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
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 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
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
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
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
and Devatas throughout. It was truly magnificent to climb to the
top of the inner sanctuary and view the complex. While looking out
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
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
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
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
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
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
Click the "back to Thailand" tab above to see
our final days of this trip.