Phnom Penh Pals for Angkor Wat(?)

December 6, 2012-December 16, 2012

Crossing the border

Our first bus between the Laos and Cambodian capitals was one of the better rides he had on the trip. Two people to a relatively comfortable bus bed. We arrived 10 hours after leaving Vientienne to a place called Pakse, where we transfered into a much less comfortable bus. It was about 7:30am local time as a big group of tourists were herded and packed in to this bus. Proving that this area of the world is entirely lawless as there were bags in the aisles, people sitting on top of each other, as the driver sped and wound his way through the countryside towards the border. In front of me, sat these two English guys who seemed to be just astounded at their predicament. (sidenote: if its one thing I cannot stand, its people who lack self-awareness and somehow get it in their heads that they are the only ones in a particular situation). These neophytes stood out, not only by their obviously recently purchased and extraordinarily clean bags, but their attitude towards locals and the general way things worked in this neck of the world. These guys were complaining the whole way about the "lack of organization" and how "uncomfortable" they were sitting so close with bags at their feet. I was shocked that people who knowingly go to a part of the world to gain an "experience" could in fact be so myopic that they were actually getting aggressive towards the driver and the local workers/helpers who were 'in charge' of our bus, as everyone was going to different locations. 

About where we were dropped off before crossing the border
We made two or three stops in different areas along the way (which was good because that meant more and more leg room was opening up) before the people crossing the border were dropped off...in the middle of NO WHERE. We were literally on the side of a back country road the likes of which I could only compare to things I had previously only seen in movies such as No Country for Old Men or 310 to Yuma. We stood on the side of the road with our bags as the bus drove off and we waited, in the heat, wondering if we would ever even make it to the border. After about 30 minutes, a van drives up and tells us to get in. We all look at each other hesitantly, and decide what choice do we have but to trust this guy asking us to get in his van. So we do. And 15 minutes later, we are at the border. We got our exit stamps out of Laos, and crossed 'no man's land,' aka the border, to Cambodia. 
No man's land-crossing from Laos to Cambodia

Looking back into Laos

It was here that we encountered our first glimpse of the much forewarned border crossing extortion nightmares. Basically, the local border officials will make up bogus charges and try to extort the tourists for extra money by either denying them entry or holding their passports. Once on the Cambodian side, we are directed to a "health tent" where some guy takes our temperature and tells us to then talk to the girl at the desk. We were instructed to fill out some forms which seemed fine, but then at the end she asked us to pay $2USD to 'process' the forms. She threatened that if we didn't pay, we couldn't get the visa...but after a little bit of pressing, she hesitated just the smallest bit and even she knew she couldn't make us pay. So she let us go. From there, we all got our Cambodian visas with no problem whatsoever...except Ariel.

Like me in Laos, at the Myanmar Embassy, he only had endorsement pages left in his passport and its not allowed to have visas or stamps on those pages, and the Cambodian visa is a full page. They wouldn't put the visa in despite his best efforts at persuasion. Our bus was filling up with people who had gone through already, and Ariel was the only one having issues. He finally decided a bribe was the best way to proceed. So he offered $10USD. This was at the point when the border guards were packing up their shack of an office (sounds mean but thats actually what it was) and about to go home. They told him that it was 3 hours in either direction to the nearest town. After initially reneging on his bribe, he finally forked it over and they put the visa on a different page with only one stamp. At the end of the day, they didn't care one bit whether or not he got in to the country, and they had all the bargaining power, plus the bus was about to leave without him. We boarded the crowded, unairconditioned bus, that would wind up taking the better part of 10 hours to get to the capital Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh

After 29 straight hours in transit from Laos to Cambodia, we were eager to see what Cambodia had to offer. Cambodia's capital is a lot like the other capitals of the region; very rapidly growing through tourism and industry, crowded, dirty, street vendors, with pockets of affluence and always a hint of west. Our first day, after a quick stop at the embassy to get passport pages for Ariel, we spent walking around and seeing anything and everything there was to see. Our Lonely Planet expert, Justin, looked up a walking tour of the city which took us passed all the great sights like the Grand Palace, National Museum, the Central Market, Independence Monument, not to mention the local children playing naked on the sidewalk with live chickens while their parents hustled for money and on one occasion threw things at passersby (us). 
Central Market vendor

Independence Monument

Grand Palace Boulevard

Central Market

That fist night we met up with our fellow New Jersey native, Ashley Pfister. She hails from Marlton, NJ and  was a member of the Peace Corps since 2011 (about the same amount of time we had been away for) stationed in a small village outside of Phnom Penh called, Tonlop. Her main area of focus was community health education working mainly with water sanitation and hygiene. Her and I had been in contact since we left Australia and it had been quite some time since we had last seen each other. Her and Jeff went to HS together and we all met during our time at Rutgers. Ashley, as part of her Peace Corps requirement, was fluent in the local language, Khmer (pronounced: kah-mai) which seemed almost unnatural to see someone, white, speaking so fluidly. This of course, was a huge help for us in terms of navigating to and from places and bargaining for various things. She was more than happy to hang out with us and take us out for a night on the town. She knew all the cool places and took us to a "western pub/restaurant," which, as I've mentioned before, can be very comforting after days or weeks with nothing but local street market food. We wind up in the heart of darkness...and I'm not being dramatic for effect...the place we were at was called, "The Heart of Darkness." It was interesting to say the least, the mixture of locals, foreigners and whites all in this melting pot of a discotheque. 

Our second day, we rented bikes, made out of bamboo for free from this NPO that was based in the city. Every time I made a sharp turn or hit a pot hole, I was afraid the entire frame was going to collapse out from under me. Surprisingly, the bikes held up and we rode all around the city and to some of the lesser traveled areas like the Russian Market. It was just like a lot of the other markets, with stalls and vendors selling various products all at incredibly flexible prices. One stall in particular stands out, as it had freshly severed legs and ribs of cows hanging behind the butchers. The parts that weren't being smoked for grilling, were still dripping with blood. Obviously, we were intrigued, and we watched as the vendor cut up different portions, put them on the grill, and while they were grilling whipped up an incredibly simple, yet delicious sauce made from salt, pepper, and lemon juice with some other ingredients unbeknown to me. It was the freshest and best cooked steak I might ever eat in my life. It will be very difficult for any steak to top what I had that day on the street. What's more, the butcher was wearing a leather apron and had other leather things lying around and mentioned he uses EVERYTHING on the cow. Just remarkable. 
Bamboo Bikes

We met up with Ashley at her Peace Corps Office and basically milked it for all the air conditioning we could. We met some of her coworkers, one of whom joined our little group and we went to sit by the river and drink a couple beers. As the night went on, we realized the other girl was having a hard time holding her booze and was getting increasingly more, lets call it 'tipsy,' to the point she was stopping almost every Cambodian person who walked by just to have a little chat about nothing in particular. One such passerby was a street performer and showed us how he could pick up a bike with his mouth and hold it there. In bad form for any performer, he told us his trick, which led to a little sibling competition between Jeff and Justin to see who could do it. Justin, happened to chip his tooth in the process. As the night went on, this one really conspicuous fellow sat down on the bench next to the other girl. His first question to the rest of us, in Khmer, directed at Ashley was, "can I sleep with you?" She turned him down, so he focused his attention on the visibly drunk girl on the bench. It was here Ashley, filled us in on the dangers some of the Peace Corps girls face when they are out at their duty stations far from the cities. In developing areas, women are still second class citizens and fall prey to the approaches of men. Finally we have enough, and send the girl home with another Peace Corps volunteer who stopped by to make sure she was ok. The rest of us went to a night spot called, "Blue Chili," which was putting on a drag show. It was a small gay bar with a big stage up front. Ariel (aka Bob Marley to all the locals everywhere we went), was a big hit and was dragged on stage for a part of the show. 

Ariel, drag King
After here, Jeff, Justin, and I decide to check on the Heart of Darkness. We get bored real fast this time around and hop in a tuk-tuk to take us home. We show the guy the address of our hostel and after 15-20 minutes, we realize he is going a very strange way. Turns out he had NO idea where he was going because we ended up on the wrong side of the city entirely. So we ask him to take us to the right address and he got mad when we refused to pay him extra for HIS mistake. Then he refused to take us even back to the bar. In a sheer act of defiance, he turns off his tuk-tuk, leans back, kicks his feet up, and lights up a cigarette. Great. He tells us to leave and go on our own, but we hold our ground and stay in and finally he just gets going again, back toward the main area. On the way, we pass a group of motorbikers, couples (guy and girl) to one bike. As we approach them I think to myself, "they are riding carelessly close to one another." Sure enough, in that instant, two of them collide and take out another on the way down. It was a mess. Everyone was fine, surprisingly. 

The next day we spent learning a great deal of history about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. First some wiki background: 

"The Khmer Rouge or Red Khmers, was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam Peoples Army from North Vietnam. It was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot. Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian Genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide."

First and foremost, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day. Our first stop of the day was S-21, a former high school turned Khmer Rouge torture prison in the 70's, that they have since turned into a museum. This was not like any regular museum, with cased displays and boards with detailed descriptions of the things in the case. Or remakes of certain artifacts that were found. This as real as it got. Its almost as if they were just lazy and didn't want to clean up (they definitely weren't lazy, they just wanted to keep things the way they were as a reminder of the horrors that happened within those walls) what was left behind when the Khmer Rouge regime finally fell. Throughout the museum, we walked through the prisoner cells, some rebuilt but others still with original stains from their occupants. We saw skull displays, with different causes of death; blunt force with part of the skull caved in, a couple with just a small bullet hole in the side or top of the skull, etc. We saw the old barbed wire that kept prisoners in the compound, and saw the torture rooms and displays of how the it actually happened. There were manifests of all the prisoners to come and go with detailed reports from the torturing officer. Translated to give the back story, why he/she was imprisoned, where the family is from, what they do, what information they got from them, etc. The amount of detail that went into these mindless tortures is astounding. Walking through this compound I couldn't help but think that the very place I stood, whether it be in a cell, or in the hall, is where a human life ended. It was a sobering thought that put a bit of a damper on the mood. From 1975-1979, at least 20,000 people lived and died in that prison, one of whom was an Australian that grew up exactly two roads away from where we lived in Sydney. Only, 7 of 20,000 survived. 

A cell

The cell block
The follow up to the prison and the museum is the infamous Killing Fields. Located outside the city limits, we had our driver take us. These fields were essentially, mass graves. They would have trucks of bodies brought in from the S-21 prison and buried. Some times they would have people dig big holes, make them stand in the hole, then shoot them all, and have another group put the dirt back in the hole to bury the bodies. Women and children were not give any immunity to these horrors either. There were reports and pictures of babies, toddlers, infants being taken and thrown against a tree, tossed into the air and caught on a bayonet, or even just thrown into the pile of bodies and buried alive. The idea was they didn't want to waste a bullet on the young ones. Right in the middle of the field, was a 3 story high memorial to the victims. Commemorated by all of the skulls they found. These glass cases were not locked, none of the skulls were tied down, and it would have been incredibly easy to just grab a skull and put it in one of our bags. But the obvious long term moral consequences, outweighed the short term amusement and we decided not to go down that route. Walking along the path, we passed mass graves of all sizes, with little memorial signs covered in bracelets from local school children. Some signs went a step further, and put actual teeth found in the ground on or near these signs along with bullet casings, torn/tattered clothes, hats, and other trinkets. Again, I couldn't escape the thought that every step I took, I was walking over a place that someone died. It was such a surreal experience.
Memorial Tower at the Killing Fields
The ditches were mass graves 

Skulls of the deceased 

This particular grave was specifically for children, determined by the remains that were found

It is hard to believe that people are capable of these kinds of atrocities. It begs the question, "what kind of person would do something like that?" To which I would reply, "it could have been you or me." The political climate at the time was one in upheaval. The ruling party, incentivized citizens to turn on their neighbors in exchange for rewards or safety. So the question, then, becomes, "What would it take for ME (YOU, the reader) to do something like this? And if I was living in that time, how would I act?" I think if we are honest with ourselves, we might be surprised at our own answers.


For all its worth, we were Peace Corps members for all of about 36 hours. We stored our bags at the hostel, and got a tuk-tuk to meet up with Ashley who was taking us out to her site. A small village called, Tonlop, in the Takeo Province, about six hours east outside the city. We were used to traveling between towns and cities to this point, so when we arrived at the local market for the van to take us to the village, we were a bit surprised at how much more local it was. The van ran to the Takeo Province only a couple times a day, and it didn't leave until it was full. We arrive, and are apparently the first few people (not to mention the only non-Cambodias in the area) because we wait another hour and a half or so before we depart. I'd like to take a minute to set the scene. The van, called a Tori, is nothing more than a regular 12 seater van with one or two rows taken out and replaced with benches facing one another. In factory condition, this van at capacity would have seated 13 people if a passenger squeezed in up front relatively safely. As in seatbelts for everyone. But around these parts, its all about maximizing efficiency and space at all costs...in this case personal space/safety. It got to a point where we wanted to maintain our "good seats" with a bit more leg room, but that proved to be futile as they packed this van tight, as if we were naught but sardines in a can. By the time we pulled out of the market lot, there were a total of 28 people in/on/around the van. There were people sitting with their legs hanging out of the back, some younger men sitting on the roof on top of all the bags and personal effects, a caged chicken, an uncaged chicken, and a goat. All along for the ride. You might think everyone's day was over as they were heading home from work in the city. Nope. One lady had her head out the window soliciting business to people we passed by until we were out of the city limits. About five hours later we arrive in Tonlop. We are graciously greeted by our hosts (Ashley's host family) and immediately sat down to an extremely elaborate and over the top dinner that was more than we deserved. Their hospitality rivaled that of which we experienced in Japan and Korea and these people had never even met us and maybe had even less to offer us than those in the other countries. But they spared no expense. Beef, rice, veggies, the works. We were stuffed. After a scramble to find bug spray and a battle with the mosquitos we are driven to the local motel that they had arranged for us to stay in. We were a bit concerned about the mosquitos because the ones that were out during the day, usually carried the Dengue virus and the ones at night generally carried Malaria. Neither of which we were inoculated for. Ashley told us all about her experience with Dengue and it did not sound appealing. 
On the way to Bayong Mountain

Final Climb to the temple at the top
The next day, we visited the host mom at her booth at the local market. After a brief breakfast, and some time at Ashley's health center/hospital, we got a few locals to take us towards the outskirts of town so we could climb Bayong Mountain, a sacred mountain that predates the more famous temple, Angkor Wat, by about 500 years. There was a small house at the bottom, where the family sold water, and some knick knacks to people who were going up the mountain. They also rented out their children as guides, as it turns out. We hired this little girl to show us the way up. It was about 80-90 degrees and this girl was wearing a windbreaker type jacket as we start out our trek. The whole way up, she basically sprints up and over rocks, through these tiny paths that we basically had to bush-whack through, and up these stairs that finally led to the Temple at the top. We had to stop about 3-4 times on the way up for water and resting breaks. All of us sweating profusely, huffing and puffing for air, and sucking down water to stay hydrated so we wouldn't pass out. This little girl didn't even break a sweat. What's more, she wore her jacket the entire way up. Only when we got to the top did she take it off and tie it around her waist. At the top there was a monk in all white robes. He had been there for quite some time (years) and having acquired his white robes was to be very highly regarded. 

The temple was essentially a ruin, the monk lived in a small shack off to the side, but had the look of a place that was rich in history. A brick tower-type structure that was falling apart, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. The others went to explore an off shooting trail down the backside of the mountain, but I stayed back and hung out with the monk and the girl. I noticed this little girl picking flower buds and holding on to them, then some how putting them together. I was intrigued and followed her and tried to replicate what she was doing. She was making what I could only describe as a Lei. Or a flower necklace of some sort. While she was picking the flowers, the monk was getting her to recite a Khmer prayer/chant. I tried my hand at reading some of the symbols on the scroll but apparently my pronunciation wasn't so great. I had to take a second to just appreciate the serenity that I was immersed in. I was at a look out point of sorts where I could see for miles in all directions, over and past tree lines, out to the distant mountain ranges, and even into parts of Vietnam. There was a monk, intermittently humming and chanting a Khmer prayer, while a little girl did her best to recite these prayers while picking flowers. It was so peaceful. So unperturbed. Neither one of those two people had a single care in the world, other than right there and then. The girl got my attention by teaching me how to make another craft; this time it was a full necklace from a leaf stem. When the others got back, we gave them the newly made jewelry and sat and talked to the monk, through Ashley's translation. He was down to just shoot the shit with a bunch of foreigners that he had just met. We said our goodbyes, and made our way back down the mountain and had a quick watermelon break from our guide's family while we hailed down two motorbikes to take us back into the village. 

Thought provrocking

Flower hair piece and necklace
We could actually be related...

Back in the village, we once again went for dinner at the host family's house. And once again, we were met with a feast. They had bought a lot of meat to prepare a Cambodian BBQ dish called, "go larng p'noom" which is a special dish, cooked with animal fat as opposed to cooking oil. The dish translates to, "cow climbs mountain" because the cooker looked like a hill and we were cooking beef on it. We all ate our fill, and there were still leftovers. Again, the hospitality of these people was just astounding. For a family with so little to give to go above and beyond for us for no reason other than we were their guests was just incredible. When dinner was over, we said our goodbyes to the family and went back to our motel because we were leaving early the next morning to go back to Phnom Penh, thus concluding our Peace Corps service. 
The gang, with father time and his bamboo stick watching over us

Siem Reap
The gang

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We left Tonlop around 3:30 am in order to catch the early Tori back in to Phnom Penh. Quickly, we got out bags, and headed for the bus station to catch our ride to Siem Reap, about 3-4 hours north of the Cambodian capital. Once again, Ashley came through big time and we found an incredible 5-bed room, fully air conditioned, and bargained down to $5 per person per night. Just unreal. As was becoming tradition for every new place we went to, we found a cool spot to sit and drink 50 cent beers. 

On my 24th name day, December 13th, 2012 we were up at the crack of dawn. We had once again hired a driver for the day and he was to be our mode of transportation to, in, and around Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Angkor Wat is the reason  that Siem Reap is on the map. So, naturally, it is full of tourists trying to see arguably the most elaborate system of Hindu temples in one place in the entire world. We get dropped off at the main gate, and make our way to the temple, the main one that always makes it into the guidebooks. As suggested by said guidebooks, it is worth it to get there to see the sunrise. By the time we walked up, the area was already crowded with people and their cameras out trying to capture the majesty that was taking place in front of them. Whenever we were at these super touristy places, we can't help but feel kind of stupid. 
Hated being a part of this
Especially, when we are asking people to take a group shot of us with the temple in the background and then getting mad when they don't get the temple in the back but have already walked away. But at the same time, you can't go to Cambodia and NOT see Angkor Wat no matter how dumb or 'touristy' you might feel. While we were waiting we were being heckled by the food vendors to come to their food stall after the sun was up. The best part, all of the stalls were named after American celebrities like, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber, Tiger Woods, as well as other arbitrary celebrities. After a quick breakfast, we walked around Angkor Wat just marveling at the grandness of it all and observing the etchings in the wall and trying to avoid the parts that were falling apart. After a few hours we met our driver who took us to the surrounding Wats (Wat=Temple) like Bayon, which was teeming with tourists and a Korean movie crew. From there we set out for Ta Prohm, best known for being the main filming location for Tomb Raider. It was used for a reason. The coolest part was the trees growing in, around, and through different parts of the temple. It just looked like a movie set. It was getting to be late in the day and we were all tired from the early start. 

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
So we headed back to our hotel and napped. Later in the night, we rallied for a birthday dinner and drinks. We went back to the 50 cent beer spot and spent the whole night just hanging out and having a blast. Only running into trouble at one point when a little girl who was selling flowers to patrons of the drinking spot kept coming up to us and trying to get us to play her in 'rocks, paper, scissors.' Ariel entertained the idea and had a playful banter going back and forth with her. She would sometimes take our popcorn and playfully throw it at him. So he decides to not take it sitting down and throws some back at her, at which point she bursts into tear claiming the popcorn got in her eye.

Stegosaurus etching in the side of Ta Prohm 

Siem Reap was by far the most developed city in Cambodia. Lots of western influence and of course the tourism that was being brought in with Angkor Wat so close by. I hope that in the future the city is able to hold on to its local feel while still developing as best they can. This is one place that seems like it is going the way of Thailand, which is great for the local economy, but terrible in terms of the environment, the sites, and local culture/traditions. We are usually off put by places with too many foreigners and white people, but Siem Reap was definitely a happy medium we were able to thoroughly enjoy. 

So after about 5 days in Siem Reap, we sadly had to say our goodbyes to Ashley, who was a tremendous host and an absolute legend. She had to go back to her village and resume her actually meaningful and impactful life as we just carried on our way back to Thailand. 

Our time in Cambodia was much too short. Its another one of those places that we wished we could have stayed longer, but our longer range/over arching goals forced our early exit from such an amazing and historically rich country. So much has happened in Cambodia's recent history, yet it has come so far to the point that its difficult to even see the effects sometimes without actively looking. It is always so hard to get off the "Lonely Planet" path, out of your comfort zone, and away from other young backpackers in this region of the world. But we were able to do just that in Tonlop, Takeo. It was truly amazing to get a glimpse into real Cambodian life outside the congested cities, which can often times lead to a jaded outlook of a local people, in that they are all beggars or trying to rip you off. 

So we said good bye to Kampuchea, boarded yet another bus to head back to Bangkok. At the border, 3 hours to get out of Cambodia, 3 hours to get in to Thailand and back on another van that took us to the hub of Bangkok backpackers, Khao San road. Thus commencing yet another (noticing any patterns or routines?) brief layover in this grand city.

Stay tuned for our next adventure through Myanmar (aka Burma). Don't forget to subscribe (now easier than ever, slide your cursor to the right), and follow us on Instagram (at the top of the page) to check out some other cool pictures.

Until Next Time, 

The Tunas

(Major props to Jeff for the new design)

extra pictures from Angkor Wat:

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