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Published: August 20th 2006
I'm in Cambodia and I like it! It's a pretty cool and interesting place.
Looking back though, Savannakhet in Laos turned out to be a nice, non-touristy place to spend a day and included a good, though incredibly small dinosaur museum with an enthusiastic curator which brought me right back to my childhood fascination with these bones that people dig out of the ground. It included a portion of the skeleton of a dinosaur species only so far found in Laos arranged into a life sized model. Otherwise I just strolled around sampling the Laoness/Frenchness of it all. After that I stopped at the rather dull Pakse overnight and then went to Si Phan Don (literally Four Thousand Islands since this is where the Mekong River fans out into lots of small rivers and islands), or more specifically Don Det, to lie in a hammock and walk around.
On Don Det there is no electricity and life is very primitive except for the fact that every third wood or bamboo shack is a guesthouse/restaurant and there are lots of tourists walking around. There is really very little to do there except walk around enjoying the scenery, going over to the waterfalls on the "other island" (Don Khon, which is linked to Don Det by a bridge) and feel your blood pressure drop.
I then went into Cambodia, an entertaining journey involving cramped taxis, corrupt officials ($1 each side eventually), attempted tour preselling, a minibus trip over the rather dire Cambodian roads, and into Kratie (pronounced Krach-eh), most famous as a stop off between Laos and Phnom Penh and the best place to see the rare Irriwaddy Dolphin. I was originally planning to see the dolphin viewing area by hiring a driver, but some travellers I met at breakfast had rented their own and invited me to come with them riding on the back of one of theirs. We ended up having a really good day, not only having an excellent view of some endangered dolphins but visiting random, obscure towns and pagodas, ripping around, watching (partial) sunsets and having a lot of fun. There a great feeling of freedom and almost made me consider how to ride a motorbike (or at least a scooter)...
There we parted ways, since they were going to Laos and me to Phnom Penh. We considered going to Rattanakiri in the north east of Cambodia but it was too wet and muddy to be worth the effort (this has become a pattern in Cambodia- dratted wet season). Phnom Penh wasn't too bad though- much more bustling thatn any place in Laos, but less than Vietnam. Despite some real scenes of filth and real poverty, it also has a measure of charm and a cool atmopshere (though not literally). I stayed in the Boeng Kak Lakeside area, which is the backpacker ghetto of Phnom Penh and has a reputation for sleaze and an abundance of drug use. The latter is indeed true (the first three questions I was asked on arriving at a guesthouse were 'You want single room? Where you from? You like smoke something?'), and the area is indeed very run down with a lot of nearby shantys but it serves well enough as a base to explore the city from and has decent facilities as well as (of course) cheap rooms.
Of course, if you find yourself in Phnom Penh then The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng genocide museums pretty much have to be done. These are places where the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communist) forces who held power for during the late seventies exterminated about a quarter of the population of Cambodia for such grievous crimes as, say, wearing glasses, speaking a foreign language, being too old, being too young, getting in the way of any well connected individual or displaying any other 'anti-revolutionary' behaviour. I decided to make a day of both in order to get the full impact and The Killing Fields were first on the agenda and I found it to be a very mournful and harrowing place, with a big pile of organised yet anonymous skulls in the stupa, bones sticking out of the ground and mass grave pits. The signs informed us of various grisly details. The disappointing thing was the guide that the group I was with hired who said little that couldn't be gleaned from signs and then tried to emotionally blackmail us into giving him a disproportionately large tip and was done in about ten minutes with the tour. The begging by clean, well fed kids was also annoying, but that's life in Cambodia. The Tuol Sleng museum was a lot better, with informative (sometimes too informative) signs, a decent video about the genocide playing and, famously, walls of photographs of prisoners at various stages of their internment. The fact that people got away with, and continue to get away with, such atrocities is very sad.
More lght hearted thing that I did in Phnom Penh included a trip to the Russian Market (as if I needed more stuff), the National Museum (more art orientated ratherthan history orientated than I'd hoped, but still good) and sampling the ambience around the city.
Anyway, I'm back in Phnom Penh after a Southern excursion and am again, deferring until later when it comes to writing it up (I've always been awful with deadlines- see how close I'm cutting to getting to Bangkok by the 2nd?). Have a nice time, folks!
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