Friday, November 24, 2017

Wat is This Cambodian Place?

Going into my trip, if there was a place that I knew less about than Bolivia, it was Cambodia (but really I knew less about Bolivia). The other Asian countries which we visited all had something I knew about beforehand. Kuala Lumpur has those towers, Vietnam had that war and Thailand had those ping pong shows...I mean it had those beautiful beaches and nice people smiling all the time. But what did Cambodia have? (keep reading to find out).

I showed up in Phnom Penh (puh-nawm pen), the Cambodian capital, and went straight to a group lunch with an appetizer of tarantula.

The lime is really what brought out the tarantula flavor

Due to the Khmer Rouge (more about that later) starving millions of people and forcing them into hiding in the Cambodian jungles in the 1970s, tarantulas became a standard meal in Cambodia and they still remain so today.

Is he gonna do it?

And I ate one! Well I actually only ate the leg of one. It had the consistency of a crab leg, but was actually quite tasty with the pepper sauce provided. However, I could not bring myself to bite into the actual meatball part of the spider. These tarantulas weren't just reserved for fancy restaurants, you could find them piled high for sale at markets throughout the city. And tarantulas weren't the only food that wasn't normally in my everyday diet, I also found these being sold at a street cart vendor.

Pretty sure they're frogs with various pieces chopped off. Maybe Frog McNuggets?

Here is a lovely fish market with the fish being prepared right in front of you...and then being left out in the sun.

Mmmmmm sun fish (I am not referring to a sunfish here, but rather a fish left in the sun...just wanted to clarify)

Moving on from the Cambodian culinary scene, the country was full of beautiful palaces, monuments and nature.

The royal palace


Wow. What a shot!

Wow, look at the way I made the color of the sky match the flower

Sunset on the Mekong

That picture above is of the Mekong river. The very same Mekong river that flows in China (if you heard about that). And let me tell you, it's crystal clear waters make it perfect for swimming.

The crystal clear waters of the Mekong

We weren't the only ones taking advantage of its beauty with a refreshing dip; families galore could be found swimming in all its glory.

Cambodian children enjoying the Mekong (photo: Johnson Wang)

Cambodia also has an age old silk weaving tradition. 

Mmmmmm silk worms

Mmmmmm silk weaving

And who hasn't heard of the legendary Cambodian party scene?

Party street in Siem Reap

Looks at those Cambodians dance. Who knew?

Getting around Cambodia is always quite an adventure as your rickshaw driver does not care about the direction of traffic, sidewalks or really anything about traditional western driving rules.

Our rickshaw couldn't make it up the entire hill so we just stopped in the middle of traffic on a bridge to cool the engine. People used the sidewalk to get around us.

Darrin (you all know Darrin) won a TV in a NYE raffle. We used a rickshaw to drop it off at a charity

But the thing for which Cambodia is most known (to the western world) is of course Angkor Wat (to my knowledge unrelated to the football player JJ Watt).

Angkor Wat

As I'm sure you're all well aware, "Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 m2; 402 acres). It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Then 900ish years later Matt Levin came and visited it. Then almost an entire year later, he finally wrote a blog post about it because he's lazy and it takes him a really long time to get around to things unfortunately."

☝ totally real wikipedia entry.

Enough of the details, lets head inside.


Also cool

OMG! How cute are we?

I dunno why I think putting JJ Watt here is so funny.

How could I resist some monk blessings?

Wat the hell is that?

Angkor Wat isn't the only temple in the area of Siem Reap. If you've seen the movie Tomb Raider then you might recognize the next temple that we visited called Ta Prohm (but probably not because I assume no one has seen Tomb Raider).

As the saying goes...which came first, the building or the tree?

Different building, different tree

I wasn't allowed in this picture with the tree

And then Angelina Jolie showed up and was like, these are my trees bitch.

Such a drama queen

It didn't end there. The area around Siem Reap had even more awesome temples. This one I call the Temple of the Faces, but most people call it Angkor Thom (because thats its name).

Temple of the Faces

The face archway leading to Temple of the Faces

Ba Phuon Temple

For some reason the Ba Phuon Temple had a framed pictured of me in it....what are the chances?

After all the excitement of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat (Siem Reap is the town), I needed some alone time to just be with myself and cry. I decided to go on the first solo trip of my remote year journey to a town called Kampot. You've probably heard of Kampot because of their pepper. I mean, you can't go a block in Kep, Cambodia without running into a shack selling crab with Kampot peppercorns, amirite?

This is how pepper is grown apparently

Extreme pepper close up

Kampot is in the southwest corner of Cambodia near the Vietnam border and is neighbored by the coastal town, Kep, known for its seafood....especially its crab. 

Crab in Kep with Kampot peppercorns

Catching crab in Kep

Riding the Kampot expressway

Unfortunately, through all these amazing experiences in Cambodia, one cannot escape its dark past stemming from the genocide executed by the Khmer Rouge just 40 years ago. Coming into the trip, I had never even heard of the Khmer Rouge nor the 3,000,000 people that died as a result of their rule. My lack of knowledge on this subject (and most others from my trip) was even more disturbing to me as the Khmer Rouge's reign was at least partially caused by the US (as are many of the world's problems). During the Vietnam war, the Vietcong fled into Cambodia to avoid American bombings, so the Americans did the obvious thing; just bomb Cambodia. Apparently the Cambodians were not a fan of this which helped unite the country behind Pol Pot (the leader of the Khmer Rouge) against Lon Nol, the American backed prime minister whom the CIA helped put into power. In 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and began their rule. What followed was the Cambodian genocide.

"The Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labour was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into 'Old People' through agricultural labour."

"In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about 'two or three kilometers' outside the city and would return in 'two or three days'. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people."

"The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured, and eventually executed any supposed 'enemies' of the regime including almost everyone with an education, people who understood a foreign language and even people who required glasses (which, according to the regime, meant that they spent too much time reading books instead of working). Ironically, Pol Pot himself was an educated man with a taste for French literature and spoke fluent French. Many artists, including musicians, writers, and filmmakers were executed."

"The Khmer Rouge established over 150 prisons for political opponents, of which Tuol Sleng is the best known. All but seven of the twenty thousand Tuol Sleng prisoners were executed. Estimates of the total death toll range from 1.7 to 3 million with perhaps half of those deaths being due to executions, and the rest from starvation and disease."

Most of this is quoted from Wikipedia and there is plenty more there to read.

We visited the aforementioned Tuol Sleng prison, known as S21 (Security Prison 21) where a genocide museum has been established.

Cells at S21where prisoners were held up to three months

Waterboarding torture device

People were mostly interrogated on pure suspicion until they admitted "wrongdoing" and were forced into naming others. Then the process would repeat. They would then often times be taken to camps known as killing fields. 

Mass grave of 450 people at the Killing Fields

Even today, when it rains, bones from the depths of the Killing Fields will sift to the surface.

Skulls of Killing Field victims with stickers identifying age, ethnicity and method of execution

The Killing Tree where executioners smashed the heads of babies

Seeing the Killing Tree was perhaps the most impactful experience. "A tree in the Cambodian Killing Fields against which children and infants were smashed because their parents were accused of crimes against the Khmer Rouge. It was so the children wouldn't grow up and take revenge for their parents' deaths. Some of the soldiers laughed as they beat the children against the trees, as not laughing could have indicated sympathy, making oneself a target."

In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, due to border disputes (unrelated to the genocide), ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge and installed a Communist government. However, the Khmer Rouge still remained in power in parts of western Cambodia and the United Nations, knowing of the genocide, voted in favor of supporting the Khmer Rouge minority government over the Communist controlling government. Representatives of the Khmer Rouge were invited and visited the UN headquarters in NY.

After visiting countries like Vietnam, which suffered devastating conflicts in recent history as well (obviously not on the same scale), it is clear that Cambodia has had a harder time recovering. A major reason for this is that the Khmer Rouge specifically targeted the educated, leaving few with the ability to rebuild the country. Today the country has poor infrastructure and a lot of poverty.

A luxury hotel used by few, surrounded by shacks and boats used by many

The White Building - A well known slum in Phnom Penh

I obviously spent a lot of time talking about this experience. It was the most impactful experience of my entire year. I cannot believe that this is not taught in American schools and is not common knowledge given America's role and the extent of the genocide. It's also quite frustrating to see the devastation that America has caused around the world in the name of its interests. I also learned that during the Vietnam war, the US "dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history." These bombings were mostly unknown to the public and the US never declared war on the Communists in Laos. More ordnance was dropped in Laos than in all of Europe during World War II! 20,000 Laos civilians have been killed since that time by unexploded bombs.  Even today, fifty people a year still die from these (mostly children).

Despite what Cambodia has gone through, I felt that the people were some of the happiest of all the places I visited. We would see children playing naked in dirt, but smiling and waving when they saw us. Children and parents smiled at us as we went by and the kids would always run after our rickshaw's saying 'hi' to us. Perhaps we don't need all our material goods to be happy #deep. One of our city experts in Phnom Penh was this dude Rithy, who is one of the most positive, energetic, inspiring individuals I have ever met. He's helping to move Cambodia forward in technology, entrepreneurship and education. Plus he loves to sing Wonderwall (but doesn't really know the words).


And lets end on a happy note. Cambodia actually has some amazing beaches. A group of us went to the island of Koh Rong for a weekend getaway. In anticipation of everything going right, the phrase "what could Koh Rong" became popular (credit Lauren Gallagher).


Life is good

My crew rollin to the hood (the isolated white-sand beach)

One more for good measure

And I leave you with a traditional Cambodian dance...boomerang style.

Cambodian dance moves

Total countries visited on my trip: 23 - Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, England, Belgium, Italy, Czech Republic, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Germany, Croatia, France, Spain, Qatar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (Bali), Thailand, Cambodia