May 2000: In my 2nd trip to Asia after China, I booked a standby ticket through Mesaba Airlines, where I worked as a baggage handler in 2000 and I set off on a cheap ticket to Bangkok with the goal to travel onwards to Cambodia and spent a week backpacking around Cambodia and visiting the ancient temple complex of Ankor Wat.

 

 

About Cambodia

Cambodia, once the seat of the ancient Hindu/Buddhist Khmer Empire during the time of my visit was a country just emerging from decades of terror and war.  Few people in the world have suffered as much. Cambodia was one of the poorest countries in the world to begin with and then it suffered a massive bombing campaign in the Vietnam war by American forces, then afterwards the Khmer Rouge waged a revolution effectively killing millions of their own people before Vietnam invaded to remove them. The Khmer Rouge held out in remote forests and fought the Cambodian government all the way up until the mid 90’s and even when I was in Cambodia in 2000, there were reports of rogue Khmer Rouge in the mountains and jungles still fighting. Cambodia was a country rebuilding after decades of war and families were torn apart, guns were awash in the population and generations desensitized to violence. lawlessness on top of rampant poverty meant that Cambodia was a dangerous country and there were reports of foreigners being robbed by bandits with AK47s during my trip. To me Cambodia presented adventure. it wasn’t polished like Thailand and touristy. It was rugged and untrammeled. This was what I came to Southeast Asia to find. So, I traveled to the border and crossed to see the hundreds of decaying Khmer temples of Angor Wat,

 

 

My route I took

To reach Cambodia, I crossed by bus across Thailand staying in a small village at the border with insect food markets. From the border town, a name didn’t take account of back then, I took a small motorboat taxi into a village on the Cambodian coast where I spent the night in a small rural farming bamboo village. From there I took a bus to Sihanoukville, the largest Cambodian city on the Indian ocean, where I spent a few nights in a guesthouse run by a Scottish man. In Sihanoukville, I visited the city zoo, which was the most exotic petting zoo I have ever visited. Every animal on exhibit was available to be pet so I played with the baby Gibbon.

The Scottish man showed me around town and took me to a cluster of bamboo bars on a pier over an ocean lagoon to a place I will never forget. The bars all had red lanterns and this I discovered was the red-light district. Each bamboo bar was a brothel and sadly hundreds of young Cambodian girls were available for sale of varying ages, some appearing underage. One man brought forward a scared looking girl to me that he said in broken English was his sister. She looked no older than 12. It was a disheartening scene that is all too common in Cambodia where there is so much poverty and broken families from the war. There was nothing I could do but walk away. This was a place that I had no doubt was on the radar of every police officer in town but was allowed to operate because of corruption.

 

me holding a baby gibbon

The next day the Scottish man invited me into the jungle interior in his jeep to explore some of the countryside and visit a waterfall. The jeep ended up stuck in a really bad stretch of jungle road and despite every effort we couldn’t undo it until a group of Cambodian men appeared out of nowhere to help us. They immediately went to work with their machetes and cut down some branches to use as logs to help remove our vehicle. The men didn’t ask for anything in response and smiled and waved to us as we departed. Cambodia was definitely a land of extremes. It was a place where people wandered the streets missing limbs because of land mines and war orphaned children sold themselves to sex tourists at bamboo brothels but it was also where people with nothing to give would go out of their way to display kindness and humility.

 

 

My jeep stuck in the jungle

We eventualy made it to the waterfalls

From Sihanoukville, I travelled in a rickety crowded by to Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. I stayed in a hostel that sold all kinds of different deserts laced with marijuana.

 

 

Flooded streets of Phnom Penh

From Phnom Penh i took a public ferry up to Siem reap, the gateway to the ancient Khmer temples of Ankor Wat, a vast temple complex of 1000 year old temples that have largely been left unexcavated until recently. many are overgrown by jungle, and some surrounded by landmines. To explore the temples, I hired a motor bike taxi, and my taxi driver took me to dozens of temples where at this time were mostly empty of tourists.

 

 

Ankor Wat Temples

Me at Ankor Wat Temples

Me posing with a Buddhist Monk at Ankor Wat Temples

Buddhist Monks Aprroaching at Ankor Wat Temple 

Me on top of one of the Ankor Wat temples overlooking the jungle

Friendly monk

Ankor Wat

Ankor Wat

From Siem reap, I flew to Bangkok on a small plane that departed once per week.

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