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South-East Asia

Cambodia: A traveller’s mecca where History echoes

by Matt Thomas

Following a brutally long, if relatively comfortable, multiple bus journey from Four Thousands Islands, across the border into Cambodia and across to Siem Reap, I commenced, what promised to be one of the highlights of my six month trip, The Temples of Angkor. Starting in stifling heat at Angkor Wat I was not disappointed, Angkor Wat itself could take a committed sightseer (if that’s a word) two hours, such is the size and vastness. The logistics that it must have taken to build such an epic temple in the eleventh and twelth centuries, when most of the materials were brought by river, are mind boggling. The best way to see the temples is via the short loop and the long loop via tuk tuk or hiring a bicycle, if you really want to push yourself.

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I quickly ran out of superlatives to describe the awe inspiring temples, from the compassionate yet authoritative faces of Bayon, to the creepy cross river walk, to the beautifully ramshackle tree temples. An absolute must for anyone travelling around South-East Asia.

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city and lies either side of the Sangkae river. To be blunt there is not much here save a couple of interesting Wats and a burgeoning riverside restaurant scene. It is really a place to kick back for a couple of days or hire bicycle and take in the local countryside. Interestingly there was an anti government protest going on whilst I was here. A local man explained to me that the same party has been in power for nearly thirty years, and due to poor governance and nepotism, educated people do not have jobs and the country is not moving on as it should be. The people want change. However, it was my impression that they were still too afraid of their recent past to push this too much.


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Wat Damrey Sar

Moving onto Phnom Penh, it was time to learn more about the genocide of the early 1970s. In short the Khmer Roge regime led by Pol Pot, instigated a policy of turning Cambodia into an agrarian race, with the harrowing idea of starting at year 0. They sought to exterminate any educated people who may be able to challenge them. People were taken in their hundreds of thousands to slave labour camps, and anyone who showed the slightest protest was brutally killed and buried in one of the many purpose built killing fields. It is estimated that just under 1.4 million people died in this manner against a total population of 8 million.

The Genocide Museum, was at the time the most difficult place that I have ever been. The thousands of pictures of people who died, and the look of absolute terror on their faces will always live with me. I decided to visit the Killing Fields on a seperate day to break things up. I will not go into too much detail here, but would mention that the atmosphere around the visitors was one of utter despondence, no-one was talking or taking photographs, and there were several people openly crying. A poignant must see.

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The Killing Fields

With the reminder that travelling isn’t all beach bars and hammocks, I headed south to the party, or I hoped, chill out island of Koh Rong. It is a beautiful island, with a white sand beach, sparkling crystal waters and cool bars, the musical genres ranging from banging techno to nineties britpop. All that said, I found life here more stressful than it might have been. The infrastructure is quite poor, placing a strain on local amenities. For example there is no electricity from 2am to 8am, making sleeping difficult. Similarly the water seems to be turned off intermittently, and I had to ask everyday for it to be turned on so I could shower. One morning the manager commented, “there are too many people having showers.” Perhaps something to get used to in your line of work, my friend. Moreover the constant mosquito battle is doubled here by the existance of seemingly invisible sandflies. In short it is a gorgeous island, with many plusses but perhaps not for the more discerning traveller.

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Koh Rong

Following the bizarre racial, and frankly a tad anti traveller, segregation on the speedboat back to the shore I spent a night in Sihanoukville, the mainland beach resort. It has more creature comforts and a distinctly more trashy atmosphere. However the traveller area of the beach is lovely, with more of a refreshing breeze than the islands, and there is a good choice of cafes and bars.

My final stop in Cambodia was laid back and serene Kampot, one of those little gems that one occasionally comes across. There is not a great deal to do here aside from cycling down to the waterfalls, and lounging around the riverside bars and restaurants. With a population of just 30,000 it is unsurprisingly quiet, but there is an excellent cafe run by deaf and disabled locals, the accommodation is great value, and there is an English language cinema. I met a couple of interesting people here. The first an American lady working for an NGO helping victims of sex tourism and physical and domestic violence in Phnom Penh. The second was an english girl who had been “relieved” of her laptop, credit cards and $600 by someone at her hostel after drinking with him, and voluntarily handing over her belongings for him to look after. A lesson there somewhere perhaps.

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A final thought that struck me about Cambodia was given the proximity to the present of the genocide of the early 1970s, effectively anyone over the age of forty lived through the slave camps. The lack of educated people is obviously a barrier in helping the country progress economically, and my impression was that of a friendly, but slightly nervous people, weighed down a little by their past but still with a forthright determination to move forward.