Monday, March 30, 2009

Lazy days in the Khmer kingdom

Cambodia, once the center of the mighty Angkor empire, now one of Asia's poorest and corrupt countries. Since the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot came to power in 1975, Cambodia got stuck in two decades of civil war, which caused the death of millions of Khmer people and brought the country back to the stone age. And although Cambodia more or less recovered from the war, it remains one of the poorest countries in the region. The gap between rich and poor is enormous and still growing. Cambodia is such a friendly and beautiful country, but its history is really sad.
It is not all bad news though as, like most of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is developing. Being squeezed in between big guys Thailand and Vietnam and with a large tourist industry, Cambodia is growing quickly. I visited the country already in January 2007, when I stayed there for three weeks together with my father and brother. This time I went with Jurjen, traveling from Thailand on the way to Vietnam.

March 03rd, Hat Lek, Thailand
Although crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia was kind of a rainy affair, I still enjoyed the crossings as some guys brought beer for us. It is the first border I crossed while I was holding a cold beer in my hand, some people even offered marijuana; at an international border crossing (!). From that wacky border we shared a taxi with a British guy to Krong Koh Kong, which is the first town coming from Thailand.
Krong Koh Kong really is a shabby border town. The guys from the guest house we stayed in tried to rip us off by asked double the price of a bus ticket and we got 5 offers to buy marijuana within the first hour. However we spent the night there and took a bus next day to Andoung Taek, a small town in the middle of nowhere. The driver almost missed our stop in that town, because it is so small and basically nobody gets off there. We did, got ourselves a refreshing coke and arranged two moto-drivers to take us even further off the track to a village named Chi Paht. The moto-ride through the jungle was quite nice and a small passenger ferry at the end of the road brought us to the village. The reason we went to Chi Paht is the community based eco-tourism opportunities that are offered. The village has a small eco-tourism office and arranges home stays in the village. The accommodation is pretty basic, but still nice. As there is not much else to do except for the tours offered, we just walked a bit around the village and talked with a depressive Irish guy the first day. We went to sleep after a nice dinner and were accompanied by a huge gecko, who luckily ate most of the insects.
Next day we made a 42 kilometer mountain-bike tour through the jungle. We arranged a local guide at the tourist office and set of for some waterfalls and a cave. Especially the waterfalls were beautiful and going downhill on a mountain-bike through the jungle has been a great experience. We swam in the waterfall, climbed the cave and cycled back to Chi Paht before the rain started. The day after we went back to Andoung Taek and tried to get out of the town. This turned out to be difficult as there were no buses leaving Andoung Taek, which meant we had to hitchhike. Hitchhiking was really easy though and a friendly guy in a nicely air-conditioned SUV brought us to Cambodia's premier beachtown Sihanoukville.
I didn't like Sihanoukville that much actually, it really is like the Costa del Cambodia; the city is very touristic and full of bars, prostitutes, western style restaurants and resorts. Totally the opposite of Chi Paht. We did stay there for a few days and went on to much nicer Kampot, a smaller city also on the south coast. We found a good Danish/British owned guesthouse with amazing food (the owner used to be a chef-cook back in England) and friendly travelers who joined us for some beer that night.
The first full day in Kampot, we rented small 125cc motorbikes and started driving around the city. For Jurjen, it was his first time driving something else than a car or bicycle and he was so unfortunate to break his foot when it slipped off the bike. The accident happened on a road which was under construction, the road basically was a dirt track full of trucks. In a reflex to brake for a strangely moving truck, he hit my bike and stepped wrongly on his foot, which caused three fractures. The clinic where they casted the foot was quite nice though and the guest house we stayed wasn't a bad place to get stuck for a while.
Totally we stayed 10 more days in Kampot, where we couldn't do much because Jurjen could barely walk. So we were just chilling out, eating amazing burritos, playing backgammon, matching movies and talking to fellow travelers. We met a Dutch guy, Misha, who joined us for some beer several nights and a few French people. In order to make our stay in Kampot a bit more productive, we joined a boat trip with a Belgian guy who lives in Kampot, he called his service: 'Bootje varen Bart'. Together with Misha, an Italian and a Canadian we floated along the waterways around Kampot, stopping several times for a swim. A really nice day, since we could enjoy the scenery without walking.
After 10 days of relaxing in Kampot, it was time to move on to Cambodia's capital. A three hour bus ride brought us to Phnom Penh and a tuk-tuk to the backpacker area at Boung Kak lake. This 'lakeside' area of Phnom Penh is the cheapest area to stay, which rock-bottom guest houses. The atmosphere is really nice though and the sunset over the lake worth seeing. Jurjen got himself some crutches, to make walking a bit easier (although it still cost him lots of energy). The following days we continued doing what we did in Kampot: not much. We were hanging around the lakeside area, watching lots of movies, drinking some beers and socializing with other travelers. We did make a few trips by tuk-tuk around the city. We visited the impressive Killing Fields, which used to be an extermination camp during the Khmer Rouge period. It is such a depressive place, very similar to the Nazi camp in Auschwitch. We also went to the Toul Sleng museum, which served as torture prison in the times of the Khmer Rouge regime. This museum even impressed us more than the Killing Fields, as it is full of photos of all the people who lost their lives there. Like I mentioned before, the country has such a sad history.
The following days we made some more tuk-tuk trips around Phnom Penh, visiting the Independence monument, driving past the Royal Palace and the Mekong river. From our tuk-tuk we witnessed the massive gap between rich and poor. The city is really dirty, like there is garbage all over the place and from our tuk-tuk we saw lots of beggars, prostitutes, disabled and gangs of children. On the other hand, there are the few who have the money and drive around in large SUVs. Furthermore, the city has been more and more controlled by international corporations. Even the Killing Fields, where Cambodia's national history is displayed, are now managed by a Japanese company.
So after spending too much time in Phnom Penh, we took a bus to Siem Reap in order to visit Cambodia's pride: the temples of Angkor. As I have been to Cambodia and Angkor already, I wasn't really interested to see the temples again, but I went with Jurjen anyway. We stayed a few days in Siem Reap, which is the town next to Angkor and we made a day-trip to the temples. We saw the main temples at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm. And we visited a few minor temples on the way. Still I enjoyed walking around the beautiful constructions as the incredible architecture of the 12th century really blows you away. One of the temples, Ta Prohm, is almost completely overgrown by the jungle and is nicknamed the 'Tomb raider temple', because of the movie which has been filmed there. The main temple of Angkor Wat is known as the world's largest religious building (it used to be a Hindu temple back in the days it was built). And yet another main temple, Bayon, is famous for all the faces carved out and perhaps is the most beautiful structure.
After that few days in Siem Reap and Angkor, we took a bus back to Phnom Penh to stay for the night. Next day we continued eastwards to Bavet, which is the border town with Vietnam. In total, we stayed a month in Cambodia, ready to do some serious backpacking again in Vietnam.