The bus that we rode from Bangkok landed us in Poipet where we were briefed on the border crossing. Getting through immigration was no problem at all, though we had a bit of a wait on the Cambodian entry gate. They had built some ramshackle hallway filled with trees and bugs for us to funnel through to the immigration desk. Once on the other side of the border and aboard the taxi taking us to Siem Reap, Saad made the astute observation that we had never actually paid for any part of that bus ride. We were all a bit surprised at their poor accounting, but having gone a bit over budget at other times, we were just fine with it. One amusing bit was when we exchanged out leftover baht and yen and received massive stacks of rial.
Entry to Cambodia
We arrived and checked into another hostel just off the backpacker district. The great thing about traveling in a foursome is that you can easily rent out a private room, keeping costs down and personal privacy up. As soon as we were there, we set out to grab a little food at some restaurant near bustling Pub Street. We chose a restaurant at random and it was good enough. The Cambodian Rial is used side by side with the US dollar and everything on the menu was laughably cheap, much more so than in Thailand or Malaysia. We splurged for a couple dishes and paid something like 5 dollars each. Once we finished, we did a bit of shopping and walking around.
Bridge near our hostel
We made it an early night since we had arranged a tour to take us over to Ankor Wat in time for the sunrise. Morning came far too quickly, but out tuk tuk rode through the cool morning air woke us all up. Along the way, we had to pay $25 for our day pass to the area. There are well over a hundred temple locations to see in the region that could easily take a few days to fully explore, but we opted instead to focus on the must see spots and cram it all into one.
We arrived at a completely black Angkor Wat, but we were not alone. There were hundreds of other tourists all jockeying for a good unobstructed position. In front of the temple complex, there was a large pond that reflected the brightening sky and the temple features. Things started to change very slowly and as soon as the stone temple could be made out against the horizon, cameras everywhere were whirring away. It took about an hour for things to reach their peak of beauty, and though the sun had not yet shown itself we were ready to move on into the ruins.
Early Morning Angkor
Here is one more with the sun actually up.
This was a great idea since we could enjoy it while the crowds were still snaphappy outside. Within the massive structure were some impressive grassy areas that contrasted the stone construction nicely, and we hardly had to share it with anyone. We worked our way around and after a bit decided to head back to our tuk tuk to get on to the next location.
We took a tourism detour to get some food at one of the conveniently placed restaurants aimed at tourists. Of course, we had no choice in the matter since the tour providers have arrangements with everyone, but we didn’t mind. Despite Neil and John returning to their roots and getting a western breakfast, Saad and I stayed true to the culture and had some spicy rice based dish. One of the workers offered us a little bite of dog meat as well, which I was more than happy to try. It had a rather strong taste and is definitely not something that I would want to eat a steak of, but it wasn’t as bad as you might expect. I’m sure that consumption is the single greatest honor a master could bestow on a fallen family pet.
The dragon fruit smoothie was a nice touch as well.
We were off and on our way once more and the next stop was some other large temple complex that had a great number of massive stone faces. We wandered around and took some photos of the Olmec doppelgangers before moving on.
From here we went on foot to visit a few more locations. One was a large pyramid shaped temple which had some really steep steps and good view from the top. While these sites were still impressive, they weren’t any better than the first two places and we soon we began to tire of the monotony. We found our driver and he took us to another two temples. At this point we were mentally done with stone structures, but we walked around them anyway.
Finally, it was time to go to the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, which was made famous by its selection in the set of a Hollywood movie. This temple is also famous on account of the trees and their root structures that have somehow taken hold on the rocks. I had seen pictures of this place years ago, so to come and see it for myself was very worthwhile. Once we had had our fill and reunited with our driver waiting on the other side of the complex. He wanted to take us to a couple more places, which we outright refused. Cool as they were, we’d had quite enough. He suggested taking us to some lake to do a boat tour, but to his disappointment we opted to sort that on our own. So with the sun just hitting high noon, we returned to our domicile and slept for about six hours; obviously we were all in dire need of it.
When we woke up, it was definitely dinner time so we strode back to the Pub Street area to find a place. We wound up at some random restaurant, ordered, and then I stepped away to buy some crisp currency notes from a shop down the street for my collection. I usually try to get them by ‘natural’ means, but there was one in particular that had been eluding me. They also had a number of old notes in great condition that I couldn’t simply ignore. After dinner, we returned to the hostel to meet up with our friend Mai to sort out the rest of the night. Mai is a Japanese girl that we had met in our Bangkok hostel and was definitely a lot of fun to be around. She had an adventuresome spirit that I seldom see in Japanese people. Naturally, we were pleased that she followed us over to stay at the same place so we could continue our good times and conversation.
I can’t believe this sign wasn’t able to persuade us…
Since we had slept all afternoon, we were brimming with energy and knew that we needed to make something interesting happen in the evening. We deemed it necessary to christen the new country and as a group of 5 went over to the same restaurant from the day before. While everything in this country was cheap, the prices at the bar here were laughably so. Cocktails were $1.50, and entire pitchers of rum & coke or vodka Red bull were only $3.50.
We had a really nice time chatting for about two hours outside in the comfortable night air, and were able to touch on a broad range of topics. One of the more amusing moments came when some middle aged Australian blokes sat near us and started to talk politics. They were nice and weren’t bothering us at all, but at the conversation of guns, things got pretty hilarious. He offered that the ‘rest of the world is looking at America, struggling to figure out why our gun policy is so bad’. In the spirit of debate, Neil staked out an opposing position, stating ‘’Guns are Awesome!’’ followed by the two of us firing finger pistols to the sky along with sound effects. Imagine Yosemite Sam having a discussion on guns, it was something like that. We laughed and laughed, but I did bring it back to a reasonable discussion. I agreed that America should have laws barring assault weapons from reaching the hands of civilians and more laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but explained how our ‘gun culture’ is not something that will go away anytime soon. I even argued that that majority of Americans whether raised as ‘gun people’ or not, would not likely want the same strict rules on firearms as those in Australia and other countries. When we finally settled up our tab, the bill came to a paltry $29, for five people. We chuckled as we moved on.
While walking over to another establishment, we had a little snack. As I was getting ready to buy something, some kids came up, begging me to buy them some cigarettes. I didn’t mind that their cumulative age was less than mine, but I figured that there were better methods of improving their lives. Instead, I picked out a kilo of mangosteens and doled those out instead. They seemed a little disappointed with this healthier option, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Father of the Year!
We arrived at a bar called Ankor What?, and ordering another round of obnoxiously large drinks served in buckets. We sat down at a large table with a few other interesting looking characters where we chatted and tried our hand at a couple of party tricks before hitting the dance floor. I did more talking than dancing, but it overall we all had an excellent time.
The Angkor What? Crew
Finally, sometime late in the morning the bar was closing down and it was time to get back to the hotel. For whatever reason we split into some different groups, and I was walking back with Saad. Out of nowhere, a gang of trannies came up around us. We just plowed through them, but they were able to snag a wallet from Saad and a few loose notes I had in my chest pocket. Saad noticed right away and when he bellowed at them one of them scampered and dropped it, which he was able to get back. I didn’t even voice a concern about the money since it wasn’t much, and being able to tell such a story about how I was robbed by transvestites in Cambodia was well worth ‘paying’ for. We finished our short trek home and fell fast asleep.
The next morning, we slept in and once roused from our slumber gathered up Mai and flagged down another tuk tuk to take us over to the floating village. This was about an hour away, and five people made the cart pretty crowded, but we managed. Much of the ride was out in the rural countryside so it was nice to experience this other side of life in Cambodia.
So much nothing
When we arrived, we boarded a shallow boat and started to cruise down the river. Soon we started to see houses built high above on stilts. This was an absurd sight since the water level was at least 5 meters below them, but our guide explained that during the rainy season this was a different place entirely. What I was enjoying most about the tour was how untouristy it was. People were going about their daily routines of mending nets, tending to the boats, doing laundry, and playing in the river.
During the rainy season, the water level really rises
After a bit we arrived at a floating restaurant that was anchored on the side of the river. This was clearly set up for the tourists, but they did have local river fish on the menu for a reasonable price so we chowed down. The five of us shared in a variety of conversations, interrupted only by a boat crashing into the restaurant and loudly breaking off some pieces of wood.
The crew + Mai, enjoying our river fish
After dinner we paid a couple extra dollars to be paddled through a water filled forest. This was peaceful though a bit expensive for what we got, but helping out the local community justified it.
Once we had finished there, we moved on and made it to Tonle Sap Lake, the largest in the country. Despite the water being a murky brown color from all the sediment floating along, when offered the chance to take a dip we were game. As luck would have it, I had run out of fresh and even lightly used boxers and had resorted to my Speedo for this day. To have this wonderful chance to actually make use of it was quite the source of joy. Saad, John and I took and dip in the warm water before our cruise took us back to the mouth of the river.
We returned the way we came and continued to soak in this vastly different style of living. One of the more eventful moments came when we were observing some children playing on a small boat. One of them proceeded to hang their back end out over the side of the boat and release bit of feces. Our cries of shock quickly turned to sorrow as we realized that it was the same murky water we had been swimming in, just a bit further downstream.
We started back, but stopped along the way to see some sort of entertainment that people were gathering for. Of course we didn’t understand a thing, but it was at least interesting to see some live comedy. After arriving back to base, we decided to take advantage of the wide variety of international food options available to us and eventually opted for Mexican. Being tastier than what you can find in Japan and also being so cheap, we ordered quite a lot of food. This was our last meal with companion Mai, as we would be leaving that night for the capitol city of Phenom Penh via overnight bus.
After packing up and saying our goodbyes, we were swept away to our highway bus by a small van. On the bus, it was clear that Neil and I had gotten the worse end of the deal and were stuck sitting in the only seats unable to recline at all. It was an awful night of sleep not at all aided by a road that was at times dirt and pocked with more craters than the moon. When we finally arrived at our hostel at about 6am, we of course were unable to check into our room. So we sprawled our exhausted corpses on a platform where we slept until about noon. I’m sure that us laying there for the entire morning looked completely normal to the rest of the guests and staff. Since we had only left ourselves about two days for this city, we made sure to get right out to the meat and potatoes of the tourism there.
Don’t mind us
I have now dated two people whose families have had been affected by the campaign of the Khmer Rouge, and getting over there to learn more about that history was something very important to me. These events don’t have nearly the international recognition as say those of the Holocaust, but given that 2 million people (or 30% of the country’s population at that time) were wiped out as a result of Pol Pot’s communist Regime it certainly should. These events were relatively recent as well, taking place only a generation or so ago from 1975 to 1979. I imagine that after such an extermination of life less than 40 years ago, most everyone has missing parents and grandparents who would otherwise be very much alive today. Because the horrors of the Khmer Rouge weren’t spilling over into neighboring countries, the rest of the world took a dulled interest to the matter – it just wasn’t hitting home. For many years after the regime was run out Phenom Penh and forced into the jungle, western nations still recognized them as the ruling party. It wasn’t until 1999 that they officially lost their seat at the UN.
Equipped with only the knowledge gleaned off some documentaries and a few stories, I was eager to go check it all out for myself. The first stop we made was at S-21, a school that was transformed into a prison for political prisoners. It still very much had the look and feel of a school; the torture rooms were equipped with chalkboards. Now a museum, there were a number of exhibits that depicted what gruesome activities went on here.
The S-21 Complex. Barbed wire netting kept prisoners from committing suicide off the balconies.
The Khmer Rouge detained and tortured those that Pol Pot feared were conspiring against him. In the second half of his reign, he became paranoid of such people and began executing them by the droves. One of the exhibits showed gut wrenching photos of the corpses of those who didn’t make it through the interrogation process. In the end, the purpose of the process was to get them to confess such crimes as conspiracy against the party. Whether the torturing killed them or not or simply 2-7 months is the awful poor prison cell conditions, no one entering through the school gates could ever hope to walk free again.
After we finished our walk through the grounds and classrooms, we moved on towards the next part of the tour. We took another lengthy tuk tuk ride out to what is now known as the Killing Fields. Though over 20,000 mass graves have been discovered all across Cambodia, this one is most commonly visited in conjunction with S-21. The prisoners that managed to survive through the interrogation were loaded up on a truck and executed here, generally with blunt objects like shovels and bamboo poles so as to save on expensive bullets.
Each pit was a mass grave
We arrived as shadows were growing longer but with enough daylight to see all that there was to see. We also received some audio units that could be enjoyed in tandem with a slow stroll through everything. It offered about an hour of content that really made the experience worthwhile. There were plenty of benches to sit down on and soak in the macabre stories and details. At the beginning we learned about why people were taken here, and also about the scale of executions all across Cambodia. As the self-guided tour progressed, we started seeing a great number of holes in the ground, once filled with the bodies of those executed. Some of the explanations were especially gruesome, such as the Killing Tree. Here, infants were cracked against the trunk and then cast into a nearby grave.
At our feet all sorts of bone fragments, teeth, and scraps of clothing from those buried that could still be seen coming up out of the ground.
At the end we visited the memorial that was built to honor the memories of all those lives lost during these four years. The pagoda was filled with the bones and skulls from a small portion of the graves excavated, all sorted by the age at the time of death. I don’t know if I had ever seen or handled actual human bones before, aside from the skeleton that always sits in the corner of a biology room.
We each finished at our own pace and then we returned to the hostel to sort out food and whatever else we were going to get up to that evening. While Saad slept, Neil, John and I wandered over to some local restaurant. As soon we there, I saw them swap out the menu at the table we were to be sitting at. The prices seemed a bit higher than they should have been, with left me confident that we were instead given the ‘rich foreigner’ menu. We split a single dish and then left since such practice is deplorable, and then ended up topping up at our hostel.
We weren’t really in the mood for anything big, and instead decided to have a few drinks at the hostel bar. We ordered a beer tower or two, truffles, some nachos, and a several bags of chips as we sat and enjoyed our last evening together. We recapped some of the trip highlights and also acknowledged that we had some good group chemistry, that we should try to do this again sometime. Another topic of conversation was in regards to the next morning’s breakfast. Because eggs were only 50 cents each, we thought it would be great to order them a dozen at at time, until we hit a full adult Gaston of eggs. For whatever reason, this was hilarious to us and occupied a significant amount of our chat.
Neil very much appreciated my pouring methods
We finally went to bed with fantastic expectations of waking up to a heap of eggs and also checking out the king’s palace before Neil had to make his run to the airport. That plan failed miserably, since we overslept by several hours. After our late brunch consisting of an uninterestingly reasonable quantity of eggs, Neil took off for the airport and we decided to nap through the afternoon.
Bros say goodbye
Later in the afternoon, we rode over to the edge of the Mekong River and also checked out the gate of the palace. Of course we wanted to see more than that, but apparently it had already closed a few hours earlier. After buying some treats to pass out to our coworkers and also stopping by a temple, we finally headed back to get ready for our farewell trip to the airport.
We were to be flying at about midnight, and then transferring in Seoul for Osaka. My check-in went without problems, though, my two companions were surprised to find that their booking had been made for the following day. At the end of a long vacation, there is nothing worse than such news, especially when one is mentally prepared to be home at last. By some miracle though, they were able to standby both flights and make it without any issue. As always, it was so good to be back home.
Cambodia was another great country to have added to my travel list. I really enjoyed the time I spent around Angkor Wat and especially the new found appreciation of the country’s tumultuous history. I feel like I was able to get a feel for how the average person spends their days. What I will reiterate though is that the look and feel of the Southeast Asian countries don’t seem to vary too wildly from one to another, so while I have every desire and eventual intention to explore Laos and the northern area of Vietnam, I do think that taking a bit of a break from this part of the world will renew my passion to make such a trip happen. In the meantime however, I’ve got a number of trips in other parts of the world to be planning and looking forward to.