Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville, Cambodia
March 8th – 10th 2011

Sihanoukville is a beach-side town about 4-5 hours bus-ride South-West of Phnom Penh. (I have never fit this many hyphenated words into a sentence before.) I’d like to point out almost every bus-ride I’ve been on has been pleasant in SE Asia, unlike India/Nepal or Africa. When you’re in a city, most people get around in motos, tuk-tuks, cars, walking, or bicycles. I have not seen local buses and very few taxis. Most locals take the same travel-agency buses as foreigners when going between cities and these buses are usually well-built, well-maintained, spits on cool air, stops mid-way usually for lunch/piss breaks, and sometimes play on-board movies.

Upon reaching Sihanoukville, I was swarmed by waiting moto-drivers. Knowing how much moto-mileage $1 bought in Phnom Penh, I wasn’t easily conned into paying $2, the average asking price. It always helps to know the distance between the bus/train station and your guesthouse. I have been conned many times in the past when I didn’t. Moto-drivers were constantly telling me it’s a 7-km journey and very far from my guesthouse and I refused to believe them. (Thank you Lonely Planet maps.)

Sihanoukville has several beaches. There are some on its west-side (but it’s also where the shipping ports are so expect a little dirt) but the most popular and beautiful ones are located in the southern part of town. The first day I was there, I walked down to Ochheuteal Beach, one of the more popular beaches, along with Serendipity right next to it, and observed the masses there, ranging from backpackers lounging on beach chairs and ex-pats sipping beer at the bars, to Cambodians walking around, selling fruits, fried prawns, sunglasses, bracelets, and massages. I haven’t had a pair of sunglasses since I lost mine in Turkey but with so many fake sunglass sellers walking around, I decided to pick a pair up for $4. Probably overpaid but his initial starting price was $7 and I figured it would help with the glare. But does anything fake really help? More on fake stuff later, as I eventually paid the price with pain.

The next day, I took a moto-ride to Otres Beach, about 5 km south of Ochheuteal. Because it was a bit out of the way, the crowds were much smaller and the atmosphere more relaxed. I applied my Banana Boat SPF-30 sunscreen which I purchased in India for cheap. I spent most of my time reading my ‘Clash of Kings’ book, under the sun to get my tan on and then later under the shade, while taking the occasional dip in the water. The sand was so fine and white, the beach so clean, the water nice and luke-warm, and nothing else in sight but a few islands in the distance. It was a sunny day but I drowned myself in lots of sunscreen so I would be ok.

Or so I thought.

After that day, I had sun-burn on my entire body. I have purchased sun-block in the USA before and I’ve seen prices throughout my travels. And when I was in India, I thought I was fortunate enough to pick up a very (exceptionally) cheap tube of Banana Boat from an Indian pharmacy. I knew it must’ve been too good to be true. It even smelled NICE, like baby powder, when most sunscreens smell sour and unpleasant. I suspected it was fake then but I didn’t have much of a chance to use it until now. Now I know it’s fake. Thank you India, for messing with me long after I’ve left you. You’re like that crazy-bitch ex-girlfriend that haunts a man for life.

Picking up my Vietnamese visa was so painless. I showed up at the office, filled out an application, paid $45 and got the visa within 5 minutes.

I dined at several places while in Sihanoukville. Some were outdoor street-food stalls but my favorite was a restaurant located just down the road from me, which drew me in when I saw many cars and many locals eating in it. I didn’t eat anything unique, just typical food like fried fish and beef stir-fry but the food was good, the portions massive, and price cheap. The entertainers singing to the diners on stage were terrible but compared to me, they were like the Cambodian Celine Dion and Frank Sinatra.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
March 4th – 7th 2011

I had bought a ticket for Battambang. I was waiting for my pick-up to arrive but it was late so I decided to walk to the bus ticket office, which was nearby. I saw a van with the travel agency’s name on it coming down the street and I naturally thought, hey, this must be my pick-up. So I hailed it, got in, and off we went. It dropped me off at a big bus along the side of a street. I boarded that bus and off I went to Battambang. Six hours later, I looked out my window and wondered what was taking a supposed 4-5 journey so long. I spotted an address on the top of a shop saying “Phnom Penh”. I then realized I must’ve boarded the wrong bus. I confirmed this later with several people when I got off. I had wanted to visit Phnom Penh more than Battambang anyway so I guess it worked out ok.

The guesthouse I was staying at was not located near the “backpacker-tourist-friendly” area near the river. I enjoyed relative quiet all night, other than the Khmer music being played in the restaurant across the street. I experienced a new mode of transport while in Phnom Penh; motos, short for motorcycles. Everywhere I go, moto-drivers would honk at me and ask if I needed a lift. A trip across town would typically cost $1. I took a few of these moto-rides as it was very convenient and enjoyable to sit on the back of an Asian motorcycle, weaving in and out of chaotic traffic. Tuk-tuks were available as well but typically cost $2-3 per trip.

(The family mini-van, just as Russell Peters said.)

(One of my favorite images.)

There are a few must-sees in Phnom Penh: The Tuol Sleng genocide center and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. At Tuol Sleng, formerly a school, I got to learn a little about the Khmer Rouge and see their cruelty toward their own people in their efforts to transform their country into an agrarian society. This was their version of a death-camp. People were taken, tortured, and murdered here without mercy. There were rooms with a single bed and a picture of the murdered on the beds which spoke loudly to me. “Why?” was the constant question on my mind. After visiting the Nazi death-camps, I remember being interested in the thoughts of Hitler. Now, I am interested in the thoughts of the Khmer Rouge. What goes on in the heads of killers? Do they justify murdering 2 million of their own in the name of a better Cambodia? I’ve read that a lot of times, when human beings do something bad, they try to justify their actions so it looks noble in the end, and they brainwash themselves into believing this until the very end. It’s not just them, it’s everyone. This is the darkness in the human mind.

(One of the rooms in Tuol Sleng.)

(A closer look at the picture on the wall…)

(Crude brick cells.)

(Barb-wired so that prisoners don’t commit suicide by jumping off.)

Choeung Ek is located about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh so I hired a moto to take me there. It was great fun riding past small towns surrounded by massive fields of vegetables. Choeung Ek is one of many mass-graves in Cambodia. As I entered, I saw a tower sitting prominently for all to see. It contained many levels of human skulls, the evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s actions. Behind the tower were the killing fields, multitudes of shallow graves and even a tree which was used to kill babies or little kids against. The Khmer Rouge would bring unsuspecting blind-folded victims to the edge of the graves, use farmers tools, such as hoes, to kill the victim, then kick them over into their graves. (Bullets were precious commodity and the Khmer Rouge did not want to waste them so they used a variety of hand-held tools as murder weapons instead.)

(Skulls of the victims from the graves.)

(Mass graves.)

Anyone ever saw the movie “Law Abiding Citizen”? It explored the flaws in the justice system. It points out how it takes forever for justice to be served to mass-murderers and how they get to die before being executed for their crimes. Pol Pot escaped his fate. And there are many Khmer Rouge leaders STILL on trial, as they grow old and will probably end up living to a nice age before dying a natural death, all the while thinking “I am justified in my actions, I do not regret them. I am a patriot and it was all for a greater Cambodia.”

I did make a trip to the National Museum, which I regretted paying $3 entry-fee for. It was a nice looking museum but inside, it was filled with sculptures and statues, and you all know how much I despise them at this point. The Royal Palace was charging $6.25 so I decided to not go. These days, just being in a city, walking the streets (or viewing them from a moto as we zip through traffic) is enough for me. No more temples, no more museums. Give me landscapes, give me nature, give me people, give me food and I’m happy.

There is a dark side to Phnom Penh (and most of SE Asia really). There are many single old white men around these parts. Some of them have young Asian girls by their side. No judgment but I have a feeling these girls aren’t attracted to these foreigners because of their charming personalities and good looks. Grown men and grown women are ok but there are villages on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (like the infamous Svay Pak) that have child sex slaves. It’s quite sick to think about it but that is the world we live in. Here (click on this) is a good article to read about child sex-slavery. I hope you take the time to read it.

I was walking around O’Russey Market one day and I came across a popular noodle shop filled with Cambodians. (One thing nice about being away from the backpacker scene is that restaurants are filled with locals instead of backpackers eating at their favorite Lonely Planet ‘Our Pick’ restaurant, which of course, I’m guilty of in the past as well). The beef-ball noodles were so good I went there for dinner each night I was in Phnom Penh.

(I’ve eaten this for almost every single dinner.)

(Outstanding ‘pau’ with minced pork, sausage, and egg.)

I ran out of visa pages in my passport so one day, I went to the US Embassy and wanted to renew it. It would cost $110 for a 52-page book and 2 WEEKS to renew it but luckily, I could just add 24 visa pages for $80 (it used to be free!) and get it back within 30 minutes. I decided to apply for my Vietnamese visa in Sihanoukville because I read the Vietnamese embassy in PP send it that way anyway.

Off to Sihanoukville for the sand and ocean. As long as I get on the right bus!

More Phnom Penh Pics.

Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat)

Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 3rd – 4th 2011

I made getting to Siem Reap harder than it was. I should’ve just bought a ticket directly to Siem Reap the day before for a morning bus. I had assumed that I could get one of the many local buses there but the locals wouldn’t cooperate in sending me to one. They all kept trying to sell me a tourist bus (and quoting different departure times) and I naturally felt skeptical and avoided them all. I opted to take a bus to Sisophon, about 1.5 hours outside of Poipet. But bloody hell, the bus dropped me off on a random street next to a “bus station” full of shared taxis instead of buses. The touts were immediately on me. I agreed to go with one who claimed he was leaving to Siem Reap that moment. Instead, he took me to another place to collect a few more Cambodians and then we all went back to the “bus station” to eat lunch since the Cambodians were hungry.

After silently cursing my luck the whole time I’ve been in Cambodia, I started seeing the humorous side to everything. I’ve been through so many difficult moments in my trip and everything always worked out and this would be no different. I laughed it all off, sat down, got some food and ate while the rain started to pour outside.

Got to Siem Reap in one piece, went to an ATM to get Riels but instead, got USD. I guess the Cambodians use USD (as well as Riels) because I read that when the Khmer Rouge got rid of the monetary currency back in the 70s during their cultural revolution, many Cambodians lost all their savings. With USD, they’d still have money if that sort of shit ever happened again.

The only thing I came to Siem Reap for was the world-famous Temples of Angkor. I opted for a one-day pass (there are 1/3/7 day passes at $20/40/60) and an all-day tuk-tuk driver as I had wanted to visit only the major temples: Angkor Wat, Bayon (in Angkor Thom), and Ta Phrom (where Tomb Raider was shot).

(Angkor Wat.)

Arrived at the entrance around 6 am and there was already a small crowd, all ready to see the sun-rise at Angkor Wat. The sun came up around 6:50 am but the clouds had blocked most of it out, which made it less dramatic but a little dramatic nonetheless. After that, I went to visit the temple itself, which was in fact, quite mesmerizing, not just in terms of age, architecture, design, and details but also the sheer SIZE of the place.

(Some detailed carvings.)

Thank goodness I had an all-day tuk-tuk. The temples were spread out over a long distance. It looked close on maps but it was not so. I saw some people biking and I didn’t envy them as the distances between each sight was at least a few kilometers.

I went to Angkor Thom and checked out the magnificent Bayon Temple. The head carvings were pretty cool. The rock stairs that we had to climb up to get to the middle and top of the temples were not for people who have vertigo as they were quite steep. I walked the short circuit and checked out Baphuon Temple as well as the Elephant and Leper King Terraces before meeting up with my tuk-tuk guy and he took me to Ta Phrom, which to me, had the most charm due to how ruined it was (mystique) and left that way for nature to consume it, a bunch of old, tall trees with massive trunks that looked like they were engulfing and asphyxiating the ruins. If you took away the tourists, took away the signs and wooden steps and bridges built for convenience, you would be transported into the set of some Indiana Jones movie. Imagine being the first person to discover the ruins after centuries of them being hidden away, buried by a jungle.

(Around Angkor Thom.)

(Head statues in Bayon.)

(Scene from Tomb Raider…? I gotta re-watch the movie.)

I’m actually digging the food in Cambodia. I can see some similarities in Vietnamese/Thai/Cambodian food; same foods, similar names. My last evening, I was on my way to a local eatery when I saw a bunch of motorbikes and locals gathered in a certain area at the side of the street. There were a bunch of street stalls set up which had many choices of various home-cooked dishes where locals can pick, order, and get it packed in plastic bags. I randomly picked three things and my total came up to under $2. Three dishes and rice for under $2. That’s why the locals come here to order food for their families and themselves.

(“Amouk”. Fish in coconut curry, popular in Cambodia.)

I got a bus to catch in the morning for Battambang.

More Siem Reap Pics.

Poipet, Cambodia

Poipet, Cambodia
March 1st 2011

Took a 5-hour bus from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, a town at the border of Thailand and Cambodia. The tuk-tuk driver tried to drop me off at a “travel agency” to help us tourists get Cambodia visas but I knew immediately it was bullshit because we can get visas on-arrival at the Cambodian side. I saw a few other tourists walk into the office but I didn’t say a thing to them but I wish I did. I walked to the border to clean Thai immigration and cross into Cambodia.

The Cambodian immigration told me I had run out of room on my passport for visas and that I had to get it renewed the first chance I get, which I told them I would do in Phnom Penh. By Cambodian law, I wasn’t supposed to be able to get my visa because of this but they made an exception. They found a non-visa page and pasted it on there and I got through fine.

The city of Poipet had nothing going for it. It had a bunch of fancy new hotels and casinos set against a backdrop of a very weary and dusty town. It clashed and as a result, the buildings were really more of an eyesore than anything else.

The government-shuttle bus was supposed to take us to a transport depot where tourists could get onward buses or shared taxis to Siem Reap, a 2-hour journey. Four other tourists got on and behind them, some English-speaking touts, following us like sharks on a blood-scented trail. I kept my guard up. We arrived at a remote bus terminal that was pretty much closing. Inside, a few food stalls and a ticket window with several bus times and their prices in USD. The touts had been telling us there were no more buses that day and that shared-taxis were our only choice ($10 vs $50). Everything about the place looked fake and set up for tourists. But the prices were about close to “normal” and since 4 was the maximum the taxi would take, I decided to stay a night in Poipet and taking a local bus the next day. When the taxi left, I joked around with the touts about their whole scheme, telling them I understood what they were doing and why etc. and one of them became quite open about it. At least they weren’t completely ripping off tourists, just overcharging a few dollars more.

The next day, I found out that in Cambodia, they really do use USD (and Riel and Baht) and the prices weren’t just written in USD for tourists. It was a currency used everywhere in Cambodia and ATMs even dispensed USD. So I guess the whole bus station set up from the day before wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was.