First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

IMG 0394

Rice fields with palms

IMG 0422

Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

IMG 0438

Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

DSC 1174

DSC 1173

Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

DSC 1176

Chinese landscape on the yuan

DSC 1178

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

DSC 1171

Cambodian school and school children

DSC 1172

Nice bridge; even nicer car!

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

    • 🙂 Thanks! I guess that’s the benefit of traveling – being able to look at things with “new” eyes. Thanks for attaching your blog – just read your post about Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. We are still in Phnom Penh; those to places have been on our agenda since we got here but somehow I keep pushing it off – not that I don’t want to go. It feels vitally important to bear witness to this aspect of Cambodia’s history. But I feel very nervous about being totally overwhelmed by it. Do you have any coping tips?

      • I shared the little info with my family here over dinner and we had a good laugh at the randomness of Cambodia! haha thanks!

        Both Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields are heavy atmospheric places – it might be just me but I unconsciously tend to hold my breath while I’m there – so recently, when I went, I made sure I was breathing. And drink lots of water – being dehydrated can add onto the headache you might get. Also, there are several floors and buildings at Tuol Sleng, so come outside for fresh air once in a while – the area is tightly packed so it might add on to the suffocating feeling.

        Other than that, I would say that the emotions that come with the trip is definitely the biggest part of the experience. I also might be making it sound harsher than it actually is. I’m interested to read more on your adventure! 🙂

      • Glad your family got a kick out of it too. 🙂

        Thanks so much for all your advice! We went to Tuol Sleng today and everything you shared was really helpful. We spent over two hours there, letting it sink in and occasionally taking breaks – your tip about getting some fresh air definitely made a difference. I noticed too that I was just automatically holding my breath as I was walking through the rooms. Taking a break and just being in the sunshine helped. Still, by the time we left I had a headache too and definitely needed a few hours to process things to the point that I could start to feel normal again. Intense, but I’m really glad we went. Think it will take some time to wrap my head and heart around what we saw, but I already can’t imagine our time in Cambodia without having gone to Tuol Sleng.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s