Phenom Phen, Siem Reap, Vientiane, Vang Vieng

Cambodia was really very interesting. We spent just over a day in Phenom Phen, doing the main attractions: the royal palace, the museum and the so called “killing fields”. I knew very little about the Khmer Rouge and its bloody history before I came to Cambodia and that made it a disturbing and illuminating learning experience.

The extermination camp, code named “S-21”, is a short tuk-tuk ride from the center of Phenom Phen. It’s surrounded by the same green farmland we’ve seen everywhere in Cambodia. Upon entering, a large structure – about 15 m tall, with a traditional looking Cambodian roof is the first thing to catch the eye. Approaching it along a path reveals that it houses shelves, from floor to ceiling, laden with human skulls. Each shelf has a plastic sign saying what the approximate age, and gender of the skulls’ original owners: “50-60 year old females”, “20-30 year old males” and so on. It’s an eerie sight.

Going around the camp, the stories are reminiscent of every holocaust story. The banality of evil strikes again. I won’t try to repeat any of them, but I do want to read more about the surrounding history. Pol Pot and his minions seem to have earned their place with the worst of humanity’s scum.

We took a minivan out of PP and on to Siem Reap. The road there was interesting in revealing a completely rural environment. Nothing bud mud huts. I’m sure it would have looked the same if we took it 200 years ago.

Siem Reap is a nice little city, but its raison-d’etre is another city altogether, and one that hasn’t been in active duty since the 14th century- Angkor.

Angkor was the jewel in the Khmer kingdom’s crown and it’s still very impressive. At it’s peak it was a town of one-million people, and as all the guide books claim, this was at a time when London only had several tens of thousands (Having that said, I don’t know how credible Lonely-Planet historians are).

The city is huge, it’s impossible to see it without a vehicle of some sort as the structures can be several kilometers apart. We rented a tuk-tuk (and driver) for 3 days and moved between the main temple complexes: Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and several others. It all just looks like something out of a Indiana Jones film, especially the places where the jungle was not completely cleared away from the structures. This was done intentionally and I think it’s really great. Seeing century old trees growing on top of the temples really gives everything a sense of temporal scale.

Our next destination was Vientiane, but looking at the map, and realizing how long it would take to get there from within Cambodia, we decided to get there via Bangkok.

We’ve been to Bangkok before, but never as backpackers. We didn’t actually see much of the city and this was a welcomed opportunity. We had a quick look at some of the major attractions – temples, markets and the like. But two unexpected ones were the Bangkok art museum and Jim Thompsons’ house.

At the art museum, there was one noteworthy exhibit – a 10 m x 5 m (or thereabouts) area on the floor is covered by different kinds of fabrics and threads. Somewhere, in the whole of this 5 gold necklaces are hidden. The visitors are invited to look for the necklaces. If a necklace is found, it can be kept.  It was really cool, and a good opportunity to jump around and lay down on the soft fabric.

The next stop was Vientiane, Laos. But as soon as we got there, we realized this Mekong side city is not a place we are interested in staying in. There’s nothing to do, even though the falafel shop we found sells top-notch feed! We took a minivan to Vang Vieng the same day.

Vang Vieng is a bit of an experiment in the end of the world. It’s very pretty, with a nice karst backdrop, reminiscent of Halong Bay. But the human scenery is very different. The average age is about 22, the blood alcohol content is borderline toxic, and the two favorite activities are either watching “Family-Guy” in cheap restaurants or floating from bar to bar on the Mekong and drinking heavily.

The “Tubing” experience is really lots of fun. You rent a large inner tube, take a tuk-tuk upstream, and try not to drown as you drink your way back to town. Many of the bars have some attraction: a concrete slide, mud tug-of-war, mud volley ball, and all of them have local kids (some as young as 10) fishing the drunken tourists from the strong current using a fish hook made of a long rope with a 1.5 liter plastic bottle at its end. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced before.

We went tubing two days in a row. Some of the people we’ve met have been there for over a month. Having had enough of Vang Vieng, we moved on to Luang Prabang.

The journey to was truly horrid. Swiss cheese for a road, 20 km/h bumpiness and mud slides that blocked our advance. It took 9 hours to go 250 kilometers (give or take). Upon getting there, we were greeted by the torrential rain that triggered the mudslides. And were carrying our wet backpacks that endured much of the same rain over 9 hours on the roof of the minivan.

This post is getting too long as it is, so i’ll continue with tales of Luang Pranag, and probably Chiang May (Thailand), on another occasion.

Gal