As I am sure you know, throughout the last three and a half weeks David and I have been traveling. If you don’t know that, you have now been informed. There have been paraw boats, big planes, small planes, trains, cars, buses, ferries, vans, and all varieties of two, three, and four wheeled vehicles. We have been bouncing around the Philippines like hyperactive five year olds for the past month. There has been sightseeing, diving, atv rides, clubs, bars, lounging, sun, sea, and sand. We have kept up a breakneck pace throughout. In Cambodia, it all caught up with us. But I will start elsewhere.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on April 4. After one night of sleep we dumped the suitcases we had and took a very early and very uncomfortable bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On arrival we were greeted by a very nice man who called himself Lee. Naturally, a newly arrived traveler in a strange city would raise an eyebrow at a friendly local who offers to drive them around. We did not. Of course…. Instead, we permitted Lee to drive us to our hotel and show us around the city on the way. He took us by a few landmarks and showed us where as he described it, “You can meet many beautiful women here!” We thanked him for the tour when we arrived at the hotel and planned to see more of the city with him the next day. For that evening however, we had other plans. As luck would have it I have a friend living in Phnom Penh. Her name is Anne Sjolander and she has been a resident of the city for the past 8 months or so. We met at, of course, an Irish bar… They seem to be everywhere.
Anne, I am sorry if you don’t like the photo. It is the only one I took… But, best guide ever.
Anne was an amazing hostess. Between Ms. Sjolander, her friends, and Lee we saw just how much fun of a city it was. With Anne we tasted the street cuisine, went to bar called Red Fox to sample the local herbs, and enjoyed a great afternoon swimming in ‘Olympic Park’ (the name seems arbitrary). We got to join some teenagers doing backflips off of a forty foot high dive. No backflips from our group, just piercing screams from David and Anne as they jumped off. It was pretty funny to watch the stands full of families observe the foreigners giving it a try. Anne even got a smattering of applause. With Lee we had a very different, but nonetheless fantastic, day. We started by driving off into the country on his tuk tuk to shoot some stuff, because, Cambodia. We fired an M4 and a modified M16 called an SKS. After sufficiently greasing up the shirts we were wearing and while still wreaking of gun smoke we went to the Killing Fields. This was pretty rough to get through so I will start with a little background. These fields are essentially a collection of mass graves. From ~1975-1979 Pol Pot and his military government decided to create a new society. In this society they used the military to mandate an exodus from the cities. Minorities and the literati were executed while everyone else was put to work in farms. By the end the death toll was around two million people. This was roughly a third of the country’s population at the time. They executed people at random. Families, women, infants, etc. were all fair game. This site was one in which you had some graves the size of king sized beds holding over a hundred bodies. In the photo below each depression represents what is now an excavated mass gravesite. There were far more than I have in the photo. It was an extremely sobering but exceedingly well presented site. There was plenty of background on the people and institutions that facilitated the genocide.
After one last night with Anne and her friends we bade farewell to Phnom Penh. Then, disaster struck. While out with Anne and her friends we decided to dive into some delicious street food in the red light district. While this is obviously not an ideal setting for a quiet dinner it was nonetheless delicious and satisfying. After saying our goodbyes we realized our mistake. Diarrhea. Bad diarrhea. The stomach cramps were brutal and we were both running on about three hours of sleep a night. In this physical state we took the most cramped van possible for a six hour ride to Siem Reap. The agony!!! On arrival we were completely dead. However, our trusted driver Lee had hooked us up with a buddy of his in the city. His name was George. Our first day there was not very good at all. It started with the room. A broken air conditioner. It continued with the sites.
George insisted that we see a place called ‘The Floating Village.’ Sounds scenic enough. We arrived to find ticket prices at twenty dollars a head. This was more than somewhat unreasonable. Then after a boat ride through what looked and smelled like a drainage ditch we finally arrived. It was essentially a floating ghetto. Every single thing we saw there was created for the sole purpose of the tourists (us) spending as much money as possible. We were first taken to a store and there were nearly guilt-tripped into buying a sixty-five dollar bag of rice for school children. Then we were taken to the school house. After the school house we arrived at a restaurant to see a crocodile and fish farm. There was a boy with a python there. We posed for some photos with him and our guide told us, “He needs money for school. You should pay him.” Again, we caved. Finally, after battling the constant swarms of insects and nearly choking from the smell of the stagnant water we got back to the dock. Before we got off the boat however, there was one more request. “I need money for school,” our guide told us. David, frustrated, pulled out a wad of money and put it in his hand. At least now, we could leave. Now, I don’t want to ignore the plight of the impoverished nor am I trying to be condescending but, diarrhea, no sleep, hot, sweaty, in pain, and irritated.
The afternoon wasn’t a whole lot better. We were driven near Angkor Wat to check out the sunset. So, after another twenty dollar admission fee we climbed a hill to check this out from the top of an ancient temple. Two problems with that: David was not allowed up because he had no sleeves and we could not see the sun through the haze that had collected on the horizon. It was, I suppose, a day of character building.
Coming back to the hostel we shared our miserable experience with some Kiwis who found themselves in the same boat just the day before. After some consolation beers and good conversation David and I called it a night.
We slept in our brutally hot room, took some laxatives, and prepped ourselves for the next days’ temple exploration.
We woke for the sunrise. George drove us down to Ankor Wat to check out what he swore would be a beautiful view. “Not like yesterday” was the promise on his lips. So, with high hopes we set up for what would be a change in our recent fortunes. David had his camera prepared as we waited, waited, and… Anticlimax. We literally did not see the sun until it was half way into the sky. Pictured below.
It was kind of cool. So we weren’t entirely deflated. Angkor Wat is a beautiful place but, as all real tomb raiders know, Angkor Thom is where the action happens. It is a sprawling, overgrown, complex with more sites than have likely been catalogued. For those moments when you escape the massive screechy tour groups hailing from East Asia you are in another world. The trees and the stone morph together to put you into the middle of your own Indiana Jones movie. We scrambled through holes and over fallen stones to find pits, skylights, dead ends, and blocked passages. It really is a fantastic place. We spent hours upon hours exploring.
When we got back to our hotel we were exhausted, but relieved. The day had been a huge gift for us. We spent the afternoon catching up with our Kiwi buddies and a couple of new Canadian friends at a local pool and then returned to the hostel for some shut eye. When we got back David collapsed. He was pale as a sheet and completely inarticulate. After one more spill he took in the room he managed to get in bed. We brought in fans, gave him water, and did the best we could to keep the room cool. That’s how we ended our time in Siem Reap. I have no doubt, and he agrees, that the sweating, sun, heat, lack of cool air in the room, and lack of any meaningful sleep probably did it. Of course, now we are both much better and are sitting in a very well air conditioned room in HCMC waiting to start the final leg of the trip.
Cambodia kicked our asses. It was amazing and fun and beautiful and crazy but it really did beat the hell out of us. Now, rested and reenergized, we can finish with a bang. Until next time.