Cambodia:- Amazing country, amazing people

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January 20th 2011
Published: March 25th 2011
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A collection of the shattered skulls piled up at the Genocide memorialA collection of the shattered skulls piled up at the Genocide memorialA collection of the shattered skulls piled up at the Genocide memorial

A truly horrific sight at Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

What a Difference 40 miles can make

It may only be a 40 mile hop upstream on the boat from the Vietnamese border to Phnom Penh, the compact capital of Cambodia, but it feels like a world of difference from the chaos of Vietnam that we had just left behind. Whereas in Vietnam the roads would be clogged with motorbikes accompanied by the constant hum of horns, the streets of Cambodia's capital are relatively traffic free and are actually calming to walk along. There are the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers touting for business on each street corner, but a simple no from us is enough to send them back to their relaxed conversations with fellow drivers. No continued hassling - this is a novelty for us!

Phnom Penh is set on the left bank of the Tonle Sap river, where old French colonial houses making up the river front have been developed into a nice stretch of restaurants and cafes from which tourists watch the world go by. Locals sit across the street, on the edge of Sisowath Quay, looking out to the many boats travelling up and down the river. Further along the quay, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda sit proudly shining in the sunlight, a popular meeting spot for a post work catch up being the small open park area in front of these grand buildings. Spending time in this city is unexpectedly relaxing.

In the evening, a few streets back from the waterfront, things start to get fairly lively after dark. Every bar seems to have a long happy hour. We popped in to one of the many bars for a pre dinner drink. Upon sitting down and ordering, we soon realised that there seemed to be about 30 people working there, all of whom were young, pretty Cambodian girls. The only other customers were a couple of older Western guys, who seemed to have a remarkable knack of chatting up many of these girls at once! The girls seemed incredibly interested in them and listened intently to their every word! On second glance, the menu included an item entitled 'ladies drinks'! We finished our drinks and left quickly!

Wandering along the streets in the evening in search of food, we found many restaurants roasting a young calf on a large spit on the street, sending a lovely barbeque smell down the
A tree partially engulfs an outer temple wallA tree partially engulfs an outer temple wallA tree partially engulfs an outer temple wall

Ta Prohm, otherwise known as the jungle temple, has been left engulfed by nature, much as it was found. Very atmospheric.
street. A portion of the really tender beef is served up with a plate of raw vegetables along with a salt and lemon juice dip and washed down with draft beer that costs around 75 cents per mug. Despite Cambodia having its own currency, the Riel, all prices throughout the country are quoted in US$ and it is the unofficial currency. Small change is given in riel, but most money exchanged is in US$ bills, which can be withdrawn directly from ATM's. This never stopped feeling a bit odd - being as we were a long way from the US.

One thing we noticed in Vietnam, and even more so in Cambodia, was the proliferation of NGO run restaurants and bakeries. These NGOs work at getting kids off the streets and give them a home and healthcare, and train them in catering, with an aim to eventually being qualified to work in the high-end hospitality industry for tourists. Although I've seen many NGOs in Latin America, few of those were specifically about restaurants, so I wonder if it's the French influence in Indochina that has focused on fine foods and patisseries as a channel through which to help those
Lady along the roadside selling coconut sticky rice in bambooLady along the roadside selling coconut sticky rice in bambooLady along the roadside selling coconut sticky rice in bamboo

She seems to get a lot of job satisfaction judging from that smile!
without a future. The food and service in these was often of a really high standard, maybe this was where Jamie Oliver got his inspiration!

Throughout the country, in many of the small towns we travelled through, ancient old French colonial houses with peeling yellow paint and rusting shutters would dot the streets. Much of this beautiful architecture was destroyed during the period of Khmer Rouge rule, but the remains can still be seen even today in many areas. In particular, the small town of Chhlong, on the banks of the Mekong, which escaped much of the KR destruction, has some untouched, gracefully decaying colonial houses, often built on stilts like many of the houses in the rural areas. The simple houses that Cambodians build today are also on stilts - an effective way to create an area under the house where they can work and escape in the shade during the brutal heat of the day.

The French influence permeates the country, with perfect baguettes on sale, the appreciation of good coffee and even, in a supermarket in Siem Reap, Foie Gras for sale!

Quick History lesson - Pol Pot: Very bad man

Some of the many human skulls collected from mass graves at Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)Some of the many human skulls collected from mass graves at Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)Some of the many human skulls collected from mass graves at Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

It's hard to believe that each of these belonged to a living, breathing person at one time.
this blog we seem to be developing the theme of our combined very poor knowledge of history in the places we visit prior to going there. We are afraid Cambodia was no exception. Our knowledge was limited to having heard of Pol Pot and knowing he was responsible for killing huge numbers of his countrymen. It quickly became apparent to us though that in order to understand Cambodia, this recent turbulent history shapes most aspects of the country. Assuming at least one other person reading this has as limited knowledge as us, here is a quick overview...

In the early 1970's, the Khmer Rouge (KR), a group of rural communist guerrillas, gained popularity, due to the large disparity of wealth that created divisions between the very rich and the very poor. Supplied with weapons by China, the KR gradually took control of large parts of the country and in April 1975 they rolled in to Phnom Penh, deposing the government and creating the communist country of Democratic Kampuchea. It was a revolution fed by rural resentment among illiterate, very poor peasants (the 'old' people), against the educated, skilled and foreign influenced urban population (the 'new' people).

The KR, led by Pol Pot, quickly set to work to establish a radical agrarian society. Everyone would work the countryside to provide enough food (especially rice) to make the country completely self sufficient, returning the country to "Year Zero" and starting again. The population of Phnom Penh, (2 million inhabitants pre KR arrival), was forcibly shifted out to the countryside and the city reduced to a ghost town. Money, technology, watches, medicine, education, newspapers - anything influenced by the outside world, were banned. The country would provide for all the needs of the people and became completely closed to the outside world. Everyone had to wear the same clothes, lose their individuality, family was to have no meaning - children would be expected to report their parents for anything they said against the regime (for the parents to then be killed).

However, the most dangerous to the KR were the minds of the people who had been influenced by anything outside the country, pre revolution (the new people), as they could get ideas to revolt and group together. Anyone linked to the previous government, people with any degree of education, monks, foreign immigrants, even anyone who wore glasses, was taken from their families, tortured and killed. One of the interrogation centres, a former secondary school in Phnom Penh renamed S-21 by the KR, is now a museum to the horrors that occurred within its walls. Some classrooms had endless tiny cells built within them to hold inmates, while other classrooms were used as torture chambers. The school has been left in the way it was discovered when Cambodia was liberated in 1979 and many of the files and records kept by the KR are now displayed. Most distressing are the walls of pictures, each a prisoner's mugshot, pictured on their arrival. The stark black and white pictures, many of women and children, are mute expressions of terror. More than 20,000 people passed through S21 and all were tortured for confessions, before being sent to their deaths at Choeung Ek, 15km from Phnom Penh and better known as the Killing Fields.

Many killing fields exist throughout Cambodia and it is at these that large numbers met their deaths in horrendously brutal ways (bullets were expensive, so cheaper brutality was preferred). Bodies were dumped into huge mass graves that were loosely filled in. At Choeung Ek, a tall glass memorial has
As the sun goes down the squid fishermen head outAs the sun goes down the squid fishermen head outAs the sun goes down the squid fishermen head out

Rather them than us out on the sea in the dark in those little boats
been built, displaying many of the skulls that have been recovered, along with large piles of clothes from the victims. Walking around the peaceful site, we found it impossible to imagine the brutality that had happened at this location. To date, nearly 9,000 bodies have been recovered and the holes of the excavated mass graves dot the site, each once containing hundreds of bodies. Even today, pieces of clothing and bones protrude through the soil underfoot. It was profoundly shocking to witness, an example of the horrors humans can inflict on one another.

As the KR period of rule continued, Pol Pot became ever more paranoid that the families of those already killed would harbour resentment to the regime, so they were also rounded up and sent to the killing fields. No mercy was shown to women, children or even babies. The KR used killing as a method of social control, ruling by extreme fear. People lived in extreme poverty with meagre food rations to survive on, while the KR continued to sell food to China in exchange for arms.

The country was eventually liberated from this horrendous period by the Vietnamese in 1979, spurred into action by
Typical colonial house in KampotTypical colonial house in KampotTypical colonial house in Kampot

Not as immaculately maintained as in Hoi An, but that's part of the charm
KR forrays into South Vietnamese territory. It was only then that the true scale of terror that reigned in the country during this period became apparent to the outside world. It is estimated the KR killed somewhere in the region of 2 million people during its 44 month period of power (from a population of 7 million). Countless others died from starvation and disease due to the work forced on people and the poor living conditions.

It is only now that some of the KR leaders are finally being brought to justice for their crimes against humanity (the first was sentenced in 2010). Amazingly, Pol Pot himself essentially got away with it, dying while under house arrest in 1998, aged 73. The murder rate against his own people during his reign of power is simply mind boggling as he was essentially responsible for eliminating several generations of educated and skilled Cambodians and leaving deep mental scars on those that remained, that continue to this day.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect is that only the KR leaders have been identified - the thousands of foot soldiers who perpretrated such horror now live side by side with their victims. We
Fishing for dinner on the river between Battambang and Siem ReapFishing for dinner on the river between Battambang and Siem ReapFishing for dinner on the river between Battambang and Siem Reap

Life is a daily struggle to survive for many living along the river
just could not imagine how you could begin to recover from something like that and move forward, in peace, with your old oppressors. And yet Cambodians are.

What wat? Oh, Angkor Wat

The main reason that most people visit Cambodia today though is for the more ancient history on display through the temples at Angkor and around. Angkor is a city of temples built by successive rulers of the Khmer empire, which extended through Cambodia and Laos and into parts of present day Burma and Thailand from the 9th to the 12th Centuries. In order to try and achieve the status of God-king in the eyes of their followers, which commanded absolute allegiance from their subjects, each ruler tried to outdo the last with a finer, more intricate temple.

The capital of this great empire was at Angkor Thom, located near to the present town of Siem Reap, where a large number of royal Khmer buildings are preserved in addition to the huge Banyon temple, with its many Buddha faces surrounding the towers. In the jungle surrounding Angkor Thom, many of the temples are to be found in various states of disrepair, both due to the period of KR destruction and the natural forces of the jungle having taken their toll on the structures.

The most famous of the temples is that of Angkor Wat, the best preserved of the Angkor temples. It's an absolutely stunning complex to walk around and hugely intricate, being one of the later temples to be built in the 12th Century. It's 5 remaining towers dominate the skyline as you approach the massive moat surrounding the temple. The carvings surrounding the temple are simply incredible in their level of detail and each tell a story of either religious significance or of Khmer battles.

But the picture postcard image that everyone has of Angkor Wat is of the view at dawn with the sun slowly rising behind it, the temple reflected in the still waters of the water-lily pond in front of it. Despite the crowds of people lining the waters edge, all looking for that perfect picture, it's a truly memorable experience to witness this most beautiful scene. Luckily, enterprising local coffee sellers are on hand to take the edge off the early start, but even despite getting up at 4:30am, it would be hard to forget this sight in a hurry.
We spent a few days exploring the various 'highlight' temples in the area before temple fatigue began to set in, exacerbated by the heat of the Cambodian sun.

Highlights for us though, in addition to Angkor Wat, were the temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, both of which are in various states of decay as they have been left to be more or less taken over by the fast growing jungle. In parts, trees are growing from the walls of the temples, their roots fingering down between the temple brickwork to the earth below, slowly prising the walls apart. Looking at these huge trees, probably already a couple of hundred years old, and realising they are significantly younger than the temples they are engulfing gave a check on just how old these ruins are. It was also blissfully possible to escape the crowds in some of the more remote temples, allowing us to appreciate the interplay of history with nature in relative solitude.

We also found Siem Reap itself to be revealing - it is obviously gets a huge number of tourists, but in marked contrast to many other big tourist spots, we found
West 4 pose in front of Angkor WatWest 4 pose in front of Angkor WatWest 4 pose in front of Angkor Wat

The vest makes yet another appearance. Notice the actual hoardes of people who were also present to enjoy sunrise over the temple
it to have had a positive effect on the locals. While in other places it is an excuse for bigger prices and worse experiences, Cambodians seem to make it a point of pride to do their best - the standard of hotels and restaurants and service in general was really high, and far from resenting the obvious contrast of wealth in their visitors, they seemed to want to do everything they could to endure we had a good experience of Cambodian hospitality.

Coastal Cambodia

Probably our favourite area in Cambodia, and the place where we really felt we got to see the truer, more rural aspects of the country, was during the time we spent in the south of Cambodia. There isn't much coast, sandwiched as it is between the rather longer coastlines of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, but it is beautiful and very unspoilt. The town of Kampot has some of the most gorgeous, elegantly crumbling colonial houses, all pastel-coloured shutters and tumbling vivid bougainvillea. Unlike the similarly beautiful but overdeveloped Hoi An in Vietnam, it's yellow colonial villas are in a pretty decrepit state, and the town has an ultra slow, relaxed pace that gently
The sun finally peeks up over the South tower of Angkor WatThe sun finally peeks up over the South tower of Angkor WatThe sun finally peeks up over the South tower of Angkor Wat

The pond in front of the temple shimmers in the early morning light
seduces you.

It has a lovely waterfront along the Prek Thom river, across which the blazing red sun sets to stunning effect each evening. Granny-style bicycles rather than motorbikes rule the roads in town and the surrounding villages and the whole feeling is that the town has remained more or less unchanged for a couple of decades. It was here that we really felt we got to experience the immense warmth and friendliness of the Cambodian people, who we found much more open and expressive than the Vietnamese. Despite having so little in their lives and being very poor, they are so smiling and friendly.

One day that this particularly struck us was when we decided to take to two (rickety) wheels again and just go left from the hotel, and see where the wind took us. We followed the river and soon left the town streets, and crossed a bridge to what turned out to be a rural island of mostly salt flats. Dotted in the flats around us, groups of villagers were working, methodically patting the mud down with big wooden tools, or collecting the salt that was left after the seawater had evaporated. Their heads
The runners leg engulfs part of the templeThe runners leg engulfs part of the templeThe runners leg engulfs part of the temple

The tree root looks just like Scott Mitchell's leg, not that we have looked too closely (at his legs!)
protected from the sun by wide conical hats, they would call out a friendly greeting from afar, and we would look across to see all of them waving and smiling at us. It was the most tranquil scenery, as we pedalled through slowly, occasionally passing a couple of schoolchildren or dogs.

At one point, stopping to admire the colours as the sun started to lower over the paddies, we saw that an elderly man, leathery-skinned and wearing nothing more than a sarong round his waist, was approaching us. He started to speak to us in beautiful, formal French. He simply wanted to meet us, find out where we were from and a little bit about us, and welcome us. He readily talked about himself, and we learned that he and his family were fishermen. Then he was done, and he walked back from where he came and we cycled on. It had been a while since we had been made to feel so welcome in any country, that simple gesture really touching us. That was just one example of so many occasions where we were really made to feel at home in Cambodia.

During our time on the
A tree engulfs a wall in Ta Prohm templeA tree engulfs a wall in Ta Prohm templeA tree engulfs a wall in Ta Prohm temple

Eventually the jungle will reclaim the temple to be it's own. The temple walls are significantly older than the trees growing on them
coast, we travelled by longtail boat to stay on Rabbit island, 30 minutes offshore from the mainland. It is so called as from the air, the island apparently looks like a rabbit, not because of any infestation of bunnies on the island or a breeding experiment gone wrong! Only one beach on the island has any kind of accommodation, with a handful of basic bamboo huts set back 10m or so from the shoreline, with the rest of the island unoccupied, save for a few fishing families. Some simple beachside restaurants are set up during the day which are powered for a few hours after dark by generators, before the island is plunged into dark silence around 10pm or so.

It was another case of the subtle charm of the place getting to us. Helen is really not a beach fan, and had never before been the one to suggest staying on one for longer than planned - until she came here. It's hard to describe what makes it so different, because there really is nothing to do other than lie in a hammock or swim in the warm sea, admiring the lush, untouched jungle behind our hut. We
Some of the many Buddha faces on the spires of the BayonSome of the many Buddha faces on the spires of the BayonSome of the many Buddha faces on the spires of the Bayon

Each pillar has 4 Buddha faces on it. Someone once counted more than 2000 faces carved on the structure!
did manage to gee ourselves up at one stage for the 2 hour walk around the island, but that was about the height of our exertions. After the chaos and pace of development in Vietnam, in was incredibly restful to be somewhere so basic again, in beautiful surroundings, looking out over totally unspoilt neighbouring islands.

Messing about by the river

We got to observe another slice of rural Cambodian life during some time spent in the north of the country, in Kratie on the banks of the Mekong river. It was here that we got back on the bicycles to explore the villages lining the banks of the mighty river, around which so much life in SE Asia revolves. Here we experienced the same levels of warmth and sincerity among the people as we had witnessed on the coast.

Cycling along the quiet roads, school kids would cycle along with us, keen to practice their English, which often extended to 'Hello', 'Goodbye' and counting from one to ten. Some had enough to ask us if we were boyfriend and girlfriend! Still it was enough for to manage a good conversation, as they grouped around us on their bikes. So often we would hear an 'hello' shouted and look around, mystified , before realising it had come from someone far from the road, taking a break from their chores under their stilted house and waving enthusiastically at us. It would make us smile every time.

During a boat trip on a narrower stretch of river between Battambang and Siem Reap, we got to see river life close up, with many villages actually floating on the river itself. The buildings were incredibly basic, the families living simple lives and spending the days casting nets into the river, hoping for some food for the evening meal. The daily struggle for survival that so many people lead is so hard for us in the West to comprehend, where all our lives are about planning for the future, years ahead. Here, people simply worry about feeding their family for another day.

Another critical aspect of people's daily lives is of course the continued threat of unexploded landmines. Amputees are an everyday sight, from the occasional beggar to the lady cheerfully serving up home-baked cakes, bouncing her baby on her hip. But for all the threadbare clothes and subsistence living,
Fishing boats lined up to go to Rabbit IslandFishing boats lined up to go to Rabbit IslandFishing boats lined up to go to Rabbit Island

Leave when full, you may get wet during the crossing!
there was another huge contrast to most other countries we have been to - we were consistently undercharged in restaurants and cafes. We got used to having to keep offering them more money, which they very undearingly never asked for.

We have to say that we completely fell in love with Cambodia. We found that while Vietnam seemed more influenced by China, Cambodia was more so by Thailand, and that showed in the openness of the people, who we felt we could make small connections with all the time. It has a really special quality. Given what many people have been through so recently (essentially anyone over the age of 40 lived through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period), far from being bitter, we found Cambodians to be among the warmest and gentlest people we have met anywhere to date. It is a true sign of their resilience that they have been able to pick themselves up as a country and the feeling we got is that people are not dwelling on the past, but are positive and living for the future. It is a wonderful country to travel through, with beautiful scenery, incredible temples, but it is
Tree roots slowly destroy an entrance gate, Ta SomTree roots slowly destroy an entrance gate, Ta SomTree roots slowly destroy an entrance gate, Ta Som

How long before this one completely collapses and the tree wins?
certainly the people we met that make it so special and they are the reason we will remember it so fondly.

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