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The Best Of Cambodia (Part 2)

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Written by csm2mk

May 18, 2010 at 9:07 PM

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The Best Of Cambodia (Part 1)

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Written by csm2mk

December 30, 2009 at 8:35 PM

Posted in Cambodia

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Cambodia II

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So how was Cambodia? What’s the national psyche? And where is it going?

Portrait of an ex Khmer Rouge official - S21

Portrait of an ex Khmer Rouge official - S21 prison

If I had to use one word to describe Cambodia – I know this is unfair to begin with – I would just say “dark”. But dark can be beautiful for some people. I like the black color in general myself. The look into the country’s recent, very recent  past influenced me here. It is not only this though. The present is a state were the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, nothing we have not seen before elsewhere but especially in this country I do not think there is much more margin. The ATMs dispense dollars, the NGOs are doing their best but leaving their mark and the people well… what can they do. It is definitely not worse than before so there you have it. Is this enough though? Hun Sen – an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge – is the Prime Minister of the country not seeming to be moving from his position. The political opposition likes the king. So little space there for democrats. Buddhism is back and spreading in a quick pace something that thinking of the context I consider a good thing. How do the people feel in terms of options? I reckon they do not think about it too much. The tourists in their majority are particularly careless and irresponsible giving out money to the street kids (that carry their street brothers and sisters) because they pity them. On more than one occasions I had North Americans declaring to me: “What could I do, it breaks my heart seeing them like this”. Maybe they should have thought this earlier. For now, you most definitely know that this money is not going to who you are giving it to…

I know I am not answering my own questions but I also think that is the point I am trying to make. I do not know. In the beginning I wanted to go to the East, the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri but that has not been possible due to the weather conditions. Going in the Northwest was also difficult (and expensive because of lack of public transportation). So I was stranded in the places the main roads were passing from and I have to say that my exploration was far from profound this time. It’s a pity because Cambodia is changing rapidly and I do not know when I’ll be here again. Alas this brings me to the question of where is Cambodia going.

Just a week ago or so, Hun Sen accepted Thailand’s ex Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin as a political refugee and a personal friend. If Cambodians never really liked the Vietnamese, they really dislike the Thais and Thaksin is far from an angel. I will not refer on his persona here (a kind of a Thai Berlusconi) but with this act Hun Sen showed a little concern for his people. Economically-wise the tourists are more and more every year. This is a good thing for the Khmers but with it being the only real source of income, Cambodia is very dependent and elsewhere… naked and vulnerable. This means that the prices go up without the services getting any better. Where will it end? Probably at the point of tourists being sick of it, their number dropping and once again Cambodia having to come up with something. I just hope it’s not prostitution and child begging again. In any case I might be all wrong (I sure hope so) but being here in Hong Kong now, I find the contrast to be so bright that I find it difficult not to be pessimistic…

Written by csm2mk

October 27, 2009 at 4:12 PM

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Cambodia I

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The transition from Laos to Cambodia was smooth. From Khong island I had to pass the river by a longboat (typical) and then from there I flagged down a bus full of backpackers going to the border. I knew I had to deal with dollars from now on so I was prepared. Cambodia is a country that sadly its ATMs dispense the green stuff… In any case the Visa was 20 USD plus 1 USD for the medical guy’s bribe (Laos part) plus 1 USD for the checkout guy’s bribe (Laos part) plus 2 USD for the Visa guys’ bribe (Cambodia part). A total rip-off but hey that’s what you get when you mess with the “officials”. On the Cambodian border I had to find transport to what I thought it would be a good first destination; Kompong Cham. After bargaining for about an hour I took a minivan to there with a delay of about 2 hours. With me a couple from Nederlands that we finally ended up sharing a room both the night before in Khong island and in Kompong Cham.

I chose Kompong Cham because I had not made up my mind where I was going and from its location it seemed perfectly in the middle of things. Originally I wanted to go east, where the real Cambodia is but the typhoon that had hit Vietnam was making impossible. The roads were just too bad. So after spending a day in Kompong Cham I decided to go to Phnom Pehn and then think it over from there. I remember that entering the capital from the north through the Japanese Friendship Bridge there is a big difference between the suburbs and what lies after the bridge, a sign that Cambodia’s “opening” to the outside world has only made the poor poorer and the rich richer. The US dollar obviously is helping towards this direction… In Phnom Pehn I stay near Boeung Kak; the “backpacker centre” of the city. It’s ok but knowing I will return here I’ll look for a more chilled out place to crash. Phnom Pehn is a very interesting city but also one of the dirtiest and poor capitals with many contrasts. Everything can be sold and bought here.  The next couple of days I walk a lot and visit the National Museum; one of the most impressive museums in Asia. It has also one of the biggest populations of bats known to inhabit a city building in the world. All that just gets me more and more anxious of arriving at the Angkor temples.

Kids in the rice fields of Kampot

Kids in the rice fields of Kampot

Next destination is Kampot in the south. I thought if I could not get to the jungles of the east let’s try the beaches of the south. On my way to there I pass through Kep, a very kitsch beach town made for the Asian tourists mainly but the weather is still moody and very cloudy. Kampot is not that bad. Its French colonial buildings and the smiling people make it perfect for endless strolls. I get a bicycle and spend some days there. I meet a couple of Kiwis and we rent a tuk-tuk to the caves that proves to be quite an adventure as the driver is kind of lost on the way back. I asked around to find out how is the weather in Sihanoukville; the gateway to the beaches. The answer is not that good so I decide once more to leave it behind and go north to Battambang through the capital. Now Battambang is one of those “real cities” that I guess I would have seen in the east too. Again full of French colonial buildings and an abandoned train station makes want to walk it. Thus I do, meeting a lot of interesting people and I find out there is a boat from here to Siem Reap. Excellent! I was a bit sick of traveling by bus by now…

A Cambodian youth with a Greek football top. Some things are still a mystery to me...

A Cambodian youth with a Greek football top. Some things are still a mystery to me...

The boat trip is very nice. With 16 USD it takes me about 6 hour to get there and the scenery is just beautiful. We pass through the biggest lake of Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap and luckily the weather is very good. Once more I realize how important is for people to live near the water. For them it is everything and it reminds me the Mekong delta in south of Vietnam. Arriving in Siem Reap it is chaos. Tens of tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers attack me and I finally settle for a half a dollar ride to the centre. Angkor ancient city is now within easy grasp. It is just that everything I heard about them is so positive! Luckily I have a contact here. David, a Catalan friend of some friends in Spain is operating his own travel agency dealing with package holiday tourists from Spain. We meet and he fills me up on what to see and when to go. It has really been very helpful because the most difficult thing about Angkor is the fact that it’s so popular. Naturally you have to think about where to go at what time because you do not want the hordes of tourists to spoil your experience.

Mr. Mony, the man with the tuk tuk. Useful for going around the Angkor ancient city during 3 days

Mr. Mony, the man with the tuk tuk. Useful for going around the Angkor ancient city during 3 days

Finally I have a plan. And I also have Mr. Mony, my personal driver for my three day adventure. We agree on 10 USD per day and I can tell him where to go at what temple. The three day pass costs 40 USD, a bit expensive but I guess is one of those things you cannot miss. The first day I visit the temples, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Kbal Spean, the East Mebon and Pre Rup. It is exhausting but very fulfilling. The second day in the morning I visit Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Ta Nei. In the evening; Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Som. I live the “big” stuff for the last day. In the morning it is Angkor Thom with its endless sights and of course the Bayon. In the evening it’s the great Angkor Wat and I also climb at Phnom Bakheng, a popular place to see the sunset from. Unluckily there is no sun thus no sunset. It’s all good though; my visit was very successful as especially during the last day. I saw many people but I was not necessarily with them. The trick is simple. You go visit the most popular spots when everybody goes to eat (mid-day). As a result it was only me and five more people in Angkor Wat when I went. I would definitely go back if I was given the chance.

After this it was back to the capital for some urban feel of Cambodia. Read this on the next post…

Written by csm2mk

October 23, 2009 at 7:10 AM