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Saturday, March 31, 2012


The first time I ever heard the term Kampuchea was in the late 70s, when a benefit rock concert was held featuring several prominent artists of the time.  Seeing as how I was in my prog-rock phase at the time, listening mostly to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes with a little Pat Metheny thrown in, the content of the concert had little interest for me.  The Who, Paul McCartney, The Clash and Elvis Costello were the biggest names to lend their talent to the event.  I, of course, had no way of knowing that some 32 years later, I would be riding on a bus into Kampuchea from Vietnam with my wife and two kids.

After 19 days in Vietnam, we got on board a bus to take us to Phnom Penh.  The best part about that was the $11 per person cost.  Every seat on the bus was taken, and the passengers were an interesting mix.  Foreign travelers such as ourselves took up several seats, and we tried our best the follow the instructions of the woman who worked for the bus company, the Mekong Express.  The only problem was, she didn't speak into the microphone very loudly, and her accent was so strong, even if we had been able to hear her, chances are we wouldn't have understood her.

The process of crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia included two separate stops where we had to take our backpacks with us off the bus, walk through a border station and then get back on the bus.  The workers on the Vietnam side of the border had been well-schooled in a detached surliness, and had indifference bordering on hostility down to a science.  The workers on the Cambodian side of the border were only slightly less unfriendly, but we made it safely into what was once known as Kampuchea, and continued on the six-hour trek to Phnom Penh.

Our arrival in the capital city presented us with our first opportunity to ride in a tuk-tuk.  We knew from research we had done prior to taking the trip that at some point in Indochina we would probably be moving about via tuk-tuk.  Getting off the bus in Phnom Penh we were met by several tuk-tuk operators and settled on one who had a friendly face and knew where our hotel was.   His name was Bao, and after the short ride to the Billabong Hotel, we made arrangements for him to return the next morning and take us out to the Killing Fields.

Tuk-tuks are essentially the taxis of Cambodia.   Most have an open-air car that seats four people and they are pulled along by motorbikes.  Both locals and tourists use the services of the many tuk-tuk drivers who question any passerby if they would like a ride.  If that's declined, they always say, "you come back later!"

The tuk-tuks give the streets a very exotic air and are actually very comfortable to ride in. There are more tuk-tuks than passengers to go around, so some drivers try to stand out from the crowd by painting their rides with a theme, such as Batman or Angry Birds. 

I'm fairly certain Ralph Nader has never been to Cambodia because there are no seat belts to be found, but the drivers give each other enough room and even the cars, trucks and busses that share the roads don't feel like much of a threat.

They are an ingrained part of a society that is accustomed to moving about in tuk-tuks and on motorbikes that dart in and out of traffic at varying speeds and directions.  Just like in Vietnam, we saw many families on motorbikes, some with four children (usually without helmets) hanging on to the driver and the handlebars as casually as you could imagine, as if they had been doing it all their lives, which I'm guessing they have.

The main reason for our stop in Phnom Penh was to see the Killing Fields, first made famous by the 1985 film of the same name.  The bloody rampages of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-to-late 70s resulted in mass-murder sites scattered across the country.  The one we visited near Phnom Penh is the one that is the focus of the motion picture and it's the site of a former fruit orchard, called Cheung Ek.  It's about 15 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, which meant a tuk-tuk ride of about 25 minutes.

The enormity of what happened there hits you gradually.  The small admission fee gets you a headset where you can hear about the 18 stopping points, explaining the history of each spot, with background information on what led to the horror.

Some spots are where mass graves were found, some with as many as 450 bodies, others without heads.  The one that really got to me was one where the skeletons of mothers and their children were found.

The grave there was surrounded by a waist-high bamboo fence where previous visitors had left bracelets around the bamboo, in memory of the suffering and death that happened there to so many innocent people.  Marley added to the memorial by placing a purple and green bracelet that she had gotten earlier in the trip from peasant women in Sapa, Vietnam.

Another sobering aspect of Chueng Ek was the fact that more than thirty years after the killings, some bones and clothing are still working their way to the surface, a process that usually happened following rains.  It was difficult to walk along and not step on the torn clothing and bone fragments and impossible to see the remnants of the living and not imagine the absolute terror their final moments on this earth were.

In the second-to-last stop, the recording on the headset described how the victims would be brought to Chueng Ek during the day, and then at night  generators would be buzzing and Khmer Rouge anthems blaring over the loudspeaker system to drown out the screams of the people being beaten and hacked to death.  That combination of sound was played in the headset at the site of another mass grave under a massive tree.

The final stop is a tall stupa, where the skulls of some of the nearly nine thousand victims are displayed.  They are sorted by age and sex and speak silently yet loudly of one of the worst horrors mankind has ever done to its own.

As has happened more than once on this trip, I was very proud of how Ben and Marley took it all in, never complaining about the heat or trying to get the visit over with.  It was a very hot couple of hours we spent there, and certainly not a topic that most 12-year olds, let alone adults are going to want to discuss over a meal.  But a big part of this trip is to get outside of our suburban lives and learn about places and events that need to be experienced first hand to get a true education.  And for us, Cheung Ek was that.

After one more night in Phnom Penh, we took the mid-day bus to Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia.  This trip went a little more smoothly than the one that brought us to the capital city, mainly because there were no border crossings to navigate.  There was one consistent theme to both rides:  we got to watch a Jackie Chan movie each time!  That now makes two Jackie Chan movies that I've watched/endured, neither voluntarily.

From time to time, I managed to tear myself away from the cinematic genius of a movie with not only Jackie Chan but also Rob Schneider and both Wilson brothers to take in the Cambodian countryside. 
In many cases, it appeared the scenes that flashed by may have been unchanged for decades if not longer.

Such scenes repeated themselves time after time until they faded with the daylight, and we pulled into Siem Reap and met out personal tuk-tuk driver, Ratana.

Anthony Bourdain frequently talks in his show No Reservations about having a local fixer when you get to a strange and unfamiliar land.  Ratana was that for us.  A former co-worker of Annie knew someone who was familiar with Indochina and made several great recommendations for us, including a tuk-tuk driver he had met in Siem Reap.  We exchanged emails with Ratana, told him the kind of hotel we were looking for and price we hoped to pay, and he delivered us by tuk-tuk to a place that met those needs.  It was comforting to know we had a local to help us navigate any tricky situation that might arise.

After a six-hour bus ride, we took it easy the following day, having lunch in the village of Siem Reap.  It's a bit on the touristy side, attracting thousands each year for the nearby ancient temples, but we still enjoyed the feel of the place, much like the feel we got in our favorite stop in Vietnam, Hoi An.  A nice quiet day left us refreshed and recharged to take on the temples the following day.

Few things in life exceed high expectations, but the temples of the Siem Reap area certainly did that for us.  The most iconic is the one in the photo above, Angkor Wat.  It's commonly described as the largest religious building in the world, and is a fascinating trip back in time, going back almost one thousand years.

Inside is an amazing collection of carvings along all four exterior walls of the complex, with fantastic details, showing various battles and conquests of the Angkor kings.
We walked around the complex, reading from the guide I had on my iPhone which explained what each panel was.  Then, we scaled a step set of wooden steps into the main tower in the center.  It supposedly was home once to a statue of Vishnu, but that is long gone.  Still, it was stunning to think of the accomplishment of the workers who built this almost one thousand years ago.
Some areas are in the process of being restored, and the towers have the unique look of years of erosion.  The peaks look like drippings of candle wax, or a sand castle made by letting wet sand drip from your hands at the beach.
As impressive as the temple at Angkor Wat was, we liked the two others we visited even more.  The second one was Angkor Thom , and was built by Suryavarman II.

Annie liked that one the best, but the one the kids and I favored was the temple at Ta Prohm.  It's the one that is the least far along in being reclaimed from the jungle.  Over the years, the jungle almost completely covered the rocks and stones that were built, and some how, huge trees grew out of what seem to be small cracks.  The process produces some stunning sights.
Seeing trees totally engulfing some of the most magnificent structures of their time truly puts things in perspective and left me with the thought that when it comes to man versus nature, I'm putting my money on nature pretty much every time. 
Some people spend three days or as long as seven days seeing the temples and there is plenty to see.  That's not our modus operandi, especially when we are on as long of a trip as we are.  One day and three temples was plenty for us, particularly on a hot day like the one we experienced. 

On our final day in Cambodia, on the suggestion of Rantana, our aforementioned tuk-tuk driver/fixer, we visited a floating village.  It meant a ride of about 25 minutes to a place where several boats that looked abandoned/on the verge of sinking were waiting to take their victims/passengers on a 15 minute boat ride to the rickety buildings that made up the village.

We gingerly stepped on board and I quickly noticed there were no life jackets.  Oh snap!  But I also noticed there were no body bags, so I did my best to appear calm for the ride through the extremely muddy water.  The ride went smoothly and it was fascinating to cruise through the village, where many of the structures had TVs inside, powered by an on board battery. 
It's another example of how differently people in other parts of the world live, something that we really wanted Ben and Marley to see.

Our time in Cambodia was short, but the memories and experiences we had there will last us a very long time.  As will the local definition of "bus" as we found when we headed toward Thailand.


  1. How I admire what you are doing with your family. Reading about the Killing Fields made me cry; how can your children not be true citizens of the world now after these experiences. What a gift you are giving them. Thanks for writing about all of it.

  2. Kim, thanks so much for your note and for reading the blog. I'm glad some of the emotion we felt at the Killing Fields came through in the writing.