Herald JournalHoward Lake-Waverly Herald, Aug. 12, 2002

Local Howard Lake guide offers chance for an extreme vacation

By Jami Berg

What is the most extreme thing you have done?

For Richard Cook of Howard Lake it's going to Cambodia.

Cook is offering guided tours to Cambodia. He has traveled there before, and now wants to guide others, giving them the chance to fall in love with the sights and the country, just like he has.

"The first time I went, I was just in awe, both by the culture and the fact I was the only white guy I could see," Cook said.

Cook said the weather also "kicked his butt" the first couple days. Cambodia is almost on the equator, so it's hot, and humid. But, with a lot of water, he eventually acclimated, and now almost misses it, he said.

Cook went for the first time in 1999 with his wife, Christine, who is a native of Cambodia, along with members of her family. "I personally fell in love with the country immediately. I mean, the way of living is so simple over there."

Christine's name is Sothavry. She took on the name Christine when she became a United States citizen.

"It was the first time back (to Cambodia) for them since the family escaped Pol Pot and the killing fields," Cook said. "They really didn't know what to expect going back."

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge, a military force that raised up to defend against the attacking Vietnamese. They were successful, and then took over the government.

"Pol Pot wanted to bring the country back into a utopian society, meaning everyone should go back to farming. Eventually he got carried away and decided that everyone with an education should die," Cook said.

"Christine's father was a pilot for the Cambodian secret service, and her mother was a French professor at the university, marking them both for death. Christine's father became sick and was allowed to die without treatment.

"Christine's mom and sister decided to escape with the children. They lived in the jungle, eating bugs and whatever else they had to do to survive until they made it across the border to Thailand.

"From there they lived in a refugee camp somewhere between six to nine months, then were placed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for nine months," Cook said. "The family was sponsored into the US by a family living in Minnesota."

Pol Pot died in 1998 and was responsible for about 3 million Cambodian deaths, which ranks up there with Nazi Germany and Yugoslavia, Cook said. The memorial at the killing fields is one of the sites to see while touring Cambodia.
Another site to see is Angkor wat, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world.

Angkor wat for a long time was a legendary place, believed to be simply folk lore passed on to each generation, until a picture was taken from the space shuttle showing shapes deep in the Cambodian jungle.

An expedition revealed 52 buildings spread over a 30 acre area, all of it overgrown by vegetation and basically lost to the world, Cook said. Now, tourists can visit the grounds for $20 a day.

"Cambodians can tour free of charge because the area was built by Cambodian slave labor by order of the king," Cook said.

"There is no place in the world to see a sunrise or a sunset like Angkor wat. It is so beautiful," Cook said. "The whole area is so beautiful, it takes your breath away."

Cook was so enamored by the trip he and his wife went a second time.
"My wife has relatives that still live there," Cook said.

Pack your bags

Now Cook is offering to take groups over to Cambodia to experience what he has fallen in love with.

"I want to bring groups of up to 10 people over at a time," Cook said. It's a 14-day trip, with two days of travel each way, allowing 10 days to visit the sights.

"It's going to be busy, it's going to be extreme. It's going to be a lot of fun," Cook said.

We'll fly in to Phnom phenn between 9 and 11 a.m., and everyone will go to their room to put their stuff away, freshen up, and then grab a bite to eat, go to see the Central Market with its hundreds of little shops, tour the palace and the killing fields, Cook said.

The next day we'll travel to Kampoong Som, which is a three hour drive, spend two days on the beautiful beach, and then head back to Phnom phenn for a day, then travel to Siem reip, which is about a full day drive, Cook said.

We'll stay there for three days, then drive back to Phnom phenn for one day, do last minute shopping, and fly home the next day, Cook said.

What he has to offer is that you don't have to travel to Minnesota to start the trip, if you live outside the state.

"We'll book your first flight from the closest airport you live by, and we'll meet as a group in Los Angeles or Japan, and then fly as a group into Cambodia," Cook said. "When we get there you have time to go to your room and unpack."

"We stay in the nice hotels. There is air conditioning, hot and cold running water, electricity. If you want to stay in a shack and rough it, it can be arranged," Cook said.

"Two meals are also included each day. Breakfast you are on your own, because some people like to sleep in, and some like to go to the little shops and drink coffee and eat breakfast," Cook said. "We'll all meet at 11 a.m. and take off from there."

Cook also has a nurse and three body guards that joins the group while there. "The body guards are really not necessary, but it gives some people the ease of mind because they associate Cambodia with the movie "The Killing Fields," and still think it's dangerous over there.

The leader that authorized all the killing died of illness five years ago, and the country actually embraces tourism now and does everything it can do in order to have a good reputation.

Actually, Cambodians are very protective of tourists. A local man tried to take a scooter from an Australian tourist while we were eating in a little shop, and the locals went out and rescued the tourist, Cook said.

Cook is offering round trip tickets, group transportation while in Cambodia, two meals, hotel stay, a nurse and three body guards, and himself as the tour guide, all for $3695. "I don't just book you and let you go on your own," Cook said.

"You can't even put together a one week trip to Naples, Fla., or Hawaii for that price, or see the sights like you would in Cambodia. It truly is an extreme trip," Cook said.
The American dollar is accepted as currency in Cambodia ­ used to pay for almost anything. "Mastercard is also acceptable, but you have to go to the bank and get a cash advance on your credit card," Cook said.

The American dollar is roughly equivalent to 4,000 riels. A rough average wage a month in Cambodia is about $15 American dollars.

Cook has set up a web site at www.theextremeguide.com, which gives you an idea of sights you will see, along with pictures of sights tourists to be added to the web site soon.

Local residents may remember the Cooks when they owned Sam's Take Out, an authentic Chinese restaurant the family operated a few years ago in Howard Lake.

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