Wandering in Cambodia
Dragan Tapshanov (09.08.2014)
It has been more than six months since i’ve returned from the Kingdom of Cambodia (or the Khmer empire to sound more adventurous) and i still can’t stop dreaming of the land.
It all begun in December 2013 when for the third time in my life i went on an adventure faraway from my comfort zone and all by myself. My backpack and my cameras were my best friends again, i left my business at rest, i bought my ticket and i went to the unknown.
I was visiting part of the Indochina peninsula in Asia, Thailand, Cambodia& Malaysia to be exact. After finishing the first part of the adventure among the Thai people, i went to explore Cambodia, the land of the Khmers.
From the modern airport, a van picked me up and drove me trough the city towards the hotel where i was staying. Desolated houses, children left on the streets crying naked, dogs trashing the cans for food, motorbikes made for two but driven by four, roads covered with dirt, mud, flooded streets, all that was my first impression of this kingdom.
My hotel was the best building in the area, the sidewalks were with dirt yes but the hotel was clean as a shell. The van left me in front of the main gate(don’t be fooled by some of my words about the hotel, still this is a hotel where backpackers stay), young kid approached me and picked up my bags, i felt bad for him so i said that i can do that by myself, but he insisted that i leave them to him.
The lobby was full with Chinese tourists that were waiting their bus to take them to the airport. I learned that the past two years Cambodia was one of the most attractive destination for older Chinese people. They were visiting the land of the Khmer people because it is cheap and they can afford many things that are luxury in China.
Decent single room with bathroom, ac, tv, wifi and clean sheets was my home for the next days. I took a quick shower and i went out to find a Tuk Tuk that will take me to the center where i was meeting with other travelers that were from Serbia.
I paid 3$ for a 15 minute drive. With a medical mask on my face to protect me from the dusty wind i was driving in a Tuk Tuk towards the center. In the middle of the rout, the driver stopped in front of a small market and bought a bottle of gas, he said that he must’ve done that so we can arrive at our destination. He paid 1.50$ for a litter of gas, and when he picked me up from the center to drove me back to the hotel, he did the same thing at the same market.
In the restaurant where we were sitting, the owners had an interesting tradition, every traveler was asked to write his name and his country on a piece of paper and they would hang it on the “travelers wall” as they call it. Very interesting tradition, when you see the wall you see that you are not alone, you will see that the world is filled with people that are your soul-mates.
I wasn’t up for partying that night, and Phnom Penh didn’t have much to offer for the evening wanderers so i left for the hotel. To be honest i was very tired that night, and maybe that is the main reason that i went to bed early.
Its 6am in the morning and i am ready to explore the city of the King. The tour guides in Cambodia are really cheap so i hired one because i wanted to hear more of their history, culture and traditions.
Don’t be an idiot to go by the stupid saying that only tourists hire guides in the developing countries, because only tourists who think that they are adventurers don’t hire them when their price is basically as the cost of a Big Mac in the US.
The guy basically told me everything about the Khmer rouge, from the begging to the very end. He knew the dates, names, places, conspirators, basically everything, i think that i’ve become an expert in the Red Khmer era, i can teach people in Europe for the red history of Cambodia.
First on my list was the great royal palace, the Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol in Khmer language. By the look of the palace you can see how well is the economy in this country. I arrived in Phnom Penhfrom Bangkok, also a royal city, and after seeing the Thai palace, this house of kings was nothing compared to it.
Maintaing the palace is not something that the Khmers should be proud of, i am not saying that you will find a ruin when you go there, but when you hear the word “Royal” you expect to see luxury without limits, well this is luxury but in the lowest level. Cracked walls, spider webs, missing floor tiles are just the few things that are not characteristic of a royal palace.
There are interesting stories to be heard about the palace and the royal family in the time of Pol Pot.
The parents of my guide were killed in that time, along with his uncles and aunts, he shared some heart touching stories with tears in his eyes about his life as a kid in Kampuchea when we left the palace and went to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
First time in my life i was wandering with tears in my eyes. Place filled with death and suffering is the Tuol Sleng Museum, place that made me think how happy am i that i am born in time of peace and that i am able to wander freely in the world.
Wandering among the former school rooms i was still able to see blood on the walls, nail scratches forming words and drawings, clothes were left on the floors so visitors can get more intact by the crimes to humanity that occurred in this “Hill of the Poisonous Trees”. Many of the rooms are divided into creed cells and in some you may still see torturing machines. The second floor sidewalk from which you are entering the rooms is fenced with razor wire, so the prisoners could not jump to kill themselves.
In the museum are displayed portraits of the victims taken moments before their execution. You will see faces of kids, mothers with their babies, men, old and young, all of them ready to be slain. The portraits were perfect and i was convinced that they are made by a professional photographer, later i learned that Pol Pot was recruiting professional journalists, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and other artists so they can document his regime, his life, his crimes.
My guide told me that people were not executed the day they were imprisoned, they were kept there for weeks, tortured, starved, on those days they would dry out their eyes and souls, tears will be spilt till the last drop because of the pain caused by the soldiers, and when their time for execution comes they will embrace the moment, because it will put an end to the their suffering.
Filled with sorrow and anger i left the museum, i cursed the name Pol Pot in my thoughts, him and all those who followed him … most of them teenagers recruited to be soldiers, given weapons and promises just to follow one man’s sick ideals.
Driving towards the killing fields i heard stories of how people were tortured, how kids were beheaded with the stems of the palm trees that have dark, jagged ridges which are also hard and sharp, how they would play catch with heads of the beheaded, how they would trow an infant in the air and shoot at it with guns …
We arrived at the Killing fields where i was amazed by the huge commemorative stupa filled with the skulls of the victims. Knowing the horrific stories that happened there and wandering among the fields filed with clothes of the victims was like re-living the horrors of the Khmer people. Looking at the other visitors i noticed that we were like dead men walking, filled with sadness and hatred in the same time we were building the silence in the huge field of death.
I finished my day in the central market in Phnom Penh where i bought some magnets for my mother for she is the biggest magnet collector in the world if you are asking me, her fridge is like the world map, when i visit her at her house i always go to the kitchen to spend some time and to bring back some memories of the places where i have dwelt or wandered.
The next morning i took a bus for Siem Reap, were my Cambodian adventure will continue, where i will explore the old Khmer empire and the temples of Angkor, where i will have one unplanned sleepover in the jungle and where i will meet the little girls who changed my life forever.
… Nice modern small bus was taking me to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh.Mixed passengers inside, travelers, locals and one guided group of touriststhat was bragging all the time about the conditions in the hotel, the bad food they had in the restaurants, how poor looking and not well maintained is theroyal palace and so on and on. I used my headphones to mute them, and grabed my Canon to document something interesting that can be seen from the window.
I must say that i am highly recommending to all, go to Siem Reap by bus, you’ll be fascinated by the rural places, the way people are living, the transportations they are using, plus you’ll stop for a snack by the road and you’ll try some fried frogs and you’ll have short period of time to take some shots of the people that are living there.
I arrived in Siem Reap on a parking with 10 more busses, there i was hit by a “tourist” shock. Families, groups, people with suitcases, Indiana Jones wannabes and similar unwanted faces. I found my way trough the crowd and i looked for a Tuk Tuk to drive me to the hotel, while i was uploading my bags in the “cab” a family guy approached me and said “don’t go with him, he will rip you off!” — “Really, i’ll take my chances” — i said to him and thought to my self that “i rather let him rip me off for a dollar or two, than to go with you in a van and listen all the way to the hotel about yours and your friends everyday jobs and how someones aunt divorced for the third time”.
The time was just before sunset so i had approximately half an hour of light to visit the “Wat Preah Prohm Roth”, temple in the center of the city, you can find it easily because it is on the map in the +Lonely Planet guide book. Nice temple, not over crowded, filled with monks, i don’t know if they are there all the time or there was some event going on. I had luck to witness a wedding in the yard, so that was fun for me, seeing their traditions and customs.
There i met with my guide for the Angkor Wat tour, and after i finished with him i went to a bar to have a beer. 0.50$ for a draft beer!!! I drank few beers, chat with few other travelers from AU, found a Tuk Tuk and i was off to the hotel for a good sleep.
The next few days i was exploring Angkor Wat so everything else that happened in Siem Reap city was getting wasted in the night and going to the markets so i can buy water and snacks for the next day.
One night i was in, ughhh i don’t remember the name of the restaurant … anyway, there is a restaurant on the Pub street with amazing traditionalKhmer music, where dancers are performing traditional acts with motives from the Khmer history, that is a must see thing in Siem Reap.
I must say that this city is the Backpackers paradise, there are people like me from every part of the world, and the amazing thing is that they are all traveling solo, so it is very easy to meet people, hang out in the evenings or even join forces and travel Cambodia together. For example, i met people from, AU, Canada, South Africa, Italy, UK … and i still have a contact with them, i am even meeting a guy from UK in Nepal this september. How cool is that?!
I got up early in the morning and my guide was waiting me in front of the hotel already. The guides name was So So, small fella, with John Lennon style sunglasses and a brown shirt, born in a Khmer village near the Angkor temples, was about to be my best friend for the next three days.
At the entrance of the site he purchase a three day ticket for all the region. I think that three days are enough to explore the temples, but if your passion is even greater, than purchase a ticket for more days.
I know that discovering the temples by bike is more adventurous, but biking from one temple to the next one in the heat its not so easy, and the temples will be your rest areas and you will not have the energy and time to explore the temples as you should. I recommend you rent a tuk tuk or go with a van.
Because i was solo i had all the time in the world just for me, i spent my time where i want and how i want. I was having the best time of my life, i was enjoying, i was taking photos everywhere, i gazed at the structures, i was admiring the carvings on the stones, when i needed an information about the culture and history of the temples i had my guide, everything was perfect. I am highly recommending to y’all, explore Angkor alone, don’t be bound to another person, get the most of your adventure.
I visited all the temples inAngkor, Buddhist and Hindu, and when the time was before the sunset i was still in the Bayon temple, the most fascinating of them all, i had half an hour to get to the Phnom Bakheng, the temple that is offering the best sunset view.
I was basically running upwards the temple, for its placed on a hill. I was more than sure that i will get the perfect sit, but when i arrived at the top the place was full. Hundreds of people where there waiting to see the perfect sunset. I was circling around desperately to find a spot to sit or stand but i my luck was dried out. Desperate and alone i sat on an edge of one of the corners, i leaned on one big stone brick so my body can rest for bit and i waited the sun to come down behind the temples. As i was sitting like a beggar on a street, in front of me were two photographers that have placed their tripods and were waiting for the moment, as the time was passing and the sun was falling down, i notice sun rays on my legs, i lift my head up and i saw the sun revealing it self bellow the tripod that was in front of me, i didn’t believed my eyes! As the sun was about to set i found myself lied down on the ground and capturing every moment with my eyes, people were pointing at me and laughing, but who cares, luck came from nowhere and i saw the Angkor sunset as it should be seen.
The next morning i got up early, but early as 2:00am for i was going to see and photograph the world wide famous Angkor Sunrise. I think that my guide wanted to kill me for waking up him so early, but he respected my wishes and was waiting me in front of the hotel at the appointed time.
I walked the bridge towards the gate all alone, no person to be seen, in front nor behind. I entered the temple and i was surrounded with darkens, i could only hear the bats flying around in the hallways, the wind that was blowing among the pillars that were besides me. My path was lit only by the light of my iPhone, for there is not a single candle in the temple. I was alone, it was the most amazing feeling that i have ever felt, i was wandering alone in this spiritual place still worshiped by many, i had awaken their spirits just for me, i was happy, for this was priceless, to wander all by yourself in the Angkor Wat is something that you won’t find offered in any tour agency.
Minute by minute, the place started crawling with people, tourists coming towards the lake with their cameras blazing towards the sky, but i had the perfect spot and nobody could’ve stand in front of me to block my view.
My luck had run out completely, for the clouds had covered the sky above Angkor and the sun was nowhere to be found. What can be worst than this? Maybe this will be my last trip to Angkor and the weather was against me. Probably those who had been to Machu Picchu can relate with me, going there and you see that the mist had covered all the city, its the same feeling, at least i felt the same.
If you want to reach the limit of an adventure and must try to see everything! So the fool that is currently writing, decided to be Indiana Jones and by catching the local bus he began his journey through the jungle villages inSiem Rep, Cambodia. You are driving in a silly little bus and you feel like a celebrity because everybody are looking at you. Everything has its beauty honestly, just like watching an adventure movies in first person, adrenaline is at 100% because you are alone in the unseen, with strangers around you, it is dangerous yes, but don’t worry, its unforgettable.
Take the wooden bridge through the jungle river and you will enter inside the farm. High walls, a ton of kids, and you will see the owner on a bicycle with Jack Nicholson style sunglasses. I can not remember how much was the entrance in dollars but I know it’s cheap, even for our standards.
The unspeakable smell is the first thing you will notice. But you will adjust in few minutes, you will use some scarf to cover your nose and mouth and the smell will be almost gone. As i said in my previous photo story , the farm has over 150 mature crocodiles and more than 350 young crocs . They feed them with dead snakes which are kept in open buckets, they grab them with with bare hands because in that way human scent is left on their skin and the crocodiles go crazy over a human smell.
As an adventure freak, i had a crazy idea, i wanted to see and touch a crocodile. I started explaining my desire to one of the kids that was hanging around me, and after ten minutes of charades he understand me and took me to see the crocodiles.
Through terrestrial paths through the woods, across the rice fields we reached to some high bamboo trees, as i made way between them i saw a hut and parked in front of it was a giant lizard with thick chain on the neck , he was there to keep the seeds that are stored inside. With the little guy we went to see him up close and he said that i can touch he, i approached him from the back and put my hand on his tail, his skin was like a solid rock, as i was preparing to make a selfie the little khmer disturb the crock and he woke up! He opened his mouth and turned towards me, my legs froze! I stood up, grab my gear and ran as fast as i could, i think that i broke some olympic record, i haven’t been so scared in my life.
I set my self straight, packed my things and i hit the road, i had 1km walking to the bus station where i was about to catch the bus for Siem Reap. As i was sitting on the bench and reviewing my photos, an older khmer approached me and started asking me something … in few minutes of charades i learned that the last bus for Siem Reap left and the next one is at 6am in the morning.
He noticed that i was not excited about the information he gave me and said to go with him. He took me to his village, i am not sure if place with 5–6 house is called a village but it was ok for me in that time. I saw few kids, few elders, and few home animals and a voice in my had said “This will be your home for tonight”. I gave the guy 20$ so i can have some food and a place where i can place my head for the night, and i received more than i expected. Bellow you can see the place where i spent the night.
Anyways it came out to be an incredible night, with many interesting and not understandable songs and stories, healing by witch doctors to whom i owe a lot because now i don’t have a single scar on my hands. We drank strange drinks, we ate bugs, frogs and rice and we were taking selfies.
The morning when i woke up, i lied down a little longer on my +Lowepro and i was staring at the incredible view that i will never forgot.
Deep in the Cambodian junglein the Siem Reap province, you can visit the biggest crocodile farm in this Asian country. Over 150 mature and 350 youngcrocodiles are kept in this farm that is owned by the Saconifamily. Part of the Saconi family is the little boy named Han, the new leader of the family with pure blood and crocodile ridder. His father told me that even he is the youngest, he will be the one leading his family and making the family crocodiles the most famous in the world.
While all the other kids in the world are playing with their smartphones, the Cambodian kids are joyfully playing among the trees in the jungle. They don’t care that the river is filled withcrocodile or that on the trees are snakes and spiders, their childish joy can not be stopped.
The fact that there are snakes everywhere is true, i saw them with my own eyes while i was in one small hut buying something to eat. The snake was right on the fence of the hut (fence because these huts are up on the trees), the girl was preparing my meal like the snake was part of the family! I have few scenes from this village on my video, take a look at the end of it here
While the men from Kompong Pluk, Cambodia are working in the Mekong river marina, the women and the kids are the ones who are animating the tourists who are visiting their village. The local restaurant and the canoeing among the huts are the main attractions in these region. So if you ever visit this village and you take a tour among the huts on the trees or if you want to sail in the Tonle Sap lake, your captains on the canoes will be women and kids.
Faraway from the civilized world, deep in the Cambodian jungle live the three sisters, Mian, Niu and Hanuha. With their 3 chicken, 2 dogs and few snakes and crocodiles, they form one little family. The youngest of the sisters is Niu, and she is the first one that approached me. The English is something that is not familiar to them so we were making faces, waving with hands, making strange noises so we can understand each other.
When i offered her a chocolate, she ran to her sisters to call them so they can share this luxury gift.
One of their neighbors, that new some words in english told me, that their father is coming in the village only 5–6 times in the year to bring them some basic grocery. Niu is 6 years old and she is already a cook in the family, their other sisters are working in the field and providing for the everyday meal.