Reasonable Cambodia

Someday, I’ll look back at this trip and wonder if it was real. Not only is it the trip of a lifetime owing simply to the destinations, but I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have friends to meet along the way. First there was Kathleen and Subash in India, then Emily, Caralyn and Sameeta in Singapore and Bali, and finally, Katie and Tim in Cambodia.

Now, I understand that a public blog is no place for whimpering. But I don’t know what it is about these two, but they are just so good to me. I always just instantly let my guard down with them. And they take care of me, which is so strange: I usually regard myself as highly self-reliant, but I find myself showing up at their door in Pittsburgh, Argentina, or now Cambodia and them feeding me, making me laugh till I cry, pumping up my ego, and ultimately sending me out the door refreshed and charged up, not knowing I’d even needed it originally. I cry every time I see them. In Argentina, Katie opened the door and I screamed, then collapsed into helpless tears after traveling 26 hours from Cartagena to Buenos Aires.

This time, after just 12 hours through Indonesia and Malaysia, Tim greeted me at the airport with a sign that said “Anne Marie: Party of Awesome.” I should say here that I believe this is the only time I’ve ever been met at the airport when traveling. My family’s met me a few times when I’d return home–but never have I had the pleasure of getting off an airplane and seeing a friend standing waiting for me in a foreign place. Amazing, I know. Anyway, this was the first time, and the sign made it that much better.

Best airport welcome sign ever.

A few hours later, Katie jumped off a bus from Phnom Pehn (where she had to go get shots after being bit by a maybe-rabid dog), and we ran across the street screaming at each other, ultimately catching each other in a huge, dancey hug. Tears, again.

I first spent a couple of days recharging at Katie and Tim’s Peace Corps site, a lovely mid-size town called Kampong Kdey, in the Siem Reap province. Kampong Kdey is famous for–well, not much. But one notable site of interest is the bridge leading into town, which is even pictured on the country’s 5000 riel note. (Dollars are mostly used in Cambodia, though anything less than a dollar is paid using riel. Strange, but kinda fun).

The Kampong Kdey bridge makes a guest appearance on the 5000 riel note.

I visited the health center where Katie works, met some of her colleagues, and shopped in the market for meals with her. I also attended a party for retiring teachers, where I ate many things prepared with fish paste, danced one round of traditional Cambodian dance, wore a sampot, and made small talk in the smallest way possible–I know zero Khmer.

Sampots unite

Back at their house, we all slept piled into one bed under a mosquito net, and as I fell asleep on the first night, I thought about how sweet it is to have friends who let you sleep in their matrimonial bed. Their house is great. It’s a traditional Khmer house and absolutely enormous, with a lovely front balcony. It faces a temple, so mornings begin being awakened by prayers and the site of monks scurrying about. Their house has electricity but not running water. They seem very comfortable and adapted to their environment, and it was great to see their new reality first-hand.

I took a bus alone into Siem Reap to meet Emily and check out her new life. Besides, I had to see Angkor Wat, often the only reason people come to Cambodia in the first place. After Kampong Kdey, Siem Reap seemed like New York City. It’s an expat paradise full of cafes, bakeries, cheap cocktails and international food. Its streets are pleasant and the town is built around a river. Crossing bridges is a part of daily life and adds a quaint touch. The handicraft festival was in town, a huge collection of NGOs that work with artisans, and I got to see a demonstration of spinning silk worms into fibers. I bought Eric a tie made by victims of something, or perhaps disabled kids, or I suppose it could’ve been the blind.

I rented a bicycle for $1/day and took it to Angkor Wat. (And for $1, we’re not talking a 24-speed Cannondale here, people). I was told this was a relatively common way to see the complex, so as I biked down the highway with cars and scooters and tuk-tuks whizzing by haphazardly, I told myself it was part of the experience. Then as I biked into the complex and continued to dodge motor vehicles all filled with smiling, sweatless tourists, I pedaled harder and told myself that I was building character. As tuk-tuk drivers expertly guided their tourists around to temples they’ve known their whole lives, I squinted at signs printed solely in Khmer and wondered just where the hell I was, and how far to such-and-such temple, and is there a friggin’ toilet around here anywhere? Think of it as an adventure, I pep-talked myself.

Okay, it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, I’d recommend the bicycle idea, just knowing what you’re getting into. The slow pace offered by the bike really helped me to soak in the size and scale of the complex–truly incredible. The namesake temple at Angkor Wat was actually not as impressive as I’d imagined. It was crawling with tourists and initially felt like a big heap of ancient stones strewn about.

Angkor Wat temple

But Ta Prohm was really special. Iconic images of Angkor Wat are taken from here–dozens of ancient, abandoned temples, sacrificed to nature and the passage of time. Trees grow straight out of mostly-crumbled stone buildings, gnarled roots find their ways through windows and doorways, and incense still burns daily at little altars strewn about. It was, in a word, magical.

Inside Ta Prohm

I waited a long time for the throngs of Japanese tourists to clear away so I could get this shot of Ta Prohm inside.

Another one inside Ta Prohm temple

I also visited Bayon temple as the sun was going down. The early evening light gave the dozens of Buddha heads a surreal glow.

Entrance to the Bayon temple

I started off for Siem Reap, but wanting to take a different road than the one I’d come in on, I ended up getting a bit lost as the sun set. The result was a beautiful sunset as I pedaled through rural villages of rice paddies and women on bicycles. I eventually found a road back to Siem Reap and arrived just as it was becoming too dark to see.

On the way back to Siem Reap from Angkor Wat

The next day I sadly parted ways with Emily, promising, as I later did to Katie and Tim, that I’d come back the same time next year. I really love that gal. We’re kindred spirits but majorly different, too. Anayway, Katie, Tim and I got up at the crack of dawn to board a boat to Battambang, near the Thai border. There’s no way to describe the horror. Let’s start by saying that the trip was supposed to be six hours–reasonable, I thought. The boat was a rickety old wooden affair with a top deck without seats and a lower, covered deck with a few rows of chairs. The first five hours or so were pleasant enough. The floating villages in the lake kept my attention and I snapped photos and admired the unique style of living. We stopped once for a quick food break at a floating cornershop of sorts, where I bought a pineapple. We continued on and things started going downhill.

Floating villages between Siem Reap and Battambang on Lake Tonle Sap

First we had a minor crash. We’d just emerged from an extremely narrow stretch of canal, where we’d all had to huddle into balls to avoid being smacked in the head by rogue plantlife. We mostly emerged unharmed and were feeling a bit exhilarated. Apparently the driver was as well, and he steered our massive tank of a boat around a corner a bit too quickly, crashing unceremoniously into the riverbank. It was immediately clear that we were stuck. The men–boys, really–working on the boat spent a half hour or so trying various methods to dislodge us, with no success. Finally one of them shyly came up to Katie and Tim, by now known to be the lone Khmer speakers on board, and asked if they could round up four men to help push. They did. We dislodged and carried on, growing grumpier and more sunburned by the minute.

Then there were two stops because we’d taken on too much water. This was discerned by the younger boy climbing in and out of the engine of the boat beneath the deck. Again, the Khmer speakers were asked to relay a message: We all had to get off the boat while they bucketed some water out. Katie, Tim and I climbed out, but the rest of the passengers didn’t seem to like the idea, and so stayed on board.

Finally, after nine and a half hours, we arrived in Battambang. I’d spent the last two hours on the deck, feverish and foul-mooded, but once we arrived I perked up a bit. Battambang!

And what a lovely time we had indeed. Unfortunately, Tim spent most of his time in the hotel puking. That was too bad. But Katie and I did it up! We’re talking Western breakfast, lunch and dinner, a trip to the Japanese thrift store, and three very special events.

Cambodia’s only winery! Emily had warned us that it was supposed to be awful, and we couldn’t resist. I’ll let the videos speak for themselves.

The bamboo train! A strange tourist attraction indeed. Locals use the single-track bamboo train to transport goods to market and get around, but tourists ride a single area of it that basically goes nowhere. Also, the train was actually made of wood, not bamboo. we rode for about a half-hour one way, the terminus of the line being a sort of uninspired cluster of vendors around a brick factory emitting plumes of toxic black smoke. On the way back, we had to dissemble the train a couple of times as another one was coming in the opposite direction. Luckily, we had this kid whose job it was to do so.

Kid working on the bamboo train, Battambang

Katie and I aboard the bamboo train--Have you ever seen anything like this?

And finally, Cambodia’s only circus! We met up with Arnoldo, a Peace Corps volunteer in Battambang, who is doing great work in the arts there. We got in for free owing to his VIP status, but I’d have happily paid for the incredible performance we saw. I didn’t know what to expect, but the circus was performed entirely by kids between the ages of 15-20 (that’s a guess) who are immensely talented and spirited. I’m not much for kids, but their performance almost brought me to tears. Not only are they full-on acrobats–walking the tight rope, forming nail-bitingly precarious human pyramids, pulling off complex tumbling sequences–they’re true entertainers, with enthusiasm and hopeful faces shining out at the audience. It was a real treat to watch.

Then Katie and I headed to Phnom Penh to commence the Death and Destruction tour that is requisite of all tourists to Cambodia. Cambodia’s got an awfully bloody recent history with the genocidal legacy of the Khmer Rouge, and there are plenty of killing fields and torture sites to prove it. I really, really didn’t want to go see any of them. I hate stuff like that. I’ve seen plenty of it in other parts of the world, and even on this trip, and felt no need to spend a day feeling disturbed.

But I reluctantly decided to at least check out the killing fields out of a sense of obligation. On the way, I dropped off my passport at the Vietnamese embassy to get a visa. The killing fields were just fields–all structures had been long destroyed. It’s hard to make a compelling memorial out of empty land, but the curators did a decent job. A good audio tour and informative signage helped fill in the gaps. In total, some 300,000 Cambodians were killed at this site by the Khmer Rouge under the direction of Pol Pot. Women, children and men lost their lives there by execution, throat-slitting, or simply having their heads bashed against trees. The pyramid of skulls inside the monument at the sight was the only visually stunning evidence of the events that took place there. After heavy rains, the ground turns up some teeth and bone fragments which were also visible to us.

Just another highlight on the Death and Destruction tour. Killing fields in Phnom Penh

Some other excited Death and Destruction tour-goers enjoying their time at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh.

But then, back to business in Phnom Penh! I don’t mean to sound callous, but I can only absorb so much tragedy before it stops being meaningful to me. Katie and I spent our time in the city eating more Western breakfast, making a trip to the spa and snapping photos of the royal estate. I visited the Peace Corps headquarters and saw where Katie spends some of her time. Then it was tragically time to say goodbye, which was a teary affair as I boarded a tuk-tuk to the airport.

So what did I think of Cambodia? I kept using the word “reasonable,” which I also used in China. Cambodia is a poor country–there’s no question about that. But it’s not poor in that stifling, hopeless way that parts of India felt. But it’s also not so developed that it makes you feel strange being there–the way Malaysia did. Everything was reasonable–Katie and Tim have electricity, but take bucket showers. That’s reasonable. Buses are old and a bit creaky, but not packed to the gills with humans and animals–totally reasonable. Hotel rooms are about $10 for a double, sometimes including A/C. It’s more than I paid in India, Nepal, or China, but it’s reasonable. I’m happy to pay it for a clean room.

There are touts and kids asking for money. But they ask, you say no, they smile and say, “Where are you from?” having already forgotten their initial mission. Nobody’s pushing and shoving, people scoot around on bicycles and motorbikes, traffic is a bit haphazard but not life-threateningly so. Again, reasonable. Even the food–in a lot of ways, the intensity of Thai and Indian food is unreasonable. It’s delicious, of course, but sometimes over-the-top. Khmer food? Not overly spicy, not overly sour, not too many wacky ingredients. Just solid, edible food that has its occasional star moments. Totally reasonable. (I think–I only had a few dishes. I was on a Western food binge in Cambodia, embarrassingly).

Okay, the boat ride–that was kind of unreasonable.

I can see why three of my closest friends want to live there. It’s a beautiful country, filled with gentle, kind, hard-working people. If you’d like to splash out a bit, there’s plenty of expat-ready places to do it. But it seems also like a great place to live a quiet, reasonable life, in the cities or towns.

Thanks, Katie, Tim and Emily, for a wonderful trip to Cambodia. I’ll be back.

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2 responses to “Reasonable Cambodia

  1. First time you were received by friend(s) at an airport was in Cambodia? CoughMumbaiCough.

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