Read From the Beginning

Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

 Sometimes I like to imagine what I would do if I was Dumbledore as I travel. Well, mostly I just think about the puter-outer that he made and think about what I would make. At this point in our travels my mind is firmly decided that I would make a de-honker to be used in the following situations:

Situation 1: Crossing the Street

A very small Marisa-Dumbledore goes to cross the street. Giant, fatty SUV comes barreling down the road, feels threatened by Marisa-Dumbledore and makes a very loud honk. Right now my only response as Marisa-with-no-Dumbledore-skills is to jump and scurry across the road, much like Farah used to whenever she saw anything. However, Marisa-Dumbledore would zap the giant, fatty SUV with the de-honker and the offending vehicle would suddenly find itself de-manned and de-honked, never to be rude again. Marisa-Dumbledore could cross the street without anyone making obscenly loud noises.

Situation 2: The Bus Ride

Marisa-Dumbledore is on a long bus ride to the middle of nowhere. The bus ride is long so I/she/we are listening to the iPod, maybe sleeping, or at least trying to relax. However, every five minutes or so, right after I/she/we have been lulled into a safe quiet, the driver (who thinks he is driving a race car, not a giant bus) lays on the horn for about a minute until the motorbike/bicycle/cow gets out the way. Marisa-with-no-Dumbledore-skills just has to sit there and try not to relax too much because then the horn is extra loud. Marisa-Dumbledore would just zap the driver's horn leaving him to take a more leisurely and relaxing pace behind the motorbikes/bicycles/cows he can no longer scare and intimidate out of the way.

I have been contemplating seeing if I actually have Dumbledore-skills by standing in the middle of the traffic and seeing what happens when the horns don't work. Sure you may think you are a big, tough, fatty vehicle with a loud, vile horn, but I am Marisa-Dumbledore and will not be cowed by obnoxiousness. However, since we're in Cambodia, the Wild West of South-East Asia, I'm a bit loathe to test out my skills. Things didn't work out that well for Dumbledore afterall anyway.


It's said that the best way to cross the street is to find a monk to tag along with.


Not such a good day for the chickens to cross the road. 


Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

I am currently sitting on top of a double-decker bus, rocking my way towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The bus is a bit more like a roller coaster than I remember double-decker buses being. Perhaps it's because I'm sitting in back, or perhaps it's because the roads in Cambodia aren't quite as smooth as the ones in Hong Kong. Of course you could have all the smoothness in the world and it wouldn't matter when you go swerving around motorbikes and cows at full speed.

It is now 3:30pm. We were told that the bus would be arriving around 4:30, which we took hopefully to mean we would arrive around 6 or so. However, soon after getting on the bus bright and early this morning, I began to despair that we would ever arrive at our destination.

We arrived at the bus stop this morning at about 7:45. The hotel arranged for our tickets and our ride to the bus stop, and I was quite surprised to see the bus pulling out as my motorbike came down the street, honked and pulled in front of the bus so it couldn't make a sneaky escape until Jordan and his motorbike arrived. The bus conductor berated me for being late, and I laughed, “ha ha, like I have any control over this situation.” We got quickly on the bus and congratulated ourselves on not missing the bus, despite the fact that it was supposed to leave about 20 minutes earlier. We felt lucky and relieved to be on board, and missed the sign from the universe that perhaps we should have missed the bus.


Me, still happy, smiling into Jordan's glasses.

After one last mean look from the conductor, the bus pulled off the curb, drove about 300 meters and then pulled over again to let some more people on. It continued to do this every 300 meters or so for about an hour. It should be noted that when Jordan and I got on the bus we sat in the last empty seats, so everyone else they picked up was squatting in the aisle.


The aisles are full and the tv is loud.

At this point (after picking up about 10 extra aisle squatters), we calculated that we were about an hour behind schedule, and things began to pick up. Or rather the opposite, since we didn't pick anyone up for about 10 minutes. However, the cruising time was brief and we soon pulled over to the side of the road. Everyone dashed off the bus, and I thought maybe the squatters had arrived at their destination, but after looking around, it seemed we were in the middle of nowhere. And I don't mean “middle of nowhere” like we were in Cambodia, but “middle of nowhere” meaning we were in the forest and there were no signs of people. In turned out after some observation that the bus guys (of which there seemed to be about 5 on our bus of 60) were out fixing something under the bus and everyone else had seized the moment to have a roadside pee, despite the fact that most of them had just been picked up and had been on the bus for about 10 minutes. Finally, the pee-ers returned to the bus, the bus guys removed the wooden blocks from the tires, and we were off again. Perhaps an hour and half late at this point, although it's really hard to know since the arrival time is only a mysterious 4:30, which we never really believed in.

We chugged along with hope in our hearts as we sped toward our destination. The morning light glistened off the green mountains and everything looked very lovely. I pulled out the iPod, turned it on and enjoyed the scenery set to my own personal soundtrack. What a lovely day it will be, I thought.


The beautiful, dry scenery passes by the window.

Suddenly the bus pulled over again. We looked around in confusion and saw that we had pulled over at a rest stop. It's breakfast time. And since we had been in the bus for about 2 hours, and driven perhaps 30 miles, it was time to take advantage of the road side stop. Everyone piled off the bus to eat and use the WC, and the bus boys were back out there tinkering with the bus. About 20 minutes later or so, we all got back on the bus and headed out, at this point so far behind schedule that I really couldn't give you a time figure.

And so it goes for many hours. We drive a few miles and then have a rest stop. I have never had so many rest stops as on this bus ride. The real highlight came when I glanced out the window to see where we could possibly be stopping at this point, and saw that some guy had bounded off the bus and was buying furniture from a roadside stand. One of the bus boys had followed him out and was slowly carting stools made from solid wood logs back to the bus. The guy was wandering around what I guess is a furniture store (but really looks like a shack) and was contemplating various things. Eventually the bus driver gave him a honk, as whatever induced him to stop for this furniture shopping spree has been overrun by the 60 people sitting on the bus, looking out the window and wondering why someone is buying furniture. Eventually the man got back on the bus with the last stool at the shop, and we were on our way again.


See the man sprinting back to the bus. See how there is no more furniture in the yard to be bought.

This, I thought, was the icing on the cake of our bus trip. However, I thought that just before the air con broke.

The only redeeming thing about spending 10+ hours on the bus is that you get to do it in the cool air and look out the window at scenery set to your own personal soundtrack. When suddenly the cool factor is gone, and it's over 90 degrees with no air flow (the bus windows don't open), nothing really makes the trip seem worthwhile, not your soundtrack, not hours of playing Zoo Keeper on the DS, not the thought that tomorrow you can see Angkor Wat. Mostly you just think, I would trade all the temples in and around Angkor Wat for a cool breeze.

And that, I concluded while I could feel the sweat dripping down and pooling around and soaking into my clothes, is what traveling is. It may seem exotic and exciting and other words that start with 'e', and sometimes it is, but mostly it's uncomfortable and uncontrollable and surprising. Sometimes the surprises are good, so you keep going. Sometimes they are bad and you question why in the world you are at the location you are. For now I have hope that we will someday arrive at our destination, and that the surprises tomorrow will be good ones. And since we're going to Angkor Wat, I'm thinking the chances are good. 


Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

 The last couple of days we've been enjoying the spectacular sights at Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. We saw 28 temples in 3 days, and each one was unique and interesting (well, except for the last one). The temples are grandiose reminders of an era which was consumed by the jungle hundreds of years ago. And while their beauty and craftmanship are impressive, we think they are improved by our photogenic faces. 


Jordan caputres the Bayon at Sunrise. We were all alone at one of the parks most visited sites.


Jordan conquers Angkor Wat.


I stop for a read in a photo that I promise is real, despite the fact that it doesn't look like it.

If you're interested in the rest of our photos, we're slowly uploading them. Check them out here: Day 0, Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3, or our Top 10 (which is a work in progress). Sometimes we're not even in the picture.

Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

1. I like beer here. Weird.

2011.03.12 - Siem Reap

2. Even weirder, I like bananas. It seems not all bananas were created equal.


3. Dr Fish. I had my feet munched on by many hungry fish and they have never been softer. (It's only painful if you're really ticklish.)


4. Angkor Wat.

2011.03.11 - Angkor Wat

5. The hospital. At least if your name is Jordan and going once isn't enough.

2011.02.18 - Phnom Pehn


And for those who came back based on my iPod teaser; a joke posted especially for my dad's last comment about the elephant:


Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

“Cambodia is like Australia.”

I had been sitting on a boat in the sun all day, coming up the Mekong from Vietnam, and all those rays were making my senses feel a little bit baked. I couldn’t be quite sure if the words I thought I heard came from inside or outside my head.

“Come again?”

“Cambodia is like Australia,” Rob repeated. “People are super laid back here, and friendly. They work hard—really hard—but they know how to kick back and relax hard too, at the end of the day. I love it.”

Rob, an Aussie himself, has been living in Phnom Penh for the last several months, where he unexpectedly set up house after cycling his way up from Singapore on a recumbent tricycle and deciding not to leave. We connected through, and he generously offered to host Marisa and I while in Cambodia’s capital… which is how I came to be sitting on his couch nibbling sweet mango while he compared the Southeast Asian nation I had just crossed into with his homeland down under.

I’ll admit that the comparison caught me by surprise. I didn’t know much about Cambodia before visiting, but the little I knew about the Khmer Rouge regime dominated my mental image: I pictured a country under a dark cloud, devastated and depressed, struggling to recover from untold horrors. Australia, on the other hand exists in my mind as a rather more happy and sunny place.

I still haven’t been to Australia, but after four weeks in Cambodia I can say that the people we’ve encountered here have indeed been incredibly laid back and friendly. People seem to smile with their whole faces on a more regular basis than I remember them doing elsewhere, and this, along with the constant performing of sampeah (bowing with palms together) creates a disarming effect.  The sampeah came naturally to me (probably because of all the bowing I did while in Korea), and I caught my smile getting constantly broader under the barrage of friendliness. Soon I found myself entering into easy conversation with all kinds of people: with a woman selling cane juice by the side of the path on a rural farming island outside of Kompong Cham, who taught me several words of Khmer through signs; with a shop vendor who turned out to also be a high school teacher studying English when and where he could—we had a forty-five minute dialogue about our two countries and exchanged emails at the end of it; with Sa Vorn, our tuk-tuk driver in Angkor—a hard-working man who exudes honesty and trustworthiness… and with many others. One highlight was dining with Rob along with his Cambodian fiancé’s family, his future brother-in-law chatting away with us vigorously in pigeon English, alternating questions, jokes, laughter, and directives to “eat more frog legs!” faster than we could keep up (the frog legs, fried with lemon grass and chili, were delicious).

2011.02.16 - Phnom Pehn

Dinner with Rob and his bride-to-be (before other family members showed up).

So what of the dark cloud? What of the Khmer Rouge? As I learned more about the regime I was shocked to discover that the horror was—if anything—worse than I had previously imagined. In the four years that “Red Khmer” controlled Cambodia, over two million people died from starvation, torture, and brutal killings—a full quarter of the country’s population at that time—making the period deadlier on a per capita, per nation basis than the American Civil War or the Rwandan Genocide.


An image painted by one of the few S-21 prison survivors.

Pol Pot’s communist “revolution” was the most radical ever attempted, making the Soviet and Chinese programs look sensitive and gradual by comparison: in 1975 all foreign ambassadors were evicted, schools and hospitals were closed, banking, currency, and private property were abolished, and religion, romance, and family loyalty were outlawed in one fell swoop without any kind of gradation schedule. Cities were turned into ghost towns as residents were driven into the countryside to perform fieldwork, where they were expected to produce incredible rice yields on meager rations (though many of them were lacking the most basic agrarian knowledge). Power was placed in the hands of the “pure” peasants and children, who were taught to obey all orders and use force indiscriminately, while former city dwellers and “educated elite” were considered corrupted beyond redemption, and thus expendable (excepting party leaders like Pol Pot, who were generally the best-educated of all).


One boy who was arrested then tortured and killed at S-21.

This was the high point of the regime. As the city dwellers failed to produce great quantities of rice, everything got worse. Rations were decreased below starvation level while work hours were prolonged, and violence escalated. Pol Pot, unable to believe that his revolution could fail, suspected corruption within the party. Cadres and lieutenants were arrested and sent to Security Prison 21, where they were tortured until they confessed to working for the KGB, CIA, or Vietnamese government. Then they were asked to name fifty more conspirators (who were predictably brought in next) before they were taken to the killing fields. Their wives and children, charged “guilty by blood,” were also killed (the children usually by beating their heads against trees). These killings were mostly carried out by "pure," barely adolescent teenagers. In the countryside the educated were asked to step forward for “forgiveness,” then beaten to death, while everyone everywhere starved. If the Khmer Rouge had not antagonized Vietnam to the point that the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979 to topple the regime, it is likely that the Cambodian population would have been totally exterminated within a matter of two or three more years, Pol Pot left alone in his utopia, atop a monstrous pile of skulls.

2011.03.03 - Phnom Penh

Skulls of victims at the Choeung Ek killing fields.

This is what the kind, smiling, laid back people here have been through. Since the deadly regime was toppled things have been infinitely better in the sense that people aren’t dying by the thousands, but in many ways Cambodia is still in the early stages of recovery. It took decades to rid the country of the last Khmer Rouge insurgents (whom the American government supported gainst the Vietnamese into the 1980s, and who were active into the mid-90s), and the country is still littered with millions of land mines laid to keep those insurgents at bay. Despite a UN attempt to promote fair elections in 1993 the current government remains an offshoot of the one installed by the Vietnamese in 1979, rather than the people’s choice, and is largely irresponsible and unresponsive, making little attempt to meet its nation’s basic health and education needs, relying instead on foreign aid (much of which seems to vanish as it enters the country). Corruption is rampant and widespread (with Transparency International ranking the country in the bottom 1% in their worldwide corruption index). Many former Khmer Rouge leaders and cadres are in powerful positions in the current government, and many more live ordinary civilian lives, having never been asked to account for past deeds. In 2006 an international tribunal was established to try the most senior KR leaders, but it has met with numerous bumps in the road, and only one person has been convicted to date, with their sentence now being appealed.

After the bows and the smiles and the gracious hospitality, these realities did come out in my discussions with Cambodians. In hushed tones people asked me if I had visited Choeung Ek, then explained how they were attempting to process the horrors of their country’s past. “How could this happen?” They asked me. “And why?”

As if I could provide any answers.

“This past is not taught in our schools,” said Sa Vorn gravely, before going on to tell me of Cambodia's widespread corruption and how it affected his job, along with other grievances he had with the government. Then he smiled, picked up the English grammar book that he spends all his spare time studying, started up his tuk-tuk, and drove us on to the Bayon… one of Angkor’s largest and most impressive temples, built by Cambodia’s most beloved King at the height of their empire’s splendor. The sun was just rising, and there was not another soul in sight.


Sa Vorn, studying his English while he waits for us at a temple stop--no kidding, that's a grammar book.

And this has been my experience of Cambodia. Learning about one of the worst autogenocides in human history while interacting with some of the nicest, most laid back people I’ve ever met, in the shadow of a staggeringly majestic bygone era. I don't know if Cambodia is like Australia, but it certainly isn't like any place I've ever been.

This, again, is why I travel.


The Bayon at sunrise.

Related slideshows:

Bonus! A few interesting facts about Cambodia:

  • Buddhism is the professed faith of 95% of Cambodia's population, which is the highest percentage of Buddhist believers in the world (tied with Thailand). All Cambodian men over the age of sixteen are expected to serve some time as monks as a kind of right of passage.
  • Cambodia's chief cultural influence is India, rather than China.
  • Unlike neighboring languages like Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese, Khmer is a non-tonal language.
  • While Cambodia has its own currency (the Cambodian riel), its use is limited mainly to pocket change, with the country's main legal tender being the US dollar (which all ATMs dispense--at amounts up to $2000 per go!). Generally you pay for things in dollars, and get any change less than $1.00 back in riel.
  • Cambodia is the cheapest place in the world to buy certain electronics, notably Apple products, high-end cameras, and other items with relatively determined retail values. Prices are typically equal to their counterparts in the United States (where electronics are still cheaper than most "hyped" locations in Asia due to market differences), but have the advantage of being completely untaxed to everyone.
  • Cambodians like their beer with lots of ice. Which of course makes sense for a country with Cambodia's climate.

Cambodia Map

25 Mar 2011
Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

Top 10 Photos from Phnom Penh Photos from Kompong Cham Photos from Sen Monorom Angkor Wat Day 0 Photos Angkor Wat Day 1 Photos Angkor Wat Day 2 Photos Angkor Wat Day 3 Photos Kompong Cham Top 10 Photos Angkor Wat Top 10 Photos Top 10 Cambodia Photos Crossing the Street With Dumbledore Uncontrollable Surprise Cambodia: Like No Place I've Been 5 Interesting Things About Cambodia Jordan and Marisa are Posers II: Angkor Wat

Posted by Marisa
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 I have finished my much anticipated Cambodia scrapbook. Much anticipated mostly by me, and then by the people who read about my failed Vietnam book. This is my favorite book I've made so far mostly because we had such nice photos and I figured out how to make realistic glitter. And it's glitter even Mom approves of because it leaves no mess.