Cambodia: Eyeballs, Temples, and a New Year

About a week ago, I found myself sitting on a lawn chair in the middle of a big white van, rocking from side to side between the clothes closet and kitchen counter. Our friend Arne was in control, speeding down the bumpy Cambodian highway, and I realised something. We have significantly relaxed since the beginning of our trip. There’s no way I would have done all that back in Belgium. 

Celebrating Jo's birthday in absentia
Celebrating Jo’s birthday in absentia

Luke got the front seat, because he’s huge and didn’t really fit in the back. So, for the week that Arne and Jenny ferried us around Cambodia, Luke sat up front while Jenny reclined on the bed and I braced myself on the spare tire whenever we braked hard.

We did have a delightful time with our favourite German pair. It just so happened that they were going the same way as us after Sihanoukville, or they were nice enough to pretend that they were going the same way so that they could save us the trauma of a bus. We travelled to 6 different towns, including a few nights in Battambang for New Years. We then made our own way to Siem Reap, Arne and Jenny having crossed over the border to Thailand. 

Of course, we went to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, or, more accurately, the Temples of Angkor. You may have seen pictures of Angkor Wat itself, a big temple majestic in it’s faded grandeur. The Angkorian civilisation was powerful for 600 years, though, and there are temples all over the place, many within easy walking distance. This has the potential for some very weary travelers. 

Sitting in front of Phimeanakas, our next temple.
Sitting in front of Phimeanakas, our next temple.

We took our sightseeing slowly, though, breaking it into three shorter part-day chunks beginning at reasonable times of day. Gone are the days of seeing a castle in Belgium, visiting the entire nation of Luxembourg, and sleeping in France, all in one day (real thing). These days, we need to sleep in and download some podcasts and have a multi-hour leisurely breakfast before doing anything. 

They are amazing, though, the temples. Some are really tall and majestic, and some have been just swallowed by the jungle. Some have hardly any tourists, like Ta Nei. We sat in the ruins of that temple for 30 minutes, not another soul around, listening to the jungle. Of course, Angkor Wat itself was a circus, but at least we didn’t feel like we were going to be literally crushed to death by the crowds. Thank you, Great Wall at Badaling, for forever lowering our touristing standards. 

Preah Khan.
Preah Khan.

Special memories

I also got a nice souvenir in Siem Reap: viral conjunctivitis! I know this because we visited the one ophthalmologist in the city (because my eyeball hurt). He was quite good, except that he scared the bejeez out of me by showing me pictures of horrendous cloudy eyeballs and permanently scarred corneas, before telling me this was no big deal and I caught it well in time. Thanks for the drama, doc.

The waiting room was great fun, though. Isn’t that a lovely unexpected thing for us Westerners? I had a 6:30 appointment, only to show up and find twenty men, women, and children in the doctor’s living room. We wouldn’t have even known it was the place, if not for an excited schoolboy who said yes when we timidly said “eye doctor??” to the general room. A nice tuk tuk driver came to sit next to me and explained the system: there’s no numbers, you just know who came before you. Indeed, when a person left the doctor’s consulting room, everyone in the room pointed to the next person. While we waited, we watched Thai soap operas, people chatted across the room, the school kids practiced English, and everyone passed around the babies. One time a grandma just walked a baby around the room, stopping at each person (including me) for praise and cooing noises.

Our friendly tuk tuk driver friend was very excited to show me photos of his adorable young baby, of whom he was ridiculously proud. Unfortunately, he also decided to tell me that him and his wife tried to get pregnant for ten years. So, he did the obvious thing, and he told her last year that if she didn’t get pregnant he would leave her. Suddenly, miraculous pregnancy! Risky move in a country with no paternity tests, mr. Tuk tuk friend.

No scooters for us (warning: scary and upsetting) 

It’s common practice for tourists to get scooters or motorcycles and ride them around Southeast Asia. We, however, will not be doing this. 

The first bad accident we saw had no fatalities, but was scary enough. Two scooters ran into each other in front of the van as we rode with Arne and Jenny. Both fell over in seemingly slow motion – and one was carrying a mother, father, and toddler (this is really, really common here). The toddler rolled towards the centre of the road. I’ve never, in my life, seen a person move so fast as that mother retrieving that baby. It was truly superhuman, as I guess I had heard can happen in these types of situations. Thank God, the baby was crying and looked unhurt. The adults immediately stood up, too, a good sign. The car ahead of us swerved and missed the toddler. Arne slowed and easily avoided the situation. We do not care to delve into the what ifs.

I didn’t see anything in the second accident. I just saw all the bus passengers looking out the windows, and I saw the mangled metal remains of a scooter. Luke, though, accidentally looked at the photos that the saffron-clad monk in the seat next to us was taking on his iPad. So he saw the corpse second hand. 

I may sit in lawn chairs in vans, but I firmly draw the line at riding scooters in Southeast Asia.

New Year’s Eve

Lots of balloons
Lots of balloons. People also put up miniature hot air balloons, ie small paper lanterns with a bunch of fire inside, ie public safety hazard. I mean, we saw one crash into a tree.

As mentioned, we spent New Year’s Eve in the old colonial town of Battambang in western Cambodia. We didn’t know if New Years was a thing in Cambodia, so we were excited to see a big street fair set up by the muddy river near our hotel, smack in the centre of town. However, our Western expectations did not meet reality in the following ways: 

  • The restaurants all closed around 9, so we were forced to eat sketchy looking street food at plastic tables surrounded by trash heaps. I had blood soup. I didn’t know it was blood soup until Jenny said, “the blood is good, no?” Arne and Jenny later got violently ill. We ate the same things, so we’re pretty sure the reason they got sick is that they had been boasting that they hadn’t got sick in the trip.
  • There was a huge stage set up with enormous speakers and maybe 1,000 people in the crowd. However, the two acts we saw were a young man who sounded like he was doing karaoke (I think he was a Justin Bieber impersonator), and a Cambodian rapper, who’s songs everyone seemed to sing along to. 
  • Everyone went home at 12:10. No more partying. Our hotel room had a balcony from which we watched hundreds of people retrieve their motorcycles and go home. The street was silent by 12:30.

Great news! 

Also, good news: Luke doesn’t have rabies yet! Or at least no symptoms. A dog bit him about two weeks ago, but it’s cool. The owner, an Italian woman (the owner of our local pizza place on Otres Beach), produced the dog’s recent rabies vaccination certificate. Google assures us that in that case we don’t need to get Luke any treatment. The dog bit him because Luke stepped on his foot for about 20 seconds, saying, “What’s that yelping noise? What am I standing on? Hey, something keeps biting me!” This is real and happened. 

We’ve just arrived in Vietnam, but more on that later. There might only be a few blog posts left in us, yet…

On the road with Arne and Jenny

Floating Village on Tonle Sap Lake 

Angkor, Day 1: Around Angkor Thom, and Angkor Wat itself

Angkor, Day 2: Preah Khan, Ta Keo, Ta Nei

Angkor, Day 3: Ta Prohm

2 thoughts on “Cambodia: Eyeballs, Temples, and a New Year”

  1. Wow – where to begin!
    – the tree roots are absolutely magnificent
    – blue eyeshadow suits Luke
    – I’m glad you are not riding on scooters
    – I can hardly wait to see the art you bought
    – I’m glad you have made such good friends
    – glad to see you wearing life vests on the lake
    – so glad Luke does not have rabies
    You have not lost your zest for travel, or your sense of humor about it – way to go!
    Love you so!


  2. Wow, I am jealous of you being able to see all of the temples-they look amazing.

    It is tragic that Luke could not find any fireworks as large as a mini-bus! He could have lit up the whole country.

    I wondered if you saw any remaining signs of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. The Cambodian people sure have been through a lot.

    I am so pleased and proud that you have seen so much of what our world has to offer!!

    As per Mom, thanks for avoiding the scooters. They don’t look safe at all, and they are not as safe as they look.

    Love you,


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