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Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Traveling in SE asia is cheap. It’s cheap because the majority of the people live at a level that most developed countries would conside severely sub-standard. Since we have been spending so much time taking advantage of this we figured it was time to give something back. Cambodia seemed like the perfect place for it.

Not only is Cambodia a poor country, but it is also trying to crawl out from underneath Pol Pot’s 1970’s genocide. Couple that with thousands of unexploded landmines around the country and you get a lot of problems. In Siem Reap there is a childrens hospital that sees over 1,000 children each day. It’s estimated that without this hospital 28,000 children would die each year. The most common problem is Dengue Fever. Dengue Fever is easily treated as long as the right medical treatment is available, a blood transfusion. Unfortunately there is always a massive blood shortage. We had read about this hospital a long time ago and had agreed that since “it’s in us to give” that we wanted to do just that.

We headed to the hospital in the morning and arrived just as they were opening the clinic. There were mothers and children everywhere. They don’t have fancy chairs like in waiting rooms at home instead everyone sits on mats on the floor. We were ushered into the donating lab as the patients and mothers looked at us with curiosity.

The donation was quick and easy and ended with a bag of goodies. We were thanked at least a half of dozen times including from our hotel manager, the man working at the Dr. Fish place we visited afterwards and the security guard at the hospital.

I loved every part of Cambodia but I owe all of that to the Cambodians. They made me feel as if I was guest in their country instead of a tourist. Whether we were shopping in the market or walking down the street we were met with smiles. Bartering was done with laughter and joking as opposed to seriousness. I never felt like I was being cheated, ripped off or taken advantage of.

Siem Reap was an amazing city. It was cute and clean. I had some of the best food I’ve eaten since being at home. The downtown is littered with beautiful restaurants at a steal of a price. Most of the places have tables on the street which means that you’ll have a few people try and sell you some of their wares as they are passing by. Sadly though it is often children or disabled people and more often than not you have to say “no thanks.” Jerry was different though.

We were sitting on Pub Street (think Victoria Row) when Jerry came up to our table. He’s a 16 year old kid who had his leg blown off by a landmine. He lives apart from his 6 brothers and sisters and sells books to try and help support him and his family. He was a genuinely happy guy and we had a great conversation as he told us about his family and his books. He had a constant smile on his face and even sang us a song after we bought two of them. .

Cambodia was an experience I will never forget and can’t wait to return to. It was hard leaving and I did so with a heavy heart. For me it was like going home for a week. Being able to walk down the street and smile at the passerbys is not something to take for granted.

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Day 50: Angkor Wat

No trip to Cambodia is really compete without paying a visit to Angkor Wat so like every other Cambodian tourist we went to take a look. I’d like to say that I was blown away by the ruins but I’d be exaggerating. Don’t get me wrong they were impressive and definitely worth seeing but not something I’d put on a top five list. There are three passes available for seeing the temples: 1, 3 or 7 days. After one full day I was satisfied.

We took off quite early, 6am to see some of the site before it was really crowded or really hot. Angkor Wat is actually made up of many different temples but we decided to start with AW itself. It is in the best shape of the four temple sites we visited but because of this it lacked a bit of the magic the other sites had.

We visited four temples in total Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, —- and Ta Phrom. The last was my favourite. It lives in the middle of the jungle and is overrun with trees, vines and moss. It is mostly fallen with very few walls still standing but that’s what I liked. It was stuff of fairy tales to see how the trees had grown right up through the stone. The roots of the trees looked like massive snakes weaving their way through the brick and after destroying it remaining there to support the structure.

At 2 we decided to call it a day and head in to see some of Siem Reap. I immediately fell in love but that’s another story.

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Day 48: Mr.Borith

Our first full day in Phnom Penh Jacob made a new friend. Mr Borith is a tuk-tuk driver who hangs out in front of the guest house where we were staying. They struck up a conversation after Mr Borith somehow guessed that Jacob was Canadian. Mr Borith explained that he drives a tuktuk to earn a living for his family. He wants to take them to see Angkor Wat. He lived in Phnom Penh as a child but was sent out of the city to the countryside near Siem Reap during the Khmer Rouge evacuation of the city. His whole family, mother father and brother were killed during the genocide. We both took quite a liking to Mr Borith and hired him as our driver for the next day.

Our first stop with our new tour guide was the shooting range. Jacob fired an AK47 and a revolver at two unsuspecting coconuts. Both survived the attack. After Jacob had his fill we went to a much more depressing tourist attraction on the other side of town, Cheong Ek Killing Fields.

This former Chinese cemetery is where the Khmer Rouge soldiers would take the S21 prisoners to execute them after they were satisfied they had no more information. There are 129 mass graves on site holding an estimated 9000 bodies. The skeletons range from infants to seniors. They have excavated most of the graves and have preserved the bones in a memorial. However, since they haven’t been able to recover everything, during the rainy season bones and pieces of clothing will float up through the mud.

All of the prisoners were executed with their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded. The bones were still wrapped in the ties when they unearthed them. At the time of the killings bullets were expensive so instead of shooting the prisoners they slit their throats with palm tree branches. The children were killed by throwing them against a tree. The marks are still on the tree.

We left the killing fields with heavy hearts. They only got heavier when we went out to meet Mr Borith. He told us about coming back to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge were defeated and visiting these killig fields to look for his parents. He said that not all of the graves had been closed so by the time they found the site, animals had torn apart some of the bodies and the skin and hair was floating in the flood waters.

The worst part of Mr Borith’s story is knowing that it is in no way unique. The majority of people have similar stories and if not then their parents do. But instead of shutting down or holding on to the hate and anger Mr Borith was one of the most genuinely kind and helpful persons I’ve met. He greeted us every time with a huge smile and wave. He made us feel as if we were his guests in Phnom Penh and he was more than happy to show us around. He made our Phnom Penh experience.

If you happened upon this and are looking for a tuktuk driver in Phnom Penh Mr Borith hangs out in front of the Nice Guesthouse on street 107. His email is borith1964@yahoo.com and his phone number is 012395046.

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For our first depressing event in Phnom Penh our new best friend, Mr. Borith, dropped us off at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21). The museum is at the high school turned prison by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. This particular prison was where they took anybody suspected of treason, espionage or any other high ranking member of society; they mostly arrested highly educated people or anyone who worked for the government. They would hold the prisoners and torture them until they got information or was sure they didn’t have any and then would transport them to the nearby killing fields.

We opted for a tour guide to take us around the prison and it was definitely worth it. Our first stop was beneath a tree next to a bench where two old men were sitting. The tour guide gave us a brief history of the genocide and this prison’s role in it and finished off by saying that there were 7 survivors from the prison. They escaped as the Vietnamese army was fighting the Khmer Rouge and that the men sitting on the bench were two of the survivors. We had a chance to talk to them with the help of our tour guide/translator. They showed us their scars and described what they went through in the prison. We asked how they can bare coming back to the prison everyday, they replied that at first it was hard, but now they just want people to remember. I nearly cried talking to them.

We spent the next hour or so walking around the prison as the tour guide described the different ways the prisoners were tortured. We saw the cells where they kept the prisoners, the barbed wire, the torturing tools and the blood stains on the wall. While it was definitely a depressing place to be, it was somehow incredible. Walking around knowing that not much more than 30 years ago the city was emptied and this innocent high school was used to torture innocent people leaves quite an impression.

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We decided that the easiest way for us to get from HCMC to Phnom Penh and also get a taste of the Mekong Delta in between was to take a tour. I’m not sure what I thought the Mekong Delta was going to be like but it definitely was not what I had in mind. I suppose I had been picturing serene waterways through the trees and sailing next to huge rice fields but I was mistaken. Instead the Delta is made up of communities and villages
living right on the water or at the very least on the river banks. We got to see the locals going about their daily lives washing clothes in the river, the kids scrubbing down and the fishermen on their boats. It’s an interesting style of life to live on the water. It’s not something I think I’d like but I can see that if you grew up there you could never imagine any other way of life.

The tour took the better part of two days and with not much going on we entertained ourselves the way we usually do – people watching. We’re traveling a fairly popular overland route and we have the opportunity to spot people again and again as we move along. We often make up stories for the people we encounter. This tour was no exception. Unfortunately, the people made up the best part of the tour. Our tour group was made up of four teenagers from different European countries, two Israelis and a lone Brit. The Israelis breaking up and the girl latching on to the Brit (who we saw together later in Phnom Penh) and the fact that the Israeli male was one of the dumbest people I’ve ever met really was quite entertaining. After finding out that Jacob was a fisherman, his only question was how much you get for catching a shark.

The tour was long and at times rather confusing. We had to transfer boats and buses quite a few times and usually with no idea where we were going or for how long. I can definitely say that I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have your heart set on seeing the Mekong Delta (which I didn’t find that spectacular). After day two we finally arrived in Cambodia exhausted. We checked into our hotel and spent the rest of the day watching movies on satellite tv.

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