We were told by Bamba (our tour bookers) that the border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia was too dodgy(!). That border control police would take our passports and demand an entrance fee in order to get them back. So in an effort to avoid the scam we were put on a flight instead.
Once the quickest flights ever dumped us in Siem Reap, where we went to obtain some local (that’s traveller speak for cash). Confusingly we were presented with US Dollars.
Further investigation revealed that this was the main currency in use, but change comes back in Cambodian Riel, which we had yet to see.
The taxi driver who picked us up was a really chatty and nice man, but wanted to take us on a tour to Angkor Wat which we politely declined. We’ve got one booked already, soz. There seemed to be 4 different lanes of traffic on the same road going in different directions, so I asked what side of the road they drive on. Left he says, like British.
It’s on the right, we later learn.
Motorcycles weaved in and out of oncoming traffic regardless. After checking into our lovely big room we decided to head to the old market. Strolling along on a tuktuk I watched the millions of motorbikes buzzing around the roads, and as we entered the city, riders were actually being stopped if they didn’t have helmets. The road rules may be more like laws of the jungle, but the safety ones were being enforced.
At the old market we wandered along staring into the stalls, receiving smiling faces in return. Each one a treasure trove of unique trinkets, artefacts and paintings. We had no space in our bags, so we were limited to wishful window shopping, when we hit pub street.
Pub street as the description sounds is where all the pubs are, the lights and the touristy restaurants. It’s loud, but inviting and as Kelly needed a Guinness for her world tour we settled into an Irish bar.
Inside we got chatting with the owners wife who runs the place. Mrs Murphy. A Cambodian who met Mr Murphy, was told by said Irishman that he’d return and marry her – and did. She then spent 7 years in Nottingham, before they ‘retired’ back to Siem Reap. We three chatted for a long while about the differences between Cambodia and Britain before a new couple entered the bar and struck up a conversation. These guys had been traveling for 3 years, on their own dollar, and occasionally from house sitting gigs or the odd hostel job. We thought we’d been going a long time but once the kids flew the nest, they just went out into the world.
After a few drinks it was time to run amok. Which is a joke about Cambodia’s national dish, the Amok. A kind of spicy curry, with fish, chicken or whatever. It’s tasty but not a patch on the Malaysian or Thai dishes.
We had a semi-relaxing following day with nothing on the agenda ahead of a tour to Angkor Wat. Kelly discovered a private cinema in town where we could watch a DVD on a big screen on our own. Popcorn and all. The cinema stocks all the latest blockbusters but by far, and understandably the most popular film in a cinema 30 minutes away from Angkor Wat; is Tomb Raider. If that doesn’t make sense, then I can tell you that some of the most famous scenes in the movie, where Angelina Jolie is wandering round a temple covered in vegetation – including trees growing in between the rocks – is filmed at the very temple we would visit the next day.
Our guide for the tour; Chinteree, was extremely informative, giving us the history of the area, Cambodian ancient culture and its ruling system, before we pull into the ancient complex of Angkor Thom and onto our first stop: Bayon Temple. It’s a big temple with hundreds of Cambodian rock faces peering out from stone structures, it’s towers offering an interestingly balanced layout. Elephants carry people around, which as we can get close is exciting, but because we learn of their cruel treatment is also saddening (extra note: while in India we learn that an Elephant died of heat exhaustion at Angkor Wat, so something needs to change).
Our second stop is at The Tomb Raider temple; Ta Phrom, where from the entrance we were welcomed by trees growing out of the structures. No one planted these trees so why they started growing, and why they only appear here is a mystery.
I like the place but the enjoyment is tempered by the ridiculously huge number of Chinese tourists, barging into us and blocking our photos even though it’s clear what we’re doing.
After lunch were finally get to see Angkor Wat, but by that point I was a bit bored of temples. Luckily Angkor is very impressive and snapped me out of my Chinese tourist induced malaise. Made easier by snickering at Chinese women holding on for dear life and scream as they scale the tall if not overly dangerous stairs to the top of Angkor Wat’s Royal apartment.
It’s a very hot day and after a photo or two I note that I’ve put on a few pounds. Nobody tells you that you’ll put on a bit of weight if you travel, unless of course you’re travelling like a teenager, living off peanut butter and toast for months. Your outside might look better for that, but your insides will be broken.
The place to see the sunset over Angkor Wat is Phnom but unfortunately only 300 people are allowed up there. So having a very organised guide we arrived two and a half hours early. Spot secured we pondered our future. One: spend the next three (three!) hours sitting on cobbled flooring, in the baking sun (there was nowhere else to sit, and with 300 people there; the shade was in scarce supply), or two: head back to Siem Reap and enjoy the evening. I calculated the trajectory of the sun and it was as obvious as day (puns yo!) that it was going to set on the opposite side to Angkor. So we went back down.
Instead we lucked out and stumbled across a Cambodian BBQ consisting of pork, beef, squid, crocodile, chicken, swordfish and shark that was tasty.
The next morning we got our little luxury bus to Phnom Penh. Each seat came complete with ornately sewn curtains, a snack and a bottle of water. I slept all the way. We then had to change for another bus to Sinhanoukville, nearly missing the connecting bus as I wandered around the blistering heat for an ATM.
Once on the bus it was a 4 hour dice with death. Literally the most dangerous passenger experience I’ve ever experienced. The two lane motorway was fairly full, motorcycles generally driving off the road because they kept getting forced off by cars or lorries. Our driver raced along as fast as the bus would go, overtaking everybody in our path by driving head on into oncoming traffic. The opposing traffic would flash and beep, and our driver would ignore them until he pulled back in at the last second, narrowly missing a head on collision every 2 minutes or so. I would catch the eyes of a fellow passenger, both our faces written with disbelief and relief at the same time. Sometimes a shoulder shrug, sometimes the danger drew a wry grin, but we made it.
Sinhanoukville is a strange place, like a dirty Magaluf. We headed to a bar to watch the football, which was full of drunken Brits. Back in bed the soundtrack of the night was people throwing up in the toilet next door. Sinhanoukville didn’t seem like a stop I would’ve chosen.
The next day Kelly watched the Oscars unfold through Twitter, before we went to the beach. On which a man greeted us with a warning that we shouldn’t come here at night. Once a week a tourist is mugged. Why were we here?
On the beach we found a sun lounger and settled in to be bugged by people all day. Some women offered to do Kelly’s toe nails and as they don’t take no for an answer they cleaned my feet too. Obviously they then ripped us off when it came to payment time even though we thought we’d agreed prices – but that was PER foot. Chancers.
A couple of shining lights in Sinhanoukville came in the form of our dinner and entertainment for the evening; Sandan restaurant, Kelly had discovered, was run as a charity for street children. Here they can learn to cook, serve, speak English, manage or get on any other food industry related career path. Plus the food was amazingly good. I had a Pork Prahok starter, buffalo lok lak for main, Kelly raw prawn cerviche, and a vegetable amok.
Then having heard on the beach about something called an Escape room we arranged a pickup, curious to try it out. As we journeyed by tuktuk I thought it seemed a long way, and as we turned into a dark alley I assumed we’d fallen for a clever tourist trap and that we were going to die, through voluntary kidnapping. This was then compounded when a German man greeted us, beaming with a sinister, will-he-won’t-he torture us with a drill, smile.
I’m joking of course. He was quite charming and explained the whole thing. An escape room is a challenge experience, we have one hour to get out of a locked room, filled with puzzles. The premise being that Anna our travelling buddy has our passports safely hidden, when we are arrested without her and told to get said docs otherwise we’re being deported. We get back to the hotel room and the search is on. Where could she have hidden them?
Inside we were presented with a number of clues, challenges, secret side rooms, red herrings and physical puzzles. It was all very Crystal Maze, and very cool. Our two person group dynamic saw Kelly solving most of the cryptic puzzles (all?) and me ‘project managing’ as such by tearing the room apart, finding puzzle pieces, clues and objects then bringing us back to task every time I felt we were running down a dead end.
Thrilling stuff and after a tense final few minutes involving magnets and chains we escaped the room with 1 minute 14 seconds to spare. Apparently 60% of first timers fail to escape so we were rewarded with a beer and a nice chat with Michael and Margarita.
After running the reverse motorway gauntlet by coach we returned to Phnom Penh where Stef, Alfie and Dec had arrived coincidentally that day. They told us about their hairy journey across the border. Where effectively they were thrown in a chicken wagon, with no seats and lots of other passengers, for 18 hours. You get what you pay for.
Our last day in Cambodia was the hardest. We had to see the Killing Fields of the Khymer Rouge’s regime. An hour tuktuk ride with a pleasant driver took the edge off a residual hangover and then we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh, driving through the paddy fields that supplied the city’s food.
Before arriving at one of three hundred known mass graves used by Khymer Rouge Cadres, (basically impressionable children) to execute those deemed a threat to the state. I’m sure you’ve learnt this before but in 1975, two days after ‘liberating’ Phnom Penh, the Khymer Rouge’s leaders known as Ongkar, sent all Cambodians to forced labour camps from their cities in one mass exodus. Pol Pot and the rest of Ongkar deemed the middle steps in Marxist ideology pointless and wanted to skip straight to agricultural self sustainability stage that resulted in communes. Forgoing all logical ideals like western medicine, trades, technology and even glasses. All of which, were deemed to be signs of intelligencia which was a mental sickness in the brain unconducive to the greater goal of the state. Obviously what happened is that their own people were killed by starvation, overwork, or suspicion from an over stimulated youth, indoctrinated to believe anything human and intelligent was wrong and should be eradicated. One in four people died in four years. One in four. Let that sink in. We’re not talking about murdering a group of people because you don’t like them. Not just because they don’t agree with you. They killed their own, for the sake of their own. In a backwards logic the best thing for Cambodia was for you to follow the plan or kill your friend, your brother, your mother or your wife. Madness I’ve never understood before.
And so we visited the scene…
I agreed with the audio commentator; it was a sad place. But I didn’t feel sad. I felt angry. Just angry at the blind leading the blind to slaughter. It felt incomprehensible how a leader could do this to his nation. We saw the graves, which were just piles of mud. Ribbons tied round their fences. Boxes of recovered clothes from the ground, and bones too in glass cases for all to see.
The baby tree made me feel a bit sick. Where children were removed from their mothers and smashed against a tree. A huge Buddhist monument in the centre filled was with skulls, their faces staring back at me from a horrifying past, the method of their death catalogued and displayed.
Those faces continued to stare back at the S21 (Security Centre 21) prison. Where photos of inmates littered the walls of an old school, turned interrogation prison. S21 was used as a staging point to obtain ‘confessions’ from those accused of state crimes, before sending them to the killing field. Of 20,000 inmates only 7 survived. Tortured or kept in pens, chained at the ankle to each other or left on a metal bed, they suffered greatly.
In some ways it was harder than seeing the killing field, as here faces with life stared back, yet alongside these were photos of those lives extinguished. A board pointed out that totalitarian states seem to relish cataloging their crimes, as if by having a little part, meant no individual could be guilty of an overall crime.
Cambodia doesn’t want to hide its past, it’s not ashamed and it wants us to see it. For so long after the Khymer rouge was removed from power, they remained the official government (for 15 years). Vietnam liberated the country but the rest of the world didn’t believe the stories of horror coming out. For years Cambodians remained unsupported trying to piece together their society. These monuments said to me that they wanted the world to believe them, for the world to learn from them, and never to forget them, the way that for a short four years the world did.
I certainly won’t now.