It is Cambodia’s misfortune to be internationally remembered for a bloody purge in the 1970s that left two million of its most intelligent citizens dead. The small Asian nation’s subsequent media coverage has generally concentrated on military coups, a Communist elite, a vigorous trade in prostitution and the curious presence of Gary Glitter. As a result, Cambodia evolved as a twitchy and somewhat suspicious country. However, in recent years, the people have become more at ease with the idea of people visiting their captivating and largely unspoilt land.
The principal attractions are the glorious lost temples of Angkor Wat, the beaches of Shanoukville and the capital city of Phnom Penh. Angkor Wat is a vast city, yes a city, a thousand years old, swallowed by jungle and rediscovered 100 years ago. A few hours west of the capital, Sihanoukville, beautiful, empty, untouched beaches touch the idyllic turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
Phnom Penh is one of the more gentle Asian capitals but even here, the street chaos is immediate, bikes, tuk-tuks, battered trucks and mopeds stacked high with humans and chickens all weaving effortlessly in and out of itself. An old woman sitting side-saddle on a traveling food-stall, washing dishes as she went. Horns are treated as a tool for warning others of your intent to do something dangerous.
Phnom Penh’s ex-pat community are an odd gaggle of property opportunists, brokers, rent-evaders, defectors, wife-beaters, missing persons, bigamists, welfare cheats – and Gary Glitter – but unlike other Asian cities it has a very French feel, having once been a reluctant French colony. Baguettes are everywhere. We checked into L’Oasis, hidden in a garden in the middle of the city, run by a tired old Frenchmen who had seen it all, drunk his fill, and really just wanted to sleep now.
The best of the many markets is the Psar Tuol Tom Pong, the Russian market, a giant grimy tinker bazaar with bad smells disguised by worse ones, women sewing between bicycle tyres and buckets of eels. The ceiling is low, the room dark and hot and the floor filthy like coal. But our breakfast was prepared with pride and dexterity, and was delicious when we held our noses and avoided eye contact with the whiskery Mekong fish, blackened scorpions and rat-snacks spread-eagled nearby.
As an option to crawling in the maket’s mud, Phnom Penh has a few posh shopping streets. The city is great for silk, far superior to Thailand, and the stitching better too. The best shops tend to be clustered around the elegant Foreign Correspondents Club, a colonial outpost overlooking the Mekong River, with plenty of starch and a healthy drinks cabinet.
Phnom Penh is not a place for theatre or live music, unless you fancy a 14-year old singing Celine Dion in Khmer alongside a guy in a glittery ringmaster’s jacket grinning like a contrite wolf. Late night fun is concentrated in half a dozen nightclubs. We tried the Heart of Darkness, crammed, jolly and firmly lodged in 1986. There are a few moody dive bars nearby if you so desire, but never query the price of beer or your ears may be chopped off.
Phnom Penh is entitled to have its dark side. It is evident in the absence of old people; their bodies lie in the Killing Fields, their tragedy documented in the genocide museum. 40% of Cambodia’s population is under 14. Untold thousands of maimed mine victims beg for a living.
At length, we travel north to Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor. Our non-descript tourist bus shows a knock-off of George of the Jungle, with half the picture missing. Outside, the countryside is thirsty, dried-up rice paddies, men fishing muddy puddles, pigs grunting under bamboo huts, oxen swaggering across the roads, looking bored because there isn’t much to eat. At Siam Reap, we stay in the Ivy, a small colonial hotel on the town square overlooking the old market. Rather obscurely, Pol Pot’s toilet seat hangs on the reception wall. Already there is a sense of excitement about the fabled temples nearby. Disconcerting volumes of foreigners loiter about bars and Internet cafes, buying camera batteries.
Once home to a million people, Angkor is the lost city of the Khmer Empire, reclaimed from the jungle in the last 100 years. Even for those with temple fatigue, Angkor Wat requires at least two days. No photograph can prepare you for its impact. One can’t help thinking there should be; it’s the sort of place you’d expect to find hundreds of elephants, grazing like sheep. The only elephants are for escorting the overweight, elderly or plain lazy to the summit of the mountain temples. Vast-walled fortresses of thick sandstone, black and awesome with age. Immense carvings of dancing womenfolk and mischievous fat-lipped gods brandishing phallic weapons. Most walls and edifices are only part restored; gigantic lichen-covered blocks the size of small cars lie strewn everywhere. At Ta Prohm, a breath-taking jungle-clad ruin, figs and silk cotton trees grow like snakes through the boulders, rooted onto stonewalls, burrowed into every crack. Parrots screech in the branches. Monkeys and children swarm the entirety in pursuit of tourist bananas and foreign coins respectively.
Nine days into our visit, we abandon the crowds and bus South East to Kompong Cham. We stop at Skuon, a village where people eats deep-fried hairy black spiders. Heaped high on plates, they are taken without condiment, simply snap a leg and suck the juice. Repeat 8 times and then, if still hungry, munch on the body. They’re supposed to be an aphrodisiac but I’m still not convinced. Kompong Cham is a busy place clinging to the banks of the meandering Mekong river. Vast sandbars have created huge beaches, with one permanent island beach in the middle linked to the town by a rickety bamboo bridge. Water-gypsies have set up temprary huts on the sandy banks for the dry season; naked children splash in the murky waters. A herd of cows charge at phantom dangers. A lunatic in a loincloth flaps his arms and yodels, before stripping naked and joining the cows. An hour later, he lies asleep on a pavement in town.
A speedy passenger ferry, heaving with humans and spuds, ploughs up-river with abandon. Dredgers, tugs and cargo ships the length of football pitches drift by. Fishing boats uncertainly bob in the ferry’s sway. There are freshwater dolphins in the area but not today. The river seems slow from the banks, but is in fact a terrifying volume of water. Huge gurgling eddies push large carriers around like bathtub ducks.
Six hours later we are in Stung Treng in the northernmost corner of Cambodia. An enthusiastic winking man called Mr T materializes, eager to help, and promises to ‘find’ some motorbikes by morning. True to his word, two sad 100cc bikes appear, each one seemingly aware that they are in for a battering. $5 a day. No paperwork. No deposit. No lessons. No helmet. Sunglasses on, scarves tightened and we’re off, east to the mountains of Ratanakiri on the Vietnamese border. The road we take consists of dusty tracks with craters for potholes and bridges with missing planks. A few miles on, the wheel starts shredding but, knowing nothing about motorbikes, we plough on. Not many foreigners make this trip, so the road is populated by Cambodians waving while we inelegantly weave our banged up mopeds in and out of holes. I wave back and fall off.
We arrive in Ban Lung village late afternoon, red with dirt, scratched, scraped, burnt, parched and our hands frozen into a permanent bike-handle clench. Ban Lung aspires to thrive and has a monument in a roundabout at its ‘centre’. It is a one-street town and everyone seems greatly confused by the round thing in the middle of the road.
Mr. Leng, greased-back hair, plenty of gold, gemstones on his hands and a high-energy moustache, is quick to gather us in. Our bikes are sent to the doctor for wheels and brakes ($1) and we are ushered towards his hotel and fed beer. Mr. Leng seems to have the village wrapped up; he owns this hotel, the one across the road and is now building a third. He berates a nearby French hotel charging $35 for a room when his is just $8. Shattered, we go up to our room, a dank and filthy hovel, mould and peel and grime, plastic pink curtains and a cardboard window pane, fan heaving under the weight of dirt, a grizzly sheet. When I consult Mr. Leng about blankets, he steals one from his sleeping daughter’s bed. On the street below, a dog starts to howl.
By the break of dawn, we are reinstalled in the French place, Terres Rouges, which is very luxurious. We look like demented crack addicts and pay in advance so they don’t treat us like crooks. They treat us like idiots instead and give us the room with the ‘difficult’ lock. We climb over the balcony and in through the window for the next two days.
This is the Cambodia where roads and electricity and taxes are only just beginning to surface. Everywhere else has recovered fast from the horrors of the 70s, healed by dollars and the Champion’s League. But here the tribes are slow to integrate and stick hard to what they know. Every village has its own language. Bachelors live alone in huts elevated on bamboo stilts. Only when they find a wife can they return to ground-level. Sacrificial festivals herald the start and end of the harvest.
We take the bikes to Chhum Rum Beisrock, a mining village two hours deeper into the hills, traveling over increasingly poor roads through forests of rubber. As we approach, friendliness evaporates. No smiling anymore. Where there be treasure, there be distrust. Nobody even assists our quest to find the mine’s entrance. Eventually we stumble upon a field of makeshift manholes, as if a giant mole has gone beserk. A small man disappears down a hole with a bucket, climbing with his elbows and knees because there is so little room to move. He fills the bucket with soil. The bucket is raised and passed to a second man standing elbow high in a pool of gunky red water. He washes and dissolves the soil. The plan is for a gem to remain in his sieve when all else has washed away. Not today pal. We buy a gem and ride back to Bam Lung flushed with success, to show it to the local gem expert, who turns out to be Mr. Leng. After he stops laughing and tries to sell us one of his instead, we share a beer, pack our bags and leave.
This article was published in The Sunday Independent in 2005.