Published: March 27th 2010March 27th 2010
1910 or 2010?
Housing hasn't changed much here in 100 years
Well our first impressions of Cambodia were positive, the wonderful temples and Siem Reap is a nice, fun town, but that is definitely where the positives stopped. We didn’t really talk about the other side of Siem Reap in the last blog, that’s the town where bus loads of wealthy tourists (mainly Japanese) are shipped in, put up for 1 or 2 nights in an increasing number of luxury hotels, Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton, etc, all of whom charge you about $300 per night for the pleasure, this in a country where that is the average ANNUAL wage. This explosion of tourism would be great if any of the money went to help Cambodians create a better life for themselves but it just disappears into the pockets of possibly the most corrupt regime on the face of the planet. Yep those of a delicate nature should probably not read on because the rest of this blog isn’t going to be very pleasant.
We caught a bus to our next destination, Kompong Thom, a small town half way between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the capital. This actually involves buying a ticket all the way to PP then simply getting off the
Not bad for 1400 years old
bus when you want. The journey bought into focus the real Cambodia, one where most of the population have to live in huts made of palm leaves, on wooden stilts, most without running water or electricity & certainly no sewage. They try to make a living risking life & limb by farming land that’s almost certainly infested with land mines, the most inhumane weapon to ever be invented. It quite simply is squalor, and as you gaze across the flat, featureless landscape you have a permanent lump in your throat. If the journey didn’t wake us up then our arrival in Kompong Thom certainly did, the place was a hole, and rule no 6 on our hotel’s door probably sums up the place when it states “Hotel is not responsible for anything stolen by prostitutes”. In Cambodia, the government’s line seems to be that every foreigner is a walking wallet, someone to be milked for as much as possible while giving as little back as possible in return, not surprising then that this is the reaction of almost everyone that we met.
The reason we had stopped here was to go to visit the Pre-Angorian temples at Sambor
not surprising really
Prei Kuk, so we hired a tuk-tuk and set off along Cambodia’s equivalent of the A3. As mentioned in the last blog we had thought that Varn’s tuk-tuk was the slowest in all of Cambodia, well we were soon to be proved wrong. Not only was it so slow that the trip took over an hour, whilst we sweated on uncomfortable plastic seats, the crazy driver and poor condition of the vehicle meant that it almost never made it there at all and we spent the whole time at the temples anticipating our journey back. Unfortunately there are only 2 tarred roads outside the capital and this wasn’t one. Then again if Australia can’t be bothered to seal their roads, we shouldn’t be surprised that the 3rd poorest country in the world doesn’t either. After an hour of bone juddering, dusty travel through yet more impoverished villages we arrived at the temples and our reaction was, well, disappointment. Being very old, these temples were built in the 6th Century AD, has its drawbacks, plenty of time for nature to take its toll and wear them down and being quite remote, plenty of time for man to do his worst and
The urban dwellings aren't much better than the rural
strip anything that’s remotely interesting or valuable. We spent a quiet couple of hours trying to be impressed, “Wow hasn’t that wall done well to remain standing” to “Oooh look, a pile of bricks that are 1400 years old” but eventually we admitted failure and returned to our transport for the bumpy ride back to town. With a ticket to Phnom Penh purchased and the promise of a seat on the bus tomorrow it was lucky that we had brought plenty of books with us because there was absolutely nothing else to do here.
Well the next morning the bus turned up and we boarded but only after a few pissed off locals were thrown off to make room for us, how to make friends, etc, etc, and judging by the chuntering going on behind us for the whole 4 hour journey, the ejected passengers’ family remained on board.
The guide book described Phnom Penh as a delightful jewel with lots of character, beauty amidst the developing metropolis. Yeah right, as they say in New Zealand. We arrived at our, admittedly quite pleasant hotel, but the Manhattan prices suggested that the owners had been reading our guidebook. For
this place brings home how evil man can be
the record PP is not a jewel, lovely, charming or characterful, it’s a seedy, dirty, barely developed home to a large number of sex tourists who exploit the countries desperate drive for dollars and it’s the heart of the scandalous abuse of the world’s generosity. Nope, didn’t like it much.
Cambodia has a really tragic recent history, while we were teenagers we remember hearing stories of the Khmer Rouge and a trip to the notorious Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum reminds us of this past. I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to miss important points, Google is much better for this, but the main points are: The Khmer Rouge has it’s roots in disaffected young communists who used the Vietnam war as cover to take over the country, seizing PP in 1975, 2 weeks before the US pulled out of neighbouring Vietnam. They swiftly set about enacting their ideal of a nation of peasants working in an agrarian society where family, money and status were irrelevant. They set about clearing the city, ordering everyone to leave and start the long march to the countryside. Within a week this and most other towns in the country
Tragic images of those who were taken
were deserted. As well as forced labour the Khmer Rouge began a programme of mass execution, military commanders, followed by the elite, monks, the educated, those who spoke a foreign language and even those who wore glasses. But as with all mad dictators they sowed the seeds of their own destruction by seeing treason everywhere and eventually murdering their own cadres, leaving the way free for the Vietnamese to march in and liberate the country in 1979. Millions dead and millions more displaced and as yet nobody has stood trial, Pol Pot even lived in neighbouring Thailand until his death a couple of years ago. The museum is housed on the site of the former office S-21, where a large number of the tortures and murders took place and the soiled jail cells, the graphic pictures and the portraits of those who lost their lives serves as a horrific reminder the evil that man is capable of.
So it’s against this tragic backdrop that one must view Phnom Penh but when you watch billions of international aid flowing in to the country and flowing straight into the pockets of government ministers and their cronies that you despair. Two examples
Peaceful in PP
A rare moment of tranquility
which came to light while we were here were: the evicting of a whole village of farmers who have worked their land since 1979 trying to earn a meagre living and keep their families alive, so that a Thai friend of those with the power can have the land to build some housing which the farmers will never be able to afford. Compensation - $0. The other case was the exposing of a school scam, quite a regular occurrence apparently, the international community donates $500,000 of aid to build a school in one the outlying villages, the school is built, cost $5000, a teacher, administrator is hired for 2 years, cost $1500, to regularly send out pictures and reports to the foreign donors. I’ll leave you to guess where the other $493,500 ended up, it wasn’t with Unicef.
On with Phnom Penh, there is quite a nice riverfront along the Mekong being developed with a few nice restaurants offering a view the mad evening traffic. The family of 6 on one scooter and 10 in a tuk-tuk stands as a record for this holiday. It also hosts a lively weekend night market where the young hopefuls can audition for
Temple to the Mario Bros
or at least that's what it looks like to us
“Cambodia’s got Talent” (although none was on display that night). We spent a pleasant few hours wandering the National Museum, where a number of the treasures from all of the temples are now on display. In the centre of the City is the Royal Palace. Cambodia is once again a monarchy, and while the visiting time and the amount of buildings open for viewing is limited it is certainly one of the more pleasant things to do in the city. Lisa also found a small slice of heaven at the Russian Market, a huge market area selling everything the shopaholic could desire, Chris, full of cold by this time, found a quiet coffee shop, happy to pass this opportunity by. Not nearly soon enough it was time to leave and return to Bangkok.
The positives in Cambodia, the wonderful children skipping off to school full of hope, the ladies working so hard on their stalls to earn a living, the magnificent temples and beauty of Ankgor, were sadly overshadowed by the reality of a country which is, at the moment, on course to repeat the mistakes of the recent past. We just hope the tragic consequences can be avoided
As a parting gift from the Government, after we had checked in at the airport we were directed to queue at a counter where you find out you have to pay $25 simply to leave the country, less of course if you are a Cambodian, and this was one rip off we were more than happy to pay.
There are more photos below