Places I have been
India and Neighbors
/ Canada / USA
SE Asia / China
How I started
Sign up for my RoadNews Newsletter
Equipment Pages Index
Hello from Vietnam,
We have received several great reviews on our book. They are posted at http://www.downtheroad.org/Publishing/1TheRoadnoEnd\Book_Reviews.htm If you have read our book and would like to write a review please email it to me. If you wrote a review and do not see it on the above link please resend it. We have lost a few things through the confusion of traveling and trying to run this whole show from the road.
I am starting to think about the next book about our travels in South America. To finish it we would have to find a place to stay for several months and work hard. We talk about Malaysia, Australia, but I dream of snow skiing in New Zealand but that sounds expensive. We will need a break from the road eventually and when the time is right the second book will be completed. Books are great things to have done, easy things to start, and terrible things to finish.
Sadly, I must reflect about the tsunami that hit parts of Asia. The moment it happened we were hundreds of miles/kilometers away from the beach riding through a remote stretch of inland Cambodia. No one around us seemed to know what had happened. In rural Cambodia, electricity is spotty and internet non existent. In poverty stricken areas of Cambodia literacy rates are low therefore, newspapers are rare. For several days the only way we knew about the terrible disaster was from frantic reports on our shortwave radio without which we would have been clueless. I still feel unable to grasp the scale of this event.
Many readers were expecting (encouraging) me to post pictures and stories of how we survived the rushing water. They conjured up images of us floating in water looking for land. We received numerous emails from worried family, friends and supporters from at least ten different countries, and in two languages.
The tsunami was monumental but fortunately something I did not experience first hand. I have never traveled through the impacted areas so it is difficult to visualize how the people were affected. My heart goes out to all the victims. I know when something like this occurs in poor countries the people suffer far worse than they would in wealthy countries. I have seen first hand what these people will go through to get back on their feet. They will probably be living in shanty houses solely focused on food and survival for years to come while bureaucracy and corruption squander their intended aid resources. We have seen this pattern before. In the end the victims who were already living in poverty will suffer the worst and be remembered the least. It is truly an unfair and unequal world we live in.
The group of victims I can personally identify with are the thousands of international travelers hanging out on beaches in southern Thailand. It is common knowledge that these beaches are an affordable paradise for a weary drifter to rest and regroup before going on. We still plan to visit this area in about a year and it will be interesting to see how much has been rebuilt. We are lucky we did not go south from Bangkok because we would have been there. We know people from interactions in hotels and cafes as we travel, who perpetually float around the world. We stay in contact with them through email. We personally knew of several travelers who were suppose to be in the affected areas. I fear they suddenly found where there roads ends and lost their lives to the wall of water. I have been trying to contact them through email but no longer receive replies. Just dead air that will eventually turn into inactive email accounts. My international friends are probably gone and with them dies some of the greatest stories ever told. Their final message to all of us would be to make the best of our lives while we can because there are no guarantees. The road whispers their names with the click of a backpack belt or the hum of a bike tire but they no longer answer. "No one gets out of here alive" (Jim Morrison).
We were sad to leave Cambodia. It was a place that I hope to return to someday. This letter was a hard one to write. I wanted to convey all of the experiences and emotions we felt during our thirty days in Cambodia but words and pictures can only go so far. Many of the things we saw from our bikes I thought only possible in a "Feed the Children" commercial. Conditions are extremely difficult for the majority of Cambodians. The people of Cambodia left a permanent impression on me.
Cambodia: Poverty Does Not Equal Crime.
The people of Cambodia taught me that, no matter how bad things have been, we can bounce back with a positive attitude and hard work. Cambodians have experienced the worst of the worst. We have never visited a country with a more devastating recent history. Cambodia had a third of its population (2 million) brutally beaten to death execution style in the late 70's by the regime of Pol Pot (more on this below) know as the Khmer Rouge. The survivors we met while traveling were friendly, warm, and inviting. Even though I could not speak more than five words of their language (Khmer) my impression was they had had enough violence and eagerly wanted to get on with a peaceful life. I have learned in my travels that attitudes can be communicated without language. It is something felt as we slowly pass by. I wonder if I could have maintained such a positive attitude if I had endured the same hardships. I believe the people of this country are resilient and will rebuild Cambodia and never repeat their dark history. It was my privilege to witness this group of people the morning after their nightmare. My helmet goes off to them.
We knew Cambodia was extremely poor and prepared accordingly. We began taking Doxycycline daily to prevent Malaria. This daily ritual of "taking the little orange pill" would follow us for the next several months as we ride through high risk areas. We stocked up on all necessary supplies. We have learned that things available in one country may be unheard across the border. Cindie had our thirty day Cambodian tourist visa taken care of the day before we crossed to ease the process at the border. Tourist visas seem to cost around US$1day/person in Asia. This consumes 10% of our daily budget. The US dollar was also sinking to new lows which gobbled another chunk of our daily allowance. We were lucky we chose Asia instead of Europe because of the weak dollar.
Early in the morning we made the seven kilometers from our hotel room to the Cambodian border. At this point in our travels we had crossed at least thirteen international borders. A lot can be learned about two countries by the activities at the border. Usually the poorer country has many things for sale so their better off neighbor can avoid high taxes and buy cheap goods. Cambodia was no exception. This border was chaotic. Well dressed Thais in new Toyota Camrys were parking in guarded lots and walking across the border to shop and gamble in Cambodia. The border is within driving distance from Bangkok. The few casinos looked new and transplanted from somewhere else. They were the only structures that looked modern. Everything else, including the people, looked wore out. The casinos were just a few steps from the border and large scale construction was creating new ones while everything else weathered away. This contrast was my first impression of this complex society.
The well dressed Thai with disposable gambling cash and smelling of aftershave walked past hundreds (thousands) of poor Cambodians in ragged clothing. The Cambodians were streaming into Thailand to work on day passes. There were carts and wagons of all manor. I saw old farm wagons that were made entirely out of wood including the wheels. They were pulled by water buffalo and oxen. I pushed my bike past a stream of rusty bicycles piled so high with cargo that they could only be pushed. Occasionally small motor scooters would be pulling large trailers full of people. It all seemed impossible. In the long rag tag line of squeaky carts were several solely propelled by a hand cranks. Decades of war had left Cambodia with millions of landmines hidden in the rice paddies. We were told repeatedly not to camp or even step foot off the road. It was easy to see why. The drivers of the hand crank carts had no legs probably because they were blown off by a landmine. I learned that Cambodia had many sad legacies of war.
I watched our loaded bikes while Cindie waited in line and arranged the entry stamps in our passports. I had time to take in the whole scene. There were thousands of forgotten members of humanity passing before me. Life was hard and a struggle merely to survive. Every time we travel through a country with a recent history of violence and war I can see enduring effect on the faces of everyday people. Anyone over thirty had seen and experienced more than could be imagined.
At this point I knew very little of Cambodia's shocking history. I read in our guidebook about the mass murder of over two million Cambodians; a third of the entire population. This occurred in the late 70's. The world looked the other way while millions died. Today, as I write this, I can not forget the million or more victims that are facing their own genocidal extermination in Sudan. It is good to remember the past but better to do something about the future.
DOWN THE CAMBODIAN ROAD
Riding those first few kilometers through the rough and dirty border town in an isolated region of Cambodia was a jolt to our senses. The first thing I noticed was the smell of fish guts rotting in the sun. I found that I can hold my breath for a full minute while riding if I had too. The vehicles on the road looked straight out of a Dr. Seuss children's book. We rode past old trucks without an engine hood, doors, or cover of any type over the driver. They seemed to be overloaded and crawled slowly down the rough road. Fast moving motor scooters carried dozens of squawking ducks hanging from their feet. The road turned rough dirt with deep holes and major erosion. There were long stretches with unbearable dust. Cambodians had adapted a red or blue checkered scarf called a Krama that is warn as a dust filter and hat. These scarf's were common and a source of ethnic Khmer (Cambodian) identity. When the dust was thick heads were completely covered like a busy road of checkered mummies. Cambodia's future can be found on large billboards along its roads. We bounced past a large picture of a US made M-16 military rifle broke in half and the caption in Khmer and English that insisted "We no Longer Need Weapons". Cambodians want continued peace and wanted to get on with life. Guns can not be a part of this optimistic future.
We rode past so many unfamiliar sights we only felt at home on our bikes. This was a totally foreign culture and level of poverty. Trash collection was a luxury they could not afford. The trash bin was anywhere on the ground. Garbage was routinely raked together and burned every few meters. We pedaled through a blur of black smoke from burning plastic. Of course, it all made sense to the locals but we had rode into uncharted territory for us.
Slowly the world around me came into focus. A few familiar thing appeared on the side of the dusty road. A man was welding a wagon axel with a gas torch. After we rode through the spray of glowing orange sparks I took comfort in the scene. Welding looks the same no matter where we go. Also the roads were clogged with people on bicycles carrying the few possessions they had, like farm tools and pigs. Bicycles are essentially the same all over the world as well. I saw a gas generator charging hundreds of 12 volt car batteries. These batteries were obviously the sole power source for the endless hand built primitive houses we rode past. Familiar rectangular car batteries are universal and one more thing I recognized. The houses were built over flooded swamps and rice patties. I had never seen this before but the mothers and fathers inside loving their children is a familiar sight around the world. These things were my context for the things I did not understand. I saw no sewage system but could regularly smell it. Everyone has to relieve themselves. I wondered where they found drinkable water. Occasionally new Toyota trucks with foreign aide markings passed us. These were the same groups I had seen advertise on TV soliciting donations. A man it a United Nations (UN) truck scared me with his look of concern for our safety. I had never been in a country monitored so closely by the UN. This gave me the feeling that Cambodia was barely held together.
After several hours we grew more comfortable with our surroundings and stopped at one of the many open air food stalls along the road. It consisted of home made chairs on a dirt floor covered by a dried leaf roof. This is when we realized that the growing list of Thai words we had learned was worthless here. The people of Cambodia speak Khmer which is unique in sound and alphabet. We did not even know the words for hello and thank you. Cindie peered into cooking pots searching for anything she could recognize. Many of the pots left us asking each other "what is that made of?" She picked one that had rice and some kind of bean cooked with canned condensed milk. I was still to shocked and disturbed by the desperate poverty to eat. This worried Cindie because we still had a long way to cycle. A curious group of children had gathered around us so Cindie seized the opportunity to learn the basics of the local language. She pointed at words in our Southeast Asia phrase book and the kids would pronounce them for us. They thought the way I struggled to pronounced "thank you" was funny and begged me to repeat. After the initial depressing images of Cambodia it was refreshing to feel the warmth of the people. I could sense that they had been hearing how things were improving but we were living proof. Until recently highway crime was common and foreign tourists rare. Cambodia was stabilizing and our presence created optimism.
We rode on and did not stop until our first city of Sisophon. We sought refuge from this new and shocking world in an upscale hotel suggested in our guide book as being a favorite of UN employees. Up scale only cost six US dollars in Cambodia as long as you pass on air-conditioning. We have learned to ease into a new culture as slowly as possible and we had enough for one day.
The next day the road grew worse. It was entirely dirt and dust. We heard Asia had some very dusty roads and had along some surgical mask to wear at times like this. We learned that horsepower and weight dictates right of way. Trucks were rare but commanded the road. Next, cars, motor scooters, and then the bicycle. Few people were on foot. I was never sure how the endless animal drawn contraptions fit into this equation. They were the slowest on the road but their power and independent thinking of the animal caused all others to give them lots of space.
We did not fit into the established pecking order. We were faster than all other bicycles but slightly slower than the motor scooter. Often, there was only one smooth track for two wheeled transportation. The scooters believed they had first dibs on it and routinely tried to squeeze me out with Cindie on my wheel. The first few times I was polite and slowed down rapidly to let them in. This is inefficient because we expend a lot of energy getting back up to speed. Eventually I learned to be aggressive like I was in city traffic or a bike race. Lucky for us the scooters are underpowered and we always had faster accelerations. Once the scooters got up to speed they blew past us.
We made several stops that day because we could only bare so much dust and heat. These stops were filled with interacting with the locals. Despite the fact that every adult over 35 years old suffered greatly during decades of war, a genocide attempt in the late 70's, and the obvious poverty the people were warm and welcoming. Many spoke some English they had learned while attending school in refugee camps in Thailand. They never spoke of the terrible past and we dare not ask. Some memories are better off not dug up. Instead, they really wanted to know why we had come to Cambodia, how long we were staying, and where else we were going in their country. Numerous questions were also asked about the foreign tourist they see passing by on the bus. Cambodia has only recently been on the tourist trail. They loved seeing tourists and thought of them as being positive for Cambodia. We were often told that although they see foreigners pass buy in large buses, creating huge clouds of dust, but we were the first foreign tourist they had spoken to. We have heard this same statement in other countries during or travels. The slowness of a bicycle put us in touch with the everyday people. We always drew a polite crowd. They studied our bicycles and our shoes. Children would touch my shin or feel my hair to see if I was real. At first I feared pick pockets. Years on the road have made me cautious. I never saw anyone seek out vulnerable areas of our luggage like zippers or pockets. They were only curious. Poverty does not equal crime.
At one of our many rest stops in makeshift restaurants we met a man who spoke a little English. He told us the story of how he learned English while his family was surviving the war in a refugee camp. He asked me "You want steak"? Cindie was craving some red meat just like our Argentina experiences but I was suspicious. No one can afford steak in this part of Cambodia and this certainly did not look like a steak house. She was urging me to order up two plates. I asked him to repeat himself and this time I thought he said "snake". I told her to hang on because of what I thought it was. Cindie was certain a big juicy steak was waiting for her but then the man suddenly presented me with a bowl of fried snakes; scales, eyeballs, and all.
After a longer look around it appeared that this was a lunch spot for farm hands. Most of them were skillfully using chopsticks to nibble on some kind of small fried snake. Sometimes culture shock hits when you least expect it. Everyone around us could not understand our surprise. The man was only trying to be polite and take care of me as a customer. Bowls of fried snake were something these people see everyday and considered normal. They had no idea I never saw this before. Cindie quickly seized the opportunity and pulled our camera out. She pointed at the camera suggesting that she would like to take a picture of the two of us. The snake salesman had no problem with her taking his picture but could not figure out why this was a photo moment. It would be like a Cambodian tourist in the USA wanting to take a picture of a Big Mac. He offered to take my snake order again while Cindie caught the whole hilarious moment on video. When she was filming several people crowded in and wanted to be filmed as well. I may have tried a plate of snake at a different time but it looked greasy and that does not mix well with hard cycling. I ordered several bottles of warm water instead. Fried snakes were common but refrigeration was not.
By mid afternoon we reached a village with a hotel or guest house as they are often called here. We could of pushed on to Siem Reap which is a fly in tourist destination because of the world famous Angkor Wat ruins. I really wanted to spend the night in this off the beaten track place. I felt that I could learn something here not found on group tours. That night we slept in the real Cambodia. I was also admittedly tired and covered with a thick coat of dust that continuously sweating attracts. Sweat and dust makes mud. I was reassured that the dust did not invade my panniers because they are all water/dust proof. Otherwise the fine dust would destroy things like our laptop computer and water filter pump. Our clothes we were wearing were so dirty that we threw them into a bag and tied on the outside of my load the next day.
We showered and put on perfectly clean clothes from our bags. We walked around the village and looked for a place to eat. People in the undeveloped regions of Cambodia, and the world, do not get the best cuts of meat. Most dishes have the meat parts that get turned into hot dogs in the USA. We found lots of bones in between pieces of heart, lung, and intestine. For substance there was also rice and dust. We had seen this countless times in our previous travels in Central and South America but never became used to it. A hotdog is much more edible to me because of its anonymous shape and texture. My own culture is sometimes difficult to shed in these distant countries.
The next day we battled more dust and heat until the road suddenly turned to good pavement. Rural Cambodia disappeared and we entered the city of Siem Reap. This was expected but just before entering town we past several ultramodern five star hotels. Just like the Thai filled casinos at the border these hotels seemed to be transplanted from somewhere else; Daytona Beach, Florida or Cancun, Mexico perhaps. Plush air conditioned hotels are solely for the international "haves". These five star hotels were in contrast to the homemade wooden carts with friendly toothless drivers being pulled by teams of water buffalo. This level of contrast is hard to accept even after seeing it repeatedly during our two plus years on the road. We found the hotel zone and Cindie shopped and bargained hard for a room while I watched the bikes. We planned on an extended visit here which is a good bargaining tool. Cindie's job looked hard with lots of walking and haggling. For me watching the bikes was much easier than it had been in South America. No one here bothered me or tried to distract my attention while their hands explore the zippers on our seat bags. The only one to even talk to me was a man who offered me a chair from his house. I wished I spoke the language more than the few words we had struggled to learn but I had to settle for his hand gestures for "welcome" and a gentle affectionate pat on the back.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
Siem Reap is a boom town. Even before the road was safe to travel an airstrip was built to shuttle tourists in. Construction and optimism were buzzing all over town. It was refreshing to see the locals having something positive to think about. Some of the foreign backpacking tourists were appalled that Cambodia now had five star hotels but all of the locals we spoke to were very happy about the changes. They believed that the money these wealthy tourists bring in was the ancient kingdoms way of taking care of the people after they had endured so much tragedy. Big hotels are a big step up from war. Jobs as tour guides, maids, and bell hops are better than forced labor and conscripted fourteen year old soldiers.
The next day, we saw three international touring cyclists checking into our hotel. I could tell from their accent, they were from somewhere in North America. We introduced ourselves as fellow cyclists and began talking about their bike trip. They were Pat from Canada, Polish born Rob who lives in Canada, and Allen from upstate New York. They had met on the internet and arranged to travel together starting in Thailand. All international touring cyclists know that there is safety in numbers but, as it turned out, only protection from the head wind was needed in friendly Cambodia. For us, two was company but for them three was a party. Even though we all were about the same age I felt like the old married man watching them go out every night. They were great to talk to because of our common passion for cycling.
Once the conversation proceeded past introductions and small talk I told Allen that it is rare that we meet other Americans in our travels. He agreed and said that he has had the same experience during his months on the road and Americans should travel more. Pat and Rob asked us why so few Americans are on the road. Americans receive far less vacation time compared to the rest of the developed world. We (Americans) are really missing out on what the world has to offer.
That night Allen received an email with bad news from home. His father was hit by a car and killed. Of course this kind of news would be devastating for anyone but Allen was also faced with ending his long trip and finding a way home from this remote corner of the earth. Allen is a seasoned traveler and gathered his composure as he thought about the immediate challenge of getting himself and bicycle home. He spent hours in the Internet cafe rearranging tickets and consoling his mother on a statically phone line. I hope we can handle ourselves half as well when the inevitable family crisis strikes either Cindie's or my own family. Allen is a true traveler and resilient man who put his family first in a time of need. We will meet again on the road in some dusty corner of the earth. I will recognize him because he is always playing with the local children.
The fasted airline ticket Allen could arrange home was a full day later so the rest of us North Americans invited him on a day ride of his choosing. None of us really knew what to say to him all day. He was faced with the double whammy of loosing his father and his dream bike ride through Asia. We just tried to make his last day on the bike in Asia memorable.
CYCLING THROUGH THE RUINS OF ANGKOR WAT
Below Cindie describes our first day at Angkor Wat. We stayed seven days at Siem Reap and did several day rides into the temple complex and surrounding areas.
Tim and I rode into the temples of Angkor Wat. It is a difficult task to explain these immense ruins. First, I must say they are best visited by bicycle whether you have your own bike or you rent. The road is absolutely flat the entire way. We rode past Angkor Wat and entered the large Angkor Thom complex through the south gate. This was our first glimpse at the face of Avalokitesvara. The first temple we came to was Bayon. It did not look like much at first but as we approached we could see the many faces of Avalokitesvara all serenely looking down at us. There are over 200 faces within the entire complex. Along the southern wall are detailed bas relief's carved from sandstone. The detail is absolutely amazing. We left the temple as the tour groups approached and peddled past the Terrace of Elephants and out the north gate of Angkor Thom. Our next stop was Preah Khan (Sacred Sword), an interesting temple that has been partially rebuilt. The center of the complex is a bit of a walk from the entrance, to reach the center we had to go through one stone doorway after another, looking down the hall gave the illusion that we were looking in a mirror, amazingly enough it was not a mirror but another long hall of doorways. In fact, four long hall ways radiate from the center. Along the path to the temple a group of men, all missing limbs from land mine explosions, were playing a variety of musical instruments. The music was pleasant and added to the ambiance of the temple. Our next stop was Preah Neak Pean, it was originally a reservoir but now it was dry. It has a few interesting statues. It was now the middle of the day and we stopped for some noodle soap of which Tim could have eaten two plates. The portions are small here and poor Tim is always hungry. After lunch we peddled on to Eastern Mebon, it was early afternoon and the sun was hot, the children at this particular temple were a bit more aggressive. We kept asking them why they were not in school and they kept asking us for money. I am always patient with the children, their country and families have been through so much. I find it best to be pleasant. We still had at least 20 km to ride back to the guest house so we decided to call it a day. On the way back we saw a group of monkeys south Ankor Wat.
THE ROAD PACK WAS FORMED
I knew that the wind would be blowing from the east, in our face, all the way to Vietnam. Riding into the wind is like paddling upstream or a riding up a hill that never ends. When it is just Cindie and I a headwind means that our days are shortened. This wind was not so strong as to cause us to catch a bus but was only irritating.
When one cyclist rides close behind another the wind is partially blocked and riding becomes 30% easier. In North America this is called "drafting" and is as old as cycling itself. Bicycle road racers always ride in big packs or long lines of cyclists. The one at the front of the group is not winning the race but instead just working harder. They are said to be "pulling." This is why they rotate and take turns. No one wants to pull all day in a race. When we are alone Cindie tries to come to the front and give me some relief from the wind but the vast majority of the time I am riding first and eating wind. The Canadians were heading east also and we saw an opportunity for continued companionship with them but I also saw the chance to hide from the wind behind these two strong men.
Not all touring cyclists know of the advantages of riding behind each other in a line. Pat and Rob never had a reason to draft off of another rider. Drafting is something that has to be felt instead of explained. When we left Cindie took her usual position behind me and I rode behind Pat. Rob rode off to the side but watched. Pat rode hard and was always surprised to look back and see Cindie and I still behind him and not even out of breath. Rob moved directly behind Cindie and felt the wind reduced along with his effort. Once Pat tired Cindie and I showed him and Rob how to rotate and take turns at the front. A flat road with a good headwind is the perfect teacher of the physics of drafting and the efficiency of riding in a group. Instead of four individuals battling the wind we became a team and worked together against the wind. Cindie had a hard time in the front and stayed in the back where the wind was blocked the most.
The four of us pulled over for lunch. At this particular roadside stop I thought I was safely seated in the usual flimsy plastic chair but that was just the spark to set this scene in motion. The usual group of Cambodian children and adults were gathered around us and watching our every move. Our loaded bikes, strange gear, and white skin must have looked like space aliens to these locals. The ground I was sitting on was not level and the incline combined with my weight was to much for the chair. It broke with a loud "crack" and I fell to the ground. The crowd, including my Canadian buddies, burst out in laughter. One of the locals offered me another chair while the laughter of the children outlasted even the Canadians. Once the crowd finally quieted down I pointed at the chair and at my wallet indicating that I wished to pay for the chair I broke. The lady, who was in charge held up several finger indicating enough Cambodian Riel to equal three US dollars. This was obvious price gouging but I did not want to argue. I decided that I now owned the chair and told the lady in English that I was going to take the chair with me. She did not understand English but watched me as I pick up the now broken chair and walk over to my bike and placed it on my back panniers. The joke was on me because as soon as I set it on top of my load my whole bike fell over; again because of the uneven ground. When this happened the growing crowd burst out in even a bigger round of laughter. I saw people across the street joining in this time. I have learned a long time ago that in life everyone gets their turn to be the fool and now was my turn. I have also learned to take my turns at this role as gracefully as possible. I picked my bike up and through my arms in the air like I had just won a major European bike race. The gesture of poking fun at myself was well received by the locals and I received a round of applause. We all climbed back on our bikes and rode away. I know that this small Cambodian village, without even the luxury of electricity, will pass down to generations to come the story of the big foreigner who broke the chair. The road may not be a glamorous place but it is always different and memorable.
The rest of the two days to Phnom Penh was long and hot. Cindie and I avoid big kilometer days but Pat and Rob were anxious to get to Phnom Penh. On the last day, Cindie and I hit an all time trip record for the most kilometers in one day at 134 kilometers. Our previous record was 114 kilometers when we descended out of the Andes mountains in northern Argentina. It really was not that difficult because we could all work together and take our turn at the front of our pack of four. This day may have had the most kilometers, however, it was not our hardest day. I have learned that it takes more than kilometers to make a day hard. I have a permanent scar on my right knee (from when I crashed descending a long dirt road in the Peruvian Andes) to remind me just how long days can get
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
There are few places like Phnom Penh, Cambodia's wild national capital. I had already figured out the Cambodia has the bare minimum of rules. This country lived under a harsh military dictatorship and now preferred as few police and rules as possible. This was especially noticeable to us in terms of traffic rules. It was not until we rode into Phnom Penh that I saw how far that can go. Imagine riding a bicycle through a city with almost no traffic laws or enforcement. Parking and speeding tickets are nonexistent and parked cars fill the sidewalks. Most busy intersections have no stoplight, lane markings, or other traffic controls. A pure free-for-all on the road. It worked more like walking around a crowded shopping mall. Traffic slows at each intersection and everyone picks their way around each other. The difference between this and the crowded mall is this had high speeds and real danger. We only witness one crash followed by a fist fight. This absence of rules extends into all levels of vise including 24 hour bars with more women than men. Riding our bikes was a white knuckle adrenaline experience.
Cambodia is just now recovering from atrocities that sent the standard of living back to the stone age. Below Cindie describes our visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum and Choeung Ek also know as the Killing Fields. This may not be appropriate reading for children.
Some of you may remember when Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia, it was 1975. He wanted an agrarian (farming) society. He marched the people of Phnom Penh out of the city and into the fields. The city of 1 million, remained empty for over four years. From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge systematically killed off 1/3 of Cambodia's people. If you were educated, spoke a foreign language, or a family member of the educated you were taken away from your home to be executed. Many were sent to Choeung Ek known to westerners as the killing fields.
Tuol Sleng museum is a former prison known as SP21. Again, the following description may not be appropriate for children. It was where people were tortured and interrogated by the Khmer Rouge before they were sent to the killing fields at Choeung Ek. The grounds use to be a high school. It was left in the same condition as the Vietnamese found it in 1979 when they pushed the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh.. Step through the door and step back in time and back to Cambodia's dark dark past. The bottom floors were large cells, they had photos of the prisoners they found there. Gruesome. In another building were the photographs, to me the most disturbing. Room after room had mug shots of people who were brought to Tuol Sleng for interrogation. The Khmer Rouge kept records of every person that entered the prison including recording their biography and taking their photo. People of all ages, and numerous nationalities were photographed, including an Australian. At first the faces were just looking back, then I could see the sheer fright in some women's faces as they clutched their young child, some men were defiant, some were badly beaten, some were already thin, they all were dead, tortured and killed. I had to leave halfway through the building, I was overwhelmed with emotion, I could not look anymore, those photos will haunt me for a long time. Why do I look, I have too, I have to know, we have to remember what happen here, so it does not happen again. I had no idea that people could be so ruthless, cruel and evil. How you may ask. The Khmer Rouge recruited children, most of guards at the prison were children ages 10 to 15. A shocking part of the Khmer Rouge history.
On the second follow the cells were much smaller, large enough for one person. The outer balcony was covered with fencing and barbed wire so no one could commit suicide by jumping off the balcony. The third building had the torture devices. A vice that held a hand while they pulled off the finger nails and then poured alcohol on the open wounds. A tank where a person was shackled to the tank that could be filled with water to drought the prisoner. Horror pure horror. Somehow a painter survived S21 and painted some of the scenes from the prison.
We watched an hour long movie about a women who was brought to Tuol Sleng, tortured, and eventually killed. She did nothing wrong except maybe being beautiful and in love with her husband. She was sent to the fields separated from her husband and family. Later she ended up at S21. Her husband was also killed. The movie was educational and disturbing at the same time.
We also visited Choeung Ek, the killing fields. I have read different reports of how many people were killed at Choeung Ek, it ranges from 17,000 to 40,000 people. At the site there is a tower with 8,000 skulls arranged by sex and age, a memorial to the people who died there. Forty three of the 129 graves still remain closed the rest have been excavated and we could walk from one pit to another. There is a large tree where they beat babies and children to death. How could anyone do this is my question, I just do not understand. While walking in the hot sun looking down at the open pits I became queasy, looking down I could see bits of bone, teeth, and pieces of clothing coming to the surface. Such a place of suffering. People need to remember what happen her and try to prevent these kinds of things from happening elsewhere. We should not allow this to happen anywhere in the world, ever.
LESSONS FROM A MONK.
While in Phnom Penh, we visited Cambodia's National Museum. This museum had nice relics from Angkor Wat and other archeological sites around the country. Cindie loves this kind of outing but the highlight for me was meeting and spending the day with a Buddhist monk. We had seen monks almost everyday during our travels in Southeast Asia but never spoke to them. Besides the language barrier we never knew if we were allowed to speak to them. They seemed to us as bald ghosts floating around in long flowing orange robes. Whenever we were around monks we left them alone. The other foreign tourists acted in much the same way around monks. This is how a traveler acts around something of such religious importance that is not completely understood.
We had walked around the museum for hours and were looking for a place to sit and cool off. Very few buildings are air conditioned in this hot tropical country. A seated monk pointed at the empty chairs next to him and invited us, in English, to join him. I could never pass up an opportunity like this. His name was Seden and he was twenty-four years old. He told us that he wished to practice English with tourists. We learned that he usually attends classes like a busy university student with a heavy load but today was a holiday and the monks had no classes. The holiday was the day Cambodia was liberated from the Khmer Rough by the Vietnamese army.
We left the museum and slowly walked around town and he showed us the Wat (Buddhist Temple) near his home. Seden explained the various aspects of Buddhism but never tried to convert us. Buddhism teaches, among other things, tolerance for other religions and ways of life. This tolerance extends to things they do not agree with or even think of as immoral. I have always tried to live my own life with the same tolerance.
Usually when we crossed the street in this congested city it was a near death experience with countless near misses from motor scooters, cars, and trucks. When we were walking with Seden in his bright orange robe traffic parted and was respectful of our space. He never even looked for oncoming cars. He just slowly walked into the thickest traffic. The real treat was when he took us to the monk's village and brought us into the dorm room where he lived. When we walked in we saw several monks sitting on the floor in their orange robes watching a Japanese movie on a desktop computer. When I asked what they were watching one of the younger monks, who was also studying English, handed me the DVD case. It was some kind of martial arts movie dubbed in Khmer; the language of the Cambodian people. I looked around the room and saw few possessions except an extra orange robe hanging out to dry, school supplies, and lots of well used books. I was surprised to see CD cases for Norton System Works, MS Windows XP, and MS Office. When I asked about this he said that technology was a tool, like a pen or book, that could be used positively or negatively.
We became comfortable with Seden and asked many questions about the life of a monk. I gathered that monks are basically students who concentrate on study and meditation. He studied the teaching of Budda and various other academic subjects; especially languages. He told us that he was learning twelve languages other than English. We hoped that Spanish was one of these languages but he concentrated on Asian languages. We also learned that monks are not allowed to exercise or play sports. He also followed some complicated rules of when and what he could eat. We were hungry and offered to buy him something to eat but he turned us down. He encouraged us to buy several unknown fruits from street venders and showed us how to eat them. Every time we bought something we, out of habit, offered him some. He asked if this was normal in our culture and we told him it was considered rude to eat in front of someone without offering. He was very interested in this and other aspects of our culture. We finally offered to buy him anything he wanted because we were not sure what was permitted. He requested Coca-Cola in the familiar red can. I never expected he was allowed to consume anything from such a commercial giant but I later concluded that this only proved how little I knew of his way of life. He never asked anything specific about Americans or the USA other than the weather. Seden thought of countries as only geographical locations. He was interested in the places we had traveled but only in terms of religion and culture. Laws and governments held no importance to him. Seden saw us as westerners who spoke fluent English. He also considered Latin Americans westerners. I saw that, compared to Asia, North and South America are similar in culture and religion. Asia is a completely different world and way of thinking.
Seden was also interested in our trip. He asked many questions about why we chose a life of travel. His questions were always worded in confusing ways. I deducted this was due to the language difficulties or his completely different way of thinking and looking at the world. He asked "What do you seek on your journey?" "What do you avoid on your journey?" and the clincher "Do you feel enlightened?" I always felt that his questions were at the advanced university degree level and my answers were grade school. He was extracting as much information from us as he could. He was very skilled at it. I felt that we were with a true scholar. He cared little about "what" and dwelled on "why".
He left us with a statement that I will never forget. He said "We are not so different. We both are drawn to knowledge and understanding of the world around us. I seek enlightenment through Budda and you seek enlightenment through meeting people of the world. I chant and meditate and you ride your bicycle and write. You are on the path to enlightenment". He liked our unique way of life. I feel that one monk's approval outweighs every email we have received telling us to go home, get a real job, and save for retirement.
BANKING ON THE ROAD
We spend much longer in Phnom Penh than we would have liked. The reason was our bank had made several major mistakes in setting up our new business account to handle our cash flow from our recently published book and revenue from the web site. We learned that to be "free" to travel the world can come at a high cost. While in Phnom Penh, we had to make several phone calls and send faxes to the USA. We use a small microphone and earphones connected to our laptop computer to call the USA from Cambodia over the internet at US$.04/minute. This was a life saver due to the fact that we had to stay on hold for up to an hour at a time. The bank teller on the other end of the phone had a lot of trouble sending our new ATM cards to Cambodia even though we wanted them sent to the FedEx office. I do not think the teller even knew where Cambodia was or that it was a legitimate country. Our bank asked us to send several faxes because they always seemed to loose them. Sending a fax from a country like Cambodia is complicated and frustrating. After sending the fax we would call and confirm that it was received and wait for our new ATM cards to be delivered. When they did not arrive Cindie would call again and they could not find the fax we sent. We kept trying until we had only two days left on our Cambodian Tourist Visa and gave up.
To this day we still do not have our banking problems cleared up. If it was not for our emergency stash of US dollars we would have been broke.
The last two days out of Cambodia were pleasant except for a hectic ride out of Phnom Penh and a very dusty final day to the Vietnam border. When the international border appeared on the horizon I was sad to see it. Something unknown has drawn me here.
Saying "goodbye" to Cambodia was hard. Few countries had taught me so much about the meaning of life. While I traveled in Cambodia I looked deep inside myself and ask what I would had done if life had dealt me the same difficult hand. I learned that the little things in life are appreciated more when they have been taken away or destroyed. The people of this fragile country have shown me levels of unconditional warmth and kindness I never thought possible. So I leave Cambodia believing that it is finding it's way out of the darkness. I wish all Cambodians the best. They deserve it.
Our Homepage for Asia is located at:
2002 - 2012 © DownTheRoad.org (TM) All Rights Reserved
SE Asia / China
I have used several brands of bicycle panniers and
highly recommend Ortlieb.
See Why I switched to Ortlieb waterproof Panniers?