A country tries to balance beauty with poverty
04.21.2009 - 04.26.2009 95 °F
Crossing the border between Thailand and Cambodia is an adventure sport not good for the faint of heart. A couple we met earlier in our trip advised us to immediately book a flight to Cambodia and not even attempt the feat, but our wallets had another plan, and we were confident we could beat the scams.
The website www.talesofasia.com pretty much walks you through the process if you are planning to do the trip. I won't give you all of our details, but the journey involved one bus, two taxis, two tuk-tuk rides, three fake Cambodian Consulate locations and two very tired travelers by the days end!
After waiting in line to check out of Thailand, you have to walk about a half mile to reach Cambodia's border patrol. This walk is a step back in time about 50 years. Paved roads become dirt. Manicured landscape becomes dry and filled with garbage. The pickup trucks full of goods fade out, and massive, wood wheel barrels pulled by one man start to fill the street. The zone between countries is also lined with casinos that look lifeless and beggers.
Poipet is the town just outside of border area in Cambodia. We do not have photos of the details I describe above as it was not safe to pull out our cameras.
We made it to a building with military men and a sign that said Cambodia visa $20 USD, which is the price we expected. But once the officer had our passports and $20, he asked for 200 baht, which is around $6. He wouldn't give us a clear answer why, but I suspect it was the lunchtime fee as it was noon and his staff was eating. So long story short, after avoiding about a dozen scams along the way, we ultimately were scammed by the 'real' officials.
From the border we shared a taxi to Siem Reap with Roger and Chloe, seasoned travelers from England who are wrapping up an impressive two-year stint on the road. We met them on the bus from Bangkok.
The taxi driver made stops along the way, including one to get his car wash, conveniently at a store for us to buy snacks, and he wouldn't drop us off at our requested destination in Siem Reap, rather he left us on the side of the road near two tuk-tuks who claimed they would take us for free to our hotel. Buyer beware - nothing is FREE in southeast Asia! We crossed a highway to make a phone call to our hotel to pick us up.
We made it! Our hotel welcomed us with a drink!
The next morning we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat and many of its surrounding temples.
Angkor Wat is a massive temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. In the past decade it has also become Cambodia's most popular tourist destination. The temple is surrounded by a moat, is full of empty reflection pools, and many of its walls have carvings from Hindu mythology. Unfortunately, much of the temple was destroyed by the Khmere Rouge, which Dave writes about below.
We hiked up a mountain to get an aerial perspective of Angkor Wat.
Walking into Angkor Wat is an awesome site!
Chloe and Roger on top of Angkor Wat.
On the way to neighboring temples you go over and through a bridge with a collection of Buddha heads along the side. On one side of the road the heads represent good, on the other the heads represent evil. We like the happy Buddhas!
Bayon Temple includes 37 towers of faces.
Monks getting a tour of the Buddhist mecca.
While other temples are getting repairs, Ta Prohm Temple has been left partially untouched. It is now full of fig and silk-cotton trees growing from the towers and corridors.
The sites at and around Ankgor Wat were pretty amazing, but the overall experience was not pleasant. At every step we were immediately surrounded by children asking for money or asking us to buy something. All day I heard, 'Lady, lady, lady, just one dollar, just one dollar. Come on.'
Tourists are left with a choice: engage in conversation with the children or ignore them. At first I engaged, but this only led them to follow me and beg for money. For many reasons I would not donate, rather I'd ask them about school, which I firmly believe none of them attend.
By the end of the day I was ignoring the children, trying not to make eye contact, but it felt awful. One girl about eight years old held her two year old brother in her bike basket. When I refused to give her money she started hitting him on the head with a plastic water bottle. It was horrifying, and I felt extremely helpless as she wouldn't stop and locals I approached wouldn't intervene.
What killed me most was that all of the local Cambodian women selling fruits nearby, and the male tuk-tuk drivers just turned a blind eye. No one wants to admit that this is a problem, or attempt to fix it.
The next day we took a bus to the capital city of Phnom Penh, primarily to get our Vietnam visas. Dave and I decided that with just three and a half weeks left in southeast Asia, we wanted to devote more time to Vietnam and Laos, hoping for a more positive experience, but who knows what lies ahead.
On the road we stopped for a Buddhist ceremony where locals give alms to the monks.
Check out the young motorcycle driver!
Driving across the country by bus gave us many hours to check out the landscape. Unlike parts of Peru where traditional garb is still warn, people in Cambodia are wearing jeans and t-shirts like us, but bicycles are from the 60's, houses are made of bamboo and rarely finished, and rivers are dirty brown.
Exercise is not a problem in Cambodia, as most children and adults ride bikes, usually alongside cars, motorcycles, trucks and tuk-tuks.
Only two Asian countries into our trip, I have a better understanding for their chaotic driving style at home. Simply put, there are no road rules here and oddly everyone seems to get through the intersections in one piece. We have driven on the wrong side of the road, gone through traffic lights, and driven on sidewalks among other things.
Cars and trucks are often packed to the max with people overflowing out the back, windows and on roofs.
Garbage lines most city streets, especially near markets.
Pollution is awful. You have to cover your nose and mouth to prevent ingesting all of the fumes.
Women usually work at the markets or sell fruit on the street to make money.
We realize we may not be giving Cambodia a fair shake. We are skipping Sihanoukville (a beach town we heard was beautiful on the south coast of Cambodia), Kampot (a rural town with rice paddies and farms) and Battambang (a French inspired village), but we just don't have the time to do everything.
A few final thoughts...
- Even though I saw plenty of solo western women traveling through Cambodia, I don't recommend it. Even with Dave I felt uncomfortable on most city streets in Phnom Penh, feeling stares and creepiness from men just sitting on the street.
- The front desk manager at one of our hotels makes $3 a day. He says he has multiple jobs to just afford food and housing. He's never ordered a pizza, because that would break the bank. Now that's food for thought that made me lose my appetite.
Understanding Cambodia's poverty and the destruction caused by the Khmere Rouge ...
The Khmere Rouge led by Pol Pot was in power from from 1975 to 1979 and committed genocide on the Cambodian people in a sick attempt to achieve a radical vision of a Maoist society. One point seven million people (although some people argue up to three million) were brutally killed.
While in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Elizabeth and I visited the S-21 museum and the Killing Fields, which you may know from the movie by the same name.
S-21 was the name given to an elementary school that was converted into a jail and torture unit for prisoners including women, children, highly educated Cambodians and foreigners, who could not be brainwashed.
After being tortured using methods such as water boarding, these victims were sent to the Killing Fields, a farm just outside of town, to be shot and buried in mass graves.
Today a memorial monument holding the skulls of many victims stands in the middle of the field.
It was incredibly powerful to see the museum and field in succession, as well as observe the affects of the war on Cambodia today. While walking around the graves and monument at the Killing Fields you could hear laughs of young children at a neighboring school, which gave us some hope that things are improving for the Cambodian people. However, as Elizabeth described, the country still has a long way to go and throughout most of Cambodia, the amount of kids not attending school and begging is heart breaking, and the amount of unemployed people on the street waiting to pick up odd jobs is eerie.
It is a common site to see Cambodian's just squatting on the street with no place to go.
Men with motor bikes offer rides to try and earn a dollar.
The troubled infrastructure and economy in Cambodia is partly due to how the Khmere Rouge regime broke up families, eliminated the school system and free market to achieve a classless society of peasants and workers. From stories we've heard, current government corruption and a strong mafia presence isn't helping the situation either. Further, I can only imagine the psychological damage caused by the Khmere Rouge. I watched The Killing Fields at our hotel with a worker who lost a lot of family and our tuk-tuk driver who lost his dad told us, “everyone lost someone.”
The fact that the US had a part in sending Pol Pot into power made us feel even worse. Under Nixon's leadership, our country indirectly supported China and Thailand in arming the Khmere Rouge to fight the Vietnamese. We also carpet bombed Cambodia, destabilizing the former government, which allowed Pol Pot to rise to power.
Elizabeth and I think all US politicians should be required to travel across Cambodia to see what poor decision making can do to the common person.
On the way out of Cambodia our bus was surrounded by children banging on the windows for money and food. Elizabeth got really emotional and started to cry. We opened the window and gave this boy our remaining Cambodian change, equivalent to $.15. It was as if he won the lottery!