A Traveler's Tale

 (A Journey to Angkor Wat)

by Kevin Allen



From Adelaide, Australia, I flew to Bangkok, Thailand. Within hours of landing, I was approached by a Western guy who asked, "Excuse me, are you Kevin Allen?". It was only when he spoke that I recognized him - we first met in grade two, and went to the same high school, but hadn't seen each other for more than twenty years. Small world, eh? He had traveled extensively through South-East Asia and said the most interesting thing I could do was a loop trip through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and back into Northern Thailand. So that's what I decided to do.

I spent about a week in Bangkok seeing some of the sights and taking in the Thai culture and cuisine (yum!). One of my more amusing experiences was the backpackers ghetto on Khao San Road. This side street was transformed as more and more backpackers came into the area and businesses followed them. The sidewalks are so jammed with sellers stalls that it is barely possible to get by, so many people walk on the road. There are cafes screening western videos all day long (yes, Rambo is alive and well!), backpackers sitting around, watching other backpackers do the same. At least it offers a place to escape to if the culture shock gets to be too much.


Khao San is also a good place to get info and book tours and cheap flights because of the concentration of travel shops. It is also close to some of the sights. Bangkok is very large, very crowded, and because of the heavy traffic it takes a long time to get from point A to point B.  

Nonetheless I did go to: a snake farm where poisonous snakes are milked of their venom to be processed into anti-venom serum; the National Museum, which has the best collection of artifacts from the various early cultures that lived in what is now Thailand; an evening of Thai kick-boxing at one of the two stadiums that host these events several times a week; the infamous Patpong red-light area; and the observation deck in the tallest hotel in the world, the Baiyoke II.


Bargaining for purchases is different too. It's a pain because of the time involved and the lingering feeling that you pay too much. I'm used to buying something quickly, not being quoted a  "real" price and having to haggle to get down to a reasonable price. Especially when the difference between the two can be only fifty cents to a dollar - but it's the principle of the thing. This idea of principle is a western thing, perhaps even a conceit that our comparative wealth allows us the luxury of having.


I caught a bad flu bug in Bangkok and I was sick enough that my attitude was negatively affected. I was suspicious and paranoid about people's intentions towards me and blocked or avoided most opportunities for contact with the locals. A bad attitude for a traveler to have, and no fun either! This continued for most of my six weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. I must add that at times my suspicions were correct! Anyway, sick and confused, I headed out on the road to do the loop trip.


My first stop was the small town of Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the magnificent ruins of nearby Angkor Wat. The architecture, sight lines, use of repetition, scale (enormous) and art work - statues, bas-relief murals, carved lintels etc - are stunning. The Angkor Wat temple ranks with the best buildings in the world - the Taj Mahal, the pyramids etc.


Several of the  other sites are also stunning, in particular Ta Phrom. This temple has been left much as it was found - engulfed by the jungle. There are huge trees growing out of buildings, their roots flowing like water over walls and stone courtyards in their search for earth, and to support the massive trunks of the trees. It was a humbling reminder of both the beauty and destructive forces of nature.


All tourists must have a driver with them while visiting Angkor Wat - to get around mostly, and to keep them out of restricted areas. The standard price for a motorbike and driver was $6 US a day. Because the ruin sites are the focus for tourists, they are naturally the focus for vendors - lots of venders. Most temples had 3 or 4 groups of vendors around the site selling cold drinks, postcards, sarongs, table clothes, flutes, wood carvings, T-shirts. The enthusiasm and persistence of the vendors got on my nerves quickly.



On my first day in Angkor Wat, my motorbike driver pulled up to the first site, I got off and was surrounded by book sellers. One woman thrust a book at me, and being 'reasonable', I took it, to look at it. "Ten dollars for book, mister! Good price! You buy! Ten dollars!", she shouted. Immediately the other venders thrust their books on top of her book, all shouting prices and pleas or demands to buy from them. The first woman shouted back to me that she was first and I must buy from her.


At this point I wanted out - so I handed the book back to her - or tried to but she wouldn't take it. "Eight dollars, very good price! You buy now!," she shouted. I said no thank you, that maybe later I would buy. "You no come back here, go to other temples. Buy now, seven dollars, special price for you!"


Eventually, I relieved myself of the book and started walking across a causeway. She was still shouting at my back when I was twenty meters away, and the price had dropped to three dollars! Admittedly this was one of the most intense experiences I had, other venders weren't so concentrated in one area. Nevertheless I was shaken.



Later that day, I came across a temple where a number of landmine victims had gathered. You walked through a doorway to a causeway and were suddenly confronted with a poor woman who had lost her feet, fingers, and had scars on her face, and probably the rest of her body, and was blind or had very damaged vision. Of course, you give something to her. Across the causeway music strikes up as two pairs of land mine victims play instruments. More donations. Behind them, two or three more. I especially remember the voice of the last man in the line, missing a leg, begging me for money in a soft sing song voice "Please help me. I am alone, I need food, please give me money."

I had run out of small bills and patience and so walked on by, apologizing and, forgive me, also wondering if he was telling the truth. Apparently, vendors must pay bribes to sell at the sites, unless they are fortunate enough to be related to one of the guards. I wondered if the land mine victims had to pay bribes too.

After five days in Siem Reap, four of those at Angkor Wat, I was exhausted. I was suffering from culture shock and this was exacerbated by my illness. I was getting sicker not better, despite sleeping ten hours a night and another hour in the afternoons. I was also thoroughly sick and scared of riding as a passenger on a motorbike.


Traffic rules and conventions in SE Asia are quite different from the west. Most road vehicles are motorbikes, with a sprinkling of trucks, bicycles and the odd car. So you see motorbikes whizzing all over the place. Traffic moves at a steady pace, with a lot of horn beeping to warn pedestrians (often there is no sidewalk), and other vehicles when they are about to be passed. When someone wants to turn or cross the street, they simply start across at a measured pace, and traffic flows around them. They would get killed in Toronto! It was heart stopping to be on a motorbike and be nearly jumping off because it kept looking like an accident was about to occur.


From Siem Reap I took a minibus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city. The roads in Cambodia are in very bad shape. (I heard a rumor that this was deliberate, to slow down any invasion by land.) This was the worst road trip I have ever taken. The jolting up and down and side to side was awful. The trip was supposed to be nine hours long. At nine hours, we came to a town and I gave thanks that the trip was over - but it was only the half way point. We had traveled 146 km in nine hours! At least the roads improved after that and we arrived five hours later.

I decided to stay in Phnom Penh for a week to heal from my flu. I visited the sinister S-21, the school converted into a detention and torture center for prisoners of the Khmer Rouge. Bare bedsprings where people were shackled, iron bars inset into the floor, tiny cells, and wall after wall of photos hammered home the horror of it. (photos were taken of newly arrived prisoners, and later of their corpses, and sent to the Khmer Rouge headquarters to prove the victims were dead.)


A visit to the Killing Fields is mandatory. This is where the S-21 prisoners were taken and killed, if not already dead, and buried in mass graves. Because resources were so scarce, victims were killed with clubs to save bullets. Walking around the grounds, there are spots on the path where bones show through. A very moving shrine has been built on the site. It is sixteen or so large square shelves, about two meters a side, suspended one above the other. Piles of skulls fill the shelves, catalogued by sex and age - 'male, age 16 to 20' etc.

S-21 and the Killing Fields memorial brought home the larger horror of the civil war Cambodia suffered. However it was the Land Mine Museum near Angkor Wat that fleshed out the personal side of the war. Mr. Aki Ra has set up a small museum at his home. At one time or another he fought for three of the armies involved in the conflict - the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese army, and the Cambodian army - and planted many mines himself. He now works locally, defusing land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that farmers find in their fields. Coming across mines and UXO is a continuing danger for farmers as they plow their fields.


At the museum, shelves display the various types of mines and ordnance used in the war. Under the shelves are boxes and piles of mines and UXO he has defused. Outside, a fenced off demonstration area has these devices deployed so you can see how difficult it is to spot them when planted. It is his story however, that is the center piece of the museum. Set around the room are large pictures he has painted (art therapy??), with a page or two describing what is happening.


Mr. Aki Ra was a young boy when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. He was taken from his parents and raised separately. I think this was standard practice for the Khmer Rouge. His mother was assigned the task of collecting the night soil from all the village houses everyday, and with distributing the rationed food. Any house that didn't produce night soil was punished so she told people to fake it with mud.


Weekly village meetings were held where 'bad' individuals were singled out for punishment. The rest of the village had to cheer on the punishment and show no sympathy whatsoever or else risk punishment themselves, while the punishment could be beatings or even torture till death.

The food was supposed to be rationed equally regardless of need - the sick and elderly getting no extra portions for instance. Mr. Aki Ra's mother defied this by giving more food to those who needed it and less to those who didn't. Receiving his food ration was the only time Mr. Aki Ra saw his mother. At some point she was caught giving extra food to a sick elderly man and killed.


Mr. Aki Ra's father fell ill and lost his appetite. He was hospitalized, fed only pills for eleven days, then given a big bowl of soup. He was starving of course and ate the whole bowl of soup. He was then called a liar for saying he couldn't eat and was killed. Now an orphan, Mr. Aki Ra was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge at age five. He had only a pair of shorts for clothing, only older people got shoes and shirts.

One more story from Mr. Aki Ra's village. There was so little food that people were constantly on the look out for anything edible. A friend stole some food from the pig trough. Later, after the collection of the night stools, a different coloured stool was noticed. The local Khmer Rouge officials demanded to know whose stool it was. The friend said it was his and he was punished.

A couple of stories from Mr. Aki Ra's years as a soldier:
With a Vietnamese Army unit closing in, his Khmer Rouge unit made a big pot of soup spiked with poison. When the VA soldiers appeared, the KR men fled in mock fright. The VA soldiers, always hungry as was everyone, fell on the soup and devoured it. Later the KR came back and easily killed the very sick VA soldiers.


Same scenario except instead of soup, AK-47 bullet clips coated with a poison that becomes airborne as the bullet is fired. As the VA approached, the KR fled in mock fright, dropping the doctored clips. Ammunition also always in short supply, the VA soldiers laughed at their good fortune, picked up the clips and used them to fire on the fleeing KR unit. Again, the KR unit returned later and easily killed the incapacitated soldiers. Same again but this time a KR `volunteer' has a remote controlled mine strapped to his body and pretends to surrender to the VA unit. Of course, the mine is detonated when the KR man is close to the VA unit, killing most of them and the volunteer.

Well enough of that! The war is over, and conditions for the average citizen continue to improve. The majority of Cambodians make their living from the land. Just about all I saw when bussing through the country were rice paddies. One traveler I met described Cambodia, half in jest, as a huge rice paddy with Angkor Wat at one end and Phnom Penh at the other. Simplistic - it misses the mountains and the beaches - but at times it felt like it.

Contact Info: kallen33@hotmail.com


Page Head   Home Page