Archive for the 'Cambodia' Category

24
Jan
10

Jan 15-19: Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City

Phnom Penh along the beach

I haven’t had a chance to post in a while, so I’m going to try and go back (quite) a few days and recap the events between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the next few posts. Bear with me over the next week, we are very busy and good internet is difficult to find apparently! Right now we are in Hoi An, halfway up the coast of Vietnam, but let me tell you how we got here…

Our last night in Phnom Penh was one of the most hellish nights I have ever had, and definitely the worst so far on the tour. A few of us went to a Thai boxing match during the evening last Friday, and I started to feel ill. Since we were about 60km outside of the city, I couldn’t easily get a tuk-tuk back to the hotel, so I decided to wait it out. By the time I got home two hours later, there was liquid coming out of both ends of my body (EW!) and I had the worst stomach cramps known to any woman. I spent most of the evening and the night on or hovering over the toilet, wishing for my life to end (well, not really, but you know I’m a big fat drama queen :). Luckily by Saturday morning I was feeling sufficiently better to be able to board the bus for a 6.5hr bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City, although I ate nothing for three meals, and nothing but baguette and rice for the next three.

Our group having our welcome to Vietnam dinner at the market in Ho Chi Minh City

Things in Vietnam are much better than they were in Cambodia, and the difference is obvious as soon as you cross the border. The two countries, although bordering, are like night and day. Ho Chi Minh City is a busy, hot city, but it is clean, and doesn’t have the same smell as Phnom Penh. The people seem cleaner and happier, and it seems that life is easier here, despite the fact that Vietnam is still gaining it’s own independence and establishing itself as an economic force. While the Cambodian people are still recovering from the past, Vietnam seems to be moving steadily toward the future.

Our hotel in Saigon was interesting. I spotted a gecko on the wall after arriving in our room, and proceeded to ignore it; however, it was much more difficult to ignore the three-inch brown cockroach crawling down the wall immediately following my shower! Our solution was to leave the light on in the bathroom, close the door, and shove copious amounts of toilet paper  in the crack it disappeared into. Luckily we only had to spend one more night in our room before leaving for our Mekong River homestay.

Court disappearing into one of the Cu Chi Tunnel entrances. This is how the Viet Cong got into the tunnel network.

On Sunday a group of us went to the Cu Chi tunnels, outisde of Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels were used as an underground network by the Viet Cong during the American War (what the Vietnamese people call the “Vietnam War”). The tunnels include bunkers,  barracks, hospitals, and kitchens, and were cleverly disguised. They were also surrounded by a number of nasty looking booby traps, which made me cringe. It makes me wonder how one human being can want to inflict so much pain, torture, and slow death on another human being. I mean, I know it’s war but still.  We all got a chance to walk in the tunnels, but I could barely fit through while crouching, and the walls were barely wider than my own hips. Turning around would have been a nightmare!

Me going into the Cu Chi tunnels through a more "comfortable" method.

During the afternoon we went to the War Remnants Museum, which is honestly one of the most captivating museums I have ever seen. The photos were necessarily graphic and moving, and really helped to illustrate the stories, quotations, and timelines documented in the museum. I never realized the extent to which the Americans destroyed Vietnam and it’s people during the war, and for what now seems such a senseless reason. Where Cambodia seems to still be recovering from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese people are all too happy to put the past behind them and start looking toward the future. Our local guide said that many Vietnamese prefer to live in the present, instead of being haunted by the war, and it seems to me that Vietnam is rebuilding itself beautifully.

On Sunday evening we met our new, Vietnamese tour leader, Dat. It seems that the tour we are on is a combination of smaller, one-country tours, so we have a new leader for each leg. We also said goodbye to five members of our Cambodian leg, and pciked up tow more, sisters from Australia. We had a welcome dinner in the market, which was some of the best bbq ribs I have ever had.

Traditional Vietnamese "conical hats"! That's me on the right, by the way 🙂

Monday morning brought a new and unexpected twist: our private bus was huge! After being squished and cramped in a small, non-air conditioned bus in Cambodia, we were all overjoyed at the sight of leg room and circulating air! We drove to the mouth of the Mekong Delta, where we boarded a boat to take us to our homestay.

After the homestay in Cambodia, we were all apprehensive of our accommodation, but again, Vietnam did not disappoint! We were greeted by our own cots with mosquito nets, tables and chairs, hammocks, a cooler full of drinks, toilets, showers, electricity, and fantastic hospitality from our local family! Dinner was delicious, all fresh and prepared and served by the family, and then they treated us to  some traditional south Vietnam music and singing! IT was one of the best nights so far, in my opinion, because all of us had a chance to relax, chat, play games, and connect with locals.

Along the Mekong River

On Tuesday we awoke well rested and well fed, to a western breakfast before boarding our boat to go back to Ho Chi Minh. We had free time to explore the city before our night train to Nha Trang, but it was raining so we opted to visit Reunification Palace.To be honest, it was pretty boring, but every trip to Ho Chi MinhCity must include a visit to the famous gates which were crashed through by a tank during the War, so we went.

Tuesday night we boarded a night train for Nha Trang, and that is where this story ends. Here’s hoping I will get to fill in the remaining gaps before we get too much further up the coast.

Until next time,

Lex

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15
Jan
10

Bye Bye, Cambodia

Tomorrow will be day 12 of the tour, even though it seems like we have done twice that many. Tomorrow will also mark our journey out of Cambodia and into Vietnam, which I am very much looking forward to. Since it is my last day in this country, I thought I would reflect a little bit on the experience of travelling through a developing nation for the first time.

When I left for this trip my only expectation was to have a good time and see as much and do as much as I could. I tried not to think about the bugs, the accommodations or the food, because I wasn’t sure what to expect, and while the experiences were definitely new and different, I’m not as shocked by everything as I thought I would be.

Sure, using a squat toilet for the first time was a bit strange, but it’s really not so bad, and while the food has wreaked havoc on my body, meals have been tasty and filling. I haven’t seen a cockroach in my room yet, knock on wood, and the accommodation has been comfortable, although in varying degrees of cleanliness (seriously though, it’s not bad at all). The only comfort I really miss from home is my soft bed and a warm shower – somehow Court and I have gotten stuck with the broken water heater twice!

It is hot, dirty, busy, loud, and all around chaotic, however, the Cambodian people are friendly and for the most part non-threatening. Although it’s a simpler life here, with less rules and regulations than the west (just look at their driving!), it’s not an easy life. Cambodia is still recovering economically and socially, and there are many who are still suffering. There are many people who have been injured by land mines, and many children are forced by their families to sell things to tourists. I have seen many western men with Cambodian women on their arms, listening and watching and just being  a silent companion, and I wonder about the situation that forces these women to sell themselves to foreign men just to feed themselves and their families. Foreign people are targets for people selling all manner of things along the road, as well as moto and tuk-tuk drivers, restauranteurs, and even beggars.

The landscape is marred by piles and piles of garbage along the sides of roads, on sidewalks, and in the gutters, especially in cities. Even in rural areas you will see plastic bags, bottles, and other garbage half buried under the dust. It is clear that Cambodia has a long was to go towards developing, but it has the beginnings of a beautiful and thriving nation.

It’s been a great visit, but I’m happy to leave tomorrow to continue my journey and the great adventure of a lifetime. Thank you all for continuing to read my blog and support Courtney and myself as we make our way through Asia. Being able to share this little part of the world with everyone back home has helped stave off the homesickness a little bit, knowing that all of you are with me every step of the way.

Until Ho Chi Minh,

Lexi

15
Jan
10

Jan 14-15: Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh

Hi All,

We’ve finally reached the final days of our time in Cambodia, and while I had a great time being here, I think I’ll be happy to leave tomorrow.

The Silver Pagoda

Yesterday we left the lazy beach town of Sihanoukville early and travelled back the way we came, to Phnom Penh, thecapital of Cambodia. Last night we visited the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. The grounds and buildings were beautiful, but I thought the Silver Pagoda was over-hyped, as the majority of the silver tiles on the floor are in poor repair and are covered by carpets. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was the Silver Pagoda until I stepped out and said “okay, now where’s the Silver Pagoda” and some guy told me “Uh, that was it”. D’oh

Today we took a tour of the Tuol Sleng (or S-21) Prison where there is a genocide museum dedicated to the victims of

Tuol Sleng (S-21) Museum. These rooms have been left exactly as found when the prison was liberated, minus the corpse that was found in the room. Shackles, torture instruments, and blood stains are evident in many of the rooms.

torture and imprisonment carried out by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, and the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek. While it was very sad to see the photos and hear the stories, this is a very important part of Cambodian history and many Cambodians are happy to share their stories with foreigners.

For me, it was extremely hard to imagine the horrors that took place at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, especially when the day is hot and the sun is shining. However, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge live on in these places. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview one of only seven survivors of the S-21 Prison, and it was a humbling experience. I cannot fathom what those people went through, not only the ones who ended up at S-21 or the killing fields, but regular, middle-class people. I had no idea when I signed up for this trip, that Cambodia had such a horrid history. In school we are taught about the conflicts we were involved in – mainly WW1 and WW2 – but nobody teaches us about the other wars been fought around the world. We were told in school that by being taught about the atrocities of genocide it would make sure history does not repeat itself, yet it has.

More than 5,000 human skulls are on display in the commemorative stupa at the Killing Fields, where more than 17,000 people were killed and buried in mass graves. Skulls are arranged according to age, with the youngest being 15 years old.

WW2 sounded like such a long time ago, and I never believed that someone could do such a thing again, yet less than a decade before I was born, only 30 some-odd years ago, the Khmer Rouge left a scar on Cambodian history, and I never knew about it until now. In fact, I’m sure many westerners will never know about this little fact of history, and I encourage everyone to read the book I am in the process of reading, called “First they Killed my Father”. It is a very well-written memoir written from a young girl’s point of view, about her experience during the Khmer Rouge regime. She grew up in a middle-class home, similar to myself, although in another country, decade, and culture, but I still cannot imagine having to do what she did to survive. Although a few months ago  I may not have known much about Cambodia except that Angelina Jolie’s oldest son was born there, but I now feel closer to the country and it’s people than I could have imagined.

Right now we have an afternoon off before heading to a Thai Boxing match just outside the city. Our guesthouse is located on a side street about three blocks from the river, where there are many restaurants, shops, and bars, so the location is excellent. We were all worried we would be stuck in the middle of the city by the bus stop, which is hot, loud, chaotic, and a bit scary to be honest!

Tomorrow we will have a long day of driving, leaving Cambodia behind and arriving in the afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which is the largest city in Vietnam. There we will get a new tour leader, say goodbye to some friends, and likely say hello to new ones.

I will attempt to post some photos later, or perhaps from Vietnam, as my USB cord is currently back at the hotel.

Bye for now,
Lexi

13
Jan
10

Beaches, BBQs, and Banana Pancakes

Serendipity Beach at Sunset

Today we had our very first day with absolutely nothing to do and no transportation involved, besides a tuk-tuk. Since I left Toronto nine days ago (which actually feels like nineTEEN days ago) we have been constantly on the go. Even when we had three nights in Siem Reap, we were doing excursions which required bus rides everyday. The hustle and bustle of being on tour is taxing, especially for someone like me who has been a relatively idle student for the past three years. I’m slowly getting used to the early mornings, lots of sunlight, and three meals per day, which I rarely got while studying.

Yesterday we went on a boat trip to a nearby island, where we snorkeled, swam, and had a chance to just lay on the beach. The visibility for snorkeling wasn’t very good, but the beach was private and our group was the only one there. The water in the Gulf of Thailand is very warm, and anyone who knows me knows I’m happiest when I’m by the water, preferably on a beach someplace, so I was in paradise. We followed it up with a yummy dinner of seafood barbecue, which is a local specialty, followed by some drinks and dancing at a local (read:tourist) bar. Food and drinks here are cheap – a vodka mixed drink costs $1.50 USD and a dinner costs between $2 and $3.50 USD. Not bad, not bad at all. I’m going to be a total money snob when I come home… “you want me to pay HOW MUCH for that drink!?”

Picture Perfect

Today, as I mentioned before, we had a day where we didn’t have to go anyplace or do anything if we didn’t want to. Courtney and I chose to sleep in, have banana pancakes (the staple Cambodian tourist breakfast!), and then get a $5 full-body massage. Then we went to a private beach with two girls from our tour, did some shopping at the market, and finished with a sunset bbq dinner on the beach. My life sucks.

Tomorrow we leave at 7.15AM for Phnom Penh. We are all looking forward to travelling by public bus, as the private bus is not our friend after the last sweaty, dusty trip. I finally got a watch, so now I don’t have to harass people by asking what time it is. I’ve attempted to keep track of how long it takes to get from each place to the next, but as everything here runs on “Asian time”, it’s quite impossible. Three hours can easily mean four. Or three and a half. You really never know. For someone like me who runs by a schedule (anyone who knows me knows I’m lost without my agenda) it’s oddly comforting to be able to let go of time and just let things happen. Except when you’re on a bus and you have to pee…

Anyway, the next time I post I may well be in another country. I didn’t get a chance to write all I wanted to about Cambodia, so I’ll save my thoughts for another post. Be well, and feel free to send me an email anytime. I still want to know what’s going on at home!

Lexi

11
Jan
10

Jan 8-11: Siem Reap to Sihanoukville

Hello Civilization!

It feels like it’s been forever since my last post, and it feels like I’ve been gone from Toronto for weeks, even though in reality we have only been gone seven days.

Inside Angkor Wat

We have been busy little tourists over the past four days. My last post was from Siem Reap, where we saw the Angkor Wat and other temples in the Angkor complex. On Friday, we took a boat trip to the floating villages on (Lake) Tonle Sap. The villages are made up of Vietnamese immigrants, who live in squalor which is apparently preferable to their homes in Vietnam.

Floating Village at Sunset

We then visited a hammock bar, where we were served food and drinks while hanging out (literally!) in hammocks! My official snack was spring rolls, but I did get to try out two local delicacies – fried prawn with the shell ON and snake eggs! Both were really good!

On Saturday we began the first of three days of long bus rides and one-night stays in Guesthouses, which is exhausting. First, we headed out for Kompong Cham, which is on the Mekong River, where we had lunch with a Cambodian family. The food was typical Khmer, curry soup with beef and veggies, noodles, rice, pork and fish. Desert was a real treat – fried spider! And yes, I can report, that I did try a bite of a salty, crispy spider leg! Those house spiders don’t scare me any more… I’ll just eat them! (NOT)

After lunch we did a bike ride across the Mekong River on a bamboo bridge to an island village, where we visited a monastery and got a chance to speak english with Cambodian schoolchildren. The kids in the villages are so happy to see western tourists, they are always smiling and waving and saying “hello!” and “bye bye!”. Our hotel was great, we had a room with an amazing view of the Mekong River!

On Sunday we boarded our non-airconditioned private bus and headed for Chambok, where we had our homestay in an eco-tourist village. We learned over the last three days that public busses are actually preferable to a private bus, since our bus has usually been devoid of air conditioning (meaning we drive with the windows open) and has been cramped full of packs and snacks. The public busses have airconditioning and comfy, roomy seats, with packs stowed safely below.

Our Homestay

At the homestay we had dinner made for us by the local people, and had a chance to speak English with some of the leaders. I did a hike to a beautiful jungle waterfall, so I was really hungry by the time we ate. We then spent the night in a typical Cambodian home, where we could hear the villagers partying all night. Seriously. Apparently Cambodians love “I Know You Want Me” by Pitbull, and they play it at all times of the day, night, whenever.

In the morning, we had breakfast prepared by the locals, before heading out to Sihanoukville, which is where we are now. Right now we are getting ready to head out for dinner, which I’m hoping will involve seafood. I’ve already had a taste of beach life, and although it isn’t the cleanest beach I’ve ever seen.

We will be in Sihanoukville until Thursday morning, when we will leave for Phnom Penh. We had a stop in Phnom Pehn yesterday on the way to the homestay, but they experience will have to wait for my next post (read: interesting…)

Until next time,

Lexi

07
Jan
10

Jan 6-8: Bangkok to Siem Reap

Greetings from Siem Reap Cambodia! Please bear with me as I post without pictures, as I have not yet figured out how to get the photos off my memory card without a cord (I forgot it at home 😐 )

We’ve been very busy over the last two days, it seems like we’ve been gone for weeks! I can hardly believe we only left Bangkok the day before yesterday. Right now we are in Siem Reap Cambodia, where we have spent the last two nights, and will spend tonight before moving on to our next destination.  But more about that later, first, what we have been up to since Wednesday…

Wednesday morning we left our hotel at 7.30AM with our tour leader Sareth, and travelled east toward the Thai-Cambodian Border at Poipet. Our transportation was a “cozy” (which really means cramped 🙂 bus, but the seats were comfy and there was air conditioning so I can’t complain. It took us about 4 hours to reach the border, and then the mayhem began.

First, we loaded our packs onto a cart which would be taken by a porter across the border. As someone who has only crossed borders in Europe and between Canada and the US, I thought this would be a fairly simple affair of showing a passport and getting it stamped. BOY WAS I WRONG! Getting through the Thai border was no problem, however, then we had to walk to the Cambodian Border to apply for visas. First we waited in line to go through a medical check where we filled out forms for H1N1, then we waited again for the Visas. In total, we spent a little over 2 hours waiting to cross the border! Once we had our visas in hand, we picked up our packs and had to board a bus which took us to the crossing, where our visas were checked, passports were stamped, and departure cards were filled out for when we leave Cambodia for Vietnam.

Once across the border we drove an hour to our lunch spot. The difference between the Thai landscape and Cambodian is immediately obvious, as Cambodians are the poorest of all the southeast asian people. It is estimated that 90% of the population lives on less than $1 US per day, and 50% of the population is under the age of 18. We passed many roadside shacks, rice fields, and Cambodian children peddling goods or farming.

After lunch we drove another 3.5 hours to arrive in Siem Reap. Our room was filled with mosquitos and had no running water, so we were quickly given a new room, where Courtney has been enjoying a queen sized bed for the last two nights! My bed is a comfy double, which I am used to, so its only fair she should have the big bed for once 🙂 Aw sisterly love!

Wednesday evening we saw a traditional Khmer dance during dinner, where I tried my first Cambodian dish, Amok, which is a yellow coconut curry dish usually made with fish (I’m waiting until I get closer to the coast to try the seafood).

Yesterday was an early rise, we met Sareth at 5AM for a bus ride to the Angkor temple complex. We saw the sun rise over Angkor Wat, the largest and most famous of all the temples. It is over 700 years old, and is a UNESCO Wonder of the World. We then spent the day exploring Angkor Wat along with four other temples, and finished at sunset which was around 6PM. The temples were beautiful, all different in their own way, and although I hope to post (some of Courtney’s) photos soon, I’m sure none will do them justice.

All in all it was an extremely long day, the heat was well into the 30’s with humidity, and all of us were drained after over 12 hours of walking and bussing around the complex. After a quick shower and nap, the group met again for dinner and headed out for some drinks and shopping at the night market. I had a luxurious foot massage with a few girls from our tour – only $3 for 1/2 hour!

Today we have a free morning, and will head to Tonle Sap and the floating markets in the afternoon. Tomorrow we will be rising early for the bus trip to Kompong Cham, where we will spend one night. Only three more nights until Sihanoukville! I’m most excited about this part, as it will be the first beach I have been on since Cuba in 2007!

Well Court and I are going to get a body massage now, so I will post again next time I have a decent internet connection. Bye for now and thanks for reading. Miss you all!

Lex and Court




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