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Published: January 19th 2007
A Spider With Your Cockroach, Sir?
Regular insect fare at Pnomh Penh Market - bugs, cockroaches and tarantulas
Hi from Vientiane, Laos, where Danielle and I have spent a few days before heading out on the train tonight to Bangkok. We're meeting up with my parents for a bit of luxury and r&r in a villa for a week - the longest I will have been in one place since I left home! I can't quite believe I've been away for 7 months already - time is flying past. In the past few days I've finally booked the last leg of our journey to Australia - the boat from Singapore to Brisbane! After exchanging emails with a shipping agent in NZ for the past few months I've taken the plunge - we sail in early March and arrive 9 days later in Queensland, meaning I will have travelled all the way from the UK to Oz without taking a single flight! I'm grinning merrilly as I type this!
I last left you heading to Cambodia by boat along the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City, where we arrived into Phnomh Penh to stay in a rather cool guesthouse on the lake side. Promising beautiful sunsets over the lake and a good place to meet other travellers, we were
A Battle Of Wits
At A Restaurant In Sihanoukville, Cambodia
quickly descended upon by a tuk tuk driver as is the norm - always keen for new business. Mr B (or simply B to his friends) touted for business at the bus station and took us to the guesthouse where I'd stayed a few weeks previously (and broken my ankle) where it turned out he worked. We were quickly introduced to his wife and child and after a cold beer we were signed up to a bit of a city tour of Phnomh Penh over the next couple of days.
The following day we jumped into B's tuk tuk (essentially a motorbike with a removable trailer which you sit in) and headed out into a city that felt completely relaxed compared to the bustling and noisy Ho Chi Minh City. As we walked around the Central and Russian Markets, gone were the continual horns blaring and the incessant requests for business from moto drivers and hawkers - instead, it felt a lot more laid back as you walked past various market stalls, selling everything from dodgy DVDs and CDs, to tarantulas and cockroaches to eat when only a bug will do. Of course, people would still ask us for
our custom but when you say "no" people retreat with a smile and a wave, rather than a "maybe later" or "why not?".
We drove from the markets to Wat Phnomh, the highest point in the capital and home to a beautiful wat (a Buddhist temple), as well as hundreds of monkeys and also to an elephant which is used to give tourists rides around the tree-lined scenic spot. After climbing to the top of this not very big hill we made our way back, past a group of kids playing football in bare feet in the shade from the midday sun and onto towards our next place to visit - S-21.
Also called Tuol Sleng, the S-21 Genocide Museum is a former school used to interrogate alleged enemies of the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot regime - usually former Khmer Rouge members and others accused of treason. In the 4 years of the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) an estimated 17,000 people were held and interrogated here - only 7 people survived. The rest were taken to the areas now known as the Killing Fields around Phnomh Penh (there are lots of these areas all over Cambodia) and murdered.
A Tower Containing Skulls
The Remains Of Some Of The Millions Of People Murdered At The Killing Fields - This One At Phnomh Penh,
I didn't take any pictures of S-21 - I didn't feel comfortable wielding a camera here (although that's not to say I found it any easier at the Killing Fields) so I hope that my description can give some idea of this terrible site.
The former school is still as it was in 1979 when Vietnamese soldiers liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge regime. Reels of barbed wire surrounds the complex - a school design that we saw all over Cambodia - a large, grassy open courtyard with buildings on 3 sides housing the small classrooms. The steel gates and wire are the only indication from afar that all is not as it seems, until you peer in the first of a series of small rooms and you see how the classrooms have all been turned into cells. An iron-framed bed lies in the centre of the room, an old ammunition box sits open on the bed next to a set of manacles. In the wall is a hole drilled through to the next cell - allowing a long iron pole to be inserted, onto which all prisoners were chained. A faded black and white picture on the
Killing Fields, Phnomh Penh
Not All Of The Mass Graves Have Been Excavated And Bones And Clothes Are Still Clearly Visible In A number Of Places
wall gives the gruesome clarity of how the room was when the Khmer Rouge left. Room after room is exactly the same and whilst you walk between them all, you are struck by the utter silence that surrounds you. There are signs in prominent places showing a man smiling and a large cross through it. Outside are gym bars for the children to play and swing on in happier days. Next to them is a sign describing how they were used to torture prisoners.
As we walked upstairs, we noticed the child-like graffiti scratched into the walls. It looked like any school where children have quickly signed their name into the wall, immortalised forever, never dreaming of how their school would change. Next to it, foreigners had written their own messages of "why?" and "never again". In some of the bigger rooms there were large boards complete with black and white pictures of the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous in their recording of who they imprisoned, complete with detailed biographical information and "confession". They seemed to stare out blankly at the camera and as we walked away from this place, we couldn't help but keep those images in
our head, wondering how a people can turn in on itself like this.
The next day we headed out to what turned out to be a good antidote to the tragic scenes of the previous day - a very happy orphanage full of bubbling and laughing kids from the age of less than 1 to 16. Although described as an orphanage, many of the children are brought here when they are ill or their families are no longer able to look after them. As we approached in our tuk tuk, complete with a large sack of rice and various books and pens as a donation, we were descended upon by children who sat on our laps and climbed all over the seats as B drove us into the grounds. Many of the buildings had been either built or the funds had been donated by visiting foreigners and there are pictures up to show a group of British girls digging the foundations for one such building and a plaque describing the funds donated by a group of Scandinavians to pay for the building of the girls' sleeping area. We were given a tour of the area by one of the
teachers and as we did so, some of the children ran up to proudly show off their chicken pox spots, laughing as they did so. A couple of older lads played football with Danielle until it was time for their English class and they rushed off to class. You can find out more about this place at http://www.lighthouseorphanage.org/
As we made our way onwards through the dusty back streets of Phnomh Penh, we headed past small business and shops as the road got bumpy and we drove out of town towards the Killing Fields. There are a number of similar locations all over Cambodia and this is the closest one to the capital, a place where some of the estimated 3 million people died during the Khmer Rouge era of 1975-1979. At the entrance is a large wat, containing several thousand skulls. They are divided up into approximate age and sex - all the way from baby to elderly person. As with S-21, a strange silence hits you as walk around the area of grassland, trying to imagine what it must have been like. After all, this was something that happened in my lifetime. In certain places, pits have
been dug where remains have been exhumed but it is clear that not all have been removed, as in many places bones and clothes are evident in the ground you walk across. Graphic notices describe what events took places where - how music was used to drown out the obvious sounds that accompanied those events, and how people were beaten to death rather than shot as it saved on bullets. Children played next to the path as we walked past, giggling as they tried out their English and as we walked away after chatting with them, they waved goodbye and it seemed very strange to see such happy children in a place such as this.
The next day we hopped on the bus and headed south to the beach to Sihanoukville for a few days relaxation. The bus trip meant we were entertained by a variety of Khmer karaoke and slap-stick comedy for a mere 5 hours and we arrived at the beach ready to get away from it all. We weren't disappointed - although Serendipity Beach was pretty busy with other travellers, we kept on walking until we got to a quieter area which turned out to be
Near The Entrance To Angkor Wat - Photo Taken As We Shot Past In A Tuk Tuk!
where the locals bathed, especially at sunset. Completely fully clothed, they would jump in the water, frolicking around to eventually get out and stand in the fading light to drip dry. Meanwhile Danielle and I ran into the water, "Baywatch"-style - one of the best beaches I've been on. Lunchtimes were spent munching on fresh, bbq squid brought round by the various hawkers and sipping cocktails.
We stayed in a bamboo hut near Victory Hill - a fair distance away from Serendipity Beach but with great views across the water. It didn't take long to either cycle or hop on a moto (we managed to fit both of us on the back of one bike quite regularly!) and meant we got to see a lot of the area. One night we visited a restaurant called the Snake Pit - complete with snakes writhing in large glass boxes around us and even underneath your plates, as you ate on top of a glass cabinet with a snake inside. The town itself was quite spread out and it was a bit of an eye-opener to see how much the sleepy area of Victory Hill changed at night. By day it was
a small, dusty place with some nice cafes and a bakery run by an American (definitely recommend this place if you go there), but at night one end of the street changed into a place filled by girly bars, resplendant with local girls calling out to any bloke that walked past, making it clear what was on offer.
Our bamboo hut was near the outdoor cinema and the balcony had a great, free view of any film that was being shown - an added bonus! On top of that, at night we had a little visitor - usually at the same time each evening at 3am... . We realised we had an intruder one day when a chocolate bar that had been nursed and cherished all the way from Ireland had been nibbled - and both of us denied any wrongdoing! Later that night, we got back to the room and Danielle called out, "aaggh - a rat!" as I followed her in. Unfortunately the rat had scarpered and I was left running after a "mystery" intruder. That evening it all became clear though - as we were woken by a lot of squeaking and rustling as the little
blighter got stuck in a plastic bag in the bin in it's panic to escape, as I shone the torch on it. It eventually made it's way out to join it's friends and left us in peace. Until the following night when it happened all over again.
We spent a few days in Sihanoukville, after which we headed to Siem Reap. The bus goes via the capital so we had a long day on bumpy Cambodian roads, entertained as always by karaoke video discs. It was Christmas when we arrived, so we checked into a plush hotel for a couple of nights for a bit of luxury (becoming a habit!) before heading to the temples of Angkor Wat. The temples themselves are spaced over a wide area and although there is one Angkor Wat, the many different temples are given the one collective name, despite being many kilometres from one another. So we hired a tuk tuk driver and paid for the 3 day pass, wondering if it was in our legs to climb the stone stairs in the searing Cambodian heat for so long. Armed with our Rough Guide we zipped between the temples, leaving the Angkor Wat
Who Drank All The Beer?!
Pre-New Year Celebrations, Phnomh Penh
temple until we had an actual living and breathing guide to show us around.
The temples are awe-inspiring. The fact that they were built around the 11th century using countless number of craftsmen and materials from all over the region is testament to the advancement of the civilisation that built them. Some of the stairways are almost vertical and you have to clamber on your hands and knees to reach the top - according to Danielle who raced up them leaving me in her wake! We spent the 3 long days touring the site - by far the world's largest religious building, but my highlight had to be not Angkow Wat itself, but the Bayon temple of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is the site of an ancient fortified city and Bayon is a huge temple within the city. Complete with a bas relief 1200m long, incorporating 11000 figures depicting Cambodian life in the 11th century - including kick boxing, fishing and cock fighting. The temple is also home to some very eerie looking faces carved into the stone work. In fact, there are around 215 of them, staring out at you as you walk past, ever watchful of visitors
Signing Off A Great 2006
New Year's Eve Sunset At Lakeside
both past and present to the temple.
Within Siem Reap itself, there are posters up urging people to vote in the current election of the "new" 7 wonders of the man-made world. Surely this has to have a place in that final line-up... .
As New Year beckoned, we headed back to Phnomh Penh to celebrate - although not really sure what would happen as it's not a Cambodian festival. We started early - our friend B greeted us as we arrived and invited us to join his friends who were drinking the night before New Year's Eve - and all singing traditional Khmer songs. Ever conscious that it's rude not to join in, we gave it our best shot and I think we held our own! They were a great bunch - made up of tuk tuk drivers and local businessmen, it was a fab way to while away the hours laughing and drinking the local brew.
The next day was New Year's Eve and as expected, it started slowly. In fact, the street where our hostel was seemed to have closed early - so we headed to the riverside which is full of expat-type bars,
Perfecting That Shot
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
where we had a few expensive cocktails (including a Baby Guiness after Danielle managed to get hold of the required ingredients from the barman to make them herself!) and watched fireworks over the river, before heading back to our hostel - expecting to call it a night. Well, so much for not being celebrated in Cambodia - the staff of the hostel were having a party and invited us to join them - taking part in traditional games of wearing a blindfold and playing cat and mouse with each other, as well as bursting balloons whilst blind-folded, with a beer for the winner - and of course, everyone won something as we proceeded to drink the bar dry. We ended up dancing the night away to some Khmer tunes (much to the amusement of the locals, I might add!).
After taking a few days to get over the night's shenanigins, we headed north to the border town of Stung Treng. Only 90 minutes away were further adventures, this time in Laos and as we crossed the Mekong River in a long boat with locals with their produce from the market, we were mindful that Phnomh Penh seemed a world
away. We had both really enjoyed Cambodia - the people really made it for me - their happy demeanour belied their difficult and turbulent past which left an impression on me that will last for a long time to come.
Now we're off for some luxury at a villa 3 hours from here, in Hua Hin. Apparently the Thai Royal Family spend their holiday there, so maybe we'll be hob-nobbing with local celebrities by the time you read this! Anyway, I hope that you enjoyed reading this blog. I'll post the next one on our adventures in Laos in the next couple of weeks. Bye for now.
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