I spent two weeks over the Christmas holiday visiting Cambodia and my daughter Abby, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village in Pursat Province. After flying 10,000 miles, we traversed only about 200 miles of Cambodia, focusing on the areas that are central to Abby’s life there. We began in Phnom Penh, spent an overnight in her village of Krakor, a few days in Battambang , then Siem Reap to visit Angkor, followed by a week of yoga and meditation retreat. Cambodia is much more developed than I anticipated. It’s a lush country, incredibly cheap, with very friendly people, great food, and fascinating sights. Anyone could have a great time there. As a bonus, I spent two weeks with Abby, who’s having a remarkable Peace Corps experience.
I have been to an odd assortment of Asian cities (Hong Kong, Nanjing, Kuwait City), but Phnom Penh tops them all. The French influence in urban design is majestic, the rooftop bars overlooking the quay where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong are relaxing, the wonderful central market is abuzz. It has a big city feel at a manageable scale; after walking it a few hours the layout is easy to understand, yet its rich in interesting side streets. Cambodia is remarkably safe. We walked everywhere, and when we got tired we hopped into a tuk-tuk, a motorcycle driven open cart that is a great way to sightsee.
I was up for the palace and museums, but Abby feels it’s important for visitors to connect with Cambodia’s brutal recent history – the Khmer Rouge. One day we visited the Tonle Sueng Prison in Phnom Penh, the next day we went out to the Chueng Ek killing fields. Both were emotionally draining experiences. Man’s inhumanity to man was so raw in each place. Abby is right in believing that we need to contemplate this history in order to put Cambodia today in perspective.
Considering that only 35 years ago Phnom Penh was a ghost town, left vacant for four years and looted, the cities rebound is all the more remarkable. It is a really vibrant place, accessible yet exotic.
We spent one overnight in Krakor where I met Abby’s Cambodian family. We spent most of the afternoon scouring through an Atlas Abby and I got them as a gift while sipping fresh cocoanuts her dad clipped off a tree in the yard. They live in a traditional Cambodian house with main living spaces on the upper floor, an open kitchen in the yard, and primitive plumbing. Her mom made a dinner of chicken curry, rice, and vegetables, which we ate on the floor at Ground Level. They use more dishes than we do at Thanksgiving – everything has its own plate. The next morning we visited the market, saw Abby’s health center, and visited the Wat (buddhist worship precinct).
We bussed northwest to Battambang, Cambodia’s college town, and a place were Abby occasionally goes for an R&R. It reminded me of small European cities like Trier- very easy to get around, very relaxing, not inundated with tourists. We stayed at a super hotel with private bath, hot water, pool, and rooftop deck for $12 a night. No meal costs more than $10 for two. Abby’s favorite restaurant is Chinese Noodle, a hole in the wall dumpling place that the Peace Corps Volunteers within 50 miles have claimed their own. We actually ran into other volunteers there, and there can’t be more than twenty total in that part of Cambodia. The food is incredible; even better when topped off with the world’s best ginger ale (made with root) at the nearby Gecko Bar.
After spending the week understanding the Phnom Penh / Battmbang axis that is spine of Abby’s life, we went tourist. We took a river boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, an eight hour journey through some of the most incredible river marsh areas of the world. Tonle Sap is a huge lake in central Cambodia that is a unique natural wonder. This part of Cambodia is completely flat – grade changes of a foot are significant. During rainy season the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh actually changes direction of flow; heavy rain plus Himalayan runoff from the Mekong backfill the river. The Tonle Sap Lake swells to four times its dry season size, absorbing 1/7 of all Cambodia’s land. Boating through this area we witnessed people living in such immediate connection to the water, in floating cities and towns on stilts, people life in the water more than on land.
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s biggest tourist town, site of the Angkor Wat temples, built by Cambodian kings between 800 and 1300 A.D. We spent a day biking to the main events – Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Te Phrohm. Then I spent a second day cycling to more remote temples. The scale of these temples is incredible; Angkor Wat is the largest religious space on earth. The scale of the entire area is also breathtaking. These complexes are measured in miles, not feet.
After so much grandeur we spent five days at a yoga / meditation retreat in nearby Bakong. Definitely the most crunchy granola thing I’ve ever done. The yoga was great – my first introduction to yin – and in time I got into the chanting, meditation, and surprising good vegan food. We left on Saturday, which turned out to be a silent day. I was fine hoofing a tuk-tuk away from that. After all, I was on vacation!
We returned to Battambang for another overnight and more Chinese Noodle. Then we bussed back to Krakor, where I gave Abby a hug on the side of the road and then I returned to Phnom Penh. She’ll be in Cambodia until fall of 2015; plenty of time for me to return and see more.