Monday, May 14, 2018

Siem Reap

Cambodia has been on my radar for as long as I can remember. Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and South Africa have also been at the top of the travel list. I have had a keen interest in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since they were a part of the old Soviet Union. All places I will get to but now it's Cambodia's turn to strut her stuff.

First stop Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat.  I am beyond staying in dorms any longer but at $3 a night I did pop up from my gopher hole to have a peek. If this was one night, no problem.  I needed to wash off 3 weeks of India so a large single room with private bathroom for $11 a night would do just fine, plus they offered free airport pickup.

The Hi Siem Reap is a part of the old Hosteling International, which is all we had at one time for organized budget travel. There was a great outside common area with a clean pool, a bar that was always having "happy hour", a pool table and an excellent 360 view of the town. Most of my fellow travelers were friendly enough and it was exactly what I needed.

It was not all beer drinking lazy times by the pool. The hotel arranged a Tuk Tuk for two days. The first day I explored the War Memorial Museum, The National Museum and the Land mine Museum.
The National Museum was interesting enough. Filled with Khmer history dating back thousands of years it also had a mixture of Buddhist, Hindu artifacts. There were 6 massive rooms with quite a bit of multimedia to keep a person engaged. I was not one of those people. I try my best when I enter a museum that contains things I know nothing about, I really do. Sadly I am good for about an hour. I also had two other stops that I was eager to get to.

The War Memorial Museum was about 20 minutes outside of town. The Tuk Tuk gave me a great moving view of the Cambodian countryside as we left the pavement and headed down dusty roads.  The museum is outdoors and filled with all aspects of war. Old rusting soviet tanks, personal carriers and even the hull of a MIG fighter.  There were the other weapons of a 30 year war that destroyed the country and killed over 2 million people.

The Museum offers a free English speaking guide and you are free to donate a small sum afterward. * From the Museum Website. *
There are 4 guides working in the museum, they are always ready to personally lead you around and answer all your questions.

Each of the guides has his own unique background: war veterans, eye witnesses of the war and landmine victims. Therefore, not only they could tell you e.g. about the last 3 decades of the 20th century history of Cambodia and about the collection of the museum, but also about their personal experiences during the defined period of time.

There was a small group of 8 of us that walked quietly and listened intently as our guide Chres Sanh spoke about his experiences. His grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and as he briefly spoke of it you could see his memory drift just a bit but he never lost his composure. He spoke in great deal of he weapons we were viewing while adding more and more elements of his and his families experiences during the American Bombing Campaign, the Civil War and the reign of terror that was the Khmer Rouge.

A long ride across town brought us to a small but incredibly important Museum. The Cambodian Land Mine Museum. Created by Aki Ra, a former conscripted child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who eventually returned to the villages that he had planted thousands of mines and started removing hand. Take a few minutes and visit the Cambodian Land Mine Museum website. It is scary, informative, inspiring and humbling. There are over 3 million landmines buried in Cambodia. Upwards of 50 people get killed every year by landmines in Cambodia, many of the children. Another sobering reality of our world.

The next day it was all about Temples and I was greeted with a big morning smile by Shituk, Tuk Tuk driver extraordinaire. We were going to have a long hot day and this boy was prepared. There are 72 temples at Angkor, we were going to visit 5 with the highlight being Angkor Wat. Shituk would drop me off at one of the temples, point towards the entrance, smile and say "take your time and enjoy". After the first temple and about 90 minutes I came back to find him relaxing in a hammock he had slung inside the Tuk Tuk. This was not his first tour. He immediately provided cold water and a frozen hand towel to cool down. This routine was repeated all day long.

Angkor was everything I had expected and more. Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, and Ta Phrom were all a bit different and blended into the complex as you would expect them to. As with the Mayan Temples and Pyramids, I let my mind and imagination wander as I walked in, on and around the complex. How brilliant was this society during it's time. It's complexity only working because of it's simplicity.

The Elephant Temple was an unexpected gem. It was hidden well back off the road, behind a series of low walls and along trails deep in the forest. When I came upon it I instantly thought of all the ruins I had seen throughout Central America. Not so much for their style, as they are very different, but for location. Isolated and surrounded by deep forests.

I followed young monks as they climbed and wandered the Temple. They were taking pictures, "young tourist monks". One asked to take my picture so in return I asked to take his. This game played out with all 5 of them until what appeared to be their "handler" for lack of a better word put a stop to it. I think I may have corrupted them at the Elephant Temple. They were smiling as we headed down so it could not be all that bad.

My last day it was time to enjoy the .50 mugs of cold beer on Bar Street. How much trouble could that possibly lead to? Bar street is a multi-block tourist area of bars, restaurants and massage parlors. No, not the happy ending kind, get your mind out of the gutter. That option exists at any bar that has "bar girls" hanging about, and most do. It should be called "Happy Hour, Happy Ending".

Constantly hearing “you want boom boom” from an assortment of young girls just became a part of the environment. Sure, you could ignore them but they were all cute and way to much fun to talk to. I was offered "boom boom" for $14. I am not sure what was stranger, how cheap it was or the random number of $14. A girls got to make a living.

All bars have happy hour and .50 beer so Bar Street could be as fun as it could be dangerous. I stuck with fun but I will tell you what happened. First the .50 beers started going down real easy and...***********

Next Stop, The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh

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