We had been following Cambodia in the news prior to our journey there because of an election scheduled for during our trip and concern about election-related violence. In fact when in Laos we were told that some border crossings were temporarily closed. Since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is supposed to be a free country where people are able to run for office and vote for whomever they choose. Cambodian newspapers told a different story of at least 20 potential candidates being murdered and people being escorted to voting booths by armed guards and having their vote made for them. The people are friendly but reluctant to discuss the issue. As one Cambodian put it, "There are answers to your questions, but if you live here you cannot give them."
Cambodia is still recovering from the oppressive K.R. reign, in addition to the American (Vietnam) War, and their poor country is still full of active landmines (UXO - unexploded ordnance) that tragically continue to remove the limbs of and kill the Cambodian people. Supposedly the USA is undergoing efforts to remove these landmines but one wouldnīt know that when looking at amputees of all ages everywhere one goes (Cambodia has the distinction of the highest percentage of amputees in the world). As of now, landmines rank within the top 5 causes of death in Cambodia, and as in Laos one is advised not to stray from the side of the road when your bus stops for a bathroom break.
Traveling by boat(s) from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia across a recently opened border, was a wonderful way to watch life in the Mekong Delta as we drifted by. On the Vietnam part of the journey, everything was afloat -- from the houses, to the pig pens, to the gardens. People can visit their neighborīs house only by hopping in their canoe. The family pets -- both cats and dogs -- hang out on the tiny floating porches. We even saw a floating house with a giant TV blasting loudly. At the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, we stopped to do border formalities and change to a hydrofoil boat. Border formalities were the most organized and pleasant we had experienced. (If you havenīt realized this by now, border crossings for us are always a source of anxiety -- and of course we were expected the worst from one of the most corrupt countries of all.) We were greeted by a gaggle of enthusiastic border guards, who escorted our group over to a gazebo to relax in the shade while they readied the paperwork. Then they escorted us in 2 at a time and quickly stamped our passports. No extortion, no confusion, no lines -- in short it was miraculous! Our hydrofoil was fast and comfortable and showed Britney Spears videos for the duration. (Dale particularly enjoyed watching repeats of Britney in her red leather outfit.)
Phnom Penh is a riverfront city, and we were met at the dock by the usual troop of rickshaws. Despite being advised by our not-so-trustworthy Lonely Planet that great-value accomodation abounded in Phnom Penh, we had to check out half a dozen places before finding one with a window and comfortable accomodation. Phnom Penh is an interesting place - its destruction by the Khmer Rouge is evident in most places, as is the progress in rebuilding. Thereīs a wild west feel, with the central markets selling bales of ganja and the occasional pistol being fired randomly into the air. The riverfront is lined with outdoor cafes on both sides and there is a nice riverfront walkway. Farther from the river, roads are potholed, barely paved and full of trash, but the feeling is one of hopefulness. We explored the city by foot the first day, then decided to rent a motorbike to go farther outside.
Our first stop in the city was the Tuol Sleng detention center (also called S-21), one of Cambodiaīs many reminders of the Khmer Rouge. Pictures below show the grim buildings and tiny holding cells. Photographs on the walls of Tuol Sleng provide evidence of the torture Tuol Sleng detainees (i.e. Khmer Rouge opponents, including children and foreigners) endured. It seems the K.R. enjoyed tossing babies in the air and then spearing them on their bayonets. Very disturbing stuff.
Motorbiking home from Tuol Sleng we had an interesting encounter with the trusty Cambodian police. As some background, when we rented our motorbike, the owner told us that under no circumstances should we stop for police, who would only try to extort money from us foreigners. One trick they love is to give foreigners a ticket for driving in the daylight with their headlights ON (of course their is no penalty for the locals who more often than not drive at night with no headlights whatsoever). With this in mind, motorbiking on a busy road with dozens of other motorbikers, we ignored a signal from the policemen trying to pull us over and zoomed past them as they ran out into the road. (We were going the same speed as the other bikers, the only difference being the color of our skin and possibly our matching Marmot windbreakers.) Angered, the policemen hit Dale and tried to grab Dana off the bike. Scared of being caught, we sped off and quickly turned down a side street, only to encounter another group of policemen. They too began signalling us over and tried to grab Dale. Fearing the previous cop had radioed ahead to them, we again sped off towards the relative safety of our hotel. Upon our arrival there, we ran into the lobby and told the concierge about our experience. They agreed that the first group of cops were definitely extortionists, but we later discovered that the second group may have had a legitimate reason for their antics (the road they were parked on may have been closed to motorbikes at that time of day). Oh well, we escaped without a ticket, incarceration, or torture and were relieved.
After that heart-pounding experience, we hit the outdoor cafes for some drinks and headed out in search of Cambodian cuisine. We ended up at the Ponlok restaurant which had a menu the size of the NYC phonebook. We were seated on a small balcony overlooking the river next to a table of 4 Frenchmen. Deceived as usual by the cheap price of seafood, we ordered way too many things and were quite embarassed as large plate after large plate of delicious food was served. When our waiter realized it was our first Cambodian meal, he proudly wanted us to try all of their specialities and proceeded to bring out about 4 different desserts for us. While our tenth course was being served, we noticed one of the waitresses giving one of the Frenchmen a neck massage (nothing sexual here, just your average attentive waitress seeing to his customerīs needs). The other men at the table applauded and soon other waitstaff came over to massage them. (If you know anything about Cambodia, youīre probably thinking this is related to their prominent prostitution trade, but it wasn't as these people clearly knew nothing about massage). The waitresses/masseuses observed us laughing at the Frenchmen, and called in 2 more assistants to massage us. So the 6 of us sat there while our the staff massaged us and the rest of the waitstaff watched and applauded (just by clapping for no reason, the whole room would break out in rounds of applause). Even when Dale pleaded for his painful massage to stop, they wouldnīt hear of it. Other customers kept peeking onto our balcony wondering what the hell was going on, but there would be no massages for them, only we got the special treatment.
The next day, we headed by motorbike on a long, dusty trip to the Killing Fields - the site where the Khmer Rouge staged their mass executions (2 million out of a population of 10 million people were killed). Neither one of us had seen the movie by the same name, but the sight of the Killing Fields needs no introduction. The memorial at its entrance contains thousands of skulls of the men, women and children who were executed and buried in mass graves. Legless men sit at the entrance begging for money and reminding visitors that while the K.R. and the war are over, the people continue to suffer. As one of our moto-taxi drivers told us, "Before Pol Pot my family was 7. Now we are 3." Despite all these reminders of the horrors the K.R. perpetrated against the Cambodian people, the former K.R. members live among the very citizens whose lives, limbs and families they destroyed.
As we only had a short time in Cambodia, we were only going to be able to visit one destination other than Phnom Penh. Having heard from all the travelers weīd met enroute that Angkor Wat was not to be missed, we decided to go there and forego a more off-the-beaten-path destination. We traveled by boat up to Siam Reap - the town outside Angkor Wat. Siam Reap is a mellow little tourist town, aside from the dozens of Angkor Wat guides-to-be on motorbikes on every corner. Our hotel arranged the requisite motorbike guides for us saving us from street-corner negotiations. The next day we each hopped on the back of a motorbike and set out to explore the famous ruins (which can be seen in the movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider). They are big, beatiful, majestic and in many places almost fully destroyed. Dale spent part of our time there in an hour-long bargaining session for some bas-relief tracings - saving us a whopping $0.50. The next day, we chose a motorized rickshaw ride to tour some ruins we hadnīt seen. We donīt want to minimize the splendor of Angkor Wat, but after one day there we had felt like we had seen enough and we felt quite guilty when we met people who had visited every day for a week and still felt they hadnīt seen enough. Anyway, after 2 full days, we decided to only go for sunrise on the 3rd day. We sat high atop one of the temples and watched the sun set over the jungle. It was the perfect end to our Angkor Wat tour.
From Angkor Wat, we headed to Bangkok by bus. What a trip! Daleīs seat was broken and was reclined into the lap (or rather between the legs) of the elderly German woman behind him. The windows didnīt close, it was excruciatingly hot, and the roads were dusty as hell. When we arrived at the first rest stop, we were all covered with dust, and soaked in sweat, which then mixed with the dust to form a nice muddy paste. It was a long trip and of course fear of landmines on the roadside only added to the adventure of it, but of course we made it safely to the Thai border where a luxurious double-decker Thai bus picked up our filthy group and drove us the rest of the way to Bangkok, from where we would catch our flight to that Disneyworld of a country aka the U.S.A.
Cambodia Pics! (click picture for full-sized version)
Hydrofoil from the Vietnam border to Phnom Penh / Phnom Penh pre-election campaigning
Phnom Penh / The market
Tuol Sleng (Khmer Rouge detention center) / Tuol Sleng security regulations
Tuol Sleng cell/ Killing Fields Memorial
The Killing Fields / Skulls uncovered there
Angkor Wat / Cows tending the ruins
Angkor Wat: Bas relief / Gate
One of the faces of Angkor Wat / Our hardworking guides
More Angkor Wat / Merry band of amputees - a grisly reminder of the war and the landmines left behind
Seeing Angkor Wat by rickshaw / Cambodian girl selling corn
Angkor Wat jungle ruins