Wednesday, April 15, 2009

February 22, 2006: Cambodia

Imagine flying over an expanse of green, luscious fields covered in water, interrupted only by rivers, wooden and tin huts on stilts and an occasional dirt or rudimentary paved road. No factories, not even any farm equipment...just water buffalo. This was the sight we saw as we circled over Siem Reap, Cambodia. One of the most beautiful pollution whatsoever for there is nothing to pollute the apparently untouched landscape.

We landed in Siem Reap and were all a bit unsure what to make of our new surroundings. The group we were with for this pre-cruise trip consisted of six people. My parents and I, a couple (Jeremy and Rosemary) from SussexEngland, and one single lady, Ms. Mary Margaret Carroll from Tucson, AZ. To give you a perspective on the demographic of the group, my dad was the third youngest of the group! But these people were the most ENTERTAINING bunch I've ever been with ...I laughed the entire time! First of all...Ms. Mary Margaret....well, she's an 86 year old woman who is my new idol. I was smart-assed by her more than I think I will ever be capable of smart-assing! Appropriately, she goes by "Marty" and has almost her entire life, but it's just ironic that her given name sounds more like a nun when she's so un-nunish! Jeremy and Rosemary are almost as the Brits!

Back to the trip....we were picked up by our guide and brought to our hotel, The Raffles Grand d'Ankor. The hotel was built back in the 1920's and retains the same architecture and charm of a hotel of that decade (although remodeled and with AC). It was like stepping back in time. Apparently Jackie Kennedy was one of the first visitors of this hotel, and I can understand why. Our first evening was just a relaxing one...we explored the grounds and the spa. All of us ended up getting 85 minute massage was only $50! And it was fabulous as you can imagine.

The Cambodian people were the nicest people I have ever met. And this is shocking considering that this is the poorest country I have ever seen. An average annual salary is $300 per year, but most people make much less than that. However, everyone was wonderful and so nice and beyond accommodating.

We spent three days touring the temples of Ankor, which were fascinating. We learned all about the Hindu and Buddhist influences and walked through countless temples and tombs. I'm sorry to say it, but if you've seen "Tomb Raider", this is really what it's like. Temples out in the jungle built centuries ago with amazing designs and even more fascinating how they were constructed. Blocks of sandstone carried by elephants and men for 100's of miles to build these enormous temples surrounded by moats and huge walls.

The Cambodian cuisine was equally as wonderful....tandoori and curry foods, Ankor beer, (we even had lunch in the Ankor cafe, sipping Ankor beers, in front of Ankor Wat, in the Ankor region). One evening we had a Cambodian barbecue....outside with all sorts of regional foods and then traditional dancing by the local Cambodian people. It was fascinating. The only caveat to the trip was the heat and humidity....we showered some days four times because we would just be sitting there at a temple sopping wet. 90 degrees and I swear 300% humidity! I'm almost getting used to it at this point! 

From Siem Reap we traveled by plan to Phom Penh....a much more industrialized city. There were actual car lanes and a few street lights (lacking in Siem Reap). No McD's, Starbucks, etc. anywhere as there is in Singapore, Taiwan. They do have a Lucky Burger though....we didn't try our luck. Here we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was the site of one of the prisons used during the Khmer Rouge. It was a devastating experience to see what a group of people could do to their own of the women, men and very, very young children, even babies that were killed because they were thought to be "spies" were shown along with many other things that I won't go into. Talking to our guides about this time period was very interesting and eye-opening. I had read a few books about survivors of this genocide, but to hear it first hand is so much more blatantly real.  

Last night we were taken from our hotel by "cyclo" to a restaurant on the Mekong River. A Cyclo is like a rickshaw, but a little seat that you sit on and a person behind you on a bike that is touring you around. My cyclo was PINK!'d be jealous. It was fabulous! Most people in Cambodia don't have cars (too costly) but drive motos. And you don't have to have a license. Imagine the chaos! It was a bit frightening, but very entertaining watching our six cyclos (Marty leading the way) maneuvering through the roads....there is no "right of way" or "signaling"'s very similar to Boston driving...if you don't look at the oncoming driver, they hopefully won't hit you! 

All in of the most fantastic countries I have ever visited. A place I would suggest for a honeymoon to anyone our age...relaxing but still with a lot of culture to experience. Despite the poverty, both my dad and I agree that this country is up and coming. Worth a look if you are considering investing in Southeast Asia. We are back in Singapore today and get on the boat tomorrow afternoon, but we will return to the south of Cambodia (Shihanoukville) this weekend to go to a beach resort on the Thai Sea...crystal blue waters and everything and then on to Vietnam. 

Till then... 

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