Stepping Back In Time – Landing in Cambodia

2008 December 10
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by Jason

Friday, October 31st, 2008. The country of Cambodia has a rocky history. 1000 years ago, the Khmer civilization was arguably the most powerful civilization in S.E. Asia. The Khmer (the group that many modern-day Cambodians call their ancestors), controlled most of the land in Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Yet something happened that caused the Khmer civilization to collapse. Cambodia has been on a slow and steady downward slide ever since. The encroachment of the rival Thai kingdom, colonialism, and in the last 30 years, one of the worst mass killings of the last century.

The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were horrific. I have a friend and former colleague in the US who knows of Pol Pot’s crimes first hand (having narrowly escaped from Cambodia), and if you’re not aware, you owe it to yourself to learn more.

In 1998, the Khmer Rouge were officially removed from power. Since that time, Cambodia has been trying to attract tourism to the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex. Sara and I, intrigued (and tired of Bangkok), decided to add a trip to Siem Reap (the city near Angkor Wat) to our itinerary. It was a good choice.

angkor-wat-reflection

Angkor Wat, and the tourism it generates, is the centerpiece of the Cambodian economy.

Bangkok is a lot like the rest of the world – highways, skyscrapers, all the modern conveniences, etc. Landing in Siem Reap, the profound lack of “modernity” was astonishing. Siem Reap airport doesn’t have “gates.” You park on the taxiway and walk down an aluminum stairway to disembark. The visa department in Siem Reap doesn’t have computers. A staff of a dozen clerks work to take the passports of each and every visitor, hand copy the information onto a visa application, and then stamp everything about a half-a-dozen times (comical to watch). Siem Reap’s customs department, likely just as unsophisticated, was *closed* when we landed. We walked right past an empty checkpoint.

Taxis don’t exist either – at least not traditional 4-door metered taxis. Instead, everyone hires a “tuk-tuk” – a simple two-person cart pulled by motorcycle – to get where they want. Since we paid for a package tour, we were met at the airport by our driver – Mr. Tan – and his English-speaking brother-in-law (whose name we can’t remember but we liked him very much) who we’ll call Bob. Cambodia was the exact opposite of Bangkok, Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing – a true rural, exotic location. With a little encouragment, “Bob” convinced us to visit a migratory village composed of nothing more than boats. Bob was going to be our guide. Again, it was a very good decision.

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