Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2014

10690172_10154657251595604_7495327505263138324_nI will never forget Siem Reap.. it is now burned in my brain as a serious part of my life story.  From the second we crossed the border from Thailand into Cambodia our trip took a drastic turn into a vacuum.. where part of me will remain forever.  By the end of day 2, Sylvie and I were in awe of how amazing this leg of the trip had been.. how crazy and outrageous the experiences were compared to the rest of the trip.. to the other trips.  This place jumped into the lead in only 2 days.. 2 long days.  Then day 3 came crashing down on us like the monsoon.. the worst possible thing that could happen.. happened.  MY decision to come to Southeast Asia had finally arrived to beat the shit out of me.. to hurt me like never before.. to scar me forever.  As we sat in the hotel lobby having bread and coffee for our morning fueling session, complaining about the five dollars the receptionist was trying to charge us for yesterdays breakfast, the news was served to me.  My sick and dying father had passed away.  Here I sit in 3rd world Cambodia, 2 days minimum from home, as helpless as can be, learning this fact… my situation could not be blamed on anyone but myself.

The months leading up to this trip were full of questions and decisions.. do we go or not? How healthy will he be ? what if something happens while we are gone? months of these questions.. months of visiting dad at home and in the hospital.. months of analyzing his health and situation.  This trip was very important to me… not as important as my father .. But important enough to obsess over it.. 2 years in the planning.  I made the decision to take the trip with COMPLETE confidence that he would be alive and well when I returned.  I’ve made many bad decisions in my life, but this one … I might actually learn from.

So why am I still here 2 days later.. why haven’t I scrambled onto the first flight home? Well.. this place and I now have a bond .. it’s where I was when I found out.. it’s where I cried for hours.. it’s where I questioned, tortured and beat myself black and blue.. poor Sylvie.. thanks Sylvie.  I couldn’t deal with buses, planes, 1-800 numbers or anything.. it made more sense to stay put and let it all out and deal with it.. after all, it is mine to deal with.  The fact that dad didn’t want a funeral played into the decision to stay put.. there isn’t anything to go back for.  The family will still be in pain when I return and we can share some of that then..

And how can I write about my trip at a time like this? Well granted, yes, I am a very selfish and self serving person.. most of you reading know this about me.  But there is also the fact that my dad really enjoyed my journals.  He was an avid reader.. able to devour 500 pages in a day … and he loved my writing! He made it a point to tell me so.  Some of us know how tough it can be to get recognition and praise from scrutinizing parents… but with this, I was successful in his eyes.  He printed and organized my many emails from China back in 2001.. kept them for me in a nice folder for safe keeping.. and he read all my trips since then.  So Siem Reap Cambodia is for my dad.  I write this for him and to him.

Dear Dad,

Holyshit.. what a crazy place ! China was pretty exotic and out there but at least there you felt completely safe under the protection of your Visa and American school.  Here, Sylvia and I share our dilemmas and problems with a handful of travelers as clueless as us.. together we walk forward.. blindfolded …  hoping we find the way through.

10612615_10154657253420604_6381644591302274235_nWe booked our transport across the border with our hostel.. 850 Baht (each) is supposed to get us a Toyota mini van to the Krong Paoy Paet border crossing in 4 hours, a 2 hour taxi from the border to Siem Reap and a hotel room with AC.  What do you think? pretty good deal eh ?  it’s around 50 bucks.  We couldn’t get 6 hours of driving on $50 of gas back home.. plus there is a hotel room included!  Sylvia agreed is was a good deal.. boy oh boy Dad.. what a shit show ahead of us.

The van was horrible.. somehow I forgot my vow back in Honduras to never take another minivan again.. they are cramped, jam packed and they trigger claustrophobia. The night before we met 2 Canadians in Bangkok and drank a wack of beers and smoked 2 bongs of shisha  .. James and Courtney who were on their final night in Asia after 2 years of traveling! can you imagine? Courtney actually got oggled by Antoine Vermette at a hockey game.. all night he was smiling at her through the glass and at the end of the game he skated over and gave her his stick! pretty cool 🙂

Needless to say, we were hung over .. in this cramped little van.. ready to puke.. I didn’t want to be the one who dirtied the van.. stunk it up.. ruined everyone’s ride.. Sylvia had the same thing going on but we managed to keep it together.

It was on this ride that we met our travel companion for the next few days.. a nice German girl named Anna.. 20 years old, traveling alone and made you jealous with her composure and wisdom.  Also on the bus were 4 travelers from France.. 4 Japanese girls I dubbed the “trouble makers” and 2 very offensive Americans.. him and her.. her words entering the packed mini van were “Great! we are stuck at the back and it’s so fucking hot in here” …. welcome !!

Half way through the ride we stopped for gas at Seven 11 .. when we crawled back in the van, the Japanese girls had swapped seats with the French.. without asking them.  It is here I giggled and called them the “trouble makers” and they would forever love me now.. Asians I know 🙂  but yes, trouble erupted .. Seeing this, the Americans now wanted the same deal.. they wanted to change seats and they were loud and aggressive about it .. the French returned and without hesitation, they ousted the Japanese and claimed their seats back.  For 5-10 minutes we had a mini international cold war in the van.  Sylvia, Anna and I had returned early to the van and had our original seats the whole time.. just watching the show and laughing.  We had pretty good seats 🙂

When we arrived at the Paoy Paet border I was made the leader of the group by our Cambodian escort.. he said I was the “elder” and I was to keep the group together to ensure a smooth border crossing.. so I did.  The French had paid some extra cash and were across the border in 5 minutes whereas the rest of us stood in lines for 2 hours in some pretty crazy heat.  Once across the border, it was pickpocket heaven.. it was happening all around us.. we had just come from tourist friendly Thailand to 3rd world anarchy in a matter of 400 meters.. little kids roaming around at crotch level looking to scoop your pockets.. or distract you.. people coming up to you pointing at fridges (drinks) or the street (buses) to distract you while the kids circled you, looking for an opening.   Everyone in our group was holding their bags in front of them, checking their pockets constantly.. it was very obvious and very unnerving.  A few hours later we would learn that an Australian couple from our line had been victims and lost their passports in this mayhem .. The wife was carrying both passports for them.. she was crying hysterically at the taxi stand after she realized it.  We had been warned not to lose our passports as it would be very difficult to leave Cambodia without them … yikes !

Finally our bus arrived to take us to our taxis and we made it on unscathed.  The bus ride to the taxi center was a single road leading straight out from the border.. a war zone like I had perhaps seen before in China.. but worst.. like some of those scenes on CNN of Iraq or Afghanistan.  Sooo poor .. sooo many people.. everything brown, muddy, dirty, old, crumbling, rusting..  After the border ordeal, Sylvia and I looked at each other and asked “we are going deeper into this place ???”

At the taxi stand our group was once again whittled down.. we had started the morning with 13 .. the French were long gone .. and now we were being split into taxis..  dispersed.. easier to rob us that way.. we should have been placed with Anna but instead we got grouped with the 2 Americans … great !  Just their attitude got them into trouble everywhere they went.. and guess what?  10 minutes down the road, and the taxi gets a phone call.. the Americans were being scammed.. they hadn’t paid this leg of the trip.  They had actually paid more than Sylvia and I but didn’t have a hotel included.. haha.. We had been on the road since 7:00 a.m. in a hot stuffy cramped minivan, went through hours of waiting around and guarding our belongings at the border and we were now on the final leg of the trip .. semi comfortable .. in a cab driving 2 hours to our final destination .. and the sun was going down. Low and behold, the cab was turning around back to the taxi stand and I was fuming inside.  This has nothing to do with us!  Why should we suffer this setback!?  They argued and yelled at the Cambodians for about 45 minutes while we sat in the cab and waited.. where was Anna the lone traveler? Where were the trouble makers?? Why didn’t we hook up with the French?? Eventually they paid a bunch of extra moneys to continue our cab ride.. and do you think they apologized or acknowledged the delay imposed on Sylvia and I ? not a word … grrrrrr..

So we get to Siem Reap in the dark .. wonderful!. and we are now supposed to be in the safety of our hotel.. but the sketchiness persists on.. the hotel manager is their ring leader! Sitting us down to have a “discussion” before we are allowed to take the keys and go to our rooms .. asking 20 questions about our plans and situation.. aggressively suggesting we change our plans to his.. pushing money exchanging through him, now.. pushing tour packages through him, now… and you know me, asking questions, challenging his language skills, giving him nothing yet allowing him to think he will get something later.. frustrating him.. but seriously, just be honest with us, we aren’t stupid.

He says that after we visit our rooms and have a shower ( do we stink? of course we do ) we are to return to him to sit and have another discussion.. seriously? You know that feeling you get when things aren’t quite right? Well, that feeling was supposed to end when we entered your hotel !  Give us peace and let us get our bearings.  So we humored him with his “discussion” and I politely rejected everything he had to offer.. offers we would later find out were not in our favor.  So we told him we were going to eat and come back later.. we just wanted out of his mad house.  We didn’t dare unpack our bags.. we left them sitting on the bed of our roach motel.. Sylvia commented on the bed’s head board and how 3 dimensional and dark it was.. faces, crevices, designs..  a mini cockroach city at our heads.

We left the hotel thinking we had finally escaped the day’s madness.. we roamed far up the dark dark road.. motos, tuk tuks, bicycles coming within inches of hitting us.. danger zone for about 10 minutes .. and I was really getting nervous that we had made a serious mistake coming to this land.. but then the lights started appearing slowly.. a few travelers.. a few expats .. some normal looking hotels.. restaurants.. and before you knew it we were in the center of tourista heaven! Bright lights and chaos everywhere.. travelers everywhere.. a place we normally wouldn’t want to be in, but today, this was an oasis.

We quickly found a beautiful hotel room ($16).. made the walk back into the ghetto to get our bags and got the hell out of Dodge!  We swallowed the hotel cost.. lesson learned and it only cost a few hundred Baht.  We also found our mini van crew and warned them of the evil inn keeper and told them of Shangri-La just up the road.  All of them would follow our lead shortly after.  We also confirmed that his offers were grossly over priced.. we confirmed he was a predator and we felt very proud of ourselves for having the courage to discover the truth and to make the change.. that night.. during the night !  We gained a travel level.. and we had helped out our travel group as well.  Trust that feeling in your gut..  it was the first time Sylvia and I had ditched a hotel like that.

10639706_10154657249775604_8052904013884959951_nThe next day we spent at the temples of Angkor Wat.. a magnificent place.. an enormous temple complex that houses the world’s largest religious buildings.   You know we have seen many many ruins but these were hands down the best ever.  Indiana Jones meets the Vatican.. perhaps?  One cannot walk this place.. pedal bike/tuk tuk and 3 days minimum.. We hadn’t planned on 3 days, so we took the express option and rented a tuk tuk for the day.. he would drive us to sites and wait for us while we explored.  Our driver’s name  was Ra and he was excellent.  During that day we met everyone from the mini van.  The French explained how they left that hotel and checked into ours.. how dishonest and pushy that manager was.. confirming everything.  We ran into the “trouble makers” and sent them into yet another fit of laughter after I gave them the “I’m watching you” sign from across a crowded restaurant aisle..  We met the Americans and shared 10 minutes of pleasantries.. and we found Anna wandering around on her own.. she joined us for the rest of the day.. We would spend time with her every day now till we leave Siem Reap.. her to Malaysia, us to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  She would be our longest standing travel partner Sylvia and I have had together.  I’ve always wanted to share this aspect of backpacking with Sylvia but the comfort of having each other kind of squashes the motivation to meet others.. or rather to stay with others for more than a few hours over dinner or drinks.

10612624_10154657248300604_7209671559401953936_nThe ruins were truly the best ever.. such a fantastic day of exploration and photo ops.. afterwards, we headed into town for dinner and met a jolly American who had decided to stay awhile in Cambodia.. 6 years now I believe.. he was having dinner with his Cambodian family.. his daughter (in law?) Sandra who spoke amazing English and his wife .. mom. He chatted our ears off for hours.. he knew it.. he also drank a mojito/beer per 15 minutes.  Lots of stories and lots of fun.  Sylvia and I then headed to “Pub Street” and drank some more in one of the craziest party districts I’ve ever seen.. by the end of the night Sylvia was dancing in a “train” in the middle of the street just loving it..  Even for me and my silly party past, this pub street was pretty intense:)

Do you remember explaining to me a brief history of the Cambodian genocide?  You gave me a basic run down when I first told you I was planning on visiting Cambodia.. you told me to google the finer points .. well, I am smack dab in the middle of it here so I can fill in some of the blanks now..

After the ages of Angkor (9th to 15th century) and a bunch of not very long lasting monarchies, the French came to colonize Cambodia around 1850.  This ended up being a good colorizations because the French, in essence, saved Cambodia from the encroaching neighbors chipping away at them.. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  The French also reclaimed some of the territory back for Cambodia.. this region we are in now.  The occupation went on for about 100 years when finally the Cambodian king Sihanouk of the time negotiated independence from France.  If I understand correctly, this same king would be exiled for some reason and then form a group called the Khmer Rouge which would retake control of Cambodia in 1975.  This group would be ruled by the evil Pol Pot and his first order of business was to evacuate the capitol city of Phnom Penh ( millions of people ) and force them into slave work harvesting rice in the country side..15-18 hours days with 2 meager meals of rice as sustenance.  He wanted to recreate Cambodia in his vision.. and selling rice to China was the best way to achieve this goal.  He was also very insecure and wanted all intellectuals dead.  Many were beaten to death to save on bullets.. anyone wearing glasses or speaking another language.. dead.. children in school? dead.. elders full of knowledge and wisdom? dead.. this was right up there with the Holocaust.. yet more recent but talked about rarely.  Millions were executed until Vietnam saved them in 1979.. Sylvia asked me “the United States are always claiming to rescue nations from evil dictators and liberating countries in dire need.. where were they for this? “.. good question!  Years before they were busy bombing northern Cambodia to destroy Vietnamese groups hiding and setting up operations in the region.  The Khmer Rouge had ousted the U.S. puppet government that was running Cambodia before, so I guess the Americans weren’t eager to help out or to notice what was going on..

So this place has been beaten up bad.. and then beat up again.. and is trying its best to stand up on its own two feet.  Men between ages of 40-60 are rare here.. that generation was slaughtered by Pol Pot.  A large gap has been left behind and there is a serious lack of .. education here.. This was best displayed on our first day when we asked a business man (a restaurant owner)  about the exchange rate from dollars to riels…  husband and wife teamed up to carefully write on a piece of paper $1 = 4000 riels … Awesome thank you kind business owner!  I now know that our hotel manager is a con man !  I now know how to plan the purchase of a pack of gum or undertake a hostile takeover of a multi million dollar company !! We were ready to walk away but they continued … carefully and slowly, making reassuring eye contact with us, as serious as can be … $2 = 8000 riels .. Sylvia and I look at each other and hold it in .. tightly.. and of course they were making sure that we understood … they were so pleased that they had explained it to us well.  Wow thank you !  again we were ready to continue on our way … but the money shot was coming.. the long bomb.. the final calculation that would blow our minds! Carefully, with eye contact between each digit …..  50  …….   cents  ……..   =  ………..   2000 riels ! You get the idea.. calculators everywhere.. construction in disarray.. everything old and not working very well.. these people have had a tough go.. a very tough go 😦

But now it’s day 3 .. with the worst news ever.  Sitting in a wicker chair reading an email .. then a couple more emails .. people are telling me they are sorry.  And a wave of heat and emotion consumes my head .. Where the fuck am I ??

We stayed at that hotel for 2 days .. long enough for me to get to the state where I could control the spontaneous eruptions of emotion.  I didn’t want to leave that place .. that hotel .. that room .. I felt like I was leaving you there.  But we had to… and we chose to continue on our journey.  The mistake has already been made and it cannot be fixed by rushing home.. it can never be undone.  It’s me who has to live with this now.

We are here in Cambodia, and we will make the best of it.  I’ve decided to bring your history lesson full circle.  We are traveling to Phnom Penh tomorrow .. to the heart of the genocide .. to visit a school which was converted into a killing center (S21) during Pol Pot’s reign of terror.. and then taking a walk through an actual killing field where thousands were slaughtered.  I wouldn’t even know to do any of this if it wasn’t for you … for your many history lessons .. for your many lectures and talks.  These have been the best parts of our relationship in my older age … all that you have taught me about history, politics and the world.  I loved getting questions ready for you and I loved listening to you explain.. sometimes even getting a bit heated on the debates.  Among many other reasons, I will miss you for this but I promise to continue my education… and I know you will be close by making damn sure.

Goodbye Dad.. I am so sorry I wasn’t there.. that I am not there.  But I know that you know you were always, and will always be my favorite person ever… my hero.  You resurrected me 30 years ago and I wish I could do the same for you now.  You’ve always been my reason for doing .. anything important .. and it’s going to be strange continuing life without you .. to find my own way.  I’ll start with Phnom Penh tomorrow .. I’ll continue writing travel journals and I’ll read them to you from time to time.  I love you always Dad.

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