Day 225, Fri, Dec. 15, 2000 – We felt fairly well-prepared for Cambodia after our supplies shopping, so we packed the biggest chunk of our luggage in Wheely Beast and left it at the Bangkok Sheraton in storage for the next eight weeks. It was great to be rid of it as we packed the taxi to the airport. At the terminal, we got a small VAT refund for the camera, ate some noodles and ice cream. The flight was only an hour over the border and into Siem Reap. It was a small, clean and orderly airport with the requisite crowd of “porters” and “taxis” crowding the exit. We went with a reasonable looking, short guy with a good-looking car and a sad smile. Not long into the trip, the driver introduced himself and asked us the usual questions – where are we from, how long will we stay, do we need a guide, would we like to stop for shopping. After some unpleasant experiences with drivers in Bangkok, I snapped back – “hotel only!” Vouthy was quiet after that and continued into town to the hotel we had picked out of Lonely Planet. As Naomi and Vouthy went in to check out the room, I stayed in the back seat and picked up a fat book that was sitting in the back - a serious academic study of the history and culture of Southeast Asia. I figured he had it in his car as part of his job to drive tourists around. When they returned to the car, Vouthy showed us his picture inside the book and told us about the author, an elderly British scholar, David Snell. We thought these were pretty good credentials, so we arranged to hire him after all to show us the ruins for the next three days. The hotel we originally selected turned out to be a bit grungy, so Vouthy showed us another that was much newer and clean. He also loaned us the book for the night to prepare for our tour tomorrow and when we read it we learned a great deal more than we originally expected. Vouthy had helped David immensely in his research as a guide and interpreter, and was mentioned in the acknowledgements of the book. David also wrote of Vouthy’s own history, when his parents and older brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was sent off to be “re-educated” along with millions of his countrymen. Of course re-education was a euphemism for working the rice fields as slaves and succumbing to brain-washing attempts. Foreign languages were forbidden and teachers, intellectuals, and indeed anyone with glasses was suspected of being too influenced by non-Khmers. Vouthy and his only remaining brother survived the fields to struggle in the post-war economy and he adopted an orphaned child he found on the road - one of the thousands created by the Khmer Rouge. I felt bitterly ashamed of my selfishness when I snapped at him.
In the afternoon, we walked around the small dirt-road town. It is one of the most developed towns outside of Phnom Penh due to the influx of tourist dollars and development money to restore, maintain and exploit the ancient ruins that surround the city. There are many small hotels and restaurants – it reminded us of the tourist town that grew up around the ruins in Petra, Jordan. We went through the fruit and vegetable market, buying pineapple and a pirated copy of the Lonely Planet book on Cambodia. We had previously been using “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”, but it was light on details for each specific country. We had a pasta dinner at an expat restaurant called the Red Piano full of tourists and playing U2 videos on the video. On the way back, we passed the one and only disco in town, with teenage prostitutes in skimpy outfits outside snuggling with much older tourists. We suspect to see this throughout this part of the world. As in Thailand, we get lots of double-takes and some rude stares when people see a tall white guy with a short dark Asian girl. So far, Naomi’s been mistaken for Goan, Nepali, Tibetan, Thai and Cambodian (until she opens her mouth, that is, and they usually laugh and look away)
Back in the hotel, we read more of Snell’s book and the history section of Lonely Planet. Cambodia has perhaps the most twisted and horrific history of any country in this century. The once-powerful Khmer Kingdom ruled vast stretches of Southeast Asia for hundreds of years from the 9th to the 14th centuries, constantly battling the neighboring Burmese, Thai, and Cham (Vietnamese) dynasties for territory. At one time, the Khmer armies pushed all the way to the Thai capital of Ayuthaya, only to find it occupied by the Burmese (in fact, Siem Reap literally means “Siam defeated”). At the height of the kingdom it included parts of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, providing the cultural and artistic center of the region, and building the enormous temples seen nowhere else in the region (although copied in Thailand). The most productive periods architecturally usually followed periods of turmoil, as successive rulers sought to celebrate or legitimize their kingdoms. The empire started under the Hindu pantheon of gods, but converted to Buddhism under the enigmatic Jayavarman VII, whose Buddha-like face peers from many of the monuments and statues in the area. To us, he has an uncanny resemblance to Shaquille O’Neal (although Shaq prefers much smaller earrings). The great Angkor dynasty eventually fell to the Thais in 1432, starting a long decline which included periods of rule by the Thai, Vietnamese and Spanish (from the Philippines). The French put an end to this by forcing King Norodom to sign a protectorate treaty in 1864, eventually managing the country together with its other “Indochina” colonies. Cambodia was occupied by the Japanese during the war, but reverted to the French afterward until the Geneva Conference of 1954 ended the French-Viet Minh War. Although the newly independent country under Prince Sihanouk pledged neutrality, it would soon be the little-known “second theater”, indelibly linked to the US war in Vietnam. This was due in part to their own communist rebels, but more directly a result of the “Ho Chi Minh” trail that the North Vietnamese had carved through Eastern Cambodia to help supply their troops in the south. In 1969 Nixon authorized secret bombings of Cambodia that eventually unloaded three times more ordinance than dropped on Japan during World War II. That wasn’t the worst of Prince Sihanouk’s problems – while visiting France in 1970 he was deposed by the right-wing general Lon Nol. Sihanouk threw his support behind (and even came up with the name for) the Khmer Rouge communist guerillas in the hope of getting his job back. The war was now in high gear with communist cousins in Vietnam and Cambodia fighting the “imperialist” Americans. The US and their allies in South Vietnam and Lon Nol were outmatched at jungle warfare and by the time the US had planned a withdrawal from Vietnam, Cambodia’s fate was sealed. On April 17, 1975 – two weeks before the fall of Saigon – the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh.
What followed would become the most horrific human tragedy since the Holocaust. The Khmer Rouge began a grand sociological experiment, attempting to immediately transform the entire country into one vast agricultural peasant commune. All cities, including Phnom Penh, were evacuated and residents driven into the country to work the fields. The Khmer Rouge deemed 1975 “year zero” for the new utopia. Education, communication, postal services, and even currency were abolished. All workers in the Lon Nol government were killed, as were teachers, writers, and “intellectuals” as they had been irrevocably tainted by capitalism and contact with the outside world. Merely wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. We recalled the scene in “The Killing Fields” where the guards were trying to trick Dith Pran into speaking English (this is the only major movie dealing with the Cambodian aspect of the war, compared to dozens dealing with the Vietnamese aspect, since that’s where the US was involved). The Khmer Rouge developed an ideology that was amazingly contradictory - it was based on communist ideals, but implemented with fascist discipline complete with a shadowy Orwellian Big Brother called “Angkar” who sees all and cares for all. It is really impossible for the outside world to fathom what was going on because Cambodia had become a virtually closed society. Even when refugees escaped to tell their stories and journalists started investigating, the world could hardly believe it. French journalist Francois Ponchaud wrote a book based largely on interviews with escapees and official pronouncements by the Khmer Rouge – it was called “Cambodia Year Zero”.
“They didn’t look at all happy
to have won the war”
Our Angkar has everything it needs.
There is no need to import machinery from foreign countries, the only
worthwhile ones are those invented by the peasants
“The soldiers took away everything we brought with us except one kettle and some rice”
infected must be cut out, what is rotten must be removed, what is too long must
be shortened and made the right length. It
isn’t enough to cut down a bad plant, it must be uprooted.
“The Khmer Rouge soldiers would not mingle with us, why
are considered infants of the Angkar. Honor the children whose spirit is
pure and unsullied by the corrupt past of the adults
“A druggist tried to argue, but the soldiers cut off his head right in front of me”
We kill them
all because they are all traitors and deserve to be shot. Better to kill an
innocent person than leave an enemy alive.
“Trucks had driven over them repeatedly. Flattening them
Everyone must know everyone else as
well as the image of his own face in the mirror
“We had to write our biographies – everything about us
so they could weed out the enemies”
The Angkar has eyes like a
pineapple and sees everything
“Love affairs were punishable by death”
Thanks to Angkar, every day is a
Day 226, Sat, Dec. 16, 2000 – The hotel fixed a nice breakfast and Vouthy arrived right on time, greeting us with the wai (praying hands) greeting. He drove us past the famed hotel built by the French, then the few kilometers to the ruins. We stopped at a very efficient ticket office where we posed for photos to go on our laminated identification cards. Mine looks like a stoner and Naomi’s looks like a criminal, but they were good enough to get us past the guard. The three-day pass cost $40 – about six weeks salary for the typical Cambodian. We drove first to the massive fortified city of Angkor Thom. It is surrounded by a stone wall 8 meters high and 12 km around. We entered over the South bridge over what used to be a 100-meter moat filled with voracious crocodiles. The bridge was lined with statues of kings on one side and demons on the other, each holding the long body of a mythical serpent. The bridge led to a gate with enormous carved faces and elephants. Inside the complex, real elephants await tourists willing to shell out a few bucks to pose in front of the temple. The main complex inside the city is the Banyan – a mass of 54 gothic towers representing the 54 provinces of the ancient Khmer kingdom, dizzying stairways, carved murals, low corridors and 200 massive smiling heads. The heads are alternately attributed to Buddha or Jayavarman VII (depending who you ask as this was built after the conversion of the kingdom from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism). From a distance it looks like a massive pile of rocks, but details form as we approach. Exploring the complex, climbing all over like kids, we were always being watched by at least a dozen of these gargantuan faces – it was very creepy, like the ancient version of the Khmer Rouges omniscient “Angkar”. The other main attraction of Angkor Thom is the 1,200 meters of bas-relief carvings on the surrounding walls – some 11,000 figures in various scenes of battle, celebration, worship or everyday life. Some are incredibly vivid, like the King surrounded by concubines, a woman giving birth, people picking lice from each other’s hair, a cockfight, chess match, and even a circus with jugglers and tightrope walkers. As we came out of one of the niches housing a Buddha shrine, we ran into an Asian kid with a shirt from Goshen, Indiana, which is just 10 miles from my parent’s house.
Outside the temple was a group of vendors – flutes, masks, books, cards, drinks, fruit, and temple rubbings made on rice paper. There were also plenty of kids and amputees vying for the attention of tourists arriving and departing. From the Bayon, we walked to several of the other temples in the area, surrounded by moats, pools, and encroaching jungle. We walked in the “royal enclosure” and “celestial palace”, watching kids swim and women do laundry in pools formerly reserved for royalty. The Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants each included incredible statues and carvings of soldiers and dancing apsaras (similar to those in India). Some kids told us about the statues, so we bought some post cards from them. Vouthy took us to a great noodle place near the temples, but unfortunately, he did not sit with us – he ate with some friends. We were very disappointed because we had anticipated that he would be our guide as well as driver.
After lunch we visited the most famous structure in the area – the incredible Angkor Wat temple itself. The temple is such a symbol of the Khmer empire’s legacy, that it’s incorporated on Cambodia’s flag and many people mistakenly call the whole Siem Reap area “Angkor Wat”. A library of books has been written about the temple - its construction, history, artwork, cultural significance, and its current function as a monastery and tourist attraction. It is deservedly on many traveler lists of global highlights and UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. We stood outside the gates to admire the form against the blue sky. It is the largest religious edifice in the world – nearly a mile square. The perfect symmetry of the towers and courtyards is amazing, considering its advanced age - 900 years. The effect is breathtaking – especially as reflected in the surrounding pools, with saffron-robed monks who offset the gray stone palm trees adding a graceful tropical touch to the ancient monument. As we crossed the sandstone causeway over the moat, a group of giggling Cambodian high school kids surrounded us and asked us to pose for photos. We were happy to oblige and took some shots of them as well. We continued to the ornately carved porch, ripe with symbolism, as is the entire structure. The temple is meant to represent the Hindu cosmos, with Mt. Meru as the center tower, surrounded by smaller peaks, continents, and oceans (the moats). We passed the 3-meter tall, 8-armed Vishnu carved from a single block of sandstone and into the corridors surrounding the central temple. The walls surrounding the exterior are all crowded with intricate bas-relief carvings depicting Ramayana scenes of incredible complexity and design – with some 1,700 apsaras and all the Hindu favorites making appearances and thrashing demons. There are scenes of horrendous battles, some mythical like Hanuman and his army of monkeys battling the 10-headed Ravana; and some historical like Khmer, Thai and Cham warriors chopping off body parts, grabbing tongues and gouging eyes. There’s also a version of heaven and hell with the condemned suffering tortures far below the blessed in mansions attended by women and servants (we wondered whether the servants considered it heaven). The most famous relief is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, with 88 devils and 92 gods churning up the sea with a giant serpent to extract the elixir of immortality, which both sides covet. Over the centuries, millions of hands touching the sandstone have given them a polish that makes them shine like black marble. From the galleries, we continued to the towers and the center sanctuary, which used to house a solid-gold Vishnu, that has long disappeared. Outside, monks and tourists alike were struggling up the very steep steps to the top (although the monks did not use the rope chain).
We headed out around sunset as Vouthy had suggested we hike up the small hill to Phnom Bakheng temple to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. At the foot of the hill, we realized hundreds of other tourists (or their guides) had made the same decision. We had visions of hiking up Poon Hill again except this time we were steaming hot instead of freezing cold. The really obnoxious tourists hired elephants to climb up for $15 – about a dollar per minute. Some cute kids and monks were congregating with the tourists at top and we bought a delicious icy pineapple from an enterprising kid with a big red cooler. Photographers were chasing monks around like zoo animals, looking for that “perfect shot”. I think the monks were in on the joke too as they would smile and look away right before the “National Geographic” types clicked their shutters. From the top we could see out over the treetops to the red sunset on one side and Angkor Wat itself on the other side – turning from gray to gold to pink in the changing sunlight.
On the way down the hill we noticed
that the small band of musicians playing traditional Khmer instruments which we
had been listening to was made up entirely of amputees – a one-armed guy on
percussion and a man with no legs playing a type of lap guitar. We gave them everything in our pockets, which unfortunately
was only about $3. We felt ashamed
of the tourists who took pictures of them, but gave nothing, violating an
unspoken law of travel (and common decency).
We asked Vouthy about them later and he said the government does not take
care of them and locals have their own problems, so they rely almost entirely on
handouts from tourists. Were they
playing music because they were more desperate or just more skilled than beggars
in other countries?
Do as much work as you can, as well
and as quickly and as economically as you can.
Rain or wind, in sickness or in health, day and night, you must do
correctly and without complaining what the Angkar orders you to do.
Day 227 ,Sun, Dec. 17, 2000 – Today we finished what is called “the big circuit” and the remainder of “the little circuit”. The tourist area is so well-organized they’ve written up suggested itineraries thusly. The big circuit is 26 km around and takes us out into the more rural countryside, all dirt roads rusty signs and overgrown footpaths. The country houses are merely thin wood on stilts, looking like a strong wind could blow them right over. The temples on the circuit each have their unique attractions, like particular elephant or lion statues, but there are none that compare with Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Throughout the day, we heed Vouthy’s advice to keep to the footpaths to avoid any unpleasant surprises with landmines not yet discovered. There has not been an accident in the temple areas in a while, but that might just mean that everyone is staying on the paths. The legacy of the war is all around us, from the aamputee musicians yesterday to the ones at the temple today and the dozens of children swarming the temples. Most of them speak remarkable English, explaining that they picked it up just from talking to tourists – they were either fibbing or amazing learners (although they say language is much easier to learn when you’re young). All the kids have something to sell and they surround the car every time we stop, yelling “Cold drink! Necklace! Post card!”. We felt sorry for them because there were far fewer tourists visiting these outlying temples, but as in Africa and India, we can only do so much – throughout the day we bought cards, flutes, books, temple rubbings, drinks and fruit, but of course every kid wants/needs to make a sell. By the end of the day we had every souvenir imaginable, including a flute that a little girl tried desperately (but unsuccessfully) to teach me how to play. We eventually had to say “no, thank you” to dozens of kids – even the ones who yell “I saw you first!” if we give a second look to their rivals. Some of the kids were adorable, especially when the “work” was forgotten and they just laughed and played with their friends.
The most incredible temple of the day was Ta Prohm, the most overgrown, mysterious, other-worldly temple of the lot. Unlike the other temples, no attempt was made to remove the enormous trees that grew in, around, and through the rocks during the past nine centuries. They now so dominate the site, that the temple is called “the jungle temple”, looking much as the entire lost city of Angkor looked when Europeans “rediscovered” it in the 1860's. We’re not talking creeping vines here, but huge, thick Kepok and Banyan trees, some with flying buttresses extending ten feet from the walls and rocks they’ve surrounded, pushed out or swallowed up completely. The living creatures have climbed over every structure and elbowed their way through stone walls a meter thick, displacing tons of stones and making it impossible now to cut them away or the whole complex would come tumbling down. As Angkor Wat is a monument to the abilities of mankind, Ta Prohm is a monument to the power of nature - the ability of to overwhelm anything mankind can do, even if it takes hundreds of years more than any hurricane, earthquake or flood. The effect is very eerie – like a Grimm fairy tale by way of Indiana Jones. Of course we loved it and took dozens of photos. The lack of tourists made us really feel like those early explorers and archaeologists.
As sunset approached, we headed back to Angkor Wat for another look at it in the changing light. The differing colors are remarkable. We climbed up the steep stairs to watch the sunset over the forest and parts of the temple then chatted with some of the monks at the top.
After sundown, Vouthy took us to a buffet dinner show at a tourist hotel. The food was great and the performance was nice – a group of costumed teenage dancers backed by adults of classical Khmer instruments. The poses looked very much like the centuries-old apsaras we had been seeing in stone for the past two days.
The crowd was pure tourist and the guides and drivers sat at another table and even ate different food. We were very disappointed and I even went over to their table to ask Vouthy to join us, but he declined (again).
Everything is a struggle to become
master of personal attitudes, material goods and personal behavior
"To live, we had to see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing, understand nothing”
Day 228, Mon, Dec. 18, 2000 – Today we took the long ride north of Siem Reap to Banteay Srei. The road was through very picturesque with green scenery. Unfortunately, it was hard to see as we bounced and bobbed and weaved over one of the worst roads in the province (and that is saying something). Just a few years ago, this trip cost over $100 per person because you had to hire a tank for the trip due to land mines. Good thing Vouthy was a tank driver in the war. He still had not opened up to us, but we were anxious to learn the history of this place first-hand. Vouthy was a bit reticent at first, which is natural having experienced what he has, so we asked if it was OK to ask him about the war. He said “no problem”, but his English is poor. He was just being modest (and a little shy). After his parents were taken away and killed for being school teachers, he joined millions of his countrymen in the fields and jungles working mostly on rice farms. It really is impossible for us to comprehend, even remotely what Vouthy and the rest of the country went through. The grand social experiment consisted of not only mass killings of anyone remotely educated or intellectual that could pose a threat to free thought (teachers, journalists, writers, artists, etc.), but also the elimination of schools, postal services, travel, and all communication with the outside world. Needless to say, dissent was impossible without immediate retaliation – which usually meant murder. As Vouthy explained, “if you want to stay alive, you must keep mouth and ears shut. We could not say or hear anything. If more than three people sat together, they could be killed. We could only do what we were told – we cannot afford to think for ourselves. Politics are not important – if they say king good, then king good, if they say king bad, then king bad. We must believe what they say.” Vouthy knows exactly how long this lasted (3 years, eight months and 20 days) because he counted each day. Freedom (in a manner of speaking) came when the freshly victorious and entirely communist Vietnamese invaded in 1979 to retaliate for some border incursions. A year later Vouthy was drafted into the government army to fight alongside the Vietnamese against the stubborn and feisty Khmer Rouge forces. The civil war raged throughout the country with chaos, disinformation, famine and murder continuing. Vouthy spent five years in the army as a tank driver, including training in (then East) Germany (where the weather doesn’t really suit folks from Cambodia).
We arrived at the temples after an hour. These are Vouthy’s favorites in all of Siem Reap because they are so different – we have to agree. The temple is small, but is made of red sandstone and is cut completely differently, with much more intricate filigree work and life-like detail. It was like a sandstone version of the marble at Ranakpur, India, only this one somehow survived outside, exposed to the elements for 800 years. The beautiful apsaras here were in three-quarter profile with angled feet rather than flat as in Angkar Wat. They dance and pout seductively – in lines so smooth they could have been carved yesterday. Since the temple was dedicated to Shiva, The Destroyer, the carved scenes were some of the most graphically violent, with gods splitting demons in two, demons raping maidens, serpents devouring warriors and gods carrying severed heads. The scenes are at once a distant memory and a contemporary reminder of what happened just a generation ago.
On the way back into town, Vouthy showed us the spot where an American tourist was killed a few years ago. He had ignored police warnings and hired five soldiers and a tank to take him through Khmer Rouge territory to visit the famed (and apparently enticing) temples. Their tank had to take a detour around a flimsy bridge and it hit a huge landmine. That American never made it to the temple, so we considered ourselves lucky.
After lunch we went to the Roulus group– another small group of lesser temples (of course lesser temples here would be prize attractions anywhere else in the world). The crowds were much thinner and the kids played marbles in the dusty street. The girls favored floppy Annie Hall hats and the boys wore American t-shirts - one in a green “US Army” shirt a few sizes too big. By nightfall we had seen all the temples and we circled back to the hotel. this was the last of our three days with Vouthy, we asked him for an interview. Sometimes it was difficult to talk to him, but we believe in the importance of the questions (and answers).
For me I think education is the most important – for the truth and for the future. For my daughter especially – if she can learn a foreign language it would be better.
Intellectuals are nothing but lazy good-for-nothings. The young are learning from the workers and peasants, who are the true source of all knowledge. No knowledge can be higher, more worthwhile, or more useful that which has to do with production, agriculture and industry.
The weight of the irony hung on our shoulders for the rest of our time in Cambodia.
Day 229, Tues, Dec. 19, 2000 – Today we slept in for a change since we didn’t have an early tour. After breakfast at the hotel, we wandered around the town for a while. It must have rained over night, but that did not slow down the markets – it just pushed them back from the mud puddles a bit. We did a little souvenir shopping, then struggled through the vagaries of Cambodian internet connections. North of town is a place run by a non-profit foundation that trains blind people to give massages. There were two blind men there and a guy who could see. It seemed like we were the only customers all day. We went upstairs with the two blind guys, undressed behind a curtain (for some reason), and laid on two tables next to each other. Naomi woke up an hour later. It was a great massage and when we got downstairs the non-blind guy was gone so we gave the fee to the masseuses ($5 each) and told them what bills they were. We walked through a fairly barren garden to the Grand Hotel, where they had a huge Christmas tree set up for the tourists (Buddhists don’t celebrate Christmas). We took some photos with the tree to try to send out to everyone via email. For dinner, we went to what Vouthy had told us was the best restaurant in town for authentic Cambodian food. We had one of our favorite dishes, amork, a curry of chicken and vegetables served in a whole coconut. Again, we were the only visitors. It seems odd, as this is the most popular tourist town in all of Cambodia, and it is the base of hundreds of UN relief workers, restoration teams from various countries, and several international agencies dedicated to the removal of unexploded ordinance (UXO) and land mines, including recent Nobel Prize winning organizations. Plenty of money has been poured into the economy, but locals not involved in the hospitality industries have complained about the increase in prices for them. We thought it would be a foreigner village, but we haven’t seen nearly as many outside of the ruins. After dinner, we took the preferred mode of transport back to the hotel – two motos driven by teenage boys. They zigzagged expertly around the potholes and mud puddles with us clinging to the back. Much slower and safer than in Bangkok.
We had arranged to take the first boat up the river to Phnom Penh tomorrow, but we had to leave before sunrise to make it to the dock in time. I therefore had to go in search of breakfast for tomorrow morning. The first three places had no pineapple or bread, and on the way I got three offers for “massage”, two for marijuana and one for a cold beer (so that’s what the foreigners were up to). I accepted the latter offer and suffered through some horrendous high-pitched Cambodian pop music at a “disco” near the river. It had the requisite disco mirror ball, and western dork with two bar girls on his lap. The back wall was painted “Tango” in bright orange, but the standard dance was a slow trance-like group walk in a circle. The women (and men) made slow hand movements like modern-day temple apsaras. I didn’t even finish my Heineken (which had upset the Angkor beer girl when I ordered it) and walked out. I finally found some decent pineapples in the local market, but I had to get sodas and water at the over-priced tourist supermarket.
Day 230, Wed, Dec, 20, 2000 – Woke at 5:00 for 6:00 pickup – see sunrise over coffee and pineapples. We started to get anxious when our taxi was late picking us up, so we called Vouthy who had arranged the tickets for us the other day. By 6:40 we had to go, so the gracious folks at the hotel loaded us into their pickup truck. Just as we were pulling out, Vouthy pulled up. He apologized for the driver he had hired for us and we loaded up in his familiar car. We headed in a direction we hadn’t been yet, through the dusty outskirts of town. The dirt road was lined with stilt houses with palm thatched roofs, naked kids, pigs and cows. It was overcast and everything was a blur of brown out our windows much like muddy impressionist painting. We arrived at the pier, which is no more than a collection of boats tied together with slippery planks between. It was incredibly crowded and Vouthy honked us through like a miracle worker until we could move no further. We got out and said our goodbyes again, asking him to complain to (and get the money back from) the taxi driver we had already paid for the ride. We had a voucher in hand which everyone on shore appeared to understand, and led us into a tiny longboat that nearly tipped as we got on with our backpacks. We thought this was a hell of a way to travel four hours up the river, until we saw the much larger “speedboat” we were being shuttled to. As Lonely Planet had warned us, there were no life jackets on board – so we prepared by wrapping the computer in two layers of plastic just in case. The boat was fairly comfortable with 80% westerners. We sat on the roof in the sun watching the fishing boats passing and little uniformed kids going to school. We were surprised, but impressed, to see the crisp clean uniforms in this environment since we can’t keep our clothes clean for five minutes. We continued up the mighty Tonle Sap river for two hours. The river is the “breadbasket” of the country, supplying fish to millions and a livelihood to thousands, who live on the water and brave the annual floods and the miraculous change of direction that occurs every wet season. The river is so wide, it is actually more like a lake in some respects. Our boat passed fishing boats, platforms, houses on stilts and overgrown banks. As in Africa and India, the astounding poverty is evident in the living conditions we witness (per capita GNP is US$250 vs. US$30,000 in the States, there are 9,000 people per doctor compared to 300 in the US, and life expectancy is a mere 53 years vs. 77). The scenery of deprivation amongst exotic natural beauty trip is reminiscent of the doomed river cruise in “Apocalypse Now”.
After about four hours, the villages started to get bigger and the river more crowded with larger boats. We had reached the Northern suburbs of Phnom Penh – near the bridge where the reporters were captured in “The Killing Fields”. We were met at dock by Vouthy’s friend that he had arranged for us. He couldn’t write English, but he held up a welcome sign with our names on it, transcribed from our cards, including our friend Susan's. He wanted to take motos, but we couldn’t because we had too much luggage. We loaded into a taxi and started into town to find a hotel. It was steaming hot, but not as dirty and crowded as we expected. Motos were everywhere, but no tuk-tuks. According to Lonely Planet, Phnom Penh has the lowest ratio of cars to people of any Asian Capital – unfortunately, it appears to be the moto capital of the world. There are even more than in Florence, although here they are somewhat older and definitely less stylish. We checked out four hotels before settling on “Hotel California” (there were plenty of rooms, but luckily no “mirrors on the ceiling and sadly no champagne on ice”). The owner had lived in Orange County as a war refugee for years before returning to her home country to start a business. We got a great room with our own verandah looking over the river. The recently rebuilt brick promenade has flags of each country with an embassy in Phnom Penh flapping in the hot breeze. We must admit it was a little strange seeing our own flag right outside our window in Cambodia – especially when our country wasn’t exactly the best friend to Cambodia during their harshest decades – (it’s even stranger that our flag flew next to Vietnam’s). Apparently, this is the center of the historic tourist and journalist area. We had a nice lunch at Happy Herb pizza, which got its name many years ago when a particularly famous herb was added to some dishes before it was outlawed. We didn’t taste anything weird in our pizza and pasta. The weather cleared to bright, blue sunshine – the exact opposite of the brown boat ride here. We walked along the river to the huge Sofitel hotel, with its huge Santa Claus sleigh outside, then to the London bookstore where there were photocopied books for sale. As in most developing countries, intellectual property rights aren’t exactly at the top of the priority list for the government. We bought one collection of travel stories and one history book. School was letting out and a river of uniformed kids flooded the streets – the vast majority taking curious notice of the tall western guy in their midst. Sun was setting over the temples as we got back to the river. An hour after sundown, a sudden torrential downpour was smacking the roofs, windows and doors and was literally flooding the street. In the hot weather, I couldn’t resist walking in it as I hadn’t done in years. Just wearing my rain jacket, swim trunks and sandals. Every street was a running river, some nearly to my knees – and of course, I was the only one out. Anyone would have been laughed at, but it was doubly funny to locals that it was a silly westerner standing with his arms spread and face upturned to the rain. What other time could I be the only person within blocks to stand in the front of the palace – it was like an eerie ghost town. I ordered some fried rice and noodles to take up to our room for dinner since I was too wet to sit down at a restaurant.
If you would like to follow our adventure, please click here: Photojournal December 21 - 24, 2000
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