Cambodia held a sense of menace for me as a child. While old enough to be alive when the atrocities by the Khmer Rouge took place, I was too young to comprehend what it meant. The name Pol Pot was always associated with evil and I remember being unnerved by his image although I could never say why. As I learnt about what had happened it held the same tragic sense of horror I felt when learning about the Nazis or Communist Russia.
Now I’ve been there, I would encourage others to visit too. It’s a rather wonderful place and its people, who went through hell and back only 40 odd years ago, and still face many difficulties, wear their hearts on their sleeves and are some of the friendliest characters I’ve met.
I only spent two weeks there, visiting Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh and I know that they are just the tip of the iceberg of an emerging country with lots of beautiful places to offer. I would like to spend more time there, visiting the coast and exploring lesser known towns but I’d also like to revisit Angkor Wat because, although Cambodia is a small country (181,035 sq. km) it holds many delights.
I was passing through from north to south, making my way to Vietnam, so I first arrived in the country via Siem Reap, which rather provocatively means ‘Siam defeated’ from early conflicts over land in this troubled region. The airport is smaller than I’d expected and as I travelled by tuk-tuk to my boutique hotel, I marvelled at how provincial it seemed. I had, foolishly, expected an urban sprawl out to the Angkor Wat National Park like Giza encroaching on the Pyramids, but that was far from the case. In fact, Siem Reap is a like a country town, and if it weren’t for its insane traffic, I’d almost call it sleepy.
Traffic in SE Asia is a curse. Some of the worst traffic, and pollution, in the world is found there. But Siem Reap is no Beijing. It’s not the amount of traffic that was the problem, although after several weeks on sleepy Thai Islands I’d got used to quiet roads, it was the chaos of it. Tuk-tuks, motos, bicycles, old and modern cars were all moving every which way, all at once. On the wrong side of the road, on pavements (when there were any), at crossroads, with the unspoken rule that if you can’t go forward you go round and if you can’t go round you stop until everyone’s shifted enough for you to carry on, and all the while wary pedestrians weave their way through as well. Strangely, horns were seldom used, everyone just watched and weaved and stopped if they couldn’t proceed. Of course, there’s less traffic as you make your way out around the National Park, and everyone has the same purpose there, following one of two routes around the ancient sights to visit the wonders of Angkor.
Angkor Wat is as stunning as you’d imagine and worth several visits. Angkor Thom, Bayon and Banteay Srei are all intriguing as well, and while you can get templed out quite quickly, there are other things to do. I also visited the Landmine Museum, showing the efforts of one man who had fought in the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Army since a child, growing to understand the error of his ways and make up for it one land-mine at a time. It was quite a wake up call about the problems many Cambodians still face as the aftermath continues to cripple them, physically, economically and politically. As an antidote to that, I also visited a small butterfly farm which raised my spirits a bit. Not surprisingly, the Cambodians are very conscious about the preservation of life, be it human, animal, or insect and there are also a great many attempts to conserve Cambodia’s heritage. Many are small, like the butterfly sanctuary, but there are also lots of NGOs in the country doing a lot of good where it’s needed. One example is Phare, a multi-arts centre for disadvantaged children. While the main activities happen in Battembang, Siem Reap has an internationally acclaimed circus branch and it is worth every penny to go along and see an amazing group of talented performers present physically and socially challenging shows.
I’d planned to take the boat to Battembang, I’d even bought a ticket from a reputable source. But having experienced a stormy visit to Tonle Sap, the largest body of water in Cambodia, and seen how shallow it was in places at this time of year, I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work out. I was told there was something wrong with the boat, but I suspect it was the instinctive desire to please that make Cambodians so easy to get along with that allowed me to buy a ticket on a route that was never going to run.
I got to Battambang by bus instead, after a tricky moment when the agents organising my trip sent a tiny girl on a motorbike to carry me and two rucksacks to catch the bus. I’m terrified of motorbikes, and the weight and imbalance of me and my luggage scares me even further. Thankfully, Mr.Chi, who had driven me around Angkor Wat, came to the rescue and ferried me there instead. The bus was tackily decorated with limp fake flowers and childish stickers and I was jammed into a window seat with no leg space under the seat in front. I had to pull the DVT card when three quarters of the way into the journey the girl in front decided to lower her seat back. My knees were bruised from resting against the back of the chair and with it back I had no way of keeping the circulation moving with exercises. Thankfully, it looks like the blood thinners I got in Thailand did their job! But not a comfortable ride, and not scenic either.
Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city yet it also seemed provincial and sleepy like Siem Reap. It’s bus station is the side of the road, just outside the city. Of course we were met by dozens of tuk-tuk drivers all touting for business. I accidentally caught the eye of one young man who greeted me like an old friend. After some banter and barter I agreed to let him take me to my hotel.
Actually, Samol turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He also ran a tour service which he’d just set up on Trip Advisor and I booked him for the following day. Like many Cambodians his story wasn’t a happy one but he was working hard to make things right and the tour I had with him was great fun. I even ended up helping him with his English homework!
Beyond the limited delights of Battambang are rice fields, fishing villages, a vineyard (I don’t think the rest of the wine producing world has anything to worry about with regard to Cambodian competition), pagodas, killing caves that are a stark reminder of the country’s horrific past and The Bamboo Train. This brilliant experience is under threat and may well close due to the possibility of a high speed line (Cambodia currently has no rail service to speak of) but I really can’t see why it should. I took a short ride on a single track between two rural stations, riding a bamboo pallet on tank wheels driven by an outboard motor. I sat on a cushion and dodged overhanging undergrowth as the wind whistled through my hair and the heavens decided to open, then watched as the ‘train’ was dismantled to allow traffic coming the other way to pass. Priority was given to greater numbers of trains and people, so I got off a lot. But I loved every second of it!
Another highlight of Battambang were the bat caves. While not up to Christopher Nolan standards, the sight of thousands of bats exiting a network of caves commonly called The Killing Caves, is pretty impressive. At dusk bats start to circle the mouth of the cave, high up in a cliff, and then suddenly they decide to start streaming out in two directions, a sentence of commas across the sky. I’m told this phenomenon can go on for up to half an hour but I only stayed for 10 or so as they were late leaving, it was the day after the longest day so dusk was around 6.30pm, and Samol had to get back to go to night school. In fact, by leaving then I also got to see the mesmerising sight of them pulsing and receding across the sky like flocks of starlings, dividing and reforming before heading off into the distance to hunt, some even going as far as the coast before returning at dawn. It was a good day.
After Battambang came Phnom Penh, which was a shock to the system after the beaches of Thailand and rural idylls of more northern Cambodia. Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, a real city with long boulevards, a tower block and a lot of noisy traffic to dodge. The tuk-tuk drivers and restaurateurs are pushier, there are more modern amenities and the riverfront is very touristy. It is nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient but I’m afraid the pearl I witnessed was paste. It’s not without its attractions, a cute museum and cultural performance theatre, some attractive pagodas and the Royal Palace, but little stood out to make it a rich and lustrous experience. Of course, S-21 and the Killing Fields are sited there too, and should be visited for a greater lesson into the Khmer Rouge and the history of the Pol Pot era, but that was inherently depressing so I was glad to move on, especially as I was lodged in a hotel room opposite the sex tourist from hell!
My next stop was Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by the locals. It was another bus trip, rather more comfortable than some, and my only land border crossing. I’d got my visa in Siem Reap, ready to start for July 1st and duly arrived on that day. Getting out of Cambodia was fine, you just take your passport, see the immigration guy, go through the motions then get back on the bus. Getting into Vietnam was a little more chaotic as your bus company takes everyone’s passport and hands them over to immigration and you stand around, with all your luggage, until you are called up randomly to the desk. Once you’re through, you then have your luggage scanned before getting back on the bus. It was fine, and didn’t take too long, but I can imagine the difficulties during busier times.
All in all, Cambodia was an adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I wouldn’t say I left my heart there but I am already thinking about how to return.