Coming soon! Soonish, anway.
Phnom Penh. I have spent the better part of a week in Cambodia's capital, which is probably more time than it needs on my schedule, but I have been enjoying the conveniences of a big city. Although Phnom Penh is one of the least developed capitals I have been to, it does have a few things going for it. I had little idea of what to expect before I arrived, as the population is so much larger than any other city in Cambodia, but it was not so much of a shock. Like all the other cities in the region, the primary form of transport is the 110cc scooter. Unlike home, where the police would be very strict on unsafe loads and the quality of the vehicle, here you often find a family of two adults and two children on the back of a scooter, or perhaps an adult and a couple of dead pigs strapped into wooden crates, or perhaps it will be piled high with bags containing rice, or for that matter almost anything. In Asia the scooter is a remarkably versatile vehicle, suitable for almost all terrains and loads, which is both private and public transport.
Ah yes, public transport. The "moto" drivers in Phnom Penh are almost as persistent as their counterparts in Siem Reap (although marginally less offensive), particularly where I was staying around the Boeng Kak Lake area, and along Sisowath Quay. Depending on how awake or tired I was, I either politely declined the offers of a moto, or just continued walking, ignoring the drivers. This may not have been the most poite solution, but when a moto or cyclo driver is offering his services every handful of footsteps, constantly having to turn them down can get tiring. Most of my time in the city was spent either on a bicycle, or on foot. Motos were reserved for getting into town in the evening, and back again afterwards, or which I was willing to pay no more than 2,000 riel in daylight or 3,000 riel in the dark. Even this was probably more than they charge a local, or a tourist with better bargaining skills, but at least I had some satisfaction in getting them down from the uniform starting price of US$1 (4,000 riel). Well, almost uniform. One cheeky swine asked for US$2 initially, but even though this was in the wee small hours after the Wales v Scotland match he was willing to settle for the usual price in the end, itself perhaps indicative of what I was paying.
As you might imagine with all this traffic, though I may have drifted off the point some time ago, crossing the road becomes something of an art. If you followed the "Green Cross Code," you'd be forever stuck on one side, wondering if the grass really is greener. Or at least if the pavement (sidewalk for our American chums) is more even. Instead, it is more comparable to a game of "frogger." If there's a small gap in the stream of scooters, dirt bikes and four-wheel drives on the side of the road nearest you, you gently edge out and walk slowly across from gap to gap. As you progress, bikes start to weave behind you, opening more gaps in front for you to edge nearer to the other side, but it can be a nerve-wracking experience the first couple of times. Horns are used simply as a reminder of the presence of a vehicle, so unlike the UK where they are often the cause of road rage, here it is simply another way of using the senses to judge the flow of traffic.
Sisowath Quay is Phnom Penh's riverfront road, and home to one of its most famous restaurant bars, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia. You do not have to hold press accreditation to eat and drink here, but sitting there on the first floor (in the British sense, the second floor for any Americans reading this), watching street life from the balcony above, and thinking about what to write for this web page and the staff newsletter, it was all too easy to imagine myself fitting into that sort of life. Prior to leaving the UK I had read the autobioraphies of John Simpson, one of the BBC's chief foreign and war correspondents, and good reading it was too. Life now is probably much easier in many aspects than it was when he started, but the new demands of 24 hour news channels and constant access to two-way satellite communications meaning you have to be available for reports and interviews at all hours, it may also be more demanding in many aspects. If I had the choice of career change, I would certainly consider journalism very seriously, although my writing would have to improve considerably beforehand.
As it is, however, I will be going back to my old job at ULCC. A job that I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I enjoy and look forward to the prospect of returning to it. Given all that has happened over the past year, I would have few qualms about resigning from a job that was not satisfying and travelling for a bit more time, but that is not the case, and so I have to start making preparations for returning to the UK. The ticket I flew out on was one-way, so I have not had a firm return date. One of the reasons for that is I did not know exactly where I would be returning from, but as the time approaches, that is starting to crystallize, so I went into a couple of travel agencies to price up the tickets that would take me first of all from Hanoi to Kota Kinabalu to do another brief stint for Trekforce, and then from Kota Kinabalu back to London. I had some difficulty in explaining my wishes to some of the agents, and the prices they were quoting my were all approaching US$3,000. I'd done a little bit of research on the internet, and whilst Expedia could only offer me a ticket of about the same price (£2,000), Travelocity found a combination for £700, so that was the target I was aiming to beat. Eventually one agent informed me that the ticket would be cheaper if I bought it in the same country that I was starting the journey in, so I postponed the buying until I reached Vietnam.
Something that Phnom Penh does quite well is bookshops. I don't mean the huge branches of Waterstone that you would find in the UK, Barnes & Noble from the US, or Borders in either of them (although there is a far more modest equivalent called "Monument Books"), but a couple of small shops specialising in second-hand books of the sort you might find on Charing Cross Road in London. The two I visited were "Fantastic Planet" and "London Books." The latter of those is the more traditional of the two, owned by a friendly guy, and where I sold a collection of books I had been building over the past couple of months. The books, including the British edition of "Dude, Where's My Country" by Michael Moore, which I'd been carrying around since Malaysia, netted me a total of US$12, US$4 of which went on getting another book to satisfy my reading appetite for a while.
The other second-hand bookshop, "Fantastic Planet," is slightly different. It stocks an extensive range of comic books, a few novels, and then a range of books that might be considered a bit more esoteric. From the philosophical side of science-fiction and through straight philosophy and religion. If you buy a coffee, then you are welcome to sit in the big, black comortable sofas and chairs for as long as you want, reading the books and deciding which ones to buy. It was here that I had been hoping to swap two of the books I had as they appeared to fit the stock more closely, and might be appreciated more, but the owner was not buying books at the time. One of them was "Touching the Void" by Joe Simpson, and by some coincidence there was an interview with him on "Hardtalk" on BBC World during the time I was in Phnom Penh. Alas there was no television in my room, and so I missed the programme. Joe was a mountain climber that set off with a climbing partner to summit a remote Andean peak. They just about managed to do this successfully, but on the descent Joe fell, breaking one leg. The two carried on for some time, trying hard to get Joe back, but eventually Joe fell again, this time into a crevasse, and his climbing partner had no option but to leave what he assumed to be Joe's body in the bottom for the crevasse and head back to base camp. A few days later, in the late evening, Joe crawls back into camp, still alive, but delerious from dehydration and the immense effort of what he had been through over the past few days.
In addition to the city life, Phnom Penh has a few things to see, such as the National Museum, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The National Museum's main collection of artefacts relates to temples from the Angkor period. Amongst the many stone lintels and statues are collections of metal relics. I didn't recall seeing anything of the sort at Angkor itself, so it was a vivid reminder that in their heyday the temples were more than just stone, they would have had polished bronze sculptures, wood, and brightly coloured cloth adding even more to their already impressive structures. Near to the museum is the compound containing the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. There are a limited number of buildings open to the public, but the throne hall is impressive, and the well-manicured gardens look almost European. The Silver Pagoda is so called due to the 5,000 silver tiles that cover the floor. To protect them from damage, most are covered by carpet, but the building also contains a six-foot Buddha image made from solid gold. The terrace around the ground containing the pagoda is painted with depictions of scenes from the Ramayana.
Another museum in the centre of Phnom Penh is Tuol Sleng. This is a former school that during the time of the Khmer Rouge became a prison and interrogation centre. When you first enter the grounds, it looks much like any school in the area, but when you look closer the differences start to appear. A tour around the school grounds brings you to spartan rooms with leg shackles still on the iron beds; hundred of pictures of inmates that were taken shortly after arrest, some of them showing signs of a struggle; wooden cells; brick cells; barbed wire; a grave for the bodies that were found still tied to the beds when the Khmer Rouge were ousted. In one building is a series of photographs showing how quickly the jungle reclaimed Phnom Penh when the inhabitants were moved to the countryside. Upstairs is another photographic exhibit, this time mainly of people that worked in Tuol Sleng, as they were then, and as they are now. The exhibit is accompanied by a guestbook with countless comments along the lines of "we must never allow this to happen again." Unfortunately it is too late for that. It has happened again, and it continues to happen again. Repeatedly. Think Rwanda. Think Bosnia. Of course that does not mean that we should not try, but where to start?
A further reminder of the times of the Khmer Rouge exists at Choeung Ek, just one of the many "Killing Fields." The bodies of almost 9,000 people have been discovered here. Just as many again are thought to still lie in the mass graves that have not yet been touched. Some of them were people whose only crime was to wear a pair of glasses. Inside the tall, white stupa are the skulls of those exhumed so far, arranged according to gender and age. On the surrounding ground are shreds of half-buried fabric and piles of bones. Estimates of the number of people that died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge range from one to three million, with current estimates tending towards the higher end of that range.
One of the standard tourist itineraries in Phnom Penh, and one that I am not proud to admit that I followed, includes visiting a shooting range for the opportunity to fire a gun. It took me some time to decide whether or not I should do it, never having fired a weapon before, but I was curious, and that curiosity took the better of me. I paid US$20 for a magazine of 30 rounds in an AK-47, and US$13 for a clip of seven bullets in a Colt .45. The AK-47 was fired at a paper target, and 25 of the rounds hit it. The Colt was aimed at a metal silhouette, similar to a fairground attraction, but I only managed four rounds on target there. I should explain that my doubts were mainly due to context. I believe that human nature means that weapons are inevitable, and if that is so, then their controlled use and possession is inevitable. Unfortunately, that also means that their uncontrolled posession and use is inevitable and we have to rely on law enforcement to minimise that. My main concerns were with the way the shooting ranges are presented in Phnom Penh. A trip that includes visits to Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek, and then the opportunity to fire off an AK-47 yourself (or, if you so desire, a grenade or rocket launcher), seems to be catering for some disturbing desires, but you do not want to hear me psychoanalysing myself.
Another early start, this time for the bus to Phnom Penh. I was taken from the hotel to the bus station at 6:30, and the bus left at 7:10am. For most of the 5.5 hour journey there were two Khmers and myself on the double seat. How they manage to overbook a bus when the ticket has assigned seat numbers is beyond me, but I've had worse journeys. I'd already decided that I wanted to check out a particular guesthouse in Phnom Penh, so despite the urgings of the moto driver that I should try somewhere he wanted me to go, I headed to the place I originally planned to, and after checking out the rooms, which were pretty clean, I checked in. The area the guesthouse is located in is the "backpacker ghetto" of Phnom Penh. Much like Bangkok's Thanon Khao San, the roads around Boeng Kak Lake contain a selection of guesthouses, restaurants, and as many foreigners as there are locals. However, it is easy to get to, the accomodation is cheap, and after all you do not have to spend all day in the area.
Today's other notable event was the start of the Six Nations. Although the match did not strt until midnight local time, I found somewhere that was showing it, and stayed up with a collection of other Wales and Scotland fans. Wales eventually triumphed 23-10, but their first half performance was much stronger than the second half, something that happened all the way through the World Cup, and no doubt something that the other teams in this championship will have noticed.
Oh yeah, I didn't receive any cards.
My original plan to leave Battambang involved waiting around for a couple of days to see when the train was going to depart, then catching it all the way to Phnom Penh. On the boat I was already starting to waver when others were suggesting that it was easier to get the train half-way, then get a truck to the capital, after all, there's only so much patience you can have with a train that averages in the low tens of kilometres per hour, and having already done the "jungle railway" across mainland Malaysia, I wasn't sure if it was going to be worth it. When I found out that the train probably wouldn't leave for another few days, my mind was made up and I decided to catch the bus to PP. Not today, though.
Instead, after a while wandering around the town, which has built Cambodia up in my opinion after the cesspit of Siem Reap, I found a coffee shop run by westerners, went in there, and read whilst drnking a large mug of coffee and eating a slice of apple pie and a chocolate brownie.
It was an early start this morning for the ferry to Battambang. The minibus picked me up from the hostel just before 6am, and we then picked up a few more people before heading to the ferry landing, a little way out of town. On the ferry with me was a couple, one Irish and one Welsh. It isn't often you meet other Welsh people travelling, so we started talking about the upcoming start to the Six Nations Championship, and the usual chit-chat. During the journey there was a selection of scenery, from the floating villages of the Tonle Sap, through to the narrow channels that heralded our approach to Battambang and took up most of the journey time. During the rainy season the trip can be completed by a good boat in about four hours, but it took a good eight hours for us to make it to the end at this time of year, with the river low, but still several months to go until the rainy season.
The hotel was reasonably well equipped, with a good selection of satellite channels. Forgoing the usual choice of CNN or BBC World, I selected Deutsche World TV, which boradcasts in English as well as German, and watched a programme on European integration ahead of the inclusion of ten more countries on May 1st. It reminded me how much there is still to see within Europe, and has also spurred me to do something I have been planning to do on my return to the UK, study another European language -- probably Spanish.
A portion of each of the next six days was spent at the temples of Angkor. By the second day I was already feeling a little bit of temple burn-out, exacerbated by the fact that I had little information on the context of the temples -- how they related to each other, and to the environment in which they were built. With this in mind I bought a copy of "Angkor" by Dawn Rooney, which explains in various amounts of detail the layout of each temple, the decorations, and some degree of history and the religions which formed them. This helped my understanding significantly, and it was this that enabled me to find something to visit in each of the days of my Angkor pass.
On Friday and Sunday I used Ho, the moto driver, whilst on the other days I hired a bicycle to get there myself. Some of the temples, such as Banteay Srei and the Ruolos group, are sufficiently far away, and in some cases over road dusty enough, that cycling would have been impractical, and used time which could have been spent in the remains. There are many temples that have their own defining characteristics, apart from the most famous remains at Angkor Wat and Bayon. Ta Phrom is a symphony of stone and trees; whereas once the trees relied on the stone to hold moisture and nourish them, now the stones rely on the trees to keep them together -- without them it would be no more than a heap of ancient rubble. Banteay Srei has intricate carvings in pink sandstone depicting scenes from the Ramayana, and is of a scale dwarfed by many of the main temples. Banteay Samre was restored some time back, but the restoration is now starting to age and adding its own character.
One of the themes of my week at Angkor was the search for the five-headed horse. I had read that there was a statue of a horse with five heads at the northern end of the Terrace of Elephants. However, I hadn't found it on my first visit there, and nor had I seen it when passing the terrace on other occasions. On the penultimate day of my visit I walked up and down the terrace, on the road and on top of the stones, but still the mythical beast was nowhere to be seen. Finally, on the last day of my pass, I tried again. This time I found it -- it was on an inner wall that had been surrounded by another wall. Whilst there are steps down to the gap between the two walls, I had thought I could see everything from the top. As one of my employers used to say; rule 1: Never assume.
Towards the end of y stay I bumped into Stijn, whom I'd spent a few days travelling with in the north of Laos. On my last evening in Siem Reap I went to dinner with him an a few others, mainly from the Netherlands, and as all backpackers do, started talking about where we'd all been. One of the couples had been in Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp in Sabah, just a couple of weeks before I was there last September. They'd also enjoyed it, but hadn't been fortunate enough to see the elephants.
As I'd expected, the moto driver that had brought me to the guesthouse from the transport stop yesterday was waiting outside the guesthouse this morning hoping that I would hire him for the day to go around Angkor. As he was friendly enough, and charging the going rate, I did. First stop was the ticket booth. I wanted a seven-day pass, although for some reason my moto driver was suggesting I only get a three-day pass. I stuck to my guns and handed over the money, which was a considerable amount and went to get my photograph taken for the pass. The guy taking the photos was probably the friendliest, most genuine person I have met in Cambodia so far, and we talked for a few minutes about last year's riots and the history of the Khmer empire whilst waiting for the photo to dry and the pass to be prepared.
First temple on the list was Bayon, in the centre of Angkor Thom. As I approached I recognised a few familiar faces. Dom, Grant and Alessandro had had a couple of days in Phnom Penh and reached Angkor the same day I had. Sure I'd see them again, we just said hello and wandered off separately to explore the temple. Bayon has 54 towers, and each of the towers has a face carved onto each of the four sides. It is a very atmospheric temple, and despite the inevitable decay of a building 800 years old, it does not take much to start to imagine in part what it might have looked like when it was first built. It is impressive enough even now that there is nothing but crumbling stone left.
After a few, smaller, temples, I rounded off the day at Angkor Wat. I don't know what to say about the site. Everybody has seen photographs of it, but they cannot convey the feelings you get when approaching the causeway that people have trod for the better part of a millenium. Like many of the other temples, the structure was entirely made from stone, so whereas the wooden floors of other buildings of a similar age elsewhere in the world will have rotted away many moons ago, at Angkor Wat you can still climb to the highest points of the centre of the temple, even if the stone steps are narrow and precarious. From the top, you can see all around the temple, whose outer wall is 5.5km long, and is in turn surrounded by a 200m wide moat.
Last night I had found a happy medium between hiring a taxi outright and cramming into a car with eight others. Buses pass through Kompong Thom, but I had been led to believe that I could not catch one without having bought a ticket in advance, so I had to get a taxi of some description. After a bit of discussion, I arranged to pay $5 for the front seat of a share-taxi going to Siem Reap, to myself. It would normally have held two locals, and whilst $5 is still more in itself than the bus fare all the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, it was far more reasonable than the money I paid out yesterday. I'd arranged to leave at 8am, so checked out at 7:50, but prepared myself for a lengthy wait based on travel experiences in other parts of Asia. However, we were on the road by 8:10, and arrived on the outskirts of Siem Reap not long after 11.
I caught a moto into the centre of town and had a look at a couple of guest houses before settling into the "Orchidae". With the benefit of hindsight, there were other places that were both cheaper and better, but it had no major flaws, and the staff were friendly without being pushy. Siem Reap appears to be a town with one main purpose -- to service tourists visiting the ruins at Angkor. It has little charm of its own, but a wide variety of accomodation ranging from $3 guesthouses to $1,200 suites in plush hotels. I don't need to tell you which end of the scale I was nearer. When I saw a restaurant called "Soup Dragon", I had to stop there for lunch.
Feeling a little groggy, I woke up much later than I should have to catch a bus to the next port of call, Kompong Thom. If I left, two options were presented to me; the first was to catch a share taxi, which would be relatively cheap, but there would be eight people in a saloon car, which is not a comfortable number when one of them is a six-foot westerner. The second was to hire a car outright for the journey. I chose the latter and got overcharged horribly. I ended up paying $25, when it should have been substantially less, but I didn't know it at the time, and neither did I feel like hanging around as my time in Cambodia is shorter than in any of the other countries I am visiting.
On the way we visited a hill that was surmounted by a Buddhist temple. As all of the surrounding land is flat, the views from the top of the hill were, well, lets just say "panoramic"! I was also looking on Kompong Thom as just an overnight stop, so I didn't venture out of the town much, even missing the remains of the pre-Angkor temples at Sambor Prei Kuk.
The ferry I was catching today did not leave until 11am. That didn't leave much time to do anything substantial, so I turned the TV on to provide some background. As it turned out, the Superbowl was just starting in the US, so I left it on. I am not a big Americal Football fan, but I can cope with the odd game and understand some of the rules, so I ended up watching most of the game, and the half-time show which seemed to include Janet Jackson showing a Gazza-style false breast (editor's note: little did I know at the time).
Breakfast was something I had been wanting for some time, but had found precious few opportunities to indulge myself, a bacon and egg sandwich. The bacon could have been crispier, and a touch of HP Sauce would have topped it off a treat, but it was still pretty tasty. I enjoy Asian food, but a little touch of home is nice once in a while. Soon enough it was time to head to the ferry. It was one of the Malaysian ferries that ply the rivers in Sarawak (where they are wide enough), and run to Labuan and Brunei, but unlike the ones in Malaysia, passengers were permitted to sit on the roof. In fact, traveller lore is that it is safer to sit on the roof, as if there's an accident there are few emergency exits for the couple of hundred people inside. So, armed with a cap and some strong sun-cream I climbed on the roof for the three hour journey down the Mekong to Kompong Cham.
On arrival, the boat was met with lots of touts, some offering hotels, others buses to Phnom Penh. I'd already decided I wanted to stay in the Mekong hotel, which had been suggested by someone I met in Kratie, so struck off through the swirling cloud of touts and up the bank to the road. The walk in the afternoon sun with my (still rather heavy) rucksack was a little longer than I had expected, so I was a tad warm when I arrived in the hotel, but I resisted the temptation of an air-conditioned room, and stuck with a fan-cooled room instead. There isn't much to say about Kompong Cham, it is a nice little town, but that is all it is, and as I was only spending one night there, I did not invest too much effort in finding out all of its secrets!
I was planning on staying Kratie for another day, but Dom, Grant and Alessandro, with whom I'd travelled down from the Laos border, were off to Phnom Penh. They had booked a minibus last night, which duly arrived on-time at 8am this morning. However, there appeared to be a distinct lack of spare seats on the bus, so a bit of discussion followed and they decided to try and get on another bus. However, the other bus didn't turn up, so they eventually caught the 11am boat to Kompong Cham, from where they could get a bus to Phnom Penh.
As for myself, I wandered around the town for a little while, bought a copy of the "Cambodia Daily", a treat after a month in virtually newpaper-free Laos, and sat down for what turned out to be a rather disappointing coffee in a restaurant next to the Mekong. Eventually I headed back to the hotel and turned on the TV. Just starting on "HBO" was "The Lost Boys", a bit of an 80s throwback, but the theme song fitted in quite well when you're being stared at on foreign streets all day ("People are strange, when you're a stranger...").
Despite the less than inspiring coffee earlier, I went back to the same restaurant later for dinner and it more than made up for itself with a delicious slice of chocolate cake!
January, 2004. December, 2003. November, 2003. September/October, 2003.