The Olympic market in Phnom Penh, how it reflects on SE Asia’s economy, a lost Cambodian reunited, Halloween, and poker

I apologize for what was yet another brief intermission – the government’s web filters in Vietnam (which block me from writing) are strong in places and weak in others.  I had access in Mui Ne and Nha Trang but no access in Quang Ngai and Hoi An, which is why you haven’t hear from me in about six days. We arrived in Hue tonight and I’m back on board.  If you haven’t already guessed these blog entries are roughly 8-10 days behind where I actually am in the trip.

Last I wrote, we had just finished a nice stay in Kampot – let me catch you up. This post is a bit wordy so if you want to read it give yourself at least 10 minutes.

After our nice break in relaxed Kampot we went back to a much faster-paced Phnom Penh.

Despite the city’s assurances I did consider not consider it to be charming it all.  It is not dangerous but it is rough and lacks the Cambodian hospitality that we came to know so well in Siem Reap (e.g., Hon, our tuk-tuk driver) and Kampot.  But it does have the “dogs can be anywhere” allowance, particularly in bars, which Ben loves.

Cambodia’s capital has several large markets, the largest and most well-known of which is the Russian Market.  It is called the Russian Market because Russians started coming to it back in the 1960s to buy nice items at a discount price.  Nowadays it is the most touristy of all Phnom Penh’s markets.  Consequently, the prices have become inflated and haggling difficult.

So instead of the Russian Market, our first day back we went to the local “Olympic” market instead.  It is truly a local market – we were basically the only non-Cambodians there.  The Olympic market is housed in a massive building that looks quite plain from the outside.

The inside of the building was a bustling metropolis –  stall after stall selling nearly identical goods.  And there were thousands of them.  This is possible because each stall is very small and crammed in between two other stalls selling the exact same stuff.  The stalls in this building were packed like sardines in every direction, more so than anywhere I’ve seen in SE Asia.

The building is roughly organized into “sections”.  If you want shirts or dresses, go to the northwest corner of the second floor where there are roughly 500 clothing stalls.

Need some bling? Jewelry can be found on the Third floor on the south side.  Lotions? Second floor bordering the central atrium.

Each stall is manned by one or two people who sit there for 12 hours a day, though I’m really hoping different people split it into shifts because there is very little moving air in the building and it is hot.  Stall neighbors know each other well – they chat together to pass the time and most sellers bring in their own lunch, including their own pots and pans to make soup and noodles while they watch their stall.

Because the Olympic market is a local market there is not as much aggressive pushing as you encounter on the streets or in other markets.  The vendors sit idly and if you want something you let them know.  Haggling seemed more difficult at this market than other markets I’ve been to.  Maybe it was because the market was local but these vendors seemed to stick to their first offer – even the walkaway technique did not work once.

The cluster of hundreds of vendors selling the exact same wares is a bizarre spectacle and a microcosm of what you see all over SE Asia but particularly in Cambodia, which I will use as an example.  Let me start from the beginning and expand.  Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and the government has not spent much money on rebuilding its infrastructure.  There is very little venture capital, no incentive to innovate (such as the patent system in the U.S.), and simply no money to start down that path yet.  For different reasons, the same can be said about most SE Asian countries.

The infrastructure cannot yet support the wide diversification of goods and services that we know and enjoy in the U.S.  Without incentive or money to innovate and take risks, the safest rule to survive is “do what you know has worked before”.  Thus, if one idea or business venture has success, 100 copycats will immediately spring up.  This explains why you see the markets like the Olympic Market with hundreds of vendors selling the exact same thing, why you see sixty restaurants on three consecutive blocks with identical menus, and why you see travel agencies set up every five feet offering the same exact tours. The ultimate winner, of course, is the consumer.  With so many vendors selling the same good or service prices are driven to an absurdly low level – this is the least expensive place I’ve ever traveled.

But its not just businesses that are in the habit of playing copycat– every families’ apartment or sheet-metal-roof hut in Cambodia (and SE Asia) doubles as a general store, travel agency, restaurant, and guest house.  You can walk up and arrange a bus ticket or get a meal from a woman on her front step while four feet away, you see mom’s kids sitting on the rug eating rice for dinner.   And you see it all over.  These families have no furniture and no silverware – they just sit on the rug and share a meal together, four feet from their store/home front.   In spite of all of what many in the U.S. would consider a very poor standard of living, these people are generally and genuinely happy. They have food to eat, a roof over their head, and each other.  You can see it in their smile, and they’re probably happier than many of those same people in the U.S. that would consider this to be a poor way of living.

But don’t count Cambodia out when it comes to its economic place in the world.  It is on the up and up and investors around the world are licking their chops.  I’ve already mentioned several expats that have come to start businesses but its not just individuals that see the opportunity in Cambodia.  China has given over one billion dollars to Cambodia in loans, ostensibly with no strings attached.  But guess who will want the first place in line when Cambodia’s government opens the country up to more outside investors as Cambodia’s infrastructure goes stronger?  But I digress.

Exploring Olympic market proved to be hot and exhausting so afterwards we went right outside the market to find some food to eat.  Ben’s main problem with eating over here is that he has no idea what any of the street food is and is too afraid to take a risk on the unknown.  He misses his McDonalds.  This problem is exacerbated when you are in an area that speaks no English such as the Olympic market.  That is why Ben and I, while pausing next to one of the food carts outside of Olympic market, were surprised to hear a Cambodian woman approach us and say “does anything look good to you?”  I introduced myself and told her how shocked I was to hear English spoken here and she laughed.  She told me her name was Roseand was from the east coast.  I was surprised to hear she was from the east coast and had an English name because the woman was clearly Cambodian, so I asked her why this was.

At the age of nine she had been separated from her family during a particularly violent and chaotic incident of the Khmer Rouge.  For her safety she was taken by the U.S. army back to the United States where she was adopted and given her English name, Rose.  Back in Cambodia, her Cambodian mother, father, and three sisters had looked for her for weeks before finally giving up hope and presuming her dead.  Similarly, Rose presumed her family to be dead.

For the next thirty years, Rose was raised by her adopted family and lived her new life in the United States.  Fast forward to three years ago when a stronger semblance of stability began to manifest in Cambodia.  Knowing it was a long shot and that they might be dead, Rose hired an investigator to see if any of her family had survived.  As it turned out all three of her sisters were alive and well, working a food stall together at the Olympic market in Phnom Penh.

After presuming her dead for 30 years, the three sisters were overjoyed to hear that their lost sister was alive.  Since finding them Rose has been back to visit her sisters in Phnom Penh three times, this being her third time.  Her sisters are the only ones that call her by her true Cambodian name, Sovann.  On reuniting with them for the first time, hearing her sisters call her by her true name for the first time in thirty years brought tears to her eyes.

Unbeknownst to Ben and I, Rose informed me that when we had paused to inspect the curious eats in Rose’s sisters’ stall, one of her sisters had told Rose (in Cambodian) “hey, speak English to those American guys and get them to eat at our stall.”  After hearing all of this I had to laugh and of course, oblige her with a meal at her sisters’ stall.  With Rose’s guidance, we got some noodle soup, a chicken dish, some pork feet,  and some tea to wash it down.

She said she was impressed with us because most Americans wouldn’t dare venture into this market, let alone try this type of Cambodian fare.  After finishing lunch, Ben had Rose walk with him down the row of food stalls and identify each foreign delicacy for him in English. Before we left, I asked her for a picture and told her I would write her story in my blog.



That night the date was October 31st  so Ben and I hoped to find a Halloween party, expat or otherwise, in Phnom Penh.  Halloween is one my favorite holidays.  After failing to find anything that could resemble a costume at Olympic Market, we engineered a few “costumes” with a couple sides of an Oreo box, some floss, and a black marker.

Our costumes were a semi-hit – as we walked to our first stop, Mao’s Club, lots of people laughed out loud, some even exclaiming “Costume!” with a grin.  I’m guessing they didn’t get the true humor of our “costumes” but they enjoyed it nonetheless. Despite being a self-proclaimed “Halloween Party” at Mao’s Club Ben and I had the closest thing on to what could be considered a “costume” – everyone else there, all Cambodians, was just dressed in bar attired.

Being the only white people there, Ben and I turned some heads when we walked in – it is rare that I am one of the tallest guys at a bar so this was a welcome change.  And as far as language barrier goes, for me it’s a plus.  Much easier to make small talk when its impossible to make, if that makes sense.  After meeting a few people at the Club, they invited us to come with them to Pontoon, Phnom Penh’s biggest club.  We rode over with them in their car and on arrival Ben and I were frisked and asked to hand over our room key, whose wire hanger key chain was deemed a “dangerous weapon”.

Pontoon was a much bigger Halloween affair than Mao’s had been – at least here there some expats dressed up in true “costume”.  We had a great time but didn’t leave the club until about 4 a.m.  Though we had planned to head to Saigon the next day, the late night left us feeling rough and behind schedule, so we opted for one more day in Phnom Penh to relax (and nap).

That night I went to Phnom Penh’s and SE Asia’s biggest casino, Nagaworld.  They had one of my favorite games in the world – 1/2 NL Texas Holdem.  The game had a diverse mix of players, UK expats, a Korean entrepreneur, an Aussie, a student from the University of Minnesota studying abroad, and several local players.  Despite the diversity of players, NL Holdem is the same game no matter where you play it and no matter who you play it with.  And it’s a game I’m confident at playing.  I had a winning night, though a few too many Angkor beers led to a late night misplay that decreased my winnings.  But hey, a win is still a win.

By the time we left Phnom Penh, I had come around on the city. It rubbed me wrong the first couple days but by the end, I left feeling ok about it. A few days and familiarity can do wonders with ones opinion of a place.

A daytrip to Kep Beach for crab, the rules of the road in SE Asia, and a game of chess at the Keyhole

We had had so much fun on our motos the day before that we decided to take another trip on our second day in Kampot.  After eating lunch at the Keyhole, we decided to go to Kep, a beach town about 25km away from Kampot.  The highway was not flawless deserted asphalt like the day before.  It was a dirt road, potholes were plentiful (sometimes massive) and there were lots of other vehicles – trucks roaring by (they give you a friendly honk) and lots of locals on their motos on their way to Kep for a similar daytrip.

The main rule for driving a moto on SE Asia roads (Cambodia as an example) is to not run into the person in front of you.  There is generally no such a thing as “right of way”.  Someone can pull out in front of you or cut you off and cause you to slow down and they are not in the wrong – you are expected to slow down.  Its not a perfect rule – 2/3s of the traffic fatalities in Cambodia are moto drivers or passengers.  The rest of SE Asia is not quite as bad, Cambodia’s just been a bit slow on getting around to putting in “moto” lanes (similar to bicycle lanes in the U.S.) that you see more frequently in Vietnam and Thailand.  Dodging deep potholes isn’t that hard as long as you keep an eye out on the road in front of you and adjust in advance and if you can’t adjust, slow down. 

Aside from taking an occasional bump from a pothole the ride down to Kep was nice.  Can’t get enough of this green rolling Cambodian countryside.

It was a hot day on the Kep beach.  Lots of local Cambodians from nearby cities (and Phnom Penh) like to come down on Sundays to get some beach action in.

We were the only non-Cambodians there.  Ben and I played catch with the frisbee and after playing for a bit we noticed that the 60-70 people sitting on the stone wall bordering the beach near us were enjoying the action and laughing after Ben or I occasionally missed the disc or fell down.

I’m guessing many of them had never seen a game of catch with a Frisbee before and the novelty made it an easy spectacle to watch.

After the beach, we explored some roads east of Kep and found a hut built over the water to relax in with Rabbit Island in the distance.

By the time we got back to Kep Beach the sun was starting to set.

After sipping a beer at Kep Beach, we rode our motos over to the west side of the Kep peninsula to catch the final part of the slow burning sunset.

Some monkeys eating fruit sat down next to us to join us watching the cotton candy clouds, but they were more interested in their fruit than the sunset.

Kep is known for its fresh crab catch each day and the sun and long day had made us hungry so we rode over to the nearby crab market.  Kampot is famous for its pepper “Kampot Pepper” which is fantastic (and looks like little green peas).  I combined Kep’s best (crab) and Kampot’s signature spice by ordering a crab spiced with Kampot Pepper.

To Ben’s chagrin, eating crab is a slow and patient art.  The goal is to break shell and expose just enough meat that you can suck the meat out of the shell.  The meat is soft, delicious, and should come out with a little suction once it has been exposed enough.  If you can’t suck it out, you haven’t exposed the meat enough and need to crack some more shell.  Every once in a while you get a bit of shell in your bite and overall it is a messy affair, but when you get that bite its all worth it.  Ben was not enjoying this one bit – he prefers effortless eating, preferably with no exoskeleton in his way.  I understand his point, but eating that soft crab was definitely worth the time it took.

After jamming so many activities into the past two weeks, we decided we needed one day of rest in Kampot – late breakfast lunch/pool/nap and back to the Keyhole for one final order of ribs at the Keyhole.  After our final dinner in Kampot, I noticed a local Kampot woman playing chess outside her massage shop next to the keyhole.  She had just mopped the floor with some Aussie and was putting the pieces and rollup board away so I seized my chance and asked her for a game.  She spoke almost no english but no conversation is required while enjoying the world’s best board game. She was a very solid player but I’ve played my fair share of chess in my day so it was a competitive game.

I’m guessing she was used to fairly easy wins against inexperienced tourists because by midgame when she realized she wasn’t going to walk over me she got much more serious about each move.  When I was finally able to pin her king into a corner, one move from checkmate, she went into stall mode and almost refused to make her final move, unwilling to accept her fate.  In the end she stuck out her hand and congratulated me and while I was glad to find out this part of chess is universal, I think she was still pretty salty about the loss. I know I would be – I hate losing, especially in chess.

Expat entrepreneurs in Cambodia, scooting around Bokor National Park, and the Australian “Gap Year”

Our first morning in Kampot we grabbed breakfast at a place near the Keyhole. The owner was a 29 year old guy from the UK. He had just taken over management and was in the process of finalizing his ownership of the restaurant. His plan is to revamp the food and drink menus, give the place a face-lift, and turn it into one of the nicer restaurants in Kampot. I commended him for making such a bold move at a young age and asked him how the process was going thus far. He summed up his experience perfectly: “The best part of owning and running a business in Cambodia is that things are unregulated. The worst part of owning and running a business in Cambodia is that things are unregulated.” Easy and cheap to start a business but problems with running it.

We had heard similar things from an older man at the Rusty Keyhole the night before, a guy born in the UK who had lived in Australia for 26 years, but had recently (2 years) started and been running a fish farm in Kampot. Not unlike many of the older white men I’ve seen in SE Asia, he had a muchyounger SE Asain woman with him. I don’t mean to cast a wide stereotype here on old white men in SE Asia, but you really do see it a lot.

Similar to the young man from the U.K. with the restaurant, the older man had not had much problems buying land and obtaining proper licenses and visas to start and run a business, but had encountered many problems in running it. Problems with employees, problems with suppliers, and major inability to enforce contracts gone bad – many deals these guys had done were with an interpreter (who may have incentives to be less than 100% accurate) and a shake of a hand and they have no remedy if they get screwed.

In Cambodia, it is very difficult for a business or individual to start a civil lawsuit to solve a personal or business related grievance. One must largely rely on the government to initiate and prosecute an action and if you don’t have enough money to “pay” for the regulations and/or enforcement that we take for granted in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, the government just might not feel your business problem is not a high enough priority. This is just another reflection of how Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and playing catching up with its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Plenty of land which is literally dirt cheap and plenty of business prospects but right now you have to be a little brave to stick your foot in the water as a foreigner. You don’t speak their language and you can’t rely on business protections you’re used to back home. But the opportunities are ripe for the picking and those brave enough and smart enough to come make it work will reap the rewards. I hope things work out for the folks we talked to.

After lunch we rode rented motos over to Bokor National Park, a jungle-mountain national park 15 km west of Kampot. Bokor is part of the Cardamom and Elephant Mountains in Cambodia. The ride into and around Bokor was the best part of the trip so far. The road in Bokor is without doubt the best road in Cambodia though the reason is somewhat disheartening. Thansur Bokor Highland Resort (and casino) recently opened on top of the mountain and several other massive mega-resorts are in the process of being built near the casino, including a 36 hole golf course. We went by a few of these construction sites and they looked big.

Naturally you need a good road to bring all the rich guests up to the top and through Bokor. It is sad to see much of the natural beauty plowed away but I didn’t complain too much – the wide, smooth, pot-hole-less asphalt was pristine. And because none of the resorts (except the casino) are finished yet, we were basically the only ones tooling around Bokor – an unspoiled road to ride and it was all to ourselves. The road up the mountain was a series of switchbacks and angled hairpin curves. From the side of the mountain as we went up, we had a great view of the Gulf of Thailand.

There was even a very large Budha sitting near the top of the mountain.

Once on top of the mountain, km-long straightaways made for perfect opportunities to grip and rip, testing the power of our little motos.

Eventually we came to the Popokvil Waterfalls, two-tiered waterfalls near the top of the mountain. Lots of folks relaxing and wading through the natural pools. Ben took a turn to tempt death and peered over the abyss of the second waterfall.

The best stop on the top of the mountain was a small monk village with a panoramic view of the Gulf of Thailand.

Several monks were sitting on the edge of a cliff praying. With protruding cliff edges and inspiring views, it is a great place to feel spiritual.

Before leaving the top of the mountain, we made sure to stop in at the Thansur Bokor Casino. I walked out a $5 roulette winner, probably because I have so much skill at the game. 🙂

The ride down the mountain was just as good as the ride up. It got a bit foggy at parts, which makes you wonder why they want a golf course up here.

After we got through the fog, the sun was setting over the Gulf of Thailand and a nice moon had come out.

We went straight to the Rusty Keyhole when we got back to Kampot and got into a conversation with two Australians in their early-to-mid fifties. As their two children were in their twenties back in Australia and somewhat settled, the couple had recently decided to move and live in Cambodia. They bought a nice inexpensive home near Kampot and were working, she a midwife and he a nurse. I mentioned to them that the majority of backpackers I met in Europe were 18-25 year old Australians and told them that I wished that more young Americans would see backapacking as more of an option or opportunity. They told me that in Australia, young people have what is called a “Gap Year” between high school and university (“uni”). It is common, nay, expected, for Aussies to travel and see as much of the world as possible during their Gap Year.

They went so far as to say that if a young Aussie person does not go out and see the world during their Gap Year, they are considered strange. I told them it was almost the opposite in the U.S. While young adults are not necessarily discouraged from taking up a backpack and seeing the world they are by no means encouraged. Young adults are expected to graduate high school and go straight to university, even though many of them have no idea what they want to do and will be incurring debt in the process. College graduates are then expected to go right into work or pursue one or more higher degrees and then get right to work and make that money.

The culture of the U.S. certainly does not look at 6-12 months off to see the world during their younger years as normal. And I think it’s a shame. I don’t mean to say I think every young person (or old) in the U.S. should travel or study abroad, because some people just don’t feel like it (to each his own), some don’t have the means (though most would be surprised at how cheaply it can be done), and some people truly are not meant for it.

But I’ve learned more about life and about myself – how to handle adversity, planning, independence, self-reliance, improvisation, flexibility, negotiation – during my travels than I ever learned in a classroom. And that’s why the Aussies have it right, at least by encouraging world travel as an option to a young person. No problem at “uni”, or in life for that matter, will be too big or too scary for a young person after 3, 6, or 12 months of backpacking. Maybe the U.S. will come around someday – maybe soon because college education is now more of an evaluation than an automatic thing – but at least for now, the U.S. could take a page from the Aussies’ life option playbook. They are born world travelers and adventurers, both young and old alike.

Why never to ride a minivan in Cambodia, bribery (business as usual) in Phnom Penh, sackless hackey-sack, and a first impression of Kampot

Hon greeted us to say goodbye during our final morning in Siem Reap, all smiles.  An hour after he had dropped us off the night before when we were leaving for dinner, we saw him drinking with a few of his buddies outside the hotel.  He was merrily intoxicated off a few Angkor beers and with the successful week of business we had given him – he came over to us with his friends and introduced us to all of them – they were all smiles too, probably because Hon was buying the rounds that night.

It was a great five days of temple hiking around Siem Reap, but five days in the sweat and sun left me exhausted and wanting to be in a city with a slower pace.  After researching Kratie, Sihanoukville, Kampot, and Kep (all towns within 3-4 hours of Phnom Penh), I decided on Kampot.  Kampot would have been a long day trip (6 hours to Phnom Penh, 3.5 to Kampot) from Siem Reap, so we decided to stay a night in Phnom Penh.

We were somewhat rushed into a mini-van ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh –they promised it would be “faster” than the bus.  I soon learned that what you gain in speed, you pay for threefold in comfort.  It was the minivan ride from hell.  Six hours of bumpy, BUMPY roads (no shocks with on this thing) with a madman behind the wheel.  It was this man’s prerogative to pass EVERYONE on the road.  Every 30 seconds he would execute a death-defying pass while blaring his horn, which apparently rendered the suicidal swoop “safe”.   But his passes probably saved us a total of 10 minutes over the 6 hour haul, so they were totally worth it.  The ride miraculously ended with no one dying, though we did see a moto smash into a cow on the road though – surprised that was the first time I’d seen a moto accident since I’ve been here.  Needless to say, I will not be taking a minivan ride through SE Asia again.  For me, the wheels on the bus go round and round for the rest of the way.

Our hotel in Phnom Penh was right on the riverfront, just a block away from the Royal Palace.

Around 9pm, there was still a considerable crowd gathered, still mourning the passing of the late king-father.

Apparently this has been going on for a while.  They really loved this guy and from what the locals tell me, his son is set to be loved as well, untainted by much of the political strife that the late king-father had to deal with.

We grabbed a quick dinner and gave thanks for the lizards on the sign above us.

These guys are all over SE Asia. They like to gather near lighted signs where getting an insect is easy as waiting 3 seconds. If you them in your room, its a bonus – they don’t bother us and they eat the things that will.

Feeling the frenzy of the big city the next morning, we got out of Phnom Penh as early as possible.

Ben elected to rent a moto and ride it to Kampot while I chose the bus route.  Ben’s first time on a moto was a memorable experience.  It took him less than one block on the bike before a Phnom Penh police officer was waving him over.  Ben didn’t panic, because he had researched this and almost expected it.  The officer couldn’t speak much English but after finding out Ben’s name, he had all he needed.  With a knowing and confident smile on his face, “Oh Benjamin!  You see my buddies over there?” (pointing at fellow police officers at a nearby table) “We need $5 for a coke, Benjamin!  You understand, right Benjamin?  You my friend, right Benjamin?” Ben pulled out $5 and handed it to the officers.  The officer smiled and waved Ben on his way.  Business as usual here in Phnom Penh.

Ben proceeded to drive the 150km to Kampot on the highway but not before he ran out of gas.  After walking his bike for 10 minutes along the highway, he finally came to a house.  All over Cambodia, houses have wine racks full of liquor bottles displayed on their front lawns but they are not to encourage a driver to have a drink while driving – they hold no liquor.  They are for people in Ben’s situation – they hold gas and Ben was able to purchase enough fuel to get him the rest of the way.

I didn’t need to bribe anyone like Ben in order to get to Kampot, but the bus ride to Kampot was quite pleasant.  Unlike the day before, I didn’t once fear for my life.  Oh, also the VIP entrance.  I have become so desensitized to tuk-tuk drivers shouting in my face as I exit a bus (they know most of the arrivals will need a ride somewhere) that by this point it was my instinct to ignore all of them until getting at least 15 feet away from the bus when it stopped in Kampot.  After achieving this separation and announcing to the group of drivers now swarming me that I would need a ride to Orchid Guesthouse, I realized I had failed to see the only silent one in the group who was holding a piece of paper with neon green handwriting that said “MR. MATTHEW BROWN – ORCHID GUESTHOUSE”.  Ha, guess hes my ride.  First time I’ve ever had the welcome sign and VIP limo (tuk-tuk) waiting for me on arrival.

Kampot was exactly as I hoped.  Our guesthouse was a 30 second tuk-tuk drive from the small bus “station”.  There is nothing to “see” or “do” in Kampot.  On a quick walk “downtown”, we saw a few slow moving motos, a few men drinking beers at a bar, and that was about it.  Perfect.

We settled in for a beer at the Rusty Keyhole, a popular restaurant and bar overlooking the river and Bokor National Park in the distance.  About 50 feet away, a group of young guys started a game closely resembling what we would call “hacky sack” in the states, with a couple important differences.  First, they were not hacking a “sack” – on closer examination of the object, it is a badminton birdie and every time the kids would strike it to keep the volley alive, the birdie would make a “pop”ping sound.  The second notable difference is that the most common move (or “hack”) to keep the birdie aloft was not a hit on the inside of the foot in front of a player (as is common in hacky sack), but generally a blind kick with the foot after the birdie has passed over the player’s shoulder or his side.  80% of the volleys were shots where the player would read the birdie going over his shoulder or side, lean forward, and flip his rear left or right leg up or to the side, striking the birdie and sending in a nice arch back to one of his friends in the circle, who would then do the same.  Many times, two of the guys in the circle could keep the birdie going between just the two of them for at least 12-14 volleys.   I took a video of a decent volley that you can check out here.  I didn’t even try to get in this game – I was never a good hacky-sacker back in the states and this game seemed even more difficult, making the ease with which they laughed and played impressive to me.

The ribs at the Rusty Keyhole were fantastic.  I might even venture to say the best ribs I’ve ever had. Apparently the Keyhole has won two awards for the best ribs in all of Cambodia. The Keyhole had a woman whose only job at the restaurant was to cook these ribs – she would sit by this big slow grill cooker contraption all night and if no ribs were being ordered, she would still just sit there.  But there was rarely a time when ribs weren’t being order and she didn’t have at least 2 racks on the trill. 

mmmmm

They were fall-off-the-bone tender and their texture and sauce were just right.  A full rack was $8 and came with a heaping side of potatoes and deliciously creamy cole-slaw.   Mighty satisfying while enjoying a beautiful sunset next to the riverside restaurant.

Cloudy sunset over the “old bridge” in Kampot, with Bokor National Park in the distance

We would come back to Keyhole every day over the next 3 we were in Kampot.  All but one of those days I got the ribs and that was only because I wanted a light lunch.  By the time we left Kampot the manager was coming over to our table every night to chat with us – we were surely her best customers that week – a local woman from Kampot with a good success story, she’d been running the restaurant for 8 years.  And of course the restaurant had a dog named Tung Tung that Ben liked.  The restaurant’s menu literally said “This is our dog Tung Tung.  Please do not feed him because he is already a bit of a fatty.”

Walking home from the restaurant was a unusually silent experience.  Most stores closed, only a few people on the streets and not one person trying to solicit me.  This was the first time in SE Asia I have not been solicited or seen another tourist and it felt great.

Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom Group

They say to save the best for last so we had saved Angkor Wat for day five, our last day of templ-ing in Siem Reap. We set our alarms for 4:30 and met Hon at 5:00am to get to the mother temple before sunrise. Things started out great – it was pouring rain when we stepped outside and Ben’s glasses somehow flipped out of his glasses’ case and out of the tuk-tuk on the way to Angkor Wat. After a 20 minute delay of trying to find them in the dark pouring rain we had missed sunrise at Angkor Wat. When we did get there, it was raining even harder. After venturing 50 feet out on the main bridge leading to Angkor Wat, we turned around, told Hon to take us home, and took a nap.

3 hours later the rain had stopped and we returned. Angkor Wat Is massive – the walkway connecting the outer gate (and massive moat) and inner gate stretches at least 3 football fields.

Once inside the inner gate, you are compelled to gaze upwards at the massive towers stretching skyward. Just like the temple in Phimai each tower has 28 rounded corners, but much much bigger. Every square inch of the outward-facing wall of the inner gate is decorated by carvings on an epic scale. Carved wall murals must stretch, again, at least 3 football fields around the perimeter of the gate. A steep hike to the topmost 4 towers within Angkor Wat gives you a chance to see the temple from above and the massive courtyard within the walls of the inner gate.

The rear part of Angkor Wat was providing a playground for a group of about 60 monkeys. They were busy with many important daily tasks – jumping up and down the stairs, climbing the smaller towers, grooming each other, eating fruit, or just chasing each other around.

After Angkor Wat, we headed through the South Gate of Angkor Thom.  The causeway has 54 gods and 54 demons on each side engaged in the same tug of war carved in the wall at Angkor Wat – the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

Angkor Thom is another massive temple enclosure housing roughly 5 smaller temples.  My favorite temple in Angkor Thom and favorite of all the temples I’ve seen so far in Southeast Asia was Bayon. Not surprisingly, this is another one built by Jayavarman VII. This guy certainly made sure to leave his legacy in a tangible form. Bayon has impressive chaotic symmetry, 54 towers each decorated with 4 faces of Avalokiteshvara.

Thats a grand total of 216 smiling faces of the bodhisattva, but being the modest man that he was, J7 made sure the faces also resembled himself. No matter which way you look in Bayon you have at least 9-14 of these eerie facing smiling at you from every angle. Not a big temple but leaves an impression.

Next we explored Phimeanakas, the top of which provided a great view over Angkor Thom.  To finish off Angkor Thom, we checked out the Royal Palace and Preah Palilay.

On our way out of Angkor Thom we lounged in the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King.

We ended our long day tour with the less-explored Preah Pithu Group and North Kleang.

At one of the markets outside the Preah Pithu Group, a younger female market vendor stopped me to buy something from her.  Like all other vendors, she started with a very common technique – “Where you from?”

My answer is always the same – “America – Chicago”. Saying Chicago is easier than trying to explain where Iowa is, especially considering there are large number of people in the states who couldn’t point Iowa out on the map. Same goes for traveling just about anywhere outside the states. The only time people from the outside the states (typically Europeans or Aussies) do know where (or what) Iowa is it is because they know Slipknot, the hardcore metal group that got their start in Iowa. Seriously, everyone I’ve met only knew “Iowa” because of “Slipknot”.  Regardless of the quality of their music, I’m not sure how I feel about a band that wears terrifying masks being the main thing known about Iowa for many non-Americans, but I guess its better than ignorant. At least I hope it is.

I told the young woman that I had no money but she was ready with a counter I’ve heard from several vendors – “Then how you have camera? How you have money to come see Angkor?” I clearly wasn’t fooling her with the “No money” line – this wasn’t her first rodeo.

After patiently telling her “no” for a few more minutes, I turned the conversation to her. Asking her where she was from and how she got here. These are questions I’m guessing she doesn’t get as much. She told me she born in Siem Reap and had been working her little stall within the Angkor Temple group since she was 13.

She said she envied that I was from the states and even more, she envied that my skin was white. There is a million dollar industry in the United States where women (and some men) are shelling out hundreds of dollars each year to get darker – spray tan, tanning beds, tanning lotion, the list goes on. And here in Cambodia, this girl was telling me that all she wanted was to be white. Maybe its just a case of “grass is always greener”.

I also asked her about her shop and more specifically, how she had chosen to pick this random spot (near the Preah Pithu group) for it. I was wondering if vendors can just set up anywhere, because it certainly seems random and willy-nilly to me. She directed my attention to a thin metal cable that we were both standing over. Tracing the cable lengthwise along her stall and the adjoining stalls, I quickly realized that there was indeed some order within what seemed to be chaos. She said that she could come across the line to solicit sales when the police was not around, but when they rode by she was always squarely within the confines of her marked cable lines.
After our conversation, not missing a chance, the young woman noted that she had “made me happy” with conversation and that I should buy something from her. I thanked her for her time and bought a cold water from her, which did make her happy.

Have to admire that persistence, but sometimes you actually have to laugh at it. Let me explain. Earlier that day, I’d walked next to a Cambodian woman trying to sell silk to another younger European woman as she was leaving a temple. The European woman was trying to walk away, and was repeatedly saying “NO!” while the Cambodian woman followed close at her heels, persistently shoving her silk in the European’s hands. The “silk?” – “NO!” banter reached an absurd level when both of the parties involved started laughing about it! As the European woman repeated what must have been her 101st, 102nd, and 103rd “Nos!” she started smiling and then chuckling at how ridiculous the “hustle” had become. Laughter being infectious, incredibly the Cambodian woman also started laughing, but not missing a beat in forcing her silk in front of and on the stubborn target. It was a bizarre spectacle – the European woman nearly sprinting away from the Cambodian, shouting “No!”, the Cambodian hot in pursuit full basket of silk in tow, and both almost doubling over in laughter at the silliness of it all. But guess what? After laughter had lightened both their moods and seeing that the Cambodian woman was not going to relent even while laughing at herself, the European woman finally stopped and bought a silk. Admire and laugh.

Hon took us over to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. From the top of Phnom Bakheng, you can see Angkor Wat and can see the sun set over West Bayon, a massive pool to the west of Angkor Thom.

Kbal Spean, Banteay Srey, Banteay Samre, and Ta Phrohm

Day 4 in Siem Reap.  Last night before we had left Hon, we had the courtesy of telling him we’d be ready to go at 9:30, so he didn’t need to wake up at 7am to wait for our business.

A curious stare as we leave Siem Reap.

Today we again headed northeast though not as far as Beng Melea the day before.  But it was another perfect opportunity to throw in the headphones and enjoy the tuk-tuk drive through Cambodian countryside.  After reveling in yesterday’s enjoyable drives to and from Beng Melea I was sincerely looking forward to this one and I was not disappointed. We saw much of the same rural villages, motos packed with people and things, and side markets. Hon even bought us some face masks – never thought I’d wear one, but they are great for filtering dust on a long tuk-tuk ride.

Kbal Spean was a bit of a hike – the air was still and it was hot.  Kbal Spean is a set of Buddhist carvings impressively carved into stone creek bed.

These were apparently only discovered about 40 years ago and haven’t been largely visited, particularly during the Khmer Rouge.

After relaxing by the creek we went down a bit to the waterfall further downstream.

Several folks were taking showers under it – I opted to stay dry, or sweaty, as it were.

In contrast to the fairly basic carvings at Kbal Spean – but I mean, how detailed can you get in a stone bed? – the carvings in the temple of Banteay Srey were immaculate.

Not surprisingly, unlike at most of the temples, they were done by women.  Banteay Srey loosely translates to “citadel of the women”.

Though the massive 400 meter long wall carvings at Angkor Wat take the cake in terms of impressive scale, the carvings at Banteay Srey is a first place finisher in terms of ornate detail.

After Banteay Srey and a bit of rest…

… we went back to the outside of the “main” temple groupings and checked out Banteay Samre.  It is the same style as Angkor Wat and we had the temple to ourselves.

The best part about this temple was finding a momma cat who had just recently given birth to 3 kittens.

The kittens’ first playground was Samre – and they were loving it, hopping up and down on the temple steps, and each other, and their mom, while mom tried to catch a nap.

We concluded the day at Ta Phrohm, a massive jungle temple – basically a bigger, but slightly less run-down version of Beng Melea.  It was cool to experience the atmosphere of this temple at dusk.  Huge trees hundreds of years old were growing up, around, and on the walls, spires, and statutes of the temple.

Hon had bought us beers for our ride back – after a long day in the sun, an Angkor beer (which basically tastes like an Old Style, 5% apv) tastes pretty good as you bumpalong home.

Downtown Siem Reap, the late King Father, the Cambodian hustle, and Cambodian food

After Beng Melea, like every night, we went down to Siem Reap’s Pub Street and Alley Street.  This is where you see lots of other backpackers and travelers.  And so follow the tuk-tuk drivers.  If 85% of Cambodians are farmers, I would say nearly 90% of Cambodian males (and worth noting – no females) living in or near a city are tuk-tuk drivers (not just Siem Reap, saw it in Phnom Penh as well).  Seriously,they are all tuk-tuk drivers.  For every 1 traveler you see wandering on the street or eating in a restaurant, there will be 3 tuk-tuk drivers soliciting them.   It is almost absurd – you can get off your tuk-tuk ride to pub street and 15 seconds later, 15 steps away, some other guy is offering you a tuk-tuk ride.  It must be hard for them – a tuk-tuk driver could ask people for business all day and not make a buck.  Sometimes you just have to be lucky, but aggression helps you get luckier more often.

The tuk-tuk drivers will linger right outside of restaurants and the moment you step out you are being asked to take their tuk-tuk.  They start out with “you need tuk-tuk?” or “tuk-tuk please!”  They are basically saying you would be doing them a favor to take their tuk-tuk, and I guess in way you would be. And if not right then, “let me be your tuk-tuk driver tomorrow.”  Many of the folks around Siem Reap are cleverly wearing t-shirts they bought in Seim Reap saying “No tuk-tuk today.  Or Tomorrow.”  Its easier just to point to a t-shirt than saying “No” 50 times an evening I guess.  Ben got one of these tank tops at a market for $3.

That every man here moonlights as a tuk-tuk driver is another reflection on Cambodian’s struggling economy.  I guess just strapping a carriage onto the back of your motorcycle is just one of the easiest ways to make an extra buck.  The people here don’t have “hobbies” like we do back home – their “hobby” is surviving – every moment in their day is a day that they could be making a buck and to waste it doing otherwise is mostly foolish to them.  I will momentarily flash forward to the end of the week, when I asked Hon if he would finally have a day off after dragging us around for five days.  He just replied, smiling, “No I work every day.”  Oh, I see…

Back to downtown Siem Reap.  There are roughly 100 restaurants in a 4 block radius on Alley Street and Pub Street, and they are all pretty much the same.   Many of them even have identical menus – it almost seems like the restaurants collaborated and got a bulk menu-printing discount at the local print shop.  Most restaurants and pubs offer the same specials as well – 50 cent beers and free popcorn- these are similarities I won’t complain about.

One thing I noticed was that it was somewhat quiet for “Pub Street”.  No music playing at all and the restaurant that was supposed to do classic Khmer apsara dancing each night was not offering it.  I found out this was because Cambodia’s  King, Norodom Sihanouk, died on October 15 and all Cambodians were paying tribute with 10 days of mourning.  I remembered reading in the LP that the King Father’s health was on the decline was we passed into Poipet on the 19th of October.  Unbeknownst to me while I was reading it, he had died five days earlier.  I asked Hon about his opinion of the late King Father and it was very positive and respectful.  Cambodians truly loved him – more about this here.

Cambodian food is less spicy than Thai food – I like spicy so I guess I would prefer Thai food to Cambodian. I would describe Cambodian food as hearty and health.  Khmer curry is not spicy but has a mildly sweet taste and comes with chicken, veggies, and pineapple – with a side of steamed rice, it fills you up.  The traditional dish is a soup with fish and veggies – the taste of the broth is most significantly enhanced by stuff called Prohoc, a fish paste.  The LP warned the taste of prohoc might take some “getting used to” but I loved it immediately.  Very tasty and again, hearty and filling.

After dinner we checked out one of the night markets in Siem Reap.  Much like in Bangkok, every one of the 50 or so vendors was selling the exact same variation on one of 5 general things: 1) T-shirts, 2) Dresses, 3) Jewelry, 4) souvenir-like trinkets, and 5) beatsbydre headphones/electronics.  Because of this set up, much like the vendor of every other commodity in Cambodia, to the aggressor goes the spoils – and the best vendors are the ones who can most slyly (with a casual joke or conversation starter) or overtly (“you want angkor wat t-shirt before you go!”) get you to stop at their stand.  Once you are there, the negotiation is always pretty much the same – they start with a price that is 4x as much as they’d be willing to accept, you counter with an absurdly low number, and you settle somewhere in the middle.

Most times even when I know I can keep haggling and get a better price, I relent early.  The reason is twofold.  First, when It comes down to it you end up haggling over a difference of 50 cents, which seems silly.  Second, it makes me feel better about the whole transaction when they can walk away feeling like they really got a good deal, rather than feeling upset.  I guess this makes me a bad businessman over here, but it has seemed to work for me thus far.