cambodia: tropics, temples & tarantulas

Here’s the route from Ho Chi Minh City through Cambodia and out into Laos:

I’d heard all sorts of horrible things about the overland border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia, but it was simple. Fingerprints, show pre-acquired e-Visa, get back on the very long bus ride to Kampot. Cambodia’s road system isn’t direct, meaning when you want to go anywhere, chances are you have to go through Phnom Penh first, which is slower than jogging. It wasn’t all stop-go, Oreos and boredom though -James made friends with the 8-year-old boy sitting in front of him. He couldn’t speak a lick of English, so he was just mimicking sounds his mom was telling him quietly. It sounded kind of like this, over and over again:

“You come home with me? I give you good price!”

Welcome to Cambodia, everyone!

The first thing I noticed was the lack of honking, the second thing was that their helmets looked less like eggshells than the Vietnamese ones and the third thing was that there were bigger engines buzzing around. Tired, hungry and pissed off, with nearly no local currency (Cambodia uses US dollars and Cambodian riel, as if that makes things easier) we made it to Samon’s Village in Kampot, which was a score. After a month of Vietnamese food and a whole day on Oreos, Pringles and lollipops, out came Khmer red curry. I am sorry Vietnam, but you were outdone by every single thing I ate in Cambodia. I would feel bad about saying that, but I don’t because it’s true. The tarantula and snake… possibly an exception to that statement. 

We bummed out on the river for three nights before heading to Koh Rong, which is backpacker’s paradise. People say it’s the new Koh Samui, but it has a way to go still and I could have easily lived there for a month or two. 

We stayed in a bungalow (maybe “shack” is a better word?) that was about 20m from the beach and I immediately claimed the larger bed. Every day was sunny and every night was stormy as. The bar housed an entire litter of kittens that needed snuggling at every meal and the best Pad Thai I have ever eaten was just down the beach (little hut by the name of “Sigi’s”. Don’t miss it).

The Killing Fields and torture museum were not exactly my cup of tea, but I don’t think it’s anyone’s; Cambodia is still recovering from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields are not a happy day tour. They give you headphones at the gates and it walks you through the entire site, explaining what happened where you are now standing. Everyone is silent. “Here lay over 400 bodies in this mass grave. Here they used to kill babies by smashing their heads against this tree trunk in front of their mothers. We call it the Killing Tree. This tower has 17 stories. They are filled with bones and skulls, all analyzed and marked as to the way they died. This is the music they used to play loudly so that outsiders could not hear people screaming as they were brutally murdered. Don’t mind the bones in the ground if you see them, they still wash up in the heavy rains.” Most backpackers take the day to depress themselves and go straight to an animated movie. We chose Finding Nemo. The other girls in our room chose Tangled. 

Siem Reap is as touristy as it gets in Cambodia and here’s why:

As someone who isn’t the greatest history buff, I thought these three days would be a lot of me sucking up the fact that my feet were sore and why do they all look the same? and last but not least: please, slow wonderstruck tourist, can you please get out of my frame with your fluorescent yellow t-shirt? But I was pleasantly surprised; besides Angkor Wat in the morning, most of the temples are more or less deserted. Angkor Wat is another story, since the sun comes up right behind it. I spent two sunrises physically guarding my tripod.

One morning we went to a different area and had the entire place to ourselves. I visited this footbridge the day before, packed body-to-body with shuffling tourists trying to get to and from the temple at the end. I didn’t care much for the temple. I cared about this footbridge.

We spent days flitting from temple to temple, some empty, some busy with people in single file all taking the same photo. My favourite temples were the ones no one cared about and had trees growing through them.

Besides the temples of Angkor, there is also the Floating Village to visit. The village is built on stilts so that houses stay above the water in the wet season. It’s a bit of a trek to get there, but worth it, mostly because I saw the entire place in potential still-frame shots. 

Children ran around everywhere and if you went to “land”, they swarmed you. It doesn’t matter how old they are: they already know how to beg. Some of them have got it nailed: I want to go to school. That kills the Westerners. Some of them are still learning. This baby couldn’t speak yet, so she just held out her hand.

“So what did you do in Cambodia?” we mimicked people asking, “Oh, we ate fried tarantula and snake while getting happy with our feet sunk in a tank full of skin-eating fish after getting up at 4:15AM three days in a row to battle people with my tripod for a good spot to watch Angkor Wat at sunrise. And then we ate fried ice cream because it was a really hard day.”

The things you can (must) do in Asia. 

Cambodia was friendlier than Vietnam. It was less aggressive and less persistent in the markets, or maybe that’s just because I’ve gotten better at haggling. But Cambodia was poorer. There was more obvious prostitution. Their flag flew far less frequently than the Vietnamese star. The food was a melting pot of Thai with Vietnamese influence with way more flavour. These people live so simply off so very little, that it warps the way you start spending your money: No, I will not pay $5 for a full meal, that’s so much! No, I will not pay more than $3 for this pair of pants, are you trying to bankrupt me? A dollar goes a long way in this country. This country is one where kids still build forts for fun, where they jump in rivers with all their clothes on (or naked) at mid-day and tackle each other underwater. Some grow or catch their own food. Their houses are probably not entirely leak-proof. There aren’t 56 different video games and two TV monitors in their basement. They aren’t glued to electronics -you’ll find them chasing each other through rice fields, annoying stray dogs or hanging onto the back of motorcycles. 

You’ll find a five year old carrying around her baby sister while mom is working and you’ll find packs of children running around without any supervision. What is it with the Western world and not letting kids go unsupervised at any time? Do kids in Canada still build forts? When was the last time they were sent away for the day with a basket of postcards and told to sell as many as possible at the age of 4? If you were born in the Western world, you had it kushy. And you’re probably soft because of it. 

Cheers from Vang Vieng, Laos. 

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