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Published: October 6th 2008
Angkor Temple Complex
We must be getting good as this travel lark - we entered Cambodia without having to bribe the immigration officials to stamp our passports as many travellers do, and even manged to haggle the money changers down to a decent rate. Riding away from the border post we entered a surreal world of high rise hotel casinos, neon signs, bars and expensive cars. Could this Las Vegas-like border town really be Cambodia? A kilometre or 2 later and we had our answer - no. Leaving town we reflected how yet again a simple line on a map has resulted in such a huge change. The green paddies of Vietnam had given way to endless brown, dry flat unplanted paddies. Where in Vietnam there was life and generators pumping water into many irrigation channels to feed the lush agricultural lands, in Cambodia there was dust and the odd wandering buffalo desperately seeking shade from the few scant palm trees. Cambodia, while it is not as empty as Laos, still felt pretty empty compared to Vietnam. There was hardly any traffic and we were left on the silent empty roads battling into a hot headwind.
The landscape was incredibly open, with endless
This is what 90% of the country looks like. Flat. Treeless. Rice Monoculture. Dusty for half the year. Flooded the other half.
views across the flat dry delta plains only occasionally interrupted by the odd palm tree. The afternoon heat was intense with so little shade and dust blew everywhere. With the border weirdness behind us (Gambling is illegal in Vietnam, hence the booming casino trade on the Cambodian side of the border) villages reverted to to simple collections of wooden houses, often raised off the ground as they had been in Laos, with people lounging in hammocks underneath. The village Wats - Buddhist temples - looked similar to those in Laos. One thing that did strike us as novel were the political billboards - finally we were again in a democracy. Every house, however, seemed to have a sign outside it proclaiming their political party allegiance. I don't know if this was simply because an election was a few months away or if this is more permanent - they looked like very permanent affairs and must have cost a lot. The Kingdom of Cambodia has been a democracy since the UN handover in 1992, but only one party has ever ruled the country.
We stopped at one tiny village to feed our addiction to cold sugar cane juice acquired in
Posh Phnom Penh
Part of the Royal Palace Complex. This whole part of the city has been renovated with a fine face lift. Where the normal people live has not.
Vietnam. The women were friendly and happily gave us our first Khmer lesson, and even more happily (for them, not us) insisted on charging us double the going rate. Our payback for actually getting a good deal from a border money changer maybe.
The first evening in Sveng Rieng, we went out to find food to quell our massive cyclist's hunger, but to our dismay could find hardly anything. "Oh no" we thought, not another country like Laos... There was only one expensive restaurant attached to the smartest hotel in town. We made do with rice gruel and noodle soup from some street stalls and hoped it was not going to set a precedent for the rest of the country. Some of you may wonder what I am going on about, since it seems that most other non-cyclists can manage OK on the South East Asian noodle soup, but for us it does not come anywhere near providing enough carbohydrates for our gigantic appetites. As we tucked into our third bowl of overpriced, tasteless crap a moto roared past us on the wide road and slammed straight into a parked jeep - the only vehicle around. The driver was
clearly wasted on something and was now lying unconscious on the ground, but nobody seemed too bothered to do anything. We checked he was breathing and then kept out of it - eventually he was taken off, more fuss was made of the wrecked moto which was wheeled away on an old cyclo rickshaw. We began to feel this country was a bit mad.
Leaving town in the morning we were really relieved to realise that we had walked the wrong way the previous evening and had actually managed to miss all of the town centre, complete with a busy market and food stalls, and so had been unnecessarily hungry. Maybe things wouldn't be so bad after all.
The journey to Phnom Penh was on a new road but it was hot and the landscape of endless flat, brown dusty paddy fields boring. We crossed one branch of the Mekong on a makeshift car ferry, and after this the road followed the river for a time. Things were greener here with more villages and people, and we now knew the right price for our essential and frequent cane juice stops. The last 40km the new road disappeared and
Crossing the Mekong
On the way to Phnom Penh
we found ourselves on a narrow, bumpy and potholed country road. We started to wonder if we're going the right way but the traffic levels kept increasing suggesting we were nearing the city. We had to be as there are so few roads, when suddenly we were in a big city.
Concrete ghetto's rose out of rubbish heaps lining the road, which itself was a potholed chaos of people, overloaded motos and handcarts, crammed and decrepit buses and trucks spewing clouds of black smoke. It reminded me of Kampala. Then suddenly the chaos swept us with it across a huge concrete bridge spanning yet another branch of the Mekong and we landed on the far bank in the centre of Phnomh Penh. Things were very different here and it was very weird to find ourselves in a smart modern city with fancy brands and neon lights. Expensive boutiques jostled for space with western fast food outlets at street level, while above this the 1960's art deco concrete facades hinted at the french colonial past.
Looking for the Lakeside backpacker ghetto we got lost and turned off into the real Lakeside ghetto - a narrow maze of dirt and
Wings of Peace
Dove Sculpture made from old armaments, mostly old machine guns and rifles, Phnom Penh
mud lanes winding through a cramped, sprawling shanty town of tin roofed huts squeezed into the space between the modern city and the lake. Only hundreds of metres from this poverty stood 5-star hotel complexes complete with fancy bars, restaurants, shopping malls and sports halls. Not to mention huge foreign Embassies. We realised that behind the smart and modern facade lining the main boulevards of Phnomh Penh lay a very different city - all you had to do was turn off down a side street to go from 1st to 3rd world.
In the centre of the Lakeside ghetto the dusty lanes are replaced with a concrete surface and the buildings rise higher and have more bricks in them. The Phnom Penh Tourist Ghetto however was the worst we'd seen since Kathmandu's Thamel. Still it had cheap rooms and we bumped into a couple of other tourists who pointed us to a good guesthouse that actually had real brick walls and windows and was not just a hen house wooden box like the majority of the places there. We were reeling from all hawkers touting moto taxis and drugs, and in shock at all the tourist restaurants which were
Watching over the waters of the Tonle Sap river outside the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh.
very overpriced and we were sure would not even make a dent in our huge cyclist's hunger. Then we spotted the Indian thali offer and dived in assuring ourselves first that we could get endless rice as part of his deal. Anyway the Angkor Beer was quite good.
We ended up staying for 2 weeks in Phnom Penh, not really because we liked the place just mostly because it was stupidly hot and we had little energy to do anything. On the edge of the tourist ghetto stood Phnom Penh's main Mosque and we realised the surrounding slum was home to Cambodia's Cham Muslim minority. We ate a lot at a small Muslim restaurant near the mosque as at least we could be confident of not getting pork or various insects in our food there. The Cham have been here for centuries and lived peacefully alongside Cambodia's mostly Buddhist population, but we did notice worrying headlines such as "US warns of 'Dangerous Elements' in Cham community". Amusingly the Mosque grounds were home to probably the only sheep in Cambodia.
We had not been ready to leave Vietnam, but had been forced out because of visas and we found
Jama Masjid, Phnom Penh
On the edge of the lakeside ghetto, the centre point of Cambodia's Cham muslim community and home to the only the sheep in the country.
we weren't really ready to give another country the effort required to find its interesting points. There are few roads in Cambodia and they radiate out from Phnom Penh like spokes on a wheel, meaning our route options were limited. We spent a lot of time sleeping and feeling overly lazy in the oppressive heat as we had arrived at the tail end of the dry season - the hottest time of year. Still we made a few good friends in our guest house, especially XinXin from China and a Canadian motorcyclist called John Wayne, and spent our days cooking communal meals together and feasting on massive amounts of rice. The longer we stayed for the more regular the huge rain storms became and the longer they lasted, causing flash floods all over the city and our guesthouse walls to leak. It did start to cool things down a little though, but being caught out cycling around the city in the rain was mental - it was so torrential it was impossible to see anything other than a wall of water millimetres in front of our eyes. Despite the rain we learned there were still no boats going up the
The lake that gives lakeside its name. Not that you can really tell there's any water though....
Tonle Sap towards Siem Reap and Angkor, as the water level would be too low for some time yet. We had hoped to cheat and take a boat instead of riding.
We cycled around the city a lot, past various Wats and the Royal Palaces, all recently renovated. It was hard to imagine the city being totally evacuated of all people - as happened in 1975 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power. We visited the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison, or S-21, a former high school in which the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured suspects before taking them off to the 'killing fields' outside the city, where thousands of people brutally lost their lives (most were killed by having their skulls bashed in as this saved on bullets....). It was a sobering experience to see row upon row of photographs of the inmates and know their fate. The Museum was absorbing though and I think that it plays a valuable role for the Cambodians to come to terms with what happened during those years and also to try to trace individual stories of lost relatives.
We couldn't bring ourselves to visit the killing fields themselves.
The photos in Tuol Sleng served to remind us of similar photos in Auschwitz, the holding cells and torture devices were identical to those we had just seen in the museum in Ho Chi Minh City and those we had seen way back in Khiam, southern Lebanon. Not to mention more recent images of Abu Ghraib or Guantanmo. It would be nice to believe that humanity can learn from the history of craziness in places like Cambodia, but when you see similar things in so many parts of the world, spanning more than 60 years of history and know that they are still going on in many places today, well I don't really know what to think sometimes.
Various figures are quoted about how many people were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1979 and there is a lot of disagreement. Many died of starvation and disease in forced labour camps rather then being systematically murdered. Other figures probably include tens or hundreds of thousands killed by US bombing raids and the Lon Nol dictatorship between 1970-1975. Oh yes, outside interference played a big part in this mess too..... While we knew many awful things about the Khmer
She founded a Wat on a hill (Phnom) and a city was born.
Rouge and Pol Pot before coming to the region, we did not know just how dirty America's hands were in Cambodia. As a brief summary Cambodia was ruled by the King following independence from France, and the King officially declared neutrality in the US-Vietnam war. In practice however he turned a blind eye to the North Vietnamese using the hills in NE Cambodia as a supply route (an extension of the Ho Chi Minh trail) and staging ground for cross border offensives. In 1970 Lon Nol - a senior general in the Cambodian army - led a coup against the King with US/CIA backing. He then ruled the country with US backing and support for 5 years, ruthlessly suppressing the mostly communist opposition, while the US bombed the crap out of eastern Cambodia. Nobody knows how many died during this era but the casualties are often confused with those of the later Khmer Rouge leadership. The King meanwhile fled to France from where he urged his people to join the Khmer Rouge resistance that promised to defeat the US puppet regime and reinstall the King.
Of course that's not exactly how things panned out when the Khmer Rouge did
National Monument, Phnom Penh
Another posh part of town, and thus fairly empty.
win power. The King was placed under house arrest and Pol Pot decided that Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were not in fact acts of complete and utter lunacy, but things to be emulated or even surpassed. Declaring an "Extra-Ordinary Great Leap Forward" he outlined his vision of a totally classless, rural rice producing society - all other ways of life were deemed evil. Thus the cities were emptied and the population sent to the countryside to grow ever more and more rice, most of which was sent to China in return for arms while the population starved. The purges and killings are more well known.
As we were both born in 1978 we faced the realisation that but for whatever luck determines where on earth you are born we could have arrived into the middle of this craziness. While we were being suckled in our cosy Western existence Cambodian babies were plucked from their mother's backs and dashed to death against trees while their helpless mothers looked on, before they in turn were ruthlessly beaten to death.
The Khmer Rouge were ousted from Phnomh Penh by invading Vietnamese forces in 1979, but they continued to
hold power in the hills of northern and western Cambodia, along the Thai border, until the early 1990's. They manged this due to financial and material support from not only China (pursuing their own anti-Vietnamese agenda) but also, more bizarrely, Thailand (and possibly even other more western countries that had their own beef with the Vietnamese Communist regime....).
Our impression is that Cambodia today is a pretty messed up country. It seems to have little industry and hardly any economy, although it still beats Laos on both fronts. Casinos and gambling are one of the only mainstays of the country's economy. We were told by various foreign workers or people trying to run businesses there that most Cambodians don't have a work mentality or save, they just gamble any money as soon as they earn it. We saw loads of adverts for high stakes poker games. One surprising result of the gambling trade is the fact that in this very poor country the ATMs offer up to 4000$ US in one withdrawal! Our Indian restaurant owner friend complained that all the Cambodians he has employed were constantly going AWOL as soon as he paid them anything, off to the
Face of Fear
One of the hundreds of portraits of S21 inmates. Few survived.
nearest card game. Many foreigners with local girlfriends complained of the same thing.
One of the only visible employment options seems to be working as a Moto taxi driver. In the city there were tonnes of them all clamouring for our business. The countryside has hardly anybody working it, we were told that as soon as someone from a rural village gets enough money to buy a moto they leave and head to Phnom Penh to work as a taxi, and as soon as they make a few dollars they stop work for the day and head for a card game.... This seems an overly harsh attitude and I'm sure there are many Cambodians who do not fit this mould, but the frequency with which we encountered these identical views - often from Cambodians themselves too - suggests some truth.
Cambodia's Khmer Rouge history is atrocious and land mines and their legacy have been huge hurdles that this place just has not put behind it yet. Aside from gambling, tourism is the only real industry. Most tourists however spend an average of only one and a half days in the country, and only in Siem Reap looking at
We cannot begin to comprehend the thoughts running through their minds as these pictures were taken.
the Temples of Angkor. None of their tourist dollars ever trickle out to the rest of the country.
There is clearly a lot of serious wealth floating around parts of Phnomh Penh however. Huge brand new blacked out cars and SUV's plied the streets of the fancier districts, but often these sported police, government or armed forces plates on them. Corruption is rife.
Eventually we pried ourselves away from Phnom Penh, making our escape early one morning despite Erika causing a moto crash on the way out of the city. It felt good to be moving again. The countryside that had been a drab brown dust bowl 2 weeks earlier had now been transformed by the arrival of the rains into a fresh bright green carpet of flooded paddies and sprouting rice. In many places farmers were still ploughing or planting, often using oxes or buffaloes to power their ploughs, or else they had some weird paddle-tractor things instead. Regular heavy rain storms had us diving for cover under the nearest tin roof porch - often of somebody's private house - but this was just an accepted norm as our shelters soon filled up with other local cyclists
Portraits of S21 inmates.
As we headed further west the countryside became even more open with even fewer trees than before. The roadsides were lined with insect traps - insects of all kinds are a major source of protein in Cambodia. Apparently this didn't use to be the case, but during the famines of the Khmer Rouge people learned to eat anything they could. Ox carts were a common sight along the main road - something we hadn't seen since leaving India. What little traffic there was was also the most appallingly overloaded of anywhere we have been - easily beating India or Nepal. Motos carried ridiculous amounts of boxes and furniture, never mind human and animal cargo. And many of the vehicles had clearly been written off in previous accidents and patched up just enough to work again - we saw one minibus with its roof smashed right in so that not even Cambodians could fit in the back, but it was still being used to carry cargo.
It took 3 days to ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Angkor. The last afternoon we were held up by rain just short of Siem Reap, and then on
Tuol Sleng - S21
"They won't build no schools anymore, All they build will be prisons, prisons"
- Lucky Dube
the wet steaming road we had several encounters with snakes trying to warm themselves up, including a decent sized viper that Robin only just swerved to miss, the viper in turn only just missing Robin as it showed its displeasure.
Siem Reap was weird town after the small villages and market towns along the highway. It is so much richer and more developed than elsewhere and those tourists who do only see this side of Cambodia must leave with a very false impression. Expensively priced western style bars and cafes sat next to the typical German bakeries. We ate at street stalls along a muddy and often half flooded piece of ground. Although we didn't see it ourselves there is also a more seedy side to Siem Reap, with 'pick-your-own-girl' type bars. There were a lot of signs up warning about Child Sex tourism.
We spent three days cycling around the fantastic Angkor temples. This is one UNESCO World Heritage site that I can recommend, especially if you choose to see it from the saddle of a bike. The temples are spread out over a huge area that was once all covered in jungle. Some temples still have
a very damp jungley mossy feeling to them. It was huge contrast to be surrounded by tall forest trees after the wide open treeless landscape of the last few days. We were there in a quieter hotter month and although there were still some large tour groups we were able to find peaceful corners and wander around by ourselves with a real feeling of discovery. We wandered through crumbling arches and doorways and round tumbling walls to find the next hidden gem of a Buddha statue or an amazingly detailed bas relief. Highlights have to be the Bayon early in the morning, and Ta Prohm with its' temples covered in moss and huge buttressed root system of the rainforest trees above. Mostly we liked the smaller, less popular temples that we could often wander around by ourselves and that were mercilessly free of child touts. Some of the big step pyramids were cool too, though the top of these is not the best place to try and shelter from a storm - we huddled inside a summit temple for over an hour with a group of old Cambodian women and young girls, but the collapsed roof didn't offer too much
After the Shower
Russian Market, Phnom Penh. After months of endless heat and dust, one short shower is all it takes to flood the place.....
protection. The main complex of Angkor Wat itself was not so impressive, but maybe the constant grey skies and flat light didn't show it at its best. The air was thick and heavy and we often just felt very sleepy and lethargic, more than once dozing off in some hidden corner of a smaller temple.
From Siem Reap we followed the main highway to Thailand. Due to the Khmer Rouge occupation of this region for so long the road and rail links to Thailand were severed and even now the railway does not connect through and the road is unpaved to the border. We had a nearly 100km ride along a rough and bumpy dirt highway, being covered in dust from the road and the many tourist buses speeding farangs to and from Angkor. We have never been so caked in dust. There were at least 2mm of dust covering our entire bodies. As we got nearer the town of Sisophon we could see the rain clouds approaching and thought we could make it to the town before it broke, but the wind before the storm slowed us down and soon it was hammering down, washing away some
A previously (pre-revolution) posh part of downtown Phnom Penh.
of the dust but quickly turning the roads into a slick skating rink of liquid mud! The middle of the road was 2 inches deep liquid slime and almost impossible to ride in, but the edge was even thicker, heavier mud and that totally clogged our wheels. Cars sped passed us splashing us with hot mud and we had to push our bikes the last few hundred metres into town and into the guest house yard and then spend 15 minutes washing the thick mud off our wheels and shoes.
Sisophon was mudbath all night and we took our cue from the locals and abandoned shoes, instead walking to the market barefoot through the mud. We set off deliberately late the next morning to give the sun a chance to bake the road dry, only to find 20km of new tarmac once we left town! This soon gave way to dust and we looked equally filthy again. Predictably a few km short of the border the rains had one last laugh and turned the dust to mud yet again. We scraped, pushed and bounced our way to the border town of Poipet, and arrived at the Thai border hot,
sweaty, and looking and feeling disgusting - covered in streaky red dust now plastered to our skin by the rain and with our feet and legs caked in mud. Robin had lost a contact lens and was effectively blind in one eye, but was far too filthy to do anything about it, so stood squinting like an inbred while the border guards laughed at the state we were in. We got stamped out without paying any bribes, maybe they decided we looked too poor and dirty to afford them, and we wheeled our bikes past yet more casinos and into spotlessly clean, shiny Thailand.
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