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Reflections On Cambodia

sunny 85 °F

Hello from the beautiful town of Dalat in Vietnam's central highlands! Avery and I were having so much fun in Cambodia, we forgot to write. Oops. Hope you weren't worried that we were eaten by a cobra or lost in the jungle or some other terrible fate. Just having too good of a time. ;)

DISCLAIMER: I put all of my photos on CDs. This computer does not read CDs. So these are Avery's photos. Thus, I am prominently featured on this blog. More photos of Avery when I find a functioning CD-ROM drive!

So now I am going to do a huge disservice to the country of Cambodia and condense our travels into one post. It's a shame because we had such an amazing time there and had a wonderful experience. But...yeah, here it goes. (AND DON'T YOU DARE JUST LOOK AT THE PHOTOS AND NOT READ THE TEXT. I spent a whole bus ride writing this one damn it!!)

After Siem Reap, we traveled to Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, where we hired two locals to drive us around the city and surrounding countryside on their motorbikes. Saw some beautiful country, fruit farms, a bamboo train, kids walking to school, farmers tending their fields, the only winery in Cambodia. My driver Odom (or Mr. Excellent as he introduced himself) was an excellent guide, telling me all about himself, the Khmer culture, the local crops, the history of the area. He definitely lived up to his self-appointed name.

NOTE: Picture of our drivers and us is on my CD. Boo.

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In front of a temple that was once a Khmer Rouge prison, he told us his story of living through the Khmer Regime -- how the Khmer Rouge murdered his father and two sisters, how he worked in the rice fields from age 8-10, how he survived the regime's brutality and a refugee camp on the Thai border. At the refugee camp, he learned how to be a medic, working in clinics and hospitals in the area. When he returned to Cambodia in the 90s, he could not find work, despite his desire to aid his country with his medical skills. Corruption and greed had blocked his path. He did not have the $1,000 to pay his way into a job in Cambodia. Now he works a motorbike driver in Battambang, barely bringing home enough money to feed his family. He is fluent in Khmer, Thai, English and French. Despite all of this, he was an incredibly warm, friendly, hilarious man. He had me laughing the whole time, especially when he told us how his wife locks him out of the house after he has been drinking beer and eating dog meat with his friends. Too funny. One of the best experiences of my trip so far.

After a couple days in Battambang, we took the bus to Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia. Beautiful city. Many bored (read: annoying) tuk tuk drivers. Good food and shopping. Fascinating and heartbreaking cultural spots.

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Poverty and luxury often residing in the same city block. If you're not familiar with the Khmer Rouge, read this before going on.

Our second day we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is located on the premises of the former S-21 prison. "Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk, the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes." (From Wikipedia)

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It was heartbreaking. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took incredibly detailed accounts of everyone who entered the prison. The prisoners' head shots from those records now line rooms of the museum. The victims' faces are blank; devoid of fear, anger, any emotion. They simply stare back from the past. It's haunting. I can still see the walls, picture after picture of man, woman, child -- no one was spared from the cruelty. Only seven people survived the prison. The rest were sent to the killing fields.

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In the beginning, the prisoners were buried near the S-21 prison, but the grounds soon filled with corpses. They began bringing prisoners to Choeung Ek extermination center, also known as the killing fields.

There, prisoners were murdered, usually by bashing them in the head as ammunition was expensive and scarce. Bodies were piled in top of each other in mass graves. Nearly 9,000 bodies were exhumed from the graves. There are more that lie in the field behind the tourist area. The government has decided that those graves will not be disturbed.

Now there are huge depressions in the ground, like small bomb craters, where the bodies once lay. Bone and clothing fragments can still be seen everywhere. I saw a lot of clothing, only a couple of bones. Hard to hold back my tears and disgust at what brutality humans are capable of. Felt sick for the rest of the day.

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That night I dreamed of being locked in the prison alone, at night. When I awoke, the streetlights filtered through our hotel room's curtains, casting a sickly, yellow glow that was too much like the peeling yellow paint of the prison's walls. I had nightmares throughout the night.

Maybe you're wondering why anyone would want to see that. Why would a country with such a brutal past turn around and put it on display? Because you can't understand Cambodia without seeing it. You can't fathom the cruelty that humans are capable of until you stare upwards at 9,000 human skulls. You won't understand the pain in your motorbike driver's eyes until you see the cave where his family may have been thrown to their deaths. And you can't understand why so many Cambodians suffer from PTSD and depression until you come face to face with the injustice the Cambodian people have been dealt.

Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was never put on trial for the murder of over 2 million Cambodians. He died naturally in 1998. Only recently did the UN begin to try other leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Duch, the leader of the S-21, was just sentenced to life in prison -- more than 30 years after his crimes had been committed.

It makes you angry doesn't it? You would think that for all they have suffered, the Cambodian people would be bitter, depressed, angry people. But...they're not. At all. They are some of the happiest people I have met. To understand the strength of the Cambodian people, the sheer tenacity within their souls, you need to know their past.

Not saying everything in Cambodia is honky dory. There is still a lot of poverty, a lot of crime and corruption. There are things that need to be changed. But, I was still blown away by the spirit of the Cambodian people. Seeing things like this changes a person.

After Phnom Pehn, we headed to the sleepy village of Chi Phat in the Cardamon Mountains. Avery went mountain biking (his report on that later). I biked for two hours and decided I'd rather not suffer some terrible heart trauma hours away from a hospital. It was just way too hot for that kind of activity. New motto: "Quitters may never win, but winners spend their lives doing things they hate." Makes me feel better about quitting.

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Spent my time in Chi Phat talking to the kids at my homestay (their picture is also on that CD...grr), sweating and dreaming of ice storms.

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Our homestay:

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Favorite quote from homestay conversations?

(Homestay girl, me and her two friends are talking. One leaves.)
Homestay girl: We don't like her.
Me: Why not?
HG: She is always late for school. She likes to sleep in.
Friend: Yes, she is lazy. Sometimes she sleeps until nine!
Me: Oh...that's...pretty...late....

Then south to Sihanoukville. Met a couple from Minneapolis who just started a bar there. Listened to The Current. Felt homesick for The Wedge and cheese. Snookville is dirty; feels like all the bad of Thailand wrapped into one.

One night there then onto Koh Rong. White sand, blue water. So Beautiful. Got drunk with a couple Swedish sisters and a South African (Afrikaner). Played card games. Drank too many buckets. Played "Fuck the Bus," Sweden's version of the popular game. Went swimming at 1 a.m. in the warm warm waters. Played with the glowing phosphorescence like we were in that scene from The Beach.

Going for a swim!
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Then it pooped.
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Went to Koh Thmei. Nothing there but eight bungalows and a restaurant. Nice but got bored. Too much beach time.

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Planned to go to Kampot after Koh Thmei. It's an old, rotting French colonial town on the coast. We waited for our bus in the fishing village. No English. Van pulls up. Tiny Khmer woman in floral pajamas (the hit style here) and a orange plaid sun hat gets out. She has a gold tooth and gummy smile. Points to the van. "No, no. We are taking the bus," we say.

She rattles off something in Khmer and says, "no bus!" She points at the van again, smiling that gummy grin. I keep hearing "don't get in cars with strangers...especially ones who don't speak English." I am unsure. She is relentless. I am hot. I am defeated. "Kampot?" we ask. "Kampot!!" she says.

A friendly police officer (or just some random guy in a uniform -- you never know in Cambodia) claims the van is indeed going to Kampot. We get in. I laugh. That's all I can do at this point. I note that the windows open wide enough that I can crawl out if need be. I relax.

Every few miles, we pull over and let someone in. They always stare at us, say something in Khmer, then laugh.

At 17 people, the van is still stopping for passengers. A lady in a yellow blouse and white sun hat waves us down. We pick her up and head down a dusty dirt road, away from the main highway. Lovely, I think.

The van gets stuck. It gets stuck in some loose sandy, ashy substance. The driver spins the tires. We are really stuck now. Okay, everyone out. 1,2,3..push! Still stuck. We keep pushing and digging the van in deeper and deeper. I want to display my awesome snow bank rocking skills to everyone here, but the van is a manual. Don't think I could shift fast enough. I am sad.

(MY PICTURES OF THIS ARE ON THAT CD TOO....UGH.)

Finally, a man brings over a couple dried palm leaves and places them behind the back tires. All 17 passengers are pushing now. Pushing, pushing and ... the van heaves out and onto the packed road. Everyone celebrates!

There is an argument between the lady in yellow and the driver. We leave her standing in the yard. Everyone inside the van laughs. Avery and I imagine they are laughing at the lady in yellow and whatever ridiculous request she had.

In Kampot, we 125 CC Honda Waves and take them up Bokor Mountain. Beautiful views. Crazy road. No one crashes. Good thing because they have my passport as collateral. Ride out to the pepper plantations and through the countryside. It is so beautiful. Mountains, green crops, palm trees, giant white oxen. Potholes, loose gravel, homicidal traffic. We make it back a little sun burnt but unscathed.

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My "I am so getting a heat rash from this" face:
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Pepper:
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I surprise Avery with a really nice room at a boutique hotel. Air conditioning! Hot water! DVDs! CLEAN SHEETS. We are in heaven. We order room service all night and watch Dances with Wolves and Taxi Driver.

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Then we head out to the Cambodia and Vietnam border...

So what did I think of Cambodia? I loved it. Oh, I loved it so much. I was scared to travel in Cambodia. I had read terrible stories of scams, corruption, violence, etc. I knew that Cambodia was still unstable; a country still recovering from the toll of poverty, war, genocide. I had only wanted to stay there for a few days. We stayed for three weeks.

While Bangkok is an assault on the senses, Cambodia is an assault on one's emotions. So many days I was challenged to maintain my composure when I saw mothers and children begging on the streets, men and women with missing limbs because of landmines, the skulls of murdered Cambodians. It was very difficult at times. I was ashamed of my expensive sweat-wicking clothes that cost what some people made in a month. I was embarrassed to have ever complained about anything, ever. Because I have it so so good. Traveling in Cambodia taught me that. It taught me to be grateful for what opportunities, resources and basic human needs I have so readily available.

Cambodia also taught me how to be happy. Like I said, the Khmer people are so friendly, so kind. Like Avery's driver told him, "Cambodians just want peace. We want to be friends with anyone who wants to." It's so simple, right? I guess this goes together with remembering to be grateful for what you have in life. Be grateful, be happy. Smile. Talk to strangers. Forgive. These are the things I learned while traveling in Cambodia.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 03:12 Archived in Cambodia Tagged landscapes road_trip bus kampot motorbike scooters biking homestay van ecotourism phnom bokor mountain_biking battambang pehn killing_fields khmer_rouge community_based_eco_tourism cardamom_mountains Comments (3)

Half Moon, Full Stomachs

Adventures on the island of Koh Phangan: scooters, moldy bungalows, water buffaloes, oh mY!

sunny 82 °F

Ah, it's been too long! I promise to get better at writing regularly. I had forgotten how much I enjoy reading people's reactions to my writings. It's fun to get some feedback rather than spewing into journal pages. So thanks for the comments. I appreciate it.

So where to start? We've done so much since I last wrote in Koh Tao. Can you bare with me through a longer post? I know blogs are supposed to be quick and to the point because readers have such short attention spans. But, really...would you rather be entering data into spreadsheets or reading my long travel rants? ;)

I struggle with balancing the lyrical prose I love so much with the straight itinerary that people want to hear. I'm not sure what's a happy medium. More guts, less flower? More description? I'll have to test this.

Empty Moon

We arrived on Koh Phangan, the site of the (in)famous Full Moon Party, on January 11 -- three days after the FMP. We weren't too disappointed by this. We actually planned it that way. Avery and I are feeling like curmudgeons these days. :p But we went to Haad Rin beach, site of the FMP, anyway.

The beach is stunning. Meters of beautiful, white sand. The waves were moving nicely that day, so Avery and I did some body surfing. Good times. I think I'm beginning to tolerate the taste of saltwater. Just barely.

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After the beach, we ate some food, watched a cam-copy of The Hangover 2 at the bar and just hang out. Really laid back. It was pretty dead in the town as the FMP partiers had left just days before.

We also had our first "bucket" there. The party buckets of Thailand are famous for their potency and often mysterious contents. Lots of stories of people "not drinking that much, I swear" then waking up in some strange place without their shoes or wallets. We bought ours from nice Thai ladies down the street from the beach. They have the buckets ready with a variety of ingredients. Someone can easily get a giant Johnnie Walker mixer for less than $15. Awesome. But we chose the Sangsom, mixed with Coke and Thai Red Bull. According to a slightly intoxicated bartender at Baan Thai, the Red Bull here is made by big pharma and is rumored to have amphetamines. Huh. Avery fell asleep after drinking a full bottle of the stuff though. Bad batch or are Americans immune to insane amounts of caffeine and whatnot?

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Bad Times in Baan Thai

Then we headed NW to Baan Thai. Our (locally produced) guide book said BT had miles of uninterrupted white sandy beach. Breathtaking. Coconut plantations. You'll love it.

Actually, BT is the only place on KPN with lady (go-go) bars and has the dirtiest water of the island...but with spectacular views of Koh Samui!

The taxi from Haad Rin took us to a place called Pink's. We weren't really feeling the place though as we were the only ones in the restaurant area who did not smell of patchouli or have dreads. :p So we walked...in the head and humidity. For way too long. It was terrible. There were no sidewalks. With our packs on, we looked like angry, sweaty, lost turtles trying to avoid the scooters and Jeeps. It was embarrassing.

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Finally, we got to a place called Phangan Beach Resort. It was a little overpriced (600 Baht), but it had a pool! And a private beach! AND HAMMOCKS! So we were sold. Well, they say it for a reason, looks can be deceiving.

So yeah, we check in. And it starts to sprinkle. Boo. But we were determined, but mostly bored. We decided to walk to Thong Sala, just "down the road" as Avery and I say way too often for it to be true. We walk past the notorious lady bars, which aren't that notorious really after one's been to Soi Cowboy in Bangkok. We walked past the fabled "Food Factory." We consulted our map at least 22 times. And then, just as we were about to reach the night market filled with all kinds of cheap goodies, the rain lets us have it. Just freaking pours all tropical typhoon style on us. So I wrote this:

On our way to the Saturday night market in Thong Sala, the tropical rain started. First, it was a sprinkle. And then all of the Thais pulled out their umbrellas. The street vendors began to cover their stalls. Then it poured. Heavy and fast, unlike rain I've ever seen before. This has been my first experience with getting caught in the tropical style rain. The kind characterized by the fat, wet drops that quickly soak through every layer of clothing, kissing your skin with a surprisingly warm wetness. It doesn't take long before one's whole body is dripping.

Now Avery and I sit under the tin shelter of some closed outdoor market. That stench I remember from Bangkok is drifting up from the concrete. Smells of urine mixed with the scents of the street vendors' wares and a hint of the tropical rain's sweetness. "I don't know if this is going to quit," Avery says.

Some wet, unhappy tourists walk by, cloaked in plastic ponchos. Despite the downpour, life goes on. Thais on scooters, squinting through the rain still ride the streets. Street vendors pull down plastic sheets and continue to sell their items: raw slabs of meat, noodles, sandwiches. Life goes on.

Except for the two lonely Americans, who are afraid of the tropical storms. We're still sitting on the curb, afraid to leave the relative safety and comfort provided by this overhang.

How long will we wait? There's no sign of it letting up.

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  • * Aw, thanks for letting me wax poetic there. I just finished Steinbeck's East of Eden, and the way he describes places BLOWS me away. Was hoping to channel some of that in the rain.

We eventually bought some very touristy plastic ponchos from the grocery store across the street from our hideout, got overcharged by a taxi and made it to our bungalow.

Then Avery and I were faced with a new situation: No TV, no Internet, it's raining...What the hell do we do now? Well, Boyscout Avery fashioned two lovely cups out water bottles (cut off the tops). And we filled those makeshift cups with Sangsom and Coke. Woo! No ice. :( But it was still a party. Then we made shadow puppets. Apparently we revert to childhood games when screens aren't around. Who knew? We also took some incriminating pictures of each other. Avery, please don't put that weird lip picture of me on the Internet. Much obliged. But your photos are free domain. ;) Snooze you lose!

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Next day, we're all like "guidebook lied!" :( And the next town is a 40 minute walk away! :( So what do we do? Rent a scooter of course! It really is the best way to get around Koh Phangan. Just be sure to take a picture of any scratches, dents, whatever before you rent it. Otherwise, you might get charged when you return it. Even if you didn't do it. And avoid riding in places like the "Hill of Tears" in Haad Rin. I'm guessing there's a few stories behind that nickname.

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I let Avery do all the driving because I didn't want him to feel emasculated. He also didn't want to me to drive. Weird, right? I'm guessing this might have something to do with the time I made him go on the Zipper ride at the MN State Fair...ok, this is a funny story. SEGUE

So Avery is not an amusement park/ride kind of guy. And I am. To the core. It's ridiculous. So we're at the MN State Fair, and I'm like, "Dude, come on. It's the Zipper. It's awesome." He won't budge. Peer pressure always wins in the end though, so away we go.

Standing in line: "So what does thing do anyway?" Avery asks.
"You've never watched it before?"
"No."
"Oh." And at this point, I'm thinking oh shit. He is going to kill me.

So the carnie locks us in the cage, and Avery is not talking to me. Won't look at me -- just staring silently ahead. "Okay, now when we get moving, we have to rock it hard forward to get it to spin."

Avery doesn't want to spin it. And I'm thinking, well, it's going to spin with or without me rocking it, hun. But I just nod. Smile. Nod. So we start going, and it's doing it's Zipper thing. Then we get to the top. It's about to enter its first 360 turn. I lean in. "Okay, we gotta lean into it Avery! We have to rock it!"

And I'm putting all 110 pounds of me into this cage when Avery cries out, "Don't rock it Sam! Don't rock it."

And then I feel so guilty. Incredibly guilty. Like guiltier than kicking a blind puppy guilty. Because Avery looks like he is about to die. Or maybe he already did, because he hasn't moved since the ride started. So you know how the Zipper is, it's going to turn anyway. That's what it does. It zips. So we fly forward; my head is hitting the top; my knuckles are white and hands clenched around the front. We flip. Then I feel that evasive high that only comes around so often. The kind of high that people get when they're wondering if this is their last moment, but they're having so much damn fun that it doesn't matter. And I laugh. I laugh this terrible blood curdling, Wicked Witch of the West mixed with Alvin and the Chipmunks laugh, as the cage is spinning wildly in circles. As I'm feeling this adrenaline rush, I look over at Avery, who lets out a faintly audible "Hahaha." Then closes his eyes.

So we survive. And after I've bought him some fries, and he's finally talking to me again, I ask, "You couldn't have hated it that much. I saw you laughing."
To which he replies, "I was laughing at you." And then he adds that I pretty much freaked him out. When I look back at it, that was not the laugh of a man having a good time. It was the "Oh God, I'm dating a monster...what have I done?" laugh.

SOOOO...I think when Avery thought of me driving the scooter, he then imagined me cackling as we swerved down some Haad Rin hill, nearly missing a water buffalo and crashing into a palm tree.

And I digress.

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I was going to add some more, but I think this blog post is long enough. And the mosquitoes are out. I'll add the other stories in later...

Sam

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 02:58 Archived in Thailand Tagged beach fun sun scooters koh phangan Comments (2)

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