Khmer curiosities

Entering rugged Cambodia

Well, I say ‘rugged’ Cambodia because that’s the first word that came to mind after entering the capital Phnom Penh, and I couldn’t find another suitable adjective to describe this unique country.

Getting from Can Tho to Phnom Penh wasn’t feasible without first going back to HCMC and staying a night to catch an early morning coach the following day. It was a long ride – in total seven hours, including a painless one hour stop at the border. After entering Cambodia, the landscape immediately changed. Rice paddies became visible far and wide, with palm trees and water buffalo interspersed too. Red mud and dirt can be seen everywhere on the ground.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh couldn’t have felt any more different to HCMC. The streets were almost empty (although the main national holiday might explain this) and it lacked the frenetic pace of any Vietnamese city. Of the cars that were on the road, and those occasionally parked in the middle, many of them are so old they’re long extinct at home. Most motorcyclists don’t wear a helmet on their huge bikes and the roads are in poor shape, filled with potholes.The city has a faint scent of rotting rubbish which collects onto its own lane on the road (slight exaggeration, but it’s definitely the dirtiest city I’ve ever been to).

An astonishingly beaten up car, one of many in Cambodia. All of them Toyota, of course.

All in all Phnom Penh feels a bit rough, especially at night where the streets are dimly lit with stray dogs and groups hanging around with guns. I was told to expect Cambodia to feel like the Wild West, and I could definitely relate to that from time to time. As a consequence I took extra precautions with my belongings, having been warned about bag thefts beside streets.

The city itself is small and explore on foot. The central palace sits off the main square with several beautiful monuments surrounding it. There isn’t a great deal to do other than visit museums and temples. In the evenings there’s a lively riverfront bar scene, though unfortunately its morphed into a red light district with loads of prostitutes hanging around with western men three times their age.

Getting around wasn’t a problem. The Khmer people are easy going and cheery. They were friendly towards me (e.g. ‘Hello sir, tuktuk for you?’ vs ‘Oi! Moto?’ in Vietnam) and I didn’t get the impression people were trying to rip me off. Everyone I spoke with seemed humble and willing to help; English is understood and spoken widely. The US dollar is used in addition to the local Reil currency for minor sums, which required plenty of mental arithmetic.

The Killing Fields

In Vietnam I stumbled across some harrowing sights where death and destruction was the norm for decades. What I wasn’t expecting was to see remnants of this on an even larger scale in Cambodia.

Pol Pot was a communist dictator who’s Khmer Rouge party ruled Cambodia between 1968 and 1994. His party presided over a mass genocide between 1975 and 1979 that ended the lives of up to 3 million citizens, in the name of transforming the country to become an agricultural socialist state, much like how Mao and Stalin had attempted in their own countries. People were killed simply to purify the population. Whether they were an ethnic minority, elderly or a professional, these people suffered beyond description under Pol Pot’s regime.

The centrally located S21 museum is a school-turned-prison where prisoners were kept prior to being executed. Prisoners here would be chained to the floor, confined to cells and tortured in the main courtyard in the most humiliating of ways. Walking around stirred up the same emotions as the Prison Museum in Hanoi. It’s revolting to see how an innocent institution – a school – can be transformed to be the scene of horror.

Formerly a classroom, this room became a prison and torture cell at S21.

Later in the day I visited the Killing Fields, an equally gruesome place where prisoners would be brought to be executed. Loud and upbeat music would play to drown out the screams of hundreds of blindfolded prisoners who would be beaten to death by machetes and tossed into pits. The pits are still there, but it’s now overgrown and the surroundings are eerily quiet. Perhaps the most shocking aspect was to see the ‘Killing Tree’, where babies would be taken from their mothers and bashed alive against a tree. It’s heartless and truly depressing to see human life so undervalued. I’m ashamed with myself that I had never known about this genocide before.

Bone fragments at the Killing Fields memorial

The killing tree, where many unspeakable horrors took place. It’s not an easy thing to see in person.


It was hard to get the experience of the Killing Fields out of my mind over the next few days. It wasn’t long before I headed to the southern town of Kampot, having wrapped up the main sights in Phnom Penh.

The guesthouse I stayed at is called Ganesha Eco huts. My ‘hut’ was actually a yurt located inside a mangrove swamp. It’s one of the most basic accommodations I’ve ever stayed at, with no hot water or flushing toilets. But I felt at one with nature. It was amazing to wake up to the swampy surroundings, and return at night to the sight of fireflies. The only way to get there involves a bumpy 20 minute tuktuk ride to Kampot on a dirt path, which made for an adventure in itself. I had some memorable conversations with the eccentric French owner who spoke very frankly about combating environmental destruction in Cambodia, and why he escaped France for a more laid back life in Kampot.

My yurt sandwiched inside a mangrove swamp

Enjoying a delicious mushroom rice porridge, a traditional Khmer dish

The first day I jumped into a kayak moored in front of my yurt and rowed around the surrounding mangrove swamps for a couple of hours. After being drenched by a freak monsoon shower, I ended the day with a swim in the natural mud pool which was surprisingly warm and refreshing.

The ‘natural’ swimming pool. It beats a regular chlorinated pool any day, even if it’s quite a muddy experience.

I had originally promised to myself not to ride on two wheels given the state of the roads and general safety concerns, but I bit the bullet and hired a motorbike for a day to set off to Bokor National Park. I’m so glad I did. It took some practice driving around town to get a feel for the throttle and brakes. Aside from pretty woody surroundings, the park was a bit disappointing as there was nothing much to see apart from some old ruins. But this experience was all about the journey, and it was awesome. I had all the snaky, mountain pass roads to to myself up and down the 80km route. It felt so liberating to have the wind blow through my face, and be in control of my own trip for a change rather than be a passenger. Riding pillion again just wouldn’t cut it.

My final day in Kampot was spent visiting the nearby countryside. The tuk-tuk driver and I headed over to the nearby salt pans and pepper plantations, before heading to the seaside village of Kep.

Koh Rong island

I planned a few days rest before heading to the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, and spent 3 nights at Lonely Beach resort on Koh Rong island, situated in the Gulf of Thailand.

Getting there was fun. There was nothing exciting about the two hours in a minivan from Kampot to Sihanoukville; that came from the ensuing three hour boat ride on a fishing boat during a thunderstorm. I’ve never felt sea sick before, but I came close to throwing up as the boat swayed vigorously in the choppy seas. It was only me, the resort manager and captain on board who endured heavy rain and crashing waves. Amazingly I fell asleep on a bench after an hour, using some life jackets as a makeshift mattress.

My luxurious fishing boat transfer to Koh Rong island

Once again, I was the only guest at the resort. Actually, it’s not much of a resort but a collection of rustic beach bungalows on an otherwise completely undeveloped stretch of coast. Though the weather wasn’t great for the three days, I did at least manage some rest beside the beach on a hammock. At night the beach comes alive with bio-luminescent plankton. It was only on my third night’s swimming attempt did I actually see them. They stuck to my arms and legs like stardust, twinkling like the stars above. Even if I hadn’t caught sight of them – it took a lot of moving around in low light – it felt so liberating just to jump into the sea at midnight with no sign of human life and just the full moon for illumination.

Lonely Beach. It definitely lives up to its name.

My beach bungalow at the resort. There was no electricity or running water here (only a bucket shower and toilet).

Cambodia is one of the least developed countries in SE Asia, but it feels unlike any other. It reminds me of a mesh between my ancestral lands of India and Kenya. India for the cattle everywhere in the towns, facial complexion of the locals and the beautiful temples dotted around the towns. As for Kenya, I found similarities with the general lawlessness, terrible roads, chilled out people, and red, barren landscapes.

One of my most eagerly anticipated destinations was next on the itinerary: the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap.

Next: Temple Run


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