Cambodia: China Diaries and Other Tales from the Road

Exploring Cambodia: Poverty and Happiness in Extreme

“Exploring Cambodia”, excerpted from the recently-published book China Diaries & Other Tales From the Roadir?t=gc0a7 20&l=as2&o=1&a=1592998348

By John H. Rydzewski

ruins in Ta Promh, Cambodia. photos by John H. Rydzewski.
Ruins in Ta Promh, Cambodia. photos by John H. Rydzewski.

When I was in elementary school, I heard about bad things happening in Cambodia mainly because a quiet Cambodian girl named Cindy showed up at our school. Since then, the only things I ever heard about Cambodia involved civil war, genocide, land mines, poverty, pedophilia and famine. Still, I never comprehended or understood Cambodia.

Deep in the recesses of my brain, Cambodia had a very high “yuck factor” and never made it onto the list of places I wanted to visit. But after three friends returned from separate trips to Cambodia with rave reviews, I opted to hit the jungle and follow in the footsteps of Lara Croft in October 2008.

In Cambodia, where the average income is $200 per month – the United Nations Development Program estimated in 2010 that a third of the population makes less than $1.00 per day – one is constantly reminded of the grinding poverty, but I encountered and sensed very little misery among the everyday people.

People didn’t focus on what they didn’t have, but were content with what they possessed. I’ve seen more misery in Portland, Oregon where the average welfare recipient sees government handouts several times greater than what the Cambodians earn. Strong Buddhist traditions have taught the Cambodians to make due and be happy with what they have.

It was not uncommon to see five people (parents and three kids) on a scooter; 30 people riding in or on a pickup truck; or a family of four living in a lean-to made of scrap lumber and sheet metal, cooking their meal over a fire fueled by someone else’s garbage. Some were also making do with what they didn’t have, especially the many land mine amputees playing in music bands for spare change, including one band on the Siem Reap Bar Street that was selling their music on CD.

Because of the Khmer Rouge, the better part of an entire generation is missing, and the kids, who matured dozens of years beyond their age, are picking up the slack. In and around Siem Reap I saw two dusty boys, maybe 10 years old, walking down the street with bulging burlap bags slung over their shoulders and serious, 40-year-old looks on their faces; a little girl, no more than 9 years old, caring for her toddler sister; another little girl, maybe seven, preparing a meal; a boy who might have been 10 years old, tending to his family’s flock of goats; and a 12-year-old boy taking care of the family cow.

When not doing their chores, the kids were being kids, playing and splashing in their local swimming holes to beat the tropical heat; running around their homes; napping in hammocks, or playing in the roads.In every instance, their parents were nowhere to be found.

A girl selling water in Siem Reap.

Kids Making Money

The rest of the kids were at the tourist attractions begging for money or selling postcards, trinkets, bottled water, or knock-off versions of the most popular books at the time.At one temple, a 10-year-old girl selling postcards followed me into the ruins.

Working hard to sell me the cards, she counted to ten in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin. If the kids were lucky, their adult handlers – usually not their parents – might give them a paltry cut of the total proceeds.

When I first entered the Banteay Srei ruins, 23 miles outside of Siem Reap, there was a little girl, maybe seven years old, in a red, white, and blue-striped rugby shirt just inside the ruins, carrying a notebook with a blue cover.

She looked at me, but wouldn’t smile or speak when I said “hello” to her. When I reached the back end of the ruins about an hour later, she suddenly appeared and handed me a picture of a flower she drew in her notebook with a green ball-point pen.

When I took the drawing, I saw a Cambodian man, her handler, standing 20 feet behind her and watching us. I found a dollar in my backpack, folded it tight, casually moved close to her, and, out of view of the man, slipped the money into her hand. When I walked away after she let me take her photo, I looked back to see her run around the corner, jump up, and give me a wide toothy smile and a big, thankful wave.

There’s no doubt that Cambodia is full of little heartbreakers desperate to earn some money to help their parents feed their families, but this is absolutely no reason to prey on them for sex. Cambodia is one of the world’s top destinations for pedophiles. Prevalent are advertisements warning adults to keep away from the kids; and for legit tourists and hotel employees to report any suspicious activities.

Violators will get at least 20 years in a Cambodian prison before serving jail time in their native countries. When I asked an American teacher friend from the Pacific Northwest who worked in a kindergarten in Siem Reap about the sex tourists, Anne said that she had seen a few questionable Western men who she thought could have been perverts on the prowl.

High AIDS rate

In one Siem Reap tuk-tuk, I saw a pasty white, freckled, and balding Western tourist – who would have been more comfortable in a London pub – in the company of an almost too-young Asian girl slouched way down low in her seat and wearing sunglasses too big for her face. If anyone wants to go to Cambodia to get their freak on, they only need to walk alone after dark along Pokambor Avenue in Siem Reap that runs parallel to the Siem Reap River or stroll through the park in front of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh after sunset, where the ladyboys of legal age are cruising for customers. Just keep in mind that Cambodia has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world.

Street scene in Phnom Penh.
Street scene in Phnom Penh.

The hot Cambodian air, thick with humidity, was clean except for the campfire smoke from the cooking fires, and the sunny blue sky was a nice change from China. But more often than not, the water was poisonous. A canal of black raw sewage flowed through Siem Reap and emptied into the Siem Reap River.

Raw sewage bubbled up into the street near my Phnom Penh hotel, and flowed next to where people pitched a tent made of scrap wood and sheet plastic on the sidewalk. If the streets in Siem Reap had storm drains to keep the streets from flooding and filling up with mud during every heavy rain, I’m sure they too would have spewed forth some sort of black, smelly nastiness.

The main attraction in Cambodia is the the12th-century temple complex of Angkor just outside Siem Reap. As for Angkor Wat itself – believed to be the largest religious structure in the world – I found it overrated, probably because of its lack of nooks and crannies begging to be explored.

Still, visitors should plan at least three days to see the entire Angkor temple complex at a casual pace. Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple, with its 216 carved faces looking down from every direction on the visitors below, are gems within the overall complex that are worth more than cursory visits.

The highlight of my trip to Angkor was Ta Prohm.Ta Prohm is an excellent example of what happens when someone doesn’t mow the lawn for a very long time. Many people may have never heard of Ta Prohm by name, but have seen it in the movie “Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie as adventure hottie Lara Croft.

I don’t know how long Angelina stayed in Siem Reap, but she sure did leave an impression. At Ta Prohm there is one tree known as “The Tomb Raider Tree” that was featured in the movie; and the drink list in any Siem Reap watering hole isn’t complete without the “Tomb Raider”, a unique concoction of Cointreau, lime juice, and tonic water.

Ta Prohm wasn’t my favorite place because of Angelina Jolie (I never saw the movie), but because I’m a big fan of Mother Nature when she shows us mere humans who’s the boss. Nothing gets the adrenaline going like a good electrical storm, blizzard, ice storm, etc., that can, in an instant, send modern-day society back to the eighteenth century.

Monkeys in Phnom Penh.
Street scene in Phnom Penh.

Rainy Season

I visited Cambodia during the rainy season, and most of the country was underwater and being used to grow rice. It seemed like the only dry ground was the 30-foot wide and 200-mile-long ribbon of the national highway, NH6, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Each side of the road was lined with houses on stilts, goats, cows, and water buffalo all competing for the same meager grass; while cars, scooters, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, buses, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, you name it traveling in both directions competed for their share of asphalt.

Phnom Penh, the largest city in Cambodia, is a six-hour, $10 bus ride from Siem Reap. Being the capital city, it has a greater number of foreigners, a larger number of adorable street kids, and seemingly more Cadillac Escalades per capita than any other city in the world.

Phnom Penh also has what must be one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world, although I’m not sure why the U.S. government requires such a massive outpost in this otherwise simple country. Phnom Penh, after one long day of sightseeing, reminded me of Athens and Bangkok: a must-see place, but where one should not spend more than two days before making their way to the nicer, more interesting destinations deserving of a much longer stay.

As advertised at all the tourist attractions, foreigners will pay more for some things than the Cambodians, but I never had the impression that the Cambodians were trying to rip me off. Maybe it was the Chinese cabbies that made me think that the Cambodian taxi and tuk-tuk drivers were land sharks, but they are benign, non-threatening, willing to negotiate, and happy to help the wayward tourist. When I landed in Siem Reap, one tuk-tuk driver – for a dollar – let me borrow his cell phone to call my hotel to fix a minor problem.

Rice paddy in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Rice paddy in Angkor Wat.

The only person who genuinely tried to rip me off was Roberta, a grandmotherly American living in Phnom Penh who was selling what appeared to be locally-made “Obama/Biden” campaign pins for $5.00 each (with no mention of the proceeds going to the Obama/Biden campaign) at an ex-pat event replaying the Biden/Palin vice-presidential debate in a Phnom Penh restaurant central to the Western ex-pat community. Apparently, her social security check didn’t go that far in Cambodia either.

Given that just thirty years ago, some two million Cambodians, or one-fifth the total population, were killed by civil war, genocide, and the resultant disease and famine, Cambodia has come a long way in a short time. Knowing where their bread is buttered, Cambodian schools now require students to learn English and Mandarin.

Cambodia still relies on billions of dollars in foreign aid (a Japanese storm sewer project in Phnom Penh; United Nations activities all across the country; private donors from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and elsewhere funding house and school construction; Koreans and Indians funding the restoration of ancient ruins) but things are looking up.

Whenever I recommend to people that they should put Cambodia on their must-see list, their initial expression is that of a wrinkled nose and a doubting eye. But no one should let a “yuck factor” keep them away from exploring this most amazing country.

How to Get There :
Phnom Penh and Siam Reap are both served by international airlines, although there is a greater choice of airlines in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. There is regular bus service between Siam Ream and Phnom Penh, and a few dollars more will get you air-conditioned service (recommended). Travel light and expect close quarters. Stay at least five full days in Siem Reap and two full days in Phnom Penh.

John H. Rydzewski
John H. Rydzewski

Where to Stay :

A $100/night in the US will barely buy the equivalent of a “No-Tell Motel”, and even less in Europe, but in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, $100/night will buy luxury 5-star accommodations with breakfast included. My favorite is the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in both Siam Ream and Phnom Penh ( ).

Where to Eat :
Eat where the restaurants were crowded and the food was hot. Never had a bad meal during my entire visit to Cambodia. There is not a lack of inexpensive restaurants serving quality local food.

Land Transportation :
Tuk-tuk drivers are everywhere. In Siem Reap, try to negotiate a daily rate with a tuk-tuk driver to be your dedicated driver for the length of your stay because will be more economical than short hops. This is important when visiting Angkor Wat because seeing the entire complex will take at least three full days. After spending days walking the Angkor ruins, pamper yourself with a massage at one of the local establishments which are significantly less expensive than what is available at the hotels. Phnom Penh, with the exception of the Killing Fields, can be walked because all the sights are relatively close together.

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