It's Tuesday afternoon, and I am back at work for the first time since mid December. It's unsurprisingly freezing outside, and I am wishing I was back in the sunshine of Cambodia. My friend Sam and I flew out on the 22nd of January to Phnom Penh. We spent the following day exploring the hot, dusty city. We ate breakfast outside on the riverfront watching tuktuks go by us. We explored several wats, saw the Royal Palace, went to several markets, and toured Wat Phnom and the surrounding area where I was yelled at for approaching an elephant and then subsequently chased by a small, but terrifying, little monkey. We stopped for a shaded break at a French restaurant and spent a couple hours lounging on the terrace admiring the bustling street and French architecture and liveliness of the city.
I forgot how much I loved Southeast Asia. For one thing, I strangely love the pungent smell- It smells distinctly of an exotic mix of bus exhaust and incense. The streets are always a little dirty, but incredibly vibrant. There are children, sometimes not even clothed children, running around, street vendors selling anything you could ever want on a stick, unidentifiable and exotic fruit in bunches,friendly but emaciated cows wandering around, and the sights and smells kind of combine to make an atmosphere that is unbelievably alive. Not to mention, it is always amusing to observe just how many people can actually fit on one motorbike at the same time. It was good to be back.
As much as I liked the atmosphere of Phnom Penh, we woke up early the following morning and took a 5 hour boat trip to Siem Reap. We rode on top of the boat- sitting on the floor against a low railing so we would have the best views. This was a highlight of the trip - the scenery was beautiful and the breeze felt wonderful. We passed lots of little wooden boats and shanty villages in the brown water. Getting off the boat in Siem Reap, we were greeted by a lot of tuktuk drivers all competing for our attention and yelling offers to take us anywhere we wanted. We had nothing lined up, but decided to take a tuktuk to the Siem Reap Hostel. We checked in there then headed to lunch. Siem Reap was very dusty, but the town was adorable. We toured a market for a bit and bought more stuff that we didn't have room for in our small backpacks, but that is part of the fun.
Monday morning we decided to do a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. As the largest religious structure in the world and as (supposedly) the best tourist site in Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat is awesome. It was built in the 12th century during the rise of the Angkor Empire which was arguably one of the most impressive and large civilizations of the time (albeit probably unknown to many westerners). Angkor had a fairly advanced civilization - most notably their irrigations systems were quite impressive. Angkor Wat is the largest of the temples, but it is surrounded by other temple ruins in the surrounding area. You could spend days exploring all of the ruins, but our plan was to power through it in one day.
We arrived outside Angkor Wat about 5:30 in the morning. Our tuktuk driver dropped us off, pointed us in the right direction, and we literally stumbled (by the glowing light of my itouch) through the dark on the uneven stones until we reached a pond toward the edge of the temple where a small group of people stood awaiting sunrise. Finally, the sun came up, and everyone stood in awe at the temple reflected on the still water. We explored the temple then met our tuktuk driver and headed to several others throughout the morning. My favorite was Bayon. I unfortunately was pretty sick on Monday (most likely a combination of horrible sun poisoning and food poisoning), so I didn't get to fully enjoy exploring. There were several wats that I just sat outside on a bench while Sam explored. The stairs on most of them are incredibly tall and steep, and I just didn't have it in me to go inside. I did find it very interesting, however, that tourists are allowed to climb all over the temple ruins. There are no stipulations about what you can and cannot touch or where you can step.
I slept the rest of Monday so I didn't get to see much more of Siem Reap, but I felt a bit better by the time we once again got up before dawn to catch the boat headed to Battambang. I read an article about Battambang months ago, and I was the one very insistent about this unnecessary part of our trip. Unfortunately, I also read that the boat trip is sometimes dangerous and "not for the faint of heart." I've jokingly been told by friends that I have "a weak disposition," but I decided that I really wanted to see the supposedly spectacular views from the boat. This boat was much smaller than the first boat. We again climbed on top of the boat and sat on the floor next to very low little wooden railings. The boat headed out on the Tonle Sap (picture a giant lake) and we realized the boat was noticably lilting one direction. The dreadlocked man sitting next to me informed me the same boat trip unfortunately sank 2 weeks ago so he hoped this one would be ok. I took this time to uselessly double ziploc bag all my electronics. The "captain" stuck his head up and motioned for everyone to get on one side of the boat. This helped a little bit, but the little boat struggled all the way until we reached the river. Once on the river, things were a bit smoother, and the view was amazing. We went through all sorts of floating villages and children waved at us as they bathed and played in the river. We passed boats full of fruit and goods, and everything was unbelievably colorful. The boat "captain" unfortunately ran us into the shore about ten times during the trip and a little man with a paddle would have to come push us off the bank, but luckily the boat never sank.
At Sam's insistence, I bought a ridiculously large straw floppy hat to wear on the boat trip to cover my head, and I covered up in a lovely little cardigan. Unfortunately, my get-up didn't really match the pierced, tattooed, backpacker type sitting on top of the boat with us, and Sam finally laughed at me and told me I looked too "Gone With the Wind." I guess I'll never escape my Southern upbringing.
After 8 hours of sun and motion sickness powder packets, I was more than ready to get off the boat when we finally reached Battambang. Battambang wasn't as charming as I thought it would be. It was still distinctly dusty and Cambodian. We took a tuktuk to a "hotel" where we paid only 3 dollars to stay in what I can only assume now was some sort of strange brothel. We dropped off our backpacks and then headed out to ride the bamboo train. The bamboo train is a way that Cambodians transport goods. The country has a poor rail transport so instead of only moving limited amount of goods, the people created the bamboo trains. If a real train is coming, the bamboo train can simply and quickly be removed from the tracks. It makes perfect sense. You can ride on these little transport devices from one stop to the next for a small fee to the bamboo train owner. The train is small and flat with no sides and you just sit on the bamboo facing forward while a motor on the back powers the thing along. I thought it would go no faster than, say, the train that putters around a zoo. Tourism fail. The little train amazingly darts loudly down the tracks at breakneck speed. Sam and I sat crossleg on the bamboo trying not to smile or talk since we were essentially the windshields in this bamboo train situation. I ate an unhealthy amount of mosquitos and probably ingested more through my nose. After almost hitting a cow that wandered out of the brush onto the tracks and a small boy who threw a stick at us, we finally reached the next station. We then insisted to go right back since it was getting dark and the only thing worse than the bamboo train is probably riding the bamboo train in the dark.
Since Battambang wasn't as exciting as we hoped, we woke up before dawn again on Wednesday and got on a bus headed to the beach. After eleven hours of incessant honking and loud Asian music videos blaring from a motorcoach tv, we finally reached Sihanoukville. We got a nice little room right on the beach and then ate dinner at a really nice little restaurant for my 23rd birthday.
The rest of the week was spent lounging on the beach, eating fresh seafood, watching fireshows, and really just enjoying vacation. I even got a manicure and pedicure on the beach (highly, highly unsanitary. I know) from a little Cambodian lady. The last day I finally even gave into one lady's prodding and allowed her to thread my armpits (not something I recommend. Especially not in public.) We did decide to spend one day on Bamboo Island which is about an hour off the coast of Sihanoukville. We got tickets for a longboat headed that direction, but it was just about the scariest thing I've ever been on (not including the bamboo train). The boat was way too crowded and every time someone stood up, the entire thing rocked quickly to one side and everyone would scream. I was crammed next to a fat and shirtless old man wearing a bandana on top of his head and sporting black fingernail polish. He had a strange looking pipe contraption sticking out of his backpack and Sam asked him what it was since it looked so interesting. He pulled it out, put his mouth on one end of it, blew very hard, and demonstrated that something would shoot out of it. He then added that it was "to kill things." End Conversation. Bamboo Island was quiet and beautiful, and we spent the afternoon lounging, swimming, and eating barbequed barracuda. The Cambodian coast is absolutely beautiful.
This entry would not be complete if I did not somehow try to explain to you the horrible poverty of Cambodia. The country spent almost five years at war in the 1970's only to come out of that facing Pol Pot's gruesome communist regime, widespread genocide (I chose not to go see Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields), and the loss of many physical and ideological cultural aspects of the country. Only fairly recently has Cambodia begun to come back to life, and the battle wounds of their history are still very apparent. On the boat and bus rides I took through the country, all you have to do is mildly observe to realize that a huge percentage of the population lives in tiny, rickety shacks. Some of them don't even have real walls or roofs, but are partly covered with a tarp. As quaint as they look from a distance, it isn't quite as idyllic when you realize people actually live there. The most disturbing thing to me, however, was the street children and the deformed or crippled children and adults that beg for money. I'll begin with the latter. In Phnom Penh in particular, there were a large amount of horrible deformities that I had never seen before- specifically in small children. These deformities were unlike anything I had ever seen before and looked as if they should be on a TLC documentary. Some of the deformities were on adults, but most of the adults were crippled with missing limbs. I imagine this may have something to do with Cambodia's landmine situation, but I am not sure. I debated a lot about whether to give the deformed or crippled beggars money. I do not know what type of system Cambodia has in place for those with disabilities, but as most countries lacking strong infrastructures have really horrible conditions (if anything at all) for the disabled, I imagine Cambodia cannot offer them a lot. As for the street children- they are hearbreakingly young. I saw one boy who could not have been older than five carrying an infant that could not have been more than a week old. These children seem to be everywhere peering up at you with big eyes. Some of them try and sell trinkets or postcards, but most just put their little hands together and stare at you. I made an immediate decision not to give anything to any child on the street since I feel like that just makes me part of the problem and not any sort of solution to get them out of the situation. However, to be responsible and clear my conscience, I made a donation to M'Lop Tapang (http://www.mloptapang.org), a haven for street children in the Sihanoukville area in hopes that my dollar will go further this way than had I given it directly to the children. Check it out.
Despite the poverty, the trip was a blast and I learned a lot about Cambodia. I am now even more excited to leave next week for my big trip into Laos and Vietnam.