Back to the roots

Trip Start Sep 03, 2006
Trip End Jul 21, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Cambodia: a country appart for us

Visiting Cambodia has been different from all the countries we have been through so far.
Saoyuth can speak the language, her parents were our guides, and above all, we were staying and living "a la cambodgienne" with Saoyuth's relatives. We have been so thoroughfully taken in charge and cared for, that we don't know a thing about what it's like to travel in Cambodia as a tourist (is it difficult to find accommodation? How much is a meal in a restaurant? Where are the best places to go? Ask someone else!)...All in all it was a great experience for everyone involved: Saoyuth's parents who were meeting their cousins again, Patrick who was fed with the most authentically meals and sheltered from rip offs, Saoyuth who could practice her rusty Cambodian and discover her country, and the relatives themselves who are now proud to have a "barang" (foreigner) relative!

The Thai-Cambodian border: a place where Saoyuth's parents used to live

Our journey from Chiang Mai to Aranyapratet/Poipet - border towns between Thailand and Cambodia -, went rather well, with just a dispute with a taxi driver when connecting in Bangkok. The taxi driver was very aggressive, and Patrick was not in the mood to take it...

Saoyuth's father used to work at this very same border before being taken to labour camps under the Khmer rouge regime and then fled to France. They even had a house in Poipet, that no longer exists as the town has been partially destroyed during the war and came under a lot of expansion and modification more recently. Actually, Poipet is not a place where you want to stay anymore: It's a soulless place with uncontrolled urbanisation, and traffic on earthen roads that covers everything in dust, let alone all the people making a living by ripping off the tourists or trafficking at the Thai border.

Saoyuth's parents made things go smoothly by doing all the talking and managed to find a taxi to take us from there to Battambang at half the "Barang" (foreigner) price. Even though Saoyuth's parents are Cambodian, it seems that ripping offs is de rigueur in Poipet which much disappointed them.

Half of the trip was on a decent road, built only a year ago or so: apparently things are getting better in Cambodia, one of the poorest country on earth. On the way Saoyuth's Mum pointed the place (somewhere in the middle of fields) where Saoyuth was born: what a deception to find out 27 years later that you were not born in the city of your ancestors (ie: Battambang) as mentioned in your ID papers but rather near Poipet, one of the places you'd rather avoid. We presume that it was more convenient to state "Battambang" to the refugee officer than "the nameless place in the fields near Poipet"...

Meeting up with relatives and pilgrimage to the grandparents house

We finally arrived in Battambang, where live most of the remaining family of S&S (Sin and Sayoeuth, Saoyuth's parents) and where they grew up and met. Though the second largest city of the country, Battambang feels small and quiet. There is not much to see there except the Cambodian way of life and a couple of sites around such as Banan, Angkor like ruins on a smaller scale.

The cousin of Saoyuth's mother lives with her 6 children in a house facing the main market where Saoyuth's grandma used to sell fruits from her land. Four generations live under the same roof: the grandpa, his daughter, 5 of the grandchildren, and the 2 grand grand children. The house is big enough for all and even for a maid! We are warmly welcomed into their world and are soon called Brother Patrick and Sister Saoyuth (the traditional way of calling family members).

Most of our time in Battambang will be devoted to visiting relatives of Saoyuth's parents and visiting places where they used to live: the house of the grand parents (inhabited by relatives who agreed not to sell the house and the attached land), the house of Saoyuth's parents in town (still standing but lived in by complete strangers who moved in after the Pol Pot regime. The house has since been sold three times), and the school founded by Saoyuth's grandfather. Lots of people have seen Saoyuth little and are most surprised to see that she didn't grow up much :-)

A few days later, one of the relatives offers to drive us to Siem Reap, city of Angkor Wat. We accept the offer and set off for a bumpy ride in the Toyota Camry which seems to be the only car sold in Cambodia.
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