Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Siem Reap and Temples of Angkor

Friday, April 27th, 2007

A six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, during which the driver somehow dodged cattle, potholes, dogs, bicycles, motos and other buses, deposited me just outside Siem Reap in the early evening. After a short tuk-tuk ride into town, I was greeted by Cambodia’s tourist mecca, a bit of a shock coming from up-and-coming Phnom Penh, not to mention the rural roads in between. Taking its cues from Thailand, the small town of Siem Reap overloads the senses with western restaurants and bars, air conditioned coffee shops, and a slew of street vendors all selling the same goods and services. While Phnom Penh caters to many westerners, those mostly seem to be ex-pats and NGO workers. Not so here. The crowds are a different breed altogether, ex-pats rooted to the workings of their new home and perhaps more jaded; tourists tan and wearing authentic southeast-asian clothes (I admit to having bought Thai fisherman’s pants. They’re cool.)

The crowds, of course, are here for the many temples in the area, the most famous being Angkor Wat. I had had my heart set on seeing Angkor Wat for a long time, and soon I would be satiated. The following morning I hired a tuk-tuk, and was driven around by the affable Buok Joy. I spent the first day doing most of the traditional small-tour of half a dozen temples, starting with Angkor Thom and ending with Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world.

The temples cover a vast area, mostly nestled in the jungle, and spending several days is really the only way one can take it all in. Even the smallest temple in the area is impressive, and I spent two days taking photos, imagining what the structures may have looked like in their heyday, and generally being impressed.

The biggest annoyance to visiting the temples are the countless vendors, from restaurant owners selling water to the dozens of children selling postcards and bracelets. It is hard to fault them for trying. After all, a parched foreigner, who can afford spending $20 per day for admission to the grounds, is a veritable money tree. One must remain zen about the experience; but with the barely tolerable heat (I heard 104 degrees) it was a definitely a challenge to do so the hundredth time I heard “Mista! Buy some wata!” yelled from a hundred yards away.

Many visitors go early in the morning before it gets too hot. Being a late sleeper, however, I forced myself to cut my losses and endure the cruelties of the mid-day sun and explore. It was most definitely worth it; the creepy stone faces of Angkor Thom, the ruins overgrown with trees (as seen in Tomb Raider) best seen at Ta Phrom and Ta Som, the dried up pools and stately walkways throughout.. and finally stepping beyond the threshold and into Angkor Wat I was reminded exactly why I had come in the first place. The site is spectacularly large — the perimeter wall measures 1025 by 802 meters. It is grand beyond compare, and to think of building such a structure boggles the mind. I was very much reminded of Chichen Itza, from the scale of the grounds and temples, down to stone steps engineered for dolls feet. Perhaps it was simply the sense of history one gets from seeing ruins broken down and are pillaged over time.

It is impossible to do the place justice with words and amateur photographs. For me, it was even impossible to take in such a place with a cursory visit; days later I am still processing what I’ve seen. I will need to come back someday, preferably during the rainy season, to simply sit on the grounds and be.

After a couple of days this time around, however, I experienced serious temple burnout and opted to laze about the town my last day, barely able to move in the heat. Instead, the afternoon was spent drinking late into the night with other travelers at my guest house, including a fellow San Franciscan, who, in selling others on the Bay Area, reminded us of why we live where we do. Faded, I left the party early to pack up for my early morning’s boat trip to Battambang, Cambodia’s Second City.

Phnom Penh

Friday, April 20th, 2007

An early morning flight from Bangkok into Phnom Penh, one quickly realizes how rich Thailand is compared to its neighbor. Cambodia has seen incredible suffering in recent history, and the decrepitude of buildings and infrastructure show it. However, one senses how eagerly the people want to catch up with their neighbors on both sides. Where public transportation is lacking, enterprising motorbike drivers over-eagerly step in; in a place with average per-capita GDP of $2600, western goods are easily found (though the mythical days of being able to purchase an AK-47 on the cheap at the local market are apparently gone.)

What has struck me, after a few days in this city, is that between the abandoned buildings and young beggars, next to unlit alleyways, often exist shiny new cafes and night-spots. In fact, the popular waterfront strip and surrounds have dozens of eateries with Parisian street-side seating and Western fare. This is surely in no small part due to the influx of UN peace-keeping forces and NGOs that brought occidental tastes and demands starting in the 90s, leaving it with more classy places than I’d seen my entire time in Thailand. Cambodia is not yet completely overrun with tourists, but there is much untapped potential here. It will be very interesting to come back here in ten years and see how it has developed.

My old friend Douglas met me at the airport, impressively negotiated a taxi fare in Khmer and brought me to his old apartment, which he left at my disposal. Having lived here for the last couple of years, working as a journalist at the Cambodia Daily, he recently moved into a new apartment with a month to go on his old lease. Perfectly located near the National Museum and near the Sisowath Quay waterfront, I found myself air-conditioned and cable-ready in a city that would make me sweat with high temperatures and humidity. This is indeed a dangerous combination, for I lazily slept in the next couple of mornings.

What little there is to do in Phnom Penh revolves around the brutal recent history (Killing Fields, etc.), glorious ancient history (National Museum, etc.) and perusing numerous markets. It would make sense for many tourists to quickly leave town for more cosmopolitan destinations after a few nights of trinket shopping and waterfront beers; I was, however, happy to explore the alleyways and busy markets for hours on end. This place is a treasure-trove of photographic opportunity, full of people and places with faces that speak pages; if ever there is a place for the old cliché this is it. The Central Market, a dirty, yellow art-deco winged dome of a building houses vendors peddling everything from fresh fruit and organ meat to photocopied guidebooks, used electronics to pirated DVDs and cheap knock-off clothes (for scooter parts and a better pirated DVD selection, head to the Russian Market.) Nearby, a more modern shopping center recently opened. Being the first building in Cambodia with escalators, there are attendants there to help you on your first ride.

After observing the traffic situation for a day I decided to follow my own advice and rented a scooter. Faithful readers will already be familiar with the difference between driving in the States and rural Thailand. So keep that contrast in mind when I tell you that traffic in Cambodia follows its own set of rules entirely; a dangerous mix of chaos theory and Darwinism. If you decide to drive here, basically shelf any traffic schooling you may have endured as a teenager and revert to more primal instincts. As Doug put it, “Cambodians believe in traffic laws like you and I believe in ghosts”. Drivers don’t obey street signs unless they absolutely have to, whereas foreigners often get pulled over for such offenses as driving with lights on during the day (one would wish that local residents were made to turn on their lights at night, however.) Should a foreigner be stopped, there are rules to follow: a. don’t stop; b. if you did stop, hide the key to your bike or they’ll steal it and seek a bribe; c. pay a small fraction of the bribe they ask for, and ask for a receipt. The absurdity continues when traffic accidents do happen. Douglas, who has heard his share of horrors at the news desk, explained that after collisions occur and the surviving driver has driven off, elders gather around the broken bodies in the street, chanting to ward off spirits and rubbing tiger balm on the wounds.

These points in mind, I set off on the 13km ride to Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, dodging cattle and pigs along the way. By any account a depressing tourist destination, it stands as a brutal memorial to the millions of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Within earshot of a Spanish tour group, I picked up a few too many details of the gory methods employed at the camps. Beaten paths meander around mass graves, with signposts along the way. The site is solemn as it is depressing — with barely anything to see above ground, one is left to ponder the history at one’s feet.

Time spent in Phnom Penh, one isn’t confronted with the brutality of the recent past unless it is sought out. On the contrary, despite widespread corruption, there is much hope here. Though there are many kids trying to make a dime begging or selling books in the streets, many NGOs are empowering underprivileged children by teaching them valuable skills and instilling a sense of entrepreneurship, giving them opportunities their parents did not have.

Optimistic, I save my visit to Tuol Sleng genocide museum for another time, enjoying the local cafes and wine bars before my trip north to Siem Reap.