Cambodia: The Best of the Rest (Phnom Penh – Poipet)

Once again trying to rescue a few memories before they fade into oblivion.

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Just to spice things up, I’ll try doing this one topically.

Nature / Scenery

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Cambodian towns and cities have some pretty intense names, part Star Trek, part Middle Earth, part Game of Thrones – for example, “Stung Treng,” “Tropeang Kroham,” “Khao Nek,” “Snuol,” and “Krek.”  Unfortunately, the landscape during the dry season is not quite as varied or exotic.  In fact, it’s downright monotonous.  The 400km from Phnom Penh to the Thai border looked pretty much exactly the same: dry and flat.  This would probably be gorgeous during the wet season, when all the withered, chopped rice stalks would instead be waist-tall and vibrant green.  Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

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Sometimes there was water.

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And water buffalo.  Kate told me that one of her coworkers asked her why we call them “water buffalo” in English.  When she told him that in the USA we (used to) have buffalo that don’t actually go into the water, it blew his mind.

Something mysterious: I noticed that Cambodia had a total scarcity of chickens.  Their meat and eggs are plentiful, but you don’t see the pesky little mini-raptors everywhere the way you do in Laos and Vietnam.  Or rather, hear them.  I’m pretty sure that from the moment we set off from Hanoi until the moment crossed into Cambodia, we were never more than ten meters away from a chicken.  We certainly woke up to their calls at absurdly early hours just about every morning, whether we were camping in the wild, staying at a temple, mooching with a family, or even nice and comfy in some countryside guesthouse.  We always found them really annoying then, but now their absence feels a little creepy.

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A monument to who-knows-what in the middle of nowhere.  I showed this photo to a Cambodian; his response was to smack his forehead in frustration and ask what the heck the government was doing with their money.

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We’re always happy to come across rubber plantations.  From a purely hobo-centric standpoint, they’ve got all the benefits of a forest (shade, places to hang hammocks, spots to hide in so locals don’t bother you) and none of the drawbacks (bugs, animals, undergrowth, thorns).  Perfect place to cook lunch and nap during the hot hours.

From an eco-centric standpoint, it’s probably not so great.  Perhaps better than a rice paddy, though.

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There seems to be an inverse relationship between awesome landscapes and awesome skies; more of one means less of the other, and vice versa.  For example, the name of Yunnan province in China literally translates to “Cloudy South,” but I found that most of my jaw-droppings happened in the mountains, looking at the roads winding along perilously and the terraces and valleys below.  In Cambodia, it was more often the clouds and sun (-rises, –sets, and –bursts) that stopped me in my tracks.

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I guess part of it is that in the mountains you can never actually see all the way to the horizon.  You’re closer to the sky, but see less of it.

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The clouds had the annoying habit of being around mostly when I least wanted them to.  They would form in the evening, block my view of the stars all night long, start to dissipate as I packed up my tent, and disappear altogether just as I started riding.  Thanks, guys.

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6:30AM.  Something tells me the weather today’s going to be….yeah, hot. Again.

Culture / Stuff People Do

My memories of Cambodia from my previous trip were mostly of destitution.  Adults missing a limb or two begging in the streets, children trying to sell books or trinkets, dirty backpacker guesthouses with skinny, drugged-out metalhead-looking European dudes, taxi touts always whispering to me about hashish and boomboom.

Of course, I did have also the wonderful experience of visiting Chan Tha (my moto taxi driver at Angkor Wat)’s village, bathing in the river, meeting his siblings, cooking fish his father had caught, sleeping in his family’s stilt house, and walking through banana and coconut groves eating fruit at will.  It was that very experience that convinced me that if I was going to travel again, I’d have to find a way to do it off of the usual backpacker circuit.

Just like everywhere else, doing it the hard way here paid off.  Cambodia definitely has its scuzzy parts, but the purity that’s so striking in Laos and the good cheer that permeates Thailand are abound here, too.  I felt grateful to have the chance to revise my opinions about the country.

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What’s everyone lookin’ at?

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Sweeeeeeeeeeeeet!  Variety show.  Mr. Firebreather dude also had a magician friend who did some stuff with cups of water and a DJ friend who kept the techno blasting club-style.  A couple of times, they pulled volunteers/victims out of the audience and made them do things like spray water at their pet monkey.  Minsung and I slipped away before they could rope us into any of their antics.

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The music was pretty annoying and all too reminiscent of clubs back home (that is, in Korea), but it was still really nice to see the locals gathered there outside to enjoy something other than alcohol or television.

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Crossing over the big river and into Pnohm Penh.

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These boats would all bump up into one another and swap goodies.

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Graffiti in Phnom Penh.  As usual, I didn’t do too much sightseeing.  There were tons of temples to visit, but after having done legit meditation courses and many an impromptu temple stay, they don’t hold much interest for me.  I had already visited the Killing Fields and genocide museum several years back.  Souvenir markets and red light districts…eh, not for me.

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Rotting in the noonday sun, how nice.  Maybe this is one of the many forms of violence that should be stopped?

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Traffic in PP was  hectic, but the bank workers had their own crossing guards.

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Normally this sort of shot would go into the food post (coming soon!), but I put it here because everything other than the baguettes is a special treat.  If you were reading way back when I was in China, you’ll might recognize some of the shapes and designs…

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It’s Lunar New Year!

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Teams of dragon-dancers and their drummers roamed the streets performing good-luck rituals in front of shops and houses in exchange for donations.

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Off to the next stop…

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At night, the dragon dances give way to normal ones.  Once again, Kate worked some of her magic and we were granted free entry (along with drinks and peanuts) into this little shindig.  Nice and mellow and all clean fun – live music and Khmer circle dancing with those wrist moves that I just can’t manage.

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And other line dances that I can’t quite manage.  Oh, the shame!

 A Few Miscellaneous

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Last moments with Minsung before splitting up – he too highway 6 northwest to Siem Reap and the temples at Angkor, I took highway 5 due west to Pursat to visit Kate and Sustainable Cambodia.  Time to send our little protégé out into the wild!

Update: he’s still alive.

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A cyclist’s dream!  A load full of giggly, slightly flirtatious ladies (just getting off of work at some Chinese factory) to follow around and make eyes at for a while.   The taxi was traveling about 35km/hr, which is slightly faster than I can comfortably go on my own on flat, smooth roads.  That means that it was the perfect speed for drafting.  I tucked myself in right behind the truck, settled down in my most aerodynamic pose, and enjoyed an hour’s worth of effortless riding at high speeds.

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Yes, I’ll have one shaved ice.  Hold the lemon syrup please.

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Grandma (jokingly, surely?) said that I could take her baby with me.  She laughed when I offered her a bag of donuts in return.  In retrospect, it was probably not a very good joke.

 An Evening with “Street Kids”

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The weekend before I headed out to SC, Kate and I crossed paths by chance in Phnom Penh.  She was there running errands and hanging out with friends, and they happened to have formulated a plan to go fly a kite in the afternoon.  That didn’t work out, but we took it down to the river after dinner to give it a shot.

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The river runs right along a part of Phnom Penh that’s quite popular with tourists, meaning it’s also popular with people who want to make money off of them.  In particular, it’s swarming with kids who have been sent out to tug on our heartstrings and come away with some cash.  They generally sell books, bracelets, and other sorts of souvenirs.  Interactions with them are usually pretty painful for me – I don’t want to buy anything for environmental and personal reasons, I don’t want to give them money or even food because I doubt it will help in the long run, and trying to explaining this to them always feels cold and hypocritical (especially if I’ve just spent more than $1 on dinner).

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Nobody had expected it, but the kite disarmed them a little.  Several of the kids set their goods down on the ground, asked us to watch them, and then took turns sending the kite up into the night sky.  Afterwards, we played “human jungle gym” for a while, did headstands in the grass, gave each other big hugs, climbed the streetlamps, and goofed around together.

For most of us (foreigners), it was a fairly deep experience; we felt like we had helped the kids go back to a proper childhood, free from sales pitches and consciousness of economic deprivation, if only for an hour or so.  We also felt like we had had a “real” encounter with the kids, not mediated by money, not organized by anyone, not for any specific purpose.

Still, when it was time for us to go home, the kids asked us again for money and candy.

 It’s a Mad, Mad World.

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Just a short 3km ride away from the main Sustainable Cambodia campus in Pursat, a new hotel was opening up.  Rumored to have a salon, a gym, a spa, and German supermarket with CHEESE and other good stuff that all the volunteers at SC had been missing.  Kate took one for the team and booked a couple of nights at the hotel on opening weekend – this gave her, me, and the rest of the gang permission to test out the pools.

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Uhm…and the margaritas.

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I wonder if they’d let us bring the SC kids here to play?

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Despite our (ok, my) scrubiness, we also convinced them to invite us to the grand opening dinner.

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There were numerous guests of importance, including the Minster of Land and Mining or Energy or something like that.

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Suits, champagne, conspicuous consumption, etc.  Probably enough cash, if invested properly, to fund Sustainable Cambodia in perpetuity.

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The dinner arrangements.  The food itself was nothing to write home about.

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Whiskey on every table.  Ten of us can down it and feel slightly happy for a few hours, or we could pocket it, give it to some family, let them sell it at the market, and use the proceeds to buy enough rice to eat for the year.  I suppose there’s probably some argument about free markets and rising tides lifting all boats or something, but on the face of it, I can’t help but feel that it (among so many other things)’s pretty insensitive.

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Not to be a party pooper, but there are malnourished children within 50km.

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What are we celebrating?

  People Who Were Nice to Me/Us

On a more positive note: not only monks, but numerous Cambodians and foreigners alike opened their homes to us.  These are usually the kind of nights that we hope for – chances to to spend a bit of time together, to connect, to exchange stories, to develop an ever-so-slightly deeper understanding of the country and people, to laugh, to eat, whatever.  It’s rarely planned, and to make it happen it’s often necessary to run the risk of either riding past dark to find a hotel or of winding up camping at somewhere sub-optimal like a gas station.   When it does work out, though, it’s quite special.

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This family allowed me and Minsung to set up camp in their driveway.  As usual, a pleasant evening of language exchange and showing off our camping gear ensued.  My camping stove is always a big hit…though nobody ever wants to try any of my signature dish, “rice and pumpkin cooked at the same time in the same pot, with a random assortment of salad veggies on top and peanuts and soy sauce to taste.”  Maybe it needs a catchier name.  “Melange a la Mike?”

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And this young lass, Katie B from Warmshowers, allowed us to pitch our tents on her roof in Phnom Penh for a couple days.

She took us to a wine-and-cheese-and-salami party at a German friend’s house.

She introduced us to loads of friend who work at various NGOs there in P.P.

She took us to a new vegetarian restaurant.

She took me to the market to get a tasty, cheap, local, real Khmer-style breakfast.

She took me to a Lebanese restaurant for falafel.

She took me to a Sunday Zen sitting.

I’m not going to say that she was the best host ever (I don’t want to hurt any of my awesome past hosts’ feelings), but I will say that anyone in the future who wants that title will have their work cut out for them.

Now she’s on a bike trip of her own.  Kickass!

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My free penthouse.

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Hey, it’s the two nomads that I look up to most in the whole wide world!  Reunited once again, if briefly, with Katya and Mirko.  Time for some Indonesian food…

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…and draught beers.  At $0.50 a glass, why not have a few every day?

Particularly considering there’s almost no draught to be had in the rest of the country, or in Thailand, or in India.

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I know I already did the monk post (why didn’t I think to title it “Monk-ying around?), but these kiddos were sweet too.  I watched them play volleyball from afar while I was taking a brief break, but before I left they ran over and gave me some milkfruit that they had just poked down from a tree.

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That’s my baby, still kickin’.  Or spinnin’.  Notice how the rear pannier looks like it’s about to burst?  I figured out that by moving my gear around a little bit, I can stuff an extra 1.5L water bottle into each of the rear panniers, leaving more space for coconuts and other treats in the backpack.  Nice!

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Last but not least in the hospitality category, Vandy (on the right) and family.  I stopped at the little fruit-and-veg stand in front of their house to buy ingredients for my aforementioned specialty dish.  There was the typical “how the heck do we talk to this guy?” commotion, after which everyone called Vandy out.  She’s in nursing school at the university nearby and speaks awesome English, without a hint of an accent, despite having only studied it there at a public school in Battambang, and only for a couple years at that.  Amazing!

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After buying a load of veggies and a watermelon at extremely reasonable prices, I figured that I’d push my luck a little further since there was an English-speaker around. I asked Vandy if there was anywhere nearby that I could pitch my tent and camp out for the evening.  She consulted her family, who agreed that it would be fine if I went across the street and slept in one of the abandoned houses just down the way.  I went over and started to set up, but just a few minutes later Vandy and her sister came to find me, saying that there was nowhere to wash up over there, so maybe I should just come over and stay with them and their family.

I followed them back to their place, cleaned up, and sat around awkwardly while all of Vandy’s siblings, cousins, and village friends gawked at me.  If only I hadn’t given Chris his ukulele back (not that I can play anything on it anyway)!  If only I were a natural-born entertainer!  What to do?  I decided to pull out my trusty laser pointer and play silly tricks on the toddlers.

In the meantime, Vandy’s mother whipped up one of the tastiest curries I tried in Cambodia, spicy and sour and chock-full of eggplant.  Afterwards, the kids went to the kitchen and had a go at making a dessert candy out of these sour mini-apple sort of fruits.

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Mom, dad, and the two youngest siblings slept together under the house.  Vandy and her sister slept in a small room on the second floor.  I was given reign over the whole gigantic living room.  I guess the rest of the family must sleep there during the rainy season, but that they prefer to be outside when the weather’s good.

Whatever.  Details shmetails.  Thank you all.  Take care and see you around!


I didn’t think it was possible, but by the end I had actually come to enjoy and appreciate Cambodia just as much as all the other countries that surround it.  The roads weren’t so great, nor was the scenery, and to be honest neither was most of the local restaurant cuisine (blame the vegetarianism).  Still, the lively markets, plentiful fruit, awesome street snacks, abundance of temples and camping spots, sweet and curious locals, and students who are trying oh-so-hard make it a memorable and touching place, and one that I’d happily return to.  Or even live in.

More than anything, I was delighted by the feeling that even after Korea, China, Taiwan, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, there was still room in my heart to love yet another country.  Is this a trend that will continue indefinitely?  Will everywhere I go become my new favorite?

If so, how will I ever stop?!

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3 Responses to Cambodia: The Best of the Rest (Phnom Penh – Poipet)

  1. Mom says:

    Technically the US has bison, not buffalo. Calling ours “buffalo” is a misnomer.

  2. Adam says:

    nice post man. really like the descriptions of your interactions with families and the pictures of the people.

  3. Andy says:

    That monument looks fake.