Hair tips from Cambodia

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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Sunday, August 29, 2004

Number 21 (28th August 2004 - 14th September 2004): hair tips from Cambodia

A sudden mellowness as the boat slipped quietly up the Mekong indicated our arrival in Cambodia. We all drifted off to sleep for a few hours, occasionally disturbed by children waving hysterically at us and leaping into the river as the banana, mango and coconut woven, stilt-hutted scenery flowed by. With guest houses generally going by names such as 'Freedom' and 'No problem' this is a relaxed place. In Phnom Penh, bars/rooms seem to be owned either by thin, wasted westerners trying to run away from the tubby hordes of Goa/Thailand etc, or by young, nice entrepreneurial people (eg the Chill Bar by the Lake: make sure you
make the right choice). We lazed in hammocks overlooking an amazing sunset lake, whilst Emma finished another 'finishing school' unit, sewing up holes and further reducing clothes' sizes (again). Not bad for a capital city. And the cocktails in the Raffles Phnom Penh are excellent.

Even morning visits to the indescribable horrors inflicted by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge fail to diminish the pleasures of Cambodia: how could this have happened here, just a couple of decades ago? But it did, and hundreds of thousands were tortured in school-turned-detention centres before being bludgeoned to death in the shallow pits of the killing fields. And with crimes such as education or glasses wearing to blame it's very difficult to extract some sort of comprehension from it all. SE Asia was basically a large chessboard, being played by the East (Russia and China) on one side and the West (US and allies) on the other, but still the worst horrors were inflicted by its own people.

Heading north up an exceptionally straight road, we rattled past villages of stilt houses and date palms more reminiscent of E Africa than Asia: cattle graze among water lilies and playing children, as buffalo carts rumble slowly past.

With the Khmer empire of Cambodia starting in around 800AD, the ruins at Angkor Wat inspired serious power and greatly respected overspending in us rather than spiritualism. Kings flicked between the religion of Hinduism and the philosophy of the Buddha and the architectural results of over 600 years are outstanding, from immaculate wall carvings of ancient battles (eg the churning of the sea of milk) to vast temples engulfed by nature and lost to the jungle. At first glance, a deceptively simple map suggests a temple to stroll round. On arrival, the 'temple' turns into a city about a mile square, and with plenty more spread over an area about 230 square kilometers a 2-day pass hardly seemed fair. Climbing up far too many life threateningly-steep steps at 6 in the morning to witness sunrise over the jungle is definitely enlightening.

And how do you cope with touts spoiling those spiritual moments in a largely Buddhist country? Get Emma to shave all her hair off, and then remove her hat at the right moment. There's now a trail of confused/terrified children across Cambodia.

One weird moment in a temple: a policeman shuffles from behind a pillar and offers his police ID badge for purchase; sorely tempted we turned him down and his offer was upped to include various badges. Fighting the urge to see him running off into the jungle in his dollar-filled underpants, we hastily left.

Everyone knows about the landmines in this part of the world. In about 5 years, over 10 millions were laid by anyone who could get hold of them. The landmine museum in Siem Reap, set up by a retired mine-remover, is frighteningly full of so many different (diffused) types, many of which have been re-set in the woods around. And if that isn't real enough, the hobbling statistics of maimed and wounded landmine victims encountered everywhere certainly is.

Are these some of the nicest people in the world? Via a selection of minibuses and boats we reached the outpost of Stung Treng where the food became crunchy with fresh ginger (cut straight from a root still with a large plant attached). Wading and balancing on bamboo 'pontoons' and fighting the powerful wet season current, we hopped into a thin, small, sharp boat. With an outrageously large engine balanced on the back (earplugs required), we were then blasted us up the hugely swollen Mekong in the pouring rain for a couple of hours, over flooded farmland and dodging coconut tree trunks. Then everything seemed to slow down, even by Cambodian standards, with even the rain stopping as we carefully bumped up a muddy bank into Laos.

Willie Wat and Emma Croft

p.s. craziest food this month has to be that offered to us by a grinning lady when we jumped off the bus in Skuon: huge plates of deep fried spiders, large ones. To add to the weirdness, she had what was probably one of the live parents of the crispy/squidgy offspring crawling all over her (and then us). Did we eat one? You'll have to use your imagination there.
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