As a traveller, dining in Laos is also not as cheap as in other SE Asian countries. When it comes to food, Laos adopted that crappy discriminating practise widely popularized throughout Cambodia. Just as it is in Cambodia, Laos eateries believe that it is perfectly justifiable to overcharge (rip off) foreigners so getting food for the price a local would pay is rare.
Restaurants in popular tourist areas have menus in both Lao and English, but don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s bilingual. This is just an illusion created to make you believe that you are getting a local deal, but the prices on the menu only apply to foreigners. A local would come, look at the menu, smile at it, put it aside and ask in a language you cannot understand how much it was going to be for him which will never end up being the same as what you as a foreigner would have to pay.
Out of this part of South East Asia, Thailand is the best country when it comes to the availability of locally priced food available to foreigners. Prices in Thailand are often clearly marked and visibly posted, even if you go to the most non touristy market in an area where you will have been the only foreigner in ages. Yet the price posted will apply globally – this is how much this particular item costs and everyone, regardless of their color of skin will pay this amount. There is no such thing as different price for different people. Sadly, that’s not how it works in Laos. As a tourist, aside from finding transportation and accommodation vastly overpriced compared to other countries in SE Asia, I also found lack of inexpensive foods available to foreigners financially exhausting.
Bowl of fried rice with squid and shrimp can be had for $1 in Cambodia. That same amount will buy you steamed rice with nice dose of (really spicy, mind you) chicken stew in Thailand and in Vietnam, you could also almost throw a beer in it with food but forget about getting a decent portion for an equivalent of $1 in Laos.
Pakse in southern Laos was the only place where white bread sandwich with friend egg and veggies could be had for 8,000 Kip (roughly $1) but be prepared to shell out more everywhere else.
Overall, even for a skilled budget traveller capable of finding the means to travel, sleep and eat on the cheap, Laos happens to be an expensive trip. As a foreigner, the cost of food will be out of proportion to what locals pay but that’s a sad reality of many places in the region.
Traveling in and exploring Laos was an uplifting and rewarding experience. However, being a backpacker and a traveler on a budget, I was shocked by how expensive Laos is compared to the neighboring countries. I expected exact opposite – Laos is generally deemed to be one of the poorer countries in South East Asia which usually means that traveling through there should be comparably cheaper. It doesn’t happen to be the case. Visiting Laos ends up being far more expensive than visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia or many other countries of the region.
On my travels so far, I have stuck with cheap, backpacker accommodation options, traveled using local bus or train transport and explored destinations reached on foot instead of using taxis (or tuk tuks) but after arriving in Laos, I had to significantly lower my standards of living yet it still ended up costing more. Gone were the days of having a room with attached bathroom. Gone were the days of having a room with a window facing outside so the air in the room doesn’t make me gag. Yet even though I significantly lowered my standards of living, gone were the days when my total expenses, including accommodation, food, water and transportation stayed at a level not exceeding $10 per day. While still cheap by western standards, compared to similar countries of the South East Asian region, Laos was shockingly expensive.
In a nutshell, if you’re a backpacker visiting Laos, expect to either have to pay more for what you are used to getting in other countries, or lower your standards if you wish to keep the expenses in line with those you previously had. I’ve covered the cost of traveling in Laos in separate articles, each targeting a particular topic:
The very first local I encountered upon my arrival in Cambodia stole my pen because it had a laser pointer on it and he decided he liked it. It was the only pen I had readily available on me so when he said something was missing on my arrival card, I pulled it out of my camera bag and filled the missing information in. He then took the pen out of my hand and took the card along with my passport to add his notes, signature, a stamp or whatever it is they are supposed to do with those cards on it. He then went to get something else done by standing up from his desk and walking up to the opposite counter and when he came back, the pen was nowhere to be seen. I asked if I could have my pen back yet he insisted he gave it to me previously. Needless to say, this was the last time I have seen my pen.
I had only been in Cambodia for two minutes, and this was the very first Cambodian I had to deal with and I already got my pen stolen and was lied to straight into my face. He was the perfect reflection of what awaits a visitor inside the country. From the moment you’re in until the moment you’re out, there will always be a plentitude of locals looking for the ways to scam you out of your money or possessions.
Because the Cambodian government took measures to prevent scamming by anyone other than their befriended individuals, immigration people at certain points of entry (such as the Siem Reap or Phnom Penh airports) can no longer directly request bribes from foreigners who’d just arrived. That doesn’t however mean that they will miss out on other opportunities to enrich themselves at your expense.
Similarly, many overland points of entry are still major bribery hubs so if you fly in to Cambodia and continue on with your travels overland like I did, then you will be subjected to scam from the very first person you encounter to the very last (and virtually everyone in between). Similar open requests for bribes at overland border crossing will await you when entering and exiting Laos (on both Cambodian and Lao sides), but from my experience, this is not practised by Thai or Vietnamese immigration officials.
When I went I went to Thailand, scamming ended with the very last Cambodian I had to deal with. It goes without saying that he DID insist on a bribe but it was a breath of fresh air to come to the Thai side and be processed without any scam attempt. It works similarly when entering Cambodia from Thailand whereas Thai officials would process you without requests for bribes, but as soon as you come over to the Cambodian booth and start dealing with Cambodians, it gets to be a whole new story.
Vietnam doesn’t offer visa on arrival (or visa free entry) when entering overland from Cambodia (October 2009) so you have to apply for it in advance with the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh (at least if you’re a bearer of a Canadian passport) but as is the case with Thailand, open requests for bribes will end with the last Cambodian you end up having to deal with.
After my first meeting with Ha’s daughter, I knew it wasn’t going to be our last. This sort of caught me off guard as all my recent encounters with kids were negative – either trained clowns able to fake-cry on command, going out of their way to get money off of you and telling you to F%$k off if you don’t give it to them, or screaming the entire flight turning an already exhausting experience into a nightmare from hell – so if you even remotely brought up anything to do with kids, I would have told you to keep them as far away from me as possible so nobody gets hurt. But bubbly personality Ha’s daughter was radiating got the best of me.
After I embarked on my third day of Angkor exploring, I took on the Grand Circuit in a counter-clockwise direction with a mandatory stop at my new-found friends’ from the Sras Srang village. The temple of Banteay Kdei was about 12 km away from where I stayed in Siem Reap, and just a corner turn away from the Grand Circuit which made it a perfect, strategic stop to recharge on energy with coconut water and cool off the sweat the ride so far has resulted in. But I also had an extra plan for the stop at Banteai Kdei.
When I first went with Ha to see her daughter, I made a quick stop at a convenience store to buy candy. I thought it would make a kid happy and pre-occupied enough to leave me the hell alone. It did make her happy – beyond happy – but it didn’t keep her off of me, though by that time I didn’t mind. Obviously, buying the kid a simple thing which her mother could not afford to buy meant a world to the little girl. Anticipating my next meeting with her, I thought I was gonna buy something more sustainable and less damaging to her already spoilt teeth. I had to take two things into an account:
Ha was always by my side, except from times when I was at Angkor
I wanted to make it a surprise so buying anything in Siem Reap would defeat this idea. And since any business in Siem Reap would try to rip me off as much as any tout at Angkor Archaeological Park would, there was no benefit to buying in town over buying at Angkor. On top of it all – my relationship with the Sras Srang villagers was nicely developing so I thought I’ll get the best of both world and buy something for Ha’s daughter from them.
As much as I enjoyed the company of the villagers, they were still Cambodians and I was still a foreigner. For them it’s always an “Us Against Them” game so as I kept spending more and more time with them, but buying nothing except a whole pile of coconuts every day, they continued bugging me and requesting that I fall for their sales pitch and spend more money. Under normal circumstances, I would not give in to the pressure of pestering touts (except that one time when the little girl tout who broke into tears after a would-be customer bought from somebody else), but since I wanted to buy Ha’s daughter something anyway, so why not from my new friends? Whom better to support financially than people with whom I was gonna spend several month with (though at the time I didn’t quite know it yet)? So I did just that. It didn’t ease the pressure one bit, but gave me an extra argument to counter theirs with when they tried to force me into buying some more.
Granted, everything they sell at Angkor is a piece of junk. There are basically two types of items you can buy: bootlegs of all sorts and miserable quality t-shirts. I didn’t have many options so I went for a low quality t-shirt. I’m not very good at buying presents so I had to make it easy on myself. The biggest challenge I was faced with was trying to guess the right size for Ha’s daughter. They had children sized tops with elephants on them in both small and medium. I asked my friends to get some four year old girl touts to come over so I can test the size on them. Since Ha’s daughter was the same age and racial differences are minimal between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, I thought this was gonna help me choose the right size. I ended up going with medium sized top as small seemed as though it was meant for infants. I also thought buying the top that’s a bit too big would be better in a long run than getting one that’s a bit too small. The four year olds grow big quickly, so if the garment is a tad large right now, it’ll fit just fine later. Whereas if it’s already tight, it’s gonna be completely unusable very soon.
My suspicion was correct – the medium sized top was still a bit too big for her, but that mattered not. Both Ha and her daughter were beaming with delight when I pulled the top out of my camera bag and handed it to the little girl. I haven’t seen this much happiness in a very long time. The girl was so excited she instantly wanted to pose for pictures with her new top on. She loved having her pictures taken and as a photographer, I loved taking them. Four year old, but so photogenic and just shining with glamour. Little did they know at the time that this was naught but the beginning. The main surprise of the day was yet to come.
Gallery of pictures I took of Ha’s daughter wearing the top I bought her from the villagers at Banteay Kdei temple is below:
Visiting Angkor Wat was a big item on my Bucket List so I was glad that after more than a week of being in Cambodia but being unable to go see the ancient temples due to daily downpours, the weather improved and I got a stretch of several consecutive days of sunshine. It was getting kind of weird because I continued to teach English at the Preah Prom Rath Temple every day and my students kept asking me the same thing they ask every foreigner (Cambodian way to start a conversation to eventually swerve it into an attempt to make money off you) – “how do you like Angkor Temples?” I could only answer by saying: “I don’t know, I haven’t been to Angkor yet.” And everybody would stare at me with gaping mouth cause it seemed like I’ve already been there for ages. I assured everyone that it is my foremost interest to do a thorough exploration of the Archeological Park, but I wanted it to be a memorable experience so I patiently waited bad weather out.
Then the day the weather improved I met Ha so on my first hot and sunny day in Cambodia, I just looked around realizing that this was to be my opportunity to see Angkor at last, but instead I’m spending my time with a girl I met in a bar the night before. That didn’t bother me one bit, though. Angkor temples have been there for centuries. I knew they wouldn’t run away and as I kept getting to know Ha a little better, I was truly glad I got to spend some quality time with her. Then I got to meet her daughter and everything inside of me changed.
I still wanted to pursue my dream of visiting Angkor Wat at the earliest suitable time but above all else, I had to keep my wits with me and never take anything for granted. I mean – there was not a slightest sign of lie in Ha’s eyes or voice, but she was still a girl I just met in a bar. I can read people really well, but I never place all my bets on one card. After a nice day spent together with Ha and her daughter, a day I would have made my first day at Angkor had I not met her, I told her that the following day and each day thereafter, if the weather was nice, I would leave early in the morning and head on my bicycle for Angkor. There would be no knowing when I would come back, and I still wanted to continue with my English classes in the evening, but come nightfall, I’d definitely be already kicking around Siem Reap so if she was up for that, we could hang out together then. My thinking was – if we are meant to meet again, we will so there was no reason to put Angkor off any longer.
After my first day at Angkor, I went to check if Ha was at the Temple Club but didn’t see her there so I left only to be halted by her friend (aka another prostitute on a lookout for a customer) who noticed me at the very last moment and sent Ha after me. This was the only night after the night I met Ha when she tried her luck as a prostitute in a bar. It didn’t work out, nobody picked her up so she went with me and told me that the following day, even if it’s nice again and I end up going to Angkor again, she would just come straight to my room to spend the night with me instead of trying for any more customers in a bar.
I was plain and simple the worst type of guy she could have ended up going with on her first night out as a prostitute. She didn’t want to sell her body, but needed money for her daughter and this was her only option. The feelings of not really wanting to do that were suppressed by the necessity to provide for her child. But then I came along and not only re-ignited those feelings, I made them so much stronger she could no longer suppress them. This was the end of her “career” as a prostitute. With that however, I unwittingly took upon myself the responsibility to provide for both of them. I was on a budget to begin with, but I could see that every penny spent on food for those two girls was money I could not have spent any better.
I gave Ha a little bit of money each day so she could buy the most necessary groceries to keep them from starving while I was gone and when I was around and went to visit Ha’s daughter, I always bought her some sweets and treats. The joy in that little girl’s eyes made the money spent so worth it. But the more time I spent with them, the more I learned about what they have and are going through and it kept bothering me beyond belief. Ha and her daughter were betrayed by the whole world. They could not stay in their homeland of Vietnam because little girl’s wealthy father had his men after them and out there in the foreign lands there was just no reasonable way for them to make any money. What chance for a normal life does anybody like them have?
Everybody seems to claim that Cambodian girls are very pretty, but is there any truth to that? The short answer would be “Yes” – most Cambodian girls in their 20’s are in fact beautiful and a pleasure look at, but there is a catch to it. However let’s not get ahead of ourselves and take a look at it all in order.
Cambodian Girls – The Most Beautiful in SE Asia
After having been to practically every country in SE Asia, I must in fact confirm that Cambodian girls are the most beautiful of them all. Vietnam gets a lot of buzz about the near-perfect beauty of its girls and there definitely are some ridiculously hot girls there, however they are an exception, rather than the rule. Vast majority of Vietnamese girls are not much. By walking the streets of Vietnam, you will encounter thousands of below average looking girls before a model material comes to view. When you do encounter a beautiful Vietnamese girl, she’s typically super pretty, but again, for one pretty Vietnamese girl, there are thousands of not much girls so if you think you will come to Vietnam and all those beautiful girls will come hurling from all directions on every corner, you will be disappointed.
Cambodia on the other hand is not like that. Vast majority of girls you encounter – without looking for them, by just randomly walking down any street – will be very pretty. On average, you will see many attractive girls before you see one you would consider “not much”.
Thailand seems to be the magnet for men looking for young girls, yet Thai girls are far away from anything I would call attractive. You will from time to time come by an attractive Thai girl, but they are a rare breed. Oddly enough, most Thai prostitutes come from the Isaan area because for one – there isn’t much economy there so they don’t have many options to make money, but mostly – Isaan is close to Cambodia and girls from there have that Cambodian feel which is very attractive.
Cambodia definitely wins when it come to pretty girls, even though it has nothing on Eastern European girls but that’s a whole different story.
Prettier Than They Seem
Most Cambodian girls are prettier than they seem. Many have long, raven dark hair and near each of them wears it in a silly ponytail. Since I spent most of my time in Cambodia with the locals, I was around during the everyday home-care tasks and when these girls got home and let their hair drop loose, they instantly gained two solid points on a beauty scale.
There is also something to be said about the way they dress which often takes away from how tight their bodies really look, but when you catch them with an outfit that supplements their slender figures, the only word you can think of is… perfect.
Where Is The Catch?
The conclusion is undisputable – Cambodian girls are dangerously pretty, however there is a catch. And because of that catch I would never consider marrying a Cambodian. You see, for some reason, even though Cambodian girls are in fact very pretty, they seem to deteriorate rapidly with age. You will find many ridiculously attractive girls in Cambodia, but not one half-decent looking MILF.
There is a certain age which seems to trigger sharp aging and rapid deterioration of beauty and it seems to start in a neighbourhood of some 30 years of age or so. All Cambodian girls in their 20’s are very attractive looking, but once they reach what I would call “productive age”, they lose all their beauty and turn downright butt-effin ugly. Good luck trying to spot one Cambodian woman (I’m not talking old, just not a girl anymore) who looks anything close to Cambodian university-age girls.
Think before you marry a Cambodian girl. She may be very pretty today, but how long will her beauty last?
History of Cambodia is a history of violence. Violence has been part of Cambodian culture and everyday life for centuries and is as prevalent today as it has always been. As a traveller who spent a few months in the country and didn’t go through it locked up behind the safety fence of his hotel, I was exposed to the reality of the Cambodian ways, including its endless violence and crime. I have already shared the stories of other travelers who were victims of violent crime while travelling through Cambodia, and now I would like to share my personal experience and answer the question “Is Travel to Cambodia Safe?” with my own stories.
I stay in amazement when I see certain bloggers or forum members go through lengths to portray Cambodia as a safe country. Whatever the agenda behind such purposeful twists of truth is, I can’t help but express the horror over how public is systematically mislead. It takes savage imagination to call Cambodia a safe country. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
The following is nothing less and nothing more than my personal, firsthand experience after 2 months in Cambodia. These are not reports I got from other people, this is what happened to me personally:
My Personal Experience
I came to Cambodia with an open mind. I have been volunteering and supporting this country since the moment I set my foot on its soil and continued doing so unhindered despite the ordeal locals were repeatedly putting me through. Just as most other visitors to the country, I was also told that it was safe to travel in Cambodia. Having traveled through many countries before, including third world, non western countries (6 months on various islands in the Caribbean and 2 years in Eastern Europe – aside from countless other countries) I knew one has to keep his wits together and play it safe at all times, but still I came here believing that Cambodia was reasonably safe.
The very first time I had an unfortunate encounter was after two weeks in Cambodia at a more remote temple on the grand circle of Angkor. I locked my bike and walked inside the temple when I got that funny feeling that maybe I should have locked my bike against a tree rather than merely locking the wheel against the frame. This was the first time I only had my bicycle locked against itself and sure enough, as I walked out of the temple, I saw little kids who stood around with the banner that they were from an orphanage carrying my bike away. I yelled at them instantly, so they dropped the bike and bolted away. It was particularly disappointing since only minutes prior I had donated money to their orphanage as that’s what they were there for. Needless to say, I left that temple instantly even though I have only seen a small part of it.
A few days later, I had the bicycle lock keys stolen. I know I should have kept it on my chain along with other keys, where it’s much safer than loosely in my pocket, but it was becoming inconvenient as I rode the bike everywhere so I kept using the keys all the time and pulling the whole bunch on a chain became troublesome. Luckily, when a person who was suspiciously getting close to me unexpectedly left, I checked to see whether I still had all of my belongings and as I saw missing keys, I went right to my bike which was still there (in my vicinity all the time), took it to the shop to pay 2000 riel to get the old lock sawed off and spent additional 5000 to purchase a new, vastly superior lock. Unfortunate event, but I still ended up with little loss so I wasn’t making much of it.
It wasn’t until the time to renew my visa came. I wanted to combine it with a short trip to Phnom Penh. My stay in the nation’s capital started with a boy of about 10 years of age trying to steal my wallet. Cambodians, even though skilled thieves are not very smart and he failed to put two and two together so my wallet stayed safely fastened to the chain with the keys on the opposite end. I’ve worn my wallet on the same chain for 20 years and have never had my wallet, or my keys stolen thanks to it. I would have to be either unconscious or threaten with lethal force to lose it. The boy used the moment when I was posing myself to take a picture of hundreds of motorcycles taking off at the traffic lights, pulled the wallet out of my rear pocket and bolted off only to have the wallet ripped out of his hands by the chain that remained sealed in my other pockets thanks to a bunch of keys attached to it. Even though I was focused on the photo I was about to take, I still could feel the wallet coming out of my pocket so I don’t know how exactly he thought he was gonna be successful with this pull. What do you do with a 10 year old when you catch him stealing, though?
I only had three days to spend in Phnom Penh, but the crime was persistent. The day prior to my intended visit to the immigration office, I was jumped by a man a block away from the riverside, not far from FCC. He came running from behind me and skilfully snatched at my bag in an attempt to steal it. Not willing to part with my $1,600 laptop inside, I managed to grab at the strap as the bag was leaving me and started to fight back for it. It was followed by the thief yelling something in Cambodian, after which I saw several dozen men with metal rods, knives and machete loom out of every direction running towards me. I don’t know what that man yelled at them, but he obviously abused the fact that I was a foreigner so he said something in a language I couldn’t understand to set those people against me. And they surely did.
I have never run that fast in my life. I don’t even know how I escaped getting killed there that day, but I counted my blessings and when the following day came, instead of going to renew my visa, I went to the Vietnamese Embassy and got myself a visa to Vietnam so I could leave Cambodia instantly. I called people from the village where I was volunteering that I would not be back, because I feared for my life and that instead I was going to Vietnam. As I was riding the bike back to my guesthouse from the Vietnamese Embassy, I saw a group of people standing around a bullet riddled body along the road. I didn’t have the camera with me to take pictures of it as I rode across Phnom Penh to spend my whole day dealing with the visa situation, but this has added a seal of approval to my decision to leave the country. Besides, where there is one dead body in Cambodia, there are also people with deadly firearms. I wouldn’t want to join the dead man by being next with a bullets in my head.
Vietnam vs Cambodia
Vietnam was a whole different world from Cambodia. It was a breath of fresh air I desperately needed. Not only has it helped me to relax and get over the terrible experience from Cambodia, it was also a place where locals respect tourists (unlike it is in Cambodia). I could walk into a supermarket, do my thing and walk out – there would be locals there, but no one would start whistling at me from across the street, clapping hands at me and yelling like I’m a cheap whore. It was unbelievably liberating to have this type of treatment after a month of abuse in Cambodia. There were locals out there, but they were minding their own business, leaving me alone to enjoy my time at my own pace.
Then I would go for a walk (I have explored entire Ho Chi Minh on foot) and there would be tens of thousands of motorcycles passing by me every minute, yet I did not get any of them in my face every 3 seconds like it is in Cambodia. It was incredibly refreshing. When I went to highly touristed places, that’s where I would occasionally get asked whether I wanted a ride on a moto, but when I said “no”, it was a “no” and I was not bothered by that person anymore. That’s again unheard of in Cambodia. But what I really liked is that even beggars in Vietnam have respect. Cambodia is the only place I know of where a 10 year old kid would say “Fuck You” straight to your face if you don’t give him any money after he asked for it.
From the beginning I could not understand why treatment of tourists in Vietnam was so different from Cambodia, even though they are so close to each other. Why did people in Vietnam leave me alone? Vietnam is not that rich either and unlike Cambodia, they don’t enjoy extra millions from tourist revenue because they don’t have anything equal to Angkor to attract mass numbers of tourists there. And then it all came together.
I noticed that Vietnam was abuzz with construction. There was work in progress everywhere I looked. People were not bothering me, simply because they were involved with their own lives. Millions on motorcycles are either on the way to work or from work. Unless they are on the way to school or from school or on the way to get something for the family. Either way, they are involved with their lives. They work to provide for their families and as such, they don’t have time or interest to bother tourists. They actually appreciate them and are grateful when they visit their country. I have also encountered unconditional help in Vietnam, which something that doesn’t exist in Cambodia, but that’s a whole different story.
Back in Cambodia
I got caught between a rock and a hard place though. I left Cambodia because it was unsafe and too much crime was being committed against me too often. However I did spend a month there building upon something, using my own finances and knowhow to improve the living conditions of people in a remote village but with my premature departure I left it unfinished. I knew that many people whom I started helping would fall back into poverty if I abandoned them before my work has been finalized.
I started to feel the sense of responsibility for being the only hope for a better life these villagers had, so I decided to give Cambodia another go. I thought – since it was Phnom Penh where my life was put in danger in a violent crime attempt, if I stayed away from there, I should be fine.
So I came back to Siem Reap and commuted every day 12 km each way to and from the village which is close to Sras Srang moat, not far from Banteay Kdei temple within the Angkor area. I continued teaching English there for free and started a campaign to raise funds for the purchase of solar panel to electrify the village while preserving the environment. All was fine again for about a week, until we went to celebrate some occasion close to that traffic circle, by the entertainment park in Siem Reap.
At one point when we were leaving, the street got extremely congested with traffic and we had to push through a group of people which was further congested by food carts on wheels. I had my camera with me and since I felt three young men pressing at me from behind and poking at my beg, I held the bag firmly with my arm, shoving my other arm inside the bag to hold firmly onto the $5000 camera. These young men kept pressing on me from three sides which appeared as though it was on purpose, but I assumed they were in a rush to get through so I didn’t make a big deal out of it and just continued guarding the camera inside my bag. Then at one point the pushing stopped and the boys were gone. I figured they must have changed their plan as these food carts truly kept everyone stuck and gave up on getting through quickly.
The moment I got out of there, I found the cell phone missing from my pocket. I immediately realized what the purpose on pressing on me and poking at my bag was and realized that teamwork and stealing skills of Cambodians are not as backwards as everything else. They work as a team and know very well how to keep you distracted and focused on something while someone skilled at withdrawing things from pockets does what they are best at. This was a painful experience and took me a while to get over with. It was extremely disappointing as I spent a lot of money in Cambodia, brought in some more from other sources, invested a lot of time and effort to improve the lives of people here and this is what I was getting in return.
My faith in Cambodia was broken and despite trying hard, I was having troubles recovering from the disappointment cell phone theft had brought upon me. But the biggest hit was yet to come. A couple of days after my cell phone was stolen, I was riding to the village from Siem Reap where I was staying. It’s a 45 minute bike ride (when you step on it and ride swiftly) and I was almost there. Literally, I only had about 2 more minutes before reaching the turn off to the village.
Feeling good that I was almost there, I saw that man crossing the road. I steered in the opposite direction of his walking, but he seemed to have stopped instead of continuing walking so we could safely dodge each other. As I was getting closer, he snatched at my bag I had hung on the handlebars and pulled at it in an attempt to steal it which was followed by a swing of a machete.
I have a bicycle with gears. Unlike most Cambodian bicycles, it does not have a basket above the front wheel. However I have been using gear shifts on both sides of my steering bar as hooks on which to hook my camera bag. So instead of having it strapped around my body, I had it safely hooked on the gear shifts as the bag has a handle which is just wide enough to stretch on both hooks. I realized that when I hooked my bag on the handle bars like that, from a distance it could look like it’s actually a bag placed loosely in the basket which is a standard part of most bikes in Cambodia. That is likely what the man who snatched at it was thinking.
I cannot describe the horror of the experience. The man grabbed at my bag and yanked at it to run away with it, the bag remained safely attached to my steering bar, but it jerked my bicycle which I had at good speed causing me to fall and nearly splatter on the road. A swing of his machete followed and missed my torso by an inch. Had this one landed, I would have disappeared out of all knowledge like British student Eddie Gibson who came to Cambodia and was never heard from again.
This was a direct murder attempt with intentions to rob me off my bag which I have only avoided by a miracle. The man who attempted to kill me couldn’t have known whether there was anything of value in that bag, but since I was a foreigner and had a bag in an area surrounded by jungle and there were no other vehicles on the road which otherwise sees a fair deal of traffic, he took the opportunity and tried to kill me to steal it. Had he succeeded, he would have just dragged my bloodied corpse into the forest so it rots there until the end of days. Unhindered, the man would be free to continue roaming the roads with his machete waiting for his next encounter.
My guardian angel was by me that day, though. The yank resulted in a complete loss of balance but I have somehow managed to stick my foot down and not splatter, but in that process I scratched it quite badly and bled (especially from the heel) like a stuck pig. I could not believe this. I was almost in the village. Given the proximity to the village, I assumed it could have been either a person from the village I haven’t met yet, or someone who lived reasonably close. Why would they otherwise roam around in the neighbourhood?
When the villagers saw me all bloodied and trembling with fear following the near death experience, they asked me what happened and I told them. They also wanted to know what the man who tried to kill me looked like to possibly identify him, but given that I almost died not expecting it, I was so shaken, the last thing I had on my mind was to take a good look at the guy. Plus, I still had the memory of my last altercation I had with a man who tried to steal my bag in Phnom Penh and that ended up with a group chasing me with deadly weapons. This man tried to kill me. Hurting or not, as soon as I was able to get back on the bike, I darted right off from there not looking back, as if I confronted him, he would likely continue swinging the machete until a hit that disabled me was delivered.
Cambodia IS Dangerous
This basically concluded my stay in Cambodia. I immediately started making plans to change my return ticket to leave asap but Korean Air proved excessively difficult to accommodate such requests when they are made outside of the country of origin. This kept me in Cambodia for a few extra days. I stayed mostly locked in, as from my personal experience, Cambodia is extremely dangerous.
I have been half way across the world, but it took a country like Cambodia for a man to fear for his own life. And these are by no means isolated incidents. Since I have been volunteering within Angkor area and close to one of the main temples (on short circuit which is done by most people who visit the park), I got a chance to meet many tourists with horror stories. It starts with seeing people carrying disposable cameras and asking them why the hell would they come all the way to Angkor with this piece of plastic – and hearing answers that this was their only option since their camera along with the money and passports were stolen, all the way to girls walking out of the temple scared to death, crying because they were just raped inside.
Is travel to Cambodia safe? No it is not. Cambodia is one of the most dangerous destinations in the world, period!
Is Travel to Cambodia Safe? How to Draw Your Own Conclusions
So the question that comes to mind is – then how come there are so many people who insist that Cambodia is safe? Well, at this point, instead of trying to raise any more points to prove my case over theirs, I will leave it up to you to make your own mind up and decide for yourself whether Cambodia is safe or not. And in order to come to such conclusions, you need to know what the people who live in Cambodia are like.
One of the most obvious things I noticed right upon coming to Cambodia are countless banners warning tourists to stay away from child sex tourism. It is forced into everyone’s face by banners throughout the country to a point that it becomes ridiculous. Even if you are someone like me, who would not only ever consider sex with a child, but would not even have it cross their mind, by being constantly reminded about it, it almost seems as though Cambodia wanted to introduce itself as a country with striving sex tourism.
I have spoken with countless people, including the police officers and while there definitely are occasional cases of tourists sexually abusing children in Cambodia, these cases are very sparse. Vast majority of all sexual abuses of children are done by local men – the same men who are responsible for an infamous title attributed to Cambodia – the rape capital of the world. Rapes are extremely common in Cambodia and not only are they never punished, they are never even reported because for one – the police force is a joke and secondly, it is socially and culturally unacceptable for a girl to admit that she had a pre marital sex, even if she was violently forced into it. To sum it up – excessive number of Cambodian men are a bunch of sexually abusive characters who don’t stop at nothing. Not even when it comes to helpless children. This is important to understand when coming to Cambodia and you are unsure after hearing one side claiming that Cambodia is safe, while another claiming that it is dangerous. Just take into an account that it is a country of rapists and draw your conclusions from that.
Aside from being a country of child rapists, Cambodia is also crammed with former Khmer Rouge henchmen. These killing machines who were enlisted as young children to kill on daily basis are now in their 40s and 50s and are as used to kill as they were in their early teens. Just because they took off their Mao hats and put on fake designer shirts it doesn’t mean they forgot how to pull the trigger or hack a head off. Having killed dozens of people since they were kids and never facing any repercussions or punishment for it, these people are all over Cambodia and still have the same guns and explosives they were given when they were recruited to kill. Unpunished and allowed to live freely after countless murders, these men and women are but a small part of a large group of armed and dangerous killers Cambodia is full of. Regardless of whether you believe those who say that Cambodia is safe or those who say that Cambodia is dangerous, by visiting Cambodia you will be entering a country where Khmer Rouge murderers roam freely, equipped with uncontrolled and regulated military grade weapons. Instead of believing one side or another, draw your own conclusions based on facts. Take a close look at the type of people who make up much of the society and the picture should be quite clear.
When I first met Ha’sfour year old daughter, the little girl was crying. I had some chewing gums on me so I gave her the pack which made her stop. I don’t know exactly why she was crying, but I know that she was nothing like I expected. I went to meet with Ha’s daughter anticipating a spoiled kid that screams all the time and acts like a general irritation, but she was none of that.
I will leave the pictures in a gallery below to speak on my behalf. Even if you were like me – someone who used to perceive kids as sheer annoyance, you would instantly start seeing children as a blessing, instead of a curse. This girl was the embodiment of cuteness and was well behaved and respectful. She was nothing like the kids from the plane. I was reluctant to go spend time with a kid, but after experiencing her bubbly personality, I actually had to pull my camera out and snap some pictures so I can print some for Ha.
Realizing the hardship Ha told me about, I felt even more inclined to try to seek for solution and help so they don’t have to spend their lives running and hiding. This little girl should go to school and get education. She should also get some medical care, including dental care because that cavity in her front tooth spoils otherwise gorgeous smile. This girl deserves to enjoy her childhood and go out to have fun with her friends. But for this to happen, something would have to get fixed. The two are constantly on the move so she can’t make any friends and because they don’t have any money, their health issues are not looked after. They can’t afford a toothbrush or a toothpaste so cavities are inevitable. And that makes their story so much sadder.
Because father of this girl is an American, she doesn’t look obviously Vietnamese. WHile she does have some Vietnamese features, she’s a Caucasian cross with dark eyes.
The life story of Ha, the Vietnamese Prostitute who is not really a prostitute started as a fairly happy one, but turned into a very, very sad and frightening sequence of events. I met her on the first night she attempted to sell her body to men for money because she had no other option. So even though she had attempted a route of prostitution, she’s never ended up being one thanks to me getting mixed in an equation. Still, her true life story is very sad and I hope she as well as her daughter get to enjoy the life they deserves soon. The revelation of this life story started on the morning after our first night together, but it took several days and nights spent together to paste all the pieces together and get a clear picture of the nightmare these two girls live on a daily basis.
Being an attractive girl, Ha grew up with a lot of attention from boys. There was nothing wrong with it and every girl would have wished to be like her. Life was generally good, even though she grew up in Vietnam which came with its own ups and downs of the communist regime. At some point in her late teens, Ha went to Thailand where she met with that American guy. The fact that she was from Vietnam made her open to anyone from the Western world as that was the opportunity for her to escape rather limited possibilities of self application her home country was offering.
Said American man was excited to learn that Ha was from Vietnam because he saw vast business opportunities opening in this South East Asian country with introduction of inexpensive scooters to the Asian markets. At that time, the predominant means of transportation in Vietnam were bicycles. You may recall pictures of thousands of bicycles filling the streets of Saigon which were so popular in magazines like National Geographics. This was all about to change and motorcycles were to become the new pink in Vietnam, replacing obsolete bicycles as an improved, more exciting transportation option.
Ha was promised the American man would marry her if she helped him to start the motorcycle business in Vietnam. One thing lead to another and before you knew it, the two were in Vietnam, the man starting up a business that was bound to succeed and Ha ended up pregnant. When that happened and when the business started to rock and roll, the man who promised her heavens suddenly changed. He started ignoring Ha and kept cheating on her and doing it openly. Due to Vietnam’s weak justice system, the man kept sexually abusing underage girls but got away with everything as he was able to buy favors of any Vietnamese official that was in the way. In a corruption ridden country, he who has more money wins.
Having been left pregnant in Vietnam, where single mothers are socially unacceptable, Ha tried to pledge with the man who knocked her up to provide for her during pregnancy and fulfill his promise to marry her. He rejected the unborn baby and ordered Ha to stay away from him or else. She had nowhere else to go, no man would take a woman who’s pregnant with another man’s child, so she tried to appeal to him, but his true colors kept showing more and more each day. As his business grew, he used the money to run Ha and her family to the ground. Ha’s mother was forced into bankruptcy and had her house taken away from her while Ha was being threatened that if she doesn’t get out of his way or has an abortion, she will come to a sad end.
As the man kept sexually abusing new girls every day, many of which were way too young for sex, there were more and more of them that ended up pregnant. Several were found dead in dubious traffic accidents the police refused to investigate. Fearing that Ha could encounter similar fate, she stopped asking the man for financial support and marriage. Later on she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.
The man who previously tried to force her into abortion, changed his attitude when he saw the little girl. She was the cutest baby in the entire world and he has decided that he wanted her for himself. Financially deprived Ha who saw her family hit rock bottom after the man who got her pregnant destroyed their lives saw something bad happening if little girl was to end up in the hands of a man who had previously sexually abused prepubescent girls on several occasions. But through his connections and corrupt jurisdiction, he was able to get the baby temporarily. After a month, Ha got the girl back and found baby’s vagina swollen and discolored. Being only four months old, baby was put on medication and it took more than a month for the irritation and bruising to go away.
The man refused all accusations that he had anything to do with it and threatened Ha that he would make her suffer or worse if she doesn’t stop snooping around. At the same time he demanded that she gives him her daughter for he liked the baby and wanted her for himself while keeping Ha out of her life. Ha tried to pledge with him but threats continued and violence kept growing until such point that Ha had to run away from the town where she lived and hide with her relatives at the opposite end of Vietnam.
That didn’t go over well with the man who wanted the baby and Ha out of his way. His men found her at the relatives but she was able to get away last minute and escaped to places where none of her relatives lived so there was nothing to connect her with the place. Being constantly on the run with little baby in the tow, Ha was unable to get a job and make enough money to provide for the little girl. Life of fear and deprivation became her true life story. She could not stay anywhere for an extended period of time and could not live as a free person. It went on like that for a couple of years but the man never stopped pursuing his revenge. He wanted her to pay for the nerve of not giving him her daughter as he demanded, and escaping his pursuit.
When little girl was 4 year old, Ha had no more places in Vietnam where she could hide so she escaped to Cambodia. She ended up in Siem Reap where one of her distant uncles lives. The uncle is Vietnamese born, but married a Cambodian woman and lived in Cambodia since. They have a small house on the outskirts of this popular tourist destination and this is where Ha and her daughter sought temporary refuge. She was in a foreign country, she couldn’t speak the language, only a little bit and she had her daughter who needed food to grow up. In order to make money in this environment, she attempted to do the only thing she could – prostitution. If it wasn’t for her daughter, she wouldn’t have done that, but she was able and willing to take anything just as long as she can buy some food for the little girl. That is when I met her.
This was why Ha has never acted like a real hooker. This was why she never got cold with me like hookers do with their customers after they’re done. But this is also why she had to ask me if I could give her some money to buy food for her daughter even though we never engaged in a hooker/john relationship. The details of her life story were shocking. This was not simply presented to me the way I am presenting it here. This was revealed bit by bit as I kept digging and digging, asking question after question until pieces of the puzzle started to come together and revealed the bigger picture. Ha was one strong woman, but she didn’t deserve to live like that. Nobody deserves to live in constant fear and run and hide all the time because your own country will not provide you with any protection from a man who has more money than you, so he can buy the justice to side with him. I knew I needed to help her, but how?
Even though I wasn’t too fond of the Temple Club, the night after I had checked out their Free Apsara Dance upstairs, I went to get a little glimpse of what it’s like in their main area downstairs. I took my laptop with me to get some pictures posted on this blog and since visible sign advices everyone walking down Pub Street that the club offers free WiFi to its patrons, I was curious as to the reliability and speed of the wireless connection.
The music they play at the Temple Club is atrocious. I was already there so I just switched my “ignore” button on, started up my laptop, ordered a beer and got right down to working totally oblivious to everyone and everything around me, including that crappy mainstream music. Things were going smoothly, I got lots of work done, visitors to Siem Reap that filled the club enjoyed their time without bothering me so it all seemed like one fine night. I was just about done and ready to wrap things up when I lifted my eyes that were fixed upon the laptop screen for over 2 hours and noticed this really cute, petite Asian girl standing behind my shoulder with a grin, checking out what I had on my screen. It was pretty loud there so whatever I would have said would not be heard, but since I was done with actual work, I scooted over to make room for her to sit on a bench next to me so she can see the pictures from my trip so far.
Skimpy dress the girl was wearing along with obvious make up job left very little for guessing. Besides, Temple Club is notorious for abundance of prostitutes looking for an easy buck from fly by tourists who represent the majority of Temple Club’s clientele. I must have attracted her attention by completely ignoring everyone and being locked onto my laptop not even as much as lifting my brows up to see what was going on around me. I have never in my life been with a prostitute before but I was curious about what they were like. I wanted to meet with one and talk to her about why she does that, how she finds it and if she’d do something else if she could. So many questions, so much curiosity and here it seemed like my opportunity has arrived. However, I had all of my red flags on high alert though, being fully aware of the fact that HIV prevalence rate among prostitutes in Cambodia is extremely high. It’s also high among general population with 1 in 75 people being infected, however it is estimated that at least 50% of Cambodian prostitutes are bearers of an HIV virus or already suffering from AIDS.
I knew damn well that I have never paid for sex before – not even while I was in (reasonably) safe countries so risking it in a country with such high prevalence of HIV would be plain stupid. I realized that if I were to try what it’s like with a prostitute, I should have done it before, not now that I’m in Cambodia. And this is the type of message I tried to pass on to the girl who just sat beside me to take a look at pictures on my laptop. I asked her if she would like anything to drink but seeing that there was a major language barrier, I just mimicked the act of chugging a beer down my throat to make her understand. She showed me that she still had her Coca Cola she was happy with so I put my wallet away.
We attempted a little communication and even though it was a bit challenging, she did have some understanding of English language so we could actually speak. I explained to her that I understand she was a prostitute and that I had no issue with that, but I firmly expressed that I was not going to get sexually involved with her because of fear of HIV and my own belief that there are better ways to hook up with members of opposite sex. I actually loaded Microsoft Word (TM) and wrote the following to make myself clear and easy to understand:
Money = NO
Sex = NO
Drink = YES
Talk = YES
I was hoping my message would be clear and this was exactly the way it was understood. She was happy with the drink she still had so there was no need for me to buy her another one but I made sure she knew that I would be happy to pick up the tab for our next round. But most of all there had to be an understanding that all I’m paying for are drinks and not any form of “services” she may be offering. The girl was OK with that and explained that business was slow tonight so she’s just gonna take the rest of the night off. We ended up staying until the close and had a very interesting conversation. I have learned that her real name was Ha even though she has originally introduced herself as Minnie (probably her hooker name she chose because of her petite build). I have also learned that she was Vietnamese and that Ha was a Vietnamese name, not Cambodian. I have heard that there are many Vietnamese prostitutes in Siem Reap so this information didn’t raise any additional questions.
We talked a lot and enjoyed each other’s company. But as we kept talking, I kept growing more and more suspicious of her. She sounded like a normal person. This was not the type of talk I would have expected from a prostitute. The fact that she gave up on “working” in favor of an intelligent conversation was already a hint enough but as the night progressed, the entire prostitute/john relationship was completely wiped off and instead there was a Canadian tourist and a Vietnamese girl with quite a touching story to her.
Ha told me she was 23 and had a 4 year old daughter. The reason why she was at the Temple Club was to try to make money to buy her little girl some food. Fabricated sob stories of this sort are an everyday thing utilized by scamming Cambodians because they work well with tourists. But with a bit of wits you can tell they’re lying and all they want is your money so they are ready to say whatever it takes to get some from you. It was entirely different with Ha. The sincerity of her eyes and voice were undeniable. There was something very wrong about her selling herself out and I could tell right away that she has not tried this type of “work” many times, if at all.
I asked where her daughter was now and she told me she was with her cousin who is looking after her. She also said they lived in a shed without shower, in the dog house kind of attachment to her uncle’s house because that was all she could afford. The night was coming to a close, so I offered her to come home with me. I had two beds in my room and whether both beds were occupied or not, it was gonna cost me the same. I offered her an option to sleep on an actual bed, instead of on wooden planks and use actual shower, instead of bathing in the rain puddles in rice fields. I have once again stressed that I won’t be interested in “hooker” services, but I did have a bed available and we have just become good friends, so I wanted to offer my friend some help that didn’t cost me anything.
As we walked towards my guesthouse, we continued to talk undisturbed by loud music. Ha was very grateful for being offered a sleep in a decent bed and a shower but felt obliged to deserve it. She didn’t want any money from me, but she wanted to “pay” for my hospitality with the only think (she thought) she had to offer – her body. I have assured her that this is not necessary and insisted that she takes as much time in the shower as she needs and so she is not afraid to make my room her home. I trusted her beyond recall and she’s never let my trust down. She was not a prostitute. She had no business being one. She didn’t deserve that. Something was terribly wrong about this who ordeal. I have just met an innocent person on the first night of her life trying to sell her body for money. I was after a story and I got a life changing experience instead.
Ha slept on one of the beds, I slept on another. I left the air conditioning on so she gets the pleasure of not having to sleep in scorching heat at least for the night. This night turned out nothing like I would have ever imagined. I was tired and fell asleep quickly. We woke up to a beautiful sunny day which was just what I was waiting for to start my Angkor Wat exploring adventure. After a week of mostly rainy weather, a cloudless, sunny day was a breath of fresh air. And I woke up sharing the room with a beautiful, young lady from Vietnam. Say good morning, Ha!