Dear Cambodia, you are the poorest country in Southeast Asia, most people pass you up to go to your neighboring countries, but I will always remember the great times I had traveling here.
After taking Bertha #2, the motorbike I purchased in Hanoi, I headed into Cambodia. After stopping for coffee 6 miles from the border, at a local Vietnamese family’s house, I crossed at the Le Thanh border into Cambodia. I payed the 10$ import tax to take my motorbike into Cambodia and I headed for the city of Banlung. I arrived around 4 in the afternoon to Banlung Reggae Homestay. It was the only hostel and ironically it was owned by an ex Monk with his wife and two kids. The hostel was basically a shack built on a dirt lot with no floors and there was no electricity but good times were had, when the owner Mr. Sut, took us to the local carnival near the hostel, that only happens once a year, and I was lucky enough to arrive on the same day. Every year everyone from the city heads to the airport tarmac, which is just gravel, to enjoy good food, and live entertainment all night long. There is not any tourists in the city of Banlung, and the only real thing to see is the Yeak Laom, a giant lake that is perfectly circular surrounded by thick jungle. I woke up early the next morning to continue heading south towards the province of Kratie. The heat this day, was so intense that I could see the heat waves rising up from the road in front of me. Every hour or so I pulled over to take a break and let my bike cool off. It kept over heating, and eventually I fried the coil and spark plug, and had to fix it later on. The landscape in the north of Cambodia reminded me a lot of Africa, flat desert like prairies with nothing but small shrubs and trees. What I noticed right away about Cambodia is the style of houses there, compared to the other countries. Bamboo is mainly used for everything outside of Cambodia, but due to the lack of bamboo and the surplus of teak trees, the houses are all made of wood, and are all raised above the ground about 6ft. This is a traditional Khmer style building technique to help protect the house during monsoon season when there is flooding. While I was driving south, it happend to be the same time as burning season when the farmers burn the fields to get ready for the new crops to be planted. One section of road I was driving through, the fires from the fields spread and both sides of the road where on fire, there was a solid wall of thick grey smoke that I could hardly see my handle bars in Front of me. It was something I’ve never experienced before.
I arrived in Kratie province in the late afternoon, a small town right on the bank of the mighty Mekong river. In the mornings at 5:30 you would be woken up by traditional Khmer music being blasted out of metal loudspeakers, that are not meant for music, to commence the opening of the local morning market. After spending a whole day going from mechanic to mechanic trying to fix my now toasted motorbike, I found someone that had the parts I needed. $16 later I had a new spark plug and new coil and I was on my way to Phenom Pehn, the capital city of Cambodia.
Only a week before I was set to arrive In Cambodia, I found out that my Dad and his friend, that he has known since the sixth grade, Craig Shufflebien, where going to meet me in Phenom Pehn. The drive from Kratie to Phenom Pehn, was a grueling 200 miles of dusty and hot roads, but I didn’t think too much of it, because I was thinking about seeing my dad for the first time in awhile. It was over 2 months since I’ve seen a familiar face, the longest I’ve been away from home. The reason Craig was coming, is because for the past 7 years, he has been donating money to local schools and orphanages around Phenom Pehn. It was perfect timing for all of us to meet up and have some fun, while doing some good for a few days. My dad and I would split off and explore more of Cambodia by motorbike, while Craig was checking out more schools.
We all met at the Raffles hotel in Phenom Pehn, a very nice hotel, with classic French colonial architecture. It was great from going from 1 star hostels with just enough to get by, to the 5 star luxurys of The Raffles. Seeing my dad again for the first time, was like seeing a stranger that you somehow know. After awhile you see so many unfamiliar faces that you start to forget the ones you know.
Craig, my Dad and I, for the next 5 days enjoyed our time together. We were in the capital city of Phenom Pehn for 3 days, and spent 2 nights in Siem Riep, touring around the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat.
The time we spent in Phenom Pehn together was a very cool experience, it was different than the other experiences I have had, because I was able to be a part of something special. My Dads friend Craig Shufflebein has a big heart and for 7 years has been donating money to schools and orphanages around Cambodia. While we were there we had the opportunity to visit some of the schools and see the impacts that have been made, because of Craig and others like him. 7 years ago Craig and his wife, Marry, took their three kids out of school to take them on a world tour to experience how other parts of the world live. While his family was in Cambodia, they were put in touch with a local guide by the name of Ritz, who showed them the true poverty in Cambodia, and from then on he wanted to help make a difference in Cambodia, by supporting education, which is very important to help grow developing countries, so for seven years, with the help of Ritz acting as a liaison, has supported 11 different schools and one orphanage. It was a great experience seeing the kids in the classroom, and see their faces light up when we walked in. That evening we went back to Ritz’s house and ate a big family dinner, with all of Ritz family, consisting of traditional Khmer food. We jammed on guitar and sang songs all night, it was a good end to a good day. The following day, we visited a local orphanage. 20 kids, all different ages and genders, have lived at the orphanage their whole lives. We gave them each their own soccerball, and played volleyball with them for a few hours before leaving. It was heart wrenching seeing some of the kids wanting to come with us to have a family when we were leaving. Ritz told us that some of the kids were being taken care of by grandparents but they ended up not being able to afford it, and had to abandoned the children. Some kids there, their parents died and the kids had no where to go. It felt good to be there and hang out for a few hours, and show the kids that they are still loved. I wish I was able to do more though.
The next day we took a road trip west to the city of Siem Riep, where the home of the massive temple city of Angkor Wat is. Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple, built in the early 12th century, is the largest religious structure in the world. It is one of the 7 man made wonders of the world, and it is huge, 402 acres. The temple is built with lava rock as a foundation and sandstone block as finishing on the outside, each carved with intricate designs, and murals depicting heaven, present life, and hell. After touring around there for an evening and a full day, we headed back to Phenom Pehn, and split off from Craig, and my dad and I headed south, to the coast by motorbike.
My dad and I have always talked about doing a road trip on bikes somewhere, and this is a mini version of what we have been wanting to do for a long time. I was on my bike, Bertha #2, and my dad was on a Honda Wave that he rented for a few days. We set out from Phenom Pehn early in the morning, heading towards Otres beach #4, a 200 mile journey, that we drove the whole way along the dirt shoulder of a dusty highway heading south. We stayed in Otres beach for 2 nights, which is slowly getting destroyed and being built up by investors. We also got to see the craziness of Sihanoukville, or “Shitville”, as many call it. Chinese investors have moved into Sihanoukville and have rapidly built skyrise hotels and casinos, but have no infrastructure to support the rapid building, and there is not even paved roads and sewage flows down the road, while Bentley’s and BMWs pass by. Someone was telling us that only 5 years ago, the tallest building was only 5 stories. Now there are hundreds.
The next morning we took a small wooden ferry boat over to the island of Koh Ta Kiev where we stayed for 3 days and 2 nights, and enjoyed the wam water of the gulf of Thailand, and good laughs at the Last point bar. The beach is untouched by investors and big businesses, but the effects of both are still seen. The beach is lined with trash that has washed up from other places, and will remain there for thousands of years. Single use plastic is what you see the most. It is a sad thing to see, a deserted beach, 3 miles long filled with trash from another location. The day we were leaving, there was a storm and the ocean had 6ft+ swells rocking the boat, making the ride back very exciting.
On our way back from the islands, we were driving back to Phenom Pehn on a road that was a little better than the first, but it was still hot and dusty. Before we left back to Phenom Pehn, we bought 2 soccer balls to give to a school on our way back. A simple thing can make a big difference.
Cambodia is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and the education is definitely in need of help. Cambodia is still rebuilding after the very recent Khmer Rouge genocide led by Pol Pot, that ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia overthrowing Pol Pot. Many people including me my dad and Craig didn’t know about this until we actually traveled there. It is a very recent event that was what some call more gruesome than the Houlocaust. Pol Pot was a corrupt government leader that was in power from the late 1960’s where his army started to grow in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia, until 1979 when the Vietnamese army overthrew him. There is a darker side to his legacy though. The Khmer Rouge regime was very paranoid and repressive, resulting in a mass amount of deaths from social engineering or “Maha Lout Ploh”, similar to “the Great Leap Forward” during this time many Cambodians perished from famine and dying from curable diseases. Pol Pot was fearful of being overthrown, so he set up death camps all over Cambodia, to get rid of his political opponents and every educated person in the country. Around 1.5 – 2 million people, or 25% of the population of Cambodia was murdered during his reign. In the 1970’s the Khmer Rouge was directly supported by Mao Zedong, and that 90% of funding came from China. Every single family lost at least one family member during these times, and Ritz the guide, but now our Cambodian brother, was telling us stories about how he remembers almost dying in one of the labor camps from malnutrition and he was hungry so he ate poisonous mushrooms, and got sick. Ritz lost a sister and 2 brothers and his father to the Khmer Rouge.
Today some of the death camps are open as museums to show people how gruesome this time was, and how no one knew it was going on. The day my dad flew home, Ritz took us to see one of camps called a “Killing Feild”. We walked around a saw the mass graves that people were buried in, there were fragments of bones and clothing in some of them, and in the center of the camp, there is a tower built filled with skulls from the deceased, that were killed in the camp. Each one was marked with how the victim was killed. Pol Pot wanted to save bullets, so each victim was bludgeon to death by various objects, including bats, and metal spikes. It was a heavy day learning about the hidden history of Cambodia.
After my dad flew home I stayed with Ritz family for a few nights until I sold my motorbike. I will always cherish the memories I had in Cambodia, and I will always have a second family in Cambodia now.
I sold my bike to a local Cambodian that has a motorbike shop, and made my money back. I will always remember the times, good and bad that Bertha #2 had, as my good buddy Yuelin said, it was a “DIY free ride”. I can’t wait to get a bike when I’m home, sorry mom. After I sold my bike I was back to taking buses, less freedom and more expensive. I took a bus from Phenom Pehn to Battambang near the border of Thailand. I was there for one night checking out the small city, and playing cards with some people I met at the hostel. It is awesome how at any given time there can be 5 people from different countries in a room, and we all come from different backgrounds, but share a common interest in experiencing the world and other cultures.
From Banlung I hitchhiked to the border of Thailand. I got picked up by an ex monk turned businessman that sells coconuts in Cambodia, that he imports from Thailand, he was on his way to the Poipet border and we shared good laughs the whole way. From Poipet border I crossed into Thailand, my second time in the country.
I went back to visit the family I know in Khon Kaen and I stayed for 10 days and enjoyed the simple farm life once again. The last time I was there, I took Tula and Vien to another homestay farm, and since then it sparked the idea for Tula to improve his farm and start selling the stuff he grows. While I was gone he built a chicken coup and purchased 20 ducks that produce around 15 eggs every morning that he sells to the other people in the village. The ducks are free to walk around and they fertilize the Jasmine plants, so now the yield ant from 1kg to 2. It is cool to see the improvements made.
From Khon Kaen, I took a bus to Bangkok where I stayed for 4 days in the “Overstay Hostel”, an art hostel with every single inch of wall covered by art from local artists and people staying at the hostel. After Bangkok I headed to Chumphon in the south of Thailand and then to the islands of Koh Tao, and then to Koh Pha-ngan, a famous island in the south.
When I was back in Bangkok, I went to this creepy and sad zoo on the roof of a 10 story shopping mall. Pata zoo was the name, and it was home to lots of different species of animals and fish, and snakes. Although I do not agree or like seeing animals in captivity like this, it was interesting thing to see.
I am now in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur to be exact. Malaysia is very different from the rest of Southeast Asia, there are many different cultures that live and work here. 60% of the population is Muslim, and there is also a big influence of Indian migrants here for work. The food is very tasty and different than the spicy food, tangy food of Thailand. I will be here for 2 weeks exploring the country, and then Julia, Martin and I head to Indonesia, an buy our fishing boat, which we will attempt to sail the Banyak islands.
Stay tuned for the boat trip in my next post.
Till next time, CHEERS!