Friday, December 10, 2010

Genocide, Rocket Lanunchers and Buddha: Just Another Day in Cambodia

Howdy, ladies and gents! Today I am writing this latest post from a bus headed from Phnom Penh to Kep. We have had our fun in the capital city, and it's time to get out and see some more of the country. (part has also been written in Kep now)

After breakfast at our usual spot, the Dragon Guest House a few doors down from where we were staying, Happy Guest House, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us around to see some of the sites around the city.  Now to those unfamiliar, tuk-tuks are a type of motorcycle taxi.  Unlike what I've been using in the Philippines where you have a motorcycle with a sidecar, these use a motorcycle with a tow-hitch to pull a rather large trailer with two opposing seats. Earlier today I saw one loaded with twelve people! Because of the increased load this puts on the air-cooled engine, they rig up a gravity fed system where a jug of water drips onto the engine to aid in cooling. That said, there is nothing added to increase the braking abilities with the added weight, so it's a good thing they never get above about 15 or 20mph! The drivers are also everywhere, and it's common to have at least three drivers come up to you and ask you “Tuk tuk??” even if you are riding bikes, haha.

Our first stop for the day was about 15km out of the city, the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, or as it is more popularly known, The Killing Fields.  This is where the Pol Pot regime murdered around 17,000 prisoners, generally innocent men women and children accused of being enemies of the state, and dumped them in mass graves.  This is a dark and bloody history, but very recent history. These killings took place from 1975-1979, if I remember my dates correctly.  Estimates for the total number of Cambodian citizens killed in the revolution range from 1-3 million, in a country that had a population of maybe 8-9 million at the time.

The monument itself is full of bones exhumed from the killing field.  About 9,000 bodies have been removed from the mass graves, and they are organized in this tower by bone type, age and gender.  To save on ammunition, prisoners were bound, blindfolded, and killed with axes and other tools, or beat to death with pieces of bamboo.

Many of the mass graves have been left untouched and remain for visitors to see.  Just like visiting the Nazi concentration camps, it is a very emotional and sobering place, but being Cambodia is much more raw. On the ground are literally shreds of clothing, teeth and bone fragments of the murdered, and the paths you walk wind between the dozens and dozens of holes where the bodies had been dug up from mass graves just thirty years ago.  So recent is this history, that the only person tried and convicted of crimes at the site was sentenced in July of this year.

After that, Nick and I decided on something a little more fun, and headed off to the shooting range.  What you may have heard is true: in Cambodia, you can pay to shoot machine guns, throw a grenade or fire a rocket launcher.  I don't know the legality of this or who runs it, but they wouldn't let me take pictures. The site however, is right around the corner from a military base (what this is a photo of) and not far out of town.

I suppose it is mostly aimed (no pun intended) at tourists who have no access to firearms, unlike us crazy Americans. Some prices were totally insane, such as $30 for 10-rounds of .22 through a Ruger 10/22 rifle, or $30 for 5-rounds through a 12-gauge shotgun. For $50 you can fire 30 rounds through M-16s and AK-47s, full auto, and for $80 you can put 30-50 rounds through a high caliber machine gun.  On the explosives side, you can throw a grenade or fire a grenade launcher for $50, or for a whopping $350 you can fire a rocket launcher.  The best part of it all, is that when you arrive, they pass out a 'menu' with pictures and prices, haha. Well, it seemed like fun, but given the prices both Nick and I opted out and didn't shoot anything, but maybe there are cheaper ranges further out in the country, who knows.

Given that we had run out of time to see the National Museum like we were planning, we walked around the city and ended up in a mall to get some food.  At the top level of the mall was a rollerblading rink, which predictably was just as chaotic as the roads here in Cambodia.  There were however a few guys who were really good, doing 540s and flips over 3-4 of their friends.  The top of the mall also had a nice view of the city, they yellow domed building here being the central market.

In the evening, we headed out on our usual late-night food search, leaving behind the normal tourist places on the riverfront and finding a wonderful local place, where we had our usual feast for around $9 or $10 for all three of us. The baby cow was particularly tasty!

The next day, we rented bikes again and made it out to the National Museum, which contains the largest collection of Khmer artifacts.  The building and grounds are quite nice, with a lush courtyard in the center with the artifacts circling it under cover.

The bulk of the artifacts were statues, and rather unsurprisingly, about half of the statues and images were of the Buddha.

From the museum, we returned to the Thai embassy to pick up our visas.  Our slip said to come at 3pm, as the time they hand visas out was supposed to be 3-4:30pm.  We showed up early, around 2:30 with high hopes of getting it early and going on with our day. We probably should have known better, and waited around for hours, since nothing seemed ready.  The place filled up, and everyone was waiting around impatiently for something to happen, but often during the supposed 'visa passing out period' there wasn't even anyone in the office. Around 4:45pm they finally came back in with a big stack of passports and paperwork, and Nick rushed to the window, sort of pushing in (as there was simply no line), handed them our slip and they returned out passports with our two month visas! The whole process took maybe 30 seconds. It was good to know our 'bribe' paid off, because we were not to keen on hanging out in the city another 4 days. Visas in hand, we headed out to a local restaurant to celebrate.

The passports of travelers, oh the places we've been, and the places yet to go. Exciting stuff. (though it is annoying when a country takes up a whole page for their visa...)

The next morning we caught a bus to Kep, which was a roughly 4 hour ride on a mix of pavement and dirt roads. Just getting out of town took 30 or 45 minutes and would have probably been faster on a bike, and certainly faster on a motorcycle. But, the bus ride was not bad at all, and towards the end we started getting into some hills, which I was excited to see since Phnom Penh is very very flat.

Once arriving in Kep, we realized it was a pretty small place without much to do. They had trucked some sand to create a beach, and Nick and Ellen got their first taste of ocean on their whole trip, since they'd bee inland this whole time until today. 

The Lonely Planet describes Kep as “famed for its spectacular sunsets and splendid seafood.” On day one at least, we have found this far from the truth.  We headed to the 'crab market' where we were greeted by absurdly overpriced restaurants selling meals for $5+, a huge change from what we have been paying and are willing to pay.  Nick did buy a fish on a stick at one of the cheap stalls, but it was boney, oily and not very tasty. We ended up giving it to some stray dogs.  The sunset was also pretty weak, but hey, it's the first day.

Tomorrow, we are headed to Rabbit Island, were we may spend a few days on the beach in some rustic huts. Looking forward to it!

(oh, and since people have asked, my stomach problems are pretty much solved)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It's A Holiday In Cambodia

Welcome back everyone! As I write today, I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Nick and Ellen!

The last time I wrote, Chris and I were deciding our plan of action for the Chocolate Hills, and since we quickly realized there was absolutely no reason to stick around Tagbilaran because it was a boring little town, we decided to spend the night by Carmen and the Chocolate Hills. In the morning, we hopped a bus (for only 50 pesos) and rode what was maybe 100km to Carmen. Getting out of the towns and going through the wooded areas was a wonderful change of pace and scenery. I enjoyed the ride quite a bit.

This is just one of the many old churches we passed on our way to Carmen. We also passed through a lot of rice fields, but not much else. Not about to change our method of zero-planning and research, I had expected Carmen to be a more substantial town that it was, seeing as it was the biggest town on the map around the Hills, which are supposed to be such a big tourist draw. Instead, it consisted of a decent size public market, a ring of shops around that market, and nothing else really. We walked about 3km back the way we had come via the bus, and found a place called the Banlasan Lodge, which was a funky place with giant concrete mushrooms, two pools, water falls into the pools and a garden and pond. It was however, totally empty besides us, nothing was up and running, and we wondered how it stayed open in times like this. It may have been nice, and full of customers, but it was probably 30+ years ago judging by the looks of things. Oh well, it was kind of fun anyways.

That afternoon we went to the Chocolate Hills. They were formed millions of years by coral deposits, then the surrounding land eroded away. The name comes from the season when the grass that covers the hills turns brown, and they are supposed to look like chocolate drops among the green that surrounds them. While not exactly thrilling like caves or waterfalls, they were quite nice to look at and I am glad we took the trip to see them.

So our plan was to come up and hang out for the afternoon, watch the sunset from the top of this tallest hill that had the hotel and restaurant on it, have dinner and hopeful meet some other travelers to hang out with. Instead, like our hotel the place was totally empty and a fair bit run down. There were a decent number of Filipino tourists when we first arrived, but no one stuck around for the sunset (which turned out to be pretty underwhelming as far as the sky was concerned, but the light on the hills was nice) and by 5:30 or 6, we were the only people around, so we ate dinner by ourselves and walked back to our hotel.

In the morning, we went into Carmen, wandered the market, ate some breakfast and hopped a bus back to Tagbilaran. This time instead of riding inside of the bus, we decided to ride on the roof. This turned out to be a huge improvement. Other than the occasional low wire or tree branch to watch for, we just laid back on some big sacks of rice, closed our eyes, enjoyed the fresh air and both of us even almost fell asleep! I'll probably be doing more of this in the future.

Back in Tagbilaran, Chris and I mostly just had time to kill. It was early afternoon, and the next day Chris was taking a boat back to Cebu to do a month j-jutsu training with a local club, and I was headed to the airport to fly to Manila. To kill time and to actually get some work done as well, I headed off to Jollibee to get a taste of how the Filipinos do American-style burgers and fries (not bad actually) and to use their free wifi. As my regular blog posts indicated, internet access has not been a problem at any stage of my trip, at least not in the Philippines. Internet cafes are literally everywhere, sometimes just 200 feet from each other, and many hotels and fast food places have free wifi.

Being our last night traveling together, Chris and I went out for drinks and ended up at another club. Again, not my usual scene, but after a while I got into it, and danced the night away. At one point, a local dude 'called me out' and we had a dance-off at the base of the stage, twice! The night turned out to be a ton of fun, and I'm the kind of guy who almost never dances. (and I only had a few beers, by the way!)

The next morning, Chris and I parted ways, as all travel companions do at some point. There is a chance we may end up seeing each other in Thailand, but if not, our respective homes in Seattle and Cape Town are always open. Like Sandy and Kathryne, Chirs was a wonderful travel companion and I can't imagine having nearly as much fun without his company. Oh, and here is his blog since I'd forgotten to post it before:

Later that day, I took a short, 1:20, flight from the island of Bahol back to Manila. While I warmed up to Manila a little more as I was leaving it the last time, I still don't like the city. The only reason I headed back was for my flight to Cambodia. I ended up staying at the same Townhouse Hotel as when I first arrived in the Philippines, because it's cheap and close to the airport, but otherwise completely unremarkable and generally uninteresting. The evening was spent generally wasting time on the internet while sitting in the lobby hoping to meet someone to hang out with for the evening, but nothing came of it.

In the morning, I took a taxi to the airport, and flew to Singapore where I had a 4-hour layover. In Singapore, I was not told I needed to get my bag and go through immigration just to transfer flights, but I had enough time to do so. It was funny to have to get a visa for a 4-hour layover. Also, like the city, the airport is very strict. While I never even left the airport, I think my bag was x-rayed 4 different times, after already been done in the Philippines.

Upon arriving in Phenom Phen and paying $20 for my tourist visa, I was greeted by Nick on a scooter outside the airport! While we had discussed this, I was prepared for it to not work out for some reason, but it all went perfectly. On the way to the hotel we encountered some pretty heavy rain showers, but it all turned out OK. Upon arriving at the hotel, I got to see Ellen and we had a fun evening eating, drinking Angkor beer, looking at each others pictures and telling stories from our travels thus far. It was great to see some of my good friends from home half way around the world, and I certainly look forward to traveling with them.

In the morning after breakfast the three of us rented bikes for 5000 riel (~$1.25) and headed out for the day. One of the first things on our agenda was to go to the Thai embassy and get get visas to enter the country. You get a 2-week if you enter by land, 4-week if you enter by sea, but if you go ahead to the embassy you can get a 2-month for free, which allows for a lot more flexibility. Ours were not free however, because we ended up paying a $10 “fee” (aka a bribe I suppose) to have them rushed to us in two days.

Biking, like driving in most of southeast Asia is ridiculous. The roads are pretty much uncontrolled madness, but somehow it all works. Most all intersections are uncontrolled, so you just sort of push your way through in packs, hopefully using a bigger vehicle as a shield, you can ride/drive on the wrong side of the road if you feel like it, and generally, it's a blast!

Our next stop was the “Russian Market” which is a market of cheap clothing, tourist trinkets, counterfeit goods and food. They may actually be real, I'm not sure, but there are perfect looking and feeling fancy North Face backpacks for example that would normally cost $150+ for $8. We bought a few small items, and went about our way.

The next major stop for the day was the Royal Palace Complex, which cost a whopping $6.25 to enter, but I would say was worth it. Inside we were treated to countless amazing looking buildings of the wonderful Buddhist architecture that is everywhere in this city, and the country.

Only portions of the complex are open to the public, as it is the actual royal palace, but there was plenty to see, including these monks feeding the fish in the moat around a model of Angkor Wat.

From there, we continued on our bike adventure and got a very late lunch on the waterfront. After food, we headed to another religious site, Wat Phnom. This area is neat because it has a ton of monkeys running around that everyone feeds, and it was fun to watch them for a while.

We then went home, watched a Chuck Norris movie on TV (this is the first room I've had with a TV, it is quite amazing) and went out to dinner, which cost $8 between the three of us.

Tomorrow we will head to the National Museum and the Killing Fields, and once we get our visas for Thailand, will probably head out of the city here and see where that takes us. Should be fun!