Thursday, 27 February 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 22. SIEM REAP









20/02/03: Boat to Siem reap; book into Victory Guesthouse; go for walk with O and colleague – stop for drinks at Red Piano and Green Garden; find the others at Green Park; have dinner at Lucky Crab, followed by drinks at Angkor What?.

The journey up the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap should have been a sublime experience. It passes through a lake of immense proportion whereupon about half way along you can look both port and starboard and genuinely struggle to identify the riverbanks. Stoked by the confluence of the Mekong it's comfortably the largest lake in Indo-China, yet it was spoilt for me by an act of pure folly. Somehow I had managed to lose a roll of camera film in Phnom Phen and it was on this journey that I discovered so. For solace, I would go on to purge my camera with images of tanks and various munitions at Siem Reap War Museum (although would have probably done so regardless). Russian T-54 tanks are abundant, along with an array of heavy artillery and small arms, and on the forecourt there’s both a MI-8 helicopter and a Mig-19 fighter plane.
Yet this is not what Siem Reap is famed for: that’s Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, most dating back to the 1100s, which attract tourists in droves. Imposing, perfectly located amongst the sub-tropical flora, expensive, but a must see if only to throw into some sort of relief this country's more recent and vulgar past.
Herein lies the nexus of Cambodia. One cannot delve into this medieval spectacle without avoiding the all too visible aftermath of over 20 years of in-house fighting. Missing limbs, a reliance on foreign aid, and a bizarrely insouciant sense of humour all come together as a backdrop to this most unique of nations. Ancient ruins, contemporary horror, cool bars and the loveliest people… It may lack the scenery of its Indo-Chinese neighbour to the north but Cambodia’s atmosphere is intoxicating.


The last two nights in Phnom Penh had ended up with me, my colleague and O playing copious amounts of cards. So intense was our gameplay that we’d even invented a new game to alleviate the repetition; a game we named Galaxie 500, a nod to a band and a genre of music that O and I both appreciated – the logic of it didn’t stretch beyond anything more than that. There were no objections when it was mooted that it might be time to move our operations to Siem Reap. If I’d shown a little more enthusiasm then my colleague and O would probably have been prepared to leave a day earlier, but I had needed to pause for a while after a week of hit-and-run, and Phnom Penh had proved an interesting and suitable refuge.
You read things about this city and I imagine they could all be true. In Bangkok I’d slowly begun to enjoy taking a few chances and exploring beyond the obvious spheres of interest. Vientiane had me almost completely at ease. But In Phnom Penh? It’s a strange place, its ostensible insouciance masking a gnarled edge: a place where tourists are drugged and mugged, and have even been known to disappear completely. Drinking in cafes, reading the local papers, I’d get the feeling that I was both respected and resented: respected because I had wanted to come here, but resented because I could afford to.
There are Cambodians whose homes are their peddle-driven taxis. Slap a mosquito net over the top and that’s their bed for the night. Drift carefully passed these nocturnal cocoons and be careful not to disturb them. It could just have been our choice of location, but in Phnom Penh a lot of people hanging on.
And where were the other travellers? Up by the lake apparently, getting stoned and being bitten by mosquitoes. I preferred the idea of the FCC, although I never sought to test this supposition.
Phnom Penh’s edifices are worthy of note: although the temples differ little from those found elsewhere in the region, the municipal architecture has a more Mediterranean edge, rather like in Laos, but on a grander and dirtier scale. I wished I’d dared to venture further. I should have hired a moto to show me the sights but I was wary of doing business in Phnom Penh.

My colleague and I have been travelling for a full three months now and I’m losing track on how much money it’s costing me. I reason that it is best to take a pessimistic view, for fear I might run a little short in New Zealand. Despite this, it’s agreed that we should take the more extravagant means of transportation towards our next, and final, Cambodian destination: Siem Reap. This works out at about $25, compared to the $4 or $5 it would cost by public bus. It should take less than half the time, though, and will sail up the Tonlé Sap River and across the freshwater lake of the same name, offering an alternative perspective on the Cambodian landscape along the way. It’s always good to take the boat.
We sourced our tickets for our 07:00 charter the day before, scheduled to leave from a pier about 10 minutes’ walk from our hotel. It is one of our earliest rises thus far, but the cool morning air makes it bearable.
I haven’t really thought much about what will happen when we reach our destination but am forced into doing so by a young gentleman carrying a large mobile phone, who can arrange transportation from the point of arrival to the nearby town of Siem Reap. I suppose I’d thought that our vessel would dock somewhere in the centre of Siem Reap itself, but apparently it doesn’t and I had no business assuming that it did. With this in mind, I see no harm in coming to some arrangement now and not having to bother with the competition at the other end of our voyage. Actually, I do see harm in coming to some arrangement now because this guy could be pulling a fast one, but I don’t want to find myself in some bidding war the moment we set foot on land. After consulting with O and my colleague, we decide to take our chances.
I’ve not been sitting down for more than 10 minutes – long enough for the boat to have been freed from its moorings – when I realise I’m a cartridge of film down. I don’t know which but assume it’s the roll most recently extricated from my camera. I last changed film in the Cambodia’s Royal Palace, and I remember struggling to find somewhere suitably shaded to action the exchange. Did I leave the spent cartridge there? Or did I leave a roll back at my room in Last Home? Either way, I’m beside myself – how could I have been so careless?  My journey to Siem Reap is not a happy one.
The views are a bit of a let-down too. Much of Cambodia is very flat and that’s certainly true of the landscape bordering the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap is not just a river but also a lake. In fact, it’s the largest fresh water lake in the whole of Asia – or at least during the wet season. When the seasonal rains fall, the Mekong becomes so engorged that it backs up the Tonle Sap to such a degree that it actually starts to flow in the opposite direction, almost as if it were a tidal entity. Consequently the lake increase four times in mass, from 2500 km2 in the dry season to approximately 10000 km2 in the wet. But the wet season has long since passed and the outlook from our vessel is partially obscured by the high river-banks that have been built up to withstand the variable water-level. It is only when we’ve reached the middle of the lake and the water’s edge has all but disappeared from view, that I’ve any sense of wonder at all.
After a few hours we arrive at what doesn’t very much look like Siem Reap, populated by a mass of hustlers, one of whom is holding up a sign with my name on it written in felt-tip. Our gamble has paid off.
The piers are too high in the water right now, and the local condominiums sit atop tall wooden stilts. Disembarkation is a tricky business and the only way off is to walk what is effectively a wooden plank. Then, like rock stars, we’re mobbed. Three drivers have been sent to pick us up, so it’s by moto that we’ll be driving to Siem Reap. This will be my fourth journey sat on the back of a scooter and I’m beginning to thoroughly enjoy them. Even L appears quite relaxed, her experience back in Chumphon a distant memory now.
We want to book into a place called Green Park where we’ve been told Welsh L, K, F and G have taken up residence. Typically, our chaperons are a little reluctant to take us there, but they accede. On our arrival, however, there’s no sign of our colleagues and nor does it seem like the sort of place they would want to stay in – the grounds are too well maintained, for one, and the staff don’t look too enthralled at the prospect of any of us taking up residence. So we permit our drivers to take us to digs of their choosing – with the caveat that they take us somewhere else if we don’t like them – which ends up being somewhere tucked down a dusty lane, called Victory Guesthouse. The rooms are clean and tidy there, and rates are good, so we agree that we may as well stay.
Our drivers are still keen to know how we intend to see Angkor Wat, which is a little presumptuous of them. Their line of enquiry gradually begins to make more sense when it becomes clear that they’re offering to sell their services for the duration of our stay. They reason that it will be more convenient for us to arrange our travel to and from the temples in advance, that Angkor Wat covers such a wide area that it’s not navigable by foot, and that they’ll be able to pick us up from and drop us back to Victory Guesthouse whenever we please. I’d rather not have to make such firm decisions right now as I’ve not fully considered the ramifications, but can appreciate what they’re saying, because we’ll undoubtedly need regular transportation. Saying that, I don’t think it’s going to be too much bother finding conveyance to Angkor. Saying that, they think it will be and that we’ll be over-charged for the privilege; fix a price a price in advance and they’ll be at our beck and call. They need us to agree to this now, because if we’re not interested they’ll have to find their punters elsewhere. Christ, I hadn’t even given a second thought to how many days we should give over to the temples, let alone when we might like to commence our tour of them. In fact, all I was looking forward to was a boozy evening to see off G, followed by a relaxing day tomorrow in recovery.
It is Thursday and we know we’ve got plenty of time to spare on our month-long visas, so we agree to commence our tourisms on Saturday – that way we can get the low-down off of Welsh L and the rest and dump our contract if we think it’s overly balanced in our escorts’ favour. Our tour of the temples will necessitate we buy either a three or five day pass, and we’ll get a sunset thrown in with that, so that will leave us time to go someplace else before we buy our passes. How about the War Museum? You bet.






After a walk around the town, a drink in the Red Piano, and a closer inspection of our travel guide, we realise that there are two guesthouses with the same name and deduce that Welsh L, K, G and F are more than likely staying at the one we weren’t taken to. We know that G has to be back in Bangkok by the weekend to catch his flight back to Blighty, so it is imperative we act quickly if we are to see him before he leaves.
We decide to take a chance on the other Green Park being the Green Park, dash home to change into fresh clothes and hail a tuk-tuk to take us across the river to where the real Green Park should be. It’s probably walkable, but we’re not aware of this at the time. And they are there, very pleased to see us, and we have a drink with them in the grounds of Green Park, and then look for somewhere to have dinner. We find a restaurant called the Lucky Cafe and somebody takes a photograph that will closely resemble the one that was taken when we ate pizza together in Phnom Penh – a rip-roaring image of decadence to reflect on, even cherish. I have the beef stroganoff with mashed potato. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten since those curries at Nazims.
We then head back across the river and try out a karaoke bar, whereupon F enthusiastically struts his stuff, singing ABBA tunes to the assembled Khmer throng. It’s hard to tell how this is going down with the locals, and so we decide to switch location to a bar called Angkor What? back over the river, a pun on the temple Angkor Wat (pronounced the same) located nearby. The walls are given over to visitors’ graffiti, and I contribute P.A.F.C. to this scrawled medley. Everybody’s in the mood (might even L have let herself go if she was still with us?) and it’s a very auspicious welcome to the town of Siem Reap, tinged with sadness that G will be leaving soon, and the faint apprehension that my travels will never quite be this swinging ever again.


21/02/03: To Green Park to bid farewell to G; Lucky Café with O and colleague; random internet café; check out the local ‘stadium’; FCC for dinner; cards at guesthouse with O and colleague with The Killing Fields being played on constant rotation in the background.

22/02/03: Breakfast at Aspire Café; go to local market to find sunglasses; trip to the War Museum; trip to the Khmer Rouge Monument and then to Angkor Wat to see the sun set; Green Garden for dinner; Laundry Bar, plus Welsh L, K, and F.


The next morning, hung-over, we walk to Green Park and bid G good farewell. Welsh L, K and F are staying for a few more days and we arrange to meet them for dinner at Siem Reap’s FCC.
            The day is given over to nothing in particular. My colleague, O and I return to the Lucky Café for brunch, where they serve tomato soup – which I’ve been craving – but only cold. We then take a walk around town, check out the local stadium, and feel unwell.
Later, our rendezvous at the FCC feels forced. It’s a far more sterile environment than its Phnom Phen cousin, a newer build without any of the colonial affectations. After we’ve eaten there are no more drinks, and vague arrangements are made to meet the next day for a concert recital by Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss doctor who plays the cello – under the guise of Beatocello – in-between raising funds to build hospitals for the Cambodian disadvantaged (of which there are many). He’s built three so far, the piece de la resistance being this one in Siem Reap, with its conjoined music hall constructed out of concrete and bamboo.








The next day is far more productive. My colleague, O and I take another trip into the town, but find the local market this time, where I finally find a half decent pair of sunglasses to replace the ones I broke in Thailand – fake Ray-ban aviators for a dollar.
Then in the afternoon it’s off to the local war museum to take photos of military hardware. It’s a small museum but there are enough battered Russian T54/55 tanks there to keep me occupied for almost an hour. It’s also completely open air, which makes for a sweaty slice of sight-seeing under the midday sun.
Next up is the Angkor Monument, with a school for disadvantaged kids conveniently placed next door, a tour thrown in and a petition for your money. My colleague, a teacher by trade, is made to feel sad and guilty enough to donate $10 to the cause. Not having any particular profession to fall back on when I return home, and with less money in my coffers, I cannot be made to feel as sad or as guilty, and all I contribute is small change.
And now for Angkor Wat.  First, we need to buy our three-day passes so we can claim our free sundown. I find this arrangement quite liberating, for once we have our passes we will be free to visit Angkor as and when we feel like it. Knowing how offices in Asia can open and close on a whim, this could deprive our drivers of any leverage, should they try to impose a timetable of their choosing.
The printing of our passes is a potentially laborious but actually very joyous affair. I suppose I was expecting something like our entry into Cambodia, just without the passport sized photographs. But no, these passes will require our picture upon them, and then they will be laminated, which makes the $40 damage a little easier to swallow. We’re not expected to supply our own prints, and neither will be charged 200 baht for one of theirs. Instead, a Cambodian in-house photographer, adopting the persona of Austin Powers as his English speaking template, will steal our image and develop it there and then. He doesn’t care how we pose; in fact, he encourages us to smile, laugh, up our thumbs – anything that conveys a sense of rapture in keeping with his own. He is unique among Cambodian men, and one of the most likeably personable people I have ever met. If only the acquiring of personal documentation was always such fun.
Back on the back of our bikes, the assembled throng of vehicles line up like they’re in competition with each other. At a predetermined time, the signal is given for everyone to GO GO GO! The motos have the better acceleration so for a while we’re leading the pack. More substantial vectors soon overtake.
Angkor is awash with tourists, as it is for every sunset, every day. It’s not that spectacular a sight, and I’m hungry. We’re also supposed to be attending Beatocello’s recital with Welsh L, K and F, and if we’re going to eat first then we’re cutting it fine.
We cut it more than fine; we miss the whole show. By the time our drivers deliver us back to Siem Reap we’re ravenous, and the Green Garden looks too inviting. We do eventually find the others. They’re having dinner in a curry house down by the old market. We arrange to meet for a few beers in Laundry Bar once they’ve finished up, but as much as I try to get the party going the evening looks destined to finish on a low. It’s fair enough – they all have to get up early the next morning. They are heading back to Phnom Penh to take in a few of the sights they missed the first time around, and they’re catching the early boat. I ask them to keep a look out for that lost roll of film, hoping it might have turned up when they cleaned my room at Last Home.
From our first meeting with Welsh L and K in Vang Vieng over a month earlier – wherein I inadvertently insulted Welsh L by alluding negatively to the dread-locked hippy in Koh Phan Ngan – and our bike ride in Nong Kai, to our drunken beach antics in Koh Chang and our intrepid journeys through the backwaters of Cambodia, they have proved most excellent company. It’s a shame, then, that our final evening doesn’t feel as poignant as it should.


23/02/03: Lunch at Green Park (Mk.2); trip to Angkor Thom; Taj Mahal for an Indian.

24/02/03: Up early to see sun rise at Angkor Wat; bad lunch at Gecko Mayonnaise; the Blue Pumpkin for a beer; watch the Killing Fields properly at Victory; play cards with O.

25/02/03: O leaves; explore remaining temples with colleague; Lucky Café for lunch; write postcards; Green Park (Mk. 2) for dinner; Angkor Wat for many drinks; catch horse-drawn cart home.

26/02/03: Hangover from hell; Gecko Mayonnaise for coffee and recovery; play cards back at guesthouse – can manage little else in the heat; dinner at Lucky Crab; more card playing – early night.


It’s just myself, my colleague and O, left alone to see what all this Angkor fuss is about.
Angkor literally translates as city, with ‘Wat’ meaning temple; it’s a Temple City, or City of Temples, depending on which vernacular you run with. Over a hundred actual temples occupy the area but they were all built at different times and by different peoples. The biggest and most important structure – the central Wat, sometimes referred to as Angkor Wat itself – was built during the early 12th century by King Suryavaram II, and evokes Hindu references. Indeed, this early Khmer Kingdom was not Buddhist at all but had its roots in an earlier colonialization of Indian traders, who arrived there in and around AD 200. Foreign exploration back then was no small undertaking and was dependent upon meteorological factors, the monsoon tidal flows of the Indian Ocean being particularly instructive. Explorers sailing from India to Southeast Asia were therefore committed to a pre-determined tenure, unable to return to their Indian homeland until the following year. In the meantime they built temples, not for strategic purposes, as was once thought, but almost as a whimsical exercise in spiritual time-killing.
In the years that followed the various shifts in political power had its impact on the cultural influences that helped contribute to the many shared Hindu mythologies present in Buddhism to this day. By the time Angkor Wat was being built these similarities were fully assimilated, and although Angkor is now associated with Buddhism and the monks who tend to it, Angkor Wat itself is rampant with images of Vishnu and allusions to Hindu cosmology.
  Most exciting of all, however, is the fact that this ancient complex was lost to the world for the better part of 500 years. After a Thai invasion in 1431, the temple and its inhabitants disbanded and, save for the odd monk hanging around, lay pretty much derelict until 1860, whence a French explorer named Henri Mahout disinterred it and brought it to the worlds’ attention. The French colonialists had been hearing stories from Buddhist monks of the remains of a lost civilisation built by Gods or Giants, and on discovering this lost kingdom immediately began its physical resuscitation.
It’s quite an undertaking, still going on to this day.  It has been decided that one of the temples (Ta Phrom) should be left undisturbed so one can get a feeling for what the place would have looked like when Monsieur Mahout stumbled upon it. Trees have taken root, quite literally, on top of some of galleries: huge fig trees with green lichen encrusted roots gradually destroying the structures that now support these huge plants. All this might sound like the cutting edge of contemporary exploration, but it’s about as remote as a trip to Stonehenge. In and around Siem Reap I counted over 14 hotels in the throes of production, and the only reason they’re being built is to accommodate the tourists who come to admire Angkor Wat.
But the temples do impress, despite this heavy commercialisation. We are free to clamber up and down these well-worn structures, and maybe something needs to be done about this. Some of the more popular temples are starting to show signs of excessive wear, but money talks and the Cambodian authorities seem unwilling to take any action that might preserve their investment.







On the second day of our tour of Angkor Wat, we assemble to watch the sun rise up over it. It’s marginally more impressive than watching the sun set, and there are certainly less people about to see it, but I just want to get stuck in to see what all the fuss is about. I assume my fellow Englishmen feel the same way because there’s a group of them taking pictures of each other striking suggestive poses behind a statue of a lion.
Close up, Angkor Watt doesn’t disappoint. Scales its steep steps and you’re right in the thick of it: ornate frescos, impressive views, the sound of monks at morning prayer… the colour of the whole thing.  One is free to wander, to delve into nooks and to wander down ancient corridors. One occasionally comes across a monk presiding over an assortment of idols and effigies, and you will be encouraged to pay for the privilege of lighting incense and saying some sort of prayer for whoever it might be you’d like to say a prayer for.
As the tour continues, the propriety of having one’s personal chauffeur makes all the more sense. The complex as a whole is so vast that you’d really struggle to cover this ground on foot. After we’re done with the main temple our drivers take us to Bayon, a lesser temple no less impressive. Not as big, Bayon’s main draw is the huge stone faces built into the towers that form its central peak. Bayon actually forms part of Angkor Thom – or ‘Great City’ – and, dating back to the late twelfth century, was the last great city of the Khmer Empire.
There are plenty of other smaller temples worth seeing, and the apparently abandoned Ta Phrom should not be missed. Despite its appearance, work has been undertaken to stabilise these ruins and to preserve the façade of neglect. O and I ask that my colleague take our picture standing in front of one of the massive route structures, which clasp its stone quarry like some giant multi-limbed bird of prey.
After five or so hours the heat levels have become increasingly uncomfortable, as our designated drivers told us they would and being the reason why they’d insisted on such an early start. So back to Siem Reap for lunch.
We go to Gecko Mayonnaise, which disappoints and encourages me to pause for a quick beer at the Blue Pumpkin a few doors down. We don’t venture out come the evening as O is leaving for Thailand the next day. I am sad to see O go and have enjoyed visiting temples with him by day and playing at cards by night.

My colleague and I still have one day left on the pass that permits us to behold temples and ruins. I’m glad we didn’t invest in a five day pass because our final day spent driving around Angkor feels more like a mopping up exercise. It’s still an enjoyable experience, made more so by the police officer who tries to sell me his badge for $10. I’m tempted but don’t fancy being pulled over for it when I pass through Customs.
            It’s the Lucky Café for lunch, and then this country’s postcards are attended to. The evening beckons a final night at Angkor What? for which I am punished the next day. It’s a total write-off, and I spend much of it drinking Gatorade and lying on our bed. It’s a shame, but we’ve done all we really can here and tomorrow we will be following O back to Bangkok.






Thursday, 20 February 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 21. PHNOM PENH








15/02/03: Taxi to Phnom Penh; book into Last Home; go for a drink at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club with O and colleague; eat and drink with all back at guesthouse.

This is Asia. Phnom Penh: total mayhem, a million motorcycles jostling for position, lorry with widescreen visor, elevated bicycle taxis, and a minor crash witnessed every couple of minutes spent meandering around this insane city.
One feels very postcolonial here. Looking down from the balcony of the FCC, you half expects the city to burst into civil war at any moment. It doesn't, of course, and given the energy levels of local city folk it is unlikely it ever will. Still, it's a strange atmosphere that pervades this most Asian of cities. The taxi-drivers sleep in hammocks on the street, and on every corner lays a mosquito net with some cocooned Khmer dormant within. Street urchins constantly assaulting you – too far off the beaten track one dare not venture. 
But a strange dichotomy exists here: In the most evidently poor of the three nations I have visited, it is here that I find my tourism the subject of the most organisation and expense. The Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge prison, S-21, should be seen, but they come at a price. And for $20 I am more than welcome to visit the local firing range and release a cache of ammunition from an AK-47 semi-automatic machine gun.


The next day and we’re to take our hangovers to Cambodia’s capital. We know where we want to stay in Phnom Penh because O – who now appears to be operating a day ahead of everyone else’s programme – has emailed us the address of the guesthouse he’s booked himself into, and we fancy we might join him there. We’ve not hired a private minibus so as to avoid any more clandestine goings-on between driver and hotel. Instead, the proprietor at Mealy Chenda has booked us seats on a daily public service that runs between Kampot to Phnom Penh, and they will be picking us up shortly. The journey is scheduled to take approximately four hours.
            I’m ready and waiting when the first minibus turns up. Our party currently numbers six (in case you’ve not been keeping track) but there’s no way we’re all going to squeeze into this vehicle. Two of us, perhaps, if it’s entirely necessary – I cannot presume that the second minibus is empty either – or maybe three or four of our rucksacks. The driver is gesturing for me to get myself on board. I try to explain that our group comprises of six and he appears to wonder what point it is I’m trying to make. Welsh L to the rescue – he’s far more adept at this sort of thing – but no, it appears that this is it, this is our minibus; there is no second vehicle. The passengers already on board – locals all – start adjusting their position to make more room for us, which is very nice of them but there simply isn’t the physical capacity for another half a dozen people. Stupefied, I take an uncharacteristically firm stance on the matter: I’m not prepared to travel in this vehicle, even if it means me and my colleague abandoning the rest and going it alone. F is equally adamant, his six and half foot frame precluding his involvement whether he likes it or not. As every member of our entourage completes their own private inspection of the vehicle’s swamped interior, unanimity is promptly reached. Our only option now is to hire taxis.
The proprietor of Mealy Chenda, who organised the pick-up, is completely flummoxed. He genuinely cannot understand why we’d be reluctant to travel in this way, practically sitting on top of each other – maybe actually sitting on top of each other – and reckons that we’ll rue our decision once we realise how much more money taxis are going to cost us. This runs contrary to every other situation we’ve been in where it’s presumed we’ve so much money that expenditure isn’t something foreigners factor into their decision making. Well it is, but right now I don’t care if it costs us $30 each to get Phnom Penh. At least we’ll be dropped off at the intended door… probably.
It works out just fine. The local bus station draws blanks but we are approached by a man who can arrange for us to be driven to Phnom Penh, to a destination of our choosing, for $10 a head, in actual cars. The only slight hitch is that my colleague, F and I will have to share with our prospective driver’s four year old daughter, who he is looking after today, whilst Welsh L, K and G will occupy the second car. F has proved himself to be good with children, and I’m good with maps, so I’ll take the front seat.
The child is generally very well-behaved – as children in these parts generally are – her patience only momentarily wearing thin, before tiredness finally gets the better of her about an hour or so before we breach the capital. Moreover, our driver will make a brief stop along the way to furnish his passengers with liquid refreshment – it’s all part of the service.
When I dream of my travels now, it is sometimes a reinterpretation of this phase of my journey that my mind decides to access. Why the hell it doesn’t fall back on the more vivid moments that affected me earlier on I cannot at all understand. We pass through a quotidian Asian landscape – flat, parched fields, small dusty towns, narrow straight roads – there is nothing remotely spectacular about it. Perhaps that’s the point, my subconscious finding some sort of sense in the ordinariness of the situation; sitting in a car, watching the world go by, making small talk with our driver. I could appreciate this more if it wasn’t for the fact that, in my state of repose, my brain decides that it was dark when I passed through here, and that I wasn’t passing through here at all – I was spending the night there. I think my memory confuses the area that National Highway 3 passes through with that first night in Koh Kong, and splices the two to create a faceless, slightly sinister representation of Cambodia, where nothing much actually happens.

Our driver struggles to find his way around Phnom Penh. I don’t think he goes there often. One must be mindful of the fact that this is just some guy from Kampot who’s sensed an opportunity to earn a little hard currency. Our maps aren’t detailed enough to make the job any easier and, door-to-door, it probably takes us nearer five hours to reach Last Home Guesthouse (which could well have been the case if we’d forced ourselves into that minibus too, for we may have been the last of its passengers to be released). We remunerate our driver for the inconvenience and book ourselves into what turns out to be tolerably spartanic accommodation.
Last Home Guesthouse is a large building. Each floor has been partitioned off into about five rooms, with communal showers and toilets situated at the top of each floor’s stairwell. The dividing walls are slight of build and glass panels about a foot tall separate them from the ceiling. The walls are painted white, there are no windows, and furniture has a limited presence. There is a balcony at the end of the corridor overlooking the street at the rear. The place does appear to be clean, if cluttered, and the dining area downstairs opens out onto the street with a view over some sort of park (there’s greenery, but concrete too). There are bars and cafés within discernible walking distance.
            Fatigued from both the journey and the previous night’s exuberance, the majority rules that we retire to our rooms for a while. But not I, nor my colleague, and O’s got no such excuse. Sihanoukville felt strangely soulless, and although Kampot had a certain essence it was still pretty sedate. Our most recent stopover in Bangkok seems like an age ago now, so I feel it’s the right moment to reacquaint myself with a more oppidan way of life. Let’s take a stroll, find our bearings, see what this metropolis has to offer.
First impressions are of a youthful, burgeoning populace moving about at great speed. Amputees are a common sight; bucolic martyrs, now useless in the fields, driven to begging on slattern streets. There are too many children about – too many people generally. And my first impression – although it comes gradually – is that we are being regarded quite differently to how we were in Bangkok. I feel that there’s more thought coming our way, and that the people here have notions of what we’re doing here.
What are we doing here? Partaking in tourism, I would think, but of an odd sort. One would probably find it hard to convey to someone who’s not been to somewhere like this why it is you would want to come to somewhere like this. It feels a bit like that first week in Bangkok, but darker, poorer…
It’s all too much, and I don’t hesitate for a moment when O enquires if my colleague and I might like to visit the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for a cold beer. This country’s past can be pushed aside no more – I now understand why my Grandmother asked that I consider these people who had nothing, but now have more, but not much more. And she was just taking John Pilger’s word for it.
But I can’t help feeling so very… white. Sitting in the FCC, under-dressed – in need of a linen suit – it’s like I’ve stepped into another era, probably one where the colour of my skin buys me privilege, but also puts me in some sort of unspeakable danger. It is, however, entirely possible that I’m over-sensitising my situation and that my cadres are experiencing nothing of the sort.


16/02/03: To the Killing Fields and S-21; recover, and write notes back at guesthouse; Happy Pizza for tea; drink on hotel balcony with my colleague, F and G.


Time is precious for G, and Welsh L and G’s sister, K, are pandering to that. Further, G has formed quite a bond with F, sharing a room with him to keep their mutual costs down, which generally means that F has become a de facto member of their clan. Conversely, L, O and I have been inclined to navigate our territory at a much more leisurely pace. As it was with L in Laos, it sometimes pays to have people around who are more focused – or more obliged – on using their time productively. So today we’re off on a jolly to Choeung Ek, the most infamous of all the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields, for those unfamiliar with the terminology, is the collective name given to the numerous agrarian plots where Cambodian dissidents, perceived to be enemies of the Khmer Rouge, were taken to, summarily executed and then buried, normally in mass graves of their own making. It was genocide on some scale, fuelled by the paranoid tendencies that often accompany regimes intent on implementing radical social change. As tends to be par for the course with such things, nobody was safe – not even members of the Khmer Rouge – but being of an intellectual bent, a member of what one might call the professional class, of differing ethnicity, or even a Buddhist monk, placed one at particular risk of death. It is estimated that well over a million corpses rest in these crude graves, although the Khmer Rouge were indirectly responsible for the creation of many more, through starvation, overwork and disease.
            When one considers it, it’s weird what people do in the name of dark tourism. Maybe we like to remind ourselves of what we hope we’re not capable of – or of what people are capable of under circumstances hopelessly alien to their own. But might it not seem a little odd to those who lived through it all – and are still living with the consequences – that citizens from far-flung states willingly come to ponder over another nations’ tragedy? How does it affect the host? What do they then feel: appreciation, disgust, shame?
The fact that so few people survived that first wave of horror means that, for the most part, your average Cambodian will be too young to remember the full savagery meted out by the Khmer Rouge. Because of this they may not feel a strong emotional attachment to what went on, or the sense of outrage befitting somebody who witnessed it first-hand. Furthermore, this was genocide in its purest form, perpetrated not by an outside agency but from within. In this respect, it has more in common with Stalin’s purges than Hitler’s holocaust. Still, why would someone from an entirely different continent (and from a continent that did so little to intervene at the time) want to come and survey so morbid an aftermath?
            Maybe because I’m the sort of person who thinks like this, I find myself taking as much interest in the several beehives protruding from the eves of the large stupa built to display 5000 random skulls in memorial as I do the 5000 unearthed skulls. These bees are a sinister presence in themselves, and I’m wary of them. On closer inspection, the skulls are more sinister still. Peer amongst these bones and you will find that many of them are damaged. Whilst some of them have probably degraded naturally over time, most were revealed in this condition: beaten, smashed in whilst life still breathed from them.
            A turn around the shallow graves reveals yet more ghoulish artefacts. Shards of bone, traces of cloth and people’s teeth are clearly visible in amongst the leaf-litter and topsoil. Whilst you’re taking all of this in, there are children on the other side of the fence asking you for money (don’t give them any – the staff don’t like it).
And then off to S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to give it its full name. Security Prison 21 used to be a school until the Khmer Rouge commandeered it to incarcerate and torture its enemies. It lacks the subtlety of Choeung Ek with many of the makeshift cells left exactly how the Vietnamese found them when they finally drove the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh in 1979. There are photographs of what they found, of the dead strapped to bare metal beds, recently executed by their fleeing captors. The same beds remain, as do the blood stained floors beneath them, a grim testament to the slaughter that occurred here.
In other rooms there are blown-up photographs of some of the estimated 17,000 prisoners that were detained at S-21, taken from the records their captors left behind. Others contain apparatus of torture, such as water-boarding devices. There are manacles and there are more skulls. There are also crude paintings of interrogations in progress, drawn by Vann Nath, whose artistic ability ultimately spared him: rather than have him killed, Comrade Duch, who ran the prison, had him paint portraits of Pol Pot.
Here are the ‘Concentration Camp Rules’, translated from Khmer and on display in the courtyard as you see them:

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.


How much time has to pass before the testament of horror can be reclassified as entertainment? When does viewing the detritus of internment, torture and execution become a legitimate pursuit? What’s considered a ‘safe distance’ from whence we can take a good look? There was a time when one would have baulked at the thought of going anywhere near Aushwitz-Birkenau. Now you’ll find it under the ‘In and Around’ section of any travel-guide to Krakow, footed by a sub-paragraph headed ‘Getting There’.
            Take yourself down to London Dungeons. There you will find depictions of, and references to: the Bubonic Plague (which claimed over 75 million lives); mechanised torture of various forms; Bethlem Royal Hospital (where the mentally ill were routinely chained to the walls, and people then paid money to laugh at them); and Jack the Ripper (a very nasty piece of work by any era’s standards) – all presented in a deliciously playful manner. One might call it gallows humour, and I understand that as a mechanism so designed to cope, for violence is a timeless endeavour that begs we deal with it. But at what node in time does something of an appalling nature become so neutralised as to render it a source of mere dissipation?






On our return home, everybody is up for a little drink – there’s nothing like an ice-cold beer after a day spent poring over mass graves and concentration camps. Or if we like we can go and fire AK-47s ($20 a magazine), our chaperones tell us with a wry grin. The general consensus is we stick with the beer. I wonder if I’m the only one who’s secretly tempted to take them up on the offer.
            My drinking marches on, then, but at a civilised pace. However, I get the feeling that tonight might be another big one. Whilst everyone prepares for dinner at Happy Pizza a few doors down, I choose to remain downstairs, to write notes, sup another cold beer and watch the world pass on by.
I actually think I quite like Phnom Penh and I am growing fonder of Cambodia as a whole. I’m not so keen on those three American quinquagenarian sex-pests staying here, exchanging tales of licentiousness and of how they’ve ‘still got it’. (One guy as good as says this, and goes into great detail, too. One of the others, not wanting to be outdone, duly lays claim to having an identical experience. They are all overweight too, which would be irrelevant were it not for the undoubtedly diminutive physiques of their supposed conquests. What they’re essentially trying to say is that they’re so good in the sack that they’re capable of pleasuring prostitutes over 20 years their junior and half their size.)

Happy Pizza was as good as I’d hoped – almost as good as Falconi in Laos – and the evening was a very happy one indeed. Nights of revelry aren’t really of much interest to those who were not actually there, so there’s little point in going over the detail. Suffice to say the evening was something of a revelation, for near the evening’s end my colleague, F, G and I took to the balcony at the back of the fourth floor of our hotel to find the day’s busy streets to be utterly deserted. Until now I’d considered Phnom Penh to be a crumblier and dirtier cousin of Bangkok, but really it wasn’t. Nor was it anything like Vientiane, which had been relatively peaceful. But it was as busy as Bangkok by day and as quiet as Vientiane by night – that was all. And from our shallow concrete balcony we looked back along our hotel corridor and laughed hysterically at rats the size of small dogs. The city was deathly silent, the roads ridden with cracks and potholes, the buildings gashed with filth, and our minds infused with a little madness.

                                                                                                                
17/02/03: Welsh L, K, F and G leave for Siem Reap; develop some photos; dinner at The Globe with O and colleague; a few drinks at the FCC and a few games of pool.

18/02/03: Central Market with my colleague; Wat Phnom, with O too; internet café on my own, then to the café next door; Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda with colleague; dinner at guesthouse and play some cards; a few drink in the Blue Lagoon just next door.

19/02/03: Am sick; change up money; Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda with colleague and O; FCC for coffee; tightly contested game of cards in the evening.


On Monday, Welsh L, K, her brother, G, and F departed to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is near Angkor Wat, and a lot of people probably wouldn’t even bother with Cambodia were it not for Angkor Wat. The reason they were going now, after spending only one whole day in the capital, had much to do with G’s limited term here and him wanting to experience as much as he reasonably could within that restriction. Angkor Wat promised much and I think they intended to allow themselves enough time to explore it thoroughly, assuming that it did ultimately live up to the high expectation. Something had to give and that something was Phnom Penh. I wasn’t ready to leave Phnom Penh and I was also a little weary from all the traveling we’d done of late, having not fixed ourselves anywhere for more than one day since leaving Koh Chang. Fortunately, my colleague saw similar potential in staying in the capital for a few more days, as did O.
            The first day was spent doing nothing much in particular. I developed some photographs – and would have developed more if they’d been processed to a satisfactory standard – and ate out at The Globe. The Globe wasn’t the sort of place I could have afforded back home, and in truth I felt a little under-dressed there. The food was good though, and it helped perpetuate this ‘Graham Greene abroad’ type thing I was feeling, now we’d entered a country that wore its colonial past a little more openly. Suitably, we followed this up with a few drinks in the FCC, and then called it an early night.
            We still weren’t ready to leave the capital the following day either, but made more of a fist of it this time around. First up, we headed to Central Market, which reminded me of the Pannier Market in Plymouth, except circular, yellower, and about twice the size. Dating back to the 1930s it’s also about 20 years older than Plymouth’s indoor bazaar, which makes its condition all the more admirable. The similarities only really exist in the functional characteristics of the architecture, culminating in vast re-enforced concrete ceilings that give these markets an airy, spacious feel. Such calm is disturbed by the pushiness of the traders and the relentlessness of the landmine-scarred beggars. It can get to you after a while, but nobody’s physically aggressive and a firm ‘no thank you’ is normally enough. Unless, of course, you actually fancy wearing a T-shirt with ‘Danger: Mines’ emblazoned across the chest. (I did, actually, but they didn’t have my size.)
Come the afternoon and we set about exploring some more, this time to see the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda – both worth a look. I realised that Phnom Penh rewarded the traveller who moved about it a bit, because at first there didn’t appear to be much about the place. The older buildings tended to all look the same, and even the more modern elements we passed through on the way to the Killing Fields appeared strangely uniform. Instead, one should seek out the open spaces: the promenade along the river, or the parks and the wide boulevards. The pace of life seems slower there, the Cambodians themselves more amiable and relaxed.
It was never somewhere I could feel completely at ease, Phnom Penh, although if I were to live there I might. I would need the appropriate attire, I think, and enough money to eat at places like The Globe on a daily basis, and drink nowhere else but the FCC. That way I could get off on my environment in a way the itinerant backpacker never could. There’s an edge to Phnom Penh that is of no use to those merely passing through. If you were a citizen here, and the indigenes could take you more seriously, I suspect that Cambodia might open up to you and reveal something else altogether, whatever that might be. I can never be entirely sure of this because the evenings seemed to confine us to the area surrounding our guesthouse. After dinner, more cards and a few beers I was always ready to stalk the city in search of the appropriate nightlife, but my colleague and O weren’t entirely game. We made it as far as the Blue Lagoon next door, a forgettable place which shared exactly the same view as our guesthouse, but charged more for the privilege. So I got drunk to get over the disappointment of not finding somewhere better to get drunk.
The next day I paid for my obstinance, disgorging the contents of my stomach for (only) the second time on my trip. I didn’t even feel that bad and coped with the changing of more money, a second visit to the Royal Palace, a cup of coffee at the FCC, before playing some more cards and taking a very early night.

Saturday, 15 February 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 20. KAMPOT



13/02/03: Breakfast at Sunset Restaurant; minibus to Kampot; book into Mealy Chenda Guesthouse; O is there!

14/02/03: O leaves; Bokor National Park with the rest; dinner back at guesthouse; Little Garden for drinks – many drinks.

Accommodation is reasonably priced in Cambodia and generally of a very high standard, but transport works out at about four times the amount one expects to pay in Thailand or Laos. Considering Cambodia’s infrastructure is not nearly as advanced as the former, it's a bit of a rum deal. Despite this it is still well worth the $13 it takes to see Bokor National Park. Resting on the edge of a plateau some 1000 metres above sea level there nestles a ruined town that was once the playground for French colonists, before it was evacuated around the time of the Khmer uprising. The view of the surrounding Cambodian coastline is impressive, to say the least. The feeder town for such a jaunt is Kampot. Once renowned for its high quality pepper, there is little now that singles it out. Despite its commercial isolation, the residents are by no means hostile, and walking the dimly lit streets at night is akin to finding yourself on the set of the 80's horror flick Vamp.


I’d started my day with breakfast at Sunset Restaurant. So far, the food in Cambodia was proving to be most agreeable: of a satisfactory standing, reasonably priced, from menus that offered much choice.
One couldn’t really complain about the standard of accommodation either. The two places at which we’d taken up residence thus far had televisions (not that we used them), their own bathrooms and wall-to-wall tiled floors. In this respect, these commodious lodgings were more akin to what had been available in Laos, but blessed with a patina that insinuated they’d been built more recently. This, coupled with our hosts’ somewhat stand-offish manner, indicated to me that tourism of our sort was a relatively new phenomenon here.

And so on to Kampot. It might stretch the imagination a bit, comparing south-western Cambodia to Somerset, but it is the flat plains of the North Somerset Levels that come to mind when driving from one Cambodian range to the next. Taking National Highway Number 3, arching around Veal Rinh Bay, Bokor National Park looms larger as we approach it, and Somerset’s Mendips are found wanting in comparison.
Welsh L is making an effort not to get caught up in the transport/accommodation loop again and quite insists that we’re to be taken directly to Mealy Chenda Guesthouse, an old colonial French villa recommended in his guidebook. It’s a good choice: the garden is set at the back of the building, as opposed to directly overlooking the street, and the rooms are furnished to a very high standard – they’ve even gone to the trouble of providing doilies. What’s more, O, who had left Kho Chang the day before we did, is present and in high spirits.
We have given ourselves one day and two nights to exploit this modest town. Here, if you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country was still at war. The place is dusty and dirty, and there are derelict buildings and there are ruins, making me suddenly very aware of the troubles visited upon this state during the course of the last 30 years. I walk a nervous block or so in search of bottled water – a daily task – and I attract surprisingly little attention. I should explore further and so take opportunity to peruse the indoor market across the street with F, who’s on the look-out for some sort of peace offering to placate K whom he inadvertently offended whilst playing cards the night before (after losing his hand, he called her a ‘bitch’ in mock indignation, and she was not appreciative – I guess some things are lost in translation). I’m still wary of my surroundings, although I like the faded colonial tenements I notice about town, reminiscent of those older buildings in Vientiane – expect with added neglect and a hint of misery.
Our motivation for stopping off in Kampot is to explore Bokor National Park. Insurmountable by the foot, one has to take a 4x4 to its heights so as to appreciate the full majesty of the view it affords. O has been there already and can confirm it’s worth the bother. Located 8 km west of Kampot, it’s then a farther 32 km up Bokor’s steep slopes to reach the summit. It’s an organised tour setting you back about 20 dollars, and for that you’re also taken for a trek through the surrounding jungle. I say jungle – and they say jungle – but the foliage isn’t typically tropical. There aren’t half the palms there are in Thailand and, like in Laos, there’s a lot less humidity. Apparently, the walk follows in the footsteps of the Khmer Rouge, who hid out here during the infighting. Stray from the path and there’s the mild risk of stepping on unexploded ordnance. Tigers also inhabit this plateau but they only really show themselves at night, or so we’re told.
We didn’t come to traipse through the local woodland, though. We came to see the remains of the Bokor Hill Station and accompanying utilities, all now abandoned. The French put all this stuff here so they had somewhere to take refuge from the heat, and to enjoy themselves whilst they did so. They built a casino, a hotel, a chapel, and even a post office.  Inside the ruins of Bokor’s hotel there’s little evidence of what we are assured was once an opulent interior – just graffiti and crumbling plaster. These buildings are mere shells now but one is free to explore the many floors of this sad curiosity, and from the balconies you can survey this strange place at your leisure. The sense of death and melancholy is almost palpable – and there’s a retired gun emplacement, for the Vietnamese had it out here against the Khmer Rouge. Bullet holes, liberally spread over the weather beaten concrete, also testify to this.
It is the view out over the lower lying land and the Gulf of Thailand I like best, and the tree-covered hillside that leads the eye down towards it. Looking out to sea, I swear I can define the curvature of the Earth.

Our drinking has settled down of late: steady but not overly inebriating, the last blast worthy of mention was five days ago now. Tonight we will rectify this. It is a Friday.
After eating at our guesthouse, out of convenience as much as anything else, we head to the Little Garden overlooking the river, an establishment owned by the only living westerner in Kampot (or at least the only bar run by a westerner, pandering to backpackers and open long enough to satisfy our needs). An Italian by birth, he’s a nice guy, and we drink there until late.
About half way through the evening the smokers among us run out of things to smoke. Our Italian friend doesn’t sell tobacco, which seems odd for a place like his. In a fairly excitable state of mind, I offer to accompany Welsh L in search of nicotine-based solutions.
You’d think that Kampot was subject to a curfew of sorts: the streets are virtually deserted and the 80s light-horror flick Vamp encroaches on my mind. If I wasn’t half-cut, and if Welsh L wasn’t so unflappable, I wouldn’t feel entirely safe wandering around town at such a late hour. It’s more than just the virtual dereliction that bothers me; aside from the scary dog, I felt pretty safe when faced with a similar predicament in Nong Kai. It’s something about Cambodia itself: an eeriness and a suspicious silence about the place very different to that I found in some of Thailand’s cultural backwaters.
After wandering Kampot’s grid system for five minutes or so, Welsh L and I think we see a shop of sorts ahead of us. It’s more of a kiosk, actually, selling the regular consumables that people in these parts must regularly consume: soft drinks, toilet roll, petrol, tinned fish, and tobacco. We gesture that we’re looking for cigarettes and are pointed in the direction of a blind man. This cataracts-afflicted gentleman effortlessly sifts through our change and hands us over the appropriate number of packs, whilst his friend tries to communicate something to us in his native tongue – we haven’t a clue what. I hear a queer giggle emanating from over my right shoulder and turn around to observe a young, naked man rocking back and forth on the edge of the pavement (possibly starving and hysterical, and certainly destroyed by madness).
On the opposing side of the street women sit and talk; children play in the road in-between. In an open building behind the kiosk older men sit and play cards, an old television hazing from a shelf attached high up on the wall. It’s like we’ve walked onto a film set for David Lynch’s latest picture, and with all the weirdness that one might associate with that.