Cambodia


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Angkor, the Sanskrit word for “city,” was by far the largest city in the world in the pre-industrial era, covering an area of over 1,000 square miles.  Between 900 and 1200 AD, the kings of the Khmer empire built over a thousand buildings in Angkor, from small, nondescript temples now reduced to rubble to Angkor Wat – the largest single religious monument in the world.  When the Frenchman Henri Mouhot came across Angkor Wat in the mid-1900s, he said that the Angkor Wat temple “- a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo — might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”

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The Khmer empire began its decline in the 14th century1, ultimately leading to an abandonment of the city in the mid-1400s.  Without upkeep, the buildings began to fall apart and to be overtaken by dense jungle.  It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a French team began to restore the buildings of Angkor.

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After years of war and political turmoil, tourists have descended on Cambodia – usually staying for 1 or 2 days in Siem Reap, a small town only a few miles from Angkor.  Last year alone, two million visitors visited Angkor Wat and, considering the tremendous construction of hotels and restaurants in the area, more are expected. 2  For those who make the trip, they will not be disappointed.

We joined the droves of tourists for the obligatory sunrise viewing of Angkor Wat.  Arising at 5:30 a.m., we made our way to the pond located to the front left of the temple.  In a spontaneous moment of genius, Shanna suggested we get away from the crowds and go inside the temple complex before the masses arrived.  Incredibly, no one else had this idea.  We entered the deserted temple, snapping pictures with reckless abandon.  After a few minutes of blessed solitude, we finally came across two tourists – Virginia Madsen (one of the stars of the movie “Sideways” – she played the character “Maya”) and her son.  After a quick conversation and the obligatory photo with a celebrity, we sprinted back to the pond to snap a few sunsrise pictures.

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We spent the next two days visiting temples in the early morning and the late afternoon, choosing to relax by our hotel’s pool and avoid the hot, midday sun of Cambodia. 3  In the evenings, we ate some amazing (and cheap) meals at restaurants that seemed out of place – with the decor and quality that would make many New York and Paris-based diners very jealous.

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While many of the temples are worth a long visit, my favorites are obviously Angkor Wat, followed closely by Ta Prohm and the Bayon.  In order to give visitors a sense of the state of the temples when first visited by the French explorers in the mid-1800s, Ta Prohm has been left mostly in its condition when found beneath the jungle overgrowth.  Literally, trees had overtaken the temple and the distinction between stone and tree becomes blurred.  This leads to an eerie quality that was recognized by Hollywood filmmakers and led to the filming of Tomb Raider (starring Angeline Jolie) at the temple.

The Bayon temple, located in the walled city of Angkor Thom, is extraordinary due to the dozens of towers constructed with bas-relief faces pointing in all directions.  Each face, considered by many to be the face of Jayavarman – the greatest of the Angkorian kings – has an all-knowing look and a smile that seems content that his legacy, while forgotten by the world for over 500 years, is ensured of never being forgotten again.

 

  1. There are several theories as to the cause of the decline, including repeated invasions by Thailand (its neighbor to the West) and urban mismanagement, leading to an inadequate supply of water for its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants []
  2. The growth in Siem Reap has been extraordinary.  When I first visited the city in 2004 – just four years ago – there were only a handful of hotels and restaurants. []
  3. For those planning on visiting, Angkor is best done in 2 or 3 days, even though most tourists try to see it all in one, exhausting day.  You can get temple-fatigue very quickly, so a more leisurely pace is highly recommended. []

Our travels thus far have taken us to a number of places marred by the aftermath of politics gone wrong.  In no place, however, have the wounds from such wrongs been as raw or as recent as the ones we witnessed during our time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodia was engulfed in a civil war that created a power vacuum into which an orthodox Communist group called the Khmer Rouge1 stepped into in 1975.  Over the course of the next four years, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas like Phnom Penh to collective farms where forced labor was widespread.  During this time, the Khmer Rouge, under its leader, Pol Pot, overworked and starved the Cambodian population, executed those who ostensibly had the potential to undermine the new state (including intellectuals or even those who exhibited stereotypical signs of learning, such as eyeglasses) and detained and killed many others for even minor breaches of their stringent rules.
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We spent a day visiting two of the sites where many of these atrocities took place.  We toured a former high school that was commandeered by Pol Pot’s forces and turned into a prison camp known as S-21.  Approximately 17,000 people passed through the camp, which is now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, before being executed.  (Of all those imprisoned at S-21, only ten are known to have gotten out alive.)   The school’s classrooms were converted into tiny prison cells and larger interrogation centers, where prisoners were tortured (mostly by Khmer Rouge children aged 10 to 15) and forced to confess crimes that they had never committed.
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Once condemned to death for their “crimes,” the detainees were sent to be executed at one of the many killing fields that the Khmer Rouge established throughout Cambodia.  We visited Choeung Ek, one such field and the place where more than 15,000 people were believed to have been murdered and buried in mass graves.  A powerfully disturbing memorial at the site features a glass case that contains the skulls and bones of more than 8,000 of the victims.
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The Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979, but it retreated west to a safe haven near the Thai border, where it remained (and ruled) for the next ten years.   Party infighting led to its eventual disintegration and to the imprisonment (by house arrest) of Pol Pot, who died in 1998.  While many other Khmer Rouge leaders either surrendered or were captured, some are still believed to be hidden in Phnom Penh.  Interestingly enough, Cambodia’s population is very young, and so, by 2005, more than 75% of its population was too young to remember the years during which the Khmer Rouge held their nation under siege.

Those who live in Phnom Penh now walk the streets of a surprisingly cosmopolitan town that is the wealthiest and most populated in Cambodia.  While the city is rife with poverty, most of the short-term tourists (ourselves included) who populate its trendy cafes and bars remain, for better or worse, almost completely isolated from the city’s modern-day troubles.

  1. More than 90% of Cambodia’s population is of Khmer origin and speaks the Khmer language.  “Khmer Rouge” means “Red Khmer” in French. []

No one ever said that independent travel is easy.  For the uninitiated, it can be painfully stressful.  Piecing together the logistics of getting from point A to B to C and so forth can test the patience of even the most laid-back of individuals. 

For most Americans, vacation is the chance to escape from the stress back home, to relax and have everything taken care of.  The most difficult decision the typical traveler wants to make is whether to order steak or fish.  I’m wired differently.  Oddly, my relaxation and recharge comes from making decisions on the fly, from getting out of my element and testing myself.  In all of the vacations I’ve taken over the past decade, I’ve eschewed planning in advance, preferring rather to show up and see what happens.   Sometimes that means that there are no rooms in your hotel of choice, the plane is full or the bus doesn’t leave until tomorrow – these inconveniences have usually led to my favorite travel memories.
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Our experience a few days ago is a great example of the complexity and tribulations that independent travel can entail.  After a couple of days on Phu Quoc Island off the coast of Vietnam, we wanted to make it to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  After consulting our guidebook and an online travel forum, we discovered that we could cross the border into Cambodia via boat.  I’ve never crossed a border via a river, so it sounded like something I needed to add to my travel checklist.

After checking out of our guesthouse, we caught a bus to the island ferry.  Unusually, we had taken the step of reserving a seat on the ferry in advance.  Typically, this is unnecessary in Asia since they’ll pretty much let anyone on for the right price. (As becomes important in a second, however, we only had the receipt from the travel agent to prove that we’d already purchased tickets. The agent had assured us that we would be able to exchange the receipt for tickets once we arrived at the ferry dock.) 

As we attempted to board the boat, the ticket taker asked for our tickets. We handed him our receipt from the agent; he said this wasn’t valid and that we needed actual tickets.  After 20 minutes of conversation in broken English and approximately 13 phone calls with our travel agent, it was clear that we weren’t getting on the boat (the last one of the day) without a ticket.  In fact, they refused to even talk to us, physically blocked the ramp to the boat and started to lift up the anchor to set sail.  As all hope quickly vanished, I spotted our white night riding a motorbike down the pier.  As he dismounted, he flashed 3 shiny boat tickets.  Without hesitation, I grabbed them from his hands, brushed the boatman aside and boarded our vessel. 
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Upon arrival on the Vietnamese mainland, we needed to get to the bus station.  The taxi drivers at the boat dock were part of a monopoly that would have made Microsoft and Comcast proud – the price was fixed at exorbitant rates.  After some unsuccessful bargaining, we noticed several motorcycle drivers who were standing near the taxis.  Within a few seconds, we (and our large backpacks) were each on the back of a Honda.  After racing through the city, we were dropped off at a gas station where our bus had stopped for a quick fill-up.  The friendly motorcycle drivers helped us carry our bags onto the bus. 

Three hours and two buses later, we arrived at the bus station in Chau Doc – a Vietnamese/Cambodian border town.  Since it was dark, our border crossing would have to wait until the next morning.  Thus, we flagged down some motorcycles and made our way to a guesthouse referenced in our guidebook.  Luckily, rooms were available for a hefty $6 a night. 

The next morning, I awoke early to my first bout of food poisoning on the trip.  It was not one of my greatest moments.  As I tried to piece together my food consumption from the prior day in order to locate the vile culprit of my violent regurgitation, I realized that I had not eaten any meat the prior day – only bread, corn and fried rice.  Since this was probably the first day in twenty years that I have been completely vegetarian, I swore that I would never forsake meat again.

As I was lying incapacitated on the bed, Alyssa entered the room at 7:26 a.m. and told me and Shanna that our 8:00 a.m. boat to Cambodia was actually leaving at 7:30 a.m.  I’ve seen television shows where humans exhibit super-human powers in times of great emotional distress (e.g., lifting a soon-to-explode car off of a trapped passenger), but I never knew that I was capable of such powers.  However, within 84 seconds I was off the bed, packed and headed towards the door.  We grabbed a cyclo (basically, a guy on a bike with a seat behind him) and were off to the boat dock.  Arriving at 7:32 a.m., we sprinted to the dock desperately hoping that the boat driver had also fallen prey to the sickness caused by forsaking meat.  Luckily, he had.  The boat didn’t leave until around 9:10 a.m.!

The remainder of the journey to Phnom Penh was pleasant – passing simple villages on the banks of the Mekong and leaving Vietnam and entering Cambodia via the river. 

They say that getting there is half the fun; for me, it’s more like 73%.