Battambang, 23 - 25 January
23.01.2009 - 25.01.2009 29 °C
After a six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh we arrive in Battambang. Once Cambodia's largest and richest province, it remained on the front lines of civil war for much of the 70's, 80's and 90's. Yet it still exhibits some impressive French colonial architecture of what remains standing (and some that could do with a paint job at the least). We settle into the "Royal Hotel" (at US$6) which is next to the Psar Nat (Meeting Market), and close to the riverfront. We watch the usual never ending convoy of motorbikes drive past, laden up with whole families, monks, and supplies - where would the Khmers be without their motos?
After a quick morning visit to the market for an assortment of fruits and fresh hot baguettes & cakes, we take a motobike tour to see rural Battambang. Cheap as chips (only US $8 for half a day) so you can't really do it any cheaper by yourself. We cruise along the riverside, through villages that are a weird mix of french architecture and bamboo huts on stilts. Children call out to us, farmers tend to their crops, ox carts pass us by, and we see plenty of rice paddies, sugar palms, and large hay bales. Tin and Hugo (a substitute for the latter, since we can't recall his real name) - our friendly and intrepid drivers, point out many of the riverside crops to us; peanuts, red chillies, melons and corn among them. Who would have known? Anyway, the area is lush and a welcome contrast with the rest of the countryside we've seen, which is particularly dry at the moment (being the dry season), and always completely coated in "Cambodian Snow" (the thick earthy red dust).
Going through a smallish village we pass a lavish wedding ceremony - an unexpected sight to see everyone kitted out in their fancy bling bling, set amongst a backdrop of basic bamboo huts, animals and more dust. Every now and then we hear a loudspeaker booming music, the sounds echoing throughout the villages. Turns out this signifies either a wedding, religious ceremony, or a funeral. Songs from a famous Cambodian romance country singer for the weddings, but probably not for the funerals (we don't really know). To the untrained ear it all sounds the same. We also learn that white flags raised outside a residence is a tell-tale sign that a relative has died within the last 100 days (they stay up for 100 days).
It's a delight to have our drivers along to get these things pointed out to us. It would all be same same without 'em. As we further engage with our drivers - Tin, Alana's driver, tells us that he was originally born in Phnom Penh, but was sent to Battambang province during Khmer Rouge reign, to cultivate rice. Separated from his family, he grew up in an orphanage before moving back to Phnom Penh to study Geology. The Government once again sent him back to Battambang for work totally unrelated to his studies. Seems to be a characteristic of the Communist regime here as there's a lot of that going around. Nevertheless, today he is a seemingly happy family man, despite having had to endure so much hardship to get to this point, with little control of his life for the majority of his years.
Guido's driver, Hugo, did not fare much better. Born in a bunker on the South East Cambodian border with Vietnam, his family fled the carpet bombing that the Americans were so good at during the Vietnam War. Sent to farm rice in the countryside like many of his fellow citizens during the Khmer Rouge era, he also grew up an orphanage after separation from his family. Fortunately, and unlike Alana's driver, they were reunited ten years later. Most of these stories don't end happily however and it seems that every Cambodian over 35 years of age, one generation away from us, has his/her own story to tell. A concept we sometimes find hard to grasp. Freedoms and opportunities awarded back home are often taken for granted so once again we are reminded of how fortunate we are to have such basics as human rights. Thanks to both, these motorides were an invaluable eye opener, above all also providing insight into rural Khmer life (among other lessons learnt).
We head to a Hindu hilltop temple "Phnon Banan". A steep climb rewarded with amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. The temple is a 11th century ruin which has seen much better days, and some of its five towers are on the verge of collapse. Yet it is a nice introduction to Angkorian architecture, richly adorned and decorated with many bas-reliefs and naga (mythical serpant).
Next stop are the giant fruit bats; hundreds of juvenile bats hanging from just one tree within the Wat's grounds. Protected by the monks, they are often hunted for their flesh elsewhere. Justifiably a sanctuary. They migrate once they are a year old, to unknown destinations apparently. Our drivers tell us that tomorrow exactly the bats will leave - it must be written in the stars somewhere.
On our way to the Bamboo Train Station we drive past a nice rice and brick factory - fun little excursions on the way. The " bamboo train" is a wooden frame covered with bamboo slats, resting on two wheel axles, and connected to a two stroke engine (probably from a tractor or lawnmower). These little train devices are still used for local transport and can quickly be disassembled and taken off the rails when faced with bigger oncoming traffic such as trains. There are not many other takers when we arrive so we decide to hire the whole train for $8 USD. Jumping on with our drivers and bikes we click clack our way along the misaligned rails and bridges left behind by the French. We pick up quite a bit of speed too - luckily we don't derail. Near its end we do however encounter a real oncoming train so we have to quickly disassemble the contraption and admit defeat.
Phnom Pehn, 19 - 23 January
19.01.2009 - 23.01.2009 32 °C
And so the 30-seater bus rolls to a stop at Psar Thmei, center point of gravity in Phnom Penh. Otherwise known as the central market, this huge art deco-ish dome structure and the sprawling street stalls that spill out if it, dwarf the not insignificant bus station. Madness descends upon us, transport hawkers run at our bus en masse, blocking our only way out, furiously pointing at their would be rides, crawling over each other, fighting for our custom. We apply our usual routine: we grab our packs, brush off the frenzy of people that are tugging them towards their motorbikes, and decide on a plan, all the while not acknowledging any of the five or so drivers that hover around us like vultures. To peer is to perish and eye contact is particularly deadly in this game.
The Psar O' Russei area it is, a neighborhood further south where most budget accommodation resides. The tuktuk, bartered down to 6000 riel, drops us off near the Skypark guesthouse - our home for the next few days. A newish hotel, the ensuite rooms are quite plush with all the usual gadgets like satellite tv and best off all - an elevator! Hoorah, convenient since the cheapest rooms are invariably on the sixth floor.
For a developing country which literally floats on foreign aid, satellite tv is rather sophisticated with no less than 40 odd channels to choose from all of which tuned well into the rest of the world with cnn, bbc as well as discovery and national geographic - luxury! Something our Kiwi contemporaries can learn from while it still laments over its 5 channels all of which broadcast nothing but utter crap. We're resident next to one of the main streets, one of several major pulsating veins coursing through the city. Exploring on foot, what else to do but to snack our way to the waterfront 4kms away? Pork buns at Caltex, choc cake & coffees at the bakery, and lucky burgers make for a slow journey to the independence monument. Built in 1958 and obviously inspired by the Angkor Wat towers it commemorates Cambodia's independence from France and to a lesser extent its war casualties. Past the Royal Palace and National Museum we walk along the boulevard where the rivers meet - Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac.
The hub of all resto and bar activity, we settle on a small cafe with an ice cold Angkor at hand, and take in Khmer city life. A steady stream of folk selling everything and anything mixed in with the very young and elderly begging for a few bucks (u hav' dollah sir?). With big puppy dog eyes, dirty clothes, wet noses, and grubby hands upheld they stare right into your soul making it hard to resist the children's plead, who often toil smaller siblings on their back all day. That cold beer suddenly doesn't taste that great anymore. However, exploited by adults who know better but are to poor to care, none of this street theater can be taken at face value. All of which makes it hard to comprehend that to give anything at all achieves nothing but a quick instant fix to one's own guilt, while encouraging their activities. In other respects there is light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of a great many eateries which donate a cut of their profits to charities, orphanages and the maimed across the board. Somewhat unique to Cambodia, its a great initiative to ensure your money ends up at the right place.
The tragic legacy of Cambodia's recent civil war history just one generation away is also embodied by the legions of land mine victims that roam the streets of Phnom Penh. Middle-aged men, women, and children alike, without legs or arms, sometimes both, try to eck out a living in this harsh environment, sometimes from selling boot legged books. A noble initiative we try to support where we can but although we read a great deal during our travels there's only so many books we can carry along with us. On that note, our packs are getting heavier with each city and country we visit, stocking up on more books, trinkets and clothes - it probably constitutes more than half of our pack load. We know we shouldn't but the deals are way to good to leave behind! =)
Just around the corner we find Wat Phnom - a small hill crowned by a Wat, marking the founding spot of Phnom Penh. Legend has it that Lady Phnom herself fished a koki tree with Buddha statues out of the river right here back in 1372 - hence, Phnom Penh. The things you find in the rivers here... Admission fees aside, we can't be bothered with the 27 metre slog up the hill and instead admire from afar its large stupa which contains the remains of King Ponhea Yat, who in 1422 relocated the capital here from Angkor. Vendors, children, monks, and a shagging troop of macaques run amok on its grounds resembling somewhat of a circus. You can buy little birds which are held in cages, and release them as part of a common merit making process in Buddhism philosophy. That the birds were in fact captured this very morning is besides the point of course. A feisty bunch, one of the macaques, obviously pregnant and fattened up by the endless supply of peanuts from the tourists, abruptly makes off with one of the monks bags and swipes him when he attempts to grab it back, only seconds after this photo was taken. Cute as they are it goes to show you can't trust this vile bunch of monkeys!
There are elephant rides here too but, clocking in at 4:30pm, the ele and its driver have gone home a wee while back. The elephant mount and bale of hay lie dormant in the shade. Come to think of it, probably the same elephant we saw earlier strolling along the river on its own sandals. We make our way to the Mekong River resto (tuk tuk sir?, tuk tuk sir?, tuk tuk sir?) to watch a movie about the history of Pol Pot's regime and Cambodia's genocide - it has some interesting original black and white footage of the time when all its people were ordered out of the cities into the countryside to farm rice. A Maoist agrarian utopia that never quite took off, the footage of Phnom Penh emptied out is a strange sight to behold and completely out of place now. As it happens, the place also does all you can eat breakfast for USD $2.50! Buffet buffs we are we check in first thing next morning for a fix of chocolate danish's, croissants, bacon & egg, and endless espresso's (we had 6 between us over the course of an hour alone). Hopefully that should keep us going all day.
First off we have the National Museum on the cards for the next day. A traditional terracotta building welcomes us with four fine pavilions to choose from, collectively forming a square that looks out over a serene courtyard. The pavilion is spacious but not sparse, with a vast treasure of ancient Khmer art, mostly sculpted in sandstone. Traversing the structures clockwise we wander through time itself. From pre-Angkorian Hindu deities the likes of Vishnu and Ganesha, Angkorian era temple friezes, some linga's, and many statues of Shiva and Jayavarman the 7th - the most prolific builder dude of them all, to a small collection of post-Angkorian artifacts. Most of which extradited during the civil war when the temples became a staging ground for nearby rebel attacks. The often limbless torsos of the statues of the past strike a symbolic yet disconcerting similarity with the many amputees that roam the city today. All the female divinities also have their boobies hanging out all the time, a striking contrast with the conservative values most Cambodians hold dear.
The courtyard offers welcome cerebral respite from all the confounding history kept within these grounds as does the "friends resto" around the corner where we follow up with refreshing ice coffees. Staffed by overly friendly youngsters who bear smiles from ear to ear, this place steers these former street children towards a promising career in the hospitality industry, as opposed to one on the streets. There are several such places in town and we find it a great and easy way to contribute to their future. We also pick up one of many bootlegged books on Cambodia's conflict history from one of the amputee street vendors that go from place to place in their make-shift tricycles.
The other biggie of the day; the Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda, await several blocks away. Built in 1866 by King Norodom, the palace easily dominates Phom Penh's skyline with gilded Khmer roofs glittering in the afternoon sun. Worthy of royalty, the throne hall is still used for processions and ceremonies today and is decoratively clad in gold and red carpet as far as our eyes can see.
Similarly, the Silver Pagoda is chocked with pure golden and marble Buddha's and other beautiful relics of extraordinary Khmer artisanship. The jewel in the crown is an emerald crystal Buddha which sits high atop the dain on his gilt pedestal. Not needing an introduction, in front stands a life sized golden Buddha crested with no less than 9584 diamonds, the purest of which is a whopping 25 carats. In turn guarded to the left and right by a bronze and silver Buddha respectively. In case you wondered, the pagoda itself is named in honor of its floor, which is paved entirely with around 5000 silver tiles Weighing 1kg each, they gleam back at us as we roll back the edge of the carpet from under our feet.
Enough kitsch and worthwhile spending of taxpayers money you think? We definitely thought so, and after a brief interlude in a local symphony where we attempted to play the xylophone, we called it quits and ordered a mighty great feed of chicken amok at one of the many Khmer eateries before tuktukking our way home to watch the American president's inauguration.
Early the next morning we head to the southern districts of town. First the Vietnamese embassy to secure a visa which, contrary to expectations, proved to be a breeze with only minimal bureaucracy. Then on we pressed to the residential area along Monivong Boulevard wherein Tuol Sleng, the museum of genocidal crimes, presides. A former high school during pre-revolutionary times and forcibly evacuated with the rest of Cambodia's cities and towns when the Khmer Rouge took seat, the school next became the secret headquarters of its security police, the Santebal. Famously known as security prison S-21 it quickly morphed into the regime's largest interrogation centre where 14.000 " political enemies" of the regime were systematically incarcerated, questioned, tortured, made to confess to often fictional counterrevolutionary activities, and ultimately "discarded" at Choeung Ek. The school remains preserved very much as it was found by the Vietnamese back in January 1979.
A spacious, dilapidated compound - four whitewashed concrete buildings, each 3 stories high, soak in the hot afternoon sun. Classroom after classroom feature barred windows, flaking paint peeling off the walls, and neat yellow and white tiled floors that contain sparse furniture. Miscellaneous instruments of torture, ammunition crates, rusted iron beds, ankle shackles used to manacle prisoners feet to their beds, remain testament to the atrocities that took place here.
Other rooms contain neatly sectioned but clumsily bricked cell partitions where prisoners of lesser value were held. Copious amounts of barbed wire along each of the balconies separates the reality of this place from the rest of the world.
Endless rows, thousands of mugshot photographs of the detainees - men, women, even children no more than 10 years of age, sometimes before and after torture, occupy the walls of the ground floor. Perhaps the most unnerving part of these exhibits are the penetrating stares of their eyes, often revealing fear, occasionally contempt, all follow us around the rooms. Knowing as we do now, and as they did not, that certain death beckoned each of them. Only seven prisoners survived, all of which resorted to their artistic qualities like photography or painting to make it through - a horrific legacy that is shown through several paintings that depict scenes of torture, drawn up in the aftermath by one of the survivors. The sheer ordinariness of the surroundings; a typical suburban neighborhood, a festive wedding ceremony that is taking place across the road, plain school buildings, and a lush courtyard playground with swings and monkey bars; each turned into makeshift torture devices, is a surreality that strikes home the most.
All of this for typewritten confessions, thousands of them, mostly fabricated under torture never to be used in any judicial court of law. It's a bizarre Kafkaesque world where people are guilty because they are accused and not vice versa. Altogether, a grizzly and sobering experience. More so since all the guards, interrogators and executioners alike were plain ordinary, and mostly in their twenties like us. Perhaps stark reminder that a dark side lurks in all of us. The leading senior cadres of the regime have been, and still are, living unhampered amongst the very Cambodians they so relentlessly persecuted. Ironically, they have only just been brought to trial under a hybrid tribunal sponsored by the United Nations. We read about the proceedings occasionally in the Cambodian Post.
Thoroughly drained of emotion for the rest of the day we decide to reflect on the brighter aspects of life. Armed with an empty trolley we stock up on supplies at the local Lucky supermarket; excellent imported French cheese's, crackers, Pringles, odd bits of jackfruit, dried sweet potatoes, and a damn fine Cambodian ginger rice wine for only US $2.50. A delectable picnic and free flowing wine with a good movie follows and sees us off for the night.
Our last day in Phnom Penh, we charter a tuk tuk to Choeung Ek, 15kms away - one of many killing fields that exist throughout Cambodia. Here, the truckloads of condemned prisoners from S-21 would arrive in the midst of the night to be executed. An extermination site, pragmatic in approach, prisoners were often just bludgeoned to death in order to save precious bullets. These days however we find it a peaceful place with grassy fields where no wrong would be suspected, if not for the craters that are scattered throughout this one time longan orchard.
We find fragments of bone and cloth partially exposed in the dirt that surround the disinterred pits. Local kids play hide and seek amongst the mass graves. Most, but not all, graves have since been exhumed and the remains recovered displayed in an adjoining imposing Memorial Stupa. Shelf upon shelf stacked with the 8000 skulls, each elegantly arranged in order of age and sex. Some still bear decomposing rags of cloth around their empty eye sockets - remains of makeshift blindfolds thirty years ago.
Heading back our smiling tuk tuk driver asks us, somewhat misplaced, if we are keen to try out one off the many military shooting ranges around Phnom Penh. Uhmm, maybe not today. It does however highlight the rapid transformation this country is going through at the moment. Instead, we ask him to drop us off at the Psar Tuol Tom Pong; the infamous Russian Market where "them Russians" vigorously shopped for guns back in the eighties. Of course, none of this remains now and weapon transactions have long since moved to more obscure parts of the country. Not a great loss we find, there is still a myriad of Adidas, Nike, Gap, Diesel, Northface and Colombia knock-offs that spill out of the many brand factory outlets around town. Cheap as chips, we buy up a storm...again.
Kampot & Kep, 16 - 19 January
16.01.2009 - 19.01.2009 30 °C
Next stop Kampot - an old riverside town with a lingering colonial legacy. Street after street lined with rundown french era villas & shops painted in mustard yellow or peachy orange (okay, perhaps not the one in the photo). Slow paced bicycles and mopeds buzzing about, a relaxed atmosphere prevails and evoke feelings from days long gone.
A gorgeous day, we stroll along the Kampot Bay riverfront. With its quiet lanes and green grassy verges we stop for a rendez-vous at a small cafe, al fresco style seating along the waterfront - time for a cuppa with lots of sweet condensed tooth-decaying milk. A classic bakery set in a decrepit colonial building stands out: plaster peeling and piles of firewood stacked outside, it cranks out hot baguettes every other minute for only 500 riel - a bargain, and our breakfast for the next few days.
As it happens we stumble upon the local psar (market) - an undercover behemoth with the usual suspects of fruit, vege, clothes, shoes, and unrefridgerated meat and fish. There's is no mistaken the pungant odour that embraces you once you walk under those corrugated iron roofs and leave the light of day behind. But we're on a mission. Past the stalls with homekill and fresh fish of the day that's incubating under the hot summer sun these markets often hide some of the best and cheapest Khmer food in town.
This day no different. We hunt down some fried noodles with herby mint and basil and wash it down with freshly crushed sugarcane juice on ice, a real refresher. Having walked around the periphery of Kampot we call it a day. Six people drive by on a moped - a new unofficial record! They fit any number of things on these bikes but for this one they improvised a two-seater couch on the back to make it happen - not bad. On our way home we find the Kampang Rye Wat on our path so we have a nosey. Giggling little Khmer girls, ornately painted walls and saffron robed monks wander the grounds - an inspiring little gem tucked away off the back road.
After a sumptuous breakfast of baguettes and bananas soaked in condensed milk we set off for Kep the very next day, on a motorbike no less derelict than the rest of this town. We're happy, as long as it takes us back in one piece. The road picturesque, rice paddies caked in red dust pass by, traditional stilted houses dotted along, motorbikes laden up with supplies: firewood, logs, mattrasses, live pigs in bondage gear - you name it you see it here. Contemporary cambodian countryside at its best.
Krong Kep, a seaside riviera-like resort of old, founded by the French back in 1908 as a colonial retreat for the rich and glamorous. The Khmer Rouge in turn, loathing the excesses of the bourgeouise, burned the town to the ground in the late seventies. Our proximity to Kep announces itself in the shape of numerous blackened ruins, shells of their former glorious self. Once luxurious mansions these remnants are all that remain of a once prosperous and grandiose existince which met a sudden violent ending at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Some of these walled enclosures are huge but don't even have anything left standing inside! The post-apocalyptic atmosphere is palpable. One of the decrepit mansions we stop at has unsurpassed seaviews and is surrounded by palm trees and flowers, its walls pockmarked by bullets, its ruins inhabited by squatters.
There are signs of progress though. Bokor hill station, an eerie french resort ruin about 40kms out of town has been closed while they retrofit the castle with a new flash casino. Kep town too, is rising from the ashes with Khmers picknicking in little hammock enclaves which you rent by the hour.
And famous for its seafood, Kep's crab market goes off with locals milling about, eating barbequed squid on a stick. Dinner is around the corner from the market, in one of the ramshackle wooden shacks that double up as restaurants. We go for the crab and prawns sauteed in kampot pepper - a local delicacy. Kampot's pepper is justifiably world famous, ask the french they should know.
Meals fresh as day we watch as they collect the crustaceans from their pens, tethered a few meters from the beach. And so the day slips by. Working our way into the crabs with the nut crackers provided for the job, we watch the famed Kep sun set.
Sihanoukville, 14-16 January
14.01.2009 - 16.01.2009 33 °C
We check into "Monkey Republic" (US$9) near the main beach area of Serendipity-Occheuteal. Sitting at the bar to enjoy our "free beer upon arrival" we bump into Mark from Koh Kong - a small world indeed! Sihanoukville was founded as a port town half a century ago, but these days its Cambodia's prime beach boom town. The main beach is lined with thatched bars & cafes for as far as the eye can see. Each offering an assortment of sunloungers, beach umbrellas, mattresses, padded chairs and giant pillows for your ultimate comfort. Not surprisingly, packed with pasty westerners enjoying massages, manicures, eating lobster, drinking Angkor Beer (produced here in Sihanoukville), and buying sunnies and jewellery. The women and children vendors walk up and down the beach all day to push these sales - money to be made, and money to burn. There are many aid organisations set up in the area which is encouraging, and Khmer government education is free, but sadly, the parents send their children out to earn money instead. If they're lucky they see school half the time. We join the masses and bliss out in comfort, listening to good tunes, and cooling off in the calm clear sea.
As night approaches, the beach transforms into into its nighttime alter ego - chairs and tables replace the loungers, the BBQ's fire up, fairy lights go on, and the cheap drinks flow generously. USD $0.50 Angkor and $1.50 cocktails! We cosy up in a loveseat, watching the sunset while the water laps at our feet, and we sample our way through the extensive cocktail menu. Blissed out and entertained with music, fireworks and fireshows, we appreciate our good fortune and are reminded of those less fortunate - amputees shuffling along the beach with hands extended for $$ mixed in with persistant children selling junky jewellery. Some of these children have barely learnt to walk, and already they're out collecting empty cans which they sell off as scrap for a mere $1 (per 80 cans). Seeing such misery, it makes you thankful for having all your limbs, a childhood, and a healthy life. Passing through we see what's on the surface, but are blind to the undercurrents of abuse and exploitation... we can only speculate.
Groggy beginnings (thanks to the killer cocktails!), another day of lounging at the beach. As we start back on the cocktails, we have the misfortune of sitting nearby a huge and hideous brit who is having domestics with his hired "chaperone". We can't help but overhear EVERYTHING... she is sulking while he's trying very hard to convince her to talk to him and sit with him - he even threatens to call her boss and gives her a huge wad of cash to put a smile on her dial. Cringe! There's lots of that behaviour here - mostly eldery western people with young Khmer companions. Very disturbing and hard to turn a blind eye to the sleazyness that's out in the open. A learning experience and an eye opener for sure! Yet you can't argue with USD $1.50 cocktails!
Then it was time for "all you can eat pizza/pasta buffet" for USD $3! So novel to have never-ending cheese. We miss cheese...