Thursday, February 25, 2010

[The Life of Shaun #391] Kruising Kampuchea

Seems I wrote a long one on my even longer layover at BKK. No hard feelings towards the skippers.

It was not with a heavy heart that I left Bangkok (and my current situation of laying over at BKK is not endearing me any more in the slightest), so I was ready to love Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat and my first stop in Cambodia. And Siem Reap happily obliged. From the moment you debark the plane to the tiny airport to pay for your $20 on-site visa (Cambodia is unofficially dollarised - the local currency, the riel, is only used for change - so they get hard currency in however they can) you are aware you are in a poor country, far away from home. But it's relaxed and pleasant and charming, in its underdeveloped way. I liked it immediately.

Our hotel was great, which helped, and the post-temple-touring nightlife was just on the right side of not being too touristy. SR is emphatically hippyish in the old Northern California style, full of backpackers who've stayed on longer than intended, whiling away the hours with cheap beer and live music. Not my normal scene at all, but somehow it worked here. There are hotels going up everywhere around the town, so I imagine this will be squashed within a few years, so if you have any desire to see the temples of Angkor Wat, I gently encourage you to do so soon.

Temple touring is also totally not my cup of tea, but the Angkor Wat temples are impressive enough that even I enjoyed seeing them. I was pretty much templed out after Angkor Wat itself and reserved the last of my tourist energy by doing drive-by sight-seeing until Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple, which is cool as they've allowed it to remain as rediscovered, overgrown and wild. But several hours outside urbanity are more than enough for me, and it was quickly back to the gay-friendly Golden Banana Resort and its cocktails.

Sadly, I only had one day in SR (in hindsight I should've cut Bangkok down by one) and so on Tuesday I found myself on a bus with 35 new friends on the "highway" ('It's paved the entire way now' - Lonely Planet) to the capital, Phnom Penh. It was a six-hour Discovery Channel documentary on the daily life of the poor in the developing world. As I sat at my window, farms, homes on stilts, children playing in mud, emaciated cows being walked to pasture, markets selling the most improbable necessities and foods unpalatable to a Westerner, beggars, school children and an endless stream of scooters flickered across my live action TV.

Pulling into the bus station at Phnom Penh you are immediately encased by tuk-tuk drivers, so you pick one and head out into its swarming streets. There are practically no traffic lights (and apparently even fewer traffic rules), so any journey is a non-stop obstacle course through a river of scooters, cars and tuk-tuks. Again, I was instantly fond of Phnom Penh. Being put up in a schazzy house with a maid, cook and cleaner didn't hurt, but I loved the thirdy-worldy feel of the city, without the crushing weight of a megacity. It was chaotic, but manageabley and engagingly so. The people had a harder edge than the Thais (but they've also had a genocide within most of their living memories, so I forgive them this), but are still accommodating and genuine.

I saw the three requisite tourist sites: S-21 (the prison where the Khmer Rouge detained and tortured its enemies before sending them to site number two), the Killing Fields (less impactful than S-21, though that's due to the ill-thought memorials more than the gravity of the place) and the Royal Palace (a five-minute stop any any itinerary is sufficient). S-21 was really quite effective in getting across the three years, eight months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule. It's not overdone or overly graphic - some of it's comically underdone - but I felt queasy by the time I was in building B.

After all that (with a curry lunch personally prepared for me in the middle), it was onto the rooftops of the hoity-toity quayside for $1 drafts to wait for Mary Keany's arrival from the North. A lovely dinner at a restaurant run and staffed by former street children rounded out the night and my trip to Southeast Asia. I'm now leeching WiFi in Bangkok's airport waiting to be able to check in my luggage so I can go through security to find somewhere to plant myself for lunch. Overnight flight to Sydney, short layover there before heading out to New Zealand. Don't worry, I still have 58 Xanax left.

Choum reap lia,

Me at Angkor Wat

Going into the top level I had to have my shoulders covered, so I used Mary's shawl. Very Middle East chic, I think!

Me in one of the trees at Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple. They've left this one for nature to take its course.

Mary made the mistake of letting the market children outside the temples know she was comfortable with parting with her money and quickly acquired an entourage.

Standard Cambodian homes along the "highway" from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. What was really odd, actually, is that along almost the entire length of the road, there were houses such as this or other rural structures. Only occasionally did the development expand more than one building back from the road, creating a town of sorts, but you could almost hand someone a letter in Phnom Penh, and that person could pass it to his neighbour, and so on, and the letter would eventually reach Siem Reap.

The charming market town we stopped in half way to Phnom Penh

Children playing in a mud pool outside the capital

A reminder that not all visitors to Cambodia have the purest intentions

S-21 (Tuol Sleng), a former high school turned prison where the Khmer Rouge held and tortured "enemies of the state" before taking them to the Killing Fields

List of rules for prisoners

The most disturbing, but effective, displays at the museums were pictures such as this. In many of the cells, a picture has been hung of who was found in the room (and in what state) when the prison was liberated.

Enemy of the state #24

Cambodia was a French colony, and you see their shadow in the architecture throughout central Phnom Penh

Shelves of skulls from the Killing Fields

Some of the holes left from the uncovered mass graves

The killing tree. The theory of the Khmer Rouge was that if you kill someone, you should kill the entire family, including babies - there's no gain in keeping them alive, and you risk them seeking revenge when they are older.

Traffic circle in PP

The first Western chain in PP is, surprisingly, not McD's (though considering I saw about 50 KFCs for every McDonald's in Bangkok, perhaps it's not so surprising after all).

Typical street in PP

The prime minister's understated house, discretely located on the main traffic circle in the diplomatic quarter of the city, overlooking the Independence (from France) Monument

If you ever have the chance to stay with someone with staff (esp. a cook), I encourage you to do so!

Royal palace (not where I stayed...)

Me at a rooftop bar (quelle suprise) overlooking the quayside

PP from the same roof. It's not yet a city of towering edifices, though they are starting to try.

Shaun H. Coley
BKK, after Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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