Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The real Cambodia

I arrived in Battambang, in western Cambodia, yesterday around 2pm. I decided to splurge on a room with it's own bathroom, a fan, and a satellite television (!) for $5/night at the Royal Hotel. I arranged for a full day of sightseeing for today, but all I wanted to do yesterday was, well, nothing. The temperature has been about 35-40C (95-104F) and I thought the idea of watching crap television and movies for hours on end sounded grand. (I haven't had a room with a tv in it since. . .hmmm. . .I think Hoi An.)

At 9am today I met up with my driver, Dollar (yes, that's his actual, given name!). Our first stop was Wat Phnom Sampeuo, aka the Killing Caves. Much like the Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge played a role here, too, and thousands died at the hands of Pol Pot's regime. Also like at the Killing Fields, there's memorials here that contain skulls and other bone fragments of the victims. The temple and its grounds are spread out on the top of a mountain, so it took quite a few hours to see it all. 

From there we went to Wat Banan, a temple that dates back to the 11th century (pre-Angkor Wat). It was 359 steps to the top and I was drenched by the time I got there (even with my own personal fan boy - a five year old local kid who followed me to the top, fanning me the entire way), but the view was worth it. 

The last temple of the day I don't remember the name of, but it seems to be known for the fruit bats that hang out in the trees on the temple grounds. Fruit bats are massive, did you know that? I couldn't believe how big they were and I could've hung out for awhile longer trying to take pictures, but they're pretty fast, so it was tough. I also briefly saw the bamboo train, quite literally a bamboo platform on train tracks, but opted out of a ride when I found out it would be $10 to go 5km and come back (as a point of reference, having Dollar as my tour guide for the whole day only cost me $10 and we probably drove 50 or more kilometers). The bamboo train is the closest that Cambodia comes to having a proper train, but I'm told that sometime next year it will be no more as new tracks will be laid and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh will finally be linked by an actual train network. 

It sounds fairly hum ho, right? A typical day of sightseeing. Where's the realness that I spoke of? The realness came from Dollar and the conversations we had. He joked about Battambang massages (what you get riding a motorbike on really rocky, bumpy roads) and Cambodian snow (the dust that gets blown up from the road when something bigger than a moto drives by). He was gracious enough to share the story of his family's personal experience with the Khmer Rouge, of how his parents walked from Phnom Penh to Battambang (230 miles, it took a month) and how his aunt and grandparents all lost their lives. He taught me how to drive a manual moto! Not that I'd say I'm proficient at it or anything, but at least I now know how. I had a conversation with a monk and Dollar helped with some translation; the monk wanted to practice his English, but he's still learning so it would've been a lot more difficult without a translator. Dollar also translated with the fanning boy who was otherwise quite timid when I asked him "sok sabai?" (how are you?). 

But perhaps I got the best idea of what life in rural Cambodia is like when Dollar took me to his village to see where he lives and to meet his family. Dollar's dad died two years ago, so now he heads his household and is responsible for supporting his mother, three younger sisters, and younger brother. Three of the kids go to school and his mom and oldest younger sister would like to work, but can't find jobs (he tells me that the unemployment rate in the area is 60%). To help bring in a little extra money, mom and sister sell a fruit that's similar to tamarind (Dollar couldn't remember what it was called in English). Dollar collects a bushel of the pods and takes them home so his family can crush them to harvest the seeds. About 10lbs of seeds (which are about the size of apple seeds) fetches 1000 riel (only 25 cents). The six of them live in a tiny bamboo hut that Dollar and his dad built 10 years ago, with a cat and a chicken running around outside. The entire neighborhood is full of people in the exact same situation. Even so, poverty doesn't prevent friendliness and Dollar's family offered up the biggest smiles and were genuinely happy to see me; his sister, with a shy smile, told him to tell me that I was very beautiful. I told him to tell her I thought the same thing of her. And she was.


  1. That's awesome that you got to really witness what the village was like. Oh and I love the new header too!

  2. Another great write up, kiddo. Wherever did you get your literary knack, anyway?

    Kathy did a great job on your new header, didn't she?

    Love ya!

  3. Thanks, Dad! If I actually do have a literary knack, I'd say it came from six months worth of seeing and experiencing a lot of amazing things. Love ya back!