Kings, Killing fields and Karaoke

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April 27th 2015
Published: April 30th 2015
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“Moi” the lesson began.

Our local guide Channy helped us along our way to basic Khmer competency, always ready as a reservoir of information to challenge our holiday brains. Adept at English after years driving taxis, working in hotels and recently guiding brought him to his current role with Exodus. Working alongside Wan, the gun and up-and-coming international level Cambodian cyclist and mountain biker at aged 24, and our bike transporter, they proved to be extremely fit and ready to shepherd our group with friendly Cambodian hospitality

Bantaey Srei was the key focus of day two at the Angkor region.

Built in 967AD by the King’s son its intention is for womanly worship. Far smaller than Angkor Wat, Ta Prom (tomb raider film set) and Angkor Thom, our staggered 35km cycle there was met with a fully religious dance party happening on the fringes of the 2000 square metre site. The head scarfs were again rinsed, long pants donned, brow wiped, shoulders covered and ears switched on to try and retain yet more facts from Channy in the sultry 38 Celsius heat.

Symbolism is rife in the architecture, and as many other civilisations, those of fertility, adornment and showcasing of the human form, reverence of the mythical Gods, and pathway to access them, featured widely. They must have been short though with doorways at no more than 5 foot high throughout.

After another $6USD lunch affair, it was time to head back towards Angkor, taking breaks to rehydrate and wet each other with ice challenge games which gained interest from local children curious as the visitor’s antics. Top temp 39 C.

Begging for more cycling after what felt like an easy one day meander, I was privileged, or maybe crazy enough to accept an invite to go cycling out to a temple mountain with Channy, Chai and Wan, the crew.

Headed out through afternoon traffic, guide Chai had the misfortune to be clipped by a motorcyclist moving at speed in the oncoming direction. Having watched this happen, he appeared to literally step sideways off his bike as he simultaneously unclipped his pedals, gravel coarse and loose, it was incredibly lucky.

I joked when we passed later a funeral procession that we could have had his funeral that evening, and Wan and Channy and the drivers could continue the tour without him. Goodbye never amounted, and after the inevitable shock and some spiritual meaning. It was anyone’s guess ‘why’ it happened aside from a kamikaze driver, but more than luck was operating I believe.

A short sharp climb of about 1.5km came after weaving through sandy trails, aside lotus fields and barely flooded rice paddies, Wan tricking and wheely’ing his way around whilst I just maintained balance. There are many stilted homes in this area and farmland are flooded yearly and forces many to migrate along a canal to higher ground, from floating villages to the base of the hill.

Sweating out my entire remaining moisture ensured I reached the summit, admired the view and got a lesson from Channy on the largest lake in SE Asia, sadly, polluted. Onlookers curious as to our presence snapped our collective photo, and smiled at the 3 gun cyclists and one dirty looking female trying to keep up. We coasted down the hill and Channy and I peeled off, routing back at steady talking pace to the hotel passing herding cows as the sun set. An unexpected and insistent icy cold mango drink from Channy, and a refused pickled bird, completed one of the best adventure days of this trip.

As night fell, the cicadas came out, the travellers mooched along central Pub Street and a two well satiated good looking ladies shimmied like Khmer dancers to tacky Temple Club music on the street as though nobody was watching. Another group dinner, another set of fresh spring rolls and another happy stomach. Our constitutions were stable.

No more Angkor! What?

Time came for us to progress towards the Cambodian capital by all day bus trip, Phnom Phen, where I anticipated being reunited with my passport, a pool and more history lessons. Development has been hasty and just over 10 years ago this was a trip from Siem Reap that took twice as long, unsealed and pot holed all the way by what seemed on par with Madagascar.

Our journey was a modest 8 hours. The road is 314km of semi-constructed tarmac and red dirt, with a simple sealed strip down the middle. Recent rains turned many parts into mud pies and impromptu diversions, all the while passed by moped, bicycles, cars, utilities, trucks and, at one point, an IV drip carrying tuktuk fed into an unwell looking patient’s arm. A short stop at a local road stall restaurant, our energy sapped by the open-air 38C heat and absent fans, and we had a further 70km over 2 hours to travel. Passing ever more crowded settlements and road general chaos brought us to the oasis of Street 148 on the Mekong waterfront of Phnom Phen, Hotel Ohana.

And they had a pool! And it was rectangular and 15m long!

Checking in to an air conditioned room in these circumstances is always pleasurable, and within several hours Naomi the engineer and I had gone on a mission to buy jandals, thereby walking on fish guts and inhaling the aroma of pungent raw meat festering in the heat (with flies), and toasted the Mekong chaos with a drink. 75 cents for her beer, 2USD for my mock tail, we felt very wealthy. All the while badgered by legless disabled persons selling tales of the Khmer rouge, children selling bracelets and fake monks offering beads no doubt ‘enthralled’ with their first taste of female contact.

Our empathy and helplessness discussion ran high, and no solution to the severe rubbish or begging problem could we see. The tourist places, so we since found out heading to the Kings Palace, Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide museum the following day, offer bins, recycle materials and actively show environmental commitment. To believe (as some locals do and have voiced to us) that tourists account for 100% this eye-sore situation, here and many other places, is one eyed. And the issue is complex. Cambodia is poor, at many levels, seems more than a bit corrupt, and without a welfare system the individual at any age is generally left to fend for themselves. No retirement pension, no disability allowance, and definitely no accident compensation!

So visiting the King, His majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, at his palace, we were met with torrential rain and a growing post-downpour humidity that carried us through until we were 3 sightseeing attractions down.

First up, Smey, our local guide, ever interesting with anecdotes about his family during the Khmer regime, took us around the elaborate 4 hectare grounds of the location. The King is an unmarried eligible bachelor living in stately and opulent surrounds in the city centre which initially sounded great, then I discovered he was not a home owner (the palace is state owned), he has no power apart from advisory (non-political), he is 63, unemployed, and in average health having been to China for his recent check-up. Scratch that bloke off the list then.

Passing 23kg of gold infused in the King’s chair was an incredible experience, and with numerous figurines of Buddha in many forms this was one ornate place, of spiritual and regal significance. How unusual it is that we elevate people to a physical pedestal status, and give them power with expensive goods
or privileges. Human kind long perhaps.

Next up was the Killing fields 15km to the south of Phnom Phen at the Choueng Ek site.

What an atrocious situation this was and to be there and hear a sensitive account by Smey about his dead family, and through the onsite 15 minute movie, was surreal. He was born one month short of the invasion of Phnom Phen, which occurred on 17.4.1975, and ended up being carried away and cared for by an elderly grandparent whilst people were divided by gender and trucked off the prisons in 85 sites, the worst of which was reportedly NW Cambodia where we had cycled and travelled through. Life was precarious and intensely unfair for the 3 million that eventually were executed or naturally died from extreme torture during the regime.

From school based AK47 training and defence tactics, to unplanned escapes of people when you had skills to offer the Khmer (such as being a mechanic), the country was in great turmoil in what is the very recent past.

We collectively moved through this tranquil place silent, myself shocked that humankind can be so motivated and cultish to attack their countrymen without something that has driven other wars, as in religious, ethnic or political reason. The skulls, bones, clothing and remnants of the Cambodians demise are there, it is stark, it moves you. Can’t be funny about this, it is irreconcilable.

One coconut drink and another air conditioned coach trip later, through heavy traffic, and we returned to the 3rd attraction of the day, the genocide museum, associated with the established S21 prison

Sitting under a tree aside large barbed wire fencing, we learned from Smey of the prisoner life here, the bare bones 2 square metres quarters without any comforts, the punishments the innocent were subjected to, too gruesome to describe, the remaining 85 year old survivor whom was a mechanic to the Khmer and now operates a small stall selling souvenirs and drinks by the entrance, and the apparent public dedication to being a peace loving and intrinsically Buddhist-thinking nation.

It was an emotional day of personal stories of survivorship, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, mass and irrational death and execution which even though 40 years ago and in the past, is hard to let go.

But let go I did of the irreconcilable, with Naomi accompanying me on a massage on our free afternoon, at the clinic over the road.

The owner and her obeying disciples pledged any type of treatment, from Thai, Khmer, oil based or dry massage work. Opting for a one hour Thai, the standard was below that of Bangkok’s Nemita spa but nonetheless when you pay $7USD (plus tips) it is a bargain worth trying. No added or unrequested extras came with this service, despite our giggles, and it was streets ahead of the sleezy version our male team mates had experienced, at half the price!

The day drifted to swims, smelly markets, a poolside drink and, finally, a yellow Thai curry watching the tuktuk operators banter, and wandering Westerners seek out safe food choices, at pavement side menu stands. Phnom Phen was both literally
intoxicating, and vibrant with noisy mopeds and street life at all hours.

Two countries in one day was to be an 80km push. Landscape changed from riverside dust bowl to long straights over flat lands, as we transferred to the rendezvous point. A bladder straining 2.5 hour bus ride fighting Phnom Phen traffic later and we met Van (Wan) and our driver, setting off on 3 stages of 15 to 18km. Heavier flows of modified tuktuks laden with 10 times the size of goods passed us, or us them, with a pair of Cambodian legs poking out at the pedals of a highly balanced driver.

Water consumption and loss in the 40L mark for 10 people a day, we passed a café touting free ‘FiWi’, sat under the shade of a metal roof with a local family, took on more rice and veges whilst updating ourselves on Nepal’s devastation quake, and prepared for the drawn out transfer to the Vietnamese side of the trip.

Transit through a small shed, the official shoved our passports over, giving barely a grimace
and meanwhile muscled in by locals expecting preferential service

So to meet out Vietnamese team of Chi (guide), Mr Long, Mr Lee and Mr Tam was timely, with a cold sugary drink shoved into our hands on arrival and only 30km to go.

From the border town of Din Bien, it was a chorus of “hello hellos”s all the way to Chau Doc, amounting to at least 1000 calls amongst 10 cyclists of road side infants, parents and school kids. Vietnam has a high percentage of young people under about aged 35 and they all appear to wear pyjamas on mopeds living in modest homes with alfresco wardrobes.

We settled in to the hotel Chaupho, dined en masse in a communist café with meagre portions and free FiWi, laughed over having who had the dings and dongs, and crashed into our air conditioned cocoons soon after, ready to tackle 80+km dead flat but for the occasional bridge, towards The Mekong the next day

Strong Vietnamese coffee underway in crowds of Asian tourists, we perked up despite the heat and rising sore backsides from sweaty miles by bike.

Setting off for an hour bus transfer, Chi lead us biking first to ferry one, then ferry two of the Mekong sojourn, stopping for more coffee at a café happy for us to dump our bikes inside and eat some of the snacks the crew regularly packed. Purchasing 1kg later of coffee and a satisfied contribution to the local economy, it was lunch time at a local family whom the guide used to work for Exodus. Greeted by meandering brown creek, the garden was a haven of produce (basil, chilli, pawpaw) and testament to the fertile land of this area.

A further 25km brought us to our final point of the day. We expired all available water in our bodies, replaced it with copious litres of that, poured ice water on our heads, and anywhere one could cool down the opportunity was savoured. Saturated we sat on the bus for another 90 minutes to meet the third ferry of the day, to our homestay.

Fields of green and muddy water yielded a narrower river way until we met our digs for the night. Urged on for a walk, we meandered along the waterways and foliage of the local villagers, tending to produce and settling in for the evening. Nearest neighbours carefully located at distance, the cooking lesson helped sealed our quest to have a ‘class’ without the formality, with a 3 course vegetarian or ‘carnivore’ table feast serving us well.

Come sundown and full bellies and 333 beer, Karaoke Google came out with guide Chai’s guitar plucking English tunes. Where did you learn your English Chai? ‘Tinglish learned my Tinglish, from songs!’

Once having a Gangnam style warm up with the Dutchman, we moved on to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life The Answer is blowing in the wind, Everything I do I do for you by Bryen Adams, I’ve got a Woman by Ray Charles, and Roxanne by the Police. Particularly endearing was a belated happy birthday for me and the Elephant song, led by Chai, to which we all stretched our vocal and theatrical abilities and discovered who had the hidden talent was not necessarily that clad in a guitar.

“Elephant, elephant, have you ridden elephant”…slapping our backsides and pretending to wave our massive long trunk.

But how many sing songs does a holiday make?

How many hellos does a cultural connection make?

How many cicadas does a Mekong homestay night make?

How many zz’s does one get sleeping on a hard slate for the night?

And how many tourists make a mosquito feast?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind

Until HCM (Ho Chi Mihn)

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