“Indo-China is a great bay-window bulging from the southeastern corner of Asia, its casements opening on the China Sea and on the Gulf of Siam. Of all the countries of the Farther East it is the most mysterious; of them all it is the least known. Larger than the State of Texas, it is a land of vast forests and unexplored jungles in which roam the elephant, the tiger and the buffalo; a land of palaces and pagodas and gilded temples; of sun-bronzed pioneers and priests in yellow robes and bejeweled dancing girls. Lured by the tales I had heard of curious places and strange peoples to be seen in the interior of the peninsula, I refused to content myself with skirting its edges on a steamer. Instead, I determined to cross it from coast to coast.”
– E. Alexander Powell – Where The Strange Trails Go Down, 1922
I did not quite travel coast to coast, I did not trek across the peninsula on elephant back, nor in a Renault held together with twine and wire. It also was not 1922 and I never felt the need for a .45 service automatic as Powell did when he was making his way through. Below are some words and photos to share in my experiences of traveling Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong over the course of two weeks. It was not nearly long enough, but was one of the grandest trips I have had yet.
“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow. ”
― Lin Yutang
I’ve always found it easy to become inspired, and equally easy to be complacent. It is the complacency that I am always attempting to quell. Sure, my pillow is the best pillow, my Mom’s cooking is the best cooking, New York City is the best city, but what is life without some funk and daring? I’ve been fortunate enough in life to have done a bit of travel. This trip, however, was a true adventure. This was another world, completely unfamiliar, something I’ve only read about. Which is one reason why South East Asia had been on my list for some time. Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong, this time.
“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
― Bill Bryson
This quote from Bryson was in his book on travels in Europe. While I’m sure he was being true to his experiences in crossing the street, my travels in Europe seemed mostly civilized in comparison to my time in South East Asia. Mostly, besides that bank the police had to rescue us from. But when one attempts to cross the street in [Saigon traffic](http://vimeo.com/32958521), it’s a game. There are few traffic lights to assist your panicked journey, just find an open pocket, walk into it with steady confidence and the swarms of motorbikes will engulf you. Keep walking and you’ll make it through to the other side. At times, you’ll wonder how was it possible.
Our trip took us from Cambodia to Vietnam, and then to Hong Kong. From there my girlfriend, Shell, and her family would move into mainland China and explore further while I flew back home. I have broken the posts down by day, if some subject does not strike your fancy I urge you to not skip to the next post as several days had multiple things going on. Just scroll down a bit and you’ll see the story and pictures change.
“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
We arrived on time in Siem Reap. It was wet and dark, sometime after 10:30 PM. I had flown from JFK to Seoul, I wandered the airport for a bit and was listening to a string quartet when I found my girlfriend and her sister who both had flown in from Hawaii. The airport in Seoul felt like a mall, it was hard to find a bar outside of an airport lounge and there was bountiful shopping to be had. We later boarded flights to Cambodia. After landing and getting through a rather informal customs we found our driver, Sohm, waiting for us outside. We hopped into his tuk-tuk (something like this) and were whisked away to our hostel, Siem Reap Rooms. Promptly told it was “sleep time” we were shown to our room and soon fell asleep. We would wake to this view:
The next day Shell had arranged for a cooking class at Sojourn, we would make some traditional Cambodian fare and their national dish: Fish Amok with mango salad with chicken, and some sticky rice flour balls with palm sugar – otherwise known as husband killers. The staff at Sojourn were great, they showed us around the facility and surrounding rice patties and farms. Many poor villagers live and work the land around Sojourn. We visited one of these families and delivered a bag of rice to an aging mother of twelve. This is when I wanted to have more questions, good questions, to interact with her. But she was very sweet, and our guide informed us of the activities around the area of digging water wells for suitable drinking water and helping the villagers with making their lives healthier.
Indeed, we ate very well through the whole trip. However, this food was made by us with care, the freshest ingredients, and with some very nice women teaching us through it. Cambodian women call the sticky rice flour balls husband killers, because if they allow men to make them the balls are usually made too large and easily choked on. I thought that was funny, especially when all mine came out to be quite large…
“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico, and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
― Anthony Bourdain
I took this attitude for the whole trip. I only skipped the chicken feet and only because I had had them before. It did not bite me until the end.
After the cooking class, we made our way back to Siem Reap and wandered along Pub Street. We had a few beers while watching the goings on around us. Pub Street, as you may guess, is where all the bars and restaurants are. This is where the nightlife is, many of the markets are nestled in close to it, and people are constantly buzzing about. It was nice to relax and take in the town a while. After a few beers, the jet lag got the best of us and we returned to our room. I fell asleep around 4 PM, and didn’t wake up until about 4 AM, which worked out. Shell, to the rescue again, made sure to arrange our trip to the temples for the next day. It is wise to do sunrise at the temples, so waking up at 4 AM was precisely what needed to happen.
It was a wet morning, drenched actually. We find Sohm and three other tuk-tuk drivers awaiting people to rise in the lobby of the hostel. Much debate among our peers whether the trek out to the temples is worth it in such weather. With very limited time to travel, we did not really have the luxury of choosing. Sohm bit at the first takers and off we went. Sohm, I would later find out, is a father of three. His eldest, a daughter, had just begun her studies at university. She is studying English and he was visibly proud. The next in line, his son, is in secondary school and you could tell was expected to make it to uni as well. The youngest, his second daughter, is still in primary. For a country that had very recently slaughtered people for knowledge, educations, glasses, you name it, it was nice to know some people were not afraid to send their kids to school.
This topic is not one often talked about, but I would have loved to have some color on the subject from Sohm. He, no doubt, had lived through the Khmer Rouge while young. It was also nice, in my mind, to know that the money we were spending with Sohm was going towards worthwhile causes. Many children are not afforded this opportunity in Cambodia. Either they have no parents looking after them, their parents need them to work for income, or there is no access to schooling. Uni, is quite a feat. As I write about the good sides of having Sohm along with us, he was not much of a tour guide. We arrived at our first stop, Angkor Wat along with several bus loads of Koreans. He ushered us into their group and told us to follow them. He would be waiting by the coffee stands just outside the grounds. We don’t understand Korean, so the tour did not serve us too well.
We walked along a very long and wide promenade across the expansive moat in complete darkness. No guard rails, no lights, just deep water on either side with who knows what creatures living beneath. It is impossible to fully explain, but without flashlights, it was hard to discern how far down the water was from the surface of the promenade. Actually, it was hard to discern where the path edged off and the moat began. If you had asked me before the sun broke on our way back, I would have told you the water was a few inches down from the surface on which we were walking. Wrong. It would have been quite a leap. We split from the Koreans once we made it across and no longer needed to be guided by leftover rays from their flashlights. We wandered a bit, but with it being so dark there was not much to take in. A bubbly Cambodian man met us along the way promising us because of the rain the sunrise would not be seen. Logic prevails. He introduced himself as Bond, James Bond, “You know, double-O seven!” The number of his booth. Others, after witnessing the success of his creativity, had numbered theirs too and taken names from Harry Potter or other western media. His three children were playing on the tables, laughing and poking at one another. We decided to heed his advice and warm up to one of his coffees.
Coffee in SE Asia is a whole thing. They harvest Robusta beans which are more earthy and pungent. Pour in some condensed milk and it becomes a sweet blast of coffee flavors and caffeine. Zoning laws do not exist in the least in most places, this would-be national park has plenty of live-in ‘merchants’ on the grounds. Selling breakfast, coffee, umbrellas and whatever else might earn them a dollar. James Bond knew how to operate, his English was tidy and easy to understand, he carried a large smile and happy demeanor – in contrast to some others. The 007 trick makes the Americans and Britons smile. He offered us Banana Nutella pancakes, but we had not yet gotten hungry and I was on my hell-bent attitude of no western food. We declined, but sat watching loads of Asian tourists, mostly Korean and Japanese, stroll in for the cloud masked sunrise.
Most my photos of this time are dull and gray. You would be better served by National Geographic. Here, Shell and Kalysa smile with the towering lotuses of Angkor Wat behind them. Cambodia, being a victim to the peoples surrounding it and its own mismanagement has had pieces of their history looted. Most of the statues of Buddha lay headless. Thai had come over to steal them and sell them in their ever growing tourism industry.
Later on, I would learn that the moat around Angkor Wat is instrumental to keeping the structure intact. The wet and dry seasons are quite extreme in Cambodia, which can lead to the ground moving ever so slightly as the water table level expands and contracts. This movement should have caused the collapse of such a heavy structure, but the moat helps to keep the water table underneath at a constant level year round. It is essentially a floating structure atop the water table. It would also serve as a water supply through the dry season to both its constructors and inhabitants. The Angkor area was one of the largest preindustrial settlements on Earth with a population greater than 1,000,000 people. At a time when London and Paris were but large villages.
The structures are made of sandstone, a soft stone, with the inner core construction of laterite. Rather amazing how they got them there. Considering the amount of rain this area of the world receives is another reason to be astounded with the construction and staying power of the temples through time. The German government has been donating money to projects to protect and restore some of these temples. The funding has been going through some rough times under corruption allegations. Cambodia has seen some level of upheaval since their latest national election. We saw abundant evidence through political signage, but we seemed to have avoided any demonstrations or clashes that had been going on while we were there. Days after leaving Phnom Penh we read that tanks had been dispatched.
As you can see, the water is not at the level of the stone walkway. It is several feet down. The view behind us is the entrance, not of the main lotuses inside. This place is big. We find Sohm, and head off for our next stop.
The Angkor area is covered with temples and ruins, we had imagined the area to be several square miles. What we did not know, was our next ride would be more than an hour. Honestly, we had begun to fret exactly where we were headed. We simply did not know the expansiveness of the area. We covered a lot of countryside along the way, it was a beautiful ride.
Next stop, the waterfalls and stone carvings of Kbal Spean. We made a 1,000 meter hike up into the dense jungle and this time Sohm guided us to the site. Keep in mind our trip was made during the monsoon and wet seasons. While this did not ruin our days at the beaches later on in our trip, it did make for a mad rushing river here. Many of the carvings could not be seen as they were engulfed in the flow. The link above has some pictures that tell a bit more of the site.
After we got back down from the hike Sohm and I got to know one another. This is when I learned about his children. I was getting myself back together and a woman approached us selling sticky rice. I was hesitant only because I had begun to always say no to anyone selling me anything, which happens about every three minutes. A habit very easily employed since I live in New York. But I realized I could use some calories, and Sohm wanted some too. So we bought ourselves one each. A sticky, semi-sweet stick of rice wrapped in bamboo it is not unlike the local’s Clif Bar. Dense clean energy that is easily packed with a few sporadic black beans thrown in for protein.
We journeyed off once again to our next stop, Banteay Srei. This temple is made of red sandstone which always takes me back my time in Mannheim, Germany. Many of the Baroque churches there were constructed of red sandstone. They were constantly under maintenance for cleaning. Soot from our modern air would collect in the porous rock and darken it. Being a soft stone lent itself to intricate carving, and at Banteay Srei was on very proud display despite being built more than 1000 years ago.
Have you ever seen Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie? Did you know she adopted a Cambodian child after being on set there? I won’t delve into the intricacies of that mess but our next stop is where some of the filming was done. I am sure it brought some needed funding to the area, but as with all western money fed endeavors, it is not exclusively benevolent. Ta Prohm is an impressive site. The jungle has been fighting to take its land back and is most evident here with silk-cotton trees, thitpok, and strangler fig growing over the temple.
This post is of our “Day Two” and is a tour on fast forward. Each stop deserved hours and hours of exploration. Angkor Wat deserved days. Our last stop, Angkor Thom could have spanned weeks. This expansive capital is full of hidden gems. I knew before going that it had much to offer, and a few keen writers had left little tips hidden in their prose for where to explore without many tourists following. We did not have the luxury of time, unfortunately, but this place has much to offer the curious wanderer and gazer. Not to mention archeologist and historian.
This complex served as the Khmer capital in the 12th century and covers 3.5 square miles. I can offer to show you but a minor glimpse. As you drive in, on either side of the road are stone carvings that stare you down. Imagining what this must have looked like when it was most pristine, coming in on the back of Khmer elephants, I cannot fathom the sights and smells.
Each of these towers has four faces on it with lotus crowns. The highest of them would have been adorned in gold leaf. Imagine. Many sculpted images expressing the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of Lokesvara (compassion), Prajnaparamita (wisdom), and the Buddha (enlightenment) were all over. Angkor Wat and many of the other temples were of Hindu inspiration and later converted to Theravada Buddhism, but Angkor Thom is tied more to Buddhism from its beginning.
“I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.”
-George Bernard Shaw
This is the day we had to say goodbye to Siem Reap, and to our nicest of hosts at Siem Reap Rooms. Seriously, they were so nice. Despite their sadness, they helped us arrange a ride from Siem Reap to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. We had our choices of travel arrangements in terms of plane, bus, or car. By plane seemed like a hassle and unneeded expense, while the bus felt as though it would eat too much of our precious time. (We later learned we were right, ten hours. Despite the pamphlet projecting six). We decided to book a car.
What we did not know was how daring this car ride would be. Imagine being in a car with a driver you cannot properly communicate with, who is being paid a flat sum to get you there and get himself back home. The speed and efficiency of the journey is where he can make his money. On mostly dirt roads crowded with motorbikes, lorries, chicken, cows, people, and cars we rarely were traveling below 60MPH. We would swing out into the oncoming lane of traffic in order to chicken the other driver into moving over further in his lane, allowing us more room to dodge the obstructions in our own. Lots of honking, blinking of lights, and not giving up while driving into a monsoon. I found it quite thrilling, the girls were not as pleased. Alas, we made it but not before taking a couple snaps.
“Personally I like going places where I don’t speak the language, don’t know anybody, don’t know my way around and don’t have any delusions that I’m in control. Disoriented, even frightened, I feel alive, awake in ways I never am at home.”
― Michael Mewshaw
After four or five hours or something in the car, we needed to regroup. We made it to our accommodation in Phnom Penh where we had decided to splurge a little and settled in. Settling was quite easy considering how nice it was at The Pavilion.
Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.
I like this quote from Francis Bacon, yet I hope that travel remains both an experience and an education throughout my life. We made our way out of the hotel later that night to explore and take in some proper nightlife in Cambodia’s capital. We were staying very near the Royal Palace and the riverfront. The riverfront is where many of the international bars are and is also where you will find many of the travelers and tourists imbibing.
We made our way to FCC, Foreign Correspondents Club, and had ourselves some familiar food and drink on the rooftop bar overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap. I didn’t bring my camera out that night, so this link will have to suffice. Ken, I am assuming that is his western name, was waiting for people leaving our hotel and was our ride for the night. He quickly snatched us up for the next day too allowing him to go home early knowing he had work the next day.
When he dropped us off at FCC there was a wiry man in his twenties that wanted to know if I wanted any smoke. I smiled and declined, and Ken slapped and kicked him away, quite literally. Ken grabbed my arm and told me to never trust that man, and if I must take part in such activities he will find me safer ways of going about it. I appreciated the lookout, and perhaps felt better about our travel arrangements for the next day but assured him I didn’t need such arrangements. Who knows, Ken may have been looking to profit instead.
After FCC we wandered up and down the riverfront without much of a plan. We were hoping to make some friends and have a grand night out, but it turned out harder to do than we had expected. We turned into our flower covered beds a few hours later and would meet Ken again at 10 AM.
Independence Monument lit up at night. During the day it is brown sandstone. Quite a transformation. The monument celebrates independence from the French, but later also serves to remember those lost in Cambodia’s wars.
“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”
― Roman Payne
I can tell you confidently by now that I fell in love with Cambodia. The people, the way they smile, the way so many of them appear so happy so often took me. Exuberance is the right word. The food over and over again was so real and flavorful. Sure, the constant and desperate selling of anything got annoying. The beggars were certainly not a pleasant sight. But if one spends some time with the modern history of Cambodia these troubles become something to tend to, not to hate. Especially when you take into account how much the reason their history went the way it did is because of American bombs and meddling.
Many of these people have not been given a chance for any other choice. The beggars really have no other option, they have nothing to try to sell and there is no such thing as government assistance. Those that do are the ones you find annoying as they aren’t selling you something you want. Others higher up the chain are selling things people want, but may not suit you at the moment and you have already been through the gauntlet of others. These people were giving it their all. They were learning languages spanning English, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese in order to communicate with those that would buy from them. They would happily explain things to me in regards to what I was looking at buying. Some would steer me in a direction that meant more money for them, while others would steer me in the direction of something more authentic. Some, once being rejected of a sale, would happily talk. Just to talk. To hear your English and practice theirs.
For a people who had one-third of their population eradicated from the face of the planet, most of whom were the educated and city dwellers, it remains remarkable to me of their resilience. The ability to come back, despite entire pools of DNA being gone. You see, the Khmer Rouge were thorough killers. If the father was to be killed, so too were his children, wife, parents, and anyone else near his bloodline. Pol Pot did not want young children growing up hating and resenting him.
A dark subject, but much of human history is. It is important to remember these things and to remember their genesis. Your high school history book likely covered but a skimming of this subject, if it did at all. Any lesson I have seen of it was surely not deep enough to give a clear understanding of how it went down and how red our American hands are. Be certain there are many other red hands though.
Our first real day started with meeting Ken outside the hotel. We got in his tuk-tuk and he warned us to keep tight hold of our bags. Bag snatching is a problem in Phnom Penh, luckily we never ran into such a problem. We first headed outside of town to the [Killing Fields](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_Fields). This allowed for a ride through much of Phnom Penh and take it in. He stopped on the roadside and bought all three of us surgical masks. It is a dusty ride and it didn’t take long for us to be glad Ken bought them for us. Most the locals do the same, we just felt a little silly.
We made it to the Killing Fields and took the very worthwhile audio tour. If you have an interest in the subject I urge you to read about it. These posts do not allow the kind of depth needed to explain it all. The first two photos are of the monument Choeung Ek.
Choeung Ek houses the bones the have been recovered from the mass graves throughout the site. Powerful, indeed. Clothes, belongings, and bones are still coming up from the ground today. The audio tour did a wonderful job of explaining, in detail, the history of how the site came to be and how it was used by the Khmer Rouge. It contained stories told by survivors and escapees and did its best to explain the sounds one would have heard in and around.
Examples such as the ceremonial songs of Khmer Rouge being pumped over the loud speaker at night to muffle the sounds and screams of those being executed. To call this dark is an understatement. After the Killing Fields, we rode over to Tuol Sleng Security Prison, or S-21 Prison. The prison facility was used to detain suspects, torture them, and if they did not die there, later be shipped off to the Killing Fields. The photo below is of one of the buildings, the front would have been covered in fencing and barbed wire. Especially tight at the upper floors to keep people from attempting suicide.
There is so much more to tell about this time of our trip. For anyone interested I would be happy to talk about it. There is too much to go through here, and a bit too graphic. So on to simpler subjects. After the prison we needed to lighten up a little and headed over to the Russian Markets.
An impressive selection of food, art, clothing, souvenirs, knock-offs, packed into tiny little isles. Look once, and you’ll be asked to look again. “I make you good price!” And likely they would. My tactic ended up being to offer half the asking price, and walk away if I didn’t get it. I’m sure I was still not getting the best price even with that mark down. I bought some wood and marble Buddhas, some local silk, a couple canvas paintings, and some T-shirts with Khmer on them. It was a fun time exploring the markets in each city we went through on the trip, although Cambodia’s felt the most real. Later in Saigon, there would be a lady that would grab my arm and attempt to drag me to her stall. That was an experience.
We headed back to The Pavilion to rest up before trying to have another big night out. This one would prove more successful, but it also had a mind of its own. After reading a while on the web to find out where we should start, I decided to make our way to The Garage. I had read that the bar had a Spotify account with big music fans choosing what to play. Seemed like a solid choice to get started with, perhaps we could gather further intel from there on where to go after that.
I won’t bore you with details from the entire night, but needless to say we had a lot of fun and we got to see some real color of Phnom Penh at night. We met a great gang of folks at Garage, all expats living and working in Phnom Penh. Some of them just real folks who left their world, others were perhaps a little off their wagon but gave some great flavor for the night. Two of these guys took us to a seedy bar in another area of town where more people who really live in Phnom Penh go out. That’s when it got a little more real.
We had some great conversations and saw some silly things. Left to right: Jeff, the owner, James, his friend, and Sean, the Londoner. Jeff is from LA, and James hails from Brooklyn. We didn’t get pictures with any of those off-the-wagon folks, though I wish I had to help illustrate it all. I’m sure I cannot write in such a way to let you appreciate our flamingo dancer friend. For more, someone else has done a better job of interacting with some of the rougher edges of Phnom Penh. For which, it is unfortunately well known.
This next photo is of the seedy bar. I was invited to spray paint the walls and there was a very enthusiastic Aussie who owned the place. Something I won’t soon forget.
The seedy place. I like dive bars, but this takes the cake.