Cambodia Phnom Penh is certainly the smallest capital city I have ever seen. The tallest building is perhaps six stories. The royal palace dominates the city with magnificent pagodas (known as wats) and their astonishingly beautiful and ornate roofs. The rest of the city seems to be a collection of French colonial structures that survived the Khmer Rouge, many showing rapid signs of deterioration and neglect from the devastation of the last 50 years. The pace of the city can be felt along the roads, which pulse amid the throng of motorcycles, scooters, bikes and the occasional car. Turning vehicles always have the right of way and ongoing traffic has to make quick adjustments as drivers blindly veer into intersections. Traffic lights are few and far between and no one seems to pay much attention to them anyways. Signs of the wreckage of war are everywhere, particularly noticeable being the number of people missing limbs, presumably blown off from land mines. A visit to the famous Tuol Sleng (aka S-21) Khmer Rouge prison (in a quaint, colonial school) is a chilling reminder of the brutality of mankind, where torture became a sport and death a dream, longed for to escape the horrific treatment of Pol Pot's henchmen. Much like the Nazi's, the records of depravity are scrupulously maintained. One can only leave the prison in a numb state, with no answers for such incomprehensible evil and cruelty. The main attraction for visiting Cambodia is to spend some time in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Vietnam, photographing minority hill tribes. Though a small country, Cambodia is not easy to get around. The roads outside Phnom Penh are in generally disastrous condition. Railway networks are almost non-existent and the main airline, President Airways, has been shut down for months. A visit to the central market to look for a ride on the back of a pick-up truck (10 hours of dirt and discomfort being the reward) proves hopeless. But the plan is rescued by my wife who discovers an obscure airline flying 4x/week to the capital of Ratanakiri province, Ban Lung. Moments later, we are clutching next-day airline tickets while sipping coffee along Phnom Penh's main drag. An idle conversation with an Australian soon reveals that just a week earlier, our appointed aircraft (formerly belonging to the Russian military) had skipped off the runway in Ban Lung, but we are reassuringly told that no one actually perished. After being roused from a night full of anxiety dreams, the flight proves to be smooth and delightfully brief. Within an hour of landing, we are relaxing at Terres Rouge, a guesthouse that used to be the Governor's residence, and confirming details for our upcoming trek. An afternoon tourist visit to local waterfalls and a volcanic lake proves interesting enough, save for Marc, an unbearably loud, overbearing and obnoxious Belgian, who finds fault with everything while talking incessantly. The next morning we hit the road, well we hit the rutted, red dirt paths (road is far too generous a term) in a pick-up truck, for a two hour drive to the Sesan river, the starting point of our trek. Our guide, Bun Long, seems very knowledgeable and explains that over the next four days we'll be visiting remote villages belonging to three tribes: Jarais, Kachak and Kreung. We walk for several hours in desolate woods, eventually rising to a broad plateau, cashew trees and rice fields filling the landscape. Our first night's stay is at the small Jarais village of Oloum. Just as we approach its outskirts, we are greeted by a pack of drunken village men, guzzling rice wine from some peculiar pump-attached tubes that protrude from ceramic wine jars. We are ordered to drink with them and sample different jugs of the moonshine. Gallant and polite refusals are instantly rejected, and within moments my lips are sucking on reed straws, as potent and sweet brews are forcibly imbibed. Thankfully, a small taste seems to satisfy the group and we are allowed to proceed. Bun Long directs us to the village community house where we are to sleep. Community houses are a staple in all the minority villages, used by visitors for overnight stays as well as by the villagers for various ritual events (weddings, funerals, harvest feasts, animal sacrifices). We are instantly surrounded by a throng of curious residents as we unload our packs and prepare for dinner. The crowd is shy, and of course no one speaks English. Bun Long is cooking so we are left alone on the porch of the house, being gawked at as if we were a rare species on display at the local zoo. Eventually we succeed in some rudimentary forms of communication, and are soon teaching the crowd how to count to ten in English while we learn the same in their language (totally different from Cambodian, complete with their own alphabet). After dinner, we attend the night class in the school. Because the children work during the day, school is only possible at night. The school itself is a tiny structure, with one blackboard and a few pews for kids to write on. Since the town has no electricity, the blackboard is illuminated by a burning torch, made from densely packed twigs that have been soaked in a burning agent derived from tree sap. The children take turns reading sentences in their native tongue and we lead them through a recitation of ABC's. Before long, our weariness catches up, and by 9pm we are sound asleep on the porch of the community house, only to be awoken a few hours later by the staggering and noisy return of several rice-wine drunken men. The roosters begin their revelry well before dawn shows any sign of making an appearance. As first light breaks, I stumble off the porch with my cameras, visiting briefly with various families huddled around open fires. The village is serene and quiet. The women begin their early morning chores while a good deal of the men are huddled in blankets, trying to shake off some serious hangovers. Many of the families have upwards of six children, and the elder daughters tend to look after their younger siblings. It is sometimes hard to tell if the child holding a baby is the older sister or the mother, for many girls become pregnant and get married (usually in that order) in their early teens. Bun Long explains that among the minority people in Cambodia, the women (including girls) have the toughest jobs. They are responsible for fetching drinking water, for carrying firewood and for looking after the children. As this is the dry season, little field work exists until the harvest, leaving the men ample time to foster companionship with their precious jars of wine. After a quick breakfast and renewed gawking by the locals, Bun Long dispenses some needed medical supplies to the villagers and we set off. The days’ walk is long, about 25 kilometers, but the scenery is well worth the effort. We pass through several Jarais villages, skirting the border with Vietnam, before finally reaching Peng at dusk. Hot and dirty, we are led to the river for a much needed wash. Again a sea of curious Jarais eyes awaits us in our hut as we ready for dinner. The crowd seems impressed that we can count to ten in their native tongue, and soon we are giving basic English lessons on names of body parts, clothes and accessories. A car battery is produced and connected to a fluorescent tube, starkly illuminating the interior of the hut. There are far more people in the room then I had imagined, perhaps 50 villagers are crammed with us in this tiny structure. Everyone smokes, including children and nursing mothers. Some use wooden pipes, others roll tobacco in leaves, forming conical rolls in a similar size and shape to a sushi hand roll. After dinner, with Bun Long translating, the villagers pepper us with questions, some straightforward and others a bit bizarre (no, you cannot buy wild animals at markets in the US). I show the crowd pictures of other minority hill tribes I have visited in Asia. They seem fascinated to look at these photographs, particularly the decidedly similar images from minority tribes in Vietnam. Vietnam is a sensitive topic for Cambodians, even for the minority people in Ratanakiri. Historically, the Vietnamese and Cambodians have frequently been bitter adversaries, fighting on numerous occasions. Most recently, North Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1969, occupying several northern cities including Angkor Wat (eventually retreating in the early 70's as the Khmer Rouge movement gained strength), and then followed with a full-blown invasion and ten-year occupation in 1979 under the auspices of liberating the country from the terrors of Pol Pot's regime. The current Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is largely seen as a Hanoi puppet, having originally been installed during the Vietnamese occupation. The general Cambodian sentiment seems to be that Hun Sen's government is extremely corrupt, making land and industry deals with Vietnam, with the profits going into Hun’s pockets. Among the tribes in Ratanakiri, word has been passed that several villages near the Vietnam border have been taken over by the Vietnamese army, with villagers being forced out of their homes. The tribe leaders suspect that the Cambodian government has sold this land to Vietnam and now Vietnamese settlers are moving in. We were not able to confirm these rumors, though we did see written accounts by independent newspapers vaguely alluding to the government appropriating land from minority people, so this could indeed be a reality. The next morning the entire village accompanied us to a scenic waterfall where I was asked to take photographs of practically everyone. I obeyed happily, shooting numerous combinations of stiff portraits. The young couples were the most entertaining, shyly refusing to get close to each other as I fired away. One man stood off to the side with a small, feminine, compact mirror, carefully combing his hair and preening himself. The other villagers were very amused by his vanity, heckling him unmercifully. By 10am we were back on the trail, leaving behind the Jarais people and heading to the Kachak village of Kachout, four hours away. On the surface, the Kachaks appear to be identical to the Jarais. Their villages also look fairly similar, with a perimeter of flimsy wooden structures built on stilts and a big open area in the center. We arrived in Kachout on New Years Eve, but this was a day much like any other for the locals. A volleyball net was set up in the middle of the village, and the men who were not drinking were busy spiking balls. The local bathing hole was well situated just below the village, offering spectacular scenery as we washed away the days’ dirt and dust. Ratanakiri is a province of extremes. Mud and rain in the wet season, caking red dust in the dry. Most people wear grey clothes to hide the dirt. My wife and I, in our khaki pants, looked we had just played a five-setter at Roland Garros, tumbling here and there in the red clay. As the sun began to set, a large and screaming pig was dragged near a group of people. The pig was tied to a pole and then whacked unconscious by a few smacks to the head with a piece of wood. Once incapacitated, the animal’s neck was quickly slit and, within a few minutes, was roasting over an open fire. Quickly blackening, the pig was then transported to the river (where we had just washed) to be cleaned and prepared for a wedding the next day. After dinner, the obligatory Q&A session began, with many of the same questions being fielded to us about life in the west. This village seemed particularly concerned about the Vietnamese incursions and asked us if we knew anything about it (at the time, we didn’t). The New Year was rung in quietly, for by midnight we had been long asleep beneath the twinkling stars, our hammocks gently swaying in the still and warm night. The next day, we briefly reemerged into civilization, eating a delicious Khmer lunch at Terres Rouge before visiting three Kreung villages in the afternoon. The Kreung lifestyle is very similar to the Jarais and the Kachak, the most noticeable difference being that the Kreungs have special huts for adolescent boys and girls to live in. The boys hut is usually built way above the ground, often requiring an immense ladder to reach the entrance. The girls hut is generally situated near ground level. The huts were devised as a way for teens to freely pick a partner and begin the mating and marriage (in that order) process. This is of course completely different from the local Cambodians, as arranged marriages are still the norm, and sex before marriage almost always an impossibility. The remnants of a buffalo sacrifice were still glowing when we arrived at Nang Lek village. Buffalo sacrifices are most often for funerals and are particularly brutal (squeamish readers should skip to the next paragraph). The buffalo is tied to a wooden post. A group of machete-armed men gather around the beast, and in turn take bloody swings at one of the hind legs. When the limb is finally severed, they attack the other one. After both rear legs have been sliced off, with the poor animal writhing on the ground, one of the men approaches with a small knife and directly pierces the buffalo’s chest, removing the heart in its entirety. After this, the animal is cut up into pieces and cooked on a fire, with various body parts being used for different ritualistic purposes (and of course to feed all the villagers for the funeral). We saw and smelled a good deal of the charred remains as we ambled in the village, the men gathered in a group attending to their wine jugs. By nightfall we were back in the luxurious confines of Terres Rouges, able to enjoy the comforts of a hot shower, Amok curry, French wine and a real bed. The only hindrance to a night of true relaxation was the realization that we were in for another nail biting flight the next morning as we made our way to the tombs of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Siem Reap (meaning Thailand is defeated!) is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. The majority of the tourists that come to Cambodia fly into and out of Siem Reap without visiting any other part of the country. The reason, of course, is Angkor Wat, a spectacular assembly of roughly thousand-year old tombs encircled within a 26 kilometer radius. Some of the tombs have been completely overtaken by nature, with massive trees rupturing the stonework. Others have either been restored or are in various stages of restoration. Amazingly, the wars of the last 50 years and the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime hardly touched Angkor Wat. Perhaps mankind recognized the sanctity of this unbelievable collection of temples, or maybe the B52’s missed their target that day. Regardless, it is a breathtaking sight, requiring at least three days to take in and admire. Many people spend more than a week at a time visiting the tombs and return periodically to see smaller details. The common features in all the temples are the gorgeous bas-relief figures carved into the sandstone. The carvings range from depictions of everyday life, to gory accounts of wars between Cambodia and their neighbors (mostly the Chams in Vietnam) to portraits of the gods and rulers. The restoration projects are dauntingly massive. The French, perhaps due to their colonial fondness, have taken the lead in rebuilding the temples. Some have had to be completely taken apart in order to be properly restored. Baphuon temple was in the midst of such a refurbishment when the restoration team had to evacuate the area in the early 1970’s. All records of how to put the temple back together were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period, so the stonework is now laid about on the adjoining grounds, leaving the experts with one the world’s largest jigsaw puzzles to solve. There is something for everyone at Angkor Wat, ranging from the majestically grand display of human artistry to the sublimely beautiful clash of nature with man-made creation. The serenity and tranquility of the area, despite the large crowds flocking to the grounds, leave an indelible mark. The neighboring town of Siem Reap has seized on the tourism aspect of Angkor Wat, with luxury five-star hotels springing up everywhere. The town itself has morphed into a back-packer haven, with a combination of Western and Asian restaurants, inexpensive guest-houses, coffee shops, and markets, principally selling silks and wood/stone carvings. The disparity of Siem’s tourists are enormous, some spending upwards of $300 for an evening of comfort and luxury, others slumming for as little as $8/night. After five days, it was time to move on. As luck would have it, my friend from New York, Christine (of Cambodian descent), was visiting her family in Battambang, some 200 kilometers to the southwest of Siem Reap. A grueling eight-hour boat trip later, we were sitting comfortably at their house, chatting with her parents, aunts and uncles about what it was like to have lived during the Khmer Rouge period. Their story, like many holocaust survivor stories, is fascinating, involving luck, wits, determination and resourcefulness. As the Khmer regime was coming apart in 1979, with widespread famine and brutal, senseless killings everywhere, with the Vietnamese army rolling in to “liberate”, many desperate families attempted to flee to Thailand. The lucky ones got out, and Christine’s parents, along with a few of her aunts and uncles were granted refugee status and eventual citizenship in the US. Listening to them, some twenty-five years later, calmly recount their harrowing tales of flight, evokes memories of speaking to my parents and grandparents about escaping the Nazis. But this is somehow more immediate, more tangible. These people are roughly of my generation, and these events happened during my lifetime, when my biggest anxieties involved getting ready for college and sweating the outcome of the Kentucky Derby. The next morning we were awakened at 4:30am by the blaring loudspeakers of a PA system just below our hotel window. A tent had been set up and a wedding was about to begin. Weddings in Cambodia are no trifling matter. They typically last for two to three days, and the celebrations show no mercy to the weary guests, starting each day in the wee hours of dawn and ending late at night. Music is a key element, as a band plays constantly (amplified generously) with both male and female vocalists. The songs have an almost Arabic cadence, and I find it difficult to distinguish one from another, especially in my grumpy, sleep-deprived state. After wandering around town for a few hours at sunrise, we attend a cooking class at a local restaurant (The Smokin’ Pot), which specializes in Khmer cuisine. We are first taken to the market to buy ingredients, many of which I have never used, let alone heard of, including kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, tamarind (both sweet and sour), turmeric, dried peppers, ginza (galangal), shrimp paste and holy basil. As with most Asian food, vegetable chopping is a necessary and time-consuming chore, with many items then needing to be crushed to a fine paste in a mortar and pestle. After a few hours of preparation, we are allowed to cook Khmer (Amok) curry, Tom Yam soup and Lok Lak beef. The actual cooking is very fast, with most of the dishes being ready within 10 minutes. Of course the food is delicious, and we head off with heavy stomachs to the countryside, spending our last Cambodian afternoon sight-seeing aboard guide-driven motorcycles.