Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cambodia, the land of smiles

Cambodia, what a trippy place.

Mekong River

Two nights in Phnom Penh, just enough. The sunset Mekong boat ride was nice, had some beers, there was a DJ, people were fun. Got home late. Woke up leisurely. Took a tuk tuk to the killing fields and genocide museum. I didn't know much about this part of Cambodia's history. Google it if you need to. But basically the story is that a psychopath (Pol Pot) managed to take over the country with his "organization" (Khmer Rouge) which justified the torture and killing of anywhere between 1-2 million Cambodian people (and some foreigners) between 1975 and 1979.

The Khmer Rouge took detailed records of all their victims. These photos are all displayed at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum.

The country is recovering from a major blow. People here tend to be nice, they are friendly and they all have a story. It's like the wild wild west, where everything is possible, and anything goes. It's a major site for any adventure.

I just came back from being on the jungle island for 3 nights...

Accessible only by boat, I hitched a ride with a fellow who just finished a gig working as boat skipper on another island (for 6 months).

He was going to see about a job on the island, and also wanted to go fishing. Perfect! I would just tag along.

I got so sunburned that first day, I literally darkened about three shades sitting out there in the sun on the boat. We didn't catch any fish. The island has a kitchen, an eating area, a lookout/conversation deck and a bar. There was one squat toilet and there were two stalls for bucket showers.

Hammocks were US$7 & treehouse bungalows were $20.

This is expensive by Cambodian standards, as a bungalow with private toilet might go for $10 or even less, and a dorm bed might be as low as $2. I'm paying $3 for a bed in a dorm-like area tonight, but there are partitions and locks so it's pseudo private. I have my own fan and mosquito net, a light and an electrical outlet with a plug I can use with my American devices. It's in a building that is a two story grass shack.

The island, it comes with food. The owner is a reclusive chef, a man who revels in cooking but has escaped to a jungle island to make do with daily grocery runs by boat and a homemade brick oven to produce bread and pizza, lasagna and ravioli.

He has cheese! Cheese in Asia! On a jungle island! Food is amazing, and also pricey at $8.50 for dinner... Dinner here on the mainland was $3.50 for a huge plate of noodles, fish and vegetables. Just to give you an idea of the price difference. It get even cheaper as you head away from the beaches. There are many backpackers who can survive on US$5-7/day. Not including alcohol. But beer is cheaper than water, at <$1/can. Today I got three draft beers for a total of US$2.25. That's the other thing about Cambodia. You can pay in dollars. You get small change in Cambodian riel, but everything else, dollars.

The second night he had fresh Kampot pepper- have you ever had fresh pepper? So fresh you eat it like a fruit, it's crunchy like an apple, but tastes like pepper, but so fresh... It's hard to explain! Later he told me to take that pepper, and mix it 50/50 with lavender buds, then take a nice cut of steak, and smother the whole thing in it, more than you might think is necessary. They you get a pan and heat it until it's so hot it's smoking. Then sear that meat with the pepper and lavender, and feed it to your lover. That's what he told me.

(Ugh, can I just say there is a HUGE BUG! that somehow got in my weird little half-room and I had to put down the mosquito net to block it out.)

Back to the island- We had some (Bug actually got in my tent and I had to get it out!). We ate well on the island, is what I'm trying to say. Yesterday one of the guys went out to hunt for fresh oysters on the half-shell, mmmm. Then the storms came. The first one prevented our afternoon departure and so added one more night to the bill. The boat couldn't make it through the rough waters. The storm on the third day didn't daunt us though, as we were already trudging through the forest to the military base on the other side of the island to use the navy boat. It did soak us through and through. We ended up taking our shoes off because the mud was sucking our flimsy flip flops right off our feet.

So there I was, walking barefoot through the jungle in pouring rain. Wow! Amazing.

The army boat was tiny, and almost sank with 10 or 12 people on it. We got across though, for more hiking out of the army base on the other side, and had a cab waiting for an hour drive back to where the rest of my stuff was.

 On the island, I slept in a hammock.

Right by the ocean. With ocean waves lapping at my toes. Waking up, out onto the beach. Days of doing nothing. I finished two books, one for each storm. Salt in the air brined my skin and I still don't feel completely dry. I didn't have internet access. I contemplated my isolation while I was out there, and came to the conclusion that I liked my "real life". I thought about how far removed I was from my every day reality, and asked myself if I wouldn't mind staying. And for once the answer was yes, I would mind. I wanted to go back to the world I created for myself back in LA. Hey, you can do it anywhere- it being whatever you want. You can be angry, or you can suck it up and try. Some people here express bitterness, anger and cynicism towards the US. Towards the "system," or towards rules, or towards "typical American" behaviour. It surprises me (or maybe not) that people adopt such a dismissive attitude to an entire country. More than that, towards the country that they are from, born and raised, and would not dare persecute them for expressing their opinion. I'm suprised that they don't recognize the worth of what they have. It is an honor to be born so lucky as to have had easy access to quality education, healthcare and other "rights." It's easy to write off a government, but irresponsible not to participate.

Today I'm off to Kampot, another beachside town in Southern Cambodia.

No comments: