I remember when I was studying vexiology, the Cambodian flag struck my interest. The iconic image of Angkor Wat captured my imagination and intrigue. To be honest I never thought I’d make it to Cambodia, what with South East Asia never really fueling my desire…
But alas! From the god forsaken and miserable winter of Korea 2011, I fled to the refuge and comfort of tropical Cambodia. I did a 10 day trip through this fascinating place. What an interesting and beautiful country, however as I had feared, it has sadly become so tainted by tourism.
I flew into Siem Reap, hit by a wave of humidity (much like my native Durban) and I was ready to embrace the cheap and cheerful adventure I had set myself up for. A big plus was obtaining a 1 month VISA ON ARRIVAL at the airoporto which cost me just 20 dolla (on a South Africa p!ssport this is a rare luxury).
With a Tuk tuk and the careless wind in my hair, I set off for 3 days exploring the temple glory of Siem Reap. Alors, Siem Reap is in all honesty, a haven for temple tempted travelers. Really getting a sense of being just another knock-off backpacker on the tourist trodden path (in peak season), I walked about the streets and markets feeling pretty unoriginal. Of course Angkor Wat was très impressionnant, I saw her at sunrise with 50 million other tourists. It is most definitely a place I’d see twice or trice over, there’s far too much to
absorb in a day.
Over my three day stay in Siem Reap I loved exploring the temples at my own pace. Avec 3 photo-apareils en main and my vague knowledge of the temple complex, it was detail that I was after. I saw well over a dozen temples however only two left an impression on me, Neak Pean and Kbal Spean.
Neak Pean is a unique island temple complex and not your typical fig tree clad,
rock and rubble type wat. I loved walking around the ponds which provide a quiet and peaceful place for reflection.
Kbal Spean was just magical, les papillons danced about the beautiful images of age old gods which have been carefully carved out of the rock faces in the river bed. It’s well worth the climbing and scrambling to get there, if you can ignore the ” 러시아의 사람 “comments from Korean Tourists en route.
At Kbal Spean, in the corner of my eye I saw a poster advertising midday tours at the “Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity”.
http://www.accb-cambodia.org/en/index.php I decided to support the cause, which was just about the best thing I did in Cambodia for Cambodia. I finally got to see a Sarus Crane, amongst some other feathery and furry friends. They run a great animal rehabilitation program, and are passionate about educating the local community about endangered animal species.
It was at the centre where I met Mike and Judy, the most well traveled couple I’ve ever come across. There’s no place they haven’t been to, seen or dreamed of. I’m so grateful our paths crossed and I jumped at the chance to join them on their adventure. I ended up travelling with them up the Tonle Sap river to the floating villages…
…NOT the god-awful tourist trap of Chung Kneas, which boasts a collection of floating houses where a pathetic display of orphaned Vietnamese school children and crocodiles in cages are put on display. The REAL floating villages in Prek Toal, about 2 hours upstream and away from such garish mayhem. We booked a 2 day trip with Osmose, a reputable ecotourism/edu-conservation/community driven project. http://osmosetonlesap.net/www/english/itinerary2.php
It was simply an unforgettable experience. We were treated to scrumptious home-cooked meals and a thorough education of the community and their surrounding environment. I learned all about the problem with water hyacinth chocking the waters. Osmose is tyring to counteract this problem by providing the means for the local women to use dry hyacinth to weave baskets and souvenirs for sale.
We pottered about the beautiful floating houses on traditional paddle boats observing the local fishermen and slow paced life of the locals. Being a teacher, I was delighted to drop in and give an impromptu lesson at the local school. The highlight of the trip for me was our home stay with a very hospitable host family. Sleeping under the clearest night sky and gleaming stars, tucked up in our little house bobbing on the Tonle Sap with splendid company was something special. Up with the sparrows the next morning, we watched a glorious sunrise after a restless night battling mosquitoes. The bundu bashing started once we entered the bird sanctuary on our rickety little paddle boats wading through dense foliage.
Knowing a thing or two about birds, us three made a formidable team spotting all sorts of pretty avian creatures flying about. It was all over too quickly, I could have resided in this safe haven for days on end. Not meaning to harp on about it, but Osmose is a fantastic organisation with a feel-good approach to tourism, every cent goes to where it is needed most. In such a tourist saturated part of the world, this little adventure really instilled some hope.
I sadly parted ways from Mike and Judy and set off out of Siem Reap to Sihanoukville aka party central, with “happy” pizza on the menu. After a dismally organised night bus ride from hell, it took us over 14 odd hours to reach the seaside town. I didn’t plan on spending a night here but I regretfully had to. Being “Chinese Happy New Year”, every hotel had hiked up their prices threefold. Poor old smutty Sihanoukville, what can I say but utterly dismal and utterly desperate. But things were about to look up.
Eurika Koh Rong! What island paradise splendor followed suit. It’s about as close to Mozambique as I’ve come across on my travels. (Tofu, Mozambique being my yardstick for measuring paradise perfected). I took a 3 hour boat trip from sickening Sihanoukville out to this little gem tucked away in the Gulf of Thailand. It was sublime, laid back and far away from the static of the mainland. I stayed in a ramshackle little beach hut with the bare essentials and met some very interesting characters during my stay. They included :
- a strung out guitar playing BobDylan-type hipster who had adopted a family of talking lizards in his room and threatened in a vain attempt to introduce them to me (meh but points for original pick up line dude)
- a creepy old pommie who suggested being my sugga daddio, who roped me into slapping sunscreen on his back and did his best to convince fellow island-goers that I was his mistress
- two of the strangest nouvelle vague tripped out Finns I’ve ever met (and I’ve lived in Finland amongst strange Finns) who only had lame stories to tell of their magic mushroom adventures
- two dutch police women who minced their words when I revealed to them that I could praat die taal
- the gorgeous Swedish threesome…
- and not forgetting the chained up pet monkey of Île de zinzin. Nothing short of entertaining and nothing short of fun! If I could, I’d have stayed there forever…
Two days later, with a budding Michael Schumacher of a taxi driver, we managed to get from Sihanouville to Phnom Penh in his fastest time of just over 2 hours. This was cause for celebration and the bragging rites to his fellow taxi mates. The trip was nothing short of hair raising and absurdly dangerous(and I drive on South African roads).
Phnomers, well she ain’t pretty and she ain’t clean. Thank goodness I only had a day here, which is more than enough time to see the sites. I hired a Tuk Tuk for the day with a driver who took advantage of my gullibility and guilt tripped me into paying more than I should have, nevertheless I made the most out of my tourist trodden schedule. The Royal Palace was somewhat of a highlight, following the droves I struggled to look intensely for something unique. In stark sobering contrast, I visited the harrowing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum next. Once a school, it was turned into the most appalling prison and torture camp. Inside I learnt about the the various methods used to kill and torture victims of the Khmer Rouge. The blood
stained corridors and walls adorned with countless portraits of ravaged faces on display, shocks you into a sickening, stunned silence. Artist Peter Klashort’s work was on display in the museum with some interesting and stark images on show. With a heavy heart I prepared myself for The Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, which was harrowing. A modest little museum has the overwhelming task of telling a story so sad and true, a pathetic whimper of my heart cried out that day. The fields are filled with a heavy atmosphere drenched in morbid guilt and remorse as it lingers stale and saturated.
After that ordeal, I let myself fall victim to Cambodia’s latest tourism trend “Orphanage Tourism”. We have a similar idea here in South Africa, “Township Tours”. This brainwave offers tourists the chance to gawk with morbid curiosity at poor shack-dwelling Africans, take a couple of snapshots whilst giving onlookers the false comfort of knowing their money is going to help in the long run. Eishhh. Orphanage Tourism follows a similar stench of a plot. The orphanage I visited http://lighthouseorphanage.com/ wasn’t too shoddy, the staff were welcoming and I was humbled to be included in the festivities of the day. However, I felt disillusioned in all honesty, it has become a run of the tourist mill experience. A donation of rice and money is almost expected and the guest book is filled with comments and happy snaps from countless tourists all hoping to bring sunshine into the lives of Cambodia’s poor children. No doubt there are volunteers and organisations who dedicate themselves to making a real difference in these children’s lives, it’s the hyenas who take advantage of the orphans by turning them into a tourist commodity…
To top it all off I decided to treat myself and spend my last night in a nice-enough 30 dolla hotel room in Phnom Penh. After a roller-coaster ride through the country, living in a beach shack for days sans douche I needed something half decent before my flight back to the ROK. Well, what did I discover in my drawer before bed time…the biggest thickest pile of hash I’d ever seen (well the only pile I’ve ever seen) in my life. Be-wilded,several ideas ran through my bemused head that night :
- SELL IT- though I didn’t have a clue what the estimated street value would be
- SMOKE IT- no lighter, no company and no idea of its effect on my neurotransmitters I decided against such nonsense
- LEAVE IT- Well I didn’t want angry drug crazed dealers rattling on my door come midnight so I called room service, who were all too happy to rid me of my dilemma…
All in all, a sobering reality trip Cambodia turned out to be.