When Andy and I travelled to Thailand in 1998, we first saw a few advertisements for trips to Cambodia. The country, which was so decimated by civil war and genocide in the 1970’s, received a UNESCO world heritage designation for Angkor Wat in 1992 and with the help of outside aid the temples were being restored. For fourteen years, Andy has been fascinated by the possibility of seeing the structures in person. The flight to Siem Reap, the now developed tourist town near the wat, happens to be less than 2 hours from Singapore. Travel to Cambodia was planned soon after our Singapore tickets were booked.
I must admit I was very apprehensive about our journey. Cambodia holds a infamous place in very recent history. The Khmer Rouge’s insane desire to take the country back to “year one” which they deemed a time before any Western influence killed 20% of the population or about 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. The targets were first anyone with education, teachers, doctor and even those with eyeglasses (they assumed this made you literate) then they moved on to just about everyone else. The country is still one of the poorest in the world. The Angkor Wat looked beautiful but did I really want to take two small children there.
Recently I did begin to notice many positive reasons to visit. Many people in Singapore had been and had wonderful things to say about their time in Cambodia. Travel and Leisure magazine last July ranked Siem Reap as one of the “World’s Best Cities”. It was in fact ranked seventh which is one spot above my all time favorite city Sydney. I did a bit more reading and my apprehension faded.
My experiences in Cambodia will take a few posts to document but I want to share some of my impressions. Cambodia, at least in Siem Reap, is easier to navigate than other developing nations I have visited. The infrastructure is very good. There are wonderful restaurants with English menus and fabulous food.
Travel is strikingly inexpensive. This reflects the general low wages of the citizens. Many Cambodians live off of $1 income a day. Our guide said that as an English teacher in a respected high school five years ago he earned only $80 a month. Tuk-tuks which are a motorcycle pulling a rickshaw are a popular form of transportation. A ride to town five to ten minutes away costs $2. The driver will wait the two hours while you eat dinner and then drive you back. If you give him $5 he is very pleased. The kids loved the tuk-tuks. Sydney would protest when we had to ride in a car.
When traveling around it was striking how few elderly people I saw. This was confirmed when I read that 70% of the population was born after the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979. As of 2010 the life expectancy for a woman is 65 years old. This may not sound great but as recently as 1999 it was only 46!
Modes of transportation like this does not help the mortality rate.
There were many children but very few that have blue eyes so our kids once again became celebrities. At a store near our hotel where we often went to buy juice, Aidan was so fawned over and kissed by the lovely young Cambodian women that you could have inserted George Clooney and never know the difference. They were also popular photo accessories at the temples. I think this is a role they could get way to used to.
There are few visible remnants of the civil wars. Most notably there were a few victims of land mines asking for money. On a more positive note, we encountered a group of amputees playing beautiful music for their cause. Sydney and Aidan danced and did not seem to notice their injuries. Our guide told us an estimate 10 million land mines were likely installed of which 4 million have not yet been found.
I kept looking for bitterness in the people about what they had been through but all I saw were smiles. I am certain some scars run very deep. There is finally now a tribunal in place to attempt to bring some healing to the Cambodian people. Ironically the first and only man who has been convicted had his sentence extended from 30 years with 13 of them already served to life. The appealed decision was handed down the day after we arrived. This man/monster oversaw the S-21 detention center in Phnom Penh where an estimated 17,000 people went in and only 12 survived. Justice for Cambodia seems to be slow but at least there are some visible signs.
The Khmer Rouge attempted to abolish religion but today 95% of the population currently practices Theravada Buddhism. We saw sign of this throughout our travels.
I have to give a special thanks to the kindness of the staff at the Le Meridian hotel where we stayed. The general manager Gregory personally sat with us for at least a half hour upon our arrival and gave us tips for enjoying our stay. He had a seven year old son and was especially cognizant of what young children might enjoy. Three days later when my daughter, who still cannot stop putting everything in her mouth, developed an inevitable case of vomiting and diarrhea I called him to find out if medical was available if she became dehydrated. He told me if she needed care there is a wonderful hospital ten minutes away run by a world class Bangkok group. He would personally drive us there if needed. In the meantime the staff laundered our clothes at no cost and returned them in two hours. The chef sent broth and toast and the housekeepers helped me throughout the night with bed changes. Fortunately she improved and we did not need medical help but the reassurance it was there was comforting.
Sometimes in Life You Have to Jump In
Overall our stay was a wonderful experience. I will tease you with a bit of beauty from Angkor Wat but the remaining photos will be posted another time soon.
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat