Experiences of a med student with an incurable travel bug.

Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Reflections on Cambodia

The poverty became more apparent upon entering Cambodia as villages began to look a bit more dejected and piles of trash began to encroach on the road sides. Despite this, it still has a beautiful countryside and, of course, the incredible Angkor Wat Temples. Many of the low-land houses outside of the cities were built on stilts, no doubt in response to the downpours during the rainy season. We got caught in one torrential downpour that nearly flooded the street despite the drainage system, and that was only one 20 minute deluge.

The roads were in worse shape than those in Vietnam with the number of pot holes increasing proportionally with the distance from a city. Combined with poorer buses (at least, ours was significantly less comfortable than any we’d been on in Vietnam), it can be a pretty rough ride.

All the Cambodians we met were very nice and friendly. Half of the waiters we had struck up conversations while we waited for food, wanting to talk about everything from the weather to politics, and the staff at tour agencies, etc were also friendly and helpful.

Costs were slightly higher here than in Vietnam; I attributed this to the fact that they use US Dollars, so prices start to creep up. Definitely not that significant, but meals that were $1 or less in Vietnam were $1.50-2+ here.

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Angkor Wat Temples, Siem Reap

Fortunately, our tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh had called ahead to his buddy in Siem Reap, so there was someone waiting for us at the bus station to take us to find a guest house. This saved us the huge hassle of haggling over prices while trying to find someone who would actually take us where we wanted to go, not just to the hotel that gave them a commission. We settled on Garden Village, the third guest house we stopped at, and after making arrangements for Khen, our driver, to meet us later that day, promptly collapsed into bed for the sleep that was well past due.

Hours later, we ventured out into the heat for some lunch at a nearby cafe. The pineapple fried rice with chicken was perfect, and I followed it with a mango shake that proved to be not so perfect. Up until this point, the fruit shakes were pretty much just blended fruit, but this place definitely threw some dairy in there that didn’t agree too well with me.

After wandering around the old market, we met up with Khen who took us to buy our temple pass and then into the park for sunset. We hiked up to Phnom Bakkheng Temple, a ruin situated on the top of a mountain, to watch the beautiful sunset. A storm was rolling in at the time, making for a great scene: the red, gold, and pink hues of the sun setting between the western patches of clouds while angry black clouds rolled in to the south, the misty shimmer of their rains approaching. Once the sun was almost down and the storm almost upon us, we headed back to town for some dinner. This time we opted for the cafe next door to the first one and I had the highly recommended (by the waiter) traditional dish samla ktiss, a coconut milk soup with pineapple, chicken, tomato, and rice. Definitely worth the hype.

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat Temple, one of the main temples in the park. The sunrise was certainly beautiful, rising over the towers and monuments. Next was Bayon Temple, the temple of the faces. If you’ve ever seen any rendition of huge faces carved in massive slabs of stone, this is the temple from which they originate. The faces are incredible, facing every direction and rising to the very peaks of the temple. The work it must have taken to carve and construct such a design is baffling, and such handiwork seems unlikely to make a reappearance in present culture anytime soon.

The next stop brought us to Ta Prohm, the temple that has become globally famous for being the site of filming for "Tomb Raider." Here there are massive trees growing straight through the temple ruins, a pretty heroic battle if you ask me. How they ploughed through stolid stone blocks is beyond me, but now they have become simply huge, their roots snaking down and through walls; now they are as much a part of the temple as the original carvings. Our final temple destination was Banteay Srei, a smaller temple about an hour away from the main ones. Banteay Srei sported a different architectural style, red in color with many intricate carvings.

We returned to town to relax for the afternoon. I chose the beef with ginger for dinner before taking a brief walk through the night market and then calling it a night.

The next day was filled with trying to make further travel arrangements, both in agencies and online. After being thwarted from purchasing my ticket from Kuala Lumpur to India no less than six times online — once by an internet crash, four times by the company refusing to process my credit card, and once from someone deciding to unplug the computer — I finally resigned to spending half again as much by purchasing it through an agency the next day. At this point there were only four seats left on the plane, but there was nothing to be done until morning. In the mean time, I grabbed some food from a street side stand and wandered the night market. The very-traditional style food that I was eating garnered quite the response from many of the locals; foreigners rarely eat their traditional food, so they were all very amused with me. At least this gave me an opportunity to find out what the tasty food was that I was eating from the little plastic bag: some sort of egg-pork-mystery mash with a side of veggies. While wandering the night market, I found a beautiful pair traditional Cambodian-style gold silk pants as well as a light cotton dress that will be nice for the sweltering days ahead.

The next morning I had stir fried noodles with egg, onions, and veggies while waiting for the travel agent I’d been working with to decide to unlock his doors. I managed to snag the last ticket on my flight to India! Apart from paying more than I really wanted to, it all worked out; I have a layover in Sri Lanka on my way to New Delhi, so I’ll get to see a bit of one more country AND see my friend who’s working there now! Perfect.

With that ticket finally taken care of, we bade Siem Reap farewell and headed to the airport to catch a flight to Luang Prabang. What would have been a 30+ hour trip via bus on miserable roads was much more easily managed in an hour-long flight straight to the heart of Laos. The little three-gate airport was quiet except for the 20 some people on our flight, but it was very nice. Added bonus: there were free public computers and air conditioning. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Last of Phnom Penh

In our last few hours before leaving Phnom Penh, we stopped for lunch at a corner bar and restaurant that’s popular with the locals for some traditional Cambodian lunch. I had the beef with mushrooms and a side of stares from the local kids — we were clearly among the very, very few white people who had ever ventured there, which is too bad because it was delicious. So many other tourists, even backpackers, seem to flock to the western restaurants, avoiding the local food like the plague, something I don’t understand at all; the local food is the best part! The closest I’ve come to anything "western" was a nicer (meaning the entree was $3) noodle place where I ordered the Loht Chaa, a traditional Cambodian dish, and watched them make the noodles fresh right in front of me. Still not western food, though; everything else is too good to pass up, especially the fried bananas on a stick for breakfast, yum.

After lunch, we headed to the Royal Palace to explore all the beautiful temples. All of the temples were gorgeous, all featuring various, luxurious decor. Within the complex is the Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is inlaid with beautiful solid silver tiles. The crystal, gold, and jeweled Buddhas filling this Pagoda amplify the beauty of the structure even further.

After the long day of sight seeing, we still had another seven hours to entertain ourselves before our bus to Siem Reap. We wandered through the park across from the night market, where there were multiple dance-aerobics-type classes going on. The dancing reminded me of zumba, only less intense; to be fair, it was approximately one million degrees outside, so a less intense workout was perfectly justifiable. (I happen to be counting the miles of walking we’ve done in each city as my "workouts", so I certainly don’t have higher expectations of anyone else. In fact, that tends to be the extent my workout at home, too, so there’s no judgement here.)

Once the classes and thus our entertainment ended, we meandered through the night market again and grabbed dinner from one of the stands. From the dozens of meat- and veggie-on-a-stick options, I opted for a coconut-fried beef kebab, a beef mixed with veggie kebab, a veggie wonton (they called it a spring roll), battered cauliflower and beans. All this came with a side of pickled vegetables, and was SO. GOOD. I topped it all off with some nuok mia, freshly pressed sugar cane juice. During and after dinner we just lounged on the area mats and watched the karaoke and dance routines being performed on the stage in the center of the market.

At midnight we finally boarded the bus to Siem Reap and settled in for a miserable six hours. The bus had no shocks and the roads were becoming increasingly rougher, so it was a very bumpy ride. Then, despite the fact that it was a night bus, there were a few Brits immediately behind me that were shouting — yes, shouting — over the noise of the bus itself for the first half of the ride until about 3am, and at that point a different girl took over disruption duty by bawling for the next part of the ride. Needless to say, it was a relief to reach Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh — Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Tuoul Sleng Prison

**Warning: This post contains graphic content related to the Khmer Rouge Genocide in Cambodia. Please read at your own discretion.**

In the 1970s, Cambodia suffered a massive genocide at the hands of the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Combatants. Estimates are widely varied as to the number killed, but two recent studies conducted by different organizations both estimate that approximately 3 million people were brutally killed during the 3 year, 8 month, 20 day reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Our first stop was at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where 129 mass graves containing 8,895 victims were discovered after the fall of the regime. Its proximal location to the Tuoul Sleng Prison, where the victims were first brought for questioning, made it prime ground for the disposal of their victims. Men, women, children and babies were regularly brought over from the prison for “liquidation” at the hands of Khmer Rouge combatants. Literally, at their hands; victims were beaten with shovels, wheel axles, knives, and other readily available weapons. Using the very tools that were the peoples’ livelihoods, the combatants slaughtered their victims mercilessly. Age
and gender meant nothing; in fact, they had a particular method they used to kill the babies that involved holding them by their ankles and smashing them into a tree. They reasoned that it made more sense to obliterate the entire family and thereby eradicate any future threat of revenge or retaliation.

Horrendous.

Of the 129 mass graves, 89 have been exhumed, and the remains of the victims have been treated and now lie in the memorial stupa. The stupa, a Buddhist memorial of the deceased, consists of 17 levels, each of which, starting on the second level, houses different types of bones. The very first level houses victims’ clothing. The next several are dedicated solely to skulls, all of which have been examined to determine approximate age and gender and are grouped as such within the levels. Higher levels house femurs, mandibles/jaws, and so on.

All around the stupa are the exhumed graves, separated by narrow strips of soil. Some of the more distinct graves are surrounded by fencing and covered by a thatched roof, with a sign indicating the nature of the remains found, including:

-burial site of 100 women and children, most of whom were naked -site of 166 headless victims
-largest grave of 450 victims

As you can imagine, the general feeling I had all morning walking around this tragic place was one of complete horror, my stomach clenched against the nausea. I kept comparing it to the day I spent at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, which was equally appalling, the hatred it embodied no more understandable.

This feeling continued as we ventured to Tuoul Sleng Prison, an old school that was converted for the use of the Khmer Rouge. The victims of the Khmer Rouge were brought first to this site for brutal interrogation and torture before being sent to their graves. Pictures of the victims, both their mug shots taken upon arrival and several pictures of the torture many of them endured, lined the walls of much of the compound. The bed frames the more politically powerful victims had been chained to remain, the bloodstains still etched into the floor. The twin bed-sized wooden stalls constructed for the less important victims remain in other areas of the compound.

The last building housed what might have been the most fascinating items on the compound: a collection of stories, both of the victims and of the combatants, compiled from living family members or the individuals themselves. The terror felt by both parties was clearly evidenced in the narratives. Many people joined the revolution because it was their only chance of survival, only realizing later what they would be forced to do to their friends, families, and community members. The victims families described their awful experiences when combatants came for their families or when they just went missing; only after years of absence did many finally concede that their loved ones must be in one of the hundreds of graves across the country.

Truly a sobering day.