NOTE: Not all the guys going wanted their pictures posted (due to their jobs) so we blocked them out
After 7 months of waiting, saving and getting gear ready, I jumped on a plane last week for the trip of a lifetime. Being semi-employed for months and generally bored with life and restless in Australia, hearing about Death Valley Magazine’s DVM Expeditions maiden trip to Cambodia was the sort of thing that would probably keep my mind off my various first world problems and dilemmas.
Landing in Phnom Penh International Airport on Tuesday 4 March and heading on my way out of the visa application area, I was held up and vigorously questioned about my passport and visa. (“Where you live? Where you go? Why come to Cambodia? Where you live?”) I figured maybe I’d have to have an even more vigorous chat in a closed room when a second immigration officer came over and smiled at me.
Suddenly my passport and plane ticket stub were given back and I beat feet to baggage reclaim and past the howling tuk tuk drivers and forex kiosks until, with some relief, I spotted Thomas D Moore, survivalist, ex- military contractor, U.S Army Pathfinder and star of the hit survival reality show “Dude, You’re Screwed!” and another guy on the DVM Expeditions tour, Mike, waiting for me.
We traveled by tuk tuk, a motorbike or scooter hitched to a four seat passenger trailer, to where James Price, ex- military contractor and editor in chief of Death Valley Magazine, was holed up with our fixer, Vanessa and New Yorker Maurice, the third man joining us on the Expedition.
I was told by James on the way to our hotel and clubhouse The Grand Mekong Hotel, that Australians (particularly men, even more so the bearded ones) are targeted by Immigration and Customs in Cambodia because Australia doesn’t have extradition with the country and a lot go over there to escape murder and dope charges and the like.
On the short drive, I was struck by how well the traffic flowed despite a complete lack of obvious road rules; the busy streets seemed to work just fine with people cutting each other off, pushing through intersections and driving up roads the wrong way without any evident crashes or problems. tuk tuks competed with the Lexus’s of the new rich and overloaded vans managed to squeeze through busy, dusty main streets, blind alleys and residential streets in a way that would cause a complete traffic meltdown in any other city.
Tom explained that despite living in South East Asia for years, he would never drive there: “You have to be born to this; a Westerner just doesn’t have the reflexes for this [traffic]”.
After unloading our gear and checking in to our rather impressive rooms, we regrouped and went by yet another tuk tuk to get some incredible (and cheap!) Mexican food and then to the Army Markets.
The Army Markets can sell you any uniform you want; ACUs, vintage desert uniforms from the Gulf War and full police uniforms and badges. Mike spotted a couple of issued batons and traffic wands for guiding cars and I saw some severe looking knives and stun guns. James bought us some combination hammock and mosquito nets for $31 for all three, negotiated down from $40 by Vanessa (James: “Don’t worry about all the army stickers and shit on the side, dogg, these things would be worth like $300 back in the States.”)
We wandered around the market, being mindful that our cameras and wallets couldn’t be easily pick-pocketed. Maurice bought some police patches for $1 and a police hat and we all considered buying some Cambodian police issue body armor that was a steal for $100.
Finding another tuk tuk, we went for a brief tour around Phnom Penh. When I pulled out a camera to take picture of the traffic, Vanessa straight away told me to be very careful. “Gangsters will drive by on motorbikes and steal your camera and valuable right out of your hands!” she exclaimed. She was happy with me using the wrist strap on the camera, but told me to still be mindful of the passing motorists.
As the sun went down and our translator / fixer Vanessa went home for the day, it was decided that we get dinner at an ex-pat eatery (if only to protect Mike, Maurice and my still unsullied stomachs from the horrors of what street food can do to the weak) and head down to some seedy bars.
We went to about three bars that night, paying around $1 to $2.50 for a drink with the biggest bill coming in at around $116 for close to 50 liquor drinks. At the first bar I was beaten at pool by a local girl and was relieved when Thomas said we should hit the next bar, just as two more girls came over and tried convince me to give them $5 because I lost.
The next day, I was woken up around 4 AM by the communal open air Jazzercise session that happened around that time across the street from my hotel. At around 10 AM, we met at the hotel rooftop bar and then went down stairs and caught a tuk tuk driven by our some time driver, Ali, out to the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre.
When we left Phnom Penh CBD, the roads became patchy and if you didn’t have a dust mask, breathing became difficult. The shops didn’t seem to end either. For pretty much the whole way you could stop anywhere and pick up raw steel, Honda motorbike parts (the brand of choice in Cambodia), furniture and many types of street food like corn, clams and grilled duck necks.
Along the way, out of nowhere, a modern service station would appear and dotted throughout Phnom Penh are brand new hospitals (Such as the Cambodian-Korean Friendship Hospital) and other buildings littering the skyline and new roads and bridges under construction. I was told by Vanessa and Thomas that there had been quite a lot of foreign investment by South and North Korea, Russia, China and France in recent years.
The Choeung Ek Genocide Centre sits on a former orchard and mass grave left over from the Khmer Rouge’s reign, known as the Killing Fields, where thousands of Chinese, Khmer and political prisoners were brutally and horribly killed by the Khmer Rouge with agricultural and industrial tools so as to not waste ammunition. There was a time in Cambodia where blue plastic bags were not used in shops because they were often used as execution weapons. Some graves still haven’t been excavated yet and people are still finding bones and rags of clothing to this day.
I was disappointed to see many western tourists walking around the centre wearing tank tops, shorts and flip flops. It seemed completely beyond them that they should actually show respect to the dead and to the Cambodian people by actually dressing like they cared what happened at the memorial and not treat it like another tourist attraction.
Large depressions in the ground were host to as many as 450 people at a time. A museum near the entrance showed the methods of torture, profiles on KR leaders such as ‘Comrade Duch’ and death cards made for foreigners and locals. A tree at the back of the memorial was used to kill babies by holding them by their feet and smashing their heads in to it and there are several translucent boxes filled with the rags of executed people as well as jaws and other bones.
Sign posts next to sheds noted they were chemical stores for DDT which was used to eliminate the smell of the dead and kill those still alive. In the middle of the Genocide Centre sits a massive Buddhist monument housing hundreds, if not thousands of skulls and bones from the deceased.
At the souvenir shop, we all bought Kramas, a traditional scarf used by the Cambodians that is still worn today because of its versatility and drank from freshly cut coconuts. After speaking to Ali, he told us that when he was a soldier, he managed to escape the KR which gave the memorial that much more of an impact on me.
We ate lunch at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh, a popular hangout for journalists who were allowed to stay in the city when it was held by the KR. The building had a distinct (and beautiful) West European décor, relatively untouched since its construction. The food and drink was delicious. The waiters spoke English, which not a lot of Cambodians can speak (All foreign language speakers were all killed by the KR).
That night we ate at Jet Plu’s Cafe (across the road from the Australian Embassy, much to my amusement) which serves some of the best seafood I’ve had in my life, all out in the open which gave the place a fantastic ambiance. We ate clams, pickles with chili, prawns and ribs. The water for our hot pot allegedly hasn’t changed in 20 odd years, allowing it to season well. The enormous dinner for six people cost $45 with drinks.
Being woken up by the Jazzercise guys again the next day, I met the team for breakfast and went down stairs for the long drive to Kep Beach and then by boat to Kon Tonsay or Rabbit Island where we would learn some Jungle Survival training from Tom Moore. On the way out of Phnom Penh, we found ourselves laughing at Western tourists who were on the side of the road begging for lifts with expensive kit. We told the driver to ignore them as they more than likely wouldn’t have paid him for the lift.
Our driver attempted to rip us off about 30 minutes outside of Kampot and was angry with our fixer Vanessa for not allowing him to drop us off in a remote location and ask for more money that he would cut her in on. Vanessa said she felt insulted by this because she had worked with Tom and James for years and told him when we finally got to the dock that we would never use him again and he better damn well give her the commission.
Ripping people off is a thing in Cambodia; it’s not personal, it’s because the locals don’t have a lot of money there and because most foreign tourists allow themselves to get ripped off, don’t negotiate or their tour guide tell them they are getting a good price so that he can get a bigger commission from drinks, food or tuk tuk rides.
Every time someone tried to rip me off (at least twice successfully), I felt neither anger for what they were attempting, nor sympathy for their problems. I understood that this was life in Cambodia and that this, like religion or food, was a part of another culture that I respected and enjoyed experiencing.
Rabbit Island was beautiful beyond words. The beach was closed in with thick jungle and soft, white sand and the clear water never felt cold. In short, it would have been paradise if it wasn’t for the rude and loud Western tourists, one of which asked Vanessa if there were rooms available (assuming she worked there and was not a guest) because she is Cambodian. For some reason, most of the tourists stared at us for the duration of our stay on the island as they sunned themselves and swam.
It was decided after we dumped our gear and got changed in to more comfortable clothes to have a swim. Vanessa and I stayed on the beach under a palm tree and the rest of the team had a swim. After getting out of the water, Mike, James and Thomas found they had been stung by either a sting ray or sea urchin.
After dinner, it was decided that we all go on a good old fashioned drunk. Because of Vanessa’s excellent negotiating, we were buying whiskey at $2 a bottle when other tourists were getting a single beer for that price.
I retired early in the night because a combination of antimalarials, Cambodian cigarettes and local food made me ill. I awoke the next day and saw the table we were at the previous night was a sea of empty Super Whiskey and beer bottles and some very hung-over military contractors and I.T gurus struggling down coffee and water and trying to enjoy a swim.
After learning the basics of Jungle Survival from Tom we then took a boat back to Kep Beach and a van to our hotel.
Sleeping through my Jazzercise alarm, I met everyone upstairs to decide what we were doing that day. The day was considered a ‘free day’ and the guys who had paid for the trip (Maurice, Mike and myself) were asked what we wanted to do. We decided to see a famous knife shop, get a massage, hit up a cigar shop and see the only Jewish Synagogue in Cambodia.
Citadel Knives was half a block from our hotel and had some of the nicest locally made knives you could ask for inside. Small handmade kukri and folding knives for $300, katanas for around a grand and twisted and polished French Nails, a WWI weapon made from railroad nails and scrap steel. I cannot recommend these knives enough, which were relatively inexpensive for the work that went in to them. A must for knife collectors.
Next stop was La Casa De Habano. Walking in to the cool air conditioning and stacked rum and cigar cases was like leaving Phnom Penh and stepping in to Cuba. The crisply dressed clerk helped us select some cigars and allowed us to try some very expensive Nikka whiskey and Ron Zacappa rum for $18 a shot (James: “If I won $200M in the lotto, I would buy cases of this [alcohol] and have one sip and smash the rest of the bottle on the floor.”).
After stepping out of that very small corner of Cuba, we traveled to what’s called a “Seeing Hand” masseuse. Blind people are not offered disability pensions in Cambodia, but a job as a masseuse because their other senses are forced to compensate and they are thus more sensitive to what ails their customers.
I have never felt so relaxed in my entire life. All of the blind masseuses had incredibly strong hands and knew exactly where to dig in. The knots created from the plane trip and from my carrying my bag were completely removed. All this and it only cost $5, but we made sure that we tipped our skilled masseuses generously.
After having a quite filling lunch of Vietnamese Pho for $2.50, we went to see the only Jewish Synagogue in Cambodia. Maurice, whose idea it was to go, didn’t want to go inside on the Sabbath, but took pictures of the plaque next to the gate with everyone.
We stopped by the Russian Markets to get jungle knives, which are incredibly versatile half-machetes. Time was, you could pick up anything you wanted from these claustrophobic, smelly and wet markets; Russian ordnance, land mines, rifles, vehicle parts and bales of marijuana for a decent price. Now you can get pirate DVDs, knock off bags and clothes, hardware and meat and vegetables of every kind.
The jungle knives were a piece of flat bar that had beaten and formed in to shape by hand. A hole at the base allowed the fitting of a handle if desired and Thomas told us the advantages and disadvantages of long and short handles on the tools. We sent the jungle knives off to be hand sharpened for a dollar a piece at another market.
We were unable to find the notorious North Korean restaurant, Pyong Yang. Vice magazine investigated the restaurant, where the beautiful waitresses serve customers and dance, no cameras are allowed and it’s believed to launder money and conduct intelligence for the DPRK. Turning around the tuk tuks in the dark alley, we went to Sharky’s bar for dinner in the heart of Phnom Penh. Walking inside, it didn’t seem like the usual Phnom Penh dive bar. Thomas remarked “It looks like a goddamn Oklahoma bar.”.
Flags from every nation and pictures of ex-pats from years gone by adorned the walls and Sharky’s bar shirts were available for a whopping $30, except for a very special one: The shirt you get after finishing three Mortar Rounds, literally three hollowed out mortar rounds filled with eight shots of grain alcohol.
I have never worked so hard to drink in my entire life; my entire body was in agony by the second mortar round, I could barely keep my head upright and if I hadn’t eaten beforehand, it would’ve been all over in round one. But James and I finished all three a piece and were given the most coveted t-shirts in Phnom Penh. I felt like Superman, until I ran to the toilet and promptly vomited.
The next day we started earlier than the other days when we went to the range and traveled to an Airborne Special Forces base (which was strangely surrounded by livestock and men in flip-flops that later turned out to be soldiers) to get the prices of the rifles and weapons we wanted to fire. We got a good deal: One B-40 rocket each, 30 rounds each on a PKM (a heavy Soviet belt-fed machine gun) and one magazine each with an AK-47.
We headed down to the range (a de-mined area previously held by KR) in the soldier’s personal cars and set up. The soldiers hand loaded the rockets, more often than not with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.
The B-40s were a real rush and the highlight of the trip, but they had mixed results. Maurice had a rocket that just wouldn’t fire at all so they had to bring another one that fired successfully and another rocket ran out of propellant half way and dove to the earth and promptly exploded (it was still pretty cool to watch). When the rockets did fire, the waiting area was close enough that we all chewed gun powder, dirt and whatever was on the ground when it was kicked up by the back blast of the B-40. It was exhilarating.
After that we shot the PKMs, AK-47s and after everyone was finished, I shot a magazine from a weird Colt rifle that someone had brought along, which I found to be incredibly light.
On the way back, our driver gave us a big sob story about how he had to pay for fuel and how much it cost him to get us out there and said we should give $20 for fuel, thinking we were the usual tourists. He got $5 from James, less to reimburse him and more to make him shut up.
For dinner we had a real treat in store for us: Dinner at Vanessa’s home in a residential area in Phnom Penh with her very hospitable family who waited on us hand and foot. Coming from Australia, where a barbecue is one person cooking and ten people standing around with a beer, I was impressed with the idea of a series of stoves set up on tables in tiled courtyard, greased with pork fat and butter and you cook for yourself.
We ate barbecued squid, beef, cabbage, pork and marinated chicken that was to die for with tofu, chili and lemon and pepper sauces. By the end of the meal, all of the guys were sweating, not from the weather but the intense flavor, heat and amount of food offered to us. This was something most tourists and ex-pats never get to try and I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced such a wonderful dinner.
Now that I’m home in the empty, uncluttered and altogether grey streets of Melbourne, I must say that I miss Cambodia a lot; a place that’s vibrancy and character was only revealed because I was there with people who ate, drank and lived in South East Asia and the third world survival tips and tricks taught to me will be remembered for years to come. The next time DVM Expeditions has another trip, you bet I’ll be there.
*Note: All costs were included in the Expedition price including meals, hotels, food, transportation and fixers. The only thing not included were alcoholic drinks because according to James Price “You guys would drink me into debtors prison”
Join DVM for the 2015 Cambodia Expedition – Go here for more Information and Dates >>> http://www.deathvalleymag.com/dve/2014/05/10/death-valley-expeditions-6-nights-7-days-cambodia-expedition-02-2015/
Correspondent – Australia
Dan left the 7 Royal Australian Regiment (Mechanized) in April 2011. He is a welder by trade and staff writer and general reporter for The Australia Times.