There is a single word that comes to mind when you think of Cambodia. That word is Volleyball. Kid’s play it in the streets and they play it well. While I waited for a bus to be repaired I watched four kids play. Two hands spin the ball around. Eyes wait and watch; searching for the right moment to start. Then, with a flick of the wrist the ball rises high up into the air eclipsing the sun. Feet kick up dust as they launch. Another hand comes down and sends the ball darting over the net. Another boy dives and more dust puffs up around him. When the dust settles the ball is also on the ground. A friendly hand helps him up and they start again.
The dust and a fire haze are two familiar sights in Cambodia. The part of the country I visited were dusty. Hot, dry, dusty and with the smell of smoke in the air. It could have been an Australian summer. The smoke is not from bushfire but from people burning leaves, burning trash, burning whatever is nearby that doesn’t need to be around anymore. The similarities with Australia continue. All the advertisements for beer played on the peoples sense of pride in their country. Cambodia beer claims “National Beer, National Pride”, Angkor beer offers: “My Country, My Beer” and the final one seems to be for a bottle shop: “Randonal makes you feel proud”.
At the airport in Siem Reap I met a man named Will. We shared a taxi into town and from there we spent the next ten days travelling together. We got to know each other over breakfast in a cafe in Siem Reap. The day already warm when we sat down shortly after eight in the morning. Remorques trundle past us ferrying backpackers around. It only takes a few hours but I find that I really like Cambodia and feel incredibly relaxed.
On Siem Reap
Siem Reap is where the Angkor Archaeological Park is and this is why people come. The place is inundated with tourists and Will and I, elbows high, entered the fray. In every direction there are tuktuk motoring past brimming with travellers. The tuktuk driver will make $15 a day for a tour of the petite loop of Angkor. If the driver is lucky, they'll make another $10 for the sunset run. While we were in Siem Reap there were protests in Phnom Penh where textile workers demanded a monthly salary of about $160/month over the $80/month they get now. The government banned protesting in response.
The Angkor park is huge. When I first saw it I was in awe. It was bigger than anything I had imagined. You only see the relative size of Angkor on the small maps the hostels give out. When you finally bring that into reality it’s astonishing. Then you learn that the whole park covers roughly 400 square kilometres. The Khmers sure were busy.
After seeing the standard sites with Will, I rented the closest thing to a mountain bike and set off alone to see some of the far flung sites. I raced along in the morning trying to slipstream the tuktuks in front of me. After I got out of the main park the landscape around me changed. The trees thinned and I could see flat land in all directions, the horizon hidden by smoke-haze.
Kids would yell ‘hello’ and wave as the went past whether they be walking, riding a bike of their own or on the back of a motorbike. I was so captivated by the beauty of the landscape that I nearly missed the stop for the landline museum. This was the first of many Cambodian museums that didn’t leave me.
Cambodia had a population of 8 million. The Khmer Rouge was in power for four years. When they were finally chased out by the Vietnamese the population was 6 million.
I rode on, stopping only for lunch and to buy some palm sugar freshly cooked on the road side. Still warm they gave me a boost of energy as I rode out to the furthest temple site. Along the side of the road are chopped husks of old coconut, drying on sheets of plastic. Heading this way and that are motorbikes towing trailers full of charcoal and I pass the occasional vendor selling petrol out of 1.25 litre glass bottles.
The ride back was hard. I’d felt good going out but ended up going to far. And, I still had temples to see on the way back. By the time I go to 30km out from home I was starting to feel sick. Maybe it was over-exertion, maybe it was from eating raw sugar. I drank a bottle of water and ate a mango to give myself some energy and stay hydrated. Each kilometre became harder than the last. The bike was too small, the seat too low and the distance too far. My back started to hurt and I had to make additional stops to ease up and to buy more water.
I reached the hostel and, after looking at the GPS, see that I had foolishly ridden 96km. Exhausted, I met up with Will. We got dinner and in the morning I had Giardia. It’s defining characteristic is a burp that taste of egg mixed with stomach cramps. The burps are the worst. It almost turned me off eggs. I rested, monitoring the situation. I took a turn for the worse late that day and I popped the antibiotics required for Giardia. The next morning I was fine aside from sore abdominals. Just in time for a four hour bus trip.
Battambang is on the map for three main reasons. The first is the bamboo railway, the second is the killing caves and the third is the bat cave. The bamboo railway is how the local Cambodians use the existing, disused, rail network. With two axels, a motor and a bamboo mat they assemble the ‘train’ in under a minute. Everyone piles on with childlike delight we motor along in the noisiest possible way. We pass men fishing for something to eat in the muddiest of ponds. In fields bulls till the earth. In the sky the sun beats down and I apply more sunscreen.
The rail goes for about twenty minutes, where at the destination you can spend twenty minutes at the small town there living off the tourists who use the rail. The rail beyond that station seems overgrown and unused. I’m not sure how much of the ‘bamboo railway’ is used anymore by the locals and how much is for the tourists. It won’t matter in the end as Cambodia has signed a deal with a company to rebuild their rail network. When it’s complete you’ll be able to take a train from Singapore all the way to Scotland.
The killing caves were where the Khmer Rouge threw victims after they had been bludgeoned to death. The bludgeoning helped save on bullets. As in number of places in Cambodia there is a glass box filled with skulls and assorted bones of unnamed victims. We also visited the ‘Well of Shadows’ the following day and there is another box of skulls there. This one is bigger but not as big as the one in Phnom Penh, at the killing fields. I didn’t feel the need to visit the last one.
The bat cave is an opening where each morning and evening a few hundred thousand bats head out into the night sky. We sat and watched the bats come out for about half an hour. I was mesmerised. How the bats move, flinch and flex guiding themselves off the actions of the bat in front of them. A cord of bats pulsing in the air!
Battambang gave us one more thing. There is a Cambodian restaurant in Yarraville that serves a dish called Lort Char. In Cambodia, when I asked for it people would smile and laugh and tell me that they don’t serve it here. This happened time and time again until I found Lort Char being sold by a street vendor. It cost 3000 Riel ($0.75 US) for a serve. It’s street food and therefore not fit for a restaurant. It’s an amazing dish and I ate it when I could.
Battambang itself is a gritty town. It’s the second biggest in Cambodia and at night the distantly spaced street lights adds to the vibe. Prostitution is more obvious than in other cities. We only spent one night here and that felt like enough.
On Phnom Penh
Phnompers was for me, a relaxing place. It’s situated on the Mekong and I tried to recapture some of the spirit of the French empire. I sat in a third floor cafe drinking freshly made fruit juice and looking out over the Mekong. Below me were the still audible rumble of the constant traffic and of the bleating tuktuk drivers. Across the street from me was the Foreign Correspondents Club and by the balustrade sat foreign people who read their newspapers, wrote their letters and enjoyed their wifi. The cafe I was in was empty and so was its wifi.
On one of my walks I stumbled across a slice of life and what can only be described as an lo-fi entertainment centre. A incredibly loud TV was bolted to the wall and played a Chinese kung fu movie. Thirty seats were, mostly, lined up in grid. Patrons were scattered among them, smoking and drinking their coffee. Out the front of the establishment were two groups playing Chinese Chess, also smoking and drinking coffee. I grabbed a coffee and sat down to watch the game. As a game, Chinese Chess really gets the crowd involved. The two combatants faced off while the mob shouted suggestions. As the game progress the tension and frustration from the crowd reached a peak and one of the watchers, unable to sit on the sidelines any more, reached out and moved a piece for the player. The player did not look impressed but left the move in place. The game ended in an unsatisfying draw.
We were in Phnompers during the Chinese New Year, which isn’t really a big deal for Cambodia. They have their own new year that starts in mid-April. There are usually some events put on the by the government. But, from what we were told, the events were cancelled because of the recent protests.
Cambodian's comfortably show their political opinion. In the cities and especially in the rural parts houses often have a sign out the front indicating which political party they support.
I don’t consider myself dark tourist but I feel some places are necessary to visit. One of those is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was here that the magnitude of the tragedy came home. In room after room are photos of those who died here. It feels off-hand or casual to say room and room. But, it was room. After room. After room. After room.
Each photo was taken in the same place and every face held a different expression. Some defiant, some angry, or defeated, or scared. Others held grimaces like smiles that I can only equate to hope. A few held resigned faces and on some you could tell that they knew what was going to happen.
It’s estimated 17,000 people were interred in the prison that the museum is now situated on.
Only twelve are believed to have survived.