Twenty-five days on the road from Thailand across Cambodia and Vietnam were enough for impressions of beautiful nature, odd habits and cruel reality. Life in Cambodia moves even the toughest
Photography: Karmen Jovanović Kajdaći and Zoran Simić
When Karmen Jovanović Kajdaći speaks of her travels you expect something truly extraordinary. Firstly because she is an adventurist at heart, doesn’t conform to prejudice and comfort, which she proved in her stories about her off-road trips to Island and Morocco or conquest of the Himalayas, Ands, Tibet… This time she headed East, and spent 25 days with a crew of mountain-climbers – Cambodia mesmerized her with it’s beautiful nature, but also tough life; Vietnam won her over with the kindness of it’s people and tasty food; and Thailand stayed in her memory thanks to it’s lovely beaches, but will also be remembered after the taste of fried grasshoppers, scorpions and silk bugs …
What did your itinerary look like and what was the motive behind the choice of destinations?
We visited three countries on this trip. Firstly Thailand, where we spent the first couple of days in Bangkok, and later left for the island Koch Chang. Then we headed for Cambodia, and later to Vietnam. I was surrounded by a few people who had visited Thailand, so I had an idea of what it should look like.
On the contrary, everything I knew about Vietnam and Cambodia was founded on basic knowledge of geography and movie impressions. Vietnam’s appeal comes from it’s interesting history – a small nation opposing great forces; while Cambodia seemed like the right choice for experiencing the real lifestyle of that region.
Were there any special preparations for this trip?
Unlike my other trips, I can say that this one was purely touristic. Preparations came down to basic information about the weather, currency and basic etiquette rules in those cultures.
What were your first impressions of Cambodia?
From the island of Koch Chang on Thailand, we took a tourist bus to Cambodia. Agencies don’t drive directly to Siam Rep, but only to the border. There a Cambodian agency’s bus they had a deal with awaited us. Therefore we crossed the border on foot. Backpacks on our backs, bags squealing behind us and slowly in a line, on some sketchy path we were headed for the Thai customs. There were many people, we were warned multiple times to take great care of our things, passports and money. We were all quiet and a bit wary of how things would go. We passed the customs with a bunch of people and went towards the Cambodian customs. No-man’s land is full of people, we passed by cigarette stands, candy stands… everything resembles a market more than it does a border (I only realized later that that was their version of a duty free shop). In a tiny building, the size of an average living room, three dirty windows with customs officers barely visible behind dirty glass taped with paper. I’m still not sure whether those papers were shredded pieces or important notifications. That was our first contact with Cambodia.
The whole time I had a familiar feeling with the atmosphere, and then I remembered Indiana Jones movies and the quest for the green diamond and realized where my associations were coming from. Thailand is one of the most developed countries in the region, Cambodia, it’s opposite. That is clearly visible. The bus looked as it came straight out of a time travel machine. Strong smell of dust, something rumbling by the back wheels, decorated with synthetic curtains in vivid colors, rolling down the shabby road. We looked at rice fields through the window, passing by small, odd, poor villages filled with dusty people.
What fascinated you the most?
In Cambodia we visited Siam Rep and Pnom Pen. Siam Rep had nothing interesting about it until it rapidly developed over the last few years thanks to the attractive Angkor Wat. Now it’s a place with a large number of modern hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, well-supplied stores. We were surprised with how modern it is considering their general conditions and our expectations. Angkor Wat left us speechless and truly deserves it’s title of one of the seven world wonders. We spent three days in it and only managed to see a small part of it. A visit to a village on water, surrounding villages and a monastery where we had the privilege of speaking to the monks, it showed us a picture of poor living conditions and poverty in the land.
Phnom Pen, capital of Cambodia, only reinstated everything we expected at that point – the city is dirty, full of heavy odors and often stench spreading everywhere, rats on corners are a common phenomenon, locals don’t even pay attention to them. Experiencing that country was interesting, it’s beautiful nature and on the other hand the tough life of it’s people. Maybe I would come back in order to visit some of the islands and seaside towns, but I’m sure that no matter how cheap everything is, I wouldn’t want to live there. That actually stands for Vietnam and Thailand as well. If I exempt all the curiosities of these countries, the main reason behind my decision not to consider living in those countries is the climate, it’s too hot for my taste, even during this period of the year, when it’s actually nicest.
Bugs were tasteless, the taste of stale oil in which they were fried was dominant, but worms and the crocodile were a pleasant surprise
Food is the biggest oddity compared to our habits. What “horrible things” did you try, was there something you refused?
Food resembles Chinese. Short cook time, lots of rice, vegetables and a bit of meat. Variations are minimal between these three countries and mostly consist of different spices. The term “mild” doesn’t exist in Thailand, dishes are either without any chilly or too hot to eat. All three countries have sea access which is why their cuisine is abundant in sea food. I found shrimp in pasta, salads… In each of these cities tourists are mainly concentrated in one area, so the restaurant zone has English menus, and the dishes are known to Westerners. We thought it would be fun to leave those areas and eat with the locals. Countless improvised restaurants and grills on bikes with what not on offer. We tried grasshoppers, scorpions, silk bugs, some bugs whose name I don’t even know, worms, smaller and bigger, crocodile meat, ducks and of course chicken and pork in order to compare the taste to our food. The bugs were tasteless, the taste of stale oil in which they were fried was dominant, but worms and the crocodile were a pleasant surprise. The soups they make look like a horror scene but they are actually really tasty. I couldn’t bring myself to trying spiders and centipedes, maybe some other time.
What would you say about the people? How do they live and how are we odd in their eyes?
I don’t know what to say about the people. They are physically different, yellow, short, different religions, live in a different political system, yet they are the same as us. Men try to earn some money and provide a decent living for their families, women think about what to cook that day, whether the kids have done their homework, will it rain and should they dry their laundry inside or outside. Pnom Pen is the capital of Cambodia and lies at the confluence of two rivers where there’s a nice boardwalk. That’s an interesting place for people-watching.
During the day groups of people work out in some way. An aerobics instructor with a big bum box, playing rhythmical music, while twenty women follow his each move. Besides them is a marksman with his pupils. Along the whole boardwalk people are having lunch, eating on small carpets brought from home and spread out on the ground. A complete meal, they packed all the food in bags and now poured it into bowls. Cruising through the crowd of people are salesman of what not, fruits, balloons, cigars… Somewhere near the end of the boardwalk are small tables, each with two short chairs, one facing the other. On one side are old ladies with a deck of cards, on the other, the so called clients, people looking to find out about their future. Very seriously, they open their cards and talk, one of them is a palm reader. Since none of them spoke English, we failed to learn our faith. Here, as well as in the other two countries, we watch them, they us, with the same level of curiosity.
They find my travel companion especially interesting – my son Denis. A twenty-one year old and two meters tall, an interesting sight for the locals. Wherever we went he was the center of attention, followed with loud comments about his height and finally people asking to take a photo with him. In the meantime there were questions about where are we from, is everyone in our country so tall etc.
How are urban areas different from the ones we are used to?
Compared to some cities we are used to these ones are different due to the sea of motorcycles on the streets. Some individuals in our group had serious issues crossing the street. Also, unusual street vendors selling trinkets in odd ways – some made small counters and hung them around their necks, others adapted their bikes in mobile stores, barbeques, cabs. Sometimes we would pass by people sleeping on bikes, benches, streets, wherever their eyelids start feeling heavy. The whole time we were surrounded by odd smells, sometimes they came from strong spices but mostly they came from garbage which was everywhere… Even though we travelled during the period when it’s the coldest in that part of the world we were constantly wet. High humidity and heat, even for our standards, made this trip pretty hard.
Which souvenir did you bring home?
Souvenirs that I bring back from my trips are usually modest and symbolic. From Vietnam a cap with a star, from Cambodia a lizard you hang up on the wall (we saw bunch of those there) from Thailand a lot of spices…
Are there any dangerous places? How safe did you feel. You’re known for exploring on your own. Did you get a chance to do that here?
I wasn’t alone on this trip as usual, so I didn’t explore on my own but with Denis. We had to a bit, but we were always mindful of when and where. Seeing a food street in Bangkok is interesting, the one for locals that is. Entering a pagoda in Cambodia not usually visited by tourist, and talking to monks there is also interesting (we found one who spoke English), going to the market in the morning, mingling in the crowd of locals while trying not to step in trash or on top of a rat. We were very careful with our private things, didn’t go into alleyways and avoided walking alone at night.
Cities are lively, filled with motorcycles, smells and pleasant and proud people
Sum up your take on Vietnam and compare and contrast it to Thailand
I liked Vietnam. Visiting the war museum, Ku-chi tunnels, communicating with locals made me understand their history better. The nature is beautiful. We cruised the delta of Mekong, saw Halong Bay… Cities are lively, filled with motorcycles, smells and pleasant and proud people. Visiting this country made me richer by a special experience.
Thailand as I previously said, is one of the most developed countries in the region. They reached a travel maximum and made Thailand an ideal vacation destination. Visiting Bangkok is a must, and then running away to one of the beautiful islands and enjoying the sea and beach. Don’t forget to pack light, a raincoat and mosquito repellant. The best time for visiting this part of the world is during the winter in ours, although the weather can change and surprise you. If you’re considering visiting, don’t forget – Thailand is for relaxing and Vietnam and Cambodia for adventures.