Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Snuol, Sen Monorom, and a farewell to Cambodia

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Coming from Kratie, we waited for a while in dusty Snuol for a new bus to arrive and take us the rest of the way to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri province. We met Scott and Zoe, who had just been on the bus that would have originally done the job, but had broken down on the way up from Phnom Penh. Evidently the workhorse buses fare worse than I do in the Cambodian heat, and mechanical breakdowns are a common occurrence when dozens of passengers are expecting some measure of air conditioning inside. We waited for an hour and a half, snacking on local avocados and walking around town. The buildings here are all caked in rust-colored dust, and the unpaved roads gladly tattoo any sandal, shoe or tire the same color. Behind the shiny new cell phone merchant counters, ubiquitous throughout Cambodia, the familiar stench of the local market, cheap chinese goods competing for attention with poultry, live hens bound together at the feet. This is a crossroads town, not more than a pit-stop for most vehicles, locals busily fix up large wheels, tires, and axles for passers-through.

Mercifully, a bus arrived at last and was only half-full once we were all onboard. The road was packed dirt, apparently finished in 2002, and though wide enough for a few vehicles, cars tended to snake wildly within its borders, avoiding the deep pits and crevasses caused by the recent rains. We trudged along at a brisk enough pace, occasionally slowing to clearheadedly navigate the obstacle course.

The hot and dusty climate changed gradually, but definitively. Upon sighting the first conifer I’d seen in months I grinned; the guide book wasn’t wrong in saying that the area is ‘a different Cambodia'; not sure, however, about its resemblance to Switzerland. Unlike the flat, hot country I’d seen thus far, Sen Monorom sits high up in Mondulkiri’s rolling hills, its cooler climate a welcome change of pace.

Our bus finally arrived in the afternoon, and for once I was not swarmed with motodops and touts while getting my bags. I liked this town already. Its two main roads mostly free of traffic, save the occasional moto or pickup, I was reminded of a Cicely, Alaska, from TV’s Northern Exposure, where life is simple, people are friendly and helpful. The young proprietor of Green House, between organizing transportation for us, would serve us fresh jackfruit from his yard and was all too happy get drunk on Coke and Mekong and practice his near-perfect English. Likewise, our guest house packed us lunches with free bananas and avocados for snacks. It was quickly apparent that this is the sort of place where people treat foreigners like friends, and not just another way to make money. Most of the foreigners in these parts work for demining NGOs, and the couple of night spots that catered to us were casual, quiet and pleasant.

Our first full day in Sen Monorom, Scott, Zoe, Céline and I decided to change guest houses, but after walking a kilometer into town we were caught in a torrential deluge that managed to turn town’s roads into the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We took shelter under an awning and just watched. Luckily I’d surrounded myself with photographers, so there were no complaints, as were all to happy to spend the afternoon taking photos in the downpour and the muddy mess that was left when the rains subsided. I was liking this trip more and more.

At the local roundabout, a big statue of water buffaloes mid-stride, and next to the local airstrip (which looks just like any other road in town, only flatter), we ran into Sven, the Belgian guy from Kratie. He’d gotten in a night before we did, with delays. His bus had gotten stuck in the mud and half the passengers helped push it out. I guess we were lucky 😉 He was busy planning a motorcycle ride up to Ratanakiri province, explaining that taking the same road he’d taken to get here was against his philosophy. The start of the rainy season meant, however, that he would eventually have to cancel his trip due to impassable flooded terrain.

We hired a pickup truck to take us around the area. Our driver deftly managed the muddy roads, unlike a 4×4 we passed, that tried time and again to get up the road to no avail. The drive to the impressive Bou Sra waterfalls, some 40km away, was an enjoyable way to take it all in, the least populated province in the country.

In the afternoon we stopped by a local village and visited a traditional thatched-roof house. It was a very awkward moment. Here we were, a bunch of western bozos, gawking at the very basic accommodations and the handful of children who had lined up inside for a photo opportunity. I would like to think that they were somewhat shy, but they’d clearly done this before, and their unsmiling faces showed it. The father of the household, on the other hand, was all smiles despite our language barrier, and all too happy to accept the small change we gave him as payment. I tried to make the best of it, putting aside any guilty exploitative feelings, and tried to understand living here; a whole family under one thatched roof; long, raised wooden floors providing living, sleeping, and sleeping space; glowing embers in the middle, most likely for cooking, providing unnecessary heat and little light… It was a glimpse into these peoples’ lives, and we all felt like tourist schmucks for being there. Oh well; I guess such is the nature of this sort of travel. At the very least it was something concrete to take in, a real contrast to the lifestyles we are accustomed to.

That morning we had been woken up by Buddhist monks, who’d begun funerary chants at 6 in the morning, lasting well into the evening. The bus that we were supposed to take back to Phnom Penh the next day had lost control on the way to Sen Monorom, speeding backwards down a muddy road at a fast clip before swerving into a ditch in an emergency stop. A girl who had been on board apparently jumped out for one reason or another, and was struck dead by the vehicle. A Canadian guy who had been on the bus told us the story, calm but visibly in shock. Somber, it was a reminder that despite the serenely beautiful landscape, we were in a place where weather can spell ruin, and that local medical care is something to avoid.

The bus unavailable, we hired a share taxi to take us back to Phnom Penh. Imagine seven people crammed into Toyota Corolla, facing the same treacherous mud roads. I closed my eyes, resigned to whatever fate that awaited us. We made it back in one piece, and I was left forever impressed by the mechanical godliness of not only the Corolla, but the countless Honda Dream scooters we passed. Over the past month I’d seen these 125cc bikes haul everything from multiple live pigs to entire families precariously balanced on the seat. However, seeing two bikes balancing a full furniture set (armoire, table, etc.), miraculously maintaining traction in a foot of mud, topped it all.

My last night in Cambodia. I tagged along to Céline’s going-away party at a bowling alley in Phnom Penh, where I had little opportunity to reflect on my time here. I’ve had time since.

A month is little time to get to know a place, and I don’t pretend to understand it with any intimacy or real depth. But I knew that I would miss it here. This place is rough around the edges. Really rough compared to its wealthier neighbors. I’ve met many people who were disappointed by Cambodia, having expected sites and attractions on par with Thailand. It’s a pity, because this country offers so much depth with little gloss; the people here are, in a way, more earnest, not yet ruined by tourism; they smile genuine smiles. They are slowly rebuilding, toughened by decades of war and corruption, yet remain forced to seize whatever chance they can to eke out a living, good or bad. The air is rife with opportunity — for business, aid, more corruption, escapism. Westerners used to come here to escape demons and create new ones, assume new identities. But you can sense that despite the “anything goes” existence things are changing, that lawlessness is slowly fading, that progress is happening. So much of the country feels in physical limbo, and between dilapidated, crumbling buildings and war-ravaged infrastructure, first impressions can be depressing. Despite this, I am left with the sense that there is so much potential here, that the people are eager to move forward. NGOs are providing children with second chances; massive Chinese investment, a double-edged sword, is developing infrastructure and commerce; and if the images in shiny Khmer karaoke videos offer anything into national psyche, this youthful country has already projected itself into a new middle class and is trying to grow into those shoes.

But what do I know.

I am left charmed, humbled, hopeful and eager to come back soon.


Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

Boarding yet another bus specializing in the torture of its passengers with early-morning karaoke, I headed to Kratie, a small town on the Mekong that is reportedly the best area to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The bus took its second rest stop in the very dusty town of Snuol, its unpaved red-dirt roads dusting my feet in a small taste of what would be in store just a few days later.

It was here that I met Céline, who was busy inspecting small square leaf-wrapped bundles of what appeared to be a fish cake of some sort. Hailing from France, she’d spent some five months working in photo and video in Cambodia, and was taking a quick two week trip in her last two weeks here. Having had her camera stolen on a bus days before, she was a photographer without a camera, so I lent her one of mine as we became travel buddies for the next five days.

The usual crowd of moto touts descended upon us in Kratie; an amusing phenomenon this time, as all the hotels were within a one-block walking distance. There was one who made a point of not trying to yell louder than the others, so I took his recommendation for lodging after finding my original pick less than thrilling.

Kratie is a small town, yet its center crowds around a busy market, creating an incongruously dense web of shops, restaurants and various merchants around its perimeter. Up the street the city museum rarely opens, and the riverfront nightlife consists of a handful of noodle stands and a couple of underlit restaurants. If you somehow landed next to the market, you might expect a grand city with winding, dirty alleys. But stroll just five minutes in the evening and you are in the boonies, crickets chirping, dogs barking threateningly.

With some commotion, Céline and I managed to hop a couple of motos for the twenty kilometer ride to see the dolphins, and boarded a boat with Belgian Sven. Riding out on the Mekong was relaxing, especially when our boat captain, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen, cut the engine and rowed by hand; this is for the safety and comfort of the dolphins, whose numbers are staggeringly low in every region they inhabit. They don’t breach and bellyflop or jump through hoops for the tourist. Rather, an alert eye and attentive ear helps to spot their dark silhouette, barely above water, or the faint puff of air as they breathe out before refilling their lungs. That day I only saw brief shapes, the occasional fin, but from pictures I know that they have a round, bulbous appearance, more Airbus than bottlenose.

In the end, we saw several, and I managed to capture practically nothing with my camera. It is just as well, as they were but part of a nice ride out on the river. Serene, with only a couple of boats around, one could hear the sound of rapids up ahead, interrupted occasionally by the sound of the dolphins. Atmospheric. We stopped on a sandy jetty where a woman grew watermelons, and sold them out of a shack. Who knew that watermelons grew on a beach in the middle of the Mekong river?

On the way back we stopped by Phnom Sombok, a hill-top temple up a couple of steep sets of stairs. One pavilion showcased the hell that awaits those who do not lead a clean Buddhist lifestyle; shit, I thought this stuff only came out of the bible. Dogs ripping flesh off of women’s buttocks, men being sewn in half, devils prodding, ripping….. Further up, was the temple itself, where a painter was half-way into the more holy images of monks following the proper precepts. Eerie, they did not yet have faces. Ghostlike monks in lotus positions, waiting for an identity. Maybe they should leave them faceless. Contemporary Buddhist art…

Back in Kratie, with everything having closed early, Céline and I shared beers on the balcony, watching the motodop down below napping, artfully balancing himself on his bike without falling off. We counted the geckos’ croaks (6 is bad luck, 7 good?), discussed briefly Sarkozy’s election that day, and managed to mostly avoid the cockroach-crickets approaching our feet. Such is the nightlife in Kratie.

That morning I was woken up at 4:30 by the sounds of the market getting ready for the day. Haggling, screeching metal, motorbikes, commotion. All those people that were missing the night before had suddenly congregated full-force, jolting me awake.

I managed to sleep a couple hours more, and that day we followed a similar routine, hopping a moto and riding a bit further to the small town of Sambor, to see its famed temple of 100+ columns. Though reconstructed, it is indeed impressive, but not exactly what I’d expected. The exterior, though having said number of columns, looked like any other temple in Cambodia. The inside, however, was a lot more spectacular. Once inside, a couple of locals, who I assume live on the grounds, let us peruse an illustrated book on the life of Buddha, and attempted a broken conversation in French. The images in the book are standard, and each large Buddhist temple generally has Buddha’s life story illustrated on its walls. This one did not disappoint, with mile-high ceilings and bright, elaborate paintings.

On the way back to Kratie we stopped by a local hangout, a bamboo pier jutting out into the Mekong “rapids”. These weren’t the grand whitewater rapids I’d thought I’d heard the other day, from what might have been miles away. But no matter, the best part by far were the handful of boys catapulting themselves into the water in all matter of somersault, hamming it up for the camera both in air and in superhero kick-boxer poses. Their reaction to seeing themselves on the digital cameras was priceless. This definitely made the two-hour, three-person motorbike ride worth it.

After another night of imitating geckos, we would head back to Snuol in the morning, a stopover before veering East to Mondolkiri.

Phnom Penh Part Deux

Friday, May 11th, 2007

After a pleasant time down by the coast, I headed back to Phnom Penh, as most roads in Cambodia lead through it.

On a rainy afternoon I went down to Tuol Sleng (S-21) to burst my bubble of the last few days. S-21, once a high school, was used as a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge, and was the last stop for many lives before being sent to the killing fields. It is now a genocide museum.

As imposing and grey as most high schools around the world, it consists of several large cement buildings around a courtyard. Many of the rooms are open to visitors and showcase metal beds, torture devices, cramped cells, restraints.. Prisoners would be electrically shocked for so much as peeing or moving in their sleep without permission. It is a dark place, and haunting for visitors. Less so for Cambodians, it seems; locals play volleyball in the courtyard, and seem to be leaving the past behind them with vengeance. I can’t blame them.

A monthly party happens in Phnom Penh at Elsewhere, a grand palace of a bar, with courtyard, swimming pool and hundreds of ex-pats, visitors and a sprinkling of Cambodians alike drinking and dancing the night away. I went here that night, leaving behind the horrors of the museum, and enjoyed the new Cambodia, chatting with Amy, an Australian girl I’d met in Sihanoukville. It is always funny to come to these places, as once you’re inside the grounds, you could be just about anywhere. It certainly felt like miles from the crumbling buildings down the street.

The next day Douglas and I took a trip up to Silk Island to have a swim in the Mekong. Oasis 2. A 30 minute motorbike and ferry ride away, we were met with farmland, cows, mud (read: wipeout, burn, ouch), and locally produced silk scarves; another retreat from bustling Phnom Penh.

It is funny describe it as bustling, since when I first landed in the capital it certainly seemed like a quaint yet busy city, but nothing like the Bangkok I had just come from. Now, after seeing more rural parts of this country (read: the rest of the country), I couldn’t help but notice the lights at night, the back-lit fluorescent signs — not the hand-painted ones seen all around Cambodia, the traffic, the chaos. It is most definitely the capital, with all the grit and excitement any proper main city should have. I was happy to be back with new eyes.

And I was happy to leave very soon thereafter, heading up to the northeast.

Cambodia’s Coast: Sihanoukville, Kampot, Kep

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Leaving the intense heat of the past few days up north, I headed south to the coast for some beach bumming. Why was I not surprised, then, after a day’s journey on two buses, that providence brought heavy rains as I rolled into Sihanoukville, ending the drought of the last few weeks. No matter, I was determined to have a good time.

This coastal town was founded some forty years ago as Cambodia’s only deep-sea port, and quickly became a vacation spot until it was damaged during the Vietnam War and in more recent years remained largely unvisited due to poor security. The city itself sprawls across a strip a few kilometers long, connecting the three main beach areas.

I am told that the original backpacker area, Victory Hill, has been overrun in the past six months by French bar owners, opening girly bars, turning the otherwise charming strip into a Lamai (on Ko Samui) analogue. Indeed, the popular dirt road strip looked to be gearing up its sleaze as dusk approached. I did have pretty good Indian food there, though, so it was worth visiting for that 😉

Rather, I ended up spending five nights on the other side of town, up the road from Ochheuteal Beach (dubbed Serendipity Beach), at a fun guest house, with bar, restaurant and hammocks, perfect for enjoying rainy nights. You would think that torrential rains, power outages and my breaking of the sink in my bungalow (doing laundry, sending the whole barely-mounted unit shattering on the floor) would have soured my beach excursion. On the contrary, I found the rain super refreshing and discovered the joys of beer in a candlelit bar. Not to mention the thunderstorms, which were incredibly entertaining, lighting up the skies, brightening the beach for brief instants at a time.

The one day the skies remained clear I went SCUBA diving, with the hopes of seeing incredible coral life, like in Thailand. Sadly, most of the underwater population has been overfished (to wit, when asked about sea turtles, I am told a local laughed and replied “yeah, we had them about ten years ago; then we ate them all”), and much of the coral in the area dynamited (when not sold by the side of the road.) So, I explored what I could in the couple of diveable spots a couple hours off the coast; in the end, a few funky sea worms, hermit crabs, scorpion fish and very large angelfish made the excursion worthwhile.

After a leisurely five days in Sihanoukville, I took a share taxi to neighboring Kampot, capital of the eponymous province, and major producer of pepper and durian — surely a winning taste combination.

A dusty town with a French-colonial center and waterfront, it is a main trading post in this lush agricultural land. Wetter than Battambang, the surrounding areas are verdant, fresh rains pooling in rice fields stretching to the horizon.

The main attraction in the area is Bokor, Cambodia’s largest national park. Riding in the back of a pickup truck, the hour-and-a-half drive up the broken, bombed out road was painful, but the trip was worth every bruise on my butt. High up in the hills is Bokor Hill Station, the ruins of a French-built town from the 1920s, featuring a huge old hotel and casino. As is the case with most attractions in this country, the whole place is a dilapidated shell of what it once was, in this case an impressive, grand resort. The french even built a traditional European-style church in this hill-side town, no doubt hoping to carve out some religious or plainly bucolic connection to the old country. Though in tatters, the buildings give an incredible view of the foggy mountain, cloud formations changing quickly; one can even see the Vietnamese island if Phu Quoc just a few miles off shore.

After a couple of nights (and excellent Sri Lankan food) in Kampot, I was off to the small town of Kep. With a population of around 4000, it hugs the coastline, and was once a prime vacation destination; King Sihanouk even has a seaside villa there, which today goes unused. In fact, throughout the town are, surprise surprise, empty shells of old villas, ranging from colonial to modernist, their pockmarked concrete walls now home to squatters, bright laundry anachronistically drying in the doorways. Sitting amidst overgrowing plant life, they neighbor seaside shacks selling fresh seafood, a few boats, and the occasional cow grazing what it can find in the garbage strewn along the underused oceanview promenade.

Many people go to nearby Rabbit Island for the afternoon or to spend the night, but I was unable to find people to split the cost of the boat trip, which is quite expensive considering the distance. Instead, I made due with Kep’s inferior beaches, with once-imported sand now brown and unappealing. Not the best day at the beach, but I wasn’t one to complain.

Unpowered, hotels usually run their own generators at night, which adds to the charm of the area, not to mention the bill. This, plus the fact that just about everything is trucked in from neighboring Kampot, makes Kep a relatively expensive place to visit, which helps seal the sense of being a well-to-do visitor to a Cambodian riviera. Despite what it lacks, this rural town actually offers a lot of class and excellent food in a couple of choice locations. Undoubtedly this town will thrive again in the near future, as a romantic and probably elite destination. Much like the rest of the country, it has to catch up to what it once was before it was ravaged by revolution and war.

After a day of rolling around the town and surrounding farmland, it was time to head back to the capital before heading northeast.


Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

“The shared taxi took about two hours, and was the first air-conditioning I’ve felt in months of travel.. it was so nice!” gushed Chloe, an amiable Canadian, over beers in Siem Reap. Two hours? I was scheduled to do the same trip in reverse, heading to Battambang by slow-boat, and was beginning to reconsider the much longer ride ahead.

Early the next morning a dozen of us squeezed into a minivan, me butt barely fitting on a red fold-up kiddie chair in the door-well. Bleary eyed, we were deposited at the local ‘port’, a muddy path on the banks of Tonglé Sap Lake, where we settled, again sardine-like, into a small boat. The ride, estimated at 4-6 hours, would take nine, seeing as it is dry season and the water levels are visibly low — we rode quite a ways some ten feet below land in the afternoon. Occasionally we would stop to get unstuck from the mud, or to change the rotor blades on the engine.

Despite the lack of sleep and generally uncomfortable seating, the trip was beautiful and revealed a side of Cambodian life otherwise hidden. Following the lake’s coastline, we entered one of the small tributaries, forking into the Stung Sangker river that runs through the province. Battambang is supposedly Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’ (and evidently sister city to agricultural Stockton, CA). Cutting through farmland, we would pass floating villages, with houses and shops on the water, far below temples and other buildings on stilts. I imagine that during the rainy season these are all more or less level, but nearly scraping the bottom it felt more like a Disneyland ride, model buildings off in the distance, animatronic life repeating itself.

Villages gave way to the far ends of rice fields, cows and chickens leisurely tending the weeds near the water, and the occasional uncaged pig. The most heartwarming sight was watching the children splashing in the river, each and every one turning to smile and wave at us passengers.

Finally arriving in Battambang in the afternoon, I settled into a hotel, whose rooftop restaurant offered views of a large city darkened at night. Despite its size and daytime life, this place is very quiet at night; a wooden riverside bar, the busiest place aside from Khmer discotheques, had maybe ten people when I went. Having grown up in a large city, it was actually quite nice to ride on the back of a moto through lengthy, unlit streets, a serene feeling I have during the occasional power outages in SF.

The following day I hired a motodup to take me to a couple of the sights outside the city limits. Rolling through the rural backroads, kicking up dust, we rode past dried up rice fields, all parched and brown, puckering for the rainy season to start. Our first order of business was a ride on the infamous bamboo train, an enterprising solution to the problem of antiquated and unreliable train service. When hired, the operators place a pair of train axles on the tracks, followed by a bamboo flatbed, topped off with a small gasoline engine, whose torque is engaged using a rubber band and large stick contraption. Brilliant. I’d almost expected to ride a see-saw powered train, as I remember from my childhood Lucky Luke books, but this would undoubtedly provide more thrills. Paying an exorbitant tourist price, we fit our moto on the train and took off, speeding down tracks built by the French ages ago with all the thrilling unreliability of the back car of a carnival roller-coaster. This was some of the best money I’ve spent yet, and my only regret is setting my camera to a high shutter speed and screwing up what could have been excellent photos.

We continued on dirt roads, past schools, fields, bicyclists, pausing at a temple that is home to thousands of fruitbats, and on to Wat Phnom Sampeau, a temple sitting high on a hill above killing caves once employed by the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners would be brought to mouth of the caves, where the KM bludgeoned them before tossing their bodies down the tall vertical drop; there is rumor that the KM also ate their victims’ organs for strength. At the foot of the temple remains a large gun once used by the government in its fight against the Khmer Rouge. My understanding of the place’s history is spotty, but the juxtaposition of execution site, war artillery, commemorative placards and newly erected Buddha statue and temple summed up a spirit pervasive throughout Cambodia; one foot in the past, sometimes glorious, often gruesome, one foot progressing forward as best as possible.

A couple of evening beers, and I was off to bed, having to wake up early to head down to the coast.