Category Archives: Cambodia

Cambodia in Two Parts, Part II: Phnom Penh

My little hotel in Battambang booked me on a locals’ bus to Phnom Penh – for the first time I was the only tourist!  I was just fine with that, it was air conditioned and we didn’t make a ton of stops.  Regardless it took us about 7 hours to go the 160 miles.  I’ve now learned to add two hours on to any time estimate given for ground travel in SE Asia!  I didn’t mind the length of the trip too much, and we were treated to an amazing thunder storm in the last couple of hours.  The rain pounded down in sheets and the thunder struck in waves of multiple quick flashes – nothing like the wimpy storms we have in California!  The funniest part of the bus ride was the Cambodian music videos blasting over the A/V system.  My spotify selections playing in my ears couldn’t drown it out completely, so I ended up listening to an interesting mash-up (I found that Disclosure actually pairs pretty well with Cambodian pop).

On her way home from school.  Scenes out the bus window (on the way to PP).
On her way home from school. Scenes out the bus window (on the way to PP).

Getting into Phnom Penh I forgot that I’d mentally settled on a place to stay during my online searches, but didn’t make a reservation to have the information at hand after the long journey.  So I went to what Lonely Planet called “The Golden Mile” since they made it sound promising.  It was far from it (thereby cementing my distrust of the guide).  After checking out a few places and seeing they were all equally crappy, I settled on the Golden Gate hotel, since it was a nod to SF and the young guys at the front desk were really friendly and spoke very good English (the first time in a long time I wasn’t speaking simplified English for the benefit of my local listener).  They helped me get my Vietnam visa before the consulate closed for a few days for a national Vietnamese holiday and pointed me to a good dinner spot.  I can stand one night about anywhere, so no biggie. 

The next day I changed to the place I originally wanted to stay – the Artist Guesthouse.  It is a real gem.  Friendly staff, cute modern room, and walking distance to some good restaurants and bars.  Although there’s not too much to “see” in Phnom Penh I really liked the vibe there.  While some told me not to bother giving it much time, I was glad I had a few days to bum around.  The city is busy enough but not too crazy, has a nice riverfront, some good food, and a decent nightlife. 

Cows, chickens, and pigs agree...
Cows, chickens, and pigs agree…
Outside the royal palace. I made a wrong turn and had to walk around the whole thing to find the one entrance (typical :) ).
Outside the royal palace. I made a wrong turn and had to walk around the whole thing to find the one entrance (typical 🙂 ).
Lions protect the entrance to the palace.
Lions protect the entrance to the palace.
A different day, a different color. Traditional court dress.
A different day, a different color. Traditional court dress.
Fables in fresco.
Fables in fresco.

I travelled by foot, car, tuk tuk, motorcycle taxi, and even cyclo. Getting around was so easy!  Actually sometimes there were too many tuk tuks waiting to take you around (calling out to you everywhere “tuk tuk, tuk tuk”?).  I went back and forth between saying “no thanks” and just ignoring them to create some peace (because sometimes any response, even a “no,” got me a long list of question “where you going…where you going tomorrow, you need driver…you want to see killing fields…?”).  But if I wasn’t walking, I’d usually opt for the motorcycle taxi, since they charge you 1/3 the price and were less pushy.  Most of the time it’s very efficient getting around this way, unless of course the moto driver claims to know where you want to go when he really doesn’t.  I had one ride where we had to stop twice to ask directions from other drivers waiting on the side of the street – this is when having access to Google maps really saves you!  You’ll eventually find someone who can read the map or, if the data is working well enough, you can actually try to communicate to the driver where to go (which also doesn’t always work)!  But not being on any real schedule, I found that adventure pretty entertaining.  And since I always agree on a flat price first, there is no real down side to getting a free tour of the city.     

I also love how much of life is lived on the street here.  Even in a bigger city like Phnom Penh, it was common to see the sidewalks being used from everything from a cobbler’s workspace to a barber shop. The sidewalks are not for walking here, they’re for eating, parking, lounging, plying your trade, and just about anything else you can think of.  This is why most of the time you end up walking in the street, trusting that you won’t get run over by the many variety of wheeled vehicles zooming about.

Cool older building in Phnom Penh
Cool older building I saw when wandering around.
Scenes around PP.
Colorful apartment buildings.
Scene around town.
The standard number of power lines in Asia.
And old mansion.
An old mansion right by my hotel; I love the painted iron gate.
The Independence Memorial in the evening.
The Independence Memorial in the evening.
...and at night.
…and at night.

I met several French ex-pats living in PP.  One place I stumbled into was owned by a French guy who’d married a local and had three adorable young kids running around.  There was so much love and joy in that little bar that it felt right to just hangout for a while.  Funny enough, when I asked them what to see on my last day in PP, neither of them could tell me – they don’t get out to tour, they said.  I realized that they had everything they needed just where they were.  They were happy.  And that isn’t something I see every day.

I joined up with the Aussies I’d met in Battambang to visit the killing fields and the old high school converted into a prison by Pol Pot (Tuol Sleng Museum or S-21).  It was a very hard day.  On my two-day cruise on the Mekong in Laos, I read a book by a woman who was a child living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over (First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung).  It gave me some good background on what it was like to live through that time and made me feel a bit more prepared for visiting these sites.   But really what can prepare you for seeing the evidence of mass genocide?  Nothing.

The memorial stupa at the killing fields outside Phnom Penh.
The memorial stupa at the killing fields outside Phnom Penh.
Every victim was photographed and accounted for.  There are hundreds of these photos on display, just a small number of those who came through S-21.
Every victim was photographed and accounted for. There are hundreds of these photos on display, but that’s just a small number of the thousands who came through S-21.
The women in these photos spoke to me.  But they are just two of way too many.
The women in these photos spoke to me. But they are just two of way too many.
Scenes from S-21
Scenes from S-21.
It's crazy how easily a high school can be turned into a real jail.
It’s crazy how easily a high school can be turned into a real jail.
This wrapping of barbed wire brings home to me how cobbled together this place feels.  And creepy, really creepy.
This wrapping of barbed wire brings home to me how cobbled together this place feels. And creepy, really creepy.
The tiny jail cells.
The tiny jail cells.

In the book the author also painted a picture of her life in Phnom Penh before the forced evacuation. Her descriptions made me want to ride in a cyclo and try crispy fried insects – I did both!  I also visited the huge central market – of course, markets in Asia are one of my favorite things, they are so lively and crazy.  I decided to look for a t-shirt or something there, so I could change out of the one I was wearing.  Turns out black is not the perfect travel color for humid places.  I noticed white spots on the front of my shirt (right where the strap of my bag goes across) and realized it was salt stains from my sweat – gross!  But there is no way not to sweat here, no kidding!  I’ve now come to the conclusion that grey is the best neutral color here.  White doesn’t stay white and black, well I just mentioned why that’s not the best!  So I ended up buying a cute little striped dress at the market.  I thought the woman was saying it came in “three size[s]” but then realized she was saying “free size,” i.e., one size fits all…well, all Asians – it just barely fit me, and was much shorter than I’d expected!     

I'm riding in a cyclo - so fun!
I’m riding in a cyclo – so fun!

Cambodia

It's a cyclo race!
It’s a cyclo race!
The Central Market from outside.
The Central Market from outside.
A tower of flowers!  @ The Central Market.
A tower of flowers! @ The Central Market.
The central market, a French colonial building.
The interior of the Central Market, a French colonial building.
I stumbled into the auto parts section of the market - they really sell everything here.
I stumbled into the auto parts section of the market – they really sell everything here.

While by the time I left I did feel ready to get on with my Vietnam adventure, I surely could have been happy lingering in Phnom Penh a bit longer. 

Cambodia in Two Parts, Part I: Siem Reap and Battambang

Siem Reap

I started my short time in Cambodia in Siem Reap, to see the ancient temples.  I didn’t love the city of Siem Reap (it was very touristy in the part I had time to see), but I couldn’t come to this part of the world without seeing Angkor Wat.  I spent my first day around town – mostly I visited the National Museum (which was a good history lesson and background for the temples), hid out from the heat by the hotel pool, and took a cooking class at La Tigre de Papier

Welcome to Siem Reap.  A view of the river.
Welcome to Siem Reap. A view of the river.
Fish monger.  They're kept alive until purchase.
Fish monger. They’re kept alive until purchase.
So many kinds of rice!
So many kinds of rice!
How thy measure the rice.  Love this old scale.
How thy measure the rice. Love this old scale.
Mango salad!  Photobombed by one of the friendly Aussies in my class.
Mango salad! Photobombed by one of the friendly Aussies in my class.

I was not as surprised and impressed by Cambodian food as I was by Laotian food, but did try some interesting things (like tree ants sautéed with beef).  Their most popular main dish seems to be amok, which is basically a yellow curry without coconut milk that can be made with just about any meat (although fish is the most popular).  We made fish amok in my cooking class and I had amok three more times while in Cambodia.  Apart from the lack of coconut milk, I had a hard time identifying the distinguishing characteristics of Cambodian food.  What I could figure out in my short time here is that their food is not spicy (they only sporadically serve chilies on the side), and I saw more insects integrated into things.  I also learned a far more efficient way of cooking sticky rice in my cooking class (just cook it in a pan – no special steam basket required like in Laos and Thailand).

So, anyway, about the temples . . . I did a day tour with a guide and caught the sunrise at Angkor Wat.  It was worth starting that early, if only to beat the big crowds. Unfortunately by 9:00 a.m. not only was it incredibly hot, I discovered that both my camera batteries were on their last legs.  So I could only get the “money shorts” at many of the temples I visited.  Oh well, lesson learned (don’t assume Aisa plugs actually delivered power to your devices when you plugged them in). 

Sunrise @ Angkor Wat.
Sunrise @ Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat at day break.

Eating my toast, waiting for the sunrise.
Eating my toast, waiting for the sunrise.
A view of Angkor Wat.
A view of Angkor Wat.
Me with the Apsaras.
Me with the Apsaras.

Apart from the fact that these temples have stood for so long, what I found most fascinating is that they were used as both Hindu and Buddhist temples at different times.  The Khmer people switched between Hinduism and Buddhism several times in their history – according to what the then-current king preferred.  Although now primarily Buddhist, you can still see the influence of both (I was previously confused by seeing so many Vishnu statutes around a primarily Buddhist country).  So Angkor Wat started out as a Hindu temple, and was later changed to a Buddhist one – just by painting it red and updating the central statute to a Buddha, leaving intact the original Hindu carvings (like the carving of the fable about the gods and demons churning the sea of milk to release a tonic that provides immortality).  But Ta Prohm started off as a Buddhist temple and was later converted to a Hindu one – this transformation was more harsh, as the Buddha carvings were either chiseled off or updated to look like praying Hindu priests. 

Some of the many faces of Bayon temple.
Some of the many faces of Bayon temple.
An incense vendor. @ Bayon temple.
An incense vendor. @ Bayon temple.
This is when a guide is useful -- he knew just how to set up this nose-to-nose shot.
This is when a guide is useful — he knew just how to set up this nose-to-nose shot.
The trees are taking over.  @ Ta Prohm.
The trees are taking over. @ Ta Prohm.
This Buddha image was fairly obviously doctored to look like a Hindu priest praying (how the legs are crossed was changed, the beard added, and now he's holding something...not sure what).
This Buddha image was fairly obviously doctored to look like a Hindu priest praying (how the legs are crossed was changed, the beard added, and now he’s holding something…not sure what).
@ Ta Prohm.  They love to remind you that Tomb Raider was filmed here.
@ Ta Prohm. They love to remind you that Tomb Raider was filmed here.
A final view of Ta Prohm.
A final view of Ta Prohm.
A guarding lion.  @ Phnom Bakheng.
A guarding lion. @ Phnom Bakheng.
I had to take a photo with these monks, since we matched.  And the one to my left is simultaneously taking a photo of this round-headed white girl on his phone.
I had to take a photo with these monks, since we matched. And the one to my left is simultaneously taking a photo of this round-headed white girl on his phone.
And ancient temple hiding in the jungle.
And ancient temple hiding in the jungle.

I was overall happy that I saw the temples, but two days in Siem Reap was enough. 

Battambang

Itching to get out of Siem Reap, I headed to Battambang, a smaller city with many old French colonial buildings still intact.  While Siem Reap didn’t give me a great first impression of the “real” Cambodia, Battambang totally redeemed it.  Much of that is because I spent time outside the city doing a tuk tuk tour with a guide who spoke decent English (“Sam”). 

The best bus curtain I've seen so far in Asia.
The best bus curtain I’ve seen so far in Asia (on the bus to Battambang).

I had scheduled a walking tour in the old historical city center for my first afternoon in town – turned out to be just me and two guides (one in training).  I have to say, sadly, it was the worst walking tour I’ve ever had.  The guides couldn’t really tell me much of anything about what we saw (they pointed and told me the name of things…uh, okay) and couldn’t speak English well enough to understand my questions.  Not much of a reward for walking around in the crazy heat!  The highlight was actually when they suggested we have the sugar cane juice I’d seen everywhere in SE Asia but had yet to try.  Of course it’s really good – not super sweet, but it did make my teeth hurt! 

Cambodia
Welcome to Battambang! A view of the governor’s palace in the background.
The national bank.
The national bank.
A naga made of old gun parts.  A peace monument.
A naga made of old gun parts. A peace monument.
Crushing the sugar cane to get out the juice (this is a machine run by a generator, but sometimes they use a hand-cranked version).
Crushing the sugar cane to get out the juice (this is a machine run by a generator, but sometimes they use a hand-cranked version).
Cold sugar cane juice is just what I need in this heat!
Cold sugar cane juice is just what I need in this heat!
Housewares for sale!  Mobile motorcycle-driven stores (I've seen these pulled by bicycle too).
Housewares for sale! Mobile motorcycle-driven stores (I’ve seen these pulled by bicycle too).

The best thing the guides did for me was to point out a good restaurant – Jaan Bai – where I went right after they released me from the “tour.”  The food was great (I got an actual salad – yippee!), and I ended up meeting two sweet Aussie ladies (Lyn and Denise) who I tagged along with to a really fun circus at a nonprofit that runs arts programs for local youth.  Although the dialog was in Khmer, we got the gist of the storyline and the kids were talented performers!

The next morning I ventured out and found a huge breakfast ($3) at a cute little café that became my spot while in town.  The owner was so sweet and even gave me free fruit every day. 

My $3 breakfast.
My $3 breakfast. Yes, I often eat a Western breakfast since I eat local food for most every other meal.
I'm always drawn to the fun graffiti.  Saw this right by my hotel coming back from breakfast.
I’m always drawn to the fun graffiti. Saw this right by my hotel coming back from breakfast.

I then “made a tour” with my tuk tuk driver, Sam.  He showed me around town a bit before we headed out to the countryside.  We went by the old train station, which is no longer in use.  There I saw cool decrepit old repair sheds – some with interesting graffiti inside, and some with families living inside. 

Scenes from the old train yard.
Scenes from the old train yard.
Graffiti at the dilapidated repair sheds by the old train station.
Graffiti at the dilapidated repair sheds by the old train station.
And old train shed, now housing (although that's hard to see in this photo).
And old train shed, now housing (although that’s hard to see in this photo).

I have to say, the level of poverty I’ve seen in parts of SE Asia is eye-opening.  Many don’t have the luxury of worrying about much beyond survival.  And they work really hard to survive and make do with little.  It has really made me realize my privilege in a way I hadn’t before.  Strangely it hit home when I watched an episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  I haven’t really remained plugged-into media (especially American media), and being here so long, spending time among everyday people, I have come to understand the way of things and what drives people here more than I could on a short trip.   And I can’t even remember exactly what it was that Jimmy Fallon was joking about in his monologue or discussing with his guests, but it struck me as foreign.  I understood it, of course I’m still an American, but I saw it from a different perspective.  Not only did it bring into focus how privileged we are (we have the luxury of concerning ourselves with things that are so far removed from the day to day reality for many here), but I could actually see how, from an outside perspective, American culture holds the allure and promise of wealth and ease.  I started to understand why so many Cambodians told me they want to move to the U.S. for a better life (despite my attempt to tell them it’s not necessarily a better life just because they can earn more, it’s a complicated cost-benefit analysis).  It was enlightening to see the privilege I’ve mostly taken for granted through the perspective I’ve gained during these last two months. 

On my tour, I also rode the old bamboo train (a tourist must) – which is really just a bamboo platform on four wheels with a small engine (lawn mower? motorbike?) to propel it forward.  It goes faster than you’d expect!   And to turn it around the drivers just lift the platform off the tracks and either move it aside or turn it around so the “train” is propelled in the other direction.  We also stopped by a Cambodian winery, where they made a red wine, sherry, and grape juice.  It was interesting, but (to put it mildly) nowhere close to California standards. 

Riding on the bamboo train.
Riding on the bamboo train.
The rails of the bamboo railroad (at some points overgrown and warped).
The rails of the bamboo railroad (at some points overgrown and warped).
Moving the car coming the other way, so we can pass.
Moving the car coming the other way, so we can pass.
And old railway "car"
And old railway “car”
Scenes from the railway ride
Scenes from the railway ride

I also saw lots of bats – both a bat-filled tree (with big bats) and a bat cave (with small bats).  At the bat cave the small bats fly out in a swarm every evening to go hunting for food.  They fly in swarms over the fields, like a big snake in the air.  I also visited a Muslim fishing village, and hiked up a hill with some great views, and the killing cave (into which the Khmer Rouge dropped their victims without the need to kill them first, ugg).  Everywhere we went it was smiles and waves from the children – apparently Cambodian kids really love white people.  And if I got close enough they would just want to touch me (high fives all around…even the small babies would reach out their hands).  It was very sweet. 

Women sorting sticks.  @ the Muslim fishing village.
Women sorting sticks. @ the Muslim fishing village.
Goats, just hanging out. @ the Muslim fishing village.
Goats, just hanging out. @ the Muslim fishing village.
Neat old-fashioned ice crusher (you can't see the woman sleeping in the hammock behind there; most locals nap through the hottest part of the day).
Neat old-fashioned ice crusher (you can’t see the woman sleeping in the hammock behind there; most locals nap through the hottest part of the day).
Bat tree - these are the big bats!
Bat tree – these are the big bats!
Hey...tigers don't wear hats!
Hey…tigers don’t wear hats!
Apparently it feel divine to have your lice eaten off.  A few of the many monkeys I saw in my wandering around on the [killing cave] hill.
Apparently it feel divine to have your lice eaten off. A few of the many monkeys I saw in my wandering around on the [killing cave] hill.
The view was worth the climb!  This is when I got lost looking for the killing cave and wandered around through the many sights on this hill my guide simply pointed me up while he waited at the bottom.
The view was worth the climb! This is when I got lost looking for the killing cave and wandered around through the many sights on this hill my guide simply pointed me up while he waited at the bottom.
The memorial in the killing cave.
The memorial in the killing cave.
The small bats flying by the thousands out of the bat cave.  This happens every evening.
The small bats flying by the thousands out of the bat cave. This happens every evening.
One of the clouds of bats flying like a snake over the fields, hunting bugs.
One of the clouds of bats flying like a snake over the fields, hunting bugs.
The sunset was so brilliantly orange-red, I just had to snap a quick shot out the back of the tuk tuk.
The sunset was so brilliantly orange-red, I just had to snap a quick shot out the back of the tuk tuk.

My last morning in town I did a mini-tour, and saw where they make rice paper, fermented fish paste (a stinky place, of course), and sticky rice in bamboo.  We also stopped by the Well of Shadows, a memorial to the locals who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  There are killing fields everywhere (over 300), and this is one of the many.  It’s hard to go touring in Cambodia without being shown these parts.  It was hard for me know whether the Khmers are open to talking about that short, violent period in their history, or whether they’d rather not.  I tried to ask Sam this question but I don’t think he knew what I meant.  I generally didn’t bring it up, since I don’t see the need to.  It is part of their history, but there is so much more to the Khmer culture that I prefer to give attention to (the great Khmer empire covered most of SE Asia at one time, after all). 

 

Making rice paper.  So much work, and they sell for $0.50 per 100 sheets.
Making rice paper. So much work, and they sell for $0.50 per 100 sheets.
Steaming each one and peeling it off intact - this takes talent!  They burn the rice husk for the fire, so nothing is wasted.
Steaming each one and peeling it off intact – this takes talent! They burn the rice husk for the fire, so nothing is wasted.
Drying the rice paper.  Now I understand why they have square indentations on them.
Drying the rice paper. Now I understand why they have square indentations on them.
The vats for mixing up the fish paste, before letting it sit for a long time to ferment.  Stinky work!
The vats for mixing up the fish paste, before letting it sit for a long time to ferment. Stinky work!
Overgrown mausoleum.
Overgrown mausoleum.
Sticky rice in bamboo.
Sticky rice in bamboo.