Sep 30

A sombre few days in Cambodia which defined our travel experience

Day 10 – Arriving in Phnom Penh

We said goodbye to Vietnam and to two of the group who weren’t continuing on. Ruth headed back to Sydney and Richard back to Norwich. That morning we travelled across the Vietnam boarder to Cambodia by public bus. This was actually fairly pleasant and the crossing happened without any hitches. It was a long old journey though, taking a good eight hours in total.

When we entered Cambodia, you could instantly sense the drop even further below the poverty line. We crossed the Mekong Delta at one point and I watched locals dealing their coconuts from the back of a cart. Everyone flocked around pretty quickly, excited by what was on sale.

Phnom Penh was our first destination in Cambodia. After checking in at our slightly out of place 3+ star accommodation, we were due to take a Cyclo tour of the city. We’d been warned by Charles the Phnom Penh was a hotspot for pick pockets – this was understandable, as the contrast to first and third world was there to be witnessed. So we were sensible with what we carried on our person. The cyclo tour was reminiscent of our motorbike tour in Vietnam. We came out of the hotel to be greeted by a group of Cambodian guys all from outside of the city. They’re farmers and various other things when not taking cycle tours and the company they worked for were equivalent to the fair trade schemes supported by G Adventures.

My cyclo man had a pretty obscure name which has now evaded my memory. He was a man of little English but kept saying “same same”. We jumped into our cyclo’s feeling like big babies and off we went. To be honest, I felt like a proper idiot in the cyclo and a lazy idiot at that. After battling through the sea of cars around Phnom Penh, we arrived at our first stop, Wat Phnom. This was to be one of the many temples we would visit in Cambodia. I’m not sure any of us want to see a temple again.

Jumping back in our buggies (cyclo’s), we continued onto a few more sites, doing the usual tourist thing. We finished up outside the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) for happy hour and boy, was it happy. After a long day of travel and cyclo’s I think everyone was in the mood for drinks. In one hour we’d consumed a handsome amount and then headed off to dinner.

I had a wonderful Khmer Curry and Fi shared that and a pizza with Alicia. After the food, Doug got a little crazy and started buying gin by the bottle. He handed out drinks to the table consisting of a lot of gin, a lot of lime and a little tonic. Three bottles later and we were all a little sozzled. Somehow we made it back to the hotel in a Tuk Tuk. This was the worst possible preparation for the day that was to come.

Day 11 – The Killing Fields

The next day arrived with a bit of a haze. We were up early to learn all about the Khmer Rouge, the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. We set off on the bus and were introduced to our tour guide for the day, Dara. He was another knowledgeable chap and he delivered the story about Khmer rouge as objectively as possible. The Khmer Rouge were the communist party headed up by Pol Pot, a socialist who’s policies applied to agriculture led to the death of over 20% of the Cambodian population. Some through lack of medical benefit, but a large proportion by torture and murder. The Genocide that occurred in Cambodia was horrific and learning about it for a day was an extremely sobering experience. It made us all incredibly sad.

We were taken around he Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was formerly a High School but was transformed into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge. They would torture respectable Cambodian’s here without due reason and prepare them for their imminent death at the Killing Fields. They would force each prison to write autobiographies about their lives until their arrest. They would then torture until they received some form of confession – but this would never end in release. The conditions and torture techniques were horrifying. Each prisoner was photographed on their initiation and on our journey around, you would often recognise some of them in pictures where they hadn’t survived the torture. Please, if you would like to learn more about this, see this link. One blog post really isn’t enough to summarise this all.

After the Genocide Museum, we headed to the Killing Fields. This was equally emotional and it was difficult to compute the tragedies that had occurred. Mass graves containing hundreds to thousands of people were discovered. There were over 20k sites discovered in total. The victims were often brutally killed. To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge would use sharpened Bamboo to decapitate the victims. Babies were beaten on tree trunks. It really was horrifying, Please see this link to learn more about this – as it’s again, very difficult to describe the gravity of this period in Cambodia.

Over the last six months, that day was probably one of the toughest and it really made us think deeply about what we’d experienced and what we’d learned.

That night we had a fantastic dinner at a charity / restaurant called ‘Friends‘ which is run and funded by the Friends International charity who are doing amazing work in Cambodia and further afield around Asia. The restaurant is run by former street youth and still takes on street youth training them and finding them work. The food was great and the shop next door provided some extremely creative novelties. Such as the fork ring I bought and the spoon and fork bracelets Fi bought. If anyone’s ever in Cambodia, this place is a must visit – restaurant and shop! Later that night we prepared for an early to start and travel day to Siem Reap.

Day 12 – The most memorable day of travelling

That morning, Fi and I went for breakfast as usual in the lobby downstairs. But today was a little different. Through the huge glass windows surrounding the hotel, we caught eye contact with an old lady. She was decrepid in appearance and gestured with her hand to her mouth, indicating how hungry she was. We then saw a similar thing from a mother with her two babies. This really made us feel terrible whilst eating our breakfast and we were a little surprised at the inconvenienced looks that the other guests were giving them. We promptly  left the breakfast and quickly packed our bags. We had to do something, so we decided to collect up all the hotel freebies, the complimentary water in two bags and then headed to the shops. We spent $2 on some staple food for the two women and handed over the bags on our return. It was a very small gesture and one which only goes as far as feeding them for one meal, of one day but we found solace for the small gesture we’d made.

Fairly moved, we hopped on the bus and began our journey out of the city and across Cambodia. This was when it all hit home. Plugged into our iPhone’s listening to our favourite songs, we bounced and bumped along the uneven dirt roads. As we stared out the window, it was just so eye opening at the difference in living conditions. We’d been sheltered in Phnom Penh and it really shocked. It wasn’t as if we didn’t think it existed, but when you’re confronted by it, it becomes overwhelming. We really wanted to help somehow and between us, we made a vow to do more for this cause when we get home.

We stopped a couple of times along the roads to do our business. We pulled up at a little market run by the local Cambodians and we were instantly greeted by hoards of children selling fruit. It was only when we looked a little more closely, did we notice that some of them were carrying tarantulas. They were really intrigued by us and were desperate to offload there tarantula onto our clothes. I turned to see one sitting still on Fi, she had a horrified look on her face but remained calm and kindly asked them to remove it. We wanted a to get a picture to remember these kids. They had so much sprit and spoke English. Despite their poverty they are warming and bright eyed. The fact they have to work so young just to pay to go to school is testament to their determination to learn. I wonder whether the average 7 year old in the UK would do this – we’re definitely lucky. Fi and I agreed that this had been the most memorable day of travelling. We hadn’t expected it and I think it changed us in some way that day – only time will tell.

We arrived in Siem Reap after a few near death experiences on the road. We were seriously close to colliding with another bus head-on at one point, until our driver managed to manoeuvre into a space from nowhere. We picked up our tickets for Angkor Wat the next day as we were going to see sunrise at 6am. So we had to be up at 4:30am!

We had dinner just off ‘Pub Street’ in Siem Reap after browsing around the local market. The food was again, immense. I had another Khmer Curry. These are wonderfully fresh – I’ll have to research the recipe for home. We turned in fairly early in preparation for the temple day!

Day 13 – Angkor Wat and the Tomb Raider Temple

At this point, I could probably bore you all with background about each and every temple we visited, but instead I’m going to post the best photos we took and post a link with information about each of the temples for any of you who’d like to find out more. It’s truly amazing what the Cambodians built with in the name of their religion and belief. The temples area wonderful part of this magical place and each are striking in their own way.

After visiting two temples that day, we visited the Land Mine Museum, founded by Aki Ra. He used to lay landmines in a previous life and as a way to reduce the amount of dorment mines, he now disarms them. He’s disarmed thousands and the good work he does is showcased at the museum. He now raises money for the victims of the exploded landmines, who lost limbs as a result.

After a fairly hectic morning, we took it relatively easy and decided to go and give blood. We’d been made aware of a foundation and local hospital that did great work in the community. It was appealing for blood from locals and tourists to help children who had caught Dengue Fever. We were assured this was safe and it was actually recommended by G Adventures. We went to the hospital and it was still frightening how run down their hospitals are. It was an extremely rewarding moment and Fi and I were pleased we could help in a small way. We also found out our blood types in the process.

It was only when coming out of the hospital, that we realised how severe conditions were. There was a family, one one motorbike, with their young child sat in the middle while the mother was holding his drip.

Day 14 – Templed out

Here’s some pictures from our day looking at more temples.

Day 15 – Travelling to Bangkok

We said an emotional goodbye to Cambodia in our own silent way, as we fondly looked out the window of our bus, trying to savour each and every sight, to remember what we’d experienced. We headed to Thailand over the course of fourteen hours. Which drained us to no end. We crossed the boarder with relative ease and munched some Thai street food for just 34 Baht. Luckily we had some Baht left over from our Bangkok visit, so this became our budget. in convoy, we jumped into two mini vans that raced us into Bangkok.

After checking in, realising the internet was an extortionate price, we searched out a cafe in order to book our accommodation in Hong Kong. We’d left it late and luckily we found some. That night we all went out for our final meal as a group, Doug, Fred, Luigi and Mike ha already departed earlier on leaving about ten of us. We bid most of the group a fond farewell that night and most went into Koh San Road to get boozy.

Day 16 – Departing from the tour

We met Alicia and Rich for breakfast and a few other and had a Thai style breakfast. After the goodbyes, we were on the road again, I flagged down a taxi off the street in my poncho as it was pouring with rain. The hotel charges ridiculous prices for airport transfers and even in the rain I managed to haggle a better deal. And off to Hong Kong we flew for our final few days of this travel adventure.

Tom & Fi xxx

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