We step off the Air Asia plane onto scorching tarmac. Moments earlier, my first impression of Cambodia was of endless rice fields and scattered palms beneath the plane as we descended; now my second impression is of a blistering sun firing off waves of heat that bring beads of sweat to my skin within seconds once we’re off the plane.
Customs and immigration are surprisingly smooth and professional, and soon we’re walking toward the exit. As we pass through the glass doors, I brace myself for the throng of aggressive touts and tuk-tuk drivers I’ve come to expect outside Asian airports… and am surprised and delighted to find a breezy, grassy courtyard with a few bored-looking Khmer men standing around.
This is a change.
What’s even better is that one of these men is holding a sign with Lindsie’s name on it. This is the first time we’ve ever arranged ahead for transport to our hotel, so we’re completely tickled with ourselves for requesting this. If you’ve never stepped out of an airport and found someone holding a sign with your name, it’s definitely a little experience worth springing for at least once in your life.
Mr. Set, our driver, helps us into the tuk, which is a pleasant buggy-type affair saddled to the seat of a very quiet little scooter. This is nothing like the hopped up, frantic buzzsaw affairs that terrorize the streets of Bangkok and belch black smoke like a thundering, neverending toxic fart. It’s more like taking a horsedrawn carriage. We settle back and enjoy the scenery.
Everything about Cambodia feels different. The road out of the airport is a raised two-lane highway lined on both sides by driveways, with only the occasional scooter or truck driving past. Behind the driveways are small yards with shacks; beyond the yards are endless rice fields.
Locals ride bikes and walk, for the most part, and the whole place feels surprisingly calm and cheery.
We soon discover that Cambodia is very, very dusty. Tendrils of dry dirt snake across the highway and each passing vehicle kicks up a mist of fine dust that whips into our eyes and noses. Within a few kilometers, I feel like I’m suppressing a sneeze or a cough. Many of the locals wear kramas, traditional checked scarves that can be used as a face mask, headdress, scarf, or all three at once.
While in Siem Reap, we stay at Rosy’s Guesthouse, which turns out to be a delightful hotel-style guesthouse on the riverbank just outside town. The location is perfect: peaceful and lovely yet close to the action. The room is clean with a private bath and even includes free wifi, which is a huge treat. All this for just $15 per night — though after two sweaty nights we spring for the $20 aircon option.
The staff are friendly and helpful, though we soon discover that a close friend of the owners has just died, which casts a sober mood over the place while we’re there. (We do our best to stay out of the way during the wake, which takes place in the lounge downstairs.) Still, it’s not all gloom. Lindsie plays Connect Four with Laura, daughter of one of the regulars, and we both befriend Pickle, a local golden retriever who arrives one afternoon riding the gas tank of her owner’s dirtbike.
After a day off to explore Siem Reap, we set off to explore the temples of Angkor.
If I was the sort of traveler who does a lot of research before arriving — or even a moderate amount — I’d probably know that the temples are actually a vast complex stretching for miles in all directions from Siem Reap. Back when London was a little town of 50,000 or so, Angkor was the heart of an empire stretching from Vietnam through Thailand, inhabited by more than a million people. Its oldest buildings were built more than a thousand years ago.
It is OLD. And it is not an “it” at all, but a “they” — dozens and dozens of temples built over eras spanning more than four hundred years. Plus, there are cows in the gift shops.
We buy a three-day pass to the temples and hire Mr. Set as our personal chauffeur. ($15 a day, if you’re wondering.) Angkor Wat isn’t what I’d call breathtaking — its mystic charm kind of sneaks up on you as you approach and explore. As we’re crossing the massive bridge to the temple the island is situated on, we’re greeted with a wedding party coming the other way, which feels like a good omen.
Angkor Wat is stunning and silent; Bayon, in Angkor Thom, is haunting and hypnotic; and Ta Prohm, also in Angkor Thom, is falling to the ground, walls and roofs choked and torn apart over centuries by the growth of massive trees.
I don’t know much about the ancient Khmer culture, but they sure appeared to be well stocked with time and manpower for big projects.
The $15 ride in a hot air balloon is worth every penny.
We spend our days wandering through temples while Mr. Set sleeps in the shade; each afternoon, we return to Bar Street in downtown Siem Reap. This is the place to be in town. As if 75-cent pints of beer aren’t already cheap enough, they’re two for one here. If you get tired of amok and Khmer food, there’s a Mexican restaurant with real enchiladas that are simply perfect. We eat there three nights in a row and come back on Sunday, when margaritas go on special.
There’s no end of delights to discover. A place called Seeing Hands offers massage by the blind; we’re put off a bit by the seedy-looking courtyard, but my massage is serviceable and Lindsie reports that hers is excellent. The Blue Pumpkin is a bakery/restaurant/hotspot with a regular-looking bakery downstairs and a Clockwork-Orange-milk-bar-style restaurant upstairs: all white with huge leather couches and free wireless. Heaven. (Get the delightful breakfasts; the “gourmet” baked goods are unexciting and overpriced.)
And of course, there are the fried crickets.
The river is slow-moving and pretty, with nicely landscaped banks and huge trees with branches extending far over the water. The French colonial architecture gives the old town a cool New Orleans sort of feel, though you do have to watch for bedbugs in the cushions of some of the riverside cafes.
The city has its sad side; there’s poverty everywhere, and you’re never far from someone who has lost limbs, eyes, family members, and sometimes all of the above to wars and landmines.
We meet an ex-soldier named Top Vanna who picked up a landmine and lost both his hands; now he sells books from a street stall of his own. He admits that he thought about suicide after his accident, but is now proud to have started a business and started a family — he has a wife and two lovely daughters. His courage, like that of so many Cambodians, is inspiring.
We visit the landmine museum, run by a once child soldier who claims to have dismantled more than fifty thousand mines. The place is full of pictures of him taking the things apart, often using a hatchet and a large pair of pliers. This is bravery beyond anything I can understand.
We also spend a few afternoons at a local orphanage, where we make small donations and spend time reading and playing with the kids. Many of them are the children of farmers killed by landmines in their own fields. The place is simple but clean and cheery. There is a steady stream of tourists and NGO workers through the orphanage, and the kids seem quite accustomed to watching the parade. We make fast friends; they run out with toys, balls, books, school assignments, latch onto a visitor, and take what help and affection is available. We get and give a lot of hugs on our way out, plus a few stickers.
After ten days in Siem Reap, it’s time to move on. We pack up and take a day-long bus ride south through endless rice fields and a neverending series of dusty towns. The bus drives through markets and the driver leans hard on the horn, scattering dogs, chickens, carts, water buffalo, bikes, kids, scooters, and anything else in our path.
We haven’t packed any food, assuming the bus will be boarded at every stop by the usual horde of vendors with hot soup and tepid fruit juice in plastic bags, which will serve us fine. The bus goes on without stopping for a few hours, and we’re famished by the time we arrive at the first stop. Lindsie hops off to grab some food, then boards again a minute later looking a bit haunted.
“No soup?” I ask. “What’s wrong?”
“Spiders!” she declares.
“All they have is spiders.”
It’s true. A pack of women surrounds the bus, huge black spiders creeping across their arms and hands. We’re talking about tarantula-sized spiders here. I don’t care if the spiders here eat fruit. They’re gigantic and every time I see one I have to concentrate on not wetting myself.
(I AM a bit proud of the fact that upon finding one in our hotel bathroom back in Siem Reap, I managed to capture it under a basket and throw it out the window without having to change my underwear or kill it with a yoga mat as I had back in March.)
This bus stop has huge buckets of live spiders crawling all over each other. Women pluck them out and play with them absent-mindedly. Oh, and fry them.
There are platters of fried spiders, fried frogs, little fried birds with their heads still on. I’m adventurous enough with food, but this is a culinary freakshow.
The women thrust spiders at Lindsie, who recoils in terror.
“Twenty-five cents!” the women shout.
“No!” shrieks Lindsie.
“Fifteen cents!” a few of the women reply, thinking she’s bartering. “TEN cents!”
“I don’t WANT them!” she cries back, retreating to the bus.
We manage to buy a few dessicated pieces of roasted corn and some rock-hard slices of unripe mango. It’ll do.
We arrive in Sihanoukville, on the south coast, just before sunset. The tuk drivers flock around and try to rip us off; we hold fast until a couple of guys on scooters offer us a ride to Serendipity Beach for a third of what the cabs are charging.
We’re looking for a beach bungalow operation called Serenity, which is recommended in our Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guidebook. It turns out to be a stark, grim apartment-style building with a dark, cavernous, dirty lobby. A few rough-looking Khmer teens glare up at us from their game of pool. It’s obvious that the guidebook writers phoned this one in — I wouldn’t recommend this place to my worst enemies.
Right next door, we find Cloud Nine. Literally. A hillside bungalow operation right on the water, on the quiet end of Serendipity Beach. Our stilt bungalow is huge, private, rustic, and perfect, with a massive balcony overlooking the bay. Paradise for $13 a night.
And yes, there are cows on the beach.
Of course, a Cambodian beach paradise is still in Cambodia. Bars and restaurants line the beaches; tourists eat grilled fish and drink beers in satellite chairs parked on the sand; and Khmer kids and cripples and amputees shuffle their way up and down the beach selling trinkets or just begging. Some, we give money; some, we look away from.
The bungalow life here is wonderful. Cloud Nine is a peaceful little oasis of calm perched up on the rocks at the end of the beach. Owner Joe is a grinning, drawling Aussie with a great music collection and a chronic smoking habit. We lay around on cushioned benches, listening to Otis Redding and watching the tide roll away, getting some laughs as he paddles his staff into the bay in a traditional Vietnamese boat that looks like nothing if not an oversized laundry basket.
And then the end of the hot season arrives, ushered in by monsoons. For a week.
We fire up the Macbooks and sit around in the damp bungalow for a few days, taking advantage of the wet weather to book flights and trains for the upcoming European leg of the Tour de Flashpack. (Handy tip: If you speak enough French to get by, or don’t mind feeding webpages into Google Translator, you can book French rail tickets on www.sncf-voyages.com for about two-thirds what they’ll cost in English on the Eurail site.)
After a few days we’re bored, damp, and given to quiet sobbing and violent cursing while washing under the cold shower that seemed so refreshing back when it was 35 degrees out.
At least the monsoons have brought huge breakers to the normally glassy bay, so I amuse myself by bodysurfing some six-footers that throw me around like a twig. It’s brutal and awesome, and reminds me of summer storms in Powell River back when I was a kid — every summer we’d get one or two storms from the southeast that turned the water green and churned up the three-foot waves that gave me an early taste for the joys of catching a wave.
We make some good friends at Cloud Nine. Sam and Helena are on break from uni, as they call it in England. We make plans to dine together on the legendary grilled barracuda here, only to find out that there is no fish left — the fishermen haven’t been out in days due to the storm. So in one of the bay’s best seafood restaurants, we all tuck into plates of barbequed ribs.
We also meet Mike and Belinda, a delightful couple of hippies from Byron Bay on the east coast of Australia. They’re here teaching night classes in English. We pass long evenings with them drinking Cloud Nines (the house’s special cocktail) and white wine and learning what we can of Aussie dialect.
Finally the clouds break, the sun emerges, and all the mildewy earth starts to steam off its damp. We wash our moist, stinking clothes and towels, pack our bags, bid farewell to our new friends, and bus up to Phnom Penh to spend a few days there before moving on from Cambodia.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s heart — its massive, seething, warm, and totally broken heart. In 1975, led by the unimaginably vicious and twisted Pol Pot, invaded and “liberated” Phnom Penh. To those who didn’t know any better, the Khmer Rouge seemed to promise a new era of Khmer rule; those who saw what was coming couldn’t get out fast enough.
Pol Pot’s vision, if it can be called that, was of a pastoral, agrarian Cambodia with a bizarre communist-style rule — endless rice fields worked by complacent laborers with no education and no loyalty to anything but the party. The reality was the closest thing to hell on earth since Nazi Germany. Family relationships and loyalties were outlawed. Anyone with an education, a second language, or even a pair of glasses was taken to secret prisons to be tortured, murdered, and tossed into one of hundreds of mass graves. The inhuman suffering of the Cambodian people during those years is unimaginable, and goes on thirty years after the overthrow of Pol Pot’s regime by the Vietnamese army.
We do our best to bear witness to the suffering and bravery of the people here. In the killing fields, we walk past the mass graves, of which only 15% of which have been exhumed. A stark monument displays thousands of skulls recovered from the graves.
Some are pierced by bulletholes. Many are crushed or split, their owners killed by bludgeoning with clubs or shovels to save the expense of a bullet. It’s impossible not to cry here.
S-21 is one of the secret prisons where thousands of Cambodian people were interrogated, tortured, and murdered under the orders of the insanely paranoid Khmer Rouge party. It’s been converted into a museum. Room after room holds a single bedframe and pair of leg irons, often accompanied by a single picture of an unspeakably mutilated prisoner. The tiles on the floor are stained with their blood.
In a massive hall, huge stands display row after row after endless row of mug shots, thousands and thousands of faces staring out from stark black-and-white photographs taken by their tormentors. Many look impassive, but some are unable to hide their fear. A few brave ones sneer in righteous anger. There are women, elderly people, children. All these people were murdered not long after these pictures were taken.Walking out into the sunshine from this place of horror, we say silent prayers of thanks for our freedom and good fortune. We do some shopping in the local charity shop, then spend a few days in Phnom Penh among the people who arose from this hell to get on with the business of rebuilding a country and a culture. They’ve certainly gotten on with it.
We barely scratch the surface of Phnom Penh, but find ourselves falling in love with it. We walk through huge street markets, along gorgeous boulevards lined with French colonial buildings, down treed streets along the river bank. Finding an entire block lined with restaurants advertising “happy pizza,” we sit down and order “pepperoni, medium happy.” Yes, it’s seasoned with pot; I’ve noticed that this is not an uncommon meal option in Cambodia.
We finish the pizza with our toes tingling and spend an hour giggling uncontrollably together.
And then, suddenly, we’re back in a scooter-drawn buggy bound for the airport, bound for Bangkok, Singapore… and Australia.
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