For the second part of our month off, we did a trip through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We booked a tour through G Adventures, the same company we went to Turkey with. I highly recommend them for a few reasons. First, they have multiple different travel styles depending on what you’re looking for. The one we did was geared for a younger crowd, but they have active, luxury, boat-based, family oriented, or just their classic style tours. They’re typically small groups between 12 and 15 people, use local guides, have a good mix of planned activities and time on your own, and they really focus on responsible tourism and supporting the local economy. They also give back to the communities they visit; I’ll talk about that a bit later. Plus, I think they’re very affordable.
So, anyway, we flew out of San Francisco on a 14.5 hour flight to Hong Kong, and then a few more hours down to Bangkok. We got there late at night, and had only the next full day in Thailand before leaving for Cambodia the following morning. Bangkok is a massive city, and it was almost unbearably hot and humid. We were a little jet lagged and overheated, so we set our sights a little low that day and just did the Grand Palace, Wat Po, a little lunch and a little walking around.
The Grand Palace was built in the 1780s, and up until 1925 was where the King and his family resided. The current king lives elsewhere, but the Grand Palace is still used for events.
We were a little exhausted by the heat, so we took it easy the rest of the afternoon and then met up with our group for dinner. Our group was from all over – Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, England, Germany, Canada, and then the two of us. It’s always really interesting meeting people from other countries (like Iceland!) and getting a different perspective on things.
In the morning, we set off for Cambodia. We did our first of two overland border crossings, which are a bit scary as you’ve exited your first country and walk through no-man’s-land hoping you have no issues entering the next.
I expected Cambodia to be similar-ish to Thailand, but there is a clear difference between the two wealth-wise. Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge regime, and poverty, corruption, and lack of education are major issues. 70% of their population are farmers, but most grow only for their own consumption and don’t have enough leftover to sell. So they live off of what they grow, and 2 or 3 dollars a day. Basic infrastructure is lacking in most of the country, as is education. Most of the roads (even highways) are dirt.
However, the people there seem incredibly happy and friendly. Everyone I saw was working hard, their economy is growing very fast, and they seem to like visitors and are very proud of their country. They’re coming out of bad times, but want to move forward and make a better life for themselves and their children.
After a quick stop to try some local delicacies, we got to Siem Reap.
Our first night in Siem Reap we visited a school and hospital that the tour company runs. G Adventures has a non-profit foundation called Planeterra that reaches out to the communities they visit to help with long term growth and sustainment. This can be anything from teaching people to sew clothes, cleaning up a polluted lake, helping install clean burning stoves in people’s home, or, in Cambodia, opening a school and hospital.
The school is called New Hope and is in the slums of Siem Reap where jobs are few, education is lacking, prostitution is high, and people don’t have access to resources to better their lives. New Hope provides free primary education to over 1,000 students who don’t have money for uniforms, books, pencils and other things needed to attend public school. They also have a free school for adults to learn English, computer skills, etc. so they can get a job in the economy, as well as a hospital that provides medical care to the community. We had dinner at the school’s training restaurant, which teaches adults how to work in the hospitality industry.
We awoke early the next morning to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century and is the largest religious monument in the world. It is still used as a temple, and is the largest of an overall complex of temples that covers 400 square kilometers. It was built by hand using sandstone and limestone from a quarries 60 miles away. Overall, the complex used more stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined. It’s beautiful and massive and seems impossible.
We also visited Ta Prohm, a temple a few miles away. The forest is overtaking the temple, but they haven’t removed the trees for fear that the structure would collapse. Ta Prohm is beautiful and eerie (and you may recognize it from Tomb Raider).
The last temple we visited in the complex was the Bayon temple, known for it’s huge stone faces. Bayon is the temple of the old capital, Angkor Thom, which was the largest city in the world in its peak. Some other higlights in Siem Reap include quad riding through the streets and fields, Sean getting his first ride on a water buffalo, and visiting a floating fishing village where 1,100 families live year round. They have schools, churches, restaurants and shops among their homes floating on Tonle Sap lake. What a different way to live.
From Siem Reap, we started our drive to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Phnom Penh has more of a city feel to it than Siem Reap or the rest of Cambodia, but it’s definitely still small. Our major activity there was visiting the Killing Fields and a prison camp where people were held and tortured during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge was a communist group led by Pol Pot that overtook Cambodia after a civil war in the early 1970s. Pol Pot was the leader of the communist party, and wanted to turn Cambodia into a classless agrarian society. In 1975, they forced evacuations of Phnom Penh and other cities by telling people that the US was going to bomb them. People who did not leave were killed, and the population was sent on long marches out into the countryside where they were forced to become farmers.
They were required to work 12 hours a day and produce three times as much rice per hectare as before, which was impossible for someone who had lived in a city and knew nothing about farming. There was soon widespread famine, and people began to die due to starvation, exhaustion, and lack of medical care. Anyone who attempted to escape or broke any rule was taken away and killed.
Schools, hospitals and banks were closed, books were burned and the currency was eliminated. Intellectuals or anyone who was educated were brought into prison camps where they were accused of trying to overthrow the regime, interrogated, tortured, and eventually killed along with their families. They would assume anyone with glasses was educated, or anyone with pale skin or soft hands because it meant you weren’t working in the fields.
We visited a site called Tuon Sleng where 16,000 prisoners were held. Of the 16,000 that went through the prison, less than a dozen are known to have survived. We were able to meet two of them. People would be taken to the prison and locked up for two to three months while they were beaten and tortured until they confessed to whatever crime they were accused of. They had their toenails ripped off, acid poured down their noses, were electrocuted, burned, and beaten. Once they had confessed, they were moved to the Killing Field a few miles away where they were murdered.
The Killing Field was incredibly sad. It’s the site of an old Chinese graveyard that was turned into a location for killing and burying anyone the Khmer Rouge thought was part of the resistance movement. People were bussed here from the prison camps or elsewhere and then killed and buried in mass graves. The remains of almost 10,000 people have been excavated from here, and more remain under ground. Every time it rains, more and more pieces of clothing and bones wash up to the surface. Even as you walk around, you can see clothes and bones in the dirt. Men, women, and children were killed here. Children were killed in front of their parents, sometimes by being beaten against a tree.
Estimates vary, but it is thought that around 2 million people were killed or died due to starvation, disease, and forced labor between 1975 and when they were overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979. That was 25% of the population. Currently, only 4% of their population is over 65, compared with 13% in the US.
After Vietnam overthrew them, Pol Pot and some of the party fled to areas along the Thai border, and lived there as a rebel group controlling some areas of the country. They actually retained a seat at the UN until 1982. The government was rebuilt by the UN with a lot of foreign aid (they use US Dollars as their main currency) and a few of the Khmer Rouge members were given spots in the new government. Most of the old leaders were captured, but a few (including Pol Pot) suspiciously died in custody before standing trial. Our tour guide for the museum and killing fields told us that there were certain things she couldn’t say in public because members of the current government have ties to the Khmer Rouge and “the walls have ears”. She said that it is believed that these leaders were poisoned before they could stand trial in order to prevent them from exposing the involvement of current members of the government. Most people involved were never put on trial.
Seeing all of this was incredibly sad. It’s easy to have that overwhelm the description of Cambodia, but I think it’s important to note that while it’s an important and tragic part of their past, it doesn’t represent what the country is today. It’s lovely, friendly, and interesting, and both needs and welcomes tourists.
We left the following morning for the beach. We relaxed there for a couple days, took a boat tour around some of their 20 small islands off the coast, ate good fish, and swam in the ocean.
The following morning we left for the long ride across the border into Vietnam. That will be my next post…