Cambodia <- December and January <- Japan <- Home
I arrived in Cambodia January 2, 2001. It was a scary landing - I didn't know what to expect, and the people at customs did nothing to impress me, taking what felt an awful lot like a bribe to process my visa. I was pretty certain I was going to be beaten and robbed as soon as I walked out the door. Well, I certainly would have been robbed, as Taxis were $7 to the city, and I didn't know where to go. In the end I got a motorbike (the first of many) to the edge of town, and walked a ways, just taking in Phnom Phen. Phnom Phen is a city that needs to be taken in, and the impressions from those first couple of days will be with me for some time to come. Lots of poverty, lots of dust. I changed 10,000 yen (about $90) at the airport, and they gave me a stack of bills an inch thick. Little did I know that in fact noone used Cambodian money. Only the US dollar. Shoulda brought money from home. Such is life. Anyway, after wandering around town for a bit I settled on Narim guesthouse in the south of the city. They put me in a little annex with a nice balcony, and I took up residence just soaking up atmosphere and recovering from the shock of Cambodia after Thailand. I met a dutch couple and we talked and headed out to dinner, where we had a sort of Shabu Shabu and the guy ate a grasshopper when they brought a platter of them around. I passed on that one.
It was that day that I read in the news that they were going to prosecute the Khmer Rouge. About time, I said.
Next day, I get up and start walking, realize I'm tired, so I get a motorcycle, which takes me pretty much everywhere - the grand palace, Wat Phnom, Tuol Sleng (AKA S-21). The palace was not surprising after the palace in Bangkok, but was nonetheless beautiful. Wat Phnom (which the city is named after, apparently) is unimpressive. S-21 is impressive. Downright depressing, in fact. S-21 is where an amazing amount of people were held before being killed in myriad awful ways by the Khmer Rouge. It looks an awful lot like a Japanese school on the outside, and inside it looks like a prison built by children. Too many photos, too many testimonies, too much history. The end of the walking tour is a map of cambodia made of human skulls. I don't know about visiting places where evil has happened, but the fact that it still chills me to the bone as I type this says a lot for its power. It is at this place I buy some Khmer Rouge money, which features happy workers and people with guns. Scary stuff. I get some Greek food for lunch, and head back to rest up before heading to Siem Reap in the morning.
The next day dawns too early for me, and I learn just how uncomfortable a five hour (well, seven hour) journey can be. We sit on top as the boats are not entirely safe, and boy can you get a sunburn in seven hours - believe me! And loud, too! My ears ring for hours afterward. But I do manage to take a few pictures along the way. The guesthouse I stayed at in Phnom Phen has a second guesthouse in Siem Reap, so I go to Smiley's and get a room, come back out and there's a group going to the temples for the evening! I arrange a group of people and we head out to Angkor Wat for the sunset. Too many people, but it's still just an amazing temple. After buying the pass for Angkor Wat ($40 for three days) my money situation is serious, to say the least.
Next day, I went to Angkor Thom, which contains a temple called the Bayon, which has loads of faces on it. Next was Ta Prohm, a temple being left to the jungle, and back to town to get more money. I succeed in getting a cash advance, which made me happy. For the evening I head to the big hill opposite Angkor Wat to watch the sunset (and all the tourists up there with me!). Then back to the guesthouse, where I arranged to meet some people and take a car to the temples in the north.
The next day we got in the car and headed north a long way over pretty bad roads and scary bridges. We went first to the "river of 1000 Lingas" (Kobal Spien) which is, well, a river with a lot of lingas. The riverbed is carved with hundreds of phallic symbols in all sorts of patterns, along with hindu gods (many of which had been stolen - art collectors have a lot to answer for!). At the end of the trail is a big waterfall where people like to splash (trust me - the water felt good!) After that we headed to Banteay Srei, by far the most ornate temple of the Angkor group. I took a million photos, mainly detail shots of the carvings. On the way back, we witnessed an example of modern food transport. To close the day I went back to the hill with Hans, one of the people I travelled up North with, while his wife went to Angkor Wat. Made it back to the guesthouse in time for The Matrix (no kidding!) and had a long chat with a brit named Paul, who is one of those folks I believe will be there when the revolution goes down. Neat guy. Turned in with no real plans for day three (my last day of temple watching).
So, the next day started with Preah Khan, which is a very cool temple with some bits overgrown. Quiet temple, except for the kids with postcards. Next I went back to the Bayon while the bike was repaired (shock troubles - must have been my big butt). I then hit some random temples in various states of repair. It was interesting seeing the way things get repaired, and also how different simple things can make a temple look. I closed out the day at Angkor Wat, walking around, taking pics, just relaxing.
Last day in Siem Reap found me doing a host of chores, like sending a score of postcards, developing film, stuff like that. I tried to get a trip out to the bird sanctuary, but I hadn't planned far enough ahead, so I had to settle for finishing the day early. But before that, I went to a school that teaches carving to poor people and orphans. After that I went to the land mine museum, where a guy who used to be Khmer Rouge lives and has mine displays. He had all the common mines, a little minefield set up where you could see what the mines look like more or less in the ground, all sorts of information on how they work, and stuff like that. He defuses them around the country, and has a pretty damned interesting life story, to boot. The rest of the day was spent shopping and visiting wats of a more recent origin, talking to the chatty monks and asking about various things in the temple. I finished up, bid the guy who had been driving me around farewell, and finished up my time in Siem Reap chatting and killing time. Next day, back on the boat!
When I finally got into Phnom Phen (again) I checked back in to the guesthouse I'd been at before, grabbed a taxi, and went on a most interesting combination tour. First I visited the killing field outside of town. Another disturbing experience made more so by the happy noises of children coming from the school next door. A series of trenches and trees with signs describing what happened, and inside a pagoda with the skulls of victims. After that happy little experience, I headed next to a shooting range, just to confuse my moral compass. I fired a clip from an AK-47 and just generally hung out. The next morning, I bounded off to the airport, after discovering $100 missing from my room. I was ready to leave, really. I got to ride the first Jet Bangkok Airways owned (and boy were they proud of it!). I managed to meet up with Rachel after a bit of confusion and we headed to Khao San road (oh no!) for a fitting on my suit. Next Silom Road for lunch and shopping (no more sex shows). We watch a Japanese tourist get taken for a bundle. Funny stuff. Shows how the shopkeeps think of different people. Back to 'Backpacker Hell' for my suit and some pics, then back to Oakwood (the apartments we stayed in) to meet our benefactor, who we had planned to take to dinner but instead took us to dinner - such is life, and I've never been very good at grabbing bills. We leave the restaurant (the pub, really) for the airport, and make our way back to Japan.
NOTE - if you are thinking of going to Cambodia, Lonely Planet's guides are fairly good. However, the situation in Cambodia changes quickly so do check newspapers and such before you go.
Banteay Srei pictures.
All of the other pictures
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