The following article appeared in The Nation Junior, a magazine based in Bangkok in association with The Nation, and is recreated here for archiving purposes.
As my nostrils filled with the stink of garbage and feces, the taste of vomit began to seep into my mouth. The border crossing from Thailand into Poipet, Cambodia is landmarked by a bridge donated by the UK which is adjacent to a garbage dump. As I cross from Thailand into Cambodia, I begin to notice major contrasts. Passing through the little shack they call immigration I realize that all the cars have been strictly replaced with motorcycles. Looking back through the border you can clearly see the green grass and paved roads that severely contrast Cambodia’s dead foliage and dirt paths.
Ten seconds into our four hour taxi ride to Siem Reap, I begin to realize the condition of the road, or lack thereof, is causing the car to buck like a bronco with a hot poker in its ass. I am conned into paying double the price for the ride by a man our driver later confirms is part of the Cambodian mafia. The mafioso says the price is doubled because of the severe condition of the dirt path which separates us from our destination, and the recent flood that has created a flowing river that we must now cross by being pulled with a tractor.
As night falls, the stomachache I have gotten from the past two hours of driving is distracted by the number of vehicles consumed by the flood. There are families pushing cars out of muddy rivers and whole pickup trucks lodged into the ground. Cows and farm animals are stuck on either side of the multiple rivers that have isolated them on sandbars with forlorn looks in their black eyes. We approach what looks like a giant river that is overflowing into the rice paddies in the south, and our driver kindly pays $3 USD for a tractor to tug us through the open water. Water slowly permeates through the cracks of the door, and I begin to laugh knowing that that is all I can do.
As we drive further from the scene of disarray I begin to see the lights of the Siem Reap airport ahead. Just then, our car passes over a small patch of water that yanks our vehicle down about a half a meter and tosses me into the air. The loud snap caused by the drop confirms that our vehicle has a flat tire and a broken transaxle.
The driver doesn’t blink an eye and says, “This happens about once a week.” The dirt path between Thailand and Siem Reap is left in such disrepair that pot holes are a constant threat to vehicles making this trek. It is said that the Cambodian government purposefully neglects repair of this road to encourage tourists to fly in and drum up business in their airports and airlines.
He calls a friend in Siem Reap and we are dragged by a small rope to the bus station where my journey in Cambodia finally begins.
Siem Reap, October 28, 2006
When one first sets their sights upon Angkor Wat, it is truly an awe inspiring moment. Angkor Wat is one of 52 temples that make up the ancient city of the Khmer Empire that ruled most of the Indochina from the 11th to 14th century. It was built in the mid 12th century by King Suryavarman 2nd as the state temple of the time, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. That’s right, Southeast Asia has deep roots in Hinduism and most of the temples of Angkor Wat were built in praise of them.
Even within the national park, one can still witness the severe poverty and misfortune of the Khmer people. In Cambodia, seeing children with missing limbs is a social norm. Cambodia has the largest rate of physical disability in the world and an estimated 40,000 people have fallen victim to mines since 1979. Just as the thought is truly starting to come into reality, I pass by two teenagers riding bicycles who are both missing their right arms. An image I won’t forgot soon.
As I pass the legless victims in one of the temples, a young boy approaches me and greets me with a friendly salutation. He speaks amazing English and we strike a conversation as he directs me to safest side of the temple which we will ascend the two story flight of stone steps. He explains to me the different stones that were used and points to a mountain in the distance from which elephants dragged the countless boulders to create the temples.
I inquire how old he is and just how he knows so much about the temples. The 16-year-old boy replies, “I like to learn. I like to learn about the temples.”
About half way through the personal tour I realize he will probably want money and, sure enough, that is the aim of most of Cambodians.
He says, “Please, sir. Can I have a dollar? I have to pay my teacher so I can learn.”
Truly, Cambodian people have a special gift that most people in the world take for granted – a penchant for acquiring knowledge. In a country with little natural or monetary resources, knowledge is not only the power to get a job, but also the power to live.
My travel companions consist of two Dutchmen and a German American. As we approach several stalls to find something to eat, we are bombarded by countless ladies trying to convince us to eat at their hut. After picking a stall, we ordered some Khmer food and attempt to cool off from the 45C weather.
Two little girls approach us with fists full of bracelets in both their hands and we greet them with the normal te awkhun – no, thank you in Khmer. One little girl asks my Dutch friend, “Where are you from?” He replies and is instantly greeted with perfect Dutch responses. The other girl begins to chat with my German speaking friend in German and, not a minute later, both of them bought a bracelet.
Tourists from all over the world taught the girls basic conversational English, Dutch, Spanish, and German. They could count to ten in all of the languages and knew just how to sell their items in the given context of the foreign language.
With heavy amounts of European tourism going through Cambodia every year, it is not hard to believe that the Cambodian people have managed to adopt a lot of different cultures. The main pub street in Siem Reap is home to a variety of foreign delicacies that rival that of their mother countries, and are offered at an extremely reasonable price. The Cambodian people are open to learn any trade that will help them make a living. This mentality along with the instruction of countless foreigners has made Cambodia into a culinary delight.
One restaurant seems to stick out in midst of the others – its bright yellow sign beckoning curious tourists down the street. The sign reads: Happy Special Pizza. The pizza at this shop is made from scratch, and can be topped with the normal variety of toppings you’d find back in a New York pizzeria – with one special exception.
Those who wish to live dangerously can request that their pizza be made “happy,” in which case they will discover a well-placed, mysterious layer of marijuana under their cheese. Surely this was not the influence of the Italians.
When we arrive back at our hostel we discover the 23-year-old owner of our hostel and his much younger workers feasting over some Khmer rice wine and two frogs. Cambodia was a French colony, so this is hardly surprising. After partaking in a portion of the frog and rice wine, I ask if they eat frog often in Cambodia.
Sarath Chhean, the hostel manager replies, “Yes, I like frog. I eat dog, too.”
Suddenly I realized that the massive amounts of stray dogs that are ubiquitous in Bangkok didn’t seem to be a problem here.
October 30, 2006
The bus to Phnom Penh is long, but luckily this path is paved – unlike the road we took into this country – and I manage to make good conversation with an ex-Vietnam War veteran from North Dakota. He bears the baggy eyes of an aged veteran and looks like a tall and much skinnier version of Jerry Garcia. He tells me the last time he was in Cambodia was in the war, and his unit was attempting to intercept the Viet Cong trying to flank Saigon.
Mr. Talkington said, “I was high on opium and started shooting my gun into the air. My sergeant came over, tackled me, and pressed my gun under my chin. I just laughed. As I began to trip the Vietnamese on the other side shot back, and I stared at the gunfire as it lit up the sky.”
The conversation hardly seems weird considering I had spent the night before talking with a guy from Connecticut who was going to be studying Islam in Yangon, Burma.
We stop briefly at a bus station in Kampong Thom and disembark into various vendors trying to sell weary travelers everything from pineapples to tarantulas. Several Cambodian girls surround me completely to compete for my hunger, attempting to sell me pineapple for 500 Riel (about $.13 USD).
One girl shouts, “I asked you first!”
I pick one girl randomly and hand over the 500 Riel. I head toward the bus and look into my new purchase only to discover the sweet pineapple is covered with hundreds of ants. I place the infested fruit down in the gutter and head back to the bus.
There is a slight tug at my leg, and I turn around to see the little Cambodian girl I bought the pineapple from standing there with a tear in her eye and a fresh bag of pineapple in her hand. I take the pineapple she offers me, then kneel down and look into her timid eyes to thank her. I board the bus, sit down, and begin to cry.