Journey Through Cambodia

First Impressions

After a few quick stops at Tokyo and Singapore in the discomfort of a packed Boeing 747, I was finally on my way to Cambodia in a smaller, more heavily loaded airplane. I took a few meager naps along the way and subsisted on a ration of hard food and tainted water, but I made it. I was awakened by one of the flight attendants as she spoke through the intercom informing us that we would be arriving shortly. I opened my window shutter and looked down into the open fields of Cambodia. There she was.

The rain had let up a little as Siem Riap came into view. The fields were a brownish shade of gray colored with little patches of greenery. The land looked old and exhausted from history’s torments. Small rice paddies, farmlands, huts, and houses littered the countryside separated by rivers, lakes, and ponds. The rain had already flooded most rural parts of Siem Riap.

My flight landed in Siem Riap Angkor International Airport for a pit stop before finding its way to Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh. The airport was a small and well-groomed brown dirt road – the pinnacle of early 20th century air travel. Colorful flowers and young trees lined the walkways of the bland off-white airport building as old passengers shuffled out and new passengers in for their flight to Phnom Penh.

I arrived at Pochentong Airport after a few brushes with turbulence through the massive clouds that covered most of Cambodia. My flight touched down on the tarmac runway and slowed to a stop near one of the terminals. I teetered down the aisle with all of my baggage towards the exit and stepped out of the plane into a broth of heat and humidity: HOT.

The words “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia,” greeted me in big white English text on a grand blue banner as I strode towards the terminal. Pochentong Airport is much bigger than Siem Riap Airport. As I made my way into the clean and air-conditioned airport terminal, I noticed that parts of the airport remained under construction. Chaos presented itself in the form of dozens of people rushing through the terminal, others shouting, while even more waited impatiently in lines for their visas, eager to get to their baggage.

I left the busy Pochentong Airport for the teeming motorcycle traffic on the streets of Phnom Penh. There seemed to be no end to the madness. And then read a sign, “Long Live the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

There are many thriving institutions in Phnom Penh and many attempts at reconstruction and reorganization. I noticed that many primary and secondary schools are in desperate need of repairs. In certain cases doors and windows were missing in classrooms. Paint has peeled off many parts of the buildings, giving them an old, cracked, and almost deserted look. The schoolchildren run around on muddy playgrounds without any swings, slides, or other play equipment.

Children wear blue and white uniforms, a good number of which are dirty and old. Books, paper and pencils are rarely distributed to students. If they are, I didn’t see any. In one incident, I saw a little girl of about six or seven years old carrying an old notebook and a short pencil in her hands–her only tools to education. I felt especially moved when I saw a schoolboy walking bare footed towards one of the school buildings, reading his thin little book aloud to himself with such expression and hope in his eyes. It struck me as a sad thing – to see children attempting to get education, but without the necessary resources and proper conditions to do so.

Seeing the schoolchildren and the conditions that they were in brought many feelings to mind. I felt fortunate to be attending a university that has desks, books and materials I could get a hold of, to be educated by professors, bestowed with necessary resources and to be given the chance to succeed. I didn’t take notice of these significant additions to my life until then. The schoolchildren walking around in Phnom Penh and throughout Cambodia would probably do almost anything to be in my position. I’m not going to forget what I saw, but I am going to take advantage of what I have been given – opportunity.

Traffic

Traffic in Phnom Penh is terrible and confusing. The constant honking of horns from both motorcycles and cars ring loudly throughout the city. There are more motorcycles on the city streets than cars, vans, and buses combined. During my many ventures throughout the city, I never saw a single traffic sign with speed limits or warnings. It was absolutely bizarre how drivers can get away with making u-turns into oncoming traffic, driving motorcycles on sidewalks, driving into incoming traffic, and even ignoring traffic lights. I doubt the passengers traveling in cars believe in seat belts. Everyone is so busy heading towards his or her destinations, weaving in and out of traffic, that common sense traffic rules and seat belts aren’t significant.

Motorcycles seem to be the cause of all the traffic congestion. Motorcycles equipped to carry only two people in most countries, can carry up to five or six people in Cambodia. It’s amazing what you can do when you just inhale and pray that you don’t fall off. In one instance, I saw about four people on one motorcycle. A small baby seemed to be the fourth person on that list. To top it off, cyclists rarely wore helmets.

All I knew when I was traveling in Phnom Penh was to hold on for dear life because the roads are extremely bumpy! Most of the roads are brown dirt roads with bumps everywhere and all the asphalt roads that exist have potholes strewn across the pavement.

Orussey Market

Orussey Market is lively with merchants selling goods like live fish, food, utensils, clothing, fabrics and much more. On the first floor you can find plenty of different types of fish, shrimp, clams, and other seafood. Don’t be surprised if you see live chickens running around either. My only warning in advance is the foul odor you will notice once you get inside the first floor. The smell is a noxious mixture of raw fish, trash, chicken and dirt all at the same time. Hold your breath or bring an oxygen mask if you plan on staying there for a prolonged period of time.

Surrounding Orussey Market are merchants selling fruits, vegetables and products to price-savvy shoppers. The fruit and vegetable markets are so colorful! Fresh fruits like durians, sow-mao, kar-tim, apples, and bananas are piled high and sold by the kilo. The good thing about the vendors is that you can haggle the price straight down to the ground.

Olympic Market

Olympic Market is another big market in Phnom Penh filled with sound and energy. Merchants are constantly searching for new customers and shoppers are always haggling and looking for the best deals in town. The products at Olympic Market, in comparison to Orussey Market, are more economical. A shopper could probably get more for his or her money by shopping Olympic.

The fabrics sold on the second floor are exquisite! Most of the fabrics are imported from Thailand and Korea and come in a wide variety of styles and colors.

Central Market

The Central Market was another major market I visited in Phnom Penh. The locals refer to the Central Market as ‘psar thmei’ or ‘new market’. It is a brown and yellow dome-like building that has an indoor and outdoor market. The name is quite ironic because the market was actually built by the French in 1933. Despite its age, it is probably the most vibrant and energetic of all the markets in Phnom Penh.

Something strange happened to me when I was shopping at Central Market. Once I got off the car and started shopping at the outdoor section, several homeless and sick people began begging me for money and food. I guess I had a big sign on my forehead that read ‘foreigner’ that attracted many people.

First, a ten-year old boy came up to me and began begging for money. He had a tumor that had grown around the entire left side of his head. It was such a sad and revolting sight, but the depressing part was that he was just a little boy. He probably could not afford to pay for medical treatment. I handed him 1000 riel and he went on with his life as I did mine.

Afterwards, more people began approaching me. One in a wheelchair without legs, naked malnourished children, nicely clothed elderly women, and a mother breastfeeding her infant holding a bag of fruits. I became so distressed and overwhelmed by the sight of this harsh reality that I wanted to scream and get as far away from them as possible! There was only one of me and almost fifteen of them! The throbbing pain inside my beating skull was not out of frustration, but out of truth and reality. I could not help them all.

Thoughts

Shopping in Cambodia can be quite an adventure, but the bleak reality of immense poverty can become overwhelming for the unprepared. Its always fun haggling with the merchants and looking for things to buy friends back home. However, constant visual reminders of a poor nation can oftentimes underscore this high note.

Since the riel has less value than the U.S. dollar, everything there is quite affordable. There are tourist items you can buy for cheap, like Angkor Wat t-shirts, souvenirs, statues, books and much more. Shopping for shoes and clothes is challenging because the fashion is about five years behind the times and the quality of some items is lacking.

My advice for anyone who wants to shop in Cambodia is to bargain, but give the difference you save to the poor. Merchants will set a high price for goods if you look like a tourist or a foreigner. Always haggle and never settle for the first price!

Boat Ride to Siem Riap

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh exploring the city, I was off to spend a few days in Siem Riap. The boat ride was an awful five and a half hours of sitting in a tiny seat on a cramped and overloaded old boat. Worst of all, I was stuck sitting in the first row directly in front of a television that spewed out hours of Cambodian karaoke programming. Not to offend any fans, but when trying to nap while holding back from hurling and contending with hours of blaring Cambodian karaoke, I could not help but be discontent. Anyhow, I came to the conclusion that many Cambodian karaoke producers need to be more creative with their videos.

The Tonle Sap River is brown. There isn’t much else I can say. In contrast, the enormous sky is so blue and splendid. It hovers over Cambodia like a crystal clear ocean that dwarfs the river.

After a few hours of watching the waves crash and seeing the clouds paint the sky with justice, I arrived safely at a dock at the mouth of a smaller river. The passengers and I left the boat and got onto smaller canoes that took us to a dock in Siem Riap.

As we traveled along the narrow river, evidence of poverty and hardship blanketed the land. My canoe passed many makeshift straw and bamboo houses built along the river that lacked windows or doors. The locals ate, slept, and bathed along the river, subsisting off its supply of fresh fish and water.

I arrived at the port and boarded a van that took me to my hotel. The port was hectic. Fish merchants sold their daily catch as women cooked meals and children ran about. An awful stench of dead fish and garbage roamed the port and garbage littered every corner. Hut houses stood high along the roads on wooden pillars to avoid the floodwaters of a rainy season.

Two little children caught my attention along the way to the hotel. They sat and played games in their open hut houses. I smiled and waved to them, my eyes full of compassion and sympathy as they returned the gesture, giving me big, wide, toothless smiles and waving back with clasped hands in hopes of receiving something.

The van had passed too quickly for me to hand them anything. The children were so full of life and energy. As I sat, reflecting and saddened, I thought they were capable of so much, but limited in so many ways. Those children are the epitome of the inspiration both throughout my journey in Cambodia and throughout my struggles in life. They reflect so much of my enthusiasm and desire to use my knowledge to help better the lives of others.

Angkor Wat

I rode to the site of the great Angkor Wat temples in the backseat of an old beat up Toyota minivan. The half-hour journey on cement led through a lightly wooded area to Angkor Wat. My first thought when I saw the temples of Angkor Wat for the first time – amazing. I had seen so many pictures in books, novels, on the Internet and in family pictures, but nothing compared to the real life experience of seeing the temples in person.

I walked along the western causeway of Angkor Wat in complete awe. The temple was placed so well against the beautiful blue sky, it’s reflection gleaming on the moat underneath. It felt almost like going back in time and walking along the pathways into history. The closer I walked towards the temple, the further away I slipped from the present. Each stone block I walked past inspired feelings of curiosity, amazement, and wonder at the overwhelming display of magnificence and grandeur.

To be able to see the splendor in person is the only way to accurately describe the emotions and thoughts that come to mind. I can only modestly describe the profoundness of the temples I have seen. The majesty and brilliance are too powerful to illustrate with words.

Angkor Wat is a massive structure. A large pool of water surrounds the temple, acting as an artificial moat. Long causeways guide visitors from the forest towards the temple. At the beginning of the western causeways are stone statues of lions displaying fierce and angry expressions on their faces.

The entire temple, including the causeways and statues are aged to a brown and gray color. Many areas have been damaged over time with broken pieces lying dormant alongside. Many of the statues have been chipped or broken altogether with fungi claiming space amongst the aged stones.

Once inside the temple, visitors can see galleries filled with beautiful carvings. The intricately carved bas-reliefs of each gallery depicted legends and stories from a kingdom long past. Kings, rulers, dancers and soldiers displayed prowess of their skills on the massive walls as hundreds of characters walked, threatened, battled, worshiped, and lived in the stone. The first gallery of Angkor Wat contains an elaborate carving of Suryavarman II, the king under which Angkor Wat was built.

The Apsaras that are frozen in time along the long hallways have endured much damage throughout time. The sight of them is fascinating. They display a haunting beauty of our culture – to see reliefs of women who have long perished but lived at one time elicits curiosity about our ancestry. The caretakers attempt to preserve the temple’s delicate artwork by prohibiting visitors from touching any of the reliefs along the walls. As you can see, people have been most curious about the Apsaras.

My ventures brought me from gallery to gallery, room to room, and floor to floor. I climbed nearly a hundred steep steps while clinging on for dear life to the flimsy handrails along the edge of the stairs to get to the next floor. It was scary looking down from so high above, but the magnificence and beauty of the moment suppressed my innate fear.

The Bayon and Ta Prohm

The next day started with a sweet dessert called kar-lan. Kar-lan is made from sweet rice, coconut, and red bean stuffed into a short hollow bamboo stub, and cooked over an open flame.

I visited two smaller temples, the Bayon and Ta Prohm. Both temples have undergone centuries of deterioration and destruction. Pieces of statues and figures have been taken during raids, stolen by thieves, and destroyed by nature.

Parts of the Bayon were under construction, so I could not see the entire temple, but the parts I did see were quite exquisite. The Bayon is one of my favorite temples. It sits in the midst of dozens of trees that hover over it, hiding its beauty from the rest of the world. Once found, its prominent smiling faces, long walkways, beautiful reliefs, and elephant statues make it hard not to fall in love with.

When I first set eyes upon Ta Prohm temple, it appeared to be a freak of nature. The irony of chaos and stability shadowed throughout the enormous monument. The unique architecture, style, and beauty of Ta Prohm afforded it a sense of order and simplicity. However, nature’s massive trees and small plants fused with the pillars, walkways, and galleries from above, complimenting order with natural beauty.

One of the most fascinating rooms in Ta Prohm is the room of gems. It is a small, dark, and square room open to the sky. Round holes surround all four walls in which gems, diamonds, and pearls once lavished the barren walls. Throughout history, travelers and thieves have made their marks by stealing the precious jewels.

The Apsaras at Ta Prohm are likely the most beautiful that I have seen during my visit. They stand quietly observing their visitors with a solemn stare. Feelings of pride, humility, gentleness and warmth overwhelmed me when I gazed at the Apsaras. These women are my ancestors, frozen in time. Their presence has helped to preserve the beauty of the Khmer culture, and to remind us of who we are.

I met a funny old man at Ta Prohm. I noticed him because he was sweeping parts of the temple. His actions struck me as peculiar – I thought that people would have better things to do than spend their day sweeping the grounds of a temple. With all the tourists and lack of personnel to maintain the temples, he just looked out of place.

It turned out he was taking care of the temple out of his own free will. Ta Prohm was his favorite temple, and he wanted to maintain it. It was heartwarming to see this old man take time out of his life to take care of the old temple.

The cute little old man was quite humorous because he spoke very little English. I giggled to myself as he said little English words like, ‘eva-ry-ting is o-k’, ‘ver-ry good’, and ‘swep.’ I noticed a basket of cowbells in his left hand. The cowbells were handmade from wood and bamboo with a picture of Ta Prohm carved into the bamboo. I asked if he would sell one to me, which he did. I walked out of Ta Prohm smiling and ringing the bamboo cowbell of mine.

Dance the Night Away

Most of the restaurants in Siem Riap served traditional Cambodian food. There were also foreign restaurants scattered around that serve Indian, Russian, and American cuisine. I went to the Bayon 2 and Rouleon restaurants on two different nights. Both restaurants featured indoor as well as outdoor dining.

It was nice to sit down and enjoy Cambodian food. The atmosphere was pleasant. However, some of the food was not as favorable to my taste buds as I expected it to be. The food was bland and lacked the texture and spices usually found in Cambodian cuisine.

The dance performances began after everyone was done with dinner. Both restaurants catered around a large stage, which made it easier for the audience to see the stage while the dancers performed to the music of a live band.

The first performance was the Apsara dance. This is probably the most popular dance in Cambodia and definitely one of my favorite dances. All the costumes were so colorful and the dancers were beautiful! The dancers also performed the Coconut Dance, Peacock Dance, and Fishing Dance.

When performances were over, the audience was given an opportunity to take pictures with the dancers. Dancers gather on stage as they waited for prospective volunteers. I thought it would be a good souvenir and took a picture with the dancers.

The evening would have been perfect had it not been for those dang mosquitoes! I must have been bitten over five times all over my legs while eating dinner outdoors: OUCH!

Family Circle

I did not sleep well the night before our departure from Siem Riap. I felt a strange aching in my stomach as I walked towards the ports, anticipating my ride back to Phnom Penh. The wind had changed course, not allowing any rays of sunlight to embrace the Cambodia sky.

I did not want to leave the beautiful city, nor did I want to depart from the temples that had given so much inspiration and meaning to my culture and my way of life. Sadly enough, I was on the boat ride back towards the capital. The long five and a half hour boat ride back was complemented by an additional five and a half hours of the constant buzzing of Cambodian comedies and karaoke. The same karaoke that I had dreaded on my way towards Siem Riap was the exact same karaoke that I had to endure back to Phnom Penh. It was awful.

We arrived at the busy docks of Phnom Penh, greeted by motorcycle taxis searching the crowd for potential customers. My taxi arrived just in time, as I walked through the hectic mass of natives. The weather was as hot and humid as ever and I wanted to get out of heat and into the well air-conditioned taxi. The enormous number of bystanders, the busy merchants and the bumpy roads proved that I was once again in Phnom Penh.

We traveled through the overpopulated streets and on our way to Pochentong Airport. My family and I were going to pick up my cousins who were arriving from France. It’s amazing how many family members I met during my visit to Cambodia. People you never knew existed, become a part of your family (whether immediate or distant) in some way, and it strikes me as humorous. It is strange and almost wonderful to know that my relatives are living all over the world, in Cambodia as well as France. Through this lesson, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re Cambodian, you’re related to every other Cambodian in some way.

The airport was a portrait of dozens of fellow Cambodians waiting for his or her friends and family to arrive. I tried my best to drink plenty of bottled water, but it did very little to help improve my comfort with the weather. My cousin along with his wife arrived and I warmly greeted them for the first time

After we picked up my cousins from the airport, I traveled throughout the city once again. I got a chance to see the Royal Palace, which is an extremely enormous building decorated in Cambodian architecture with huge paintings of the king and queen in the front. The Royal Palace covers many acres, facing towards the river. It was strange to see such an exquisitely designed palace placed in the setting of such a poor, underdeveloped third world country.

I bought sour mango from a street vendor in front of the palace. I first noticed mangos when I was the market looking at the fruits. Seeing the mangos and watching people dip slices into salt and peppers made my mouth water! It was time for me to splurge a little and eat some of it! The colorful mangos were huge and full of flavor that I ate until I was completely exhausted.

In addition to the mangos, I was able to taste a few other fruits a long the way. Coconuts are sold throughout Phnom Penh. Natives drink the milk from the coconuts and peel the inside skin for food. Here I am drinking from a big green coconut.

Later that day, I had an opportunity to eat at Mekong Restaurant, which is an elegant dining eatery located in Hotel Cambodiana. Hotel Cambodiana is an enormous five star hotel sitting just off the Mekong River. The restaurant has huge buffet tables with all the fine foods offered. The vegetables, meats and cheeses are imported and made into the best cuisines in Cambodia. The restaurant serves delicious food in a wide variety of French cuisines and Cambodian dishes.

The last day in Cambodia was a busy one for me. I was driven throughout Phnom Penh one final time to see parts of the city that I had missed earlier before. The day I was departing was the day before the queen’s birthday, so the city was beautifully decorated with her pictures and signs honoring her. There were even yellow, green and red lights adorning the palace building.

Pochentong Airport was not as busy as it was when we arrived a week before. It was less hectic and confusing, which made my departure from Cambodia a lot more comforting. I was sad to leave the country, but excited to go back home.

I boarded the plane and took the window seat facing towards the airport. I looked out the window just like I had a few weeks before. The two weeks that I experienced in Cambodia taught me so much about how enormous the world is. I’ve expanded my imagination by having an open mind to different cultural perspectives. I can no longer say that I have not seen the motherland, because I’ve explored this amazingly mysterious and beautiful country.

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