Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh - Cambodia
Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
74Trip End Jun 27, 2008
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When booking the trip there was an option of a 'speedboat' to take us into Phnom Penh (which from now on will be known as PP as already I have mistyped it 48 times). This meant we would arrive at 1pm on the second day rather than 5pm, the time the slower boat would arrive.
Nice and early we loaded onto the bus and set off to Cai Be, where we boarded the boat. Along the way we witnessed river life - floating markets, boat building, house building - everyday life for many people. It was fascinating to see. It's clear by the colour of the water that the Mekong is an 'industrial' river. It is a nice chocolate brown and not somewhere you would want to jump in to cool off; although you do see many people swimming and washing clothes along the way.
Half an hour into the journey and the heavens opened. Typical. The day after we send our waterproofs home it rains. (we would come to regret it even more in the coming days as October is rainy season in S.E. Asia). So time to drop the tarpaulin sides of the boat and within minutes we were all sat on this boat seeing nothing other than the backs of each others head. Glad I got my river life fix while the sun was out.
Not too long later the rain abated, the covers were lifted and we made our way to stop number one. Here we learnt how they make rice cakes, coconut sweet thingies and other nice things (I am rubbish at paying attention).
Lunch was in a restaurant at the side of the river, which was very nice, and for dessert we got a free demonstration of Vietnamese music. Hmmmm. All I will say is that there is perhaps a reason that Vietnamese music hasn't exactly taken the world by storm. Just yet.
After spending a little more time on the river we arrived at Cham Douc - the place we would be spending the night. It was an early night for the both of us, and for it me it was night full of dreams of arriving in PP on a speedboat James Bond style. Ha ha - foolish me.
The next morning the group split. There were those that would be spending another night sightseeing on the Mekong before heading back to HCMC; others would be going to PP but arriving on the slower boat; and then there was Nic and I - the only ones that had opted for the speedboat option. We joked with our fellow travellers that the only difference would be that their boat would have two people rowing and ours would have four. However, all the literature when we booked it showed a gleaming white, super fast looking speedboat.
At 8.30 we headed over to the point of embarking and imagine our surprise to see it was exactly how it looked in the photos!! Wow. My dreams of being like James Bond had just come true. There were only subtle differences between him and me. He would have arrived in PP wearing a tuxedo, beautiful girl on his arm and a dry martini, shaken not stirred, in his hand.
Me? Well I had on a pair of old scruffy shorts, Nic on my arm, and a can of pop. Other than that it was exactly the same.
On the boat we met our new travel buddies that we would be sharing this experience with. They were a bunch that were travelling part of an organised group in Vietnam and Cambodia. And as a bonus they had a dedicated guide who we hijacked the services of to get us through customs.
The ride to the border was great. The boat really did move and it was fantastic to be flying up the Mekong. Vietnamese border crossing was pretty straight forward except that two of the tour group (an English couple) had some issues with their visas. But we were assured it was nothing to worry about so the rest of us went over to get Cambodian visas and waited for the English couple to join us. No problem right?
We were soon done with the Cambodian visa admin and we sat and waited for the couple to arrive. And we waited. And waited. And waited. People started to get worried. And impatient. The guide went back to the Vietnam control to see what was happening. Before long the group had split. There were those that wanted to leave the couple behind and there were those that wanted to wait. For us, we didn't care - we didn't have to be anywhere in a rush. The other members of our original party that had opted for the slow boat came and went - maybe we should have gone with them?
Anyway, four and half hours later everyone returned!!! Apparently one of them had a rogue stamp in their passport, that had been put in by their guide, that caused hours of interrogation and scrutinisation. Everyone was tired and restless, but glad to see their fellow travellers back. Only one thing for it to lift everyone's spirits..... a crate of beer to be enjoyed on the boat. Cheers!!!
The original plan was to arrive in PP at 1pm but it was 7pm when we finally got there and pitch black. Thankfully Miriam and Victoria and told us where they were staying, so it was in a taxi and straight over to the Lazy Fish Guesthouse on the lake to meet them. We found them in the hostel watching a movie so we dragged them out of there, straight to a restaurant and time to catch up on each others news. (plus it was quiz night which we were rubbish at. However, Nic did win one round where you had to stand up and shout the answer. Prize? A bucket of whiskey and coke!!)
Next morning and decision time. The more we travel, the more we find decision making difficult. M & V had already been in PP so they were keen to leave. However, they had not yet been to the Killing Fields and this was the one place I wanted to visit in Cambodia. So we decided to have a day in PP sight seeing and then leave to the Sihanouk Ville in the south west.
The killing fields exist as a legacy of the shocking past Cambodia faced until very recently. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, brought terror to Cambodia for many years and in four years, four million people (from a population of only seven million) were killed by him. The killing fields in PP is only one of 350 (!!!) in the whole of the country. It is totally beyond my imagination how one person could do what he did and to think he did it to benefit the country in some way. His whole rationale behind killing all these people was to have a nation of farm workers - people of the land. Any 'intellectuals' - doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc - were imprisoned and slaughtered. It was no surprise to learn from the guides that he took a lot of his 'inspiration' from Mao and his Cultural Revolution in China.
All this took place from 1975 to 1979 until he was over thrown by the Vietnamese and forced into exile. He was never brought to justice and died an old man in 1997. Up until that point the Khmer Rouge continued to exist and to this day not one person has every been held accountable for the atrocities that occurred.
It is very difficult to visit the killing fields in PP. First of all there is memorial to the dead in the form of a tower with ten stories of skulls retrieved from the graves. In here you find descriptions of how people had died - battered, burnt, decapitated etc. Very few were shot as bullets were deemed too expensive so often they were just beaten with farming tools.
As you are walking around, trying to comprehend what you are seeing, you find teeth and clothes poking through the mud. The guide informed us that these are still being brought to the surface as the rain washes away the mud. You see mass graves of bodies that were all decapitated; you see graves that were found full of children; you see graves of the soldiers that were unable to carry out the orders and were butchered by their own colleagues. Totally totally unbelievable.
How do you react when you come away from such a place? What is the right thing to do? Whatever is the 'right' thing, we were all extremely subdued for the rest of the day as it really stuck with us. And I think it will stick with us for a long time.
One thing I did notice immediately after we left was the missing generation. As so many people were killed, there is a whole generation seemingly absent. There are many many young people in Cambodia; the population is now 17 million people. But you just do not see many 50 to 60 year olds. As a result of this missing generation there is skills shortage. Lots of areas are under developed as the people with these skills were butchered by the Khmer Rouge.