Khmer survivor, part 1

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January 31st 2013
Published: January 31st 2013
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Bangkok, 27-31 December

Phnom Penh, 31 December-7 January

After leaving Koh Samui and island life and spending a heady few days' stopover in Bangkok, where we managed to do a whole lot and not very much at all, we boarded a plane on New Year's afternoon bound for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia is a place I have dreamt of going to for years and we were both on a real high but nothing could have prepared me for the impact that this very unique country would have on me over just ten days.

The Cambodians we met during our time in the country were all lovely, friendly and accommodating people – with the stark exception of anyone who wore a uniform. This was demonstrated to us by the very first Cambodian people we met; the immigration officials at Phnom Penh. I handed the official $50 for our entry visas ($20 each) and waited. A few minutes later and completely stony-faced, he handed back both our passports and then gestured to the person directly behind me to hand over their money. It was apparent that the subject of our change was not one worth broaching, at least if the completely emotionless and strangely threatening look on his face was anything to go by. As we walked over to passport control, we were instructed to stay apart and then had our fingerprints taken in various formations and our photos taken too.

When we eventually stepped out of the airport, we were greeted by a huge crowd of Cambodians waiting outside. They all looked at us very curiously and the contrast between the number of white people here, in comparison to Thailand, was stark. As we drove into Phnom Penh, we resumed our usual position of staring out of the windows, entranced by everything that we passed. It was much cleaner than Bangkok and the streets were much wider but so many of the familiar elements I have come to associate with Asia were out in force – drivers hooting their horns the entire time for no apparent reason, intense humidity, the unfamiliar smells of a completely foreign and very humid place, tuk tuks weaving in between the cars, angelic children dressed completely immaculately walking arm in arm through the streets, an abundance of colour and a seemingly infinite amount of people and noise.

The traffic was just as busy as Ho Chi Minh and the drivers a lot more manic. At least in Ho Chi Minh, drivers have some sort of respect for the concept of a lane. Here, it's like - as C put it - one gigantic game of chicken. There is a very vague sort of system where bikes give in to tuk tuks which give into cars but the fact that all of these vehicles literally drive towards each other until one gives up at the last second (and I really mean the last second) made for some heart-in-the-mouth journeys. Another thing that made this spectacle so striking was that the streets of Phnom Penh are very wide and there is room for a lot of vehicles. The situation was made all the more manic by all the extra people out for New Year's Eve.

All we wanted when was first arrived was to get out into the city and get a feel for it so we walked down from our hotel to the main road near the riverside and the Royal Palace and jumped into one of the many tuk tuks that line the streets. When he asked us where we wanted to go, C said, "We'll give you five dollars if you drive us around the city for an hour." And off we went. It turned out to be the perfect way to explore as the evening drew in and the city was just teeming with people preparing to bring in the New Year. We drove through the busy main roads and out into the suburbs, down streets completely untouched by tourism yet just ten minutes from the centre of the city, where the locals just stopped and stared as we drove past and the little kids waved excitedly and ran alongside the tuk tuk, reaching out to touch us.

The French colonial influence was abundantly clear with many hotels, shops and restaurants located in colonial buildings, wide boulevards that would not look out of place in European cities and very modern architecture framing European style buildings. These European touches happily co-existed with the Asian features, some of which were really just a bit strange. Driving down one of the huge boulevards, we pulled up at traffic lights alongside a car that appeared to be powered by bubbles... every time the driver pressed on the accelerator, bubbles would pour out of the back window, which had a huge tube coming out of it that appeared to be tied to the car with Sellotape. That's nothing if not creative.

As we drove through the streets, we just started to be completely compelled by the city. Its unique identity shone through as it was just such a striking place. It was a city of so many faces – in the more affluent areas around the Central Market there were modern, shiny, imposing structures that showed the country's strength and its attempts to rebuild in the face of its appalling history. Yet, alongside these there were signs of extreme poverty and destruction, with crumbling buildings and run-down streets and reconstruction work taking place at every turn. It was strange to see, as the French colonial style has made a huge stamp on the city so it was an absolutely beautiful place but it was almost like looking at a fragment of a whole being, with some parts still intact and others completely destroyed. It was strangely sad and it felt almost like we were imposing on a country that had not yet had the chance to build itself back up. It was difficult not to think about the brutal genocide that the country has experienced so recently – and that pretty much everyone we crossed paths with would have been affected by it, either directly or indirectly. This lead C to coin the phrase 'Khmer survivor' which he would use frequently (often singing it in a Destiny’s Child-style way, much to the amusement of passing Cambodians who had no idea what he was talking about but just saw a very tall white man singing). We also coined the term 'Krusty' ­- a code word for when we wanted to figure out whether somebody we spoke to was part of the former regime or a former victim. We would be sitting having dinner in a gorgeous little café and C would lean over and say – in a proper stage whisper, “Don’t look now but he was definitely a Krusty.”

There were beggars in abundance and these ranged from the severely disabled to very old and wrinkled ladies (we gave one $10 and I have never seen anyone's face light up so much) and tiny little children with huge eyes, glossy hair and some very good sales tactics. One wore a T-shirt that said "I could be your daughter," while another said to C, "hey man! you want postcard?" When C responded in the negative, the boy feigned a look of complete bafflement and said, as if we were completely idiotic, "Why not?" Even C, a seasoned salesman, was thrown/impressed with this and it was all I could do not to encourage him to bring this little Cambodian boy with us on our travels and then back to the UK to employ him in a sales role.

That night, we had one of the most tranquil New Year's Eves I have ever had. We ate dinner in a bustly cafe on the corner of one of the big crossroads in the city that was surrounded by food stalls and crazy traffic that we watched as we ate - beef, prawns and vegetables grilled over our own mini barbecue on the table. Afterwards, we chose not to go to a bar but to sit out in the main square where hundreds of people had gathered to lounge on the grass and bring in 2013. With the Royal Palace all lit up on one side and the river on the other, it was a beautiful place to be. People sat on every inch of available space and it was packed but so tranquil. There were families with little children who cartwheeled over the grass, alongside teenagers in big groups and young couples being romantic. As 12 o’clock approached, we started to wonder when exactly it would be as there was no clock in sight. Then a countdown began and everyone stood up to cheer and hug. Around a minute later there was another countdown and a fireworks display over the river. Nobody seemed to have any idea quite when the New Year came in but it didn't matter. It was just such a uncomplicated happy moment and very special. Happy New Year indeed.


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