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« Guest post by Gary Hartzell | Main | Libraries and commitment »

Cambodia - same, same only different

Back in Bangkok waiting for my early flight tomorrow morning after four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Shuffling through the over 400 pictures I took and reflecting a little on my experiences.

Despite the sauna-like heat and torrential rains each evening (one which knocked out all the power in the city), the little piece of Cambodia I experienced was truly a remarkable place. And while the scenery and temples were amazing, I was left with a genuine affection for the Cambodian people - at least the ones I met.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, I requested "moto" transport into town. And I made my trip-long connection with Mr. Vong Hoy.

Mr. Hoy was the proud owner and driver of the small "moto" that I spent a rather large amount of time perched on the back. (Cambodia requires drivers to wear helmets but not passengers.) And while my big American butt felt somewhat cramped, I soon realized that I was rather selfish when such a bike could really serve as a whole minivan. Count carefully - that's a family of six on the bike below.

Mr. Hoy suggested the guest house where I was planning to stay was far too noisy and I would be more comfortable at the New Green Hotel, where he seemed to spend much of his downtime with other drivers in the restaurant/bar watching violent movies on TV. The New Green was a clean, if spartan accommodation that seemed a value. The bill for my three nights stay, five meals, many beers and waters, and even a load of laundry came to $89. 

I'll not bore you with blow-by-blow descriptions of all the temples. You need a picture of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and more Hindu and Buddhist deity carvings than you can shake a stick at, let me know. But I am sure you can find far more professional images on Flickr or someplace. It's a magnificent collection of temples built when my European ancestors were still running around naked painted blue.

At each temple, the regular collection of touts quickly appeared. Often small groups of land mine victims played instruments, sometimes with stumps, adding a eerie music to the atmosphere of the place.

What seemed different here were the number of kids hawking books, post cards, cheap jewelry, etc. I do believe "one dolla" sung in a high pitch may well be the first words these kids utter as babies. US dollars are the primary currency in Cambodia and my 50 one-dollar bills I brought with me were gone in two days.

But how could anyone resist such a charming salesgirl who would sell you 10 postcards for "one dolla" and count them out for you - in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese and (in my effort to stump the chump) even Swedish. Or at least what sounded like Swedish to me. She was confused, however, when I asked her to count in Minnesotan. This selling, rather than keeping kids from school, usually financed their education. So the guidebooks and Mr. Hoy assured me.

Religious devotion is always present. Whether single nuns at small shrines in the temples,

or in the more flamboyant spectacle of brightly colored flocks of monks visiting.

The iconic image of the Cambodian temple is the peaceful smiling faces from the temple of Bayon. 

It is still a fitting image for the Cambodia people I met and talked to. Always a smile, a bow, a soft reply, and always unforced laughter. When I said something to Mr. Hoy that was clearly in error, his response was, "Yes, same, same - only different." A rather nice way of being told you are wrong. Mr. Hoy and his fellow moto drivers thought themselves very funny. The national beer's slogan is: "My country. My beer." 

To which Mr. Hoy always added, "But if you buy - "My country, your beer." Followed by a laugh at his own joke. 

Three small pieces of advice if you visit:

  • Read Geoff Ryman's excellent book The King's Last Song that intersperses a story of modern day Cambodians with that of King Jayavarman VII who built many of the temples in the area. Well researched and well written and it puts much of what one sees in context.
  • Visit the Angkor Museum, only 2 years old, in Siem Reap early in your visit. You'll understand some of what you are seeing in the temples. Many of the original carvings are actually in the museum instead of onsite. After you see how many statues have been decapitated to sell to collectors, you'll understand why much of what is left is under lock and key.
  • Oh, rent one of the motocycles that pull the little trailers behind them - moto-romauks. It will save your  butt and you'll probably get better photos.

Anyway, it was a very nice trip and I've added Cambodia to my list of countries where I would like to be a snowbird for a few months when I retire. (No trailer park in Arizona for me, I hope.) Back to my badly neglected e-mail that's been accumulating these last few days.

Some Cambodian smiles to close...

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Reader Comments (7)

Cambodia was one of my favorite trips I've done in my life. Glad to hear you had an enjoyable adventure there.

May 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Dear Doug,

May I recommend two wonderful books by the same author. She grew up in Cambodia, enjoying a normal upper-middle class life when the country was taken by the Koumer Rouge. Her story really brought alive to me what actually happened in that country. The name of the book is First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung. The second book is Lucky Child and it documents her life when she made it to America paralleled with her sister who was left in Cambodia. These would both be wonderful books for your high school students to read. Just thought I would mention them as I got such a new knowledge of that time period for that country.
Hope all is well with you - Judi

May 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJudi Wolf

Doug, very glad the people of Cambodia were so good to you. A humble people and so gracious. I enjoyed spending some time together here in BKK, and we are all grateful for your 'fresh eyes' on both libraries. Be well.

May 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertara ethridge

Hi Peter,

My understanding is that the tourist areas like Siem Reap have become vastly modernized in even the past 5 years. Still it takes only a few steps off the main drag to find oneself in a very different world.

I think my best trips were Burma in '88 and Peru in '06 hiking the Inca Trail. Amazing places.

All the best and thanks for the post,


Thanks, Judi! I'll add this to my pile.

Do read The Kings Last Song!


Hi Tara,

So nice to meet you and see your library as well. had a great time both at ISB and in Cambodia. And you are so right about the Cambodian people!


May 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thanks for sharing the photos Doug. I haven't traveled many places, but I always enjoy hearing someone's personal take on their experience as opposed to commercially produced tourist books.
Since I love to take photos, and often take MANY, I also appreciate the effort involved in sorting through hundreds to find just a few to highlight an event. I thought the family of six on the moto was absolutely amazing, more so because their body posture made it seem like this was not a one time event. I had the impression that they traveled that way regularly. Wow!

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Robertson

Hi Janice,

Yeah, I took over 400 pictures in the 4 days I was there. Many are already deleted, but I will take my best 50 and put them on my SmugMug site (commercial Flickr-like account.)

I like taking pictures of people, as you can tell. Anybody can take a picture of a building or landscape. To me a new country is new people.

All the best and thanks for the comment,


May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson


I'm so happy you had such an amazing trip!

;D Ann

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Krembs

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