If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.
Things I don’t miss about the UK
Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
The Daily Mail
Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
Having two-four jobs at any one time
Easter advertising at the end of January
Things I do miss
Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
Smoking ban in public places
General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
Staying in the same place for more than a week
Having a job
Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
It’s been a heavy few blogs, so here is a treat for you at home in the UK on what I’m assuming is a dismal February day: I went to a beach and it was excellent. Well if we’re going to get into it, I went to a few beaches. There were multiples of excellence. Come read and pretend you were there too!
Not a cute name on the Sims (I think it was named after Norodom Sihanouk, the late king), Sihanoukville is a town on the south coast of Cambodia. I haven’t frequented a Spanish beach resort for about a decade, but I have a feeling local developers are using the Costa del Sol as a template – there is a lot of development and a lot of nationally ambiguous tourist junk, so visit soon if you want to actually feel like you’re in South East Asia and not just a really far away Malaga.
After a night at a hostel at one end of town, in which some drunk Russians came into our dorm at 3am and started an argument with an English guy, we headed along the coast to Otres beach. It’s quieter than the main beach, Serendipity, although our hostel had a beach bar that played what can only be described as ‘the result of someone punishing their electronic music app’ so I probably would have spontaneously combusted if we’d stayed anywhere busier. We were in a 14 bed dorm, which I was apprehensive about until it turned out that the dorm took up the entire floor of the hostel and didn’t have any windows. Not as in, they’d forgotten to put any in (not that it would surprise me) but that the first floor had a veranda running along the edge with a sloping roof, so although there were bathrooms and private rooms attached, the dorm was technically open air. The bunks actually felt quite private, because they were all covered in their own mosquito nets.
On our first evening a storm threw the power out for half an hour, and on the second the generators stopped working for an hour of their own accord. Or possibly the hostel had their electricity cut off. Staff had their own theories. The wifi was shite, which was probably a blessing in disguise; I woke up at 3am on Saturday morning and couldn’t work out why I felt ill, then remembered that a certain thatch haired psychopath was being sworn into government around about that very time… the next day everyone at breakfast was watching the Al Jazeera coverage with identical expressions of exhausted disgust (and it takes a lot to unite a group of half asleep backpackers from eight separate countries who spent the previous night resenting one another for making too much noise).
Koh Rong Island
There are a lot of islands off Cambodia’s coast and a lot of travelers hop across; we picked Koh Rong, the largest, because we knew there was space at a hostel we could afford (money and hostel availability dictate most of our movements). There was a lot of wind on the day we traveled, and we were told that we’d change ferries part way through. I was trying to work out the logistics of moving our stuff from the boat then onto the quay and back again when it transpired that the ferries had pulled parallel to one another we were literally going to step from one onto the other. Bags were passed over by crew, and I’m pretty sure something fell off one into the depths of the Gulf of Thailand.
I did not know before we booked that Koh Rong is ‘the party island’, but I also did not know how isolated our particular hostel was. We had to wait for their supply boat to pick us up from the main beach, and because the wind was so strong we ended up being dropped off a beach early and trekking through a bit of jungle until we reached ours. I was wearing flip flops; one of the bar staff, who had stayed on the main beach the night before, had no shoes at all. Apparently you just have to keep your eyes open for snakes… my glasses were covered in sea spray from three or four hours of waves the size of cars, so I fully expected imminent death and my relief at making it to civilisation was halted only when I realised the toilet/shower block was made from concrete, contained no soap or flushing mechanisms and was home to several of the island’s insects. It was also along a sandy pathway littered with tree roots, plants and leaf litter, and lit by approximately one light.
As was the path to our tent.
Other than that, though, we spent three days in paradise. The enforced relaxation (no wifi, main beach about 3 kilometers away) sent me a bit bananas, but these days a digital detox is probably something we should all do at least three times a week, so I relearnt the art of the siesta and made friends with a questionable Jack Reacher novel whose final pages had been lost. Was the kidnapping genuine? Did Reacher sleep with the grieving sister? What happened to the original assassin? I’ll never know (although I can guess, and I don’t know which is more entertaining). I also tripped on a tree root on the beach and bruised my foot, then got a rash sitting on a hammock but neither of those things are as fun as another beach photo, so:
(The rash went after I got moisteriser from a pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh; the foot still aches sometimes but I’m carrying my belongings around on my back and averaging a museum a week so there’s not much I can do about it… thank god for four hour bus journeys?)
Unless I write something else about the thatch haired psychopath, the next post will be about Vietnam. Spoiler alert: I’ve already visited a beach.
We only really went to Phnom Penh for two places, and those places are horrible. But I’d be a terrible person if I didn’t talk about it, so…
SOME HISTORY: in 1975 a radical communist group, the Khmer Rouge, seized power of Cambodia’s government with a vision to turn Cambodia into a ‘communist agrarian utopia’, aka a nation full of rice farmers. Their methods included forcing everyone out of cities into the farmlands, whether they knew how to grow rice or not, and killing anyone who might disagree, like intellectuals and spies (they identified intellectuals by whether or not a person had glasses, soft hands or spoke a foreign language, and spies by whether or not they looked fishy). SPOILER ALERT: it failed. People can’t grow rice having eaten two spoonfuls of gruel in a day. Murdering a quarter of your population demoralises the troops. Communism is a fucking terrible way to run a country. By 1979 the regime had collapsed (it didn’t help that senior members kept offing one another in paranoia) and the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by rebels and the Vietnamese; what was left of the government fled to Thailand. Because Vietnam was involved, the United Nations actually continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s rightful government for years – they received aid and sent representatives to UN meetings. One day I will write about western countries ignoring genocide and send the manuscript to the Trump administration… Today is not that day but if you want to read more about the Khmer Rouge, go here. Anyway the Khmer people are very open about their past and are preserving and sharing it nationwide (unlike Nazi Germany, no one’s going to get away with denying this shit happened). The two biggest and most heartbreaking museums are both in or near Phnom Penh.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
There are killing fields all over Cambodia, but the largest is at Choeung Ek, which used to be a Chinese graveyard and orchard a few miles from Phnom Pehn. We visited there first and just arriving was odd, because the road goes through what is now basically a suburb – it felt a bit like having a war memorial at a corner in central Southend. Once you’re in, though, Choeung Ek feels more like a nature reserve than a genocide spot. There’s an audio tour that takes you to various points, and they’ve let a lot of the space grow naturally back into an orchard. There’s even a pond, although if I remember correctly there are still a lot of bodies under it. Speaking of bodies…
Because the Khmer Rouge wanted to save bullets, they had people killed using what was lying about instead. Think farming equipment, knives, tyre irons and the like. As a result, the corpses uncovered since aren’t exactly intact; every now and then bits of bone and skull and clothes work their way up to the surface and museum staff take care of them. What they have found has been examined and organised neatly in a memorial stupa, which is simultaneously very beautiful and very creepy.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
After lunch we headed to Tuol Sleng in central Phnom Penh, also known as Security Prison 21. For what it’s worth I found the museum harder to deal with than the Killing Fields, and I’d recommend doing Choeung Ek second. There’s more fresh air, less graphic photos and more space to sit by yourself while you try to process what you’ve just seen – the building was originally a school, so it’s quite compact and overbearing. There’s an audio tour for the museum as well so you can do it at your own pace, but I still wanted to inhale a bottle of gin by the time I was a third of the way around.
They request you don’t take photos of the inside rooms, which was fine by me. Just, imagine a tiled room that used to be a classroom, with a rusting iron bed in the middle. In its heyday, it would have been a nice bed. The iron is wrought into patterns. It was an interrogation room, so add rusting iron shackles and perhaps an iron bar. Finally, turn to one wall and add a large black and white photograph of that very room. Attached to the bed is what used to be a person. It’s an old photograph, taken straight after the prison was discovered, but you can still tell that that used to be someone’s head and that was someone’s stomach, and that is where their stomach ended up. Then multiply the room by four or five because when the regime fell, the prison staff knew they had very little time to flee. They stopped torturing that day’s suspects and killed them to avoid future identification – but they couldn’t risk gunshots being heard, so they hacked their prisoners to death then skedaddled.
That’s just the first part of the museum.
There are several rooms full of photographs of prisoners and several pieces of torture equipment, including one which was originally used as gymnastic equipment for the school. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous about records, but they destroyed a lot toward the end; what’s left is quite enough to put you off believing in any sort of benevolent deity. Most pictures are just of people when they arrive, but there’s a few of prisoners mid-captivity. There were only seven people found alive when the prison was liberated, and one was an artist who went on to paint what he saw, so there are also canvases of torture and general death in glorious technicolour. An estimated 20,000 people were held at S-21 during the regime. Seven were found alive.
We ended up rushing a little toward the end of the tour – well, I did. Maxim finished way quicker and was impatient to leave because we needed to get bus tickets for Shianoukville. Part of me was irritated for skipping the exit, because two of the surviving prisoners were there signing books, but part of me was very relieved to be given a reason to leave. I could easily go back and spend a day making notes, listening to every extra on the audio tour and piecing together everything that’s there (with a break for lunch and the gin) but I could also quite happily never set foot in Phnom Penh again. It’s not that the city – and Cambodia in general – isn’t vibrant and bustling and very ready to be more than just four years in its history. It’s that in my head, once I’d seen Choeung Ek and S-21, it was hard to see anything else. I kept thinking ‘that building’s definitely been built since the seventies’, ‘that building hasn’t’, ‘this guy looks old enough to have lived through the genocide’. Anecdotally, there are no old people in Cambodia; statistically, one in four people died under the Khmer Rouge either from malnutrition, disease or execution.
It feels very relevant that I’m writing this the day after Holocaust Memorial Day, and the day after the Trump administration signed an order banning Syrian refugees from entering the US. Incidentally one of the factors in the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power is that America dropped more bombs on Cambodia during the Vietnam War than it did during the entirety of World War II; the resulting poverty and civil unrest stoked support for the party. I could keep drawing parallels between Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Nazi Germany, and parallels between them and the rhetoric Trump and his supporters are spewing, but if you’re reading this you’re probably smart enough to draw them yourselves.
We hit up the palace on our last morning in the city, because our bus to Shianoukville was too late in the day to just bum around while we waited (we made up for it by bumming around in Sihanoukville). I haven’t forgotten that I haven’t blogged about the Killing Fields and S-21 museum, it’s just taking some time to turn a day of horror into a coherent blog. In the mean time, meet the Grand Palace of Phnom Penh… and a bus.
Entry to the palace was $10 plus a tuk tuk, so the little part of me that’s been keeping a budget – okay, a big part of me – thought ‘this place had better be something’. It was. Not in a grandiose Bangkok Grand Palace kind of way, although there are similarities. It’s more understated, much quieter and far smaller. There were quite a few parts scaffolded off for renovation, but you can easily spend a morning wandering about the buildings. There’s another emerald Buddha (again, I don’t think it’s actually emerald), some lovely little shrines and trees, and some museum buildings with ceremonial clothes and whatnot. Lots of elephant statues. Every time we see an elephant statue Maxim points out that we haven’t actually met any elephants yet; I’m using that as leverage in my quest to get us to an elephant sanctuary back in Thailand. We managed to miss the famous silver pagoda completely – yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible to miss a pagoda, but we did – so if you go I recommend paying more attention to your map than we did. Possibly take advantage of the palace guides.
The bus from Phnom Penh to Shianoukville takes about four hours, so it’s not really worth getting a night bus, but it is definitely worth charging your iPod and practising your meditation before you board. I thought I had the long straw, because my seat was right at the front and Maxim was squashed down the back, but there’s not really a long straw when it comes to travelling by bus. Especially not when your seat doesn’t come with overhead locker space or legroom, because it’s right next to the luggage hold.
We stopped off at a restaurant which was probably one of the nicest places we’ve been. It’s literally on the side of the road but it had water features and a garden area and toilets backpackers dream about (don’t look at me like that. You spend a couple of weeks living out of a rucksack in rooms with at least five other people and clean toilets really start to have an emotional impact). I nearly took a picture but instead here is the view:
Up next: Sihanoukville and Koh Rong Island. Teaser: there are beaches and glorious sunsets. Or I might finally finish the Killing Fields. WHO KNOWS. What’s the best/worst bus journey you’ve ever been on?
All right, Internet, I said I’d share Angkor Wat photos and… I can’t, because the process of getting them from my phone onto this blog is proving trickier than I’d expected. Possibly because the wifi quality is steadily decreasing, possibly because the photos are huge, possibly because my luck is shite. So – instead of the wonderfully detailed account I have drafted – here are a few photos that will work. I’ve tried to label them but I did a terrible job remembering where I was throughout the trip, so this is probably going to be pretty but not educational.
The Internet is saying no, so I will leave this here and possibly save the rest for another time. We’re in Sihanoukville now for a few days, and I will write up the Killing Fields and S 21 museum as well (not something I’m looking forward to to be honest, but I’d be a dick tourist/human not to talk about is, so).
We have now been in Siem Reap four days, and we decided to stay another night and get a night bus to Phnom Penh so we could see more. We flew in from Bangkok early Thursday morning (our Thai visas required proof of onward travel, so we paid about £40 for a 45 minute flight, which had better service than some European flights I’ve been on *cough* EasyJet *cough*). I preferred Cambodia to Bangkok the moment we landed. Siem Reap airport is very new and incredibly pretty (and I am shallow) and the city in general reminds me a lot of Greece. Everything is dusty but very green, the roads are bustling but not total chaos – there are even separate lanes for tuk tuks and motorbikes – and stray dogs are three apiece (and before you make a joke that’s not funny, no I will not be adopting any).
Maxim had been sick from some dodgy seafood the night before, so once we got into town we hung out in a cafe waiting to check in to our hostel. I experienced my first – and definitely not my last – squatting toilet, tucked down a tarpaulined alley in what felt like the Cambodian equivalent of the old York Road market in Southend.
We’ve spent most of our time here exploring Angkor Wat, which will require a post by itself, and we’ve also visited Angkor Night Market, which is right next to our hostel (no live gerbils, but lots of opportunity to haggle over t-shirts) and Pub Street.
Pub St is supposed to be quite a big deal, but as far as I could tell it’s mostly made of restaurants, tourists and people begging. Over about three hours we saw two war veterans, one without legs pedaling (literally, with his hands) a cart of books, one blind and guided by a child. Then there was a guy performing circus tricks, although he wasn’t very good and nearly set himself on fire/took his eyes out/killed passersby, and then a small child who prodded me in the armpit as I walked the market, shrieked ‘CHEEP CHEEP’ at me and would have been elbowed in the face if I’d been a second slower to realise he was about eight. A few tourists gave them money, if just to get them to go away, which obviously has the opposite effect. I’m not sure what the Cambodian government does for its war vets and its homeless (presumably very little) so if anyone from government is reading, please sort your shit out. I don’t want to see children begging on my holiday any more than I want to see stray dogs, but I know which I’d rather you fixed first.
We also visited the local War Museum, and if you thought priceless antiques sitting outside at Bangkok’s National Museum was a travesty, don’t bother with Siem Reap’s War Museum. It’s filled with tanks, guns and landmines (some still in the ground) from the Cambodian civil war and genocide, and everything is sitting outside except the guns, which you can pick up.
We’re going to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, so I will wait until then to wax lyrical on Pol Pot and his band of merry megalomaniacs. In the mean time here is a short list of interesting facts:
In Cambodian culture some people collect the teeth of a cremated loved one and wear them on a string necklace to keep the loved one close and watching over them. When the string breaks, the deceased has moved on
During the Cambodian genocide, most of the rice grown was exported to China in exchange for arms, so locals learned to eat termites and other assorted creatures
There is a special type of shovel in existence that prisoners would use to dig a hole. Then their captor would kill them with the serrated edge of that very shovel, and bury them in the grave they’d just dug themselves
There’s a guide at the War Museum who was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. At various points he stepped on a landmine filled with ball-bearings, lost his sight in both eyes then had one of them restored by a UN initiative and put his story into a book.
I will leave this here because the wifi is cutting out a bit – I have a photo of a termite hill and everything. Maybe that will be one for the outtakes. Next stop is Phnom Penh and the museums, which I am told will make me depressed about the state of humanity. Good thing I had all that practise living through 2016 then, innit.