Siem Reap, Cambodia

We left Railay Beach super early in the morning on Thanksgiving day, November 23rd. Let me tell ya, it did not feel like Thanksgiving. We had to keep reminding ourselves that it was by every so often jokingly asking ourselves, “How come no one has wished us a happy Thanksgiving??!!” We had a four hour layover in the Bangkok airport around lunch time. We saw there was a McDonald’s and Robbie tried desperately to convince me that it would be the perfect way to celebrate our thankfulness of being American, but I refused to let his first real meal after food poisoning be greasy fast food. Somehow we probably still didn’t end up with something too much better for us, but it was equally as shamefully tasty. We ate sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches on English muffins at Starbucks. And we really did feel thankful. Thankful to be well enough to travel. Thankful for each other.

We arrived in Cambodia around 3:45pm to the same ruthless heat we have become used to. We had already filled out our arrival card for customs and had our extra wallet-size passport photos in hand to give them for our visa-on-arrival. There were probably 15 counters open and we hopped in one of the lines pretty early before they became very long. We realized immediately this was going to be a verrrry slow process. The lines weren’t moving at all, seemingly, and nearly every person whose turn it was got sent back to a table in the back to fill out their papers. At the time we were thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe none of these people realized they needed to fill out the arrival card the flight attendants gave us on the plane before they go up to the booth!” Yeah, we’re dumb.

Turns out we needed to go get a different form to fill out to apply for a visa, then stand in a different line to get approved for and to pay for that visa (there were approximately 75 people in front of us in that line), and then stand in the original line we were in to get our fingerprints taken and submit ourselves through customs. An hour and a half went by before we were at baggage claim and exiting the airport. It was a strange and very disorganized process that seemed to confuse every tourist around us just as much as it did us (which is always a good feeling). They prefer you pay for your 30-dollar visa with U.S. dollars (Yes, everyone, not just U.S. passport holders). We got up to the counter to find out they don’t accept credit cards and we only had 50 U.S. dollars on us (by chance, since we haven’t used our currency in months– but we needed 60 dollars total). And there was no way we were going to get out of line to get to the ATM and wait the thirty minutes behind everyone again. In our looks of defeat, the Cambodian visa patrolman said curiously, “If you have 1,000 Thai baht I’ll accept that in addition to your U.S. money.” Shockingly that’s almost exactly what we happened to have left of our Thai money. So he allowed us to proceed with no issue. (Of course, this Southeast Asian money just feels like monopoly money to us so it feels like nothing to give it up. Although that’s a silly way of thinking because it’s still worth something.) Then we moved down the length of this very long counter, adding ourselves to a group of maybe 20 people lumped together watching a silent man standing behind the desk hold up each person’s passport one-by-one and slowly each of them got collected. We retrieved ours when we saw our faces pop up and were proud of our page-wide “Kingdom of Cambodia” sticker visa in the back of our passports.

A man was waiting for us with my name on a sign when we got to the arrivals hall. While we had stood in one of our lines in the airport, Robbie made a call to the hotel to let them know to delay sending a driver to get us since we knew we were going to be in there a really long time. Our tuk-tuk driver (they’re called tuk-tuks even in Cambodia!), Py (pronounced “pie”), told us he waited over an hour for us. We felt terrible but he immediately brushed it off like it was seriously no big deal and he had so much optimism in his voice as he welcomed us to Cambodia. Little did we know, Py would end up being our driver all week every place we went. More to come on Py! The drive in at sunset was magnificent. It actually took us back to the feeling of driving in to Chiang Rai, Thailand. We noticed right away, though, there were more motorcycles than Chiang Rai had, but also way fewer actual cars than Chiang Rai. It was also clear there was more poverty here than what we had experienced in Thailand. Homes looked pretty beaten up, there were very few paved roads besides the main one we were on that we could see, and there just seemed to be a lot of empty space and vacant dirt lots. It’s hard for me to know how to describe it, but you could just tell there had been struggle here. As we drove, Py pointed out several rice paddies (fields where rice is grown) with women working in them, water up to their knees. Hard work is a beautiful thing to witness and we’ve seen it all over Asia.

We got to our hotel and the first thing we noticed was our gorgeous bathtub! It was hilarious– like a big round blue bowl in the corner of the room. I’ll include a photo so you can bask in its awesomeness. I’ll only devote one paragraph to this, but I have to mention it, our hotel staff were so strange and sort of creepy. On the outside they were smiling and attentive, but I could sense how forced everything was. The kindness wasn’t genuine, it was forced and cheesy. They needed to know what we were doing at all times, there was always someone who ran after us as we would begin to leave the property (and even when we would return to the property) to ask us where we were headed and what we had already done that day (and while they were at it, they’d ask us again what we had done the day before and what our plans were for late that evening). And it wasn’t in a friendly manner, either. Robbie and I both were very put off by it. They’d linger so long once the conversation was clearly over, and they just asked it so darn suspiciously. The whole thing just felt off, like they didn’t trust us or something. I know it sounds ridiculous because even writing it out makes me feel like it was all in our heads. But then on the afternoon that we checked out of the hotel, we were told we couldn’t leave until we left a review for them on tripadvisor. The manager told Robbie to put his password into his phone, took it out of his hand and literally downloaded the tripadvisor app onto his phone without asking and then wrote the title “Best Hotel Ambassador” into the subject line of the review, gave it 5 stars himself, proceeded to write the names of several of his employees including his own name, and then asked Robbie to quote: “Now write something under that about how much you loved the pool and the breakfasts and my staff.” WHAT?! We honestly didn’t know what to say. Everything in me was like, “Are you kidding? No wonder this hotel has 500 great reviews online! Because you write them all yourself before you let your guests leave!” but then we just felt sad for them. It all felt sad because they are so in need of business that they’ve resorted to this strange over-attentiveness to their guests and force them to write reviews before they drive their guests to the airport. I digress…

Since it was Thanksgiving and neither of us had really eaten a real meal outside of toast in several days since the food poisoning, we decided to eat a nice meal at the hotel. The dinner area was immediately outside our hotel door and it was in a beautiful covered, open air seating space surrounded by large, full palm trees. We both ordered some traditional green curry with jasmine rice and ate to the sound of tokay geckos and crickets. The air was humid and thick, unlike any Thanksgiving weather we’d shared together. Our food was fresh and flavorful. We sat holding hands across the table and kept with the tradition of telling each other what we are most thankful for this year. We talked about how wonderfully thankful we are to not just be spouses but to be best friends. How thankful we are that this much extended time together has only secured our unified hearts and our incredible bond. We are thankful for all the methods of transportation that can get a person across the world in a day, for clean drinking water that comes from the tap in the U.S., for the community we have built in Omaha, for all the ways our perspectives have changed and broadened by travel, for a home country currently safe from war, and most of all for Salvation. We didn’t even finish our meals before we were stuffed to the gills. I think our stomachs have shrunk a bit this week, but we’ll fix that fast I’m sure. We went to bed holding hands and praising God for a non-traditional Thanksgiving in Cambodia, something that will probably never happen again.

I have to apologize before I get started because this blog will be somewhat uneventful and probably annoying as I’ll continue to say, “Because we still weren’t feeling very well.” Because, well, we weren’t. As irritating as it is to be in an exciting place like Siem Reap and feel too gross to leave your hotel, it’s reality and we did everything we could to recover, but it didn’t work too well. Also, something we learned that we found so undeniably sad yet fascinating is this: Have you heard about the Khmer Rouge? I’m sad that many people in my generation may have never heard of it. It was a communist party that took control of Cambodia in the 70’s, with the mission to eliminate any Cambodian person of any intelligence–actually killing 1/3 of their own population. They killed all doctors, teachers, scientists, and even killed people who simply wore glasses because that was a symbol of intellect. This was Pol Pot’s (the leader of the Khmer Rouge) extreme and violent plan to eliminate advancement so everyone would be “equal.” He declared 1975 to be year “zero” and he started “purifying” society by evacuating every city, shutting down every business, getting rid of all education and forcing men, women and children alike to work in the fields day in and day out. Over the next four years most people who died would die of starvation or disease. There weren’t doctors left and the country no longer had computers to access the outside world. In 1979 (I believe, as I’m telling you all this based on memory from what we read and what Py told us), Vietnam got involved when Pol Pot started driving his military across the border. Within days Vietnam took control of Cambodia entirely– I mean, come on, Cambodia’s army was weak and starved and had no energy or stamina. Even though Pol Pot’s regime became suppressed at that time, forcing them into the jungles and out of complete control, they still suffered no punishment or consequences for the travesty they inflicted on their people. Over the next two decades until 1999, there would still be war and violence amongst Vietnamese and Cambodians. The U.S. also intervened in there. Py told us he lost his father when he was seven years old to a Vietnamese soldier murdering him. So here’s how this still affects them, despite the obvious intense struggle to rebuild their entire society and reeducate their population after decades of no schooling— there are still landmines everywhere. Some estimates say there are as many as 4 million land mines unidentified and waiting to go off. There are still people every year in Cambodia being killed or amputated by landmines. In fact it’s so dangerous in Siem Reap and north of Siem Reap that everywhere they warn you not to go off and explore any unpaved road (which red dirt roads are everywhere there) or empty land lot (which are scattered throughout the city as well). The landmine threat is still lingering and still just as dangerous to these people. In many ways, learning about all of this, how seemingly fresh all of this devastation still is to this country, how most of the people we encountered had lived through even a portion of the war, helped us to sort of understand the culture and the vibes we got from the people on the streets and the markets. You can honestly see it in their faces. They’re tired. They’ve lived through a lot– they’ve lived through too much. They’ve known war like the people in Thailand haven’t known war. I thought back to my thoughts about the “fake and forced kindness” we felt from the staff at the hotel, and I understood their desperation more. It is humbling, so humbling.

The first day we woke up and then Robbie had to try to go back to sleep because his stomach hadn’t been ready for two meals the day before– much less Cambodian food. So we skipped breakfast and didn’t leave the hotel until noon. Py drove us over to the Old Market. We laughed that it’s called this since the fun area of Omaha’s downtown is called the Old Market as well. It was a fun and busy place quite different looking from Chiang Rai’s downtown. Siem Reap surprised us with its numerous hip and modern coffee shops and cafes lining the streets. They were spacious and bright and stylish– coffee shops you might find in Austin, Texas or Minneapolis. What a juxtaposition to having tuk-tuks scattered chaotically along every street, street-food vendors with their shops set up right in front of the eclectic cafes, and the city’s main food and retail market (the literal old market) in the same vicinity. Robbie and I spent four hours walking the streets, getting lost in them, sweating as usual, and wandering the market. The market, we had been warned, reeked of raw meat that hung from hooks in people’s booths with tiny fans blowing on the meat as if circulating 90 degree air was going to keep the meat fresh– even seeing whole pig heads for sale. The abundance of rotting fruit in the heat of this covered area didn’t pair nicely with the smell of hot raw beef. We noticed it was solely women running every single market booth and later read, with no reasoning included, that only women are allowed to sell there. Interesting. Many were taking naps in their booths or sitting barefoot up on the wooden panels their vegetables laid out on conversing with all the women selling around them. At one point a short, skinny Cambodian woman with broken English and holding her small baby close to her chest approached me saying, “I’m not asking for your money, I just need food. I need to feed my baby.” And I was so pleased to help. Many of my friends have been with me when this sort of thing has happened– ANY time a homeless or needy person asks for money, my immediate response is “Choose anywhere near us you want a meal from and I’ll grab you some food.” The really sad thing is that I’ve never been taken up on it. This is crazy, but they usually give me some story about how they need my money for something else specific, but I don’t believe them, offer them food one more time, and then move on. So when this woman asked for food for her baby she was carrying, I said, “sign me up!” haha Not really, but you know. She took us on a wild goose chase until we ended up at a small pharmacy where we paid an arm and a leg for two huge canisters of Similac.

We stopped for a refreshment and relief from the heat at one of the cute cafes nearby. It was called Cafe Central, it sat on a large corner lot with big wide-open windows and a million fans buzzing at full speed above us. Robbie got a cold watermelon and lime juice and I got a banana, honey, and granola smoothie. It was so good. I should mention that even though the Cambodian Riel is Cambodia’s national currency, the U.S. dollar is what is most widely accepted. Something around 4,000 Cambodian Riel is 1 U.S. dollar. So everything on every menu is priced in U.S. dollars, all items at a grocery store and gas station or ticket counters are all in U.S. dollars and it’s how we paid Py for our tuk-tuk rides too. So strange and unexpected. And to make things a little more confusing, they don’t use U.S. coins or cents. Instead, if the change we were supposed to get back was 5 dollars and 25 cents, we would get a 5 dollar bill and a 1,000 Cambodian Riel bill in return. Crazy!

Once it started to get dark, we called Py (we have his phone number!) and he came and picked us up and brought us to the hotel. We made arrangements with him to take us to the temples the next day starting at 7:30am since that’s the thing to do in Cambodia (it’s true. This is all we knew to do if we came to Cambodia) and he assured us we’d be happier we got out before the whole world was there crowding every temple and also before the heat of the day. Sure enough, 7:30 on the dot the next morning Py was waiting for us with his tuk tuk. You can get a one day, two day or three day pass to see the over 2,000 temples Siem Reap has alone. They were all built in the 11th and 12th centuries, dedicated to either Buddha or Hindu gods and some are more famous than others. I only really knew about Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, that sits built on 400 acres. Of course these things are only exciting because they’re historical and aesthetically beautiful and architecturally fascinating just like seeing the Roman Colosseum or the temple of Zeus in Athens, not because of Buddha or some unreal god. We spent the next 8 hours driving around from temple to temple and I’m so glad we had Py. He took us to a bunch of temples we would have had no idea about including the last standing jungle temple buried deep in the trees, that’s practically all in shambles now, with all the rubble coated in thick moss, wandering around it to the sound of monkeys grunting above us.

The temples really are lovely and remarkable how they’re still standing after all these centuries, with all these carvings and intricacies still in tact. We got to see Ta Prohm, a temple that was featured in one of the Tomb Raider movies, and my personal favorite the Bayon temple that was just so beautiful. Py wanted to take us to a local restaurant for lunch, but Robbie and I were too nervous about getting sick and we still hadn’t seen Angkor Wat so we opted to go hungry and then plan to eat when we got back to the hotel later. We asked Py if he would take us to a grocery store on our way back and I gotta tell you, it totally made our day. This place was a real supermarket that looked like a little Hyvee. It was great– and we were determined to get our stomachs feeling better by eating less risky foods our tummies were familiar with. We grabbed honey bunches of oats cereal and milk, bread and cheese, and Old El Paso chips and Tostitos salsa. We were so stoked. We got back to the hotel after 8 hours of walking acres of land and temples in the brutal heat and devoured cereal like it was our jobs. Eating the chips and salsa brought me straight back to a sunny afternoon eating this snack with Robbie on the balcony of our Dundee apartment. It made me super nostalgic, and it had the same effect on Robbie. Right away we felt amazing, our stomachs felt so great and everything was promising. But later in the night we were back to feeling stomach sick again, as we do after everything that seems to just touch our stomachs these days. Bust! The fact that Robbie, too, hasn’t felt well in a couple of weeks now is so unusual.

The next day we woke up around 6:45 with no alarm and just layed together, not feeling too well but happy to have no obligations. What a privilege it is to wake up every day with my buddy and my partner, knowing I’m not going through this alone. What a gift I have in Robbie. We chatted and cuddled until 8:30 and decided we’d try to have the hotel’s free breakfast. Robbie got an omelet and I got Cambodian fried rice. We tried to order things that would be tame. Breakfast didn’t settle with us, so we decided we’d have a pool day and just relax. This day, even though we didn’t feel great, was really nice. We both read our Bibles for hours, told each other what we were reading and learning, laughed way too much playing this stupid “flappy dunk” game on our phones that even like (I hate phone games usually), and swam.

By late into the evening we were both feeling the best we had all day so we got ourselves up to go downtown to the Angkor Night Market right next to the downtown Old Market. I’m so glad we did. The market ended up being pretty lame, mostly geared at tourists and pretty void of people, so we wandered over toward to Old Market and found a wildly busy area on “Pub Street” that had blaring music, crowds of tourists mixed with locals, and everyone having fun. We walked the length of the street just to observe everything and people watch. We ended up at a place called the Banana Leaf, drawn to it by these adorable 20-something Cambodian girls singing live American pop music. And they were so talented too. Robbie and I stayed for three hours just enjoying the music and enjoying making friends with the New Zealanders and Koreans and Cambodians around us. This is a great memory. ❤

The next day was our last day there and we really wanted to get out and go to the landmine museum, but we just had to be honest with ourselves that we just still didn’t feel well enough to go. We were constantly needing a bathroom and just didn’t think either one of us could make it the thirty minute drive to the museum without risking it. Ugh! This is super sad for me because I’m incredibly intrigued by the Khmer Rouge war and have thoroughly enjoyed soaking up any information I can about the crisis, so this was something I didn’t want to miss out on, to better understand Cambodian people and their culture and history. But alas! What can you do??

The last morning this verse spoke to me. Isaiah 40:28-29.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.”

I keep coming back to it. This idea that God is everything we are not. While we may grow faint, while we are weary– HE IS NOT. He is strong and stable. I am confused, tired, and defeated at times but I serve a God who is certain, awake, and altogether uplifted and victorious. He is not capable of weakness, He isn’t capable of weariness or defeat. He understands our emotions and has a storehouse of strength to gift to those who need it and ask for it. I’m asking today for strength for you and for me. I’m asking today for His clarity when we are confused and wrestling. I’m asking today for our daily bread, for inspiration, for power to overcome.