Cambodia

 January 2011
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It was a comfortable bus ride on a large public bus from Vietnam into Cambodia.  I have to admit it was a little weird handing your passport over to some guy in the front of the bus who would give it back to you only when you reached the border but Lek assured us everything would be fine.  One funny thing was watching a young woman with a little girl get on the bus and ride with us all the way to be let off the bus just before reaching the border and see her re-appear on the bus after we made our way through immigration....

Luckily the electricity stayed on long enough for them to locate and verify our Cambodian e-visas and then promptly went out as we made our way past the immigration officer.  Whew, close one.  Lek had warned us that the bus would not want to wait if there were any visa problems and would probably make you wait for the next bus.  No problems, everyone made it through, had a bathroom break and loaded back on the bus headed for Phnom Penh.

 

   

Entering Cambodia we could see the country-side change.  There were large skinny cows that the Cambodian people use for farm work.  They are a breed related to the Indian Zebu or Brahmin

Motorcycles are everywhere and are loaded down with every imaginable item.  From pigs, chickens and families to huge bags of goods with someone riding on top.  We saw many vans go by with people riding on the top, sometimes the inside was filled with boxed of good and there would be 4 or 5 people on top of the van.  There were sights to see all along the roadside into the bustling city of Phnom Penh.

 

        

Once we arrived in the city and settled into our hotel, the first thing on the agenda was a cyclo ride tour.  The cycle drivers are a group of older men that had quit smoking and started riding tourists around town.  The ride was a great way to see the town.  Traffic is swerving around you and the local people stare and smile.  I even watched one woman on the back of a motorcycle holding up her baby as they sped by for a better look.  It was not uncommon to see 5 or more people on one motorcycle.  Lek has a photo of 7 people on one.  The cyclo group drove us around past the Independence Monument, stopping at Wat Phnom park and ending at the Mekong river front.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, was founded in 1434 and was built up by the French.  There are many French colonial buildings and grand boulevards.  It is the wealthiest city in Cambodia and home to over 2 million people.  It's name is from a legend that a women (Lady Penh) while fetching water from the river came upon 5 Buddha statues which she brought ashore and erected a temple on a hill to house the statues and named the temple after herself.  "Phnom" in Cambodian is hill, the park and temple Wat Phnom is said to be the site that Lady Penh erected her temple.

 

       

A short walk took us to the Veiyo Tonle Restaurant for dinner.  A restaurant benefiting Cambodian children with the questionable motto of "It tastes better than it looks".  I think they should have stuck with "We Feed You, You Feed Them".

That evening we walked along the river walk watching the locals getting together in groups for Aerobics led by various people with boom boxes and a lot of energy.  We had the opportunity to sample some fried bugs and worms.  I can go for the crickets and the silk worms but just could not do the big beetles and giant waterbugs.  Anything resembling a roach was not going in my mouth.

 

   

On Monday we were touring the famous Toul Sleng Prison, code name "S-21" and Choeung Ek, more known as the Killing Fields.  Cambodia's history is full of sadness and the atrocities that occurred during Pol Pots rein in the 1970's has been well documented in both these locations.  I won't write up the details here but encourage everyone to read up on the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror when over 20 percent of the entire population of this country was brutalized, tortured, starved and worked to death.  And it happened just 35 years ago.

It was a moving experience to visit these places and see photos at Tuol Sleng of so many that were killed.  Men, Women and children.  At the prison each person brought in was photographed and forced to sign confessions.  All these documents were kept on file in the prison and when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979 the documents were discovered and are now on display.  One of the only seven known survivors of the prison, Mr. Chum Mey, was there on the day we visited and were able to listen to him recount the life in the prison.

Following the prison we toured Choeung Ek, the site of the killing fields where many of those from Tuol Sleng are among the almost 9000 bodies that have been discovered.  Mass graves are found all through the area, some with only headless bodies.  As time goes on bits of bone, teeth and clothing have worked their way to the top of the dirt and are scattered in pathways.  The Cambodians have stopped excavating the area as part of an agreement with a company that will be managing the memorial over the next 30 years.  It is suspected that there are many more graves that have not been uncovered.  There is a museum there and a Buddhist Stupa filled with thousands of skulls sits in the center.

 

     

Back in town after lunch Kate joined Bill and I for a visit to the Royal Palace and the National Museum. 

We then met up with the group for a visit to the school at the Tek Thla Commune and dinner with a local family.  The make shift school is actually under a house which is built on stilts.  There are tables and chairs and children are taught English a necessary skill to find employment in the hotel or tourist trade.  It is run entirely on donations and has been able to employ one teacher.  Prior to dinner we spent a little time talking with the children in the school so they could practice their English.  The two little boys Bill and I talked with had some what of a limited vocabulary but knew every Lady Gaga and Katy Perry song that I had on my phone.  Gotta love technology. 

One of the ways they raise money is to entertain tourists with a dinner.  We paid a very nominal fee (for us) and they prepared an elaborate dinner and we all ate together family style and discussed Cambodia's past and future.  Followed by sharing some tarantula wine.  Strong stuff in a jar chock full of dead tarantulas, yum!  Supposedly its good for your lungs.

 

     

The next day we headed out to Siem Reap where would spend two days and visit the temples of Angkor Wat.  A long drive in a private van took us through the countryside where we made a stop at a local mountain market that left a definite impression with the group.  Here many bowls heaped with thousands of fried tarantulas, fried bananas, small birds, numerous other insects and fruits were offered for sale. 

Lek didn't have to ask twice, Bill was thrilled with the opportunity to eat something weird.  He wasted no time purchasing a few tarantulas and finding out they tasted like eating a chip; crispy, crunchy and taking on the flavors of the chilies and spices they were fried in.  With his and Lek's encouragement we all had at least a taste and of course Bill and I documented the moment with video.

 

       

That evening in Siem Reap we hit Pub Street and the Temple Club for dinner and an accompanying show of Apsara Dancers.  It was very nice and a great introduction to the town.

Siem Reap has a fantastic night market that goes on and on.  It is full of souvenirs, clothing, trinkets and massage stations.  Everything here was remarkable inexpensive and it was difficult not to buy everything up.  Not having much space in our bags helped.  I still managed some t-shirts and small Cambodian souvenirs.  Just hanging out at the market was fun and the Tuk Tuk drivers were always on hand for that quick $1 ride back to the hotel.

 

       

We spent two days exploring the temples.  Starting at Angkor Wat moving to the faces of the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom.

Angkor Wat was built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.  It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu but in the 16th century became a place of Buddhist worship.  Surrounded by moats and built in a gigantic rectangle of buildings it is covered in carved bas-reliefs.  There are thousands of Apsara dancers and Devatas throughout.  It was truly magnificent to climb to the top of the inner sanctuary and view the complex.  While looking out at the expanse of the temple I thought it looked more like a photo or a backdrop and certainly not real.

 

Moving over to Angkor Thom and seeing the multitude of faces of the Bayon temple was next and trying to imagine how they were able to create such a massive complex with faces on every angle.  We climbed to the top of the crumbling Phimeanakas Temple, viewed the enormous reclining Buddha at Baphuon, gazed out at the Suor Prasat towers from the top of the Elephant Terrace and walked through the maze at the base of the Terrace of the Leper King.  We strolled past the Sras Srie Pools and saw many signs of the jungle trying to take back the temple where trees grew out of rocks and vines covered walls.

The evening found us climbing to the top of Phnom Bakheng, hoping for a sunset view.  Its a popular Hindu temple site for tourists to view the sunset so there were many people there.  Unfortunately it was a very overcast day and there wasn't going to be much of a sunset so as it got more and more crowded we decided to leave.

Back in town the group split up and Bill and I went down to Pub Street for some Cambodian BBQ and a stroll through the night market.

 

     

Our last full day in Cambodia was an early one.  We were up at 4AM for sunrise view of Angkor Wat.  Also very popular with tourists it was quite crowded but a spectacular site.  The orange and pink of the sunrise coming over the temple towers was beautiful. 

We followed that with a trip to Ta Prohm of "Tomb Raider" fame.  The temple was once the center of a large city.  The houses built of wood, bamboo and leaves are, of course, all gone and the massive stone temple is overgrown with huge Banyan trees.  This temple is so overgrown with trees it looks creepy and I can see why it was used in the movie.  It too is covered in carvings of Apsaras, Devatas and ornately carved columns and door headers, but what stands out is the way the giant trees have grown over the walls and roofs.

 

       

As a group we decided to take a boat tour of Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages and style of life of the people living there.  It was a sunny, clear day as we headed out on our bamboo chairs in a motor boat for an afternoon.  The Lake was low which it is most of the year.  During monsoon season the Tonle Sap River which is connected to the Mekong river fills the lake and floods nearby feilds and forests. 

The people here live in floating houses and houseboats.  There are floating churches, stores, schools, police stations and even a large basketball court floating in the middle of the lake.  Most of the people here make a living through fishing but there is also the capture of snakes and crocodiles and a crocodile farm.  While there visiting the crocodile farm, we were swarmed by small boats with women and small children with large snakes draped around them wanting money to pose for photos.  It was quite sad to see them pimping out their kids with snakes to tourists.  The snakes looked half dead and it was said that they held their heads underwater to partially drown them so they wouldn't bite.  Sounds kind of risky to me.  The life on the lake was amazing to watch, people crouched on the bow of a houseboat doing laundry, shopping from canoes and even children paddling around in wash tubs.  It was an interesting visit but just another reminder of how poor Cambodia is. 

 

     

That night we visited another school, though this one was far more established than the one in Phnom Penh.

New Hope Cambodia is located just down the street from tourist hotels and at the same time in the midst of one of the poorest slum areas in Siem Reap.  They have built up a school for learning English, a medical clinic, a training restaurant, a training center for sewing skills, a shelter for abused women and children and a fish farm.  Through volunteers and donations the provide education, training and basic food and clean water to help the people living here.  We sat in a classroom and mingled with the children being taught English by volunteers who often stay from two weeks to a month at a time.  The children were curious and asked questions.  I was asked how old I was and when I told the young girl I was 53 she was incredulous and kept commenting to the other girls about it.  I found out later that the average lifespan of the women in this village is 50.  It was surreal to see the smiling happy faces of the people here.  There was much laughter and everyone was quite friendly.  And yet so poor.

We had dinner at the restaurant which is nothing more than a kitchen and one room dining room.  The food was great, everything from deep fried whole snakes to beautiful salads and curry.  It was humbling and an organization I would not hesitate to be involved with.

 

      

We ended the day with some strong drinks down on Pub Street with Doerte, Wiebke, Nickie and Kate.  The next morning we would be going back to Bangkok for our last couple days of the trip.

I hope you enjoy the photos of the Angkor Wat temples in the album linked below, but know that the site can not really be captured in photos and especially not with our little point and shoot cameras.  Its a magnificent place.

Click the "back to Thailand" tab above to see our final days of this trip.