And, here are some Phnom Penh photos

Kind of a motley bunch, this time around, but here they are.

Now we’re hitting up some more bus action to Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon. In fact in some of these photos, that precious bus journey is memorialized! Here I am eating some lovely chocolate that our friend Emily gave us as part of a pre-flight care package (we are making that shit last), and here is the view from the window of our bus as it appeared to be driving into the Mekong River (but in fact was only driving onto a ferry in order to cross the Mekong River). Finally, do you know what you see when you leave Cambodia and enter Vietnam? A cat’s ass. Cambodia is like, pffff, whatever. We’ll show you what we think of your departure. (Or maybe that’s a Vietnamese welcome? Unclear.)

"You like to go to killing field?"

OK, Phnom Penh! Before departing Siem Reap Kevin threw a little poll up on Facebook asking whether we should visit PP or not. Public opinion was split (one vote for, one against) and ultimately we decided we should see more of Cambodia than just the history-rich but touristy Siem Reap area (plus a few hours of borderland through the window of the van from Poi Pet).

I’m glad we made it to Phnom Penh. I feel this way even though we did not have an especially great time there. A big factor was the Khmer New Year, which begins on April 14 and lasts about a week; the holiday hadn’t inhibited us much in the tourist economy of Siem Reap, but in Phnom Penh, 80% of the businesses were closed. (Do your homework ahead, kids! Although as none of our guidebooks mentioned this scheduling challenge, this probably would have required more digging than we had time to do.) So instead of enjoying cafes and bars that cater to expats and the little street businesses that cater to locals, we mostly hung out at more expensive and generic places that cater to tourists. At least we contributed to the local economy.

On the plus side, we stayed in one of the best $45-a-night hotel rooms we’re ever likely to find (LeBiz, it was called: free wifi, breakfast included, looks like the inside of an Apple store). Everyone was really nice to us. The chestnut that, despite the wonders of Angkor, Cambodia’s greatest treasure is its people — which struck and more or less still strikes me as sort of a smarmy, facile thing to say — nevertheless felt true when we eked out a conversation with a remork driver about his home province, or heard from a waiter about his immense pride in Cambodia’s first-ever crop of locally grown strawberries. (I looked aghast at the two on my plate that I hadn’t yet consumed, and then crammed them into my face with the quickness.) And it was a good idea to have a more modern counterpoint to the medieval-era history artifacts in Siem Reap.

Of course, it’s a little weird to go to a place and seek out the remaining evidence of the recent atrocities visited upon, and committed by, its people. But the locals seem down with the tourist interest in the Khmer Rouge. There is a funny/terrible thing that seemed to happen repeatedly, where a remork driver would come up to any Westerner leaving a building and ask, with a huge hopeful smile, “You like to go to killing field?” Aaaaaaahhhhh.

As for the attractions themselves: The killing fields exhibit and Tuol Sleng genocide museum are especially interesting because of how poorly kept up they are. At Tuol Sleng, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge transformed into a detention/torture center and general staging ground for people who were to be executed, there are still bloodstains visible on the floors and walls, and while some rooms contain prison memorabilia — bed frames, shackling equipment, photos of victims, bullet boxes in which prisoner excrement was stored, strings of barbed wire, and the gradually collapsing remains of claustrophobic detention cells — other rooms contain piles of broken air-conditioning equipment or haphazard stacks of sun-bleached informational posters that are no longer in use. The combined effect is incredibly eerie, and gave me a very different feeling than visiting Holocaust museums and exhibits ever has. It felt like at any moment a door might slam closed behind me and I might be trapped in the nightmare myself. It’s a weird example of poor organization and minimal maintenance making for an even more effective experience (whether or not this is what’s intended).

At the killing fields site, the low-maintenance approach is perhaps less good. You arrive at this field, which is hot and dusty but basically serene until you see the huge Humvee-sized divots that represent the excavated mass graves. But periodically sticking up out of the ground we would see teeth and broken limb bones, slowly disintegrating under the ferocious sun and tourist footsteps. (There were several signs entreating “Please do not walk through the mass graves!” but I can’t imagine everyone obeys.) There’s a memorial stupa — kind of a Plexiglass column within an ornamental pagoda-style tower — that displays about 8,000 human skulls. But it’s not climate-controlled, or guarded, or even fully sealed against public interference. I am not exaggerating when I say I could have taken an eggshell-fragile, 35-year-old human skull and put it in my purse, and probably no one would have noticed. This seems bad.

I’m knocking these sites’ maintenance standards in awareness of how it must sound; it’s this kind of concern that sees countries dispossessed of their antiquities by arguably well-meaning, equally arguably opportunistic western countries. And Cambodia has some problems that may well rank ahead of atrocity-preservation on its to-do list. Maybe peeps aren’t even all that interested in keeping these memories alive; that would be understandable.

Phnom Penh’s more distant history seems just as haphazardly preserved and presented, though. Touring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, our guide explained rather earnestly that an effort is being made to prevent people from touching the bas reliefs, based on advice from UNESCO. By contrast, at Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda we saw the piles of bamboo strips with Sanskrit and Pali writing on them, which seemed to be just thrown in a jumble in some unlabeled glass-fronted filing cabinet. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem to assess: would some help from art historians and management consultants more than pay for itself in boosted tourist revenue or local pride, or are the country’s extremely meager funds better spent elsewhere first? Having seen a little of the hard conditions in some of the country’s more rural areas, I can’t really advocate museum renovation.

Fortunately, no one is asking me to whiteboard solutions for the challenges of any developing country. At the end of it, I felt grateful for having visited Phnom Penh, as well as guiltily grateful to leave. Our Cambodia visit registers now, even a couple of days later, as a bleeding-heart-liberal ache in my chest. No one is in any great need of my opinion, but I can’t help asking myself anyway: What to do, what to do?

All my exes live in Sihanoukville

We heard a fair amount of contemporary pop-country music while in Phnom Penh. I made a brief attempt to explain this to myself as indicating some kind of sympathy between the historic, recent and current struggles of the Khmer people and the themes of longing and hardship in American country music… or something… but soon sanity and the preponderance of Keith Urban songs led me to conclude that this is what Phnom Penh retailers think their tourist customers want to hear. Regardless the natural next step was for Kevin and me to spend half an hour thinking up Cambodian versions of famous country song titles (“All My Exes Live in Sihanoukville” being our best showing, obviously). Further entries:

“She Thinks My Remork’s Sexy”*
“Callin’ Siem Reap”
“Palm Wine”
“Have You Forgotten”**
“You Belong With Me (And I Have An Arranged Marriage With You)”
“Butterfly Kisses”
“Vishnu Take the Wheel”***

*A remork is the tourist taxi option of choice in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, especially if you’re two big Western people (ie more mass than can comfortably fit on the back of someone’s moped-taxi). Remork is the Khmer word for a vehicle that’s like a Thai tuk-tuk, but instead of being a single-body vehicle it’s an open-air wheeled cab drawn by a moped. A little moto-chariot, essentially.
**Too edgy?
***Yeah, Theravada Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia, but there’s a lot of Hinduism in the country’s history (and in its art).

Are you better at thinking of country song titles with proper nouns in them than we are? Pitch in!

Angkor Wat

Worth it.

We climbed to the top and sonorously declaimed to our imaginary amassed subjects: “Y’all don’t own one Koo Koo Roo. Not one.”

We also saw some other temples that are part of the Angkor complex (did you know there were others? We did not.) It was all eerie and bygone in this weirdly primal-feeling way — the palpable ancient-ness makes it all feel even more foreign, at least to me. That said, when the guidebooks warn “you will regret it if you only spend a day in Siem Reap!” they were incorrect, at least as pertains to us. Siem Reap is kind of a dusty tourist trap, equal parts Wild West and college town, but not necessarily the good parts of either of those. (There is even a “pub street” with an Irish bar and a bar called Angkor What? and pop-indie music playing.) We had one fantastic Khmer meal on the night of Kevin’s birthday, and lucked into staying very cheaply at a swanky hotel with a pool (plus some endangered/protected little Siamese crocodiles, thankfully contained in a separate pool), but on the whole we didn’t wish we’d stayed longer.

Anyway, here you can peep all our Siem Reap photos, with their art-historical caption commentary of stunning accuracy and amazing detail.
Next up, Phnom Penh!

Note: Is our blog re-emailing you when we update already-published posts? Do please let us know, as I wouldn’t want you getting updated when I fix a semicolon or something.

Dear fellow American traveler (You so sexxy)

Dear fellow American traveler,

You: A wiry sixtysomething white dude traveling alone. Me: A non-wiry thirtysomething white lady traveling with my husband. Our paths, which crossed so briefly on the sweltering three-hour van ride from the Thai-Cambodian border to Siem Reap, have now diverged permanently, I fear. I can only write my heart here, in the privacy of the Internet.

It was so awesome the way you put our drivers at ease by asking them if it was easy to score drugs in Siem Reap during Khmer New Year. They may have laughed hollowly as you mimed injecting something into your arm, but I know that in their hearts they appreciated your humor.

Almost as good was your repeated carping about the van’s weak air conditioning. I think all twelve of your fellow passengers felt solidarity with your harshly barked commands and accompanying “turn it up” gestures. And telling the drivers that you were the guest and they were the employees undoubtedly clarified matters for everyone.

I think my favorite part, though, was when you told that group of little Cambodian girls to get a job. Thinking about the dusty and remote village where we encountered them, with its palm-and-bamboo shacks, flock of filthy geese, and a cat glaring out balefully from its perch in a pile of garbage, I’m surprised those seven-year-olds didn’t think of job-hunting sooner. You really told them what was what.

Ah, well, that’s all from me for now, fellow traveler. Just a note of appreciation from deep in my heart. I hope that whatever you were looking for in Cambodia, you found it. I hope that whichever guest house you ended up selecting ripped you off mercilessly. I love your shorts.

Sincerely,
Page, fellow sanctimonious American at large

Happy birthday to Kevin!

Hey blog nation! Join me in wishing Kevin a very happy 31st birthday. He did it! He is celebrating by cavorting around our little Bangkok motel room wearing only a money belt. Big love to the dude I publicly refer to as Earth’s Perfect Man.

This birthday is definitely going to rock: We are spending most of it on a bus to Cambodia. He insists he doesn’t mind. I am now going to feed him a celebratory breakfast of a digestive biscuit that’s been stored for a week in an airplane sock. Paaaaaar-tay!