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Travelogue of a Trip Through Cambodia

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A trip through Cambodia - Siem Reap, the Angkor temples, Battambang, and Phnom Penh

First impressions of Siem Reap – it’s a bustling commercial town. Tourists do flock here so there are many souvenir shops and restaurants. As you pass the shops, the shopkeepers call you in, trying to get your business. The streets are full of motorbikes and tuk tuk drivers wanting your business. During maybe two hours of browsing within easy walking distance of my hotel, I saw probably six one-legged beggars. Men who’ve lost their legs due to landmines – something mentioned and warned about in the Lonely Planet guide.

The people seem friendly, but I’m not sure this isn’t a comment on their dedication to commercialism.

The taxi ride from the airport cost $1. The Mekong Apsara Hotel with AC, hot showers and satellite TV costs $15 – a very nice hotel, about 15 minutes walk to the central market and several nice restaurants.

June x, 2003
I visited the war museum and got the lowdown on all the landmines, etc. They are certainly a far more serious problem than I knew. While there, I saw the latest report (for April, 2003) from Belgium Handicap International – an organization that tracks this problem and is working to clear the mines. In April, there were 73 new victims of landmines – 40 men, 3 women, and 30 children under the age of 18. The mines were laid primarily during the civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian government under Prince Sihanouk. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of amputees in the world, thanks to these mines. If you’re interested in the landmine problem,

Also, see the Halo Trust website at: Halo Trust

Or the Cambodia Mine Action Center

The Halo Trust is an NGO working hard to eliminate landmines around the world.

The moto bike drivers charge about $6/day to take you around the city or to most of the Angkor ruins. It costs more – about $8 if going to the ruins much further away, e.g. Banteay Srei or the Roulos Group. Unfortunately, the Cambodian government has made it illegal for foreigners to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap. This leaves the tourist at the mercy of the moto drivers.

The beggars and merchants (moto drivers definitely included) are nothing short of incessant and unrelenting. There are three categories of beggars: those without arms or legs due to landmines, homeless (apparently) mothers with babies, and “other” – usually young kids or old people. But so far, the biggest hassle seems to be the moto drivers who stop alongside you almost every step you take.

The tuk tuks in Cambodia are different from those I’ve seen elsewhere. Here, they are motorbikes pulling twin-seated trailers, so that the drivers can operate their bikes alone or as a tuk tuk. As everywhere, the tuk tuks are individually decorated, giving each one something of a unique appearance.

Unlike in Laos, particularly around Pakse, where most of the women wear traditional Sarongs, the women here in Siem Reap wear western style clothing. Others do wear a long skirt.

June x, 2003
I discovered that I accidentally pissed off one of the moto drivers. During my first day here, I talked to many moto drivers. The ones I considered hiring for my coming days in Angkor, I told that I would think about hiring them – but that I wasn’t going to decide right then. When one of them approached me again and I told him that I had chosen a driver, he was pissed off and wanted to know why I hadn’t hired him. He thought that since he had given me his card that I was automatically going to hire him. He followed me as I walked away from him and continued to badger me, wanting to know my driver’s name and what hotel I stayed in. I refused to tell him anything and finally got pissed off and told him I wasn’t telling him anything and that he wasn’t going to be my driver and that he’d better leave me alone.

After all of this, when I got back to my hotel, another driver I had talked to on my first day assailed me and was upset that I didn’t hire him. All of this mind you only because I had talked to them and told them I would think about it when I was asked if they could be my driver.

June/July xx, 2003
To visit the ruins of Angkor, you can buy a one-day, three-day, or seven-day pass. I’m a nut for this kind of thing and wanted to be sure I’d have enough time to see everything I wanted, and figured I’d probably never come back, so I bought a seven-day pass, even though I thought it would be more than I needed.

Don’t think of Angkor Wat as a single set of ruins. The ruins (all dated around 900 AD to 1200 AD) are spread over many square kilometers. They estimate the population of the Angkor area to be about one million people during the time when London had a population of 50,000.

Although I did not keep detailed notes of my time visiting the temples, I can tell you that contrary to my expectations, Angkor Wat was not my favorite. Certainly the murals at Angkor Wat are truly impressively extensive and detailed, but the ambiance of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan is awe-inspiring and really accentuate the mystery of these places. And I loved the faces of Bayon.

Although I loved visiting the temple, I once again have to say how irritating the aggressive merchants are. When any tourist comes out of the ruins, they're immediately accosted by a crowd of people trying to sell cold drinks, t-shirts, postcards, scarves, books - you name it, they're there to sell it. Folks, I've been around the world and seen a lot of this kind of thing, but no where, absolutely nowhere have I seen this level of harassment of tourists. Understand - these people are poor and desperate, but nevertheless, it reduces the experience to something unpleasant.

July xx, 2003
I paid $14 or $15 to go by boat from Siem Reap to Battambang. This is quite an interesting boatride. We went through many floating villages where the commerce seems to all be done on boat. There are boats loaded with vegetables that go from floating house to floating house, there are many small fishing boats, operated by husband and wife teams, sometimes father and son or father and daughter. The boatride goes through the Tonle Sap lake. It’s estimated that this lake becomes four times larger in surface area during the rainy season and produces enough fish to supply ¼ of the entire annual protein supply of Cambodia. The Tonle Sap lake is drained by the Tonle Sap River, which flows into the Mekong. It actually changes direction during the rainy season, backing up into the Tonle Sap lake, causing it to grow in size. As a result, everyone that lives along the lake live in floating houses that move with the season.

During the dry season – and it was only the very beginning of the rainy season while I was there – the lake is not very deep. As we passed through it by boat, it was often covered with large-leafed vegetation of some type. Also interesting was the many fishing contraptions that people use on the lake – some of them are large nets hanging from poles that have counterweights to assist in pulling the nets up out of the water.

July 4, 2003
I decided to have dinner at the Riverside café, a place overlooking the Tonle Sap River. On the way there, there was a rainbow but it wasn’t raining. The Riverside is an open-air deck and as I sat eating and drinking beer, I was entertained by a spectacular lightning display. It was almost as good as any fireworks display (that being on my mind since it was the 4th of July). But ultimately, the bugs came out in droves and started landing in my beer. I also have to say that the service at this place really sucked. So I left.

Oddly, it didn’t rain then, though, despite the earlier rainbow and the lightning display. But at 2 AM, I was awoken by a ferocious storm that had blown the shutters open on the windows of my French style hotel room. I thought the wind was going to blow the glass out. It made me wonder whether that part of the world was susceptible to tornadoes.

July 5, 2003
Made a bone-jarring ride out to the Phnom Sampeau, where there is a wat on top of a small mountain and also the killing fields of Battambang. The road there was in an awful state, made no better by the bad storm of the night before. The skulls of all the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were in the caves near the wat.

I stayed at the Angkor Hotel during my first night in Battambang, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I moved to the Teo Hotel and thought it much better for the same price.

July 6, 2003
Flew President Airlines to Phnom Penh – first time ever I’ve seen an airplane literally fill with the mist of a cloud. As we gained elevation, it literally started filling the cabin until it looked like it was filled with smoke. It was a bit disconcerting at first – I found myself sniffing for odor, actually thinking it must be smoke it was so thick.

Asia really is about odors and sensory overload in general. Seems the people need noise. Sitting in the Teo Restaurant last night, two Cambodian families came in together for ice cream. With the stereo playing music, they also insisted on having the TV going, so they both were blaring about equally loudly.

I learned what I’ve always suspected and in some cases knew – that taxi drivers get a commission for bringing business to the hotels. I stayed in the Asia hotel my first night in Phnom Penh. When I decided to change hotels, one of the taxi drivers that sit outside of the Asia Hotel told me the place was dishonest, that they steal from the rooms. He also told me that the drivers at the airport get a commission from the hotel when they bring a tourist.

I think I’ll always regret not having done this trip the way it should’ve been done. I should’ve bought a good dirt bike when I arrived and toured the countries by motorcycle.

There was a very attractive girl at the bank that I tried to take to dinner. But she wouldn’t, insisting she had class from 5:00 til 8:30. During our discussion, she asked if I would come back to Cambodia, as if this would influence her decision. She had my passport, needed to give me a cash advance on my credit card (the only place a credit card is good in this country is at the bank). So I told her to look at the pages of my passport – that I travel a lot and that it would be very possible to come back and visit her again. Chances are she knew my intentions weren’t completely honorable. But what she wouldn’t have known was that, as attractive as I thought she was and as much as I would’ve liked making love to her, I would’ve been glad just to have her company for dinner.

I had moved to the Cozy Na Hotel along the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh. I enjoyed the waterfront in Phnom Penh – they really have done a nice job making it green and reasonably clean. One interesting aspect of Phnom Penh is that three rivers converge here – the Tonle Sap, the Tonle Bassac, and the Mekong. But the downtown area resides on the Tonle Sap. In this general area is also the Royal Palace. Once I had arrived in Phnom Penh, I had decided that I was going to relax and hang out like a typical tourist. Drink beer or coffee in cafes, eat well and relax. Basically, I wanted to see the Royal Palace and the killing fields. After that, it really didn’t much matter.

I arrived in Phnom Penh earlier than I might’ve otherwise, but I didn’t like Battambang all that much, so left there early. I had six days to kill in Phnom Penh. After a couple of days there, I was hanging out on the riverfront one day, listening to my MP3 player and was approached by a very cute girl. She didn’t know much English but she could understand when I asked her age – 18. I let her listen to some of my music and when she gave my earphones back by placing them on my ears, she moved her face very close to mine – her lips inches from mine. She had a very sensuous mouth and I thought she was going to kiss me. I suspected she might be a prostitute, so I subtly backed away. In the background at about this time, I made eye contact with another girl that had been watching us. When she got up to walk past us I said hello and we started a conversation. I invited her to sit and join us and she did.

The second girl was named Marady and could speak English. She had just returned from the Philippines about two weeks earlier, where she had gone to college to learn to be an accountant. We spent much of the next few days together. We rented a motorbike and went to many places around Phnom Penh. Surprisingly, it only cost $3/day for a motorbike. She took me to her place of employment – a Christian organization which also operates the church that she goes to. We also had lunch with one of her best friends from the church. She had told me that most of her friends were much older than her and this one was closer to my age. Marady is not quite 23.

One day we crossed the Tonle Sap River and continued on for about a half an hour until we came to the place she wanted to take me. It was a set of open-aired thatch roof bungalows along the Mekong River. The bungalows had mats on the floor and hammocks to lie down in. It was very pleasant spending an afternoon there, lying in hammocks and watching the Mekong River flow by.

On our way back to town, we were caught in the rain, so we stopped in a little restaurant that turned out to be much like the place we had just come from. It also had the open air bungalows with mats and hammocks, except that it wasn’t along the river. Marady asked me if I had tried Khmer pancakes, which I hadn’t. So she ordered these and showed me how they were eaten. Basically, a Khmer pancake is like a think crepe. But it is served with a large bowl of various kinds of greens, some cucumbers, meat and sauce. You roll the crepe up with whatever mix of these things and dip it into the sauce and eat it by hand. Very tasty.

The next day we rented a taxi and went to Kirirom, a national park a couple of hours outside of Phnom Penh. We went with her and several of her Cambodian friends from her church. On the way, we stopped and bought fruit from the roadside. With Marady’s help about what was good, I picked out all the unusual fruits that I didn’t recognize or know how to eat and we bought them. Then as we drove, we snacked on fruits, Marady showing me how to open or peel them. There was long gan – a brown, nut-like fruit that had a hard shell. There’s rumbutan, a red, spikey fruit that also has a kind of hard shell the color of a strawberry. We also had tragon and jack fruit.

As we approached Kirirom, we stopped and bought some food from a roadside stand where they were broiling fish and chicken. We ordered chicken and rice. The little bungalow things are quite popular in this part of Cambodia. We found one off by ourselves and Marady took care of me by pulling the meat from the bones and served it to me on my plate as we both ate. After we ate we were going to go swimming – there was a small river that went through the park and a large pond for swimming. But I saw a sign that showed a 10-minute walking trail and suggested we take the walk first. We took the walk and got quite seriously lost in Kirirom. While lost it also started raining quite hard. Because Kirirom is at a much higher elevation that Phnom Penh, it was very comfortable temperature wise. Probably in the 70’s. But for Marady and her friends, that felt cold. We were lost for several hours and although I was concerned, the others I think were quite afraid. At one point, one of Marady’s friends came back to me and asked whether we should pray. I had been trying to keep them from being alarmed, so simply asked whether he was concerned.

However, Marady was not only concerned, she became quite cold and tired. I took off my t-shirt so that she could wear it over her shirt, which helped her a little. But she was still cold and I think she had developed a blister on her foot. We were all soaked to the bone from the rain, which continued for quite awhile. Marady couldn’t keep up with the rest of us. I think that many of them were quite tired by this time, but I felt like I could hike this way for hours. I offered to let Marady ride on my shoulders, but she wouldn’t. They simply were not in very good shape and not accustomed to hiking. Fortunately, we did find our way out before it became too dark. But not surprisingly, everyone had a different thought about which direction was the right direction to take. We were really quite lucky, because this was a large place with no villages nearby – just the small park like area where we had eaten.

We were all quite content to climb into the van and make the long drive back home – all completely soaked. They were so happy they sang songs as we made the long drive back.

After we got back, we kept the taxi and Marady invited the pastor’s wife to come with us for dinner.

The next morning, Marady came with me to the airport to say goodbye. She also gave me a present, though I don’t know when she would’ve had time to get it since we’d spent most of our time together. She’s a sweet girl.

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