Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cambodia

I was so sad to leave Thailand! It was like every departure I have had thus far was rolled into one and multiplied by 10. I was finally beginning to get my bearings in the country. I was learning to speak Thai a little better everyday and becoming more comfortable with the culture and the people every moment. I am confident that I will return one day...and am already looking forward to it!

The bus ride that we took from Bangkok, over the Thai-Cambodia border, and on to Siem Reap is notorious for its scams. They arrange your visas for you when you arrive at the border, overcharging you and taking a big chunk of money for themselves, and then they make sure you don't arrive in Siem Reap until about 10 pm (by taking extra long breaks and driving extra slow), at which point you are exhausted from 14 hours on the road, in a new city, in a new country, and aching to drop your bags at the first place you see. So they deposit the bus load of people on the doorstep of a waiting guesthouse that has already paid the commissions to have you there! Of course no one is going to physically force the foreigners to stay at the predetermined guesthouse, but the intimidation factor is strong and there is always a showdown and a lot of resistance if you decide to leave. The third scam that Faren and I were not prepared to deal with was getting completely tricked out of a lot of money at the border by a money exchange counter. I had asked our guide on the bus for the exchange rate between Thai Baht and Cambodian Riel. Since he was taking us across the border and we had been talking with him all day, we trusted him. This was our mistake. The rate that he quoted matched the rate we received at the border, without realizing that the guide and the money exchange counter were in cahorts to screw us over. So we both lost about a third of our cash, it took me only a few hours in Cambodia to put the puzzle together. Needless to say, Faren and I were pretty mad. Not only at the situation and the people who stole from us, but also at ourselves for not thoroughly researching the exchange rate. Frusterated with the situation and feeling very stubborn, we refused to stay at the guesthouse where the bus dropped us off, finding one closer to the center of the town instead.

The best part of the bus ride was when the driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom stop. We joked that this would happen after Faren asked the driver when the next stop would be and he said "5 minutes," meanwhile there was nothing in sight but fields and a dirt road. We did not actually think it would happen, but if it were to happen anywhere, Cambodia would be the least surprising. Faren and I were the only girls on the bus desperate enough (or maybe just shameless enough) to take advantage of the bushes. The second best part was a pickup truck packed to the brim with Cambodians. There had to be at least 30 people crammed in there. The truck and our bus passed by one another several times, and the faces in the truck were perfectly in align with the bus passengers. You could clearly see the fascination and delight with which each grouped viewed the other as we exchanged waves and smiles.

Once in Siem Reap, we bought a 3 day ticket to visit the world-famous Angkor temples, which are considered one of the wonders of the world. They were built during the height of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire over a period of 4 centuries. The temples at Angkor are spread out over about 40 miles, and range from single brick towers to giant stone structures, complete with a moat the size of a lake around Angkor Wat, making those around European castles seem like tiny streams. In fact, Angkor Wat, the "mother of all temples," is the largest religious monument in the world. Another temple, Ta Prohm, was the set for the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" movie. The first day we spent climbing through the ruins of the magnificent temples, riding around the sites on the back of a tuk-tuk. The second day we rented bicycles for $1.50/day and rode through the park, visiting ruins we had missed the previous day. The third day we woke up at 5 am in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The temple faces west, so the sun rises up behind it, silhouetting the massive complex against the bright, beautiful morning sky. It was an unforgettable sight to see.

From Siem Reap we caught a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and the place where Faren and I both began a tumultuous emotional roller coaster. We started to learn--reading books, watching movies, and visiting museums--about the heart breaking Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) in which about 2 million Cambodians were killed. I really knew nothing about it before I came here, which is pretty sad considering that this genocide was, in may ways, just as inhumane and cruel as the holocaust. We visted a museum that was once a high school and then converted into a prison and place of torture (for innocent victims) during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was really difficult to walk through the prison cells and torture chambers, seeing not only the torture instruments but also blood spatters everywhere. Can you imagine? It took a lot of courage for me to just be there and in the presence of so much suffering that still haunts the air.

At the same time, I was reading a book about one young Cambodian girl's personal experience during the Khmer Rouge. I recommend to any traveler, particularly those visiting recently war-torn nations, that they should supplement their trip with a biography like this. In my experience, it strengthens your understanding of the history and depth of human suffering that took place in the very city you are sleeping.

Shocked by the tragedies and disturbed by the desperation of the people still fighting to survive and recover from this dark period, Faren and I wanted to help in any way we could. After some research, we found an orphanage in great need of a little love. With no other options, we just showed up at the orphanage to volunteer.
The children are so sweet, a lot of them just want to hold your hand! We wanted to do something that would have a greater impact than only teaching a few songs and new English words, so we made flyers to promote the orphanage and posted them all over town. We've already brought other foreigners in, so it's been very rewarding to see instant results. Hopefully the sign will continue to attract people. We even made a friend out of one of the volunteers we recruited, Zach from California. Coincidentally, he happened to be leaving for Saigon, Vietnam on the same day as us, so we've all been traveling together. It's nice to have another face around.

One funny thing about Cambodia is that they use the U.S. dollar! The country has their own currency, the Riel, but they rarely use it. In most restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, etc. everything is quoted in USD. The only place where Riel dominated was in the outdoor markets, and even then the vendors would always accept dollars. It was a really weird concept to us that not only did the Cambodians prefer another currency over their own, but also that the U.S. government does not do anything about it. Interesting.

1 comment:

Andrew Grimes said...

i also visited the museum and the killing fields and i must say it was eye-opening, eerie and so difficult to fathom! I loved Cambodia though, everyone was so nice and the ancient ruins were stunning!