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An Overdue Update on Cambodia...

Sometimes relaxing. Sometimes moving. Crazy driving at all times!

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Siem Reap. Traveling from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia was an adventure. Ryan and I had done our homework and already received our Cambodian visas prior to leaving Atlanta. Thankfully, we were prepared for all the scams that were attempted on us at the renamed Scambodian border (all on the Thailand side, it should be noted):

First our bus from Thailand didn’t let us off at the town that was printed on the ticket. Instead they took us closer to the border, but we didn’t know that at first. The bus driver took the remaining “tourist” passengers to a parking lot where they tried to usher everyone in to a nondescript building to get a Cambodian visa (NOTE: we were STILL IN THAILAND!). Even the bus driver from Bangkok was in on the scheme. Two fellow Americans from West Virginia that we were chatting with on the bus got whisked up into the building even though they had read about all of the scams. Although we already had visas, they were still trying to get us into the building for some reason or another. First attempted scam—successfully bypassed!

Next, while walking with some European travelers to find the border entry in the town a tuk tuk driver lied to us saying that it was a couple of kilometers away. We were carrying all of our stuff and heavy backpacks so we asked to be taken to the border. He charged us 40 Baht for driving us in a circle and down the block. We got tricked about where the border actually was, but our mistake only cost us $1.40. After leaving Thailand we went to a town called Poipet and proceeded to enter into Cambodia. Our new friends from West Virginia joined us at immigration after paying an additional $35 to get their Cambodian visas over what was required. Foreigners are not allowed to rent cars in Cambodia so you have to secure transportation another way. Fortunately the four of us were able to split a car from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap.

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If we thought Thailand’s driving was bad, Cambodia’s driving conditions were much worse. After an exhausting two hour drive dodging motorbikes our driver stopped at a parking lot on the outskirts of Siem Reap next to several tuk tuks. The tuk tuk drivers proceeded to explain that they were going to help us out by finishing the drive to our hotel. Ryan and I immediately started asking questions because we had already paid to be taken to our hotel. The tuk tuk drivers had already pulled our luggage from the trunk, and our original taxi driver was peeling out of the parking lot. The guy calling the shots told us that our hotel was too far away and was trying all sorts of creative tactics to take us to another place. We told them that we already paid and that they needed to take us to the hotel. He also wanted to secure one of the tuk tuk drivers to be our guide the next day, but we already had one booked. The guy was clearly annoyed at us for not falling for all of the things he kept trying to offer us. As I was getting on the tuk tuk the driver peeled out of the parking lot with my leg still on the ground. Ryan and I found out later that our WV friends were told to pay an additional $8 (a small fortune in tuk tuk fare) to be taken to the hotel even though they had already paid for it. So at the end of the journey Ryan and I paid an additional $1.40 but our new friends got taken for a ride of an additional $43 for the same – no small amount considering that you can stay at a decent hotel and eat for around $50 for two people in Cambodia. We all finally made it to the lovely hotel and were able to relax and laugh about the day in the hotel’s restaurant. I am so grateful that we were prepared for that insanity. It was kind of entertaining anticipating the creative scams. An entire industry has been built around taking advantage of tourists that don’t know any better.

All of the travel effort paid off the next morning when we watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Ryan and I secured a highly-rated English speaking Cambodian guide named Nat. He picked us up from our hotel at 5:00 am, and our car joined the tuk tuks, tour buses, bicycles, and the parade of people heading to the temple to witness the sunrise. Thousands of tourists ascend onto the temples of Angkor every day to see the amazing temples from the tenth century. Once we got to the ticket booth, we had our pictures taken for the passes and then we walked with the early risers to see the wonder of the temples.

As we sat watching the sun come up, there were monks chanting in the background. This was a moment that took my breath away. As soon as the sun peaked out above the temple, you could hear the crowd of people oohing and aahing.

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Angkor Wat is an expression of genius; the only thing I have seen that compares on our trip was Machu Picchu. Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt. Meru, the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu faith. The temple has three levels. The lowest represents hell, the middle represents the earthly life while the upper-most represents heaven on earth. The Cambodian god-kings from the 9th to 11th centuries strove to one-up the size of the structures built by their ancestors thus leaving many magnificent structures – with Angkor Wat being the heart and soul of Cambodia.

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Since Cambodia has suffered through many wars and the devastating Khmer Rouge Regime, the periods of destruction brought about a lot of looting and beheading of Buddha images. It was sad walking around the temples seeing places where Buddha images were stolen or vandalized.

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Around Angkor Wat are beautiful bas relief sculptures depicting different stories from Hinduism and Mythology. One of the most well-known bas relief murals is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. There are 88 asuras (devils) and 92 devas (good gods) churning up the sea to extract the elixir of immortality. This is just an example of the many stories that are carved into the walls though out Angkor Wat. There is almost one kilometer of bas relief stretching around Angkor Wat depicting the epic events from that time. The story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk is perhaps the most frequently seen throughout Angkor and the greater Siem Reap area; depictions of this story can be found throughout the region on temple walls, gates, etc.

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The next place we visited was our favorite after Angkor Wat: Bayon. The temple was created by Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. Walking around Ryan and I asked our guide if Jayavarman VII was an egotistical man because the temple has 216 faces that are a mix of the king’s face and Buddha looking out in all directions. Our guide books say that he was an egotistical yet enigmatic figure, but our guide said that he was just a great and respected ruler. Most importantly, he made an environment where Hindus and Buddhist were able to peacefully live side by side. There was also a shift to Buddhism during his rule in the 10th century.

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Ta Prohm temple has been swallowed up by the jungle in certain parts, and it was built as a Buddhist temple to honor Jayavarman VII’s mother. This temple is popular because there are root formations throughout the temple strangling various parts of the buildings. Angelina Jolie’s Laura Croft character made this temple famous in Tomb Raider. It was so much fun climbing through the ancient doors and seeing how nature continues to envelop the temple. There are sections of the temple area that are just piles of ancient sandstone and lava stone. Our guide told us to go have fun climbing and like small children Ryan and I started exploring the ancient stones on the back side of Ta Prohm.

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While traveling around the temples at Angkor, there are children and adults pleading for you to buy souvenirs. It was shocking for me to have a 3 year old girl chase and beg me to buy bracelets for one dollar. She followed us all the way from the exit back to our car begging us. Even once we got in the car she started knocking on the window. It was heartbreaking. I didn’t want to purchase anything from her because I didn’t want to condone the behavior of her family exploiting her to work at that age. The kids would beg Ryan to buy things, but they hung on to me until we left the area. It was so disheartening and depressing to see the children begging us to buy things in such an aggressive manor. In the poorer areas of Africa we were taught not to give out money to the children because it makes them dependent on foreigners. Rather if you feel inclined, you should donate to an orphanage or school to help them that way. Well, this was a new wrinkle because the children were not outwardly begging, but they were pleading with you to buy their items. Furthermore, after doing some digging, we found out that while SOME of these children are likely being exploited for their youth and relative ‘cuteness’ by older adults, some are working at these tourist destinations during the day while their parents are off working at a manufacturing job or something else outside the tourist world.

I could never imagine my friends’ daughters in the states running around and pleading with tourists. The poverty in Cambodia is so intense, and I broke down the second day and carried around a bunch of singles. Ryan and I bought 26 postcards of Angkor Wat, and still another little girl was pleading with us as we left one of the ancient temple sites. She started getting angry with me saying, “one dollar lady!” I showed her that I already had what she was selling and told her no thank you in Khmer, but it didn’t matter. Also it’s common to see beggars around Cambodia that have been injured from the abundance of land mines still found in certain areas. When traveling in Cambodia, it was important to not step off any established paths or trails because there could be land mines from the many wars in Cambodia over the last century.

One touristy thing that we did that left us with a bit of a sour taste in our mouths was a long boat trip to the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake. There are many houses, stores, and schools that are floating in the lake. We had to pay $40 for a boat to take us out. (Cambodia uses the US dollar along with the Cambodian Riel as their official currencies). Considering our hotel only cost $26 per night, a one-hour boat ride should not have cost that much. Our boat was also extremely dingy and in poor condition. Not a big deal, but I asked our tour guide Nat how much the boat owner received from our fare. He had no idea… my guess was 40 cents. It is frustrating to pay hiked-up tourist rate knowing that the actual employees helping you look so incredibly impoverished. We later found out that our boat driver and his wife lived on the dingy boat. The old couple recently lost their home at a floating village when their son died in a car accident. His death caused them to have to pay $2500 to an insurance company, thereby plunging their lives into poverty facing the need to live their “retirement years” on a dilapidated long boat. At one point our boat driver wanted to take us to a floating visitor center area. There were children in big pans paddling around begging for money. We couldn’t handle that after all of the children that I encountered at Angkor earlier in the day. We ended up just floating in an area away from the center watching the sun set. The experience was depressing on many levels for us.

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On our final day in Siem Reap we visited the oldest structure at the temples at Angkor called Preah Ko. It was incredible walking around a temple that was constructed in the year 879 A.D. Some of the carvings on the sandstone looked as though they were carved yesterday – but in truth were created nearly 1300 years ago!

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The next temple showed a juxtaposition of old Angkor and present day Angkor. The temple Bakong was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva but shared its location with a modern era monastery. This was the only new structure that we saw near the old monasteries and temples. While walking to the temple we were able to talk to some of the Cambodian kids who were on lunch break from school. They happily posed for a few pictures for Ryan and got a kick out of seeing the immediate results on our camera.

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In addition to enjoying all of the temples at Angkor, we visited a silk farm being run by an NGO helping provide jobs to Khmer people, the “locals’ market” and went to a local dinner show one night featuring Apsara dancers. The Apsara dance is a Khmer classical art form. The dancers tell stories through their graceful movements. The movement is slow and fluid with intricate hand poses. The women wear gorgeous form-fitting costumes with elaborate headdresses. After seeing all of the bas relief structures of Apsara dancers at Angkor Wat, it was a treat to see an actual performance.

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We enjoyed our stay in Siem Reap. Even though our private tours were pricey, the U.S. dollar goes far in Cambodia. Our hotel cost $26 per night which included a free massage and welcome drink upon arrival. Our second night in Siem Reap, Ryan and I opted to get a couple’s massage for $6, $3 each for one hour at our hotel. What! The Khmer restaurant at our hotel was really enjoyable serving traditional Khmer dishes. The ingredients were always fresh and rice is served with almost every meal. Our favorite chicken dish came in a coconut with a bunch of vegetables. To Ryan’s satisfaction, fresh chili peppers accompanied almost every meal as well.

Phnom Penh. Traveling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was extremely easy. Our bus had WiFi, blasting air-con, snacks and movies playing continuously. Each ticket was $13 and included a pick up from our hotel and the five hour journey to Cambodia’s capital. Who knew that traveling inside of Cambodia could be so nice?

Phnom Penh was the most emotionally trying city of our trip. We learned more details about the Khmer Rouge and all of the devastation that Cambodia has faced in the last 40 years. The communist Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot was blamed for the death of at least two million people through torture, execution, hard labor and starvation from 1975-1979.

The regime targeted and killed the educated, intellectuals, professionals, teachers, artists, and people who wore glasses (to point out the absurdity) among many others. Parents and children were separated and placed into different labor camps. The regime attempted to brainwash children into believing that their parents did not love them and the Khmer Rouge leaders were their family. From 1975-1979 there were no banks, no schools, and no basic human rights. During our time in Phnom Penh we visited one of the FOUR HUNDRED killing fields as well as S-21 – a high school turned into a prison where people were tortured (before being sent to a killing field for execution). Both of these locations told horrendous stories and described what happened during the genocide. Ryan captured a pretty interesting moment below when he observed some Buddhist monks reflecting over one of the memorial walls at S-21 dedicated to the torture victims that passed through the walls there.

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The devastation from the Khmer Rouge regime is still felt throughout Cambodia. Socially and economically the country was reset and had to start over after the regime ended in 1979. Even with the Khmer Rouge out of power, the overwhelming majority of the country’s educators and educated were executed, the financial system was effectively obliterated and almost all infrastructure was destroyed when all was said and done. After the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia then experienced roughly 13 more years of tumult in the form of civil wars and internal struggles.

Nat, our guide from Angkor lost his father during the regime and his brother was blinded by land mines in the years that followed. Although Nat was only a one-year old at the start of the regime, his entire family was affected by the insanity. Even though the Khmer people have been to hell and back in the last 40 years, we were consistently amazed by their kindness and welcoming spirit. Nat talked about how much he loved his country and how he wanted to see it continue to progress. It was inspiring to hear these comments after learning so much about the atrocities that the Khmer people have endured.

In addition to learning about Cambodia’s painful history in Phnom Penh, we visited the National Museum, the Royal Palace, and an animal rescue center. The National Museum houses the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculptures, and there is a beautiful courtyard garden in the center. At the museum, there was a video exhibit showing how Angkor Wat would have looked in its prime. It was interesting seeing the digitally enhanced Angkor temples and imagining what it was like back then. The Royal Palace is the official residence of King Sihamoni, and parts of the compound are closed to the public. However, we were still able to visit the famous Silver Pagoda boasting a floor made of over 5,000 pounds of silver-tiled floors, an emerald Buddha and a life-sized gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds.

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My favorite part of Phnom Penh was traveling out to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. We elected to take the more economical transport option and ventured out to Phnom Tamao on a “remork” (the Cambodian version of a tuk tuk). The center is a home to animals that were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. The ones that are able to go back to the wild are released while others needing medical treatment stay longer. We did not see the center’s famous elephant, Lucky, but apparently she has a giant prosthetic leg. Ryan and I saw the (relatively diminutive) sun bears for the first time and watched gibbons flip around their cage. During our visit we bought food from the local children to give to the animals that we were able to feed. The Khmer children were trying to help us with our limited vocabulary and we helped them with their English. (Bonus points if you can figure out the meaning of the girl's t-shirt in the picture with Margaret below).

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Koh Totang (Nomads' Land). After all the activity and sobering education in Phnom Penh, we were ready to head to the beach for several days. Instead of going to the built-up beach area called Sihanoukville, we opted for an isolated island with a population of 12 people at a rustic resort called Nomad’s Land. Our journey to the location went smoothly with a 4-hour car ride and a short boat ride. The owners were a really charming and hippy-like Swiss couple.

Our hut did not include any running water. The shower situation involved using a bucket from a giant basin. The residents of the island collect rain water during the wet season and disperse it the rest of the year. For electricity there were solar panels set up to offer limited use. Although the island lacked regular creature comforts, the isolation from tourists and hearing the waves crash 15 feet from our hut were huge advantages.

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During our time at Nomad’s Land, we kayaked around the entire island, relaxed, and watched the sunset every day. There was a resident yoga couple teaching during the afternoons, and I took advantage of those classes. We also enjoyed spending time with a few of the island’s other residents and eating freshly harvested cashews straight off the island’s trees (courtesy of “Om” – Khmer word for grandma – living next door to Nomad’s Land).

There was another Swiss couple on vacation there and we ended up hanging out with them in the evenings playing new games that they taught us. Every day the owner Karim went out and spear-fished a live catch to prepare for dinner. The food was extremely fresh and healthy. The total experience was very Zen-like and relaxing, but I look forward to a proper shower from our next stop.

Aw khun ch’ran, Cambodia! (Thank you very much). Leah hai! (Goodbye). You were intense, yet beautiful. Next stop… Tokyo!

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Posted by mcpherson.nyc 02:44 Archived in Cambodia

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