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$1 = 4,000 Cambodian riel
$1 = 10,000 Laotion kip
$1 = 40 Thai baht


Farang: Foreigners, westerners
Tuk tuk: A motorcycle with a passenger carriage on back
Songthaw: Pickup truck with bench seats in the converted bed

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Dispatches from the road
Part 2: Laos Travelog
Part 3: Thailand Travelog
The Angkor Guide
The Floating Village of Tonle Sap

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Rural life in Cambodia

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  The floating village of Tonle Sap

Welcome to Cambodia

The scummy border town of Poipet

People ride wherever they can on trucks in Poipet

The "gas station" along the road to Siem Reap

Tuk tuks running to and from the border

The dirt street just outside our guesthouse, the Red Lodge

Some kids, like these in uniform, attend private schools

Many young kids try to make a few dollars by selling souvenirs to tourists

Some of the vendor kids play baseball or soccer when tourists aren't around

My friend John makes his way through the vendor kids

John sets up a shot behind a row of Apsara dancers carved in the stone walls

Two monks read Khmer script, one thousand years old, inscribed in stone at Angkor Wat

And later, in quiet contemplation in one of the many courtyards

The morning sun highlights the intricate stone carving of the temples

Closeup - Two of the many Apsara dancers

Closeup - Detail of the fine and elaborate carving on a stone entranceway

The impressive temple of Ta Phrom is encapsulated by trees which grew up over the hundreds of years it was abandoned

Stone soldiers guard the temple of Bayon

If you get thirsty, have some fresh coconut milk

Landmines are still a problem in Cambodia, killing or injuring an average of four people a day

The rural Cambodian lanscape is breathtaking

A young boy tends to a rural gas station

Young kids are everywhere in Cambodia, and they never miss the chance to wave and smile to visiting farang

Dire poverty doesn't dampen the Cambodian's friendliness

Shelter in rural areas can be very primitive

Families in Cambodia are usually large, and very close

Young kids, such as this boy herding cattle, often have a lot of responsibility

Life in the floating village of Tonle Sap is often non-stop labor

But kids and dogs find time for leisure

A captivating young woman, rowing solo

Just because you live on the water doens't mean you can't ride a bike

And a bike is sometimes the only luxury these kids will have

On November 21, 2003, my friend John Collins and I set out to explore southeast Asia for four weeks. The following is part one of my travelog. For links to Part 2: Laos, and Part 3: Thailand, see 'Related Links' on the sidebar. The photos to the left illustrate places and experiences written about below.

A Race to the Other Side of the World

Sat, Nov. 22 - I knew this trip, especially the first leg into Cambodia, was going to be challenging. I thought I knew what to expect. I had no idea what I was truly in for. From the time I left my home in Nashville, the next time I would see a bed to lay down in was 46 hours later.

My flight out of Chicago to Tokyo wasn't too bad. For a thirteen hour flight, it really seemed to go by pretty fast and the food wasn't bad. The last hour seemed to last forever though. We were late arriving in Tokyo and this had started to concern me. I was to meet my friend and travel companion, John Collins, at the Tokyo airport since we both had layovers there at the same time. Since my plane was late, I didn't think I'd have time to find John. My next flight was already boarding when I cleared Japanese customs. As I was sitting at my gate, looking up John's flight info to see if maybe he would be close by, I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see John. He'd already found me.

Well, we didn't get to relax over a beer like we'd hoped to, in fact I rushed to my connecting gate and my next flight was boarding already, but at least we did meet up long enough to chat a minute or two and marvel over the fact that we'd both just flown several thousand miles separately to meet up in Japan and would meet up once again several hours later in Bangkok. I joked that it was like our own little version of the CBS show "The Amazing Race". John arrived in Tokyo before me, but I got an earlier flight out and reached Bangkok first. Yes! I won that leg.

Meeting up in Bangkok was a little easier. We both came in the same terminal through the same immigration checkpoint. He landed 10 minutes after me.

Once we cleared immigration, we had to go through customs. On the customs form we were given on the plane, you have the option of checking "Nothing to declare" or "Goods to declare". I was a bit put off reading this form because it seemed to indicate to me that if you're carrying even personal goods valued at over 10,000 baht (about $200) you had to declare it. Oh yeah, there's also a warning about fines and prison time for failing to declare such goods. Since a Thai prison isn't what I have in mind when looking for cheap accommodations, I declared the two cameras and laptop computer I was carrying.

John, on the other hand, had bothered neither to look at the form nor to fill it out at all. Confident I was doing the right thing, I headed toward the attendant at the red "Goods to Declare" desk. I had approached no closer than about 12 feet when he waived me toward the "Nothing to Declare" desk. There John and I both went through, handing our declaration cards to a lady who didn't even look to see that John's remained empty and mine had declared about ten times the legal limit of goods I could bring in duty free.

After wandering around a bit to get oriented and get some cash, John and I made our way up to find bathrooms and a place to sit and relax. We found a nice little cafe that served what has to be the most expensive beer in Bangkok, 100 baht for about a 12 ounce glass. We also found ourselves giving impromptu English lessons to our very friendly, constantly smiling server. I guess that expensive beer and our English lessons paid for themselves in the long run though, because when we told our server we were going to go find one of the sleeping rooms (at $50 for six hours) he immediately offered to let us sleep there on the padded cushions, an offer we accepted without hesitation.

After fitlessly napping for about an hour and a half, we got a taxi and headed off to the Mhor Chit bus station (if you're ever in Bangkok and need to get to this station, just go ahead and say "more shit", that's really the way it's pronounced) to catch the 5:30am bus, the first one out, to the Cambodian border town of Aranyaprathet.

Arriving at the Border

Due to jetlag and the fact that neither of us had had any real sleep in about 24 hours, we tried to doze a bit during the four and a half hour bus ride to the border. Thankfully, the bus was nice, new, and clean. For only 164 baht, it was a great value.

The rural Thai countryside is fairly nondescript. It's easy to see it all pass by and not really notice anything. So as we got closer to the Cambodian border, the first real sense I got that we were close was the military checkpoint about 20km before Aranyaprathet. The Thai military police stopped the bus and boarded, checking identification and tickets. To the best of my memory, this was the first time I'd encountered such a military presense in a civilian setting. I'll admit, it was intimidating. Thailand may be called the land of smiles, but apparently that doesn't apply to the Thai military. These guys were completely stone faced and sober. I wasn't sure what to make of it and didn't know what the stop and search was about. As I came to find out, Thailand, like many countries, has a problem with illegal immigration. Specifically, many Cambodians try to cross over to find work under the table. This checkpoint is set up for two reasons - trying to stop Cambodians from getting in illegally in the first place, and on the way back to Cambodia like we were doing, to prevent them from escaping with impunity.

After a few minutes of checking, our bus was waived on without any futher incidence. Like a lot of things I would come to learn about southeast Asia, this is nothing uncommon. There was nothing to be concerned about, especially for foreign tourists, like us. Within just a few more minutes, we came in to view of a small town. I correctly assumed this was our final destination on this bus trip, the town of Aranyaprathet.

Aranyaprathet seemed like just another small, friendly Thai town. We stepped off the bus in front of the 7-11, got some water and waved down a tuk tuk to take us to the border for 50 baht. Riding a clean, air-conditioned bus to the border made it seem like this was going to be an easy trip. Boy were we in for a surprise.

After being taken the 5 km or so to the border crossing, we were met immediately by a tout, a smiling and friendly guy, but who's help I did not need nor want. That didn't matter to him, he was going to help me anyway. We tried to brush him off and told him we were shopping around a bit. There was a market/carnival, probably two city blocks square, selling just about everything imaginable, most of it kitschy, just in front of the border. As we walked away from the market, there was our tout, along with another who were both vying for us, to escort us to the Thai immigration office. You have to go through immigration here when you exit as well as enter.

Thankfully, we got through this very crowded and stifling hot room fairly quickly. A lot of people were just making border crossings to visit the casino just over the border. We were in a separate line for those who were really "going in".

Sure enough, as we exited, our self-appointed tout was there waiting for us, eager to help us find our way across, although the other tout that had attached himself to us seemed to have given up. First, though, we had to get our Cambodian visa. And let me just say, it it one of the most impressive visas I've ever seen. It's not just some rubber and ink stamp. It's a sticker that takes up a full page in your passport, decorated with the colors and intricacy of paper money. But getting the visa was much simpler than I thought it would be. I had heard that the border gaurds try to squeeze you for a little more than the official price, 1000 baht or US $20. But when I walked up to the visa services building, a guy handed me the application, and after I'd filled it out, he told me, "One thousand baht". Not even the slightest attempt at a shakedown. Truthfully, I was a bit disappointed. Oh, well. I didn't need a confrontation now anyway.

After we got our arrival/departure cards stamped, we were officially entering Cambodia. Here, in addition to the tout that had already attached himself to us, we acquired three more. Each wanted to help us get to a taxi, and I was determined to do it without their help, just to spite them. I could see the taxis and I headed straight there, telling the touts all along the way, "No, thanks, I don't need any help".

I found a taxi driver and asked him if he would take me and my friend, and no one else, to Siem Reap for 1000 baht. I had read all about making this crossing from Gordon Sharpless' site, talesofasia.com, which was immensely helpful in telling me what to expect and what to watch out for. Despite my best efforts to flout the touts, nevertheless, it seems the touts are tied in with the taxis in some way because as soon as we loaded up the taxi, one of the touts we'd involuntarily acquired got in our driver's face, making obvious threats. After a few words and gestures were exchanged, our driver got out his wallet and handed the tout a single U.S. one dollar bill. My thought was, "All that over one dollar?" But we were definitely not in Kansas, nor the United States, anymore. In Cambodia, the average annual income is about $350, making one dollar about one day's pay. No doubt this young tout, getting a dollar from every tourist he leads to a taxi, at their request or not, is making a pretty good living doing this.

Crossing the Cambodian border was like stepping into another universe. The town on the Cambodian side is Poipet, and it's fairly infamous as the most dirty, vile, lawless town in the whole nation. Not exactly a nice welcome. I really wish I had brought a videocamera with me for this trip because there are just no words to decribe stepping into that experience, but let me try. Just after the gate entering Cambodia, there is a roundabout with every vagrant, begger, gypsy, homeless person, and tout imaginable. There's also the fairly shocking sight of the war wounded, beggars who've lost one or more limbs during the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, most likely victims of Cambodia's many landmines.

The most distressing of everyone at the border were the very young children, some as young as 3, trained to confrontationally beg from strangers. It's hard to be callous to a little boy with an angelic face and no clothes but a tattered t-shirt, but I know the story behind the story. If parents can send their child out to beg and the child brings home money, that child will be held out of school and never get an education. I don't want to perpetuate that.

In addition to this cast of characters, there are people driving, pushing, or pulling anything on wheels, from old trucks, farm carts, rickshaws, and Toyota Camrys. There are likely to be people, usually children, riding on the sides, top, or even the hood of anything moving. I'm not sure why they're sitting on the hood. I don't know who I'd ask if I wanted to.

Now in addition to all this, it looks like all of this was taking place on a site that looked like the aftermath of some huge concert festival. Trash piles everywhere covering muddy and dusty ground that had been trampled to death.

This part of Cambodia, even though it's on the Angkor Wat tourist circuit, is really remote and not easy to get to. The whole road stretching from the border at Poipet to the town of Siem Reap, looks like a living subscription to National Geographic. Every scene that typifies images of Asia can be seen here, from people living and working along the river, harvesting rice fields to young children herding ox down the road and people of all ages casting fishing nets in the rivers all along the road. There's also the grim poverty. Ramshackle is the word that comes to mind. Houses obviously built out of whatever was available, some on stilts to protect against monsoon floods. Cows were present all along the road, but most looked thin and malnourished.

The trip down this road started out pretty comfortable. I was just glad to be away from the circus freaks we left in Poipet. The road out had pavement. Notice I didn't say paved, I say it had pavement, because although it did have pavement, it was only about fifty percent intact. Seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, the pavement would be broken up and piled into mounds in the middle of the road. Nevertheless, we made our way around them fairly easily. At some point, this road's paving came to an end and we were left to ride on a dirt road that looked like a good effort had been made to maintain it, but despite those efforts, the road was pocked with numerous holes, some the size of our car itself.

Normally, you would think that would keep someone from driving too fast, but not our driver. I could see the speedometer hitting 80 kph on a road that most people would take at no more than 20mph in a 4x4, much less a Toyota Camry. I'm truly amazed that the car made the entire 160 km journey without falling apart. Two thirds of the ride was so bumpy and bone jarring, that having a conversation was difficult. Not only could John and I not hear each other over the rumble, I was having a difficult time speaking from being slammed around so much. It was like trying to carry on a conversation when someone's taking random punches at your gut. I mostly gave up and enjoyed the scenery instead.

I was taking this experience and making the best of it. I sort of knew what I was getting into, so I was prepared although I was still surprised. John, on the other hand, came very close to losing his sense of adventure. He was still tired, having a difficult time with the heat and bumping, and on top of that, at some point early in the trip our driver stopped at a "gas station" and had put a can of gasoline in the trunk that was obviously leaking. We were breathing the noxious fumes for three fourths of the trip.

After about three and a half hours of making a mad, bumpy dash over one of the worst roads I'd ever seen, through the sensory overload of this road, we finally came back onto a paved road, and this one really was paved. Let me tell you how comforting that was after the endurance test we had just gone through. We were finally coming up onto Siem Reap, the town just south of the Angkor Wat temples. We pulled into town, got a room at the Red Lodge near the old market. Finally, a real bed. My plan was to get comfortable, settle into our room, and relax a bit before setting out to see the town on foot. I laid down to just shut my eyes for a few mintues, and woke up nine hours later.

The Temples of Angkor Wat

The temples of Angkor Wat were built by the Khmer kings as a monument to their might and glory, between 800AD and 1400AD. A very comprehensive guide to the temples is available online here. At one time the settlement around the temples was the largest in the Khmer kingdom. However, after being raided numerous times by both the Siamese (Thailand) and Vietnamese, the residents of Angkor Wat got fed up and migrated to the south, around Phnom Penh. The temples were uninhabited for four hundred years and nearly lost to history. They were rediscovered in the mid 1800s by French explorers. By then, the surrounding forests had grown over many of the temples and were intruding into the stones themselves. It would be over one hundred years before restoration work would begin to open the temples up to the public again, but unfortunately that was just about the time Cambodia was thrown into the turmoil that eventually led to the ascendancy of the notorious Khmer Rouge, which closed the country to all foreigners and killed 1.7 million Cambodians.

John and I covered the temples pretty well while we were here. We saw all the major temples and spent a good amount of time at my favorite, Ta Prhom, the one with the trees growing into it. We also saw Bantey Srei, Preh Khan, Angkor Thom, and Bayon.

We took our second day to go all the way out to Kbal Spean, about 10km past Bantey Srei. We were getting into some very remote and poor villages on the way, but in their own way they were very beautiful and the people seemed happy and content. WIthout exception, everywhere we went the children were so joyful and eager to wave and say, "Hello". I'm really finding Cambodia very endearing.

The Floating Village of Tonle Sap

After we'd seen most of the temples, and felt quite templed out to be honest, we decided to spend our fourth day here taking a boat out on the Tonle Sap lake to see the floating villages. I had heard quite a bit about this place before we came and it seemed to me that we might see some very quintessential scenes of southeast Asia here.

We were warned ahead of time that getting down to the village and getting a boat had become a bit of a racket lately. The boaters evidently had decided to sort of unionize and fix a price for boat tours, much higher than many of them had been doing it for previously. In the past, it was no problem to go down to the shore, talk to a boat captain, and get a tour for $3. Now, just to get through to the village, you have to buy a boat ticket at a guard station about one kilometer outside the village. When we came to the station, the guard demanded that we pay $15 to proceed. The person who warned us of this said it would be easy enough to get around it if we just told them we were going in to walk around, not to take a boat. We tried this, and at first thought it had worked. The guard, who had the stern face of a comic book villain, summoned an older gentleman in civilian clothes over to talk to us, apparently because he could speak English. The man was a bit insistent, interogating us even. Suspiciously he asked, "You're not going to take a boat?" He got uncomfortably close in my face, deliberately I'm sure so as to be intimidating. I insisted that we were only going down to walk around the village and take some pictures. He paused and looked at us with an evil eye, but eventually relented and let us through.

Just as we thought we had cleared that hurdle and had made it in, our tuk tuk was stopped by a young guy on an ATV carrying a walkie talkie. My guess is, he got word from the gate that we came through without paying and he wasn't going to permit it. What were we to do at that point? We gave in and paid the $15. In the end, I guess I have to say it was worth it. We got a nice boat all to ourselves, for as long as we wanted it, and a really nice, accommodating captain to boot, although he spoke not a single word of English.

My reluctance in paying the fee was not for the sake of being cheap. I don't need to be cheap and it's not in my nature to jip anybody. My aprehension about it is that I'm not sure whose pockets are getting lined. I'm fairly certain the extra money is not going to those who need it or could benefit from it most, the villagers and boat captains. My fear is that it's probably somehow ending up in the pockets of Cambodia's de facto, unelected prime minister Hun Sen and his cronies. I would rather not contribute to that if I can avoid it at all.

Nevertheless, sometimes you have to pick your battles and this one we lost. But still, the trip was so worth it. I was moved beyond words seeing the floating village. Some of the homes were built along the shoreline, but some truly were floating on pontoons right on the water. This is a merchant village, not surprisingly the main trade being in seafood. Lots of boats could also be seen stacked up with vegetables also. Boats are everywhere, coming and going, usually with two or three people aboard, usually two rowing and one bailing water. Surprisingly, other than the two of us, I didn't see any other tourists out on the water, although there were some back on shore.

Still after seeing this, I have a hard time imaging what life is like in this village. Most of the homes were extremely small, probably no bigger than 10 by 10 feet. To say they were not weather-tight is an understatement. Discarded wood and tin roofing seemed to be the building material of choice (of course the roofing wasn't necessarily used for the roof). Most are wide open to the elements. In fact it seemed bit intrusive just to be walking along the road, peering into people's homes. After a while you get used to it. That's just life here and no one thinks a thing of it. But to be walking along only to innocently glance over and see someone serving the family lunch, or a child sitting on the potty, it's a bit discordant with what we're used to back home.

I'm keenly aware of just how blessed we are to be born and raised in the United States, the wealthiest, most prosperous, and opportunity filled nation in the world. But there is nothing like seeing a place like this to really drive home the point. The people here have such a pitifully meager existence. I almost hesitate to say that because the last thing I want to appear as is condescending. My heart truly goes out to them for being born into a situation they didn't ask for and can likely do nothing about.

That said, they still seemed to be mostly happy people. Maybe it's because they have no frame of reference to a society that earns more in an hour than they will earn in a week. In a way I'm glad they don't. At least in this case ignorance really is bliss.

John and I spent one of our last days in Siem Reap helping one of the shopkeepers we'd met named Lida (pronounced LEE Dah) who was trying to apply for a diversity visa to come to the United States. He spoke pretty good English but didn't understand some of the legalese or the computer lingo it contained, indicating his photo needed to be in JPEG format, 300 x 300 pixels, 8 bit color depth. What started out as us just looking over his papers and taking his picture ended up with us walking with him down to the internet cafe and logging on to the U.S. State Dept. website where he could apply. We filled out the application for him and submitted his picture. He'll know within 9 months whether he will be given one of the 50,000 visas available. I've given him my email address and hope he'll keep in touch.

For our last night in Siem Reap, we invited Lida and Piset, another shopkeeper, out to dinner. We had found a great little restaurant called the Khmer Kitchen tucked away in a no name alley behind the main strip of pubs. It was a memorable way to end our time here.

continue on to Laos...