What do you get if you cross 8 Australian 19 – 25 year olds with 2 quiet Mexicans, an elderly couple from Leeds resembling the characters from creature comforts, and 4 PLMs*? Welcome to my Cambodia travelling family. When I booked my 3 week “Indochina Discovery” trip through Vietnam and Cambodia, I naively thought that it would be exactly that – 3 weeks travelling with the same people, so that by the time I reached Cambodia on 24/12, I would be spending Christmas and New Year with people I had come to know well over the preceding weeks.
By the time I started the trip I was better accustomed to the Intrepid way, so realised different people may join in Cambodia, but I still wasn’t prepared for (a) a group of 16, after travelling in such small groups through Laos and Vietnam, or (b) travelling with 8 people who got on the wrong bus and were so clearly meant to be on a Contiki tour. Admittedly, I was a bit weary after being ill and on the road constantly for several weeks since Bangkok, and being half way through my trip itself I was missing my friends and family so maybe I wasn’t at my most resilient. But seriously… when you go to Cambodia, you are going for history and culture. You pack a proper camera, at the very least, and try to look interested when the guide starts explaining things, rather than sitting with your headphones in. You don’t sit on the bus loudly talking about w*nking (Mum – I don’t mean winking), drugs you have taken and prostitutes you have slept with in front of strangers. You don’t walk away from the guide in the genocide museum because your hangover is so bad you can’t stand up, as opposed to the fact you are so moved by the tragedy he is describing. You don’t climb on sacred monuments taking group selfies on your camera phone (the only camera you have packed) or run through temples trailing your Go Pro. And (to the 19 year old), you don’t have “dibs” on me!! One of the main reasons you don’t do this, respect for local culture apart, is the fact that IT MAKES ME FEEL OLD AND BORING. I DON’T WANT TO FEEL EITHER! I don’t want to shout at someone because I am so incensed that they have casually thrown their litter out of the window (they really did, and I really did lose it!). I want to make friends on this trip, not feel like a stick in the mud and someone’s bloody mother.
Does that set the scene sufficiently?
So, if I never quite found my mojo in Burma, I totally lost it in Cambodia. Having had time to reflect subsequently, I guess it was inevitable that I was going to experience highs and lows… and this was a real low point. Which is such a shame as it is such an amazing country, so steeped in history, both ancient and recent. The bad group experience cannot detract however from the short, but sweet (sometimes bittersweet) time I spent here.
I shall start with the amazing bit: Siem Reap. Another place that should be on your bucket list. Despite the hordes, it blows your mind. There is something both mythical and magical about Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom, irrespective of the fact you are sharing it with what at times felt like half the world. I could happily have spent a day sitting in the grounds of Angkor Wat, just contemplating life.
The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum at Phnom Pen was mindblowing, for entirely different reasons. It is just so hard to fathom how genocide on this scale can happen. For anyone who shares the ignorant void I was existing in before coming out here, I would recommend a book by Loung Ung called “First They Killed My Father” (the clue is in the title), which vividly depicts the author’s life from 1975, when she was 5 years old, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge commenced its brutal regime. I warn you, you will cry, but it gives you great insight into what happened. There isn’t an agreed figure for the number of people who died, but estimates range from 1 – 3m people, or circa 21% of the population, as a consequence of the actions of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed anyone connected with the previous Government, anyone educated, monks, professionals, in its attempt to turn Cambodia into a classless society. Entire families were wiped out, lest children grew up angry and sought revenge against the regime. In this way, the only people who survived were those where families separated, children claimed to be orphans, in order not to be killed. Many hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of starvation and disease that ensued…. and this all happened in my lifetime. I feel ashamed that I had so little idea of what had gone on.
We visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an old school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge and through which c.17,000 people passed between 1975 and 1979, being held captive and tortured to give up names of family and associates. Very few people survived the prison (only 12 known survivors, most of whom have now died). We met one survivor – Chum Mey – who now works as a guide at the museum. He survived because his mechanical skills were useful to the regime, but had to watch his wife and children being killed.
Reading the book prepared me for visiting both the museum and the Killing Fields themselves but I still cannot begin to understand how it must have been, and how people can behave in such an inhumane manner. As we took the day long journey along the extremely bumpy and dusty track from Phnom Pen to Siem Reap I tried to imagine what it would have been like, having to leave PP, quite literally overnight, heading to the countryside and fighting for survival for the next 4 years. But it is just impossible to ever appreciate what the Cambodian people must have gone through. What is perhaps as difficult to fathom is the fact that a former senior member of the Khmer Rouge has been the president of Cambodia for 35 years, repeatedly voted in via allegedly democratic elections – as democratic as the only outcome being that the Cambodian People’s Party will always win can be. Or that only 4 members of the Khmer Rouge have ever been brought to trial (only one of whom so far has gone to prison), with the remainder being allowed to carry on their lives following an amnesty on Khmer Rouge members some years back. Our guide on the day had a story similar to that of Loung Ung in the book and I asked him how he and his friends and families could live with the knowledge that their neighbours were Khmer Rouge soldiers and responsible for so much bloodshed and misery. He told us that this was for a number of reasons. They are Buddhists, peaceful people who believe in karma. They see little point in perpetuating violence – if he was to kill in “an eye for an eye” – who would earn money to support his family? A truly humbling and amazing man.
Cambodia still has it’s dark side. There was a lot of young children begging on the streets – more so than in any other country I have visited thus far. And sex tourism is rife. We caught the public bus from Phnom Pen to Siem Reap and two men sat behind two of the women in my group, openly discussing unspeakable things they were there for in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines. I heard from a couple of guys who had travelled through Cambodia that after dark the tuk tuk drivers will openly pimp and offer to take you to certain places. At the airport, I saw an old man travelling alone holding back on putting his plastic bag full of camera film through the x-ray machine. I can’t say he looked very much like a professional photographer. But as with many other countries, a lot of work is done to try and combat the poverty, sex tourism, child exploitation and the like so hopefully progress is being made. http://www.friends-international.org http://www.childsafeinternational.org/CAMBODIA/CSCambodia.asp. We ate at 2 wonderful restaurants that support these foundations (reminding me a little of the Jamie Oliver Fifteen concept) – perhaps unsurprisingly, I bought another t-shirt….
And so I may have spent less than a week in this country but it’s effect on me was profound. Perhaps that is what gives Angkor Wat an even more magical aura – the fact that it stands, so serene, in a country that has seen so much mindless suffering. I came away with a love for the country and a deep respect for its people and suspect I may go back there when I am in better company to explore more. Because at this point I have to admit that I bailed early on the trip. Life is too short to be spent with idiots. I will forever love Angelina for sensing my misery on Christmas Day and calling me the moment she received my (clearly not very well disguised) Happy Christmas text so that I could sob down facetime and let it all out, and Faye for sending me the lifeline of her “come to Singapore, there is still room on the boat” message, at which point I promptly booked my flights and left the country as soon as we had finished up in Siem Reap. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is that I will never take for granted the ability to escape in this manner, both literally and financially. As well as to stop being so preachy on this blog and get back to telling funny stories…
Having spent New Year back in Singapore on said boat, I am now taking some time out at the beach in Thailand where I intend to reflect on my journey so far (New Year’s Eve representing the half way point in my time off work) and ensure I prepare to make the most of the rest of my time away. From here I will head to Bangkok in a few days to catch up with friends, then on to Chiang Mai to go trekking and live with elephants! I feel like I have closed one chapter and am opening the next, it is exciting, I have renewed energy and I can’t wait to begin.
For those wanting a potted history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge
*people like me