There are certain places that are chanced upon; if I had gone to Cambodia solo without a tour group, I would never have known Sihanoukville existed. Even Google Maps has trouble; it offers a suggestion, but it’s not marked as a physical place on the map. Odd, seeing as it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the fortune of spending my time.
We were in Sihanoukville for days six and seven of our month-long tour. With our bags dumped in reception until our rooms were ready, we walked the 200 metres or so to the beach from our aptly named “Golden Sea Hotel & Casino.” Yes, a casino. In the hotel. The odd thing? Not an ATM in sight. But that’s Cambodian logic for you. The beach is privately owned by the hotel it sits in front of, but we were given access as we were meant to be staying there before they overbooked themselves.
That evening, we went into the town. It is important to take these terms loosely – imagine a small British hamlet, change all the cottages into bars, and put it on the beach front. There, you’ve just imagined the town of Sihanoukville. What followed was probably the happiest evening of my life so far: sitting at a long table on the beach, eating seafood barbecue and being hassled by happy children to buy fireworks, all with good company, a warm evening sea breeze and the knowledge that we had no commitments for the next three weeks; no bills to pay, chores or bores to worry about.
After dinner we walked down the beach to Joe’s Bar, complete with three beer pong tables, although, being a non-drinker, Pepsi pong would have been a more accurate description. I’m sure being a non-drinker helped in the outcome of the game also, as Kirstin and I threw our way to victory in remarkable style.
With a good evening had by all, our group spent the next day unenergetically soaking up the sun on the beach. Coconut shakes were the drink of choice in Cambodia, and by the time the sun was going down, we had drunk the hotel dry. When in Southeast Asia, one speaks of the massages, so that’s what we decided to do as a group.
The massage parlour we visited that evening was incredible, and the first professional massage I’d ever had. When my masseuse woke me after an hour, it was time for dinner, and a birthday on our tour. Dane, an Australian from Sydney, was turning thirty, and how better to celebrate with a misspelt cake on the beach?
Cambodia was incredible, and surprised me, partly because I had no idea what to expect. I learnt a few very important things: don’t joke with locals when they offer you prostitutes, don’t play with the monkeys, don’t engage with the children selling tat, and finally, if you have a name longer than three letters, don’t expect it spelt correctly by a local.
We left Cambodia very happy and excited for what was to come in Vietnam.
This day of the trip is a hard one to write about for two reasons: We were told some horrid stories, some of which I’ll repeat here, and because there’s a lot of history behind these places. So I don’t end up writing a history essay, I’d recommend filling in any gaps in your knowledge first. Take a look at the Wiki pages of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
First, though, a little background. We had taken the long journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by bus. It was the first we had used that had air conditioning. Heaven on Earth. Arriving in Phnom Penh, we had our obligatory orientation walk around the city, and settled for some dinner. This is where my new favourite food was discovered; Khmer Amok, a mild curry with chicken, carrot, onions, spinach and rice. It was amazing, and if I had one ounce of cooking ability, I’d recreate it every night.
The next morning, we were taken to S21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Its use between 1975 and 1979 saw approximately 20,000 people killed, and was only one of at least 150 security camps across the country. During the tour, we were shown the torture rooms and the museum artefacts: rubber sandals fashioned from car tyres, prisoners’ possessions, waterboards, signs prohibiting smiling, cabinets filled with skulls, miles of barbed wire and the tiny cells in which prisoners were kept with rules forbidding talking, eating for days on end and often sleeping.
As if that isn’t harrowing enough, the inner walls of S21 are covered with pictures of victims; dead, mutilated and broken. All of this really hit home when our guide stopped us all and told us that four of his brothers and a sister had been brought here and killed. How he does it, I can’t imagine, but he now counts his neighbour as one of his very best friends. This neighbour was one of the few executioners at S21. When asked if there was a possibility this man had executed his siblings, he simply shrugged and replied, “It’s in the past”.
The real shock of the morning was still to come. Our guide proceeded to inform us that out of the 20,000+ people brought here, there were only seven survivors. Two of them are still alive today. Chum Mey was kept alive for his skills fixing machinery. He was tortured for two years, his fingers broken and his fingernails pulled out. He was drowned and resuscitated and whipped with wire carrying 10,000 volts. He watched his wife and newborn child shot by Khmer guards with AK-47s in the paddy fields. We rounded the last corner of the camp, and there, standing in the shade with his supplied chair pushed to one side, was Chum Mey.
After a brief chat with Chum Mey, during which he showed me the cell he had been kept in, we headed to another horror in Phnom Penh; the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. For four years after the Cambodian Civil War, the site was used to execute over 25% of the population of Cambodia. There are an estimated 20,000 grave sites, from which nearly 1.4 million victims have been recovered.
The Killing Fields are as close as one can get to being surrounded by death. The first thing one sees is a giant stupa filled to the brim with victims’ skulls. As you continue round, you will encounter casual, almost humorous signs that read, “Please do not walk through the mass grave”. As if you have to tell me twice! We were about half way round when our guide stopped and pointed at something on the ground. He calmly told us that the rains bring bones to the surface that have not yet been collected.
The kick in the shins needed to top off a very real day came at the end of the Killing Fields tour. A Chankiri tree, adorned with thousands of bracelets, accompanied with a sign reading, “Killing tree against which executioners beat children”. Next to it, a mass grave where they were eventually disposed of. The rationale? “To stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.” The tree and the grave are decorated with the bracelets of thousands of visitors. The only colour in an otherwise dismal place. A nice touch.
The mood was sombre on the way back to the hotel. The scariest thought was that, in the grand scheme of things, this didn’t happen a long time ago. My parents were both in their 20s, and have since told me they remember reading about it as it was happening.
Over dinner, the chatter turned from sad to glad, then to excitement, for the next two days were to be spent in our own little slice of paradise; Sihanoukville…
On 23rd November 2012, I left the miserable UK winter and flew to Bangkok. For the next month, I’d be joining 14 strangers on a one-month, 3,000+ mile journey through southeast Asia. It was the first time I’d participated in a group tour, and I wasn’t sure how I’d fare; I’ve always travelled with friends or family. From the outset, however, it was clear that there was going to be no issue. The people were friendly, and (bar one or two incidents here and there with tensions running high) everyone got on.
I had a handful of things that I wanted to make sure I experienced before I left SE Asia, from riding in a Tuk Tuk to riding an elephant. On the drive between Bangkok and Siem Reap, the first day of the tour, I was thrust headfirst into the culture a little too soon for my liking. The bus pulled off the road in Sa Kaeo for a short food and toilet break. We piled off and were greeted by lovely smells coupled with horrible sights. Tarantulas, crickets, grasshoppers and pupae had been fried in chili oil and were sitting ready for the hungry locals and daring tourists. After buying a bag of bugs, I sat down to tuck in.
It wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world to eat, but “eat a tarantula” was on my list, so I didn’t have much choice. Ever since I was little, spiders have made my blood run cold, and I’m sure the fact that this one was dead and therefore wasn’t likely to crawl back up made it much easier. Only downside? I was pulling little hairs out of my teeth for the next three hours.
Once settled in Siem Reap (hotel found, rucksacks unloaded, cashpoint visited, “Pub Street” located for later that evening), we had the chance to visit a small charity-run school in a secluded village, surrounded by paddy fields, a few miles from town. To get there; Tuk Tuks. Check. This was my first experience having home-cooked Cambodian cuisine, and I wasn’t disappointed. Chicken and ginger/coconut milk and as many rice and noodle dishes one could imagine. The premise is as follows: you each pay US$5 for your meal and the kids get the materials they need for another few weeks. Simple as that. And after dinner, they all come and say hello. Quite humbling, that.
The next day was the main attraction, the thing that people travel thousands of miles to this city just to see: Angkor. So famous that it appears on the currency, this group of Hindu temples built during the Khmer Empire rule is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and spans over 1,000 square kilometres. We were up and out of the hotel by 4am, and arrived at the gates at 4.30. With our tickets bought, our friendly guide, Dat, ushered us to the best corner of the pond in front of Angkor Wat. “There’s only one place where you can get the reflection of all five spires in the pond”, he told us excitedly.
And he was right. For the next hour we stood in awe as the sun rose above Angkor Wat, the sky turning from deep purple to red, orange, yellow and blue, with the clouds evaporating as the heat made its presence known. It was an incredible sight, and one that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
The rest of the day was spent with our guide, who showed us around some of the other temples in the complex: Ta Prohm (filming location for the Tomb Raider film), Bayon (216 huge faces carved into stone) and Baphuon (70-metre long reclining Buddha). We had two injuries that day: first, and this is a tip to bear in mind should you visit, don’t play with the monkeys. They may look all cute and innocent, eating bread off the floor and playing with their parents, but as soon as one lands on your back and starts crawling around you, it takes all your willpower not to thrash about. Joaquin ended up in hospital with a deep cut in his lip, and joined us later in the day with ten new stitches. Second, eat lots of sugar and drink lots of water. Shortly after Joaquin was whisked away, Heidi fainted and fell down the stone steps.
Bar that, the day was enjoyed by all. I learnt a lesson in Siem Reap; if a man on a motorbike offers you “beautiful lady for tonight”, “cocaine” and “marijuana”, don’t joke and reply, “How much for all three?” They don’t seem to understand sarcasm. Next stop was the capital, Phnom Penh…