Sunday, March 31, 2002

TR Cambodia

3/25 –3/31/02

When I left off in the last report we were about to leave Bangkok for Phnom Penh (PP), Cambodia. As I also mentioned previously I had prebooked this portion of the trip as a complete turnkey, private tour both for expediency and safety. In retrospect it was the correct decision because we would never have been able to cram in all the sights and education we received in five days by ourselves. I don’t think safety is a big concern so if you have lots of time you could certainly visit Cambodia on you own for much less money.

We departed Bangkok airport early Monday morning, March 25th – my birthday. I thought that was only fair since I had taken my sports manager to a marathon in Ocala, FL for her birthday? After arriving in PP and paying $20 for a visa at the airport (that took one whole page of the limited space in our passports) we were met by our new tour guide and driver. They drove us to our hotel first – a 4-star hotel that had seen better days and although it was located only one block from the US embassy the neighborhood looked pretty rough. But then again I had noticed from the air and the short drive that the whole city looked rough and to be in shambles. It reminded me of San Jose, Costa Rica except the infrastructure (roads, etc) was in even worse shape. Only the major roads and boulevards were paved – the others were dirt! And PP is the capital city of Cambodia with a population of 1 million. The other thing I quickly noticed was the traffic. There is no public transportation in PP so there are lots of cars and even more (millions) of motorbikes and bicycles. And like Rome and Cairo there didn’t seem to be any traffic rules? Vehicles and bikes were going in all directions – on both sides of the road! I was certainly glad that we had hired a local driver to get us through the maze.

The first stop on the tour was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, PP’s main tourist sights. The Royal Palace itself is off limits since the king still lives there but many buildings on the grounds are open to the public. The Silver Pagoda or Preah Vihear Keo Morakot (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) takes its name from the floor of the temple covered with 5329 silver tiles. It also houses the famous Emerald Buddha. I was kind of upset with a gimmick they have in PP. Each tourist site has its own licensed guides so that our private guide had to hand us over to another guide which meant a ‘tip’ at each site. Our guide at the Royal Palace was a history professor at the University in PP. He made more from tips by moonlighting at the Palace than his monthly salary of $50 at the university. The average salary in Cambodia is about $30 per month. So a $1 tip is greatly appreciated.

The other thing we learned quickly is that the local currency ‘the riel’ (4000 per $1 US) was useless. Everyone quoted and requested US dollars. I exchanged $10 at the market later and the only way I could get rid of it was to give it away as tips. Make sure you take US traveler checks and cash since there are no ATMs in the country! The hotels and tourist restaurants will take plastic; otherwise you must have US dollars.

We then visited the Central Market located of course in the center of PP. All the locals do their shopping here on a daily basis. There are few tourists in PP so this is indeed a local market and you must be prepared to negotiate prices and still expect to pay 2 to 3 times what the locals pay (but still get a heck of a bargain because everything is dirt cheap). Now it was time for our first taste of Cambodian food at lunch. All meals were included in our tour package but the disadvantage was that most meals were a set menu and so we ate Cambodian and Thai food for lunch and dinner every day. We could have had it for breakfast too since the breakfast buffets all had a local and American side. But back to lunch! We received the daily special – a whole local fish steamed at our table with local spices and of course fried rice and veggies. Actually it was very tasty.

In the afternoon we visited the National Museum. It houses many of the original statues from the Temples at Angkor Wat. They had to be moved there to save them from looters/thieves. The statues at the temples are copies. Another thing we quickly realized about Cambodia and Asia in general. The only air conditioning in the country is in the hotel rooms of the international hotels. The lobbies, restaurants, public buildings, etc – NOTHING but the hotel room is air-conditioned! We damn near died from heat exhaustion a few times! Just walking and standing around in the museum was a brutal task -as interesting as the museum was I just wanted to leave and go back to our air conditioned car.
Our final stop of the first day was Wat Phnom (wat = pagoda in Cambodia) founded on the only hill in PP. Legend is that in 1372 a local widow, Lady Penh, stumbled across a floating trunk containing four bronze Buddha statues. She saw them as bearers of good fortune and had a small temple built for them on a hill overlooking the convergence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. This hill became known as Penh’s hill –Phnom Penh – a name adopted by the city.
Finally and thankfully they dropped us off back at our hotel – and air-conditioned room! Both our guidebook and tour guide advised us not to walk around PP after dark (the only safety concern we received). We followed the advice and stayed in our air-conditioned room.

At least until 6am the next morning when I had to get out to do a training run. I was surprised and relieved to find other runners out there winding their way down to the river about a mile from the hotel where lots of locals were running and exercising. I had no problem with traffic for the first part of my run but on the way back I found myself in rush hour traffic and quickly had to adapt to survive. I had to run with the traffic and claim my piece of the road and somehow everyone else seemed to avoid me? I don’t know whether to call it trust or stupidity but it worked?

Now it was time to continue our tour with a visit to Tuol Sleng Museum or Khmer Rouge S-21 Prison. During their reign of terror the Khmer converted a secondary school into a prison. Most of the classrooms were converted into small cells (3ft x 6 ft) but 10 rooms were used to interrogate (read torture and kill) prisoners. The museum has many graphic photos of tortured and dead prisoners including children. It is very gruesome reminder of what went wrong. Over 20,000 victims were imprisoned in S-21. Only seven survived! There were also many photos of the mass graves or killing fields outside of PP but we did not go to the actual sites. I will send you a photo of the prison/house rules. I guarantee that if you post them in your kitchen and implement them immediately that you will never have any insubordination problems with your family.

Our last stop in PP was at the Russian market, a local market that had been frequented by the Russians during their stay in PP. It is noted mostly for its silver and jewellery.
Two days is quite adequate to visit PP and we weren’t disappointed to be leaving for our journey north to Angkor Wat/Siem Reap.
It’s only a 20-minute flight to Siem Reap which is Cambodia’s most touristy town and has many modern international hotels. We were rewarded with a new 4-star hotel that had just opened in Feb. It even had air conditioning in the lobby and restaurant (and it would be appreciated). Although Siem Reap is much smaller than PP the traffic was just as bad.
Our new guide and driver escorted us first to the park entrance/HQ at Angkor to buy a 3-day pass. Foreigners must buy a pass to enter the park and cannot drive in the park. Since there is no public transportation this means that you must hire a taxi or a car and driver for your visits. There are over 40 temples and complexes within Angkor and you would need at least a week to visit all of them. Thus we could only visit the major temples and sites and I will just try to summarize some of the highlights for you.

Angkor Wat – built in the 12th century. The centerpiece of Angkor. A huge temple surrounded by a wall and a moat. The architecture is complex and sophisticated and the statues and relief carvings in the sandstone are intricate and spectacular. There are miles and miles of sandstone carvings depicting the history and religious beliefs of the rulers and people of that period.

Angor Thom – a city built 2 Km north of Angkor Wat in the 12th century to house about 1 Million people. It was surrounded by a wall and a moat with four entrances, one at each compass point. Directly in the center of the city is The Banyon, a huge temple with 54 towers, each containing four heads, each head facing a compass point. It is widely conjectured what or whom the heads are supposed to represent but the common belief is King Jayavarman VII. There are many temples within the grounds of Angkor Thom as well as the Terrace of the Elephants – a long terrace containing sculptures of 3-headed elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.
All of these temples and complexes have intricate carvings depicting the history and religion of the periods. Our guide spent a lot of time explaining the carvings and history to us. Without his knowledge we would have had no idea what the various carvings meant.

Banteay Srei –the citadel of the women. Built in the 12th century. Renowned for its intricate carvings and decorations in pink sandstone and is in a state of remarkable preservation

Ta Prohm – 12th century. It was discovered in the 19th century and has been left untouched by archaeologists. Shrouded in jungle, trees grow amongst the stone pillars. Scenes from the recent movie ‘Tomb Raider’ were shot here.

There are many others but I can best sum up our experience by comparing the temples and ruins to the pyramids of Egypt. They are younger but the architecture is much more sophisticated and complex and the carvings much more vast and intricate. If you like to visit archaeological wonders then you must visit Angkor!
We finished our last tour day with an obligatory visit to a local school/factory where the government trained the locals in the ancient art/skill of carving – both wood and sandstone. It is all done by hand and so each piece is unique. We bought a sculpture of an Apsara dancer (the mythical dancer who is part female and part god) carved in Cambodian marble for $150. I don’t believe you could touch it in a gallery here for less than $1000? Now we are ready to leave – or are we?

All the while we were touring around Angkor I was observing and wondering if I could fulfill a hidden agenda – to run a marathon in Angkor/Cambodia! I had researched and determined that there is a half marathon held each Dec in Angkor but no marathon. A local runner had described the half marathon course to me – it is essentially a loop around the Mini Circle, a road that travels around most of the major temple sites. I asked the driver and guide to drive the loop to confirm the course. It was doable! The problem was getting there and support because I would have to do it very early to escape the heat. I had even booked an extra unscheduled day on the tour in the hope/expectation that I would be able to do it.

I asked the driver if he would be available to drive me there, assist me and what the charge would be. $10! I felt so guilty about asking him to pick me up at 4am that I insisted he take $20 – a full day’s pay! The tour guide, not to be left out, stated that he used to run half marathons and would like to accompany me for the first half? I was skeptical but didn’t care. The plan was on! At 4am on Friday the driver picked me up at the hotel. My sports manager did not bother waking up? We picked up the guide and proceeded to the west entrance of Angkor Wat. The marathon started at 4:15am in total darkness and a cool temperature of 80+F. As suspected the guide was not fast and after ½ mile I quit trying to run with him and forged ahead at an 8 minute pace. I wanted to get as many miles in as possible before sunrise! The driver continued to follow me and light up the road/path with his headlights. Otherwise it was so dark that I could never have run. The roads are in the park and although there are some local homes/huts along some stretches there was no electricity and thus no lights! Around 8Km the course makes a small loop back on itself and at that point I met my guide coming the other way. He was so discouraged that he quit, got in the car and helped provide support for the rest of the run. It was quite a scene – this white, mostly naked body running down the middle of a deserted road in the middle of a jungle being backlit with the high beams of a car. I think that apparition helped to scare off many of the dogs I encountered when I passed through a small settlement about 12Km into the race. But there were some dogs that decided to give chase and only backed off when I challenged them.

I had prearranged with my support crew to stop every 15 minutes (about 3km) for water as I knew that I would have to drink lots of fluid. I had given the driver money to buy eight 1-liter bottles of water and to put them on ice so I could also use them to cool down. They couldn’t seem to grasp the need to continue running while drinking so I just gave up and stopped for my water break even though it cost me time. A few kilometers after my encounter with the dogs I was running down a very dark stretch of road when I noticed a white or yellow streak slithering across the road right beneath my feet? It took about 5 microseconds to register what it was and another 5 microseconds to leap 5 feet vertically in the air. But it took an eternity as I hung there in mid-air defying gravity and watched a snake slither across the road and into the jungle before I allowed my body to drop back to earth! I had no idea what kind of snake it was. When I went back to the car to ask my support crew they were laughing so hard at my antics that they had not looked at he snake. Can I deduct snake-delay time from my finish time?

Soon I was back at the west entrance to Angkor Wat and passed the Half in 1:50 plus change. As I was following the route around Angkor Wat the second time I was treated to a spectacular sunrise lighting up the temple. Lots of people pay big bucks to go out there early for just that scene and I was getting it for free and I was still lucid enough to enjoy it. However that was about to change rapidly. As the sun rose so did the heat and humidity. And so did the problems with traffic as the locals started riding their bikes and motorbikes to work. By 20 miles I started sucking on sugar candy to prevent the low blood sugar problem I had in Bangkok and in addition to my stop at each water break I started walking for about 30 seconds while pouring cold water over my head to cool down. This slowed me down even more but at least I was able to continue running to the finish line and crossed it in 3:54:50. I was very hot and tired but had suffered no illness or injury and had eight days to recover for Bali.

After a quick cool-down my driver took me back to the hotel to find - guess what? My sports manager was still in bed sleeping! Some people have a tough life? But I still had time for a quick shower, breakfast and a nap before the guide and driver came to transport us to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok. We planned to overnight near the airport to catch an early morning flight to Hong Kong. After two weeks of Thai and Chinese food our only goal/desire for that night was to eat some American food. A pepper steak and French fries tasted mighty good!

On Saturday we flew to HK and stayed overnight at a 5-star hotel overlooking Causeway Bay in downtown HK. We had two priorities: meet with a friend and ex-work colleague of Nicole’s for dinner and eat only American food before continuing on to Bali where we figured we would be eaing Indonesian food. There was a minor problem with sticker shock. After spending only $10 per day for three meals, paying $20 for a mid-size pizza was a shock. For dinner our friend was gracious when we took him to an English pub. I had Shepherd’s Pie – the first time I had seen mashed potatoes in two weeks. Funny how you can miss the little things?
We also went window-shopping in HK to see if it was still a shopper’s paradise – it’s NOT! I priced a 128mB memory card for my digital camera – only $5 cheaper than I can buy it here in Sarasota. Which means I can buy it a lot cheaper in NYC or on the net than in HK.

Now it was time to catch the next flight to Bali. Other than the marathon at the end of the stay, nothing was planned or structured for our 10 days there which meant that we could have some rest time and do our own thing. But that is the subject of the next report.

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