In April, I did a fun swimwear shoot with the then Miss California in Pacific Beach for Pacific Magazine. Well, I just got word that Alyssa was just awarded the Miss USA title last night. First, congratulations to her! Alyssa is beautiful girl, a hard worker and a lot of fun to work with. So, in celebration of her victory, here’s my blog post of the photos.
And the actual cover. We like covers!
Here’s a link to the actual magazine if you want to see the layout and the shots that ran: http://issuu.com/pacificsandiegomagazine/docs/low_res_may
My cell phone buzzed as it does whenever a text comes through. It was my friend and client Samantha from a local magazine. “Did I want to go to intervention?” was the text. So I’m thinking that either we were going to try and intervene with a friend or that maybe she thought my bad habits had reached the point of requiring outside help.
Fortunately, it was neither. Instead, it was an invite to an outdoor pool party that the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp throws most Sundays throughout the summer. Far be it from me to say no to a party so off I went.
Now, it’s been brought to my attention that some people think that my images are “upskirt” shots. In the broadest sense maybe they are, but the people in my photos are generally aware that I’m taking their photo. They know what they’re doing and often play it up as willing participants in the making of the photograph. Some of my photos may be extreme, but this is an extreme environment. I’m just documenting it (which I thoroughly enjoy by the way).
I’d also like to add that creating these types of images is not easy. The second most people see a camera, they immediately turn to it, stick out their tongue or make a peace sign, grab a friend and pose for the camera. Ugh. It’s thoroughly uninteresting to me. Yes, I take the picture because that’s the routine, yet I’m always looking for more. One reason why I resorted to taking shots from the ground or close to it is because a) it’s an interesting angle and b) they can’t smile at the camera once it’s on the ground.
My goal is to capture the energy and feeling of what’s like to be there so I do what it takes.
Up to now, most of my sightseeing has revolved around visiting some of the many temples in the Angkor Wat area. This morning, my journeys will take me to the largest lake in Cambodia, the Tongle Sap lake, the largest lake in South-East Asia which sits about an hour or two south of Siemp Riep. We’re off to tour a fishing village that literally floats on the lake.
On our way down, we stopped off at a little roadside stand where local women package and sell sticky rice. As we pulled off, I wondered what the big deal was with sticky rice - I get that all the time at the Chinese restaurant at home. But this rice isn’t just sticky, it’s also kind of sweet which makes for a great snack to munch on. The women first make the rice at home, then they bring out chopped bamboo sections which they stuff with rice and then cook over an open flame.
Afterward, they cut the outside of the bamboo down to leave just a thin sliver of bamboo as the outer covering. When it’s time to eat, the bamboo is easily peeled back to access the rice inside. It’s almost like a pushup popscicle (without the pushing though). Here a woman slices the bamboo down. The butterflied bamboo in the lower right of corner is one that’s been opened and the rice eaten.
Though the rice is actually tasty, it’s not that sweet. Well, not Snickers bar sweet. These women prepare the rice just a few feet from cars whizzing by on the highway.
From there it was off to a local market - what we refer to back home as a farmer’s market. Here, they’re all farmers market. They’re bustling, chaotic and raw. Lots of exotic vegetables sitting next to unrefrigerated meat. The health department back home would never approve. I tried out one seed-pod fruit that look almost like an exaggerated sunflower. It took a little digging, but the seeds were a little like edamame.
Although the market in this town felt similar in spirit to the one I went to in Phnom Pehn, it was much cleaner and thankfully lacked the putrescent smell. Still, you could get pretty much anything you wanted. From pots and pans to the local Cambodian music - I bought three pirated CD’s for a dollar.
I also felt more comfortable photographing people at this point. Knowing my few words of Cambodian - “hello” and “may I take your photo” - helped break the ice and made me feel more at ease- even if the subject was still a little nervous. Most smiled and even laughed at my earnest attempts to speak the language. I liked being out in the countryside so, as we drove away from the small town into the outlying countryside, I kept asking Kimleng to stop for photos. I was definitely in no rush since the journey here was definitely the destination.
Among my many stops was one to photograph this typical Cambodian house. The owner was home. He’s the uncle to this child and the woman is his sister-in-law.
The locals spread rice out on the ground to dry it. This all takes place on a narrow road that rises steeply above the surrounding flood plane. The dried rice is stuffed into the red bags and then straw is placed on top to keep the rice from falling out. After a day or two of drying, the rice is then picked up by big Hyundai trucks that rumble through the villages. Scenes like this take place in thousands of locations across the country.
All of the nearby houses sit on high stilts to accommodate the wet season floods. The Tonle Sap lake is about four to five feet deep in the dry season, but when the rainy season comes in June, it rises to 20 or more feet in depth.
There’s only one road into or out of the area and it’s built up about thirty feet up from the flood plane. All the houses hug this one road creating a thin, almost endless village.
Boys walking to the lake which is still a couple of miles away. I photographed these teens later riding a boat out on the river.
So this little puddle is actually a river - of sorts. It’s the dry season so it’s basically a fetid trickle. From the boat, passengers could view the backsides of the many houses lining the river. From many exited a pipe that dropped straight to the river. I asked if that was water going in or out. It goes out. Ah yes, waste water flowing directly into the river. Today’s special on the menu - our friend E. Coli.
The river was shallow and muddy. Definitely not a pretty site, but fantastic nonetheless.
Whatever the water quality might be, that doesn’t stop the fishermen from going out and doing their job. The poles and netting are fish pens into which the fishermen drive the fish to trap them.
The men here are all lean and cut from a lifetime of hard work and a low fat diet of fish and rice.
After a 30 minute boat ride up the river, we finally made it to the lake murky, shallow lake. What looks like the other side of the lake in the photo is actually a floating village. Those are all individual little boats whose owners live nearly their entire lives out on the water.
Look in the lower third corner of the photo. You’ll see a boy’s head bobbing as he swims to his neighbor’s house.
Here’s the crude motor compartment of our boat. Note the open bottle of fuel and exposed engine. It came to me as no great surprise when I heard a sudden clunk and the engine raced at maximum speed. The driver, maybe 15 years old, cut the engine off and went back to investigate. The first mate reported that the propeller fell off - so in he dove to look for it. After 15 minutes of bobbing about, we hitched a ride back with a passing boat.
Our first mate before the propeller went missing. At the end of the trip, I tipped him and the driver a few dollars. Another couple on board, Americans, tipped him with a couple of childish stickers. I felt embarrassed and pissed off. These kids don’t work for stupid stickers. That might be okay for handing out to kids in villages playing around, but you don’t tip the people who work for you with useless stickers - even if they are ten years old.
Next we took a walk through the village where lunch awaited us at a local home. I struggled with whether to use the word house or hut since it was a little of both.
Waiting for us inside was a traditional meal of fish, fish and more fish. It was all quite good and I especially enjoyed the salty fish sauce for dunking the fried fish. I have to admit though that I was quite leery when I sat down. There’s no running water here (nor anywhere around here) and the Cambodians have a habit of bringing out the silverware in a cup of water - water of dubious purity. As I began eating, I had this feeling of intestinal dread. But the feeling slowly passed as I began to enjoy the tasty meal accompanied by plenty of cheap, warm Tiger beer. (And I’m happy to report that I didn’t get sick from the meal. Yeah!)
The kids here are just precious. So friendly and alive with innocence and joy.
In the shot above, dad is actually sitting in his barber’s chair. Supercuts has yet to open a store in this area.
After walking around a bit, it was time to head off to another temple. I however was burnt out on temples. No mas! I just didn’t have the creative energy left to enjoy another set of jumbled blocks - no matter how sublime they might be. Instead, we just drove along and stopped at whatever sight caught my eye.
The photo of this boy is one of my favorites from the trip. He saw me taking photos of the old boats and bridge so he walked down from the road. Without saying a word, he began posing for my camera. I’d love to go back and give him a print of this image. He became my silent but curious companion as I snapped photos of the surroundings.
In a way, this image reminds me of the famous Steven McCurry photo of the wide-eyed afghani girl that appeared in National Geographic. Twenty years after he shot the image, he returned to find the now grown woman, her face displaying the ravages of a hard life. I wonder how time will affect this boy as he becomes a man and then likely a father over the coming decades.
As we bounced along the dirt road, I spied a Buddhist temple and graveyard. Loud Cambodian pop music, remnants of the week long Khmer New Year holiday, filled the air as I took photos and did my best to avoid the unavoidable midday heat. I much preferred the sound and feel of the place to yet another temple.
I asked what this pot was for. It reminded me of a pinata hanging there, but I was still surprised to hear that it was part of a gambling game. Basically, it’s a clay pinata and people bet how many swings it will take to break the pot. Imagine mom and dad betting with the parents how many swings it will take Johnny to get the candy to fly. That’d make for a heck of a lot more interesting birthday party.
Here the students at the school figure out what songs to play over the loudspeakers.
And with that, we jumped back into the car and headed back to town - my trip pretty much over. I’m going to go out tonight and shoot some night time scenes of Siem Riep. I’ve wanted to do it all week long, but I’ve been too tired (or sick). It feels so good to be back to normal. Though I finally feel as though I’m finally getting into the rhythm of the country and the people, I do miss home and my beautiful Southern California weather.
Before coming here, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew of a war-torn country, alternately bombed to shreds during the American bombing campaign of the Vietnam war and then then held in terrifying hostage by a vicious killer, Pol Pot. Much of my previous knowledge of the country had come from photographs. At the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, I’d seen an exhibit of the victims of Pol Pot’s torture prisons. Also at MOPA, I’d seen an exhibit of fantastic platinum prints from Angkor Wat and some of the other temples. This latter exhibit from over ten years ago was the first time I, and most other Americans, had ever heard of this other-worldly place. Those photos first planted the seed of traveling to this sub-tropical land.
As I ready to leave Cambodia, I think now of a country that’s growing. It’s open to tourists and adventurers. There’s still remnants of the past violence - land mines abound in some areas, though none anywhere around any of places that I visited. And it’s still “developing” as third world countries are now called. But when I think of poverty, I think of unhappiness. Cambodia has reminded me that there’s a difference between poverty of wealth and poverty of spirit. Though the people here are poor by American standards, I didn’t really feel it because the people here possess such a wonderful, happy, vibrant spirit - a “joie de vivre” as the French might say.
Hopefully, I can take some of that wonderful spirit home with me and, through my words, photos and actions, share it with all of you.
After my morning trip to Ta Prohm, we took a little break before our next adventure. I stopped in at a Thai restaurant in Siem Riep. Since Thailand is right next door to Cambodia and only a few hours from Siem Riep, there’s about as many Thai dishes on most menus are there are Cambodian ones. Sitting down, I was surprised to see that the menu was pretty similar to what the restaurants back home serve. However the Pad Thai was the best I’d ever had. Good stuff!
By then the day was getting pretty ridiculously hot. Where as the previous day had been overcast, today it was nearly all merciless, relentless sun. As we drove out to a small village on the outskirts of town so that I could shoot more portraits, my head sagged and nodded off into sleep - tired from the many days of early starts.
30 minutes of driving led us to the countryside where rice paddies lay open but for the small berms that divided the plots and held the water needed to drown the rice crops. April is the end of the dry season so there were few crops being grown and the fields were a mix of brown and green. Once in the village, nothing more than an open bar with a small store and place for locals to hang out, I got out and set to work finding subjects.
I have to admit, I was still a little reluctant at this point to approach people. I didn’t know the language and not sure how well I’ll be received. Asking the often busy adults to stop for a photo wasn’t easy for me. Plus there just weren’t that many out and about. The kids on the other hand were more than ready and willing to jump in front of the camera.
With the sun ruthlessly bearing down, my enthusiasm for shooting quickly waned. 90 degrees doesn’t seem all that hot, but mix in the high humidity and the climate becomes debilitating. I often thought about the American men who were drafted into the Army to fight in nearby Vietnam. I can imagine them stepping off the plane and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” The heat, the rain, everything so different from home. And then to get shot at. I felt lucky to be a casual tourist with no place to be nor hard work to attend to.
After less than an hour, we happily retreated to the air conditioning of David’s Landcruiser and rumbled along some back roads to our next stop - which honestly, I wasn’t sure where that was to be. We stopped amidst a couple rows of outdoor clothing stalls and a mound of smelly trash tossed right off the road. On a side note, if I were the ruler of a third world country, the first thing I’d do is make trash collection a national priority. Once the trash starts piling up, pride of ownership goes down and the entire place becomes an undesirable dump.
Anyhow, I was happy to see that our destination was a huge lake occupied by numerous cabanas along it’s shore. And one of them was for us! With great joy, I ordered a Tiger beer from one of the locals. As I mentioned in a previous post, Cambodians don’t really have bathing suits - certainly not bikinis (nor Speedos for all you Euros) so the adults just go in wearing whatever they have on. Which I happily did too.
As I was standing in the West Baray lake shooting, I began to feel something like an animated grass brushing up against me. It soon dawned on me that I was being grazed upon by small fish that were enjoying the skin of my feet and ankles. In town they are many shops with tanks of these fish set up so, for a dollar or so, you can sit on top of them and have a fish foot massage of sorts. I was getting the treatment for free. Still, I hoped there wasn’t something more menacing as a follow-up. But the locals didn’t seem to be worried so I just put it out of mind.
In between naps, I headed out into the water to snap photos of the kids doing what kids everywhere love to do: play and jump in the water. The kids took pleasure in jumping in my general direction which was fine but for the fact that my camera and lens kept getting soaked. Water spots on the lens just won’t do!
In a way, I feel like taking photos of kids, especially third world kids, jumping in the water is almost a cliche. I’ve seen so many of them over the years. To that, I answered myself in saying that I still like my images and if this was all I had then I’d have a right to be disappointed. In many ways I feel like a National Geographic photographer covering the story of the people and place from all angles. Maybe I should send them my portfolio? Hmmm…
At any rate, taking a nap in the cabana, wet from wading in the water, was such a welcome relief. One thing that I especially enjoyed is that this was truly a local’s destination - there was maybe one other tourist there. Everyone was so friendly with nothing but smiles from everyone. Unlike Southern California, beer drinking was not only allowed, it was almost to be expected. A mere raise of one’s hand and a woman from a shop would quickly bring out a cool, but not quite cold, Cambodian Tiger beer. Paradise was just a few degrees away.
Note the steps down to the beach - the only way down too. The top step is missing, the steps are almost two normal steps apart, the beams are narrow and angled back. Even sober, walking up and down them is no easy task. I’m surprised there’s not bones down below from all the wounded drunken warriors who fell through the gaps and couldn’t get up.
Though I would have been happy to continue to sit in the hammock and do nothing, there were more temples to visit so off we went.
The moment after I snapped this photo, I took a step back. In one hand I had my iPhone and in the other my Canon 5D MII. My foot stepped into a foot deep hole. I fell backwards my feet flying into the air, cameras skidding into the dirt. Though dazed and laughing at my klutziness, I was intact as were my now dirt covered cameras. The guys came running as I brushed myself off. Although I laughed it off, inside I was damn happy I didn’t sprain or break something as my ass hit the ground.
Preah Khan is a huge temple complex that’s only partially been restored. Its long hallways that give way to the creeping jungle give it its own sort of spooky feel.
Found this monkey swinging from a tree vine…
The ancient Khmer ruler who built Preah Khan dedicated this temple to his father. Like its neighbors, it’s awe-inspiring and beautiful. Probably my second favorite of the trip. Still, at this point I was on temple overload - which wasn’t helped by the fact that even in the late afternoon, it was still sauna-like hot.
I felt much like I did towards the end of my stay in Florence. After awhile, each painting, no matter how stunning, becomes just another masterpiece and loses much of its impact. As much as I enjoyed the sights and felt lucky to be here, I was also relieved when we headed back to the car for the short trip back to Siem Riep and my hotel.
Can’t believe that tomorrow is my last full day in Cambodia. I’m looking forward to something completely different. Stay tuned!
I’ve been to ruins in many parts of the world. In some respects, they’re pretty much the same: large blocks of stone stacked together in interesting ways. But what makes Cambodian ruins unique is the vegetation that’s grown up, over, around and on top of the ruins. Specifically, it’s the massive roots of the silk-cotton tree and the vine like trunk of the strangler fig that create a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel to the setting. Laura Croft Tomb Raider was actually filmed at one of the sites here.
Within no other place in the Angkor park are there more trees left intact than at Ta Prohm. At many locations, the trees were removed leaving the ruins almost sterile (kind of like at Angkor Wat). In contrast, Ta Prohm has been left in a mixed state of ruin, overgrowth and rebuilding. Bottom line, it’s really cool. It’s the one place that really captured my imagination. I’d love to return to discover more of its photographic treasures!
At this point in the trip, I’ve grown weary of the of the locals, mostly young children, constantly pestering me for a sale. “One dolla! One dolla!” is the incessant refrain as they push guide books, postcards or some bright trinkets in my face. These kids, cute as hell, just don’t stop. They try and wear the tourist down so that eventually he coughs something up.
They’ll work their cuteness and ask my name and tell me theirs. Next thing you know, I’ve got a five year old insisting, “John buy this one dolla.” It sucks to be cold and ignore them but there just got to be a point I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Now, it’s head down and head straight to the temple.
The roots of this tree are from the silk-cotton tree. Unfortunately, the caretakers of this site chose to put up a platform with ropes next to most of the interesting tree formations. The platform is great for the casual tourist who wants a snapshot next to the spot, but it absolutely ruins any sort of meditative photograph. Dave, my guide, frequently joked about how they hate photographers here. After scene after scene was ruined by the inconsiderate placement of posts and ropes, I too began to swear at the misguided caretakers.
The root of the silk-cotton tree imitates the long odious slither of a massive constricting snake. Being alone amongst them feels a little spooky, even sinister.
Here the roots of the strangler fig cover not only its host tree, which the fig will eventually kill, but also overrun the ancient temple.
If you can, come here at first light so you’ll have plenty of time on your own. Sit. Feel the solitude. There are spirits here that you can feel if you’ll let them touch you. Once the lines of Russian tourists show up, much of the experience is lost - unless you consider white beer bellies and big boobs clad in gaudy fashion to be in sync with the spirit of the place.
This view was one of my favorites of the trip. I love how the sinewy curves of the tree contrast with the blocky ruins of the foreground and background. I just wish I’d spent more time just sitting and reflecting.
To get to this little nook, my guide led me over some rubble. No one else was near as we were off the main path at this point. It seemed as though there was something more fantastic around every corner. This is what I’d come to Cambodia for!
Talk about the Land of the Lost. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sleestak come trolling around the corner.
When I got to this spot, I stopped in awe. More exotic and yet more real than any movie I’d ever seen, it appeared like a giant stage. The light filtered through the trees as though intentionally placed for effect. Usually when I get to this point in a temple tour, I’m pretty much done as it all starts to look the same. Here the effect on me was just the opposite. I felt rejuvenated and emotionally moved by the scene - like I’d been transported to another world where fantasy lives. I just hope they never rope up this area.
As we walked out of the temple site back to the Landcruiser, we passed a spot where workers were in the midst of reconstructing a building within the complex. On the ground lay huge chunks of cut stone marked with numbers written in white crayon. Imagine a jumbled 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with each piece the size of a coffee table and you’ll get the idea of scene. How they put it all together is beyond me.
Most of the construction is financed by foreign countries, be they China or France or whomever. Which ever country sponsors the work gets to have signs in their language. Seeing that investment in Cambodia gave me a little hope because not only does it bring in money, it trains the work force for something other than asking plump tourists for “one dolla.”
As much as I enjoy shooting pretty photos of temples and trees, at heart, I’m a portrait photographer. I need people in my photos! So after hitting the temples, we finished up at a nearby village where I walked from door to door, or should I say hut to hut in search of subjects.
I learned the phrase “Sum taut mui” which means “may I take your photo?” Also, “Sous day” which means “hello” and “aacorn tran” which means “thank you.” With those three phrases, I was pretty much golden! Actually, the people in Cambodia are exceptionally friendly. Once out of Phnom Penh, no one declined to have their photo taken. Indeed many thanked me afterward for shooting the photo. All too often my problem was that everyone wanted to jump in the photo when I only wanted one person.
For this shot, I only wanted the woman as my subject, but the kids wanted in too. It did help that I had Kimleng with me to translate, but still the communication from English to Khmer wasn’t easy.
Once you photograph one kid, you’re going to photograph every kid. Cambodia is going through a baby boom so there are kids everywhere. Kids here are an essential part of life - they’re needed to work and help in the fields to bring in money. A married couple without kids is a couple likely to go broke.
The kids are all so playful and adorable. They may not have all the luxuries of American living, but they’re never far from a smile or a laugh. They’re a great reminder to the truism that money and objects don’t buy happiness.
This boy had this horrible scabs all over his face and on parts of his body. I’m used to positioning my subjects by moving them around - which made more sense since I couldn’t communicate directly with them. I held this kid’s arm to move him where I wanted him. I quickly realized that this might not be a good idea since I had no idea if this was something communicable. As I washed my hands at a nearby well pump, I anxiously hoped I didn’t pick up some dreadful third-world malady.
This guy climbs up coconut trees to fill his bamboo buckets with sap. This sap is then boiled down to create a solid sugar.
This woman is outside her home, a very typical Cambodian raised house.
This house is not this man’s home. The owners are away. They’re probably French since there are many nice homes owned by former colonists sprinkled around the countryside. Cambodia was a French colony from the 1800’s. They left in the 50’s which soon after sparked a long civil war that culminated in the viscous rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in the 70’s. Although Pol Pot was pushed out of the large cities by a Vietnamese invasion in 1980. The war continued until Pol Pot died in 1998. Since then, Cambodia has been peaceful - though the millions of remaining land mines still leave a dangerous reminder of the long war.
This woman is boiling down the coconut sap to make the sugar.
This fellow has filled his bottles of coconut sap and is bringing them to the woman who will boil it down. This is a taste of how business has been done since the onset of civilization and the division of labor. No big factories or agribusiness. Just people working in their backyards and in their villages.
These women package up the sugar for sale. I think you can get three of these for a dollar.
This was my last shot of the day. I just love the story it tells. The dad with his machete. The kids in the background. The home they live in. The people here work hard for a living. Their muscles are cut and beer bellies are rare.
The beauty of travel is that we get to experience scenes that are so different, even exotic, from our day to day life at home. Really though, what’s exotic to us is normal to those who live in these places. I love to photograph that normalcy no matter where it lives - be it in America or faraway. It’s the underlying humanity that I love to connect with.
On a technical note, I brought with me a small lighting kit and umbrella that I used to light all of these portraits. I tried to keep the lighting fairly minimal - just enough to add some direction and shape to the otherwise flat ambient light. I figured that anyone can show up and shoot using ambient, however it takes a determined fool to schlep lighting around and then set it up with the locals wondering what the hell I’m doing. In fact, most of my subjects would look at the light instead of at me since they were confused as to which was the camera.
The next phrase I need to learn in Cambodian is “Look here!”
Today I felt orders of magnitude better. My illness of yesterday is mostly gone - as is the wicked lightening storm that blew in last night. More lightening flashed than in a bad horror movie. The rain fell as though forced from a fire hose. The power went out across the city and trees are strewn across the roads.
By morning, the storm passed - leaving in its wake a nice canopy of clouds and the occasional pleasant breeze. Though it was hot and beyond muggy by San Diego standards, it was infinitely more bearable than yesterday’s omnipresent heat.
I started the day before dawn at an ornate temple, Bayon. Even in its reconstructed state, the complex of domes and massive carvings was amazing. In it’s original state, it no doubt rivaled if not exceeded the masterpiece churches of Europe. We got there not long after dawn to take advantage of the morning light. The heavy clouds left over from the storm, nixed that, leaving instead a soft, low contrast light.
Being the first there made it easy to get photos without dozens of other tourists ruining my shots. To all who are planning on photographing the major temples, I recommend getting there as early as possible. Once the tour bus hordes start showing up around 8:00, forget about getting a wide shot without lines of people spoiling your image.
To us, these buildings appear as ruins. Back when they were constructed, the surfaces would have been painted with vibrant colors and gilded with gold and silver. What a dazzling sight this must have been!
Next it was off to Angkot Thom, a huge temple and royal palace site. It’s size and scope rivals Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula - and it even has it’s own pyramid.
Though the temples are mostly in ruins, they’re still considered holy places and used by Cambodians. As part of the Khmer New Year celebrations, people came to visit the monks at the site for a cleansing ritual. Here these kids draw water for a monk to pour over the heads of the worshippers.
In the midst of our strolls, we stopped for breakfast which consisted of pancakes and tea at one of a long row of outdoor diners. And I use the word diner loosely considering none had running water and all were housed under thatched roofs. Condensed milk is the local sweetener - which was used both for syrup and for tea. Nothing goes down so easy on a hot day as iced tea with condensed milk. Oh so good! Meanwhile, our local guide, Kimleng, stuck to his rice and fish dish.
Later that afternoon, we headed over to the mother of all temples and the most famous of all, Angkor Wat. It’s the largest, most famous and most restored of all the sites. It’s surrounded by a large man-made lake. The lake is at least a couple football fields in length and extends for several miles. It’s hard to believe that in addition to creating the vast temple by hand, a lake of this size could be dug out without anything more than strong backs and crude shovels.
Though it was claimed to have been “discovered” by the French in the 1800’s, the Cambodians never stopped worshipping here so it was never lost to them. They still decorate the statutes and give offerings to the deities.
This young monk spoke English, which he was eager to practice on us. He asked a lot of questions about America. When he saw my iPhone, he asked how much it cost. I was reluctant to say since $400 is probably more than he might see in an entire year. (I didn’t even bring up AT&T’s ridiculous monthly pricing.)
As I strolled through the corridors and walkways, camera and tripod at the ready, I imagined how everything would have looked back in the day. The interiors would have been lined with wood and the exterior surfaces all painted. I also thought about the large army of laborers, craftsmen, architects and artists that were required to build these fantastic structures within the short lifespan of an ancient king. (Once the king died, the construction stopped.)
Despite its size and sprawl, Angkor Wat wasn’t my favorite temple. Maybe because of the sometimes excessive crowds or because it was the most restored, it just seemed a little cold. I’ve grown use to the more overgrown temples that bring together stone, lichen and forest to create a more organic feel to the space.
Although I felt much better from my sickness of yesterday - the intestinal thing cleared out by midday and my cold had mostly run its course, except for a dreadfully runny nose - the heat still feels oppressive to this San Diegan used to cool ocean breezes. I moved slowly and sat down when I could. I knew that coming to Cambodia during its hottest month meant taking things easy - though it’s much easier to accept in the abstract, sitting back at home planning out the trip.
Before visiting Cambodia, I had little idea of what to expect. I had no idea how developed and tourist friendly it would be. Siem Riep is definitely tourist friendly - especially if you speak English. Most everyone who deals with the public speaks at least broken English if they’re not fluent. Though there is much room for development, the cities all have good roads, decent infrastructure and air conditioning in the hotels.
Siem Riep, though smaller than Phnom Penh, is rapidly growing and is far from a small village. There’s all manner of hotels - from grand and luxurious to cozy-but-comfortable. It’s pretty easy to find a room for $25 to $30 a night with all the amenities and is in a good location. If you’re looking for adventure far off the beaten path, this isn’t it. You can no doubt find it in Cambodia (watch for land mines), but tourism on a ever increasing scale has hit this particular town.
That said, you can still get a decent dinner and a beer for less than five bucks. All is not lost!
Unfortunately, I got stuck an extra day in Phnom Penh. Ugh. I reserved a plane ticket for the morning - but because of the new year holiday, I wasn’t able to pay until the morning. By then my reservation had expired and the plane sold out. Bummer. The next flight was that afternoon so I filled my time with getting caught up on blogging and downloading images.
My advice to anyone traveling to Phnom Penh is to stay there for one day. Tick the sights and then leave. More than one day, regardless of what your travel agent says, simply isn’t necessary to taste the unremarkable flavor of this capital city.
The flight to Siem Riep was short and comfortable. The plane, a puddle jumper, was nearly empty but super clean and brand new. The flight took about 35 minutes - barely enough time to watch that episode of Entourage that I had loaded onto my iPad.
The next morning, I joined Peace of Angkor guide Dave Perkes and driver Kimleng on a two hour drive out of the city to some ruins way off the beaten track. The last hour of driving was over serious off-road trails where we would have easily gotten lost but for the local guide that we picked up along the way.
Now, I should add to all this that I’d picked up a cold in Singapore that I’d managed to fight off - until today. At the same time, I picked up an intestinal bug in Phnom Penh (another reason not to like that city) so I was ready to run to the outhouse at any given moment - not a pleasant prospect in Cambodia where their idea of a developed toilet is often a ceramic ditch into which you pour water from a nearby container to flush it. That and the heat sapped my strength something ferocious. Basically, I was a semi-lifeless wreck trying to make do as we hiked through the jungle to find some interesting but probably-not-worth-the-effort sculptures of elephants and tigers.
In fact, the stuff that we looked at wasn’t nearly as interesting as the people that we met along the way. These kids allowed their curiosity to guide them as they followed us around at our first stop.
So I mentioned that I had this intestinal bug. Well, I should add that Cambodia is notorious for having millions of land mines still in place from its long civil war. Every year, children and farmers are blown up from treading in uncleared areas. Anywhere near the tourist areas is not a problem, but we were many miles off the beaten path.
Thus I wasn’t too surprised to hear that there were land mines in the area of our adventure. Now I don’t know if they were pulling my leg, but I did take the prospect of getting my legs blown off seriously. Where this fact and the fact that I had a serious case of the runs intersects is in that I was now afraid to leave the trail to go to the bathroom (and of course there were no actual bathrooms around).
Dave, my guide, assured me that so long as my poop weighed less than 22 kilos, the minimum weight needed to set off a land mine, I’d be okay. Ha ha. As Fred Flintstone would say, “so droll, so very droll.” The joke was even less funny considering that defecating under the influence of a tropical third-world intestinal bug does not result in anything resembling solid. But I’m telling you more than you care to know.
As I put a smiling face on my discomfort, we visited a cave known for it’s large bats. It also served as the home for a hermetic monk. Here’s his home.
Here’s a portrait of our cave guide in his two-hut village.
Afterward, we stopped by a river popular with the locals. There’s a waterfall that was perfect for a cool soaking. One great thing about Cambodia is that few, other than children who just jump in naked, bother to get out of their street clothes when they go for a dunk. So I went in too. Man it felt so good! The misery I was feeling just washed away - and because my clothes were wet, I stayed cool for a good while after.
There’s no public transportation in Cambodia so people just jump aboard the local third-world pickup. These vehicles are a common sight in the countryside. Consisting of nothing more than a generator with a flywheel hooked up to a long steering bar and four wheels, they noisily transport all manner of goods and people from village to village.
For many farmers, the age old ox cart is still the preferred mode of travel.
Our last stop of the day was a relatively small temple complex not far outside of Siem Riep. Finally, my reward for leaving Phnom Penh! The reason I opted to travel to Cambodia was because I’d heard and seen fantastic photos of Angkor Wat - a grandiose ancient Khmer Temple. But in reality, the area contains dozens of temples, both restored and crumbling. So finally putting my camera and my creative eye to work amidst the elegantly sculpted rock of the temple was a welcome task.
These local kids came out to entertain us with their jumping skills. Of course, they both asked for “one dolla” afterward. I gave them some cash for their performance. A buck for me isn’t much, but it goes a long way for their families.
Then it was back to the hotel for a cold shower and food. I shuffled next door for some tom yum soup then shuffled back to my room. I’m fully cooked and hoping that tomorrow will bring with it new energy and better health.
By day two of Phnom Penh, I’d already had enough. The heat grit and generally ugly demeanor of the city had taken their effects on me. Just little things like the constant harassment of the tuk tuk drivers, people peeing in the open, the dead rat on the sidewalk just made the city a less than desireable place for me.
Late in the afternoon I strolled through a market just a couple of blocks from my hotel. The smell, the flies, the blood, the vegetables turning all did not give me confidence in the food I’d be eating that night.
Cities take on a different personality at night and Phnom Penh is no different. The relative cool of the evening draws out the crowds. Young lovers, families and curious tourists all come out to the river banks and open space in front of the palace. They gather to play, buy food from the many street vendors and stroll along the brightly lit streets.
Just off the beaten track, the scene quickly lost its romance.
I returned to the outdoor market that I had photographed earlier. Much of it was shut down though a few vendors hung on while others went through the motions of cleaning up. The smell wasn’t easy for me to take. Worse though, as I strolled through the crowded alleys, I noticed the ground moving in places. Looking closer, I realized that a bevy of oversized rats were doing some shopping of their own.
I don’t have any great fear of rats, though these were about two feet long from nose to tail and mostly fearless. They didn’t budge as I slowly strolled through their rotting smorgasbord. As I set my camera up, I can’t deny that I had visions of being attacked on the back of my ankles by bloodthirsty vermin. What I would have given for a pellet gun and handful of bb’s!
The next morning, I decided to get out of the city center for a walk to S21, the prison-now-museum where communist dictator Pol Pot tortured and killed many thousands of his fellow Cambodians during his brutal 1975 to 1979 rule. Most people choose to tuk tuk their way the couple of miles that it takes to get there, but I liked the idea of experiencing the city first hand to see what I could.
The Cambodians may be poor and their government not able to do much, but they do have cool crosswalk signals here. Check out this little video. The best part is at the end.
The day coincided with the Cambodian New Year so the noisy temples were filled with worshippers. Here’s a video with some of the sights and sounds of the new year celebration:
This man handed out a few Reals (Cambodian currency) to the beggars who sat outside the temple gates
After a couple miles of walking in the midday heat, I finally made it to the prison. The banality of the present day scene belies the horrific cruelty that took place here. In this room, the high value prisoners were held and tortured. Photos of the victims show them bloodied and beaten to the point that their life left them long after their will to live.
The barbed wire on the outside of the building wasn’t so much to stop prisoners from escaping as it was to stop them from killing themselves by throwing themselves off the higher floors. For many victims of the relentless waterboarding and other vicious tortures, death was no doubt a welcome relief.
Before becoming a prison, the complex was a school. It’s easy to imagine children walking to class here. Hard to visualize the macabre scene of beaten men being herded aboard trucks to their death.
My next stop was to one of the many killing fields in Cambodia. There’s one that’s set up as a memorial/tourist destination but in reality there are hundreds of these murderous sites scattered throughout the country. At the killing fields, prisoners were bludgeoned to death by the hundreds and buried in shallow mass graves. According to the nearby sign, this tree was used by the Khmer Rouge to kill babies and small children by swinging them by their feet and bashing their heads.
This three story memorial contains thousands of human skulls stacked in shelves that fill the middle of the tower. They’re all on display.
To get to the killing fields, a tuk tuk was required because the distance was way to far to walk. On the way back, I snapped photos of some of the many scooters zooming by. Here a mom breast feeds her baby on the back of one. Seeing families of four on a scooter is not uncommon - traveling by scooter is just part of everyday life here.
My last day in Phnom Penh. Whew! Tomorrow I leave for the more scenic city of Siem Riep, an 45 minute plane ride to the north. I’ll be happy to leave this town.
I got into Phnom Penh just after darkness had fallen. Going into a new city at night always feels like walking into a mystery since so much is left unrevealed. My eyes were wide as I took in the new sights of all the motor scooters, old cars, and odd lettering on the concrete buildings. As my taxi neared my hotel, a small dog scurried in front of us. Seeing that the speedy little animal was actually a monkey reminded me of just how far away from home I had traveled.
My first impression of Phnom Penh was that it reminded me of Tijuana Mexico, a city which neighbors my hometown of San Diego. Both share in common dusty streets, boxy concrete buildings, smog belching cars and a general run down feel to them. My large suite of a hotel room though was a welcome sight. Its French doors opened to a view of the Tonle Sap River and its meeting with the mighty Mekong River. To the right was a large Buddhist Temple, where cars, dead rats and the homeless all made their home outside its walls
The next morning, I made my way to the nearby National Museum. Built during the French era of colonization, its design mixed a colonial style with traditional Cambodian pagoda details. I love the little pointy things coming off the roof. I think they’re snakes. Whatever they are, I want some on the roof of my house.
Consisting mostly of sculptures taken from the various ancient temples in Cambodia, the museum took about an hour to get through. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed. (Gotta sell those postcards.)
As I walked over to the royal palace (Cambodia being some sort of constitutional monarchy), the relative cool of the morning gave way to the ruthless heat of midday. April is the hot season. Though temperatures rarely make it above the mid 90’s, the high humidity makes mere walking around an exercise in staying alive.
Not that the Cambodians seem to notice. I never failed to marvel each time I’d see a local wearing dark pants and long sleeves, sometimes even a winter parka, strutting around the overheated streets without so much as breaking a minor sweat. Meanwhile, I’ve sought refuge in the shade of a street-side bar, wearing shorts and a fancy thermo-wicking Nike white t-shirt with a fan pointed at me and a cold beer pressed against my forehead. Fortunately, the beers here are cheap; 75 cents will get you an almost cold glass of Tiger beer.
Walking along the bustling tourist corridor in Phnom Penh mean avoiding tuk tuk drivers and their constant pestering for a ride. (A tuk tuk is a small carriage pulled by a motor scooter.) There’s few flies in Cambodia; I think the tuk tuk drivers were too annoying for even them.
I entered the royal palace not long before it closed for lunch. Before long, all the other tourists had left, the outside doors were closed and I had the place to myself. No one kicked me out, so I kept snapping away with my camera. After the din of Singapore and the bustle of the outside streets, I welcomed the solitude and beauty of the palace grounds.
Afterward, I ambled along the friendly bank of the Mekong River until I came across some midday Buddhist temple worshippers. It was the start of the Khmer new year so things were especially festive everywhere I went. Since music doesn’t translate well in a photo, I decided to shoot some video. (The audio is a little rough at the start of this clip though it quickly gets better.)