‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’
‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the someplace. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’
Alice Through the Looking Glass
I arrived at the water border crossing in Cambodia after a few days of sailing through Vietnam, fully expecting to be underwhelmed by Cambodia. I could not have been more wrong. This country is fantastic. The people are so wonderful and friendly and their simply life seems so happy. You spend a good deal of time greeting the hundreds of “hellos” you hear. On the other hand, they seem to have very restricted access to any non Cambodian versions of history, a fact which frustrated me, but only caused me to actually lose my temper once. Part of my frustration may have also been the very limited access we had to physical activity- the group actually resorted to hosting our own boot camp on the deck of the boat. This would become a theme of the Cambodian portion of the trip.
First stop the following day was Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I liked this town quite a bit. We arrived in the evening and did a cyclo tour of the capital. My sweet bike peddler and I tried to talk, but my Cambodia being what it is, made it quite comical. I named him Turbo as we raced to beat the other bikes (and by “we” I mean him as my only role was to cheer on his legs!). Strolling back to the boat along a river that changes directions twice a year, we found that Phnom Penh was known for Happy Pizza (“herb” crust pizza that leaves you a bit loopy after you eat it), super cheap massages and motorcycles with trailers that pop open to reveal bars, complete with neon. And fried insects. Lots of fried insects.
The next day started again with us begging to ride the bikes. Nope. Bus time. We picked up our very talkative local guide to go the sobering Killing Fields and Section 21 prison. Our local guide lectured us for the 45 minute drive and you clearly saw the effects of propaganda. Somebody’s history is incorrect as our version differed dramatically from theirs. I suspect we both have a skewed version. I resisted the temptation to correct the errors- at least until he announced that Richard Nixon had resigned his presidency because Americans were protesting the bombing of Cambodia. Having studied Nixon in school, the words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. I recovered quickly but couldn’t bring myself to listen to the rest of his talk. Our individual patriotism would unlikely find common ground in the six hours we would spend together.
The Killing Fields were horrible and the pain is clearly still fresh for the Cambodians. It was shocking to think this all happened so recently and was so grotesque. I am falling in love with photography, but I won’t photograph graves- the best I could do was the bracelets that people hang from trees and fences to honor the dead. We then went to S21- a high school turned prison where prisoners waited until being taken to the Killing Fields to be executed (although they were told it was just a relocation). To balance the ugly, the evening was spent getting $8 massages, $.50 beer at Happy Hour (which goes from 7AM – 11PM) and sneaking away from the group for dinner (pizza and red wine).
Day Eight might be my favorite day of the trip- after watching the Cubs game aboard the boat, we docked at a small village along the river. Here, we met a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, imprisoned as an intellectual. He was a professor, but told them he was a farmer. He had been an avid exerciser and therefore had callouses on his hands. They doubted him but every day, let him live another. The day before he was set for execution, the regime fell and he escaped back to his village. He now teaches math to the children of the village in a makeshift classroom. I could have listened to his story for hours.
We awoke the next day to find out that WE WERE GOING TO USE THE BICYCLES!! Finally, exercise would be available. There were only ten bikes, but 19 passengers. A quick fight to the death and the winners were awarded their bikes. We rode through town and out into the farms to visit potters, brick makers and palm sugar makers. Cambodians are so friendly, you had to ride your bike with one hand because the other one is busy waving to every person you pass. It was a really good day. This was our last night on the boat so the staff decided to entertain us with song. The highlight was the somewhat lesser known Eric Clapton song “I Look Wonderful Tonight.”
The last day of the trip was the one I had been anticipating. We would finally see Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. We rose insanely early to see the sun rise over this temple and were so grateful for that. The temple is so beautiful and Mother Nature gave us a near perfect sunrise. Cross Angkor Wat off the list! Next stops were the Tomb Raider Temple (I suspect that isn’t the official name) and the Buddha Temple (also not the official name). At this point, I was completely templed out. So where to go next? China, of course. I can’t imagine there are any temples there.
Cambodia surprised me. A lot. The people were so friendly and the landscape so beautiful. This is one of my highly recommended visits from all of my travels. If I wasn’t so busy in China, this blog would be about 5000 words longer but time and memory elude me.