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Category Archives: Cambodia

Starting and ending my Asian adventure in Bangkok was ideal in that it showed me how the last couple months changed my outlook. When I arrived, I thought the city was big, loud, dirty, and full of aggressive locals trying to squeeze every penny they can from foreigners. Twelve weeks later, I still think all of the above to be true, but I’m cool with it.
Whenever I thought of what it means to be a developing nation, I thought in terms of making gains in infrastructure, sanitation, education, etc. Of course these things are present, but there is also the human factor. A developing nation, at least in southeast Asia, is a nation, a people, and a culture experiencing a radical transition. The implementation, or imposition, of foreign technologies, innovations, practices, and values creates an impact zone. The current working age generation has lived through war, genocide, corruption, and about everything else you can imagine. They weren’t fortunate enough to have the education (that only some) of the children and young people now have. This is truly a lost generation in a time of drastic cultural transformation. Their options are to do manual labor, work in a factory for slave wages, or try to capitalize on the influx of foreigners and their cash. Working professionals in Cambodia make less than $1,000 a year. In Vietnam, if you have a 4 year degree and a few years of experience you are lucky to make $10,000 a year. Granted, the cost of living is proportionate to their income, but when you have tourist coming from places like the US where the median annual income is over $50,000, something has to give.
My advice to keep your cool (and your sanity) when visiting these places is the following. Know that you’re getting ripped off. There is no way around it, most of the time you will be paying much more than locals. It is still good to comparison shop, do research online, talk with other travelers, to make sure you aren’t getting it too bad, but you will pay more. Also, know that the difference between what you and locals pay isn’t very much in western terms. If it is something like a bus/train ticket or food, you will be paying an extra couple dollars. This is cheaper than a coffee at starbucks and means a whole lot more to someone living on a few dollars a day than it does to you or I. My last little pearl of wisdom is that it’s not their fault. For the most part, even in the touristy areas, these are not bad people; they are victims of circumstance. They did not ask to be born into a war zone and abject poverty. They did not have the things that we take for granted, most importantly an education. I don’t think their childhood ambition was to wait around all day in hopes of giving tourists a tuk tuk ride or forcing their daughters into prostitution.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are all amazing places. The farther you get from the impact zone, the more authentic that place becomes. The tide of development/westernization/corporate colonialism/whatever you want to call it is spreading and will eventually cover the entire region. Between the 4 countries, and within each, you can see the effects of outside influence. Whether you are in a major city like Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, or a sleepy little place like Kong Lo, Mae Sarang, or Don Khon, people are still people and have a lot to offer. For me, the best way to observe foreign influence and the cultural/societal impact has been in the villages. Electricity, satellite dishes, cell phones, motorbikes, and tourists change places fast and the differences are astounding. Relatively untouched villagers, like the ones I came across in some treks, look confused as to why you would want to be there and are curious/shy/friendly. People in villagers with heavy tourist traffic, like in Sapa, will sprint to you, attach themselves to you, and try to sell you handicrafts the entire time you’re there.
As inevitable as the change is, it is also irreversible. The shift from subsistence agriculture to a commercial economy, especially when that economy is tourist-centric, is drastic. As visitors, the most we can do is help preserve the culture as best we can. You can vote with your wallet while traveling. I choose treks that are owned and operated by locals whenever possible. If that is not an option, I go through agencies that compensate guides and the villages they visit fairly. If animals are involved, usually elephants, I make sure they are treated humanely and not being abused. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s in the states and wouldn’t dream of patronizing a foreign chain while abroad either. You get better food at a better price and the money goes to a much better cause when you eat local.
There are many things I could have done differently, added, or done without over the course of the trip, but I am very happy with my time spent in southeast Asia. I had some amazing experiences and met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travelers. The highlights are too many to mention and the regrets to few. The monetary cost was not that much (unless you’re Cambodian), and the experience I gained is priceless. If you can do a similar trip, I can’t recommend going for it enough. If you think you can’t to a similar trip, think again because anything is possible!

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Coming from Kampot, I was expecting a similar experience in Kep. Kep is an even smaller, seaside town less than 30 minutes from the Vietnam border. I stayed at the Boat House Guesthouse, which was a really beautiful place and a splurge at $12/night. Kep is known for its crabs and the signature dish there is pepper crab. Fellow travelers had recommended a place called Kimly and it was also recommended by the guesthouse. I went there and had the pepper crab, it was really good. They literally go out to the sea to get your crab, then cook it to order. I also checked out the crab market. It was smaller than I had expected, but Kep is a very small town. I got to see locals selecting their crabs and haggling over price. It looked like a lot of fun. I headed back to my guesthouse and things stopped being so fun. The sign at the Boat House restaurant says the kitchen is open until 10 pm. I went to eat dinner a little before 7 and it was a ghost town. The only employee who speaks English had gone for the day and the other 2 workers totally ignored me. I could see the kitchen from the restaurant and it was probably for the better that I didn’t eat there. I ate nearly a kilogram of mangosteens I had bought at the market in Kampot (for just $1.25!) and went to bed. I purchased transportation to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) for $10 through the guesthouse. Rabbit Island is about a 30 minute boat ride from Kep and features beach bungalows and very few people. I would spend the day and the night on Rabbit Island, then head to Vietnam the following afternoon. I shared a boat with 3 very cool people that I spent my time on RI with. They paid $8.50 each for their transportation. We stayed at Yeay Orm koh Tunsay Guest House and it was $7 for a private bungalow with a hammock overlooking the beach. Food prices were cheaper than Kep, which was the most expensive place I went in Cambodia. We had lunch, then hiked around the island. It was pretty and scenic despite the overcast weather. I got a Khmer massage on the beach for $5 and had a very nice day on RI. My boat back to Kep was supposed to leave at 8 am and I called the travel agent to confirm. He questioned why I didn’t stay at the guesthouse he recommended and let me know that the boat driver would meet me at my guesthouse. After waiting more than an hour, I went to the boat landing area at 8:30. Two French girls were waiting for any boat back to Kep and we were able to get a ride from a fisherman that was taking some rich Khmer kids back to the mainland. It cost $5 for the 3 of us! I paid triple the price through my guesthouse and their travel agency and didn’t even get picked up from the island. When we reached Kep, the tuktuk driver from the travel agency was at the pier. I had him take me to the agency so I could talk with the manager. I explained the situation and told him that I would like $5 back since they only fulfilled half of their obligation. He gave me $1.50 to cover most of what I had to pay to get back from RI after his guy didn’t show up. Things got a little ugly and we had a brief, one sided discussion about business ethics… After I had thrown the money back in his face, taken pictures of him and his business, and promised to blast him on my blog, lonely planet and trip advisor, the driver refused to take me back to the guesthouse to pick up my backpack. I guess I should have waited until I was about to get on the bus out of Kep to have that conversation… It was only about a half mile walk each way and I had more than enough energy to make the trip several times over. While I was waiting at the bus stop, which happened to be directly across the street from the travel agent, it started raining. A lady working at the bus stop restaurant was having difficulty moving an umbrella with a concrete base into place. I moved it for her and she invited me to come sit down in the restaurant so I didn’t get wet. She was sweet, kind, and nice. This was my last experience in Cambodia and summed up the country perfectly. There are people like the travel agent and people like the lady at the restaurant. The place itself is wonderful and you can’t let the scum pollute that. There is way too much scum for my liking in Kep and I do not see myself going back there.

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Bokor Hill Station was a French resort located on top of a mountain just outside of Kompot, Cambodia. It, like seemingly everything else in Cambodia, was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge. I purchased a one day tour from my guesthouse and was joined by 8 other travelers. During high season, they typically have more than 100 people going up the mountain each day. Bokor Hill is located on a national park that was sold to a Chinese firm a few years ago. The new road to the top is still under construction and there are two halves with an unpaved gap in the middle. A Frenchman on a motorbike injured himself on the unpaved portion of the road and tourists are no longer allowed to drive (or be driven in the ranger’s truck) on the gap. Instead, we got to dismount and do a trek that took about 90 minutes at a painfully slow pace. The trek was scenic and jungly. Elephants, tigers, monkeys, and all sorts of other creatures inhabit the forest there, but not in the area we went through. We got back on the ranger’s 4×4 and continued the journey up the mountain. Just before we reached BHS, we passed by the resort being built by the Chinese firm. The laborers were Chinese and it was very manual labor. The temperature at the top of the mountain had to be 15 degrees (F) cooler than at the base. It was very pleasant after weeks of heat and humidity. The old hotel/casino was the main building of the BHS compound and offered beautiful views of the ocean and countryside. There were also smaller buildings, a watchtower, and a Catholic church. It was cool, yet eerie walking around the compound. Our guide gave us the history of Cambodia from the beginning of time up to the present day and spent considerable time talking about all of the bombs that Nixon dropped on Cambodia. I made sure to let him know I was from Canada, eh. The insurance liability apparently only applies on the way up the mountain as we were allowed to be driven all of the way back down to the base. It was sad to see more short term thinking by the Cambodian government. They granted a 99 year lease on the national park to the same Chinese company that has a similar lease on the Angkor ruins. When you look at the mountain from Kampot, you can see a giant brown scar resulting from deforestation used to construct the new road and resort complex. Despite this very recent development, Bokor Hill Station was still incredible and is definitely worth checking out.

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Ah, Kampot 🙂 Kampot is a town in southeastern Cambodia and one of my favorite places in the Kingdom of Wonder. Kampot is no Sihanoukville, but there is a growing tourism footprint. A local let me know of a new phenomenon he has observed in recent years: older western men marry Khmer girls and open businesses. Somehow, I managed to keep a straight face and acted as if it was the first time I heard such an odd concept. That is where Kampot is right now; on the verge of becoming another Disney Cambodia, but still a real place with genuine people. The tourist ‘strip’ is very small and most of the town is full of Khmer people going about their daily life. For the first two days, all of my meals came from the tourist area and they were all excellent. I had the saraman curry at Rikitikitavi, ribs at the Rusty Keyhole, and banana pancakes at Epic Arts Cafe. The food was all really good (and Epic Arts is a great cause), but I decided to go local for my last night in Kampot. I walked a couple km from the main drag, down unlit, unpaved roads and arrived at a place full of Cambodians having dinner. Most of them were having friend pork and pickles, so I joined in on the fun. This is where I met the man who let me know about the recent influx of westerners. He let me know that the traditional dish of Kampot is squid with Kampot pepper. He went on to let me know where THE place was to go for it and I quickly left for round two of dinner. Shops and restaurants close soon after dark and I was the last customer in the family operated dining establishment. The family had their evening meal while I was eating. The food was delicious and it was a fraction of the price I had been paying in town. While in Kampot, I tried to stay at the highly recommended Magic Sponge (which has amazing samosas), but they were booked and I ended up at the neighboring Orchid Guesthouse. It was decent, cheap and wifi worked in the room. I also did a day trip to Bokor Hill Station, a sunset cruise on the river, and visited the market while in Kampot. If you are planning on visiting Cambodia, I highly recommend checking out Kampot, just don’t tell anyone!

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There are many popular tourist destinations in Cambodia, and Sihanoukville ranks among them. It is not famous for its rich culture or history (the place was only created about 60 years ago), instead it is known for its beaches, close-by islands, and heavy party scene. Coming from a tropical island, a place like this is not exactly what I’m looking for on vacation. I had planned on avoiding Sihanoukville altogether, but the Vietnam consulate is located there and it is the fastest way to get a visa. After a 5 hour bus ride from PP, I arrived at the Sihanoukville bus terminal. As usual, legions of tuktuk and motorbike drivers converged on us as we got off the bus. They were especially aggressive and I decided to walk the 8k to the beach with my backpack on rather than reinforce their behavior. The walk wasn’t too bad and was reminiscent of my rukking days in the Army. The Vietnamese consulate was on the way to town and it literally took 2 minutes to get my visa. An expedited visa in PP costs an extra $10 and takes an entire day. While I was walking I bumped into 2 friends I met in PP, it’s a small country! I eventually made it to the beach and checked in at a guesthouse located on the waterfront. It was $7 a night for a rundown room, but I have stayed at worse for more money. I ate at the only place in Sihanoukville that had a hint of Cambodian culture: the market. The food was good and cheap and I ran into a couple I has spent several days with in Siem Reap, Al and Haze. They are awesome and I was very happy to cross paths with them again! We shared a meal and went for drinks after. The PP friends joined us and we all had a great time together. I had a pleasant time in Sihanoukville because of the familiar faces, not the place itself. It is packed with aggressive tuktuk/moto drivers, loud and obnoxious western adolescents and totally void of anything that makes a place special. I met people that stayed on the islands and they said they are really nice and nothing like the town. I would only recommend going to Sihanoukville as a launching point for a few days on the islands, it’s not even worth spending a night there. I checked out the following morning and headed to Kampot for some much needed R&R.

The capital of Cambodia didn’t really seem like a capital city. It’s big, but short and sprawly rather than tall and imposing. Most of the buildings are just a couple stories or less and there are even rice paddies and dirt roads on the outskirts of town. PP is home to the National Museum and several palaces/temples. I didn’t go to any of them. For me, the (extremely tragic) history of the past few decades overshadows the more ancient sites and stories. My first full day in PP was “Genocide Thursday.” I toured S21 and the Killing Field and blogged about the experience. Seeing what had taken place here just 30 years ago gave an excellent perspective of why Cambodia is in the state it is in today. It helped me to be a lot more patient with the constant onslaught of tuktuk and motorbike drivers soliciting tourists. Fortunately for me, my friend Greg hooked me up with an incredible tuktuk driver named Mr. Polo and he took great care of me for my stay in PP. Greg has made two films in Cambodia, about Cambodia and provided me with suggestions and recommendations for making the most of my trip. I also got to visit an orphanage that my friend Kyle worked at for a year. I blogged about that visit as well. I had planned on going to Oudong, the capital of Cambodia before it moved to PP, and to take an all day Khmer cooking class, but I went out for drinks the night before each… On one of those nights, I went to some clubs with 3 guys that were staying at the same hostel. The clubs are very interesting to say the least. First, there are the straight up hostess bars. They are full of prostitutes/semi-prostitutes and some very sleazy, old foreign dudes. The other clubs are full of very attractive Cambodian prostitutes, sleazy, old foreign dudes and gay guys with some backpackers mixed in. Despite the seedy underbelly, PP does have character and charm. I had lots of really good food, met some quality people and don’t regret spending 5 nights there.

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My friend Kyle worked at the Future Light Orphanage, which is just outside of Phnom Penh, and arranged a visit for me while I was in town. Upon arrival, I received a tour of the grounds by one of the project coordinators. I forgot his name, but he is responsible for helping the kids get into university, vocational training programs, and find jobs after graduating high school. The story behind FLO is a great one. They have been operating for 16 years and currently have over 200 children living there and provide English and computer classes for another 100 from the local community. The residents come from all across the country and there is a very strict vetting process for admitting them. They typically go to FLO at age 6 and leave at 18-20. The children are either orphans or come from extreme poverty. While at FLO, I got to help with lunch service. They serve rice and one soup/curry for each meal. All of the children sit at a series of large tables under a pagoda. Cooking, cleaning and serving is done by the kids and a rotational system is in place. If a kid wants more rice, they raise one finger in the air and if they want the soup/curry they raise two. I got to be the ricer. I’m thinking the kids had more rice because a foreigner was serving. They were really cute and nice. After serving, I had lunch with the staff. They get their food from the town just outside of the orphanage and eat family style. It was really good, authentic Khmer food. After lunch, I got to help teach a remedial English class for an hour. The kids were between 6 and 15. We covered numbers, capital and lowercase letters, and played some games. It was really fun! Because it was a Saturday, there wasn’t much going on after class got out. The only kids that were around were the troublemakers who were doing manual labor as punishment. There are a lot of disciplinary issues at FLO, but they rarely have to expel any children. The little troublemakers reminded me of myself. I walked around and took some photos, then headed back to PP. It was a great experience and I’m very glad I was able to have done it.

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