Filled with excitement and enthusiasm on our Air Asia flight to coin-less Cambodia, we are particularly excited and cannot wait to get off the plane to start this leg of the journey. After all, we are about to explore the UNESCO world heritage site and “Bucket list” temple sites of Angkor Wat. The plane lands, we walk onto the runway and the intense 40C dry heat hits us in the face like walking into a brick wall. We file into the airport and everyone runs for the “Visa on arrival” line to enter Cambodia. Seeming like nothing more than a major money grab, the line snakes through ropes bringing us to an assembly line of workers ready to take our $60US ($30 for 30 days). They do not accept credit cards, but the convenient bank machine next to the line dispenses $100 bills with a $5 US fee for withdrawing cash from the ATM (serious ouch). One man takes your application and money, and another provides your change. Their money counting machine cannot keep up with all the US bills being handed over from all the eager tourists excited to see Angkor Wat. We receive our $40 US change back in $1 bills stapled together in bundles of $10! Our passport and application goes through a line of 7 or 8 workers sitting at a long counter each handling and stamping everyone’s passports until they reach the end of the line. Then one lone Cambodian has the job of calling out everyone’s Chinese, Japanese, European, Canadian and Russian names and we get our passports back.
From the airport, we experience the coolest and best taxi service ever! A tuk tuk. This little trailer with seats for four under a canopy is pulled behind a moped/scooter and it is the most entertaining ride we have ever experienced to or from an airport. The breeze provides all the air conditioning we need. Bright red signs advertising Angkor beer dot the landscape, a complete opposite from mostly alcohol-free Malaysia. The beer turns out to be the cheapest item in town (0.50 US draft) and provides a new meaning to having a liquid lunch. As we travel down rudimentary roads with sandy boulevards, smelly water channels, piles of rubbish, abandoned buildings, homes we would not use as a storage shed in Canada, it is very obvious we have left the comforts of Malaysia for a different way of life. We arrive at our budget accommodations and the sign on the wall states no guns, no sex and no drugs, we look at each other with hesitation, and pinky swear everything will be ok 😉 . The excitement of arriving in Cambodia continued to grow!
To get our annoyances out of the blogging way, there is only one, but it is a big one! Cambodia is on the American dollar – cash only for EVERYTHING – and Cambodian banks charge $5 USD for each withdrawal limited to smaller withdrawals of $300 at a time. For this Canadian roaming two and a messed up economy producing an exchange rate around 43% (withdrawing $300 USD costs us $445 CDN), this turns out to be a very expensive South East Asia country to visit. For example, Roti Chana in Malaysia cost $0.33 CDN, but $2.25 USD in Siem Reap. Once we look over this, the magic comes alive. This is one very, very special place to visit.
The majority of tourists probably come to Siem Reap simply as a base to see Angkor Wat and the other temples. Without a doubt, the temples keep our days full, we walk our butts off and snap over a 1000 pictures. But this post is about the Siem Reap area which has enough magic of its own to create memories that will last a life time.
The country had been involved in war for over 30 years until 1975. Then a sickening brutality and genocide happened in this country only 40 years ago (1975-1979, over 2 million people killed or 25% of the population). Changes and turmoil are still occurring but the history lives on. Cambodia is the most heavily land mined country in the world. The government of Canada currently advises travelers to avoid the Northern border with Thailand (due to a dispute over land ownership). Call us chicken – we heed the warning. The history and reality today is gut-wrenching. Any ounce of compassion in your bones and you are going to feel sickened and saddened. Christine threatens to take me out of Cambodia if I can’t “let it go”. So young at the time ourselves, we were uninformed, too young to care, or maybe it was because the internet did not exist. Either way, this country has been through hell, yet their spirit appears alive and strong. Cambodians have a special way of making your heart feel full. Their petite, toned frames light up with a beautiful infectious smile when they see or greet you. The Sompiah is used for greeting, saying goodbye and thank you. It is considered impolite not to return Sompiah. Put both your palms together in front of your chest and bow your head. The level of the hands depends on whether you are greeting friends, parents, older relatives or monks. A Sompiah greeting is sure to put a smile on your face.
The poverty in Siem Reap and likely Cambodia is in your face. We thought is was bad when we traveled in Central America, but this is worse. Main arterial roads are barely paved, others are a very fine, red sand that gets in your eyes, nose and any other orifice open to the outdoors. The best purchase for the trip ends up being sun protection scarves that can be used to block the intense heat, provide cooling when wet and most importantly, provide coverage for our eyes and nose.
The assault on our senses are intense and mesmerizing. Fried, or roasted scorpion, tarantula, snake, rat or (big) cockroaches are available to purchase on the broken, crooked, busted clay brick sidewalks. It feels like every family in town opens up a make shift kitchen and restaurant on the sidewalk trying to make some money to support their family…”Hey lady, you want something to eat? hey, lady…” Cheap flip flops bruised and battered are the footwear of choice. Children ride bikes two or three times their size! They look so cute… and happy. I think about all my nephews and nieces back home growing up in their smartphone and Starbucks infected environment and wonder if they are as happy as these kids appear while riding their bikes in bare feet, covered in dust and dirt and going home to eat some version of rice and maybe chicken? In Canada, parents have to sign consent forms for their children to field trip and more; in Cambodia, the kids are stuffed shoulder to shoulder in the back of a large flat bed truck with a make shift railing. The kids grin from ear to ear as they are sent off onto the road to battle the helmetless moped drivers. Foot massage businesses are open everywhere. Although the idea of a $1 thirty-minute foot massage sounds amazing, we can’t bring ourselves to making anyone rub our dirty, smelly feet for a dollar and knowing the business owner is easily taking 50% of that profit. Alternatively, we can dump our feet in a large fish bowl and have the fish eat away at the bottom of our feet for $3USD, but we pass.
When we leave the city, homes line the street and they are made from cardboard, fallen trees from the field, corrugated metal and palm leafs. We complain of our “old” mattress in Canada and feel terrible as we see folks sleeping on wood floors suspended a few feet off the ground using a burlap-like sack hanging down to provide shade from the blazing sun. We pass men and women “showering” outside beside their home using nothing more than dumping a bucket of water over themselves as they stand on the red clay next to their hut. I wonder if they pray that their emaciated cow (if they are fortunate to have one) will not drop dead from starvation. There is very little green plant life during the dry season and these cows are clearly not Alberta beef.
Mopeds compete with cars, sport utilities, buses and trucks thinking they are invincible. Mopeds are used for everything here. Four people to move, no problem. Want to attach a food cart to the side, no problem. Need to move a bunch of mismatched boxes, bags of rice and your four-year-old without a helmet, hey, it is simply no problem. Horns honk all the time, but not in a lame road rage manner, this honk is just to say “hey, I’m here, please do not flatten me”. It is amazing to watch the traffic and the giggle/shake your head factor is a 10+. There do not appear to be any road rules whatsoever. We understand it is only going to get worse in the big city and other countries… we can hardly wait.
Here are is a sampling of what scooters, mopeds, tractors and bicycles can really do! Click on any photo to see it larger.
Sadly, in a rather disturbing manner, the Cambodians with money know how to flaunt it and Lexus is their vehicle of choice to show off their riches. LX470 ($90,000CDN) are way more popular here than back home in Canada and they seriously look out of place as amputees from land mine explosions stand beside the parked Lexus asking for money. Cambodia has the highest rate of amputees in the world. We have read that there may be as many as four to six million land mines and/or unexploded weapons in Cambodia.
Siem Reap will hold a special spot in our heart. We are already thinking about how cool it would be to return during rainy season in October/November. The laughter, intensity, sounds, smells of delicious, aromatic local Khmer food and beautiful people were hard to leave in Siem Reap. The intensity of Siem Reap can be summed up best by an experience that occurred to us while celebrating Christine’s birthday on our last evening. We had just spent an exhausting day exploring Angkor Wat and other temples, we were sitting at a budget friendly restaurant and we had a terrific spot on the sidewalk at intersecting busy roads. The sun had set and a 3/4 moon was shining brightly in the sky above us. We were starving and we had ordered our $0.50 Angkor draft while deciding what to eat. Chatty people laughed loudly as they walked past us, mopeds honked their horn “please do not flatten me” and tuk tuk drivers called out to every passing person “need a tuk tuk?” while making a vroom vroom motion with their hands. We were smiling and chatting about our day when a local man approached us for some money. He was on the ground, walking using his arms. He had little resemblance of remaining lower legs. He used $1 flip flops as shoes for his hands and he dragged what was remaining of his lower limbs wrapped in a filthy, black cloth. He looked up at us with the biggest smile and he had such a tender quite voice. As he turned and left our table with his limbs dragging behind him, everything just felt wrong and an incredible feeling of sadness overwhelmed us. Tears welled up in our eyes and as I turned to Christine, tears began running down both our faces. Everything became quiet. The horns did not honk and laughter left the air. That is the power of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Mark and Christine
Sample Expenses In Siem Reap (all in USD)
Cambodia uses two currencies: US dollar and Cambodian Riel. 1 USD is approximately 4000 Riel
- $8 Breakfast, omelet, eggs, real fruit smoothies
- $14 Dinner, Khmer food with pitcher of beer and nachos to start (weak moment)
- $15 dinner, Mexican burritos, salad and fruit smoothies
- $7 Khmer dinner
- $2 Bamboo rice for 3
- $2 for 2 street crepes
- $4.60 Dessert at Swensens, a sundae each! (it was Christine’s birthday)
- $6.20 1 litre carrot juice + small bag cashews
- $5.30 for 6 Nature Valley granola bars …so expensive (not a misprint, $5.30USD for 6 granola bars!)
- $1 for 12 bottles of water
- $0.40 for can of Coke
$91.80 for 6 nights, twin room, air conditioning and attached bathroom, budget hotel near the markets (New Bequest Angkor Hotel). Extras – no toilet seat (a lid but no seat)!