Cambodia was a definite highlight of the tour of SE Asia. Such an exciting and beautiful country. We entered Cambodia by bus from Thailand. Previously, Jeff and I had heard many a horror story about the bus route into Cambodia. And as we rode through Thailand in comfort, we figured it was all hyped-up exaggerations. But things changed as we arrived at the Cambodian border. We entered a whole new world ...
Dust filled the air and children crowded around as we walked through immigration and into this intriguing new land. Soon, we were packed onto a mini-bus with other foreigner adventure seekers and departed on a trip through the beautiful Cambodian countryside. Words cannot begin to describe this journey ... the dusty roads, the gigantic pot holes, the endless bumping up and down, the luggage falling on your head, and all the while you are praying that the driver's excited screams have nothing to do with the trustworthiness of the rickety bridge beneath you. Fortunately, we had ideal conditions ... it only took us 8 hours to make it to the town of Siem Reap. And as we arrived, only one thought came to mind ... "that was AWESOME!"
Dusty road in Siem Reap.
The first part of our trip to Cambodia was spent visiting the ruins of Angkor. The kings of the ancient Khmer civilization built these now world-famous temples and palaces between the 9th and 13th centuries. We spent two days exploring these magnificent structures before heading on to Phnom Penh. I've posted a separate page of pictures from the visit to Angkor.
After our brief stay in northern Cambodia, Jeff and I took a boat across the Tonle Sap Lake and down the river to Phnom Penh. Here, we stayed with an Indonesian couple, Herry and Suzie. Herry works for an NGO that primarily serves the rural poor. Projects are organized so that villagers can learn a skill and work to make a simple living.
The boat to Phnom Pehn.
Huts along the river.
Jeff and I spent about 4 days investigating Phnom Penh. As I reflect on this time, one word comes to mind to describe Cambodia ... lawless. And this chaos is best embodied by the streets of Phnom Penh. Right of way, traffic etiquette, and other rules of the road are but distant notions in the mind of the Cambodian driver. Nearly everyone in Cambodia rides on motorbikes, so naturally Jeff and I hired ourselves a couple of friendly non-English speaking moto drivers to take us around. We soon found that when you can't speak their language, it's difficult to convey important concerns to your driver, such as "Are you sure it's safe to drive straight into oncoming traffic like that?" or "I nearly lost an appendage when you flew through that intersection with hundreds of motorbikes converging in it." But soon you learn to trust your driver and enjoy the ride.
One day, Jeff and I escaped the dreadful southeast Asian heat by visiting the Phnom Penh Water Park. Unfortunately, most Cambodians cannot afford the $2 entrance fee, but to the elite who can, they are treated to another embodiment of the term lawlessness. Imagine a small-scale American water park ... but without the rules. Children everywhere, running about out of control, flailing in the shallow waters, piling up dangerously in the middle of clogged up water slides. If only they had these kind of places when I grew up.
The streets of Phnom Penh.
Fried insect delights at a local market.
Part of our time in Phnom Penh was also spent learning more about Cambodia's tragic history. The country's current poverty is largely due to the violence that has torn the country for the past half century. The darkest period for the country (and perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in human history) was under the rule of Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot and the "Red Khmer" communist party led a revolution, exploiting uneducated peasant children to fight as soldiers. After seizing control of the country, all city residents were forced to work in the rural rice fields and take on a colorless, classless life meant to break all ties to family and friends. Many died of exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Others were summarily accused of being anti-revolutionary, tortured, and executed. Men, women, and children were daily rounded up, hauled off, and never seen again. As one historian puts it, because of Pol Pot's "inhuman policies and his unswerving love of power, more than a million Cambodians, or one in seven, died in less than four years, pointlessly and often in great pain." (emphasis added) [David Chandler, "Brother Number One"]
In Phnom Penh, several museums and memorials have been established to remember the horrors of the late 70's. Jeff and I visited two significant sites, the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The prison (also known as S21) was originally a primary school before being commandeered by the Red Khmer. Around 14,000 men, women, and children passed through S21 under the reign of Pol Pot. Only a handful survived. Most were tortured cruelly for months and then taken outside the city to be executed at the killing fields.
Dave at S21 Prison.
Prisoner torture room at S21.
The killing fields.
Cambodia is a country ripe with poverty and pain. The violent past has left the country littered with undetonated mines, and as a result, amputees of all ages are a common site. Cambodia is a sad, but strangely beautiful country. If you have the chance, I highly recommend a visit. It'll be good for you.