#7 Cambodia, March 17, 2003

I stayed one night in Bangkok in my A/C room at the Suk 11, which was very nice.  David had booked bus tickets for us to go to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Wednesday.   Since the buses left from Kho San Road at 7:30 AM, we decided to move to one of the many hundreds of guest houses on Kho San Road.

David had booked us at the Lek Guesthouse.  My room was quite clean but did not have a bathroom, or soap, or a towel, or TP.  Luckily I carry all of these essentials in my backpack—not the bathroom!  It also had no furniture except a bed and a tiny table.  It had no closet or hooks on which to hang anything.  It had no blankets or top sheet on the bed—none are needed.

The common bathrooms (2) had western style toilets but no seat-part to sit on, no TP, and no flush mechanism.   Next to the toilet was a tiled (clean) enclosure about 18 inches cubed, full of water which contained a plastic big dipper.  To flush you filled the dipper and dumped it into the toilet bowl a couple of times.  You put the used toilet paper in a plastic wastebasket.  There was no shower.  To take a shower you used the dipper and poured the water over yourself.  The water was cool but not cold, so it actually felt good in this heat.  My room did have an overhead fan.

Kho San Road is a backpacker haven.  There must be several thousand backpackers here, making it quite unique in the world.  Needless to say, it throbs with a beat.  Music, hawkers, strollers, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, singers—they were all there under the neon lights.  Even though it was very noisy, I slept quite well until 2:30 AM when I awoke to the beat!  It didn’t slow down until about five, when I drifted off to sleep again.

The next morning David and I boarded the bus to Siem Riep, the town in Cambodia next to Angkor Wat.  We had a nice air-conditioned Thai bus, over excellent roads to the border, which we reached at noon.  Here we stopped for lunch, were issued Cambodia visas, then walked across the border and boarded Cambodian buses.  These were not so nice, but better than some I’ve ridden in other countries.

We reached Siem Reap at 7:30 PM.  This town is strictly a new tourist town, mainly built within the last five years as a focus for tourists to visit Angkor Wat.  There were a dozen fancy hotels for the tour groups on one end of town, and a zillion small guesthouses, restaurants and email outlets for the backpackers on the other end.

We spent three days with a ‘remorque-moto’ (a motorbike with driver, pulling a little two-person carriage with a roof) seeing ten temple complexes—Angkor Wat and others nearby.  These temples are gigantic, made of stone, were built between 900 and 1200 AD, and have lovely intricate carved stone decorations, even though many are in a state of partial collapse.





They are Hindu and Buddhist and really are one of the ‘wonders of the world.’  There are about 100 temples, large and small but in this hot weather and given their size, climbing around on ten of them was plenty.

The beautiful surrounds added to the pleasure of these sites.  Driving from temple to temple in the remorque-moto on nice roads with a variety of tall trees lining the way, and with pretty tan cows grazing alongside the temples was a lovely scene.  Several temples had mammoth faces on tall towers; others had intricately carved lintels over the doors; and all had ‘apsaras’ (dancing females) carved into the walls.

In Angkor Wat there were several 100-foot long bas reliefs in the temple’s interior, with action packed narratives carved in stone.  Everywhere there were sentinel dragons/lions (head of dragon and body of lion).  One temple, Ta Prohm, has pretty much been left to the jungle.  There are huge tree roots intertwined with the large stones and big trees growing up out of the stones.  Of course in places, the trees have knocked down parts of the temples and walls.

Saturday evening we had a unique experience.  There is a modern children’s hospital in Siem Reap.  It was started by a Swiss doctor, Dr. Beat Richner.  He also plays cello, and gives a one-hour concert every Saturday night to raise money for the hospital.

It was more than a concert.  It was a real eye-opener on poor Cambodian’s recent history.  He discussed the implications of war and the attitude of the international community on children’s health.

  • In 1969 the USA (Nixon-Kissinger) secretly bombed Cambodia and destroyed 2/5 of the country.  While about 250,000 people were killed, it caused huge refugee camps elsewhere in the country.  People were living in very close quarters under terrible conditions and tuberculosis became well established.  Today 50% of children’s deaths are from TB.  Up to 25% are infected although not sick, but when they do get another disease, such as malaria, the TB explodes and they die unless they have proper expensive medical treatment.
  • Pol Pot (’75-’78) killed 2 to 3 million (out of 9 million people) emptying the cities and turning people out to work in rice production.
  • In the early ‘90’s, UN soldiers carrying HIV infected the Cambodians, who up until then were AIDs free because they were isolated from the world.  There is now about a 7% HIV infection rate.  The hospital has just established a maternity unit and does C-sections on all the infected mothers thereby keeping the babies from being infected.

This doctor was asked by the government to re-commission a former hospital in Phnom Phnh, which he did.  He raised all the money for it and two other hospitals, one of which is in Siem Reap. He installed modern equipment (CT Scanner, Lab, Xray, etc) for which he was criticized by organizations like World Health Organization and UNICEF, because they said the country lacked stability and it wasn’t wise to spend money here.  His premise was that the only way to peace (anywhere) is to build the infrastructure or there will always be instability.

He also called this not ‘charity’ but ‘justice.’  His slogan was that every child had a right to the right medical care.  He felt that the international community felt that cheap care was all a poor country could expect.  He gave an example:  A drug (Chloramphenicol?—I wasn’t sure with his accent, but an antibiotic, anyway) is banned in the west because it has harmful side effects.  It is manufactured, stockpiled and distributed to poor countries as recommended by the World Health Organization because it’s cheap.  Additionally almost all of the germs that it is used to combat in these countries have developed a resistance to it, so it is both harmful and useless.

Their hospital runs at 160% occupancy (mats on the floor) and is entirely free for all.  An outside agency estimated that 80% of these acutely ill children would die if they were not admitted.  Their hospital cost per admission (5.2 day length-of-stay) is about $205.  He commented that recently someone from the WHO had come to give advice and explain why they should be doing healthcare differently.  The WHO people stayed at the Sofitel Hotel next door at a cost of $345 per night.

This is not to say that NGO people are ill-intentioned, but he pointed out that the system is wrong and the basic attitude and expectations of westerners are not defensible, in his opinion.

Yet the Cambodian people that I see are amazing. Our moto driver, Thy, said that yes, his two grandfathers were killed under Pol Pot’s regime.  But the people are living their lives, smiling and gracious.  I photographed two little girls at one of the temples.  They didn’t ask for money, but when I gave them each a tiny amount, they both curtsied.

Around the temples we encountered several musician groups playing Cambodian music.  Their donation bowl was out front, and their leg prostheses were lying by their sides.  People missing one or both arms, or one or both legs are a common sight here—LANDMINES!

At the temples also, I bought palm sugar candy.  It is wrapped in palm leaves and tastes TOO good!  And since the vendor kept dropping the price by raising the amount of candy (“One dollar—two for a dollar—three for a dollar”) of course I had to buy three!  And then we saw temple guards trying to sell their badges to the tourists for souvenirs!  It’s hard to make a living here.

This morning we took the ‘fast boat’ from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh—five hours and nearly across the whole country.  For half the way we were on a large shallow lake, and then we entered the Tonle Sap River.  As we neared Phnom Phnh, the river was completely lined with bamboo huts in which families lived.  There were quite a number of small canoes on the river that would be almost swamped by our boat.

Phnom Penh seems like a very busy city, and looks more prosperous than I would have thought.  We shall explore it for a few days.


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