Cambodia is not a country that is usually on my list of most desired travel destinations. This rather small country in South-east Asia is bordered by significantly more prosperous nations including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia has beaches, history, and can be hospitable but it is very poor and very corrupt. It is likely most widely known for the massive genocide of a third of the population by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s and being bombed to smithereens by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Being utterly unaware of all of this I set out to see the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat and, since my good wife had been sponsoring a Cambodian child through World Vision for a number of years, we booked our tickets to Cambodia. As we were visiting friends in Thailand this was not a significantly onerous task….at least to get there.
After a few weeks touring Thailand with our friends we decided to set out on our own. I had previously visited a beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand that was in the general area of Cambodia. Koh Chang, however, was on the opposite side of the Gulf where we had been staying in Hau Hin. With the added incentive of visiting another friend who was resident in Pattaya, we set out without our Thai speaking guardians.
We booked bus tickets for Pattaya but calling our mode of transportation a bus, is a bit of an exaggeration. They are rather similar to vans in Canada and as many passengers and luggage as possible are stuffed into these rolling containers. It was not unlike being a small fish stuffed into salty brine. We were fairly lucky on the trip from Hau Hin to Pattaya as the driver was very possibly sane and the luggage only reached to our shoulders. We could actually see out the windows. Drivers in Thailand, however, generally drive down the middle of the road and are constantly beeping their horn as they pass every motorist in sight, regardless of who is coming the other way. One just has to trust!!
We arrived with only minor bruising to visit our friends in The Extreme City, as Pattaya is known. Our hosts walked us down Walking Street where the meaning of life takes on a whole new dimension. Colourful is an understatement. After a few days we were glad to escape the flagrant sinning to embark on a second bus bound for Koh Chang. I had previously visited this rather underdeveloped island and was anxious to have a somewhat quieter time. It did not disappoint. We took long walks on the, almost deserted, beaches and sampled some of the local culinary treats. But the real goal was to visit Angkor Wat and Cambodia.
After about a week we embarked on a third bus adventure and found ourselves slotted between monstrous suitcases, other passengers, and no view of the outside world. This is how we would remain for the entirety of the 5 hour trip. My partner generally travels fairly well but not at the back of a gyrating bus, absent of oxygen, with only visualizations of what may ultimately cause our destruction. I, on the other hand, have a stomach not unlike an incinerator, and blind faith in our driver…not to mention humanity in general. I was, thankfully, not within complaining distance of my gradually diminishing partner and was blissfully unaware of her plight.
We eventually arrived in Aranyaprathet, a small border town and the gateway to Cambodia. We had previously made arrangements to meet a travel guide who would show us our room for the night and arrange for our transportation, and protection, in and out of Cambodia. One does not generally travel without a local guide and driver in Cambodia due to the potential risks of robbery or worse. The most reasonable cost far outweighs the potential consequences.
After many hours with no knowledge of how close we came to sudden death, the little bus finally deposited us in a travel centre where I first became aware of my partner’s physical state. She actually had a skin tone not unlike the inside of an avocado and was entirely unresponsive. I directed her to a large cushioned seat near a nice little fan blowing actual air while I checked around to find our travel guide. Unfortunately not one person admittedly spoke English and it seemed as if they were directing us to another travel guide that was offering services for twice the price. I showed whoever would view, the address of our destination but they seemed completely unaware of such a residence. Meanwhile my sickly travel friend was still comatose and dependant upon me to find a cozy room and bed, or possibly, a lethal injection that would end her misery.
Finally I used my Blackberry to call a friend in Hau Hin, sort of like that Who Wants to be a Millionaire program, to get us out of this predicament. My friend spoke fluent, whatever the aspiring salesman was speaking, so I handed him the phone. There was a veritable avalanche of words exchanged until the phone was eventually thrust into my expectant hands. Our conniving agent suddenly began to speak fluent English and asked us to wait while he made a phone call. About 10 minutes later a van arrived with a nice lady who asked us to accompany her as she would take us to our hotel. We boarded her vehicle and set out for an, expected, long drive. We drove about a block, actually within cursing distance of our unscrupulous travel agency, and were taken to a little group of cabins where we would be spending the night.
After a blissful night’s sleep complete with air conditioning, we gave over our passports for processing at the border. We were also driven to an office that would make arrangements to meet our driver, travel guide, and a brief outline of the events of our week-long tour of Cambodia. For about $1,200.00 (Canadian), all-inclusive, we would be the only people in an actual car (a nice little Toyota Camry) complete with driver and various travel guides who would accompany us at each tourist destination. This would also include four star accommodation, three meals per day, free entry into any tourist sites, and the lively conversation of our driver, Chan, who spoke fluent English. Our avocado bus ride a distant memory, we were actually approaching the pearly gates of Cambodia.
Some may find it interesting that Thailand vehicles drive on the left side of the road while the Cambodians drive on the right. It is a curious maneuver at the border but somehow Chan managed to overcome this obstacle and we found ourselves sailing down the right side of the road. On our return to the border a week later, however, we had forgotten this little inconsistency and were actually walking over the border unaccompanied. Much to our amazement we were, at one point, walking with the traffic and suddenly found ourselves against it. I’m still not sure how they do that.
Over the border our first stop was Siem Reap which is a city of about 200,000 people. This is a bustling metropolis that has grown to become the primary tourist destination in Cambodia because of the Khmer temples known as Angkor Wat. Chan took us to the Grand Hotel that is the original hotel in Siem Reap, built in 1929. He informed us we would be driving out to Angkor Wat in the morning and to be ready about 9:00 AM whereby he discretely disappeared. The Grand was fairly grand and we were treated to excellent meals, heavenly air conditioning, and were early to bed after our previous days of travel.
Up at dawn our driver appeared at 9:00, just as he had foretold. Chan was, however, accompanied by a wiry little man who called himself Amad. He was also fluent in English and talked incessantly. He was friendly and had a wealth of knowledge about the temples. We learned that Angkor Wat, which means Temple City, is the largest religious monument in the world. It was originally founded as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire in the early 12th century but was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the latter part of the same century. It was, however, essentially abandoned after the 16th century and did not become known to the rest of the world until the early 19th century when its considerable restoration began. The jungle had almost reclaimed this monument of a bygone age with astounding trees growing on and through many of the relics. It is such an unearthly place in some areas that the American movie, Tomb Raider, was shot on the site causing an array of personal visions concerning Angelina frolicking among the ruins, the very same ones that I was now frolicking.
In 1992 Angkor Wat was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has become the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag. Angkor Wat is quite astounding in its sheer mass, the amazing architecture and the intricacies of the art that is everywhere. These series of temples stretch over 400 square kilometers and must have taken thousands of labourers centuries to build with the site seemingly a representation of an exceptional civilization. It is very likely a representation of the Khmer social order, culture, religious beliefs, and symbolism of the time. Very impressive!
Chan dropped us off with Amad and we wandered the site with the constant hum of our little guide expounding on the various peculiarities and virtues of Angkor. After about 6 hours our ears could no longer tolerate the incessant muttering and we were about to fall in the dust when our wonderful driver appeared with snacks and cold drinks…..and most importantly, the Camry. We were glad to head back to the Grand and enjoy the pleasures of a comfy bed and bounteous restaurant. Angkor Wat was well worth the visit, however.
The next morning, after a gluttonous breakfast, Chan appeared once again about 9:00 AM. We were heading for Phnom Penh, the bustling capital of Cambodia. Travel time for the 300 kilometers from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by car is about 6 hours minus stops. The countryside is fairly flat with endless fields of rice paddies. The road was bumpy due to previous flooding but we managed the journey without difficulty. Chan stopped in one small village and introduced us to his family. He seemed fairly prosperous compared to many of the villagers but his job takes him away from his family most of the time. It appears he only visits them when he passes through.
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the late afternoon of November 22, 2010 and were deposited at the Golden Stadium Hotel. I remember this date because it was the date of the infamous Phnom Penh Stampede when 347 people were killed and another 755 were injured in a human stampede during the Khmer Water Festival. Before dropping us off at the hotel Chan had offered to pick us up that evening and take us to the Water Festival which was only a few blocks from our hotel. We declined, stating we were very tired after the long drive and I wanted to go for a run and stretch my legs. We later learned of the tragedy, visited the site the next day, and saw the 100s of pictures of the deceased at the hospital where people were searching for their loved ones. The city and country were devastated.
I, of course, was oblivious to all of this on the evening of the disaster and set out for my own personal disaster. I found myself running on completely unknown streets during a Phnom Penh rush hour just before dark. I didn’t even note down the name of the hotel where we were staying. Dumb tourist!!
In unfamiliar cities I generally try to run down one long street then repeat my steps in the opposite direction. The streets in Phnom Penh, however, do not go in a straight line and there are many arteries emanating off my chosen street at strange angles. As well, the traffic is entirely without order. People do not follow each other or remain in a particular lane. They are constantly trying to pass, or turn, or who knows what. They think nothing of driving down the wrong side of the road. Innumerable scooters are intermingled with cars and trucks, and busses, and people. It is a mess. It is also a typical Asian country where the biggest vehicle has all the rights and successively smaller ones having fewer rights down to the lowly pedestrian….who has none. Just think how many rights a pale foreign runner has!!
So here I am winding my way through people and cars as darkness descends on Cambodia. I manage to run a few kilometers before I decide to turn around and find my way back. It is now dusk and vehicles are turning on their lights. The streets start looking all the same and I am becoming blinded by car lights. At one point I had to cross the road and was only saved from certain death by a scooter driver who slammed on his brakes and shielded me from other vehicles. I was soon unable to recognize anything from my run in the opposite direction. I couldn’t even ask anyone where my hotel was because I didn’t know its name. After a few wrong turns I miraculously found our Golden hotel and had second thoughts about ever running again. Looking out our room window, however, I was able to discern a large stadium, which was possibly why our hotel was named the Golden Stadium, and learned that it was open to the public. This stadium became the site of my remaining runs, sans insane drivers, while in the city.
Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city in Cambodia. It has been the capital since the French colonization and has become the nation’s center of political, economic and industrial activity. The city was founded in the 1400s and was considered the ‘Pearl of Asia’ in the 1920s due to the French architecture. It is presently home to 2.2 million of the 15 million people in Cambodia. It is located on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.
We stayed in Phnom Penh for three days and visited the World Vision sponsored child. We met her family and attended her village where our money was apparently used. From what we could tell funds don’t go to a specific child but rather to her village. She is more of a poster girl. The village then attempts to improve their situation by beginning a business that will sustain them after the World Vision money has expired. The village we visited had purchased some chairs, tables and sound equipment that they rented to various groups for special events. We also visited a classroom and were asked questions by the school children. Interestingly, I was asked how old I was….nothing else. They must have thought I was ancient.
Another day Chan picked us up and took us to the Killing Fields. I was not entirely certain what they were but had a vague idea. We soon learned that between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime arrested and executed almost anyone suspected of connections with the former government or with any foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. It is believed that between 1.7 and 2.5 million people were executed during these years of the 8 million population at the time. These were not nice people.
We visited the prison where many prisoners were tortured and executed with thousands of pictures of the victims displayed on the walls. We also attended the actual site of the killing fields where loud music had been played to drown out the screams of people being murdered. There was a large building containing thousands of human skulls and a tree where babies where apparently smashed and thrown into pits. It is amazing what people do to other people, and we’re talking about only 40 years ago.
Well, that was a bit of a depressing note to end our visit to Phnom Penh. We eventually left Phnom Penh with Chan in the Camry and headed back to Aranyaprathet and the Cambodian/Thailand border. Chan left us at the border to walk the few steps to the Thailand side. We had little trouble in the crossing other than finding ourselves walking on the wrong side of the road. We were very pleasantly surprised to find our friends from Hau Hin appear to usher us back to Bangkok and the trip home. I guess they didn’t trust us to negotiate the remainder of the journey but we were very thankful for their presence.
Cambodia was a very interesting experience but the people have a much harder life than we enjoy. Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.