a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Monday, September 10, 2012

our first visitors

In June we tried to settle into our life back in Cambodia after all the international travel of the previous months. But we also planned for a visit from my sister and her husband. They came for two weeks and together we explored the country. We started our tour in Phnom Penh so Audra and Joe could recover from jetlag before launching off to a different city. The time difference is 14 hours so just about as opposite as you can get. Phnom Penh is where the events of Cambodia's recent history are memorialized. Stephen and I took our guests to The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and The Choeung Ek "Killing Fields" Memorial.

The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum tells the gruesome and barbaric story of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rule of nearly four years. Just like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is a hard place to visit. Though not nearly as polished or well funded as those other two museums, it can still have a sobering effect. I go to museums like these not because I like to, but because it's a way for me to value human life. To know the suffering of others and not ignore it or forget it is important to me.
The Killing Fields memorial is about an hour drive south of Phnom Penh. I think that the audio recording that you listen to as you walk through the area that served as mass graves, is extremely well done. Walking on the paths that wind through the area of horrible human suffering and listening to survivors tell their nightmares, is not pleasant or easy. In fact it's quite draining. But I also feel that in a small way I am honoring innocent people by listening to their stories.
We spent two days experiencing this dark history, but Cambodia and Cambodians are more than their history. Riding around in tuk-tuks is a fun mode of transportation unique to Cambodia. And the cost is small. I negotiated the price for us which I like doing. I don't drive a hard bargain but I don't pay an unreasonably expensive price either. I wouldn't mind paying more to the tuk-tuk driver, but the actual result if I do is that it makes it harder for poor people to pay for tuk-tuk rides when they need them. Why would a tuk-tuk driver take $1 for a fare when he can turn around and charge me or another first world visitor $2-4 for the same distance? We also enjoyed a variety of good food at the numerous restaurants in the city and shopped in the informal markets.
On their third day in the country, we headed for the coast and the city of Sihanoukville. Stephen and I make it a habit to leave as early as possible in the morning when traveling out of the city to avoid the traffic. But Cambodians begin their day at sunrise so despite our early departure we shared the road with Cambodians on motos heading to work or carting various goods to market for sale.
There is really only one nice resort in Sihnaoukville and we stayed there. The beach is beautiful though the water is not ideal for swimming.
We did a little kayaking and swam in the pools instead. Phnom Penh was quite hot so the coast retreat felt especially welcome to all of us. Open air dining is the norm for Cambodia. I sometimes forget, having become so used to eating outside, that open air dining is a pretty rare treat in the Pacific Northwest where we used to live. There, for a small window of time each year, the weather is just right for al fresco dining. But in Cambodia, we eat in the open air year round.
Our next city was Kep (pronounced Kipe with a long i sound like in kite. The transliteration is definitely not American English!). We stayed in the treehouse-like resort up on the hill that affords an expansive view of the ocean from the restaurant and select guest rooms. Because it's set up on the mountain among the trees, it has a bit of a feel like the old colonial "hill stations" that colonizing countries like the French in Cambodia and the English is Burma and India created for themselves as an escape from the heat. I say a bit because though probably somewhat cooler than Phnom Penh, the difference was hardly noticeable for Audra and Joe. It was as we were leaving Kep that Audra said, "I don't think I'm cut out for this country." :(
We got a flat tire in Kep that the car guard at our hotel pointed out to us. We always carry a full sized spare and the car guard, though a fairly old man judging by his face, proceeded to help Stephen change the tire. We paid him for his assistance as well as tipped him for guarding our car as is the practice here. In a small town on the way back to Phnom Penh we stopped to have our tire repaired. It wasn't too difficult to find a place and they were quick and cheap. It cost $1 to repair the hole in the tire.
On the drive back to Phnom Penh we saw fields being planted with rice by hand and a creative way to haul a cow. In a tuk-tuk! There is never a shortage of interesting sights in Cambodia!
One night at our apartment in Phnom Penh and then it was off to Siem Reap and the biggest attraction in the country: Angkor Wat. June is when the hot dry season transitions into the hot wet season. It's a steamy month. I noticed a tremendous difference from when Stephen and I explored
Angkor Wat last November. At one point, I split off from the three of them and went back to the car, turned it on and just sat in the blasting air conditioning. And I live here! Brother. Audra and Joe were troopers but Cambodia in June and July is not for the faint of heart.:)
The monkeys were especially active this time and displayed an array of antics. Watching them swing from a vine into a pool of water was pretty fun. They also climbed up on our car though we were not among those feeding them. I learned my lesson in Africa.

The night markets in Siem Reap are more fun than the informal markets in Phnom Penh. It's cooler for one and there are colored lights illuminating the stalls which create a more festive feel. Also the darkness helps to hide garbage or broken sidewalks. Siem Reap is a tourist city. There is just a different feel because of that compared to Phnom Penh. I like both places for different reasons.
We stayed three nights at the Borei Angkor hotel, where Stephen and I have stayed before, and enjoyed the pool and poolside dining.
Of all the ruins, Audra was most intent on seeing the tree roots growing down the sides of the stone walls at Ta Prohm featured in the movie Tomb Raider. It was getting late and in fact the grounds were closed before Stephen finally found them for us. For most of the time while the three of them searched for the tree, I had waited at the entrance of Ta Prohm alone. I have been tired of the noise of the city lately and long for quiet spaces. But the jungle at sunset is not that quiet space! There were birds and cicadas making a tremendous racket! I don't have a telephoto lens but I think that in the tops of the trees parrots were flying from tree to tree in groups.
Though Stephen and I have been to Siem Reap a number of times we still found several new things to do with our guests. We visited a silk farm and saw the process and also the beautiful finished products. Stephen and I like to buy at least one really nice item for our house from the places we live. Silk is so emblematic of Cambodia that it makes a good choice. We have similar memorabilia/decor from Africa packed in storage in the states.
In addition to the silk farm, we also visited a floating village just outside of town. These people live their lives on the water. Though I love swimming and kayaking, I don't think I could live my life on the water.
The third new experience was Cambodian barbecue at one of the many BBQ restaurants in town. Our waitress cooked for both our tables and the food was delicious. You have your choice of five different meats; we opted to substitute chicken and beef for the crocodile and snake meat! :)
Something that I think is great about Cambodia is that you can get decent food and lodging for really cheap prices. There is a little boutique hotel in the center of the downtown in Siem Reap that has double rooms for $25 a night. It's one of the cleanest hotels I've ever stayed in; you can see people sweeping, mopping  wiping down handrails at all times of the day. The plumbing all works the way it should and the air conditioner is quiet and effective. Included in that $25 a night price is a hearty freshly prepared delicious breakfast. I had an omelette and coffee plus a fruit plate. I love how this hotel has managed to keep costs down but not sacrifice service and quality. The quality is not fancy but it is nice. The front deck staff turn off the power to your room when you are not in it and on when you are. And they require you to take your shoes off at the front steps to reduce the dirt that's tracked in. This was our last hotel stay on our tour of Cambodia with Audra and Joe.

Our final day together back in Phnom Penh was spent just relaxing after a pretty full itinerary. Stephen had to go to work, poor guy, even though he did ALL of the driving. The flights out of Phnom Penh that head to the US generally all leave in the late evening. We lingered with them as long as we could and then we waved good bye through the glass. Our drive back to the apartment was quiet. We were a little worn out and a little sad. And it was late at night so the streets were quiet. Though we are only 36 hours of travel time apart, it feels like worlds apart. But it won't be long before we take that same journey halfway around the world. :)

1 comment:

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