The real Asia. Finally!

Dear France (the country),

I send you my deepest sympathies for your loss in the 2011 Rugby World Cup… as they say, “Second place is the first loser,” so I have little doubt that you are extremely upset. Making matters worse, it seem like you feel the referee treated France unfairly. I hear you say, “What’s the point of playing a match, if the Ref already knows who will win?” The world today is such an unfair place, and since you are French, I can imagine the alleged ‘corruption’ makes you more angry than it would any other nation. May I suggest you have a strike against the South African referee? Practically speaking, it would be best if your people parked their trucks on my peoples railroad tracks. Maybe then you will be listened to.

In all seriousness though, I was amazed with how well you played, and I must admit there wasn’t a second in the game when I didn’t think you could and would win. Also, it’s a shame the last five minutes wasn’t really rugby; otherwise you could have really caused an uproar. Nonetheless, I am glad my glorious nation won! It has been so long since their last success, and it is nice to win during a home game. I’m as happy as the parent of someone who just used a potty for the first time! Go the All Blacks! Go New Zealand! … also congratulations to Australia for winning the ummm what’s it called…Bronze final?

It seemed appropriate to watch the match somewhere French, so it’s just as well I was in the former French colony – Cambodia. Rugby, however, was not the real reason why I travelled to Cambodia. Finally, I was able to see some of the real Asia! This is a extremely special country and I highly recommend that you visit. First, I went to Siem Reap, home to the famous Angkor Wat (Angkor WHO?) temple, and then on to the capital, Phnom Penh – a bustling and exciting city with a dark history. This trip was a bit different than my other trips, as I chose to travel alone, meeting a lot of ‘interesting’ people as a result. My name is Sam Thomson, and this is my story:

Adrenalin was pumping before I even entered Cambodia! I had read a lot about the dodgy Thai-Cambodia border on the internet and I was excited: FINALLY I WOULD NEED TO BRIBE A POLICE MAN! However, the silly boarder-patrol policeman was less adamant about me paying the 100 baht “Visa processing” bribe as I was about not paying it, so I got into the country with a massive three dollars saved. I was gutted; there is nothing like an exciting bribe to make you feel like you’ve left Australia. Before leaving Bangkok, I read that everything was a scam in this area and that you should trust or talk to nobody. For some reason though I thought it’d be a great idea to casually hitch-hike from the bus station to the boarder – luckily I gave a cheeky / flirty smile to the right person, and she was more than willing to take me there for free (a rare offer in Thailand). I think I could have started a Thai family on this occasion if I wanted to, but tonight was not the night. Nonetheless, in true Thai style, right after our introductions, I was asked, “Do you have Facebook?” – who knows, maybe we’ll stay in touch and I can shatter her dreams some other day.

This reminded me of some cultural differences regarding social networking, bringing back happy memories of one particular Thai girl – our conversation went like this:
“Hi. I’m Sam.”
“Hi Sam. Let’s be friends. Do you have Facebook?”
“Yes… Sam Thomson…”
“ Skype?”
“Yes, but ummm errr I don’t use it very often.”
“Black Berry Messenger?”
“Ah, yea, but it’s not common in Australia, so I won’t tell you it.”
“No, I don’t have it anymore.” (lie)
“ Myspace?”
“Google Chat?”
“No.” (lie)
“What’s your phone number?”
“I can’t remember [lie] – can I tell you later? Anyway, what’s your name?”

HOW MANY MEANS OF COMMUNICATION DO WE NEED? The youth of today are unbelievable.

Anyway, at the border there is a fake but very genuine looking place to buy $20 scam Cambodian visas, currency exchange booths which you must be stupid to think the exchange rate is close to acceptable, a thousand tuk-tuk and taxi drivers to take you places that you don’t want to go, and the coolest thing is you can actually walk past the visa patrol and boarder security and into Cambodia without anyone stopping you. I was going for the Police-will-come-and-yell-at-me-when-I’ve-gone-past-the-real-boarder tactic… Apparently not, and I got as far as the bus stop and thought, “Hmm… I should have filled in some forms, plus got a visa and stamp by now… whoopsie.”

Onwards and upwards, I got to Siem Reap, former home of the Khmer Empire – Angkor, Southeast Asia’s largest empire during the 12th Century. After a series of wars, a variety of kings and some infrastructure breakdowns the empire collapsed, leaving the beautiful temples behind… it almost seems like Cambodia hasn’t had peace since. History lesson over, I forgot that this area was a high-risk zone for malaria and had not taken my pills, so mosquito spray was applied like a fat man applies butter to his toast… as they say. Nonetheless, if you want to buy 100 valum pills for $10 without a prescription, this is the place (not that I did it… I just got offered it at a pharmacy). The Angkor area is pretty stunning place, with temples for Africa… or Asia even. The day was spent soaking up the ambience, smelling the history and biking around the Cambodian country side (which was so lush). Check it out for yourself:

Angkor Wat

More Temples

Next it was on to Phnom Penh, a 6-hour journey which was perhaps the highlight of my trip. The bus drove through endless Cambodian villages… as in genuine villages, no make-up. What a cultural delight. The majority of the region was flooded, so it was really interesting to see how the locals reacted. Although their raised-houses were surrounded by deep water, they continued living in them. The kids were swimming around in the flood water. Life seemed normal. In the worst hit areas, people had more or less moved their entire lives onto the road side. From a travellers and photographers perspective, this was awesome. For kilometre after kilometre, the road was lined with cows, chickens, ducks, families in small huts, bikes, and hundreds of people carrying things on their heads. It was pure chaos.

I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for what the people were experiencing. I mean, I understand that it must be hard for them, but I didn’t feel anything. Actually, that’s a lie; if I felt something it was a mixture of respect and awe. The spirit seemed high and the people seemed unaffected. As one of my Tuk-tuk drivers said, “They have their family. They have their rice. Nothing else matters. You don’t need money in the country-side.” As long as people have enough food to eat, somewhere to sleep, a family to be with, and clean air to breathe, I generally don’t categorise farmers in the country as ‘living in poverty’. What really upsets me is when I see 7-year-old girls dancing outside of bars like they are pole-dancers, If she’s like that now, what will she be doing in 10 years time?, or when you walk down the street at 2am and a bunch of 5-year-old boys run up to you and start pulling on your clothes, begging for money, Where are their parents? Why aren’t they in bed, asleep?, or when you need to walk through a narrow passage, but must walk over a man with no legs sprawled out over the ground, Why is this the only thing he can do with his life?, or when the government decides to redevelop some land and destroys peoples housing without warning or compensation. Do poor Cambodians even have rights?

Frogs that still croak and leap.

Phnom Penh has a very dark history, and was relatively unstable until 1997. For those of you who slept through social-studies class, the most infamous leader in Cambodia was Pol Pot, who lead the Khmer Rouge army. Attempting to turn Cambodia into a communist nation, he aimed to kill all intellectuals – doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, writers, business-men… even wearing glasses was enough to warrant execution; anyone who was able to think for themselves was a risk to the new Cambodia. Pol Pot endorsed slogans such as, “It is better to kill an innocent person by mistake, than to let a ‘traitor’ [educated person] run free,” and “To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain.” All-in-all, his regime killed around a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

In terms of ‘Sight-seeing”, the S21 Prison in Phnom Penh is an old school which Pol Pot converted into torture prison. After going there, seeing photos of tortured-to-death people and seeing blood splattered on the floor and walls, I really got an impression of the pain Cambodian’s suffered. Furthermore, there are the “killing fields” just outside the city, which as the name suggests, are the fields in which the Khmer Rouge killed many people – there are thousands people in mass graves there. It’s also pretty horrific, with teeth and bones scattered on the ground. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Khmer Rouge is that they couldn’t afford bullets, so all their murders were done through torture, beatings and decapitation. One example of this is the “killing tree” – children were held by their feet and wacked against a tree multiple times before being thrown into the grave.

I have a question for you: for regimes like the Nazi party and the Khmer Rouge, who should be punished / held accountable? Just the leaders of the organisations or the soldiers as well? The Milgrim experiments really made me feel like the soldiers shouldn’t be punished… they were only doing what they were told. But then again, we all need to take responsibility for our actions at some point.

Killing Fields

During this trip I met a few interesting people. One tuk-tuk driver, a 23-year-old Cambodian guy with super English, came and talked with me for two hours. Apart from the usual stuff, he told me about some of the foreigners he’s driven around: a 32-year-old Australian woman who suggested they get married and he moves to Sydney with her, where she earns $80,000 a year; a German man who offered to pay for him to live and study in Germany for three years; and a gay English man who emails him every other day… the tuk-tuk driver said to me: “I’m a bit scared about being friends with him because he is gay. I understand how girls and boys boom-boom. But how do two boys boom-boom?” He was such a nice guy who had such great interpersonal skills; it was sad to know he’ll probably spend too much of his life as a tuk-tuk driver. Then I met a German guy who had a Cambodian girlfriend for 6-weeks. The girlfriend, though, has a western man-friend who sends her lots of money every month. Last week, the German woke up, his girlfriend was gone, and he never heard from her again. Then I met a Nigerian man living in Singapore, with his Chinese wife and 2-year-old daughter. I thought he was really cool, until he said, “Ah, I just went to a bar and asked a girl how much she costs. She said $40. There’s no way I am paying that much – only $20. But I like to really look at the girl before I take her home. Last time I paid $30 and I was not happy with her services.
Umm you have a wife and daughter – don’t be so disgusting. And actually, I need to cancel our dinner plans for this evening.

So as I reflect on my Cambodian trip, I’m truly grateful for having a fortunate upbringing, in a peaceful country with a normal(ish) family. I have to wonder though,  how different would we be if we lived through a war in our countries? Would we be as educated? Would we appreciate lives gifts more? Would we be happier?

You know I love you,


P.S. Exams are easy here. I hardly studied and got 86%, 89%, 90%, and 95%. My assignment grades have been good too: 85%, 90%, 100%.

P.P.S. I went out partying last night and kissed two girls.

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