Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 31 March 2007

Cambodia

Since I last wrote, I have actually been to Cambodia.

I chose those words intentionally to illustrate the differences I perceive between Siem Reap/Angkor and Cambodia itself. Since moving on from Siem Reap (for the first time) with Jess nearly three weeks ago, I have been in at least 8 provinces, have logged numerous hours on busses enduring Khmer karoke videos, have ridden hundreds of kilometers on motorbikes throughout northern and southern Cambodia, have witnessed poignant reminders of Cambodia’s turbulent recent history (and have consequently remembered how subjective history really is), and have swum in the ocean for the first time since arriving in SE Asia two months ago.

Cambodia is a fascinating place. I’ll admit that my first impressions after crossing the border from Laos were a little dicey. “Scambodia” seemed more like it as we careened down a deserted highway in an overcrowded/overheating/pig-killing/push-starting bus. Arriving late at night in Kampong Cham, we were instant scam victims and paid too much for an unecessary motorbike ride and awful guesthouse. We quickly moved on from there and ended up in a much more sterile and controlled environment in Siem Reap. Neither of these experiences were exactly what I was imagining, nor were they what I was hoping Cambodia would be. As I mentioned in my last post, Angkor truly is awe-inspiring. Siem Reap, however, is less than dull on its own.

Needless to say, after Jess and I had exhausted our 3-day Angkor passes, we were both ready to move on from Siem Reap. We headed for Phnom Penh. If Siem Reap/Angkor serves to remind us of the glorious days of the ancient Khmers, Phnom Penh counteractively serves as a haunting reminder of the not-so-distant past and the atrocities associated with the Khmer Rouge and the civil war that followed. S-21, or Tuol Sleng, was originally a school building in southern Phnom Penh, but was converted into the epi-center of torture, secrecy and horror during the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge. Today, the building has been turned into a poignantly empty memorial to the victims of the prison. The Khmer Rouge were expertly meticulous record keepers, and each prisoner was photographed and tortured into offering a “confession” before being executed in the mass graves of the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh. The main exhibitions at S-21 are classrooms full of portraits of the victims. It is one of the most haunting and affecting memorials to such a horrific period in history I have ever seen. It is so jarring in its simplicity.

Jess and I parted ways in Phnom Penh. She headed back to Saigon to fly home, and I took a bus back up north to meet up with some friends we had met along the way in Laos. Oliver and Dorien, Alaskan siblings, have been excellent travel companions. We’ve covered nearly all of Cambodia in the last few weeks and have had our fair share of sore-motorbike-butts, flat tires, rain storms, repressive heat, relative coolness, insect plagues, bad food, amazing food, temples–both famed and otherwise, card games and sunsets.

From the border town of Stung Treng (near Laos), we headed east into the dusty Ratanakiri province, then back down south to Kampong Cham and up to Siem Reap again. From there, we ventured into Preah Vihear Province, staying in Anlong Veng (final Khmer Rouge stronghold) and to the remote mountain-temple of Prasat Preah Vihear. Leaving Siem Reap (for the third time), we took the boat to Battambang, and realized upon arrival that it was much more about the journey than the destination. The boat ride past floating villages and down a stretch of river so dry, we thought we’d never make it all the way there, was much more memorable than that town itself.

We rented motorbikes in Phnom Penh about a week ago and decided to see southern Cambodia on our own. We arrived in Kampot after a long day on the road, but watching the scenery change from the dusty plains of Phnom Penh and central Cambodia to the verdant coastal plain was fanatastic. We got caught in a bonafide rainstorm midafternoon, and took shelter with a local family. Kampot is a beautiful, quaint riverside town and the roads around town were great for exploring on the bikes. We ventured down the coast a little way to Kep, the old French seaside retreat. The hills around Kep are filled with the “ruins” of these 1940s and 50s french villas that were deserted shortly after they were built. Today, local families string up their own hammocks and clotheslines amid the luxurios rubble. We caught a boat out to Rabbit Island, just off the coast of Kep and spent a relaxing 24 hours without electricity (save a generator that was turned on for about 3 hours to power 2 lightbulbs). We were awoken in the middle of the night by yet another rainstorm that forced us off of the beach and into a bungalow owned by one of the nicest families I’ve met in Cambodia so far.

I had my moment of apogee boarding the boat back to the mainland. From there, my homeward journey began. I am back in Phnom Penh one last time, and will head for Saigon tomorrow. My flight leaves Saigon at 5:30am on April 3rd and I should be back on Ivy Street by the evening that same day.

Cambodia feels comfortable to me now. Familiar, even. Moreso than Vietnam and Laos did, but that is perhaps due in large part to the amount of time I spent (or didn’t spend) in those places. All in all, SE Asia is no longer a distant exotic place for me. It’s a challenging, hot, funny, delicious, frustrating, beautiful feast for the senses.

Jess and I on our last night together in Phnom Penh.

Bamboo Bridge, Kampong Cham. The Mekong River swells so much in the wet season, that this bridge has to get rebuilt every year. It is, ehem, suitable for motorbike traffic, and perhaps even a small car…

This sign welcomes visitors to Prasat Preah Vihear. This impressive Angkor-era mountain temple teeters both on the edge of a mountain rising from the plain, and on the Thai border which seems to creep closer and closer to the temple gate each year. Prasat Preah Vihear is/was a very important sight for both ancient and modern Khmers and it took a decree from the International Courts to recognize it as sovereign Cambodian territory–much to the chagrin of the Thais.

Prasat Preah Vihear.

Dorien, Oliver and I in Anlong Veng.


This is the sight where Pol Pot was killed and subsequently cremated unceremoniously (and instantaeously) on a mound of old tires. “Brother No. 1” was both loathed and revered. In Anlong Veng, a long time Khmer Rouge stronghold, his grave is tended to by locals who remember a different Khmer Rouge legacy…they remember one of schools and hospitals and roads being built, and have no recollection of Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields. History is subjective.

The floating villages outside of Siem Reap, on the way to Battambang.

Dorien looking all hardcore on her bike.

My first glimpse of the sea in a while. Kep, Kampot Province.

Fishing boat moored up on Rabbit Island.

Note to self: mosquito nets are not waterproof. We got rained out in the middle of the night. Bummer.

Harmonica. This little boy had a blast playing with Dorien’s harmonica when we were stopped on the side of the road tending to one of many flat tires/mechanical problems acquired along the way.

Petrol Station. It’s hard to find a real pump gas station, and when you do, they still sell to you out of the barrels.

Phnom Chisor. The ruins here are lesser known, Angkorian, and still functioning as a place of worship. A small community of monks and novices tend to the ruins in the Takeo Province, south of Phnom Penh.

Bike trouble on the way back to Phnom Penh. 45 minutes, a handful of tests and parts and a liter of gas later, the bill was a whopping $3 to get the bike back up and running.

Phnom Penh street scene.

Sunset in Kep, Kampot Province. 27 March, 2007.

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