|The amazing adventure is continues, after avoiding the many scams in Poipet, a town on the Thai/Cambodian border with 'very few redeeming features' (according to the people at Lonely Planet), I was on a bus to Seim Reap, a Cambodian town about 150km from the Thai border. This was the main route into Cambodia from Thailand and it was unpaved most of the way, it took the bus 5 hours to cover the distance. Stace had a sore back for about three day after this bus ride while, aided by the pot holes in the road, I managed to hit my head on the roof about three times. I managed to hit my head about five times a week for the first couple of weeks in Asia; South East Asia isn't really built to Dan size.
Siem Reap was amazing; the town is almost completely focused on tourism. Ankor Wat, a millennium old temple complex with temples spread over about 200 square kilometres, begins about 5 km from Siem Reap (Siem Reap translates a Siamese defeated. Although this name was bestowed on the town years back, there remains a bit of animosity between the Thais and the Cambodians. About a year ago some Thai actress said that Ankor Wat should actually belong to Thailand, due to some disputed historical event, and it is now illegal to show Thai TV shows or movies on Cambodian television. The touristy nature of Siem Reap means that most people speak English. At the guesthouse where we were staying, the staff speak in Cockney rhyming slang that they have picked up of English tourists and, although they were speaking English, I had no idea what they were saying most of the time.
I was somewhat taken aback by a habit many Cambodian men seemed to have of blowing people, in particular me, kisses. I thought that Cambodian men must really like tall, pale white guys. However eventually I worked out that it was actually a slightly less conspicuous way of asking if you want to buy marijuana. Marijuana is technically illegal in Cambodia, but only just. In Cambodia, illegal means that it is probably the cops who are running the industry. Almost everyone involved with the tourist industry in Cambodia, from the tuk-tuk drivers to the guesthouse staff, also have a sideline in selling grass (or whatever the hell else you want). In Phnom Phen, the capital, marijuana even comes with the meals. At many of the pizza joints in the city, the pizzas come with a special herb topping. They don't even ask you whether you want weed, you just get it! At one of the guesthouses where Stace and I ate, the meal came with a free gift, like a McDonald's happy meal. However this free gift was a joint (it was a very happy meal).
I spent five days in Siem Reaps, including 3 days at Ankor Wat (the ticket for the three day pass was about 55 dollars, amazingly expensive by Cambodian standards; although very apparently little of it actually goes to maintaining the temples (after the pockets of the Cambodian politicians, that outsourced running the temple complex to a Vietnamese hotel chain, have been lined). The temples were very beautiful, however by the third day they were all starting to blur into one and I was almost, as they say round these parts, 'templed out'. My starkest memory of the Ankor temples will be the children selling things to tourist, they all spoke amazing English and knew most of the world's national capitals, their favourite game was to try get you to promise to buy something if they could name the capital of Victoria. I told them that I would buy something of them if they could name the capital of Suriname (which I didn't know myself at the time. However I looked it up before I wrote this entry and the answer is Paramaribo for all you trivia buffs).
After blowing our budget doing the scuba course in Thailand, Stacey and me tried to keep our budget as low as possible while we were in Cambodia and ate most nights at local sidewalk restaurants where you could get a reasonable plate of food for about 40 cents. Even in Siem Reap, the biggest tourist town in Cambodia, we were the only tourist eating with the locals most nights. This offered a great chance to talk to some locals, often in broken English, who weren't involved in the tourist industry. Eating with the locals also answered a conundrum for me. One of the first things that hit me in Siem Reap, after the poverty but also the friendliest of the Cambodian people was the lack of rats; Cambodia is poorer and dirtier than Thailand, yet I saw no rats. I eventually found the rats though, it seemed most of them were barbequed up and for sale at the local market. The rats were dinner for many of the poorer Cambodians (although they were covered in a rather nice sauce and deep fried). Although I couldn't face the rats, I have been eating lots of weird and wonderful new foods, including fried whole snake on a stick and deep-fried grass hoppers. The meat is a little dodgy, the refrigeration here in Cambodia is, for want of a better word, troubling and most of the meat is just left hanging up in homes or the markets covered in flies. I have been getting a bit home sick some days since I left, but not for long because I have so many new sights and tastes (and some horrible smells) to distract me. It is also hard to feel sorry for myself in Cambodia; the people here have lived through so much and are so poor, yet they are so amazingly happy and warm (the bastards).
My next stop after Siem Reap was Battanbang, Cambodia's second largest city. My motorbike driver in Battanbang,a guy called Sambo, who took me around for a day to see the sights, was a spy for the Khemer Rogue back in the day and because of him many people were executed. He was only nine at the time, and the Khemer Rogue soldiers did not feed him until he gave them names of the people in his group who were trained professional (the Khemer Rogue executed almost everyone who was trained as a professional like doctors, nurses, teachers etc (I wonder how sociologists faired, apparently Pol Pot was loath to admit he got any ideas from Marx). As well as living through the Khmer Rogue, his brother also died of AIDS about of years ago and he lost his house and motor bike to pay for medicine for his brother, his wife also died a couple of years ago. Yet he was one of the happiest men I have met and had an amazingly positive outlook on his life. He took us out of town to a mountain that was used as a killing field (execution and corpse dumping site) by the Khmer Rogue.
Battanbang was amazing because it was basically empty of tourist; I walked around the town for an entire afternoon and did not see another tourist. While I was walking around town I ran into a group of guys, who looked around my age playing a game very similar to hacky sack but using a shuttle cock. They got me to join in and I spent the about an hour playing the game with them, doing some serious damage to myself because I am not as flexible as your average Cambodian guy. I then spent about an hour with them drinking rice whiskey and had a great time despite none of them being able to speak English. I also found a nice quite bar over looking the river, with free pool to sit at and watch the world go by (most of the bars in South East Asia have free pool, maybe by the time I leave I won't be so crap at pool-MAYBE) Battanbang was the base of the U.N in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rogue so the place is full of guest houses that were once U.N accommodation, and I got a big room with satellite TV for $4. I hadn't seen any news for about three weeks and it was great to catch up again with what was happening in the world, even if I did have to get the story from CNN.
After Battanbang, I headed to Phnom Penh, after a couple of bus breakdowns and twice as long as we were told we actually got there. A couple of times, a few of us on the bus had to get off and push start the bus, which was a large coach and hence a bugger to get moving. I don't think I had one intercity bus ride in Cambodia without the bus breaking down at least once. All the drivers are backyard mechanics, as well as drivers, although the most popular means of trying to get the buses started again seems to be to hit the engine really hard with a spanner.
In Phnom Penh, Stace and me found a nice guesthouse for $3 dollars a night set on a big lake about 5 kilometres from the centre of town. After a day just crashing out in the guest house I got in contact with a friend of mine, Liam, who used to work for Melbourne City Mission but is now works as a journalist. He writes for the Phnom Penh Post, an English language newspaper. We meet up at a café called the Bohdi Tree, which was set up to train underprivileged Cambodian young people hospitality skills (although I am not sure how they were working out who was underprivileged, it could be most of the young people in the country by many reckonings). After lunch Stace and me went to S21, a former high school that the Khmer Rogue turned into its primary integration (torture) centre and prison. The place feels really haunted; in some of the cells, there has been erected wall upon wall of prison photos of the people who were prisoners (they all ended up executed). The saddest part of S21 was the age of the people in the photos. Many of the victims were teenagers, and some were even younger. So were the Khmer Rogue soldiers who did the killing, most of them were in their early teens. The Khmer Rogue also valued gender equity, it seems like the women were just as likely as the men to be the victims and the killers.
In the evening after visiting S21, we met up with Liam again and also his girlfriend Sokthia, a Cambodian girl with a great sense of humour and heaps of spirit, like many of the Cambodian's I have met she has a sad and amazing story. Sokthia used to work with her older sister at a backpacker café in Phnom Penh that was owned by her older sister and her sister's fiancé. One day a fight broke out between two guys in front of the café, which ended when one of the protagonists pulled out a hand grenade and threw it at the other. Tragically, a piece of shrapnel came flying into the café and hit and killed Sokthia's sister. We headed out with them to Sokthia's parents place. Her parents own and work on a farm about half an hour outside Phnom Penh, where they grow fruit and vegetables. I tried too help Sokthia's family to prepare dinner, but was getting in the way more than I was helping, so I went for a wander around the local village for an hour or so. Dinner was unbelievable, so much food and Sokthia's family was so lovely, even though all the conversation had to be translated through Sokthia and Liam (His Cambodian was great for someone who had been in the country for only a year). Like many mothers back home, Sokthia's mum seemed obsessed with getting me to eat more.
A couple of days later I headed to the Killing Fields, about 15kms out of Phnom Penh. This was one of the main sites where Khmer Rogue prisons were taken for execution; there were many thousands of bodies excavated from the ground here after the fall of the Khmer Rogue. There is memorial building in the middle of the place that contains the skulls of the victims that were found in the mass graves (half of which are yet to be excavated). The memorial building has 17 levels, all full of skulls. The killing fields were a sad place, but I found it less traumatic than the S21 torture museum. Skulls are just bones, I can handle that, but the walls of photos of people, real people, who died were soul destroying. Cambodia's tourist attractions are not happy places, most of them exist because of the death of many people, but they stick with you more than the temples and beaches that dot the rest of South East Asia.
Cambodia has been an amazing place, full of so many stories of horror, yet so many more of survival and hope. They are some of the friendliest people in the world as well. I did get a little tired of fellow travellers talking about Cambodian culture as though it was some kind of perfect version of humanity. Like in every country I have visited so far, Cambodia has its share of people I find very challenging to appreciate (don't like) as well as a vast majority of a great people. As is the same with cultures, there is much to admire about the varied traditions and ideas of the Cambodian people: Many of them lived through things that most Australians could not even imagine. They are comparatively so poor, even for South East Asia, yet they really enjoy life (much more than most Australians from my very brief impression). They appreciate the company and support of their family and friends and show a loyalty to others that are hallmarks of a much more collectivist culture than my own. But the great benefits of a collectivist culture also come with some drawbacks. Gender relations are nowhere near equal, in much more noticeable ways than in Australia. The Cambodian men are the public face of most interactions at guesthouses and in the tourist industry, but the women seemed to be doing most of the work. Also I heard several stories about the number of Cambodian women who become virtual slaves in the sex trade, often sold into the 'profession' by a family member and the vast majority of men seem to use sex workers and treat women poorly. Yet, the women of Cambodia seem to accept this, partly out of loyalty to their family. Cambodia is also still a violent country, I saw a couple of violent muggings along the streets in Phnom Penh, and heard stories of many more (although they seem to leave tourists alone). People don't go to the police because the police, and all the state, are usually too corrupt to be of any use unless you have money. And there are still active bands of Khmer Rogue fighters in some parts of the country. Anyway, sorry about that rant, all in all though, the amazing warmth and hope of the Cambodian people far outweighed any negatives.