Archive for the 'Cambodia' Category

Apr 24 2008

Back to Bangkok

Published by under Bangkok,Cambodia,Thailand

Back to Bangkok! Three magical words. As much of a relief as it was to LEAVE Bangkok after our first visit, the idea of returning to the City of Chaos now lightened both our spirits. After spending these last five weeks traversing Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, we’d both gained a new appreciation for the land of mango sticky rice and modern health care. We would only have a day in Bangkok before heading south for the Thai beaches, but finding these two necessities topped our packed capital city agenda.

Because nothing ever is ever as simple as it sounds in SE Asia, just getting to Bangkok was an unwanted adventure in itself. We booked a bus ride that would take us from Siem Reap, Cambodia straight across the Thai border, and onward to Bangkok. The travel agency sent a minivan to pick us up at our hotel around 6:00am, and we thought we were on our way. Instead, the minivan driver spent the next hour driving around the city, trying to find more passengers to bring to the bus. When we finally arrived at the bus stop, we learned that the travel agency had over-sold the bus. Because the travel agencies do not consider empty seats to be a prerequisite for selling tickets, they had sold tickets to a dozen or so more passengers than the bus could accommodate. We sat on the sidewalk with the other confused passengers as they bus company worked out a solution.

After two hours of doing absolutely nothing, taxis began to pull up at the bus stop. The bus station had hired them to take the excess passengers all the way to Bangkok, which is about a ten-hour ride. When we saw the company representatives begin forcing five passengers, plus luggage, into each taxi, we put on our battle faces. Having paid for seats on one of the plush-looking A/C buses shown on the travel agency posters, we were NOT about to cram into the backseat of a taxi with two other people, plus their luggage, for a ten-hour ride.

But just as a company rep approached us to try and load our luggage into a taxi, his cell phone rang. The bus to Bangkok had two empty seats after all. A quick look around revealed that Brittany and I were the only group of two left among the passengers waiting for taxi seats, so we found ourselves loaded into a new mini-van, and whisked away to meet the bus.

Another hour later, the mini-van came to a stop, and as we climbed out, I noted with dismay that there was only one bus in sight. Looking something like an extended VW Minibus, with backpacks and elbows jutting out of every window, this was a far cry from the bus we’d been shown at the time of booking. Sadly, five weeks in this region had caused me to expect the bait-and-switch by this point, and I simply climbed aboard with head hung low. After all, nothing we’ve ever paid for up front since leaving Thailand has been delivered as promised. But for Brittany, this was a breaking point. She took one look at the bus, and began yelling at the company driver who’d just dropped us off.

“THIS is not the bus we paid for! Does this bus even have air-conditioning? We PAID for air-conditioning!”

“Sure, sure, air-con,” the driver replied. “FRESH air.”

This sent up a roar of laughter from the employees on the VW Minibus. And why not? They know that we farang have no recourse in these situations but to bend over and grab our ankles. This bus is going to Bangkok with our without us, and the idea of getting something as ridiculous as a REFUND is a pipedream in this culture. And so it was, that four hours after first being picked up from our hotel, we finally left Siem Reap, in an extra-long VW Minibus with no A/C, backpackers in every seat, luggage piled high in the aisle, and five company employees in plastic chairs beside the driver. Why must there always be at least four employees sitting in plastic chairs beside the bus driver? This remains one of SE Asia’s greatest mysteries, and the only conclusion I can draw based on the evidence is that they’re simply on hand to harmonize with the driver during on-board karaoke.

I’ve tried to block out the details of that cramped, sweaty, full-day ride, but I do remember that we finally arrived in Bangkok several hours later than we’d been promised. The bus dropped us off at the infamous Khao San Road, one of the prime contenders for “Backpacker Mecca of the World.” Cheap accommodation, food geared to the Western palate, an abundance of souvenirs… no matter what you’re looking for, if you arrive in Bangkok with a backpack on your back, odds are you’ll be on Khao San Road within the hour. But despite the fact that we were in Bangkok for six days the first time around, we never actually saw Khao San Road.

That’s a record, you know. The backpackers that we bumped into second place lasted only twelve hours in Bangkok before finally succumbing to the magnetic power of Khao San Road. Their record stood for years before we came along. We were eager to finally see what all the fuss was about this time around, and had decided before arriving that we would find a hotel on Khao San Road for our one night in the city. We slid off the bus, marched into the first seedy hotel we saw, and immediately booked a room. Time elapsed from bus to bed: forty-two seconds. Another record! We decided to celebrate by immediately setting out to explore this Khao San Road we’d heard so much about.

Kha San Road, Bangkok, ThailandHow to describe Khao San Road? It’s like someone crammed the Atlantic City boardwalk in between some dirty Bangkok alleys, gave it one look, and determined that it would be THE PERFECT PLACE to sell Che T-shirts, pirated DVDs, unsanitary western food, counterfeit designer jeans, plastic buckets of Thai whiskey, questionable currency exchange services, and porn. And based on the number of eager customers elbowing for room in the middle of the street, I guess that someone was right. But for us, no. Not even “no thank you,” just no. As in, get us out of here this instant. I’d say we gave Khao San Road about ten minutes before extricating ourselves, never to look back. It would have been even sooner, but we passed a woman selling mango sticky rice on our way out. OK, so Khao San Road does have one redeeming quality.

We woke up early the next morning with a list of things to accomplish in Bangkok before leaving on an overnight bus south to Krabi…

  • Visit a travel clinic for consultation on several lingering medical issues, ranging from Brittany’s second degree burn (blame a Phnom Penh motorcycle exhaust pipe) to my own on-going war with the indefatigable Bangkok belly.
  • Find a storage facility to lock up our oversized duffel bag of tailored clothes for the next three weeks
  • Buy a waterproof camera case from Bangkok’s always-useful Pantips Plaza
  • Eat delicious fried chicken and sticky rice from a restaurant we love here
  • Buy sunscreen and bug repellant from a pharmacy (you’d be amazed how hard these can be to find outside of Thailand)
  • Buy our plane tickets home from a Khao San Road travel agency
  • Buy tickets at the bus station for tonight’s overnight bus to Krabi

An ambitious list, but nothing that shouldn’t be feasibly accomplished in one full day. Except that this is Bangkok. And while the places we needed to visit are spread out over the city, it’s not the distance that makes hitting them all difficult: it’s the traffic. No matter how close your destination may be, the relentless Bangkok traffic ensures that it’s going to take you at least an hour to get there by taxi or tuk-tuk. Which is why you take the overhead SkyTrain whenever possible. But for reasons unknown, the SkyTrain was only set up to service half of the city. If your destination happens to be in the other half… well, I hope you’re not in any hurry. And if you are, may God have mercy on your soul.

As fate would have it, most of our destinations for the day were, quite inconveniently, established in that SkyTrain-forsaken other half of Bangkok. We try not to let getting up early become a habit, but when it came to today, we knew what we were up against. We tried to tackle the items on our itinerary as efficiently as possible. First stop: a travel clinic I’d found online.

After an hour-long taxi ride, and an hour-long wait in the clinic’s reception area, we finally saw a doctor. We got attention for all our many needs, but as for my Bangkok belly, the doctor needed to run some tests. We were told to come back in a few hours for the results.

Having to return to the clinic in the afternoon was an unexpected wrinkle, so we decided to split up for increased efficiency. I caught a taxi to the bus station to buy tickets to Krabi, while Brittany headed back to the travel agencies on Khao San Road to shop for plane tickets. But it only took that long for things to unravel.

By the time I made it back to Khao San Road, bus tickets in hand, I was expecting that Brittany would have already bought our plane tickets home. Instead, the tickets turned out to be much more expensive than the prices we’d been quoted by these same agencies over the phone, and I found Brittany scrambling from agency to agency in search of better prices. I joined in the hunt, but after an hour of fruitless searching, we realized it was already early afternoon, and we needed to get back to the travel clinic.

Another hour-long taxi ride to the clinic, this time with duffel bag of tailored clothes in tow. Once more, we waited and waited for the doctor, only to learn that the tests showed nothing wrong with me. I could tell the doctor all the reasons that is definitely not the case, but there’s no time for that. We have to get a waterproof camera case, find something to eat, and get this duffel bag to the storage facility before it closes at 6:00. And more bad news: it’s already 5:00.

Change of plan: straight to the storage facility! We can get the camera case and food after we store this bag. It’s not like it’s going to take an hour to reach the storage facility… we can actually take the SkyTrain there!

Which might have worked, had we not gotten lost after disembarking the SkyTrain. By the time we FIND the storage facility, it’s 5 minutes to 6:00. We burst through the doors, duffel bag in hand, just as the manager is closing up. We start filling out the paperwork to get our bag stored for the next three weeks, and answering all the manager’s questions about where we’re headed. But now we’ve got some really bad news: the overnight bus leaves at 7:00, which gives us exactly one hour to get back to our hotel, gather up our luggage, and then make it to the bus station. The minimum amount of time that I can imagine for this trip is an hour and a half.

“I’m sorry!” I blurt. “I know this is rude, but we have a bus to catch. Can we just leave this bag with you, and you fill out the rest of this paperwork?” I’m already backing out the door as I ask. The manager seems confused, but agrees to my proposal. Or I hope he did… we didn’t stick around to really hear his answer. Our bus tickets were quite expensive, and there’s no refund if you miss the bus. You just have to buy expensive tickets again tomorrow night. The countdown to 7:00 has officially begun.

6:00pm: We sprint to the nearest SkyTrain station. It doesn’t go all the way to our hotel, but if we get off at the nearest stop to our hotel, we can cover half the distance of the trip more quickly than a taxi could.

6:15pm: We disembark the SkyTrain, and run down the steps from the elevated platform into the street. I flag down the first tuk-tuk I see.

6:16pm: “Khao San Road!” I shout to the tuk-tuk driver. He quotes me an inflated price, but we have no time to argue right now. We climb aboard, and although the tuk-tuk drivers rarely speak any English, I can’t help myself from yelling, “and FAST!” Guess what? This tuk-tuk driver speaks English.

6:17pm: I re-attach my head to my neck. The driver has put the pedal to the floor, and we’re weaving through Bangkok traffic like I’ve never seen. Mr. Hoa, eat your heart out! I encourage the most reckless of our driver’s dare-devil maneuvers with cheers.

6:40pm: We arrive at our hotel, and leap from the tuk-tuk before it comes to a full stop. We grab our luggage, and I try to convince this driver to take us all the way to the bus station. He doesn’t want to make that long trip, meaning we’ve got to find another driver.

6:45pm: After several minutes of being turned down by prospective drivers, a taxi agrees to take us to the bus station. He speaks a little English, and I explain our situation to him. “7:00??” he asks. “Uh-oh.”

7:00pm: “Uh-oh” is right. Our bus is officially leaving the station now, and we’re stuck kilometers away, in standstill traffic.

7:20pm: We arrive at the bus station. As Brittany unloads our luggage and pays the driver, I make a dash for the boarding platform. If the bus is still somehow here, I have to hold the driver. Pushing my way through the crowd, I ride up the two escalators, run across the booking floor, and fight my way to the front of the line at the security checkpoint. Flashing my tickets, I dash past the two posted guards.

7:25pm: I race up to a desk in the middle of the boarding platform. “Tickets?” asks the seated woman. I pull our sweaty tickets from my pocket and hand them over. “Oi!” she shouts. She jumps out of her seat, and runs toward one of the platforms, shouting in Thai at the top of her lungs.

7:26pm: I follow her, and can’t believe what I see. Our bus has just pulled away from the platform, but this woman has been able to get the attention of the driver. He backs the bus up, back into the boarding area. The driver, a little confused, hops off to help me with my luggage. Of course, Brittany has all of that. I can only yell “Thank you! One second! My friend!” before darting back through the crowds to the security checkpoint. There I find Brittany, detained by security for not having a ticket, and I show our boarding confirmation tickets to the guard to get us both through.

7:30pm: Our luggage now stowed safely underneath, our bus for Krabi departs. And somehow, we’re on it. We failed to get plane tickets, a camera case, sunscreen, bug spray, or any food all day. We’re sweaty, smelly, exhausted, and hungry. But we’re on it. At this moment, despite the catastrophe today amounted to, we feel like the two luckiest people in Bangkok. And that’s when we look up to see the steward handing out individual boxes from Mr. Donut.

I couldn’t write a better “happily ever after” if I wanted to. THE END!

But just for fun, here are a couple of shaky videos taken on the ever-popular Khao San Road…

Khao San Road, Bangkok from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

Khao San Road, Bangkok from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

6 responses so far

Apr 23 2008

Cambodian Finale: Angkor What?

Published by under Cambodia

As the bus pulled out onto the bumpy road from Kampong Cham, a guy came around handing plastic bags to all its passengers.

“Are these supposed to be barf bags?” Ben asked me.

“This is so not a good sign,” I replied.

We were headed for Siem Reap, home of the mighty temples of Angkor, a requirement on any S.E. Asian tour. Surprisingly, the six-hour ride passed tolerably, with two exceptions: the woman directly behind me who kept retching into her barf bag, and the ever-present karaoke blaring from the televisions. Bonus this bus ride: the featured DVD must have been a “best-of karaoke duets” compilation – both Ben and I could sing along!!

As we stepped off the bus, we were immediately surrounded by the typical torrent of tuk-tuk touts. Knowing we needed a ride to a guesthouse in the city center, we paused to hear their pitch. We were surprised when one man approached us offering a free ride.

“Hello, hello!” he said. “I give you free ride now IF you hire me to be your driver tomorrow.” (The many temples are too far apart to walk comfortably between them, so some form of transportation is necessary.)

I was impressed with this man’s clever business savvy, so after negotiating a price (one that was “good for me, good for you!”), we agreed.

Luckily, our driver also had lots of insider information, including that if we bought tomorrow’s tickets to Angkor Wat tonight, we could visit a temple this evening at sunset for free. Having heard so much about the legendary sunrises/sunsets at Angkor Wat (and knowing full well we’d never wake up in time for sunrise) and enticed by anything anyone calls “free,” we had the driver pick us up that evening to take us to a temple he recommended as having the best sunset views.

Didn’t take us long to figure out why the views are so good from this particular temple: it’s on a freakin’ mountain. A mountain we unwittingly found ourselves climbing with throngs of other weary tourists.

About halfway up, Ben and I were startled by a young guy ahead of us turning around and saying something unexpected:

“I’m sorry, but do you have a blog?”

I can’t describe the exact feeling that accompanies a stranger asking if you have a blog, but it’s somewhere between apprehension and fear. We both hesitated as I did a brief risk-analysis in my head.

  1. What are the chances this person will expose me as the huge dweeb I am if I admit that I am a blogger? VERY HIGH
  2. What are the chances I’ve ever insulted this person, or any person or company he may be affiliated with, on my website? VERY HIGH

Upon frantically looking around and determining there was no means of escape, Ben and I simultaneously mumbled a hesitant “yes.”

As if we weren’t flabbergasted enough by being recognized, the guy surprised us further by saying he’d actually emailed us recently. A few weeks ago, we received an email from Nate in Colorado. Nate and his girlfriend, Jenny, were coming out to S.E. Asia for a while and, in his research, had stumbled upon our site. Since WE are obviously SO AWESOME and THEY are obviously SO AWESOME, why don’t we meet up to talk about just how AWESOME we all are?

Ben and I were game, but as our means of communication are limited and S.E. Asia is the size of, like, a continent, it was harder than anticipated to meet up, and our plans fizzled.

But here we were: we had indeed, if unintentionally, met up!

I can’t begin to fathom the coincidence of running into Nate and Jenny in Cambodia and can only assume destiny has something momentous in store for the four of us. Hopefully it involves forming an elite superhero task force, saving backpackers the world over from hawkers, scammers, lousy exchange rates and bed bugs. Oh, and blogging all about it, of course. Ok, really I just want to see Ben in tights.

We climbed to the top of the temple with Nate and Jenny, at which point Nate unzipped his backpack, pulled out a bottle and was all, “hey does anybody want some wine?”

Then I was all, you are my new best friend.

So that’s how we found ourselves enjoying the first wine we’ve had in weeks, chatting with our new best friends, and watching the sun fade behind the clouds from the top of an ancient temple.

This is why I love the internet, people. Because you’re hiking up a random mountain in the jungle of Cambodia, talking about why Indiana Jones had the hots for that severe Nazi woman even though she was a severe Nazi woman, when someone turns to you and asks if you have a blog. Cyperspace is the coolest.


Later that evening, we met Nate, Jenny, and another couple at a bar near Siem Reap’s central market for several rounds of Angkor beer.

Unfortunately, being woken up at 5:30 in the morning by roosters crowing and clawing under your bamboo hut (us), and a long day of exploring temples under the hot Cambodian sun (them) does not leave you feeling like your fun-loving, awesome self. Come midnight, the increasing number of yawns around our table made it clear that it was time to turn in for the night. Unfortunately, we were heading our separate ways the next day: Nate and Jenny were off to Vietnam and we were staying put in Siem Reap. Ben and I were both disappointed that our new best friends were leaving, as Nate and Jenny really did seem awesome. Fortunately, they live near a ski resort in Colorado, so even though I’m sure you only extended an invitation to visit to be polite, please do not be surprised when Ben and I come barging into your home next winter. Thanks!

We have also decided that we are going to model our lives on theirs: they own their own business and take time to travel the globe 3-4 months out of every year.

Our next day began too early. We had a lot of ground to cover and only one day to do it. Whereas most tourists spend at least three days exploring the giant complex of Angkor temples, we only had time for the one-day pass.

Angkor Wat is the pride and joy of the Cambodian people. It is pretty much their only claim to fame, and they cling to it desperately. An image of the temple is smack in the center of their national flag! One time, when a false rumor got around that a popular Thai soap star was claiming Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, it sparked riots on the streets of Cambodia.

And having seen it, I can see why. These temples are amazing. Seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it: they look like they come straight out of a movie. In my opinion, they are the best ancient ruins we’ve seen on our trip. And we’ve seen a LOT of ruins.

The various temples are surprisingly intact. And ’cause this is Cambodia, where they really don’t care what you do once you fork over your $20 per day ticket fee, you can clamber up, in, and around the temples however and wherever you like!

I could bore you with the fascinating history of the Angkor temples, but I’ll refrain. Mostly because I refrained from learning any of it myself.

Instead I’ll give you a brief photo tour of our day exploring Angkor Wat.

This one’s the biggie. It’s the temple that’s actually named Angkor Wat.

The next most famous temple, Angkor Thom, popular for the giant faces on its towers.

Close up!

“Mountain temple.” Stairs at Angkor temples are less like stairs and more like ladders, with their vertical faces being about a foot long and their horizontal ones being about two inches wide. Very tricky, let me tell you.

Our favorite temple. It’s called Ta Prohm, but everyone just calls it “jungle temple” as the jungle has taken it over — giant trees have sprouted up on top of the temple, their roots snaking through the ruins. Lara Croft was filmed here.

Ok, so I like to climb in things.

Check out our Flickr page for more photos. I didn’t label them because there are hundreds of them and, well, all this blogging is taking major time away from swinging in my hammock.

3 responses so far

Apr 22 2008

Things I Learned During My Cambodian Village Homestay

Published by under Cambodia

Cambodia’s tourist trail looks like this: Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The end. Siem Reap is home to the monumental Angkor Wat (which is what everyone really comes to see) and getting to Siem Reap generally involves passing through Phnom Penh. Our visit to Cambodia was shaping up to look no different, until Brittany stumbled on something intriguing online. An American expat has been going around posting on different travel forums, advertising a homestay opportunity in his Cambodian residence: a small village near the eastern town of Kampong Cham. E-mails were exchanged, and before we knew it, we were adding a slight detour to our Cambodian itinerary. So when we left Phnom Penh early one morning, we did not catch the bus north for Siem Reap. Instead, we headed east, to meet our new friend Don.

Don is originally from Michigan, but has been living in Cambodia for years. When he met us at the bus stop in Kampong Cham (we weren’t especially difficult to spot among all the villagers on the bus), he introduced us to his English-speaking Cambodian wife, Kheang. A twenty minute tuk-tuk ride later, we arrived at their village home, where we would stay for the next two nights. Don and Kheang have been operating their homestay for less than a year, but they have a smooth system in place. We would sleep in a stilted bungalow detached from the main house, and eat home-cooked meals with the family. Which includes not just Don and Kheang, but their two adorable children: a 5-year old son (Ra) and a 4-year old daughter (Na). In between sleeping and eating, Kheang would lead us on walks around this village where she was born, acting as tour guide and translator along the way.

Don’s online description touted that we would even LEARN something during our homestay. Ha! I folded my arms, shut my eyes, and turned my head to the side. Not if I have anything to say about it, I smugly thought to myself. It turns out that I did not, in fact, have anything to say about it.


1. Mosquito nets keep out scorpions

Good thing too. I have been clinging to mosquito netting throughout SE Asia as my best night-time defense against malaria, dengue fever, and the like. When Don told us that their last homestayers had encountered a scorpion in the guest bungalow, I made sure to tuck that frilly mosquito netting up under the mattress. This meant no breeze at night (which was made harder by the absence of any fan) but no venomous tails or pincers either. Fair trade.

2. Ra and Na are the most photographed children in Cambodia

Palm sugar! Rana Homestay in CambodiaOr so insists Don, who is probably statistically correct. Thanks to the endless cycle of homestayers coming through, these two kids, who have probably never seen a television in their lives, are semi-professionals in the area of digital photography. Looking back over the photographs from our visit, I discovered that half them show Ra and Na mugging for the camera. The other half are out-of-frame shots taken by the kids themselves. Oh well, the kids are just too cute to say no to. Somewhere, Don grunts his disagreement.

3. Fresh tropical fruit is the ultimate dessert

Jackfruit at Rana Homestay in CambodiaI quickly learned to look forward to every home-made meal Kheang served us, from grilled eggplant to the Cambodian signature dish, fish amok (fish grilled in a coconut). But truth be told, I will forever envy all people from this region their daily dessert. After every meal, Kheang served us a plate of fresh pineapple, jackfruit, and sticky sticky mango. I’d never even heard of jackfruit before a few weeks ago, and I don’t know where to begin trying to describe it. Just look at the picture to the left. As the Greeks would say, it’s very e-spe-see-al. Sticky sticky mango speaks for itself, and has become a staple of my diet that will surely prove painful to remove.

4. OK, maybe it’s a tie with palm sugar

Palm sugar! Rana Homestay in CambodiaOn one of our walks, we stopped to watch some villagers refining palm sugar into warm, maple-colored blocks. Kheang bought several blocks to use for cooking, and the delighted villagers insisted on giving us all samples to our heart’s content. But the hearts of those who have never before tasted palm sugar know no satisfaction. Brittany and I ate a LOT of palm sugar. Considering that it’s like drinking maple syrup straight from the bottle, we should probably be ashamed of that. But it’s so warm and sweet, and really, Ra and Na probably ate more than we did. Later, everyone but Kheang had tummy-aches.

5. There is a reason no one wants my sweet rice balls

Sweet rice balls! Rana Homestay in CambodiaWe saw one lady in the village sitting cross-legged outside her home, selling little white balls of sweet rice. We’ d already eaten everything else in the village, so I bought six balls for our group, for the price of 100 Cambodian riel (about $0.025). They were so good that after leaving her and walking down the road a bit, I broke off from our group and hurried back to buy some more. I asked for six more rice balls by holding up six fingers and putting on a very hopeful face. She looked surprised, and then started grabbing rice balls by the fistful and stuffing them in a plastic bag. I was confused for a moment, and then suddenly realized she thought I’d asked for 600 riel worth of rice balls. Since 600 riel is still only about $0.15, I let it slide and became the proud owner of an over-stuffed plastic bag of sweet rice balls. With way more sweet rice balls than our group would be able to successfully keep down, I tried offering some to every villager I passed on my walk back to the group. But every time I offered, my intended recipient would lean away from me, laughing, and wave both hands in the air. I began to become confused: why doesn’t anyone want my sweet rice balls? Having been turned down by three different people, I approached a girl sitting in a chair by the roadside, apparently managing a small shop with her brother. I held out my bag and pointed to her and her brother. She nodded (at last!) and I handed her the bag. I waited for her to take some sweet rice balls, but instead, she closed the bag and placed it in her lap. I stood there waiting for her to take a few. She sat there staring at me. I stood. She stared. I looked around, confused. She kept staring. I backed away slowly. She stared. I started walking backwards down the street. She stared. Finally, I turned and hurried away. In all likelihood, she stared. What happened?

Later that evening, Brittany uncovered the answer. What she’d noticed (and I obviously hadn’t) is that whenever a Cambodian wants to give something to another, they give the whole thing. So, if you want to give your neighbor some cucumbers, you don’t come over with ten in your arms and offer five. You put five in a bag, bring it to your neighbor, and give her the whole thing. “Have a few and give me my bag back” is an alien concept. So, my giant bag of sweet rice balls had simply been more than anyone I met had wanted to take off my hands. Until I found roadside girl and her brother, who are probably still eating from that bottomless bag today.

6. To Cambodian children, everything = toy or food

Every house we passed on our village walks seemed to have a yard full of kids, screaming and pulling all sorts of make-shift toys behind them. Beer carton + a bit of string = racecar, and anything not square = ball. Ra and Na were too busy eating everything we passed to have any time for such play. Every time I looked around, one of them had climbed a new tree to grab cashews, mango, berries, seeds, flowers… anything that would fit in their mouths, went into their mouths. There’s some kind of worm that leaves a slimy trail on tree leaves, and the kids love to lick its goo. Yum! Actually, it was striking to see all the village children playing outside, when Ra and Na didn’t seem to have playmates in the village. I asked Don about it, and he told me that the villagers don’t consider Ra and Na to be Cambodian. Since they have a foreign father, they don’t fit neatly into the established social equation, and are thus viewed as outsiders. But Don isn’t too anxious about how Ra will be received by his classmates when he starts school next year: having an American father has ensured that he is much bigger than any other village boy his age.

7. Never trust the Cambodian government

Rana Homestay in CambodiaDon and Kheang didn’t always live in this village where Kheang was born. In fact, when they met, both were living in the capital of Phnom Penh. Don was teaching English, and Kheung was working for a NGO, and she had recently purchased a home in the city center. Then, something unexpected happened. Lots of foreign investors got very interested in city real estate, and property value in the capital suddenly soared. For Kheang, this should have been great news: her investment had paid off in a bigger way than she could have dreamed. Instead, the corrupt Cambodian government decided that it should be great news for themselves. One day, government agents showed up at Kheang’s door, and told her that they were claiming her home. It was worth so much now that they had decided to sell it to foreign investors. Oh, but don’t worry: the government had graciously decided to give Kheang replacement property: a small parcel of unfarmable rural land, miles outside of Phmom Penh. Market value: one fifth of the price she’d originally paid for her city real estate. Amazingly, she managed to find a buyer for this rural parcel, and she and Don went about stripping her city home of all useable building materials. With these supplies, and a little bit of cash from her sale, the two moved out to Kheang’s childhood village, bought some land, and built a house. Both Don and Kheung had to leave their jobs in Phnom Penh, and running a village homestay is now their sole source of income. Did I mention that the current “President” of Cambodia is a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla? Makes a lot of sense, actually.

8. Seriously, you can’t trust the Cambodian government

Don and Kheang’s home doesn’t have electricity, which isn’t too hard to believe. We are talking about Cambodia, after all. But here’s an unexpected wrinkle: they live in a village that DOES have electricity. Huh? A couple of years ago, the government came through and connected the village to the power grid. But when they came to Don and Kheang’s small street, they decided that there weren’t enough homes here to justify installing a meter. Translation: not enough money in it to bother working up a sweat. And so, while the rest of the village entered the age of electricity, a handful of homes were simply passed over. Lights shine throughout the village every night, except for one dark patch. Don, Kheang, Ra, and Na are right in the middle of it. With no electricity, we found ourselves turning in at night around 8:30. But as part of some cruel joke, the village chief DID receive electricity, and each night we lay awake into the wee hours of the morning, listening to his outdoor speakers blasting Cambodian karaoke.

Rana Homestay in CambodiaTales of governmental corruption in Cambodia are seemingly endless. I doubt any government has a more transparant facade of democracy than this one. To learn more lessons like these, we highly recommend staying at the Rana Homestay near Kampong Cham, Cambodia. Don has a million and one tales to tell. As a bonus, you can join Ra and Na in enjoying such village delicacies as jackfruit, palm sugar, and sticky sticky mango. And let us know when you go: I’ll tell you where to find a girl with a big old bag of sweet rice balls.

Rana Homestay: Don and Kheang’s Blog

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Apr 21 2008

The Killing Fields

Published by under Cambodia

You are sitting in your apartment, making breakfast and reading the newspaper, about to head to your office. Suddenly, screaming armed soldiers storm in your front door. They force you to abandon your home and join the swarming crowds of people on the street. Everyone is forced to march. Where, you don’t know. You see people beat and killed for nothing—reluctance to walk, or showing signs of intelligence. You dress like a peasant and feign ignorance to protect yourself. Days later, you arrive at a commune, where you will work indefinitely. You have no idea if your family and friends are safe or alive. Most likely, you will never see your loved ones or your home again.

During the 1960s, an ultra-Communist insurgency movement began gaining momentum in remote Cambodia, aided by Viet Cong troops. Increasingly frustrated with American bombing of Vietnamese-controlled Cambodian countryside, the party had no trouble recruiting a large peasant army. They called themselves the Khmer Rouge and they were led by a man named Pol Pot.

A disclaimer: this is not a happy history. Ben and I witnessed graphic depictions of life, torture and death in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime. We chose to subject ourselves to it; you do not have to.

On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge troops stormed Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and Pol Pot became head of state. Art, religion, literature, and education were all abolished. The postal service ceased. Currency was eliminated. The year was declared Year Zero.

Pol Pot’s goal was to transform Cambodia into a radical “agrarian utopia.” He forced a mass exodus of all urban centers, marching the entire population out to the countryside to work on farming communes. Here they would labor, without enough food, separated from their families and homes, for the next four years. Of course, many of them would never make it out alive.

What Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge actually created was one of the cruelest genocidal regimes in history. They killed. You were killed if you were educated. If you’d traveled, or showed signs of Western influence. If you were smart. If you didn’t cooperate. If you objected or complained. If you ate too much food. If you spoke a foreign language. If your hands were too smooth. If you wore a wristwatch or eyeglasses. If you were suspected of wanting to escape. If you were deemed a traitor to the party.

Ben and I had come to Phnom Penh to experience two notorious vestiges of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime: the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. We’d heard from other travelers that it was a difficult, emotional experience, but not wanting to shelter ourselves from the cruel realities of history, decided to make the visit.

That morning, we hired a moto driver to take us through the dusty Cambodian countryside to the Killing Fields (officially the Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center), an area of land outside of the city where a large number of Khmer Rouge executions occurred. Almost immediately upon passing the small ticket booth at the entrance, we were confronted by a shocking site: a giant glass tower, packed with skulls. This stupa, erected as a monument to the victims found buried here in mass graves, contains shelf upon shelf of skulls—more than 8000 in total. On the floor lies a pile of discarded clothing, heaped haphazardly, just as their owners had been forced to shed them before death.

Around the grounds, signs demarcate the former buildings and sites where atrocities occurred: this is where the prison once stood, in which victims awaited their imminent execution. Here was the chemical shed, where they kept chemicals they sprinkled over mass graves to dispel the smell (to prevent suspicion from the neighbors) and kill anyone who may have been buried alive. Here was the killing tools storage room (not wanting to waste bullets, the Khmer Rouge used other implements, such as axes, hammers, bamboo poles, and garden hoes, to kill most people). Here was a mass grave of 166 victims without heads. Here was a mass grave of naked women. Here is the tree against which executioners beat children.

As we walked around the fields, unsuccessfully trying to comprehend such horrors, we noticed we were surrounded by strange craters in the earth. It took us a moment to realize that these were the remnants of shallow mass graves. A posted map denoted the areas where mass graves have been exhumed, as well as the area – nearly twice as big – where they have not uncovered the graves. So most of the victims’ remains are still underground, unknown, a jumble of bones.

From time to time, we were approached by groups of Cambodian children. They’d engage you in conversation for a while, as best they could, before asking you for money. “Just a dollar, mister,” they’d say, “for us to share.” Or, “for food” and “for school.”

It’s hard, but you have to say no. There are so many reasons for tourists not to give money to begging children; in fact, advertisements around Phnom Penh implore tourists not to.

The presence of these children makes the experience all the more heart breaking. This is a country ravaged by war, and the effects of Pol Pot’s reign are felt thirty years later. These people still live in severe poverty.

A moto driver took us to our next stop in the city, the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. In 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces took over a high school in Phnom Penh, converting it into Security Prison 21 (S-21), also known as Tuol Sleng Prison. S-21 soon became the largest center for detention and torture in the country. At its peak, over 100 people died there per day. Some died while being tortured, others from malnutrition or disease. Even more were sent to Cheoung Ek for termination. Less than a dozen of the 14,000 people sent to Tuol Sleng survived.

What first struck me upon entering the complex is that it looks disarmingly like a high school. You can imagine students sitting behind desks aligned in rows on the checkered floor. Or students walking through the courtyard to make it to their next class. In fact, Ben pointed out that it was strikingly similar to our university’s dorms, which made the experience all the more disturbing.

Larger rooms of the high school were crudely divided into tiny, dark prison cells – so small Ben and I could hardly fit through the doors. The chains that had held the inmates remain attached to the wall. Rusty torture devices, such as whips or electrocution boxes, remain strewn on the floor. A layer of thick, twisted barbed wire cover the fronts of the buildings to prevent escape or suicide.

Other rooms of the Tuol Sleng Museum have been converted into galleries. Several rooms display the inmates’ mug shots. Others display pictures of the inmates as they lay tortured and dying. One gallery contained posted interviews with survivors of the regime, telling their story of survival, or the story of a family member who was not so lucky.

Another room contains artistic depictions of the various methods of torture and murder the Khmer Rouge employed. Pictures of water boarding, victims being covered with poisonous insects or having body parts removed. One particularly disturbing painting depicted a Khmer Rouge soldier ripping an infant from his mother’s arms by the ankle and flinging its body against a tree.

In 1979, the Vietnamese marched into Cambodia, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in about two weeks. Pol Pot lived in exile until 1998, when he died of “natural causes” on the very day the UN announced he would be held accountable for his crimes.

No one is exactly sure how many people died under Pol Pot, although 1.5 million, or about 25% of the Cambodian population, is a conservative estimate.

The Cambodian people have come a long way since the Khmer Rouge, but Cambodia continues to be fraught with corruption and poverty. Ninety-five percent of the population remains in the countryside, too impoverished to seek a better life. Nor are they unaware that the current president is a deeply corrupt, former Khmer Rouge officer.

After walking through the museum, we sat for a while in the courtyard, trying to process what we’d seen. I am unable to convey in words how heart wrenching and emotional it is to visit these sites. Simply reliving my experience in order to write this blog entry has brought back the tears. It’s impossible to comprehend the depths of evil people are capable of. Nor do I attempt to understand why such horrors occur. And how some people, like myself, can be so fortunate, while others suffer horrible fates, for no reason other than the random location of their birth.

The only thing that kept me from sinking into complete despair was the museum guestbook that people from across the globe had signed with messages of sympathy, hope, and assurance.

If you’d like to see pictures of our experience, visit our Flickr page.

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