhere in this country there seems to be a “This work brought to you by…” sign on everything - the temples at Angkor Wat, roads, bridges, etc. We’ve even seen signs outside people’s houses saying something to the effect of “This home built with funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Joe Samaritan from Cleveland, Ohio”. It makes you feel like everything in this country has been donated. Maybe it has.) A few of the temples, though, have been stabilized but not restored, such as at Ta Prohm. There nature has been left to it’s own devices, giving the effect of stumbling into some Indiana Jones-like atmosphere. It was for this reason that the directors of Tomb Raider chose Ta Prohm as a setting for the movie. We haven’t seen it, but will probably rent it just for that reason when we finally arrive back home.

Sean: On our last day we decided to forego the extra exercise and take the day in style by hiring a tuk-tuk (carriages towed by a little motorcycle). It was quite comfortable and worth it because our first stop was to one of the more remote (but no less popular) temples about 16 miles from town. Banteay Srei has some of the best bas-reliefs of any of the temples and is beautiful because of it. It faces east (as do the majority of buildings here) so the early morning light was phenomenal.

Shannon: Afterwards, we decided to take it easy. Two full days of temple-watching left us a bit tired; instead of going full-throttle for the last day, we took it easy, saw a few of our favorites again, and ate a leisurely lunch at one of the overpriced restaurant shacks set up to feed tourists.

As always, it’s hard to convey in words exactly what the experience is of seeing some of these monumental works of ancient engineering. As we’ve pointed you to before, there is an excellent website called World Heritage Tour, which has some excellent panographies of many of the different temples. Check them out if you have time.

Some final thoughts on Cambodia up to this point: We’ve been in this country for less than a week, but it doesn’t take very long for a visitor to been confronted with the reality
Bas Reliefs of Banteay SreiBas Reliefs of Banteay SreiBas Reliefs of Banteay Srei

The amount of detail is stunning.
of some very real poverty. Indeed, unless your being ferried literally everywhere in a tour bus and never leave your hotel property, you can’t escape being approached by all manner of people desperate to either sell you something or looking for charity. The most insistent of these are the kids: with huge brown eyes, they implore you at the temples and on the streets of Siem Reap to buy something: postcards, tee-shirts, scarves, bracelets, books, etc. (Note: due to a variety of factors 35%!o(MISSING)f Cambodia’s population is under 14 years old, compared with only 20%!i(MISSING)n the US. 40%!o(MISSING)f the population lives below the poverty line, compared with 12%!i(MISSING)n the US.) It’s not that Cambodia is the poorest country in the region (neighbor Laos is certainly not doing appreciably better), but the poverty here is so much more visible thanks to the large number of visitors coming to see Angkor Wat. Laos, by comparison, has no large tourist attraction; hence, in my opinion, there is less reason for people to relocate to the larger cities to try to earn money from the tourist trade; rather, more people stay in the country and continue to eke out a life through subsistence farming.

There’s no escaping it, and as always, it’s hard to know what to do when confronted with this kind of poverty. Over the past days, I’ve watched the multitude of reactions people have to it: some choose to ignore it and try to pretend it doesn’t exist. Others acknowledge it but wave it off. Others give what they are comfortable with, in whatever way they can. I’m not making ANY sort of judgment. Faced with the kind of poverty we don’t have to live with (as evidenced by the fact that we’re traveling at all), it’s something that very few of us have any sort of personal experience with, and out of our comfort zone, it makes us uncomfortable. There is no ‘right’ response.

But there is no doubting that life is pretty hard for a lot of people in Cambodia and that there are some real needs not being met. One particular instance stands out in the last few days to illustrate the point. One evening, after a hard day pedaling ourselves around the temples, we stopped to grab some food at the marketplace. Ordering some noodles and then eating a bit, we decided that we were pretty tired and asked for take-away boxes so that we could eat the rest at our guesthouse. Stopping a few blocks away to buy some water and a few other items, I watched the bikes while Sean purchased the things at a small supermarket. While he was inside the store, I noticed a little boy - maybe 4 or 5 years old - watching me from a short distance away. I don’t know what his story was, but he was alone and didn’t appear to have anyone watching over him. After observing me for a minute or so, he cautiously approached. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Cambodian, but it’s pretty easy to understand the universal sign for food: bringing his fingers to his lips, he told me he was hungry. I fished in my pocket for a bit of money, pulling out a few bills to give to him from the stash I keep for that purpose. He accepted the money, bowed a bit to show me that he appreciated it, but still seemed a bit disappointed as he walked off. We’d read that quite a few of the street kids begging for money aren’t actually the beneficiaries of your generosity - they end up giving it to an adult at the end of the day. I figured that this was probably the case with this little boy, as he approached me again cautiously after another few minutes. Again bringing his fingers to his lips, he again gestured that he was hungry. Whether it was because he didn’t know how to spend it, or wasn’t allowed to spend it, I surmised that the money I had given him was about as useful to him at that moment as if I’d given him ice skates. So I did what I probably should have done the first time, which was to give him my noodles. Reaching into the basket on the front of the bike, then opening the container to show him what was inside, his expression told me that everything: life looks a lot better when you have food in your tummy.

You can’t give to everyone, that’s the hard part about Cambodia. There are just too many needs out there. Whether it’s a landmine victim, a child, or someone that’s just poor and needs some food, it can be overwhelming. And as a traveler who will only be in the country for a few weeks, it’s hard to know if a “scattershot” approach to charity is really effective. We’ve read in so many countries (including our own) that giving a larger chunk of money to one worthwhile agency or NGO can make more of an impact, as they can pool contributions together and more efficiently distribute the money. And I’m not discounting that advice, because I do think there’s a lot of truth in it. But that’s not much of a consolation to the people you meet every day, the ones who do benefit - even in a small way - from any bit of money you can spare. 25 cents worth of noodles can mean a lot to a child that is hungry. Still, I’ve been struggling with the question of how much I'm really helping when I give this way.

A while later, I read a Buddhist fable reprinted at the Starfish Café, a restaurant / organization founded to assist those in need:

A Buddhist monk was on the beach with his apprentice the day after a fierce storm. Thousands of starfish had been washed up and were stranded on the shore. Stooping down, the monk carefully lifted a single creature and returned it to the sea and safety. His young disciple wondered aloud why his master bothered to do this when it made little difference to the mass of helpless creatures. As they walked along, the monk picked up another single starfish and gently replied "It makes a difference to this one" as he returned it to the sea.

That’s a pretty good analogy for Cambodia.

Additional photos below
Photos: 39, Displayed: 39


Angkor Tom East GateAngkor Tom East Gate
Angkor Tom East Gate

Imagine what a sight this must have been if you had arrived here 800 years ago. Heck, it's still impressive today.

3rd November 2006

Amazing Photos
I must comment on how great all of your photos look! Granted, throughout all of your very impressive travelblogs you have some very nice photographs, but I have seen growth as a photographer and as an artist as the blogs go on. I can only assume that this magic eye belongs to Shannon as Sean appears in most of the shots. Shannon... very well done. Even some of my co-workers have commented on how the pictures (even the food pics) look like they were snapped by professional shutterbug. I tip my cap to you and thank you both for teaching me about parts of the world that I may not have a chance to visit myself. Your blogs look and read so wonderfully. I'm really stoked to see you both in 7 weeks! Be safe! Love, Rich
4th November 2006

Hi guys, loved your blog, heading to Cambodia in Jan & still wondering how to handle the poverty... I am a huge softy! Your experience with the little boy and the noodles bought a tear to my eye... your analogy of the situation inspiring. Safe travels. xx
4th November 2006

Really like your cambodian blog. Just exactly how i felt after my recent visit. Cambodia is a great for the temples, but really sad when looking back at their history and the people's life now.

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