Adieu, Cambodia

This morning I rode a tuk-tuk with all my luggage on the dusty, crowded road to the Phnom Penh International Airport (it’s small but quite modern). Now I’m in a nice hotel on Dong Khoi Street, in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It’s Saturday night, and I’m looking forward to not needing to pack and haul my backpack anywhere for a whole week!

During the airplane’s descent, the city looked gigantic, endless, infinite — but here and there, padi fields and other farmlands broke up the patchwork of roofs, which appeared to be mostly corrugated steel.

Photos uploaded tonight are from Day 4 of my trip with Intrepid Travel, which was May 20. (The trip lasted 15 days, including the arrival and departure days.) That was the day we rode on motorbikes to some kampungs around Battambang, which is northwest of Phnom Penh.

Woman making rice paper crepes

Making rice paper crepes: If you like Vietnamese summer rolls, you know exactly what these are. The heat from these two griddles is hellish. The fire is fueled by rice husks. The black, burned husks are later spread in the fields as fertilizer.

Making fish paste

Making fish paste: Oh, this was nasty. We heard that fish paste lends a special flavor that Cambodians yearn for when they live abroad, but like seeing sausage being made, this process is not for the faint-hearted (or those with a delicate nose).

Boy with homemade skateboard

Homemade skateboard: What made this remarkable was that I saw almost no toys among Cambodian children. This boy’s wheel assemblies sometimes detached themselves from the board. He would patiently re-attach them and then continue riding, steering with the string.

Roads with holes

Roads with holes: This was far from the worst section of the road leading to the mountain, which I described in an earlier blog post.

More photos from Battambang here.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Sihanoukville

Cattle wander freely everywhere we’ve been in Cambodia. Mostly they are big white oxen with a small hump behind their shoulder blades, although we have seen red and brown cattle as well. Today as we drove to the coast, I saw a number of water buffalo, with their enormous crescent horns. Two of them were yoked to a plow steered by a man wearing a straw hat.

Oxen boarding a raft

Oxen boarding a raft: We rode on a motorized raft (with our bicycles) to an island along with this man and his two oxen.

We’ve seen a lot of the white oxen pulling plows and also sometimes pulling carts on the roads, but more often, two-wheeled carts are ingeniously fastened to the back of a motorbike seat. Most of these robust little motorbikes are 125cc Honda Dreams with an electric starter.

On Saturday we rode a motor-powered raft from Kampong Cham to a small island, where we saw a lot of wooden carts pulled by tiny brown ponies, each with a jaunty little plume above its ears. They were not quite miniature ponies, but they were definitely smaller than the ponies that you see at an American kid’s birthday party. Their strength is sufficent to carry some impressively heavy loads. They trot along briskly without any more encouragement than the reins slapping lightly on their backs.

Pony carts on the island

Pony carts: We were in motion on our bikes for all the good photo ops with loaded pony carts. The pony looks a lot smaller when the cart is fully loaded!

Our many hours traveling on buses have shown us an almost wholly agrarian country, lacking the hideous commercial oil palm plantations of East and West Malaysia, farmed mostly by human and animal labor. The so-called tractors we have seen are small and hand-driven, like an ox-drawn plow with a small motor replacing the oxen.

The picture of rural life that’s sure to stick with me is one I didn’t manage to capture with my camera. We were riding the bamboo train through the padi fields near Battambang — acres and acres of wet fields, with houses far off in the distance — and there was a boy, maybe 16 years old, wearing nothing but the krama (a ubiquitious checkered cotton cloth we see everywhere) wrapped around his hips, sarong-style. He held a thin stick and was surrounded by four of his cattle. His bare feet comfortably gripped the muddy grass slope leading down to the train tracks. As we came into view he watched us, maybe trying to figure out why a bunch of barang (foreigners) would want to ride the bamboo train. The big white oxen clustered around behind him, but he showed no concern about them, or about us.

Riding the bamboo train

On the bamboo train: This single-car platform is powered by a small motor and can be disassembled in about 90 seconds. It’s really jarring, because there’s a gap at most of the rail joins.

More photos here.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Yesterday and today we toured 1,000-year-old temples at Angkor — amazing stone carving and massive architecture. Our trip leader, Phalkun, pointed out that nowhere else in Southeast Asia can you find such monuments, such lasting evidence of an ancient civilization. The gigantic stones were carried by river raft from quarries 50 km away, and I imagine that hundreds of stone carvers were trained and supervised to produce such beautiful work 500 years before the Italian Renaissance.

The heat exhausted us. We drank endless liters of water, sought the shade whenever possible, wore white hats. Sweat soaked our clothes from top to bottom. By early afternoon, we were incapable of absorbing more information.

I was thinking about cities and civilization. The Malays had a complex social order that had been evolving long before they adopted Islam, but they built no cities of stone. Their beautiful wooden architecture could not survive for hundreds of years. In the jungles of northwest Cambodia, a Frenchman found the ruins of a long-abandoned city, the former capital of the Khmer people. In other parts of Southeast Asia, no ruins remain.

The Khmers developed a writing system of their own, something the Malays never did. Their script looks similar to the Thai script (and also the Tamil script one sees in Malaysia), but it’s not the same. Phalkun says some letters are the same between Thai and Khmer, but most are not.

Phnom Penh photos

The Internet here is excruciatingly slow. Uploading pictures demands a lot of patience.

Stupa at Royal Palace

The Royal Palace: Architecture similar to that of Thailand; beautiful gardens.

Green mango salad with chilis

Lunch in Phnom Penh: Green mango salad with chilis.

Waterfront, Phnom Penh

Waterfront, Phnom Penh.

Upper floor, S-21

S-21: This former school was used as a torture center by the Khmer Rouge.

More photos here. Many more to come when I return to the fast Internet.

By bus, motorbike, and boat

One of the greatest pleasures of traveling in really different places is seeing how regular people live there. Not the wealthy, not the expats, but the working local people. We’ve had three days of exposure to local life here in Cambodia now (“we” are the eight other people on this trip with me, although one is Cambodian, so he’s not being exposed to anything new).

Monday it was a five-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang. (This was a regular public long-distance bus, albeit nicely air conditioned.) Leaving the capital we saw shanty houses on the outskirts of the city, then farming towns separated by miles of padi fields, and finally, just before Battambang, acres and acres of flat, wet padi fields. I was reminded of Bali (but without the hills) and the northeastern part of West Malaysia — although here there is more attap and less wood for walls, and far fewer “mansions” (stucco-covered brick houses with multiple rooms and tile roofs) than in Malaysia.

Into the Villages

My motorbike driver told me there are three kinds of roads in Cambodia: (1) dusty roads; (2) roads with holes; (3) slippery roads.

Tuesday (yesterday) was fantastic, for the very reason I chose to travel with this company — we were put on motorbikes (with well-experienced local riders) and taken into the countryside via narrow dirt roads covered with potholes. (As soon as I find a decent Internet connection here in Siem Reap, I will upload some photos.) We went to people’s homes where they work making rice noodles or rice paper crepes to sell, and we went to a place where a few dozen people were making mega-quantities of fish paste, a staple in local cooking. Each of those three stops was separated by about 30 minutes’ ride, accompanied by very informative conversation with my moto driver, Bao. He attributed his excellent English to three years of language studies, after which he worked in the hotel business for some time.

After observing the local food industries we rode through multiple rainstorms (stopping at random people’s houses when it rained too hard, and once at a temple) to a mountain, the name of which I will find out later (there was a temple at the top), and which only three of us (not me) felt like climbing. Man, the road to that mountain was outrageous — potholes the size of ponds, and all of it coated in mud. Bao’s skill with the bike blew my mind. He could take a strip of road no more than five inches wide between two craters and never slip. Meanwhile, big white oxen, small dogs, or an occasional child wandered into our path, and Bao would beep the horn and slow down or swerve, and all was well. We ended up going back a stretch of dirt single-track to a farming family’s house, where they served up rice wine and fresh bananas and fresh pineapple. (By “fresh,” I mean they cut the fruit off the tree as we were arriving.)

Life on the River

Today we boarded a narrow open-sided motor boat with a solid roof and cruised up the river to the Tonle Sap Lake, which we crossed to reach Siem Reap. We left the dock at 8 a.m. and disembarked at 2 p.m., with only one short stop to stretch our legs (the boat seating consisted of two long benches with vinyl-covered foam cushions) and use a toilet at the back of a one-room house that doubled as a shop and a restaurant. The house was up on stilts in the water, like all the other houses. As you might imagine, the toilet was a hole cut into the floorboards, but it was tastefully surrounded by four walls of corrugated steel.

On today’s journey we saw not only numerous houses and villages on stilts — both in the water and on the banks — but also all kinds of boats big and small, fish pens and fish netting apparatus, cows lying down beside giant haystacks of rice straw, and people bent like upside-down L’s in the wet fields, pulling up padi to be transplanted to new fields. The rainy season is just beginning, and the small temporary homes at ground level will soon be flooded.

Delightfully, children everywhere run to the edge of whatever they’re on — boat or riverbank or veranda — and wave frantically at us and shout “Hello! Hello!” We wave back and reply “Hello!” (This happened Tuesday in the kampungs as well.)

When we got off the boat, a mini-bus was waiting for us. It had just started to rain. We didn’t get very wet, but the road very quickly turned to mud soup. There was one small hill that the two buses ahead of us got stuck on, unable to gain enough traction to make it to the top. After quite some time, the first bus started up again and disappeared over the top. Then another long delay, and finally the second bus went onward. Now that it was our turn, we saw what was going on — a large backhoe (part of a parallel road construction project) sat at the top of the hill with a long canvas strap attached to the hoe arm. Our bus driver handed a metal attachment to a man standing outside in the rain. He connected the metal piece to the strap, and put it underneath the front of our bus. The backhoe’s giant arm swung gracefully away from us and dragged our bus up over the crest of the hill. We stopped to allow the detaching of the strap. Our driver opened his window and the wet man returned the metal attachment. We continued on to our hotel.

Now, Cambodia

After the hyper-modernity of Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh was a bit of a shock. As the plane descended to the runway on Saturday, I looked out both sides and saw — nothing. No tall buildings. No sign of a city. At least, no signs I recognized. Is the city that far away from the airport? I wondered.

Not far at all, it turns out. It’s just that four or five floors is about the tallest any building gets in the capital city of Cambodia. Motorbikes of the typical Southeast Asian variety (Honda Wave, and the clones by Yamaha and Suzuki) came toward my taxi on both sides, moving at a leisurely speed. We passed shabby shops and street stands, heaps of garbage, small buildings under construction or in a state of dismantlement. No apartment buildings. No office towers. No shopping malls. (Today our trip leader, Phalkun, told me there are exactly two shopping malls in Phnom Penh. We saw one KFC in our two days there. And no McDonald’s.)

Our hotel, however, was very nice. Good air conditioning, hot water in the shower, clean sheets, and an elevator.

Yesterday I spent the morning at the Royal Palace, where the beautiful gardens made for wonderful strolling. I found the architecture indistinguishable from Thai palace architecture — still quite exotic by Western standards. (Photos later.) A hard rain came down just as we were ready to leave, but it lasted only about 20 minutes, and it left a cool breeze behind it.

Our Intrepid Travel group spent the afternoon touring S-21 (Security Prison 21), now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum — where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands of people in the 1970s — and the killing fields about 15 km outside Phnom Penh, where thousands of people were slaughtered. We heard a grim history lesson, delivered by a calm but intense local guide.

People here who are older than 30 can remember the horror, famine, and constant fear of that time. More than a million people were killed in less than five years. The total population of Cambodia today is 14 million.

I found it hard to imagine how people could be persuaded to interrogate and kill other people in the ways described. It’s difficult enough to understand how one ethnic or racial group can commit genocide against another, but in Cambodia, there were no ethnic, racial, religious or language differences between torturer and tortured, between killer and killed. Only ideology. Frightening to think that so little can separate people so completely.

Today, an early departure by air-con long-distance bus and arrival in Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia. It is not large at all! We walked around a bit after our five-hour bus ride (and a long lunch) and saw a wat (Buddhist temple complex) and a clean, green public park where lots of locals were lounging around, playing with their kids, and even doing aerobics in a big group.

There are eight people in this group, plus Phalkun. Two are British and the rest are Australian. We will be traveling together for two weeks.

Buddha and some durian

Yesterday while riding the LRT train, I realized a young Malaysian was speaking to me. I hadn’t really heard what he said, so I asked for a repeat. “Are you a Buddhist too?” he asked. That was totally unexpected. “Yes, but what made you ask me that?” I said. He pointed to the mala I wear on my wrist. Oh! And showed me his, on his own wrist.

We had about 10 minutes to chat before I reached my station. He has visited an uncle in the U.S. once but hasn’t lived abroad. He certainly didn’t seem any different from any other 20-something Malaysian — except that he had initiated a conversation with a foreigner. (In my experience, young people here are the opposite of outgoing around strangers.) I enjoyed his sincerity.

Chanting

I had business at the post office this morning, and then I walked to the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple, which is not far from the KL Hilton, where I’m staying now. I had never been there before. I saw lots of preparations for Wesak (the Buddha’s birthday), which will be celebrated on Monday — large paper lanterns, hundreds of small oil lamps, fresh new banners flapping in the breeze. A few monks in dark orange robes milled about.

A layperson called Mrs. Kow offered to show me around. Everyone’s been working very hard to clean and decorate for the holiday — the monks themselves are cutting the tissue paper designs for the lanterns, among other things. Wesak is not only the biggest holiday of the year but also the best opportunity for raising money to support the temple and the monks. Mrs. Kow said they’re working to create an education center to train monks from Malaysia. Most of their monks come from Sri Lanka. “Their dharma is wonderful, but they don’t speak our language,” she said. They do give dharma talks in English on Friday nights and Sunday mornings, so I suppose she meant Bahasa Malaysia, or maybe Mandarin.

Lantern

What I saw at Maha Vihara was nothing like the traditional Chinese Buddhist temples around Malaysia, where people come in and light incense (joss sticks) and then leave, and where there are rarely any monks in robes. Several times Mrs. Kow mentioned how learned their monks are (she said “our monks”). Unfortunately, the Friday dharma talk was canceled because of the holiday work. Maybe one day I’ll return here for Wesak.

For today’s obligatory food porn, I took the monorail to the Imbi stop so I could visit the big electronics shopping complex called Low Yat. I wasn’t sure I could find the place I remembered, but it turned out to be very easy, as it was right beside one of the entrances to Low Yat.

Hong Kong shrimp wonton with char siu

The first time I had this was in Hong Kong. I saw a lot of people eating exactly the same thing in a very crowded, very small restaurant there and indicated that I wanted whatever it was they were having. It’s tough to say which is better — the sweet, crispy, chewy pork; the heavenly shrimp-stuffed wontons; the rich broth; or the slurpy noodles.

Later I met up with Kiran and Milton for the last time on this trip. We went to a restaurant near Kiran’s house in Sentul called Naili’s Place, where I had black pepper beef steak and ABC, a dessert I adore made with shaved ice, syrup, assorted beans and jellies, and evaporated milk. That would have been quite enough, really, but Kiran had decided I just cannot leave Malaysia without eating some fresh durian, which just happens to be in season (although it’s still early in the season).

Durian

If you’re familiar with Andrew Zimmern’s TV show on the Travel Channel, you might remember durian as one of the few things he has spit out. Yes, this is a food that Zimmern cannot eat. I don’t mean to brag, but I can eat it. Not a lot of it, and certainly with nowhere near the gusto of a Malaysian, but it’s not bad.

We drove into Chow Kit and crawled through traffic on narrow Jalan Raja Alang until we found a stall selling the “king of fruits.” Kiran parked right there and jumped out, with Milton hot on her heels, and before I was even out of the car, they had selected their durian and the seller was hacking open the thorny rind. We sat down at a flimsy table behind his stall and he laid out paper napkins, bottled water, and the two neat halves of our durian. Within minutes my two friends had consumed almost all of it, while I daintily gnawed around the pit of my second and final piece.

More photos here.