Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category
Spent a few days in the capital, Phnom Penh. Mixed feelings about the city, it was really overwhelming, definitely the biggest city I’ve been in for awhile, Laos cities aren’t so hectic.
We got used to it though and went to see the S 21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. Trying to explain how intense that experience was in words is very difficult. S 21 was a high school turned into a prison/torture camp by the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields is where the prisoners were killed and buried in mass graves.
Walking through the hallways and classrooms in S 21 is a strange experience. There are hundreds of photographs of past prisoners, including some photos of the dead bodies that were still found in the prison when it was liberated, photos of dead bodies placed in the rooms that they were found in. The floor still has what looks like drops of old blood everywhere, then makeshift cell walls constructed of brick and wood are still intact in one building where prisoners were kept separately instead of in large groups.
At the Killing Fields, the first thing you see is a huge tower built to preserve thousands of skulls that are stacked up as high as the eye can see. After that, walking around the mass graves that are now large holes in the ground would have been hard enough without the scraps of clothes and piles of bones that are still sticking half up from the ground.
Luckily after a day like that we had a nice guesthouse lounge that we went to every night at #11 Happy Guesthouse to meet new people and have a few drinks although it all seemed a little surreal after seeing what we saw. It was hard to look the bar tender in the face knowing what his family probably went through. With such a young history, there isn’t a face on the street that isn’t marked by what happened. While people in the west were celebrating peace, love and happiness and focusing on stopping the Vietnam war, it seems that almost nobody was really aware that right next door to Vietnam this huge genocide was going on. America’s war wasn’t even confined to Vietnam, US bombs were dropped in Cambodia too which gave the Khmer Rouge fuel to drive the paranoia and force everyone out of the cities into the country to essentially work as slaves. It’s intense stuff that deserves a lot more publicity than it gets, so look it up and read about it if you have time.
After that we moved to Sihanoukville where I am now. It’s a sleeping beach town and will be a nice place to relax. Then back into Thailand to see some of my favourite Londoners and party on the islands before we all head up to Chang Mai for Songkran!
And happy birthday to my dad who celebrated another year of life yesterday. It is really hard to keep track of dates out here, but at least I got that one right. 🙂
Siem Reap was fun, Angkor Wat is of course amazing. It was exhausting though! Three days ago we went in the afternoon; we hired a tour guide who was great. He spoke very good English and was a history teacher before which meant he really knew his stuff. It was a lot of information to take in, but it was nice having someone tell you the significance of all the different temples instead of wondering around by ourselves aimlessly without having an idea of what these building really were/why they were built etc. We watched the sunset sitting on top of one of the temples which was pretty cool although unfortunately the sky was pretty cloudy so the sunset wasn’t as dramatic as it could have been. Then next day we got up and went back again but this time we got there for sunrise, which again wasn’t as good as it could have been because the sky wasn’t clear, but it was still quite a cool experience to walk through some ancient temples when it was still pitch black outside and see them light up in the morning. We went around the main temples that we hadn’t seen the day before plus a few smaller ones on our second day. One of the temples was used in the filming of Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie so that was the most touristy overdone of the temples although next to Angkor Wat (the big ‘main’ building) it was by far my favourite. These enormous trees have grown throughout the temple and taken over so it is a really cool site to see – these ancient sandstone walls then broken down by the huge dramatic trees with enormous root systems. A few hours after sunrise we had started to see lightening in the sky and eventually it did start to POUR with rain. We decided to press on though and our tour guide had an umbrella so he didn’t mind. We got completely soaked but it was actually great fun because the rain cleared out a lot of the other tourists of course, and for some reason seeing these temples in the jungle with this big rainstorm going on gave it a really dramatic atmosphere that was pretty cool to see.
There was a large Japanese tour group at the Tomb Raider temple (or Tha Prom if you want to call it by it’s actual name) at the same time as us with their umbrellas and everything. The open area by the entrance had turned into a shallow mud pool except for just along the sides so they were all waiting to go along single file to get in. After about 30 seconds of that we decided we were all soaked and dirty already so we just took of our sandals and walked straight through the mud to get in which worked out well because we were able to take some photos before all the Japanese filed in!
By noon we were already exhausted. We lasted for another hour or so before calling it a day and going back for some much needed sleep.
On our third day we took a tour of the floating villages which was pretty interesting. We hired a boat with a guide and we slowly made our way down the river to the Tonle Sap lake which is the biggest lake in Southeast Asia and is one of the major sources of income for Cambodia as well as a major source for their diet. The lake is full of a huge variety of fish that make up most of their diet around here. Unfortunately we’re here during dry season we the river and the lake were both at their lowest levels, although the lake was still so big that I couldn’t see the other side over the horizon. The villagers move their ‘houses’ every year, living on the lake during the dry season, and living further down the river during wet season because the lake water gets to rough with all the rain and storms.
It was very strange seeing things like a floating Catholic church (one day I’ll manage to get all these photos up, but for now just picture a Cathedral on water…not because that’s what it looked like, but because that’s a funny image 🙂 ) and a floating school. The first school building we passed had the enclosed playground on the roof, the second school had a second floating platform that was an enclosed basketball court/playground. Kids just ran around the boats and the younger ones splashed around in the river.
We also saw floating ducks (ok, ducks float everywhere, but they were farm animal ducks being kept in a floating cage), floating pigs and floating chickens.
We visited a floating restaurant for lunch that also had a crocodile farm, a fish farm and a snake cage. We also went and visited one of the floating schools although I have my doubts about how much of a school it really was. It was a Saturday after all, and the building seem to lack any obvious education material. We started to get the notion that these children just sat in this building all day for the tourists waiting to be given candy, money and things like notebooks that they can sell back for money all of which they got while we were there. It was an interesting thing to see though overall.
Tomorrow is Phnom Penh. Not sure exactly what the plan is although I think the main thing to see is the S-21 Museum and the killing fields which I’m sure will cheer me right up….
It is pretty strange being in a country with such a recent gruesome history. I was in a pharmacy yesterday being served by a woman who looked to be at least in her 60s or so which I noticed because there are very few old people here – probably a compounded effect of the Khmer Rouge history plus the simple fact that life expectancy is shorter here, but trying to imagine the things she had gone through was pretty hard. You can still feel the history around you; more than once I’ve walked past people, often beggars, with limbs missing; a few times we’ve seen street bands made up of land mine victims who are playing traditional Cambodian music to try to make money instead of just begging. Every night when we walk home from going out to dinner or a bar we’re accosted by a dozen children who literally cling on to our clothes or arms trying to get us to buy them food.
Despite all that I’ve actually been really impressed with the Cambodian people in general. They speak great English – better than in Thailand and Laos, and they have a great sense of humour. All of our hostel staff, restaurant/bar servers, guides, etc have been so friendly and they really know how to have a good laugh.
So after three total days of swimming from bar to bar in Van Vieng we decided it was time for a detox.
After a quick overnight stay in Ventiene, the capital, with a brief visit to a couple of beautiful temples, we headed on a very long journey down through Laos to the Four Thousand Islands.
After a sleeper bus whose beds were obviously not made to hold our overly tall Western frames a minibus the next morning and a boat ride, we found ourselves on Don Det island.
The Four Thousand Islands is right down in southern Laos just before the Cambodian border. I’m still unclear as to how many days I stayed there because time didn’t seem to move. While the islands are getting a little more popular, we managed to hit them at a pretty good time. There are a few guesthouses, mostly bungalow style which means a wooden hut by the water with just enough room for a double bed and nothing else. No, not even toilets, those are in another building.
We spent however many days hanging out in hammocks a LOT and occasionally jumping into the river for a quick swim.
If you are ever on Don Det, find the bakery if it doesn’t find you first. Darren, an Australian who has moved to the island runs a delicious bakery/resturant. On our first day there he rode to our guesthouse on his bike with his leftover pastries for the day. You HAVE to try a coconut slice or a caramel slice if you’re there and he’s making them. After he realized we were his goldmine we went there almost every day at noon when the fresh stuff came out of the oven, and then without fail he showed up on his bike after closing with leftovers.
There are no banks, ATMs, or anything on the islands which caused some entertainment. Two of our group made it to the mainland before finding out that it was a Sunday and therefore the one Western Union was closed. Then made it back the next day with some cash which was lucky because then we all started to run out…stupid Darren…
We finally decided to leave and bought a ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We got a boat to the mainland, then a bus to the border. We got dropped off and went through the departure process (which costs $1) then Claudia and I (we were ahead of everyone else) realised that our bus wasn’t there anymore….
The bus had driven across to the Cambodian side, dropped our bags on the side of the road and left. So Claudia (who was barefoot after losing her flip flops, well done…) and I walked the 200 metres of No Man’s Land in between the boarders to our bags. I should mention that this was an unofficial border, so the border offices were literally just wooden huts on the side of the dirt road with a wooden police station in between to apply for the Cambodian visa. We were in the middle of NOWHERE. We get our visas, ($21) then enter Cambodia (another $1).
I managed to get through this whole process with exactly $0. Remember the whole problem with no cash machines on the island…. Anyway I’m lucky enough to have friends who do bring dollars with them and my tip for you is to do so as well!!
After a long hot bus journey we arrived in a small Cambodian town where we stayed the night and celebrated St Patrick’s Day by drinking a bottle of Baileys after I had some wine!! My first wine and Baileys since leaving England, so it was a big deal. Then on to Siem Reap this morning.
Some tuk tuk driver tried to take advantage of us, but after getting out at a gas station and walking away we found another tuk tuk who took us to our hostel and here we are!
Cambodia, here we go.