The trip down, first reunions and recovering Siem Reap

Some reading and one movie later is as good a time as any for some sleep as we fly over either Georgian Republic or Ukraine.

Some reading and one movie later is as good a time as any for some sleep as we fly over either Georgian Republic or Ukraine.

Hello friends! Well I am here in Siem Reap. The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur went well enough. I was able to get a seat by an exit door so had plenty of legroom which was nice, especially the way KLM packs ’em in. Read a bit, watched “State of Play” with Russel Crowe and Ben Affleck then slept for about four and a half hours thanks to a sleeping pill with a Valium chaser. That all got me through about 7 of the 12 hour flight and then I watched Star Trek XI, read some more and dozed here and there which got me to Kuala Lumpur.

My bag was one of the last ones to appear on the carousel which can get a bit nerve racking. As the number of people surrounding the carousel kept shrinking and I didn’t see many new bags appearing I found myself looking around for the baggage service office trying to recall the compensation maximum for lost luggage on my travel insurance. But of course, they did finally appear.

They are really into H1N1 here in Asia, maybe due to their experience with SARS and the bird flu. At both Kuala Lumpur airport and here in Siem Reap you have to walk by a heat sensing camera with a battery of face-masked people watching the thermal imagery. Many of the Asian travelers look like runway models at a surgical trade show with their face masks. And here in Siem Reap they have added a third form to the immigration and customs forms: a health questionnaire asking if you have sneezed in the last three days or have experienced a host of other symptoms. Who hasn’t had a sneeze in the last 3 days?

So of course I answered ‘no’ to all the questions to save myself a week’s quarantine in something they call a hospital here hoping all the while that I’m not unwittingly going to be patient zero. Could I be the one responsible for disrupting life as they know it on the southeast Asian sub-continent with all that sneezing I did experience last night and which I attributed to all the air-con and change in climate?

The airport hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Concorde Inn, is quite good and inexpensive with large rooms, good showers, complimentary wi-fi, a nice pool and always a great dinner buffet for around € 9. The food in Malaysia is definitely some of the best in the world. They really know their way around a rich and varied spice rack and have that Chinese, Indian and Malay multi-cultural heritage thing going on that makes the Malaysian kitchen quite special. It’s one of the many reasons I so enjoy being in or passing through Malaysia. It’s one of the reasons I fly through KL versus Bangkok when traveling to Cambodia.

What a treat this sunrise was at 20,000 feet

What a treat this sunrise was at 20,000 feet

I had to get up this morning at 4.30 for a 5 AM shuttle to the airport’s low-cost carrier terminal (LCCT) for the 7 AM flight to Siem Reap. AirAsia, southeast Asia’s biggest and quite successful low-cost carrier, does a good job of it. The uncivilized early reveille was paid back in spades by a beautiful sunrise that was still in progress as we took off.

I am a big fan of Cambodia’s e-visa program and combined with a strategically chosen low number seat row on the in-bound flight (yes my friends, AirAsia has gone from open seating to reserved seats!) I experienced no waiting from touchdown to tuk tuk. Well, almost no waiting. The customs officer had a bit of a problem logging onto his computer. He began to remind me of one of the first big viral videos of an office worker trashing his pc out of what can only be described as “Windows-induced hyper-frustration syndrome.” I softly suggested, “Apple Mac” but I am not sure he got the joke. But as I entered the baggage hall, or rather took the five steps from the customs counter to the baggage carousel, I was still one of the first three or four to make it that far. And in some baggage karma korrection, there was my bag, today at the head of the baggage parade.

ketsana 1 On the approach to the airport and the ten-minute tuk tuk ride into town Typhoon Ketsana’s calling card was still visible. A lot of the fields and parking lots along the airport road were still somewhat flooded. But the real remnants of last week’s flooding were visible in the huge potholes and bits and pieces of missing road surfaces on a some of roadway1Siem Reap’s major streets. Given the pace of things here, locals are guessing there will be three or four months of shock absorber hell before the roads are properly and completely repaired. But at least everything is accessible again.

The stories of what happened to some of the nearby very rural villages (food supplies and crops wiped out), schools and orphanages (equipment ruined, buildings severely water-damaged; in some cases still flooded or unusable) are quite sad. These I heard from the hotel staff when I arrived. It is amazing that the smiling Cambodian people are smiling as strong as ever even after last week. And everyone working in the hotel here has family in a small village somewhere that was most likely affected. And yet they smile on with that genuine and oh so powerful sincerity and openness that steals the hearts of so many who visit Cambodia. Unbelievable.

Shoalin Monks? Nope. Mobile Monks!

Shoalin Monks? Nope. Mobile Monks at the mobile phone kiosk by the guest house.

I checked in to The Villa Siem Reap, where I also stayed last year, at 9 AM and they already had a room ready for me. The Villa has kind of adopted a nearby village, Treak Village, which was one of those to lose pretty much its entire food supply. The owners have so far shuttled out well over $1,000 worth of food supplies and the guests who were here last week came up with several hundred more from what I heard.

It was great to see my friend Savuth and tomorrow I will spend the day with his family. I also met for the first time in real life the university student who’s study fees I help sponsor through a wonderful NGO called Journeys Within Our Community. We have had a lot of e-mail correspondence over the past school year but meeting for real and getting to know each other better was quite a treat for us both.

He is the first in his family to ever go to high school, let alone university. His story is perhaps a not uncommon story in an under-developed nation but it remains nonetheless an inspiration and a profile in courage. Coming from a very poor rural village, he lost both parents at quite a young age and was raised by his older siblings. Due to the Khmer Rouge and the decades of war and civil war that followed, his siblings never had the chance at much more than a basic education. It was quite a challenge to convince his elder brother that he should be allowed to go to the ‘big city’, Siem Reap, where he had never been in order to pursue this crazy dream of getting a college education.

I had what is generally considered an average yet very comfortable and opportunity-filled Western upbringing. But in a global perspective it can only be appreciated as an incredibly privileged life where so many things like higher education were totally taken for granted and sometimes even seen as something to be endured. It remains for me incredibly humbling to be in the presence of someone who finds the motivation and drive to embark on such a nearly impossible mission. And in ten months, he will have shown that nothing is impossible and if his last three years are any indication, he will show it with outstanding academic results. And when I ask about his plans for post-graduation he tells me to get a good job so he can help support his family back in the village. Yes my friends, it is truly humbling to know someone like this.

australian bbq vila siem reap1 I just closed out the evening with The Villa Siem Reap’s weekly Friday night all-you-can-eat “Australian BBQ” with a nice selection of grill meats and salads. Now retired to my large, comfortable and very reasonably priced room, I am looking forward to a bit of reading and a good night’s sleep.

It’s a great feeling to be here again. Those of you who know what I mean, will know what I mean, those of you who are soon visiting Cambodia for the first time will discover why so many of us love coming back again and again, and those of you who aren’t able to visit or who don’t have Cambodia on your travel wish-list… well there’s always the bucket list.

Good night.

(Thinking of visiting the temples of Angkor Wat? Don’t forget to check out my friend Savuth’s tuk tuk services!)

Originally published on my travelblog Leonard’s Trail.

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~ by Leonard on October 10, 2009.

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