Temples and tuk-tuks

Off the beaten path in Cambodia

There's no two ways about it: Cambodia is on the tourist map because of its famed Angkor temples. From the Taj Mahal in India to Sera Monastery in Tibet, Asia boasts a number of incredible holy sites. And the Angkor ruins rank high on the list of temple attractions. This is where the capital of the ancient Khmer empire used to be based. In the Angkor area there are more than 100 temples dating back to the ninth century. Angkor Wat ("Angkor" means capital, "Wat" means temple) is the most famous of the structures here. It is immense and deserves the admiration heaped upon it. The complex holds the UNESCO honor of being a World Heritage Site. Exploring the temples is great fun. The architecturally fascinating buildings are spread out through verdant fields and jungle foliage - making for a dramatic setting. Other amazing structures in the area aside from Angkor Wat include the Bayon (temple with 216 rock carvings of Cambodia's legendary king, Jayavarman VII, eerily smiling down on visitors); Ta Prohm (maze of courtyards and corridors overtaken by the jungle; part of the movie Tomb Raider was filmed here); Kbal Spean (carved riverbed set in green jungle); Preah Khan (one of the largest complexes with a labyrinth of vaulted corridors and refined carvings); and Banteay Srei (the jewel of Angkorian art - reddish stone temple with striking filigree relief work). And though throughout time explorers have raved extensively about the astonishing temples, just as there is a lot more to Israel than Jerusalem's Old City, I felt the real Cambodia was elsewhere. And so, after a few easy days in the tourist-oriented town of Siem Reap (located six kilometers from the Angkor ruins), I set off on a clockwise course around the country. For all his wonderful ideas, Dr. Seuss never thought up a better place than the flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This village, located on Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap, is unique indeed. For one, it's built entirely on stilts. Every year during the wet season the Mekong River spills over into Tonle Sap, causing the lake's water level to rise some seven meters. The village of Kompong Phhluk looks like something other-worldly. As my visit corresponded with the dry season, the journey to Kompong Phhluk was half the fun. While a wooden dugout is the recommended transport for the area, I had to suffice with a combination of motorbike (with driver), tuk tuk (motorcycle with carriage) and boat. The villagers were excited to see foreigners (I joined up with two American guys for the trek out there) and requested that we take their photos. For many here, seeing themselves on the screens of digital cameras equals their being on television. Walking through the village was very odd, as all the houses were up in the air. The "roads" that cut through the village are canals in the wet season. The villagers mainly survive as fishermen, though they also raise pigs (in floatable pens) and chickens (in floatable coops). FROM THERE I continued eastward to the city of Kompong Cham. Actually, I got stuck in Kompong Cham as I arrived just after my connecting bus departed. Roadways in Cambodia hold the dubious honor of being some of the worst in the world. Travelers through this kingdom know that getting around is half the adventure when visiting. Traffic is a law unto itself here; driving rules in Cambodia follow "the biggest wins" tenet. Jeeps get right of way, then cars, then motorcycles, then tuk-tuks, then electric bikes, then people. A red light is a suggestion only. Like in many Asian countries, livestock and pets frequently stroll along main roads, people seem to use the middle of major highways as meeting spots, and of course, pot holes keep drivers swerving. (One tip I must offer to potential visitors is to invest in a hospital mask to keep from inhaling too much dust on the roads. And contact lens wearers should note that Cambodia is no country for them.) Kompong Cham, though considered Cambodia's third city, is more a gateway to somewhere else than a destination itself. Nearby, however, is Koh Paen - a rural island in the Mekong River accessible by a matchstick-like bamboo bridge. While I definitely possess a spirit for adventure, I am cautious when roaming around. As such, for much of my travels in Cambodia, I rented a motorcycle and driver. The locals know the roads best - and for $5-$10 a day, travelers can gain independence without putting their lives overly at risk. The island residents of Koh Paen, like other rural folk in Cambodia, lead a demanding lifestyle. Adults fish and farm for a living; children attend school in the morning and evening and work in the fields in the afternoon. Squeals of "hello" and "bye bye" greeted me wherever I went. For the most part the people were friendly, but also a little suspicious. I HAD A craving for even more rustic. The next morning I set off from Kompong Cham to the province of Mondulkiri. It took me just under seven hours to travel 95 kilometers by bus. Mondulkiri is described by the Lonely Planet guidebook as the "wild east." I don't know if "wild" would be my choice of adjective, as guesthouses are aplenty here. That said, it is not a destination on the tour groups' radar and thus opportune for independent travelers and backpackers. Mondulkiri, the most sparsely populated province, is all about woodlands, waterfalls, small villages, minority people and mountains. It is completely different from the rest of Cambodia. The city of Sen Monorom, the capital of this eastern province, is enclosed by green rolling hills and forested surroundings (the locals like to refer to their environment as "jungle"). Perhaps indeed this was jungle-like once upon a time, but thanks to Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Cambodian logging interests, the vegetation here is no longer dense or untouched wilderness. That said, the scenery is still the most stunning I glimpsed in Cambodia. Cambodians have a love affair with waterfalls. And as they are not to be had in most other parts of the country, wealthy Khmers (as Cambodians call themselves) ascend on Mondulkiri on the weekends to picnic at these coveted spots. The double-drop Bou Sraa Waterfall is one of the most famous cascades throughout the country. On my second day here, I hired a motorcycle with a driver to take me the 37-km. (two hour journey) to Bou Sraa, as well as to Dam Nak S'daik Falls (a small cascade with big pool, located in a peaceful niche on the edge of the jungle). While riding on a motorbike was fun, to really experience the wilderness I decided to trek deeper into the bush a la elephant. Despite the cramped leg space, there's something regal about riding atop an elephant. I hooked up with Sambol Ok, one of the top English-speaking guides in Sen Monorom, and Pbuh, an elephant driver who spoke a little Khmer but mainly Pnong and no English. While most of the time Sambol and I sat in the basket, Pbuh let me steer Chiwa (the elephant) for part of the journey. He showed me how to sit on Chiwa's neck and nudge her forward by pushing my knees behind her ears. I was meant to bark out directions but with "go" and "stop" sounding the same to me (a guttural "huuh"), it was best to let Chiwa follow the track she's likely walked countless times before. Having an English-speaking guide was crucial, especially in these parts of the country. Sambol answered questions about the area, the hill tribe peoples, the Khmer populace, and what it is like living in Cambodia post Khmer Rouge. In addition to checking out the beautiful scenery (we camped near a waterfall), Sambol took me to some of the tribal villages. ALMOST half of Mondulkiri's inhabitants come from the Pnong minority group. The Pnong lifestyle is a simple one. There's no electricity or running water in the villages. They have their own language, customs and culture. The Pnong tend to stay in the hill villages in which they were born. They farm, fish and hunt for a living. The biggest Pnong village in Mondulkiri is Putang. It is made up of bamboo and straw thatched huts. Each hut accommodates two families usually numbering 20 people. There are dozens of children playing around the huts at all times of the day - some go to school, most don't. No one pays attention to the fact that the farm animals roaming around are on the brink of starvation. It is from Putang that elephant treks head into the jungle. In the woodlands, smaller Pnong villages of just four or five huts can be found. In one nameless village (located two hours by elephant and 20 minutes hiking through forest from Putang), I was introduced to a woman who told Sambol she did not know her age. She welcomed us into her house to watch her cut palm wedges for the pigs. She told us that she has nine children. Conversation was kept to a minimum: for the most part I observed her and her surroundings, she ogled me. I found the Pnong people to be super friendly and as curious about foreigners as we of them. To me, with her missing teeth and leathery skin, this woman looked at least 50 years old. Sambol informed me that she must be around 30. Overall, I found the minority villages fascinating. The people are genuine. The surroundings are beautiful. Daily life is difficult but straightforward. I spent a week in Mondulkiri and loved every minute. The Khmers and minority people here were the nicest locals I met during my time in Cambodia. PHNOM PENH, Cambodia's capital, jolted me back into the reality of this country. Cambodians are, generally speaking, sad people. They are still recovering from the brutal years of Khmer Rouge rule. Just as every visitor to Siem Reap makes the trek to the Angkor temples, all tourists to Phnom Penh stop at the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. These two places serve as testaments to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge regime is remembered mainly for the deaths of some 2 million people (from an estimated 1972 population of 7.1 million) through execution, starvation and forced labor. The leader of the regime was Pol Pot, who has often been lumped into the same category as Adolf Hitler and whose name today still sends shivers down the spines of Cambodians. Briefly, the regime implemented one of the most vicious restructurings of a society ever attempted: its goal was to transform Cambodia into a classless, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. The Khmer Rouge forced the entire population to become farmers in labor camps, overworking and starving the people. At the same time, select groups (politicians, professionals and intellectuals) were executed en masse. During its reign, the Khmer Rouge isolated the country from foreign influence, closed schools, hospitals and factories, abolished banking, finance and currency, outlawed all religions and confiscated all private property. Tuol Sleng Museum is located at the site of the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21), the largest center of detention and torture during the mid-to-late 1970s. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept records of its barbarism, and visitors to this museum can see photographs of prisoners, rooms in which they were held, torture tools and other documents relating to the time period. Though the Khmer Rouge rule ended in 1979, the group continued to launch offensives on citizens and politicians through 1999. From S-21 and other prisons throughout the country, doomed citizens were taken to sites known as the Killing Fields. One such site includes Choeung Ek, just 15 km. from central Phnom Penh. The Killing Field of Choeung Ek is today a well-groomed park area with local children playing alongside grazing cattle. Only the Memorial Stupa (Buddhist structure) at the center of the grounds, which is piled with thousands of skulls, reminds visitors of the gruesome extermination camp this once was. When traipsing around the country it was difficult not to take notice of the make up of the populace: either very young or very old. The middle-age bracket is almost non-existent (they were either murdered by the Khmer Rouge or fled to neighboring countries for refuge). Of the 13 million people living in Cambodia today, three-quarters of Khmers were too young (under 20 years old) to remember the Khmer Rouge years and only know of it through word-of-mouth. What struck me as odd in Cambodia was that while the Jewish people ascribe to the adage of "Never Forget" when referring to the Holocaust, the Khmers seem to hold to "Try to Forget, Don't Remember" with regard to their genocide. From an outsider's view, it seems like the wrong way to go in dealing with the nightmare they went through, keeping open wounds from healing. Moreover, it is only in the last decade that schools have begun to teach about Khmer Rouge atrocities. Justice has not been served and as of February 2006, only three of the Khmer Rouge leaders have been imprisoned since the de facto end of the organization's rule. Today, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) is at the forefront of documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. According to its Web site, its main objectives are to preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge regime for future generations and to compile information that can serve as potential evidence in a "legal accounting for the crimes" of the Khmer Rouge. As is written in its mission statement, "memory and justice are critical foundations for the rule of law and genuine national reconciliation in Cambodia." BATTAMBANG PROVINCE is renowned as one of the best places in the country to view the rural Cambodian way of life. This western province offers picture perfect postcard scenery with its vibrant green rice paddies, wooden houses, coconut palm trees and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. I spent my last three days in this province, meeting the locals and taking in the luscious scenery. Battambang borders Thailand and thus sees a fair number of tourists. Most over-landers pass through to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or to the Thai side and miss out on the province's charms. Battambang province's main attractions include Wat Ek Phnom (11th-century temple all but destroyed by Khmer Rouge), Wat Phnom Sampeau (hill-top temple offering great views in the company of killing field caves), Wat Banan (smaller version of Angkor Wat, not nearly as memorable), Kamping Puoy (recreational lake hand-built during Khmer Rouge reign) and the city of Battambang (elegant riverside town, home to some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country) itself. The western part of the country was once covered with land mines, and though today travelers need not worry, it's best to keep on the beaten track in these areas nonetheless. In conclusion, the Khmer Rouge tried to break the Cambodians' culture and traditions. Though the regime murdered most of the country's Buddhist monks during its reign, young monks are today a common sight throughout the country. Buddhism in Cambodia is actually a home mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism. The people in the rural areas are by and large far nicer than those in the urban areas. Taking a page from higher echelon corruption, many locals connected with the tourist industry equate foreigners with greenbacks and ascribe to the "take, take, take" maxim - which can be irksome for travelers. Still, this country remains one of the few places to still offer little-explored regions. Throughout my three-week trip here I met far more travelers than I had expected to bump into. There's no denying it: Cambodia, which has long been considered unsafe for travelers because of Khmer Rouge guerrillas, land-mines and rogue outlaws, is now a hot ticket on Southeast Asia's tourist trail.