Saturday, 6 August 2011

Phnom Penh to Battambang

Well it's about time I updated the blog, given that I've been in four countries in the past two weeks. After Saigon I jumped on a bus to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, which involved being dropped in another border town with no information and working through immigration through trial and error. As with all these long-distatnce bus journeys the driver stops at his favourite roadside cafe every now and again, where he undoubtedly gets commission for every weary traveller buying overpriced food, made from unknown animal.

Cambodia uses two currencies interchangably - it's own riel and the US dollar - which means that working out whether you've been short-changed is a test of mental arithmetic. Oh, and they only accept US dollars that were made after 1980, which is a little bit picky  in my opinion. It was another case of hoarding small bills and desperately trying to break the big ones the ATMs dished out. Tuk -tuk, one dollar. 25 bracelets, one dollar. Bottle of water, one dollar. Everywhere I went I was bombarded with people crowing "one dollaaaaarrr, one dollaaaaarrr".

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

I hooked up with 2 Brits, John and Craig, from the bus trip and we hit the town. Phnom Penh is small for a capital city, only two streets with any sort of action. Every bar had a pool table surrounded by girls in high heels and short dresses practicing their westerner-hunting skills. A really seedy atmosphere. We watched the Hungarian grand prix getting slowly merry on Angkor beer in the Phnom Penh Walkabout (yes, a Walkabout in Cambodia... but probably not an official one), which had the air of Gary Glitter's local. The only other people in there were middle-aged western men with their arms loosely around disinterested, young Cambodian girls. I got accosted on each trip to the loos - doing a Tycho Brahe would have been a less depressing alternative.

Victims of the regime
The following day we took a trip to the Killing Fields and the infamous S-21 prison [please Cambodia, build a funfair or something!]. When Pol Pot's security forces took over the local high school in 1975, they renamed it to Security Prison S21 and turned the classrooms into torture chambers. Around 17,000 people - soldiers, monks, academics, informants, and anyone the Khmer Rouge suspected to be opponents of the regime - were imprisoned here in the four years it was operational. Only 7 made it out alive. Like the Nazis, the regime were meticulous in their records of prisoners and their torture. Despite all this evidence the regime leaders still claim they had no knowledge of S21 and tragically their trials are ongoing, some 35 years after they were removed from power, which only delays the resolution this country desperately needs.

Memorial Stupa, Killing Fields
Most of these prisoners were executed at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, often in the most brutal of ways. Victims were bludgeoned to death to save ammunition, babies were swung against treetrunks until their skulls smashed open, then bodies were dumped in mass graves. The memorial stupa on the site houses around 8,000 skulls, bones and clothing found during the excavations. In the wet season the rains stir up the ground, exposing teeth and clothing and sure enough we found some as we walked through. A constant reminder of the brutality that unfolded here.

John and I went to Battambang the next day, Cambodia's second city in the northwest of the country, but nothing more than a high street. We took a daytrip into the countryside to visit Phnom Banan temple, the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau (not sure how many more 'Killing' places I can take) and did a Cambodian wine tasting session, throughout which the vineyard worker was preoccupied with poking a toad up the arse with a twig. Lesson of the day: Cambodian brandy is not special.

Killing Cave of Phnom Sampeau
Phnom Banan temple
So far, Cambodia is up there with my favourite countries. Incredibly humble and friendly people, fantastic food and terrific scenery. Despite all the depressing tourist sights I had a great time, and with the Angkor temples still to come, it just gets better (Angkor in the next blog...).

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