Travelling in CAMBODIA

In savouring the moment I haven’t noticed the sudden change in my surroundings; the tarmac has been substituted for dirt, the street lights are now few and far between, my eyes adjust to the darkness in a part of the city that has become a virtual shanty town, child prostitutes standing beside the street staring silently back.  In an instant my state of relaxation has changed to one of agitation and stress…had I been lured into a trap…

The journey to Cambodia’s capital from its northern border with Laos wasn’t without its challenges.  As one of the first to cross via the newly opened border crossing between the two countries, the transport options through an impoverished area of an underdeveloped country are limited and demanding.

You would think seven hours with 21 other people in a Toyota Tarago van on a potholed dirt road with choking dust in 40C temperature at the end of which we’re greeted with a plate full of deep-fried tarantula-like spiders for a snack, would be the worst part of the journey.  It was uncomfortable, but at least it was relatively safe!

Our only means of transport from the Laos-Cambodia border to the nearest town was the fastboat…Cambodia’s answer to the jet boat!  Potentially a lot of fun, unfortunately though in this part of the world they have an appalling safety record; we heard only last week of a German tourist killed.  It’s now the peak of the dry season and the water levels in the Mekong River are at a historical low.

 Laos - Cambodia Border

Laos – Cambodia Border

 

 

 Mekong River 'fastboats' - Cambodia

Mekong River ‘fastboats’

 

 

Mekong River - Cambodia

Mekong River

 

 

 

Described in their simplest form, the boats are a wooden canoe with a car engine mounted on the rear.  They are driven downriver at incredible speed, not slowing for rapids – or any potential rocks which would smash the boat on impact.  Engine screaming so loud conversation is impossible, water stinging the eyes and your faced pulled back from the wind like a dog that has its head out the window of a car.  Despite legal requirement to do so, life jackets and helmets are not supplied.  At some point during the 90 minute journey I accepted fate and decided to enjoy what little I could see on either side of the river whizzing past, even though both legs were now numb from the waist down.

 

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

 

Cambodia’s capital surprisingly has a quite pleasant appearance, much like Vientiene, adjacent to the Mekong River with nature strips of green manicured grass and flowering frangipani’s.  The traveller guesthouses sit on the edge of a large lake in the city centre; a pleasant outlook whilst enjoying a beer and a game of pool.  One can’t help but notice the large number of Bmw’s and Mercedes vehicles weaving between motorbikes…. a hint of Cambodia’s corrupt bureaucracy.

 Mekong River through Phnom Penh - Cambodia

Mekong River through Phnom Penh

 

 

 Phnom Penh - Cambodia

Phnom Penh – Cambodia

 

 

For many travellers, days drift past while consuming ‘happy’ pizza’s, but Phnom Penh has plenty to offer those keen to explore.  Starting with a visit to the nearby Cambodia military base with its slogan “you mess with the best, you die like the rest” visible at the entry gate, which made me a little nervous at proceeding any further.

Once inside the seemingly friendly soldier hands over a laminated ‘menu’, which has a list of virtually every conceivable military weapon and the cost to fire rounds from each.  From .45 calibre handguns, AK47’s, MK16,s, anti-aircraft machine guns to bazookas or even throw a live grenade!  I opted for 30 rounds of the AK47 at a cost of USD$20 – one of the more unique and bizarre experiences!

Each Sunday, Cambodia has a live telecast of kickboxing tournaments from a stadium in the city and I was fortunate enough to be inside the stadium to witness this weekly religion with thousands of others.  Competitors fighting for only a few hundred dollars, but for which is a small fortune is this nation; clinical in its execution, and at times brutal in its outcome.

The city has a darker side, a tragedy so immense and from which so many still bear the scars; that it was even allowed to happen by a watching world is almost implausible.  In the mid 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot (movie ‘The Killing Fields’) began their ‘Year Zero’ policy; a policy that led to the death of perhaps 2-3 million people; a policy that still has some 4-6 million landmines still buried and still causing the deaths of approx 40 people every day in Cambodia!  With the majority of those killed by the Khmer Rouge possessing an education – the educated were seen as a threat, Cambodia now relies on a large expat community with a teaching or medical background to upskill a country where half the population is under fifteen years of age!

I felt to visit the city and not explore this dark history for my own understanding would be disrespectful for those that suffered.  Walking through the prison from which there were only 7 survivors from 17,000; each and every one photographed shortly before execution – to look at some of the photos, young faces full of despair and fear.

From the prison they were taken by the truckload to the ‘killing fields’ just out of the city for execution; a bare, football sized field with a handful of trees giving shade.  Here sits a white stoned, glass walled monument some 3-4 stories high, full of human skulls!  Throughout the small field is several large holes – big enough to fit a small car – each representing a mass grave.  It’s from these mass graves that the skulls staring out from the monument were found, virtually all showing evidence of trauma from bullet or blunt weapon.  Several of the mass graves still remain undisturbed, their location evident in the bones protruding from the dirt under your feet.

Killing Fields - Cambodia

Killing Fields monument with emptied mass graves in foreground

 

 

Killing fields - Cambodia

Emptied mass graves at the ‘killing fields’

 

 

As I stand under one of the trees, I feel no anger towards the perpetrators of this brutality, maybe that will come later.  For now there is just shock and disbelief of the cruelty.  This was not a war, that I could to some degree understand; instead it was just one man’s plan for an ideological society.  I return to my motodriver who is sitting solemnly on his motorbike waiting for my return.  ‘Take me home’ I mumble, he nods his head understandingly.

Anywhere I have been in Phnom Penh has been with the same motodriver, he arrives at my guesthouse first thing every morning should I need to go anywhere.  One night despite our insistence that we would find our own way home, he waited outside of a bar for several hours to ensure I did not walk the dangerous streets at night and have safe passage home, for which he then refused payment.

He had mentioned his desire to complete a computer course so I made a contribution towards the cost.  In return he has offered to take me to his house tonight that he shares with 3 friends. ‘A part of Phnom Penh you won’t see in the guide book’ he said – an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

We leave the guesthouse soon after dark, the streets of Phnom Penh are quieter at night – a little less noise, less stress.  Despite the temperature still well over 30C, we’re going fast enough on the motorbike for the breeze to cool the sweat on the skin, it’s not much, but will take it.  As I relax I notice for the first time the smell of the frangipani’s, the night air assisting the fragrance to a more prominent status.

In savouring the moment I haven’t noticed the sudden change in my surroundings; the tarmac has been substituted for dirt, the street lights are now few and far between, my eyes adjust to the darkness in a part of the city that has become a virtual shanty town, child prostitutes standing beside the street staring silently back.  In an instant my state of relaxation has changed to one of agitation and stress…had I been lured into a trap…

I was in a part of the city that I did not belong, suddenly my very existence depended on the integrity of this person I had befriended the last few days and the very real feeling that perhaps I had been taken advantage off.

We pull up outside a small unit and I fake a smile hoping he doesn’t notice my uneasiness.  His ‘house’ is a small square room with a partition on one side.  It’s the size of your average lounge room – including kitchen and bathroom – he shares it with three other girls, all of whom work for one of the many clothing factories here such as Levi, Calvin Klein and Gap.  The ‘unit’ only costs USD$30 per month, but the girls monthly salary was only USD$50 per month!  As we sat on the floor, they talk about their life, work and family, their despair at the lack of opportunity in Cambodia and even personal safety living in this area.  I’m humbled and grateful for the experience, and a little embarrassed at the lack of faith towards my motodriver for my own personal safety.  To ease my guilt, I shout dinner at a Khmer restaurant on the way home.

 

SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA

 

Sihanoukville is one of the few and perhaps the only opportunity in Cambodia to relax by the ocean; good beaches complete with deck chairs and all day/late night beach-side bars.  The traffic is quiet enough in this little seaside village for me to hire a motorbike and see beyond the immediate main beach.  I find other less developed stretches of sand, a golf course under construction – perhaps a hint at further development in the future.  Also the snake restaurant where each drum shaped glass-topped table has the namesake reptile inside for you to observe will eating.

 Sihanoukville - Cambodia

Sihanoukville

 

 

 Sihanoukville - Cambodia

Sihanoukville

 

 

The ocean water temp is very warm, and whilst barely offering respite from the heat of Cambodia’s hottest month the thought of leaving this seaside town is unwelcome, but necessitated by my swiftly approaching flight departure back home.

 

SIEM REAP / ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA

 

Situated in Central Western Cambodia, Siem Reap is the gateway to Cambodia with an international airport and 5 star hotels in abundance.  The catalyst for this development is the nearby Angkor Wat and surrounding ancient ruins.  Angkor is considered one of the worlds greatest ancient archeological structures and certainly the most impressive man-made structure I’ve seen.

Not satisfied with photos of Angkor at sunset, I arrange for my motodriver to wake me early next morning to visit again at sunrise.  For two full days we visit not only Angkor, but the numerous other temples in the area including Ta Prohm, alternatively known as the ‘jungle’ temple made famous by the Lara Croft movie ‘Tomb Raider’.  The oppressive April sun is keeping tourist bus numbers to a minimum and they generally return to Siem Reap late morning and return late afternoon to escape the heat, but I relish the chance to explore some of the ancient temples in relative solitude.

 Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples – Ta Prohm

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples – Ta Prohm

 

 

 Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples – Ta Prohm

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples – Ta Prohm

 

 

 Angkor Wat - Camboda

Angkor Wat Temples – Ta Prohm

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temples

 

 

 

 

I call into a place by the side of the road with a sign out front – ‘Landmine Museum’.  My curiosity aroused, I enter to discover an orphanage of sorts administered by a Khmer gentleman.  His parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was a child after which they trained him to plant landmines.

Cambodia has an official team of people who disarm the mines, but with the protocol they must follow, only average approx 16 landmines per person per year.  This guy can average 40 per day using his own ‘unofficial’ method and a stick!  An international treaty has been signed by virtually all nations to prevent any further manufacturing of these devastating devices – the USA is one of the few nations that refuses to sign.

All the children living at the ‘Landmine Museum’ are missing a limb/s due to encounters with the mines.  They are sent here predominately by rural families unable to provide for a child who cannot contribute to the needs of the farm.  Travellers are encouraged to donate money or time to teach them a foreign language so that they may gain employment as a guide at Angkor.

Another extraordinary individual is a Swiss doctor (Dr. Beat Richner) who does infrequent talks at his hospital here.  I was fortunate enough to coincide my visit in Siem Reap with one of his presentations.  With generous donations from the Swiss government and its residents, he has constructed three hospitals in Cambodia predominately for children and all medical treatment is complimentary.

The prime motivation for the night is to inform visitors to Cambodia of the plight of Khmer children; not just from landmines but their own corrupt government. All three hospitals, including funding, staff, doctors are run independent of the government, unimpeded from the extortion and fraud that prevails there.

Two examples of the many wonderful individuals who are desperately trying to give the youth of Cambodia both hope and opportunity and ultimately a future.

My exit journey to the Cambodia border was not as dangerous as my entry, but no more comfortable with a long bus journey on a dusty dirt road and no air-con to negate the stifling heat.

Cambodia

 

Link to my photo site:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/danthewanderer/sets/

 

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