SOME FACTS ABOUT Cambodia:
– 53% of the population are aged 24 or under; 32% 14 or under;
– Average life expectancy is 63 years;
– Average daily income is $6.50/day, placing Cambodia at 129th in the world;
– Cambodians are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
Children wave from the back of a rickshaw on the streets of Phnom Penh. We didn’t meet a kid who wasn’t excited to see us.
FIVE DAYS: THAT’S all. It didn’t seem enough time to spend in Cambodia, but we’re on a tour with Toucan Travel for our first month of travelling, whizzing through SE Asia. Despite only being there for five days, Cambodia has stayed with us. We entered overland from Thailand, spending three hours in a weird no-man’s land between the countries filled with run-down casinos and fake Christmas snowmen, incongruous in the baking heat. Our first stop was Siem Reap, from where we launched our trip to Angkor Wat. The centre is backpacker-fantastic, with the neon lights and booming music of the bar-lined Pub Street. But wander beyond and you’re quickly lost in dark streets with glowing shop fronts, mopeds galore and not a western face in sight.
“Is it right, right, left from the hotel?” asked BK-C.
“Definitely,” I replied. “Or right, left, right.”
“We’ll work it out.”
45 minutes later we were hopelessly lost. It was nighttime, and there are no street lights in Siem Reap. As with everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far, the pavement is a place for parking, not for walking. The only people who walk are the poor or foreigners. Curious faces peered out of shopfronts us as we stepped around mopeds and cars, avoiding potholes at the side of the road. Whole families buzzed by on mopeds, babies balanced on the handle bars. There was the occasional smell of drains, the frequent smell of street food. I refused to pay a dollar to get a tuc tuc back to somewhere that we knew. We pressed on. “If we go left here I think that should rejoin the main street.” We didn’t. Words were said. We walked some more. More words were said. We got a tuc tuc.
Thank goodness we did, because it turned out that some idiot had been leading us in completely the wrong direction.
Not once in this unplanned sojourn did we feel threatened. As with everywhere else in SE Asia, tuc tuc drivers are ubiquitous, all offering their services. A polite “no, thank you” and a smile, though, and they’ll smile back and leave you alone. No one’s pushy, everyone has a ready smile.
Later, riding on quad bikes at dusk through dusty tracks, we saw some of the smaller villages around Siem Reap. People worked the fields, children played outside stilted shacks, cows wallowed in mud. Clinging on to the back of the quad bike, BK-C waved at kids as we passed and they waved back. We watched the sun set over the rice paddies, and felt immensely lucky to be there.
The sun sets over a rice paddy outside Siem Reap.
BK-C prepares to operate. Everywhere in SE Asia, people wear surgical masks. Mostly to protect them from the dust or smog when they’re riding their mopeds – or in Vietnam, where there’s a big line in leopard print surgical masks, just for fashion.
WHERE WE CAN, we try to avoid restaurants and instead eat where the locals eat. A line of mopeds outside a street food stall is always a good sign. It was at such a roadside stall, sitting in a tiny plastic chair, that my love affair with morning glory began. Morning Glory with Beef turned out to be a tasty dish of spicy, tamarind-tangy beef with a delicious shredded, green bean-esque vegetable – Morning Glory – chewy and crunchy at the same time. Yes, I ordered it purely on the strength of the name, but I never looked back.
Sour Beef Soup With Morning Glory. Yes, its true, I have become one of those people who insists on taking a picture of their food before they eat it. If I had 3G I’d be uploading it to instagram. I just don’t know what’s happened to me.
As we sat and ate our lunch people would drive up on mopeds to buy soups from the giant bubbling pots at the front of the restaurant. The owner would ladle them into little plastic bags, like you might take home a goldfish from the fair in, and then they’d zoom off. Meanwhile, nearby shop holders would wander up and give the big pots a contemplative stir. If they liked what they saw, they’d get it to go as well. If not, they’d wander on. Through all of this, the staff of the restaurant stared entranced at the tv, occasionally with hands over their mouths, all caught up in the drama of a Cambodian soap. The food may change the world over, but the people don’t.
There were large dishes of fried insects in quite a few places in Cambodia, especially in rest stops at the side of the road. I never saw anyone eating them. I wasn’t about to be the first.
CAMBODIA’S YOUNG POPULATION, the youngest in SE Asia, is largely a result of the Khmer Regime. Half of the population are post-regime baby boomers and remember nothing of the genocide between 1975 and 1979 when 1.7 – 2.5 million Cambodians were killed out of a population of approximately 8 million. Pol Pot is what people outside of SE Asia are most likely to remember Cambodia for, and it seemed wrong to go to the country without engaging in some atrocity tourism ourselves. It’s that awkward-morbid thing where you want to visit and feel that you should do, but almost feel bad for wanting to go. So we went, and it was horrific, and sobering, and utterly terrifying. The killing fields were very peaceful, with silent white bones placed in piles. I thought if that happened to me, I’d like there to be such a place for people to visit.
Chum Mey, one of only 12 survivors of S-21, the infamous prison where over 17,000 people were tortured and subsequently killed under the Khmer Rouge. He visits the prison everyday to sell his book and to talk to tourists. I’m not sure that I could do that if I were him.
WE DROVE BACK to Phnom Penh, leaving the Killing Fields behind. The cool air conditioning of the van was a relief after the sticky heat of outdoors. I’d like to say that we travelled in silence, each wrapped in some deep thoughts about the inhumanity of killing – but that would be a lie. As soon as we were in the van, the serenity of the place behind us, we were raucous and joking. What’s both chilling and hopeful is that those things happened – all those Cambodians were killed (with an 800,000 people error margin in the death toll. Think about that: 800,000 may or may not have died, and we’ll never know) and yet life just goes on, eventually mass graves becoming a tourist attraction with an organised shuttle bus from the city, and vendors selling Coca-Cola.
We were bound for the market in Phnom Penh, a place bustling with people and life. There we jostled and haggled, browsed and bought – and over a big bowl of Morning Glory, I met a man called Sovann, who worked for an NGO, and who told me that the future of Cambodia was in its communities, which his organisation was helping to build.
He lamented the recent protests in Phnom Penh, over wages, where – a couple of days before we arrived – three protestors had been shot and killed when police fired into the crowd. We’d seen camps of police, their riot geared racked up in neat piles on the floor, outside of the Palace in the centre of the city. It had all seemed quiet, the most significant action being when we saw an officer helping an old lady to cross the road. Two days after we left, however, there were more protests, and more deaths.
In the market, though, like after the Killing Fields, people were living life. We joked with stall holders and haggled good naturedly over snacks. Five days hadn’t been enough to even scrape the surface of Cambodia, but it was enough to convince me of the essential good naturedness of Cambodian culture, to convince me that whatever problems the country had in the past or faced now, it’s people were on the up – and, of course, enough time for me to enjoy plenty of Morning Glory.
We vowed to return to see more of Cambodia, and departed for Vietnam.
NEXT TIME: You suffer too many ‘ironic’ references to Vietnam War movies, whilst I eat some delicious Southern Vietnamese food.