And back we were, here in South-East Asia. I honestly didn’t know much about Cambodia’s history and the terrible days of the Khmer Rouge. I had a rather vague idea about “a genocide”, but no details. If you are as bad as I am in history, I suggest you do some Googling about Cambodia’s dark years. “Terrible” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
– stories of torture carved in their memorial monuments –
But not to focus on the sad and dramatic past, and on a more superficial note, one of my first interesting discoveries was that this region of the world used to be part of “Indochina”. When I read that, I immediately found myself singing in my head “c’est a canary bayyy uh-uhh ♪ ♫ ♪”* and remembering how my dear aunt Mapy lost my music tape with “Indochine’s greatest hits” in the dark streets of Mejia Beach (I accidentally found her, torch in hand, backtracking her steps, searching for it with guilt in her face). Not the most terrible loss in the world, luckily. (*never mind if you don’t understand this one… blame it on the generational gap 🙂 ).
Anyway…welcome back to driving on the right side. To yet another society with the triple F as a the base… food, family and faith. To more yummy food (banana-flower salad has arrived to my personal menu to stay). To friendly locals who don’t ever seem to stop smiling. I later concluded that it’s in their genes to smile, as they do it even when you are complaining about bad service. But regardless, they are extremely friendly. It is the first time a cashier at a supermarket asks me “where are you from” and then says “nice to meet you”. Never had that in my local Albert Heijn. Loved it.
– cooking classes are now almost a ritual everywhere we go-
We didn’t spend as much time in Cambodia as in previous countries, to really learn about the local culture, folklore and such. But you know what? There are some tricks you can resort to, to get some insights. To begin with, … turn on the TV… watch the local news (even if you don’t understand a word)… a bit of a local soap opera or reality show… some of the advertisement. You can learn so much from the commercials!
For instance, curious about the beauty standards of a society? … Want to know what is considered “good looking/handsome/hot/cool”? … I suggest the ads of high-end mobile phones and top-tier beers and cigarettes. Want to know what is considered “normal” or “average”? Go for laundry detergents or cheaper beers. You know, the ones “for the people”.
Just don’t make the mistake of going all the way up to luxury brands or cosmetics, as you’ll start seeing western models featured.
– In a program like “Idol”, contestants as well as judges will be a good indication of what is considered “fashionable” (and by the way also “talented”) –
Cambodia has a USD-based economy. They do have their local currency, the Riel, but most things (particularly in the touristic circuit) are handled in American dollars. That’s handy for tourists but also convenient for the locals, as they will round everything up to the next doláh (read “doláh” -with the accent on the a-). You can get everything and anything for one doláh (more or less 4000 Riel). From tuk-tuk rides to the laundry to a beer to a coffee to a postcard to an ice cream to a smoothie to a bottle of water to a fresh coconut to any given souvenir . Never 2750 or 3500 Riel. Always one doláh.
For many foreigners, Cambodia equals Angkor Wat. It is their Taj Mahal, their pyramid of Giza, their Machu Picchu (“where are you from?” …”Peru” … “ohhh! Machu Picchu!”, no Peruvian abroad hast NOT heard that). Our first stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, the touristy city next to the huge and impressive complex of temples of Angkor. We visited temples non-stop, dawn till dusk, for two full days, and probably saw 1/10th of them, if not fewer. Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world (they say) is magnificent, but it also unfairly puts some shadow on the other temples, which could by themselves be any crown’s jewel, should party pooper Angkor Wat not be there, stealing the show. For instance, we also loved Ta Prohm and the phantasmagoric trees seemingly eating up the ruins, made famous by Lara Croft (or was it by Angelina’s outfit?) .
– and another impressive one, Bayon, the temple of the faces –
Other than the temples, Siem Reap and its famous “pub street” was a parade of fried ice cream rolls and banana pancake stalls, plus the odd deep-fried tarantula/scorpion vendor (some of whose snacks were probably fried before the times of Lara Croft and are still waiting for a buyer).
– some mummified … sorry, deep-fried snacks, anyone? –
Now, … I have to say… we’ve come to the point where we are experiencing the power or relativity. And I’m not talking Einstein, but the fact that we weren’t THAAAT impressed. And what we saw here should have impressed us. We have seen SO MUCH in the past 9 months, so many amazing temples, buildings, landscapes… it’s like we don’t get impressed that easily anymore. Beauty today is relative to what you’ve seen yesterday. And that’s a bit of a shame, I guess.
Sandra and I debated a bit about this… and in the process also asked ourselves, who chooses the “top 20” of those usual lists you come across? We’ve seen so many “top 10”, “top 20” and “must-do” lists … but where does this obscure marketing power originate? Who owns this power to manage everyone’s expectations? Should I be more impressed with Angkor Wat in Cambodia than with the Kailasa Temple in India only because the latter didn’t make it to “the ultimate top-20 Asian sites”? Hmm… not so sure about that, my friends.
– don’t get me wrong, it does belong in the top-20 –
Here my pic selection:
From Siem Reap we went to Battambang, a smaller town where we took a bike tour to see a bit of rural Cambodia, including local production of rice paper (the one you use for spring rolls), sticky bamboo rice, rice wine, a croc farm with more crocs than all of north Australia, a fish market with quesitonable hygiene standards and had a first glimpse at the story of the genocide days. Gee, so terrible. It made us think of the role luck plays in where each of us is born… and how lucky we are. Our bicycle-guide lived the genocide first-hand… he survived, obviously, but not before suffering like hell and losing a sister and other relatives in the process. His only sin was to be born in rural Cambodia. And he tells the story as if it were part of his tour. Terrible.
Have a look at how they make the rice paper… cool simple process:
Here we also rode a “bamboo train”, went to a famous local circus and saw a gazillion bats leave their cave at sunset (and pee on us while they were at it). See the pics:
The capital. We are not the biggest fans of large cities, so we took it easy. We were pleasantly surprised by a capital way more walkable than other ones we’ve visited. Also went to the “killing fields” to learn more about the terrible stories of the genocide days. Saw some traditional Khmer -name of their native people- architecture, ate some healthy food, Sandra went to the hairdresser (who didn’t speak any English) and didn’t do much more, really. Here some pics:
In our journey towards the southern coast, we stopped in Kampot, famous for its pepper plantations and its relaxed atmosphere. Many, many backpackers. We stayed at a proper backpackers’ hostel, where it’s all about the fun and the party. Big “no drugs” signs and equally big waves of weed smoke. Some backpackers are so young they probably can’t legally drink back home. Some will surely NOT remember many of their “touristic” experiences, a few years from now. Also, no wonder why many of them get so often scammed by the con artists these countries tend to have. We’ve seen -and experienced- so many attempts that I’m pretty sure that my intoxicated 18-years-old version would have already fallen for them a few times. Knock on wood, but we’ve luckily escaped them all so far (unless they were so good we didn’t even notice it, of course).
– how to know you are staying at a cool backpacker’s hostel –
It didn’t take us too long to notice the many, many pizza restaurants with the word “happy” or something related to happiness in their names. Even the most serious tourist books will recommend you some places where the pizza comes with an extra ingredient which, I guess, is supposed to make you happy. I went and looked for it, digging deep in between the pepperonis and the mozzarella. Didn’t find it. They use a lot of oregano, though (wait, it wasn’t oregano?). Happy pizzas are a cultural tradition here in Cambodia, I later found out. No wonder they smile that much. 🙂
Closing off with some Beach days
And finally, the Cambodian beach. We spent some very nice days at Koh Rong Samloem, one of those paradise islands which is already suffering from its own success, with infrastructure growing faster than the services around it. It was very very nice, with sand so fine that it “squeaks” when you rub your feet against it (first time I experience that) and jacuzzi-temperature water. Unfortunately, though, “pristine” is not a word they can afford to write in their brochures. The garbage pollution is a real problem in this part of the word. It’s a bit sad, to see such an amazing piece of nature ruined by plastic rubbish. A potential paradise about to be ruined. Go visit it very soon, is our advice.
– white squeaky sand-
Anyway, we enjoyed our beach bungalow with this swing in the water, right in front. Saw many photo sessions, most of them following the same pattern: the woman poses… the resigned man takes pictures… then she comes and checks the pictures… she doesn’t approve… take two. And so.
– pose, clic, check, disapprove, repeat –
Also, a little bit too much Chinese influence for my taste, here. They say rich Chinese are coming, buying land and building hotels, resorts and casinos like there’s no tomorrow. You see some signs only in Chinese already. And you can easily spot the richest ones…walking amongst the western backpackers in long dresses, high heels and plenty of bling-bling, almost needing an assistant to lift the weight of their wrist watches. I also heard that we “white tourists” are not the focus anymore… the cash is coming from the far east, nowadays.
And these were our days in Cambodia. Nice little country with a dark -and recent!- history which makes you appreciate even more the open and friendly personality of its smiley people. We even tried to extend our stay but didn’t manage to change the date of our flight (not easy to arrange from a remote island, you know), so it was time to move on to neighboring Vietnam!
For the musical bonus, it was a difficult choice. That performance in Cambodian Idol was very tempting, however I went for this one… a public aerobics session in the streets of Phnom Penh (something very common to see). Not sure if the instructor wanted to be there, though.
– my new fitness role model –
Cheers for now…
Chiang Mai – Thailand, April 7th, 2018.