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Wat's Happening in Cambodia?

CAMBODIA | Saturday, 8 November 2008 | Views [736]

As the American band The Ded Kennedy's once sung "A holiday in Cambodia" is to some extent ironic as the country is infamous throughout the world for possibily the ugliest example of man's inhumanity to man - the actions of the Khymer Rouge. Luckily it also plays host to the awe-inspiring collection of temples in Angkor. As it is, we got a taste of both in our short stay here.

With not much time on our hands to get around the country, we were limited to an overnight stay in the the steaming metropolis of Phnom Penh before our assault on Angkor. With only a morning in which ''to do" Phnom Penh we decided to gen up on local history with a visit to the most fun-free tourist attraction in the world, the 'Tuol Sleng' Museum. Our trip there started off with a scrumptious breakfast at a cafe opposite. The leafy tranquility and bubbling water features of the Bodhi Tree Cafe coupled with the air of Buddhist calm was ironically juxtaposed to the horrors and attrocities that lay in the museum across the road. 'Tuol Sleng' had once been a high school until 1975 when it was turned into a Security Prison (otherwise know as S21) under Pol Pot's communist Khymer Rouge regime. It became the largest centre of detention and torture in Cambodia where thousands of innocent Cambodians were incarcerated before being sent to the 'Killing Fields' nearby. The museum clearly didn't censor history. The rooms of the prison exhibited rusty iron beds where helpless victims had been electrocuted. Blood stains could still be seen on the tiled floors and graphic black and white photos adorned the walls depicting the horrors that had happened there. Elsewhere there were heart-breaking mug shots of the detainees including those of children, whilst in another room were remnants of victim's bones and skulls. The extent of the Khymer Rouge's unbelievable inhumanity was exemplified by what they deemed offensive and illegal to their communist cause e.g. any form of intellectual pursuit or education was strictly prohibited to the extent that the wearing of spectacles and reading of books were enough to have you thrown in Tuol Sleng - even falling in love was deemed undesirable. The visit was far from a barrel of laughs but a genuinely important experience which was as much educational as it was heart-breaking. Feeling suitably depressed from our new education, we continued our journey by catching a six hour bus to Siem Riep - home to Angkor Wat.

To say that Cambodian roads were 'a bit basic' would be an understatement. Our journey to the town of Siem Riep was along what our guide book aptly described as, a 'joker of a road' through the classic country scenery of vibrant, green paddy fields and grazing water buffalo. The entire journey involved rattling along a bumpy, dusty track which felt rather like sitting on a washing machine for six hours. The experience was complimented with some bizarre in-bus TV entertainment in the form of two Chaplinesque comedians with stick-on moustaches stealing people's possessions. It appeared you had to be Cambodian to get it although we now realise why Mr Bean was such a world-wide phenomenon.

On arrival in Siem Riep we got bedded in to a faceless, monolithic hotel that had more than a touch of "The Shining" about it. The town of Siem Riep itself is a large sprawling city with a very pretty riverside district full of bars and restaurants and a bustling night-scene. Elsewhere (where our hotel was) was just a souless base for travellers to the region of Angkor. The site of Angkor itself contains about a thousand temples and is home to Angkor Wat - the single largest religious building on the planet. Whilst we never had any intention of seeing all the temples in one day, we did attempt to see as many as we could in an 8 hour period. The best way to do this was to hire a tuk-tuk driver by the name of 'Mr T', who proved to be reliable if just a little bored by the experience.

Out of the many temples, the highlights for us were 'Bayon' with it's multitude of serene and massive stone faces, Angkor Wat itself - huge and sprawling - and of course Ta Prohm, famously known to film fans as one of the locations in the Tomb Raider movie. Broken beyond repair, the temple is the perfect example of how nature has consumed many of these sites over time and reclaimed the land. Huge silk cotton tree roots have engulfed the stonework, cracking and swallowing up much of the original structure. A great deal of fun and hilarity was had by Mr and Mrs S posing either as Angelina Jolie or Indiana Jones (see photos attached).

Although we could have spent many more days exploring the numerous temples at Angkor, our final Asian destination beckoned - the beautiful island of Koh Chang on the south western coast of Thailand. The journey to the Thai-Cambodian border, involving yet another tumble-dried bus ride through torrential rain was interrupted midway when we came face to face with a swollen river and a broken bridge. A backlog of cars slowly stacked up behind us and we were promptly told to disembark the bus causing Mrs S to cry apprehensively "Do we have to cross that bare foot!' whilst Mr S, ever the reporter, took out his camera and filmed the whole thing. Passengers and drivers gathered together to assess their chances of crossing the river whilst villagers came to see the commotion and a monk looked on smoking a fag. As the day darkened and fork lighting struck in the distance, our hopes of getting to the border in time were diminishing fast but displaying Cambodian fortitude, our impatient bus driver took the direct route and with his foot on the gas drove through the raging torrent risking his engines and our luggage. Luckily the gamble paid off but unfortunately we didn't make the border before nightfall and so spent an hour tramping around in the mud - the only tourists in the village!! Finally we located a hotel in which we were the sole guests and in the morning caught a taxi to the border of Thailand. To get to Koh Chang however took another taxi, a tuk-tuk, a public bus and then a ferry ride before finally arriving at our hotel in the middle of the afternoon. We spent the remaining days lazing on the beach and buzzing around the island on scooters before heading back to Bangkok to stay with our friend Jack for a restful couple of days. So our Asian adventure was over after a month and a half of constant travelling - it was time to put away the shorts and t-shirts, get the waterproofs out and look forward to a month of living in a van as we headed off to New Zealand.

For video footage of the epic river crossing, click on the link below! Just remember to click 'back' on your tool bar if you want to come back to the blog. Kate & Bobby



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