We were super excited about reaching Cambodia for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we couldn’t wait to explore the temple ruins of Angkor Wat, and secondly we were meeting my friend from Australia, Jo and her son Jack. We took an evening flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap ( after vowing we wouldn’t do another night-time international flight) and found ourselves in one of many queues to get through the Cambodian immigration process. Just to clarify, immigration processes in Asia can test even the most patient travellers let alone those who are tired with three whiny kids. Our first attempt at queuing up was a complete disaster – we had incorrectly assumed the space on the form to note kids traveling with you, meant we didn’t have to fill in separate forms for them. WRONG. Go back and start again! ( we had already queued for about 40 minutes by this stage). Fast forward about 30 minutes and a kind official casually remarked ‘Oooh long queue, you want to wait?’ This man was good. We were easy targets and very willing to part with cash to avoid another queue. Murray whipped out his wallet and handed over $20USD quicker than if the man was offering Carl’s Junior burgers. Bribe accepted and paid. We were escorted to the front of the queue like the VIP’s we had become. Our bags were hand-delivered and we were out of the airport within about 2 minutes. We were very happy to embrace local customs on this occasion.
Our week in Siem Reap with Jo and Jack seemed to fly by. The kids loved having another friend to socialise with and some of our most treasured memories will be of them playing hide and seek in the temple ruins. We bought a 3 day temple pass to use over the week and were able to explore Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Promh and a few other small temples at our leisure. Murray, Jo and I were thrilled that the kids not only got a hands-on history lesson, but they found our excursions to the temples to be engaging and interesting. The kids often led the way through the ruins and stopped to take photos or point out different stone carvings.
Siem Reap is a pretty chilled out place to stay. When we weren’t exploring the temple complex, we were enjoying our lovely hotel, wandering through local handicraft markets, eating delicious food on Pub Street ( ok except the tarantulas), getting $3 foot massages and racing around in tuk tuk’s. We even got to make some pottery during a lesson with young, deaf Khmer artists. We made an interesting party of 7 and were a bit of a curiosity to the locals. We think a lot of the Cambodians, particularly the hotel staff , may have thought Murray was traveling with his two wives and four kids. Every man’s dream – not! We were particularly sad to say goodbye to Jack and wifey number two. We had a fabulous week together, one we will remember fondly for years to come.
Next stop on our agenda was the capital of Cambodia, Phenom Penh. My impressions of Phenom Penh? Dirty, dusty , crowded and poor. There has been an attempt to upgrade the river-front into a cosmopolitan district, but you absolutely cannot escape the poverty and squalor that surrounds it. To get back to our hotel about 2 blocks away, we had to walk through a wet-market. This was essentially a bunch of people, sitting in mud, selling fish, chicken and meat. It was very sobering reminder of the living and working conditions of many people in Cambodia. I can’t help but think about my own work environment at home where staff complain about the lack of pot-plants in our air conditioned office.
We stayed in Phenom Penh for a few days, mainly so that Murray and I could go and visit the Killing Fields and S21 complexes, on our own. ( we didn’t want the kids to experience this). S21 is the name given to a high school that was converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime ( 1975-1979). It is estimated that approximately 17,000 people were imprisoned here during this period. There were 12 known survivors. At the S21 complex you are able to wander through the classrooms, see the rooms as they were found when the Khmer Rouge fled, and view photographs of many of the people who were imprisoned there. It’s a dark dark history. Unbelievable almost. Cambodians killing Cambodians largely because one man, Pol Pot, decided they were a threat to his attempt to thrust Cambodia back in time and rebuild an agrarian society. The Killing Fields are basically a series of large pits discovered containing the bodies of those who lost their lives, estimated over the period to be up to three million in total.
I have to admit, I was pretty pleased to be moving on from Phenom Phen to an island off the southern coastline, Koh Rong. We were able to grab a low-season bargain at Sok San resort ( which we were to discover hosted the crew of Survivor Cambodia). We were thrilled to swim in beautiful blue water, indulge at the breakfast buffet each morning and do nothing much for 5 days. We did go for a couple of nature walks but I had read about the poisonous snakes that inhabit the island so it wasn’t an overly relaxing experience. We happen to come across a snake on a walk, thankfully already dead, but not long dead given we had walked the same path moments earlier.
A quick stopover in Sihanoukville on the mainland completed our Cambodia experience. We had read about the recent influx of Chinese workers to Sihanoukville and the 50-odd casinos they were building. Our expectations were pretty low and it was a good thing. We were pleasantly surprised at the beach front and the restaurants that lined the beachfront ( food was amazing), but we could understand why the Lithuanian couple who ran our hostel were selling up and moving out. The sound of high rise development was deafening, and its pretty easy to see that this once chilled-out, beach town was going to be swallowed up in hideous development.
One last observation, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries were have visited so far. Their own currency (riel) is virtually worthless and I doubt there is anyone unaffected by the events of the 1970’s. Despite this, they are the most friendly, happy and accepting people. We have been truely surprised by this and thrilled to have been able to visit this beautiful country.
Next stop , Vietnam…