Thursday, April 29, 2010


Cambodia. The extent of my Cambodia-related knowledge before crossing the border was there was some big war-thingy here in the 70s and Angelina Jolie adopted a kid from here when she was shooting Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. Yep, that's pretty much it. And for those of you who are in a similar boat, then just read on.

We took a bus from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Phnom Penh. It's a long journey, but was actually the most pleasant bus ride we've had. They even gave us a bottle of water! We get to the border crossing and hand off our passports and $25 to the bus-guy (there is a sign directly behind him saying Tourist Visa $20. If you inquire about the extra $5, the answer is, it's for the stamp. They'll give you the visa for a 20, but you need a little extra for the stamp). You then grab your luggage from underneath the bus, walk into a building, stick your luggage into an x-ray machine (only your big bag, if you have drugs or a massive weapon in a smaller one or on your person, it's cool), get a stamp exiting Vietnam, get back on the bus, drive 30 feet, get off the bus, walk through another building, get a stamp that says "Cambodia" in your passport, and then have some friendly Cambodian to tell you that if you get swine flu, go see a doctor. Actually, it wasn't too bad, just a little like that kids game where you imitate the person directly in front of you in line.

We spent two days in Phnom Penh and now we're in Siem Reap, the gateway to the Temples of Angkor. Below are some observations thus far, both amusing and grim.
  • You know that Toyota commercial where they say something like 92% of Toyotas are still on the road? Well, they are. They're all in Cambodia. I kid you not 90% of the cars in Cambodia are Toyotas. I don't know if they did an emergency evacuation for all of the ones in the States when concerned Americans started unloading them like hotcakes, or what, but there are so many of em you'd think it's the Munford driveway (Yes, my immediate family owns 5 Toyotas).
  • Asians do not believe in two things (perhaps there are more, but these two are verified): personal space and a queue. If you're standing at the post office trying to buy stamps, it is perfectly acceptable for someone to elbow you out of the way and then conduct their transaction right in front of you. "No, I wasn't here first. You're right. I know, I'm so small you probably missed me. "
  • The temples of Angkor are unreal. There's no way to see all of them, but we've picked out a few choice ones (including, of course, Angkor Wat) for our stay here. Film I feel like most watching right now: Indiana Jones. Ah, if only I had a leather whip and a matching hat, I am sure I could do some excellent re-enacting.
  • The landscape (from what I've seen driving through the countryside) is pretty desolate. The history is even more so. We visited S-21 in Phnom Penh, which is preserved pretty much like it was found by the Vietnamese troops in 1979. For those of you who (like me 4 days ago) aren't going to get the Cambodia Jeopardy questions - it was a high school that Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and his henchmen turned into a prison during their reign. They emptied the city of Phnom Penh (the capital) and sent everyone to work as farmers in rural camps. Meanwhile, back in Phnom Penh they detained nearly 20,000 people in S-21 over three and a half years. Of the 20,000 only 7 survived. Pretty horrific and not something I'll forget soon.
  • Despite this gruesome history (estimates are as high as 3 million people died in the seventies - that includes some casualties from the Vietnam war spillover - or roughly 1/3 of the total population), Cambodians are some of the friendliest and funniest people I've met so far. 60% of the population is under the age of 30 so they're pretty much my age and love cracking jokes. All the tuk-tuk drivers, hotel staff, waiters, tour guides, even policeman have been really warm and friendly. Pretty remarkable resilience if you ask me.
On Saturday, I'll split off from the Shaman and fly back to Laos. I'm going to track down a school that was built with my beer money. I'm only half-kidding. My favorite DC bar, The Saloon, also runs a nonprofit called Bricks for Schools, which builds schools in developing countries. When I told Commie, the proprietor, I was headed over here he recommended I check in on a school they recently funded. I get to show up and make sure everything is going well. Bonus for me to spend some time in a village even Google hasn't heard of yet. (I'll actually be smarter than Google when this is over. I'll be "off-radar" for a bit, but then make my final sojourn back toward Bangkok (don't worry, I'm keeping pretty well informed on the political situation there) for my May 12 flight back to the States.

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