I was ready to leave Vientiane as I just wasn’t feeling it and excited about getting to Cambodia.  Visiting Angkor Wat and the other temples was something I had been waiting for since we planned the trip.  We had arranged a pickup from the airport via our hotel, and the driver who picked us up spoke decent english.  He chatted us up quite a bit, and tried to get us to hire him to drive us around in his private car.  Once we negotiated a decent price and our itinerary of where we wanted to go, we agreed to hire him.

Techno Buddha in Phnom Penh temple.

We spent the day driving around Phnom Penh with our driver seeing the different sites.  We didn’t visit the Killing Fields, but we did see S21.  S21 was a school that was changed into a prison and torture facility by the Khmer Rouge.  During their ~3.5 years of rule, it is estimated that they killed somewhere in the vicinity of 2 million fellow Cambodians.  They brainwashed the young to act as their soldiers, and imprisoned anyone with a suspicion of not supporting the Khmer Rouge. 

The school turned prison. They enclosed the levels in barbwire so the prisoners couldnt jump to their death to escape.

The cells for prisoners.

One of the beds that political prisoners were chained to. An image on the wall shows whats left of the prisoner who was found here.

 If a member of the Khmer Rouge asked you to take a walk with them, you were never seen from again.  You were either taken to the Killing Fields and killed and buried in a mass grave, or taken to a facility like S21 where you were tortured for a couple months, and then taken to the Killing Fields to be killed and buried in a mass grave.  Some were put into forced labor, who worked until they died of exhaustion and then buried in a mass grave, others were just executed.  Babies were smacked against trees, and palm fronds were used to cut people’s throats.  People were lowered into tanks with scorpions and poisonous snakes, and all kinds of other horrible tortures.  Some were even buried alive in the mass graves.  The site was depressing, but it was important that they kept it in the state that the Vietnamese found it, when they pushed the Khmer Rouge out of the region.

An image of the man called "Duch" who ran S21. Most people denied knowing what was happening within S21.

There was a missing portion of society here.  The ages of 33-50 were just missing.  It was pretty dramatically noticable.  Sure, some existed, but not in equal numbers with the below 33 age.  Our driver told us that he was the only survivor in his family of 7 from the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t kill him because he was around 2 years old and not a threat.  He then asked if I wanted to shoot any guns, I asked if he knew where I could fire an RPG.  He said, “Yea!  I will take you there! Fire Rocket Launcher!!” excitedly, but I said it was ok and that we can continue our drive in the direction we were going. 

There are ~1000 victims in Cambodia of mines and other unexploded ordinance a year. They estimate 6 million mines in Cambodia still.

Have you hugged an elephant today?

We checked out a temple at the hill in the center of Phnom Penh, where the old Widow Penh lived.  Phnom means Hill in Cambodian, so the city was named after this lady who established the area.  There were monks, monkeys and an elephant from the Royal family there.  Like many other places, you have to make sure your belongings are secure, the monkeys like to snag cameras and cell phones and try to trade them back for food.  Sometimes they just climb up trees and drop the object from the heights.  I tried to take a picture of  this one monkey, and everytime I would bring up the camera, he would turn his back, its interesting to see how they are smarter than one would guess.  I got up close an personal with the elephant a little, and paid to feed it bananas and take a picture by it.  I stood close, and she began leaning into me as I stood close until I had to give ground.

Can you hear me now?

Night fell, and since it was the weekend there was a large night market.  We stopped in for some spring rolls and meat on a stick.  I felt it was much more organized than the other night markets we had been to, more like a real market then just street stalls.  There was a large concert stage setup and two announcers on the stage giving what I assumed was witty banter back and forth.  Various music was played from time to time, and I started cracking up when an American rap song by the Ying Yang Twins came on with the lyrics… “She’s naked, soaking wet…. shake it like a salt shaker, shake it like a salt shaker…”.  I wondered if they even understood what was being said in the song, but I looked around and people seemed to be enjoying it.  Along the river small groups of people would set up PA systems or stereo systems.  They would then do choreographed dancing to it, and small groups of people would gather around them.  The streets had tons of kids playing soccer with one another along the riverside.  We walked down the street and I stopped in a place that had these large tanks with fish in them.  You put your feet in them, and the fish peck at your feet.  I sat down, and let them eat away as I drank my Angkor Beer (I dont recommend), it was a really wierd feeling.

Fish food.

Our route was from Phnom Penh, through Kampong Cham to Kratie (pronounced Kretch-ah) to see some fresh water dolphins, and then back through Phnom Penh, spending a night in Kampong Thom.  The next day would consist of seeing Sambor temples, and then ending our drive in Siem Reap.  Needless to say, this covered a good amount of ground in the middle of Cambodia.  What I can say about this area, is that it is flat and it has roads of unpredictable quality.  Its two lanes all the way, and plenty of different vehicles using it.  When I say vehicles I mean, Oxcarts, mopeds, motor cycles, bicycles, cars, trucks, buses and large transport trucks, all overburdened with people and wares. 

You don't see this everyday... well here you do.

The driving style here is much like other asian countries… the lines on the road are just painted lines, more decorative then functional.  You drive where you need to to continue going forward.  Its a good thing Sna (our driver) had new $5 tires put on the back of the car, but what was that infernal thumping I had been hearing for the last 50km?  Sna pulled over and inspected the tires to see if something was stuck in them.  He grabbed the lug wrench and tightened the bolts on one of the tires, which were extremely loose.  Good thing he had those new tires put on, and good thing he checked them.  Later we pulled into a gas station somewhere along the road to fill up.  From everywhere chickens rushed the car to ‘attend it’.  They put their heads in the wheel wells, under the hood, one even climbed in the open door.  I watched as they ate the smashed bugs out of the grill.

"The blinker light fluid might need changing."

We stopped in Kampong Cham for breakfast/lunch and it cost us a whole 4 dollars for 4 bowls of pho and bottled waters.  Oh yea, I forgot to mention, Sna brought his ‘wife’ with him to keep him company.  He said he was 36, but looked more like 42, and his wife was probably ~25.  She didn’t speak a lick of english besides… “I don’t speak english any”.  I began to doubt whether Sna was telling me the 100% legit truth or if I was being creatively provided with misinformation for a larger tip.  Sna said he had two children who he didn’t have the money for putting through school next month, yet here he sat with his ‘wife’.  Oh well, I want to believe.  Sna’s driving was pretty much pushing the limit of what the car could do on the roads, Jane looked down in her typical frightened manner several times.  I had made peace with the fact that there wasn’t anything I could do about my safety besides wear my seatbelt, so I just tried to enjoy the ride.  I couldn’t sleep in the car, as the road was too bumpy so I just watched the countryside…. which was really quite pretty.


In Kratie, we visited the freshwater dolphins.  Normally the water is much higher, so people who go to see them don’t usually see them.  We were probably seeing up to 10 at a time in an area.  Unfortunately, they were not frolicking, just swimming around off the shore eatting fish.  ~100 years ago, they estimate there was 1000 of these small grey dolphins (they werent pink), now they estimate there are 80 or so of them left.  Overfishing has killed them off with either gill nets or starvation.  While there is an effort to preserve them, Im not certain if they will be able to.  The river did not seem like pure freshwater from what I was reading, as the dolphins prey on all kinds of fish, mollusks and squid.  I don’t think I have ever heard of a truly freshwater squid.

They do exist.

Leaving Kratie, we picked up some snacks from a vendor on the side of the road.  They were bamboo segments that had been stuffed with sticky rice, ‘peanuts’ and coconut and then roasted over the flames.  When you peeled back the shards of bamboo you were left with a natural paper covering the ‘tube’ of rice.  It had a very light sweet taste due to the coconut, and the peanuts were some kind of sprout top.  I will have to learn how to make these, as they were quite good.

Jane says "This may be my new favorite snack!"

We stayed the night in Kampong Thom, and then headed to the Sambor temple the next morning.  We arrived and hired a guide to show us around the temples.  We were also accompanied by two small children trying to sell us scarves the entire time.  Some of the sites were being rennovated, some there was almost nothing left.  It was interesting to see how nature had overgrown some of the sites.  There is a tree here that spreads via bird droppings that starts growing high up in other trees.  It strangles the host, and grows roots down to the ground from where it started to grow, eventually killing the host tree and leaving a large hole in the structure as the corpse of the host tree decomposes.  The shapes of these trees are really bizarre.  These trees also often grew from the top of the temples, and sometimes were the only thing holding the temple together.

Strangler tree on top of a temple.

These temples predated the Angkor empire, but were still definately Khmer in design.  Large towers like two hands pressed together with lotus blossoms on top.  The building is generally held together with a capstone, and the arched design helps spread the weight of the building equally.  Often times there was an inscription in the doorway in some ancient sanscript, that the guide said could only partially be read.  We didn’t venture into many of the ruins, as they just had a central room, that was very dark.  One had a ton of bats in it, and our guide said another had a dangerous reptile problem.

A temple being restored.

At one temple, there was a monkey with a leg that had apparently been broken.  Its leg was essentially reversed and couldn’t be used.  As you walked by it, it mouthed ‘curses'(this is what our guide said it was doing as it is the way of the monkey) at you and showed its teeth, it was really quite creepy.  Once we moved on, it followed us from a distance watching what we were doing.  We also ran into some strange looking frogs in the forest that were a really odd shape, and a large crazy looking spider that makes an X in heavy silk in the middle of its web and sits in the middle in the same shape.  There were also tons of ants roaming around, and our guide showed us how the red ones hold/build together leaves to make a home for themselves.  The eggs of the red ant are often used in soups, although getting them can be a pain, as the red ants have a poisonous bite.

Twisted Monkey

What if the whole thing looks like an hourglass?

After our trip of 9 hours of driving around Cambodia, we were done with Sna’s driving.  He wanted us to hire him for more time, but we figured it would be better to find someone who actually really knew the area and its history.  We had him drop us off at our hotel in Siem Reap, and bid farewell to him.