Writing this on the 3hr ferry trip from Ha Tien on the Cambodia/Vietnam border, to Phu Quoc island. We crossed the border in a rather haphazard fashion of a series of buses, dodgy security checks, zero concern for our visa status, and racing for a ferry that left 15 minutes before we arrived at the port.
With the next ferry leaving in 3hrs, not much else to do but hook up with a gnarly old Kiwi pearl fisher and an Aussie electrician with a year off, and drink the travel company’s fridge dry of beer.
From Mandalay we took a short flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and were met by our tuk tuk transfer to the hotel. Our driver Bouy, was smiley with a high cheekboned skeletal face and spoke enough English to warrant booking him the following day, to take us around the temples, our main reason for being in Siem Reap.
It was great to be in a tuk tuk, actually these we larger versions, called Remorks, that can take 4 people, and hook onto a motor bike, we really felt we were travelling now.
Coming from Burma, which has only been open to tourists in recent years, Siem Reap was the first glimpse of concentrated tourism since leaving London, and it was a strange mixture of relief that we could get a cheese toastie if we wanted to, with the contradiction that we were here to visit one of the new wonders of the world, Angkor Wat and The Temples of Angkor, located just a few kilometres from Siem Reap.
The S hotel ☑was great. Large air-conditioned room, swimming pool, free 1hr massage and unlimited use of the fish foot massage tank, where hungry cleaner fish nibble dry skin off your feet. A really strange sensation but I made use of it obviously, as well as the massage which involved two tiny Cambodian women simultaneously climbing all over me, using their feet, elbows and pads of their hands to ease those muscles into submission. I wasn’t sure whether to feel abused or enlightened!
Siem Reap, actually the entire short stay we had in Cambodia, was all about extremes for me. We spent the next day with Bouy, driving us around the stunning 12th century temples. Angkor Wat ☑, the icon of the country, and detailed on the national flag, was immense and breath taking, and down right weird, as we strolled around in the midday heat. Cambodia is HOT.
Smaller but equally unusual, almost alien like structures dot the landscape. The classic being the one used in films such as Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, Ta Prohm ☑. Here the roots of the trees have started to over grow the ancient stones, creeping between the blocks like thick liquid oozing through any available gap. Nature smothering mankind in such a beautiful, powerful, unstoppable way. Like art decaying, it always feels right that nature should prevail like this.
A day of clambering over temples, sweating like I didn’t know we could sweat, drinking gallons of water and still not needing to pee, Cambodia is HOT.
We climbed to the highest point, Phnom Bakheng ☑ a temple about 15 minute climb up a muddy track, to watch the sunset (although this area gets crowded and tested Px’s very low tolerance for large groups of tourists and to be fair, mine too). We sloped off before the witching hour and headed home. It was beer o’clock.
Px had been to Siem Reap before, about 7yrs ago, and boy it had changed. Just a few kilometres from this incredible UNESCO protected site, is the equivalent of a mash up of Costa del Sol, Ibiza and Magaluf crammed into one street, aptly named “Pub Street”☑ .
It was party time, and we revisited a couple of clubs that Px remembered from his last visit. Cheap beer, Margaritas and neon. So much neon. By about 10pm all the surrounding streets had filled with little mobile bars, pulled by scooters, stacked with speakers thrashing out their distorted sounds and piled high with booze. Each with about 6 seats perched around the “bar” and a lap top tuned into YouTube, the customer is the DJ. We were pulled in to one particular charabanc, by an attractive couple, we guessed Indian, who were lovely and invited us to join them, showing us the rules of the bar.
Take it in turns to play whatever tune you want. Bare in mind that the better the party, the better the owner of the bar does. So don’t play anything rubbish. “None of that shit, introspective indie music, Bel”.
We pulled a couple of cracking tunes out of the bag and danced in the street until the day caught up with us.
The next day was our “day off”. No sight seeing, no travelling, just sleeping, lounging, reading, writing, eating, laundry. The most we managed was a shuffle around the covered market where I bought ear rings made from the brass shells of old artillery bullets. A gentle reminder of this country’s history, in amongst this hub of neon and cocktails.
That night we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at the acclaimed Khmer Touch Cuisine ☑ who specialise in Khmer dishes such as the very delicious Fish Amok ☑ a white fish, yellow curry, served in banana leaf, followed by some very classy cocktails with a political edge at Miss Wong ☑ which is a welcome oasis of class amidst the brash vibes of touristy Siem Reap.
Speaking of “brash vibes”, one more evening on Pub Street where we hit our usual mobile bar only to be joined by the Indian couple again. When you find your bar, it’s your bar and you return to it religiously. For two nights at least. We danced to Eminem and Lady Gaga in equal measure before closing our time on Pub Street.
Next day a 5hr bus ride to Phnom Penh, a cosmopolitan, French influenced city. The most built up and clean place we’d seen so far. We only had one full day here, and two nights.
Our first night was almost unintentionally boozy. We stumbled across a sophisticated canopied French restaurant. The idea of a glass of cold white wine and a cheese board was too much to resist. And god it was good. We miss cheese.
Wandering further into the city, stopping wherever looked fun actually led us to 136th street which we soon discovered was the red light district of Phnom Penh, and our first real sighting of sex tourism. I imagine we’ll see a great deal more of it as we travel through SE Asia, but it sits very uncomfortably with me. We had one drink in what turned out to be the infamous Candy Bar ☑ where girls swarmed around us like those fish swarmed around my feet in Siem Reap. Px knew the rules, so not to offend by not making use of the “services”, we left after one drink. But it was fun to see, if entirely dark in reality and my awareness of single, middle aged European men, sitting alone at bars became more and more acute. Dirty old bastards.
The next day was history day. I always feel slightly strange visiting museums or sites of atrocities of someone else’s recent history. Seeing Ground Zero in New York for instance. It’s not directly my tragedy, and I hate to feel like a voyeur. But it has to be done, in order to understand. We didn’t go to the Killing Fields but opted instead for S21, the Tuol Sleng museum ☑, the school that was used as a detention and torture centre by the Khmer Rouge.
The weight of the horror that occurred there over a period of three years, hangs heavy. We used the audio guide which led us through the old classrooms that had been divided into tiny brick or wood cells, where inmates were shackled, starved and tortured beyond belief. It was hard to listen to, I felt physically nauseous at times, the extremes that humanity can push itself to is sometimes too much to comprehend.
Why do people follow someone who is clinically insane with ideals that make no sense? How did he rally that many people to believe in him enough to revolt, to torture and kill their own people. I know Pol Pot is only one of many maniacs that have ruined nations like this, and it is still happening all over the world, but the man was a paranoid lunatic.
There’s not much to say once you’ve visited a place like that. We were quiet for a while.
A visit to the art deco Central Market, Psar Thmei ☑ lifted our spirits with loads of fresh, live shell fish, in bubbling water tanks, this was the freshest market we’d seen so far and reassured our fish eating options. Leading our evening choice of an amazing clear fish broth flavoured with lime and lemongrass from well know restaurant Mok Mony ☑ where Px had his favourite betel leaf wrapped beef, with a delicious Kampot Pepper ☑ sauce.
The ferry is pulling in to Phu Quoc island. Sea, beach, snorkelling and scooters are all that’s on the agenda for the next couple of days.