March 07, 2007

Holiday In Cambodia

Follow-up to This Is The End…well, almost from Esprit de l'escalier

Pretend that I’m still in Cambodia as you read this. I wanted to write it back on Sunday but Blogs/Khmer internet wouldn’t let me.

I did fire an AK-47 in the end. My last day in Vietnam saw me visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, sixty clicks north of Saigon, a key battleground in the American War, being a major base for communist guerrillas in the South. The Viet Minh dug a massive network of tunnels, where they lived and later sheltered from intense American bombing. A fair bit of it has been preserved and you can crawl through a 100 metre stretch to get a feel for what it was like (hot, dirty and cramped). The museum does a good job of glorifying the courage and cunning of the VC, presumably to get the tourists pumped up and willing to spend lots of money to shoot guns at their adjacent firing range. It cost about 10 quid for a full clip, but I was cheap and only got 5 bullets. Enough as it turned out, because it’s bloody loud. Your ears ring even with the muffs on. Who’d be a soldier?

I also took in the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion, which is nearby. Now for once this isn’t bullshit: Cao Dai is a uniquely Vietnamese religion. It was founded in 1927 and combines elements of Catholicism, Taoism, Buddhism and other eastern belief systems. Its churches are gaudily decorated with all manner of symbols, from dragons to masonic eyes in triangles. Since the last pope fled the repressive Diem regime in the late 50s and died in Cambodia, all decisions have been made using seance. French writer Victor Hugo is one of its three saints. We saw half of their midday ceremony, which consisted of primary-colour-clad clergy and white-clad parishioners kneeling on the floor and praying, accompanied by fairly monotonous music and singing. I reckoned the last 20 minutes would be much the same so made my excuses. For all I know they could have started breakdancing. I wouldn’t put it past them.

And so to Cambodia. Although loads of people I met said they loved it, I had the feeling that I’d been saving the worst country til last. This is the country that went through America’s secret war, the Khmer Rouge, was plagued by civil war and although it’s now relatively safe and stable, it’s incredibly corrupt and unequal, with people buying their way into decent jobs and the government selling the people out to foreign investment. My first impressions reinforced that view: after crossing the border the first thing you see is casinos; where they haven’t built casinos there are wood and corrugated iron shacks. There’s razor wire everywhere – a reminder of the apparent lawlessness. Even the country’s colour scheme adds to the mood: the land is brown – a stark contrast to the lush green of Vietnam.

The first stop (of, er, two) was the capital city Phnom Penh (henceforth PP; if I end up abbreviating Pol Pot, he’ll be PP2). Unplanned extra days in Laos and Vietnam had eaten into my time here, so I only had two nights. The royal/religious/arty stuff is supposed to be good, but PP’s other main draw was rather more intriguing: the Khmer Rouge stuff. This consists of Tuol Sleng Prison aka S21, which is in the city, and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields, which is just outside. Myself, German Mats and Dutch Rachel hired a tuk-tuk for the day. With this the decadence continued: whenever I was offered a tuk-tuk or motorbike ride, I could reply, “no thank you, my man is waiting for me”, like a regular colonialist (strictly speaking he was our man, but meh).

S21 was a school that the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, converted into a prison and used to detain, interrogate and torture 20,000 suspected enemies of the revolution (of whom 7 survived) until Vietnam invaded in 1979. You see the original cells, torture instruments, and hundreds of haunting mugshots of the victims. Many of the prisoners were taken to Choeng Ek to be disposed of. Here you see dozens of mass graves and a monument to the dead stuffed full of the skulls they unearthed. There are killing fields all over the country; as many as 3 million died under Pol Pot’s regime. It’s difficult to get your head around the scale of the slaughter, especially as it was all so senseless, and as the surviving perpetrators have never been brought to justice (thanks to the former Khmer Rouge president). And as a pedant, I found the use of guns and electricity by a regime trying to recreate Year Zero a bit hypocritical.

I’d heard all about the Killing Fields firing range on my travels – it was rumoured that you could blow up a cow with a bazooka, until I met an Irish guy in Saigon who actually had. Naturally I thought this was distasteful; why would anyone want to fire a weapon after seeing the brutality of the Khmer Rouge? It turned out that the range wasn’t actually at the Killing Fields, but the tuk-tuk drivers liked to plug it as part of the day’s package. We declined anyway.

After having my man drop me off by the palace I wandered back to the guesthouse (the best way to see a city). Phnom Penh is a bit of a cross between Hanoi and Vang Vieng. Yes, I couldn’t pick two more different places, but hear me out. PP is a fairly large, bustling French-influence capital city with a river and a lake. However, the lakeside is pretty tranquil, and where most of the guesthouses are; each one having its own bar, pool table and TV, the area is quite difficult to leave. I stayed at Happy Guesthouse – so-called, I’m guessing, because of all the people smoking weed. What didn’t make it so happy, and rather jarred with me, was the choice of DVD that guests spent the evening watching. PP seems to attract people who get off on brutality – to some Khmer Rouge history isn’t harrowing enough, so they return to their lodgings for a relaxing evening watching the likes of Saw and American History X. Good films if you’ve spent the day with kittens and flowers, but the three of us were in the mood for a stiff drink.

So we went to that other other must-see place in PP, the nightclub Heart of Darkness. I was there on the Apocalypse Now reference, but it’s a bit of a legendary place. It’s basically a Cambodia-themed Sugar – similar size, music and, er, darkness, and fun when you’re really drunk, with a mostly young, Khmer crowd. I’d met people in Laos who’d gone one night then heard that there’d been a shooting there the following night. The most exciting thing that happened was when I beat a Khmer girl (who may or may not have been a prostitute) at pool. The crowd went wild. The Rough Guide had called the place overrated and disappointing so maybe my expectations were low but I had a good time. I tell you what is overrated though, Rough Guide: your beloved Foreign Correspondents Club – it was nothing like Casablanca.

You know what else is overrated, Rough Guide: you. Your maps are frequently bollocks, you can’t spell, your pronunciation guides are baffling, and the overpriced amok at that Arun place in Siem Reap you recommended certainly did not having me going back for more. Maybe amok is supposed to taste that bad, but the Cambodian people have been through enough so I’d rather blame you.

My second, and last, stop was Siem Reap. After dropping me at the guesthouse the motorbike driver, clearly hankering after another fare the next day, asked if I was going to see the temples. “What temples?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied, somewhat enigmatically. It turns out several clicks north is Cambodia’s main tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer civilisation whose peak was around 1000 years ago. Basically there are loads of temples (wats) and other stone remains of the city, some of them well-preserved, others weathered and overgrown with jungle, but largely very spectacular indeed. There’s so much to see that the sinister Apsara organisation which owns the site (depending on the rumourmonger you talk to, it’s Japanese or Vietnamese and only gives the Cambodian government somewhere between 5 and 30% cut of its profits) sells seven-day passes. I gave myself two days to see it but managed to cycle around the main places – including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – in a day before succumbing to that infamous backpacker affliction, being Templed-Out.

Tourists have only been going to Cambodia for about ten years, and Siem Reap’s an interesting place as it’s grown so quickly. There are both a Siem Reap Airlines and an Angkor Airlines. There were so many tourists at Angkor Wat – not quite enough to spoil my day, but hotels are going up all the time in SR, so it’s only a matter of time. There’s already a street which is full of bars and restaurants – an Aussie ex-pat told me that there was nothing there 7 years ago when he moved there (one of the first of many). He now works at the golf club – that’s the kind of place SR is. While people are getting rich off this trade, equally visible are the people who are getting nothing. As in Vietnam there are people – mostly children – selling books and postcards on the street. But there are also more beggars than I’ve seen anywhere else – again mostly children. It’s pretty heartbreaking, especially when the kids are so intelligent and good at English that they should be working for, say, restaurants, instead of the simple nephew of the owner, which tends to be the case (especially that place that did amok).

I met up with Glasgow Jim from my Vang Vieng days and we had a couple of good nights out, highlights of which included going to the seedy as Zanzibar bar (another Rough Guide recommendation) for a laugh, getting four grown-ups on one scooter (incidentally the most I’ve seen is 2 adults and 3 children), speaking broken French for about an hour, speaking in Canadian accents for about 2, having fun fights with the beggars (they have a good sense of humour these Khmers, even the ones who can’t afford shoes) and getting locked out of my guesthouse at 3am and having to drunkenly climb over a ten foot wall with foot-long iron spikes which would’ve impaled me if I’d slipped. Near-death experience: check.

One of the funny things about South East Asia is the peculiar marketing strategy of quasi-plagiarising well-known brands. One can buy trainers that look like Chucky T All Stars, but actually say North Star on them. One can buy Adidas-style sports wear, made by Asdadi. In Cambodia whole shops are trading on the similarity of their name to a more renowned one – I saw a 7-Nice and a 7-Twenty. Khmer beer is a curious one because you have Angkor and Anchor – I assume Angkor is the original one, yet Anchor is equally as established. If you ask for one, you invariably get the other. The Rolex I bought for $15 dollars is definitely a Rolex, because it says.

Next week (or earlier, if I can be arsed (and I haven’t really been since returning)): my journey home.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Winnie

    Hi. I’m interested travel to Cambodia. So, I had do some research for the Cambodia visa. Have you heard Cambodia e-visa before? I’m planning to apply it because I can apply it via online. Is it a good choices? Hope to hear your opinions. Thanks. :)

    07 Nov 2007, 07:52


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