Siem Reap in Pictures

We came to Siem Reap to see Angkor, and that’s where we spent most of our time, but the city itself was likable on its own. It had a number of great markets, a nice quiet river for afternoon strolls, and some really great food. It was also very touristy of course, which had its ups and downs.

One “up” was the presence of great, flavorful, Belgian (!) beers. After 2 and a half months of drinking “same same but different” light beers, we just had to splurge:

Flavorful beer, achieved

Among the other touristy spots, we had a fun night or two at “Angkor What?” bar.

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…and emerged one night to find a lunar eclipse in progress!

Eclipse, Siem Reap, Cambodia

I mentioned the markets already; they were as good as we’d seen yet.
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Perhaps the most memorable place we visited in town was the Angkor Hospital for Children, which brings low-cost ( or free, if necessary) medical care to a region in dire need. Steph had found out about AHC before we arrived in Cambodia, so when we arrived in Siem Reap we decided to seek them out. We toured the hospital’s grounds and were floored by their mission, yet grounded by the challenges they face. Many, many children die of preventable diseases here, simply because they don’t have access to proper care. AHC is truly an inspiration.IMG_3814

Angkor Childrens Hospital

Angkor Childrens Hospital

Angkor Childrens Hospital

From Siem Reap, we grabbed a long, long bus ride to the border – up next, Laos!

Angkor: a few days in ruins

The ruins of Angkor… what could I possibly say about this place that hasn’t already been said, already described in far more vivid terms, with far more historic relevance, by far better writers than me?

The majesty of Angkor Wat, largest and one of the most famous of all religious structures in the world… the enigmatic, smiling faces on the towers of Angkor Thom’s Bayon… the mossy, etched dwellings at Ta Prohm, wrapped in a strangle of muscular jungly verdure for centuries… the crumbling, dark grottos that tunnel throughout these sites and countless others: these better-known aspects account for a fraction of what remains of Cambodia’s über-productive Angkorian era, when the Khmer people held supreme power over of their neighbors for hundreds of years before mysteriously and abruptly fizzling out. The dream of exploring these sites inspires millions of people to visit from all over the world, and indeed, it may have been that dream that attracted us to take this trip to begin with.

It suffices to say, Angkor is a place to experience in person. As much as I can’t offer the words to do these sites justice, our photographs pale in comparison as well. But for those who never get the chance to see it themselves, I hope this photo recap at least hints at the real wonder of this place. It’s really spectacular.

Note: if any photos below don’t load, or you’d like to see them all at larger sizes, you can view the whole Siem Reap set on Flickr.

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To explore the ruins, we bought a 3-day pass to the park for $40 USD each – expensive compared to most anything else in Cambodia, but very worthwhile for the conservation it supports. Interestingly, Cambodian citizens enter completely free, which seems to be a great idea as most Khmer people do not have money for luxuries like this, and Angkor is a great source of pride and pilgrimage for the entire country.

Armed with our 3-day pass, we chose to explore the sites by bicycle, which we can’t recommend highly enough, if you’re up to the task. Leaving from our hotel in Siem Reap each day, we ended up doing quite a lot of riding (maybe 20-30 kilometers per day), but the ability to explore at our own pace and wander some of the less popular sites completely alone really added to the experience.

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Our first stop was Angkor Wat, which we approached by rounding its square moat for at least 10 minutes before we getting a glimpse of its famed towers from the front entrance.

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It was mid morning, so the light was a little harsh for pictures, but the larger tour groups were just leaving as we arrived and we were often the only people in a particular room at a time.

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Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Well, the only people save for a few monks here and there…
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Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Surrounding Angkor Wat’s interior are hallways with vast bas reliefs of ancient stories. Below are snaps from the “Churning of the Sea of Milk.”

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Morning at Angkor Wat

Elephants provide a means of transportation to several of the temples within Angkor. This day must have been slow, as most of the elephant guides were chatting on their cell phones – funny juxtaposition of past and present!

Elephants at Angkor

The Mobile Context

Elephants at Angkor

Moving on from Ankor Wat, we pedaled through the gates of Anchor Thom, which is a 9 km² walled city comprising of my temples that once collectively may have supported one million people.

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Angkor Thom Gate

Angkor Thom contains many famed sites, the first of which we visited is known as “The Bayon,” which has over 200 towers with subtly smiling faces looking outward in all directions. Beneath the towers is a maze of crumbling Indiana-Jones-esque tunnels.

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

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The Bayon at Angkor Thom

Moving on again…

Angkor Thom

Next we visited Preah Khan, a quiet temple with features that hinted of Roman influence (I’m unsure why that is).

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Angkor Thom

Unlike Rome, however, the Angkor dynasties never did perfect the arch, instead edging stones over more and more until they rested against the other wall. Comforting!

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Preah Kahn at Angkor

The most atmospheric of temples we visited was probably Ta Prohm, which is known for its relative lack of preservation. Ta Prohm has all the crumbling, jungly aura you’d expect to see only in a movie. In fact, some films have used Ta as their set, such as Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider (hey, I didn’t say good films). All throughout Ta Prohm, massive, muscular tree roots appear to eat the place alive, lifting and pushing its stones around like paperweights.

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Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Ta Prohm, Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

Preah Kahn, Angkor

Preah Kahn at Angkor

On the way out of the park, a quick handstand summed up our feelings on the place.

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After 2 days of biking around, we decided to get a new perspective, literally, on the Angkor landscape. So we hired a tuk-tuk and drove out to the Angkor balloon, where 11 dollars takes you 200 meters in the air for an absolutely stunning view of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples and rice paddies.

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Similar to a hot air balloon, this had a large suspended cage for people to ride beneath the balloon – up to 20 or so at once, I’d guess, though we only had about 8. Unlike a hot air balloon, this one was constantly filled with helium (I think at least), and tethered to the ground. To go up, the operator would simply let the cable unwind, allowing the balloon to rapidly ascend.

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With a healthy fear of the cable snapping and sending us to space heights, here I am, just a little on edge…

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But… wow, fears aside, this was just an amazing way to cap off our tour of Angkor.

I’ll leave off with the view from the top: Angkor Wat from the air.

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Floating – errr, pushing – our way down the Tonle Sap River

From the village of Battambang, there are two ways to get to Siem Reap, our next destination in Cambodia: take a cheap 4-hour bus ride along paved highway or take an 8 hour trip on an uncomfortable boat that is infamous for breaking down, getting stuck on the bottom, being expensive, and frequently requiring a push from the [un]obliging customers. From the title of my post (and, seriously, if you know our personalities at all…), you’ll know that we happily opted for the latter!

We pushed off from the docks at the Battambang pier on a rickety old ferry on an unexpectedly chilly morning and headed east down the Tonle Sap river toward Siem Reap. Alongside us, fishermen jostled for space in tiny wooden boats, pulling in lines, casting out nets, paddling to the next fishing hole. Lining the riverbanks were tiny wood shacks with corrugated metal roofs, many of them held up by pilings that now stood at disconcerting angles. Each shack had the obligatory adorable, half-naked 3 to 5 year old kid running out to wave and greet our passing ferry, as they must look forward to every day at this time. It was a window into everyday Cambodian life (a window right into their backyards, really).

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Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

It was charming, beautiful, and also a stark reminder of how harsh everyday life is for most of these people. This river is their lifeblood, and yet you can’t help but notice the garbage that has piled up on its banks and the constant putrifying smell that is just a little too rotten and sewage-like. As much as my training as a microbiologist tells me that many of these people must not have access to clean drinking water, I want to believe that certainly in these modern times the villagers here have been educated on how to make their water safe to drink, or at least have alternatives to fresh drinking water other than this river.  Then literally within seconds of this thought, I watched horrified as a boy of about 16 sitting on a fishing boat reached down to scoop a big white bowl into the river, and, as much as I wish it weren’t true, take a long drink. Here, I had been trying to shield the water droplets that sprayed off the surface of the water from even hitting my lips, and then to see something like that….

A few minutes later, the shacks and adorable shouting children began to thin out and we entered a beautiful floodplain surrounded by marshy trees and lilly pads. Once a year, a large portion of Cambodia floods for several months at a time (all of the houses here are built on tall stilts to account for this), and what we were essentially “boating” on was someone’s now-flooded backyard. This became more apparent as the trees began closing in more and more until we realized that we were, in fact, no longer on a river but were in a forest. A very flooded forest. At one point we began dragging vast pockets of roots and bushes, literally ripping them out of the soil, as the crew fought back the encroaching forest with their oars and pushing us along through the brush. Our boat began was bombarded on all sides from thick branches that slapped down the sides of the boat and caused us all to dive into the center of the boat for safety (I actually ended up getting smacked in the arm by one of the branches when I ducked a little too late, and it left a nasty little purple welt!).

Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

After we cleared the forest, we motored back into a true river again, where we came upon a series of villages. Unlike Battambang however, these villages were not set on the riverbanks; these were year-round floating villages! Every house, every storefront, restaurant, and pharmacy were on floating platforms that could only be accessed by canoeing from one building to the other.
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Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Riverboat to Siem Reap, Cambodia

There was no other civilization for miles, so for each village that we came to our ferry stopped to drop off huge bags of rice, pallets of sodas, and bags of fruit to the villagers, who rowed their canoes out to meet our ferry.  And once again, I was found myself wondering what on earth these people do for clean water (besides obtain it from the passing ferry), when suddenly we happened upon a large modern-looking building (floating, of course) – a USAID clean water-dispensing station! In a place that does not appear on any map, completely removed from the modern world except for a daily ferry that passes by its docks, someone had come across this place, seen what was clearly a huge need, and acted on it. So inspiring.

Eventually, we reached Tonle Sap lake and sped the rest of the way to the banks of Siem Reap. The boat did end up taking the prescribed 8 hours that our driver said it would take, and we did have to pull our way through some seriously thick (and painful!) shrubbery, but in return we saw some beautiful, mesmerizing, and heartbreaking realities of everyday life along the Tonle Sap River.

“Teachaaaah!” for a day

“It’s surprising how hard it is to convince someone to let you work for them for free.”

This realization came to us even before we left on this trip, as one of our goals was to give back to some of the people and places we would be visiting along the way – particularly given the stark poverty and lack of social infrastructure in the countries in which we were planning to travel. But before I go sounding all philanthropic on you, I should admit that while we are certainly interested helping out where we can, our motives are not entirely selfless: we also want to use these sorts of opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the places we see. Perhaps the experience would even lead to something longer-term for Steph, now that she’s a PhD-carrying microbiologist! At the least, maybe we’d learn a useful skill or two that we can bring back home (anyone need help building a self-composting toilet?!).

Anyway, some initial research on various organizations led us to find that volunteering in foreign countries not only usually requires lengthy time commitments and complex application processes, but it’s expensive as well (as in, you pay them to work for them – often a lot, too)! This makes good sense actually, as the work that organizations do here requires training, and it takes time and money to transition a volunteer from a burden to an asset. But this realization also meant that it would be difficult for us to serendipitously find opportunities along our way, given that we rarely know where we’ll be a week from now, nevermind 3 months from now! In Thailand, we contacted 3 different WOOFing startups to offer our skills time, but unfortunately, never heard back. We hoped this wouldn’t be the case for the entire trip!

Alas, in Battambang, Cambodia we came across an opportunity that sounded too good to pass up. KNGO (stands for “Khmer New Generation Organization”) is a local Cambodian-run organization that aims to “provide a free education program with a curriculum of several workshops, such as: English literacy education, computer skills, moral education, primary health education, environmental education and vocational skill training.” Essentially, they offer free education, primarily in English skills to kids every weekday afternoon, after the kids get out of state-run school around noon and would otherwise be susceptible to drug use and all sorts of atrocities that aren’t as common in more developed countries.

Kids at KNGO
Some of the kids we worked with at KNGO. Photo credit: http://www.kngovolunteer.org/

Saveth, the founder of KNGO, saw the need for more comprehensive education for the kids in his village (including his own children), and convinced the state to let him keep the school buildings open in the afternoons to conduct his classes. To do it, he recruited the help of 5 or so Cambodian teachers, most of whom are currently studying English at university, and foreign English-speaking volunteers who are asked to help for a day, a week, or more as they pass through town. In return, Saveth and his family offer a homestay at their own house in rural Cambodia, and 3 home cooked meals a day, all for $10 – sounded like a good deal to us!

The beautiful road to KNGO:

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KNGO Headquarters:

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The moment we arrived and registered, we were put to work. We had a couple of hours until the kids arrived, and the few other volunteers there with us that day were editing a proposal that KNGO would send to a few organizations in hope that they’ll help with funding. Like all-to-many charitable organziations, KNGO is strapped for cash, and at any time, it’s unclear whether they’ll still be open even two months from then. Fortunately, they don’t have a lot of operating costs: the facilities are all free and the school supplies were graciously donated by a couple from Australia, but they do need to pay their teachers and some other administrative fees. And of course, most of their budget is based on donations from foreign contributions to their website. We spent an hour or so editing and brainstorming some websites and organizations that might be good for stirring up some money.
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KNGO school runs from 3-6pm, but most of the kids like to get there around 1pm. Yes, you read that right: the kids in Battambang are very fired up to learn! So between 1 and 3 the two days we were there, the kids picked out books – usually of the “name that animal” variety – and read them aloud to us volunteers, while we helped with pronunciation. This made for a good opportunity to meet some of the kids that we’d be teaching later that day.

By 3pm, all the kids arrived and we made our way down to the school for classes. Here’s Steph on her way to the classroom:

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Each day, there were 3 hour-long class sessions divided up into 4 classrooms, and each session had a slightly older group of kids. We started each session by walking into the classroom after all the students were seated and introducing ourselves, writing our names on the board in classic teacher style.

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Every single time, our introduction was met with a piercing, “HELLOO TEEEACHAAH!!” (spoken with an English accent, likely due to a former British volunteer), and questions, “how old are you?,” “what’s your favorite flower?,” “do you like Cambodian food?,” etc. (29 & 28, lotus, and YES, for what it’s worth).

For the first session, we sat at the back and observed another volunteer help conduct the class along with the hired Cambodian teacher. The process went as you might expect, with the kids filling out worksheets on basic sentence construction, reading aloud, and writing on the chalkboard.

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After class was over each day, we headed back to KNGO headquarters for dinner, cooked by Saveth’s family. Here they are prepping a fresh rice (straight off the fields without drying) and coconut dessert, and below, one of the sweet Thai-basil noodle salads they made for us.

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Our second day at KNGO was a Friday, which meant that day’s sessions ends in playground games. Steph and I were asked to introduce a new game or two, and the kids really took to Duck-Duck-Goose and Red Rover. Here’s Steph uh, roving, below:

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Our time with KNGO was short, but we left feeling really good about the organization and our small contribution there. Saveth and the others at KNGO clearly have their priorities in the right place, particularly considering that 50% of the population in their country is under 22 years old. It’s also uplifting to see a great example of Cambodians beginning to help themselves (albeit with outside assistance) out of some of their major problems, especially in a place where foreign-run NGOs are commonplace.

Teaching at KNGO School, Battambang, Cambodia

If you’re ever in Cambodia, we’d recommend looking them up! Their website is here for more information: kngovolunteer.org

Battambing Battambang! A recap of our short stay

When we were trying to figure out where to go after Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, we considered the beaches of the south, and the mountains of the east. But we’d been lucky enough to already see some spectacular beaches, and we figured we’d see a lot of mountain life later on in Laos; what we really wanted to see was some more everyday, Cambodian life. The town of Battambang, the 4th largest city in Cambodia, sounded like it had some interesting cultural things to see, so off we went! Here’s a quick recap of our time there…

We spent our first day there touring the outskirts with our tuk tuk guide, Happy:

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Wait, who’s Happy again? 🙂

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With Happy, our first stop was the gigantic statue of a man who used to live in Battambang, after whom’s story the town is named.

Battambang, Cambodia

Then we made our way to the bamboo train, which Steph already covered in greater detail in another post. After that, Happy took us through some rural villages for a glimpse of Cambodian life on the Mekong River:

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Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang, Cambodia

Fish smoking over coals under a corrugated tin “lid”:

Battambang, Cambodia

Rickety suspension bridge!

Battambang, Cambodia

Finally, we sped off to the countryside to see our first Angkor-era ruins at Bannon Temple!

Sadly, many areas at Bannon Temple were cordoned off due to the danger of mines that still dot the hillside:

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Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Demining Equipment

This climb was not for the weak of heart…

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getting closer…

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Alas!  Our first pre-Angkor ruins…

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Many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair, which landed a creepy Indiana-Jones-esque quality to the whole experience.

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

Banaan Temple, Battambang, Cambodia

That’s it for our time in Battambang (much of the rest of our time there was just spent working from internet cafes and plotting our next move— tough life!!)!  Up next: a few days living and volunteering in rural Battambang…

Getting derailed in Battambang

What do you do when you don’t have a lot of money, you live far from the nearest town, and you’ve got a set of abandoned train tracks at your disposal? You build your own train, of course – a bamboo train, to be exact! The “bamboo train” is essentially a platform “train car” made out of bamboo slats that rests on 2 axles taken from abandoned tanks left after the war; add an old go-cart-style engine to the back to turn the axles below, and you’ve got yourself a homemade train!

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The idea for the bamboo train was borne during the near-collapse of Cambodian infrastructure during the civil war and Khmer Rouge reign of the 1970’s, much of the Cambodian countryside was abandoned or, at best, poorly maintained: ancient Khmer temples were reclaimed by jungles (stay tuned for a future blog post on that!), roads became impassable, and the few railway tracks that span the country were no longer used. Today, old train tracks remain where trains used to pass through these fields, and the unused tracks are just a sad reminder of Cambodia’s decline over the past few decades.  A small village on the outskirts of the town of Battambang has no roads connecting it to other towns; surrounded by miles of rice fields and thick weedy bushes, these train tracks are literally the villagers’ connection to the rest of the country. But instead of abandoning the train tracks when the trains stopped running, resourceful villagers realized that they could still capitalize on these old tracks as a way of transporting themselves and their goods into the main village—thus the “bamboo train” was born.

The ingenuity of the whole thing seems almost too good to be true until you realize that there is, in fact, only one set of train tracks, presenting the problem of what to do when an oncoming bamboo train appears. In this case, both bamboo trains come to a stop, and the one with fewer goods and/or people has to be disassembled and moved off of the tracks. Tip from the locals: just drive a motorcycle up onto your bamboo train, and you’ll never have to move for anyone. A water buffalo would work well in this situation, also.

Today, Battambang’s bamboo train is still used by villagers to transport goods to and from the market early in the morning, and even when we arrived around 10:00 in the morning, locals could still be seen flying by on the tracks. Due to the novelty and sheer ridiculous fun of this thing, it has also become quite a tourist attraction, with mostly foreigners riding its tracks later in the day.

So we decided to take a bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang, where we hired a tuk-tuk driver named Happy to take us to the fabled bamboo train.  We took a seat on the platform of our personal train car and set off on a slow roll down the tracks through walls of thick green vegetation, opening up to vast expanses of rice fields as far as we could see. After only a few minutes, we were seemingly so far from civilization: nothing but grassy fields as far as we could see and a thatch hut with two little kids standing outside, waving and screaming “hello!!” at the tops of their lungs.

After a few minutes, the train had picked up from a nice, safe cruising speed to a truly terrifying/awesome thrill ride. Only about 12 inches from the ground, we flew down the tracks at what felt like 40 miles an hour and was probably more like, well, 60.  With each new segment of the track, there was a jarring “clack” that threatened to make me bite my tongue or fall straight off the tiny platform. “This is SO dangerous!” I yelled to Scott, laughing, trying to hold on to something (there was nothing) and simultaneously tuck in any and all fingers and appendages, lest they be lost to a low hanging tree branch or an imminent derailment of the car at any second. “Yeah! This is great!” he yelled back. All I could do is laugh and yell back, “Yeah!”

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After half an hour, we reached an old brick factory (just a convenient spot for the train to reverse direction and take us back), where we were allowed to see bricks being made and talk to a nice woman who owned to factory. Then we piled back onto our train car again and headed back where we had started. On the way to the factory we had been lucky; we had never had to disassemble our train car for anyone else (several people had disassembled theirs for us on our way there, however). On the way back from the factory, we weren’t so lucky and we had to pile off to let a passing train go by (this was still better than the English family that we passed, who said they had had to get off of their train 5 times already!). Luckily, this consisted of little more than lifting the bamboo platform off of the free axles and then moving the axles off as well.

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As we were riding this crazy thing back to Happy and our awaiting tuk tuk, I just kept thinking how ingenious it was to keep using these tracks in the first place. In another place, a place with the riches to do so, we would just plow down some trees and build a road for our cars to drive down. Until that day is possible for these rural people (or until the government finally repairs the tracks so that they can be used by real trains– whichever comes first), the bamboo train serves as just another amazing example of poverty-driven resourcefulness literally driving innovation forward.

Haircuts around the world: Cambodia edition

In keeping up with the “haircuts around the world” series, Scott recently received his second of the trip!

This time, the setting was street-side in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where young men set up barber chairs and vanity desks underneath umbrellas, offering their barber skills for around a dollar a cut. All the while, the city bustles around you with steaming food stalls, swirls of dust kicked up by motorcycles, and monks walking by. There’s no power supply, so even the “clippers” for buzzing shorter hair are manually powered with scissor handles.

Haircut, Phnom Penh

Haircut, Phnom Penh

Unfortunately, much like the last one, this haircut turned out looking great. The barber did, at least, send Scott away with a sweet faux-hawk, which Scott couldn’t WAIT to get rid of as soon as we were out of view of the barber. Ah well, maybe next time will be more exciting…  🙂

Scott: 2, Barbers: 0

Haircut, Phnom Penh

Haircut, Phnom Penh