I began my journey through Cambodia in Phnom Penh where I spent one of the most intense days of my life.
I was aware of the Khmer Rouge and of Pol Pot’s brutal regime but to be honest I didn’t know in any great detail about the mass genocide in which an estimated 2m people out of a population of just 8m were brutally tortured then murdered between 1975-79.
I had the horrors of those mass killings graphically brought home as I visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – a former school which became the notorious S21 prison, and continued on to Choeung Ek Extermination Centre (Killing Field) outside the city, where mass graves and human remains (teeth, bones, clothes) continue to be unearthed, especially after heavy rains.
The only other occasion where I have been surrounded by other people but everyone is walking around in total silence lost in their own thoughts was when I visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. There I openly wept at the incomprehensible acts of violence that one human being could inflict upon another, here I was numbed thinking about the crude weapons (often farm implements) and bare hands they used to kill their helpless victims. Just look at the photo I took of the killing tree.
There is a moment on the audio when you are invited to stroll along a shaded path and listen to a piece of music composed in memory of the dead. It’s haunting yet strangely beautiful.
Because these horrific events happened in the recent past, everyone over the ago of 40 has a story of family suffering tell and, for me, this tragedy seemed to effect the whole mood and feel of the Cambodia. Older people feel that the heart that has been ripped out of the country will never mend, others complain about how difficult it is to earn a decent wage, how poor they are and thus how difficult it is to provide for their family. It’s understandable but depressing.
After my week with Guy’s Trust (see previous blog ‘building a school in Kampot’), my fellow volunteers asked me where I was going. They were surprised when I said I had no idea but that’s the beauty of extended travel with only yourself to think about, you don’t need an immediate plan.
So I kicked back in Kampot, which I hadn’t yet him time to visit properly, strolling about town, enjoying the riverside views and the abundance of cafes selling good coffee and baguettes which are a throwback to French colonisation. There are some interesting things to see in the area so once again I organised a motorbike guide as I really enjoy this quick, open-air way of taking in the sites.
I’ve never considered how salt is ‘harvested’. I realise it comes from the sea (doh!) but I didn’t know how it was dried and collected. I was amazed to see women smaller than me carrying two huge buckets of salt balanced across their tiny shoulders to deposit in a shed from where it would be taken to be cleaned before being exported. My guide had worked on the salt flats when he was younger and told me they do this backbreaking work 6 days a week for $4-5 a day.
Having learned about salt it was time to learn about pepper. Chefs around the world are familiar with Kampot pepper. There are numerous farms in the region – the one I visited being an organic one owned by a Dutchman. The plants produce black, red or white peppers and each plant is watered and harvested by hand which is why the end product is pricey. I actually like the sweet green peppers which are fresh, undried and great with crab – the next leg of my motorcycle diary day.
I hopped on a boat from Kep to tiny Rabbit Island and stepped off onto a lovely beach in a sheltered bay. There was only enough time for a delicious green pepper crab lunch, a swim and a bit of a sunbath before heading back to the mainland, but it was a fun thing to do.
Still undecided where to go next I woke up in the middle of the night with a flash of inspiration. I’ve had a PADI license for 28 years, having taking up diving when my children were very small as a means of having my own space for a few hours and of going someway towards fulfilling my desire to be a female Jacques Cousteau.
However, my last dive was 12 years ago so I decided to head along the coast to do a refresher course, the logic being that the diving isn’t brilliant in Cambodia and therefore it’s a good place to spend half a day in a swimming pool and a day doing two simple dives so that when I hit the major dive sites in Borneo and Indonesia I don’t waste any time. Cunning plan hey.
I found a great Khmer hut in a place called Otres Beach1 (yes there’s an Otres Beach 2), which is a red sand street with a few shops and shacks and a gorgeous long white-sand beach fringed with palms and mangroves on one side and clear blue water – warmer than the water which typically dribbles out of my showers, on the other. With comfy cushions in beach bars playing chilled out music and friendly fellow travellers, it was heaven.
I completed my diving without too much bother and whilst some equipment and rules have changed, in underwater sign language ‘shark’ remains unchanged. There was a fair bit of marine life at beautiful Koh Rong island; anemones, giant sponges, Puffa fish, Angel fish, Palm coral etc which I enjoyed but I had trouble equalising the pressure in ears which made me feel sick. I hope this won’t affect all my dives.
Once again I woke in middle of the night, this time not with a brainwave but by the sound of rain, yes RAIN lashing down. At first I thought my fan was on too loudly, then I felt a drip on my bed and realised the roof was leaking! A quick dash to shove all my things under the bed, move my position away from the drip and back to sleep. In the morning clear blue skies and 35 degrees again.
Leaving my beach idyll I headed for Siem Reap and the mighty temples of Angkor.
I began by cycling round the town of Siem Reap which most people find dirty and noisy but which I found attractive and buzzy in a rather bizarre, Las Vegas. There’s the usual central market but also boutique shops and artisan enterprises, and a Pagoda set in a large courtyard with unusual sculptures, a long boat, a monastery, where I sat and listened to monks chanting, 3 or 4 pretty bridges linking the right and left banks of a not particularly lovely canal and scores of glitzy 5* hotels whisking wealthy tourists to the temples.
As I cycled around I found myself at Angkor Children’s Hospital visitor centre which I initially thought it was tourist information. I chatted to a volunteer about the hospital and watched a video about its founder and his mission to reduce the number of infant and child mortalities from preventable diseases like malaria, dysentery, HIV, dengue fever.
20 minutes later I found myself giving blood!
200-300 children a day attend the hospital which is also a training centre that sends paediatricians into rural community hospitals to enable children to be treated locally and not make the perilous journey which often results in death.
Until very recently a staggering 65,000 children died every year, 1:5 under five years old. Mortality rates are slowly improving through this remarkable hospital and its sister hospital in Phnom Penh but these are the only two children’s hospitals for the whole country.
As an aside, the checks before I was able to give blood were very thorough. Blood pressure (lower than its been for 25 years), haemoglobin (fine), exposure to Zika virus (nil), age (just the right side of 60), last time I gave blood (a shamefully long time ago). And my prize for being a good girl, a can of Coke, biscuits and a very nice T-shirt. Giving blood is vital in countries like Cambodia so if you’re travelling and see a hospital, stop and ask if they need your blood. I bet they do.
And so to the temples to which I dedicated 2.5 days. First up was the mighty Angkor Wat for (yet another) sunrise. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy therefore I didn’t see any of the amazing pinks and purples you see in the books but the reflection in the water was still special.
Like Bagan in Myanmar there are countless temples (Wats) and Chedi (stupas) some more impressive than others. More are in a ruined state than I imagined and I don’t know, but somehow they lacked the magic of Bagan. Maybe it’s because they are more spread out and the area is more overgrown so you don’t get the amazing vistas, maybe it’s because they were overrun with loud Chinese tourists, maybe I was suffering from temple overload or maybe I’m still in love with Myanmar. My guess is it’s the latter.
The highlight of my time in Siem Reap was attending Rebecca’s wedding via FaceTime. My darling daughter and fiancé Simon decided to tie the knot a few weeks previously and luckily I was able to be with them. In fact I had pole position because the camera was facing them so I could see and hear everything perfectly. It was actually very moving sitting in my room, headphones on, concentrating on them. Of course I missed out on the champagne and the celebration lunch but I was happy that James and David were with Becca and that it was such a happy occasion.
Hooray for modern technology.
Of course I visited the massive Tonle Sap lake which is the source of all the fish in Cambodia and which rises an amazing 7 metres during the rainy season. This means the villages are built on vast stilts – hard to image such a change in way of living year in year out but once agin it was cloudy so this time sunset was a bit of a damp squib.
I was fortunate to be invited to dinner by So, who I had met through Guy’s Trust. His wife made traditional Fish Amok with coconut and lemon grass wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. I chatted to their 14 year old super-bright daughter who wants to live in Paris, drank blow-your-head off ice wine with the village elders and listened to So as he told me that despite his father and all his brothers being killed under Pol Pot’s regime, he loves Pol Pot; that he was a puppet of Ho Chi Minh and that one day the history books will tell the truth. You can imagine how difficult this was to comprehend.
I was now at a bit of a crossroads. From Siem Reap I could head east and eventually enter Laos through the Mekong River or I could head west and enter Thailand at the land border.
I decided to go west, taking a bus to Battambang and checking into Family Ganesha guest house with pink lace mosquito net and hello kitty pillow case! What do you want for $4.50, and in fact it was the friendliest place I stayed in Cambodia and I wished I’d embraced the full-on backpacker scene earlier.
Everyone has to do at least one cookery class in SE Asia. I did mine here and really enjoyed going to the market to buy the ingredients, leaning how to make 4 traditional dishes (including Fish Amok) and eating the fruits of my labour. The fact that I won’t be near a kitchen for another 10 months is unimportant.
My last day in Cambodia was good fun. Battembang, like Kampot still retains its faded French charm, including plentiful cafes selling good coffee and chocolate cake, and it also has the famous Bamboo Train. The train is basically planks of bamboo on iron rollers like a raft, all of which can be dismantled and taken off when one ‘carriage’ needs to pass another on the single track. They whizz along at 20kpm which when you’re only a few centimetres off the track is damn fast. Having enjoyed that experience I then went to the circus and had a thoroughly good time being a child again!
So it was time to leave Cambodia. I spent a 3 weeks here getting to know people, exploring the culture, the countryside and the towns and villages. Naturally the highlight was the amazing experience of building the school with Guy’s Trust but on top of that I had some great times by the sea, at the temples and in small towns soaking up everything in my usual sponge-like way.
The country is slowly mending and there is undoubtedly wealth; the sheer number of people driving Lexus cars surprised me, especially as petrol is 80p a litre.
I didn’t interact with as many locals as I did in Myanmar, the children and young people walking around are more reserved but look happy and the adults in the places I visited weren’t so open to chatting.
One thing you notice is quite lot of people who have lost limbs as the result of being victims of land mines of which there are many more undiscovered on the borders with both Thailand and Vietnam. A number of the male victims have become musicians, sitting outside the temples playing traditional music. I would have liked to talk to them.
To end on a more upbeat note, it was wedding season and so everywhere I travelled there were celebrations. It seems the man has to save up about $2,500 to give to his bride’s family. This can take several years but the bride’s family pay for the wedding which lasts 2-3 days. On the day of Becca and Simon’s wedding they were naturally in my thoughts and fortuitously there was a couple at my favourite temple having their photos taken as I passed by. Serendipity indeed.
I’m off to cross into Thailand now. I’ll be will be back in touch soon, meanwhile I really must find out what’s happening in the world. Feel free to update me and apologies for the random order of the photos!