Love, death, money, religion, Cambodia and a lot of temples!
Day 2,055 since October 10th 2013: 181 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Some things are not as easy as they seem
If we go back more than six years then I was virtually unknown. Today I’m known by a few and on a weekly basis I hear people say they wish they had my life. Perhaps that is because I often smile for photos? Perhaps it is because my life appears free and people feel confined? Perhaps for some other reason all together…don’t have my life. It is already taken. Have yours ;)
A loving Danish family of six live in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. They are the Andersen’s and they were my hosts on arrival to Cambodia. I was welcomed into their home with open arms although we had never met before. The parents (Kent and Christina) are Christian missionaries in Cambodia which is overwhelmingly Buddhists. However their work is important and there is room for them in the fabric of Cambodia. Their four children (Asger, Carola, Magnus and Elias) are like North, South, East and West. Had they known they would have four children then that might have been their names. Who in life does not need four directions? While each direction will take you on separate paths no one could say less or more about them. Four wonderful children! I detected some shyness to begin with but that was overshadowed by curiosity. And on the day I had to say farewell we were all fooling around. Christina was full of good tips for what my fiancée (Le) and I could do and see in Cambodia. And we took every piece of advice. Cambodia has an abundance of wonders to present the outside world with. A week is hardly anything for those who want to seek and explore the country. A week passes by the snap of your fingers. However Le and I only had a week and we made sure to get the best out of it. The very best…because a stranger is a friend you’ve never met before and so was the case with the Andersen’s :)
I wrote a little more about this amazing family last week. Read it HERE.
The Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh is such a contrast to the Cambodia I visited fifteen years ago.
When Le’s airplane touched the tarmac at Phnom Penh international airport I was eating a banana and drinking some water in the relentless heat. The high season for tourism in Cambodia was coming to an end and the rain season was approaching. A much needed rain season for Cambodia’s dry fields and empty rivers. Cambodia is however a remarkably lush country so you wouldn’t necessarily notice that they were waiting for rain. I had plenty of rain in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) just across from the border. However for some reason the days were mostly dry in Phnom Penh. Are you by the way wondering how to pronounce that? It is kind of pronounced “P-nom-pen). You might as well get it right. Like in Peru the famous Machu Picchu is not pronounced “Picchu” like a choo-choo train. It is pronounced “Pikchu” like in “picture”. It makes a difference. If you pronounce Machu Picchu the right way then it means old mountain. If not then it means old man’s private parts. Who knows what you are saying if you’re not pronouncing Phnom Penh right!! ;) The people of Cambodia are called Khmer and that is pronounced “Khmai”. Except in some cases? Oh well…let’s get on with it…
I made sure to meet the Cambodian Red Cross before my fiancée arrived so we would not lose any time together. I noticed their presence at the border where I spotted a Red Cross donation box right at the border. That is something I personally like about a national society: visibility. Entering a country and immediately seeing a poster or a donation box shows that you are in a country with Red Cross or Red Crescent presence. It rarely goes like that though.
This little girl was tough! But I finally made her smile...kind of :)
So…how significant can the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) be? Pretty significant it turns out! They set a new national record and collected $20 million USD! That money will do more good than most of us can possibly phantom! They were established in 1955 and have now spread out to every corner of the country where more than 20,000 dedicated volunteers are hard at work. With a large and diverse country such as Cambodia there is plenty of humanitarian work to get engaged with. Some of the areas are: Disaster Management, Disaster Response, Disaster Preparedness, Disaster Recovery, None Interest Micro Loans, CRC Youth and Road Safety, Health and Healthcare in Community, Promotion of Mother and Child Health, ‘Zero New Infections, Zero AIDS-related Deaths, Zero Discrimination, Community Based Health Development, Restoring Family Links and Safer Rural Community.
The entrance to the very impressive CRC complex in Phnom Penh.
That might sound like a lot. But it’s not all. And each of those areas uncover so much more than I could ever list in this update. As such Cambodia became the 177th country in which I have met with the RC. Please support the Red Cross. You matter and so do your actions.
Long-distance relationships do not take care of themselves. Anyone who has been in one knows that. Most long-distance relationships fail. It takes work. Too much neglect and you’re in real trouble. However it all depends. Maybe you have been in a close relationship for five years and then you need to live in a long-distance relationship for a year or two before you go back to normal. Maybe that is easier? Maybe that is harder? Le and I have managed a long-distance relationship since October 10th 2013. We were together as a couple a year before that however with separate apartments in the same city. We’ve had our ups and downs. However it works. Rather well (knock on wood). Did you know that most people around the world have that saying: knock on wood. I have wondered if that was truly international as I found that people in well over 150 countries have that saying. However out here in East Asia more and more people have told me that they do not understand the reference. Still…a lot of people around the world find that “touch wood” or “knock on wood” is a good omen. No wonder. Trees are rather magical. “I think that I shall never see. A poem lovely as a tree”.
Funny thing. I posted this photo to socialmedia and got a few negative comments about pushing Le. It was Le that suggested this photo! ;)
Le walked out of the terminal and into my arms. Well not quite because I was busy and didn’t see her come out and she didn’t see me sitting there so she went left while I was sitting right. Fortunately she quickly connected to the free WIFI and a minute later we me. Cambodia is an interesting blend of the old and the new. The tuktuk drivers all have a smartphone now and often two. They need them to stay in the game. The old days of bargaining for a price are behind us. Now you use “PassApp” or “Grab”. It’s similar to “Uber” but a bit smarter. Particularly for “Grab” as you can order them to bring you food from an endless menu on your phone. We hopped inside a tuktuk, found our hotel and began our time together at a hotel which Christina recommended for us. Then we had sushi at a restaurant which Christina found for us though her network. We also went to a bar which Christina recommended. We generally just followed Christina’s advice :) However we also took our time to walk the streets of Phnom Penh and simply enjoy the atmosphere and street food of a city which is rapidly changing. When I first visited fifteen years ago it was far grittier. And street venders would rush into traffic selling barbequed snakes and tarantulas on sticks at every chance they had. I saw none of that now. Kent told me that a lot of the tarantulas have disappeared and that it has become far more unusual although people certainly still eat them. You just need to look for them now.
The door to Battbong Bar and Restaurant (tip from Christina).
Inside Battbong (Phnom Penh).
Possibly the best sushi I've ever had! At SuShi LaB, Phnom Penh.
In my opinion there are five really important elements to Cambodia which everyone should know:
- The people are overwhelmingly kind, helpful and service minded. Don’t abuse it.
- There was a horrific genocide in the late 70s which wiped out a quarter of the population.
- Cambodia was once home to the mighty Angkor Empire (unbelievable ruins remain).
- Stunning beaches and nature.
- Cambodia is undergoing rapid change with one foot in the past and the other in the future.
Naturally there is a lot more to Cambodia than just that. However if you are still reading then know that those five elements are the very basics of what you need to take away from this entry.
Choeung Ek Buddhist Stupa containing more than 5,000 human sculls.
I really don’t want people to think genocide when they hear the words “Cambodia” or “Khmer”. It’s simply not fair. There is so much more to the Khmer and to Cambodia than that. However this bloody stain is hard to wash off and it lingers. May 20th was the National Day of Remembrance, formerly called the National Day of Hatred. The English name 'Day of Hatred' is however somewhat of a mistranslation. The Khmer name, when instituted in 1983, was ទិវាចងកំហឹង – Ti Veer Jrong Komhuoeng ('Day of Tying Anger'). The name could also be translated as 'Day of Maintaining Rage'. It is an annual event in Cambodia which falls on May 20th. The National Day of Remembrance commemorates the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country between 1975 and 1979. It became a national holiday last year (2018). When visiting Cambodia it is hard to get around that such a horrific thing happened in relative recent history. Anyone just slightly older than me would remember it...and likely carry daunting images and tragic losses with them throughout their entire life.
Four years no outsider could possibly imagine the horror of.
As mentioned earlier, roughly a quarter of the entire population lost their lives in only four years due to the regime. My fiancée and I went to pay our respect at Choeung Ek, which is also known as “The Killing Fields”. It is the most well-known of over 300 such sites. The cruelty of the regime is hard to exaggerate. Nobody thought such a thing could happen in Cambodia. Unfortunately those are the same words used by others after genocides in other countries. It is beyond important that we do not allow extremism and hatred surface. The man behind it all, Saloth Sar, is best known as Pol Pot and he got away with it. He was not murdered but lived out his days with family until he died under house arrest for the last year of his long life. Fair? The world is not fair. But it is all we have and we should take care of it and those who depend on it. Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives - and to those who survived.
Inside Choeung Ek Buddhist Stupa.
Christina and Kent suggested that Le and I would watch “First they killed my father” and not “The Killing Fields”. They gave me the DVD before I left their home. Fifteen years ago I visited the gruesome S21 former prison, now genocide museum. I also watched “The Killing Fields”. I’ve already written too much about this and perhaps not enough. Look into it if you want to know more. But keep in mind that it was four devastating years forty years ago and that Cambodia is far more than that today.
Khmer celebrating Buddhas birthday in Phnom Penh, May 18th.
Visiting Sambor Prei Kuk UNESCO World Heritage center with ruins predating Angkor by three centuries.
Ancient Hindu temples at Sambor Prei Kuk.
I wanted to bring Le on a boat trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough water in the river so it wasn’t possible. We also looked at heading to the beaches at Koh Rong (google them!) but we fell short on time. We ended up spending two nights in Phnom Penh and then getting on a bus to Kampong Thom, which is halfway to Siem Reap. There we found a room for $13 USD per night. Meals for $1-2 USD. Amazing views. No tourists. Unspoiled nature. Local Markets. Traditional silk production. Buddhist temples. Monkeys. Local fishermen. Interesting architecture. A nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was just supposed to be a stop on the road but we opted for an extra night. It was well worth it. I feel like that is really what Cambodia is about. Angkor Wat near Siem Reap sees more than TWO MILLION tourists every year. However if you only look a little deeper then you will find that Cambodia is a true treasure trove for the eyes, stomach, imagination and spirit. Waterfalls, mountains, beaches, diving, gambling, shopping, learning, hiking, playing, loving, crying and smiling. Cambodia is a country which touches the heart and gets its visitors invested. Rarely have I seen smiling faces and glittering eyes like I do in Cambodia. This has been my third visit and highly unlikely my last.
Suntuk Mountain, Kampong Thom.
We climbed the 807 steps to the pagoda at Suntuk.
As the sand kept running through the hourglass we packed our bags once again and headed to Siem Reap. Siem Reap literally means “Siem Defeated” and as such stands as a reminder of a centuries old conflict between the Siamese and the Khmer. Those days are certainly over? Today Cambodia is everybody’s favourite. You’d think that at least. With gambling illegal or at least heavily restricted in both Vietnam and Thailand hundreds of Casinos are popping up all over Cambodia. There are quite a few at the border where the Thai take early morning buses to go gabling for the day and head back in the evening. And the Chinese are especially investing heavily in Gambling tourism as they have bought huge plots of Cambodian beaches where hundreds of casinos along with hotels and restaurants are now towering. They say the land areas where sold so quickly that the local government had not yet been informed when the Chinese arrived to commence construction.
Siem Reap would have been worth a visit even if the extraordinary ancient temples did not lie just outside of town. It’s a rather nice city with an abundance of modern Buddhist temples, colonial and Chinese style architecture, museums, new and old markets, malls, a great cinema, fishing villages, a bird sanctuary, silk farms etc. However it’s most often just a gateway for the ancient temples. Just a short drive from Siem Reap the ruins of Angkor compete for space with the lush green jungle surrounding and sometimes covering it. It is VERY “Indiana Jonesque”. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire (9th to 15th centuries) and once the largest city in the world (12th century) housing more than one million people. This was at a time when the largest European cities had less than a hundred thousand citizens. Also centuries before Europeans began messing with the Americas. Today Angkor is still an active spiritual site Buddhists and citizens who engage in daily worship, prayer and meditation. Angkor is also a living site where over 130,000 inhabitants have lived for many generations.
Cycling at Angkor! :)
The North Kleang from the 10th century.
The Baphuon from the mid-11th century.
Le and I did some reading and decided to rent two bicycles for the first day and purchase three day passes for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Good call! The bicycles were probably the most optimal way to manage our day. It took less than 30 minutes to reach Angkor Wat which is the main attraction for most visitors. It is so important for Cambodia that it appears on the national flag. And it is quite something! However it is arguably not the most interesting nor most intriguing temple in Angkor. We moved on and covered all the sites on Angkor’s small circuit on our first day. We might have peddled some 30-35 km (18-22mi) and while it was really hot outside the breeze we got from cycling cooled us down. Bicycles can be rented for as little as $1 USD/day. So that is a very affordable way to get around. We opted for some more expensive mountain bikes though: $6/day. Totally worth it.
Our trusty e-bikes.
A gate to Angkor Thom.
Ta Som from the 12th century.
On our second day we upgraded to electrical bicycles at the staggering price of $10/day. What a bargain. And the company was exceptionally professional. Seriously! A level I have not seen anywhere before (Green e-bike). Such bikes offer 40km (25mi) on a full charge and Green e-bike have three free charging stations inside Angkor. It worked out really well as our second day began with an early start to see the sunrise. The alarm went off around 04:30am and away we went with 20kph (12.4mph) as advised if we wanted to stretch the batteries to the full 40km. And we did because day two was the big circuit. Towards the end of the day we both agreed that we had seen more than enough temples. And that is when it is time to stop. However even as we were “templed-out” we still stood in awe of most of the temples we visited. There was great diversity to be found among them so it wasn’t like you could just say: “seen one – seen them all”. As we headed home the skies turned dark and the rain caught up with us. We actually had some dark clouds along with thunder and lightning every day but never any rain. So it was kind of welcome. We sought shelter in the jungle along the side of the road and it took most of the blast. Then we rode back to Siem Reap again. And each had a wonderful massage at Bodia Spa (recomended by Christina). Sooo good.
The east Mebon from the 10th century.
There is a seemingly endless amount of work at Angkor for the restoration team.
You can easily find temples with no people at Angkor given that there are so many. But not the spot where Angelina Jolie stood. Everyone wants a photo there.
At this point we were pondering if we should rent a car for our third day and head out to see some of the far away temples? However the next day was our last so we just kind of added the far away temples along with gorgeous waterfalls to our ever growing: “when-we-some-day-return-to-Cambodia” list. We already have the Russian Market and National Museum in Phnom Penh on that list. Instead we slept in on our last day. We had breakfast at 09:00am and then located a cinema that showed Disney’s new “Aladdin” featuring Will Smith as Genie. Well done!! Did NOT disappoint! :) the thing about watching a movie in a cinema is that in there we could be anywhere. We are just a normal couple enjoying a movie. For two hours and fifteen minutes we are not in a long-distance relationship. But in reality we were not anywhere. We were still in Cambodia and in Cambodia everyone stands up for the national anthem before the movie plays (just like in Thailand). After the movie we had enough time to go and visit an Escape Room! It was my first time and it began by Le and I being handcuffed and locked inside a cell with one hour to escape. It was super cool and certainly something I’d do again. In Siem Reap it costs around $22 USD per person so a total of $44 USD. I’ve heard that it’s super expensive in Denmark so I looked it up. The same would have costs $90 USD in Copenhagen. So great deal for a first time! We did not manage to escape but we got pretty far. At least we got out of the handcuffs and out of the cell.
Le’s flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was cancelled and we couldn’t manage to reschedule to one that fit her Phnom Penh departure. We asked Kent in Phnom Penh for advice and agreed that a taxi would be the best solution for the 318km (198mi). After all that would be a door to door solution for $75 USD. So we kissed goodbye around 11pm that evening. I stood there on the road and looked at the red taillights get smaller and smaller until they turned around the corner. It sucks. You know...this is just never fun. However I’m lucky to have such a fine woman in my life. We’ve had a great week together in Cambodia and we have forged our relationship even stronger with fond memories, thoughts, conversations and love. The Saga was meant to have taken between three and a half to four years in total. However a lot of things got in the way. Now we are looking at more than six years away from home...both from my crazy nation and those I love...and I said farewell to my fiancée for the twentieth time out here in the world. Bliss to say she has been to visit twenty times!
I’m not one to let the dust fall on my shoulders. The next morning I packed and left for Bangkok in Thailand. Pure transit on our way to Malaysia which will become country number 182 on Wednesday. I’ll spend two nights in Bangkok before taking the train to the border. That leaves me with a full day in Bangkok to pick up the tickets, fulfil some obligations, make a few skype calls and follow up on emails from the past week. Nobody reaches this many countries by accident. And nobody does it on luck alone. And having visited the Red Cross or Red Crescent in 177 countries is no small thing either.
Entomophagy is a common aspect of life in Cambodia (eating insects).
A final thing before I round up this one: WOW!! Thank you guys for the generous support on Patreon and MobilePay!! I can’t believe how generous you guys have been. This truly is “our Saga”. Thank you :)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - grateful for your support!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga