Friday, January 30, 2009

cambodia: kingdom of trash

All over Cambodia there are vendors selling stacks of postcards that all say "Kingdom of Cambodia" over a scenic photograph of a temple or some cows grazing in a lush green field. In reality, though, Cambodia is a kingdom built on trash. Singapore has its signature Merlion statue, Cambodia has its signature piles of garbage everywhere.

My trip to Cambodia was eye opening to say the least. I've seen poverty in the banlieues of Paris or along the stretch of Baja highway that runs from Cabo San Lucas to California, but never before have I seen a country covered in poverty, absolutely saturated to its core.
Yet, there were plenty of Land Rovers, Range Rovers, and Lexus SUVs riding along the dirt roads, weaving to avoid children begging for food and the stray dogs that roam the streets. Angelina Jolie donated a lot of money to Cambodia when she adopted her son a few years ago, but seeing the country really made me wonder where her money went to. Perhaps to the people driving the luxury vehicles?

I arrived in Phnom Penh and stayed there for a day before hopping on a bus and making a 5-hour trip to Siem Reap, where the world famous Angkor Wat is located. The bus driver had his hand on the horn for at least 4 1/2 out of those 5 hours, and he had to continually slam on his breaks to avoid hitting the cows that kept crossing the road.

The roads were bumpy and few of them were even paved. After we finally arrived in Siem Reap my head felt like I had been riding a boat in the middle of an oceanic thunderstorm instead of sitting in an air-conditioned charter bus.

It was all worth it after seeing the temple grounds in Angkor, though:

It was all worth it. The stench of the garbage on every street corner, the dirt, dust, and gasoline fumes being filtered through my nose constantly, the heartwrenching scenes of orphaned children forced to live on the filthy streets. I could deal with all of that. That is, until, I got food posioning. Twice.

Funny thing is, I didn't even eat that much, and definitely nothing out of the ordinary (my friend ate a grasshopper and a tarantula from a street vendor, yet her stomach was unphased). I packed a bunch of Luna bars and trail mix in order to travel on the cheap, and when we did go out I always ordered simple non-spicy dishes like white rice or noodles in vegetable broth.

Except...when I ordered fresh spring rolls. I thought I was making the healthy decision, choosing "fresh" over "fried", but in a country notorious for poor sanitation practices, it's probably better to never order anything that has not been cooked thoroughly.

If only I had known that sooner.

The food posioning was mild, though, so I was mostly just tired and grumpy but not completely bedridden, which is a good thing when you're traveling. Romy got a little sick, too. You'd think the two vegetarians would be the ones who would be the "safest" when it comes to food since meat can be undercooked or tainted with e. coli or salmonella. But no, it was the veg heads who got sick. Serves us right for inconviencing everyone whenever we try to pick a restaurant.