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Cambodian Tales

From Phnom Penh to Kampot, on to the beach at Sihanoukville and back to Phnom Penh.

Before leaving Phnom Penh I had a good walk around the surprisingly small capital city. I checked out Wat Phnom - the wat on the hill - which was well populated with monkeys, and managed to avoid getting scammed by a guard for a dollar, by insisting that I have a receipt as a souvenir. From there, I walked along the riverbank, watching the scenes from everyday life, and giggling at monks on motorbikes; I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing saffron-robed monks sitting side-saddle on the back of bikes. I also had a wander around the National Museum, where many of the statues from the temples at Angkor are now housed. They had some nice stuff, but the rules banning photography left me feeling somewhat impotent, so I didn't spend too long there.

I decided to leave on Tuesday 7th, and the night before I tucked in to a delicious veggie fried rice, before settling down to watch The Killing Fields at the guesthouse where I was staying (it was the second time they'd shown it that day - it has to be the most watched film by foreigners in Cambodia). Towards the end of the film I began to feel quite nauseous, and wondered if maybe it was the content matter that was making me feel ill (although as a horror film aficionado, I felt this was unlikely). I felt worse and worse, until I had to rush to my room for a chunder - although, to my credit, I did manage to return and watch the end of the film before having to dash off again. I've never had food poisoning before, and I think I was smugly convinced that I was immune; that night I discovered that I was not. I spent the best part of the next three hours with my head in the toilet bowl (which had not been cleaned very well, alas), but thankfully I shrugged it off pretty quickly, and managed to sleep after that. I did wonder whether the Monday vom would become a regular event, as it was the previous week that I'd had my migraine.

I decided it would be best to spend the next day in Phnom Penh, just to make sure I had seen the back of it, rather than travel that day, and spent a good deal of time on the Internet. The following day I travelled south to Kampot. I could have taken an air-con bus for a few dollars, but I was already fed up with those, and decided I wanted to go by pickup. I managed to convince a moto-dop (motorbike-taxi driver) that this really was my chosen mode of transport, and he delivered me to the market from where they leave. I was disappointed to discover that the 'pickups' that ply this route are in actual fact minibuses, but with hindsight that was probably for the best. I chose a reliable-looking driver, and plonked myself in his minibus, where a few others already waited. I could have chosen one that was just about to set off, as several are filled simultaneously, but I wanted to ensure that I had a window seat, and that there was sufficient room in the back for my pack, which was safely secured with string, once the driver had checked that there was room to shut the back door.

We waited around an hour for enough people to chose to travel with us (seventeen people, not including the driver, as we set off - nowhere near as many as the Kenyans cram into their matatus), while children selling water and men selling big bags of baguettes thrust their wares at us through the open windows. Vehicles came and went, and touts enthusiastically seized people's arms as they entered the muddy area, coaxing them into their minibuses. At last we were full enough to set off, and the driver paid off the touts and policemen that had eased his way, before pulling out onto the open road, beeping as he went. The most important rule of the road here is to use your horn; it can signify anything from "I'm pulling out/overtaking" to "don't pull out in front of me", or it can simply mean "I've got a big horn, and I know how to use it". Cross-roads astound me - no one has the right of way, everyone just slows down, beeps, and carries on . . . and somehow it works; they pass around each other like woven threads. It amazes me that there are not more accidents here, but as somebody pointed out to me, that is precisely because no one has the right of way, they all drive cautiously - at home, we drive more aggressively, because we know we have the right of way. That, and the fact that the state of the roads prohibit driving fast - god help them if they get their roads sorted out!

After three hours we arrived in Kampot, and I asked a motodop to take me to Blissful Guesthouse - I'd read nice things about it online, and thought I'd see what it was like. I was welcomed by Angela, the Danish owner, and shown to a nice double room for $4 dollars; I could have had one without a window for $3, but I think my tastes are getting more expensive. I took a shower, dressed, and checked the place out. Upstairs was a large communal area, complete with comfortable chairs and a TV; surrounding the whole building was a balcony, with hammocks scattered liberally around. I felt immediately comfortable there. I went downstairs to the bar area and ordered some lunch, asking about a trip to Bokor, an abandoned hill station not far from the town. This being the slow season, I was expecting to have to hang around for a few days until there were sufficient numbers, but I was pleased to find out a trip would be going the following day, so put my name down.

At eight thirty the next morning a pickup arrived to take everyone to Bokor. There were seven of us in all, plus our guide. I somehow managed to wangle a seat inside the pickup; the less fortunate huddled under a tarpaulin in the back, trying to keep out of the rain. Bokor was built by the French in the 1920s as an escape from the hot, humid temperatures at sea level; at an elevation of just over 1000 metres, the air is much cooler there. It took us a couple of hours to reach the top, on roads that had definitely seen better days. The rain had almost stopped by the time we got to the first of the abandoned buildings, the Black Palace. We jumped out and explored the building, covered now in strange orange moss, into which graffiti has been scratched. As the clouds cleared, the coast appeared way down below, and a view out to sea to an island that was "stolen by the Vietnamese" (there appears to be no love lost between Cambodia and Vietnam . . . nor between Cambodia and Thailand, for that matter).

The rain had almost stopped by the time we reached a waterfall, but we appeared to be firmly stuck in the clouds. After admiring the waterfall from above, I decided against hopping from rock to rock and descending to the bottom on two accounts: firstly I did not want to risk getting my camera wet, and secondly it did not take much imagination to see that there was a fair chance of me coming a cropper - it's been a long time since I last did my ankle in, and I don't want to start that game again! An English couple staying at Blissful also opted out, and we had to have a chuckle as the rest reappeared sometime later, drenched from head to toe. We had lunch there before continuing to visit the rest of the abandoned buildings, including hotels and churches that were the scene of fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces. The place was very atmospheric, and with the limited visibility due to the mist, I felt on more than one occasion as if I were on a dive of a shipwreck.

When it was time to descend, we bumped our way back down, and on to the river. I was sitting in the back by now, which has made me realise that there is no glamour in riding in the back of a pickup! It will not be my first choice of transport next time I have to get from A to B. Bumps aside, it was an enjoyable ride through jungle scenery, surrounded by a plethora of butterflies, and the calls of exotic birds. I later learnt from one of the passengers riding in the cab that the brakes had gone on the vehicle - that he got us down the mountain in one piece says a hell of a lot for the driver's abilities - and I'm very glad that I hadn't been aware of that fact as I bounced around in the back.

At the river we left the pickup and climbed into a boat. Unlike the boats in the Philippines, those here do not have bamboo stabilisers, which means that they rock and roll quite violently if anyone moves about. We puttered along the river, past a crowd of small, naked boys shouting "hello", and jumping into the water, and others fishing from small boats, or washing at the edge of the river. Thanks to a heavy cloud cover, our sunset cruise was minus a sunset, although it was still enjoyable, and made a pleasant end to a good day out.

As I'd expected to have to hang around Kampot for a few days, I decided I would do anyway, and walked into the small town the next day. Kampot may possibly be the friendliest place I've been to; by now I'd become used to Cambodian smiles, but here everyone seemed to be smiling, and I don't think a single kid passed me by without waving and shouting "hello". In the evening, as I sat by the river watching the sun prepare to set, two boys came and asked me if they could practise their English (which was very good). After my experiences in certain countries (mentioning no names, Ethiopia), I was expecting this to lead to somewhere, and for them to ask for cash at the end of it all, but no. While this country does have its fair share of beggars, they are the exception rather than the rule.

There is something here, however, that reminds me of Ethiopia, although I cannot put my finger on what that is; it's not the landscape, or the people. It maybe a note in the music, or possibly a similarity between Cambodian script and Amharic; certainly I feel the similarity most when I look upon the hand-painted signs. There's definitely something.

When I wasn't wandering around the sleepy town, I was enjoying the hospitality of Blissful Guesthouse, and becoming friends with Angela, Jerome (a nice Frenchman!), Elvis - one of the Cambodian workers there - and his young son David, who was really the big boss of the place. The night before I left I stayed up too late, and drank too many beers, hence I was awoken at nine - the time I had arranged to leave in a shared taxi for Sihanoukville. I had my first Cambodian hangover, and cradled my head during the two-hour journey to the coast.

My first stop was at Bungalow Village, situated on what is commonly known as Weather Station Hill, and is the town's "backpacker ghetto", albeit on a small scale. I spent the rest of the day collapsed upon my bed in the wooden bungalow, getting over the excesses of the night before. As it was a Monday, I was fully expecting to have to chuck up at some stage, but I seem to have broken that little run of luck. It was a sunny day, and would have been perfect for sunbathing, but alas it was too much for me. Typically I awoke to the sound of rain the next morning. It cleared up some time later and I went for a walk, visiting a nearby hotel named Snake House, which boasts a large collection of snakes (never!). Being a bit of a fan of reptiles, I enjoyed my visit immensely, although I left with a healthy respect for the region's wildlife.

I made it to Victory Beach the next day, which was overcast, and stupidly sunbathed unprotected for a few hours, despite the sun putting in an appearance. I left when my knees - of all things - began to turn pink, and by the end of the day I was crimson all over, with sections tending towards burgandy. Silly girl. Sihanoukville is a new town, built in the late 50s. There is the downtown area, a port, and seven or so beaches; it's quite spread out. I decided to make the move to a different beach, choosing Ochuteal Beach, at the end that is commonly called Serendipity Beach. I stayed at Coasters in a $10 room - there goes the budget! The beach is a beautiful long strip of whitish sand, with rocks at either end. The following morning I walked its length, which took me nearly an hour.

Along the middle of the beach were numerous basic shelters, each advertising food, happy hours, and - many of them - free accommodation; two things sprang to my mind: there's no such thing as a free lunch, and you get what you pay for. I don't quite know what the score was here. A few years ago I'm sure it would have attracted me - indeed if I had not read so much about this place, it may still have - there has been a fair amount of crime in the area, much of it thefts of belongings that people had left unattended on remote stretches of beach; some worse. A little over a year ago a Canadian tourist was raped at gunpoint by a military policeman based in the area, after walking a short way from the beach to her accommodation. On embassy advice, she did not report the crime to the police, although the brave girl did alert fellow travellers to her ordeal, and was later instrumental in bringing the rapist to justice.

So although the chances are that I'd be fine, I was happy with my (relatively) expensive concrete room; but I am reminded of Christmas 1998, which I spent on a beautiful beach on Ko Lanta, Thailand. I stayed in a rattan room on the beach that didn't even have a bed, and cost 40 baht - but I was sharing it, so I was paying only 30p a night. How I looked down my nose at the tourists staying in their concrete cubes in the middle of the beach. I'd stroll smugly past the un-atmospheric clusters of rooms as I took my midnight stroll, before plonking myself down in a deserted strip of sand and gazing at the stars. How times change.

An advantage of where I'm staying is the comfy loungers arranged on the sand. Regular visitors are the numerous ladies offering massages and manicures, and trying to persuade me to let them remove the hairs on my legs with bits of string - I'm not sure how that works, but I'm pretty sure pain would be involved somewhere along the line, so I wasn't having any of it. Little kids selling bracelets, sarongs and the like ply their trade as well. The new, child-friendly Serena has managed to cope admirably with them, and will laugh and joke . . . and buy things she doesn't need. Most of them go to English lessons in the evening ($5 for a month's worth of hour-long weeknight lessons), but not many seem to go to regular school, despite it being free - they're more valuable as breadwinners, I guess. One little boy told me that, because his parents are both Vietnamese, he would have to pay to attend school, money that his family do not have; he wants to grow up to be a teacher.

The time came to leave the beach behind, and I returned to the capital on one of those awful air-conditioned buses. I decided to take things easy and caught a lunch-time bus, arriving into Phnom Penh at half-past four. There were a few more people on board than seats, so the extras sat in the aisle on small, plastic chairs. At one point the driver braked quite sharply, and the leg on one of the chairs snapped off, which caused some amusement. The conductor gave the man a box to the man to sit on, opened the door of the bus, and hurled the broken chair from it.

I am staying at the naffly named Top Banana guesthouse, whose motto is "you'll never walk alone". The owner recently arranged for some T-shirts to be printed up, but unfortunately he failed to double check before they were printed, and they came back with the legend: "you'll never walk again" - a little close to the mark in a country that still has landmines dotted around!

So where do I go from here, I hear you ask. Vietnam is the answer, via the Mekong Delta - my third country in under a month. So until next time, adieu!


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