Thai-Cambodian Conflict

When traveling, it can sometimes be difficult to stay up-to-date with current events; however, when those events are happening in the same part of the world as my travels, all of the locals will be talking about them. This is true of the fighting occurring between Thailand and Cambodia over sacred temples near their border. While in Thailand in Koh Samui, the grandparents at Chaweng Tara were listening to a television program that was anti-Cambodian, and while in Cambodia, the locals cannot understand why Thailand won’t leave them alone as it has already been decided that the temple is on their land is of mostly Khmer architecture. Here is a BBC article from April 23, 2011 with more information:

Thailand and Cambodia clash again along border

At least four soldiers have been killed in fighting along the border between Thailand and Cambodia, raising the death toll to 10 in two days.

Troops exchanged artillery and gunfire in jungle around Ta Krabey temple, which both sides claim.

The area is about 200km (125 miles) west of the disputed 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, the scene of deadly clashes in February.

Thousands of civilians have been evacuated from the area.

The BBC’s Rachel Harvey in Bangkok says it is not immediately clear what sparked the most recent violence.

Both sides blamed each other for the fighting.

“Fresh fighting started at around 0600 (2300 GMT Friday) with rifles and mor

The Killing Fields

“Nothing should be this beautiful. The gods are playing tricks on us. How could they be so cruel and still make the sky so lovely? I want to destroy all the beautiful things.”

“The soldiers walked around the neighborhood, knocking on all the doors, telling people to leave. Those who refused were shot dead right on their doorsteps.”

The above two quotes are taken from “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Loung Ung, a book I read before visiting the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center outside of Phnom Penh. The first quote is from the chapter when Loung mourns her father and the second starts to exemplify the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 following the Vietnam War, and during their rule, between two and three million Cambodians were murdered at killing fields around the country. This group did not stop killing until the late 1990’s.

At Choeung Ek, I learned of some of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, from their horrendous methods of killing women and children to their eradicating anyone that was slightly educated and therefore posed a risk to the regime. This is a sad part of Cambodian history, and originally, I had not intended to visit the Killing Fields, but after reading this book by Loung Ung and seeing the Academy Award winning film “The Killing Fields”, I felt Cambodia needed to share its story in attempt to prevent anything like this from happening again here and hopefully everywhere.

Monument at Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
This monument hold the bones of many who were murdered at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Kampot and Kep, Cambodia

Kampot and Kep are small adjacent towns near the southern beaches of Cambodia. Kampot has a population of around 40,000. The pace of life is slow and all the locals wear smiles. The weather changes from sun to rain and back again. And the tourists who choose to visit are mostly energetic to explore the countryside. On my way to Kampot, I have to change buses in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and am happy that the change is quick because the smog, heat, and hustle of the city is uninspiring.

Although it is not as historic as Siem Reap, Kampot still offers plenty to photograph and enjoy, and even a little rain can’t stop me from having a good time while we explore as evidenced by my poncho-wearing grin.

Raining in Kampot

Le Meridien and RikiTikiTavi

Thanks to Nithya’s many weeks of consulting on the road, she had accumulated enough Starwood Hotel points to allow us to stay at Le Meridien near Angkor Wat. Best shower of the trip. There was strong pressure, constant hot temperatures, and of course great shampoo. But, I had gotten so used to staying at small guest houses and hostels, that I had begun to take for granted that the staff would recognize me and that all places would be as friendly as a family run guest house. The customer service at Le Meridien surprisingly did not meet up to this standard. They forgot our box breakfasts one morning, and they were unfortunately inflexible in accommodating us. That said, it was still a fabulous place to spend three nights and I couldn’t get enough of that shower. I was using conditioner in my very short hair as an excuse to prolong it.

From Le Meridien, I bussed through a flash flood down to Kampot in the South of Cambodia and stayed at a small guest house called RikiTikiTavi. Although not as fancy, there were only five small rooms, and the staff knew my name when I arrived. The room was clean, nice and had A/C, but more than the room, the staff made the place so welcoming. The following evening, I also had a chance to meet Denise, the owner of RikiTikiTavi, who was very friendly as I enjoyed some spring rolls and other happy hour specials while watching the sunset over the river.

Sunset from RikiTikiTavi

I can’t complain about either place as both were fabulous, but I confirmed the value of customer service as a result of their differences.

The Ponheary Ly Foundation

Ponheary Ly, the sister of our Siem Reap guide Dara, is a CNN hero for her work in educating the under-served and orphaned youth of Cambodia. We had the opportunity to visit one of the schools supported by her foundation, the Ponheary Ly Foundation, between temples during our tour of Siem Reap. This is an inspirational story of a woman overcoming her own losses, including the murder of several family members, and helping others do the same. Here is the CNN article by Allie Brown, CNN, Sept. 6, 2010:

Tour guide helps kids find way to school

Koh Ker, Cambodia (CNN) — Ponheary Ly has survived genocide, the murder of several family members — including her father — and life in poverty. Today, she’s working to build a brighter future for the children of Cambodia — by helping them go to school.

“Education is important for me,” says Ly, “because my father was a teacher.”

Primary schools are free to attend in Cambodia, but not all children go. With most of the population living in rural areas, children often lack transportation to get to school — and many families keep children home to help on the farm and earn money, said Ly.

Those able to go often must pay a small fee — around $20 a year — to buy uniforms and supplies, and many families can’t afford it.

Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world, where about 40 percent of the population of 14.7 million live off less than $1.25 a day, according to World Bank.

“They don’t have enough to eat,” said Ly. “How can they have the money to buy uniforms and supplies?”

Ly, 47, is bridging that gap. She and her foundation are helping thousands of rural children attend school by providing them with uniforms, supplies and other services.

“I need them to have a good education, to build their own family as well as to build their own country,” Ly said.

Ly’s family was thrown into poverty during the Khmer Rouge regime. Their father was the main breadwinner, and when he was killed in 1977, along with 13 other family members, the family was left with nothing. After the regime dissolved, Ly, her six remaining siblings and their mother were forced to start over.

Education was Ly’s answer.

She became a teacher in 1982, struggling to get by on her government salary. But she used her meager earnings to work with other teachers to create libraries, and she offered free instruction to children who couldn’t afford lessons.

When Cambodia opened up to tourism in the 1990s, Ly — who speaks Khmer, Russian, French and English — became a licensed tour guide to earn more money.

As she guided tourists to the ancient Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, she saw children begging tourists for money at the temples. On her tours in the countryside, she noticed that many children didn’t go to school at all.

Ly began using tip money — and soliciting donations from tourists in lieu of tips — to support the children’s education. She started with one girl who was in school but lacked the resources to continue, and by the next year she was helping 40 children.

As Ly was slowly growing her program, one child at a time, she met an unlikely ally from Texas.

Lori Carlson was visiting Cambodia in December 2005 and ended up on one of Ly’s tours.

“She explained to me the work that she and her family were doing in the community,” Carlson said. “When I saw what she was doing and saw how incredibly effective it was and how important it was in the country, it became very compelling to me.”

Carlson was so moved that she returned to Texas and helped establish the Ponheary Ly Foundation.

Siem Reap, Night Market, and Pub Street

Siem Reap is a city easy to travel because of its many tourist amenities. Delicious restaurants full of both Khmer and Western foods, Tuk Tuks ready to take us anywhere for a dollar or two, and English spoken everywhere. But the best example of Siem Reap’s tourist-friendly atmosphere is its Night Market. When I first think of a night market in Southeast Asia, a very specific image comes to mind with crowded stalls, dim lighting, a mixture of smells that individually would be nice but together don’t blend, and people trying to sell you anything and everything. This market was anything but that to the point of there being a night market map, a bar/restaurant in the middle, friendly salespeople, great lighting, and surprising cleanliness.

Pub Street, located in the middle of town, was full of inexpensive and great restaurants.  For each dinner, Sangita, Nithya, and I would take turns reading about Khmer history from my Kindle’s Lonely Planet Cambodia so that we could start to understand the Indian, Hindu and French influences all around us.  In addition, up and down the street were small pools of cleaner fish. For a small fee, we put our feet in one pool and let the fish, both big and small, nibble at our heels and our toes with the promise that afterwards our feet would be clean and “soft as a baby’s bottom” (their words, not mine). After I moved pass the tickling phase, the sensation wasn’t too unusual and almost nice.

Siem Reap is a great city, even if a bit touristy, that offers opportunities to try traditional food, appreciate Khmer Art, and see temples that were significant in ages past and are still places of pilgrimage for many today.

Artistic rendition of Buddha

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Cambodian tourism is now synonymous with visiting Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, and that is where our Cambodian adventure properly began. Although Angkor was easily the most breathtaking, it is only one of hundreds of temples in Cambodia. The agenda for the two days that Nithya, Sangita and I stayed in Siem Reap was as follows:

  • Angkor Wat
  • Bonteay Kdei
  • Taprohm
  • Sunset on Prerup Temple
  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat
  • Banteay Srei
  • Banteay Samre
  • East Mebon
  • Angkor Thom
  • Bayon
  • Baphuon
  • Phimeanakas
  • Terrace of Elephant
  • Sunset on Phnom Bakheng

Monks in a Tuk Tuk

Luckily we had a very well-informed and nice guide, Dara Ly, to help us differentiate the above temples and ancient sites, which at first seem more “same, same” than “different”. In addition, Dara along with my travel partners, Nithya and Sangita, were all knowledgeable on the Hindu gods and goddesses that were carved throughout the temples. After my couple days in Siem Reap, I now know more about Shaivism, focusing on Shiva and the lingam, as well as Vaishnayism, focusing on Vishnu. And although most of Cambodia is Buddhist, many of the temples contain elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism as the control of the temples shifted throughout the years. At one temple, because I was wearing my Buddhist beaded bracelet and a red string around my wrist indicating that I had recently paid my respects to a Buddha statue, a monk came up to me, gently grabbed my wrist and said something although not in English seemingly kind and appreciative. Small experiences such as this help me better understand the importance of these historic Cambodian temples.

Temple reflection, Siem Reap