Translated by: Pal Capewell
It’d be a lie to say all countries have the same impact on us and they all make us fall in love with them head over heel. Not every country has given us the same - either by quality or quantity - but nevertheless we are truly grateful for having had the chance to visit. Our point is to be very frank with the readers here. Based on our experiences, we became rather uninterested with Cambodia as we progressed southwards in Laos. Poverty everywhere, relying on tourism and naive tourists so heavily that it turned sickening. Pairing extreme poverty with tourism is never smart, from our perspective. Eni and I arrived to Cambodia with rather low expectations. Over time however, somehow this apathy faded off and even the disgustingly corrupt border crossing didn’t deter us from enjoying the next Southeast Asian country.
Let’s leave the border crossing fiasco out of the first impressions since it is so embarrassing for the country that there are no words for it. Besides, it is solely due to the super corrupt officials and does NOT represent the people. And, based on that, Eni and I agreed to leave the border crossing out of our image for Cambodia as we biked away from that horrid place. Instead, our impression begins from the first village we entered and started chatting with the locals. They welcomed us warmly, without any suspicions - instead, they helped us get settled. This is also the place where our most fascinating breakfast happened (thus far), with four seventy-something year olds. The six of us not only shared all the food but the interest we had towards each other, which took form in a rather limited, but all the more entertaining communication. Let’s begin with the topic that comes to mind for us first when thinking of Cambodia. No, it’s neither its history nor its architecture - but the people.
Cambodian people are wonderful. Seriously, in every single way. The poorest country we have been to thus far (unfortunately it’s quite the leader from a global perspective too, in this aspect). When I say poverty, I mean the simplest, most basic things. Yes, there are countries that are way poorer than Cambodia, but Cambodia is the one I personally witnessed and experienced.
Then there is the historical trauma, whose criminals and survivors are in our parents’ age (50-60). Cambodians don’t have much, except the depressing past, yet their eyes still sparkle. These loving souls emit only calm and happiness. Unlike Laos, they were not kind and hospitable towards us because they expected money (though Laos had its exceptions too, I must admit). Whom Eni and I smiled at either already had a smile on, or broke out in a smile immediately. This is why after a couple of days we were constantly smiling. It is such a liberating feeling!
It’s not clear how many people can speak English, but a few words are ready in everyone’s vocab. For children, the basic “hello, goodbye, I love you” are the most common, but they use what they have in such adorable ways! What Eni and I realized in the Laos-Cambodia-Thailand trio was that in Laos the children were the most direct and welcoming, in Thailand we expect the adults to be this way, but in Cambodia both kids and grown-ups are super sweet and loving. Cambodians always turned to us with genuine care and interest. Never a pushy or forceful move, never a negative incident. As we rode through towns on our bikes we couldn’t even determine where the “hello”s came from most of the time, just shouted the greeting right back. Us two and the locals had fun examining each others’ facial features in the quaint restaurants Eni and I dined in.
Talking about faces. I don’t want to cut to the chase, but I have to. There is a belief back home in Hungary that Thai people are all exceptionally beautiful. Well, sorry guys, that’s nowhere close to reality. In general, it’s really not true. Eni and I were surprised ourselves as well. Sure, there were a few beautiful faces but the chances of seeing such were much higher in Cambodia. Kids, women, men, everyone. Cambodians’ skin is darker than that of Thais, their noses are wider, and they have some impressive muscles - so impressive that those skinny white boys in European gyms would feel embarrassed. Maybe instead of going to the gym every day they should work on the fields, cultivate rice and do all hard work by hand. We only saw one Cambodian who was slightly fatter than the average, but it was obvious he belonged to the wealthier group. (Just to compare, Thailand has way more overweight people, children as well. The wealthier region, huh!) So yeah, Thai women might be pretty but they have nothing on the Cambodian beauties! Family values are important, Cambodians are very patient and loving towards kids. The elderly and monks enjoy the highest level of respect.
They are a very calm bunch, like you probably read in our New Year’s blogpost. Not one unruly move. Cambodians are generally modest, kind, trustworthy and calm. Perhaps these four words describe them the best.
Like in Laos, there are not many cars. Most people get by on motorcycles if they can, and also transport goods that way too. Most of you wouldn’t be able to imagine the size of the trailers behind these tiny motors. The roads are in terrible condition, though we did see efforts of some kind of reconstruction (with more failures than successes, sadly). The most extensive means of transport is the bus. Except the high-end ones, the buses are ran-down and whether they should be in service at all is questionable. Not that the average passenger notices, as the roads are so bad that the best Mercedes Citaro would shake the life out of anyone here; take the Siem Reap - Phnom Penh route for example, which takes seven hours. Unbearable. The traffic is not crazy at all though, and can be considered within reason (on a scale where China is crazy and Hungary is well organized). The Consulate’s website summarizes it pretty well: “The downside of road transport are the mines, which are often unmarked. For your safety, we strongly recommend to avoid train services due to the questionable state of the infrastructure. Motorcycles are not recommended. Again for your safety and due to the lacking knowledge of the drivers and questionable infrastructure, please refrain from motor-taxi services. If traveling by boat, make sure to only board safe-looking ones with proper organization. Refrain from boarding a boat that seems to be carrying more than it’s capacity. In general, do not board any means of transport if it seems overloaded.”
Of course, the Consulate’s job is to protect the Hungarians abroad, but Eni and I felt it to be a bit overly dramatic. It wasn’t all THAT catastrophic. There is a certain Asian perspective, which doesn’t coincide with the Western one. If we used a Western objective we would probably not be able to travel at all, as everything would be considered crazily scary and dangerous.
Food and Shopping
Rice, with chicken, pork, fish or seafood to go with it. This is the most common menu in most kitchens. Or, one can get the famous “noodle soup” which they prepare like in Laos but without the salad on the side. There is a lot of grilled meats and fish. Eni and I think Cambodians do better sandwiches than their northern neighbors. Bring the meat, we love it so! Their sugarcane juice is really delicious and they use tangerine to “citrusize” it (it’s a word I just made up*Balazs*). So basically sugarcane with a bit of citrus taste. They serve it with crashed ice. By the way ice.... a sensitive topic. One has to be extremely careful, as it is rarely hygienic. Ice is transported in massive blocks on a back of a dirty motorbike, covered by an equally dirty plastic wrap and are cut to pieces by tools with dirt of questionable origins. Eni and I tried to avoid ice at all costs, but at times it did force its way into our diet (for example locals put it in our coffee). This is why we asked most of our drinks to be hot (we prefer it that way anyway). Hygiene is not a common “illness” around here. :P Our stomachs had quite the training but I am not sure if I’d be willing to just fly in from Europe and risk a week long food poisoning during a two-weeks holiday...
They sell a lot of different meals from their motorbikes. Actually, they basically sell everything from their motorbikes. Sandwiches, sugarcane juice, ice-cream, coffee, noodle soup, fried pasta, raw fish and veggies, sweets. What we suggest to visitors is what can be said for most countries - eat where the locals eat. That way the authenticity of the meal is real, and it’s less likely that you will have food poisoning (khm, less likely, not unlikely). Extreme dishes Eni and I tried: duck embryo, fried insects, frog stew and stuffed frog grilled.
Supermarkets are rare, but small stores can be found in most towns. Don’t expect large selection but one won’t have to starve. Tap water is not drinkable but bottled water is readily available everywhere. The smaller bottles are cheaper if one buys in bulk. It was quite an uncomfortable feeling to produce this much trash, but one either buys 1.5 liters bottle for $0,50 or 6 liters in small bottles for $0,75. Banana, mango, pineapple, dragon fruit, jack fruit, durian are available everywhere. Durians have an unbearable stink to them and it’s easy to spot where they are grown. It smells like when the onion goes bad and you mix it with rotten tomatoes. Haven’t tried yet. No particular reason, just how things panned out. Cambodia has smaller bananas with black seeds; they taste much more like kiwis than what a European considers a banana. Coconuts are delicious, I love both their juice and their meat. Obviously not everyone is a saint here either, but regarding prices and payments we were taken for a ride much less frequently. Another interesting fact is how universally they accept USD, at the same rate nationwide. 1 USD - 4000 Real. Basically making USD a universal form of payment.
Fried banana. Best recipe ever, will do some back home too!
Cambodia is basically a grassy savanna. Quite boring, if you ask me. The sea to the south, jungle and mountains to the west. From this perspective, Laos is much prettier and more diverse. But one can hardly hold that against a country! Their architecture is quite unique - well not in regional perspective because Laos and Thailand were also part of the Khmer Empire. If we see a door or gate of a church, we already know it’s Khmer due to their typical characteristics. Eni and I mostly saw the countryside architecture though, which is very similar to that of Laos. Mostly wooden and bamboo “forts” with plastic roof. Bigger cities carry the French heritage. Angkor’s ancient city is a most fascinating spot. You can check here, if you missed it. (PASTE LINK?)
It is said that the best party is the one for which you don’t prepare. Well that’s how Eni and I were with Cambodia. We expected the least, that’s why it hit the biggest, the most. We grew fond of it for its culture, heritage, history and lovely people. This tiny country grew into our hearts! If we don’t consider Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, it’s not a very touristy country though. It has everything for the perfect summer holiday: it’s interesting, colorful, exotic, cheap. There is plenty to discover. An ideal destination for those who feel Thailand to be too boring or too deep in their comfort zones. But don’t expect services and infrastructure like that of Thailand! For me, that’s what makes it so much fun.
Word of advice before taking a nosedive into your very own Cambodian adventure - ask for the necessary vaccinations and preparations in your home country.
Translated by: Pal Capewell
Back when we were still in Laos, it happened that we met an American couple on our way to Luang Prabang. Anna and Paul flew from Alaska to Bangkok to spend three months biking around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and a bit more in Thailand at the end. The four of us grew fond of each other so we exchanged contacts and agreed to hit each other up once in Cambodia, as it seemed our times there will overlap. Time went on and though Eni and I didn’t forget about them, we didn’t have high hopes about ever seeing them again. Then one day during our stay in Cambodia, they sent us an e-mail enquiring what our plans were and then agreed on meeting for coffee in Phnom Penh. A great opportunity to catch up and see what has happened the past one month.
Needless to say, Eni and I were not in our best, chit-chatty mood after the museum (refer to previous post), but I told Eni it’ll be good to relax a bit. Looking for a place to have lunch, we settled down in a cafe and checked our e-mails. Anna and Paul were just on their way to the museum so we calculated their approx. finish time and decided to meet them at the gate. We had to wait 15 minutes tops, then the four of us were already greeting each other with grinning smiles. Our choice for a place was a cute little spot nearby, and though some of us opted for beer instead of coffee, everything went according to plan. Had a great chat, got to know and grew fond of these nature-loving bikers. Unfortunately Eni and I had to say our goodbyes soon though, as we didn’t want to miss the last ferry to cross the river, where our hosts for the night were. Had we missed it, we’d have had to do a 50km detour or possibly be without a place to stay for the night. With a big sprint, we did make it to the ferry! :)
As it turned out, the ferry goes till 10pm, so our worries were unnecessary. It was nice to arrive on time to our German hosts though. Rafael and his girlfriend Cloudy are the leaders of an NGO. They have generously given us very comfortable accommodation, which we appreciated greatly. The next stay we had breakfast together then I had the opportunity to try a “reku”. I only went a few rounds in the garden, but I fell head over heels. Eni and I need to get one for each one time. It’s a must!
We said our goodbyes around 10am, then headed for the super cheap ( EUR 0,1) ferry back to the buzzing Phnom Penh. A few postcards were sent, then ate lunch in a hole-in-a-wall restaurant. I must say, these Cambodians do very good frog soups! Even Eni enjoyed her little sample. After lunch we got back on our bikes and departed from the city in torturing heat, between long queues of cars. The enormous trucks all stirred up the dust, with us breathing it all in sadly. The town of Kep welcomed us the next day; a beach town which served as holiday destination for the upper class around the sixties. Under the Khmer Rouge, this town became uninhabited during the seventies. Nature completely took back the control, with villas barely visible in the midst of trees, bushes and high grass. People totally forgot about Kep. Today it’s a small town of just a few thousand people, surrounded by quaint fishing villages.
Fortunately our guesthouse was easy to find, and was on the “good” side of town. Oasis Guesthouse catered for all sorts of guests back in the day, who had female visitors of the lowest grade. It was a night club, pub really. After the change in ownership though, regulars were asked to leave as the profile of the establishment changed, and how to put it...well, “the butterflies flew away”. The new owners turned it into a cute little place, though it’s hard to say, having no frame of reference. There were separate houses as well as rooms with bunk beds for those on tighter budgets. The price is really fair, even at the bar (one coffee USD 0,5; small beer USD 1, a cocktail USD 2). The crew is French, French-Canadian and Khmer. Very kind, friendly, smiley, and have provided with us a fair amount of information regarding the surrounding area.
We got to Kep on the 24th of December, with zero Christmas mood. The setting, the scents, the temperature all didn’t match. Had SKYPE calls with the family, with the “All I want for Christmas is You” in the background. For the next thirty minutes, all hell got loose Christmas wise in the bar. Then, except the barboy’s Santa hat, nothing reminded us of Christmas. Our festive dinner was a street-food stall, with an old lady whose cooking we grew fond of and loved her smile. She and her cooking were so enchanting that Eni and I returned for dinner every day during our stay. The easiest things to find at stalls like this are grilled fish and meat, sour stuff, perhaps some lettuce or salads, rice, boiled eggs, duck embryo.... DUCK WHAT??! Duck embryo. I am pretty sure our vegetarian readers will stop reading here and DISlike our page, but yeah, I tried duck embryo. Oh, and it’s delicious, by the way. This egg looks like any other boiled egg, but inside it’s different. VERY very different. An underdeveloped duck whose one half is still an egg. You can see some distinct features already such as beak, eyes, wings, but everything is still soft and there are no bones. Alright, I’ll stop here. This is what they serve on green spice bedding, with salty, black pepper-lime sauce on top.
Rest, writing, picture- and video-editing. We visited the the secret Angkaul Beach which is really not secret but is indeed hard to find. Biked quite a few hours on the beach, between rice fields and water buffalos before getting to Angkaul Beach. A peaceful, quiet, beautiful place where one can get enormous coconuts. One can sit back, relax, stare at the water and ponder why do locals call the island ahead a Rabbit Island, as it looks nothing like a rabbit. I believe I did see a rabbit on its back while staring long enough, in all fairness though (don’t worry, I really only had coconut milk nothing else). Meanwhile, our new American friends arrived to Kep as well, with a new friend Andy, who teaches English in Poland. Andy went over to Vietnam for New Year’s, Anna and Paul decided to stay at our guesthouse. The gang was united once again! By this time Eni and I felt totally on the same wavelength with them and really looked forward to spending more time together.
But who are Anna and Paul?
A few words about them, if you don’t mind. Anna, 28, is from South Carolina and Paul, 26, is from Chicago. They met at a tour agency in Alaska, and from the friendship came shared trips then dates. During spring time they work for an American bike-tour organizing company, during the summer they lead different trips and have smaller side jobs to collect enough to bike around a warmer country during winter months. This rhythm may be broken this year, but they are not sure yet how their year is going to shape up. In February and March they are going to lead some trips in Tucson, but the rest is not decided yet. Anna and Paul are both very friendly, open, and seek to learn about new cultures and people. The four of us had really good conversations as we were all very interested about the others’ countries and customs. Politics, education, social and health care systems were all talked about, just as were biking and camping. Us boys talked about tents, sleeping bags, routes and paths, while the girls probably discussed hair conditioners, the art of cooking, and steep hills. Eni and I met quite the number of couples on our trip so far, but we could only bond this well with Anna and Paul. It felt like we have known each other for centuries and have done hundreds of adventures together.
The four of us ventured to the Crab Market once, where one can buy fresh, live or grilled crabs, ink fish, and all sorts of seafood. The gang had a huge meal, needless to say. Generally our breakfast consisted of Khmer pancakes and Khmer coffee at one of the markets nearby. Their pancakes are like the Hungarian crepes, but much more yellow for some unknown reason (perhaps turmeric?). Locals eat it with grind meat, bean sprouts, raw veggies, fresh spices and some baked noodles, with some sweet-spicy sauce. It’s filling, delicious and cheap. Khmer coffee is prepared like Turkish coffee except it’s much stronger and they use a fine cloth as a filter. It’s served with sweet condensed milk, and accompanying tea.
Eni and I took our American friends to the “secret” beach, to which we already discovered the best possible shortcut. It took about an hour or 90 minutes from our guesthouse to the beach, on bike, approximately 12km. Passed by salt mines, fishing villages, into the rice fields where dear families smiled and waved kindly while attending to their chores. One can see the genuine Cambodian life and openness while on this route. Eni was our lead, confidently taking our small crew through narrow, white tracks. Anna and Paul liked the shore (it’s really not a beach), as well as the cute bistro that’s ran by a married teaching couple. A few resting spots under the cover of palm trees, and net beds, where one can attempt to figure out the cryptic names of the islands ahead. Despite the readily available sodas and beer we opted for coconuts, our newest obsession. The grandma who runs the store apologized as she just ran out, but as soon as grandpa arrived he reassured us he will refill shortly. Changed his outfit, grabbed a long rope, a machete and off he went to get some coconuts. Paul and I wanted to take our share of the work, and of course someone had to take pictures as well, so the two of us accompanied him. Safety wasn’t his biggest concern, to say the least... he only needed the ropes to get the machete up and the fruits down. He was so skilled as a monkey climbing up and down that 10m high coconut palm tree. Before Paul and I could awake from our surprise, the first batch of coconuts was already coming down. This is how it’s done in Cambodia! Perhaps grape work and pea breaking would make him shy like us with coconuts, but he is talented alright. He came down the same way he went up, just using both his legs and hands.
The coconut was dreamy and the four of us carried on talking. Then we went to take a dip in the water, when our second surprise came about (the first was the coconut hunting, if that wasn’t clear). We spotted starfish in the sea! THey haven’t done much other than what they usually do, but their sight was enough for us to get excited over. None of us dared to touch them. Then I decided heck, why not, and picked up a smaller, palm-sized one. Of course nothing happened, they are not aggressive animals. Using the GoPro camera, I shot a few pictures while we picked up and investigated one from each size.
The afternoon was spent entertaining the one and a half year old twins of the married couple running the store. In the meantime, we had the take-away lunch we got from our usual market and walked over to the village’s cafe for some caffeine. ‘Cos you know, you can even find a cafe in this tiny village. A small store, a soup kitchen, a dessert place and a cafe, all under one roof. Locals were busy having a blast with a game that looked similar to bingo. My favorite was how they pulled out cubes with numbers on them, from a 2 liter bottle.
The gang set off to return to the city, and the sunset made our biking along the beach a breathtaking experience. The sun basically disappeared into the sea. Priceless sight.
New Years caught up to us in Kep. Had a late breakfast, played pool and only had lunch around 4 in the afternoon. You know, like a boss. The plan was to get to the town’s beach (which is nice and tidy by the way) by 10pm, and wait for the fireworks. Before setting off, we had another beer in the evening and Paul and I played one more round of Pétanque. Our funny New Year’s video (hope you found it funny) was thrown together as well, in that high spirited moment. Downtown was buzzing with people, not our turf though. Seemed like everyone was focused within a 2km radius of the beach. Mostly locals and people from nearby towns, Westerners were extremely rare to come by.
The Cambodians started partying way before, 4 days in advance before New Year’s. Every night pick-up trucks were heading downtown, packed with people at the back who were laughing and singing. The town was filled with BBQ vendors, tearing everyone up, and people were dancing and celebrating left and right.
As we were getting closer to the epicenter of the party, the music grew louder and we became aware of a flow of lanterns above the sea. Food vendors everywhere, the rate of food stand/guest was almost 1/1. One had the longest range of food available: everything from grilled sausages to fish, from sandwich to fried grasshopper and cockroaches. To answer your question: yes, Paul and I DID try the grasshopper and the cockroach and they weren’t all that bad. Not that they were particularly delicious either, but that’s not the animals’ fault,may they rest in peace, but the disgusting oil on its hundredth rotation, having been used to fry half the bug population of the whole country. But the reason why it’s good to try stuff like this, despite the overused oil, is that it’s safe. It’s not a speciality for tourists, it’s munched up all over the place by the locals. Of course we bought “normal” food too, which we ate up on a mat, next to a Cambodian family.
This was my most memorable New Year’s Eve so far, for a number of reasons. FIrst, because it was in Cambodia, and second, because it was during our biking trip. And third, the strongest, because it was peaceful and modest. I know it’s contradicting to all the things I just said about the big festivities here. The four of us looked for a relatively quiet spot on the beach where one didn’t have to scream to the person next to them, and the Cambodian pop-rock became bearable. The aspect that made it peaceful for me was how the Cambodian locals and families celebrated. Almost everyone was having a picnic. On mats, with tiny tables and chairs, on top of cars. Families were united, friends were united, kids were running around in the sand, set candles on the sandcastles or set off fireworks or lanterns. Rowdy people were nowhere to be seen, nobody used firecrackers, no overdosed or drunk people out of their minds, no people without basic civilized behavior. I only saw two guys under the influence, but even they were smiling and let themselves be seated in a car to be escorted home. It was such a peaceful, lovely sight.
Paul and Anna surprised us with a lantern (this was our secret plan too, but they beat us to it!) and fireworks. Their lantern set off real nice, heading upwards then with an explosion it broke out in flames and fell into the sea. Anna was a bit disappointed but got over it soon. Then came the Hungarian half of the crew. The lantern was ascending real nice, as Eni and I watched it, holding hands. Then instead of turning towards the sea, it started heading for the hotel. It was great it’s flying on its own, but it’s not supposed to be flying right into the hotel! Phew, it ascended just enough and missed the hotel. But noooo, come on, now this one is in flames too! This ain’t fair! At least the fire went out before it landed in the forest. The last thing we needed was a forest fire... Felt a bit bad about it, but then I consoled myself that the wind’s direction is hardly my fault. We did everything right, but somehow the wind wasn’t cooperating. This is why both lanterns got lit up, as the flame and paper met due to the ever-changing directions of the wind. Many others had the same “luck” so we decided it wasn’t our lack of skills, but the wind. About eight minutes before midnight, the locals roared off to the beach, like they were about to start a war. Everyone set off their fireworks, Paul and I being no exceptions. Like two children we stood on the beach, with the shooting paper roll in our hands, grinning widely at the sea. Eni and I had never seen fireworks this close up before. It seemed like they shot the prettiest flowers above us (it WAS like that actually!). Fireworks flew up for half an hour in an ad hoc fashion, from the beach and some fishing boats. The four of us sat in the sand and stared at the unspeakable beauty of the fireworks and their reflection in the sea. What a superb night it was!
On the first day of 2016 we slept in quite late, had some coffee in comfort then the crew discussed what next. The plan at the end looked something like this: slowly roll over to the nearby town of Kampot, where we get a room in a cheap guesthouse. Our budget got a little tight due to our overstay in Kep, but Anna and Paul, the sweet souls they are, wanted to treat us. Eni and I weren’t eager to accept their generous offer, both teams being backpacking, budget travelers. Their reasoning was hard to argue with: a two big bed assortment was the same price as the one big bed assortment so they don’t lose anything by having us, would only lose our company if we didn’t join. Now this was so sweet that Eni and I couldn’t say no. After arrival we went out for some street food. A rolling vehicle of some sort with a gas tank for cooking, a few plastic chairs and a table, and lighting from a large battery.
The next couple of days the four of us headed for the Thai border. Anna and Paul planned to stay 15 more days in Thailand, until their plane left. For us, this was just another stop on our journey. There was a day when three of us got sick, right after one another. First Paul said he was having stomach cramps, and diarrhea.Then after lunch, Eni started having severe stomach cramps. At last it was my turn, right in the middle of biking. All the sudden I felt my blood sugar drop, limbs turning weak and sweating like crazy. You know, the symptoms right before someone faints. So we stopped, finished off the remaining jam and honey in the shade and I slowly came back to life. Eni’s cramps disappeared as well, but Paul had the worst night. After having done 105km, we looked for a guesthouse to spend the night. Unfortunately the dinner didn’t go down at all for Paul. Around 3am Eni and I awoke to poor Anna applying cold wet towels on Paul’s head. Fortunately Eni and I carry a thermometer (so should y’all if you are traveling in the tropics!) and could measure his temperature. Paul’s fever reached 39,7! Not that we needed a thermometer to see it’s a severe medical situation, as he was as hot as an oven. We gave him Rubophen and told him to take a cold shower, which was followed by more cold wet towels. They didn’t camp out like we did, but they didn’t have a mosquito net to protect them either like we did, and many places don’t provide that in Southeast Asia. The medicine against malaria can only be taken for one month tops, and the side effects are terrible - hairloss, paranoia, grey skin. It’s not a multivitamin for sure. Eni and I suspected malaria first off. He had shivers earlier on (though this could have been due to the cramps), and pair that fever is never a good sign in the tropics. Luckily we managed to get his fever down to 38, but it increased again by the morning. The receptionists informed us of a doctor in the village after having told them the situation, and Paul, Anna were taken by a motorcycle. Poor soul could barely walk down the stairs. Eni and I awaited them back worried sick. I tried to make myself useful for the time being: fixed Paul’s flat tire, fixed Eni’s bike, cleaned the chains, maintained our means of transport. Eni was busy writing articles. Both of us were overjoyed seeing our two American friends return. Paul apparently bit his mouth while eating, and the bacteria from the expired food attacked his system through the wound. He got injections and antibiotics. He rested the whole day, three of us had to have lunch without him. Luckily he looked much better by the afternoon.
The next morning Eni and I set off for the Thai border very early on. Anna and Paul decided on continuing their journey on a minibus, once he felt strong enough. Eni and I had breakfast with the locals at a streetvendor’s spot, did a little market time for groceries then headed west on the highway. The otherwise flat Cambodia got quite cocky towards the end, making it difficult for us to paddle on due to the numerous mountains ahead of us. But we did see the jungle where Pol Pot was hiding until they captured him.
Rather difficult climbs awaited us and the thermometer went as high as forty degrees, which was thrown back at us at fifty from the asphalt. The heat was brutal. There were times both of us thought our heads are about to explode in those helmets. Only the constant water consumption and regular cold towels made the journey possible. Then at one point a minibus passed us, with two familiar bikes attached to the back - and Paul’s hand was out the window waving at us.
Are we going to see them again? Can we hug each other one more time before we separate for Lord knows how long? Can we hug these considerate, loving, friendly, adorable souls one more time? Is the more developed Thailand really that cheap? Are we finally going to have a decent meal?
I can’t spill the beans just yet, but if you check out our next post, it will all be revealed.
Translated by: Pal Capewell
After getting off the night bus, our next stop was perhaps the saddest part of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh’s history.
Upon stepping into Toul Sleng, or by it’s more famous name S-21, the same heart wrenching feeling took over that I felt upon walking into the House of Terror in Budapest or walking around Auschwitz. There it stood in front of us the “security jail” of the Khmer Rouge, where countless people were tortured to death not too long ago.
I don’t want to play the historian here, merely pass on what we heard and saw in the jail-museum. I will do my best to portray all details and depict everything as vividly as I can in this writing. Oftentimes it’s going to be shaking and horrific.
First of all, one must talk of Pol Pot, who became the leader of the Cambodian communist party after completing his studies in France. He carried out over ten years of guerrilla war against the Cambodian government, then on April 17th, 1975, he overtook Phnom Penh with the Khmer Rouge. With the launch of Democratic Cambodia (also known as Democratic Kampuchea), a new life began for Cambodia, starting at year 0.
People had high hopes and celebrated the arrival of Khmer Rouge’s army. Why? Well, the ever so secret war really wasn’t that big of a secret around Southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia were swept into the war alongside Vietnam. Naturally, a complete anti-U.S. atmosphere took over. People had enough of living under a thumb, the suffering and the war. Gradually everyone became very spiteful. With the Rouge’s “freeing” movement, Cambodians grew hopeful. Finally they could be independent without any suppressing!
Or not so much. Three hours after the celebrations, Khmer Rouge (aka Angkar, or “the Order”) ordered the evacuation of Phnom Penh. The people were told the easiest lie at hand: Americans are going to bomb the capital again so everyone must leave. In reality that’s when the four years of terror began. Pol Pot was working on establishing the epitome of communism. His goal was to turn the country into an absolutely sole class society, based on agriculture. Pol Pot’s utopian vision became the downfall of his own country.
All towns were evacuated, people were led to the rice-fields to work: everyone had to go, if anyone resisted, they were shot on the spot. Women, children, elderly, those fallen-ill were no exception. People could only take a few bare essentials before they were led off, on foot, to their appointed sections by the army. Many didn’t even make it that far - the hunger, thirst, exhaustion killed many. The Rouge closed down the schools, factories and prohibited all religions.
The quota, established by the evil Angkar, that people had to comply with, was three tons of rice on one hectare of field. (To better understand the magnitude of this, Angkor’s booming days could only produce one third of said amount.) The use of machines was out of the question, people had to depend on their strength, while working on the fields and building canals. Literally, people were used instead of animals in front of the plow.
People living in cities before hadn’t the faintest idea of work on the fields and growing rice. The Rouge had people working in the murderous heat from dawn to dusk, 15-19 hours a day. The daily food portion was one bawl of rice boiled in water, once a day, during the shared meal time. Soon enough the rice sources were depleted and people went hungry. Angkar, “who had as much brain as a pineapple”, was guarding people like a hawk. They killed people for as much as picking up a mango and eating it, as in their eyes, that was stealing from Angkar. Many of those who didn’t die from starvation died from exhaustion.
People from the cities were labeled “new” people, forming the biggest enemy of the Angkar. They didn’t know of farming; doctors, teachers, artists, priests, “soft-handed” and glass-wearing. They were all cleared off first thing, many were executed right on the spot, some were transferred to a “security holding” like the one S-21 is. After killing off the intellectual layer, the common people were the next target. The leaders, with Pol Pot right there, began to see KGB or CIA agents in everyone. From the “new” people to the “old” (farmers), even the Rouge leaders....everyone gave reason for suspicion.
Tuol Sleng, or S-21 Security Holding and the mass grave next to Phnom Penh are just one-one example of the gruesome establishments the Rouge was responsible for all around Cambodia. Just like the Nazis, the Rouge had tortures and executions according to a devilishly manufactured script.
Innocent people were taken to S-21 where they were tortured for months, some even for years, three times a day. Many of them didn’t survive.
Specific and neat documentation was practiced by the Rouge. Pictures were taken of the captured innocent people before and after tortures. There were rooms where people were chained together by their ankles, that’s how they laid on the ground. There were private cells as well, numbered, like inmates. The torture sessions took place on the schoolyard or in designated buildings within the school.
Those visiting Toul Sleng were shown the jail’s code of conduct (Taken from TripAdvisors picture regarding the rules)
Further on, each jail cell had one copy of the following rules:
Who were the S-21 workers? Illiterate Cambodians from faraway lands. These unfortunate dumb souls were easily manipulated and brainwashed. Their “training” consisted of explaining the great benefits of torture, the only way to get the truth. Torture is good, inmates bad. As time went on however, oftentimes the torturer became the tortured.
The means of torture were varied. Beating, nail removal, toe breaking, hanging people into water or feces, electroshock - just to name a few. They removed the breasts for women by pliers and put insects on the wounds. Inmates were prohibited from screaming during these procedures as well as prohibited from talking with one another.
As doctors were eradicated all over Democratic Kampuchea, medicine and medical care were non-existent. Poor tortured souls were handled by illiterate “cavemen”. During their four months medical training, Angkar’s “medical team” practiced on pillows how to give injection, learned how they get Vitamin C by mixing sugar, vinegar and water. The prisoners’ - half-dead victims really - wounds were treated with salt and 100% alcohol.
The so called blood transfusion were handled by these trained “nurses” as well. They took down four bags of blood from the victim then turned him over to face the wall till their soul left their bodies. The corpses were buried in the S-21 courtyard.
The killing fields are unmarked cemeteries around 15km south of Phnom Penh. When S-21 deemed to small for all these bodies, they were taken here after sundown, making as little noise as possible. Half-dead prisoners were hit on the head here, by wood, steel rods, etc. When the bodies fell into the depth, their throats were cut.
This is where the “Babies Tree” is located as well, where prison guards hit the babies against the trees. The Rouge, moreover, killed all those with Vietnamese and Muslim origins.
The world turned its head away from Cambodia
Perhaps it’s worthy to mention that the hippie movement from the 60s had increasingly pacifying aims. The European student revolts, strikes and the protests of American youngsters were all connected by the anti-war mindset. The western leftist-liberals adopted a Maoist way of thinking and Che Guevara became popular.
During Pol Pot’s reign of terror, only a few journalists of the Cambodian-Swedish Association were allowed in. The two weeks long visit was a well-organized theatrical show. Western youngsters were shown the factories, the rice fields, and communities where everything was at its best. Gunnar Bergström Swedish journalist and his mates were mass-producing articles praising the Pol Pot system. They made fun of Cambodian refugees in Thailand and Vietnam, who were talking of a reign of terror, mass murders and and referred to their country as a massive “wallless” jail.
The downfall of the Democratic Cambodia was brought by the Vietnamese when they were informed of the mass-killings of Vietnamese minorities. The troops reached Phnom Penh in January 7th, 1979, and discovered the jail a day later. The prison-guards fled the jail after killing the remaining fourteen prisoners by hitting them dead to avoid gunshot sounds.
Swedish journalists still denied the possibility of such heinous reign in Cambodia, despite plenty of evidence supporting the horrific and evil works of Pol Pot. Bergström still remained adamant that what he saw in 1978 was true and valid.
In 1980, S-21 was transformed into a museum. Surprisingly and unfortunately however, Cambodian students only started to learn about Pol Pot and his reign of terror from 2009 (!!!).
In 2008, Gunnar Bergström returned to Cambodia and visited S-21. (You may read on about that here)
Only seven people survived the years spent in Tuol Sleng, two of them still alive today. Balazs and I were lucky enough that we got to meet both of them in the museum’s garden. They can thank their lives to the special skills they possessed, which the Angkar was in need of. One could draw very well, another knew how to fix machines.
Bergström was deeply shaken and apologized to the survivors in public. He just realized what a big role he had in maintaining Pol Pot’s sick reign and his role in his political propaganda. The whole European continent believed the Khmer Rouge’s lies. Bergstörm and his team were used as a loudspeaker for Pol Pot’s brainwashing.
Democratic Cambodia’s highest leaders were still allowed to roam around freely and live happily in parts of Cambodia that was under their control. Pol Pot was under some sort of “house arrest” in 1997, and in 1998 he perished.
In 2006, The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was launched to handle the Khmer Rouge trials for those participating the reign of terror. S-21’s commander, Kain Guek Eav, was sentenced to life in prison. Khieu Samphan (president), Ieng Sary (foreign affairs minister), and Nuon Chea (the founder of the Khmer Rouge ideology) are still on trial, with no sentence announced yet. Ieng Thirith, who acted as social affairs minister and was the foreign minister’s wife, was excused due to losing her mind because of old age.
After our visit was over in the museum, Balazs and I sat for a bit in the garden. We listened through the audio program and gave ourselves time to let the info of the past three hours sink in.
How could such a catastrophe ever happen? Why did the world turn away from Cambodia? Even today, many events are only covered by a few media outlets, how can we know whether we should trust them?
By now Balazs and I also became carriers of the Tuol Sleng history, and as those, we feel it is our duty to pass on what we have seen and heard within the barbed wires of S-21. We pass it on, so more and more people hear this story.
Translated by: Pal Capewell
So where were we? Oh yeah, Eni and I arrived to Siem Reap. To be frank the town is not too special, or pretty for that matter. There is, of course, the Pub Street, where one can get really wasted, and a street to get souvenirs. That’s about it. Naturally there are the usual shops, restaurants, malls, markets, but that you can find anywhere. A few older buildings look rather nice as well. But most importantly, this town has Angkor, Southeast Asia’s most visited site - our reason for dropping by.
But before we take a dive into Angkor, let’s say a few words about our host. Anti, our Hungarian host, has graduated from Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, as a photographer. He studied on a scholarship in Indonesia for a while, then returned to Hungary for a bit only to be called back to Asia soon afterwards, to Cambodia. This is his second year working with John McDermott, an American photographer who has quite the number of years behind him living in Asia and Siem Reap. Mr. McDermott has shot a few iconic pictures of Angkor as well; his signature method is taking pictures on an infrared film. You can check out some of his pictures by clicking HERE (PASTE LINK!!!), and if you visit Siem Reap, we strongly recommend dropping by his gallery.
Anti, our host, works mostly with advertisements for hotels, restaurants and records movies for circus groups. He is a very dedicated photographer and his eagerness to accept nothing less than perfection comes through his work (he has shown us a few pictures he took). He has made a great impression personally as well: Anti is open, kind and is exceedingly hospitable. Eni and I could not feel more at home at his place. The three of us had great chats, meals - luckily he had time to spare for us despite his busy schedule. You can find his works by clicking HERE (PASTE LINK HERE!). Eni and I picked his “kawahijen” collection (a sulfur mine) as our favorite, but his work on Angkor Mandala is impressive as well.
Anti can find his way around all the temples in Angkor even if you blindfold him, so he gave us plenty of tips as to what is worth to see and what to skip.
Angkor, the town of ancient temples, was established in the ninth century, serving as the capital for the Royal Khmer Kingdom between 802 and 1432. At it’s largest, this kingdom included Chenla Province, the flatlands of today’s Cambodia, large parts of Thailand and Laos and even the Mekong River Delta. In the twentieth century, they cleared off 200 square km of forest, where hundreds of temples and places of worship stand today - one of them being Angkor Wat. Only the temples were built from stones, all other buildings - even the royal castle - were built out of wood. As time progressed, the vast majority of these wooden buildings have disappeared, leaving a temple-city behind. At it’s highest point, the kingdom had approximately 600,000-1,000,000 inhabitants, which is more than any of the European cities’ population at that time. The Siam Thai people frequently attacked Angkor in the fifteenth century, and 1431 was no exception. The fight lasted for two months, ending with Angkor’s downfall. After the Thais withdrew from the area, the town was left mostly uninhabited. The Khmer people have constructed a new capital near today’s Phnom Penh, and the tropical forest overtook what was left from Angkor. The town’s fame is only preserved through legends. Angkor was discovered again by French scholars, in the middle of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia, translated from Hungarian)A map of the town
If you wish to see the sunrise, you must wake up early and get there on time. Eni and I got up at 4am as well, and rushed to the ticket offices. A few minutes after 5am we were there already, but faced endless queues. In all fairness to the locals, they handled the enormous masses of people with speed and efficiency and the admission passes with pictures on them were handed out fast. This is what is required for admission. One can’t lose it, as it costs a lot. Even the admission fee is pricey, at USD 20. That’s the one day pass, but there are also three day (USD 40) and weekly (USD70) passes as well. They say one day is not enough but three day might be a tad much, so we opted for buying a day pass and if needed, we can still swing for another day, not losing a penny. Most people watch the sunrise from Angkor Temple or the lakeside. The sun rises behind the temple and it’s simply breathtakingly beautiful, especially as it is reflected in the lake’s water. Huge crowds were present, with bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses.... True, one does need a vehicle as the surrounding region is next to impossible to conquer on foot. We put our bikes down and went with the flow (literally!). The best spots for picture taking were of course already taken so the option for professional pictures was out of the question. Luckily though, we did manage to find a reasonable spot towards the left, from where we could see everything and I could take alright pictures (on the rare occasion nobody decided to stand right in front of my camera). Little children were running around selling fridge magnets and postcards to tourists. Grown-ups were walking around with menus in their hands, trying to lure tourists for coffee and breakfast. There are at least ten restaurants side by side by the lake. The sunrise was truly beautiful but I assume there must have been prettier ones in the temple’s history.
Eni and I started to walk around, leaving Angkor Wat for last due to the crazy amounts of people present. The next site was Angkor Thom, with its stunning Bayon Temple and its monkeys.
We dropped by the Elephant Terrace as well, and I especially fancied the guard towers (okay, wait, that’s just how I named them, I’m pretty sure they have some sacred purpose).
Our host suggested to give Prasat Preah Palilay Temple a try as it is truly magnificent and would be a shame to miss. It was also less crowded. Tourists visiting Angkor Wat have a very distinguished path which would be wise to avoid as it is overcrowded and one misses out on a great number of sites that are just breathtaking. A lot of temples hide inside the jungles, waiting for you to discover them. This is exactly what makes adventures in Angkor Wat so rewarding, being able to wander off wherever you please. Eni and I just sat under the trees, enjoying the cool atmosphere, staring at the pyramid shaped buildings and taking nature’s power all in. Trees were hugging the temples with their roots, and branches hiding them all. Interestingly, you can use Google Maps to check this region out in street-view mode - it’s super cool!
Our lunch was at the parking lot, in front of Preah Khan Temple, observing tourists with the weirdest pants. “You must buy a loose, baggy, colorful pair of pants with elephant patterns on it” is probably some kind of inner nudge among people visiting Southeast Asia. When we decided we saw enough versions of the touristy pants, Eni and I entered the temple. This was the first larger temple that is still under true captivity of the jungle. This was my personal favorite, to be honest. One is allowed to wander around the gardens freely, and we took our chances climbing on different walls to see further into the ruins. It was again a breathtaking view; man-made and natural blending together, stones and wood melting into one, living in symbiosis.
We found separately standing buildings within Preah Khan’s inner garden.
Eni and I spent an hour or so here and rewarded ourselves with a nice coffee for all the hard work. We continued on our big loop. It became clearer and clearer that not all will fit into our tight schedule, and some will have to be skipped. At the time we had no idea how true that was going to prove. For Neak Pean, we only had a peak really. It was built on a a small lake, with a narrow bridge leading to it. We walked over and peaked inside to see the first building, but had no time for more.
Next came Ta Som, one of whose gate stands in many popular pictures of Angkor. Here another group of children awaited us, a girl counting from one to ten in three languages and speaking fairly good English. Since children don’t attend school here, the source of her wisdom peaked our interest. “Well the tourists, of course!” came the answer. We bought a few postcards from them as they were really the cutest ever. And the ever so famous gate? Truly stunning.
On our way to Ta Prohm, we decided to stop for a meal as we became truly hungry. Our meal was grilled chicken with rice, and to spice things up, some frog meat. It was tasty, with lemongrass filling. Ta Prohm Temple is often called the Tomb Raider Temple (as the movie was recorded here in Angkor Wat). Huge crowds awaited us again, making it impossible to take pictures at main points. Giving up our picture-taking wasn’t that big a deal though, the walk around the park made up for it, giving us enough to take pictures of.
We departed rather late from Ta Prohm, sure of one unfortunate fact: no Ankor Wat for us this time around. Our tight budget didn’t permit us to spend another twenty bucks per head to see one temple, but I can’t say we were disappointed with our trip. Eni and I saw a lot, and what had to be felt was felt and taken in. Hey, maybe we will return one day as a family!
The next days were filled with market runs, cooking, a lot of coffee (a tad more than should have), and great chats with Anti. Blogposts were written, videos were edited and we enjoyed the comforts of the apartment. Our 11,000th mile caught us in Siem Reap - or did we catch up with it? Oh well, we asked Anti to be on the picture with us, further, he should take the picture himself! This became the first, and probably last, “thousandth” picture taken by a professional.
The three of us watched Everest, and decided that it fell short of our expectations. It seemed to be more based on John Krakauer’s work, instead of Bukrejev’s more in-depth book. (If you are into this topic it’s definitely worth a read!)
I finally started learning how to use the Lightroom photo editing software. About time, huh? The first picture I did with this was the Angkor Wat sunrise. And who else should I ask advice from, if not the very pro himself, Anti?
The day of our departure was fast approaching. Eni and I wished to spend Christmas Days in great comfort instead of biking, on the road. We had the beach in mind, but to get their in time we had to go by bus to the capital. We already found a Warmshowers spot. We had our eyes set on the noon time bus, but unfortunately not all buses had enough free seats (must be booked in advance) and not all buses could transport bikes. As a result, Anti had us for another half a day, and we left with a bus in the middle of the night. We were told to get to the tourist office by 22h, for a 23h departure, to allow sufficient time to handle the bikes. Naturally, we were there by 22h, but no bus to be seen anywhere. Then we spotted it around 100m away from us, parked, idle. Then finally, ten minutes before 23h it pulled in, but the staff wasn’t in a hurry to let pax board or handle baggages. Finally I ended up helping to speed things along, decreasing the delay to “only” thirty minutes. It was just an added bonus that stepping on board the bus we saw the driver passing out on the steering wheel, reeking of alcohol. F*ckin’ great, we thought. The layout of the bus was bunk-beds on both sides, where the upper bunk was about chest-height. Eni and I got floor-level beds.
The width was bearable, but the length? That I couldn’t handle. Luckily we managed to sleep a bit, waking up frequently to the roller-coaster nature of the ride. The bus got to Phnom Penh by seven in the morning and Eni and I thought of a city tour for the day. But before that, we HAD to eat something for breakfast - our tummies were rather loud in their adamant statements. Yes, we needed all the energy we could get to dive into another chapter of the Khmer history - a sad one, unfortunately. I’ll have Eni take over from here.
Translated by: Pal Capewell
The days were getting warmer and we were getting tireder. Balazs and I didn’t have a decent rest for days now, despite advancing 95-100km each day. The daily 04:20 wake-up calls left surreal memories with us. The only advantage was on the last day in Laos, when we woke really early and did our last 50km. We arrived to the infamous TPK (Trapaeng Kriel) border crossing almost as early as they opened the border.
Balazs and I got little frustrated on the Laos side of the border, as while we were dropping our stuff off and getting our bikes sorted a large bus of Western tourists arrived, making us dead last in the queue. The border authority was very fast and efficient, we were quite surprised. We were ready to be asked to pay the USD 1 “exit fee”, which this border was famous for. After all the tourists were done, we came next. They stamped into Balazs’ passport without a hassle and let him through, but asked for the bus ticket from me. I quickly responded that I don’t have a bus ticket since we are not part of the tourist group. Then a sudden shock spread across her face, probably thinking “oh crap, I screwed this up!”, as she stamped into my passport right after asking, not waiting for the answer. Yeah, they just lost two U.S. dollars. The tour guide probably arranged for his gang to cross without a hassle, and these “officials” assumed we were with them. They didn’t check the bikes, nobody really cared about the stamp afterwards and we just casually rolled over to Cambodia.
A good-looking guy was shouting from under a tent, by the road. He waved, smiled and directed us under the tent, to sort out the next “official” business. This was the “quarantine service”. Health declaration papers had to be filled in and on a tiny note we had to declare we had all our vaccinations, we are healthy and no, we didn’t pass by any infectious regions thus far. When we handed over our note, we got a yellow one and a “Sir, one dollar!” demand. Immediately we asked if we could get a receipt. Our request surprised the three-member “authority” and they quieted down, nevertheless repeating their request. Perfectly aware that this was one of the corrupt practices of the country, we refused to oblige. For our receipt request, we got a make-shift paper with just the date on it, to which I pulled out a formal Thai receipt and said “THIS is what I need in exchange for a dollar”. By then, a whole group of tourists surrounded us, everyone asking “pff, what are we paying for now actually?!” with frustration. Finally, Balazs started a snowball effect, “sorry, we only have Thai Bhat or Euros.” “That’s great, we accept all currencies!” came the answer. This is when it became obvious that this tent was notoriously corrupt - we stood up and left without paying a dime. The circle of tourists around us did the same. Panic broke out among the “officials”, screaming at everyone, with very basic English, “No pay, no visa!”
Visa on arrival was to be collected at a tiny wooden hut. By this place the corruption was at its best. Visa with a stamp cost USD 35, five dollars being the “stamp fee”. Back before we were warned not to pay a stamp fee even if prompted. Low and behold, the bank notes were disappearing one by one in the black briefcase. After filling in the visa request form, they pasted the visa into our passports and off we went to the “stamp collection”. While queuing up, we heard a few unfortunate stories; a German couple, for example, had to pay both at the Laos side AND for the “quarantine officials”. Poor souls got their visas sorted already back in Germany, but still had to pay to the corrupt officials here. Obviously the border control gets nothing from the visa fees collected in Germany. There was an older French gentleman who proper pushed the “No pay no visa” guy to the side and left him there.
To our surprise the bikes were not checked here either. After the unprecedented border crossing we hopped on our bikes and off we went with the colorful, stinking visa in our pockets.
Cambodia awaited us with really hot, dry weather that made biking really challenging. The northern parts of the country are desertlike, flat and dry. One may find a tree by chance, but it’s difficult to find shade from the hot sun.
Just like before, we often slept in temples in Cambodia too. Luckily signing up with the “mayor” and asking for permits to stay weren’t required in Cambodia. The monks welcomed us with a smile and offered a place to sleep - sometimes in the canteen, at times on the patio.
Our most joyful breakfast (thus far) was also in a Buddhist temple. The temple servants and two adorable older ladies set the tables, while the worshippers brought their gifts (well, food). A priest and two novices lived in the temple, who sat away from each other for their meals. After their breakfast they went to pray, with us in the background watching them. The priest got up after his breakfast, bowed and went off to chit-chat with the locals and joke around with them. It was a happy crowd filled with joy. The practice was the same: first the priest and novices have their breakfast, then the leftovers are distributed among the others.
An old man and two older ladies sat on the ground by a cute little table. A temple servant, a good-looking, skinny man around the age of 55-60, invited us over kindly to join their breakfast. So we did, putting our rice, fruits and whatever we bought into the common meal. Great laughs were shared, while all forms of communications were used: drawing, sign-language, etc. We got along well.
The lead in our most memorable breakfast was a vivacious older gentleman, whom we named “the Cambodian Ghandi”.
It’s hard to find cities, or even villages, in this part of Cambodia. Everything is broken up to regions, so a flatland’s one side is region A, the other is region B. Every region has a few larger towns, and villages here and there.
The Cambodian countryside is enchanting. The locals were always very welcoming and the children proved sensational here too: oftentimes we had no idea where “thelllooooo”s were coming from, just kept turning left and right to look for the source. Our most delicious meals were in the countryside as well. We tasted their fried bananas, fish soup with pickles, and coconut-fish curry pasta. One afternoon we even had one of their special drinks, which was a cool, sweet, coconut flavored drink with soft balls inside that had the shape and texture of a mozzarella. Unfortunately we didn’t find out what it was, but the drink tasted delicious.
Maybe this story conveys the locals’ hospitality, openness, and kindness the most.
In the midst of a very hot afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, Balazs and I were biking along. The heat, exhaustion and hunger began to get the best of us. Though perfectly clear that it was sometime around noon, we knew there will be no lunch anytime soon as there was no town anywhere near. Whoever we rode by on the roadside, we asked them where we could find some food. Everyone just pointed forward, which though positive seeming, could mean one or even ten kilometers in the distance. Then suddenly we spotted a small hut that turned out to be a makeshift store, as we drew near. Unfortunately it didn’t carry anything eatable: detergents, soaps and chips. Then came the crazy idea to ask for lunch. We started to convey our message with our hands, but fortunately the husband of the lady showed up that could speak English. In minutes they threw together a lunch for us, fish-cucumber soup, rice and some fried eggs. The sweet strangers even offered us slices of watermelon as dessert. Naturally the whole family gathered around us and suddenly everyone had something important to do JUST by the place we were sitting. They were checking us out, looked at our bikes, the kids were playing around the parents and grandparents. Seeing my great discomfort due to the heat, the grandma pointed at my hair and wanted to offer something. Knowing that it could use some fixing (whatever it may be), I agreed to follow her. I followed her through the grassland behind their house, to a river nearby. Her hair treatment was simple: she threw two smaller buckets of river water on my head - not what I imagined, but it definitely felt refreshing and welcome in the big heat.
Balazs and I arrived to Siem Reap well over a week before Christmas, where our Hungarian host was expecting us. Our host, Anti, already has two years behind him living in Siem Reap, working together with an American photographer. Siem Reap lays by the famous Khmer ruins which grew to be an internationally well-known tourist site. Angkor receives a few million visitors annually, making Siem Reap a catering town filled with hotels, guest houses, restaurants, and bars.
Balazs and I spent a week at Anti’s super comfy apartment. Being able to take a shower every night, make coffee in the morning and sleep as much as we desired was a very welcome change - and a much needed one as well. Beside touring Angkor, we also had time to wash all of our warm clothes, spend time on our blog and do some picture editing.
What does a Hungarian photographer do in Cambodia? What is it like to walk in temples half overtaken by the wilderness? Really, what is that Angkor Experience like? How did this almost totally forgotten site become so famous in the 1990s? How did the churches turn into tourist attractions? You’ll find out the answer to these, and many more questions in our next post.