Photo: S21 Museum – Phnom Penh
I arrived in yet another 3rd world country, another country with a recent, torrid history full of war, and death. Yet even though Cambodia is nestled between Thailand and Vietnam – it really isn’t like these other countries, it has found its own identity. My first experience when entering Cambodia was entering the grand, new Siem Reap International Airport. It was beautifully designed, clean and cool – extremely rare for a third world country. While we were waiting in line for immigration there was an ATM so I decided to quickly get some Riel – however – much to our surprise – the ATM spit out US dollars. This definitely wasn’t like any country I had been in before! I hadn’t seen greenbacks for 6 months! Cambodia also had this amazing visa process that I can only hope the rest of the world adopts – an online visa application. All you need is a credit card, a digital passport picture, and you are good to go. Your visa is sent back via email within 2 days – no need to send your passport anywhere! As our big group transferred into town we saw large hotels, restaurants, and well maintained parks. It seemed as if Cambodia had adopted the theory of “If you build it, they will come” – and they had done a great job of executing. For a 3rd world country that has such a recent history that left the country in shambles, it’s probably the nicest country I’ve visited. It’s clean (for 3rd world country standards), and orderly. People take so much pride in their homes – even if floors are dirt. It felt like everyone in the country was trying to succeed and were putting their heart and soul into everything they did.
Siem Reap was definitely booming from Angkor Wat, the biggest tourist attraction in the whole country. However, the heat was oppressive – I’ve never really encountered anything like it – it felt like you were cooking in a microwave oven. I have no idea how these people could live in this stifling 100+ degree heat. Cambodia has two seasons, making it like a mood ring that changed colors. This was the dry season – it was brown and dry all around us. In July, it starts to get cooler and the monsoon season starts, the rice crops are planted, and the country turns green.
As we went out to the temples, we stopped at one of the local road-side stands and saw how the made palm sugar. They climb the palm trees and cut the flower in order to get the juice. The juice drains all night and they climb back up the tree to retrieve it and boil is until just a solid is left. It’s kind of like maple syrup – and it tastes just as sweet! My favorite part about our little road-side stop was the kids – they came running to us from all over! All of a sudden there were about 15 kids running around. Luckily I had my camera out and ready! This picture of the child with the big knife is a bit disturbing – but he remained in tact while we were there – I can’t tell you what happened to him afterward though! I decided that I can pair this with my picture from Thailand of the little boy playing with a real gun…it can be an exhibit on kids with weapons. I doubt that I will find a kid in Europe with a grenade launcher though!
The Angkor Wat temple complex was slick – they even gave you little laminated tickets with your digital photo on them at the checkpoint. A three day pass cost $40USD – expensive for SE Asia, but definitely worth it. The temples were created from the 10th to 12th century – most of them were over 900 years old. They definitely have experienced some wear and tear throughout history as the wars and changes of power have not been kind to the ancient cities. Plus, now there are throngs of visitors at the temples, so it’s hard to keep them up. Angkor Wat is a mix of Buddhist and Hindu religions. Our guide, Nabine, educated and led us through the many temples and old complexes. Angkor Wat is the grand-daddy of the temples with a large bridge, and a couple of different walled areas. Nabine took us there for sunrise and sunset to see how the light produced different colors on the stones. There were Relief carvings all around the temple that told the stories of ancient times – they would glow red/gold during the sunset. We went to the inner temple and climbed up the very steep stairs to the top structure. You had to literally crawl up the steep incline (about 40 stairs) using your hands – it scared the crap out of me! When I got up there I really wasn’t sure how I would get down. As I walked around the top one of the locals gave me some incense to give to Buddha – he said it was good luck. I took the incense, did the 3 bows, and hoped for the good luck to get back down the steps in one piece…I might as well cover all of my bases!
We next visited the walled city of Angkor Thom which had a grand entrance with gods lining the left side of the road, and demons lining the right side of the road – as far as the eye could see. Inside the city of Angkor Thom was the Bayon Temple otherwise known as the temple of faces. It contained 54 towers decorated with 216 round, smiling faces. Just outside of Angkor Thom was Ta Prohm – some of you might know this as the place where Tomb Raider was filmed. This temple was left to be swallowed by the jungle. The tree roots were literally holding it up in places and the rest of it was crumbling due to the power of the jungle – it was a site to see. Finally we went to Banteay Srei a temple made of pink limestone and detailed carvings. Since we were templed out after that, most of us went to the local market or simply sat in the AC to try to reverse the melting process!
While we were in Cambodia they were holding the 2nd ever national elections. This was a very important moment, as this only happens only every 5 years and it started back in 2002. As we drove out to Angkor Wat one morning, we passed a whole motorcade campaigning for the Cambodia National Party, the predominate party. It was exciting to see a country who had no rights or freedoms just 25 years ago embrace their freedoms. Nabine explained parts of the voting process. Anyone 18 and older could vote. They had 2 days to vote, and little booths were set up all over the country and in each village. Forget chads…they keep track of who voted by having the person dip their finger in a ink-like substance (probably henna) that stays on your finger for a week. If you try to go back and vote again, they look at your finger. See – who needs computers! Actually, Frank joked that you could vote only 10 times if you were willing to cut off your fingers. Yet that would be a pretty big sacrifice to make for a political party…and I think they would catch on after a while! For a moment – I did wonder how good of an idea it was that I was in a newly developed country during their voting process – isn’t this when most governments are overthrown or when most riots break out? Then I found out that the results won’t be announced until April 24th – practically a month later. According to the newspaper, this provides them to address any election related complaints. Very different than the all night news coverage and up to the minute results that we have come to expect!
From Siem Reap I took off to Phnom Penh on my own. The rest of my family and group of travelers left for Singapore that morning and I took a tuk tuk to the airport. Tuk Tuks were my favorite forms of transportation in Cambodia! The airport transfer only cost me $4 and it was an enjoyable ride seeing all of the locals going at our max speed of 15 mph – I wish they had these in NY! When I arrived at the airport, I experienced my first cancelled flight. Normally this would be a terrible situation in which I would have to wait around and try to figure out how I could get to Phnom Penh – spending half of the day in the airport. However, in the same breath that they told me the flight had been cancelled, they said that they had rebooked me on another airline that leaves 10 minutes later…I really do like this country!
I only had 2 days in Phnom Penh, so I had to really organize my time. I landed at 10:30AM, checked into my hotel, and I was off site-seeing via tuk tuk by 11:30! Mr. Tye, my tuk tuk driver, took me around to the sites for the day. The main reason I came to Phnom Penh was to see the Killing Fields and the S-21 Museum. I had read about Pol Pot and I wanted to see the depressing havoc that he caused. The Killing Fields were about 18 km outside of Phnom Penh and was basically full of mass graves where people were killed during the Khmer Rouge rule in the mid 70’s. A monument full of skulls has been erected at the site. The rest of the site is a maze of pits – kind of like a giant waffle machine. These pits were mass graves where men, women, and children were killed and dumped. They are still working on identifying all of the grave sites – they contain the bones of hundreds of bodies. The old buildings that used to be on the site that housed the people who worked there and held the prisoners before death have been destroyed, only signs marking the sites remain. It’s quick to go through the site, and severely depressing. There was approximately 20,000 people buried here in mass graves and most of them were doctors, lawyers, military, teachers, women and children. During that time, ammunition cost a lot of money therefore they found alternative, hideous ways to murder people.
I also went to the S21 prison, now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It used to be a high school prior to April 1975 however it was turned into a prison and torture chamber during the war. They kept fairly good records of who was there since they took a picture of each prisoner as they arrived. I really have no words for what I saw in S-21 Museum – just a sick feeling in my stomach.
That night I relaxed by the river. There’s a lovely riverside park and many hotels and restaurants along the popular stretch. It was Sunday night and apparently that’s the big night out in Phnom Penh. The river road was packed with motorbikes, cars, tuk tusk, and bicycles. Families were out in mass in the park, just sitting, eating at local vendors, and people watching. The city thrived – just like Central Park on a Saturday during spring – people everywhere! I walked around and just watched the people around me, watched the families interact, and watched the couples sit by the river enjoying their ‘moment’. I finally went to the Foreign Correspondents Club and had a glass of wine overlooking the street below. I was thoroughly entertained by the traffic and people watching!
The rest of the time I was in Phnom Penh I did the standard sites, museums, palaces, markets, and shooting range…yup, that’s right – a shooting range. Really, there are only so many temples a gal can see before you really need to cut loose go shoot an automatic weapon. The shooting range had a ‘menu’ – you could order a round with an AK-47, M16, shotgun, grenade, and even a rocket launcher. I actually chose the American M16 first – but was told that they were out of ammo (they need to manage their inventory better!), so I chose the Russian AK-47. (Never in my wildest dreams would I think that I would be saying that previous sentence.) A guy outfitted me with a fatigue jacket and took me into a long brick room. I sat down at a plastic chair and he loaded the clip on my ‘menu item’. He told me where to hold it and how to look through the site. Then he said – ok – shoot. I told him that he better get a photo of this as I wasn’t paying $30 US without getting documentation of this! I was hoping that he could shoot a few first to show me – but no luck. He held my shoulder against the butt of the gun in case it kicked me back – which made me even more nervous. After all, I had my cheek snuggled against the butt of the gun in order to look through the site – I imagined me knocking out some teeth! To my surprise the kick wasn’t that bad – however I consider myself pretty solid. The shot was loud, sharp and clean – and provided a rush of adrenaline – I liked it! This was waaaayyyy different than using my brother’s air rifle that you had to pump 10 times before shooting (a frequent pastime of mine as a kid – see what happens when you grow up in the middle of Illinois!) My brother also had a bee bee gun that I would get to use to try to shoot birds in our yard – yes, I had a tomboy side to me! Overall – I really enjoyed shooting the automatic weapon – more than I thought I would. They brought me my target afterwards and I didn’t do too terribly bad! Those birds wouldn’t have had a chance if I had an AK-47 to use when I was a kid!
Cambodia was the last country on my itinerary for SE Asia. I will miss SE Asia, it has energy, and I love energy. I used to think NY was so full of people – but it seems like a small town compared to SE Asia. There are some similarities between the countries that make SE Asia up; the amount of people, the hours they keep, the markets, the rice, and the motorbikes. However, Cambodia was the first place that I have ever seen a family of 6, yes 6, on a motorbike. It consisted of 3 adults and 3 kids…who needs a minivan?! Speaking of minivans – I also saw a minibus/van that was so full that people were actually sitting cross-legged on top of the van driving down the road! That’s what I love about SE Asia…it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen – it’s crazy and chaotic – it breaks all of the rules, but it all works. The people are resilient and extremely hard working, and when you break through the initial “You buy from me?” conversation, they are kind and friendly. The best part about traveling through these areas (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia) was that the local people were as interested in me as I was in them. We all learned a little bit about each other – and that’s all you can ask for. I wish that all of you could experience it – but if you can’t, I hope you all got a feel for it through my little stories and photos!