Crossing the Border

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

We left Saigon for Cambodia early yesterday morning, but did not get much sleep for our trip since we stayed up to ring in the new year. On new year's eve, the streets were bustling with both tourists and local people. Restaurants and ornamental trees were lit up; children paraded around with balloons. At twelve midnight there was fireworks. Apparently a lot of people used to set off firecrackers, but it was outlawed because too many buildings were burned down. Most of the hotels had their own celebrations with music, drinks and food and invited their guests. Our hotel was festooned with lights and a disco ball; we arrived back at out hotel at 1 am and were persuaded to join in the disco dancing until we managed to dance our way upstairs. Thus 6 am arrived pretty early!

It was a seven hour trip by bus. We reached the border in about an hour and it took the same amount of time to process our passports, first at Vietnam customs and then at the Cambodian border.

The landscape during the trip was relatively flat; small farms dotted both sides of the road. Palm trees and tararind trees were covered with a thick coat of dust because it is the dry seaon. Of course, the roadside is strewn with litter. Homes were made from thatch, wood or corrugated metal with thatched roofs - it reminded me of Thailand 20 years ago.

We were the only tourists on the bus, save for a Cambodian-Australian women and her family who were travelling to Phnom Penh to visit family. Chhavy and her family left Cambodia 25 years ago after Pol Pot's reign of terror from the mid to later 1970s. She was travelling with her son, Moni, daughter-in-law, Tram and their three boisterous sons, Anthony (9), Jonathan (6) and Stefan (4). The boys spoke only English (because their mother was of Vietnamese heritage and didn't speak Cambodian - the languages are quite different). All except Chhavy had strong Australian accents.

The had just spent three days in Saigon visiting Tram's relatives. She complained that Moni didn't like the food and thought everything was dirty. He was only eight when they immigrated to Australia and, thus, 25 years later he sees the world through western eyes.

Chhavy readily took us under her wing, looking after us on the bus and when we arrived at our destination. She advised us that the toilet at the Cambodian border was better. (I think it was because it was a western one with a seat rather than a squat-type. The problem with the ones with the seat is that the locals don't use toilet paper; rather, there is a spray mechanism to clean themselves after going to the toilet and the seat is always wet.) She suggested that we not change our Vietnamese dong to Camodian riel on the bus as the rates were poorer (and the sellers got very angry with her for doing this). When we arrived at Phnom Penh, she invited us to join them for lunch and gave us the low down on the market, bargaining, etc. She wanted to phone her family to come and get them, but laughed that she couldn't remember how the phones worked.

We bargained with a tuk-tuk driver to drive us to the hotel area along the river. (Tuk-tuks are similar to the ones in Bangkok except they're a full motorcyle pulling a carriage). There are also lots of cyclos and motorcycles about. There's some honking and vehicles still have the right-of-way over pedestrians, but it's nothing like Vietnam. On the street, kids are selling newspapers, pirated (photocopied) books (such as lonely planet travel guides and bestsellers on SE Asia in English) and sunglasses. There are lots of beggars; many are missing limbs. Land mines are still a problem in Cambodia and although efforts are being made to clear them away, the use of them was so extensive (there were over 10 million set and no maps re: locations) that it's taking a long time. Because farm labour here is so labour intensive and there is little mechanization, those farmers who lose limbs to land mines can no longer work as farmers. They are reduced to being beggars.

Cambodia has a population of about 13 million and is a constitutional monarchy with King Sihanouk as its head. Phnom Penh (population 1 million) is the capital.

Most of the people are of Khmer origin and are buddhist. From 1975 to 1979, over two million people (1/4 of the population) died as a direct result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge. Educated people, in particular, were targeted for execution which is interesting considering that Pol Pot was a teacher (not his real name; Pol Pot is short for "political potential", believe it or not). Schools were banned, as were markets, timepieces (clocks and watches), religion and television. The Khmer Rouge maintained a guerilla war throughout the 80s and it wasn't until 1991 that a peace accord was signed.

We went for a walk along the Tonle Sap River today. It's a beautiful view and you can see for miles. There are a number of tour boats. Monks, garbed in their traditional orange cloth, walk side-by-side carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. An intricately carved wall runs alongside the water where people sit, visit and eat. I moved in closer to investigate only to be repelled by the smell. Where there are walls, men must urinate. Sometimes I wish I could turn off my nose.

February 11 - We hired a car to take us to Choeung Ek Genocide Center, more commonly known as one of the killing fields. Our driver, Savon, lost both his mother and sister during the Pol Pot's reign of terror. He does not know what happened to them. All the cities were emptied of people who were sent to the country to work as peasant farmers. Everyone except the very young and the very old worked in the fields. They were given only rice soup to eat and many died of starvation. Savon has only two children. The three "Fs" (family, faith and food) are very important to Cambodians. He emphasized that having children was important so that they would look after you in your old age because their is no security system here.

Over 20,000 people were buried in mass graves in the killing fields, many of these were women and children. There are huge craters where the ground has been excavated; bits of clothing and bone litter the whole area. We heard incredible stories of brutality; most people were blugeoned or stabbed to death. Our tour guide was only a baby during this period and is uncomprehending as to why no other country stepped in to stop the atrocities. Both his sisters, aged 12 and 15, died of starvation.

We also visited Tuol Sleng Museum. This was a secondary school that was turned into a prison where many Cambodians were tortured prior to being sent to the killing fields. We saw the torture chambers, the tiny airless cells, and the thousands of faces that lived the nightmare. Particularly poignant are photos of Cambodians (both during this period and recent-day) and their stories of survival. As Martin so aptly put it, "you can feel the ghosts".

Across the street from our hotel is a billboard that has a picture of a man behind bars with a caption that says, "You abuse children in our country, you go to jail in yours". There seems to be a concerted effort to address child prostitution in SE Asia. In Nha Trang, Vietnam, the owner of a restaurant called Crazy Kim's has been working with Amnesty International to educate, feed and clothe street kids. Hopefully SE Asia is not the easy picking grounds that it once was for pedophiles.

There is an excellent selection of food in Phnom Penh, particularly some good Thai food. There's danger in sitting at the tables on the sidewalk however, as you are continually pestered by the kids - "You buy book? You buy". We appreciate that the restaurant staff stand guard so that we are able to eat in peace. Eating out seems to be about twice the price here (costs us about $10-$12 for supper as compared to $5-$6 in Vietnam/Thailand) and accommodation is almost double, too ($15 as compared to $8 per night). One thing that all of the countries in SE Asia that we've been to have in common is that you never get all the food you order at the same time, so it's good to share if you don't want to eat alone!

Computers here (as in many places in Vietnam) could drive you nuts. They are very slow and, at times, I have spent over an hour trying to download three or four pictures. Sometimes before I'm done downloading they crash which is really frustrating!!!

As usual, we are trying to be polite and to learn to say hello and thank you in the local language. We note that when we say thank you in Kymer - "ah kahn" (pronounced "aw koon") - people seem very surprised. I don't think many of the tourists bother.
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