December 24th – Christmas Eve – Phnom Penh
I set my sights on visiting the Killing Fields at Cheoung Ek about 13 kilometers outside the city. Traffic in Phnom Penh is heavy and a little chaotic. There are no stoplights and intersections are a bit of a free for all. I found myself down a stretch of road clinging to the side when a slow motorbike in front of me forced me to move around to his left. But just as I did so, the huge load he was carrying on the back of his bike began to tip over. I am not sure exactly how I responded in the moment. I probably tried to slow down while still not fully realizing what was happening. The heavy load on the back of his bike tipped over and landed on my front tire sending me flying to the pavement. Fortunately, I passed my tumbling class when I was three years old and I only suffered minor scrapes. The bike however did not get off so easy. The front wheel was completely bent in half. Was my bike trip done-fore? I got no apology from the perpetrator of the accident but a nearby observer helped me get a tuk tuk that took me to a bike shop. In only two hours they had replaced the front wheel and I was good to go again. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to locate Cheoung Ek, but I went the wrong way and resented the fact that overall the entire day proved to be somewhat futile.
On Christmas Eve I solo dined at a restaurant called Friends where they sell tapas. It was pricey but the food and the atmosphere were decent. I searched far and wide for a Christmas Eve service that had been advertised online by a specific church, but they appeared to be closed for the night. Here’s where things started to kind of go a bit haywire for me, mostly of my own doing, but often not. I freaked out that evening because I couldn’t find my passport. The first place I decided to look in the morning was with reception, but I was almost positive they gave it back to me, but it was possible I had left it in the first room that I stayed in the previous night before moving upstairs. I was surprised and relieved when I checked in the morning and the front desk did have it.
Dec 25th – Christmas Day – Phnom Penh
I felt more productive today. I got to a 10:00 am church service where there were all sorts of people – young, old, and from many different countries. The service was led by a Brit, but readings were done by an Aussie, a Scot, and even a Cambodian. Singers leading the songs were Cambodian. The songs were half British and half from the Western Hemisphere.
After the service I moseyed over to the S-21 museum almost right across the street. This was a school that was turned into a place of torture during the rule of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 where Cambodians were forced to write out documents stating that they had committed treason against the Khmer Rouge. When there was no more room to kill them on site, they were loaded up on trucks and taken 15 kilometers south to one of many killing fields across the country. As many as 20,000 people died here, none of them by bullets which were in high demand. Most were bludgeoned to death. The temple on sight is a large tower that shows the bones and the skulls of the remains. Clothing and bone fragments continue to pop to the surface of the surrounding fields. This is one of many hundreds of killing fields found all across the country. Some estimates say that at much as 3/8 of the population was wiped out, or around 3 million people – all in the name of a party that had a upotian communistic view or returning Cambodia to an agrarian society. Schools, hopsitals, most manfacturing, and the people running them were all destryoyed. Everyone was forced to abondon the cities and many worked on collective famrs were they were basically worked to death. This struggle rose out the fear produced by the Secret War where during the Vietnam War the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they had dropped in the entirely of World War II. 100,000 casualities rose out of the war. (Sometimes we just don’t see the long term effects of our military actions around the world.) During the Khmer Rouge rule, intellectuals and professionals were targeted, and then anyone else who was perceived as a threat. After the Vietnamese Army liberated the Cambodian rule from the cruelties of the genocide, they helped the Cambodians set up a new governments. The Khmer Rouge meanwhile fled to the Northern border of Thialand where they contined to be recognized, despite the atrocities they had committed, by the Western world, and even held a seat at the United Nations. It wasn’t until the end of the Cold War when relations with Vietnam warmed that the new more humane Cambodian government gained recognition and the old leaders of the Khmer Rouge came up for war crimes. Pol Pot, the figurehead leader died during the trial dealings, but the worst figure of them all who goes by the name Dudh was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He appealed and the verdict was changed to life. All of this would not have been possible without the UN, but surprisingly this happened all very recently. Dudh was not convicted until 2012.
You can’t compare history when it comes to genocide, but this sad part of the Cambodian past is just as tragic as the Nazi Germany genocide carried out only a few decades earlier. Only a few decades after, genocide broke out in Rwanda and in Bosnia. Today extremists Ismalic groups are more likely to carry out attacks on Muslims of different sects than they are of different religions. This too must also be addressed. Its not a Muslim problem, it’s a problem for all humanity. If we want to see an end to radical ismalic violent behavior then we must react equally to every atrocity, not just acts against Westerners. The enitre world must condemn violence that targets people for their beliefs, religion or creed.
Dec 26th – Skun, Cambodia
Biked 74 kilometers, 46 miles to Skun, Cambodia. It proved to be all flat and I averaged 20 km the last hour, although I had to backtrack to reach town. I was hot, and sweaty every time I stopped, but it didn’t seem as hot as yesterday. I’d like to get earlier starts to avoid the afternoon heat. The hotel is not that clean, lots of hairs on the sheets. Had to pull out my sleeping bag to sleep on. The hotel had a TV and I watched a ton of reruns of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Dec 27th – Khamphong Thom, Cambodia
90km, 56 miles, I set out for an earlier start at 8:45. Rough roads most of day. For the first 20k just a brutal dirty and bumpy road where I lost a water bottle that popped off the back of my bag – the bungy chords didn’t quite do their job and I had to readjust my pack. Hot again in the afternoon, stopped for drinks and talked to guy who lived in Phnom Penh and spoke descent English. He was a former electrical “officer.” It was hot in the afternoon and I didn’t stop for any more drinks because I didn’t have any small bills. I also didn’t eat all day but ate three meals here in town. The front wheel of my bike is giving me trouble and I had to peddle a lot harder even thought the whole way was flat – it should have been a breeze but it was a slog. There are a few other tourists here. We are pretty much halfway between Phnom Penh and SIem Reap.
Some unique things I’ve noticed about Cambodia: First, thre are Red Anchor Beer signs everywhere, as opposed to the Green Beer Lao signs everywhere in Laos. Orange coolers line the sides of the roads almost like lemonade stands and it is so exciting to stop when you are thristy and open that lid up to see what’s inside. One never knows! Water, juices, sodas, beers? And all so cheap. Its as exciting as Christmas morning, particularly in 90 degree heat. Cambodians use a combination of US and Cambodian money, mostly US.
The roads have been dusty and dry and when I came into the hotel last night I looked into the mirror and thought I had just played in Mud Bowl XVIII. The silt that filled the shower after I was done would have been enough to create a delta in the middle of the Mekong River.
Dec 28 – Khampong Kdei, Cambodia
87 km, 54 miles. Slept well and long and got a late start after ‘breakfast” – rice and meat – I didn’t get off till 10:15. I fixed the front wheel yesterday that was slowing me down. Much faster day. Not as hot, not as dusty due to paved, or at the very least gravel roads.
More perceptions on Cambodia. It’s just flat out hotter here than it was in Laos. Anytime you buy a roadside drink they give you a straw and a plastic bag. I found this odd, until I realized that there is often so much dust on the cans of juice or soda. One online biking sight coined Cambodia as “the Wild West of Southeast Asia.” I see it. Dusty, flat, less vegetation and more open areas, dirt roads, but a friendly innocence abounds. Children still say hello as if they are yelling for help. The highways are wider here so instead of yelling back I do my best to always wave back. Another ingenious idea – trash bins next to every table at restaurants. Waiters and waitresses don’t have to touch your dirty germified napkins. I’ve seen very few Cambodian flags unlike Thailand and Laos. The Cambodian flag looks a lot like the Laos flag but the blue and red stripes are reversed and there is a huge picture of Angkor Wat in the middle. The land is flat, almost barren. Karaeoke seems to be popular. Landmines are still a huge problem taking the lives of 20,000 since the end of the war 35 years ago.
I finally watched football live this morning – Vikings vs. Giants. Tonight I’m watching a delayed GB vs Cardinals game on Fox but with Cambodian announcers. The only words that I understand are “touchdown!” and “fair catch” ( he should have but didn’t and got drilled), and “first down.” I think I passed a mosque yesterday. I constantly pass little men and women on motorbikes with megaphones that repeat the same thing over and over trying to sell things. Classical Cambodian music blares from many roadside speakers where sometimes there is a party or big meal going on.
Dec 30 – Siem Reap, Cambodia
62 km yesterday. 38 miles. Could not get to sleep last night even though I felt as exhausted and am sick. I started getting a sore throat two nights ago, probably from the dust and exhaust again. I stopped yesterday after I entered the Angkor Park area at the Roulos Group of ruins but there was a guard at each entrance and you can only buy a ticket north of Siem Reap so I couldn’t go in. Still impressive looking from the outside as I was still able to ride around some of them. This area, 8 miles west of Siem Reap, served as the first capital early on in the Khhmer Civilization around 800 AD.
My bike is acting up, I think the chains just need to be cleaned and oiled. Went down to Pub Street last night, a glittering place that looks like New Years every night. Closer to my hotel I ate at an all you can each buffet where you cook your meat at your own table. It felt very warm last night, the lowest setting on ceiling fan is “helicopter takeoff mode” so I had to turn it off. Instead, I wet my shorts…check that…dampened my shorts…still not good enough, put my boxers under the faucet and turned the water on so that I could stay cool lying in bed.
De 30 – 11:00 PM – Siem Reap, Cambodia
Late start but a good day around the temples. Hot in middle of day. Crowded at sunset. Hit Angkor Wat middays do missed the crowds. I am aiming for sunrise tomorrow. Big day.
Dec 31 – Siem Reap, Cambodia
After a morning trip to the museum and an afternoon trip back to see more ruins I headed back to my hotel to shower and get ready to go to a traditional Aspara dancing show. During the Khmer Dynasty at the great Angkor temples, aspara dancers were considered half goddesses hovering halfway between this world and the next.
On the way there I got into my second bike accident in about a week. Neither of the two accidents, the first one on Christmas Eve, and now this one on New Years Eve I could ever conceive happening in the States, or any other western country for that matter.
Traffic was at a stop and since I was in the left lane after just making a left turn through an intersection I wanted to cut through the stopped traffic to get over to the right side of the road where eventually I would have to take a right. I cut my way through two white vans about 10 feet (3m) apart and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I had no idea what had happened. I thought maybe I had been razed. While I was on the ground I looked back and saw a rope but I couldn’t place where it was and how it got there. I quickly got up so that I didn’t find myself under someone’s wheel and discovered that the two vans were tied to together by rope, the front one pulling the second one. The man from the second van came out and put his hands on my shoulders and apologized profusely, but I was angry and just kept looking down at the rope attaching the two vans. “I’ve never seen that before,” I said, not knowing if tying vans together with rope was common practice in Cambodia. That’s all I said. The man pointed out my watch which lay on the ground, the band broken, cracked, but otherwise still working, at least until it died two days later. I pulled myself to the side of the road to determine any damage. Bike? Check. Scrapes? One on my left knee, scratches on my right heel, a cut on my left pinky finger. Any other pain? My right foot maybe from where it hit the rope. My hands – they feel bruised and banged up. As i got to the restaurant where the show was to be performed, I further examined myself in the bathroom. My shorts were dirtied and a bit bloodied. And as the night wore on it seemed more and more apparent that I might have done some structural damage to my right hand and wrist. I wrapped it up with some guaze and a few days of being vigilent with it has seemed to help some.
The Aspara dancing itself was fun, expect that you could barely here the music because acrosss the highway, a good 75 meters away, a huge Arts and Craft store was blaring music at eardrum popping decibels. (I think the tunes were directly from the 2011 MSP CD.) Then the restaurant tried to overcharge me for my meal, which in my current state, I was in no mood for. When you could hear the Aspara dancing music because the blaring across the street had stopped for a moment or two, you could here two young boys playing a drum and a xylophone. I hear the xylophone a lot in Cambodia. But for me I can’t get the vision of the skulls at the killing fields out of my head and I think of the end scene from Return of the Jedi when the Ewoks play drums with the heads of storm troopers. It’s a horrible image. I know.
I headed down to Pub Street to witness from afar some of the New Years’ Eve craziness. Pub Street was packed and was like a mini Times Square complete with a ball dropping. Auld Lang Syne broke out at 12:00 – although I think their clock was a little fast. About 20 minutes before midnight a tuk tuk aggressively fought it’s way through the crowd which I found odd since they had closed off the streets to motor traffic. The driver hit one boy in his path and I couldn’t believe how bold he was being, until I saw him pass and see that a man was giving another man CPR chest compressions on the back of the tuk tuk. The unconcious man looked like he was middle aged perhaps in his 50s, but he was overweight, and it was New Years Eve so perhaps some substances were involved? WIth all the crowds in the way I doubted very much this man was going to make it to the hospital in time.
I found a not so crazily crowded spot and set up camp where I could have a beer for the New Year. A woman walked up to me just a few minutes before midnight asking me if I could help her locate the hotline online for reporting sex trafficking in Siem Reap. The men in question sat behind us. The men were all westerners and all over the age of 45. There were two “women.” One was no older than 14. I could not locate the number. The women said she had the number but forgot it at home and would take care of it later. Then the two women dissaappeard. It was an odd way to start out 2016. There were a few rogue fireworks explosions throughout the evening, particularly after midnight, but nothing to write home about.
Jan 1, 2016 – Angkor Temples
The next day I got up early, and rode in the dark to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. Getting up early was tough, particularly after a late night, but I did not regret it. Angkor Wat is a special place at this time of day, and despite the crowds, I was able to find my own personal space on the banks of the moat to watch the temples materialize. I also had time to visit a few more temples before heading back to Siem Reap and catching the bus to Bangkok. My favorite was one of the morning turned into a nature walk up a mountain with a great temple at the top and excellent 360 views of the area. This ranked up there with my other favorite spot amongst the temples – a place where nature battles for supremacy. The site is called Ta Prohm and the tree growth is so old and extensive that archeaologists did not move them from the site for fear of destroying the temple. It is a reminder that man may build and control nature as much as she wishes, but in the end nature always prevails.