Monday, April 13, 2009


I left Thailand on March 28. I really wanted to like Bangkok and give it a chance, especially since most everyone I talked to hated it and said to get out as soon as possible. I have to agree with them. It has a nice airport and a few good temples, but if I was pressed for time, I would forgo Thailand for Cambodia and Vietnam.

I took a minibus to the Cambodian border. There were 12 people on the bus - 11 guys and one girl. I was hoping there would be more girls. The bus took us to the Cambodian Consulate in Aranyaprathet at the border to get our visas. Then we walked across the border into Poipet Cambodia. We were then taken to a bus station to get shared taxis to go into Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat temples. I met three Brits from Liverpool on the trip, Craig, Tony, & Tom. I spent the next few days hanging out with them and traveling to Phnom Penh. After about eight total hours of traveling, we made it into Siem Reap.

Cambodian border.

Cambodian landscape. Cambodia is very, very flat, like north Mississippi between Memphis and Tunica. Mississippi has a few more paved roads though. It was also the dry season.

There are a lot of new-looking luxury hotels and resorts along the main road into Siem Reap. I was told that the most expensive room in town cost $4,000 US dollars. This strikes me as totally ridiculous in a country where the average daily wage is $2 and a perfectly good, immaculately clean room with a private bath and breakfast can be had for $6 ($12 if you want air conditioning).

Cambodia was once a colony of France. The first evidence of this was at breakfast. You get a nice baguette with breakfast instead of the weak-ass white toast you get in Thailand. Also, Cambodia has its own currency, the real, but prices are always quoted in US dollars. It's actually easier to pay in dollars. It still amazes me how a country on the other side of the world uses the US dollar as its preferred currency.

The Cambodians are quite attractive people. They have this beautiful bronze skin tone, the kind that white people spend hours and hours in the sun or in tanning beds trying to attain, risking skin cancer, premature aging, and sunspots. They also appear to be very happy. I've seen some of the biggest smiles ever here. KFC is the only American fast food chain in Cambodia and the one in Siem Reap had just opened a few weeks prior. I couldn't believe how happy the workers were. In the states, people who work in fast food restaurants have this look like it's all they can do to keep from killing themselves. Here it's different.

On March 29, we toured the Angkor Wat temples. There is actually a series of temples, of which Angkor Wat is the largest. I saw five temples in one day. It was incredibly hot and really wore me out. But the temples were amazing. When I bought the ticket, they took my picture and I got a personalized ticket.

When the tuk tuk pulled in and dropped us off at Angkor Wat, we were immediately surrounded by at least a dozen really young kids selling drinks, postcards, guidebooks, bracelets, etc. Since I already had a bottle of water and was not interested in another, they tried to get me to promise to buy another when I came back. I made no promise, but that didn't stop them from asking me 100 times as we were walking to the temple. When we came back, sure enough the kids were there. As it became apparent we were not going to buy any of their drinks, they started turning the screws. "You promise me", "I wait for you for two hours". Then they started getting nasty. "You good lying man!" (I think they meant "no good lying man") "You number one liar!" It was funny but sad that these kids were not in school. I kind of wish I'd given them a dollar for entertainment value, even though the money doesn't really go to help these kids.

I don't mean to make fun of these kids' grasps of the English language, they couldn't have been older than eight. A lot of people in southeast Asia speak a little bit of English. Most of them don't have the greatest grasp of the language, but that doesn't stop them from trying. It is kind of humorous to see translations on menus, signs, and instructions that aren't exactly right. But the fact that so many people speak some English is good for me as a tourist. It's much more widely spoken in Asia than it is in South America, making travel quite a bit easier. In Asia, most hotels and guest houses have a travel agent on site who speaks English and can book tours and tickets. In South America, usually I had to make a special trip to the bus station and purchase a ticket there from somebody who spoke no English.

Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples.

I thought Wat Bho was the most interesting.

I forget the name of this one, but I call it the one with the trees growing up through it.

I spent the next few days chilling in Siem Reap. I liked the town. It wasn't very big, but due to the number of tourists coming in, it had enough restaurants, diversions, and a chilled vibe that made it worthy of a few days. I particularly enjoyed Amok with fish - a very typical Cambodian dish. One night we went to a really local place with some people we'd met who were there more long term doing volunteer work. It was quite a bit away from the tourist part of town. The door to the kitchen was open and the cook was not wearing a shirt. We had a chicken bone stir-fry. This is basically what is left over after cutting up a chicken, mostly the back. It was cut in to bite-sized pieces and stir fried with vegetables in a spicy-sweet sauce. So you obviously had to get your hands dirty to get at the meat. Most westerners don't like to get their hands dirty when eating. We only pick up food with our hands if it's dry or crispy (ribs being one exception). Most people in the east are quite comfortable with this.

A fish massage is a must-do when traveling to Siem Reap. I don't think it is technically a massage, but you pay $3 for 20 minutes to let fish eat the dead from your feet. It was a really strange sensation - somewhere between ticklish and painful.

After seeing some pictures of Angkor Wat at sunrise, I really wanted to go back and get some better pictures. On April 1, I went to Angkor Wat by myself to see the sunrise. It was my last day in Siem Reap. It was a cloudy day and my pictures didn't come out quite as magnificent as I'd hoped. There were about 50 or so people out there at 5:30am waiting to see a disappointing sunrise.

Here is what I saw.

Below is a photo from the internet. This is what it would have looked like if it had been a clear morning and I had been a professional photographer.

I waited there until about 7:00 am, kind of knowing it was not going to get any better. At one point I looked down at my feet. I was wearing someone else's flip flops. In most Asian hotels and guesthouses, they make you take off your shoes at the ground level before walking upstairs to your room. It was dark when I left at 5:15 and I couldn't really see what I was doing.

At 9:00 on April 1 we took a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The entertainment on the bus was a bunch of Karaoke videos. At first they were in Cambodian. The background for all the videos seemed to be the same guy looking off in the distance with a brooding look while the lyrics in Cambodian flowed across the bottom of the screen. After a while they popped in a disk of some American songs. They were mostly crappy ballads like Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx, Hello by Lionel Richie, and Feelings by Albert Morris. So of course we had to sing along. No one else on the bus seemed to mind, as our singing wasn't nearly annoying as playing karaoke videos in the first place. The most hard rocking song played was Hotel California.

Lots of motorcycles in Asia. It is very common to see 2-3 people on a bike plus kids and babies. No seat belt laws here.

We got into Phnom Penh in the afternoon and checked into an even cheaper guesthouse ($5/night) on a lake in the middle of town. It was very tranquil, but lots of bugs.

On April 2, we hired a tuk tuk driver and went on tour of Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh, you re constantly hounded by offers for tuk tuk rides. We finally decided on a guy who was at least nice about it. He basically said he would take us around for six hours for whatever we wanted to pay him. We paid him $4, which was probably too much.

The first stop was at a shooting range. I haven't shot a gun in a really, really long time. I'd heard you can shoot some pretty big guns here. The driver took us to a Cambodian military base. After looking over the assortment of guns, I decided on an M-16. The cost was $50, a large chunk of cash here, to fire 30 rounds. I tried to haggle the guy down, but he said the price was set by the Cambodian Army. Deciding that not many opportunities to shoot an M-16 were in my future, I bit the bullet (so to speak) and went for it. I shot a few rounds semi-automatic, then the dude flipped a switch and I shot the rest automatic. I was firing at a target.

Then they asked if I wanted to shot another machine gun with 40 rounds. The 30 rounds went pretty quickly, and I wasn't really to shell out some more money. Then he asked me if I wanted to shoot a chicken for $15 more. I thought $15 was a lot of money for a chicken, since one can be had fully cooked in a restaurant for much less than that. So I offered $5 and we settled on $10. The bullets weren't negotiable but the chicken was.

I know there's no way I'm going to come out of this looking good. My friends who've never hunted or never been around farms will think it's brutal and inhumane. My other friends will think it's not very sporting to shoot a bird that's tied to the ground. But at that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do more that shoot a chicken with a machine gun. The guy went and got the chicken and tied it to a rope at the end of the target range. Then he set up this really ancient looking machine gun. I asked him how old it was and he said ten years, but it could have easily been older than me. He attached a flat cylinder containing the rounds (looked like something old filmstrips came in) to the top and liberally oiled it in several places. It would have been embarrassing to spend as much money as I did and fired 40 rounds and missed, but I hit it, probably more than a few times.

I have videos of the shooting range uploaded to Youtube. See the links below if interested. Warning: Explicit language.

The rest of the day was much more sobering. The next stop was Choeung prison, about 15 kilometers outside central Phnom Penh. Choeung is more commonly known as the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot took over Cambodia, taking Phnom Pehn in 1975. They then proceeded to evacuate the city and moved everyone out to work in the rice fields. Pol Pot had a vision of turning Cambodia back to "Year Zero" and envisioned a prosperous country based on the production of rice using ancient methods. While doing this, intellectuals, minorities, the middle class, the educated, police, and military offices were identified and executed. From April 1975 to January 1979, over 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, torture, or execution. A Buddhist Stupa was constructed at the prison site and is filled with over 5,000 human skulls.

Mass graves containing almost 9,000 bodies were discovered here after the Khmer Rouge regime fell. Some have been excavated, leaving craters in the ground.

The prison grounds are littered with human remains. What at first site appear to be sticks embedded in the ground are actually human bones.

The next stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Toul Sleng was a former high school that was converted into a prison. People were taken here to be tortured and coerced into naming family members and associates, who were then rounded up, and the cycle continued. Over a period of about four years, about 17,000 are estimated to have been imprisoned. Only 12 people are known to have survived. The prisoners were photographed upon arrival. There are several prison rooms dedicated to photo displays.

It's hard to imagine this all happened a little over 30 years ago. Some of the kids in the pictures would be my age if they were still alive. I'd like to think that something like this could never happen again, but it's happening in some countries now as we speak.

On April 3, I took a bus from Phnom Pehn to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.


Shaun said...

Looking forward to seeing the youtube videos...

I have never had the choice to shoot a chicken w/ a machine I can't judge. :D

xinefly said...

I like your temple pictures, and I hope you gave those flip-flops back!

Ozzy Nelson said...

I KNOW you were singing to yourself "Feelings" as you filled that chicken full of lead.

Prateek said...

Your account of your experiences in Varanasi is fun to read. Though you missed out going to Sarnath which is very close to Varanasi around 5 kms and is worth a dekko. In case you dont know, it's the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon and is a premier center of buddhist learning and research now. The place has an aura of its own and a sort of peace envelopes you when you reach there. Would suggest you to go there when you visit Varanasi next time.