So, this is Cambodia…

My time in this welcoming, criminally underrated country has come to an end, with a flight to Hanoi, a flight to Hong Kong, and finally, a flight to London Heathrow just around the corner.

It’s a country I was told to be fearful of at worse, paranoid about at best. I was warned about the prying, watchful eyes, the beggars, the landmine victims, the poverty and the country’s dark, sinister recent history.

And then I came here myself, and realised none of the above was relevant at all. Not only have I seen so much with my own eyes, but I’ve had the good fortune to get to know the Kampot expat community very well, and between their tales and my own observations I’ve come to realise just how misunderstood this country is.

It’s easy to fear the dark underbelly of other nations, but it’s even easier to forget your own. No major-populated area on Earth has its lack of skeletons in the closet. Los Angeles is infamous for its gang warfare. South Africa is filled with heavy duty security compounds and constant robbery. Salvador is rife with shantytowns. Child prostitution is epidemic in Myanmar. Somalia is wrecked from the results of no government and wide scale looting. And I dare anybody to walk through certain areas of south London without a stab vest and a healthy knowledge of Wing Chun.

So forget about Cambodia’s evil past. Forget your paranoia, whether it’s self inflicted or gained from the words of others, and go visit it yourself. You’ll see the hospitality. The ease of movement around the country. And the sheer unstoppable warmth and friendliness of the people, despite the utter hardship and difficulties they face every day just to survive.

In the whole month I spent within Phnom Penh, Kampot, and Siem Reap, I didn’t feel unsafe for a single moment. And I know without doubt that if ever I got into a bad situation, there would always be a friendly local not far away who would bend over backwards to help me out of it.

And then there is the ancient, grand splendour of Angkor Wat. The otherworldly architecture of Bayon. The amazing interaction between temple and overgrown tree at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.

That’s it in a nutshell. Go to Cambodia and yes, familiarise yourself with the destruction the Khmer Rouge delivered to so many innocent people. And then see how far the people have come. See their resilience. See their limitless basic human compassion. And then see the true roots of the Khmer story. Suddenly, photos of human skulls and stories of landmines won’t seem so overbearing.

I’m now back at Gecko Hotel in Hanoi, where my journey has sadly come to an end for the time being. Tomorrow begins my long journey home. 15 hours by air, 2 by road, and 6000 years sat around waiting in airport lounges, sipping overpriced bland coffee and breathing icy, dry, processed air, whilst people in their thousands wheel their suitcases past me on their quest to see the world. I’ll have much more to reflect on when I get home, but if you take anything away from my journey, it’s that you should do the same…

Crazy Khmer kids on the next bus
Crazy Khmer kids on the next bus07-Jan-2011 07:56, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 9.427mm, 0.01 sec, ISO 200
The delights of Phnom Penh...
The delights of Phnom Penh…07-Jan-2011 08:02, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 7.277mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 160
...and some of its less well-off residents
…and some of its less well-off residents07-Jan-2011 08:12, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 8.585mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 125
07-Jan-2011 09:22, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 80
07-Jan-2011 09:24, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 125
 
07-Jan-2011 10:51, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 100
Backstreet Cambodia
Backstreet Cambodia07-Jan-2011 11:41, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 160
Enjoying a relaxing ride to Angkor Wat. 1pm. Maybe still a bit pissed from the night before.
Enjoying a relaxing ride to Angkor Wat. 1pm. Maybe still a bit pissed from the night before.07-Jan-2011 16:42, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 160
07-Jan-2011 16:43, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 12.086mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 160
07-Jan-2011 17:06, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 6.772mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 160
 
My noble steed type thing
My noble steed type thing07-Jan-2011 17:14, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.013 sec, ISO 100
07-Jan-2011 17:21, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 200
 

Still alive, still rocking on…

I set out for Cambodia amidst a vast collection of tales and rumours. Of genocide and torture. Of brutal totalitarian government. Of armed robbery, unexploded land mines, and exploding cattle.

In other words, I was more or less expecting to be greeted at the border by Hitler, frisked by Freddy Krueger, and locked up in a cell for 48 hours with Hannah Montana. Imagine my surprise when the gentleman operating passport control not only said hello, not only smiled, not only had a friendly chit-chat with me before sending me on my way, but also didn’t violently ram a skewer in to my head. By far the friendliest immigration staff I’ve encountered. Not that I usually get skewered by immigration officials…but you get the idea.

And it’s that friendliness and helpfulness that really strikes you about the people here. It was further demonstrated on the bus by a remarkably pretty Cambodian girl who, within seconds of me sitting down, had engaged me in conversation, told me where she lived and what she did, and had offered me her phone number in case I needed help! I honestly thought I was being accosted by Lady Casanova, until she began speaking about her boyfriend, and I suddenly realised that this was simply a token demonstration of Khmer hospitality and helpfulness.

Things aren’t all rosy here, of course. The country has an almost inconceivably sinister history. Evidence from the Khmer Rouge exists everywhere, from the ruined buildings and devastated land, to the families on the street, all of them affected in some deep, personal way. Poverty is rife, and there are beggars in every busy area of town. Most of the nation gets by on just a couple of dollars a day. (Which really put that $10 pizza I bought in Phnom Penh into perspective.) And, once you get away from the neatly structured tourist streets of every major town, you see the real Cambodia. It’s a single mass of dirty, dusty, smoggy, chokingly filthy squalour.

But yet again…the people smile.

The tuk-tuk and moto drivers here latch on to you with a greater level of enthusiasm than I’ve seen anywhere yet in Asia – and I thought parts of Vietnam were bad. One guy kerb-crawls next to me for a good 15 minutes, desperate for a few dollars to cover his expenses for that day. Eventually I concede, and for the no doubt over-inflated cost of $6, I get taken to the Killing Fields and back.

It was sad.

Really though. What else can I say?

I recently mocked a dear friend quite mercilessly when he summed up one of the most important monuments of genocide in the whole of Asia in those same three words, but after leaving there I couldn’t find anything more elaborate, or eloquent, that could possibly summarise the place any better. When you find yourself face-to-face with a memorial tower filled with 8000 human skulls staring back at you, all of them brutally murdered, what can you possible say to describe what you think? I felt numb, quite frankly, and despite my greatest efforts, just couldn’t quite fathom what was in front of me.

A few days later I finally felt ready to visit S21, the Khmer Rouge “security center”, an obscenely unfitting name – torture and mass-murder center would be more accurate. It was something I wasn’t looking forward to seeing in the slightest, but never the less somewhere I felt it was important to see in order to understand these people and their (far too) recent history. Probably the most evil place I will ever see. I took no photos. I made no notes. I felt numb. And then I left.

Four days in Phnom Penh was enough for me. History aside – you have to section that side of things off in your mind otherwise you run the risk of living off bad vibes for the whole trip. I found it to be a very cliquey sort of place, the massive expat scene means that most people have their own little network of people already, making it a little tougher to get by. This didn’t however stop me getting wasted on the night of my birthday with a local Frisbee throwing team – there’s always room for a bit of randomness on the road!

So it was on the fifth morning in Cambodia that I made my way south, to a little province by the name of Kampot. And I’m still here some two weeks later.

I’m sure I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this town has managed to make me stick around this long. It’s certainly not the caves, temples, mountains, colonial architecture, or the world famous pepper farms. I’ve not really seen much at all since I arrived.

But for most visitors to this little place, the above list of grand things to do is a matter of irrelevance. It’s all about the towns vibe, its feeling, its atmosphere. It’s the way you can kick back, find yourself a hammock, do nothing, and have a damn good time doing so. It’s the way you can book a late bus to leave at 11am and still fail completely to get there in time, and in doing so feel no guilt about being late, and in turn have no regrets about spending another day here, doing little and enjoying it a lot. It’s the way the town can take a great chilled-out feeling and effortlessly mix it with an equally great crazy party-zone atmosphere, without either mood affecting the other in any way.

So I can finally admit to myself now that I’m a little burnt out from the joys of travel. I’ve seen some amazing things and been to some great places. Majestic temples, incredible caves, colossal waterfalls, bustling cities, isolated jungle villages, amazing local cuisine, warm sandy beaches, spectacular mountain ranges, breathtaking coastal roads, and more museums than I could wave the worlds largest stick at. And of course, with Siam Reap next on my list, with its world famous ancient temples known to almost everybody, (and the temple from the movie “Tomb Raider”to everybody else!) it’s safe to say there’ll be more great sights yet before the not-very-far-away end of my journey. But maybe, just maybe, one more night in Kampot first…

13-Dec-2010 13:51, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 12.086mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 125
The view from the back of a Cambodian tuk-tuk
The view from the back of a Cambodian tuk-tuk13-Dec-2010 13:58, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 160
"Real" Cambodia
"Real" Cambodia13-Dec-2010 16:08, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 160
More "real" Cambodia
More "real" Cambodia13-Dec-2010 16:10, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 160
The next time you complain about standing room only on the Tube...
The next time you complain about standing room only on the Tube…13-Dec-2010 16:10, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 125
 
Local medical services...I think I'll stick with the leeches!
Local medical services…I think I'll stick with the leeches!13-Dec-2010 16:15, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 3.4, 5.0mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 160
15-Dec-2010 12:34, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 8.0, 6.894mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 100
Scaffolding, Khmer stylee
Scaffolding, Khmer stylee16-Dec-2010 11:32, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 4.0, 13.32mm, 0.004 sec, ISO 100
Kampot prison!
Kampot prison!16-Dec-2010 15:46, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 8.0, 16.532mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 100
16-Dec-2010 15:47, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 8.0, 60.0mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 100
 
Typical Kampot architecture. Those French again!
Typical Kampot architecture. Those French again!16-Dec-2010 15:55, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 8.0, 5.0mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
16-Dec-2010 15:55, Canon Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, 8.0, 5.0mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 100