The 4000 Islands are in the very south of Laos, where it borders Cambodia, so Cambodia was naturally my next stop. We boarded a bus to Siem Reap and the SEA nonsense quickly began. We were herded into two minivans for the border, which was only about 15 minutes away. These minivans actually weren’t too bad, but of course they weren’t the ones we’d actually be riding in for the long haul (noticing a pattern here: nice transport for the beginning, then switch to awful transport…maybe because if people saw what they paid for before they got on, they’d demand money back or something?). The border was a typical hilarious chaotic shitshow of nervously handing over our passports, short barked orders, and not knowing what’s going on. The entrance visa for Cambodia was $37 (for the US). I’d heard that you should only hand over exact change, because if you handed over $40 for example, they’d probably invent some “fee” so you didn’t get money back (welcome to Scambodia, as I’ve heard it called). Strangely, after getting our visas, they kinda just pointed us in a direction to walk, and we walked for a couple minutes through these empty parking lots towards a bunch of stores (the “pickup spot” I guess) that probably should have been a lot closer to the crossing point… That was a little strange, and probably an accurate introduction to Cambodia.
On the other side, there was a bus waiting, but we weren’t allowed to get on for a while because the AC was broken and they were fixing the bus. When we finally got on and left, after about…half an hour? we made another stop at some random place, and were herded out again. Apparently the bus had kicked it, and they were sending for a backup. 15 minutes, they told us. Welp, those “15 minutes” turned out to be more like 2 hours, as everyone got more restless and cranky. Eventually two minivans pulled up, but not nice ones like before…truly terrible ones, with not enough space. I was lucky to get my own seat: in the front seat of our minivan, one girl had to sit on another girl’s lap for about 5 hours. About 3 minutes into the minivan ride, the driver picked up his phone, and after chatting for a minute, pulled over to the side of the road. Oh no, we thought…what nonsense is about to happen? He picked up another guy, who he then sat on the lap of, in the front seat. This goddamn country.
We finally got into Siem Reap, or, well, the bus station (which is always annoyingly far outside of the actual city) at around 11PM. There were tuktuks waiting for us, and me and three girls I had made friends with on the bus got one together to go to our respective hostels. Our tuktuk driver was pretty awful, actually. When the first girl got to her hostel, the tuktuk driver asked what we were doing tomorrow, and demanded her phone number. He said he’d give us a good deal on taxiing us around, but to be honest, there are tuktuks everywhere in Siem Reap (we could already see this at 11PM), so there wasn’t really any reason for us to have to locate and interface with a specific one. We said no thanks (to giving him her number), and he started getting pushy. We tried pacifying him by telling him to give her his number. He said in fairly broken English that he’d seen this happen before, and people never called him back. I said yeah, maybe because you do this! You’re making people uncomfortable! After dropping her off, he then tried this with the rest of us each time. He tried guilt tripping us at some point too, saying “if you good person, you call me, if you don’t, you bad person”, which definitely didn’t help his case. Not a great first taste of (S)Cambodia.
The tuktuk drivers around the city were generally pretty annoying too, constantly calling out “tuktuk!” to you as you passed. I don’t get the logic. Has that ever worked? Like, I know exactly when I want a tuktuk, and they’re everywhere, so I can just walk up to any of them and get one immediately. I don’t think I’ve ever been walking somewhere, past tons of tuktuks I know I could take, and then had one annoying call out at me, and then thought “you know, maybe I do want a tuktuk.” I realized that a lot of the same stuff could be said about when guys catcall women, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same — from what I understand, that’s usually about the stupid guy feeling good from exerting power over his victim, but I can’t imagine the tuktuk drivers feel good by yelling out their services to us.
Siem Reap is dirty and kind of chaotic, but the largeness of it was actually kind of comforting to me after a while in fairly rural/undeveloped Laos. Maybe it’s that it feels like I could really get stranded somehow when I’m in a place like Thakhek, if the wrong things happened, but in a city like Siem Reap it feels like there’s an endless supply of accommodation and food and “escape routes”. Anyway, I stayed in a hostel called “One Stop Hostel”, which was pretty nice. I can’t say it was really social at all, but it was super clean and they always had what seemed like bootleg camcorder-shot hollywood movies on the TV, which were nice to zone out to sometimes (they’re up to a Transformers 47 now, apparently?). The staff were really helpful with all my annoying questions. The hostel is about one street off of what was clearly the main party street of Siem Reap, which was pretty reminiscent of Khao San Road in Bangkok. To be honest, it’s actually worse: KSR was an awful backpacker hub cliche, but I actually don’t remember it being deafeningly loud, which this Siem Reap street was. I mostly wandered out to find some street food for dinner, and was surprised to find not a whole lot. What I did find, and was pleasantly surprised by, were these really cheap “fried ice cream rolls” carts that were everywhere. You might know them as “Thai rolled ice cream” or something. Basically, the gist is that they have this really cold metal sheet, then start with some mixture of cream, sugar, and whatever mix-ins you wanted, pour it on the sheet, and repeatedly scrape it off when it freezes to the sheet, chopping up the scrapings, and smearing them again on the sheet, until it’s aerated but more solid. Finally, they smear it out one last time, but this time, scrape it off in these “rolls”, which they usually form 5 or 6 of. They tasted pretty great, but part of the draw was the preparation and presentation. When they did the chopping motion, it was this insane flurry of blades (I probably ate some poor Khmer guy’s fingertip at some point, who knows). When they handed it to you, it looked like a little bouquet of flowers. I must’ve gotten it 6 times while there. Strangely, I never saw these carts again, even in other Cambodian cities.
Anyway, the next day I explored the city a bit with my bus friends. We went to a day market that was half pretty legit local stuff (they’re not beheading smelly fish for tourists) and half souvenir crap. It was pretty big and honestly kind of mazelike. I bought two tee shirts, my first on this trip. One is this really light one that feels like it’s three wash cycles away from dissolving, that was $2. It says “Cambodia” and has a bunch of bicycles on it. It’s pretty hilariously badly made: the print pattern is noticeably off center, and not in an intentional, artsy way, more in a “500 of these were made in an hour by tiny, underage hands” way. However, its fabric is really light, which is nice in that weather. That said, in retrospect, I really have no idea why I got it. The other shirt I got is cooler. It has an image of Tintin on a bicycle rickshaw and it says “Tintin in Cambodia”, which isn’t an actual Tintin book (trust me), but I still like a lot (I loved Tintin when I was a kid). It’s definitely better quality than the other, and was also like…$3.
The next day, we got a sunrise tuktuk tour of the Angkor complex. Okay, so I didn’t know this. I had always just heard people say “Angkor Wat” which I mostly just took to be “super iconic famous temple”, but Angkor Wat is actually one temple (albeit the most famous) in a complex called the “Angkor Archaelogical Complex” or something that has many temples. So you can go to see only AW, but that would honestly take you only about an hour. What going there is really about in my opinion, is seeing it and a bunch of other ones. Anyway, we did it through the hostel, which usually means there’s a little cost markup, but the organization/pickup/knowing you’re not being swindled too much is usually totally worth it. I went with the three girls from the bus and it came out to be $6/person, which was a pretty great deal in my opinion. I mean, he picked us up at something like 5AM and drove us around till about 1PM, waiting on us to see each temple. It was basically a tour of the “top 5” temples, I think. It definitely had the “top 3”, so unless they specifically kept others for a more comprehensive tour, I think we hit the coolest ones.
First, we went to Angkor Wat, the big dog, for sunrise. We managed to get early enough to get at the front for the opportunity of the “sunrise reflection” shot. What I think is funny is, you see all these postcard photos with AW reflected in what looks like a big beautiful pool, but it’s actually a pretty small, swampy pond. The sunrise was cool, but not that colorful because it was a little bit cloudy at that point. Because there wasn’t such a distinct “sunrise” moment, people seemed to kind of randomly dissipate after a while.
We didn’t actually go to AW at this point, but instead went to Bayon temple. This one is most recognizable by the faces, which are made from a bunch of blocks. This one was actually my favorite. It’s possible that it was because it was right after sunrise, so it was still very empty, but I think it’s because it had all these little passageways you could explore. One of the coolest parts about these temples is how open and untouched they are. I mean, they’re doing mild renovations on a couple of them, where they were getting dangerous from falling rocks/etc, but for the most part it’s honestly like they found a temple in the jungle, and you get to explore it anew. So, with almost no one else around, exploring Bayon’s little nooks and hallways and passages was awesome.
Next we went to one that I honestly don’t remember the name of. It was cool, basically a big ziggurat, but nothing that special.
After that, we went to Ta Prohm. You probably either know this one as “that temple what got the trees growing into it” or “the Tomb Raider one” (which was indeed filmed here apparently). It was also really, really cool, but was already definitely more filled with people, because at this point about 2 hours had passed from sunrise, between the exploring and driving from temple to temple. It was also much more of an obvious attraction, with food stalls and people trying to sell stuff outside of it, and a very official “entrance”, unlike the others. Still, it was very cool and had a different vibe from the others. It really felt like the jungle was swallowing it; I actually wonder what they’ll do if those trees ever die, since part of its iconic-ness is that they’re growing into it. It was really cool and we walked around it, outside of it, first, before going inside. However, just as we were going inside of it, several busloads of tourists poured out, and it was instantly swamped. I know it’s hypocritical to think I’m any different than them, but they definitely seemed more shove-y and stereotypical than us. So it’s not the temple’s fault, but that definitely made the experience with it not quite as good.
Next we went to another temple that I don’t remember the name of (one of the two “filler” temples). It was cool, covering a pretty big land area, but really crumbling and not that special IMO. I’d say the coolest thing was that it had a bunch of bats, which was cool. Finally, we went to AW itself, “saving the best for last.”
Well, lemme say what some might consider blasphemy: I was a little underwhelmed by AW. Don’t get me wrong, it was really cool, and in the wide scheme of things one of the coolest things I’ve seen. But it was the “name” one, the one I actually knew before going there. Then, Bayon (and even Ta Prohm, regardless of the hordes) were actually really cool and each had a “thing” (the faces/passages for Bayon, the trees for Ta Prohm). In contrast, AW was mostly just…really fuckin big. I mean, it was very large, definitely the largest, but wasn’t that special. I guess it had some pretty intricate, large scale carvings of battle scenes, but they didn’t really hit me the way Bayon did. One of the girls, who had actually gone to AW the day before, said she wanted to wait for me to see it before saying what she thought of it, since she was curious what I would think but didn’t want to color my opinion. After going and telling her this, she said that that was what she had thought as well, and wanted to see if I thought the same.
From Siem Reap, my next destination was Koh Rong. You probably haven’t heard of it if you haven’t gone to Cambodia, but as soon as you learn a little about traveling there, you’re gonna learn about it. It’s a very stereotypical white sand, clear blue water island, which, I dunno about you, but wasn’t what I pictured when someone said “Cambodia” before I came here. To get to Koh Rong, you have to take a ferry from a city called Sihanoukville, where I got a night bus to. It got in at 5 or 6AM, and I stumbled out bleary eyed since I had just woken up. Instantly I was assaulted by 5-10 tuk tuk drivers, all holding tattered laminated sheets showing the locations they could drive you to. I walked away a few paces to get my stuff together and figure out where I actually was, putting up my hand to signal “no thanks, 1 minute”, but they were pretty relentless, following and crowding around me, really obnoxiously. Finally I raised my voice a little, which got them to actually leave me alone for a minute. I figured out that I was about a mile or two from the pier. Now, at that moment, it being real early and having all my stuff on me, I probably would’ve paid for a ride, but then these guys swarmed me again. I got really pissed and decided that it wasn’t even about the money, I just didn’t want to reward their shitty behavior. I left and started walking to the jetty. One particularly tenacious and obnoxious guy actually got into his vehicle and followed me for several blocks, yelling out lower and lower offers for giving me a ride. It was obviously pretty annoying, but also kind of sad: the place is so poor and they’re desperate enough for work that he’s actually willing to waste his time and gas to follow someone who has already said no several times. So I can’t really blame him, though I will say that in this case it was actually just a bad strategy for making money, since being obnoxious actually made me not hire one when I would have.
As I got into the main part of Sihanoukville, it became clear that it’s an awful town that’s basically a cancer. It’s pure tourism, with absolutely zero personality of its own in the parts I saw. “Touristy” is relative and personal to each person (I’ve met people who call Nong Khiaw too touristy, and people who think Chiang Mai is a little hole in the wall), but there are certainly different levels of it. Sihanoukville is at the level of Bangkok, where there’s just constant chaos, everything is a sale, it’s 100% about squeezing tourism bucks. It had a pretty gross feeling overall. Anyway, I got a ferry ticket and got on. Apparently a distant typhoon was hitting another part of SEA, but we were getting some gusts of it. The ferry was still running, but the waves were pretty rocky, and on the way there, there were lotssss of people barfing.
As for Koh Rong itself, it’s fairly touristy at this point, but to be honest (maybe it’s the off season or something?), even a short walk from the main strip next to the jetty would get you to beaches where there was basically no one else. There were actually places to stay all over the perimeter of the island, but the ones off the main strip were pretty much only reachable by pretty long walks or kind of pricey private boat ferries that only came a few times a day, so I opted to stay in a fairly crappy one on the main strip.
Koh Rong is similar to the 4000 Islands, in that it’s not really a “do things” place, it’s more of a “sit on a beautiful beach and stare at the ocean” place. In the right mood or with the right company, I might enjoy that, but I learned there that that’s not really for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like relaxing, and the place was crazy beautiful, but… I think it’s just my personality that I can’t sit there and do nothing for hours. I actually met a few friends from earlier on my trip there, as well as a couple new people, and their company was probably what made me stay as long as I did, but I could tell after about a day that my time there would be limited. I was a little excited to go snorkeling, but because of the distant typhoon, there were little waves that were enough to stir up the sand and make visibility nil. Similarly, one of the other cool things you can do there is, at night, see a ton of bioluminescent…uhh..creatures? along the shore, but… the soft waves were apparently ruining that too.
And thennnnnnnnnn… I got sick again. At this point it was my third time this trip, and I was getting pretty goddamn tired of it. It was the same as before, some fun fever/food poisoning mix (I had heard that a lot of people actually get sick on Koh Rong actually). This and my general restlessness convinced me it was time to get out of there. I originally planned to maybe go to the “sister” island of Koh Rong, the less developed/more isolated Koh Rong Samloem, and maybe a couple other nearby beach locations like Kampot, Kep, Otres Beach, and Rabbit island, but at that point I just wanted to be in a sterile hostel on land near pharmacies where I could get good sleep and recover. So my next stop was Phnom Penh, the capital. After getting the ferry back to land, I managed to catch a Giant Ibis bus to PP almost immediately. Lemme take a second to give Giant Ibis a shoutout. I was complaining to some more-traveled friend about how bad the buses were in Laos/Cambodia, and they suggested I try Giant Ibis, a “premium” bus company or something. I was skeptical because I had heard that “VIP” and “Premium” often meant nothing with buses, but I wasn’t feeling great, so thought I’d try. It turns out the “splurge” you have to do is about $5 more than a regular bus would cost, but…by god, that was a nice bus experience. They picked us up at the jetty in one nice van, to drive us to the real minivan. The real van was so nice, with tons of room (no more of that sardine BS), they gave us little pastries and water, and it was just a nice new vehicle that didn’t break down half an hour in. I’ll definitely use them again if I can.
Anyway, in PP I chose to stay at “One Stop” hostel, the same chain as the one I had stayed in in SR. It didn’t have much of a social scene in SR, and neither in PP, but since I just wanted to recover, I was pretty much fine with that. It has a general clean, sterile feel to it, that was just what I wanted. Also, althought PP is really just a pretty dirty, rough, fairly unremarkable city, I was comforted by it. I didn’t realize it till then, but on the island, aside from my restlessness, I was kind of uneasy. I think I felt kind of “trapped” or something; although there were actually a decent number of places to stay there, it feels like I’m at the mercy of whatever happens to be there in terms of housing, food, and transport for getting out of there. In contrast, in a big city like PP, there are practicaly infinite hostels, food options, buses to get out, etc. Still, it’s kind of weird that a chaotic, filthy city like PP puts me at ease more than a relaxing island like KR.
After finally recovering (almost instantly after I tried Azithromycin at the suggestion of my doctor friend Zoe!), I explored the city a little. To be honest, there’s not a lot going on in PP, but there’s one main, uh… “attraction”: the Cambodian Killing Fields and the torture/prison facility, S-21. It’s a popular (that feels weird to say) thing people go to see in PP, so the hostel booked tuktuk tours for it, where they pick you up fairly early and take you to both (the Killing Fields are actually far outside the city, while S-21 is in the city, but they’re typically kind of a package deal). I did the two with two other guys. It’s a strange thing, that it’s this awful thing that’s honestly really unpleasant to be confronted with, but a large number of tourists who are travelling to generally have a fun time make sure to stop there, out of some sense of obligation I guess.
I knew some rough stuff about the genocide, the history, the numbers, and I’ve read all sorts of awful stuff, but it was still pretty sobering to see. I guess I haven’t actually really been to any site of mass murder before, like German concentration camps or anything, so this was new to me. We went to the Killing Fields first. They gave us little headsets for an audio tour. It being Cambodia, I was skeptical that they’d actually work well, but they were actually fairly decent; I just say this because it was clear that they had actually put effort and money into the place. Anyway, the next part is pretty grisly, if you wanna skip it.
Parts of it were kind of “there used to be something here, but it got demolished, so you’ll have to use your imagination”, but there were also some pretty real parts. Soon we got to the actual fields, where they had excavated just some of the mass graves. Next to them, they had display cases of random assortments of bones and clothing fragments. Probably the scariest part for me was that, aside from the official display cases of remains, because a lot of the graves weren’t dug up, there were little bits of bones and teeth on the ground. They said that when they find that stuff, they collect it and add it to more protected places, but there was simply too much. Apparently when it rains heavily there, it’s fairly common for more bones to get uncovered, which is extra horrifying. One of the darkest parts was a huge tree that’s still standing next to a mass grave, that was used for killing babies by swinging them into it. Finally, we reached the final temple-type thing, that had a literal tower of skulls inside of it, all very carefully cataloged by things like age/gender/method of murder (which they could usually tell from the mark in the skull). This is an aspect it seems like many genocides I’ve read about run into: eventually it’s difficult for them to even keep up with the amount of killing they “need” to do. In the Holocaust, they famously used gas chambers, but those were technilogically advanced Germans. The Khmer Rouge, being really poor and disorganized, relied on a variety of cruder methods like farm equipment and even things like big rocks (as they said, bullets were literally too expensive for them, at even one per person).
We were pretty quiet after leaving, definitely still shocked. However, it wasn’t over yet: next, we were brought to S-21. The Killing Fields were actually the final destination for those to be killed, but most of them came from the prison complex, S-21. It’s called that because it was actually previously a school that was converted into the awful place it became, which of course adds to the horror. Because it was a school, it’s actually still in a pretty normal place of the city, and you might not notice it if it weren’t surrounded by barbed wire. Again, we got an audio tour, which was pretty fascinating and horrifying. The first section was a series of rooms that each had a single metal cot with shackles, where prisoners would be tortured. There was also a pretty awful section where the Khmer Rouge had created sections in large rooms, to create hundreds of tiny (about 2′ x 6′) cells. In both of these, there were what appeared to be bloodstains on the floor, but hopefully they weren’t.
The whole thing was, honestly, pretty unpleasant, but also something I’m glad I saw. There’s a lot to think and say about it. One of the big things I realized freaks me out about it is, it feels so pointless or arbitrary, even in comparison to other genocides. With most other genocides I’ve heard about, they “make sense” (from the point of view of the perpatrators) in a sick way; most of them are typically tribalism/ethnic cleansing (the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, Armenian Genocide, etc). However, the Cambodian Genocide wasn’t really like that. Both the killers and killed were mostly the same ethnicity. The best I think you can really chalk it up to is a classism type thing (Pol Pot called the educated city dwellers the “new people” and the agrarian country dwellers the “old people” and demonized the “new people” as corrupting their country, in a way that fit in with communism). But even with that, it seems like a lot of the people killed were from both places, and were simply labeled as “dissidents” at some point. They pointed out at S-21 that a lot of the victims photographed were Khmer Rouge (probably that someone reported on).
Another interesting thought that places like this always invoke is the “how could anyone do this to other people?” question. A lot of research (probably most famously, the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment) has been done to show just how easily average humans defer to authority and can be made to do terrible things to other people. The implication here is that, while lots of people might look at genocides/etc and say “well I could never imagine myself doing that”, there’s a strong probability that the potential is actually in everyone, and it just needs the right combination of desperation and authority to bring it out. On the surface this is pretty depressing, but it’s probably worth acknowledging to prevent this kind of stuff happening again. I’d highly recommend going there even though it’s pretty unpleasant.
One other thing that freaked me out a little after the fact was when I considered the dates involved. The killings were mostly from 1975-1979, and they had people as young as 14 in the KR. But even if you just look at an 18 year old in 1975, that would mean they were born in 1957 and are only ~60 years old now, not really old at all… and there were plenty of people at least that old I saw in Cambodia. So after realizing that, it hit me that there are probably a ton of people who were former KR members and killers, just being taxi drivers and chefs and stuff. I wonder if there’s any animosity in communities towards them, since as far as I know there was never much of a mass punishment (a few of the head guys were brought to trial but I dunno about lower level people).
Anyway, I think that’s about all the big stuff for Cambodia. I finally found a snakefruit there, which was really delicious and another one to mark off my fruit list (await my upcoming “fruits of SEA” post!). I saw maybe the most horrifying thing I’ve seen in a market, a bucket of live, skinned frogs slowly breathing without faces. Yay, nightmare fuel! To be honest, I’d like to return to Cambodia someday and give it a proper run. While I enjoyed myself, I didn’t have the best time in Cambodia the way I had so far in other countries. It felt a bit grimy and desperate, but I also know that getting sick/my mindset at the time may have tainted it. I’d like to go to smaller places like Battambang, and check out other bits of the coastal stuff like Koh Rong Samloem, Otres Beach, Kampot, Rabbit Island, etc. There are probably whole other sections of the country (the northeast) that are cool if I looked deeper into it.
Anyway, from Phnom Penh, I was off to Myanmar, which was the place I had decided to go to before meeting my friends in Hanoi. Till next time!