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Hidden Treasures of Cambodia – Siem Reap and Phnom Phen, Cambodia

Hidden Treasures of Cambodia
Siem Reap and Phnom Phen

As a travel destination, Cambodia is not yet ready for overland tours like Vietnam; the Khmer Rouge remained present after the Civil War and there are still active land mines. It seems that everyone in the country has either had a relative maimed by these mines or killed by Pol Pot. Consequently there is much begging in the streets, the markets, the ruins-everywhere. Despite the government charging fees on every tourist departing by plane to care for the children and the crippled, they don’t really do much to discourage the aggressive pleading for a handout. At the temples however, ropes detain the trinket-sellers and the unemployed.

Many travelers in their hurry to visit the famous ancient temples, miss the excitement of the capitol, Phnom Penh. This is the city virtually eradicated as depicted in the movie, The Killing Fields. Phnom Penh is a contrast between modern and rustic infrastructure. The modes of transportation include both the cyclos (rickshaws) and their more efficient version, the motodups (motorcycle with carriage). The markets include the latest in jewelry to the food found on Fear Factor. The lodging includes both hostels and exquisite boutique hotels. Eating establishments comprise numerous pizza shops (although the use of local delicacies creates for some unusual pies) to upscale restaurants. Children in the street speak better English than some of my compatriots. Westerners are welcomed here in spite of the war injustices (American B52 bombers killed up to 750,000 Cambodians in their effort to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines). Even their heroes are counterbalanced – a mix of national and international, ancient and modern. Angeline Jolie is the most revered American in Cambodia. I heard her name mentioned with awe a number of times. One guide told me that she donates much money to the children’s fund and is a friend to the whole country.

Author at Angor Wat
Author at Angor Wat
In an effort to stop abuse of women and children, a very active billboard campaign was recently started. It is addressed to Westerners, written in English, saying “if you think you can come here and exploit our women and children, think again, you will be prosecuted in your own country!” Many organizations including UNESCO are vehemently fighting the sex trafficking that continues to inflict these Asian communities.

During my visit to the Killing Fields I encountered 3 small boys who started talking to me in English; they were possibly 8 or 9 but already had a good command with their questions: “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” I wowed them with that answer (I have 12)! “Are you married? ” I asked them the same questions and they howled. Soon they were asking for tangibles like my pen, which I readily gave them. Then though they moved on to asking for money; at first I hesitated but the Riels are greatly devalued and they only use them to give change for a dollar—so a 1000 note is worth about 50 cents. I looked in my money purse and extracted my last 1000 note and gave it to them saying they would have to share. Their eyes lit up and they were most gracious. I was a little surprised as it wasn’t much, but they continued to jump with joy, and said, “thank you madam,” more than once. It wasn’t until that evening that I realized I had given them my 1000 baht note from Thailand which I was saving for my airport departure tax…it was worth $50.00! These three boys now probably speak about me and Ms. Jolie in the same breath.

Many travel guides suggest taking a boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap but due to the time of the year (no guarantees that the boat could land due to dryness) as well as the improved air service, I decided to fly. I coaxed my taxi driver into stopping at the Genocide Museum on the way to the airport. This is not a spot you want to spend a considerable amount of time given the atrocities and horrors that are chronicled here.

After the short flight, I was met at the airport by a driver who I had previously arranged to take me from temple to temple for the next few days. As he drove me into Siem Reap I was shocked at the number of hotels. There were some just being built, some being remodeled, some that must be on the most beautiful list in the world (i.e. Raffles), and some which had to be completely empty. They are in the midst of changing from a backpacking tourist destination to one fit for the burgeoning leisure sightseer. Many of the latter will probably never see the villages where there are boundless massage parlors and incredible markets.

One must purchase a special “visa” pass for the temples. You can buy a multi-day one or just a single day pass. Each site features a temple with its own religious history and time frame and even though they are only kilometers apart, they are all quite different and worth exploring. Safety issues may need addressing, however. I watched as a middle aged man panicked at the prospect of climbing down the multitude of steps from the peaks of Angkor Wat. He scrambled to all four sides looking for an easier route. He was still at the top when I left an hour or so later. The vines and mud at Ta Prohm were very trippable, but again, worth the risk. Seeing Bayon from atop an elephant was just one more first.

The school kids outside of Angkor Wat who sold scarves, books, postcards and other trinkets assured me they were being educated on a half day schedule allowing them time to raise money. In perfect English, they inquired what state I was from and then proceeded to give a run down of all CA statistics: “your capitol is Sacramento, your governor is Arnold.” They knew the population, the largest river and they went on until I spent the rest of my money buying whatever from them.

The temples were exquisite and certainly one of the man-made wonders of the world, but no doubt, it is the children who are the real treasure of this country. Just ask Ms. Jolie!

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