Tales from a Broad #9

Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Koh Kong
Friday, November 17, 2000

Lots of traveling has been had since we last spoke, many miles on water and land. Sometimes you forget how fast the time goes, the day of the week or the month even. Pathetic.

We last met when Chris and I were about to leave Siem Reap. Angkor was truly one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing, and we decided to head off to Phnom Penh rather quickly. Siem Reap is not exactly a party town.

So, the options to get to PP were to take the pick up (10 hours, bad roads) or else a ferry down the Tonle Sap River. Four hours on the roof of the boat, soaking in the sunshine. After our last experience on the Cambodian roads, take a wild guess what route we decided to take???

The ferry ride was lovely and uneventful. The best place to park yourself on these boats is on the roof. Rain is rare this time of year and it’s gorgeous. It’s the best place to escape the over crowding and really bad and loud Khmer karaoke videos down below. All you need is a sarong to protect you from the sun, a good book and a pillow for your arse. We were set. The Tonle Sap is very much a ‘working river’ to the same extent as the Mekong, and we were treated to some great views of villages on stilts and fishermen laying their nets.

Phnom Penh was quite the change of scenery when we got there on mid afternoon. It’s busy, the traffic goes both ways on BOTH SIDES of the road, and it’s polluted. Chris and I rocked up to the Number 9 guesthouse, parked our bags and went to see the town.

Our guesthouse was actually really nice. Situated on the Boeng Kak lake, we were treated to sunsets as we lazed in hammocks and partook of the local cuisine. I would hardly call Phnom Penh safe, so we were in the guest house by about 6 o’clock at night and stayed. Luckily we had some great people to chat with, as well as three French guys who decided to bring some very young sex workers in to stay with them. You meet them all on the road. I was disgusted.

Although Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, it’s still a fairly small city and there’s not a whole lot to do. We spent the first day doing all the serious stuff. As most of you probably know, Cambodia was not exactly a safe place to visit until a couple of years ago. Before that the civil war and the threat of the Khmer Rouge, who had a habit of kidnapping and killing tourists, kept people away.

Chris and I rented a moto (motorbike) and headed out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Most people have heard of the killing fields. It ranks as one of the most atrocious acts of genocide ever seen. About 15 per cent of the population of this country was killed, somewhere in between 1 to 2 million people. Everyone was somehow affected by the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime. Those targeted were women, children and anyone educated, so the military, teachers, academics, judges, lawyers, accountants – all were systematically hunted down and killed in the most barbaric ways, mostly using common garden tools.

The Killing Fields were made famous by the movie of the same name, and it’s a sobering place. There are over 129 mass graves set up on the site of what used to be an orchard. A memorial pagoda was erected in the 80’s as a tribute to those who were killed. Over 8000 skulls of those dead, arranged by age and sex, are placed in the pagoda, towering over 20 meters into the air. It’s sobering to walk through the orchard/graves. Occasionally you can still see bone fragments and pieces of cloth around the graves. They have left 43 of the graves untouched.

Moving on from the Killing Fields, we continued our pilgrimage at the Tuol Sleng Museum, otherwise known as S-21. The Khmer Rouge converted this old high school into a main prison. Prisoners were sent to Tuol Sleng, kept in inhumane condition then shipped out to be killed in the fields. The school has been left as the Khmer Rouge kept it. It’s grim, dirty and awful. Pictures of the dead, and paintings depicting the horrors of the Khmer Rouge decorate the walls. Chris and I were stunned into silence. We spent the rest of the evening quiet and sober.

At about 3am that night I woke up in my bed with the strange sensation that I wasn’t the only one around. I could feel something, something ALIVE, sleeping on my feet. One big kick and I grabbed for my torch (flashlight). A rat was clinging to the inside of my mosquito net. No worries mate, it scampered off when I shone the light on it. I was lucky it didn’t bite me, as rabies shots are notoriously painful. I turned over, made sure my net was well tucked in, and went back to sleep.

Our second day in Phnom Penh was on a bit of a lighter note. We trudged off to take a look at the Grand Palace to find that we had picked a fabulous day to see it. Turns out that the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin was making a historic visit to Cambodia. School kids were dragged out of their classes to line the streets carrying signs with pictures of Jiang to greet him. It was surreal and the propaganda was everywhere. I was there for a little bit of history (and two seconds of a view when Jiang drove past). We then took a quick peek at the National Museum, which was surprisingly good, and headed off for a drink.

The FCC, or Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Cambodia, is legendary. It’s where all the journos have hung out for years and many top journalistic names have called it home. I couldn’t resist a beer in it. We nicked a menu. Why not? They wanted US$15 for a bloody t-shirt.

Chris was eager to get into Laos as he was on limited time before he had to get back to Sweden to his girlfriend’s birthday, so we headed out the next day to the south – Sihanoukville. The road south was paved and good, and the air conditioned bus ride was a joy after what we had been through.

I can’t say that Sihanoukville is very interesting. It was only founded as a port in the 1950’s, so nothing much happens there. We got a cheap guest house and spent the day on the beach. I burned my legs badly. Very very badly. Remember boys and girls to use skin protection. I’m an idiot so I didn’t.

Yesterday we decided to pack Cambodia in. The coastal border with Thailand takes a while to get to, so we boarded yet another ferry – the roof of course – and headed West. Four hours later we were in Koh Kong where we boarded what can only be described as a dinghy with a kamikaze captain and headed for Thailand. We were in Thailand by 4:30 pm after the Thai police took a poke through my backpack, Trat (South Eastern Thailand) by 6 and in Bangkok by midnight. We were in the bar at 12:02.

Cambodia is an amazing place but it’s lots of work. They are still recovering from the decades of war and the killing of all their learned peoples means that it will take generations to recover the knowledge they’ve lost. It’s a country clearly still wounded and in pain but the people are warm and inviting. Angkor is their golden ring. If it’s managed correctly money will pour into the country and give them a sense of pride of their past, something that after the war is hard to find. Give them a few years to improve the infrastructure and the tourist money will pile in. I’m happy to have been there at the very start.

Now, having done all the hard stuff, I’m up for some fun. I said goodbye to Chris this morning (sniff sniff) and will leave Bangkok for the beaches by Tuesday. Pretty fishes here I come!

Now, this week’s tip to the wise:
Never trust a man in speedos (long story).