Travels without a Plan #23



End of the Road – Cambodia and Thailand

Well, this is quite honestly the last of my travel updates. Yup, this is the
end of this particular road for me. The bank is calling, the credit card is
stretched to the limit and I don’t think I can call in any more favours from
family members. After 14 and a half months away, I’m heading back to good
old London, to try and find a job and a new place to live, and to be
generally shocked at how expensive everything is (thinking I could have two
and a half nights accommodation for the price of a pint of beer, that’s probably being
pulled by an Aussie/Kiwi/Canadian or South African!!)


Cambodia was in a simple word: Awesome. Like nothing I’ve experienced before.
If I thought poverty or roads in Laos were bad, nothing could have prepared
me for Cambodia, but in its way that made it all the more fascinating and an
interesting place to visit.


As with all the overland part of my travels, the crossing from Vietnam into
Cambodia was an interesting journey; up to the border it was easy, as soon as
we crossed the border the heavens opened up and the sky literally dropped on
us for an hour and a half, making the already bad roads to the capital a
total mud bath. Along the highway were trucks that were stuck, lorries that
had jack-knifed and the bus we were on constantly slipped, many times ending
up at 45 degrees on the road. All the time as we were waiting in the traffic
jams that formed, local kids came running up to the windows, covered in
yellow mud, grinning and laughing at the situation that we were all in. It
was at this stage I knew that I would love this country.


I don’t really know what I was expecting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s
capital, but all the negative press it had received in the past, I was
imagining a war torn city that was populated by armed bandits. Nothing could
be further from the truth. I loved PP, it has been the most pleasant surprise
of my trip, the town is a graceful city with fine and beautiful French
colonial buildings, and the people are friendly, helpful and genuinely
pleased to see tourists.


One of the main things to do in Phnom Penh is to visit the various sites
that have been set up in remembrance of the horrendous atrocities that
were committed against the people of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge during their
reign of terror between 1975 and 1979, when at least one and a half million
people (at least 18% of the population) were either murdered or starved to
death in the most appalling conditions imaginable.


The Khmer Rouge wanted to
set up a country based around the strictest communist ideals possible and
banned all money, markets and private property and closed down all schools,
universities and Buddhist monasteries and taught the benefits of collective
values. Within a week of taking power they forced the population out of
the towns and forced them to work in the country, with very little food or
other basic human requirements, many starved to death. This was known as
Year Zero where history began again, the past had no importance. Anyone who
was remotely responsible for running the country in the past was executed
as were all the intellectuals (including those who wore glasses or could
speak a foreign language), in order to have a population who would not
question the will of the party.


The first place that we visited was Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing
Fields, in the suburbs of the city, where many of the victims, including
women, children and babies were murdered. The site has 43 mass graves that
have been opened, whilst a further 129 have been left alone. It is a
terrible feeling looking into these graves knowing the death and destruction
that were present there only 20 years before. Also as you walk around, it
is still possible to see fragments of bone and material poking out of the
ground, the whole place is literally one mass grave. The centrepiece of
the park site is a Memorial Stupa that contains 8000 skulls of victims all
arranged in age and sex. The monument was really moving, a really fitting
memorial to those who were executed there.


The second site, Toul Sleng Prison more commonly known as S-21, was even
more moving and horrifying than the Killing Fields. Toul Sleng before the
Khmer Rouge came to power was just another high school in the suburbs of
Phnom Penh, but after it was closed, it was converted into the main
Interrogation and Torture center, set up by the Khmer Rouge, for the most
important people who had committed ‘Crimes against the State’.


It is
estimated that during its time in use, at least 20,000 people were tortured
and then later executed within the school grounds. The museum has been left
very much as it was found, with the rooms used for extracting confessions,
left with the instruments of torture lying on the beds they were discovered
on, along with some extremely disturbing pictures of what had happened in
those very rooms. Other floors were the cells that prisoners were kept in,
the places the bodies were stored and the document room where the
confessions (many of them totally false), were processed.


For me, the most
disturbing room was the one with the photos of the victims before they were
executed or tortured. The range of emotions on the faces were amazing, from
total fear, to total defiance knowing that their fate was out of their
hands. The most striking aspect was of some of the ages of the victims. The
so called “enemies of the state” were no more than children, it was really
shocking. Everyone who visited this site have all agreed what an incredibly
moving experience it was.


There are many institutions in Phnom Penh that everyone visiting the city
should take time to experience. Firstly is the Foreign Correspondents Club
(FCC), the old stamping ground for many journalists in SE Asia. During the
Vietnam War, those journalists who were not in the field, filed many of
their reports from this very gentrified club, which has some of the finest
views over the Mekong River I have seen. Expensive, but worth visiting for
the ambiance.


Just down the road from the FCC is Herb’s Happy Pizza, a PP
institution. Some of the best pizza in Asia, as its name suggests, everyone
leaves the place with a big smile on their faces (I’ll let you work it
out!!). Another institution is the bar, Heart of Darkness, which has been
around for years, great music, cheap beer and a great atmosphere of locals,
ex-pats, and tourists. The surprise of PP had to be the National Museum, an
amazing place, beautiful exhibits that would not look out of place in
London, New York or Paris. Fantastic!!


After PP, along with Chris, an American I had first met in Malaysia, we
headed down to the South Coast to the town of Kompot. In our wisdom, we
decided that it would be an interesting trip to do by train. We realized
that it was possible to catch an air conditioned bus and arrive in three and a
half hours, but no, doing it the local way would be more fun. We should
have realized our mistake when the people at the train station were unaware
when the train was due to arrive at the destination. They just shrugged
their shoulders and said, whenever…


In the end, sitting on broken
chairs, surrounded by locals determined to practice their very limited
English, the journey took 11 hours. It was, as they say, a hellish experience.
We had learnt our lesson: never take a train in Cambodia.


The main reason to visit Kompot is to visit the abandoned hill station of
Bokor Hill, which basically feels like a huge ghost town, with empty hotels,
casinos and churches to explore. It is a good off-road bike ride away and
whilst we were there the mists closed in, making the place seem all the more
deserted and surreal. There is talk of redeveloping the whole area again,
but before they do a lot of work will need to be done on the roads leading
up to the ‘resort’. It will be interesting to see what happens.


Next stop was the coastal town of Sihanoukville, a smallish town that boasts
some amazingly beautiful and empty beaches. Although there are tourists
taking advantage of the town it certainly doesn’t seem overrun. It seems
that in Cambodia many people only stay long enough to see the Capital and
the ruins of Angkor Wat. It’s a real pity as the country has so much more to
offer!! We spent a couple of days lazing around on the beach, then it was
time to separate, myself back up to Phnom Penh (by Coach!!) and Chris back to
Thailand.


A short night back to Phnom Penh and then it was time to catch the speed
boat up the centre of the country. Some amazing views and, despite breaking
down for awhile, the journey was a great trip. Arriving in Siem Reap was
something else, total madness, with the biggest collection of motodrivers
vying for your custom, as they know that people usually stick to the one
driver once they start to explore the ruins around Angkor Wat.


I could spend the next hour just typing about this place, but none of it
will do it any justice, it really is a remarkable collection. As someone
put it, the ‘Jewel in South East Asia”. I spent three days exploring the
various ruins, all of them very different and all representing different
times in the development of the Khmer Empire.


My favourite place was Angkor Wat, the biggest religious site ever conceived by man, totally
stunning. To have some idea, it takes at least an hour and a half to walk
around the base of the temple. At every stage there are stunning carvings
that are over 1000 years old, some of them look as if they were carved only
yesterday, the details were so clear and precise. The views as you go to
the other four floors just get even better, stunning engravings covering
everywhere you look. Sunset was particularly fantastic.


My other favourite place is called Angkor Thom, which was in its time a
whole city with five very substantial religious sites, the most important being
the Bayon, a stunning monument with hundreds of corridors to explore and
monks and nuns to talk to. The most impressive part of this monument are
the 54 columns on the third floor, which all have massive faces of
Avolokitesvara’s (an ancient goddess) that look over the old empire. Exploring
this remarkable place could take many many hours.


Nearby is Ta Prohm,
which has been left as it was found, in real ruins with much of the jungle
still growing out of its walls. It’s a real example of how powerful and
versatile nature is once you leave it to its own devices.


After the culture of Angkor Wat, I have decided that I’m totally templed out,
and will not being visiting any more for some time (all I will do is compare
them to Angkor, and nothing will come close). After Angkor, I spent a
couple of days in Cambodia’s second city, Battambang, which up until 1988
was the last real stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. Up to that point you had
to be flown into the city, and if you wanted to go into the country you had
to have an armed guard. Luckily, this is not the case anymore. For the second
biggest city it has remarkably little to do, however the villages and
surrounding countryside more than made up for it.


The journey leaving Cambodia was remarkably straightforward, if not rather
uncomfortable. The pick-ups that ply the country certainly know how to pack
people into them, along with the usual selection of livestock that go around
SE Asia in public transport.


It’s an amazing feeling crossing back into Thailand. The difference between
it and Cambodia is huge, the roads are not full of dust and rubbish, the
cars are newer and cleaner and everything seems to be geared up for tourists.
The main difference is that you no longer have to worry about the
state of the roads, they will be without pot-holes that could swallow a
whole car. Thailand is a remarkably rich country.


From the border I headed straight to the Marine National park of Ko Chang
for eight days of beach living and boosting the tan before I head back home. Ko
Chang can quite simply be described as heaven, totally beautiful and
tranquil. I don’t think I have ever had such a lazy eight days, eating (the food
compared to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, was amazing), swimming, reading and
chatting to some great people staying in the Treehouse. A perfect ending to
my trip.


Now I’m back in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. What a place, it makes you
realize how off the beaten track some of the places that you have been are.
It also makes me feel very old, some of the people here look as if they
should still be at school…


There is really not much more to say. To those whom I have met on the
way, whether at the beginning, or later on in Asia, thanks for making the
journey an interesting and special one. Travelling is so much more than just
seeing the sites, it’s all about who you meet on the way, and you have all
been a great group to have met. As I have said, if you are ever in London,
send me an email. I may not be able to put you up, but I can certainly show
you some sights, and share a beer or three.


To those of you at home, mine’s a pint of Stella!!

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