Today I leave Cambodia, where I’ve been for 19 days. Was here with my friend Golda until she left about a week ago. We did the mandatory Angkor Wat viewing for several days,
and of course saw the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh:
On another note and another day, we added a homestay on an island very close to Phnom Penh called Koh Dach:
So close, but light years away in its rural calm – and ennui.
Later, as Golda headed off on her 24 hour+ return journey to San Francisco, I headed north to the Ho Chi Minh trail. I wanted to see what we had left behind.
I’d protested long and hard against The Vietnam War, here called “The American War.” I’d repeatedly heard of “Cambodia” in the news, just as I’d heard of the Mekong Delta, Mekong River, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos, and the evil North Vietnamese.
After attempting to verify locations we’d “touched” with a friend who’d done some dirty secret work in Cambodia, I plotted my northerly course. By this time I had re-learned that Cambodia had allied itself with the N. Vietnamese. The extra spin I’ve now been told is that Cambodia was already suffering under its own evil regime, and the N. Vietnamese promised to help the good guys when the war was done. (They didn’t – and all this destabilization energetically fed the currents that led to the Killing Fields of Pol Pot).
It was going to be rough going, with pot holed roads, some still dirt. But then I happened into the office of a travel agent who gave me accurate information: there is a newly improved road that goes to an alternative northern location, cutting 2 hours off the journey. I signed up, and off I headed next day to Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri Province.
Looking at the map I could see that Mondolkiri Province touches Vietnam, and I later learned that the Ho Chi Minh supply trail was a set of proximal roads, part of which goes right through Mondolkiri Province. I DID get there.
The town where I based myself was Sen Monorom. The northern provinces, unlike the rest of flat Cambodia, are hilly and actually cool! I had to sleep in my long John’s and for one brief moment I stupidly looked for the thermostat to turn up the heat in my otherwise very comfortable room-with-a-view.
Yes, the tourist infrastructure even in northern Cambodia is well developed, with ample lodging choices and totally fantastic eateries with menus translated to English.
When I got to Sen Monorom I phoned a guide highly recommended in Lonely Planet. He was busy, but set me up for a next day tour with Run, another English Speaking guide. I explained to Run that I was interested in anything to do with the American War. He said there were 2 bomb craters he would show me, but he usually bypasses that bit of local history when touring Americans.
I hopped on the back of his “moto” (motorcycle) accepting my helmetless state as part of my penance.
We headed 40 km further north to the large & lovely Bou Sraa waterfalls. So, as we drove, I was there at last: on 1 iteration of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
It’s beautiful up there: densely green hills, and subsistence farmers sprinkled about. I saw no visible signs of the ongoing misery that continued into and beyond what’s referred to here as “The Killing Time,” when a third of their population was brutally destroyed.
Here are some of the “survivors” doing their subsistence farming:
These folks are processing sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are grown, then chopped up by hand and laid out on plastic sheets by the side of the road, to dry. Then they’re ground into flour which is used to make noodles, among other things. These noodles, according to Run, are highly desired in the commonly eaten breakfast soup.
My version of the Ho Chi Minh trail then led to Bou Sraa waterfalls:
It was heartwarming and reassuring to see the place swarming with Cambodian tourists having fun – I was the only Westerner there. Here are some “kids” who came here and dressed up in native costumes and took photos of each other – don’t know if this is a regular thing.
And many Cambodian tourists, just having fun:
We headed back along “the trail”, visiting both coffee and rubber plantations along the way. I was glad to hear that there’s finally a Cambodian coffee processing plant so they don’t sell all their coffee to Vietnam for peanuts – well, for coffee beans. They can now export their own.
THESE ARE COFFEE FLOWERS. THEY SMELL LIKE JASMINE
However, despite having rubber trees they export the raw rubber to Vietnam, where it’s made into tires and sold back to Cambodians.
The only American War damage I saw were the 2 craters (now ponds)
and a country that’s slowly recovering from years of devastation. I saw a lot of people doing hard physical labor. The national character seems cheerful on the outside – nearly everyone is quick with a smile and a greeting. And children, so many beautiful children – it’s like half the population.
Next day I visited the Elephant Valley Project there and finally, guiltlessly, got up close and personal with elephants. Even heard them talking to each other, which was interpreted by my guide! And finally, got to have that eye contact I’d given up on in Africa – well I can probably delude myself into thinking it was eye contact.
After my brief encounter with history (and elephants), I decided to see more of “the best” that Cambodia has to offer tourists and headed south, to the beach: Sihanoukville.
It was incredible – something for everyone in terms of varying ambiences. You can have partyville, or quietville, but the constant was the gorgeous fine white sand (which is clean, contrary to what I’d read), deep and wide beaches, and the pristine, warm Gulf of Thailand for swimming.
I returned yesterday to Phnom Penh (a city I very much like)
so I can catch my plane to Myanmar today. Yes, I’m off to the exotic, but can hardly say the “unknown” given all the first hand info on the internet. I’ll be there 28 days, the max allowed. Internet connections may be sketchy, so you may have to wait to hear from me again.
10 things I LIKE about Cambodia:
– Great food – yes, I like it even better than Thai food
– Smiling, friendly people who seem kind.
– Easy transportation – good tourist infrastructure – easy to get around.
– Gorgeous children
– Good wifi in many places (even up north in tiny Sen Monorom)
– The kids speak English – some shockingly well – because English is introduced in the schools here at an early age.
– Elephant Valley Project
– The beach
– Everything seems to work out
5 things I DON’T like about Cambodia:
– Garbage, garbage, garbage.
-The air is often terribly polluted because of burning garbage. Plastic is burned all the time.
– all these English speaking children constantly shouting “hello” to me.
– all the tuk tuk drivers constantly asking : “Want tuk tuk?”
– poverty – minimum wage is $80/month
Best Regards & Happy Festivus,
Meri, aka Retired Nomad