Cambodian Flag

Ukraine 2003

Cambodian Flag


Not having been away anywhere significant for over two years, and having had to abandon (at least for the time being) my planned trip to Mongolia in September 2011 I was determined to get away somewhere, preferably somewhere warm in Spring 2012. So when someone suggested I try Cambodia I did some research and left for a two week excursion in February 2012.Click to Enlarge

I flew from Scotland to London Heathrow, then onward to Singapore before finally arriving 22 hours later in Phnom Penh in late afternoon. I’d already booked myself into the Silver River Hotel over the Click to EnlargeInternet (and for once even received confirmation of my booking!), which was centrally located, not far from both the waterfront and the Royal Palace and National Museum. I got a taxi from the airport without any hassle and after an excellent dinner had an early night.

Next morning I set out to explore the immediate neighbourhood on foot. Unlike most East Asian cities one of the first things I noticed was the relatively light traffic and also the comparatively wide streets which weren’t what I’d expected. It was hot but not uncomfortably so. My wanderings eventually took me down to the River Bassac, near to where it joins up with the Mekong. I took a walk downstream for a mile or so to get my bearings.Click to Enlarge

From the waterfront it was only a couple of hundred meters to the Royal Palace, part of which is open to the public. The whole place is huge and it took me some time walking round and round before I was able to find the entrance. Click to Enlarge

It was worth it though. The grounds are quiet and well set out, the various pagodas and temples exquisite and fortunately I had arrived at a time when it was relatively free from other visitors. I spent a couple of hours here before moving on to the National Museum a short distance away.

The museum, although a beautiful building from the outside was quite frankly rather dull, and this comes from someone who usually likes museums. Perhaps I hadn’t done enough research on Khmer history and past culture or perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood to be indoors. There were a lot of Khmer artefacts and the usual museum stuff but I can’t say the set up was particularly inspiring I couldn’t really get up any enthusiasm for it. The building however was set out very well with quiet, outdoor courtyards with gardens and ponds. I didn’t stay more than an hour or so.

After lunch I flagged down a moto and took it to the infamous “Toul Sleng” (Security Office S-21) prison in the South west of the city. Before I’d arrivedClick to Enlarge Click to Enlargein Cambodia I’d decided on no account to use the motos (motorcycle taxis) as I usually fall off any form of motorbike or moped after the first minute or so, but I soon changed my mind and even ended up taking them on the roughest of dirt roads. The trip to the S-21prison museum only took about 10 minutes anyway.

 During the Pol Pot years this building (once a high school) was used to imprison, torture and force “confessions” out of its inmates prior to their execution. I’ve been to a few infamous places in my time, including Auschwitz, but what really hit home was the fact this place wasn’t hidden away but in an otherwise ordinary city suburb. After buying my ticket and being given an extremely gruesome, illustrated guide booklet I was free to wander through the building, much of which had been left as it had been found; bare rooms with only rusting bed frames where prisoners were manacled, subjected to violent whippings, electric shocks, scorpion bites and other tortures. There were displays of the instruments used for torturing victims, roomfuls of photographs of the victims and copies of their confessions. The walls of the complex were covered in barbed wireClick to Enlarge Click to Enlargeto stop escape, the outside walls of the buildings to stop suicide bids from the upper stories. I couldn’t help but notice that a favourite method of Khmer Rouge torture was water-boarding, which I, believing everything that Mr bush told us isn’t torture after all! Outside in the courtyard were the graves of the last seven victims to be executed there as the Khmer Rouge fled the invading Vietnamese forces. No one is sure how many people were taken here, estimates are around seventeen thousand and only seven are known to have survived. However the think that struck me most was the small size of the place and the ordinariness of its surroundings.

My obligatory genocide tour continued as I got my first tuk tuk from outside the gate of S-21 to Choeung Ek, one of the “Killing Fields” where victims of the Khmer Rouge were taken (almost all from S-21) for mass execution and burial in open pits. The site was about a half hour to the south of S-21 through open countryside. Foreign visitors are encouraged (perhaps even funnelled) by the authorities to visit here and an a rather macabre, almost voyeur-touristy atmosphere greets you as the outside is covered in an area of small shops and stalls, taxis, tuk tusk and motos waiting for visitors.Click to EnlargeClick to Enlarge

The site has also been handed over to a private company who, although apparently running it well, and pulling no punches are perhaps a little too slick in their “selling” of the site. Once through the gate you buy your ticket, are given a personal audio guide (with headphones) and are then expected to go round the site, pressing the required number on your guide at each numbered spot. Admittedly you do get a lot of information about what you are seeing and what happened her but the overall presentation is disturbingly similar to that of a visit to, say, a castle or a stately home in a more normal environment. However signs such as “do not disturb any human remains that may rise to the surface” and the thousands of skulls piled up in the Buddhist stupa keep you in touch with the reality of the place. Round the back of the site are the excavated pits where the victims were buried in mass graves, this is a more relaxing and peaceful area although while speaking to a local I was struck by the matter of fact way he sifted through the dust at his feet, picked up a couple of human teeth, showed them to me, before throwing them away again.

I also visited Wat PhnomClick to Enlarge which. It turned out wasn’t too far from my hotel. This pagoda is built on a small artificial hill which is in fact the only hill in otherwise flat Phnom Penh. To get up to it I climbed a long straight flight of steps (I can’t remembeClick to Enlarger the exact number) flanked with stone balustrades in the shape of the mythical giant serpents called naga (hence Voldemort’s snake “Nagini” in the “Harry Potter” books). It was pretty hot; never the less I made it up them in two stages, only stopping half way up to take a photo. Strangely enough, at the base of the stairs was a very Western-style, and also very colourful floral clock. At the top were a number of temples, some which had been pristinely renovated others in such a state of disrepair they had warning notices plastered all over them. Afterwards I walked down the hill, had a seat in the shade under the trees and watched the world go by…

I spent the next couple of days touring around Phnom Penh on a succession of motos and tuk-tuks visiting wats and pagodas galore, until I was almost sick of the sight of them (only kidding!). I also crossed the Japanese Bridge (very congested and polluted for a change) on foot to the less visited and Click to EnlargeClick to Enlargemore impoverished part of town. One thing I couldn’t help noticing was the concrete and steel exercise bikes that lined the waterfront although I never saw anyone actually using one.

Eventually it was time to move on. I’d decided that with my limited time I couldn’t afford to spend a few days lost in the wilds of rural Cambodia so I got myself an air-conditioned coach from Phnom Penh to the city of Battambang, not far from the Thai border. This was easily arranged from my hotel and in the morning I was picked up and after a journey of about seven hours, most of which I slept through, so didn’t manage to appreciate the scenery, I arrived in Battambang where I was installed in another excellent hotel in about ten minutes.

In the morning I took a tuk-tuk out of town to have a ride on the “Bamboo Railway”. During the Khmer Rouge reign, the Cambodian rail network wasClick to Enlarge Click to Enlargealmost completely destroyed and while they are being rebuilt, at present only freight trains run. The bamboo railway is a makeshift attempt at using the remaining track to run makeshift trains as I was to find out.

The “trains” themselves comprise of a single four wheeled bogey with a wooden board on top of it on which you sit. A rudimentary petrol engine, similar to a small outboard motor is attached to the back which the driver starts by pulling on a rope coiled around the top cylinder.

I bought myself a ticket and sat down on the wooden board. The driver started the engine and we were, off, rattling and rolling at about twenty miles an hour along the single-line track. I really had to hang on tight, which was difficult as there was nothing to hang on to; the rolling motion was caused mainly by the fact that the track was rusty and very warped. We continued in this manner, careering Click to Enlargethrough the countryside, for about ten minutes until another “train” appeared on the track ahead, headingClick to Enlarge straight towards us. No problem! We both stopped and the driver and passengers on the other “train” simply lifted theirs off the track, we passed, then they put theirs back on the track and continued on their journey. The whole trip took about fifteen minutes; at the other end I got myself a coffee at the station then got the “train” back again. Great fun!

 I hired a moto, with an English speaking driver for the day and he drove me out to “The Killing Cave” at Phnom Sampeau which involved an exhilarating half hour drive on a dirt track, through the countryside to the hill. Once we were out in the countryside the scenery was gorgeous and we stopped off several times to take photographs.

The “Killing Cave” is set part of the way up the Phnom Sampeau hill and was the site of yet more Khmer rouge massacres: thousands of men, women Click to Enlargeand children were dropped into the cave after being bludgeoned to death, having their throats slit or even when still alive. On top of the hill was a Buddhist stupa and (if I remember correctly) another smaller one, currentlyClick to Enlarge being renovated, nearer the entrance to the cave. I spoke to one of the renovators who explained what they were doing and filled me in on the gruesome history of the site. Although there wasn’t much left inside the cave (you enter via some stone steps), beside the entrance were cages, some behind glass, containing the skulls and bones of the victims.

Afterwards I was taken back to Battambang via a vinery which sold fantastic ginger beer made with honey.  I have occasionally made ginger beer myself but I’d never made it with honey, so I bought some with the intention of taking a sample back to the UK, although surprisingly it didn’t last long before I decided just to drink it myself. Since returning to the UK I’ve tried my hand at making ginger beer with honey although so far with mixed results.

I left my hotel very early, perhaps a bit too early which was a bit over cautious I suppose as no doubt my tuk tuk driver had done the trip hundreds of times. However it was a beautiful, peaceful morning and the wait to board the boat wasn’t too long. The boat itself was OK although I doubt it would have been granted a UK maritime certificate and took about twenty passengers (mostlyClick to Enlarge Westerners) sitting on wooden seats under a canvass. The boat left sometime after seven thirty in the morning and once we got Click to Enlargeaway from the rubbish-polluted waters of Battambang and into the countryside the trip was very pleasant especially as my limited time in Cambodia gave me little time to get out into the countryside. The boat plied its way past small villages and riverside houses, through areas of farmland and scrubland and occasionally woodland. We passed quite a number of local fishing boats and all in all it was a relaxing trip.

However the day got warmer, the seat harder and my posterior sorer so when we eventually hit the Tonle Sap Lake I decided to decamp, with my rucksack and a hat, onto the foredeck which the crew didn’t seem to mind. The lake itself was flat calm and although we were only in the Northern part much bigger than I expected although not as interesting from a scenery point of view as the river. I spent the rest of the trip camped out here until we finally arrived at Siem Reap in the late afternoon. I hadn’t bothered to book any accommodation in advance this time but one of the ubiquitous tuk tuk drivers drove me to a good, centrallyClick to Enlarge located hotel where I checked in, had something to eat, had a wander around townClick to Enlarge before going to bed.

Perhaps it was the result of too long out on the riverboat the previous day or perhaps it was just the result of not taking it as easily as I should have the previous day but by lunch time the next day I felt absolutely terrible; cold, yet sweating profusely and also very weak. This was definitely heat exhaustion (which I’d managed to get before once in Indonesia) so I decided to take it very easy for the day which I did, lying on my bed, drinking lots of water, and with the air-con on. Fortunately my appetite hadn’t gone so I was still able to eat.

I went out for a walk in the evening when it got cooler however I felt very weak and could only manage a couple of hundred metres at a time. I went to bed and decided to go to Angkor Wat early in the morning while it was still dark (and more importantly cool) in order to watch the sunrise. I did Click to Enlargethis, getting a tuk-tuk at about half past four in the morning and spent a couple of enjoyable hours sittingClick to Enlarge in the more accessible ruins until it got light. Unfortunately it also started to get very hot, and as I soon had the journey home to look forward to, decided to retreat back to the coolness of my hotel room.

And so my trip to Cambodia with what should have been its highlight only partly full-filled. OK, I had made it to Angkor Wat, I’d even been in Angkor Wat but I hadn’t been able to even begin to explore it properly. However I suppose another way of looking at it is that it gives me a very good reason for going back to Cambodia some time in the next year or two!

The trip back to Glasgow was hell on earth owing to the fact my flight from Siem Reap was late, meaning I missed my connection from Singapore to London. By the time I got back to Glasgow after about 36 hours on the road I was completely knackered and had to take the next day off work to recuperate. Not the best of endings but all in all a very good, short holiday and I do intend going back to Cambodia and getting more off the beaten track a bit more another time.


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