Lately, my strategy when I travel to so-called “cash economy countries” is to use the airline paper bag (the one they give for throwing up :-)) for storing cash. These bags are lined with a material that makes it sturdy and good for such use. I do not carry a wallet when I travel (and keep my cards tucked away safely).
Charge outlet hunting is a hobby of mine and I guess other Internet-heavy travelers like me.
October 14th, 2015 (Wednesday)
Did I land in US? There is US Dollars everywhere! ATMs (!!), shops, restaurants Etc. They give change in USD, even for 100 dollar bills, for crying out loud. I was determined to get hold of Cambodian Riels. I was the only dummy doing so and I sense the disgust in the lady’s face. Changed USDs at a very unfavorable rate and got some Riels.
The flight landed at 9PM. At the immigration, the elderly lady was talking to herself in I assume Khmer, loudly, and a couple of times I asked “Excuse me?” and she looked at me as if I am the nut 🙂 After getting a local Sim Card (voice and data) for 5USD (the guy at the counter was very helpful), I came out of Arrivals at around 10PM. Since my hotel was around 10Km from airport and I wanted to try the “motorcycle taxi”, I asked a few guys loitering around their bikes. All of them funneled me to a taxi stand where they rip you off for 7-10 USD, where as Tuk-Tuk and motorcycle cost 1-3 USD (if you negotiate hard enough). This was a scam and I am sure the taxi guys make it “worth the while” of motorcycle guys. I walked out of the airport onto a quite dark and lonely Highway6. Also no motorcycles in sight. Finally, spent 5$ on a motorcycle-Tuk-Tuk and the guy took off in the “opposite direction” (as per my self-orientation). My risk radar went up and I revised all my Karate and Kung-Fu moves. Actually, no worries, the guy took me to the right Hotel ;-).
I need a clean room, hot shower, TV, WiFi and breakfast. When travelling alone, I try and spend ZERO on beautiful garden, beautiful pool, overpriced and non-ethnic restaurants, decorations Etc. I spent minimal time at the Hotel.
But Angkor Palace Resort is the kind of place I use for Family vacations, where more time is spent at the Hotel itself. Because the rates during this period was reasonable, I had booked here.I looked like a vagabond, sweaty and with facial hair. I got the welcome fit for a Khmer Emperor. Drinks, garland, some kind of music Etc.
During the flight to Siem Reap, I noticed it was 99% whites. It was almost as if I was in a Western country.
October 15th, 2015 (Thursday)
At 8AM, after a little wait at the lobby, my guide Wan showed up. He spoke excellent English and could do Aussie, American and British accents well :-). English/Khmer/French are taught in local high schools and that explains the language proficiency. He gave a heads-up about Ramayana/Mahabharata influences on Angkor. As usual, KFC/McDonalds were around. He spoke a bit about the huge Tonle Sap lake (pronounced “Tholle Saap”). Our tour, a small group tour, had 4 people. An Australian lady Michelle (Who loves Roller Derby!), Australian Greg who is married to a Filipino lady and Khmer Emperor George Attokaran ;-). Michelle had spent some time in Bengaluru/Bangalore and shared her experiences in India. Wan explained that there are state-run free children and maternal hospitals.
Some tidbits from the tour:
# Angkor Wat has a moat all around it. Legend has it that it was filled with crocodiles in the past. Now, it is just fish. I hope this is true for I found children playing in the moat!
# It took 40 years to built Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the World.
# Angelina Jolie – Very famous in Cambodia! All due to Lara Croft – Tomb Raider. Especially, Ta Prohm Temple, many portions of which are recognizable from the movie.
# I cannot believe this. Apparently, a Vietnamese private firm has leased Angkor Wat for 90 years! Talk about swindling Cambodian common man of the riches from his own heritage. No wonder I could sense some level of frustration with the Government.
# Many artifacts were stolen from Angkor Wat, over the years. Also, many statues are without heads (Stolen!)
#Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Kingdom houses the Bayon Temple. King Jayavarman VII (the most famous of the Khmer Kings) built it.
# Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu, the “Lord of the West”. Historians.use that to explain the main entrance pointing to West.
# Apparently, there is a law that no building can be taller than Angkor Wat.
# At Ta Prohm Temple, you can see the power of nature. The tall trees, whose roots destroy huge stones!
We had a nice lunch, with huge bottles of Cambodian beer, chatting about the places we have visited and our experiences in Cambodia.
After seeing Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple and Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm Temple, we were all “templed out” (Wan’s phrase :-). By 3PM, we were finished with the tour. As is the custom, I tipped the guide and the driver. They dropped me off at Pub Street. I spent the next 1-2hrs hunting for souvenirs and buying takeout (Did not want to step out again, as heavy rains were looming). Postcards, Paintings, Curios Etc. were purchased. My backpack will start bulking up for sure … I then took a motorcycle taxi back to the hotel. Just when we reached the hotel, the skies opened up.
October 16th, 2015 (Friday)
After a light breakfast (When I started out, I used to gorge on sausages and other unhealthy stuff, end up bloated for the rest of the day. Nowadays I limit to Coffee, Bread, Egg, Fruits and Yogurt), I checked out at 8.15AM, such that I could reach Angkor National Museum, right as it opened at 8.30AM.
Some tidbits from Angkor National Museum:
# 1000 Buddha Gallery: Claimed to be the largest collection in the World. Spanning 12th till 19th century. Lot of the statues were saved from various Cambodian temples and stored here. There are Buddhas made of wood, sandstone, metals Etc. Tiny to huge Buddas. 1000 of them!
# Mainly 3 periods: Pre-Angkorian (1st till 8th century), Angkorian (9th till 13th century), Post-Angkorian (14th till 20th century)
# Khmer civilization is heavily influenced by Indian civilizations
# Brahmanism and Buddhism were the state religions
# Khmer art founded on Indian base: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.
# Angkor was the capital of Khmer Civilization
# Both the main types of Buddhism, Hinayana (One Buddha, Strict) and Mahayana (Multiple Buddhas, Less strict) were practiced here
# Jayavarman VII (1181-1218, just 37 yrs old at death!?) was Mahayana follower
# Suryavarman II (1113-1150) and Jayavarman VII (“J7”) are the 2 greatest Khmer kings. J7 built Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Phrom Etc. J7 was known as a builder and he had a very stable government. J7 made Khmer the greatest empire in South-East Asia. J7 built rest-houses every 15 miles and hospitals were also built. J7 defeated Cham and ruled Champa region for 17 years. There are J7 statues all over country, in buildings, roadside Etc.
# After seeing local Batik paintings and how they are made, I had to buy one. Bought a very colorful one.
# Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the World, UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has had changes over the years, with each King adding to it. Lots of statues were donated to Angkor Wat.
# Angkor Thom was a very well-planned city by the standards 1000yr ago.
# India, with rich heritage and culture, has to learn from countries Cambodia on how to market, preserve and present. I have seen centuries old sites in India being used as Urinals. Hope the South East countries inspire India to showcase its wonders in a more tourist-friendly way.
# The museum also had a “Story from Stones” section (Mainly inscriptions on rocks), Khmer costume gallery, Apsara gallery Etc.
With galleries, A to G, it offers quite a deep insight into Angkor and Khmer details.
The bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is run by Giant Ibis. Somewhat of a letdown after Myanmar JJ Express :-). But still, with food, WiFi and charge outlets Etc., pretty good as well.
During the ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, there were several breaks, restroom break and food break. At one of the restrooms, they had pineapple skins in the urinals. First I went “Who the heck dumped this here?!?”. Then I noticed it is in all 🙂
Like in USA, driver sit on the left, and drive on the right side of the road.
I was sitting right in the front. It was photos galore. I also listened to music while working on the blog. In Sri Lanka, on the way to Sigiriya, a poor dog jumped in front of the van and got killed. It was a gruesome sight for the kids. Here, a dog jumped in front of the huge bus and somehow (!!!) miraculously escaped … All of us went “Ohhhhhhh …”.
The highway started and ended fine. Wide and smooth. But the middle portion was a nightmare (Due to construction). Still, the bus with its multiple axles, was smooth through the rough patches.
The hotel was a short 2Km walk from Giant Ibis Station. I was swarmed by food vendors, Tuk-Tuks, Motorcycle Taxis Etc. I walked around, briskly, with my hand held up as if I was blessing everyone (Actually, was indicating “No”).
After checking in and depositing my backpack, I ventured out in search of food. The hotel is right next to Royal Palace. There, right in front of “Royal” security, a guy was peeing near a well-groomed tree. Maybe he was sending a message to the Government 😉
I noticed this street vendor whose stall was swarming with locals. I saw her grill some meat and I recognized the dried meat I had seen in Siem Reap. I ordered 3$ worth and ended up with 0.50$ worth (They recognize a non-local, They have eyes :-). It was a good thing for I just could not eat it.
During the trip to Phnom Penh, right through the countryside, there were houses on stilts. This apparently is common in the country, due to threat of floods.
October 17th, 2015 (Saturday)
Mekong river is the lifeline of Cambodia. It has the 2nd largest wetlands in Asia (after Bangladesh and Brahmaputra) and is 2nd only to Amazon in biodiversity. One can take river cruise along Mekong river to Siem Reap!
“Cyclo” == Motorcycle Taxi 🙂 Sounds like X-Men.
Daro, my guide moved to Phnom Penh in 2009, leaving his parents in their village near Thai border. It is a 9hr bus ride to his village. He had come to Phnom Penh for education and better prospects. Daro stays with his Uncle who also has been a tour guide for 15yrs. Daro was born in 1992 and his Father is a policeman. His one sister is married and is a homemaker. His Uncle is his mentor, and his ambition it to make Tourism his firm career. His Uncle’s family loves to watch Hindi movies :-). Daro’s family being in the village, were saved from Pol Pot regime. But his Grand-Father who was a member of former government was killed. His Father now works as a policeman.
Some tidbits from the Tour:
# Pol Pot, who was against cities and modernity, made Phnom Penh a ghost city, by destroying hospitals, stupas, temples Etc. He also drove everyone to the countryside.
# Phnom Penh has 3M people.
# There are “Democratic” elections every 5yrs, which is a one party (Cambodia People’s Party). Current Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge regime member, is friendly with Vietnam.
# Around 50% of the population is less than 20, years old!
# Pol Pot was so paranoid, he killed even his own regime members. Mahatma Gandhi would have loved this guy …
# Hun Sen has a huge palace-like house, actually multiple ones. Hail Communism!
# There is only me on the Tour! Personal guided tour. Alright! 🙂
# Tuol Sleng: From school to Prison S21. There was VIP Prison A (For former government folks). There was also mass detention rooms.
# Kampuchea is the preferred local name for Cambodia …
# France ruled IndoChina, Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia, for around 90 years …
# Vietnam attacked Pol Pot for 2 reasons: Mekong/Saigon area threat and also the sheer atrocities.
# Just before Pol Pot and his cronies fled Phnom Penh , though they wanted to kill all prisoners, 26 were left. 14 of them died horrible deaths, captured in grizzly photographs by Vietnamese journalists. 12 escaped, 7 adults and 5 children.
# I met the 2 surviving adults, from the original 7. They run their own charities and come to Tuol Sleng daily. 4 of the 5 children are alive and in their 40s.
# Around 388 killing fields and 150+ prisons. Pol Pot was a busy guy.
# A former Math teacher became leader of prison, (” Duch” was his name). He was tried for genocide later on …
# Most of Khmer Rouge regime came back and joined the new government.
# The Khmer Rouge was so good at brainwashing young teenage soldiers that they killed their own families.
# Women had to cut their hair short, in the prison.
# The Killing Fields was marketed as the “New Home” by the regime. How sad!
# The adult survivor, who is now 85 years old, was a mechanic. While Khmer Rouge was torturing him, he kept saying that he was just an ordinary mechanic. Finally, they asked him to repair a broken typewriter to prove his skills. If he failed, that was it for him and his family. Luckily, for him, he did fix it. His whole family, unfortunately, did not make it.
Some tidbits from Choueng Ek (The “Killing Fields”):
# The heavy rains brings out The skeletons buried in the mud … Hence the killing pits are cordoned off …
# Trucks were used to transport prisoners to the “New Home”
# Khmer Rouge did not believe in wasting bullets. Life is less valuable than bullets! Hence most of the prisoners were beaten to death using sharp objects or rods
# There were 4 years of killing fields in Cambodia ..
# Of the many horror stories I heard, here is one: Khmer Rouge played loud music to drown the moans and cries of the dying prisoners …
# Got to know another important use of sugar palm, outside of basket, rope, fan, furniture Etc. As a tool to slit throats … (The rough edges)
# People who work for the government are rich and own fancy cars …
# Once we took the ferry to Mekong island, I got a feel for the countryside feel. Most of the folks were in the city, working. Almost 80% of Cambodians are farmers.
# Got to see and eat some new fruits: Persimon, Long kong, Canonball Etc.
# 90% of folks are Buddhist in Cambodia. There are thousands of temples and monks …
# Pol Pot’s army not all bad. Some did save lives. The soldiers had no choice. If they refuse, they themselves will be killed.
# During Khmer Rouge times, education was a sure-shot ticket to death. By destroying all non-Farmer stuff, Khmer Rouge did take Cambodia back several decades.
# Cambodia allegedly sells a lot of trees and other assets to Vietnam and China.
# Cambodians love rice! Jasmine rice.is a favorite ….
# English is 2nd language here. Though Primary/Secondary do not have English, High-school does have English.
# The Silk Farm in Mekong Island: The farm house was built in 1993. There was a flood in 2011 and the stilt house helped at that time. The island is very expensive nowadays. The whole family lives in the silk farm. We spent time discussing World Affairs and Education.
# Daro is so excited about KFC, McDonalds, Dominos, Starbucks Etc. When he hears of some brand present in India, but not in Cambodia, he was all upset. I tried educating him about junk food …
October 18th, 2015 (Sun)
Only after I took a Moto Tuk-Tuk to Giant Ibis bus station, I remembered that I had requested hotel pickup! 🙂
Onward, to Vietnam …