Cambodia–A Myriad of Emotions. Tuol Sleng, Tarantulas, Tropical Storms!

Early May 2019

Cambodia has a tragic past which deeply effects its people–lifestyle, family structure, culture, economy, basic survival, trust. This 7 day guided tour through Cambodia merely scratched the surface of new awareness and understanding of this country and its amazing people.

Commencing this Intrepid tour as a naive tourist; I departed emotionally haunted, shocked, and much more deeply connected to the needs and future visions of these resilient, hard working Cambodian people. Keeping in mind that 54% of the population is under 18 years of age, there is much rebuilding and new direction likely to occur in the next few decades. Here is a pictorial overview of some of the day’s highlights.

This would be our first full day in Cambodia. The heinous historical atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge shared and viewed during the morning tours, would deeply horrify and sicken us all. This day took a heavy emotional toll on our group members. Some chose to reflect and not to pursue optional activities today. However, others ventured out to explore the capital city Phnom Penh (population over 2.1 million)–even tasting a certain type of arachnid at lunch! Several of us toured the National Museum even being detained by a sudden Tropical storm! At night most of the group also took an optional tour up the Mekong River before dinner.

To be truthful… I have been taking Imodium and Charcoal tablets trying to stabilize unhappy travel bowels… I’m not alone either!!!

After seeing the Hanoi Hilton, Cu Chi Tunnels, War Remnants museums, and people effected by Agent Orange in Vietnam… I knew emotionally I couldn’t handle seeing the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Khmer Rouge Killing fields in person today. How people can conduct genocide and commit such heinous crimes on other human beings is so deeply disturbing and wrong! It was difficult enough to look at the photos and listen to information from my Intrepid tour group after the visit.

After additional research I learned, on April 17th 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered the capital of Phnom Penh and began a “reign of terror under leader Pol Pot that left up to 2 million people dead through starvation, execution, and overwork. ” abc.net.au/news/2014-08-07/an-Khmer-rouge-timeline/5655920

This genocide of one’s own race is on its own intolerable and sickening; however, trying to fathom that the number of individuals murdered was the size of the entire population of the largest city in all of Cambodia is beyond belief!

The group toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was a former school converted into the Khmer Rouge torture center. Part of the tour included meeting 2 survivors who have now written their stories about their experiences at S-21. It is estimated that over 20,000 people from 1975 to 1979 were held and tortured at this site. The Choeung Ek Memorial contains a stupa made up of 8,000 human skulls which marks the site of the “Killing Fields” execution grounds for  victims tortured at Tuol Sleng.

Warning: There are some disturbing images in this pictorial representation of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Choeung Ek Memorial, and the Killing Fields. But… This is true, recent history.

For a complete change of pace…Many of the group went out for lunch together and Mark and Tyler decided to consume something very unusual. Ready? Ever wanted to try Tarantulas? Personally… not a chance!

But Tyler ordered 3 Tarantulas for lunch. He ate two and Mark ate the third one!

Notice Tyler laughing as Mark tried his arachnid! As they both concluded that there wasn’t a chance they’d like more in the future… I decided to create both a collage and GIF of the memorable experience!

They both said “We took one for the team!” This really unique restaurant called “Friends” was located near our Cardamom Hotel and the National Museum. It is a training restaurant run by the “Friends International” organization.

There is also a shop located adjacent to the restaurant where handicrafts (created out of recycled materials) were made by orphaned children and street youth and sold by the Friends organization to fund schooling and job training opportunities for these children.

“Friends-International is an international social enterprise and registered non-governmental organization focusing on children’s empowerment established in Cambodia in 1994. “Wikipedia

This is a non-religious organization which started working to assist street youth in Phnom Penh in 1994. There is a crisis of orphaned children and street youth here due to the decimation of families caused by recent mass genocide discussed earlier in this blog post. Unfortunately, there are some dishonest organizations claiming to assist the orphans here too.

The Friends organization has validity and reliability and seems to be making a true difference to the futures of many youth here.  Tourists are encouraged to avoid giving money or food to orphans who are begging. Instead, children are encouraged to attend school, then learn trades to become more self sufficient. The schooling and job training is funded by tourists purchasing handicrafts and food prepared by the youth.

Many of us purchased items from the Friends gift shop. I purchased jewelry created out of bullets which were pounded flat and cut into shapes adorned by recycled paper beads.

Jen, Mark and I decided to visit the National Museum to learn more about Traditional Khmer art and view religious artifacts. The 1920s reddish colored building is an intriguing architectural design. The entrance fee was $10 US/person. I wished I had time to attend the Cambodian dance workshop offered here!

This video highlights our adventure in Cambodia’s capital city from lunch into the afternoon including the Tropical Rainstorm. Listen for the Thunder!

As you can see… when in the midst of a tropical rainstorm why not relax and try out the local beer?

Jen, Mark and I squashed into an tiny available Tuktuk to head home. The driver had just raised the plastic side walls which were added to protect riders from getting drenched during the heavy down pour!

Another packed day… but we are not finished! Next we headed out on another optional Sunset boat cruise along the Mekong River!

Our guide Sareth joined this tour and taught us about the meaning of the Cambodian flag. We were informed the flag of Cambodia has 3 colors and 3 towers–but there are actually 5 towers? The blue represents the King. The red represent the nation (people). The white represents religion (pure).

The sunset was glorious and magical. The riverside views depicted a population which utilized water vessels of all shapes, sizes, and conditions. The discrepancy between the rich and the poor was evident as we traveled down the river.

It was a lovely way to unwind and enjoy the activity along the Mekong River. The cocktails were lovely too. We inquired about the safety of the ice, but were told the ice was safe for consumption.

After docking, we ended our extremely full day by reuniting with all 12 of our Intrepid tour group and Sareth for a final group dinner in Phnom Penh.

Tomorrow we head off to Battambang and visit a floating village!

 

 

 

Cambodia here we come! HCM City to Phnom Penh!

Early May 2019

Bright and early our newly formed Intrepid team of 12, plus our Cambodian guide Sareth, met by the steps of our hotel in anticipation of our upcoming adventure. Laden with cases we departed from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to board the public bus bound for our new destination of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Highlights from our trip Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia May 6th 2019

Our trip would include border crossings and the estimated length of travel today was 10 hours! It would take about 2 1/2 hours to the first border crossing. After arrival in Phnom Penh we would check into our hotel then quickly head out for a tuk tuk (Cambodian style) tour of the downtown area.

We entered this next stage of our tour with fresh knowledge as we prepared to cross borders into Cambodia. Sareth, our guide, offered some introductory information to ease our transition into Cambodia.

We learned Khmer is the proper name for a Cambodian person. Generally people here are easy going and laugh a lot. It is rude to touch somebody’s head. 4,000 reil = $1 USA ATM. 54% of the population of this country is below 18 years of age! Wars have really effected family structures here!

Currency in Cambodia also required thought and preparation. Cash is available from ATM machines in Cambodia (as in Vietnam), but the bills you receive are in US dollars. We were advised to only carry small amounts of cash while travelling.

Although Riel is the national currency of Cambodia, usually prices were quoted in US dollars. Change is often returned in Riel though. So it’s to your benefit to learn money conversion values quickly! Also… Be careful about the US bills you bring. We were advised to only bring US $1, $5 and $10 bills. The bills must be crisp, not torn or marked, and newer than 2006. Members of our group did experience refusal at hotels if bills were crumbled or too old!

The 12 members of this tour group included 3 couples from our previous Intrepid tour through Vietnam and 6 new tour partners. The countries/cultures we represented were quite global: 4 Canadians (Nanaimo and Calgary), 4 Australians (Adelaide, and Canberra), 1 from Chile, 2 from New Zealand, 1 from Romania. However… the Romanian lived in Switzerland; a New Zealander lived in Brisbane; and several of us hold dual citizenships. The group was a prime example of what an interwoven global community our world is now.

Day 1 of our Intrepid tour of Cambodia

Here’s my video reflecting our day departing from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at 7:30 am travelling by public bus, passing through 2 border crossings (no photography permitted at border crossings), then continuing our travels through Cambodia to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In Vietnam 🇻🇳 there are red and yellow flags displayed everywhere—yellow stars are the national flag of Vietnam, yellow scythes represent communism. Motorcycles are the main source of transportation for families. Vehicles drive on the right side of the road (mainly). Traditional conical straw hats are common. Pagodas are seen occasionally; but unlike Thailand, there are minimal Buddhist Wats or places dedicated to religious study.

Roadside photos reflecting daily life

Crossing into Cambodia… The most immediate differences were: no more red and yellow flags; large billboards of the King; driving is also on the right side of the road (unlike Thailand); increase in cars and trucks; variances between areas of poverty and wealth; and Buddhist Wats and religious temples.

However, in both countries the rivers are fundamentally important to their economy and food production; weather in Early May is extremely hot (32-40 degrees C) and humid; and local men lift up their shirts and expose their bellies to cool off!

Border crossings were hectic with lengthy lines and masses of people. (And this wasn’t high tourist season!). First we needed to complete forms and pass our passports and papers to our guide—who then passed them to another individual. There were some mix ups at the booths, but everything was solved and we progressed through the first border crossing to exit Vietnam. No photographs allowed!

Next we had to walk, following our guide, a fair distance to the Cambodian buildings where we completed more forms and repeated the passport process again to enter Cambodia. I didn’t see any wheelchairs or mobility supports, so I’m not sure how physically challenged people would cope? Thankfully Sareth solved issues when they occurred and we all progressed into Cambodia.

Some members of our group quickly bought new SIM cards for their phones and Cambodian Riel and US dollars, then we were back on the public bus heading to Phonon Penh the capital city of Cambodia. This bustling city of over 16.5 million people has been the national capital since French colonization and is known as the nations industrial, cultural, and economic center.

Tuktuk tour of Phnom Penh led by Sareth

After registering at the Cardamom Hotel, we decided to take the optional Tuktuk tour of the city. $5 US/person lead by our guide Sareth.

The French architecture is stunning and we really enjoyed the delicious sweets Sareth shared. Tourists and locals enjoyed the sights and sounds of the lively evening activities. Entrepreneurs approached us to buy products like: sweet treats, hand fans, clothing, even releasing birds to bring you good luck. Eamonn was approached by children to release a bird and he released it when we were down on the main pier.

Most tuk tuks had barriers on the outside walls where you sit, as protection. We were informed to keep purses and bags hidden and protected as there is a problem with bags being stolen as motorcycles speed past near the tuktuks. Our Tuktuk driver’s son ran over and begged to join his dad as he toured us through the city center. In spite of the broken rear vision mirror and no helmets on our driver or son, it was a fun way to experience the city.

Tuktuk tour of Phnom Penh

This short video reflects our fun and memorable evening activities in Phnom Penh. We saw many highlights including: the Royal Palace (from a distance), Independence Monument, and Norodom Sihanouk Memorial commemorating former King Norodom.

Tomorrow the group views Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the Killing Fields, then the National Museum and Royal Palace (optional), and an optional boat cruise down the Mekong River. Wait until you see what Tyler and Mark eat!!!!