Meet Rob. He is an Aussie ex-pat whose travel journeys lead him on an unexpected path. What he found was Cambodia, a place he now spends most of his time writing about a land and a people that continue to surprise him. Rob shared his story, so that other Aussies might be inspired to venture to a land that he’s been thoroughly entranced by.
Rob’s Story Capturing Cambodia on Camera: Part One
In September of 2006, I found myself able to do something I hadn’t been able to do for over three decades: travel without worrying too much about when I had to return. After a dozen trips to Bali over the years, I didn’t really count that as travel anymore, so I got my visa and travel insurance and booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. First, I would explore Vietnam. From there, I would briefly visit Cambodia to see the fabled temples of Angkor Wat. After that, I would proceed to Thailand, because I’d heard Cambodia was a “poor and dangerous country” and had little else to offer. Just days after I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, though, Typhoon Xansane decided it was time to pay the coast of Vietnam a visit. Typhoons and travel don’t mix, so I switched to Plan B. I would explore Vietnam on my return journey. Still wary of Cambodia, I only spent a few days in Phnom Penh before moving on to Siem Reap, where I was in for a shock. I imagined it was going to be a third world city with few amenities. What I found was a modern city, with accommodation ranging from inexpensive but well-appointed guesthouses to 4-star hotels. I wasn’t quite naive enough to believe I would have to slash my way through the jungle to reach Angkor Wat, but didn’t expect paved roads and a Disneyland-style ticket entrance, either. I’m not a very good photographer, but love taking photos. When I have a camera in hand, the world comes into sharper focus. Angkor Wat has to be one of the most photogenic places on earth. The primary challenge has to do with taking a photograph that doesn’t include the hordes of other visitors taking advantage of the photo ops available everywhere you look. Sometimes, I managed to do it by shooting over their heads, like this:
Fortunately, I listened to my tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi) driver when he told me to buy a 3-day pass at the gates to Angkor Wat. You can’t possibly do the vast temple complex justice in a day. And do yourself a favour in giving Siem Reap a week of your time if you possibly can. It’s an easy city to stay in, and the surrounding countryside is stunning, especially at the tail end of the rainy season (October-November), when the lush greenery is almost painfully beautiful to behold
I have an aversion to guidebooks, preferring to let serendipity be my guide. That way, everything is a surprise. I forget who told me to visit the floating village before I left Siem Reap, but I’ve always been grateful for their advice. There are actually three floating villages near Siem Reap, but I didn’t know that in 2006. I’ve been to all three since then, and tend to agree that the one I went to the first time, Chong Kneas, is the most touristy and least appealing. All of Siem Reap’s floating villages are on Tonle Sap Lake. During the rainy season, and from some angles, the Tonle Sap looks more like a vast sea than a lake, but shrinks considerably towards the end of the dry season in February or March. Since I was there in October, I was able to see it in all its glory and didn’t have to wait in line for a boat. In fact, I was the only passenger on my boat. Why do they call them floating villages? Well, a picture’s worth a thousand words, so why waste words?
Yes, Chong Kneas was a tourist trap, and the villagers made the most of the opportunity for extra income. We stopped for lunch on a floating restaurant that doubled as a crocodile farm, but I suspected the crocodiles were there just for show. After heading out to deeper waters away from the village, we were approached by brave little boys in aluminium wash basin “boats” looking for handouts. Touristy it may have been, but I loved every minute of it.
So far, Cambodia hadn’t lived up to its bad reputation. There was poverty, but not the soul-destroying poverty I had seen in India in the seventies. If I had been imagining seeing a Khmer Rouge soldier hiding behind every tree, what I found were smiling, welcoming faces everywhere I looked. Still, I had only seen one corner of the country and didn’t know where else to go, so I returned to Phnom Penh. From there, I would spend “a few days” in Sihanoukville before moving on to Bangkok by bus.
I suppose I was lucky when my bus stopped at the old bus station in downtown Sihanoukville. Wanting to avoid hours of haggling with tuk-tuk drivers, I accepted the first one who approached me, and let him decide where I would stay. It happened to be one of the few hotels in town that had a swimming pool, and was just far enough away from the main beach that gives Sihanoukville its bad reputation, to give me a positive first impression. I’ll never forget my first walk along the beach. Thanks to a guidebook I picked up from a street vendor on the riverfront in Phnom Penh, I expected to be immediately surrounded by hawkers and beggars. Instead, this is what I saw:
I ended up spending a month in Sihanoukville in 2006, and only left to tie up some loose ends in Australia before returning to stay. Since my return in January 2007, I’ve seen much more of the “Kingdom of Wonder.” Stay tuned. Next month, we’ll take a closer look at Sihanoukville – then and now.
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