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Mark has been going on about Siem Reaping the rewards for the last week. I hope he’ll have it out of his system soon.
So getting from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh was pretty straightforward. We decided on the Mekong Express which was brilliant. Spacious, aircon wasn’t amazing but it was v hot out and my seat was broken & I was over the back wheel so I was like a bucking bronco. But they looked after you well, particularly on the border which is organised (kinda) chaos. You stop for a little tea break just over the border. Just over the border was a ton of casinos. Not sure about why this is – I don’t think they can bet in Vietnam as there was a casino in Da Nang which we were told the locals couldn’t use, it was for the mainly Chinese tourists.
These are not big, grand casinos. The best one was called the ‘Winn’ – yep!! – in the same font as the Wynn – lush!!!
Then onto Phnom Penh. Worst bit was the ferry the coach we went on – I never like going on them. But it was an amazing drive through the Cambodian countryside. It was really lovely. Stilted houses, paddy fields with sporadic palm trees on edges (not sure what that was about), cattle and water buffalo. The huge hay piles intrigued me – definitely quite old fashioned farming.
We turned up at the back of some market in Phnom Penh and were grateful we’d arranged a tuk tuk to pick us up through the agent in HCMC. The tuk tuk driver was doing this for free apparently but did we want to go anywhere the next day. Well we did (and I know this is the way it works) and he seemed nice enough so we booked him to pick us up the next morning.
The tuk tuks are another new design. They are like mopeds pulling trailers. They look totally unstable but once you’re in them and have cornered a few times, you realise they are miraculously balanced.
They even have tuk tuk buses – which is pulling a long flat trailer with wooden benches, which people pile onto.
Tuk tuk lorries have a boxed in back to store stuff in. They’re pretty amazing.
Another country another beer – on our first night we tried some local beer. I didn’t like it much.
After a long day travelling we didn’t feel up to a huge amount after getting to our guesthouse. The Khavi guesthouse, I booked after reading story from a couple of travel bloggers that had had this guy years ago as a tuk tuk driver who’s dream it was to have his own hotel. Not easy for a tuk tuk driver with low and sporadic earnings. But he made it and a great place it was too. They were so lovely and helpful there. A nice area to chill out downstairs and in a great area. There’s a street of places to eat and can walk to both the palace and the river.
So we explored a tiny bit then headed down the road to a place I’d seen recommended for simple food. Truthfully, I mainly wanted to go because I’d heard they had a pug. Sad but true. And they did. A fatty pug who knew how to charm customers to get fed – hence the poster below.
Next morning we headed off to our first stop, the Killing Fields. This is a fairly long, dusty tuk tuk ride. If anyone does it – def wear sunglasses and sit on the drivers side. I was on the other side so was closest to the many near misses with lorries (so much construction going on here) and other speeding vehicles we had. It was rather heart stopping. I made Mark swap sides on the way back and he concurred it was indeed the dark side.
The roads are pretty bad (some of them are pretty much just dirt tracks). There’s lots of bits where the road caves in, so the bike (and big seated area behind don’t forget) has to drive around – which either means into oncoming traffic or into the path of pedestrians or buildings. Joy!
As we neared the Killing Fields it became more rural. There’s lots of Asian cows plodding around (you know the ones with the humpy necks). They seem to always need to itch their noses – funny seeing a cow scratch his nose on a moped.
I don’t have that much to say about the Killing Fields. It is incredibly well done and I think it’s somewhere everyone should go to remind ourselves what so easily gets forgotten. This should not happen. It is strangely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Meadows, trees, a pond, orchards, birds.
But this was somewhere that horrific things happened and music was played loudly at night so the locals couldn’t hear the screams. One of the chilling facts is that they barely shot anyone. Bullets were expensive so should be wasted. So many people died here that bones and scraps of cloth often comes up to the surface which is sporadically collected by the staff. Most bodies have been collected and put into the remembrance tower but not all and some they have intentionally left, near the ponds edge. There is a audio tour which is free for all which explains everything and you hear he stories from many people. This means that you experience this in your own time, in your own head space. A quiet place where many people ended up walking around alone. You sit on a bench to listen and you look around you and see scraps of cloth which you realise belonged to a some poor soul, taken down here. You stare at the big tree in horror as you hear what it was used for. I won’t go into any more detail. But it is utterly horrifying and paralysingly saddening. Something beautiful and slightly spooky, is the abundance of butterflies. I won’t go all hippy dippy on you but it was something you couldn’t help notice and feel in juxtaposition to the gloom.
S21 Genocide Museum
There wasn’t much to the genocide museum as a museum but it is again the building itself which holds a terrible history. This is an old school which was used as a prison. Crudely constructed open topped cells filled the larger rooms. There are larger rooms with metal beds which were used for torture. A large photo of a body found in those rooms is often on the walls. It’s pretty much as it was. This only ended at the end of the 70s so it is tangibly recent. There are photos and information on the people that stayed there. Most died there or were sent to the killing fields. Again, there is lots of information but I will spare you.
The whole thing is politically alarming – realising how easily people can take advantage of the broken and vulnerable. Like Hitler, Pol Pot took a country, shattered from civil war and sold an impossible dream to the poor and underprivileged. His hatred of education seemed insane as he’d studied in France and been a teacher himself and all the other high up members of the Khmer Rouge had been as well. He’d failed his degree I think – like Hitler, clearly had issues with rejection. There are some amazing quotes from him. My favourite was probably along the lines of ‘it is better to kill an innocent than to let an enemy go’. Nice, eh!!! But the alarming side is that no-one stepped in. No-one noticed or no-one looked? It’s always unsettling that we pick and choose the troubles we step into. It’s just difficult to comprehend all this and quite frankly it takes you to a pretty dark view of the world. You have to cling onto those stories of moving forward. It is startling that the Cambodian people have come across as so ‘light’. Not that I expect them to walk around being ‘woe is me’ but they’ve had a very recent atrocity and continue to be one of the poorest countries in the world. I have also heard people describe their encounters with Cambodia as hard and etched with trouble. Quite frankly my experience of almost everyone, young and old, has been that they’re quite scampish! A little mischievous and full of smiles. And it’s not smiley in a ‘whatever you say tourist person’ way that you get elsewhere – it’s them laughing at themselves or at you, or whatever. Like I say ‘light’ and maybe that’s the thing. Life shouldn’t be dark and dour – it can be lost or get tainted so easily, it should be enjoyed and made the most of. It took me about a week to go with this one though. It didn’t help that I was reading ‘The Help’ so my faith in the world remained minimal for a while.
We had hours left in the day and felt bad getting rid of the driver but there aren’t obviously a lot of other attractions in the city.
I think most people go shooting but I really wasn’t up for that. It was something I really fancied before my recent stint in Vietnam and Cambodia remind me horror of war and that’s what guns are for.
So we opted for a market which I’d read had great art deco architecture – Mark was excited, I can tell you But I figured we could grab some lunch and then finish up. So we walked around – it really was a lovely building and a gorgeous, clean, interesting market. No messiness – no hassle. In fact, I was wondering what was wrong with me – why did no-one want to sell to me. The tuk tuk drivers would offer themselves up and just laugh when you said no. Where was this harsh and harrowing Cambodia that I’d heard so much about?
That evening we got a little more adventurous and wandered further up the river. This is a hive of activity with lots of games and antics going on on the thick stretch that runs alongside. More great people watching. Further on from here is also where the majority of restaurants and hotels seemed to be. We didn’t get to go to our first choice of restaurant – I forget it’s name but it’s a charity place that trains up street kids – it was all booked up darn it but we found a nice, friendly and surprisingly chic restaurant and tried their Khmer specialty taster menu. This was our last night and we had another early start and another bus awaiting us.
I felt really guilty spending such little time in Phnom Penh. We did the usual stuff that tourists do – pop in, see the stuff of the humanitarian tragedy and then move on. It was a nice laid back place so I would have liked to have spent more time there working it out. If we hadn’t (unusually for us these days) had a flight booked on a specific date which meant we had limited time to make it to Bangkok, we definitely would have hung out longer. I’d like to go back sometime. I think this city is definitely one to watch in coming years, I really hope they don’t knock too much down and make it middle of the road and boring to wander.
Thoughts on Cambodia at this point…
There is a lot of building going on in PP which is great as it means progress but they are not holding onto heritage buildings and apparently great buildings are being knocked down all the time. Some are well looked after like the palaces and the market as per above. But in particular buildings from the 50s and 60s which with some loving care could be fantastic attractions, are being bulldozed and dull un-inspiring samey buildings are going up. Shame.
The other side of the countries development is I think it’s the hugest void of rich and poor I’ve seen so far. Cars which you even raise an eyebrow at at home – like Hummers and Bentleys. Bit weird.
The people seem to like colourful clothes here. I noticed this early on. Lot of bright reds, oranges and yellows – even their shoes. The boys in PP are very into their hair. Dying bits of it and sticking it up as high and bouffant as possible. It’s v sweet.
On to Siem Reap…
We booked our hotel through our guesthouse in PP as we liked them so much, and we also booked our bus ticket through them.
It was the Mekong Express again but the bus wasn’t as comfy or modern as the one from HCMC. It was OK though. The journey wasn’t so far anyhow.
We got dropped off in what was like an agricultural trading estate type place in the middle of nowhere. Our arranged tuk tuk driver wasn’t there so we went with a sweet, enthusiastic young lad. Same deal – we booked him to go to Angkor Wat etc but left it a day so we could have a bit of down time the day after as we were getting pretty knackered with so much moving about.
The hotel we stayed at, the ‘New Riverside’ was amazing. Please note that it was nowhere near the riverside but who cares it was fab and a bargain. Big, comfy rooms, a great breakfast included and a nice pool area. The staff were all also lovely there.
There was two things I loved there totally –
Their shrine in the foyer had a light up plastic pineapple – I want want so bad!!!
Pumpkin, ginger and coconut milk soup with garlic bread. I had this about 4 times during our stay – sooooo good.
Pretty much all day, until about 8pm there was a free tuk tuk to take you into town, which was fab. Mark hated this as the tuk tuk had to go down a very steep curb to get out and it always seemed it would tip.
The centre of Siem Reap is amazingly easy as it’s been turned into a tourist haven. This has occurred over the last 15 years or so, so it’s not really a representation of real Cambodia but it’s nice and easy for weary travellers. There is a central street called Pub street (yes I know, sounds awful) but I think it’s just about creating back packer type areas. We were generally only there early evening so was always tame but am sure got crazier and louder later on.
Our first stop was the Angkor What? pub (see what they did there!) this was the first pub in Siem Reap circa 1998 – history lesson for you there folks.
They also had a rather posh Irish bar but as we stayed longer we explored further and went to places on the outer edges. My recommendations here are the Khmer Kitchen as mentioned above, Molly Malone’s again as above, but the food was v good, Sunflower restaurant (Chinese & Khmer) & everything in our hotel was good!
Begging and dodginess
Now let me start by saying that this was no where near as bad as I was expecting. Not even close. But it is there so am gonna talk about it now and get it over and done with. It’s obviously hideous to watch/deal with the kids sent out. My first experience was a girl after the Killing Fields who kind of just half heartedly loped after me mumbling money for school. I think after lots of people of course feeding them if they say this, they have mainly cotton’d on that education gets guilt ridden westerners a good’n. I just told her firmly no – always useful to learn that word in a language sadly. But that was the way it generally was; a kid kind of just following you and muttering unenthusiastically. I have heard however of people being chased down the street by hoards of children. This does seem to be when that person has stupidly given in and given one child something – so of course the rest think why not me and so the chase begins. I’ve always been very away about the evils of begging and got firm early on in life but I think Mark was feeling very uncomfortable and it’s easy to throw money to remove your guilt but it helps no-one. You don’t want to create the industry of begging as per India for example. I mean it’s everywhere – beggars in the UK usually have a dog rather than a child at least but in Spain, Greece and Italy I’ve experienced toddlers launched at you in the street. I feel sorry for anyone who feels they can do nothing but beg but using children is so bad and we’re told time and again that usually where the children are there, it’s a scam/a business.
We witnessed slightly more hard core (and heart wrenching) incidents in Siem Reap. This definitely fell into the category of organised and calculated. We actually ended up staying in Siem Reap about a week which is fairly unusual so we could see the usual suspects at various times of the evening. They seemed pretty connected. I think it was likely one extended family. The older guys who hung out opposite Molly Malone’s looked like they were just tuk tuk drivers but then realised there was only one tuk tuk and a few of them. Then I noticed they talked to the beggar kids. Then I noticed them talk to people and people blank them walking by. Now some people are that rude, but most would just say no thank you, not totally ignore. Then later when they approached us, realised they were selling drugs. They weren’t pushy or anything but I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them away from a well lit, busy street.
So they then seemed connected to the woman with the baby hanging off her. And the very young kids who’d run around the street at other times of day with said baby with no mother insight. Seriously – it was about 3 months old being held by a 4 year old running about and playing. Heart attack!! The kids would come up to you and put their arms around you and ask for money. It’s a strange tactic as it’s so full on, but maybe people feel so guilty having to literally unpeel a child from themselves that they give them money to go away. We barely got bothered – I hate to think that I have developed such an uncaring vibe or a cold un-moving stare but at the same time, I hope I have – makes life easier.
There was one main culprit who I think was part of this clan but was on his own most of the time. I say culprit but someone has done this to this kid but I fear unless he gets out of this pretty sharpish his life is heading in an unpleasant direction. He must have been 7ish. He was full on with the arm throwing and did this from late afternoon, all night from what we could see, along the Pub Street area. There’s lots of places with balconies which is how we watched him so often. It was quite funny at times to see the reactions of the foreigners. I particularly was impressed when the boyfriend/husband in a couple, siddled off leaving his other half to it. Helpful!! But then one guy firmly removed the kid and I think he may have then gotten a few choice words from the older, nasty guys. There’s no winning here. It was bad to watch but the chilling part was the way this kid would turn. When he got turned away – which was inevitably most of the time, we’ve seen him ‘play’ kick the girl from behind and spit at people as they walked away. This poor little kid has been doing this for god knows how many years and he’s now fighting back at the rejection he faces everyday. I can see this escalating to being more violent. He really does carry himself with a scarily aggressive demeanour (understandably). Sad to think of his fate But as I say, this in no way defines Cambodia. As in all poor countries (and not so poor countries) people will use scamming and begging as an income.
Of course it’s on a whole other level when you have the landmine victims – the no legged man being pulled around on a cart by his very young daughter. Much more respectful but still, when you watch, very organised. The guy goes around on his own for much of the time – they let him ‘skate’ for want of a better word, around some restaurants as he’s docile and not aggressive. But the mother turns up with the little girl for her to do her shift of ferrying him around for a bit before he goes it alone again.
I think in Cambodia they are aware and do not like this reputation as there’s signs up in some businesses and about the place saying ‘we want to work’ and things like that. As the country develops, hopefully more opportunities will become available to people and especially kids and people with disabilities but in the mean time if tourists just stopped giving the guilt money, this problem would not be something that could potentially grow and hurt more people than it helps. There are always people there running charities that will welcome that money to help them help people properly. Although that is a bit of a minefield – have read that the ‘visit an orphanage’ type trips aren’t really helping, it’s kind of bringing the kids up with a bizarre viewpoint. I think you should be happy to invest in charity without wanting the ‘payback’ of a child smiling at you and some cute photos, but then if it provides much needed money – tricky one.
My name is Katie and I didn’t go to Angkor Wat
So, yep I was in Siem Reap and I did not see Angkor Wat. I didn’t see a simple temple or ruin. On the day we were supposed to go I felt really ill and so Mark went on his own. He saw Angkor Wat and some of the other amazing sights. He enjoyed it, he photographed, he learned some interesting facts about the history (for instance most of the Buddha statues don’t have heads as our old friend Pol Pot sold them all).
We stayed in Siem Reap for a fair few days after so I could have gone. Thing is, the $20 dollar entry to the park seemed a bit steep for something I didn’t really care about seeing. And it felt liberating to acknowledge this. I didn’t want to go. I’m getting bored of temples and ruins have never been my thing. I’ve been to Greece countless times and have never been to one site. I am a history lover but more recent history. Pretty much anything from the late 1880s onwards and I’m in. But I truly would only have been going to tick it off a list. So I didn’t. Ha! So there! I’m sure those of you who haven’t yet been, who long to see this amazing wonder of the world, unesco heritage gem, want to throw things at me. But hey, maybe you’ve been to LA and haven’t sought out the Randys Donut’s building, been to Florida without worshiping at the art deco shrine of South Beach or you’ve gone to Japan without going to ‘Hello Kitty World or you’ve never been to a Tiki Bar or you walk past concrete block buildings not realising it’s 60s architectural masterpiece. Those would be scandalous to me!!!
Anyway, here’s some pics from the ruin I missed
Apparently these steps were really, really high – ha ha!!
Previously mentioned missing Buddha head
The monks carry gold umbrellas in Cambodia which always looks pretty stunning
The Khmer food was a surprise. I’d not heard great things about the food but it turned out to be pretty good. Quite hearty food. Things like stews and potatoes! Totally not what was expecting. There is a place called the Khmer Kitchen which has 4 or 5 little cafes sprinkled about the place and is good to try.
Burning pots/witches cauldrons
These will always remind me of Cambodia now. They are sat out on the roads outside houses and businesses and are used to burn rubbish. They were being pushed as some kind of ‘eco’ initiative (it’s probably more about keeping Siem Reap looking pretty for tourists – but either way it’s a good thing).
They reminded me of the kids books ‘Meg & Mog’
I know it’s cheesy and written and said too much when talking about a place but tough. Coz it really is a big thing. My heart is with the Vietnamese the most – I’ve fallen for them good and proper but Cambodia is a close second. They weirdly seem to have the closest to a British sense of humour. I loved the guy in our Siem Reap hotel who told Mark to look for a blue sack that someone had dropped in the bottom of the pool. Threw Mark for a while. Not used to cheekiness and sarcasm. It’s great. Obviously there are plenty of miserable, mean, rude and grabby people but on the whole people were just genuine.