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Category Archives: Cambodia

Visiting places that were home to horrific events is not something I like to include in my itinerary, however, the Killing Field and S21 are “must dos” when in Phnom Penh. Our first stop on Genocide Thursday was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It is a half hour tuktuk drive from the center of PP and, as the name suggests, is where a lot of killing went on. There is a Genocide Museum, a monument full of skulls, excavated mass graves, and bones and clothing from victims can be seen sticking out of the ground. Men, women, and children were executed and buried in mass here. There is a tree that still had blood stains from children’s heads. Soldiers would hold them by their feet and bash their skulls into the tree before tossing them into holes in the ground. This was really heavy stuff. After a very somber stroll through this eerie place, we went to S21. S21 was the detention center where 20,000 men, women, and children were detained and interrogated before being finished off at places like Choeung Ek. Only 7 of the 20,000 survived. The compound itself is a school in the center of the city that was converted into a place of terror by the Khmer Rouge. There was still blood on the floors, walls, and ceilings. Pictures of the victims were displayed as well as photos of pre, during, and post torture. We got to walk through the holding cells and interrogation rooms. The Khmer Rouge was primarily a bunch of teachers and academics that were well educated. Their stated intention was to create a self-sufficient agricultural utopia devoid of social classes and money. Somehow this resulted in S21 and the Killing Fields. The truly disturbing thing is that all of this happened recently. It was just in the late 1970s that all of this took place. Touring these places is something I am glad that I did, but would not want to do again.

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The thing I wanted to to more than anything else in se Asia was to ride an elephant through the jungle. I’m not sure why, but I REALLY wanted this to happen. I did my homework and discovered that Mondulkiri, a remote province in eastern Cambodia near the Vietnam border, is among the best places in the world for elephant trekking. The trip from Siem Reap to Mondulkiri took 12 hours, 4 of which were spent in a 14 passenger van that had 17 people plus baggage. As I was getting off the bus in Mondulkiri, I met 4 other travelers who were also headed to the place I would be staying, The Nature Lodge. Rathana, the owner’s nephew and a really cool guy, picked us up at the bus stop and took us to the lodge. Lonely Planet recommended staying there and with good reason; the place was perfect. It was rustic, green in every sense of the word, family run and fantastic. On our second full day there, three of us went on a 2 day/1 night elephant trek. My expectations could not have been higher and to say they were exceeded would be an understatement. The elephants were amazing and they were not even the best part of the trek. Our mahouts (elephant jockeys) were Phnong, an ethnic minority group in Mondulkiri. There was a woman in her 40s, a guy about my age, a girl that was between 15 and 25, and a boy that was 10 or 12.  They spoke no English, but did not need to. Our English speaking guide, Dol, spoke very little English and was quite a character. Dol prepared all of our food from scratch and it was delicious. We even got to eat wild mushrooms that the mahouts harvested along the trek. Our camp site was by a river and small waterfall. We slept in hammocks covered with mosquito nets. Tarps were hung over the hammocks, but no rain fell despite it being rainy season. On the second day, we went to a larger waterfall and had lunch in a Phnong village. The people there were so happy to host us and really enjoyed having their pictures taken. There was not a single letdown during the trek; everything was perfect. In total, I spent 4 days and 4 nights in Mondulkiri. I count them among the best of my life.

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Siem Reap was a breath of fresh air after Bangkok. The journey there, the border crossing in particular, is supposed to be a little challenging; it was. My research indicated that getting to the Cambodian side of the border was the difficult part, then you’re home free. For me, it was the opposite. Once I passed through customs, an official government guide showed me to the free shuttle bus that takes people to the bus terminal. The terminal had no ATM, a vicious exchange rate, no change for dollars, and was a good introduction to how the Cambodian government conducts business. There were 3 options for getting to Siem Reap: the bus, a taxi, and a minivan. I was trying to take the minivan, but it left while I was in line to buy a ticket. I was told that there were no more taxis or minivans, but the bus was leaving “right now.” I bought my ticket and hurried to the bus. The bus left over an hour after I boarded… It takes 3 hours to get to Siem Reap from the border, this includes a “mandatory” 30 minute stop at a restaurant. The restaurant had an English menu with french fries that cost $4.50 on the cover. Despite being extremely hungry, I did not order any food. I met a couple that had also refused to participate in this debacle. They were really cool and I spent a lot of time with them while in Siem Reap. Eventually, we made it to Siem Reap and were freed from government operated exploitation. We stayed at the Popular Guesthouse, which there friend and my official guide had recommended. It was $12 for an ac room and $7 for a fan room; wifi didn’t work in the rooms. Siem Reap was really small and had a nice vibe to it, especially compared to Bangkok. It was extremely walkable and most everything was in a centralized area. My official government guide was also a tuktuk driver and he spotted me at the guesthouse and would be my tuktuk driver for the Angkor ruins. If you purchase your 1 day pass after 5 pm, you can go to Angkor and watch the sunset, then have your pass start the next day. I did this, but the sunset wasn’t very good at all. The following day I did the short loop and the long loop around Angkor. The temples were amazing. I went to Angkor Wat for the sunrise, but it was not colorful at all. I really liked the temples that had trees growing in and through them. I wore my vibram five fingers trek sports and all of the tuktuk drivers were in awe. They looked at me like I was a God with individual toe compartments on my shoes. It ended up being $25 for the short and long loop, which took me less than 6 hours to do. Later I would find out that this was a huge ripoff. The driver didn’t have change either, neither did the guesthouse… They tried to tell me the exchange rate for Thai baht was waaaay worse that it was. I had enough of getting taken advantage of and checked out of the guesthouse. I went to a crappy place a few doors down that was only $3 a night. The tuktuk driver and first guesthouse were the only bad things about Siem Reap. The rest of the experience was terrific. Food and drink was relatively cheap. They had 50 cent beers at many restaurants and food was $2-8 for a meal. They had “happy” pizza all over the place as well. For $2 you could have tiny fish eat dead skin off of your feet for 20 minutes and get a free beer. After a liquid lunch, I tried this with the couple I was with and it was really funny. I’m extremely ticklish and apparently so were Haze and Al. It was a 20 minute giggle fest. I could have stayed in Siem Reap much longer, but moved on after 4 days. I really enjoyed my time there.

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