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Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Cambodia

Cambodia’s a place we would not describe as “pleasant.” It’s been quite a test of our senses: constant noise from trucks and cars honking in traffic, bright sunshine glaring off the dry, dusty terrain, intense mid-nineties heat throughout the day, itching from mosquito bites. But at the same time we’re glad to have seen the country’s long, often tragic history.

We saw temples of Angkor, center of one of the greatest empires in the world at that time, as well as the Killing Fields, the worst time in the country’s history. Here’s our recap of our time in Cambodia.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. The temples at Angkor.
  2. Hanging out in Kep.
  3. Swimming on Rabbit Island.

Brad:

  1. Angkor. In particular my favorite temples were Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei. Sunrise was neat to see, except for all the people and the giant scaffolding with a green tarp.
  2. Rabbit Island. It was a laid back, fun place.
  3. Kep. It’s also very laid back and beautiful.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Phonom Penh. There’s very little I like about this city.
  2. Sunrise at Angkor Wat, just because it was such a let-down.
  3. Eating. The food here is just not very good, especially when compared to Thai food.

Brad:

  1. The touts. No, we don’t want a tuk-tuk, we just got off one.
  2. The food. Not only is it not especially good, but it’s very expensive. Across the whole trip so far, food has cost us 16% of what we spent, but in Cambodia, food accounts for 37% of our expenditures. However, that’s partially because everything else, especially accommodation and transport, is so cheap here.
  3. Phnom Penh. It’s busy, loud, and we really had no luck finding anything good to eat (see above).

Best meal?

Nikki: Pepper crab in Kep. Really yummy.

Brad: Breakfast in Kep: a ham and cheese omelet with baguette and orange juice. But what made it so good was the pepper. Kep is world renown for its pepper farms, and the pepper on this omelet had a very strong flavor (unlike the stuff in shakers back home) and was delicious.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Like I said, the food here is not very good. One of the worst meals was the chewy, grisly chicken and dried out rice we had for dinner in Kompong Thom.

Brad: It’s a tie between our dinners one night in Phnom Penh and Kompong Thom. It was the same both places–plain rice with chicken, but the chicken was completely bones and what wasn’t was gristle.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Didn’t get her name, but she was the owner of a new bar in Kampot. Originally from England, she now lives in Spain and Kampot. She was fun to talk with.

Brad: The Canadian couple we shared a minivan with from the Thai/Cambodian border. They were friendly and interesting.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Getting sick in Kep. (Our disaster always seems to be getting sick.)

Brad: Nikki getting sick in Kep.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Arunras Guesthouse in Kompong Thom. Big, clean, cool room with a super comfortable bed.

Brad: The guesthouse in Kompong Thom. The place had two entrances, one for the hotel and one for the guesthouse. From the look of the guesthouse, it could have been a hotel room. It was very nice.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The very first hotel in Siem Reap. It ended up being okay, but going to the bathroom and seeing “This place is dangerous! Get out ASAP!” written on the door is a little too horror movie-esque for me.

Brad: Our first night in Siem Reap. The place looked fine, until we accepted, closed the door, and found “This place is dangerous! Get out ASAP!” written on it in permanent marker. Someone must have been robbed before, but we didn’t have a problem. The doors were a weird type where if you turn the key once the deadbolt doesn’t extend all the way and the door still opens. Perhaps that person didn’t turn it twice? The room was overpriced anyways.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Going on a walk in the countryside outside of Kompong Thom. Nothing too exciting happened, it was just a nice area to walk around and see some of the local life.

Brad: The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. The buildings were really cool.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: I still think the money situation here (they use both US dollars and riel) is very strange. We got more used to it, but it was still sometimes hard to figure out if we got the right change.

Brad: Karaoke videos that always seem to be playing in restaurants and on buses. The video of the local dances are hilarious.

Statistics for Cambodia

  • Days in the country: 18
  • Places we stayed: 8
  • Rainy days: Zero!
  • Blog posts: 4
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
  • Photos taken: 648
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 173, 27% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 1
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 17
  • Number of McDonald’s in Cambodia: Zero

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 7
  • Days on the road: 185
  • Places we stayed: 87
  • Rainy days: 30
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 10
  • Photos taken: 6657
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 1526, 23% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 7
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 187

Southern Cambodia

We’ve spent the last week or so relaxing in the southern area of Cambodia. First we went to Kampot, a quiet town along the Kampot River. There were several fun hostels and restaurants, but hardly anyone was around. It was the weirdest thing, the place seemed like a ghost town. Finally we asked one of the bar owners what was up and she told us that it was the very end of high season. Most of the action there is in December and January. So I guess we missed the crowds, but also some of the fun.

Originally we were going to see nearby Bokor Mountain, but a tour guide actually talked us out of it. (A huge hotel and casino have just been built up there and kind of ruin the charm.) Kampot is also world famous for its pepper, but, as we’re not especially interested in pepper, we declined a visit to the pepper plantations. Instead, we rented bikes and rode through the countryside to see the cave temples. Outside of the cave, a teenage boy asked if we wanted a guide, so we hired him for $5 (a pretty generous amount, really). We hiked and crawled through the cave, with bats flying around and the boy pointing out various rock formations to us. Then all of the sudden, he said, “OK, this is the end of the tour. We must leave,” and he ushered us out. We were a little confused, because the cave seemed to go on further, but we left at his insistence. Outside of the cave, he suddenly wanted $8, but we were firm and insisted on what we had agreed on. Then he asked if he could have our flashlights! I couldn’t believe this kid. Reneging on a deal here is considered just as rude as it is back home and nobody had ever asked us for our belongings before.

We rode out to see a second cave temple, but that one was guarded by a whole gang of boys. Already a little put off by our first guide, I definitely got a bad feeling from this group, especially when they wanted money to “watch our bikes.” The implication seemed to be that if we didn’t pay them to watch our bikes, something bad was going to happen to them. I didn’t appreciate the intimidation, so we left without even visiting the second cave.

The next day we went to Kep, a tiny seaside town. It doesn’t have much of a beach, but there is a crab market and restaurants along the ocean. Unfortunately I got sick and spent the whole first night there shitting and throwing up. Once I got better, we spent our time reading in hammocks by the ocean and eating seafood dinners at sunset. It was a very pleasant place to relax for a few days. There are hiking trails through a national park in the area, but we never got around to doing them.

Then we spent a day and a night out on Rabbit Island. There were quite a few tourists there, but no roads and not much development, only basic bungalows and small eateries strung along the beach. The ocean was clear, shallow, and calm, perfect for swimming or just hanging out in. Most of the tourists were day trippers, so when their boats left in the evening, the island seemed quite empty. There’s only electricity for a few hours at night. After it went out out, the only noises were the waves, the boat traffic, the bugs, and people laughing.

Now we’re back in Phnom Penh, the polar opposite of Kep and Rabbit Island, getting ready for our next stop: Vietnam. Some backpackers love Vietnam and some really hate it, so I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself and forming my own opinion. We’ve got a busy schedule coming up, but we’ll try to keep the blog updated.

The Killing Fields

Today we visited the killing fields, where from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of men, women, and children. Anyone who was deemed as a threat to the revolution was sent to prison, tortured until they “confessed,” and then sent to the fields to be killed. Victims included former government officials, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, monks, nuns, merchants, teachers, writers, musicians, anyone who could speak a foreign language, even anyone who wore glasses. As Pol Pot became more paranoid, literally no one was safe, and the bodies of Khmer Rouge soldiers have been found in the graves as well.

I don’t even think there are words to describe how sad it was. There is an audio tour to go along with the visit and, while I normally think audio tours are cheesy, this one was really well done. Along with historical facts and details, it played stories told by survivors of the regime. Basically, whatever horrible and disturbing things you can imagine were routinely done. Bullets were too expensive to use, so the victims were beaten or stabbed to death and then thrown in mass graves. Today where the graves are roped off you can see bits of bone fragments, teeth, and shreds of clothing. Babies were bashed against trees and chucked in the pit with everyone else, because the regime didn’t want them to grow up and avenge their families. And all of this was done with music playing over loudspeakers, to try and drown out the screams of the dying.

Many of the remains have been exhumed and are now on display in glass cases in a memorial pagoda. I don’t know how many skulls are in there, thousands probably, all arranged by sex and estimated age at death, the closest thing to a tombstone that they’ll get.

Seeing these things was absolutely chilling, but I’m glad we went. It’s important to learn about this sad history, not just to prevent future genocides, but also to try to understand the national psyche here. With all that Cambodia has been through, I’m amazed it’s in as good of shape as it is. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty, but it seems to me like they’ve done a good job of getting back on their feet and carrying on. I think Cambodia is on the upswing and I certainly hope it stays that way. After enduring so much tragedy, the people here deserve some happiness.

Visiting Angkor Wat

We saw the grand temples of Angkor and, to be perfectly honest, I have pretty mixed feelings about the whole thing. Most people gush about how great Angkor is, so let me explain a little. The temples themselves really are incredible, no doubt about it. They are beautiful, detailed, and enormous. We spent hours exploring some of them. Even the park itself is huge and driving between the temples takes up a lot of time. My favorite parts, though, were the murals carved in the walls. Most of them are of mythical war scenes, but a few show scenes from daily life. Some of them are so intricate, you can see tiny details like the different pieces in a chess game.

Our favorite temple was the very last one we saw, Banteay Srei. It’s about an hour’s drive away from the others and we decided to see it at the last minute. I’m so glad we did! Made out of pink sandstone and covered in decorative carvings, it’s like a miniature, dainty version of the other temples. It’s all very well preserved, too, possibly because they have it roped off and you can only see parts of it from a distance. Even from a distance it was still my favorite, though.

So it wasn’t the temples that let me down.

What left a bad taste in my mouth was how the area is managed. For example, one morning we got up to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. ??Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed by the whole experience.?? There were hundreds of people there, all crowding around the lake, talking, taking flash pictures, and generally being obnoxious. Locals were selling coffee and spaces on blankets to sit on. Then touts were bugging us, which is pretty much constant all the time, but super annoying.?? And then, to top it all off, the sun started to rise and it was really beautiful at first, but then as it was getting lighter we could see tons of scaffolding and tarps covering up part of the temple! Biggest disappointment ever. To be fair, I was expecting a really peaceful, magical, moving experience, but as Brad said, “I think we’re here 30 years too late.” It is definitely not an undiscovered gem!

The people here are extremely proud of Angkor Wat. It’s even pictured on the nation’s flag! Since it’s such an important national treasure, I feel like they should take better care of it. Limiting the number of visitors, not allowing touts to bug people, and cleaning up trash all seem like good ideas to me. It would also be nice if they didn’t have so much construction going on during peak season. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I had a much more pleasant time exploring the temples in Ayutthaya. I don’t want to sound like Angkor is a waste of time–it’s not–I just wish I had been better prepared for all the crap we had to deal with. Anyway, check out our pictures and judge for yourself.

Cambodia: We’re Not in Thailand Anymore

The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia has a bad reputation among travelers, but we didn’t have any problems. I think all of the problems associated with the border (corrupt officials, scams, and onward transportation) are no longer an issue.

It’s crazy how a line on a map can change everything. The countries in Asia really are as different from each other as the countries within Europe are. One of the first things I noticed is how much poorer Cambodia is than Thailand. There’s more trash and filth in the towns. The roads are in bad condition, which is a little ironic, since everyone says the roads are much better now than they were twenty years ago. (I can’t imagine how bad they must have been then!) A fair amount of people ride actual bicycles, not motorbikes. Touts and beggars are out in full force again, something we haven’t really had to deal with since Indonesia.

Other things have changed as well. The food has, in my opinion, taken a turn for the worse. Grilled meat here is excellent, but most dishes seem to lean heavily on cucumbers and onions. (Maybe they’re cheaper?) I don’t dislike cucumbers and onions, but they’re not my favorite vegetables. At least bread is common here, probably because we’ve reached former French Indochina territory. I didn’t realize how much I missed bread until I bit into a freshly baked??baguette.

Money is pretty confusing here. They have a local currency, the riel, but mostly use US dollars. That sounds simple enough, but they don’t have any US change, so they use the riel as change. The exchange rate is about 4,000 to $1, so if your bill is $6.25 and you pay with a $10, you’re going to get $3 and 3,000 riel back as change. And to make things even more confusing, they also use the Thai baht, so prices can be given in dollars, riel, baht, or a combination of them, and we have to figure out which one is the best price.

The language is different, of course. The people look different. The tuk tuks are different here. In Thailand, tuk tuks are small, three-wheeled vehicles with the driver in front and a bench in the back for the passengers. Here, tuk tuks are chariot-like trailers pulled by motorbikes. The dirt is red and dry, like it was in Australia. Everything is dusty. It even smells different here, but I have no idea how to describe the smell. It’s not bad or stinky, just different.

And, sadly, there is evidence all over of Cambodia’s tragic past. After enduring war and genocide of an estimated two million people by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, the country faced a new problem: land mines. Until recently, Cambodia was one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and right away I noticed how many amputees and handicapped people there are. The land mines also stopped people from using large areas of land, which is partly why Cambodia is less developed. (If you want to read more about land mines in Cambodia, I highly recommend this National Geographic article.)

Clearly Cambodia is going to be a whole new ballgame. Most tourists blow right through here, stopping only in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but we decided to stay just a little bit longer to see more. It may not be as pleasant or fun as Thailand, but I’m looking forward to learning more about Cambodia.