map taken from PPR website.
Cambodia borders on Thailand and shares its hot climate and lush greenery, but faces many more challenges than its relatively affluent neighbour. Chief among these is the effects of decades of civil war and brutal dictatorship under the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the massacre of 2 million people, many of whom died in the notorious Killing Fields. Although relatively stable since the late 1990s, Cambodia is still lacking in basic infrastructure, social services and education. In the UN’s Human Development Index, it ranks 129 out of 177 countries.
And yet Cambodia has much to offer. Its people are open and friendly, and it is home to the famed beaches of Sihanoukville and the legendary temples of Angkor Wat. These temples are evidence of a once-thriving empire and still inspire awe in modern-day visitors. It is not surprising that tourism is Cambodia’s second largest industry. I can only hope that more people visit this beautiful country, leaving behind much-needed dollars.
We planned to land in the capital city of Phnom Penh, visit the Thai embassy, and then get on a bus for a 5-6 hour trek to Siem Reap (some x km north) to see Angkor Wat.
Silly of me to assume everything would go according to plan. We ran into some difficulties at the embassy, due in part to me not having my student card and due to a low-level bureaucrat throwing her weight around, requiring additional documentation we were unaware of. This required some intervention from our firm in Bangkok, with the result being that we did a lot of running around to find phone booths and internet cafes, and missed the bus to Siem Reap.
All of which was kind of fun in its own way. The cheapest and quickest way to get around in Phnom Penh is by moto or tuk-tuk. Entire families and their pets get about all packed onto one moto.
Small family on moto.
The idea of riding a motorcycle back home makes me a little nervous. But several times throughout the day in Phnom Penh I found myself on the back of a moto going from one place to the next. It was an excellent, unmediated way of seeing the city and I found it liberating. Perhaps too liberating – I was reminded later that ladies typically ride motos side-saddle. I guess I ain't no lady.
While the traffic in Phnom Penh is nowhere near as intense as in Bangkok, moto and tuk-tuk drivers do have an unnerving habit of crossing into oncoming traffic if their destination is on the other side of the road, slowly drifting through the other lane until they reach the curb. A number of such unwritten traffic rules seem to exist in Cambodia, and I found it best just not to look.
In a tuk-tuk.
We found a guesthouse for the night and had a lovely dinner at a restaurant that trains and employs former streetkids. I had the fish Amok, a national dish of stewed lake fish, served in banana leaf. An American fellow at the next table over ordered deep fried tarantula, though I strongly suspect he was aiming to impress the gaggle of British girls he was surrounded by.
In the tuk-tuk on the way back to our guesthouse, we passed groups of children in our tuk-tuk on the way back to our guesthouse, who greeted and waved at us ecstatically – “Hello! Hello!”
* * *
The next morning we boarded a bus for the 5-6 hour trip to Siem Reap. On the way out of Phnom Penh, I saw monkeys playing on the telephone lines!
Passing through rural villages along the way, we passed many houses built on stilts, the better to ride out high floodwaters. Children ran with chickens, pigs, and skinny cows in the yards. Lines of water ran through green rice paddies. Rains pounded the red earth into red mud, which quickly dried as the sun reclaimed the sky.
Arriving in Siem Reap, we were quickly surrounded by masses of tuk-tuk drivers eager for our commerce, an introduction of sorts to the constant hard sell dogging tourists’ steps.
We decided to stay at the Popular Guesthouse, which, as you may have guessed from the name, is popular with backpackers. I quickly met and fell in with a group of backpackers from Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, and the UK. With them, I explored the market, had a couple drinks at an Irish pub called “Molly Malone’s”, then celebrated a birthday at nightclubs Angkor What? (clever) and Zoom 3. I executed a ceremonial transfer-of-custody-of-the-Australian with the Canadians, who were leaving for home the next day.
Cam and Andrea from Canada, Matt from Australia.
Zoom 3 was surreal. A cavernous dark room, illuminated by lasers and strobe lights, playing the latest Khmer hits backed up by throbbing Western beats, and packed with all of young Siem Reap. The men in the bar would periodically scream – literally shriek – at the tops of their lungs. Imagine the sound of the Black Riders screaming on the wind in the Lord of the Rings -- only young, Khmer, and fashionable - and you get the idea. We shrugged our shoulders, thought ‘why not?’, and joined in. I even got to show off my macarena dance moves.
I just realised how old I am with that sentence.
Next post: the temples of Angkor