I’m finally catching up with my posts, which means you guys are getting a double whammie this week. Aren’t you just lucky?! I will apologise for the length, but there is a lot to cover.
Our Stray tour entered Cambodia the day before the Khmer New Year, on the 12th April. The day was pretty much us travelling about 10hrs from the boarder down to Siem Reap, and I’ll be honest, our bus was anything but comfortable. It wasn’t actually big enough for the number of people we had on the trip (the back seats were taken up by our bags) and there was a hole above the back wheel, just where I was sat, which allowed so much dust into the car, my shoes were considerably more brown when we arrived then when we left Laos that morning. However, upon our arrival in the city, all of the days troubles were quickly forgotten. Lights, banners and decorations hung everywhere in preparation for the next 3 days of celebrations, huge stages were being put up, and a general sense of anticipation and excitement just buzzed through the streets.
After quick (and necessary) showers, we all met up for dinner, walking through Pub Street on our way to the restaurant. This is the main strip of bars and restaurants in the area and it was an overwhelming experience of colours, sounds and smells.
After a really good meal (Cambodian food is much nicer than Laos cuisine) our guide, Keo, then took us to YOLO Bar, where he’d prearranged some post dinner snacks for us to try, which included tarantulas, crickets, bugs and water snakes. Yes, I did try a nibble of the snake (tastes like a meaty fish) and a tarantula leg (kind of like over cooked French fries, but hairy!) but I’m not in a hurry to eat either of them again. A group of us stayed out and heading back down the road to Pub Street where the New Year celebrations had started – it was past midnight after all. I’ll try my best to describe the scene –
In the middle of a road lined by bars/clubs, a group of people had a huge rope and were playing jump rope. Around them, people were spraying each other with water guns, and locals would just come up to you and wipe baby powder on your face, smiling and saying ‘Happy New Year!’. I’d love to see the same thing around Soho in London. As well as taking time out to dance in some of the bars, we obviously joined in with the celebrations, and as a group of 10 of us, we got each other soaked and covered in baby powder. It was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had.
It did however make getting up at 7am the same morning (we left the party at 4am) very hard, as I was off to visit the renowned Angkor Wat temples that day. I’ll be honest, I can’t describe Angkor Wat and the other temples within the ancient city – they are just phenomenal. The detail in the wall carvings, huge rocks shaped as Buddha heads, and the sheer size of them… you’ll have to see for yourself. It was awesome.
The New Year celebrations were in full swing now and whatever images I hopefully helped you imagine before, times that by 10 and you’ll be close to what happened on the second night. You couldn’t move for people around the centre of town, and every time I managed to get someone to clean the powder off of my face, another local would just add more on. They guys I was with poured so much baby powder on top of my head (oh the joys of being short) that people were actually coming up to me and collecting it off of me to then throw at other people! Despite the crowds we still managed to get a dance battle going, limbo competitions (I won!) and generally just dance on the street until it started to close down at about 5am. Somehow still not tired we headed back to our hostel for a night time swim in the pool – well they call it a pool, permanent paddling pool would be more accurate. At 5:45am we called it a night and tried to grab a few hours sleep before we departed Siem Reap at 9am the same morning, heading to a new city, Battenbang.
The city of Battenbang was pretty deserted when we arrived, with most of the locals traveling to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville to celebrate the New Year, but the main purpose of our visit there was for another home-stay in a local village. Before we traveled to the village, we got to go on a bamboo train – which is in fact not a train, but just an old set of train tracks, covered with some wood, powered by an old used car engine, that rattled us along to a smaller village which made bricks for construction work in the local area. It was kind of similar to those wooden roller coasters, but without anothing to hold onto and certainly no recent track maintenance! It was actually good fun, and something health and safety would certainly stop us doing at home! The home stay village itself was huge – I’d personally call it a town – and the host house was really nice. We actually got to share double beds in a real house, help make the spring rolls for dinner, and the food was delicious. After the past few days in Siem Reap though, and group of us who had been out late both nights headed to bed pretty much instantly after we’d eaten – the exhaustion had caught up with us.
An early start took us all the way down to the coast of Sihanoukville, a beautiful but very touristy town on the south west on Cambodia.p This is where I stayed for the next 6 days – after a month of traveling, I’d finally made to it a beach! The main beach we visited was Otres beach, which was just stunning – many a sunset was captured here, but my favourite picture is below.
We took a day trip out on a boat took us to visit Koh Rong Samloem and to snorkel around another little island but lack of communication when purchasing the ticket meant we missed out on visiting Koh Rong, which was a main attraction of that bit of coast. However, seeing it’s little sister Koh Rong Samloem, I’m sure you’ll agree we weren’t exactly hard done by.
I loved my few days chilling on those stunning beaches but as it is with traveling, you have to move on, and after turning myself into a lobster by forgetting to reapply suncream on my last day (good one Ems), our next stop was Kampot, a town just along the coast. We went on a sunset cruise along the river to see both the sunset (obviously) and fireflies amongst the trees lining the river. It was beautiful, with the only downside becoming dinner for all of the mosquitoes and bugs on the journey back to the main city.
The next day was a trip to Koh Tunsay, or Rabbit Island as it’s also known, which would be our home for the next night. Electricity only ran from 6pm – 11pm and we stayed in little huts right on the beach. I think we’d been spoilt a bit by Otres beach, as this one wasn’t quite as nice, but chilling out in a hammock reading the book I’m currently obsessed with (‘I am Pilgrim’ – read it if you haven’t, it’s amazing) wasn’t exactly hard to deal with. A traditional Khmer massage just before sunset also helped conclude what has been an awesome few weeks.
With that, I come to my last two days in Cambodia! I’m sure you’ll pleased to know this essay particular passport peak comes to an end shortly, but bear with me – the capital city, Phnom Penh isn’t to be skipped over.
Yesterday, I visited the Choeung Ek, otherwise known as the Killing Fields, and the S-21 prison around Phnom Penh, which are now memorials of the horrific genocide by the Khmer Rouge only 38 years ago. From 17th April 1975 to 1979, over 3 million people were killed. I can’t go into the full history of the Khmer Rouge as it’s too long for this blog, but I do recommend reading up on it if you can. It wont be easy reading, just so you know.
I didn’t take any pictures those places as nothing will ever let me forget what I learnt and saw, and I thought it disrespectful to those who suffered there to do so anyway. I felt like my mind was protecting me from the horrors I was hearing about on through my audio tape as luckily my imagination cannot stretch to the atrocites that were conducted in those places. What it couldn’t protect me from however was what I saw – towards the end of the route around the killing fields, you step off of the walkway to cross over to the memorial stupor. Right next to where you step off, a small group of what could be forearm or shin bones protruded from the earth, along with rags of clothes probably worn by the person whose bones they were. A large tree covered in bracelets, next to one of the many mass graves, was described as the Killing Tree, where members of the Khmer Rouge used to see, smash babies heads against the trunk, swinging them from their feet, to kill them. I am sorry, I know this is very upsetting, but this really happened and not very long ago. In the S-21 prison, you see the pictures of people who were brought there to be tortured, their only crime was being educated or related to someone who was. If this happened in the UK, everyone I know and love would have been tortured and killed. Children were also victims here – the pictures of some of the people were around my sisters ages, and it made me sick to my stomach to think of them suffering as others did. As if the victims hadn’t suffered enough, the Khmer Rouge believed bullets were too expensive to use on these ‘traitors’, so hammers, axes, wooden sticks, machetes and other tools were used to execute them. It was truly awful. What makes it worse, is the current Prime Minister of Cambodia has been in power since 1979, when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge and their leader Pol Pot, out of direct power. However, he was part of the Khmer Rouge, and the Cambodian people haven’t been able to run a fair election to take him out of power since. Our tour guide explained that in 2013, he actually lost the election, but military powers began taking people from the capital city, then never returned, and within 10 days he was re-elected. He’s directly theatened to close boarders and begin ‘clearing out the rats’ again if he doesn’t get re-elected in 2018! The UN need to step in an help run the next election, to protect a country that is still healing from its last wounds. My worry is that as a country, Cambodia doesn’t offer the same useful exports as others do, such as oil from Saudi Arabia, so what is the incentive for the UN to help? I’d love to believe that the West in general would see beyond personal gain to prevent another violation of human rights, but only time will tell.
In an attempt not to end on a low, the people I’ve met from Cambodia are optimistic, friendly and lovely, the country itself is beautiful and I’ve loved every moment of my two weeks here. Tomorrow I head across another boarder and into Vietnam, where the adventure continues. Until then,