It seems that the Mekong and I are destined to meet many times on this journey, perhaps unsurprisingly for one of the longest rivers in the world.
The crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia required another hop over the water, this time aboard a local ferry, piled high with fume-pumping, oxygen-sucking lorries, buses, vans and bikes, all jammed between the carpet of foot passengers – many carrying huge baskets of seasoned cockles.
Told to hurry up by the man guiding the boat off the bank, I leapt onboard, over the growing watery gap. Turning to find my friends, I discovered they weren’t feeling quite so athletic and were lined up on the shore, waving me off.
Clutching my bright orange lifejacket of shame (only pansy Westerners are given them, after a previous boat ‘incident’), I attempted to look nonchalant, like I totally meant for that to happen.
Luckily the river is a hub of activity and boats run the crossing every 10 minutes or so. Plus, it later transpired, another of our group had also made the balletic leap onto the ferry and was stood only a few feet away (I must get my contact lens prescription redone when I get to Australia).
I might have been warned, but the step change in poverty levels, from one side of the border to the other, still took some getting used to. It’s never easy to turn away women with small children begging for money, when you know they need that dollar in your pocket far, far more than you do.
That evening, long since reunited with my friends, we took a stroll through the European style boulevards in the heart of Phnom Penh, passing groups of lycra clad women, leaping and jumping their way through the various outdoor aerobics classes that dotted the square.
Stopping for a pre-dinner drink at the riverside Foreign Correspondents Club, I was distracted by the procession of geckos traversing the ceiling overhead – mere inches above the furiously spinning fans – hoping for their sake, and mine, that their sticky little feet were up to the job of holding on.
Nobody wants to have to wash gecko sashimi from their hair before bed.
A month or so prior to our arrival, the former king, who had abdicated some 50 years previously – to take up a political career and who was therefore well into his old age – had died, and the country was part way through the required three month mourning period.
Although this meant the inside of the Royal Palace was closed to visitors, the outside, which had been decorated in his honour, looked beautiful at night.
Wandering around the next door Silver Pagoda, which had remained open, I found fresh enthusiasm for the stupas – with their intricate elephant carvings – despite having seen so many temples in the last few weeks.
Expecting a pagoda painted in silver leaf, I soon learnt that the building’s name came from the 5000 silver floor tiles, each weighing 1kg, laid inside. Now mainly covered in tatty maroon carpet and tarnished with age, one section was left bare, giving a glimpse of the magnificent sight these would have originally made.
Sadly cameras weren’t allowed indoors, so here’s me posing on a stupa.
The compound also had some lovely looking beach shacks – I quite fancy one like this when I get my private beach.
As a child I was vaguely aware of the term ‘Khmer Rouge’ and the name Pol Pot but, at only six years of age, had no understanding of the horror that befell Cambodia (Kampuchea as it is known here) during the second half of the 1970s.
Phnom Penh became a virtual ghost town, as the regime moved out all the city dwellers to the countryside, where they were forced to work on the land in the ‘prison without walls’. Schools, hospitals and factories were closed, currency abolished, religion outlawed and certain groups (those with the perceived intellectual capacity to undermine the regime) were incarcerated, tortured and, ultimately, executed.
I’m not sure how much I want to write about what I saw on my visit to S21, a former primary school turned prison – now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Words in a travel blog seem an overly superficial way of acknowledging the horror one man can inflict on another.
The front of the buildings remain covered with the barb wire installed to prevent prisoners, particularly the women, from committing suicide. After hearing what happened here, I can see why people would be able to suppress their preservation instinct in such large numbers.
Walking from room to room, we witnessed black and white photographs of the final inmates, killed in particularly gruesome ways by the guards upon the fall of the regime. The images were captured by a couple of foreign photo-journalists who, guided by the stench of something evil, had stumbled across the abandoned prison.
The boards advising inmates of the various prison regulations remain, now with accompanying English translations. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could adhere to regulation 6 “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all”.
I was disappointed that there were also signs advising current visitors not to smile. Who on Earth would be doing that here?
Of S21’s 17,000 prisoners over the short regime, only seven men and four children survived (five had been found by the journalists but a baby died within the hour). The regime’s concept of ‘killing the weed by the root’ meant children were arrested alongside their parents.
A set of mugshots showed a couple and their six pre-teen children all imprisoned, simply because the father was an engineer and therefore one of the educated middle class that Pol Pot sought to wipe out.
One of the seven adult survivors still spends his days in the prison grounds, earning his living by selling his story to interested visitors. His tale is now told only by the auto-biography he sells, as he can no longer bear to relive his memories on a daily basis. I’m not surprised.
The victims association of democratic Kampuchea has a website if you want to learn more about his story, S21, or the regime: www.ksaemksan.info
Inmates that confessed to their ‘crimes’ would be rewarded by a transfer from S21 to ‘a new house’ or ‘the training centre’. I wonder how many knew they were really off to their death, on one of Cambodia’s many killing fields?
If S21 was horrific, then I don’t know what Choeung Ek is. One of the notorious fields, Choeung Ek is now a genocide centre. And the place where those of us still willing to see more went next.
The methods used to kill here were barbaric. The patch of land containing a mass grave for women and children, with its infamous tree, had me blinking back tears and holding down the sob rising in my throat. I didn’t dare look anyone else in the eye for a while.
That day, more than any other day in my life, has presented the biggest challenge to my belief in the innate goodness of people. And, in quiet moments, the image of two human teeth, just lying in the dirt by my feet, reminds me how exceptionally lucky I am.
Barack Obama was in Phnom Penh the day before we arrived and The White House was careful to point out he wouldn’t have visited a country with ongoing human rights issues (the current prime minister’s opponents tend to end up in jail or in exile) if Cambodia hadn’t been hosting the latest Asean summit.
With the PM in power for almost 30 years, he seems to have no intention of relinquishing control any time soon. So it’s no wonder Obama’s begrudging visit was greeted with little fanfare.
I saw only one sign welcoming the American president to the city, over a restaurant frequented mainly by tourists.
Perhaps due to the significant food shortages caused by the former regime, or maybe because they just really like them, Cambodians have a peculiar fondness for tarantulas – fried in chili sauce.
Sometimes I’ve very glad I’m vegetarian – the pit stop at a roadside store, en route to Kampong Thom, being one of them. The thought of tarantula belly juice dribbling down my chin does not have me reaching for my money.
I did, however, let a live one have a pre-fryer rest on my shoulder – it’s surprising how prickly the hairs on their legs are. I don’t think I’ll be getting one as a pet.
My only previous SE Asia home stay, in the Northern hills of Thailand last spring, hadn’t involved much sleep. A tangled bat, trapped in my mosquito net, shrieked for hours as I lay underneath – sleeping bag pulled over my head to avoid a surprise mouthful of guano.
This time I came to the tiny Cambodian village of Ou Kru Kae armed with a rabies pre-vaccination and the expectation of a long night.
I was perversely a bit disappointed when it turned out we were staying in a recently extended house, where I would have my own room and an actual bed. I expect they get more guests this way, but sometimes it’s good for the soul to get back to real basics.
Taking a wander around the nearby Sambor Prei Kuk temples – ruins that date back to pre-Angkorian times – we were easy prey for a gaggle of young children selling scarfs.
I’m really not keen on such young children being used to supplement family income, even though I can see why it happens.
Thanks to the mysterious workings of canine genetics, the local mutts had managed to produce a replica Andrex puppy, who bounded around our feet as we ate dinner that night. I am looking forward to the day I put down anchor and can head down to the pound to pick out my own four-legged, waggy-tailed, friend. Which I’ll do – straight after I find a boyfriend that’s willing to pick up hot dog poo.
The next morning we were back on the bus, inching closer to our final destination of Siem Reap.
Stopping to pick up some sticky rice from the roadside food sellers, I spied a baby putting in some early hammock practice.
Don’t be fooled by the relaxed pose of someone chilling contentedly, as they swing between two trees – I’ve seen some classic errors these last few months, with people (exclusively Westerners) spinning themselves into cocoons or simply overshooting the mark and landing, with a bruised bum and ego, on the other side of the hammock.
I recommend an hour’s practice a day.
Our first view of Angkor Wat was from a giant, bright yellow helium balloon. Like the film Up! with only one balloon, no old ladies making you cry by dying, no dogs shouting ‘Squirrel!’ and with the addition of an amazing 12th century pyramid temple.
Shrouded in a light morning mist, Angkor Wat’s towers poke through the surrounding forest. From a distance it’s easy to under-estimate the magnitude of this famous edifice.
And so our Siem Reap temple tour began. Over the next couple of days we took in ten different locations – barely touching the surface of one of the biggest historical sites in the world.
Entering the site through one of the Buddha lined gates, we passed a shrine at the edge of the bridge – replete with fresh pig’s head. I started to wonder what other sacrifices we might see.
My almost favourite temple – Bayon – is also known as the four face temple. Its upper layer is dotted with towers, like spiritual acne, each carved with Buddha faces on all sides. Everywhere you turn, he’s looking at you.
But it wasn’t quite my favourite, as it didn’t let me imagine myself as Angelina Jolie, kicking ass in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Which Ta Prohm did.
One of the temples featured in the film, it remains in a magical, tumbled down state – as though you are the first person to walk its corridors in hundreds of years. Huge trees engulf the crumbling walls and there’s an eery stillness in the air – as though someone is watching you.
If I ever find myself here again, it will bum-skimming plaits and gun holsters all the way.
And it was one of the few places not teeming with tourists – probably because we went straight after sunrise at Angkor Wat. Which had looked lovely…
but had required full use of my pointy elbows to get a decent shot.
I guess that’s what happens when you visit a place at the best time of year weather-wise. Everybody else has had the same idea. And despite our excellent planning, we were all met with clouds for sunset, perched atop of Pre Rup temple.
By the end, I was thoroughly templed out. Some people come here for a seven day tour. I admire their stamina but it seems most people find a couple of days more than enough.
I don’t know what it is about people being able to bend their fingers back that makes my stomach twist, all I know is I don’t need to see it just before I eat my dinner. And so that evening’s entertainment, at a restaurant on ‘Pub Street’, had me focusing on my napkin more than the stage.
Don’t get me wrong, it was impressive how they all had such bendy hands, but I was a little concerned how they’d acquired them. Visions of tiny Chinese gymnast babies being contorted into unhuman poses made me wonder whether similar techniques had been employed on these beautiful young women when they were little girls.
Here’s hoping it’s just a weird Cambodian genetic mutation and there’s no Ministry of Required Suppleness.
As always, I’ve rambled on quite long enough, and I still haven’t mentioned the wonderful work done by Aki Ra – one of CNN’s 2010 Top 10 Heroes – a former child soldier turned land mine remover.
We had a hugely informative tour of his land mine museum, guided by his charismatic friend and site manager, an American chap call Bill Morse, who showed us around.
In addition to the thousand upon thousand of still active mines his team have removed, they offer a home to many village kids in need of a helping hand.
What they do is genuinely inspiring, sterling work.
If you feel inclined to learn more or show them a bit of love click here.