Turn Down for Wat- Cambodia

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-2: Phnom Penh
  • Days 3-5: Siem Reap/Angkor Wat
  • Day 6: Battambang
  • Day 7: Bangkok, Thailand

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: October 16-22, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

When I was in high school, I had a handful of friends who had grown up in Cambodia and immigrated to the United States with their parents. At that time I did not know much about Cambodia at all, but I understood their families left because of unrest, war, or poverty. I would only learn the story several years later, and only now after having spent the past week in Cambodia do I know more of the details.

The story of Cambodia and of the Khmer people (the most common ethnic group in Cambodia) is one of contrasts and extremes. Cambodia flourished with glory and prosperity 900 years ago, yet has a recent past that is as tragic as Nazi Germany (though talked about far less), both inescapable to witness for anyone traveling through the country today.

The last 150 years, in particular, have put Cambodia on the international stage- first with colonization by the French, then its independence followed by civil war, which was interrupted with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, and only finally resolved in the 1990s. Today, the country is only faring slightly better than Laos economically, with a larger overall GDP but lower per capita compared to that of Laos, as it rebuilds after a tumultuous period in its history.

Our Cambodia trip started with a long bus ride from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. Along the way, we had to take a ferry across a river and get out of the bus while we were crossing. Standing on the ferry in this small town was our first interaction with Cambodian people, and I must admit it was an overwhelming and challenging one. Immediately upon getting off the bus, children came up to us, grabbing our hands, pockets and clothing, begging for water, food, and money. While we are no strangers to poverty, the number of children and the fact that they were grabbing and touching us made it a more intense experience than we had encountered before.

When we arrived to the capital city that evening, we took a tour of the city by tuk tuk, visiting the central market first. We also stopped at a statue of Lady Penh, the woman who founded the city long ago, and Wat Phnom, a temple on the hill across from the statue. Together, this hill (phnom) and woman (Penh) are what this city is named for. I was surprised to see that the city has a distinctly European feel to it that Laos and Vietnam did not have. For example, there is a large open green space with locals working out, running and socializing around the monument marking independence from France, and a large statue of the former king who died 2 years ago. We had not seen open space like that in any of the other Southeast Asian cities we have visited. Saying goodbye to our tuk tuks, we walked along the Tonle Sap river and saw the first Hindu shrine we had pointed out to us during this trip. All around the shrine was the thick smell of incense and fast-paced music as people made offerings to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Our new tour leader for Cambodia, JB, then stopped at a street food cart filled with silk worms, crickets, snakes, and beetles, and filled up a small plastic bag with some choice appetizers fried and seasoned with local spices. We didn’t dive in just yet, but once we got to the restaurant where we were having dinner that night, JB layed out the critters on a few plates and passed them around for everyone to try. The cricket is honestly pretty tasty- it tastes like a potato chip with a lot of salt on it. The beetle is shrimpy, the snake chewy and the silk warm has a bean-like texture.

While it is very unusual to eat these types of animals in our culture, it is fairly common in Cambodia, and it actually makes a lot of sense. I recently read an article in National Geographic Magazine about global food production, and bugs are a much more efficient source of calories and protein than other meats. For example, the ratio of “pounds of food needed to feed a cow before you can kill it for meat” to “pounds of food you can get from a cow” is much less favorable than that of bugs. The article made a compelling case for bugs being a very sustainable and environmentally sound way of combatting hunger.

The rest of the dinner consisted of more familiar ingrediants- a traditional stew of fish in banana leaf called amok and Angkor brand beer.

Our next day was the most emotionally demanding day of the organized tour, as we visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the Choeng Ek killing fields. We started at the museum, which used to be a school but later was used as a prison during the communist Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. During this time period, 3 million people were either killed or died from hunger or illness- meaning 1 out of every 4 Cambodians did not survive this regime. Pol Pot started his political career very idealistically, and it was not clear until it was too late that this type of violence and genocide was what his government would become. He was even welcomed when he took the capital city in 1975, as this marked an end to the civil war that had been wreaking havoc on the country for the 5 years prior. Gradually, however, starting with those deemed enemies of the communist revolution and progressing to nearly anyone, the regime arrested and killed millions of its own people.

At this prison we visited, people were brought in to be tortured and interrogated by brainwashed young men and women if they were doctors, intellectuals, engineers, or otherwise not a part of the peasant class. The floors, walls and cells are all original from the prison, as are the bed frames and waste buckets in the cells. Lining the walls are portraits of the prison guards, members of the Khmer Rouge- most of them young teenagers. Along the walls of another building are portraits of the victims, many of whom are not identified. The whole place is very grim and sad. Of the 17,000 people who were imprisoned here, only 7 survived, and only 2 are still living. We had the honor of meeting one of these survivors, Chum Mey, who has written a memoir about his experiences and was signing and selling copies of his book at the museum that day. How he can bear to come back to this place now I don’t understand, but I am grateful to have met him and learned a bit about his story. I also purchased a copy of his book, as the proceeds go to support not only him, but the families of other victims from the prison.

After this we visited the killing fields, and it is, sadly, what it sounds like. After imprisonment, prisoners would be taken to an ancient Chinese gravesite about a half hour outside of the city. Here, with a loud speaker blaring music so residents living nearby wouldn’t hear the screams, people were executed and buried in mass graves. In order to save bullets, they would kill the victims using hits to the head, sawing the throat, stabbing and dousing their bodies in chemicals. While many of the skeletons have been excavated, many remain buried, and due to the rains and erosion, you can still see bones, teeth and clothing peering out of the ground throughout the site today.

Beyond the sheer gruesomeness of this time in human history is the scale- everybody in Cambodia lost someone in their family during this time. Our local guide this day said he had lost his three brothers and his grandparents. And I understand now why some of my Cambodian friends didn’t really talk about the life their families left behind.

A heaviness lingered over the group the rest of the day as we soaked in what we had learned that day. The next day, though, we were able to see the resiliency of the Khmer people of today as we traveled by bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Despite what they have been through and witnessed in their lifetime, it is rare to smile at a Cambodian who doesn’t smile back. By and large, there was a friendliness and eagerness to talk with tourists in Cambodia that I didn’t see to the same extent in other countries.

For example, one of our pit stops during the bus trip was in a town casually referred to as “spider town”, because they have a lot of tarantulas and sell fried spiders to tourists (and I guess maybe some locals too). As soon as we got off the bus, many young children came up to us to ask us if wanted to see their spiders or buy anything. Normally, this can be very annoying and sad, but these kids were happy to hang around and just talk to us even if we didn’t buy anything. They told us about school, about how they are learning English, and about how they care for their spiders. The kids were playful and friendly and fun to be around.

A few hours later, after driving down a dirt road that is, surprisingly, the main highway connecting these two cities, we arrived at another stop- a silk farm. The man who owns and operates the farm, Bud, is an American who fought in the Vietnam war. He returned to the region after the war to try and undue some of the devistation done during the war, and he began a project of employing locals to make his own silk from silk worms and creating scarves from them. He employs local women and men from the neighboring villages, trains them on the work they need to do, and rewards them based on the quality of the work they do. For example, he asks that anyone who buys a scarf from his farm to go to the room where women are making them to ask who made that particular one. Each woman knows which scarves are hers, and he wants them all to understand that the money he pays them with comes from the money their scarves make and to feel proud when they produce high quality work that someone is willing to spend money on. These women make 3 to 4 times as much working with Bud as they can with other local opportunities, and affords them a lifestyle that can include education and other freedoms previously not available.

Our last activity on the way to Siem Reap was a boat ride in the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest in Cambodia. People actually live along this river, their homes built on stilts or doubling as a boat. During the rainy season, the river we rode down towards the lake is full of water, but during the dry season, the river is dry. The people who live in the houseboats have to migrate throughout the year with the amount of water in the river. It is a fascinating way of life- to have your front yard underwater half the year and only be able to get around by boat, then the other half to have land that you can actually farm and grow rice on.

That night we went out for a group dinner in Siem Reap. Jennifer, Anthony, Tim and I ended up staying at the restaurant after dinner for a few drinks and karaoke. We all performed quite a few songs (more than we intended) and had a great time.

The next day we visited Angkor Wat, one of the ancient wonders of the world. It was pretty surreal to be there after having seen so many pictures of it for so long. This temple is the largest religious building in the world. The temple was built in the early 12th century under the Khmer King Suryavarman II as the official state temple and mausoleum. Originally a Hindu temple, it later became a Buddhist temple when Buddhism became the more predominant religion in the region. The architecture follows what was a traditional Hindu form at that time, with three levels making a “mountain”. The lowest level represents hell, the middle one earth and the top one, heaven. The site has undergone many restoration projects and is the main tourist attraction in the country.

After a few hours exploring Angkor Wat, we went to Bayon, another Khmer temple built in the late 12th century as the official state temple of the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. Its main feature is its multitude of giant stone faces topping the temple’s many towers.

The last temple we visited that day was Banteay Srei, or “Lady Temple”. It started pouring rain while we were there so we did not spend much time exploring before most people were ready to get back on the bus. This Hindu temple was built of red sandstone in the 10th century and dedicated to Shiva.

That evening was spent just relaxing and resting- it had been a long day and the next morning we had a 4am wake up call to go see Angkor Wat at sunrise. Tim was not feeling well, battling a head cold, so he stayed in and slept, but I went with the group to the sunrise. It was pouring raining once again, so we were unsure what we would actually be able to see, but it turned out great. The sunrise was stunning and created a beautiful silhouette of the ancient temple. We were even lucky enough to get a rainbow afterwards!

After the sunrise we visited another temple, Ta Prohm. This was my absolute favorite. Imagine exploring through a jungle and you come across ancient ruins covered in jungle shrubbery and trees- that is what it was like to walk around this site. The temple has been left largely the same as when it was found, giving it this mysterious atmosphere and the feeling that you are the only one who knows about it. Built in the 12th century also under King Jayavarman VII, the temple has a number of large trees growing out of it, with the roots of the trees devouring the walls of the ancient temple. So stunning!

Tim and I spent the afternoon resting, and that evening we organized a little dinner/bar crawl with the group. One woman in our group, Sema, a very sweet Turkish woman who spends half her time in Toronto and the other half in Istanbul, had the time of her life- it was her first pub crawl and her first shot of liquor! The whole group sang karaoke to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and had a great time out with everyone!

The next day was a long bus ride to Battambang. Along the way, though, we saw a very unique phenomenon in the sky. During one of our pit stops, we saw a dark ring around the sun- kind of like a rainbow. No one had ever seen anything like that before, and no one knew what it was. Tim looked it up later and learned that it is called a 22 degree halo, and they can happen to the sun or the moon. They occur when cirrus clouds in the atmosphere have hexogonal ice crystals in them that both reflect and refract the light, creating the halo effect. Cooler still, every individual sees their own unique halo based on which ice crystals are aligned with their view of the sun!

That evening in Battambang we went with the group to a dinner at a local family’s home. The wife prepared the meals, and her dream is to one day open up an official restaurant with her husband. The meal was delicious- fish amok, yellow curry, fried eggplant and more. The husband shared a lot of information with us about his life. He came from the countryside and worked the fields during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today he has three kids and also cares for his neice so she can go to school. He is a very happy and friendly man with a great view on life. He said he is happy to have tourism in his country for two reasons (aside from the business it gives him)- the first is that tourism means that the country is peaceful, and after so many years or turmoil, this is a big deal in Cambodia. The second is that he gets to meet other people from all over the world and share experiences with them. He has never traveled outside of his country but said he is happy to be able to learn about other places through the people he meets.

The next day was another long bus ride, this time back to Bangkok, and our last full day with the group. Tim and I enjoyed one last Thai massage, one last 7-11 meal, and one last night out with all of our new friends. As a bonus surprise, Gung, our tour leader from the first segment of the Indochina Loop trip, was staying in our hotel that night and joined up with us! It was a fun night, but a bit bittersweet as we all had to say goodbye. That said, I couldn’t be more excited to wrap up our round-the-world trip over the next 6 weeks exploring our last continent- Australia!

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