I warn you that this will probably be quite a long blog as I am very passionate about Cambodia. It has had a heartbreaking history but it is such a wonderful country.
On Day 23 we were up bright and early for the bus to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It was a public bus over the border, but the tickets were booked so we were guaranteed seats. We settled down for a five or six hour journey, and the first part of the trip went entirely according to plan. We crossed the border in good timing, and we had our new Cambodian visas to admire - very shiny and green.
However, about twenty minutes into Cambodia we were overtaken by two cars with blacked out windows which slammed their brakes on and forced the bus off the road. I asked the Cambodian tour operator what was going on and he looked embarrassed and said that it was customs and that somebody had brought some beer on the bus that wasn't supposed to be there. It turned out that "some beer" was about thirty crates of Heineken, poorly disguised in bin bags, and the somebody who put it on the bus was actually the driver. We spent a very hot sweaty hour waiting on the bus while customs demanded $500US from the driver (this is more than twice what he would earn in a month) and we only got going again because somebody on the bus knew an official who she phoned and he managed to get us released. If not we'd probably still be there. The bus driver had been bringing the beer over the border to avoid import duties in return for a small fee. He'd done it before and never been caught but he will probably lose his job now not a very good outcome.
We still managed to arrive in Phnom Penh with enough time to be able to go on our cyclo tour of the city. Intrepid supports a foundation which brings young men off the streets and allows them to buy a cyclo under a sort of hire purchase arrangement, giving them a stable income. Intrepid also encourages them not to smoke while they are cycling, as most Cambodians seem to be chain smokers. The trip round the city was very interesting. Because of former French occupation, this is yet another city which has a very French feel to it, but also a lot of history - it has been the capital of Cambodia since the 15th century. Cambodia seems to be another country which is very fond of its royal family. There are pictures of them everywhere, but especially of the current king's mother, who looks like a Cambodian Queen Elizabeth!
Cambodia is a very poor country, for reasons which I will go on to explain. There is a high level of illiteracy in the countryside, as education often comes at a price. It is estimated that about a third of the population live on less than $1US per day, and life expectancy in the country is 57. Because of the poverty situation, the sex trade is rife. Even without considering the major child sex tourism problem, there is plenty of prostitution in the country, and plenty of western men who are very obviously not there to do sightseeing. It's absolutely disgusting and makes me so sad. Cambodia has had a desperately sad past and to witness this blatant exploitation is completely disgusting.
After our cyclo trip we went and had a very enjoyable drink at the Foreign Correspondent's Club - one cocktail left me pretty wasted. I followed this up with half a bottle of wine with dinner and was in the mood to go out. We went and had a few drinks at a nearby bar on the lively riverfront, but eventually people started singing karaoke and looking at each other's facebook profiles - not my idea of fun, so I left and got a motorbike taxi home.
I got chatting to my taxi driver, whose name is Sp, and we ended up sitting outside the hotel until 3.30 drinking my rum and chatting. It was such an interesting experience. He is 24, only a few months older than me, but his life could not be more different to mine. He was very shy and for some reason thought his English was bad, although it was great - pretty unusual, and he has a volunteer English teacher to thank for that. At the end of the night we arranged to meet up the following day so that he could show me the non-touristy side to Phnom Penh.
The following morning we had a free morning and I took advantage of this to stay in bed until 1pm. I know it may seem to you that I have been constantly catching up on sleep for this trip, but I cannot explain to you how exhausting it has been!
In any case, it probably was good that I recharged my batteries, as the afternoon was set to be emotionally exhausting.
I assume you know almost nothing about Cambodian history as I didn't until that day. Between 1975 and 1979 there was a government in power called the Khmer Rouge, run by a man called Pol Pot. He was a communist, and like loads of mental communists had this obsession with everyone being peasants and working the land, with no educated people at all. They moved everyone out of the cities - and I mean everyone. They were relocated into the country, but none of them knew how to grow crops so loads of people starved. A lot of people were taken to the Tuol Sleng prison that we visited, which had formerly been a school. Some prisoners were kept in quite big cells on iron beds. The rooms have been left the same as they were when the Vietnamese army liberated the prison in 1979. On each room's wall was a picture of how the cell looked then, with the dead man in it. The soliders had peeled their faces away from their skulls, eaten their livers and left them for the vultures. It was vile.
Prisoners were interrogated at the prison to find out if they had worked for the last government or not. If they confessed they were taken off to the Killing Fields (more to follow) but if they didn't they were tortured, by dipping them in pots of filthy water so they nearly drowned, or cutting them and rubbing chillis and salt on the wounds, or picking up women's babies and threatening to dash their brains out in front of them. If they confessed they were sent to the Killing Fields, if not they were tortured to death. It was a lose-lose situation. These were normal people whose only crimes had been to be a doctor, or a teacher. Some people were kept in tiny cells in rooms, they were not allowed to talk and had to ask permission even to turn over on their beds. The women were kept together and raped repeatedly. They were allowed to go to shower after they were raped and many committed suicide by jumping off the building. The guards eventually put up barbed wire to stop women jumping off. Other women were tortured in the most horrific ways.
There is finally a tribunal to try these people but some were free and living in the cities until as late as last year. The date of the tribunal keeps getting put back because many of the current government, not to mention some of the royal family, were part of this government in the 70s. So they will avoid trying their friends. The west knew about all of this after it happened but Pol Pot was allowed a seat on the UN until 1991 and he died of natural causes. The Cambodians don't blame the west for not intervening because the alternative government was just as bad. Imagine how it must feel to be in that situation?
Afterwards, we visited the Killing Fields, where many people were killed and buried. Some of the graves have been excavated but a lot have been left as there were. There is a stupa containing hundreds of skulls of victims to see, as well as the graves. People were often buried alive, or if they were killed they had their throats cut. Most of the women were raped. They used to smash babies' heads in on a big tree by one of the mass graves.
The population of Cambodia had been about 7 million, and up to 3 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. That's almost half the population! Consequently, 50% of Cambodians today are under 18. Many Cambodians who are approaching middle age have been affected by the regime. Our guide lost his parents and five brothers.
When it rains at the Killing Fields the ground erodes and more bodies are revealed. On that day, on the path we were walking on, there were human bones sticking out of the ground, there were bits of people's clothes everywhere, there were even human teeth just lying on the path. It was completely horrific. That was one of the most upsetting experiences of my life.
I've bought a book called "First They Killed My Father." It's highly recommended, and about a girl growing up in the time of the Khmer Rouge. I haven't had the courage to open it yet because I know how upsetting it will be.
After we got back from the Killing Fields, I went for a walk. The heavens opened and the most violent thunderstorm I have ever seen started. The rain fell in sheets, it was like the whole sky was made of water. When the thunder rolled the windows shook, and the street was a river. In the five minutes or less it took me to walk back to my hotel I got completely soaked and had to wring out all of my clothes over the basin!
Luckily the weather cleared up and I went to meet Sp. We sat and had a couple of drinks and a chat, before he took me on his motorbike to show me the sights of the city. We ended up in a Cambodian karaoke bar on the outskirts of the city, with different people singing very high pitched songs in Khmer. We drank beer and ordered food - Sr was keen for me to try some traditional Cambodian dishes. I tried chicken flavoured with something very strong, as well as an animal which Sp didn't know the name of in English. He said it's a long fish-like animal which has a nose and teeth but no arms or legs, it has skin like a human and burrows in mud. Any ideas? It's not an eel by the way. Anyway, whatever it was it was delicious but had very small bones. Unfortunately it was the wrong season for rat to be on the menu, as I would have quite like to have tried it.
While we were at the restaurant I got quite a lot of attention from the other Cambodians. One girl came up to us and spoke to me in Khmer as she spoke no English - Sp translated. She said that this was the first time a Westerner had ever visited the bar and she couldn't get over her excitement. She kept on hugging and kissing me until we left!
When the bar closed at 12.30, we went for another drive around the city. It started to rain, and although the rain was warm, Cambodians get cold if the temperature falls below 25, and Sp was shivering, so we went and sat in a petrol station. Because there are no drink driving laws in Cambodia, petrol stations are also bars. It was very strange seeing people lined up in the window of a Shell garage getting smashed!
Sp and I talked for ages. I know you may think I'm crazy just going off with a strange man like that, and it's never something I would normally do, but I completely trusted this man and it turns out I was right to do so. It was so lucky that his English was so good because I was fascinated by his life and he was fascinated by mine. We are the same age but we could not be more different! He lives out of the city and he has 20 cows which he loves and looks after. He studies Tourism at university but his father had to sell a lot of his possessions for him to be able to go, and Sp works as a taxi driver in the night to make ends meet. He is passionate about his country and wants me to learn all about it, but he is also despairing of it. his grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and his parents now work on a plantation out in the countryside. He hates the widespread corruption in the country and the fact that because of the poverty it is very hard to make something of your life. He wants to travel but he knows there is very little chance he will ever be able to.
It was so interesting listening to everything he had to tell me, but so sad as well. I take my freedom and the opportunities I have for granted all the time, but this just illustrated to me again how lucky I am. Sp is one of the kindest people I know, and has an almost childlike innocence. He is a truly good person and I am so sorry that he may not be able to fulfil all his considerable potential.
After yet another short night's sleep, I was up again and before I knew it was one another propeller plane to Siem Reap. Luckily my complete exhaustion made the whole experience somewhat unreal, and I managed to get through the half hour flight without shedding a single tear, although I did perhaps grab the boy next to me's arm a little to hard every time the propellers changed speed. Undeniably, though, the views from the plane were absolutely amazing.
We landed in Siem Reap and were driven to the hotel, which was beautiful, with large spacious rooms and a huge swimming pool. All I was interested in was sleep though, and I collapsed into bed for a good four hours! After this I got up and had a brief look around the markets, before heading to the Foreign Correspondents' Club for happy hour. Stunning building of colonial architecture, frighteningly strong cocktails for the equivalent of 1.50GBP each. Why can't it be like that at home? After this we went and had a traditional Cambodian meal (fish in a coconut sauce) at a restaurant which donates a percentage of its profits to the local children's hospital. Set up by a Swiss doctor, the hospital is the only one in the country which offers free treatment, and the families queue outside all day long.
We were up at 4.30am on Day 26 for our trip to one of the highlights of the tour - the Temple of Angkor Wat. This is surely one of the modern wonders of the world - a stunning temple built between 1113-1150. It was abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years before being discovered overgrown in the jungle by the French. It has since been restored. Hundreds of people go to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, but I wanted to watch it alone, so I moved away from the crowds and round to the back of the building where there was no one at all. It was a really special experience to watch the sun rise on the ancient building and the stones change colour.
After this we had a guided tour round the Wat, during which I must have taken about a hundred photos (photos should be up here tomorrow.) We then went for a much needed breakfast, before heading off to our second temple of the day, The Bayon. This was built between 1181 and 1220 and features amazing huge stone carvings of Buddha faces. The architecture was beautiful, but it was getting very hot, and we were all glad to get back to the hotel for... you've guessed it: a sleep!
Once the weather cooled down again, we headed out to Ta Prohm, the temple which was used in the Tomb Raider movie. The temple has been left the way it was when it was discovered, and there are trees growing all over the stonework. It was absolutely amazing to see, a real experience. After this we were pretty tired though, and after a refreshing cocktail at the FCC, and a cheap and delicious curry in an Indian restaurant, we went to bed.
On Day 27 it was another temple day, but only four of us managed to make it out of bed to go and visit Banteay Srei, another beautiful temple with intricate carvings in red sandstone. You may wonder why there are so many temples around Siem Reap. It was the capital of the Khmer empire just under a thousand years ago and successive kings kept on ordering new temples to be built.
After this we headed to the landmine museum. This is a tiny museum set up by a man who used to fight in the army for the Khmer Rouge, but having seen the destruction that landmines can cause, has set up an operation to diffuse them. He relies on donations to the charity to continue his work. there are between three and six million mines remaining in Cambodia, and people fall victim to them every year. They are not aimed to kill, but to disable, and there are many mine victims around the country, and begging on the streets. Over one hundred countries have signed a treaty to stop making landmines and to destroy their existing stocks. However, a number of powerful countries have refused to sign the treaty, including Russia, China, and the USA. A shocking fact.
We headed back to the hotel to spend lunch by the pool, as it was too hot to be doing very much. I took a tuk tuk into town for a traditional Cambodian massage which was very relaxing. We then headed out on a boat trip through the waterways of the Tonle Sap lake, where we saw the locals who lived on the lake. In the summer when most of the lake is swamp land they live on their boats right out in the middle of the water, but in the rainy season they live closer to land. These people are extremely poor and live on very little.
After our trip round the water ways, we went to a hammock bar (which is basically what it sounds) to watch the sun set. There was something very relaxing about swinging in a hammock as the sun went down, with a cold beer in my hand.
Day 28 was the final day of the tour, and we climbed into the buses for the last time to take the journey down the Dancing Road to the Thai border. The road is called the Dancing Road because the airlines are currently paying the Cambodian government to drag their heels with finishing it - this allows them to rake it in in air fares. As a result the journey to the border on the unsealed road is very bumpy.
Apart from a few back injuries, the journey was fairly uneventful, although I did bite into a cake-like snack I bought at a roadside shop only to discover it was full of dead ants. I spent the next half hour picking ants out of my teeth and trying very hard not to be sick. When we reached the border and returned to civilisation, we were in two much more comfortable minivans, which allowed us to sleep for the rest of the journey, on smooth highways, to Bangkok. We spent our last evening out having a delicious meal and a few drinks.
So this brings me to the end of my Indochina experience. It was unforgettable and very tiring. I will write again in a couple of days letting you know how I've been filling my time during my week in Bangkok....