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…