Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The bar seemed ordinary enough at first glance, nothing unusual about
dirt roads and past fortified checkpoints to partake of one 's favorite libations. And so it was that I began my visit by
having pint of Angkor beer with my former colleague and now Pnnom Penh expatriate, the illustrious Alexander Lemon. Nothing
strikes the casual
observer as unusual about the menu until one gets to the heavy firearms section. Yes, not only can you
imbibe the local brew, you can also brush up on your armor piercing bullet technique. It reads like a fine wine listAk-47’s,M-60’s,
hand grenades, rocket propelled grenades, and on and on. And so for a not so nominal fee, Alex and I tried our hands at Mikhail
Kalashnikov’s great harbinger of peace, the tried and
true AK-47. As an aside, Alex relates that a local minister of the Cambodian People’s Party recently banned that time
honored tradition of annihilating live cows with rocket propelled grenades (apparently this rather obscure form of leisure
was particularly popular with Japanese backpackers).
The city of Phnom Penh is an interesting juxtaposition of striking
poverty and splendid opulence. Grand
19th century French colonial
mansions manned with armed guards sparkle against the backdrop of
sweatshops, slums, and
refuse laden dirt roads. Wild dogs forage for
food while the appendage challenged beg for money. Indeed the intrepid backpacker
must take care to avoid unexploded landmines that still litter the country. As such it is advisable never to wonder off well
trodden paths and roads on the outskirts of cities. Even up until 1991 before the United Nations took over, Cambodia was a bloody civil war zone. Furthermore, chilling reminders of Pol Pot’s
brutal regime are everywhere. Almost anyone you talk to in Cambodia has had a relative killed by the Khmer Rouge. By 1979 when the Vietnamese came to liberate, Phnom Penh was virtually abandoned thanks to Pol Pot’s agrarian delusions.
A visit to Tu Sulong Prison Museum provides a graphic glimpse into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
On to Angkor Wat
And so I bid Alex adieu and headed north to the city of Siam Reap near
the temples of Angkor Wat. Getting there was not without excitement.
Cambodia doesn’t exactly have a world class FAA and this is why they can sell tickets
for the aging dinosaurs they variously describe as planes. The particular plane I took is a Chinese knock off of an old Russian
Plane called the Yakovlov. To its credit it did land safe on the way there despite the rain (although on the way back it died
on the tarmac, so all the passengers had to wait for another plane to be flown in from Phnom Penh).
Anyway, to articulate the sheer grandeur and immense scale of the temples of Angkor is well beyond the scope of this letter if not impossible. Suffice it to say they were
simply amazing. The temples
were discovered by a french explorer in the 1870’s half swallowed by
Built between the 9th and 14th centuries, the enormous temples
burgeon high above the jungle thicket. Trekking through
temples by foot and motorcycle is an exhilaration I have seldom known.
The fickle Khmer rain occasionally
ameliorates the sweltering heat. One
almost expects to see Indiana Jones traipsing through the ruins.
Gargantuan centuries old tree roots meander through
temples, having long ago pushed 2 ton slabs of finely decorated sandstone aside like building blocks. The
vistas from the soaring towers at sunrise
Well Cambodia has been quite the experience but now its off the land of
rising sun. Japan!