Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

One Week in Cambodia

"So far, is there any place where you would consider moving?" Ileana asked me this after 14 hours on the road, the day we left Cambodia. "Maybe just one. Siem Reap." The name means something bad about Siam (Thailand), Cambodia's neighbor to the west. It is a small size city at the gate of Angkor Wat. A few years ago didn't even have a paved road, now it has plenty and it has hundreds of hotels from five stars to the cheapest guesthouses. After twenty years of wars it is safe to travel here and people are coming from all ends of the world.

Typical motorbike

Cambodia is the place of one of the worst tragedies of the human race. Caught in the Vietnam war, between the conflicting interests of United States, Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, it was briefly a communist country, with several factions fighting for power and the country divided in several areas. It had the Khmer Rouge regime, they killed almost a quarter of the population in a four year period. By some accounts Cambodia lost almost half of its 7 million people in a way or another. The Khmer Rouge wanted to revert to the the 11th century way of life and drove everybody out of cities. They destroyed everything, except for Angkor Wat, the symbol of the khmers glorious past. People were executed for any reason, including for example wearing glasses. The Americans helped install the Khmer Rouge to counteract the Vietnamese and they also helped their ousting, the same way they installed the Talibans in Afghanistan and took them off a few years too late. The details are different, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and stopped the worst atrocities, installed a government of reformed Khmer Rouges, that didn't look well for the west, they continued to support the other factions and on and on it goes until street demonstrations in Sweden forced the western governments to push in the right direction and broker a peace accord. The king was in exile in North Korea, China and Europe. It doesn't make much sense, but this is what I could make of what I learned.

Cambodia is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world with the Americans dropping 2.7 million tons of bombs, more than the allies combined during the whole World War II. Their 20 years of wars saw the highest number of land mines ever placed, produced all over the place. By some estimates it would take a thousand years to clean them all. They continue to kill or mutilate people to this day. I visited the land-mine museum and an American volunteer gave us a lot of information. He said that in the First World War they would lay land-mines in designated areas, the armies knew where they were and were forced to avoid those places. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouges would take young children, give them a bag of mines and send them out to place them. If they returned with some mines left, they were shot in the head on the spot. Quite often a child would place mines in the morning only to be hurt by one in the afternoon. They were not designed to kill but mostly to hurt somebody really bad. They would react to a weight of 13 kilos, much less than the typical ones. And they would explode on contact, not like in the movies. One of these child soldiers became a CNN hero of the year in 2010. At some point when he grew up he started to disable the mines that he placed, then started to help peasants clear their land and in 10-15 years he neutralized about 50,000 mines, surely the most by any human being. Taking home some of these mines he was visited by curious people, he opened this museum, he then opened an orphanage for some of the maimed children and so on. The operation continues with help from some Australians, Canadians and from the American Department of State, even if the guy was forbidden by the Cambodian government to disarm mines anymore. His team does it in a scientific, relatively safe way, he used to do it by himself using just a stick. No school, no formal training! Ileana and Ioan joined me for the museum visit and we liked it and learned a lot!
A Great American, trying to help 

And the real statistics were not known until late in the 90s!

One person and some mines

On the street there are some signs of the atrocities, mutilated people begging in front of some restaurants, but most of the Cambodian population is too young to remember. And they are clearly moving forward. They have a stable government, a 6% growth rate and they have a king! In 1993 Cambodia became the first ex-communist country to have a return to monarchy. Romania should have been the first in 1989 and unfortunately my country payed and will continue to pay a significant price for missing that chance.
We chose to visit just Siem Reap in Cambodia. There are many more things to do in this country, but we have such a limited time. In addition we didn't want to bother with malaria prevention - apparently Siem Reap is the only completely safe area in that regard.

After Macau we spent one night in Malaysia, woke up at 3.30, had breakfast at 4, took a shuttle to the airport at 4.30 am. We arrived in Siem Reap at 8 am, local time, and we were already tired. One full day of rest - spent some time reviewing our resources and trying to plan for the next few days. They have one/three/seven day passes for Angkor Wat at a cost of $20/40/60. Since you can use the three day pass in any of the next seven days, we agreed to try to squeeze everything like that and save $100. The second day we rested some more and only left the hotel at 2 pm! We went to visit the Angkor National Museum, a nice modern building with a rich collection of items from the ruins and a lot of information. Ioan knew more than us about some of the Kmher kings, he played some computer game and learned from that.
So what's all about? The Khmer civilization, a few hundred years of great military, cultural and social achievements, expressed in the development of cities and temples unrivaled anywhere in the world. As successive kings ruled over the empire they would add to the previous temples or sometimes they would build their owns. It was between 800-1400 AD, then the Khmers fell and all of the temples (except Angkor Wat) were abandoned. The whole area is huge and there are hundreds of ruins of some interest. Some people visit just the highlights, some would spend weeks exploring the sites. We visited on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 10 hour days of being in the sun walking all over. We rested on Wednesday and Friday without doing anything else in Siem Reap. If people have time and energy there are several attractions, including a visit to the floating villages. There is a unique phenomenon here in this area, a huge lake (Tonlé Sap) would grow 10 times during the monsoon and the river feeding it or from it would flow in reverse! People live on houses built on stilts and tourists come and take pictures. We skipped. First because it seemed more of a commercialized attraction, but also because it's the dry season, the lake is at the smaller size and the trip would have taken for ever. We spent the day writing postcards and sent 39! Let us know when you receive yours.
There is a mystery in Siem Reap; I couldn't solve it despite desperate attempts. They have these delicious baguettes, an inheritance of the French colonialism; they serve breakfast on them and use them for sandwiches by the side of the road. But there was no place for us to buy them, even Liz, a teacher from England who has been there for two months, couldn't find them. Otherwise our hotel, Tanei Guesthouse, had all the comfort and a decent breakfast for $50 per night (2 rooms-5 beds). Unfortunately we were too lazy to use the pool.

They use dollars here as well as the local currency, riel. Since it is 4000 riels for one dollar and the biggest bill is only 10,000, everything is in American dollars which you just get from the ATM. By contrast with USA where you only get $20s, here they have all sorts of bills, depending on the bank. The cost of life is most of the time very cheap, some imported things would cost more. Like a dollar store, sometimes it seems cheap, but it's not (i.e. a coconut or a stamp). Sometimes it's unfair, they sold the Angkor Wat guide, a book of several hundreds pages with glossy paper and color photographs for $1. A few times we had lunch for $1.25 per plate, shakes for 75 cents and a big bottle of beer for $2. We had fish massage for $1. Ileana Ruxandra had an one-hour foot massage for $4. And everywhere everybody smiled and was nice to us and spoke English. All the children and the adults learn the language and are happy to exercise it.

We learned about local traditional arts when we saw a great show at the Cambodian Children's House of Peace ( My family danced on the scene at the end, Ioan showed his skills and my girls made friends with some of the girls there. Again the human contact seems to be the most valuable experience on this trip. And the unforgettable image is my daughter, Maria, hugging Ali, the waitress of a made up sidewalk "restaurant."
After one week in Siem Reap we all fell in love with Cambodia and its people. If I would solve the baguette mystery I could stay here a very long time...
One hour in a fish bowl, making friends

Great show at the Cambodian Children's House of Peace

Pancake on the street

Our hotel, Tanei Guesthouse

Favorite restaurant on the side of the road

Bye bye Ali!

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