Phnom Penh

My last proper day away was spent in Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia. Off the bus with a few other tourists, I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. I was so glad that I booked accommodation before arriving! Because of the pre-planning, a driver was there with a sign and my name on it… a welcome face in an overwhelming crowd. I hopped on the back of his motorbike (my huge green backpack between his legs, I’m not kidding) and we zipped through the streets of Phnom Penh to my hostel on the river.


The atmosphere in the hostel was even more laidback than in Thailand. It was a strange mixture of middle aged male life drop-outs, young travellers and cambodian locals. I arranged a tour of P-P with my driver and then dropped into one of the chairs for some r&r. There’s a noticeable difference between P-P and Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a purely tourist-driven town, while the centre of Phnom Penh is almost completely void of white faces.


My Phnom-Penh tour was organised back-to-front. We started at the end; viewing an orphanage which was a direct result of the khmer rouge violence and ensuing poverty. It was a privately run orphanage, meaning that it relied on private donations for their upkeep. I brought along a 50kilo sack of rice which could feed all the children for only one day. But I spoke for a while with the local French teacher, who said that because it was low season, any donation, no matter how small, was appreciated. It was amazing to spend some time with the local children, who spoke to me in both French and English and were delighted by the little Canadian flag pins I handed out (thanks Mum!).


After the orphanage, I went to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields. Although I had heard stories from other travellers, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Certainly not a beautiful stupa and miles of beautiful green fields and trees. For some reason, the name “the Killing Fields of Cheung-Ek” had brought to mind a scene much more desolate.


There were people stationed at the entrance to the stupa selling flowers and sticks of incense, but my eye caught sight of what was beyond and I was both entranced and appalled. Skulls. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Piled on top of each other in the centre of the stupa, categorized by age and gender but otherwise jutted and propped against each other in disarray. I circled the gruesome monument, came back to my senses and bought both flowers and incense – the money goes to support the families affected by this atrocity. I lit the incense and prayed. How did something so tragic and enormous happen within my lifetime and I be so completely ignorant of it?


The rest of Cheung-Ek is equally chilling. The bones in the stupa represent only a few of the mass graves that have been uncovered. You can walk through, over and around the other graves, the ones they have yet to unearth.


I completed my terrifying journey into Cambodian history by visiting Tuol Sleng prison or Sector 21. The fact that it was a former high school made the place all the more chilling. Just imagine… monkey bars from the playground gym being used as hanging posts. Classrooms installed with iron bars on the ground to chain the prisoners to the floor. Or being divided into cells barely big enough for me to turn around in. Curiously, the Khmer Rouge were pros at keeping records. They photographed every single inmate and their pictures now fill the rooms at the Tuol Sleng Museum.

If you can believe it, I went straight from my visit at the prison to the airport. You might wonder how I could possibly spend the last real day of my trip exploring such horrors. But Cambodia is such an amazing and resilient country, and I wouldn’t have been able to understand that without visiting their history. And it is so recent. It is so relevant. And yet, there are few signs of despair. Everyone is smiling, optimistic, entrepreneurial and excited about the future. The perfect place for me to end an incredible adventure and show that no adversity – even the very worst kind – is impossible to overcome.


Angkor Wat and Siem Reap

First impressions of Angkor Wat are overwhelming: a crush of people selling and buying; tuk-tuks, motos, tour buses; cries of ‘one dollar, one dollar.’ Separated from the masses by a wide moat is the structure itself – towering, wide and massive. Except, once you cross the bridge and pass through the building’s threshold you realize that the towering building isn’t the actual temple. It’s just a gateway. Then you truly understand why this is the world’s largest religious monument. Nothing compares.

In total, I visited 14 different temples. I hardly know where to begin writing about them. Each was different and the whole complex entralled me for three days. To write about only a few seems to stip the other temples of their beauty and worth – just trust me that each was magnificent, and unique.

But back to Angkor Wat. The Grand Master. Built in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu and the centre of what was once a massive and thriving city. The walls are covered with bas-relief depictions of Hindu legend and three-dimensional carved asparas (like dancing nymphs). It is complex and awesome – in the true meaning of the word. I was lost in there for hours.

Ta Prohm was the most unique temple, strangled by the thick roots of silk-cotton trees. It is romantic and otherworldly; it seems to belong to nature as much as nature has taken over it. The Bayon was the creepiest, with literally hundreds of carved faces looking down at you from every angle. The most beautiful was Banteay Srei, with its minature sandstone carvings and layers of intricate detail.

Although most of the time it didn’t feel like it, I was visiting the temples in the low season. That meant heavy rain showers in the afternoon and also that I sometimes found myself completely alone in the temple grounds. This wasn’t really an issue – in fact, it added to the feeling of sanctity of the place – that is, until the grounds of Pre Rup. It was while walking around this temple – quite alone – that I encountered a snake. Or rather, it encountered me as I must have shocked it; it darted across my feet and disappeared under a rock. I didn’t scream but I was frozen in shock. All I could think of was all the poisonous snakes that must be lurking in Cambodia. I recovered my composure and found the snake so I could take its picture. I was thoroughly spooked though. And I wasn’t really keen on spending any more time alone. But, strangely enough, after the snake incident, I met people in every other temple I visited, evn though I had been temple-gazing for hours before without speaking to anyone. Someone out there is listening to me, I can tell you that!

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a remarkable city and incredibly tourist-friendly. It is difficult to see the “Cambodia in Crisis” while walking the streets lined with 5* hotel, cafes and fashion stores. But I got a small glimpse after attending a showing of “Dr. Beat and the passive genocide of children,” a documentary on the state of health care in Cambodia. Dr. Beat (pronounced bee-at) is famous in Cambodia and in his home country of Switzerland for operating six privately-funded hospitals for children in Cambodia. He is very anti-WHO – whose quest for sustainable development often leaves behind sick children in need of real cures – and his message was a strong reminder of the struggle beneath the calm surface.

Coming to Cambodia after the relatively care-free Thailand is a shock to the system, especially my traveller’s conscience. What am I doing here? What am I contributing other than a very un-green amount of greenhouse gases as I jetset in planes around the globe? Cambodia pulls on the heartstrings. The children – it sounds so cliche but its true – are so special. They are constantly hawking their goods but not without sharing their school knowledge. They find out I am from Canada and immediately launch into their spiel: “Canada, capital Ottawa, it has two official languages French and English, bonjour, comment ca va, comment appellez-vous?” It’s adorable and impossible to ignore or push aside.

If only I knew how much worse it was going to get in Phnom Penh!


Crazy Cambodian Border

The bus picked me up from Bangkok in the early hours of the morning. Almost immediately I got chatting to a girl who was just on her way to Poipet (the Thai-Cambodian border) to do a visa run. Her name was Sarah – from Sarah to Sarah, quite ironic! She told me all about her last visit to Siem Reap and was especially detailed when it came to the border crossing. It’s going to be crazy, she said. Be prepared to get ripped off. I knew the price of the visa: $20USD. I wasn’t going to pay any more and I definitely wasn’t going to pay in Thai baht.

The closer we got the border, the more the bus driver and guides tried to get us to buy the visa in advance. They used all the most persuasive arguments: they only accept 1200thai baht, you’ll have to wait hours at the border to pay in USDs, the bus will leave you behind. They promised us that they were telling the truth (ha!). And, by the end of the five hour trip to the border, every single person except me had bought their visa in advance. The bus driver advanced on me. I had to pay him or else get left behind. Other passengers looked at me with pity in their eyes, one of them even had the nerve to pat me on the back and say “good luck” in a patronizing, you-should-have-just-gotten-ripped-off-like-the-rest-of-us kind of way. It just strengthened my resolve. I walked toward the border counter (no line up, by the way!). I was stopped by some men in intimidating police uniform. They asked for my passport. But no! I knew this was one of the tricks that they used to get me to pay baht, so said my trusty informant Sarah (you can always trust a Sarah!). They demanded 1200baht. I actually didn’t have that much thai baht, which helped my cause a little.  They ended up taking my passport, which I eventually got back and went to the counter and got my 20USD visa as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

I got back to the bus with the rest of the group – they didn’t leave without me! – and immediately we faced with awful roads. They were so awful that within the first minute, a truck in front of us blew out one of its tires with a huge bang and puff of smoke. It was quite theatric – and we all thought that we had struck a landmine (it being Cambodia and all). Quite the scare for everybody. But the rest of the eight hour journey was uneventful.