August 2nd, 2004
Subject: Cambodia and Birthdays and Anniversaries
Sorry for being slack on the writing front. Oddly enough, in a life where I don't seem to do much, there sometimes doesnt seem to be enough time to do simple things like update the journal. I've slacked off of my once-a-week schedule.
Well, I last left off the journal at the airport in Bangkok, picking up my friend Jane. Jane was actually one of the first people I had met on my trip. We met at Burningman during the first few months of my travels. We met up again when I was through England in the winter time. She was thinking about changing jobs and wanted to get away during the time off between jobs, so she decided to come travel.
When she told her family that she was coming to Thailand, they insisted that the first thing she do when she arrived was to go visit her cousin Graham who lives just an hour and a half outside of Bangkok. So when I met her at the airport, thats exactly where we headed.
What I didnt know was that her cousin lived in Pattaya. Pattaya was a place that a couple of my friends had gone to by accident and warned me about going to. When you imagine the racy or sleazy side of Thailand, this is what Pattaya is. Its main industry is strip clubs and bars. The city government is trying to clean it up a bit and encourage more family tourists by hyping up the beaches and watersports, and making a lot of nice malls, but the strip clubs have a pretty strong hold on defining the personality of the city. Its not the kind of place that Jane or I would ever visit willingly if we didnt have someone to go see there. But, on the other hand, it is an interesting thing to behold as a spectator. Graham took us downtown to a couple of his favorite bars, which like all the bars in Pattaya open up to the street so you can watch people walking by. You certainly do get all sorts.
In one of the weirder co-incidences in my life, a good friend of mine, Martin, drove by on a moped. I shouted out to him and he turned around. Martin and I worked on the boat for a month together in the Philippines. This was the one known as Regular Martin, as the other was Brother Martyn. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I knew he lived in Thailand, but no idea where. Turns out he lives across the road from Graham. He was heading in to the other town, so we followed him and got a bite to eat with him far away from the bars.
For the next couple of days, we hung out with Martin and his girlfriend, checking out the sights that didnt include dancing women. I wouldnt say theres that much to do in Pattaya, but at least more than we originally thought. We got to check out a pretty cool Buddist temple and Chinese garden, and even released some finches from their cages for good luck.
While we were hanging out at Martins pool, I noticed a building that looked like a communications tower. Quite a massive structure for what was a small town in Thailand. Martin said that not only was it the regional communications tower and you could go up it, but that you could jump off it as well. For your $4 ticket to the top, you had one of 3 ways to come down. In a cable car, in a 2-person basket, or in a harness hooked in to a cable that goes all the way to the ground.
We all opted for the last one. The view from atop was quite spectactular, and you could see for quite a long ways. But the jumping part made me a little nervous. Despite the fact that I love to skydive, I do in fact have a fear of heights. But they strap you in to this harness, hook you to the cable, then a machine sort of pulls you off the edge, so you dont have to go on your own. You really have no choice. You jsut get pulled over and down you slide. Theres a guy who brakes you at the end, and your decent is actually controlled as well, so you dont go whizzing down. Quite an experience.
Trat was actually a cute, quaint little Thai town. There werent any attractios there, but jsut walking around and seeing it was kinda cool.
The bus to Phenom Penh left at 5am. We had to get up early for some reason, but we couldnt find a single person who could offer a valid reason why the busses left at this hour. This got us to the border at 8am, and the busses there left at 8am was the reason they gave us. Well, why dont those busses come at 10am, and we can sleep in until 7am? We didnt hold any hope of changing it for our journey, but we wanted to help future travelers get sleep.
Cambodia was the most expensive visa on my trip to date. $30 for one month. Once over the border, we got a taxi to the area where we'd catch the bus from. Our driver told us that no one will change Thai currency in Phenom Penh because of the recent bad blood between the two countries over a comment made by an entertainer. This entertainer said that the Temples of Angkor should be returned to the Thai people, thus giving half the land of Cambodia to Thailand. The Cambodians rightfully disagree. Anyway, out of fear of being stuck with a load of useless bills, we exchanged some currency, but not all of it. Thankfully. Turns out we could exchange money in Phenom Penh, and the taxi driver was in on a scam with the money exchanger. Our rate was about 10% below the going exchange rate. The other people on our bus fell victim to the same scam. I migth note here that Cambodia is the first place on my entire trip that I havent relied soley on my ATM card. Everywhere else I have traveled to, I just take the card and find somewhere to use it. In even the most remote places, there is usually an ATM or one within a couple hours drive. Several sources said that there were no ATMs in the entire country. One source said that there were, but you never know. Later on, we did find out that cash advances on Visa or MasterCards were possible during banking hours. Cambodian Reils are 8000 to $1us. The highest Denomination is 10000 riel, but you cant spend those because they're too big of a note for the country, so you end up with a wad of cash when you exchange.
The trip from the border to Phenom Penh was actually quite an adventure. It was in a mini-bus (a van with a lot of bench seats), and all the roads were made of dirt. People have said that traveling through Cambodia in the wet season is tricky, as sometimes these roads wash out. I could easily see how that could happen. Most of the roads are very rutted to begin with, and a really hard rain could wash out sections of them. There were 5 places along this road were we had to stop and wait for a makeshift ferry to take us across. The rivers were no wider than 100 meters, and the ferries were planks lashed to large drums filled with air, and a couple of outboard 'longtail' motors attached to them. They'd fit 9 vehicles at a time on these. We'd usually have to get out of the van and walk on to the ferry and then get back in on the other side.
The onslaught of moto-taxis vying for our business upon our arrival was more than usual. Thankfully, we had made friends with a guy on our mini-bus who had a friend there in Phenom Penh. His friend came out to meet us, told us how much we should pay to get from A to B (very valuable info) and recommended some good places. So we took off and checked in to a rather comfortable hotel and headed out for the night.
Despite warnings from some people, I didnt feel that Phenom Penh was all that dangerous of a place. Our hotel advised us not to walk anywhere at night, which we stuck to, but other than that, the city had a safe feel to it. The bars and resturants were fairly nice, although the city also had a seedy side to it. We were surprised at the cost of things. Cambodia has been in a civil war with itself for the past 30 years. Its hard to say when it ended, or if it even has, but violence and uprisings have been going on well in to the late 90s. For this reason alone, you'd think the country would be cheaper, especally since the population is so poor, but in fact, its more expensive than Thailand or the Philippines or Malaysia, a fact we confirmed by the Lonely Planet Guidebook later.
The next day we headed out to see the two principal attractions in and around Phenom Penh. The Killing Fields and the S21 Museum. I'll give a real brief history of Cambodia to shed some light on these two places. In 1975, a Cambodian group called the Khmer Rouge overthrew their own government in hopes of returning their country to a communist society based on hard agricultural labor. Days after their coup, they marched in to the major cities like Phenom Penh and told everyone that the Americans would be bombing the city in a few dyas and that everyone needed to leave town for 5 days. This was at the time of the Veitnam war (Vietnam is the neighboring country to Cambodia) and such a thing did not seem that far fetched. So, the people marched out of the city on foot, or those who had vehicles drove until they ran out of gas, then walked. When they came to the countryside, they were informed that the Khmer Rouge was their new government, and they were asked what their profession was. Anyone who was a Doctor, Lawyer, Musician, Goverment or Military, or any educated person was put in to an area for "re-assigning", the others were allowed to pass to the countryside. The educated people were taken to the Killing Fields to be executed, or taken to the S21 prison to be interrogated. Any educated person was thought to be a threat to the new regime. Most people caved under the pressure and gave false confessions to things they'd never even heard of in their life. The Khmer Rouge could then be certian that they were doing good at eradicating this evil. The confessors were then taken to the Killing Fields and then executed.
Eventually, to make itself stronger, the Khmer Rouge began to sell their crops to Vietnam and China in exchange for arms, so the people working in the fields did not even get to eat the food they produced. Most were rationed several ounces of rice per week. Stealing the food they were growing was also grounds for execution.
Its estimated that the Khmer Rouge regime killed about 3,000,000 of its own people through executions, starvation, and diseases resulting from malnourishment. They were finally overthrown in 1979 when a coalition of US and Vietnamese troops came in, after four years of ruling.
So, the trips to the Killing Fields and S21 prison are emotional to say the least. Unfortunately, they dont do much to describe the motives of this sensless regime. The leader, a man named Pol Pot was obviously deranged. But what was his goal, or his vision? Hitler had a similar derangment, but a vision of world domination. Pol Pot starved his own country to death and executed all the people who might have had the intelligence to help him, if could he have persuaded them to. It just makes no sense.
Another couple of VERY odd facts about this whole mess. Pol Pot died just a few years ago in 1998, aparently pretty comfortable, while the country he starved to death was still griping with recovery. A tribunal was never held, although talks are still going on about having one someday. The number 2 guy of the Khmer Rouge is still living a nice life, and he has said that if a tribunal is held, he will willingly go, as he has nothing to hide. A video shown at the S21 prision show a scene were a former soldier re-enacts how he beat people to death and dumped the bodies in to the pit. He is a free man.
Whats more.... the Khmer Rouge is a political party. Just like the Republicans or Democrats, they are a party. Cambodia has 4 main parties, and the Khmer Rouge is ONE OF THEM. People have actually elected members of this party to seats within the government! The current Khmer Rouge no longer associates itself with its rebel factions, who still live in the hills of Cambodia and have been planting land mines as late as 1998.
The 70s were a time of sensless violence in Cambodia, but the fact that the party which caused it is still around, still unprocesucted, and even elected to seats within the current government makes even less sense.
If you'd like to read an incredible book about this period in history, theres a book called First They Killed My Father. Its written be a lady who is exactly my age. She was 4 years old in 1975, just as I was, and describes the events of the Khmer Rouge regime from the viewpoint of a small child who went through it. Its amazing what this girl endured during that time, and what she had to do to survive. What hit me the hardest, was that each chapter starts out with the month and year it happened. I could think back to my own life at that time, and looking back, the contrast could not have been more night and day. I would have never believed at that age that such a thing was even happening in my world.
This book also put a lot of things in perspective for me as I traveled through Cambodia. I NEVER give to beggars. But in Cambodia I did. After reading that book, and hearing the horrors that these people went through, and knowing that anyone who's eyes I looked in to who was my age or older had lived through that time. The things they had seen, the conditions they had to endure. It made me a lot more sympathetic to the beggars.
Our next day in Phenom Penh, we wanted to do something a bit more cheery. We went to The Royal Palace and Silver Temple in the middle of the city. These are the modern day prides of Cambodia. They are large lavish temples and Palaces set in beautiful gardens in the middle of the city. They were also quite packed despite the $4 entrance fee.
Later that night Jane and I headed to a cool little 2nd floor bar that overlooked the main road and the river that it ran along. Traffic in Phenom Penh was typically chaotic asia traffic. With a couple exceptions. At one point, someone was riding an elephant down the street, and at another point we saw a family of 8 on a moped. 5 people on a moped is not uncommon. 6 is rare. But 8 was the most we have ever seen. We even asked the people next to us at the bar to confirm our math.
There are also a lot of Buddist monks in Cambodia, just as in Thailand. They have their heads shaved, and wear orange robes and sandals. They need to get around like anyone else, so they take moto-taxis. But its just a bit of a funny site to see a couple of monks sitting side-saddle on the back of a moped.
Another bizzare thing that we've seen here are people in their pajamas all day long. Thee arent cute little outfits that look like pajamas, they're definitely pajamas. You'll see people walking around, or riding mopeds, or shopping, in their pajamas.
After a few days in Phenom Penh, we set off for the town of Siem Reap where the ruins of Angkor Wat are. You can get there by bus or by boat. We didnt have much luck with the bus last time, and it was rather bumpy, so we thought we'd try the boat. The helpful guy at our hotel said that the boat was a better way to go. He asked if we were going by boat, and said that if we were his friend could get us tickets in advance so we'd have them at the dock. They were $25. We'd kind of heard that tickets on the boat were $25, but something seemed a bit fishy. We told the guy that we'd just get our tickets at the dock. Unfortunately, the helpful guy was also our taxi driver, so when we got our ride to the dock, he had his friend waiting with our two tickets. The sign did say $25 at the dock, and thats what he was charging, so we paid for them.
But heres the deal. Locals cant afford to pay that kind of money for transport, so locals can buy them for $10, then sell them to the tourists at face value. Perhaps I dont mind that so much. I might have asked for part of the cut, and said I wanted to pay $20. But I dont get angry until I get on the boat. Its like a rusty oil drum with a motor. No lie. Its like a 8-foot wide, 6 foot, 40-foot long barrel that reeks of diesel fuel. The tiny windows are faded so you cant see through them, and the air-con is so cold that you have to bundle up. Why does all of this bother me so much? Because I later learn that at the dock, there is a luxury boat that makes the same trip for $28 that the locals dont get a discount on. It includes breakfast and lunch and has comfortable seats.
Now I understand that local people are trying to make money off the tourists, and to some extent I expect to have my naivete taken advantage of. Its just part of traveling. But dont pretend to be my freind, then subject me to 6 hours in a tin can so you can make make money off me. I dont know, I guess I should see how easy the temptation would be, but the fact that he hid that from me, and made me ride that boat really got under my skin. The fact that the other guy scammed us with the money exchange story. But what REALLY got me is the sincerity with which they insist they are doing all of this to HELP you. If there are any Cambodians reading this, the only thing I didnt like about your country was the fact that I was attempted to be ripped off by the majority of people I had to deal with.
The ride wasnt entirely bad. It was a boat ride down the Mekong River, and oddly enough as soon as the boat started they opened the doors and you could ride on top. It wasnt too comfy, but the views were pretty amazing. However, what I really wanted to do was sleep. Like everything else in this country, the boat left at 7am. Early, early, early. I couldnt sleep up top, as I felt like I'd roll off if I did, and there was no where to sleep inside.
We had the taxi take us to several places before we found a one with a vacancy. We declined all the drivers suggestions as we knew there would be some sort of kickback, and we wanted a place that we chose ourselves. We finally found a hotel and as we unloaded our stuff, the driver asked what time he could pick us up to take us to the temples (people only come to Siem Reap to see the Angkor Wat temples). I said I didnt know and that I'd figure it out tomorrow. The driver then told me that he makes his money by taking people there and that the free ride to the hotel was his way or earling business. In an uncharacteristically brazen moment, I told this man what I thought of him and his fellow Cambodians. I told him that I was tired of getting tossed from scammer to scammer like a piece of meat and found that when I did things on my own I had a better time and it cost me less and that if the ride is touted as free, than its just that, and shouldnt come with an attached expectation. Goodbye.
Tired of getting up early, we slept in the next day, and headed out to see the temples at 10am or so. We rented a tuk-tuk for the day for only $10. Tuk-tuks are different everywhere you go, but its always the same concept - a moped driven vehicle with space for 2 passengers in the back, side by side. In most of them, the tuk-tuk is one unit. In these ones, it was a carraige pulled by a moped. It was actually quite nice, with the exeption of the 4-inch long spider we found inside at the outset. We flicked it out, and I got closer to examine it. A helpful local gave me a more detailed view of it by squishing it with his shoe.
The Temples of Angkor Wat are the historical pride of Cambodia. They were built from about 700 to 1100ad. So in terms of temples of the world, they are actually quite new. They cover a vast area, as the temples were all monuments in the ancient city of Angkor. The temples were made of stone, so they've remained, but nothing remains of the houses that were there a thousalnd years ago.
Passes are sold to get in to the complex in either 1,3, or 5 day increments. Its suggested in the guide books that you dont get the 1 day pass as there is just too much to see. And they're right.
The temples are so magnificent, that you could spend hours at each one, and there are about 40 within the complex. There are 5-6 main ones, about another 5-6 somewhat large ones, then the rest are tiny yet impressive monuments.
The largest of the temples is the one called Angkor Wat. It is more or less a walled city. A massive bridge leads up to it, then through the wall across the grounds, past 2 lakes, and in to the center temple, which itself has several rings you must enter. Angkor Wat and the other temples are so impressive, but its the kind of thing thats hard to describe. Pictures would do better. You can do a google search on Angkor Wat or check out this site for some nice photos.
One strange thing about the temples is that some of them were built during a time when the country was practicing the Hindu religion, and are therefore Hundu temples. When successive kings came to power and changed the country back to Buddist, the temples were changed to Buddist temples. However, the designs on many of the walls are still of Hindu goddesses. It just seems odd that a temple built for one religion can just be changed to another.
Another interesting thing is that of all these massive structures with hundreds of rooms, no one ever lived in them. Aparently, both the Hindus and the Buddists believed that only gods could live in stone buildings, so they built these massive structures, and only used them for religious purposes. Even the kings lived outside of them.
Sadly, some of these were damaged during the Khmer Rouge regime. Its said that during the confict, when the Vietnamese came in and took hold in some of the temples, and the Khmer Rouge was in some others, the Veitnamese would take target practice using some of the stone statues.
After visiting the ruins one day, we went to go take a tour of the Land Mine museum. Its not so much a museum as it is a small farm where a man who diffuses land mines puts his exploded shells and tries to promote awareness of the land mine problem. This man is also about my age, and suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime. He ws taken in by the Khmer Rouge and made to be a soldier when he was 8 years old. When the regime was overthrown, he was turned in to a soldier for the Cambodian Army, then in to the Vietnamese army. He never had much say in this, he was traded as teams may trade football players. Finally, during a UN intervention in 1992, he was converted to a UN peacekeeper. He went to Siem Reap for training and it was his first glimpse of the outside world. Ever. He was so involved and brainwashed by the armies he fought for, he didnt know another world even existed. He didnt know electricity or plumbing existed. Forget TV and computers. He found out then that there was a world without war that had been going on outside of his country. He started work as a land-mine clearer, and has been doing it ever since, even though the UN pulled out its operations years ago. His museum points out that it costs $1 to lay a land-mine, and about $100 to get rid of one, provided no one steps on it, which about 130 people a month in Cambodia do. Most beggars you see in Cambodia are missing limbs from land mines. He also points out that the worst thing about land mines are that they dont agree to a cease fire. They're always left there. There is an anti-land mine act which is trying to outlaw the production of landmines. If there are no more built, then there can be no more laid down. Every country in the world has agreed to stop building land mines except 3 nd the USA is one of them. Well, we wouldnt want to hurt Halliburton profits would we? If you'd like to see the life story of the man who started the museum, you can read it here on his website. You can check out the rest of his site, and even make donations to help clear land mines if you like.
Siem Reap turned out to be a cool little town itself. We went out to a couple bars in town, and its a pretty chilled out little place. Siem Reap also has its share of high-priced hotels. The highest is Raffles Grand Hotel at $300 a night. Aparently, affluent tourists and archeologists have been coming here since the early 1900s, and there's photos in the Grand to prove it.
Another neat thing we tried out in Siem Reap was a blind massage. We had heard about these places, but this was the first time we tried them out. There are various vision problems that people in Asia get, and without proper medical treatment, it leads to a lot of blindness. One job that the blind people are then trained to do is massage. And it sort of makes sense. They say that when you lose your sight, your other senses become more highly tuned, such as hearing or touch. Having a heightened sense of touch could make someone a better massuse, one might reason. There was one of these places across from our hotel, so we gave it a shot. The massage was actually really nice, but there were comical bits about it too. Each person to eb massaged is given a gown to wear which includes pants and a shirt. Jane was handed 2 shirts. This was hard to explain what the problem was when the person didnt speak English well. At times, we'd be drifting off in relaxation, only to be jolted out of it by someone walking in to the massage table, or by my massuse bumping in to the one at the table next to me. But it was nice, and for a good cause.
After Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples, we decided to head back to Bangkok. The bus, like everything else in Cambodia left at crack-of-dawn in the morning. We asked several times if we'd be getting on a big bus (which would have a comfy ride over the bad roads) or a mini bus. We were assured time and time again that it would be a big bus. No one was surprised when we were picked up by a mini-bus. Such is Cambodia. We traveled back with Wendy and Tracy who we'd met at the dock.
We returned to Bangkok for a couple of days to try to figure out what we were going to do next. The day that we arrived happened to be July 16th, my birthday. I spent the vast majority of it on busses and in bus stations, but that was alright with me. The real surprise came in the hotel room. Jane had very carefully carried with her this whole time a small piece of fruit cake with Happy Birthday written on it in frosting, and a candle and a present and a card. It was the best birthday surprise I could have asked for.
Once back in Bangkok, Jane and I formulated a plan to head to a place called Kanchanaburi. Its similar to Chang Mai in the fact that its located in the jungle, but its slightly further south and lower in elevation, so not as hot. We found a nice 2 days tour that we signed up for that would take us around to the major points of interest.
The first day of the tour, we were driven out to the memorial for all the people who died building the 'death railway'. When the Japanese invaded Thailand in WW2, they needed to get supplies from the gulf of Thailand (where the ships from Japan would come from) and deliver them in to Burma. So a railway line was built. The Japanese used prisoners of war to build it, and over 100,000 of them died over the years trying to build it. The weak point of the railway was the bridge it used to cross over the River Kwai. It was bombed so many times, that the Japanese took to putting POWs in the bridge in hopes it would stop the allies from bombing it. Unfortunately, the bridge was either too important, or they were mistaken for enemy soldiers, and the bridge was bombed anyway.
Accomodation was included in our tour, and when you get those kinds of offers, you're never sure what you're going to get, but this one was actually really cool. It was a tree house. The place we stayed had about 6 tree houses. You had to climb a ladder to get up in to them, but once in there, there was enough room to stand. Inside each was a queen size bed, and enough room for 2 bags and room to scatter stuff around. The roof was made of thatch, and the walls only went half way up. The rest was left open to the wind (and the bugs). For this reason, each came with a mosquito net as well. Bathrooms were downstairs, as well as the area they served us dinner.
When we were trying to figure out what to do with the next few weeks of Janes visit, we had a couple things to take in to account. One of the things Jane wanted to see was the full moon party in Koh Pha-Ngan. Unfortunately, the dates of seeing that werent flexible. It fell on August 2nd (actually, its a couple days before, but the party is delayed due to a religious holiday here) which meant that we couldnt go too far from Thailand until then, or we'd have to come back. Jane wanted to get in some beach time, so we decided we'd head to Koh Tao, where Wendy and Tracy were doing some diving at, and we'd stay there until the Full Moon Party when we'd all head to Ko Pha-Ngan.
Unfortunately, Jane developed a stomach problem just before the Kanchanaburi trip which only got worse as we traveled on the cool sleeper train to Koh Tao.
A couple interesting points of note that happened while in Koh Tao. The two year anniversary of this trip passed. It was July 26th, 2002 that I left my home in Fairfax in my trusty 4runner for parts unknown. And while I was in Koh Tao, I got an email from someone offering to buy my domain name. I'm actually considering it, so in the future, you may be looking to travelhead.net for updates, rather than travelhead.com.
Yesterday, the 4 of us made our way to Koh Pha-Ngan for the full moon party, which is tonight. Janes illness is finally going away, so hopefully she'll get to enjoy the party fully. I think our plan now is to leave in the next day or so and head to Malaysian Borneo. They've got a lot of great wildlife and jungles. I've always wanted to see it, and Jane has always wanted to see an Orangutan in the wild, so hopefully a trip down thre will work out for us. The weather hasnt been the best, so hopefully a trip south will help that out too.
Hope all is well with you,
"There'll be a time when all my dreams come to an end