So here we go. I'll start again where I left off - Cambodia. Prior to my travels, I knew relatively little about the country besides its dark recent past blighted by the war in Vietnam and the subsequent horrors of the Pol Pot regime, a period in which around 2 million people, a quarter of the population, perished.The ramifications of these tragedies are still evident today and our experience of the country were obviously influenced by them , although we also enjoyed other elements of Cambodia's rich history and culture.
Angkor Wat, the 12th century jungle temple complex that we visited the day after my last blog entry was a great example of this. We arrived for sunrise, a truly memorable sight, the soft morning rays rising slowly behind the main temple building, creating a silhouette so iconic and ingrained in the national psyche that it finds itself on the country's national flag. It was an incredible site, hundreds of temples charting a rich civilization that once prospered in the jungle and over the centuries followed both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, all throughout standing a magnificent example of Khmer architecture. Right from the start then, the group was introduced to Cambodian culture, an experience that gave us a sense of what to expect and also a sense of scale and history, of the religion and traditions of the nation, elements which still live on today in the peoples' daily lives.
We were also introduced to Cambodian cuisine early on, our first couple of nights in Siem Reap providing us with the opportunity to try the Khmer curries, the fantastic 'Amok' dishes, 'Loc Lac' and many more. The food was, and generally has been the whole time I've been in south east Asia, exceptionable. Perhaps it had something to do with the less than average quality of most of the food in India, but the Cambodia meals bowled me over - all I have to do now is find a Khmer restaurant in London and I'll be happy. The spices and flavours used, including creamy coconut milk, delicious fish sauces and many others that my untrained pallette couldn't pinpoint, were fantastic, and made the trip all the more enjoyable. (Note also that my chest pains were fading by this point and my renewed appetite and heightened enjoyment of food only doubled my enthusiasm). Whilst in Siem Reap, we celebrated a member of our tour, Ian's, birthday, spending the evening in the infamous 'Angkor What?' bar, a chaotic night that introduced us to the wonders and economic logic of spirit-and-mixer-filled buckets. Needless to say, the next day started off slowly - great fun though, and a real group bonding night.
Our next stop, Kampong Cham, allowed us the chance to enjoy a bike ride to a nearby island by way of a precarious bamboo bridge, an opportunity we didn't let pass. Although extremely sweaty, the ride itself was really enjoyable and we relished the chance to meet some local children at a school/monastery on the island. After playing some interesting Cambodian games with them, we bade farewell and made our way back to the hotel before grabbing some dinner in the evening. The accomodation all throughout the tour, I should point out, was fantastic, in no way 'basic' as the tour brochure promised, a welcome change after our very simple residences in India.
Next, we made our way to a village where we were to experience the first of two homestays on the tour. It was a very enlightening experience, a local community member explaining to us upon our arrival how the villagers were trying to resettle after the war, something which had proved very hard as farming was near impossible in mine-covered lands. With the help of various charities and community schemes (Princess Diana's campaign may spring to mind), land had been cleared, although we were told that the village still relies heavily on the revenue produced by such tourist activity as ours. The problems caused by the war and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, we once again realised, are evident everywhere, effecting peoples' every day life in real tangible ways. That evening, around a fire, after a fantastic home-cooked meal, we were to learn more about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years.
After the owner of the small hut that half of us were staying in told us about how he and his wife were paired up and married with hundreds of other similarly matched couples by the authorities, our tour leader, the infectiously charismatic Keasar, revealed to us that both his parents died during the Khmer Rouge years. A silence stung the group. The tragedy was unescapable - it was part of modern Cambodia, a perpetual shadow that clung to the hearts of the people. My respect for Cambodians, particularly of that generation, increased during my stay in the country. Their constant friendliness and warmth, their laughs and smiles, stood testament to the unbreakable strength of mankind's will to survive, to continue, to stay positive through the darkness. Being generations away from any experience of war or similar terror, I could only stand back and admire their character and be thankful that no such tragedy had hit me yet. The people really were amazing, their spirits undefeated and even strengthened by history, their determination to carry on as they had before no more evident than in the community of that village. The morning afterwards, we presented the children of the village with gifts - colouring books, pens, paper pads etc - presents which they accepted with grins and shining eyes.
Our next stop was Sihanoukville, a beach town to the south of the country. Our first sight of the sea - finally! The enthusiasm of James and myself was immutable, we could finally realise the idyllic dream that we had been harbouring in our minds for weeks. The chance to relax on a beach for 3 days with the vast openess of the warm sea in front of us was a fantastic prospect, one which we welcomed with open arms. Although it was a relatively small and quiet beach during the day, it definitely heated up at night, its many bars booming out infectious dance tunes whilst drinks were sold (predominantly in buckets) at very reasonable prices. All in all, the Cambodian beach and its nightlife surprised us and was an unexpected bonus of the trip. After one particularly heavy night, we caught a boat out to the local islands to enjoy some snorkeling, fishing and sunbathing as the day gently carried on around us. Upon leaving, we couldn't deny that we felt slightly worse for wear, although the sun and sea certainly helped us rise to the day and we enjoyed the experience immensely, especially the huge lunch that our guides cooked up for us on one of the beaches. By now, the group were much tighter and we looked towards the rest of the tour with hightened eagerness and excitement. I also bumped into Clemmie (a friend from back home for those of you who don't know her) whilst crossing the street, which was pretty random but great as we had the opportunity to share our travel stories with each other, hers particularly interesting as she had just come from Vietnam with her tour group (taking our route in reverse). The next night we made sure to merge our groups and party together. We were to meet later again in Laos - it never ceases to amaze me, the number of people from back home I have literally bumped into whilst travelling, almost unnerving.
After another heavy night out, having had no sleep, I tiredly joined the group on the bus and we made our way to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. We shacked up in the 'Fancy Hotel', which amusingly had a supposedly signed photo of Elton John thanking the hotel for its services. Don't be fooled, however, despite the misleading name of the hotel, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that Elton, diva that he is, wouldn't touch that hotel with a stick, let alone stay in it. Funny nonetheless. In the city, we visited a couple of sights, including the Royal Palace and the National Museum, before heading to the S-21 prison and the nearby 'Killing Fields' the next day. It was a truly harrowing experience, an insight into the horrific crimes of the Khmer Rouge, the prison essentially a torture house for political prisoners before their inevitable execution at the Killing Fields. The Killing Fields themselves were just horrible, a draining experience that leaves you sick and angry, shaken and sad as you walk between pits filled with bodies, over bones and clothes left untouched since the end of the regime. The towering memorial in the centre contained thousands of the skulls of the murdered. Our guide at one point drew our attention to the sharpness of the palm leaves, an instrument utilised by the soldiers during the extermination period. We were also shown a pit which stood next to a tree. It was a pit where the bodies of babies and young children were thrown after their bodies were smashed against the tree or they were thrown into the air and impaled. Sickening. I'd recommend reading up on Pol Pot's regime if you are interested in the whole affair, how this tragedy came about. Although a distressing experience, it was also very enlightening and further highlighted the spirit of the Cambodia people. The morning after our final meal in the city, our group wary that five members were to be shortly lost, we made our way to the border where we were to cross into Vietnam.
As you may have guessed, I loved Cambodia. Despite the tragedies of recent times, the spirit of the nation remains intact and its people were one of the highlights of the trip. Its compelling culture, delcious food and, ofcourse, our great tour leader and group, hightened my enjoyment of the experience. The next question - could Vietnam live up to Cambodia's legacy?