After a few long flights Steve and I made it to Siem Reap — home of Angkor Wat and Angkor beer. Immediately we discovered that the people are wonderful but the place is tourist central. We were lucky enough (and this was pure luck) to end up in a relatively quiet neighbourhood (Wat Bo) on a fairly quiet street. There were many guest houses but quiet, nonetheless. Siem Reap is filled with smoke from fires — we were being prepared for even more smoke, from slash and burn of brush in Laos in preparation of planting rice crops.
The first of our two days we rented bicycles and rode the grand tour of Angkor Wat – about 20km. Steve kept repeating that it was hot. Steve said the food can be pretty good. Steve said the ruins are cool. But, believe it or not, we missed the actual Angkor Wat completely. We planned on touring it at the end of the day but after meandering through wats (temples) off the beaten path it was very difficult to even look toward Angkor Wat – all we could see were busloads of tourists (droves and droves). What we did see was: Ta Prohm, Tam So and a few of others a well.
The day after our ring tour we took a tuk tuk (a motor bike with an attached carriage for people to sit in) to Bung Mealea (60km away). It is a striking place of mostly ruins. In fact every historical site we saw in the greater Angkor Wat complex was ruins and un-restored (natch!). The ride there was a good (though fast) way of seeing rural Cambodian life. We passed many shacks with people selling corn, petrol, or baguettes. Cows were utterly skin and bones. As in Vietnam, everyone works very hard; the Cambodian way of life is not easy and the people are very poor. However, they are very friendly, in a reserved kind of way.
We discovered that there are a lot of cleared landmine signs throughout the countryside.
A good friend of mine who travelled Cambodia once said that everything in Cambodia is $1. Truer words could not have been spoken (almost). Everything, practically, costs a dollar. Water? $1. Caphe ta kwa (ice coffee)? $1. Children following you around? $1. Ten post cards? $1. Laundry? $1. The list goes on.
Our best meal in Cambodia was outside of Ta Prohm. We were the only falang (foreigners) there and had a great conversation with a tuk tuk driver eating there, too. We ate Khmer rice noodle and coconut soup with lots of chili peppers, green beans, and some unidentifiable green leaves. We had the most wonderful mango and coconut shakes to drink as well as coconut milk — a very common beverage in these parts. In contrast, in Siem Reap, itself, we had crappy Americanized fruit shakes that are watery and over-sweetened. And of course, in close to 100F heat we drank lots and lots of bottled water.
I headed up the river to the Cambodian/Vietnamese border via slow boat; once in Cambodia I took a bus to Phnom Penh. Just as the first time in Cambodia, two years prior, it was amazing for me to see the countryside and the way people live.
My first impressions of Phnom Penh (PP) — I wanted out.
Why? I first landed at the wrong youth hostel which was not bad but was already full so I had to go to the one I booked which was very bad – for me. This second hostel was full of hipsters, mostly, and the room and bathroom they put me in I (50-something in age) was shared with 7 young men each somewhere between the ages of 25-30. I went to bed at 11pm but, slowly and surely, one after the other came in to take a shower, go out, and party. The last one left just as I lay down to sleep.
Then: That night I realised that my stomach was a little off and the next morning I still did not feel well and needed to stay close to a bed and bathroom. After much angst (since I was trying to travel frugally) Steve convinced me to treat myself to the Fancy Guest House where Elton John stayed the first week it was open! The stay here proved necessary the first few days and was a lovely splurge, afterwards. This guesthouse is splendidly situated and the owner and his brother are sweet, helpful, and accommodating (no pun intended!!).
The next day I felt a bit better but kept to rice for breakfast and baguette for lunch. I wandered the area and took photos for the first time since arriving in the city. I actually discovered a Bank of China and exchanged some US money into Chinese yuan. This was a fortuitous find since as I commented in my Vietnam (2012) post it is hard to cash for traveller’s cheques and I suspected that it might be even more difficult to exchange money at the small border crossing between rural Laos and rural China. Besides this bit of business I went to the National Museum, the Phnom Wat, and wandered into a few other wats – essentially walked in and out of wherever my feet and eyes took me.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields: This was a sobering day, recalling (my very vague memory of) Cambodia’s fairly recent war-torn history. It is impossible to imagine the reality Cambodians lived through while under the four-year rule (1975-1979) of Pol Pot (nearly two million Cambodians – about a fourth of the country’s population – were exterminated). S21 is a multi-building, three-story, compound that became one of the most notorious torture chamber before people were slaughtered in the Killing Fields. S21 was not the only facility of this sort but part of a larger organized system for killing. Approximately 17,000 prisoners were tortured at Tuol Sleng and died (or were executed in the Killing Fields). As it turned out many of those tortured and who died were actually Khmer Rouge themselves who were accused of betrayal. Most were ordinary Khmer citizens required to confess to crimes they did not know existed. Like the Nazis the Khmer Rouge documented everything. This similarity reminds us that we keep repeating history, not just Nazi Germany and Khmer Rouge Cambodia but more recently Rwanda, etc….
I can’t do justice trying to describe the horrific history so take a look at: Killing Fields Museum (in Seattle) and Tuol Sleng Photographs.
I haven’t mentioned it but PP is full of contradictions. There is incredible poverty here and yet you see people being driven and let out of their fancy SUV Lexus’ by guards. Apparently in the mid-2000s PP was one of the most corrupt cities in the world (perhaps the most corrupt? I cannot recall). There is a great deal of prostitution, many, if not most, children. Supposedly this is illegal but because of the corruption it is not surprising that it has not been eradicated. Women consist of 65% of the work force in all areas including construction but only 20% of women are literate. And there is lots of trafficking of women and children even though this, too, is now illegal. Perhaps of Interest: Banteay Srei.
Yet, despite all of this, the residents seem to put on happy faces and appear eager to talk to you (not just accost you – as do many very young children in the countryside who hang on to you trying to get money from you). The PP population is out and about and it appears as if everyone eats out rather than at home. But I don’t know if that is true; this was just an impression.
That same day I needed some relief, so I also went to the Russian Market and enjoyed just wandering around.
The next day my cooking class was cancelled due to the teacher/chef being sick. Instead, I wandered PP and spread my American wealth by buying presents for family and friends in the various NGOs that help street children, disabled persons, and children and girls who exposed to human trafficking.
Having walked through the old french quarter it was easy to imagine PP as it once was in its grander days, under colonization. Today, of course, the huge homes are behind locked (and incredibly gorgeous) gates. Some buildings, though, have become quite derelict. In general, the city is dust-blown and except for the main roads, all roads are dirt and full of holes. There are throngs of motor bikes and some bicycles and certainly a fair share of cars trying to manoeuvre around. Yet the city works. I liked PP more than I cared for Ho Chi Minh City. In fact I actually learned to really like Phnom Penh.
But here is some sobering information on Cambodia – three excerpts from articles in Camnews.org:
- Take Cambodia, which ranked at the bottom of a recent regional Transparency International corruption survey. Its government workers pad their paltry, sporadic pay by demanding bribes for everything from birth certificates to school grades. One oft-cited International Monetary Fund working paper argues that paying civil servants twice the wages of manufacturing workers is associated with a reduction in corruption. In Cambodia, civil servants make less than half what a garment worker makes.
- Human rights in Cambodia have gone from bad to worse in January, prompting Human Rights Watch to issue a damning report on the Southeast Asian nation’s rights slide. The company eventually provided some former villagers with plots of land at relocation sites, but the desolate sites were 50 km from the capital, without bathrooms, schools, hygiene provisions or even buildings… The Borei Keila residents aren’t the only Cambodians who have felt the government’s wrath this month. Four protesters were shot and injured last week in the small town of Snoul, located on the way to Siem Reap during a land grab dispute.
- The United Nations voiced concern Wednesday over Cambodia’s delay in appointing a foreign judge to the Khmer Rouge tribunal, paralyzing probes into two cases strongly opposed by the government. Swiss judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet arrived in Phnom Penh last month as the UN’s choice to replace a German judge who abruptly quit in October over government opposition to further prosecutions linked to the 1975-1979 regime.
Siem Reap Revisited (2012)
I took the 7:30 boat up the Mekong River to Siem reap (a nice 6 hour trip) from Phnom Penh; at one point the river is so wide you cannot see anything but water
To quote from Unesco: Angkor Wat “is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. It contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The influence of Khmer art, as developed at Angkor, was a profound one over much of South-East Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian subcontinent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighbouring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.”
Siem Reap was as I recalled from my first trip: it has some beautiful areas, especially walking along the treed boulevard by the Siem Reap River. It also has some terribly poor areas on the outskirts of town. The people are friendly, especially the tuk tuk drivers who want your business, of course. Siem Reap still has some charm, and like Phnom Penh you can tell it once had its hey day. Siem Reap is expanding quickly — already obviously more built up since my previous visit, two years earlier, so who knows as I write this post in 2013! There was construction everywhere — new houses and apartments, hotels and resorts sprouting like mushrooms in the surrounding countryside. The tourists are everywhere and I can only imagine that it will get worse over time. It’s good for the locals who have suffered so much over the years but of course many foreigners are taking advantage of the boom, too. As an example, the owners of the guest house I stayed in on this visit are Canadian and I went for dinner at a Khmer resto owned by a French couple. But, for most visitors – I think they think that this is a pulsating place. But like Steve and I did two years ago, I cursed the fact that there were so may tourists; more than 1,000,000 tourists visit this area for Angkor Wat, each year!
My third morning in Siem Reap I heard music in the distance which played all day long. I tried to see what was going on (my guesthouse hosts thought it was probably a wedding) but didn’t find much in the morning. However I stopped by in the late afternoon because clearly some type of event was taking place. I shyly took a couple of photos outside of a tent and then a young woman (30?) invited me to go in and take more. After a conversation with her I discovered that her uncle (age 55) had died and 100 days after the death there is a two-day supper celebration at the person’s home. This woman, Ekbanthida, introduced me to her mother, aunts, and cousins, and insisted that I continue to take photos. I gladly agreed. The celebration was in front of the uncle’s house. At the entrance a man was busy saying something on the microphone, and the tradition is that people donate money and get a little present in exchange. The money goes to the family/relatives of the deceased. I was invited to stay for supper and politely agreed to eat some soup but was actually not feeling well so I ate a bit, and then bowed out. Ekbanthida has her own business selling tourist trinkets at the market and said she is doing well for herself.
The following day I took a tuk tuk and did the outer reaches of Angkor Wat – areas that Steve and I did not make when we were there two years earlier. I went to Kbal Spean, Banteay Sreay, and Banteay Samre.
The last day in Siem Reap I cycled to Angkor Wat. I learned that the trick to avoiding the throngs of visitors is to go at breakfast time when all the bus tours have taken people back to their hotels for breakfast – this is after the tourists have seen their obligatory sunrise scene over Angkor Wat. I cycled to the wat, wandered for an hour and had the place almost completely to myself. As I left the crowds were beginning to arrive.
Munney, one of the young men who worked at the guesthouse I stayed at, took me on a 7-hour long tour of the surrounding area of Kratie (he made more money this way – and I gave him a decent tip when I found out the guesthouse takes money from the $30 he/they charge; I treated him to lunch as well). I saw the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins, a temple that was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge days and rebuilt in concrete rather than wood (the name has escaped me). I was taken to this ‘resort”– not the case at all but they call it that — where there are small white water rapids and is good for swimming (which I did not do). What really made this trip worthwhile was just driving through the countryside. It was a typical tour but Munney was SO sweet; he treated me to a fruit that is a relative to the coconut but has the texture of a lychee, is the size of a flat plum, and does not seem to have a pit. Best of all, this fruit is not too sweet and there is a lovely juice that you suck out first before eating the flesh. What the fruit is called is beyond me. I seemed to not write names down in my notebook…
Munney promised to teach me how to drive a motor bike but 1.5 hours later after our return he was still napping. Instead, I walked through the town (full of colonial French-era architecture), spent time at the wet market, and met people on the street who gave me permission to photograph them. This was the beginning of my braving it and asking people directly if they would mind if I snapped some shots. I discovered that it was a nice way to start some conversations with the “locals.”
Kratie, I found, is a lively town (for being nowhere, really). It has a long riverfront with food stalls all along. The market is small but active. Too bad it seemed that Kratie was just a stop over for tourists who want to see the dolphins or are heading to/from Laos. I was tempted to stay another day and cycle on the island, Koh Trong, across the water from Kratie but the temperatures were very high as was the humidity and there was no expectation of it cooling down in the near future. I did not have energy for cycling. Unfortunately, in retrospect, I missed that opportunity since I was told that Koh Trong is extremely lush with vegetation and rice paddies, easy to cycle, and not developed – with only a few villages. So, in the end I was like all the other tourists who stay for one or two nights, only.
I was on my way from Cambodia to Laos, next.