June 25, 2008 at 9:35 am | Posted in Cambodia | Leave a comment

Cambodia May 27 – June 2

Cambodia was a surprise. We didn’t know what to expect and, from what we had read, our expectations were very low for this seemingly very uninviting country. Despite this, we maintained our plans to visit because we could not bypass the opportunity to see the world-famous Temples of Angkor while we were in this part of the world.

Our adventure began in Thailand where we disembarked from an overnight train from northern Thailand (no sleep) and jumped in a taxi and circled the city of Bangkok for a two hour scavenger hunt in search of the DHL office where our new Keen shoes were waiting. We successfully tracked them down (Thank you Keen!) and just made it back to the bus terminal in time for a 3 hour bus ride to the Thai-Cambodia border on a nice bus called the Mekong Express. The bus was run like an airline with “stewardess” service and on-board video (violent Asian gangster movies) and friendly commentary at significant sights. We ate the usual for these long bus and train journeys – whatever they were selling at the station. So, we had a well-rounded meal of Pringles, peanuts and Juicy Fruit gum for breakfast and snacks. At least it was more nutritious than the box of Scooter-Pies we had on the train!

We arrived at the border and managed to cram ourselves and our bags into a tuk-tuk who proceeded to take us to the Cambodian “Consulate” for our visas. The books warn you about make-shift offices and overcharging but what do you do when you have two kids, a bunch of bags and no one speaks English! You pay whatever they want, get your visas and go. While the boys raced their cars across the polished floors, we filled out the paperwork and in a few minutes we had our visas. We paid $120 instead of the “official” $60. This was the first indication of an “uninviting” Cambodia. Our defenses were up. Next, the tuk-tuk driver dropped us at the literal border where you must walk across. The handle on our pull-luggage broke so we were pulling it with a lovely rope. Our bags were starting to bulge as we became gun-shy to mail any packages after one of ours became lost enroute to America. The sun was beating down and we were running on fumes in terms of sleep. A couple of Cambodian fellows latched on to us promising a comfortable ride to Siem Reap from the border. We also read about the taxi and bus scams that abound at the border. We dragged our bags while playing the cat and mouse game with these guys. They promised an air-conditioned taxi for $60 to Siem Reap which is about 3 hours away (cheap by American standards but expensive in Cambodian). It was about 3:00pm. We wanted to pay $30. We filled out more paperwork while keeping an eye on the bags, the boys, the taxi guys and trying to read the guidebook at the same time to make sense of this chaotic border crossing. Dust was kicking up from the unpaved road, ox-drawn carts heavy with melons, bricks or textiles passed by to get to the cheap border market. It was getting late. We pretended to reject the taxi guys but, in reality, we didn’t know what alternatives we had. We boarded a “free shuttle” to the central bus and taxi station. We had no idea if this “free shuttle” was really going to take us anywhere legitimate. Lo and behold, the shuttle dropped us at the “only” taxi stand in town run by our taxi leeches. (uninviting) We offered $30 and settled on $45. Our driver didn`t speak a speck of English and he sported very long fingernails and looked about 15. (uninviting) The car was roomy at least and did, in fact, have air-con. Turns out that Siem Reap is not 3 hours away because of distance, it is 3 hours away because of the condition of the road. In other words, barely existent. For the next 3 hours, we felt as though we were in a video game as we swerved and ricocheted along the pot-holed dirt path. We dodged bicycles, ox-carts, motorcycles, oncoming crazy buses, trucks carrying road-building supplies, dogs, chickens, cows and children. Cambodia appears to be lightyears behind India in terms of development and is certainly not geared towards tourists. (uninviting) We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. The driver made a few stops to make a few “transactions” with friends, brothers, fathers and any other English word he knew. It got dark very quickly which made traversing the road that much more…exciting. Blue fluorescent lights on rough sticks line the road. These lights are in front of every shack, house and then venture out into the uninhabited fields on either side of the road. Each light has a large white bag beneath it. We ascertained that it is a trap for catching some sort of insect. This would be considered clever and an earth-friendly alternative to pesticides had it not been for the small fact that they are not for killing insects but for trapping them to eat them. Crickets. (uninviting).

We arrived in Siem Reap unscathed and were transferred to a couple of tuk-tuks who take us to our guesthouse. We could not believe we made it. The guesthouse was full of friendly faces who scurried around us to serve us in the manner we`d become accustomed to here in Asia. So Cambodia is not only filled with blood-sucking opportunists as we had encountered so far. We crossed our fingers because we booked the guesthouse for the next night but had now arrived one day early because of our success in seamlessly making all of our connections (train-taxi-bus-tuk-tuk-taxi-tuk-tuk) over the past 24 hours (Why didn’t we pay to fly? Because we wouldn’t have this interesting story to tell!). The guesthouse was able to accommodate us (phew!) and our room was absolutely delightful as it is a converted mansion and has elegant details in the plasterwork and has lovely moulding but is also painted a cheery shade of plum to make us feel settled and happy. The place is run by an Australian couple and serves some western-style food and English is well-spoken. We were so relieved.

The first thing we noticed was that the guesthouse runs several down-to-earth tours of the surrounding area that take you into the lives of the local people. This was exactly what we had been looking for but, up until now, had not been able to find. Tours are usually of sights, temples, pagodas, museums, but never to the villages. We jettisoned our plans to only spend one day in Cambodia to tour Angkor Wat and instead extended our stay to 5.

We signed up for three tours: Day 1 – “A Day in the Life” tour of a Cambodian Village. We were very excited. We took a mini bus with our guide to a village that is financially supported by our guesthouse. We arrived and were to meet the village tribe leader but he was not feeling well and was asleep in a hammock. We had learned about how important it is for the village to have a well and a water filter installed for a mere $45 USD to support many families. We proceeded to a home where a teenage girl was busy making leaf shingles for her house’s roof. The leaf roof only lasts 3 years and it was time for a new one. We were there to help. We slipped off our shoes and sat on her bamboo floor as she and the guide showed us how to wrap the palm leaves around the bamboo and then sew the leaves to one another with a strip of bamboo with its end sharpened to become a natural needle. The boys were so happy to be participating in a traditional activity and were successful at it. We took a break from our shingle-making and headed down to the school for some English lessons. Turns out school was not in session on that day due to some administrative technicality but when the village children saw us coming down the dirt path, they jumped on their bikes with siblings dangling on the back and assumed front row seats in the ramshackle outdoor classroom and offered a synchronized, high-pitched “Hello” when we entered. We proceeded to teach this small group of children (ages 5-12) the ABC’s and the days of the week. We passed out some pens and treats and after our short lesson, these small children climbed back up on their adult-sized bicycles and headed home for lunch (maybe crickets were on the menu). We went back to the house to participate in preparing a typical meal and the boys helped our guide pick lemongrass and morning glory from the yard and together with some fermented fish, salt, spices and some other unknowns (no crickets), we made some soup. Luckily, the guide also brought some ham and cheese sandwiches and watermelon! After lunch we visited the local monastery where a group of children (some orphans taken care of by the monks) gathered to observe us. The monastery was decorated with paintings of the life of Buddha. The boys liked how the Buddha had long ears indicating longevity.

Day 2: We had a fascinating trip to a floating village so called because the local people set up their houseboats and shacks on the lake and make a living harvesting fish. Their situation is difficult and conditions are harsh. It is fascinating to see how schools, hospitals and even basketball courts float on the river. Unfortunately, children are often urged to “perform” tricks in order to earn some tips from gawking tourists such as ourselves. We grimaced at the floating crocodile farms in existence for the sole purpose of making bags, pocketbooks and shoes. This is a country struggling to earn a few buck as the countries surrounding it are well ahead economically. It was hard to pass judgement if they are not as eco-friendly as we would like them to be.

Day 3: We finally got to tour Angkor Wat. It is beautiful and has survived many invasions of this vulnerable country. The ancient carvings depict intricate details of battles between heaven and hell and tales of mythical creatures and gods. The boys found this very interesting (and learned what hell was) and were fascinated by people being decapitated and tortured for their misdeeds on earth (this may come in handy in the future). However, we were more impressed with the other-worldly Ta Prohm Temple that is in the midst of being consumed by the rainforest surrounding it. This was what we had come all of this way to see and it was hard to comprehend that so many years of uncompensated toil was now left to be destroyed, yet it was fascinating to watch it happen. It was scorching hot and we were happy to get back to our guesthouse as Henry searched for yet another newly made friend that he met the day before. These friends were usually 20-something girls who would give him unwavering attention like that of a babysitter and would be intrigued by his stories and his company. He proceeded to make dinner arrangements and we all went to dinner together at the Dead Fish Restaurant (a former fish processing warehouse rather than a description of the meals).

The next day we boarded a bus for the 5 hour trip to Phnom Penh where we would figure out how to navigate our way across the border to Vietnam. The bus was another airplane-like situation and we watched out the window mile after mile after mile the monotonous lives of people struggling to grow some crops and live a simple life from a small plot of land, a couple of goats and a bicycle yet having to avoid the surrounding tracts of land still peppered with landmines. It is hard to know where to begin to try to help a country like Cambodia get up on its feet. We were glad to have experienced the few different faces of Cambodia.


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