Cambodia – Siam Reap
Question: “how many people can you get on a Cambodian bus?”
Answer: “one more”.
We caught the train and a tuk tuk to the Cambodian border and then a government bus to the main, official bus station. It was here that our experience of Scambodian begun – we have been avoiding scams ever since. The bus to Siam Reap was marginally cheaper than a private taxi and we were promised that it would drop us at out hotel. We climbed aboard the mini bus and things were looking good, lots of space. Not ten minutes later a whole load of people joined us to occupy the empty seats. One man asked, “how many people can you get on a Cambodian bus?” The answer – “one more”. There were even seats that folded out into the aisle, we found ourselves stuffed in with no escape.
It was a miserable five hour ride to Siam Reap where we were unceremoniously dumped on a minor dusty road some way out of the town. The only people to greet us was the usual tuk tuk cartel who, “persuasively” explained how they could take us the rest of the way for “cheap price”, so much for the bus dropping us at our hotel. I was really narked off by this point but I knew that protesting the false promise made to us 5 hours earlier by a man that was nowhere to be seen was not going to get us anywhere, so, with Tracy’s agreement we decided to walk the rest of the way into town and we left the trail of tuk tuk drivers floundering in our wake. As we walked up the dusty track we could hear their final efforts to secure our custom, we were making “big mistake” the town centre was “long way”. We walked into town in about 40 minutes, no mean feat wearing backpacks and front packs with the sun continually shining in our faces, but we did feel a sense of satisfaction by avoiding paying the tuk tuk bad boys.
Siam Reap was a beautiful town with a river flowing through it and a happening nightlife of bars and quality restaurants. We visited the Angkor Wat complex on two separate days, the first to see sunset via a tuk tuk that we hired for the day, the second aboard bicycles that we rented from the hotel. The day in the tuk tuk was amazing. We drove in the dark before dawn to the Angkor Wat temple, as we got closer we ended up in a convoy of dozens of other tuk tuks all ferrying others in a pilgrimage to the temple. It was brilliant to sit, rocking bumpily in the back, stealing through the dark as the feint lights from the convoy of similar tuk tuks illuminated the dusty Cambodian tracks behind us, it is those times when you know we are doing something special.
Sunrise was good but not spectacular. I made the mistake of buying a coffee in the dark from a vendor who was plying hot drinks on the lake banks, the liquid which arrived was unrecognisable, I have no idea what it was but it was soon put to use watering the historic plants outside the historic temple. There were hundreds of other tourists lined up by the lake in front of Angkor Wat waiting to capture the perfect shot of the sun rising. The hundreds of camera laden tourists was almost as interesting to witness as the temple itself. Line after line of amateur photographers stood behind an army of tripods, maybe there were thousands of us.
It was noticeable that people get confused between dawn and sunrise. Dawn broke and many people left the lake thinking that the sun had risen. It was perhaps twenty minutes later that the sun appeared and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the many people that had left the lake and missed their anticipated sunrise shots. After sunrise we spent the rest of the day touttling around the other temples, pausing for lunch by the side of a picturesque lake before moving on to visit the Cambodian Landmines museum.
The landmine museum is run by ex Khymer rouge soldier, Aki Ra. In acknowledgement of the horrors of the regime that he contributed to, he now spends his life educating people about the atrocities of land mines and the destruction that they continue to cause. Ra also spends time clearing mines from the many mine fields which still exist in the country. The mines were mostly left by the Khymer Rouge after they fled towards Thailand when Vietnam captured Phnom Pen in 1979. The landmine museum provided our first experience of the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime, horrors that were to come into more focus when we moved on to Phnom Penh the next day to visit the killing fields and Tuol Sleng genocide museum, poignant experiences that we will never forget.
Taking the boat to Phnom Penh was the lesser of two evils. We had been warned against the bumpy 7 hour bus ride along a road that is being resurfaced. The boat seemed preferable but there were plenty of on-line reports about the lack of safety on the old rusty boats that plough the route. The “coffin boat” did not disappoint. The boat would never have made service in the UK. The vessel was long and narrow and it didn’t stretch the imagination to understand how it got its name. In the event, when we got going the journey was good. We were able to go outside and shuffle along the side of the boat whilst gripping the hand rail tightly and then climbing to a suitable place to sit on the roof. The boat sailed quite fast and the manoeuvre took some balance, there is no way you would be allowed to do that in the UK. Once you found a settled position it was a nice ride, we spent the journey watching Cambodian fisherman pass by and we waved and wondered at the at the local folk that appeared inquisitively from the primitive bamboo huts on stilts that lined the shore.
Seven hours later the serene riverside settings gave way to the urban metropolis of Phnom Phenh as the cities grand hotels came into view in the distance. We docked to be greeted by another taxi cartel. Now accustomed to ignoring the tuk tuk gang, we walked into town and were pleased to find our hostel not too far from where we had docked. The hostel was excellent, a real backpackers place, complete with bar, swimming pool and decent pool table. One night I took part in a pool tournament organised by the hostel manager, it was like being a student all over again – brilliant!
Our visit to the genocide museum at Phnom Penh’s infamously horrific Tuol Sleng prison was every bit as difficult as we had imagined. It is impossible to recount the horrors that took place in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, but the museum has a good go at illustrating the torture, starvation and deprivation of human rights at that torrid place. We watched a film during the visit of accounts the only 7 people that survived the prisons regime. The testimony of Chum Mey was particularly touching as he broke down in tears, the pain of retelling the awful truth of his experience of torture and degradation too much to bear. After the film we walked out into the courtyard and couldn’t believe or eyes, Chum Mey was in the courtyard exhibiting his book.
I couldn’t understand how a man that had such painful memories could spend his time sitting in the place that claimed the lives of so many of his compatriots, the Kymer Rouge also slaughtered his wife and children. I can only think that Chum Mey gains a sense of empowerment by taking control of the prison that once incarcerated him. I had no hesitation in buying his book. I was reluctant to take up Chum Mey’s offer of a photo, troubled by the thought of using him as some kind of tourist relic. I felt awkward and inadequate as I sat beside him knowing a little of the horrors of what his own eyes have seen and survived. Chum Mey was a very gentle man, his genuine firm handshake put me at ease and his eye contact almost spoke to me that he was glad that we were visiting and trying to learn about the horrible history of Tsol Sleng, it was a very special moment indeed.
If the horrors of Tuol Sleng were tough to experience so too were the killing fields where we visited the next day. The mass graves of millions of citizens that were executed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge are there to see in all there brutality. The Cambodians do not dress the killings fields up. Bone and tooth can be seen occasionally in the sunken pits that house the executed bodies and collected teeth are left on top of glass cabinets alongside the paths that house the victims clothes. We were told that the graves are particularly revealing in the rainy season when the rain makes the body parts rise to the surface. The place was grim and difficult but it was expertly presented through an audio channel that explicitly described the killing fields whilst suggesting times when the path became particularly hard to bear, where the listener can retreat to reflect and listen to music. When the horrors of the killing fields become overwhelming (and it does become overwhelming), we escaped by walking alongside the pond adjacent to the rice fields. The toughest part for us to bear was the killing tree that still stands tall, now flanked with hundreds of friendship bracelets that visitors have left pinned to its truck.
The Khmer Rouge are alleged to have taken babies by the legs and smashed their skulls against the tree before tossing them into the adjacent pits. We heard a first hand account of the man who stumbled across the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge had fled, the audio testimony described how there was human hair, bone and flesh in abundance on the tree trunk that he found and it was only after going to on find the mass babies graves that he began to understand what had happened.
More easier times in Phnom Penh were spent in the Foreign Correspondents Club, a bar, restaurant used historically by foreign journalist to file their copy during the war. I had hoped for a Manchester press club like experience but it was a bit more upmarket than that! I drunk coffee on the balcony and pretended I was Sydney Schangberg doing the same in the film “The Killing Fields”. We trawled the markets and bought a shuttle cock with a feather attached to it. The shuttle cock forms the centre of the national pastime of keepy uppy. The Cambodians can pass the thing about all day, Tracy and I have managed four continuous passes between us…
We had enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh and got a lot out of understanding more about the countries chequered history. It was time to move on to our next country, Vietnam. We had arranged a 6 hour bus to take us across the border to Ho Chi Minh and it meant an early start of 6am. The tuk tuk transfer to the bus station was late and we ended up chasing the bus along the highway, transferring from tuk tuk to bus in the blink of a traffic light change. Six hours later we rolled into Hoi Chi Minh city via a straight forward border crossing. For the first time during the trip, we would become victims of crime on our journey – more about that in the next post.