Sun 21 Nov 2010 - Sat 11 Dec 2010
Sunday, November 21st, 2010 - Arrival in Phnom Penh
On day three of a three day tour of the Mekong Delta out of Vietnam, we boarded a slow boat in Chau Doc to take us across the border to Cambodia. The three day tour from Saigon was not the most thrilling adventure of our trip, but perhaps it was because I was suffering from a chest cold and looked forward to a comfortable bed at the end of each day.
The customs office teetered over the water as we disembarked for a game of hurry up and wait. A helpful “guide” had our paperwork, passports and money, and all we had to do was sit and hopefully buy food and drink at the office. Prices were high, so we passed.
With stamps from both sides in our passports, the group of 10 tourists claimed their space in the cramped quarters on our new boat. Some lay on the floor, others sat at the bow, while others spread out on the hard wooden benches. I chose to sit in the lotus position with my current novel resting in my lap, but my eyes focused on the scenery before me.
Stilt houses were clustered at the side of the river. At the sight, or sound, of our motor, children of all ages came running to the shore to wave enthusiastically at our vessel. Huge smiles spread across their faces. Mothers waved baby's hands for them, and children in boats paused their work to give us their full attention. Why the enthusiasm? I wondered. Surely these boats full of tourists pass every day. Perhaps the fact that travellers from other countries chose their country to visit gives them a sense of pride and waving is their way of welcoming us to their home.
A few hours into the journey our boat stopped abruptly. Ahead of us was a tall pedestrian bridge, and growing in the water under the bridge was a mass collection of water plants. Our boat’s driver couldn’t find a path through the plants, which would surely catch in his motor, wreaking havoc on the engine. Out of nowhere appeared a lean, tanned boy of about 10 years old. He, along with some older men, jumped into the water with machetes, to hack at the plants and send the small clumps floating downstream. The boy climbed a pole to hold the rope of our boat while the elders worked with full vigour. Our boat’s driver indicated that maybe we should collect money to tip the men. Is this a scam? a Kiwi wondered out loud. He quickly decided that the plants were knotted together too tightly, and that the men seemed too disorganized to be scam artists. We put some dollars in a pile and the men beamed with gratitude. The boy threw our rope back on board, and pounced back onto the remaining floating plants.
Hours later our boat slowed at a narrow plank which would serve as our dock. We walked past someone’s home where a van was waiting by the road. Our new driver settled our bags in the front seat. The Kiwi took out a mango to peel with a knife and the driver quickly handed him tissues and a plastic bag. We took this van into the city of Phnom Penh. We stopped once, before taking a major bridge into the city centre. The driver got out of the van to talk to a man. We waited with the inside lights on, then after feeling like we were on display, I turned them off. When the driver returned to the van he promptly flicked the inside lights back on.
We were dropped off at a guesthouse, which is typical in SE Asia. We asked about rates and found they were ridiculously high at $30 a room. It turns out the annual Water Festival was in full swing which meant holiday pricing and budget guesthouses at full occupancy. A group of seven of us started to walk in search of accommodations. Lacking a clear leader, we suggested routes and places but mostly wandered without a goal in mind.
We turned down Sihanouk Boulevard, a major road in Phnom Penh and were slowly enveloped into a crowd of thousands. The crowd grew as we neared the river, and soon we were trapped in a web of pedestrians, motorbikes and cars. The mood was light and people were friendly, so I tried to make the best of it. It took us over an hour to move one block and suddenly things took a turn for the worse. The Kiwi was burnt by the exhaust pipe of a motorbike, someone tried to pickpocket Toby, and I felt wandering hands on my backside. We decided to turn around and walk against traffic back to where we started, as we couldn’t even see the river yet. It took some effort to stay positive, keep smiling, and politely ask people to go in front of them.
We took two tuk tuks around the city, and noticed they only stopped at guesthouses where they knew they would get a commission. Everyone was full. Exhausted and ready to pay any amount for a shower and a bed, we found Silver River Hotel. Brand new, fancy-looking and lacking regular customers, they were nearly empty and offering great deals. We collapsed in a deluxe room for $20.
Monday, November 22nd, 2010
Comfortable in our room with a flat-screen TV, we decided to take a sick day from travelling. We went out to eat at restaurants on our street, but spent the rest of the day in our room catching up on sleep and medicating our ailments.
Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010
Checking our emails first thing in the morning, we knew something was wrong. “Are you in Phnom Penh?” colleagues, friends and family asked via Facebook and hotmail. A quick Google search confirmed the news: the night before, a stampede in the city killed over 350 people celebrating the Water Festival. The city was quiet and the country was in mourning. We decided that since it was such a sombre day, we would start our visit with the Killing Fields and S-21.
From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. They wanted a pure, agricultural, communist society. To meet this goal, they tried to get rid of the “impure” people; those who were educated, had foreign influences, lived in cities, worked for the previous government or were against the Khmer Rouge regime. In Phnom Penh, these people were taken to S-21, a school converted into a prison. They were tortured, interrogated, and documented. Then they were taken to the Killing Fields where their bodies filled mass graves. To save bullets, they were murdered with farming tools or palm branches.
At S-21, the building now stands nearly empty. Solitary bed frames and a single graphic photograph filled each of the first floor rooms. In the section converted into a museum, faces of the 17 000 victims stared back at each visitor. At the Killing Fields, unearthed mass graves created divots in the ground, while the skulls of over 9000 people were respectfully on display in a white, towering pagoda. Sign posts shared the horror stories of each pit, tree, and former building. After each rainy season, new scraps of clothing, teeth and bones continue to be revealed, saying, “Don’t forget about us.”
Wednesday, November 24th, 2010
Outside of the National Museum sat a man with a crippling physical deformity and a sign; “I do not want to beg. I want to work.” A basket of books hung around his neck. I bought First, They Killed My Father, a true story of a child’s survival during the four year Khmer Rouge genocide. Reading this I learned that the 1.7 million death toll was largely a result of starvation, disease and treatable ailments. The people were forced to toil in rice paddies, only to export most of the rice to China to fund the soldiers while rations were reduced at home.
This man is not alone. The idea that working is a better option than begging is prevalent in this needy country. Bands of landmine and UXO victims play music for tips in tourist areas. Massage parlours run by people who are blind can be found in every major city. In Kampot there was Epic Arts, a cafe run by people who are hard of hearing. In Phnom Penh, the Friends group of restaurants train street kids to be chefs. Daughters of Cambodia gives employment to former sex workers. Rehab Craft sells products made by people with disabilities. While the need is still great, people are working together to create new opportunities, and to fill gaps left unfilled by the government.
We ended the day with a visit to the bridge where the police were still investigating the stampede. Monks gathered, people chatted, flowers were laid and vendors sold snacks.
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Sunday, December 5th, 2010 – Siem Reap
I was momentarily breathless as I gazed at Angkor Wat before me. Behind me, a marathon was taking place; a fundraiser for victims of landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnace). Toby and I walked through the crowds of runners, Cambodian families and tour groups to explore the source of Cambodian pride and identity. We spent hours discovering the massive temple, then days touring the other temples nearby.
The past week was spent enjoying the other sights of Cambodia. In Kampot we took a day trip to Bokor National Park where a trek in the jungle revealed a deserted French hill station and a waterfall. In Sihanoukville we soaked up the sun by the beach after a day of snorkelling and boating. In Battambang we took a tuk tuk through the villages to see wats and a bamboo train. Our next stop was Kratie, home of the wild Irrawaddy dolphins.
But here in Siem Reap we saw why the image of Angkor Wat is everywhere in Cambodia – on beer bottles, currency and the national flag. It is an enduring reminder that their ancestors were a magnificent civilization, and that same magnificence is in them today.
In Cambodia, kids wave hello with sincere joy, tuk tuk drivers accept a “no, thanks” with a smile, and people are friendly, helpful and kind. More than the food, cities or attractions, the Cambodian people make this country what it is: the heart and soul of Asia.