NORTHERN and CENTRAL CAMBODIA
After Northern and Eastern Laos, we were a little disappointed in the southern part of Laos, so we pushed on and once we arrived in Kratie (Cambodia) we would probably have a better chance seeing the Irrawaddy Dolphins. We crossed the border into Cambodia which was a breeze; all up it took less than one and a half hours.
Sadly however, we were confronted with the first signs of corruption (again) when we were asked for 2 USD for the stamp in our passport. Is this a sign of too much foreign aid again? we travelled off road towards Kratie following the Mekong River as much as possible. Our first stop was Sambor, for a visit to the pagoda with 118 pillars, Wat Myoy Roy. Next were the famous Irrawaddy dolphins. It was 2.30pm in the afternoon and we were told the chances to see them would be perfect. After three hours of waiting patiently, we had one good shot with the camera and about 200 shots of the dolphins` backs as they disappeared. However, our time at the river was nice. We drove to Kratie with lots of expat tourists, most of whom were on day trips from Phnom Penh.
After a week we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. We found a perfect camp spot right in front of the Royal Palace. The car park security allowed us to stay here overnight. Street kids and the homeless were a bit of an issue but you can`t help but feel sorry for them. Cambodia has no social security, so it is either begging or dying. Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of 3 great rivers, Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers.
The city is a hive of activity and like elsewhere in countries that receive foreign aid, it is full of NGO-UN and other do-gooders. Lots of brand new cars you and I could not afford, plush restaurants, shops, nightclubs and anything else you require for a great lifestyle. UN staff, NGO`s and other do-gooders can been seen partying with the filthy rich Khmer people who all frequent the dusk till dawn nightclubs with their body guards. Another disturbing part was the sight of many European men with young girls. (and boys!) We visited the Royal Palace. The Palace serves as the residence of the King, the presentation of court ceremonies and as a symbol of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Also in the grounds of the Palace is the Silver Pagoda, so named for its sliver tiled floor. This is where the King meets with monks, and royal ceremonies are performed. No monks live at the Silver Pagoda. From 17 April 1975 until January 1979, the brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime lead by Pol Pot controlled the whole of Cambodia. During those four years no less than 2.5 million Cambodians died. Between 1979 and 1998 the Khmer Rouge retreated to the mountains and border area`s persisting with their campaign until they were defeated in 1998. To gain a better knowledge of what happened, we visited the Toul Sleng Prison (S 21).
Prior to 1975 Toul Sleng was a high school. The classrooms were converted into tiny brick cubicles, 1 meter by 2 meters, where prisoners were systematically tortured sometimes over periods of months, to extract the desired confessions, after which the victim was killed. The prison processed over 17,000 political prisoners. Our next stop was the killing fields just outside Phnom Penh.
Many of the Cambodians who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up dumped in one of the dozens of killing fields scattered around Cambodia. Choeung EK Memorial is the site where over 17,000 brutal executions of men, women and children took place.
Most of these people had first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S 21 Prison. It reminded us of our visits to Rwanda, Burundi and the former Yugoslavia; Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland; and just a few weeks ago, our experience in Laos – (Vietnam War). We keep reminding ourselves over and over, when we visit these places of just how barbaric people can become in times of war. And why? Mostly over ideology, religion, territorial or politics. And surely none of these reasons for war can justify such barbarism. We are now faced with what is happening right now in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Surely people must wake up soon. One thing is for sure, the evidence of all these past atrocities makes us realize just how lucky we are.
After 5 days enjoying the city life in Phnom Penh, we left, and we were looking forward to some R&R and a nice tropical beach. It has been nine months now since we saw the ocean. The drive to Sihanoukville was not that spectacular and it took nearly one hour before we had crossed the city and hit the toll road. Funny as this road was funded by the UN and now we must pay again to use it! It was a good road but nothing that would indicate anything special. In Europe this would still be classified as a country road and in Australia it would rate as the old pacific highway from Cairns to Brisbane. Once we arrived in Sihanoukville, 220km south of Phnom Penh, we headed towards Otres Beach, the spot most people advised us to go to. We found a perfect spot right on the beach in between two beach clubs.
Sihanoukville is being promoted as Cambodia`s premier beach destination. We have not been on a beach for the past nine months and it was nice to smell the ocean. The area is on a peninsula and is surrounded on three sides by beaches. Lots of activity and development is happening in the area but many resorts do not seem to be finished, giving the area a run- down feeling. Otres for us, was the most rustic. It is a 3-kilometre-long white sandy beach and by far the most remote beach in the area and attracts the least number of tourists. Very relaxed, lots of beach shack restaurants and a few guest houses. But for how Long?
WESTERN CAMBODIA part 1
Hard to leave a perfect beachfront location but we had a lot more to see in Cambodia. We took the main highway this time as the floodwater of the Mekong even reached the sides of the highway and many villages were flooded This week we headed to Western Cambodia. It has been 34 years since we were last here in 1978. At that time, Cambodia was embroiled in one of the most brutal wars in modern history; Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. We had planned a short cut today, but as the floodwaters are still rising and the rain is still relentless, we decided to turn around and follow the main road back. But first pick up our passport where all going well, the policeman who is on watch outside the Thai Embassy has organized a 60-day Thai visa, for a small fee?!?! It will include a 30-day permit to drive our truck into Thailand. For all this he charged us 5USD per passport extra. Normally this is only a 14-day permit for the truck that needs to be extended in Thailand at extra cost. Ten minutes before arriving in Phnom Penh we called him, and he told us to stop in front of the embassy and he would have the passports ready. Don`t you love corruption?!
After 3 years on the road we are getting better at it all the time. We don`t want to boast about this because we would prefer to do things above board. Unfortunately, the system in many countries has been twisted by people who most likely have a hungry family to feed and then you quickly find there is no other way other than to spend a couple of dollars here and there just to get things done. From here we followed the rice paddies stretching along the rivers and Lake Tonie Sap. The flooding this year has been substantial, but you can see that people are used to this annual natural event. Most of the houses are built on stilts some up to nine meters high to stay dry in the wet season. Cattle are moved to the roadway and a new road has been built just above flood level.
Western Cambodia`s main attraction is Siem Reap, gateway to the millennium old ruins of the Ankorian era Khmer Empire. Best known is the Angkor Wat. However, we enjoyed Ta Prohm the most. We did not visit them all, it was very hot and humid and after four or five temples, we thought this was enough. The ones we visited were Angkor Wat-Ta Prohm, Bayon, Angkor Thom, Pre-Rup, East Mabon and Ta Som. We spent 10 nights in the area including a few hours in front of Angkor Wat on the night of our arrival, over-looking Angkor Wat before being told to move on. No camping allowed. As it started to get dark, the tourist police told us very politely to move on because our safety could not be guaranteed. We found this very strange as the place was peaceful and very quiet after the tourists leave at 6pm. Anyway, we could not convince them, so we had to move, and we finished up in town in the dark, looking for a camp spot in a side street alley, just three meters away from the busy food stalls. But it was an experience. The food stalls were open till 1.30am and reopened again at 6am, so you can imagine not a lot of sleep.
Lucky, we had our own truck because this allowed us to drive around the Temples of Angkor. We never realized the area was so large, stretching out from 4 to 30 kilometres north of Siem Reap. Park admission is 20USD per person per day. But you get a discount for 3 and 7-day passes. The park attracts on average 7000 people per day. Many are visitors from Thailand on one, two or three-day packages. Early morning and late afternoon it is a complete traffic jam getting in and out of the park. The town of Siem Reap is only 5km south of Angkor Wat and lies in Cambodia, but it could have been anywhere in civilized South-East Asia. It is Cambodia`s number one tourist destination and it is a most prosperous town. It really has little to do with Cambodia as the city centre is one huge tourist trap full of restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, 5-star hotels – all cashing in on the huge tourism flow from neighbouring Thailand. Tourists also flock here on short stay holidays from Europe, China and the USA. It was also the first time that we had to share with so many tourists since leaving China. Nevertheless, Siem Riep and its famous Angkor Wat can`t be missed. We visited Pub Street where beer is sold for 50 cents during happy hours, which last from 5 till 11pm. Not to mention bars that openly advertise that they promote irresponsible drinking! Just like in many other places in the world, you could ask the question who is at fault. The government and councils who are allowing so many restaurants and bars to open and cashing in on license fees, permits or the poor operator who tries to compete with so many other bars and restaurants. One thing was for sure, the customers knew where to go for a drink and this was not in the more elegant restaurants or hotels where the cost could be up to 6USD catering for those who fly in from Bangkok or Pattaya staying at the Le Meridian-Sofitel and Hyatt type hotels. Siem Reap even has its own International Airport and the story goes that Bangkok Airlines paid the Cambodian Government lots of money so they would not upgrade the road from the Thai border, so people would fly in from Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya and other destinations in Thailand! The road is now upgraded and in excellent condition making it possible to drive in one day to Bangkok or Pattaya.
WESTERN CAMBODIA part 2
That night we also met Diane, a Singapore Lady, who looks after homeless kids who are prone to be picked up as sex-slaves or prostitutes by the deviate and sometimes paedophile men from foreign countries who prey on them. She also runs a beautiful guesthouse called Bloom where we were invited to park our truck.
Perfect place and any over-lander in the area should use this place if they can because the money is all put to good use, such as helping unmarried mothers and young children. Our last stop in Cambodia was Battembang, famous for the last remaining Bamboo Train in Cambodia. It is simply a vehicle that is made of bamboo, has a size of 2.5 X 4 meters looking like a bed on wheels. It is used to transport locals, their shopping, goods and in some cases animals to their villages. One problem is that many Bamboo trains run along this railway line in competition with the local train that goes to Phnom Penh. So once a train comes from the opposite direction the Bamboo Train must be disassembled and taken off the track for the train to pass. If it happens to be another Bamboo Train the one with the least freight and or passengers is disassembled and taken of the rails for the other to pass. Despite the many comments re the border crossing, the touts, the corruption etc etc. we checked out of Cambodia in 35 minutes. This included the walk back to Customs to get the Carnet stamped. Thailand does not accept the Carnet, so we were required to sign a Temporary Import Form and a Conveyance Form. This allowed our truck to be in Thailand for 30 days and this can be extended for another 30 days in the next month or so. In fact, you can extend it twice, so you could spend three months in Thailand with your own car legally, if you chose to do that. Our 60-day visa was all good and one hour and thirty minutes later, we were driving on perfect roads in Thailand. Having experienced all these border experiences in Africa and now Asia has made us experts in dealing with corruption and working out what to do where. The only thing missing was a third- party insurance because we could not find the office in Anraprhanet. So, we are hoping we will not be stopped until we get to Bangkok in around 7 days. Being Saturday, we assume insurance offices will be closed over the weekend.