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New year, new passport stamp – welcome to Cambodia

January 8, 2011

Every once in a while I travel somewhere and am completely and pleasantly surprised by what I find. Cambodia, and Siem Reap specifically, is my most recent surprise.

Before moving to Vietnam, I liked to think that I was fairly knowledgeable about the world – geographically and historically, but living here, almost as far from home as I can get, has made me realize how woefully ignorant I am. In preparation for our trip to Cambodia, I purchased “First They Killed My Father: a daughter of Cambodia remembers” by Loung Ung.

The book gives a heartbreaking insight into the life of a girl who, at five years old, had her life ripped apart by the Khmer Rouge. She describes her upper-middle class life in Phnom Penh before her family was forced into the countryside where they were moved from village to village and then separated. Starvation and death became the life of her family for the next five years. I learned what normal life could be like for Cambodians, and also a bit of the history of what their country has experienced in the last thirty-five years.

She lost family members because they were educated city people, because her father had served in the military, and because they were part Chinese. The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to create a pure Khmer, class-less society that lived off the land, but she shows that there are always classes – always people who are getting bigger food rations and better treatment. She would rub charcoal and dirt on her body to hide her lighter skin from the other children who would mock and abuse her for it. It was interesting, after spending several months in a country that values white skin over nearly anything, to read about a group of people who wanted to do away with light skinned people.

I cried as I read about this girl’s life and the deaths of her parents and some siblings, and couldn’t help but think that she and Jonathan are probably about the same age. I often look at the older people here in Vietnam and wonder what war and terror they have experienced, but as the victims get closer and closer to my age it continues to put the pain into a new perspective for me.

Armed with this sobering knowledge, we flew to Siem Reap on New Year’s Day. Jonathan, Jamie, and I were amused to see that there is no seat F on Vietnam Airlines (we sat next to each other in 14D, 14E, and 14G,) because there isn’t an F in the Vietnamese alphabet. It was strange but awesome to fly 40 minutes and be in Cambodia.

Our first pleasant surprise about Cambodia was that the weather is gorgeous in January. It was in the eighties but very dry with a cool breeze and clear blue sky. At night, while riding in the open tuk-tuk, I was cold outdoors for the second or third time in the last nine months. They have a rainy season just like Vietnam, but even in our dry season it is still hot and humid. What a beautiful change!

We paid $20 each for our visas, and watched as it took eight men to put them in our passports. We are used to the Vietnamese using four people to do the job of one person because they are Communist and everyone must have a job, but still find it amusing in other countries.

Our next surprise was meeting the driver from our $14 a night hotel and having him lead us to a tuk-tuk. Unlike Thailand, where tuk-tuks are all one piece, the ones in Siem Reap are motorbikes with a hitch on the seat right behind the driver that pull a trailer for passengers. This became our sole mode of transportation for the next four days. Other than the constant red dust that accumulated in my eyes, ears, and nose, I loved riding around in them. The breeze was refreshing, and it was much easier to see everything around us.



On the way to the hotel we passed tiny pick-up trucks with so many people sitting in the back I couldn’t count them. When I took a picture the ladies waved and moved their scarves so I could see their beautiful, white smiles.



And, between the food, the people, and the ancient ruins, our trip just kept getting better and better.

Currently reading: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

5 Comments leave one →
  1. mother-in-law permalink
    January 10, 2011 00:35


    I am envious of you for all the books you are getting to read. And am happy for all the things you are seeing and experiencing. So grateful for your blog.

  2. Charity permalink
    January 12, 2011 11:11

    Sounds like another awesome trip! 🙂

  3. Karen Harlow permalink
    January 19, 2011 18:37

    Amazing place, Siem Reap. I was surprised to find the people so warm and wonderful, in spite of all they have been through. The landmine problem is a tragedy.
    ‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung had a huge influence on me.
    Also, ‘The Stones Cry Out’ by Molyda Szmusiak, a friend of mine.

    • January 19, 2011 18:55

      I read ‘First’ right before our trip which gave me a much broader perspective on the people and land. I couldn’t help but wonder, as we drove through the country, how many unmarked graves there were. And the landmines… still killing people years later. It’s heartbreaking. It is amazing what people can survive, and like you said, they are still so friendly and warm. I will look for your friend’s book.

      Thank you for the comment.


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