Week 5: Cambodia

*Changing the format of my posts slightly to make it more of a diary with weekly updates. Title will show the number of weeks I have been travelling and country I am in with sub titles showing the places. 

Phnom Penh

On Monday, the bus journey from Saigon, Vietnam to Phmon Penh, Cambodia was fairly uneventful although I did find it unusual that they fingerprint you at the Cambodian border, I have never experienced that before! I also met a nice couple – an English bloke from Milton Keynes and a French lady who had been in Australia for two years and were travelling on their way back to Europe.

It was a strange feeling knowing that once we had passed through the border – just a few metres of distance – I was in a completely different country with a whole new story and background. During the day, I tried to see if I could observe any differences. On the face of it, Cambodia seemed like a poorer country even though there were a lot more cars – when we stopped for lunch there were several beggars around the entrance including children. Surprisingly, I cannot recall seeing one beggar in Vietnam – sure there were people asking for money in the street but they were always selling a product or service.

Vietnam was all about the motorbikes but the trucks, lorries and cars ruled the roads here. When I arrived at the city of Phnom Penh, I took a walk around and although the traffic was just as crazy it seemed to feel a lot more chilled out here and I couldn’t work it out – it took me nearly 15 minutes for me to realise. Nobody was honking their horns. In Vietnam, every single vehicle without exception, beeps their horns constantly, as if they think this action is necessary to keep their vehicles operating, so the relative silence in Phnom Penh was blissful and serene, which I appreciate are unusual terms to describe a city.

Another thing I noticed within a day is that Tuk Tuk drivers were pretty cool here and actually quoted fair prices with maybe just a little bit of haggle wiggle room. This was very different to Vietnam – I completely avoided the motorbike taxis there after a few bad experiences.

I had booked my hostel in a rush that morning and just picked one with good reviews so when I arrived, I was incredibly delighted to discover this. A swimming pool………..in a hostel. I think I have seen it all now.

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The hostel had a great vibe although I was a little peeved that the receptionist felt the need to remind me three times during the check in process and showing me to my room that I was not allowed a guest in my room. Her “sex tourist” alarm bells must have been ringing – one of the perils of being a slightly older male solo backpacker I guess. I was probably one of the oldest backpackers in this hostel which was unusual to me as in Vietnam I had usually seen people my age and also much older.

My next surprise of the day was seeing this – when I was in Thailand a beer cost about £1.50. I got to Vietnam and it cost around £1. Now I was in Cambodia where it cost 55 pence. Things were just getting better and better each country I went to.

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Most people who go to Phnom Penh will visit the S21 Genocide museum and the Killing Fields which tell the story of the brutal regime and genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot and his deranged visions which took place between 1975 and 1979 killing millions of people. I arranged for a Tuk Tuk driver to take me to both sights the next day………….

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………..I did of course know the basic story behind this dark period in Cambodian history but the various finer details I discovered during the day through the stories I heard and images I saw were pretty devastating and this really must be an example of one of the most evil chapters in human history. At the killing fields, I saw one woman openly weeping. If you do go there, you should take the audio tour which tells the story in detail. Otherwise you will just see some buildings, fields and pits.

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This place is the S21 Genocide museum. A former high school, it was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge. People who arrived here were brutally tortured into making forced confessions and hardly anyone survived if they found themselves here (7 survivors out of 20,000 inmates). All of the class rooms were converted into tiny prison cells and torture rooms. Awful things happened at this place, I will spare you the grim details as you can of course read about it if you wish to do so.
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Out of the 7 survivors of this place, only 3 are still living. 2 of them were actually at the museum and they sit there talking to people and sell books they have written. One of them survived because he had skills in repairing machinery so the staff found him useful.
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I am not going to post all of the grim pictures I took but this one shows how they usually killed their victims. They made them stand at the edge of a pit and then hit their heads with metal bars, hammers, pick axes etc. They didn’t use bullets due to the cost.
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When the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia, this ended the genocide. They came to this school and the staff there fled but not before killing all of the remaining dozen or so prisoners. They are buried here and these are their graves.
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This was the killing fields 15KM outside Phnom Penh which was basically where people who were seen as enemies (such as professionals or intellectuals) were taken to be killed en masse. If you arrived here, you would not be coming out alive. It consisted of many mass graves and a large monument which has been built in the centre which houses stacks of skulls and bones of the victims that had been recovered from the graves.
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A large school party had just arrived when I got there and they were paying their respects at the monument.
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These pits are mass graves.
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There are around 5,000 skulls here, all recovered from the mass graves around the site.
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Mass grave. Some pieces of bone had been left in there.
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I felt sick to my stomach when the audio tour narrator calmly told me what this tree was used for (to kill babies and children basically) and for me it was one of the worst stories of the day.

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Sihanoukville

I needed to be by a beach so I booked myself on a bus to Sihanoukville which is a coastal town, south of Cambodia. After a horrendous bus journey which helped ease some of my financial regret at taking a few flights in Vietnam, I arrived at Sihanoukville. I went out and got some food at a place called the Big Easy which was a hostel bar and just as I was about to leave it started to pour down with rain so I sat back at the bar and got chatting to a bloke there who was from the Isle of Man who had been working in the area as a DJ for 3 weeks. He told me about an all night jungle party that was happening that very night called Kerfuffle which he was thinking about going to. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I was up for this as I am in my thirties so big parties like this tend to mean that the next day will be a complete write off but after a couple more beers and meeting a few other people he knew, the inner party demon within me started to rise up and take over any ideas of being sensible and I ended up going there with him and a few other people he knew from the area. This involved a Tuk Tuk ride which took nearly 30 minutes.

The party was indeed right in the middle of a jungle and had a sort fun fair theme with small rides, banging techno music and fire dancers. It was actually brilliant fun dancing the night away in the jungle and I met a lot of rather wasted people (and also a middle aged Cambodian woman who seemed to be next to me all night long) and I took a Tuk Tuk ride home about 7AM.

As expected when I woke up about 12PM, I did nothing all day except lay on my bed or on a sun lounger drinking gallons of water and wondering if I should check myself into a hospital or not. I eventually managed to drag myself to a restaurant for an evening meal but couldn’t really eat much and then crawled back into my pit and slept for another 10 hours.

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The next day, I was feeling like a human again but still a little groggy and tired so I made my way down the coast a bit to another beach called Otres beach which I had heard was supposed to be a bit more chilled out and just relaxed at the beach for a couple of days which was the main purpose of coming down here. The beach was great and I also found some pretty decent restaurants to eat in and went on a few nice walks in the area.

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First Beach Selfie of the Trip!!
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I really was in heaven here although the heat was a little much to bear, I must have gone swimming every 10 minutes.
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Kaoh Tres Island.

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That took me to Friday. The next couple of days were a bit of a shambles and it was not the best of weekends. During my travels I have been trying to go with the flow and not plan things too much – have a rough idea of where I am going but only plan when I arrive. This weekend was a good example of why that idea does not always work……..

I had two options – head east to Kampot and Kep or go to one or two islands off the coast of Sihanoukville. After some thought, I decided to head for the islands but for reasons I am still not sure I understand myself, I thought I would first spend a couple of days back in the Sihanoukville town centre. This was a big mistake…

I had only seen the place in the dark, however, when I arrived in the day time on Friday, it quickly became apparent that this was not a pleasant place to be in. I took a walk down to the beach, trying carefully not to step in all the garbage that was strewn everywhere and when I got there I saw that people were actually lying in and amongst this filth. I walked further down and took a seat where within just half an hour, I was approached by what felt like at least 10 different women (or I think some of them were the same women coming back) who wanted to cut my “disgusting” toenails, make me beautiful, give me manicure, pedicure, neck rub, get food for me, massage, body wash, face scrub, ear wash, eye wash, hand massage, foot massage etc etc. And these women didn’t take no for an answer, well at least not until you had said it about 15 times.

I immediately wanted to leave and head for the islands but unfortunately, I had booked two nights here and when I asked the hotel they would not let me cancel the second night without paying for it. Also, based on some further research which I was only doing right then, it turned out that the islands themselves were not such a great idea because unless you stayed in hostel dormitory rooms (which I don’t) you had to book an expensive bungalow usually meant for couples. I was starting to think I should have gone to Kampot or Kep. Right, I thought, I will just take a day trip to the islands instead, I had seen this advertised where you go to 3 islands on a boat and do some snorkelling, swimming, cliff diving, and just spend time on the beach – unfortunately, when I tried to book for the next day, nobody was running the tour due to the bad weather. I looked out at the perfectly still sunny blue skies, bemused and frustrated.

It was evening now and I still hadn’t arranged anything so it looked like I would be spending a whole day in this town. I considered a hiking tour but it was 33 degrees and I thought a 4 hour hike would be way too hot for that. My state of indecision and lack of forward planning had left me stranded. It was dark now so I just gave up.

Later that evening, I went down to the beach to have a few beers at some of the beach bars and whilst staring forlornly at the litter strewn beach and trying to avoid some very shady looking characters, I saw that people were going down to the waterfront and relieving themselves there, right in the sea and although it was dark I am about 75% sure that in the far distance to the left, I saw a man defecating on the beach. Well, he was squatting down and doing something anyway.

I spoke to someone later that night at my hotel bar and they confirmed that you are not really supposed to stay longer then one night in Sihanoukville town centre – he said it is only a gateway to the lovely islands and beaches further south – one night stop maximum. If I had done some extra research in advance I would have known that!

The next day it turns out that the boat tour operators did know what they were talking about as it was blowing an absolute hoolie, wind felt almost gale force and the sea was very rough, no boats were going. So the next day I basically did………….well I did nothing. I couldn’t swim in the sea because I valued my health and there was nothing else to do in this town. I just pottered about all day really, read some books, wrote this blog, watched some football and had a carvery roast dinner which closed off my Sunday.

I still have 3 days left in this area so I fully intend to redeem this part of the trip and will head to a nice area tomorrow and check out the islands, but going forward I might start researching things and have a plan of action at least a few days in advance to avoid these types of errors. Maybe “going with the flow” doesn’t always work so well!

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