This will be brief. We were in Bangkok for only one afternoon. It was one afternoon too long. Maybe I’ve just got jaded of big cities after seeing some lovely smaller cities and towns. We had seen some pretty severe flooding on the outskirts, but as we approached the city there didn’t seem to be any sign of it. Oh, apart from sandbags EVERYWHERE, which everyone just seemed to be ignoring. Most people had also built temporary walls around their shop fronts. And when we walked to the river, which was not a million miles from our guesthouse, it was lapping over the top of the bank.
We saw an extremely commercialised Buddhist temple where people can pay extra for bored looking women to come and sing and dance to aid them in their prayers. We saw what we have to assume is a popular Thai band performing in the shopping centre. There were screaming fans everywhere, just when we were trying to find some toiletries. We went to Pat Pong to see the night market, and although I was prepared to be propositioned to see a ping pong show (if you don’t know what this is watch Hangover 2 – although if you really don’t know what this is you may be too innocent to continue reading this blog), I wasn’t prepared for someone reminding me very much of my cousin to make the propositioning. I also wasn’t prepared for the volume of invitations, or for the fact that everyone making the invitations was equally prepared to approach me as they were Mark.
We ate some terrible food in Chinatown, and then decided it was time to head back to the guesthouse. Not before walking past an emergency shelter for flood victims, which was on ground level, but right next to a monument a few steps up, begging the question; why didn’t they put the shelter those few steps up. I was then lectured by the lady on reception at our guesthouse for smoking too much. She sounded just like my Mum! It made me miss her even more!
We woke the next morning at 4am (yes, 4am!) to get our five hour train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border at Poipet.
Thailand to Cambodia
Five long hours on a 3rd class train from Bangkok to Poipet. I thought it may be OK when we left Bangkok because it was empty, and I could lie on my hard wooden bench trying to get a bit more sleep. But it turned out to be the commuter train, so after the first stop it completely filled up. We spent the remaining time looking at the scenery and trying not to fall asleep on stranger’s shoulders. When we arrived at Poipet train station we were still really half asleep, so we agreed to share a tuk tuk with a German wine importer called Roland.
We thought we’d be in good hands as he’s lived in Bangkok for a year and could speak a little of the language. It seemed that he’d got us good deal, until we pulled up just before the border to a little office that told us that we could buy our Cambodian visas from them. Thankfully Mark does his research, and knew that this was a scam. You must only ever get your visa once you have gone through Thai passport control and are approaching the Cambodian border control. But because we then wanted to be taken a little further, to the actual border, suddenly the price shot up. Roland was however very gentlemanly about this, and we only ended up paying what we had originally agreed.
We got through border control, and applied for our visas in the correct place. But in addition to the US$20 we had read we would have to pay, we also had to pay THB100. We’re still not sure what the extra charge was for, but what could we do? Say “No I’d rather not pay that thank you, I’ll go back to Thailand”? And anyway, we still had some baht left, so it was as good a way to use it as any.
We got our visas and headed through into Cambodia. How exciting! Another new country, and another new stamp in my passport. We got through the border and were pounced upon by a very nice young man who directed us to board a shuttle bus to the bus and taxi station. We’ve clearly become very wary about being scammed, so we weren’t sure whether this was the right thing to do, but the guy did have an official looking badge with his name and photo on, so how could we refuse.
He was very friendly and chatted to us all the way to the station, teaching us a few words of Cambodian, and when he finds out I’m from England he says “Lovely jubbly”. Bizarre. We arrive at the station, and he showed us where to buy our bus tickets to Siem Reap. He told us that the government set up the shuttle bus service because too many tourists were being scammed by taxi companies when they came over the border. Taxis would agree to take them to the bus station, but would then head to Siem Reap bus station, which is another 4 hours away. But we realised eventually that he didn’t just love his work. He had already mentioned that another couple that he had helped had tipped him, and when we got our change from the bus he asked us too. In all honesty I was happy to do it as he had been very welcoming and helpful.
We had to wait an hour and a half for the bus, so I pulled out the ukulele to have a practise, and suddenly made some new Cambodian friends. One of them spoke such good English that I could even explain the reason behind the “I’m so proud of it I put my name on it” etching. We also got chatting to a couple of Nordic guys, who were carrying a guitar. We thought about having a jam, but with my knowledge still being so poor I thought it would be a bit embarrassing. Eventually we boarded the bus to head on our way to Siem Reap. By the way, we discovered that Siem Reap means Siam falls, Siam being the ancient Kingdom of what we now know as Thailand. Not very diplomatic!
We soon found out that Cambodia is just as flat as Norfolk, or the Netherlands, and that the main road from Poipet to Siem Reap is the longest, straightest road I have ever seen. The Romans would have been proud of it. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for the level poverty in Cambodia, but the reality was still very difficult to face. All along the journey there seemed to be village after village all lined up along the roadside. It seemed that all the houses were built of whatever materials could be found; timber, corrugated sheeting, thatch. The lucky few had brick or concrete houses. Kids were running around by the roadside playing in the dirt. I wondered why all the villages seemed to congregate around the road, and then I realised that it’s probably where the majority of any business comes from, rather than from within the communities.
We had a quick rest stop at a café, and as soon as we got down from the bus all the local children had crowded around us asking for money. We had already read that we should be patient with them, because they are sent out by their families to do this to try and make some much needed money. The problem is that once you start, where can you stop? If you’re surrounded by ten children you can’t give to only one, and once you start giving money out then they run to tell their friends to come down too. It’s utterly heart breaking. When I visited my cousin Elliot in Saigon some years ago, I made the mistake of giving some money to one of the women that was begging with her baby in her arms, and within seconds I was completely surrounded. He literally had to drag me out of the throng, and he was really angry with me, warning me never to do it again.
We took off again on our last leg to Siem Reap with our patience intact, despite having had it duly tested. The kids will not take no for an answer. Even if you say you don’t have money they tell you that they don’t believe you, and that you must have some money to give to them. I just kept saying “I don’t have”. Mark and I have discussed this, because each time I refuse I feel worse and worse. His view is that if you keep giving money to individuals then you keep perpetuating the situation. It’s much better to give the money to non-government organisations that work at making communities self-sustainable. But in reality, if you don’t give the money to individuals, the alternative could be that they die. They live on so little here, and we have so much. Mark and I are not made of money, and we worked hard to get the money together for this trip. But we still have so much more than the majority of these people can ever hope for. It leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth.
We arrived in Siem Reap and were unceremoniously dumped on the outskirts rather than anywhere near the city centre. This was another scam that we had read about, but there is little you can do about it. The bus company gets kickbacks from local tuk tuk drivers, for dropping you in an inconvenient place where it is difficult to find onward transport, and where you have no choice but to take these tuk tuks at inflated prices.
We were quoted way over the odds by a very pushy tuk tuk driver who refused to haggle. Eventually we went with him because we were tired and just wanted to get to our guesthouse, but when he started really pushing to take us around the temples the next day, we refused. In being overcharged for the first journey we had lost our capability to trust him further. I couldn’t help thinking later that he may have had to charge so much on the first journey for the kickback to the bus company, which in itself has then lost him more independent business. It’s pretty desperate if people have to do business in a way that eventually guarantees them less return.
We did get to our guesthouse though, which was really fantastic, not just for the premises themselves, in which you could see the French colonial influence, but also for the staff. It’s a family run business, and they were so friendly and welcoming, always with a smile and a greeting for you, and they even made us breakfast at 11.30am one morning when we were feeling particularly lazy, this after the chef had left for the day! This improved my initial perception of Cambodia. I started to realise that it is not somewhere that you have to be constantly on your guard attempting not to feel guilty, because we could completely relax here and feel that we were among friends.
Our time in Cambodia was a really mixed bag. Siem Reap was fantastic, for the Angkor temples, the people, and the beautiful town, although it is highly geared towards tourists in the town centre. Phnom Penh was not enjoyable at all. There was a resentful, almost threatening atmosphere towards foreigners, and the poverty was much more prevalent. I will go into more detail about both cities later on, but I felt I couldn’t tell you about our time here without imparting to you some of the information I’ve seen and read about the history and the current situation in this beautiful country. Hopefully this will help you to see where I’m coming from in the detail.
I’ve been dreading writing this chapter, because I’ve seen and read so much about the Khmer Rouge regime that has really broken my heart, and has changed my perspective on life. I will never understand how there can be such a complete lack of humanity in the world. It’s always been there, but I guess now we only see it more, and in more detail, because of the media. After every instance, we always say we must never forget, and never let it happen again. But it still does. I’m not a historian, and I’m not an authority to write on the Khmer Rouge, but I think it’s important for people to know about it.
Centuries ago during the Angkorian period, this country and the Khmer people within it was the regional power, laying claim to many areas of land which are now under Thai and Vietnamese control. Testaments of this are the temples of Angkor. I wanted to know the history of the Angkorian period before we visited the temples, to be able to fully understand the culture. I won’t bore you with all the details, just a little in brief. The Angkorian era started in 802 and ended in 1432 after Thailand ransacked Angkor and kidnapped all the artists and intellectuals. For the next four centuries Cambodia relied on either Vietnam or Thailand for protection, until the 1864 signing of a French treaty of protectorate, thereby beginning the French colonial rule. In 1953 Cambodia declared independence from French rule, after World War II and the creation of the UN forced all of the colonies to give back the countries they had stolen. Yes, I know we didn’t like it, but you can’t just keep going and laying claim to countries by sticking your flag in the ground.
So started an independent Cambodian period of peace and prosperity, creativity and optimism. But the war in Vietnam (which interestingly the Vietnamese call the American war) also sucked in Cambodia, when the American bombs and land invasion reached eastern Cambodia. Civil war broke out and for the first half of the 1970s large parts of the country were engulfed in violence.
Khmer Rouge rule began in 1975. They attempted to completely restructure Cambodian society. Actually what they wanted was to create a completely independent society, untainted by other cultures, that did not rely on anything from any other country. A noble notion, but completely farcical. I don’t know of any country that doesn’t rely on others for trade. And this notion did not stretch far enough to stop the Khmer Rouge trading rice with China in exchange for the weapons that they needed to continually attack the Vietnamese borders, to protect them from the Vietnamese that were trying to liberate the Khmer people, and to keep the Cambodian population in check. Rice which was farmed by the vast slave labour camp that Cambodia had become.
Under this regime all the cities were emptied and all citizens were moved out to villages to plant and harvest crops. Everything that was grown belonged to the community. Nobody was allowed their own possessions or land. Religious practises were no longer allowed. Families were split up, and fear and paranoia of the regime finding out about any connection with the previous government stopped bonds from forming between neighbours. A typical day would consist of 14-15 hours working in the crops, with two meals per day of watery soup with a few grains of rice. Disease and starvation were rife. This continued for four years.
Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. Under his leadership it is estimated that approximately 2 million people were killed or died of starvation and disease, almost a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Intellectuals were completely wiped out, to minimise the risk of uprising, and to rid the country of Capitalist ideas. Having glasses or speaking a foreign language was enough reason to be killed. He developed his Marxist ideas into extreme Maoism, and wanted to create a society where everyone was equal. But of course, some people were more equal than others. Pot Pot didn’t die of disease or starvation. He died of natural causes. It’s described as a sorry death, but in my mind, it could never be sorry enough for the extreme trauma he has caused an entire nation.
Khmer Rouge rule was eventually bought to an end by the Vietnamese in 1979. One year after I was born, in my safe little town, in the bosom of my loving family. It still strikes me that it is completely arbitrary whether you are born into a life where you have opportunities, or into a life where you are surrounded by misery and hopelessness. The Khmer Rouge rule didn’t kill peoples love for their family, but it made it all the more difficult to feel love, having to watch your loved ones suffer and die. If you would like to learn more about this period, please read “First They Killed My Father” by Luong Ung. You could also watch the film “The Killing Fields”. It is heart breaking, but I promise you it will put your daily worries into perspective.
Even after liberation the Khmer people still suffered through more civil war and massive famines. The new government installed after 1979 was led by former Khmer Rouge officers. The Khmer Rouge still occupied the Cambodian seat at the UN General Assembly until 1991. The UN-backed Khmer Rouge trials stumble along, and it does not seem certain that justice will be done before the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders die peacefully of old age. Where is the justice?
And it seems that the progress of Cambodia is still hampered today by the so called Cambodian Peoples Party. They have control of the military, officials at all levels of government and the state-owned media. Cambodia is ranked 166 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index, and corruption has become a way of life. Poor people will be evicted from their land and relocated to arid or flooded areas, where their livelihood is severely threatened through the inability to grow anything. Once evicted from it, the land will be sold on to rich property developers. The evil of man still has a grip on the country that has already suffered from so much man made evil.
If you have any spare cash I would urge you to donate to one of these NGOs, which are the better options to help Cambodia rise again to its full potential:
If some of the people that I’ve met are anything to go by, with the right backing and infrastructure, Cambodia could become a great Kingdom again. Surviving through the Khmer Rouge regime with their spirits and their smiles mostly intact only serves to prove what a strong, resourceful, resilient people the Khmers are. They deserve respect and the opportunity to build hope out of the hellish events of their recent past. They have survived through what most of us cannot even imagine, and do not deserve to be belittled and ignored by a corrupt government, which is only interested in self-preservation, and not in the rule of, by and for the people that it is supposed to stand for.