9-5-02 Cambodia

We left Bangkok in the early morning and embarked on our supposed 7-hour journey east across the border to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The road in Thailand was alright, and we moved along nicely for about 5 hours through the brilliant green countryside toward the Cambodian border. Tt the border we left our nice bus and the good roads of Thailand behind and set off on foot across the border.

Enter true third world chaos. Our first 10 steps into Cambodia brought us into a whole new world of excitement, chaos, squalid beggars, and all the eye-popping action and sights of a poor country. Beggars clung to us like glue as we swam through the hordes (amen for padlocks on backpack zippers!) toward the safe haven of the immigration office. Once inside we got our stamps and waited with a bunch of other tourists for our next bus to take us the remaining 5 hours to our destination. 5 hours – little did we know what was in store for us.

The following 8 hours were some of the most picturesque and gut-jolting hours I’ve spent on a bus. We bounced, knocked, flopped, and crawled our way along a miserable road (known as “national highway 6”) for tedious hour after torturous hour. From horizon to horizon I could see a vibrant green (unlike any shade of green we have at home) carpet of rice paddies. Crossing the frequent rickety old bridges across the streams was a mini adventure each time as the driver and his entourage got out and dug out, filled-in, hammered, sawed and generally constructed various ways for us to navigate across the gaping holes of the nearly collapsed bridges. Several times the bus listed heavily to the side with the bridge creaking and popping under the weight of the bus as the driver tensely inched across the void.
Late into the night, tired, hungry, and in desperate need of a shower, we reached a small city seemingly in the middle of nowhere and got dropped off at the “get lucky hotel.” We had made is to Siem Riep, but were we really going to “get lucky?”

Despite being the hub for exploring one of the largest ancient temple complexes in the word, this town had no ATMs so we changed money with a shopkeeper who ran a little convenience store on a random little road in town. The man had hundreds of dollars worth of Cambodian Riels and US dollars sitting out on a counter with absolutely no security anywhere to be seen. Just crumpled, disorganized piles of money in plain view. It was almost unnerving after traveling in Latin America, to be somewhere so safe that money just sits around without being properly guarded.

We spent the next two days visiting the nearby 900-year old temple ruins complex known as Angkor Wat. Spread over hundreds of sqaure miles are the ruins of dozens of temples built by various kings of the mighty Khmer empire between 900 and 1300 A.D. We each rented a scooter (complete with driver) for 2 days to drive us through the jungle to visit these magnificent ruins.

There’s really no way to describe the splendor of these ancient cities and temples. Huge stone complexes rise into the tropical skies from a carpet of thick jungle trees filled with monkeys and the ceaseless buzz of a gazillion jungle insects and the singing of jungle birds. The temples themselves, scenery aside, are breathtaking. The detail of the carvings on the Buddhist and Hindu holy sites shine beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the world. There really is no way to describe it – just get online and type “Angkor Wat” in the search engine and see for yourself.

The road to one of the ruins, 20 miles from town, was especially amazing. We cruised through many small villages, waving to the friendly peasants as they looked up from their work to send a warm smile our way. The rice paddies seemed alive with the harvest as children played and water buffalo wallowed in the murky floodwater. At this time of year much of Cambodia is under water due to seasonal flooding of the Mekong River so it felt a bit like we were scootering on causeways in a giant lake as we were surrounded by shallow water everywhere.

Regardless of how great the ruins were, there’s only so many temples a rational person can handle so we left and traveled by riverboat to the capital, “Phnom Penh.” The ride on the massive speedboat ferry was brilliant. Crossing a massive lake toward the capital was fascinating as there was no shoreline anywhere. The lake just overflows and grows and expands in every direction with water that has flowed all the way from the Himalayas. The boat sped at 60 mph past endless homes built on stilts, past peasants harvesting rice, and alongside bustling floating markets.

Phnom Penh isn’t the most exciting city but we ended up at a great hostel with a deck over a lake facing an amazing sunset. Around town we visited markets and a temple with a solid gold Buddha containing 2500 diamonds. We also visited a prison/concentration camp used by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge to rid the country of its intellectuals. We then went to the “killing fields” where we saw huge mass graves used to “eliminate” about 2 million Cambodians in Pol Pot’s sick, twisted plan to turn Cambodia into a Maoist agrarian state. Sick.

Another 13 hours of vicious Cambodian potholes got us to the Vietnamese border where we got caught in a nasty web of socialist red tape before making it across the border to Saigon. More on Vietnam in the next letter. Thanks for reading!

Hi. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to write you after I sent the mass email from Cambodia – our ride back to the hotel was waiting. Anyway, I finally made it to Vietnam. We’re in Saigon after a looooooooong (13-hour) travel day on brutal Cambodian roads. We just had an amazing dinner for just a few dollars. The guys had fresh crab and I tried frog legs – tastes like chicken with a bit of a fishy after taste.
Things are great. I feel really healthy and I’m very excited about Vietnam. I’ll spend the rest of September working my way up to Hanoi. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll get a chance to write about our great experience in Cambodia.