Backpacking in 82 Days: Kampot, The Witch of the White Mountain, Siem Reap, and Bangkok

I know, 4 topics for one blog is a little ambitious. But I’m an ambitious, amateur, pessimistic blogger. Devyn and I are currently in Bangkok (funny reference) and I personally hate this city. More on that later, let’s focus on the other 99 percent of the trip.

After a quick stay in Phnom Penh, we booked a bus to take us to Kampot. An alleged 3 hour bus drive doesn’t sound too bad at all. That is, until you hop on the bus. You need to give bus rides an additional 2-5 hours extra time because during your commute, you’re stopping every 15 minutes picking some random person up, or tagging along for their personal errands. No joke. We did a minor grocery store run as well as wait for the driver to make a personal call.

Once you get closer to Kampot the scenery is both breathtaking and heart breaking. It’s a vast landscape of rice fields and greenery. But this is where you notice how severely poor Cambodia is. Many of these houses are on stilts or no bigger than an average bathroom in the states.

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As hard as it is to see people living under .93 cents a day, being in these environments for over a month makes scenarios like this almost common place. The real trick is not to get used to it and remain appreciative of what you have. However, as grim as the conditions are, there’s oddly a sophisticated atmosphere to the poverty stricken lifestyle that is Kampot. These families embraced their relationships and did not appear to take for granted what little they had. Out of this simplicity, comes true happiness. In a way, I envied them.

Once in Kampot, at dinner we had our first unpleasant encounter with a Khmer person. It was just poor service, nothing like Bangkok. They just appeared to be irritated by us, or more specifically, westerners. It’s not the worst thing in the world. We get profiled at airports so we learned how to just take it with a grain of salt. After that dinner, we found our way to Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace. It’s a few doors down from where we were staying and thank goodness for that. It has a superb menu from breakfast to desserts, solid coffee, and a warm atmosphere. It’s basically Brad and Devyn’s restaurant baby. We love anywhere with hearty meals and a home like atmosphere. It harkens back to our love for Hobbiton. Its owner, Les, is this unique gent from Canada who owned property his whole life and ended up in Cambodia doing just that. He won’t steer shy from saying hello.

The following day, we found a tuk tuk driver and hired him for the day. Unlike our driver in Phnom Penh (who crashed into a car), this guy was a salty pro, but with a smile. He took us to their caves and the scenery on the way is, need I say again, stunning.

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The caves themselves are these gargantuan, cathedral like phenomenons. It’s a short trek, but you do some serious crawling and ducking. The coolest parts of the cave were not captured. It got too difficult while crawling through the dark.

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Afterward, our awesome tuk tuk driver took us to a Kampot pepper field. It’s a lot like a winery, but with Kampot peppers; these tiny little balls of fiery goodness.

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Serving wine at the pepper field wasn’t too shabby either. The coolest parts about taking a tuk tuk to these locations were seeing the people in their day-to-day lives on the way, as well as the awesome Khmer kids not skipping a beat when it comes to waving to you. It’s almost like being a celebrity. We were told that it’s just in the Khmer culture to display kindness and you certainly see that with the kids. I mean, I’ve rambled about Khmer kids already haven’t I?

Phnom Sor: The Search For The Witch Of The White Mountain This was something we found randomly in a pamphlet. We saw the words “hike” and “witch” so we were in. It wasn’t a tourist attraction and that has proven to provide the most fun days. Anything off the beaten path or locally recommended is the way to go. Nothing through tourist vendors or driving sightseeing tours.

Phnom Sor is more like an exaggerated hill than anything, but according to locals and others, it’s a 30 minute vertical hike to the top where an old witch lives.

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After taking a bit of a dodgy road, our tuk tuk driver stopped in a school yard. He thought we wanted to see the temples on campus, but we reiterated hike, mountain, and old woman he immediately asked anyone he could how to take the most direct path to the White Mountain.

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We ended up recruiting these two schoolboys who said they go up to see the witch all the time. This is a prime example of why you should find off the beaten path activities when traveling. It’s so awesomely random to end up being led to witch mountain by two boys after your tuk tuk driver was unsure how to get there. The boys led us along a long dirt road and you could see Phnom Sor’s looming presence. Dare I say, it has a Tolkien Lonely Mountain element to it. Refer to the the picture a few photos up.

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Once you reach the foot of the mountain, it’s almost a vertical hike to the top up rigid rock stairways. The scenery all over is breathtaking. The higher you get, the better the view gets. As our tuk tuk driver kept reiterating while walking up: “beautiful”.

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You almost forget you’re looking for a witch, being distracted by the great views. Once you get near the top, it gets eerie. It’s dark stones decorated with offerings leading up to a metallic hut. It is a place where a witch would live. The whole group kept their voices down to not disturb whomever we may encounter. So with our wits about and a $5 bill ready, (you’re supposed to bring an offering or you get cursed) we made our final steps to the top.

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Through the hut, there were more offerings and it led to another rock staircase leading down into the back of the mountain. There isn’t much walking room near the back and it’s where we found the creepiest aspect; the cave entrance to the woman’s rest area.

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We didn’t find the witch and the boys said she may be out and about collecting supplies. She must be a tough lady. I’ve seen photos of what she looks like and she is a small, frail looking gal. To make that hike is impressive. We paid our respects through prayer with our tuk tuk driver and just soaked in the views before hiking back down. If you’re ever in Kampot, this is something you should not miss. It’s a great hike and if you’re lucky, you will meet the legendary witch.

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The next day, following the high of an awesome day previously, we proved my earlier point; don’t do sightseeing tours. While some of the sights are neat, it’s relatively a waste of money and caters to tourists. It takes away the magic of it all. Here are some photos of the neater sights we saw.

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We both really like old, abandoned buildings so it was cool having this catered to our tastes. Other than the sunset cruise later that night, it was a pretty “meh” sightseeing trip. Luckily the company was good.

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Siem Reap: We had to bid a sad farewell to Kampot at one point. With the warmth of the community and how often we frequented Kampot Ice Cream Palace, we started recognizing faces, being recognized, and felt like locals.

The bus drive to Siem Reap was a 12 hour endeavor which included a transfer. Fortunately, the bus provided humorous Chinese music videos and films dubbed in Khmer. Once in Siem Reap, our tuk tuk driver couldn’t find our accommodation. It made for an interesting night and it was a moment where Devyn and I practiced our “don’t mess with me” looks, just like we do in Bangkok.

You know what, Siem Reap was a pretty low key point in the trip. When you’re gone for so long, you can’t have every day be adventurous or a “go-go”. It burns you out. For the most part, we stayed out of the heat by frequenting a coffee shop, read, did Christmas shopping at their awesome daily night market, and discovered Asian countries can’t do Mexican food.
Of course, we checked out Angkor Wat and the other temples. These are awesome sights to see, but overwhelmingly filled with tourists. It truly takes the magic out of it all. I’d suggest checking out some of the smaller temples on the outskirts. These are more decayed by age and are overgrown by vines and trees. To Devyn and I, we found these temples much more appealing.

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During our temple of doom run, we were ripped off by monks. They insisted on praying with us, burning incense, and making us bracelets. Of course, where there’s religion, comes asking for money. They expected donations the whole time. I gave them a few bucks and they saw a $20 in my pocket. Naturally, they wanted more. We took off fleeing and mind you, this was only a 15 second ordeal, so anything more than a few George Washingtons is a little excessive. Here’s a picture of me being frustrated after:

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But, we did have an awesome last night in Siem Reap. We wanted a romantic night together and we found this charming restaurant called Bugs Cafe. We enjoyed an insect fondue with each other. It’s love baby. Yup, just a cricket and silkworm dessert.

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The place is cleverly put together though. The owner told us he stresses that the restaurant be spotless clean to help customer’s psyche when eating bugs. The menu items are mixed with normal food items as well, so it’s not too overwhelming. A solid end to Cambodia.

Bangkok: Ok, so if you follow me on Facebook, you’ll know I haven’t had much positive things to say about Bangkok, Thailand. I’m keeping this brief. The flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok is hilariously short. Without exaggeration, it’s like flying from San Diego to Los Angeles. I listened to a song on my iPod before they announced we were descending.

We met a German couple who were coincidentally staying at the same place we were. Good thing too because the ride from the airport cost 400 baht. ($12ish USD) This commute shouldn’t have been more than 150 baht, but Don Meung Airport has a clever way of running taxis at higher rates. It is what is, and was no where like the scams we encountered.

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The people in Bangkok are polar opposite of the Khmer. They’re gruff and bitter looking. You get an unwelcome vibe in the city and they appear to be pissed off all the time. On top of that, everyone is out to rip you off. Our driver this morning to Siam Square filled up gas after picking us up, but kept the meter running. We told him to restart it and even though he knew he was caught, he was livid with us and rushed us out of the car once we reached our destination. Lonely Planet has sound advice about avoiding these notorious scams. Drivers will often offer flat rates that are three times what it should be or “forget” to turn the meter on and charge you a flat rate.

We checked out Siam Discovery which is a mall that of Singapore standards. Their malls are huge. We spent time in that part of town to avoid the heat and scammers. Getting home was a different story. After turning down two drivers trying to charge 500 baht for an 80 baht ride, we had to settle for the third driving offering 150 (originally 200). It was here that we realized during their rush hour, they scam foreigners with flat rates saying their meters don’t work. But, they have functioning meters when it comes to Thai people. It only takes a few looks in other cabs to witness this.

Basically, Bangkok sucks. The rest of Thailand is supposed to be amazing, but Bangkok sucks. Everything I wrote and more of the stuff I didn’t is the epitome of why Bangkok sucks. Everyone is trying to rip you off and those that aren’t, scowled at you and make you feel unwelcome. We take off the Vietnam tomorrow and we are ready for it.

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Backpacking in 82 Days: The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide

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I wanted to have The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng in a separate post, as opposed to how I have been blogging our trip. If anything, it’s just for myself because I want to remember all the thoughts that went through mine and Devyn’s head on our morbid day of visiting these locations.

Until I planned a trip to Cambodia, I had no idea about the Khmer Rouge or the genocide that took place from 1975-79. There’s so much to explain for the context and photos to make sense, and I’m still learning more about it. I immediately purchased a book about the atrocities after we visited both locations.

Here’s a quick gist (and I’m still learning more about it, so if I got something wrong, please let me know) Throughout the early 70s, Cambodia was already in a civil war which had a history tracing back two decades. Pol Pot (the eventual leader of the Khmer Rouge) was well educated with his comrades and they, along with many others were not in favor of their Prime Minister, Lom Nol. Lom Nol was very pro-American during the Vietnam war and at that time, the USA were conducting bombing raids on small Cambodia towns trying to push Vietnamese communists back into Vietnam. Many towns were destroyed and a lot of innocent lives lost. Those who survived were easily recruited by Pol Pot’s group, for they hated the States and how Lom Nol allowed this to happen.

They recruited many peasants, on top of an already pretty well educated group, who did their studies in France. Eventually, this created a group known as the Khmer Rouge. They overthrew the government and forced an evacuation of the city of Phnom Penh. They were the new authority of Cambodia and forced many civilians out of their homes.

Over the course of over three years, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, killed over 3 million of their own people until they were finally overthrown and forced to flee after an invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge wiped out any traces of multiple religions, schools, family systems, places of worship, and anything culturally based. They destroyed it; physically and abstractly. They wanted the ultimate power to be looked upon to be them.

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who they felt were traitors to their communist movement, be it an intellectual, those with soft hands, or glasses. People were tortured for alleged involvement against the Khmer Rouge or for being an individual. The country today, has an average age no older than 35 because so many of the older generation was wiped out. Once you visit this still beautiful country, you can see the poverty as a result and how this horrendous moment in history set them back.

Choeung Ek: Now, onto the attractions. We arrived at the Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields, and at first, it’s not much to look at. It is what it sounds like. It’s a beautiful lay out of grasslands and rice fields. The first thing you see when you walk through through entrance is a gargantuan memorial. But this is not your average memorial. It contains the skulls of the thousands of people that were killed and dug up.

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An audio tour guides you around the fields and throughout the walk, are numerous 4ft deep divots in the earth. They’re graves. Once the site was abandoned, many graves were excavated and up to 400 people in one single grave could be found.

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What’s intense is that the kills were not quick. Due to the country being poor, bullets and guns were expensive. Any blunt objects that could be used were. Axes, sticks, knives, whatever. A handful of prisoners were tortured first At Tuol Sleng, before being starved and transported for execution to Choeung Ek. The majority of the skulls have signs of blunt force trauma or holes from being beaten to death. Devyn and I felt weird taking pictures, so we kept it minimal.

It’s the testimonies of the perpetrators and victims in the audio tour that add an additional heartbreaking element. There’s stories of witnessing a family member having their throat slit, a woman feeling shamed after being raped and so much more.

On the trek, which includes walking around bones and victim’s clothing that are still stuck in the earth, you eventually come upon the killing tree. People, primarily children, were beaten against this tree. The part the stuck with me was how the KR would grab babies from their legs and smash their heads against the tree. Yes, they killed babies. Pol Pot wanted to avoid revenge plots against them and felt the youth would seek them out for killing their families. As well, Pol Pot believed that when you cut grass, you need to take out the roots too.

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To prevent those outside of Choeung Ek from hearing the screams of the prisoners, propaganda revolution music would be played over a loud speaker to cover it up. Imagine hearing that during your last breath, as your throat is being slit with tree bark.

Tuol Sleng: I felt Tuol Sleng was more intense, if that’s possible, than Choeung Ek. Mainly because much of the location is left as is. Torture devices are still left out and the buildings are still up. The buildings at Choeung Ek were immediately torn down. Tuol Sleng was a high school before the KR took over and turned three 3-story buildings into torture chambers.

Building A’s rooms mainly consists of rusty looking beds with shackles next to it. In many of the rooms, there are photos of what happened to some of the prisoners in the room you’re standing in. Notably, a prisoner was beaten with a shovel and the photo shows their skull protruding from the flesh.

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It’s hard enough to stomach that you’re inside rooms where people were tortured, but there’s still blood splattered on the floors. And it’s not just drops. It’s dried up puddles on puddles. Almost every room in each building is covered. The photo I took was of a smaller puddle; it felt weird taking more.

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The courtyard of Tuol Sleng has a set of gallows, where they would hang prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness and then submerge them in fertilizer water to reawaken them to answer questions.

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Not all the rooms in the three buildings are the same. There are larger rooms where a multitude of prisoners would be chained to a wall. I think Building C was the building with individual wood and brick cells. I’m pretty sure you and I have used a port-a-potty bigger than these cells. Mind you, prisoners in these cells were chained to the ground and often tortured.

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Building B, I believe, has the rooms littered with photos of prisoners and workers. Looking into their eyes, each person had their own story and many were killed in these rooms. It makes you weak in the knees. Only seven prisoners walked out of Tuol Sleng as survivors. Chom Chey, one of those survivors, was on site that day selling books. You could see the pain in his eyes, but his smile remained genuine and true. The epitome of the Khmer people. As Lonely Planet puts it, they have gone through hell and back. Their smiles are so true and beautiful that you have to experience it to understand. They’re so thankful for life, it’s incredible.

Some of the other rooms have a history of the site, as well as mini biographies of the main people behind these atrocities. The three still alive are still on trial, or had their hearing in 2011. I can’t remember the information properly. Pol Pot, he died under house arrest living a peaceful life, with a family and everything. How the hell does karma exist? He never apologized or showed true remorse. A torturer at S-21, known as Duch, is the only one who has lived up to what he participated in.

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After leaving Tuol Sleng, I was shocked at how this is not common history back home in the US, especially because we were largely responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in World History when I was in high school, but I don’t remember hearing about a country being damn near forced back to the Stone Age as a result of our war with Vietnam. It was genocide on the same scale as the Holocaust. I understand why we may know more about the Holocaust; Germany was our direct enemy at the time and a religious group was slaughtered. I don’t understand how the KR killing its OWN people through means of personalized and individual killings/torture on a large scale is not common knowledge. The US is partial to blame, along with a few others. France too. It’s heartbreaking and I blame myself for not being better educated.

I don’t want to preach because that’s not why I write. But it’s the age old saying; if we don’t learn our history, we are destined to repeat it. These visits made me eternally grateful for the fact that I get to see my family again and helped me focus on the important things that are easily overlooked. I have a great family, fiancé, health, food, and a home. I was standing in rooms where the people who were butchered had lost all of that.

Devyn and I went to the night market that evening and it ended up being an experience whichever complemented our visits to these sites. I ended up getting in an epic dog pile with these awesome Khmer kids. They got a few lucky punches in, but I still think it was a draw.

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These kids are so pure and genuine. It’s hard to imagine that kids no older than them were butchered against a tree. Unlike the pussified and entitled brats our iPhone carrying kids have turned into, these kids are so high on life with nothing. They were having paper airplane contests. I have never felt so spoiled. As I mentioned earlier, the Khmer, especially the young ones, have smiles, that are infectious and genuine.

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Truly, to hell and back and appreciative of life. How does someone look at the epitome of happiness and think that they’re nothing but deep “rooted” rebels, whom deserve death? These kids brought me back to my childhood, where it took nothing but a stick to make me happy and entertained. They gave me new life again, and I’m eternally gratefully to them.