Cambodia was the Southeast Asian country I was most looking forward to visiting. In the end, I was very glad to have visited but also relieved to leave. Rural Cambodia is lovely while urban Cambodia is thought-provoking, depressing and angering. This is a country trying to move away from its past, but everywhere you turn it is staring at you in the face.
Our border crossing into Cambodia was effortless and easy. The boat trip started in Chau Doc, Vietnam and went to a place 1 hour from Phnom Penh. We passed smiling faces, waving children and fishermen.
The boat was very late arriving at the dock in what my friends and I perceived to be a ploy to get us tired. We drove through a rural area and then we were in Phnom Penh. I was surprised at how developed the city after all that I had read about the city. To be honest, I was hesitant to visit at all after the terrible things I had read: violence, theft, extreme poverty, poor infrastructure. Instead we saw more cars on the road than any other SEA country, grand monuments and buildings and four-star hotels. We got dropped off at some hotel and decided to find a guesthouse in a nearby area. We had a very positive vibe walking through the city. The buildings were stunning, a street market was nearby, people seemed full of life. There were a few oddities: piles of trash in the middle or the road, young kids roaming the street, but we didn’t think much of it. The first guesthouse we visited was expensive and disgusting (mold growing on the walls). While regrouping, we saw couples of older White men and young Cambodian women. And when we were leaving a couple came in and the man asked for a room for 1 hour with a wink. We were disgusted and left. Luckily we found a fun guesthouse with a giant bed for us to share. (We were now a group of four, an American friend joined us).
As we explored the city, we were disgusted with what we saw. Phnom Penh is the most depressing city I have ever visited. The gap between rich and poor is overt and extreme. You see young, naked, dirty children running in front of beautifully refurbished buildings. You see shoeless people walking the dirty streets while Jaguars and BMWs pass by them. I did not see many happy faces in Phnom Penh and I can understand why. I believe that happiness is relative. You could live in a shack and be perfectly happy if you are insulated from a “better” world. Unhappiness occurs when you see what other people have or rather what you don’t have, and you think you need what they have.
We spent a day learning more about Cambodia’s sad history. The Genocide Museum, a former elementary school used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge, was harrowing and horrifying. It documented the torture tactics of the Khmer Rouge, the atrocities they committed and the fear they instilled. The Khmer Rouge was a communist group supposedly intent on converting Cambodia into an agrarian, classless society. They cleared out cities, killed dissidents and anyone perceived to be educated or elite, even killing people who wore spectacles. They encouraged spying amongst families and neighbours. In total, an estimated 2 million people were killed under their regime.
We also visited The Killing fields outside the city where the prisoners were killed. In the centre is a giant stupa filled with bones found in mass graves, and surrounding it were grassy holes indicating where the graves were found. I bought a flower to pay my respect for the anonymous dead. When we were leaving, I saw a man inside the stupa cleaning the windows. I can’t imagine a more terrible job.
Lastly, we went to the Royal Palace which I was hesitant about seeing out of principle. I could see that the royal family cares little for the Cambodian people and I simply did not want to give more money to them. I know it’s hypocritical. By that logic, I probably should not have visited Cambodia at all and should perhaps boycott their goods. Fair enough. But life, I believe, has absolutely no logic. Principles are not black and white, there are a staggering number of grey shades. In the end, I visited the palace with my friends. It is indeed beautiful, albeit opulent. We had some good laughs posing with monkey statues which made us feel better after a downer day.
Phnom Penh was expensive by Cambodian standards. Some prices were inflated because we were staying in a touristy area but I picked up a booklet on rental properties and saw that they were renting out 2 bedroom apartments for $1500 US/month! And you know that these booklets are catered towards expats (mostly working in development) and rich officials. How can a local Cambodian who lives on $2/day compete with that? Development, I learned, is a big business in Cambodia and the directors live plush lifestyles which they could never afford in their native countries. Development really took off 10 years ago and while some improvements have been made, little inroad has been made for the general populace that still struggle to escape the depths of poverty.
The remnants of the Khmer Rouge system are evident today as there seems to be no social network. I encountered more beggars in Phnom Penh (and Siem Reap) than I had in any other country. Landmine victims were everywhere, as were begging elderly woman and children. The sex industry is also large. I saw more dubious-looking, older white men than anywhere else. One evening, my friends and I were sitting at a restaurant table by the sidewalk. Behind us were six older German men who looked a bit odd. I think I saw one leer a young child merchant. I felt disgusted. Later, they were joined by four others, one of whom had a Cambodian woman on his arm. They spoke in German to each other and would occasionally acknowledge the woman by speaking English. It was a sickening sight.
We were all too happy to leave Phnom Penh. We spent 2.5 days total and could not imagine spending more time. I felt guilty thinking this as I don’t deal with that shit in my own life. I can escape the city while the people there do not have a hope. This is their reality, not mine…but I was happy to leave as cowardly as that sounds.
We were the only foreigners on the bus to Siem Reap since we opted to take the non-VIP bus. When we arrived, we were dropped off in a compound surrounded by a dirt road. This was not what we imagined Siem Reap to be. The gate was closed and everytime it opened, you could see dozens of anxious tuk tuk drivers which made us really nervous. As we approached the city, we passed locals on motorbikes, children on bicycles, a local market. This was a refreshing change from PP. We found a great guesthouse managed by a cool HKer who had visited the town 3 times before deciding to move there.
Siem Reap is not a real Cambodian town. It is a tourist town – the Las Vegas of Cambodia – and offers no real insight into the lives of Cambodian. It is purely symbolic of the power, money and wealth Westerners have and can flaunt while Cambodians serve us. Still, it is a nice Westernized town and I hope that tourism is making a positive effect on the lives of the locals. I read about hospitality programs which recruit select groups of Cambodians to train. After, they can earn at least 10 times what the average Cambodian earns.
Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples are truly astounding. Some buildings are still falling apart which is part of its appeal. We went to catch sunset at Angkor Wat. Time was short so our HK manager hauled a tuk tuk and we were off. The sky was overcast so we did not see a nice sunset. Our guide was really nice so we hired him to take us around Angkor Wat and the other temples.
The next day we woke up at 4 am to catch sunrise. We entered the gate to the great Angkor Wat which was covered in darkness. Again, it was too overcast to catch a magnificent sunrise.
The biggest advantage of being so early was the lack of crowds. Everyone says AW is a bit of a letdown, and it is a bit true. But it’s only because there is so much hype about it. It is actually a gorgeous temple with intricate carvings, symmetrical hallways, beautiful doorways and imposing steps.
The latter is a temple completely engulfed by trees and consisting of structures that are completely falling apart. I felt like I was an archaeologist who stumbled upon a great unknown ruin…and 100 other Asian tourists tagged along.
Our second day started with two temples that looked very similar. We were worried that the rest of the day would be much of the same. But we ended with the University which was gorgeous. Shades of green intermixed with reds. There were lots of cute children roaming around including a girl who had a pet weasel.
On our last day in SR, we went to a three outlying temples called the Roluos group. We actually had monks beg us for money which is very un-Buddhist-like. I’m not sure if they were real or fake monks but it was perplexing. After, we took a boat ride to Kompong Phuluk which has floating villages amongst a flooded forest. The ride took us through the rural back roads of Siem Reap. This was a refreshing change from the actual town where we started to feel overwhelmed by all the beggars. The people in rural Cambodia appear to be so much happier. We saw kids wearing uniforms and riding their bicycles to school. Women and their children would scream out hello as we passed by.
Siem Reap was the end of the road for our little group. My Kiwi and American friends headed to Laos, another Kiwi friend headed home to Australia, and us Canadians headed to Bangkok after deciding against going to Battambang. I was hesitant about going to Bangkok since this was at the height of the airport siege but our embassy assured us that it was safe.
The road from Siem Reap to Bangkok is often acknowledged to be one of the worst in the world. Great improvements have been made in the last 5 years, although it hasn’t progressed as fast as hoped because of rumoured collusion between the Cambodian gov’t and the only airline that services that route. We were advised against taking the bus because it cannot handle the potholes, so we hired a taxi to the border instead. It was a bit more expensive but the ride wasn’t nearly as bad because the car could avoid most of the potholes. The ride was still bumpy and my head hit the roof a few times. The worst thing to contend with was our driver’s terrible breath which I mistook for cow dung until I realized the only time I smelled dung was when he opened his mouth.
We were dropped off in Poi Pet, an ugly town that still uses horse and pulley to transport goods. People slipped the guards money while they crossed the border. In between the immigration offices of Thailand and Cambodia, there were a few casinos and hotels. We successfully crossed into Thailand and took a bus to Bangkok. Back to delicious street food and pollution…