Ratanakiri Province is a melting pot of Cambodian, Laotian and minority people, that in total speak 12 languages. This diverse region is home to Veun Sai-Siem Pang National Park, however the jungle is quickly disappearing and being replaced with rubber plantations and cashew- nut farms. Nick and I headed to ‘Dey Krahorm’ (Ban Lung), which means red earth as dusty red dirt engulfs the town.
From Ban Lung we took a ride in a truck bed, on a ferry and on a motorbike through the jungle to reach the national park base camp.
The community-based ecotourism project (CBET) offers guiding, motorbike and cooking jobs to local poachers and loggers in hopes of preserving the environment. Two rangers, two researchers and a handful of workers were stationed at basecamp and this is where we spent two days trekking through the jungle in hopes to see Gibbons.
On our first hike we saw a wild pig, monkey, and spider the size of my hand. We watched our guide burn a tree to demonstrate how locals extract essential oil and glue. We thankfully avoided all pythons, although commonly spotted.
As the sun began to set we heard chainsaws echoing through the forest. Logging is a huge issue in this area and the 2 rangers did not have the capacity to enforce the law. There are 3 species of trees that are valuable and all are now extremely rare. They are worth tens of thousands of dollars and sold to China for furniture. At basecamp, we saw hundreds of confiscated chainsaws and enormous slices of valuable wood.
On the second day we woke up at 3am and began our hike to see the Gibbons. Researchers have been following a particular group of Gibbons for 7 years, therefore have created a non-interactive relationship with them. Around 5:30 am we began to hear various groups of Gibbons call, however the group that we were waiting for did not call. Gibbons call in order to claim their territory and they call 6 out of 7 days. This was the second day in a row that this group did not call and it was clear our guide was concerned for their health. He told us that he would bring a group of researchers and locals together to find the Gibbons and check on their wellbeing the following day. Although we didn’t see any Gibbons, one of the highlights of the trip were the conversations we had with our guide.
Cambodians have been through so much tragedy, and the majority of people are fighting for basic rights. Our guide said that all the people want is a country without corruption, a fair election and education. While traveling through Cambodia, it is hard to travel a block without seeing a Peoples’ Party propaganda sign. In the photo below you can see three signs on block. The Cambodian Prime Minister has been in office for over 30 years and the locals say it is obviously a rigged system. As an American, I see corruption in our political system, I can see improvements in our education system, however not having these basic rights is incomprehensible.
What the city of Siem Reap lacks in authenticity, makes up for in history (and tuk tuks). It is dirty and undeveloped, however less so than Phenom Penh. Tourists come to Siem Reap to see the magnificent temples of Angkor. The attention to detail and intricacies of design is astonishing at Angkor. The vastness and magnitude of the temples are awe- inspiring. Built in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat serves as a temple and mausoleum for Suryavarman II. Angkor Wat is the pride of Khmer culture, found on the Cambodian flag and riel.
My favorite temple was Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva built in AD 967. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’ and it is believed that women must have built it, as the elaborate carvings are too fine for the hand of a man.
Banteay Samre – a secluded temple with little tourists and provides a lot of freedom.
Angkor Thom – 10 sq km, previously supported a population of 1 million people.
Bayon – 54 towers of smiling Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Baphuon – This temple is often called the worlds largest jig saw puzzle, “The temple was taken apart piece by piece, in keeping with the anastylosis method of renovation, but all the records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, leaving experts with 300,000 stones to put back into place. The EFEO resumed restoration work in 1995, and continues its efforts today. ” – Lonely Planet Cambodia
Nick and I were in Siem Reap for the Bon Om Touk ‘Cambodia’s Water Festival’ , which takes place every year in November. This 3 day festival is most famous in Phenom Penh, however is also celebrated around the country. The festival seems to celebrate a variety of things, including: the end of the rainy season, rice harvest and histroically (12th century) the victory of the Cambodian Naval forces. In 2010, 347 people were killed and 755 injured in a human stampede in the Phenom Penh celebrations. It was canceled for the next 3 years, however has since returned. The streets are lined with food, music and vendors. And the locals compete in long boat races.
To escape Siem Reap, visit the floating village of Chong Kneas located on Tonlé Sap Lake. Here you’ll see what daily life on a lake looks like, you’ll see crocodiles and hear tales of water cobras.
Rent a motorbike or hire a tuk tuk to take you out of the city to enjoy Phare – The Cambodian Circus. Put on by a nonprofit that educates at risk youth, laugh and sit in amazement of these talented individuals.
Sugar Palm – Located in a beautiful wooden house on stilts try the pamelo salad and tofu satay (both about $5).
Bugs Café – Insects are sold all over Cambodia, at rest stops and markets, however visit the Bugs Café and indulge in some classy insects. Try tarantulas donuts, ant spring rolls, waterbug and spider skewers.
Peace café – This vegetarian garden café has reasonable prices and a great atmosphere.
Before I start this blog post, huge thanks to Nick who has done the majority of the planning on this trip. Wherever we are, it seems as if he is preparing for tomorrow while I am writing about the day before. Traveling has had it’s ups and downs but I am elated to have this guy by my side.
After crossing the corrupt border into Cambodia and overpaying for our visa, Nick and I headed to Kampot. This is a huge tourist town with an enormous expat community. Let me say, these expats are not giving older white males the best name. If it’s watching them flirt with teenage locals or cat calling and insulting tourists they could learn a thing or two about respect.
If you are not looking for the party scene you won’t find much in Kampot, thus Nick and I decided to head out of town to rock climb, visit Secret Lake and hit the crab market.
Nick and I were equipped with our climbing gear and excited to get back out on the rock. We headed to Climbodia, a sport climbing area set up by David, a friendly expat from Belgium. These routes range from 5.7 – 5.12 and scale some interesting cave features. Because we had our own gear we were able to climb independently, however we ended up spending some time around guided trips. These local guides were funny but had some questionable safety standards. Nick climbed a route named Snakeskin, which included 2 snake skins, 1 enormous hornet’s nest, 8 stings and a big fall!
Simple Things- a must visit for any vegetarian! The temph sandwich was the best sandwich I’ve had on my travels!
Epic Arts Cafe- this cozy cafe provides jobs to Cambodians who are deaf or have other disabilities. The food is fantastic and there are a variety of handmade crafts for sale.
In order to protect the southern Cardamom Mountains from poaching and logging, the Wildlife Alliance has turned this river village into a community based eco- tourism project. Nick and I spent 2 nights in Chi Phat and enjoyed our time trekking in the jungle and exploring waterfalls. From Kampot, we took a local bus (squeezing 19 people into a mini van) then a beautiful 2 hour, long boat to the the village. We felt comfortable with spending our money here as we knew this non-profit was helping the local community and conserving the environment.
It was our trekking guide, Mr. Kim’s, first day on the job and he was an interesting character to say the least. He ran around laughing hysterically repeating, “Lisa, same same” (he thought my name was Lisa and was certain I was part Cambodian). He led us into the jungle where we saw some sort of bearded dragons, hawks, ant hills and pitcher plants. We spent time picking leeches off one another and continued our hike.
In 1982, Mr. Kim fought against Khmer Rouge and had the bullet scars to prove it. He said on hot days when they were without water, they’d drink the water collected from small pitcher plants (then proceeded to pick a pitcher plant and drink the water and insects inside). As a young child he recalled seeing U.S. B-52’s dropping bombs on Cambodia and visiting an American doctor for vaccines and medication.
We ended the 17 mile trek with a dip in the Chay Khpos Waterfall where we saw the extensive burn scars on Mr. Kim’s back. He had many stories, but so do most middle aged Cambodians. Their country has been through it all and we learned more about their dark history in Phenom Penh.
Nick and I only had a short period of time in the capital, Phenom Penh, and spent the majority of our time at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and Russian Market. We also wandered around the Royal Palace Plaza and riverfront which gave us an excellent view of Phenom Penh’s local nightlife.
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
*Warning to all of our young readers, the following information may be graphic and unsettling.
Tuol Sleng (also called S-21) was a high school that turned into the secret center of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here from 1975- 1979 with only 12 confirmed survivors. 343 killing sites and 19,440 mass graves were later discovered throughout Cambodia.
The Cambodians celebrated when the Khmer Rouge defeated the (U.S. backed) Cambodian Government as they thought this would be the end of U.S. bombs (more bombs were dropped on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than during all of WWII). Within 3 hours of the Khmer Rouge takeover, people we displaced from the city and forced to work in the country. Many people died from this trek alone. This was part of Khmer Rouge’s plan to start at year 0, and create a society of working farmers. They eliminated modern equipment and made people work like animals. People were kidnapped, imprisioned and tortured until they admitted to being a spy or working with the CIA.
Many people were killed, however professionals and those more educated were some of the first. They killed all medical workers and trained their own staff (although the Khmer Rouge forbid education). They practiced medicine by dissecting and extracting blood from living humans leaving them to die.
Not only Cambodians were killed. A New Zealand traveler and his friend in their mid twenties dreamed of sailing around the world. When they arrived to the coast of Cambodia they were taken to S-21, imprisoned, tortured and killed. When interrogated, Kerry Hamill reported Kernel Sanders (KFC) as his boss and other famous Western celebrities as his accomplices.
Some of the forms of torture conducted at S-21 included: water boarding, blundering, electric sock, slashes and more specifically, hanging prisoners by their ankles and lowering their heads into vessels of human waste.
1 out of 4 Cambodians died during these 3 years, 8 months and 20 days.
I’ve learned about the holocaust which was heartbreaking and devastating, but what was different about the Khmer Rouge genocide is it took place more recently (only 37 years ago). There are black and white film photographs documenting almost every prisoner, mass grave site, soldier, and torture device. There is still genocide occurring in the Congo and there is rarely any mainstream news about it. When will we learn from our mistakes? With changing political environment, I hope, with a heavy heart, that we will learn from the past and treat humanity with respect and dignity, excluding war and terror.
Nick and I decided to take a 5 day break from Vietnam to help Winnie (Nick’s mom) with a World Vet clinic in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Although we have no veterinary background, we’ve helped with 2 previous clinics and hopped we could lend some helping hands. World Vets is a non-profit that offers free spay and neuter surgeries and medical consults to animals around the world.
This World Vets team consisted of a head vet (Winnie), induction team, surgeons and recovery team. As part of recovery, Nick and I gave injections to each animal (pain killer, antibiotic and anesthesia reversal for cats), fed a dewormer and provided flee and tick medicine. We monitored the animals as they woke up and made sure they recovered well. For those that did not, we gave them liquids through their iv catheter and gave honey to boost blood sugar levels. Like the previous clinics, it was chaotic, hot and hard work but extremely rewarding. Over the course of 3 days, 221 surgeries and 181 consultations were completed. We had a blast spending time with the locals and felt so much support from the community. In addition, it was a hoot seeing the majority of animals arrive on motorbikes and tuk tuks.
This clinic location was extremely unique. Nick and I previously worked in Nicaragua and Roatan where the clinics were held in an abandoned police station and small church. However, in Siem Reap the clinic was located in an open air Theravada Buddhist temple next to a crematorium. Each day we watched a parade of monks and loved ones walk their deceased to the temple. They prayed and held a ceremony then burned the body. This was an extremely interesting cultural experience that we were lucky to be a part of. We had a blast getting a taste of Cambodia and it was so nice to see some familiar faces (Winnie, Heather and Sally)! Now Nick and I are headed back to Vietnam to finish exploring the south! Stay tuned!