The journey up the river wasn't too bad, lasting around 5 hours or so which included the boarder crossing. All of this went fairly smoothly as the boat we were on had a guy that took all of the passports, filled in all of the relevant forms, and expedited the entire process…..including the haggling over Visa fees….and of course the obligatory bribe fees…..just because they can.
We decided that we would only stay in Phnom Penh for roughly 24 hours before catching a bus to Siem Reap, i.e. Angkor Wat. So we planned and packed in the major sights before hopping on a bus for 6 hours, which cost btw 6 USD. We chose the Paragon Hotel which while having nice, clean rooms and a friendly staff charging the going rate and happy to help arrange transport or help out in anyway possible…..also turned out to be the popular spot with the local prostitutes…..we witnessed 4 different local girls bringing their much older, gray haired white men inside. Rumor has it with Thailand really cracking down now….Cambodia is an easy hop skip and jump away for the sex tourists, and because of the corruption….with a little extra money, you can fairly easily buy yourself a year long Visa at the boarder.
For those of you who don't know, Cambodia has a bit of a horrid immediate past. By Immediate I'm talking late 70's early 80's. The Khmer Rouge basically tortured and killed thousands in a pretty horrific way. And for some reason, they thought it would be nice to document it. A local high school right downtown was taken over and secured with razor wire and barracked so no one could get out. They turned this cheerful place of learning with yellow walls and white and yellow tiled floors into a holding and processing area where they erected cells and torture areas, lots of which they captured on film. Today what is left is a wicked reminder of how evil this world really can be, complete with photos to prove it.
After all of the death that loomed in the air from the worst high school I think we could find in Cambodia…..we made our way over to the Royal Palace which was a nice change from all of the gloom. Surrounded by Lotus flowers and about a dozen temples…it's a great place to spend a few hours and do some sight seeing.
The next day we woke early and made our way out to what has become known as the Killing Fields. This is where the Rouge would kill and bury the thousands that they murdered over the years in mass graves in a remote part of the country side about a half hour out of town. It is hard to imagine that such atrocities could have occurred in a place that is so beautiful.
While walking through the grounds, you begin to soak in the enormity of the operation that had taken place there. Immediately upon entering the area, you come across a memorial tower that was erected which currently houses hundreds if not thousands of skulls from those killed. Walking past that you enter the fields which now are scattered with huge ditches marking where mass graves were unearthed. As you walk through the grounds, you slowly realize that not all remains have been removed. Upon a second glance, you are smacked square in the face with the realization that the tree roots that are coming up through the well worn path are actually human bones and that the rags of clothing that are oddly scattered about the trails but for some reason are half buried are actually the clothes of those killed, slowly making their way to the surface after the trails that have formed are worn day in and out, a somber realization to have while standing on top of a mass grave. Walking on the dead is not something that I would like to repeat, but at this location, it was unavoidable. For all of the preserving of the victims that had taken place there, it was surprising to see such a blatant disregard for the other remains that were being trampled on by tourists paying their respects at such a site. While seeing the high school as well as the Killing Fields was a very hard thing to stomach, it was a must see for anyone visiting Cambodia. For all of the beauty that this country has to offer, you can't forget what went on here less than 3 decades ago.
One thing to note about Cambodia is that it is very, very corrupt. There is an additional fee for just about everything. Speaking with one of the guest house owners he was saying it's not too bad on the day to day level, but the corruption does have a trickle down effect, for instance his 256 kb internet connection costs him 220 USD per month. Ouch….if you are not technical, to give you and idea, if you are viewing this page from home over your cable modem, you have roughly a 7,000 kb connection for probably around 45 USD a month.
Another spot that you see the corruption is the Angkor Wat park entrance fee. A 1 day pass is 20 USD and a 3 day pass is 40 USD. To give you an idea….you could probably last for a week with 40 USD if you really tried. The parks basically figured out what would be the most that they could charge without it being called extortion, and still have heaps and heaps of tourists coming in by the bus load….and they do, bus after bus. In our case we just hired a tuk tuk driver for the entire day….going rate, 12 USD….and you literally have them the whole day…..you look at temples….and they wait.
You might be curious why I'm quoting everything in USD. Well…..if you go to an ATM and pull out money….you can ONLY get United States Dollars. You can't even pull Cambodian money out of a machine, which has an exchange around 1 USD to 4000 of the local currency. Which works out, because small change is always handed back in Cambodian, and places happily take both, but only quote prices in USD. Several places I've traveled to over the past year take both their local currency as well as USD, but I've never been to a place where their economy is based completely on that of another country, an odd thing to say the least.
Angkor Wat and all of the temples were amazing to wander around in. It's easy to see how the vegetation has taken and is still taking a toll on the structures there. While seeing a tree grow out of and in between a pile of rocks….you realize that the pile used to be part of a building and the roots, over time, just grew and grew until the stones shifted enough to turn the building into a pile of rubble. After spending a few days there and seeing site after site, it's easy to see how people can spend a week here running from temple to temple. The area is filled with them and some are a few hours ride from town. If you are planning on coming to the area be sure to save at least 3 or 4 days to see the temples before you become 'Wated' out.
Siem Reap has embraced tourism in a big way. The Old Town area is teeming with restaurants and shops where you can get just about any type of food and about anything else that you need. From the Blue Pumpkin bakery which has some of the best half priced croissants (after 7 pm) you can find in Cambodia, to Viva's Mexican joint which had the best Enchiladas that I've ever had….so good we went there twice ?. We also enjoyed the Dead Fish Tower restaurant. This place was the definition of eclectic and a must see if you come to see the temples of Angkor. While all of the seating is on different, very randomly arranged levels, the center is open so that you can see the stage where on some nights they have a solo performer, in our case a guitar player signing away to some of the more popular tunes. Don't lean too far back though as you might fall 20 to 30 feet since there are no railings to hold you back. There were also, by my count, 7 crocodiles, 1 duck, 2 ducklings, 1 rat, 1 frog, 4 or 5 fish….all inside the restaurant.