Shortly before I left Laos, I headed up to the Pakou Caves which is a retirement home for hundreds of unloved and unwanted Buddha statues. Ahhh. The caves weren't anything special, but they did give me my first taste of real begging that i've not really experienced anywhere else in SE Asia yet. Sure, there's people trying to sell you tourist crap that you don't need everywhere, and thankfully your ears after a while stop registering the frequencies of 'Tuk Tuk?' and 'Massage', but once you've said no or ignore them most people give up. However at the caves there were multitudes of very young girls holding bamboo cages no bigger than your hand containing trapped birds. They wanted $1 in return for one. I couldn't get my head around the practicalility of needing a bird in the cage until I realised that you were paying for the bird to be released...These girls followed you everywhere. What a sad ingenious source of never ending revenue.
It was also here that I saw what simple pleasure these poor people can get out of nothing. One of these girls had tied a piece of string tied to an empty plastic water bottle and was laughing her head off running with it behind her at the noise it was making as it bobbled along.
On the way back from the caves we were taken to a local whisky village. Huge vats of hooch were bubbling on fires with the ready fermented stuff running off for you in a tube to put your glass under and take a taste. Hot 50% proof rice whisky was quite delicious just before it blew your head off.
The flight from Laos in Cambodia on Lao Airlines turned out not to be ride of death I was expecting. Well, obviously. It did help though that at 10am I was pissed on local whisky and doped up on Diazempam. There was a girl in the waiting area practicing Yoga moves before the flight which is one way to de-stress I suppose but a little too self conscious for me.
I spent a few days in Siem Reap which turned out to be quite an enjoyable little town, full of good old western comforts like music bars where you could pick from the biggest music catalogue ever and get an album put on your ipod for 40p a go. Copyright laws don't exist in Cambodia, which is is fantastic if you want to pick up a perfect coloured photocopy of a Rough Guide for two quid, or a copy of Photoshop or Windows Vista for a bit less.
It goes without saying and you can see from the photos that the temples at Angkor Wat near Siem Reap are stunning. I hired a Tuk Tuk driver for the day for $10 to drive me around, which beat cycling in the heat as some people did.The temples were built around 1000ad and the scale of them is vast, comparable to when I saw when I visited the pyramids at Cairo.
The people of Cambodia are joyous. All of SE Asia is friendly, but you can tell in places like Thailand that it's tourist friendly; the more they smile the more they want your money. You've only got to sit in Cambodia and watch the locals though to see that their friendliness is completely genuine. When they're just together you see that they are constantly talking, laughing, smiling, just enjoying themselves, and not from alcohol, and this from people who live in one of the poorist countries in the world. It's frustrating that on the surface at least there seems to be a link between having the least but being happiest with that. Maybe if we could all simplifier our lives a bit more in the west we could regain some of what they have.
The western orientated bars and comforts of Siem Reap turned out to be an over gentle introduction to Cambodia, and it was only when I left and arrived in the capital of Phnom Penh that the plight of many of the locals hits you. There are beggars absolutely everywhere. Even at a restaurant you get no peace, the best bet is to find somewhere at the rear and hope to go unnoticed. Many of the people asking for money have no arms, no legs, many are young children being pushed around limbless from the waste down in wheelchairs by their brothers or sisters. It's a really difficult situation to face every day. Do you give to none or all of them? If you had $100 and gave everyone $1 who asked for money then within 30 minutes you'd have nothing left.
The city is massive, and a lot of it is a stinking dump. Rotting rubbish is just left in great piles at the sides of the roads for days, before finally it gets put in a skip to be taken away. It's the sort of smell that if you make the mistake of breathing it in through your nose as you pass you nearly gip. You learn to hold your breath pretty quickly.
Practically every bar you go in at night is a girly bar. Similar to Pattaya there are a lot of male westerners there of a certain age. I spoke to a local American guy who told me that it is impossible to 'pull' a genuine Cambodian girl in any bar in Phnom Penh; the nice girls are at home and only the ones involved in prostitution go to bars. Considering that at about 12pm each bar is full of girls, easily out numbering the guys theres an awful lot of prostitution going on. Boom Boom or Yam Yam it's all for the right price. It's probably their only way to make some money in such a poor country.
Apart from the obligatory temples there are only really two must see sites in Phnom Penh, and they both relate to the period in the late 70s when a quarter of the population, approximately two million people, were murdered by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. This is something else that happened in the world I didn't know about, but I will bore you with the details. Cambodia's entire population of 8 million was forced out of the cities to work in rice fields. Intellectuals of any class were murdered. Even anyone who wore glasses were classed as such. The whole country was turned into a food making machine.
The Killing Fields are huge areas of land where mass graves were uncovered once Vietnam had overthrown Pol Pot from Cambodia. A visit here is to these fields and a gruesome memorial building that holds thousands of skulls of those murdered. The chinese were taking their usual photos but it seemed kind of macabre to do so.
Yesterday I went to S21. This was a school that got converted to a death campby the Khmer Rouge. Everything has been left in its place, class rooms converted to cells and toture chambers, blood on the walls, pictures of the dead and dying, equipment used for torture. The saddest thing was many of the local Cambodian children were recruited to the Khmer Rouge. If you were a child who wore a cap you were a cabre, all powerful and part of the Khmer Rouge. These children ended up helping and killing their own people; entire families, women and children, maybe out of fear of being killed themselves. There are pictures of those that died, and those that did the killing, and here I did take some photos, to remember their faces. Feeling I owed a break from the gloom I spashed out a couple of days this week and spent two days wallowing around at the local Raffles hotel of all places. As i'll never be able to afford to stay at a Raffles, I thought $20 to use their pool and gym facilities for the day was completely extravagant, but what the hell I am supposed to be on holiday!Today I finally got my Vietnam visa through, onward to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow!