A country of resilience and generosity

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  • Sunday, January 8, 2012
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  • The sun rising over Angkor Wat.A trip to Cambodia reveals a thankful third-world nation still recovering from its tragic past
    We left Bangkok bound for Cambodia in the middle of yet another torrential downpour. Though monsoonal rains are normal in Bangkok, the amount of rain they got this year was well above normal and would go on to cause some of the worst flooding in 50 years. Needless to say we were anxious to be moving on to higher ground, but saddened to think about what was to come for the Thai people.

    Two pit stops and nearly four hours later we arrived in Poipet, Cambodia.

    For numerous reasons, including the fact that Thai people and Cambodians do not exactly get along swimmingly, we were forced to de-bus and walk across the Cambodian border. At first glance this didn't seem like the best idea, but after having experienced it, it was a definite highlight of the trip.

    One of my four traveling companions, Rokha Na, who was born in Cambodia, had suckered his cousin, Boran Meng, into driving us basically throughout the entire country for the next 10 days. We crammed all our backpacks and ourselves into his Lexus GX470 and were off to Siem Reap.

    As we started the journey into Cambodia it wasn't just as if we were in a different country but the bustling city of Bangkok seemed as though it was a world apart. The Cambodian landscape is a sea of rice paddies. Houses and tiny shacks stood on high stilts, which kept them dry as the rice paddies flooded over. Naked children played in drainage ditches near the streets while water buffalo bathed two feet away from them. 

    Awestruck at Angkor Wat

    In Cambodia and most of Southeast Asia driving is somewhat of a controlled mess. If you want to pass someone, you just go. No waiting for the dotted yellow line, heck, you don't even have to wait for on-coming traffic, just go and everything amazingly works out. It's actually pretty impressive. I think U.S. drivers could learn a thing or two from a Cambodian motorist. At this point in our trip we weren't used to the driving and were a bit unnerved. By the time we reached Siem Reap, a little over two hours later, we could be barreling head on into a semi and it would not have fazed us one bit.

    Siem Reap, Cambodia is home to the countries beloved national icon, Angkor Wat. After checking into our hostel, the Garden Inn, we headed straight to the ancient city of Angkor. Angkor is so large that you need weeks to see, and enjoy, all of it. Since we only had 2-and-a-half days we needed to get started ASAP.

    The ancient city of Angkor is almost unbelievable. Built in the 1100s, its detail and architecture left us speechless. Though it is not known for sure, researchers believe the city spans more than 386 square miles. Many of the temples have deteriorated or been destroyed, but the main and most famous temple, Angkor Wat, stands tall at the center of a large moat. To get the full effect of how amazing this temple is you have to get up before dawn and see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Though it was a bit cloudy as we waited for the sun come up, the experience still left us in awe.

    Angkor has become a more popular tourist destination over the years. As of now they still allow tourists to climb and walk through the temples, but with the amount of deterioration that it causes, park officials probably won't allow it much longer. They have already started roping off certain areas that used to be open to tourists. 

    Part of the family

    After an amazing few days in Siem Reap we were on our way to the next stop, Battambang, Cambodia. We left Siem Reap early, in yet another rain storm.

    On our way to Battambang we stopped in Phnom Thom, Boran's home town. Though most of Cambodia is non-westernized, Phnom Thom is rural even as small Cambodian towns go. Here, we got a real taste of what Cambodian life really looks like and it was very impressive. If there's one thing I took away from this country it was how unbelievably generous the Cambodian people are.

    Boran's family and friends greeted us with genuine smiles and bows and served us lunch as though we were another member of their family. Their resilience amazed me considering what the country had been through a mere 35 years ago.

    From 1975-1979 communist leader Pol Pot and his army murdered an estimated three million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge. When the unspeakable killing finally came to an end, the country largely started over. 

    Loud, fast, dangerous and so much fun

    After a meal with Boran and Rokha's family and a quick tour of Boran's rice farm we were off to Battambang. Battambang is located in eastern Cambodia about 185 miles north of the capital, Phnom Penh.

    Since visiting the tourist-driven city of Siem Reap, Battambang was a much-needed change. We stayed at the President Inn for $30 a night, which is actually on the expensive side for Cambodia, and were treated to what was probably my favorite meal of the whole trip, Suki soup. Rife with chicken, beef and tofu, it reminded me a bit of Vietnamese pho.

    The next day we were up with the sun to grab a tuk tuk to the bamboo train, which we had discovered online. About 20 miles north of Battambang is an abandoned railroad track. The people of Battambang had discovered a way to use the old track by building flat platform-like cars made out of bamboo with small engines to transport goods and people from the farmlands to the city. For $5 a person you can ride the train five miles down and back, it's one of the few tourist attractions in Battambang and a great business venture for the local people. It was loud, fast, dangerous and so much fun.

    What happens when another car approaches? Everyone jumps off, the drivers disassemble the oncoming car, let the other car come through and then put all it back together. Genius!

    We had now spent a week in the rural under-developed parts of Cambodia and it was time to see what the city was all about. We made our way to the capital, Phnom Penh. 

    VIDEO: Bamboo Train

    Check back next Sunday to read the final story, Cambodia: From the city, to the beach, to the city.



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