Can the Real Cambodia Please Stand Up?

At time of writing we are sitting on a bus from Cambodia’s capitol Phnom Pehn, on an onward journey to Sihanoukville on the South West coast. Though we’ve been here a relatively short time, it seems like a month. Cambodia gets under your skin whether you want it to or not. You may hate it or love it (or both). The poverty is the closest to Third-World that I have witnessed in the flesh in my life so far. One day I will make it to Africa and will perhaps review this opinion, but for now Cambodia will be my own personal benchmark. Dominica in the Caribbean was similar. Certain parts of Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are poor and the people have very little. Abuse, poverty, street kids, orphanages., corruption. They are evident in all South East Asian countries to a degree. It seems like this could be a feeding ground for it all. The intro crossing the border certainly felt that way!

 

We walked out onto a dirt road outside hostel to explore Siem Reap a bit. We had agreed with our tuk tuk driver to collect us at 10am tomorrow to go to Angkor Wat. Siem Reaps Pub Street does exactly what it says on the tin. Compared to the Kho San Road in Bangkok, it is clean, wide streets and the usual street vendors. It’s a lovely oasis in the dust of the surrounding roads. It’s very Westernised with various pubs to live music venues to other bigger establishments like backpacker favourite ‘Angkor What?’ to full on nightclub ‘The Temple.’ Depending on where you choose to drink, the draft beers go from $0.50 up to $2.75. Most of the side streets veering off Pub Street are like narrow laneways with any amount of restaurants to choose from. A lot of French influence on the menus. I had Frogs Legs for the first time. They taste like chicken, but you would want to eat something else afterwards! Frogs aren’t too big! Denise found it easier to get food here too, with much of the menus catering for both Khmer and Western palates. She had a Tuna salad, and because of the French influence, having previously occupying Cambodia, there were a few selections for wine here too. As regards menus saying the word Gluten Free, don’t expect to see too much of it. Denise has had to go with her gut feeling a lot, but as long as there have been no Soy sauce she’s been ok so far but it can be hard trying to go over the same info over and over. Many Cambodians over the age of 50 can speak decent French, while the younger generation have a grasp of the English language. Communicating with the locals is easier here, though managing to say please or thank you in Khmer goes a long way. We still haven’t managed to grasp that one! Coming into Cambodia through Poipet on the border from Thailand, you would almost want to turn back. It’s dirty, dusty and wide open. Now and again you see cows looking half starved, more dogs wandering than you can shake a stick at, the traffic is chaotic. The bus regularly played chicken over taking anything smaller than it. When you get to Siem Reap, it’s almost like the slight apprehension leaves and you notice that it is quite a nice little town. It is still dusty and a bit rural, but there are numerous huge hotels, unlimited hostels, pubs, markets, street sellers, works of art everywhere and then there’s the people. Siem Reap has grown to be this wonderful little tourist spot all due to the huge 200 square km (yes that big) series of ancient temple kingdoms from Cambodia’s powerful past. (It once stretched as far as India). However, it is the people that make it a winner. They are super polite, please and thank you in abundance, plenty of smiles and a good chunk of attitude thrown in. they aren’t afraid to give the sob story hoping to get a few extra Riel or US Dollars from the visitors. They are so poor, it’s easy to almost forgive this trait in the collective personality. The thing about the Cambodians is that they think that because we have white skin and from the ‘west,’ then we must be rich. If only they knew the situation in Ireland and Europe from the recent Recession years they would perhaps understand that we don’t all have deep pockets. We had to work hard to get here and if we were to hand money to everyone we meet because they are poor, we wouldn’t get very far over here. It’s very hard to shake my head no at a child begging, or a person who has lost limbs from a landmine. The street beggars are everywhere. There are signs informing the tourists that the many kids on the streets begging are there by wishes of their parents instead of sending them to school. (We counted about 10 schools on Siem Reap) There are Social Services in Cambodia to tackle this and the more we as tourists hand over to them, the more they will send the kids out to beg. It doesn’t make it easy though. Saying no to a child who is dirty and making a pitiful sing song sound is not a nice experience.

 

On our first morning we checked out of our first nights accommodation, walked across the road into a better one at half the price and had some breakfast in a little café called Sanctuary. They help street teenagers etc to find work by employing them and giving them life skills. By eating here, we were actively helping the local community. Our tuk tuk driver Sovann was waiting for us bring us on the trip to Angkor Wat. We passed his school (Australian-Cambodian English language school) and explained that he had paid $50 a semester and put himself through school to learn to speak and write English. He now helps the local poor children by printing out school books (we saw the printers too) and is looking to try set up a foundation to get foreigners to come over to teach English as his skills aren’t good enough. Now to a cynical person, this sounds like an almighty sob story, but he was genuine, an absolute gent, and we witnessed even the books. He is also extremely poor. His clothes had holes in them and his bike was pretty small for the tuk tuk. Normally if this sort of story comes from the driver, I would be very stand off-ish but I found Sovann to be genuine in his ideas and plans for the future. I got some info sent to me by email, with details of what he is trying to achieve. I admire people who have big dreams and who have bettered themselves in order to help others less fortunate. If he ever gets his plans up and running then I will keep updating this blog in case anyone ever wants to help in the future. If anyone wants more info feel free to email him directly at angkor.sovann@gmail.com. Life is too short to pass over helping others no matter where they come from. A coffee or beer for me is 4 or 5 school books for him. The world seems pretty unfair sometimes.

Sokann - the tuk tuk driver with a big heart!

Sovann – The Tuk Tuk driver with a big heart!

As for his current job at hand, we went to the Angkor Wat temples as planned and they didn’t in anyway disappoint. The place is mammoth and no amount of photographs can ever describe the scale and wonder of it. Cambodia was once a giant kingdom and if the will of the people is anything to go by they can be so again. The price of admission for Angkor Wat is $20 per day or $40 for 3 days. The tuk tuk ride was $20 for the whole day. If you want to rent a bicycle for around $2 for the day it is an option but trust me the distance to cover is huge. The tuk tuk is worth it!

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

The Gate of Erebor! (for any Lord of the Rings fans) Pure stone, and huge

The Gate of Erebor! (for any Lord of the Rings fans) Pure stone, and huge

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After the day, we said our good byes to a new friend and I wish him all the best that life can throw at him for the future. Walking around Siem Reap that evening the place was more comfortable, warmer and chilled. You get slightly immune to the atmosphere, the traffic and dust. It’s just basic climatisation and could Cambodia be a nicer place than Thailand? Could it? Walking back to our hostel hand in hand, stopping to take pictures of the beautiful lights and debating whether to get ice cream or not at 11pm, we were in great spirits. Loving this place. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a little 5 or 6 year old boy asleep in the dirt, his mother asleep hunched over him. For a second it didn’t resonate. We looked at each other, realizing what the pile of clothes was. We walked back to them. I tapped her on the shoulder and woke her and handed her some money. She was almost in tears and wanted to wake the child up to say thank you. We told her to let him sleep. We didn’t want any thanks, just to help a little. We walked on, Denise close to tears, I couldn’t think of anything to say and ice cream was the last thing on our minds.

 

We decided to hit the road to Phnom Pehn and arranged our bus tickets through Giant Ibis. There are several bus companies running this journey. Giant Ibis seems to be the best of them. The ticket one way to Phnom Pehn is $15 each. There are no trains in Cambodia apart from the Bamboo railway in Battambang. We won’t get to see that during this trip. Maybe someday… Giant Ibis have a GPS aboard to make sure the drivers go slow. They provide water, a Danish pastry, some movies onboard (though the sound is so low you can’t hear it) two stops on the way for toilet and food at a roadside restaurant. The journey took over 7 ½ hours. This was no ordinary journey though. There is practically 300km of roadworks. It is so dusty you can barely see the traffic in front at times. Thick red dust. It’s like driving on the surface or Mars. Every ten mins or so, the bus plays chicken with giant trucks, with motorbikes and cows nipping inbetween at the same time. Gaps with sharp drops at the edge of the makeshift roads make a fairly hairy drive at times. If you ever suffer from travel sickness, then take tablets! In spite of this it’s totally fascinating and the views of rural Cambodia as the sun was going down was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Arriving in Phnom Pehn after dark, I was surprised at how little major infrastructure there was. Sure, there are a few big hotels along the Mekong River banks but it’s no Bangkok. Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in Vietnam may be a chaotic, energy filled place, but Phnom Pehn is just a bit of a mess. As big capitol cities go, there isn’t too much to see. There are several sights like the Kings palace, a few big Wats (temples) and the riverside walkway along the Mekong River is lovely with numerous International flags fluttering in the cool breeze. I have a secret fascination with the Vietnam War (Platoon and Apocolypse Now are still great movies) and to stand next to the Mekong River was really cool. I went through the Vietcong tunnels in Vietnam a few years ago so now I’ve stood at the American side! Anyway back to Phnom Pehn…The city’s main attraction to see is the notorious S-21, once a school turned torture base for the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. To have something as notorious as this as a main attraction shows how much the city has suffered. Once we arrived, we got a tuk tuk to our Hostel Velkomment Geuesthouse and got ourselves washed and ready to go. The staff here are brilliant, extremely friendly and helpful. I had managed to book a second night through email with no fuss at all. The streets are full of bars, mini eateries, a small red light district and all manner of foreigners chilling next to the roadside sipping on cheap $0.75 beers. The street beggars here are everywhere. They don’t give up, they ask you over and over. A woman walked up to two guys beside us with a small baby. She made that sing song cry that they all do and pointed at the child. He shook his head no. She persisted. Eventually he gave in, she grabbed the money, gave no recognition and no thanks. She was a far cry from the lady we had seen on the bridge in Siem Reap. As soon as she walked away another woman with a child walked up to the same man. He was more steadfast this time and said no more forcefully. This woman was a bit overweight. Hungry she was not. The street beggars here are more refined and more in your face. It’s a job to them and it’s hard to distinguish genuinely poor from scammers. How do you say no without feeling like an asshole? I feel angry at these people for keeping their kids out until the late hours doing this. They have no future doing this. How can they change and get educated if their guardians make them do it? We sat looking at a little brother and sister play and laugh. Children just want to play. An older sister stood looking at them from the corner and they reverted to trying to sell trinkets and beg. What a shame. Why are these people doing this when there are brand new state of the art tuk tuks and landrover jeep driving around? We decided to go to the Genocide Museum (formerly S21) and then to the Killing Fields to get a better understanding of why Cambodia is so fucked up.

 

Two years ago we went to Krakow in Poland for five days and took a trip to Auschwitz. For anyone who has been there, it is a desolate sad place, and even standing in the billets of the Auschwitz jails or over the ruins of the gas chambers at Birkenau you still question your senses. Did this really happen? I can see the evidence, the piles of toothbrushes, clothes and other remnants of the horror, but it’s hard to imagine. This would surely never happen again in the world. We learn from history don’t we? Cambodia would disagree. Pol Pots regime killed nearly two million of their own people in similar fashion. We stood in the spot, saw the torture items, the cells and eventually, the Killing Fields. As we walked we could see the bone fragments still coming to the surface under our feet. The city dwellers were put into forced labour. Educated people were wiped out, even their babies were smashed off a tree. The Khmer Rouge believed that a whole generation had to be wiped out from families so there could be no future revenge retribution. The rural uneducated were enlisted as soldiers to carry this out. Only two of the regime have been tried in International Courts so far. It’s all very recent. Today’s population has had to rebuild. Like Auschwitz before, I didn’t feel right taking photographs. The one I did take of a sign about bones underfoot should be enough to explain. image

If ever in Phnom Pehn, I would recommend taking the time out to visit this place. Apparently when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power they found Phnom Pehn practically deserted. Given that the city now houses 8 million inhabitants, that’s an eerie thought. Cambodia is a country that is rediscovering itself, embracing tourism and rebuilding from nothing. Though I wouldn’t class Phnom Pehn as a pretty city it definitely has an energy about it. It’s worth a visit, as to get a feel for a place by absorbing the atmosphere is better than passing through. We were happy with two days here, and felt it was time to move on. Siem Reap had been a great little city, with a cultural mix of Khmer and Western/European society. It had superb 5 star hotels next to shanty houses made of wood and galvanise sheet metal. Phnom Pehn, too had some exceptional buildings but the whole place was grimier, dirtier and more lived in. It was once the ‘Pearl’ of South East Asia, and maybe one day it will reclaim that title. Having visited Bangkok, I seriously doubt it ever will. The one thing that has stood out overall in Cambodia, is the people. They are brilliant. True there are a lot of people begging or selling, but that’s a survival instinct. Many of these have had no chance of an education and the younger generation with smart phones, WiFi at every corner, a very good grasp of English and a fresh enthusiasm to be friendly will surely pull the Cambodians cheerily into the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, part of the charm being here is the fact that nobody really gives a shit half of the time. There’s been a few times we’ve just laughed to ourselves observing the world around us. From early morning to late late into the night, the locals have a strong work ethic. Everyone is doing something at all times, but when there is a chance to rest (some tuk tuk drivers have hammocks in the actual vehicle to chill in the afternoon sun) or to do things at a snail pace (patience is needed and expected) they will just get on with things their own way, while always cheekily asking for an extra dollar. Part of the fun is to barter, and as I’ve learned, doing it with a smile works better. Denise has mastered that! So if the big bad city has an extra bite, is a bit rougher around the edges, compared to touristy Siem Reap, then what does Sihanoukville hold for us? This is Cambodia’s premier beach destination stretching out into the Gulf of Thailand. We leave in the morning for another 4 hour bus journey – again with Giant Ibis. Accommodation booked online and looking forward to the change. So far the common denominator has been the local people, but the areas vary. Most are very friendly (if not fond of chancing their arm at times) and I can’t quite figure out if the people are actually not as poor as they seem. Everywhere we look, it’s normal to cook, sit, eat in not so clean environments. The local homes are run down but full of life. The country has an enormous amount of dogs! And the people seem to like having them around. Are the beggars earning a small fortune? There are no social welfare payments here. It’s work or starve. Or beg. Maybe the coast area will show us a different side?

 

UPDATE: Once we landed in Sihanoukville, we were accosted by the hordes of tuk tuk drivers in the now all too familiar bartering for trade. You can’t hate the guys for trying, they have to eat! At the top of the town there is a huge roundabout with two massive Golden Lions. Naturally this is a well known location for directions and for getting our bearings for our general location. We dropped our bags and headed out for a walk down the hill towards the beach. Serendipity road is basically a line of hostels, guesthouses, restaurants, massage parlours almost all with a bar attached with some very good spots. The Big Easy had a Britrock era theme to it and live music/open mic, cheap drinks promos and a great atmosphere. We were a bit tired after the travelling so we didn’t venture down to the beach where apparently it comes to life at around 12pm. We met an Irish guy called Glen who was a real character who filled us in on a bit of info about the area. Next day we hit the beach for the first time on this trip. So far it’s been cities, towns, trains and buses so it was a nice change of pace to just sit in the sun. The usual street sellers are here much like the other areas of Cambodia but the kids on the beach have a real bite about them. They aren’t shy in speaking their mind good or bad. Denise naturally made friends with one of the girls who gave her a free ankle bracelet. We got talking to an English guy next to us and ended up on the beer that night along the beach bars. Mr Wild is one of those people you occasionally meet in life. He’s neither glass half full nor half empty. He takes each facet of his life to the extreme. Wild by name and Wild by nature! We got some great info about the area from him, and after a night or two headed down the coast a bit to Otres Beach. There are two of these side by side, Otres 1 and Otres 2. In regards to the beach part, there’s not too much sand but what little there is, is white soft powder fringed by sun loungers in front of makeshift bars with the occasional hammock hanging from the trees. Pure relaxation and peace. It was perfect for us and we chilled for a few days here not worrying about anything. After a few weeks of travelling through various spots in Thailand and Cambodia this place was serene. Barely even a shop, dusty roads, beach huts and it felt like it was almost a forgotten place. There are still the street (or is that beach?) sellers but they’re a bit more easy going here. The one that always gets me are the guys selling sunglasses. Hello?! I’m wearing them, but they still try to sell me a pair! Anyways, the locals here along the beach fronts seem to have converted their homes into bars/restaurants and are open early to very late. All the family are around all the time, including the various dogs who frequent the beach. Rabies is alive and well this part of the world but I haven’t seen any sign of it. The dogs are quite friendly and are used to being fed by the tourists. Once in particular dragged herself around by the front paws. Her hind legs and lower back were all collapsed. If anyone encounters this dog be kind! She is one of the older dogs, very tame and is the victim of a poisonous snake bite. A Russian guy near us took off his shoe to hit her. Asshole. She went to sleep under our feet. A lot of these do a nightly BBQ and it’s definitely one of the best we’ve ever had. Denise had no problems at all with these with her coeliac needs. Oh and if you like weed or not you WILL smell it here. It’s openly smoked by pretty much half of the people. Everywhere. We stayed in a quiet little place called Otres Marina, a street off the beach. Out the back there was a salt water lake, a room with that all important mosquito net, air conditioning and outdoor toilet/shower. I’d definitely recommend it! So far this has been Denise’s favourite place that we’ve travelled to.

Dog chilling on Serendipity/Ochheuteal beach

Dog chilling on Serendipity/Ochheuteal beach

Sunset at Otres beach

Sunset at Otres beach

One of the things we noticed walking up and down the beach is that there is a huge amount of property development being done everywhere. Large hotels are starting to pop up and though some of them are nice to look at, the feel of Otres beach and the charm of the place is the rustic, patched together huts. If ever there is a time to visit this part of Cambodia it’s now. In ten years I reckon the place will have changed to resemble the Ochheuteal and Serendipity beach areas a few miles up the coast. After our few days here we headed back to Phnom Pehn (Giant Ibis dropped us at the airport) and flew out of Cambodia for Singapore. Leaving Cambodia we were both a little sad. The place is rough around the edges and sometimes certain aspects of it can play with your emotions. But the people! The Khmer’s are an incredible race who should have a chip on their shoulders but they don’t. They will barter, and have no fear of trying to get every last Riel/Dollar that they can, but can you blame them? Based on the new roads and buildings popping up and the spirit of the people I get the impression that Cambodia will find it’s feet again and become a strong nation in the region. But at what cost? The thing that makes people like me love the place is the fact that it is more rural and underdeveloped. Singapore lets be having ya!

 

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About Lee Kelly

Just a normal guy who loves to travel with my wife!
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