Our last night in Vietnam was spent in Chau Doc.. a rundown, dirty little border town. Like us, most people are here overnight to catch the boat to Cambodia so hotels are dingy, restaurants mediocre and the staff quick to move you on. We were back on a boat early the next morning and after 7 hours motoring along the Mekong Delta in the intense heat, we finally came to the Vietnam/Cambodia immigration border check. We had spent the last few days in relatively narrow waterways, but here the mighty Mekong River grew wide and deep. This was definitely one of the more informal entries into any country that we have experienced. While waiting for our papers to be processed, four of us played a game of Feather Shuttle (Asian Hacky-Sack) in front, behind and over top of the empty security counter. It might be different coming into Vietnam but leaving it and entering into Cambodia is a pretty lax and an uneventful affair.
With papers in hand, we boarded the Cambodia-bound boat...an old, wooden, sea-beaten craft with an ear piercing, oil-spewing engine. A numbing 4 hours later, we pulled up to a rickety dock and tight-walked our way across the bank to have our passports stamped....Welcome to Cambodia!! Back on to the boat for another hour to the next "docking", which meant pulling into the weeds and long grass along the river's edge and scampering up the bank. The day's journey was not over yet... eight of us, along with our packs crammed into a 6-seater minivan, made the long, dusty trip into Phenom Penh. The driver who appeared to be about 14 years old conveniently dropped us off at his Uncle's guesthouse...same, same...but different!
Cambodia, unlike Vietnam, has not enjoyed similar economic growth and relative prosperity. People here, especially in Phenom Penh, appear desperate for business. There are so many competing for the same tourist dollar. A dozen tuk tuk drivers would be camped outside our hotel entrance and try their darnedest to make eye contact with us while we were eating breakfast. The second we stepped outside, there would be a mad rush to get our business. This happened everyday and we felt so bad having to choose just one from the desperate drivers while the other faces morph into disappointment. There seemed to be far more beggars who were more in your face and demanding then we experienced elsewhere. The law of supply and demand, I suppose, works in all forms of economic trade..including that of street beggars.
The current Cambodia has been shaped and molded in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide. A visit to The Killing Fields, is a stark, harsh reality of some of the sick shit we humans are capable of doing. Pol Pot, one of the more darker personalities in history, attempted to "cleanse" the country in the late 70's, resulting in the death of an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people. There is little to see here but gaping pits in the ground and a glass-fronted tower that holds some of the 8,000 skulls of people who were slaughtered here. A trip down atrocity road would not be complete without visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S-21, a former grade school turned interrogation/torture centre which was no less disturbing. Powerful in its simplicity, invoking a solemn silence, the bare and stark former classrooms, where 1000's of Cambodians were chained to old steel beds and tortured into giving false confessions before being taken to the Killing Fields. Their only crime was being educated, literate or simply wearing reading glasses... a threatening symbol of the learned.
Good old Pol Pot died in 1998 while held under house arrest in Thailand without being tried for his crimes. Since his death, rumours that he was poisoned or committed suicide have persisted.
And, in the spirit of "never let a little genocide ruin a good capitalist venture", Cambodia leased the Cheung Ek killing field to a Japanese company. Commercializing memories is not entirely appreciated by the people of Cambodia or the survivors of this despicable time in their history.
Looking for the little lighter side of Cambodia we hopped on a bus to Siem Reap. This 7 hour milk run, stopped to pick up any locals who stuck their hand up, who for a few $$ would be crowded down into the luggage level. The main door had to be secured with a rope each time, while the A/C worked feverishly to combat the 40+ degree heat.
Siem Reap’s claim to fame is its proximity to Angkor Wat – the main temple complex about 7km away from town. Siem Reap is dominated by tourism and heavily markets the amazing Angkor Wat and surrounding temples.
We knew Angkor was huge...but wow. There is no way anyone can see everything in three days and we didn't even get close. Even though we didn't see all the temples, any more than three days would have deemed us "templed-out"... which would detract from the enjoyment. This Khmer dynasty at the peak of its rule was huge...upwards of one million people lived in Angkor...when London had a population of about 50,000. Ta Prohm was probably our favourite. It is best known as the temple where trees have been left intertwined with the stonework, much as it was uncovered from the jungle. It might be considered in a state of disrepair but there is a strange beauty in the marvellous fig trees latching on...smothering the 12th century monuments. This is one of the most popular temples at Angkor Wat because of the beautiful combinations of wood and stone. It gets lots of exposure in the postcards and some may recognize a few scenes from Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movie.
Tim stayed in one night, so Carol from England and I had a great chin wag over 9 beers and two dinners....and the bill came to $10 US!!! Ahhh, good times, good memories!
Another bus journey, the Mekong Express took us back to Phenom Penh to catch a flight to Singapore. This bus came with its own attendant/stewardess who bounced to and fro down the isle. The best part was when she announced our arrival in Phenom Penh and everyone applauded. Kind of reminded you of the Jerry Seinfeld line about airlines and why DO people clap at the end of the flight...isn't that the pilot's job, and isn't the whole idea when you buy the ticket...just take me to what ever is printed on that ticket! However, we clapped too, just out of shear relief that we did not end up as road trash.
Spent a glorious 4 hours at Singapore International airport where we gorged at Burger King....mmmm...Double Whopper with cheese!
Goodbye cheap living, hello to the western and expensive world of Perth, Australia...bloody wankers!!