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The Real Land of Smiles



I’ve just returned from a three day sojourn to The Land of Smiles. No, not Thailand, I spend 99.9% of my time there. I’m referring to our neighbor to the east, Cambodia, which as far as I’m concerned is the real Land of Smiles. By that I mean genuine smiles that come from deep inside and convey heartfelt affection. These smiles convey the simple fact that someone is sincerely happy just to make your acquaintance. During my visit to Cambodia, these smiles were showered with unbridled extravagance from folks who have very little in material things to give. They came from girls and boys, men and women, who were not trying to sell me anything. Even though I spent many memorable hours enjoying the splendors of Angkor Wat, my fondest memories are of the people who welcomed me to their homeland.

Of course Cambodia is not paradise. It is poor, desperately poor. The expression “dirt poor” takes on a literal meaning here. The school children I saw wore dingy uniforms that looked as though they had never been washed, and if they had been washed, it was certainly not in a washing machine, but probably in a tub of toxic river water. These boys and girls, many of them barefoot, were not riding around on motorcycles as they often do here in Thailand, but on rickety bicycles…if they were lucky enough to have one. Many of homes I saw aspired to be huts. They looked incapable of keeping out the rain. The shops in Cambodia (at least the ones not catering to foreigners) are not overflowing with fancy consumer goods. They instead have a sparse selection of basic items. This is not to say that there aren’t affluent Khmers. I saw my share of Mercedes and Lexus rolling through the streets. But by and large the average Khmer makes the average Thai look fabulously wealthy. Despite the lack of material possessions however, the spirit of the Cambodian people is bright and optimistic.

Okay, enough sermonizing. Let me tell you some of the particulars of our recent visit. I say “our”, because I was traveling with my friend Stick, who was good enough to invite me along. It is nice to have a traveling companion who you get along with well. We both are pretty easy going and enjoy “taking it as it comes”.

Getting to Siem Reap from Bangkok is a snap, if pricy. It cost 10,000 baht to fly there. That’s quite dear for a 35-40 minute hop, but the alternative of an overland trip is too ghastly to contemplate. I am not exactly Mr. Lonely Planet, but I did take to heart their horror stories of that particular Road to Hell!

If you are flying from Thailand, then you will be flying with Bangkok Airways. You may be interested to know that they have a nice lounge on the third floor of Suvarnabhumi. The Bangkok Airways staff was particularly friendly and accommodating to me. I arrived at 5:30 A.M. with the expectation of standing around for hours waiting to check in for my 11:30 flight. To my delight, I was able to check in immediately, and could proceed into the main part of the terminal. Maybe it’s just me, but I am I the only one who wonders who in the hell buys all the expensive “stuff” from the King Power shops? Expensive is the byword for everything. Two hundred baht for a bowl of Khao Tom?

It’s a good idea at the lounge reception desk to ask for your Cambodian visa application and your arrival/departure card. It’s always better to have your paperwork filled out and ready to go before you go through immigration. Be sure to have a photograph for your visa.

Our flight took off precisely on time. We had barely reached cruising altitude, when we began our decent into Siem Reap. The airport is quite small, but Cambodian Immigration is extraordinarily efficient in getting you on your way. There were a dozen or so officials on “bucket brigade” processing our visa and passports. Thailand could take a page from the Khmers here! There was a fellow from our guesthouse waiting for us, and off we went in what the locals call a tuk-tuk. It is in reality a motorcycle rickshaw. After living in Thailand so long, it felt strange to be driving on the right hand side of the road. Our driver was a careful one, but most of the most Cambodians make Thais look like paragons of safety. They may have no more use for mirrors than the Thais. But they definitely know how to use their horns!

The Two Dragons Guesthouse is a very nice place to call home during a stay in Siem Reap. Although modest in terms of facilities, it is clean, comfortable and has a friendly and helpful staff on hand to help make your stay an enjoyable one. It is also reasonably priced. My bed was comfortable. The A/C worked well, and there was plenty of hot water. Unless I’m looking for a “resort experience”, that’s good enough for me. We had a few tasty breakfasts there, and more than a few fresh strawberry shakes. The American owner really knows how to run how to do things right, and his no BS policy is refreshing. If something is a rip-off or a complete waste of time, he will let you know!

We quickly checked in and were on our way out to Angkor. When I was there two years ago you needed to provide a photo for your park pass. Now they simply take your photo. Keep your pass easily accessible. You will be asked to show it as you tour various sites. When I was last there, I hired the services of a guide. If this is your first visit I highly recommend having a guide, as he will make everything come alive for you. Since Stick and I had each been to Angkor before, we simply had our tuk-tuk driver bring us around to sites which were of particular interest. When it comes to describing Angkor Wat, all the superlatives in the world hardly seem adequate. All I can say is that if you’ve traveled all the way to Thailand, not to visit Angkor would be a shame. It simply is one of the wonders of the world. At its height, over one million people lived there, and built a complex of temples that we are still marveling at today. Many people think of Angkor Wat as one famous temple, but there are many sites worth visiting within a 70 kilometer area. Two years ago I spent five days seeing as much as possible. This trip, since we had a limited time, we concentrated on a small number of locations.

The main temple, the actual Angkor Wat was naturally the most crowded, but this being the hot season, the number of tourists was not enormous. There were in fact times when we were the only ones in a particular spot. It simply boggles my mind to consider what this all must have looked like during the glory days of the Khmer kings. My little “point and shoot” camera can’t do justice to it all, but here are a few close-ups of some details that caught my eye.

Ta Prom, sometimes referred to as the “Jungle Temple” is perhaps my favorite place. Seeing the massive trees that wrap themselves around these ruins gives you a sense of just how old this place is. The atmosphere here is dominates by silence, and you wouldn’t feel all surprised if Lara Croft stepped out of the shadows.

If you are feeling particularly fit, you won’t mind hundreds and hundreds of steep, narrow stairs. The last time I was here I happily ascended them all. This time however, neither of us was in the mood to do so, especially in the sweltering heat.

Wherever you go throughout the historical park, you will inevitably be forced to run “The Gauntlet of the Urchins”. These kids seem to have a sixth sense, and will be upon you before you know it. “One dollar. One dollar” they cry. “Mister you buy post cards from me? Only one dollar. You want bracelets? Ten for one dollar! You want guide book? You want tee-shirt? You buy from me, okay?” Some folks are annoyed at their persistence. But knowing how desperately poor they are, I can hardly fault them. I actually did buy more tee shirts than I actually wanted, but what the hell. I bought my share of cold drinks and fruit as well. These street-wise kids have their banter down pat. “Obama, Obama. You like Obama? My name Michelle. My name Malika.” They were always happy to mug for the camera, although they would sometimes follow up with “Okay, you take picture. One dollar!” In Thailand these kids would be in school. Here that is an unaffordable luxury. A fortune pours into Siem Reap because of tourism. Unfortunately the “trickle-down” theory of economics works about as well here as it did under Reagan. At least I told Stick, they are just peddling trinkets, and not selling their bodies. He heartily agreed.

We encountered some very friendly monks who were happy to have an opportunity to practice their English with us.

Outside many sites you will often hear traditional Cambodian music performed by landmine victims. I never hesitate to make a donation. These guys are not beggars. If you enjoy their music, please feel free to make one as well.

Warning! Watch out for the monkeys! They can be aggressive. People are sometimes rushed to the hospital to receive rabies shots. One actually jumped on Stick’s back while he was kneeling to take a picture. I actually have a picture of that close encounter, but discretion forces me to keep that a private shot!

If you are looking for tasty lunch, you can’t go wrong with a fresh baguette sandwich. French colonialism, if nothing else, bequeathed a legacy of crusty loaves! My sandwich was stuffed with roast pork, lots of crisp vegetables and three different sauces. Washed down with a cold fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, my lunch provide some much needed sustenance.

Speaking of food, Siem Reap provides a cornucopia of restaurants, for every taste and budget. While Khmer cuisine is not likely to receive any Michelin stars, we had some excellent dinners.

Here is one particularly succulent dinner that I enjoyed. Roast duck with a honey-ginger sauce.

We received large portions at extremely reasonable prices. The largest concentration of restaurants is centered on Pub Street, which in fact has no strictly drinking establishments.

The atmosphere is relaxed and colorful, and mercifully free from sleaze! Naughty boys are advised to stick to Phnom Penh. The locals know what side of the bread is buttered! Over two million visitors come to Siem Reap each year. By and large they are there to experience Angkor, and anything which detracts from that experience is not welcome! We struck a number of conversations with folks sitting next to us. It was evident that people were having a wonderful time. Maybe it was all that icy cold Angkor beer. It is eminently drinkable, and you’ve got to love a brew whose motto is “My Country, My Beer!”

Oh, before I forget, if you are looking for some incredible pastries, you should definitely head for The Blue Pumpkin. Don’t go if you are counting calories though, because what they offer is not diet fare! This French owned café offers pastries equal in any I’ve had elsewhere, including Paris!

Although the ruins of Angkor are the main attraction, there are certainly other worthwhile things to see and do. Stick and I both enjoyed getting out into the countryside and seeing how everyday folks lived. One afternoon we took a long drive out to village near the only mountain in the region. I never learned its name, but it’s hard to miss, being in the middle of a flat landscape. This was well off the well beaten tourist path, and we were the only pale faces in evidence. If you have the stamina to climb 150 + steps, you will be rewarded with a lovely view. There is supposed to be a large Buddha on the very top of the mountain, but the gravel road to the summit was under construction.

Here is a monk doing yeoman’s work on the road.

The “old man of the mountain”

This pretty girl was cranking away at what must be an antique ice shaver.

Probably our most memorable excursion was out to a fishing village on the Tonle Sap, which is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. Kampong Klaeng is a site not to be missed. I have never seen anything like it. This being the dry season, we were actually able to drive there.

A smiling face to go with out fill-up!

During the rainy season, as the Mekong empties into the lake, the water levels rise dramatically. Every building sits perched on poles about 12-14 meters high.

When the waters rise, they will probably be kissing the floors! We did not encounter a single tourist that day. In addition to native Khmers, there is a large population of Vietnamese working their butts off in the fishing trade. We took a boat ride out to watch everyone at work. It is not an easy life out there in the sweltering heat. Everyone, including children who are not much more than infants, work day in and day out just trying to get by. If they are lucky, the kids may get to attend school during the rainy season.

Materially there is not much to show for their efforts. The houses are ramshackle. Last year a fire swept through, destroying a large portion of the village. Despite the poverty in evidence, we received nothing but warm smiles. Small children called hello down to us from windows, and ran out into the street to practice the few words of English they knew, which of course were not that many.

Back in town we often just strolled around, soaking in the parade of life. Here are a few shots taken as we meandered around.

I took this picture of an enterprising street performer, who juggled, did sleight of hand, and a number of other amusing feats of dexterity. I admire enterprising people who work hard to find their niche in life.

Alas it was finally time to pack our bags and bid adieu to Cambodia. After another quick up and down flight we were back in Thailand. Miraculously the line at passport control was short and we were soon in a taxi headed downtown. The transition between Cambodia and Thailand seemed so abrupt. The streets were now full of expensive cars. The shop windows were now full of expensive stuff. There didn’t seem to be nearly as many smiling faces, and the ones I saw were almost cold and mask-like. Of course that was probably just my over active imagination at work. In any case, I know that I will return someday to see how the Khmers are doing. When I do, I know that there will be plenty of smiling faces to welcome me.

Stickman's thoughts:

It was a great trip!