Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | North West Cambodia | Siem Reap – The Great Leap Back
Wacky Races at the Border
Crossing the Border the world changed. From the busy highways of Thailand it was straight into chaos.
The first impression was dust. Dust covered everything, the limbless beggars, the ox carts, and the wooden lean to buildings. The Khmer Rouge was bombing the border town of Poipet as recently as 1998. It had a pure shantytown feel to it, you could almost hear the mortar fire. An almighty torrent of shabby humanity, a vivid contrast to the well-dressed and relatively wealthy Thais I had just left behind.
From here it was 150km to Siem Reap and how long that was going to take was in the hands of the road builders of western Cambodia. Id been doing research all the way from Singapore; quizzing people who had come from here what the state of the roads were like. All the websites and guidebooks I had read said they were bad but I lived in hope that with the recent opening up of the country to tourism that a new road may have been completed to connect Thailand with the tourist Mecca of Angkor Watt. My hope was in vain, the road, if road is the correct word was desperate. Once tarmaced 30 years of bombing, zero maintenance and overuse had left a river of rubble, the top layer of tar has been stripped and the rocky substrate laid bare.
This road was national highway 8, the main artery between Bangkok, Phnom Pen and onward to Saigon and Vietnam. Every few minutes huge trucks with equally huge trailers bounced past kicking up a perpetual cloud of dust that hung in the air giving everything that hazy soft edged look. Like the start of a marathon all the different vehicles bolted away from the border as speedily as their machines would allow.
The monotonous expressways of Thailand were quickly forgotten as I bounced through craters, into dust bowls and around collapsed bridges. All the time pick-up trucks piled high with people zoomed by, horns constantly bleating. Cycles and motor scooters fought with me to use any thin strip of reasonable road that was available. The view beyond this chaos was flat, sporadic tall palm trees dotting the horizon, the occasional wooden house standing, stilted above the dry, arid earth. It felt, as one would imagine it was when the Khmer Rouge fled in 1978, burning the crop before the Vietnamese could take the harvest.
Friday Night at the Brothel
I had a 50km goal for the day and that was more than enough. Sisophon was the provincial capital, a highway intersection at the start of the huge Tonle Sap Lake. My guesthouse was an old French colonial building, steep stairs up to the veranda and a windowless room with the ambient brothel lighting of a single red bulb. No en-suite, in fact no shower at all, just a water tank and a bucket to wash off the red dust caked to my sweat drenched body. Venturing out into the town at dusk the craziness of the roads had been transmuted to the central square. A jumble of scooters, cows, trucks and kids all fighting for a way through the stalls and stationery bikes.
Even after 24 hours the contradiction of this country was evident. With such a gruesome and saddening recent history to see the happy smiling faces of the residents was hard to correlate. The first time I stopped for food I entered a restaurant, stories of de frocked Khmer fighters, armed, drunk and poor upper most in my mind. The first people I meet are a group of soldiers on their day off, drinking and playing cards at 10am. One could speak English, he was exceptionally friendly, never having met a foreigner before this was the first time he had practiced his English. He translated & I was taught the essential Khmer words needed to get by, for a while we laughed and drank together. I was very tall was what they said, and hairy! Cambodians don’t have body hair, kid’s all through Cambodia would tug on my sun bleached arm hair and laugh.
Laughing in the Face of Adversity
Laughing is what people do in this country. If you fall off your bike they laugh, if you get a puncture they laugh and if you show them a picture of themselves on the back of your digital camera you see their expressions change from luddite fear to broad toothless smiles in a matter of milli-seconds.
Despite the tough conditions and some long stops hanging with the locals I arrived into Siem Reap the following day in the early afternoon. My bike still in one piece, a little saddle soar and sporting a white stripe where my sunglasses had once been shielding my eyes from the rusty red dust. Siem Reap is in boom mode. This town, the gateway to the one of the world’s greatest ruins, Angkor Wat is growing at a rate of knots. With an international airport, more tarmac than the rest of Cambodia put together and foreign investment flooding in it is becoming a hectic place. After a shower to remove the Cambodian countryside from my hair, ears, nose and skin I jumped on a motorcycle taxi up to the ruins to share the sunset over Angkor Wat with a couple of thousand other tourists. Too stiff to climb the steep stairs to the summit of the lookout I took the elephant trail, avoiding falling dung and waving trunks as these gentle beasts plodded up the hill with their cargo of westerners perched high above.
The next few days were spent visiting the many temples and palaces of this vast area. My motorcycle driver taking me from ruin to ruin, waiting patiently while I fell asleep on the top of pagodas, absorbing the atmosphere of this special place. Sunrise & sunset were the best parts of the day and if you went where the tourist werent you could sit alone in the inner sanctuaries of Angkor, and as the architects intended travel back in time to the first age of the creation of the Buddhist universe, only the occasional monk and the intricately carved heavenly nymphs for company. Sitting high above the cameras snapping tour bus crowds all pointing back at this amazing monolith. Dusk was spent sitting in the Bayon, the many gargantuan faces of Avalokitesvara changing expressions with the falling sun. One day I took my bike up to the ruins and cycled through 1000-year gateways, over ancient reservoirs and jungle-engulfed mansions.
Children of the Revolution
At every stop the children are there. One dollar, one dollar everything is one dollar. Whether you want 10 postcards, 50 bracelets, a flute, guidebook or 2 wooden things with rubber bands that go boing! If you buy one t-shirt the other girls will cry, “buy another for your wife, your mother, or your girlfriend”. When you take time out and sit with them they change. From hardened businessmen back to 8 year old children. They spoke good English and as always the digital camera attracted a large crowd. They ogled over the beaches of Thailand and the skyscrapers of Singapore. I took a few photos of them and promised to email them when I got back. An email address?; some of these kids dont have feet; the Internet is a long way down their list of priorities. I ended up printing the photos out in town and taking them back the following day. Hundreds of thank yous’ before they reverted back to the hard sell for more postcards.
This country is desperately poor. The average salary is $300 per year. Less than $1 per day. A coffee at Starbucks could keep somebody alive for a week. The legacy of brutal genocide and recent war has left landmines everywhere; you cant step off the roads and paths. Yet they all smile. I met a local man on my ride into Siem Reap who had recently come back from years as a refugee in Thailand. He taught English and I agreed to spend some time at his school to help out. Not knowing exactly what to expect I was picked up on a borrowed motorbike and driven 20km out of town to a small village. Before the class started we talked for a while. Samuth or Lucky Man as he was known had an amazing story. So amazing that it is hard to believe but in this crazy place you realize that everybody has a story.
His family was killed when he was 15; he only survived because he was away fishing when the Khmer Rouge came to his village. He trekked across c-ountry eventually reaching the Thai border, without the correct papers we was imprisoned. He found God, trained as a dental assistant with the UN and finally returned to Cambodia where he set up this free school for orphaned children, he was also the village dentist which was in the backroom of his tiny classroom. The walls were a patchwork of illustrated quotes from the bible and the UN declaration of Human Rights. His objective is to educate these children in English so they can get jobs in the new hotels of Siem Reap. He teaches 2 hours a day mixing English language lessons with the world of God (Get, like Got, like God) and messages of Human Rights (Justice, opposite Injustice).
There were about 30 children in the class ranging from 8 18. He used an old British textbook, I read out a paragraph about the Devon Seaside that they then wrote down and repeated. Samuth then translated into Khmer explaining the grammatical structure of the sentences. Many of the orphans live in the back of the classroom, in hammocks between the wooden dentist chair and the water well . For a few hours after the lesson I sat around them, they asked me questions about my home and me about theirs. Samuth was an amazing person. He will be the first in line at the gates of Heaven when he gets there. It is amazingly humbling when you realize that all over the world there are people like him everyday working to make life a better place for people less fortunate than themselves; a very special person.
One for the Road
On my last night in town I watched the Killing Fields, which everybody reading this should rent and watch. This film was shocking 10 years ago watching in the comfort of my home but to see it now, with a family of Cambodians is something else. It really brings home the gripping reality of what happened in this country so recently. To realize that in 1977 while we were enjoying a long hot summer and the emergence of punk rock children my age where taking up arms and being indoctrinated into torturing and murdering their fellow countrymen.
The same night I met one of my fellow countrymen and he was also cycling to Phnom Pen. After a little route changing we arranged to cycle together for a few days. It would be fun to have some company through the heart of this country for a while .