We just couldn’t get enough of Cambodia, so we stayed for another month! After some serious decision making, we also decided that Myanmar had to come somewhere into the equation of our travels. Rather than rushing through two countries (Laos & Vietnam) in the last 30 days of our trip, both of which we have heard mixed reviews, we decided to go for the sure thing: Myanmar. That would equate to staying for another month in Cambodia, seeing southern Vietnam for a week, meeting the family in the Philippines and last but not least, Myanmar!
After putting Koh Ta Kiev to our stern, we arrived back in Otres Beach, only having one thing on our mind, GET OUT OF OTRES! Spending almost two weeks on the empty undeveloped island of Koh Ta Kiev, the idea of a crowded beach with cars and trucks constantly honking and people trying to sell us things left and right, sounded awful! We immediately dumped our passports off at a local travel agency to be sent to Phnom Penh for a visa renewal and booked a minibus for Kampot.
Kampot is world famous for its pepper and is a beautiful river city located just 2 hours from Otres Beach. Upon arrival, the original place we had in mind turned out to be full for 2 days. With our heads hanging low, we walked across the street to find a beautiful Cambodian run hotel with cheap rooms and all the amenities!!!!! What a culture shock! Coming from a place that only had electricity 3 hours a day and bucket showers, to a place that had A/C, hot water, and a refrigerator was quite welcoming! I think we both took approximately 2 hour showers each to get all the grime off!
Getting sick was the last thing I had in mind for our time in a new place but what do you do. The next two days passed in a blur of True Detective (best TV series of all time) and kindle books… Luckily it was a quick bug and only lasted about a day and a half, just in time for us to move into the Magic Sponge (the original place we wanted to stay). Turns out this place was even cooler than we had thought. It was run by a British couple and had a really good atmosphere, not to mention a pool table and a mini golf course! After getting some good tips, we decided to rent mountain bikes to explore the nearby area. Talk about a place not spoiled by tourism! Everywhere we went people smiled and children yelled hello while ferociously waving!
Taking a day trip to Kep, the nearby fishing village, was at the top of our list of to do’s, in order to wander through the fish and crab markets. After already dining on fresh crab the previous week, we had an idea of what was in store but on an entirely new scale! It was quite the experience watching the Khmer women wade out into the ocean to grab the crab traps, then hand picking each crab we wanted to eat while not speaking a single word of English. The best part of the whole experience was getting to use what little Khmer (Cambodian language) we knew, coupled with ridiculous hand gestures. We bought 1kg (2.2 pounds) of crab and they cooked it for us on the spot. Then in true fat kid fashion, we stuffed our faces!
Our second adventure brought us 12km outside of town to the base of Mt. Bokor. The funny part of this story is that the woman at our hotel said, “most people take a taxi to the top but if you're feeling athletic, you could probably make it on your bikes.” We decided to go for it! After already biking to the base in the baking sun we were slightly gassed, then we hit the hill…. lets just say that after making it an optimistically 7% up the mountain, we could not continue for fear of death by heat stroke. With that said we did not see the top of Mt. Bokor :( , but we did stumble upon the best rack of ribs in Cambodia once we arrived back in town (or so the sign said)! The sign did not disappoint! For only $6 we got a huge portion of ribs with mashed potatoes; it really ended up giving us a taste of home!
While on the subject of food, we also found one of the most delicious, unique restaurants of the whole trip, The Khmer Root Cafe. It is locally owned by a Khmer man with a small but delicious menu, and one sad but unbelievable story. Our favorite part of the whole experience was that half the dinner table was his cooking surface and we watched him from start to finish, making Masaman curry and Kampot pepper stir fry. It was somewhat of a lengthy process, but the food was indescribable and best of all, his ingredients were home grown! The whole time he cooked for us, he talked about his life growing up in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand, and how him and his family’s lives were ravaged by the Khmer Rouge rule.
The Khmer Rouge
For everyone who doesn't know what the Khmer Rouge is, there is a reason behind that, it wasn't taught in school (apparently the U.S wasn't too proud of what they had done!). Sounds awfully familiar, wouldn't you agree my Hawaiian friends?! We’re not experts by any means but after talking with local people and expats living in the country and gathering some information from reading, this is our take on the situation. It really is one of the most despicable acts of humanity, rivaling the holocaust of WW2. While most people think that it was a mere 4 year takeover, in reality the Khmer Rouge was wreaking havoc until the end of the 21st century.
The idea behind the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s rule) was to bring the country back to year zero, eliminating all classes, religions, and currency. After migrating the majority of the population mass from major cities into the countryside, the Cambodian citizens were forced to farm the lands under strict communist rule, with mass starvation and zero regard for human life. Eating anything other than the minuscule portions provided, was a death sentence (for example a small gecko or insect). Every person, and their entire family, discovered to be an intellectual were killed and tortured in mass graves, often for something as small as wearing glasses or speaking another language. Also, the small children were taught that the government was their family and to distrust even their parents.
In 1979 when approximately one third of the total population had been killed (estimated to be 1.7 million), the Vietnamese invaded the country in order to drive the Khmer Rouge and its leaders out. However, for roughly 20 years afterwards, the Khmer Rouge hid in western Cambodia and parts of Thailand. They continued to fight for control over the country, committing terrorist attacks and keeping it in utter chaos.
So you may wonder where the Khmer Rouge was being funded from for all these long years? As sad as it is to say, America and China had a huge influence and interest in funding the group and keeping them in power, due in no small part to their hatred for the Vietnamese. From 1979-1994 America, China and Australia ensured that the Cambodian UN seat be held by Khmer Rouge leaders saying that it was the true leadership. In the 1980’s the U.S moved against charging the Khmer Rouge for genocide and crimes against humanity. It wasn't until 1997 (after Pol Pot had already died) that the UN finally proposed a tribunal to charge the surviving leaders but to this day the trials are still ongoing and justice has yet to be served.
Understandably, not many local people talk about the days of the Khmer Rouge rule and the topic is not taught in Cambodian schools. Even through all the hardship and crimes these people have endured, they still are some of the sweetest, welcoming, and hard working individuals we have ever met. After all we have learned, we are quite ashamed of what our country has done in the past. In spite of everything that has happened, we have been welcomed with open arms and feel so lucky to have met such wonderful, loving people throughout our travels.
Here is a few websites for anyone interested in learning more.
Also a great read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung.
For those non readers out there watch “The Killing Fields” movie.