Here I’m going to describe some scenes from my trip to Cambodia. As in my Chiang Mai posts I feel like this is just a taste of all of what I saw; how you can summarize such an experience in a couple dozen pictures? These are some of the more interesting Cambodia photos I have however so here I’ll paint what picture I can of the experience.

Some brief background: Cambodia borders Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. It has a population of 14.8 million, a nice bounce back from when Communist leader Pol Pot killed a third of the population in the late 1970s in an effort to reorganize the country as a massive farming collective. The people are generally happy, mostly farmers, and the population is quite young (median age is 22) and hopeful compared to industrialized countries. Most Cambodians are also very poor in comparison to people in industrialized countries; many live on a little more than a dollar a day. Today we are a full generation away from the days of the Killing Fields, long enough that the turmoil is unremembered by most of the young population. Daily life, while mostly simpler and harder than in industrialized nations, is also quite interesting.

So! Some intriguing pictures of daily Cambodian life.

Pigs in a basket on a motorbike!

I don’t know much more about this other than that this basket is stuffed to the brim with pigs that will presumably be sold at the local market.

Hay dude:

I wish I had taken this picture half a second later when he peeked his face at the camera from around the hay and gave a huge awesome grin. Maybe next time.

Also not pictured: a motorbike towing a cart with forty carts of equal size stacked insanely high on top of it and in every direction other than down.

We spent most of our time on the outskirts of Siem Reap in the western part of the country where our Couchsurfing host Rady lives with his family. It’s kind of like the suburbs but the main road going into town is very busy, noisy, dirty, and there are no tourists anywhere. The first time we drove down it our tuk-tuk driver pulled out directly into oncoming traffic and drove into that dense oncoming traffic for about two hundred feet before casually gliding over to the right side of the road, which in Cambodia actually is the right side of the road (the only country on my trip where this was the case). Here’s an idea of what the road looks like. I wish I had a better picture of how crazy it sometimes seemed but I don’t. Just imagine that in this scene you are going straight, pulling out directly into that oncoming traffic and at some point in the future you will end up on the right side of the road.

In Cambodia as in Thailand we would often see the elusive four-person motorbike team but I was always frustratingly late to take a picture. This one’s pretty good though, this baby was flopping around completely asleep. We saw sleeping infants on motorbikes several times.

Here’s a snack I didn’t bother eating, although I briefly considered it. I saw a bushel of something very similar in a market in Seoul several years ago but chickened out then too. One day I think I will try it.

One thing I did eat, and which I regretted eating for the rest of the afternoon: rat on a stick.

Also this! Morning Glory.

We visited a silk factory and wandered around the grounds by ourselves since for some reason the factory was almost entirely empty that day and no tours were running. They had a few employees hanging around in case people like us dropped in unexpectedly. A lady hopped on the machine so we could get a feel for how it works. They drop several silk-thread cocoons into a water jug and feed the end of the thread of each cocoon into the spinner and slowly unravel multiple cocoons at once to merge into a larger single thread of silk. For showing us I thanked her with an orchid I picked from a tree outside, which I don’t think mattered to her much based on how slowly she said thank you.

Here are some pictures of what many of the homes we saw look like. Most of the middle class homes are on stilts with an open patio area below the house. We asked our host why building homes like this is so common and he said it is habit, just the current style.

Out in the country driving north towards the Thai border we saw homes that looked a lot simpler. I don’t know how the living conditions in these villages might compare to living in the slums of cities in Cambodia. I would guess they are generally safer and with more space per person but also very poor. These villages do not have running water or power and are several miles from any real town, hospital, police station or other important component of an industrialized nation’s civic infrastructure. This is how millions of Cambodians live.

One touristy knick-knack I ended up buying was this stringed instrument for twenty-eight thousand Riel, or seven dollars (the ATMs here dispense in US dollars and the locals prefer to deal in USD). I was lured in by how easily the sellers could make sweet music. Of course having never practiced before it sounded like a dying cat every time I tried to play. Walking back to the tuk-tuk I played it for about sixty seconds before Kristof and fellow Couchsurfer Lois said “you’ve got until we get into the tuk-tuk before we lay down some ground rules about when you can play that thing.” I ended up gifting it to our host’s family the day we left Cambodia, which I think delighted the children and exasperated their parents.

In the 70′s the US dropped millions of tons of landmines on Cambodia to impede Pol Pot’s ability to mobilize his armed forces. While this did kill thousands of Communist soldiers, there is some debate about whether it may have proved counter-productive to the US goal of eliminating Communist support in Cambodia. Worse, since the war thousands of civilians, many of them children, have died or lost limbs from stepping on unexploded ordinances in the fields. Even today landmines maim or kill hundreds of Cambodian children. In the countryside outside the cities huge signs are posted along the roads warning people not to go into the fields. Behind almost every sign we saw children playing in the fields and adults walking through them as well.

The national symbol of Cambodia and the image on their flag is Angkor Wat, a massive temple complex near Siem Reap. It was built in the early 12th century by king Suryavarman II to be the state temple and capital city. It was originally a Hindu temple before Buddhism spread through the region and in the late 13th century it was converted into a Theravada Bhuddist temple. The temple is a source of intense national pride for Cambodians and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having been the subject of multiple renovation efforts (including some in the past that involved using acid to clean the walls that destroyed some of the artwork). It also the main reason most tourists come to Cambodia at all, or at least is visited by more than half of all tourists to Cambodia, averaging over a million foreign visitors a year. It was certainly impressive, more so than any temple in Thailand, but we felt other temples in Cambodia were more interesting and pretty underrated. Here is a picture of me, Kristof and Lois inside the outer walls in front of the temple.

Some of the towers close up:

Some of the big attractions of Angkor Wat are the two-hundred foot long wall carvings of scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. This isn’t a very good picture of it but you get the idea: intricately carved murals for hundreds of feet on long stone walls.

This staircase was the stairway to heaven. The original steps are far narrower than on the stairway to hell, enough so that they had to put a wooden stairway over it for us clumsy foreigners to use. Don’t want anyone falling back down the stairway to heaven.

Immediately after Angkor Wat our tuk-tuk driver took us to Angkor Thom. This temple is smaller but was built in the same time period and was, to us at least, more interesting and beautiful. The fallen walls make the place seem more authentic, old and untouched, a relic of an ancient mystical time. At least we thought so.

Some Thai guy jumped into this picture with us but it turned out great.

This last temple was awesome. I’m kicking myself because I wrote the name of it down and promptly lost it but the locals call it the Tomb Raider temple because some scenes from Tomb Raider the movie were filmed here. My favorite part of it was this tree growing over the wall over the last several centuries.

This is one of the temple caretakers who yelled at me for getting inspired and climbing up the walls. We took a picture with him because he is cool and so is his beard.

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