Having spent two weeks travelling in Vietnam we joined a new group for our trip through Cambodia. Our leader, Bon Sakmony, used the name Mony for short. We travelled by public bus, exiting Vietnam at Moc Bai and entering Cambodia at Ba Vet. Luckily for us we were with Intrepid Travel and the border crossing took about two hours, whereas an independent traveller could spend a full day crossing and be offered much help from locals who would want to be paid at the end of the process. A Cambodian visa is necessary and costs about $20. This is the most popular border for people crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia, with most travellers heading to Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and was a home for both the Khmer Empire and French colonialists. Most activity takes place on the river front which has restaurants, bars and a number of parks. Places to visit include the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum. The Royal Palace was built in the mid-19th century and has been home to the kings of Cambodia ever since, with the exception of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The King’s living area occupies nearly half the palace, which also includes the Silver Pagoda compound. The Silver Pagoda has many of the national treasures of Cambodia, with gold and jewelled Buddha statues, including a small green crystal Buddha known as the Emerald Buddha which is arguably the most important historical artefact in Cambodia. The National Museum houses over 14,000 items, from prehistoric times, to periods before, during and after the Khmer Empire. The Khmer Empire once stretched from Thailand through Cambodia and into South Vietnam.
We took a trip to Phnom Penh central market, a dome shaped building which stocks a huge range of goods, including food, clothes, jewellery and silver works. The Cambodian currency is the Riel (approx. 4,000 Riel to 1 US Dollar). It is difficult to move through the centre due to the number of people, the amount of goods on offer and the constant hassle from shop vendors. It is amusing to see a shopkeeper taking a nap on the floor of his stall: a common occurrence, not just in Phnom Penh but also throughout Asia.
The next day we took a tour to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school which served as a Khmer Rouge torture centre. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people were held and tortured there. The Khmer Rouge surrounded the complex with electrified barbed wire and they converted the classrooms into prison cells and torture chambers. Unfortunate prisoners were repeatedly tortured and forced to name family members and associates who were then arrested and subjected to the same treatment. Prisoners were abused until they confessed to that which their torturers required them to say. The methods were gruesome in the extreme. The visit left us chilled and speechless, but even worse was yet to come. We went to Choeung Ek Memorial, where a ‘stupa’ (a hemispherical structure containing relics) of approximately 8,000 human skulls marks the site of one of the most infamous killing fields. This is where the tortured victims of Tuol Sleng were eventually slaughtered. That is, if they hadn’t already died while being tortured. Human skulls protrude from the ground and I found it very upsetting to see a dog running loose in the area, free to do what dogs do. We were shown a tree where babies were killed and it is too upsetting to give a graphic description of what happened there. I asked our leader if people in the area knew of the atrocities that were committed, and he said that they did, but there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. Loud music was played to drown the cries, similar to what we know happened in the Nazi concentration camps.
The following day we took a seven hour bus trip to Siem Reap getting to see the real Cambodia. We visited a cottage industry, Santuk Silk Farm which is a Fair Trade Organisation that provides a valuable source of employment to the poor rural community. The farm was established by a Vietnam War veteran, a now deceased American called Bud Gibbons, in 2006. His wife, a Cambodian native, demonstrated the process. This included the development of the silk worm from its early stages to egg and next to cocoon. Local girls weave the raw silk into thread from which they make items of clothing for sale in the shop on the site. We made several stops along the way to eat, and to visit local markets, and were invited to taste exotic food including deep-fried spider.
In Siem Reap we availed of tuk-tuks for transport. These are small motorcycles with a carriage for four people. The city has a market in the old French Quarter and the architecture is of colonial and Chinese style. It is a compact town, easy to get around and probably my favourite town of our overall trip. It has museums, restaurants and bars and I might best describe it as Temple Bar at thirty degrees Celsius day or night with occasional bursts of torrential rain. We visited the Molly Malone Irish Bar on Pub Street, which was run by a family connection until recently. The bar area hosts pictures of notable Irish figures of literature, including Yeats, Behan, Joyce, Beckett and Wilde. The waiter who served us knew nothing of Ireland or its literary geniuses.
The following morning, we rose at 3 a.m. and within half an hour were on a bus heading for Angkor Wat, the most famous temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. The temples date back as far as the ninth century and are believed to represent the cosmic world. They are set in perfect balance, symmetry and composition. Watching sunrise at the complex was spectacular, but I was disappointed with the facilities afforded to the many tourists who visit there every day. It is a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and is the country’s most important attraction for visitors. Restoration work was done in the 20th century, but this was interrupted by the civil war. Luckily, relatively little damage was done during this time. The Khmer Rouge did, however, tear out wooden structures and burned them for firewood. Damage was also done by a stray American bomb, the result of a shoot-out with the Khmer Rouge. Angkor Wat is a powerful symbol of Cambodia and a source of great national pride. However, in my opinion it needs a massive injection of capital to preserve it for future generations.
Later that day, Kate and I took time out to do some shopping before heading to Pub Street to join our group for a night on the town. Restaurant dishes available included the Khmer Beef Salad: made up of beef slices dressed with lemongrass, fish sauce, garlic, chilies and other spices. A pork and rice dish called Bai Sach Chrouk is popular. It is garnished with salad including cucumbers, radishes and ginger, to name but a few. Another popular dish is Fish Amok. It is a fish mousse made of coconut milk and curry paste and, like all dishes, includes spices like turmeric, ginger, lemongrass etc. Probably one of the most popular dishes is Khmer Noodles which is served throughout the day, and made from rice, fish-based cream curry gravy plus spices.
The next day, we travelled to Battambang, a rural town of French elegance, friendly Khmer people and beautifully preserved colonial architecture. Along the way, we stopped at a number of cottage industries, one of which produced sticky rice, noodles and fish paste. We also took a ride on what is known as the famous Bamboo Train. The rail network was built by the French Colonial Government but was largely abandoned after the Khmer Rouge regime shut it down during the war years. Nowadays, one section of the track on the outskirts of Battambang is open to tourists at a charge of around $5 per person. It runs a distance of around 15 km, travelling at around 30 kilometres per hour to a village that once housed a brick factory and a mill. Today the village is a sad site to see and the locals are very poor. Children beg from visiting tourists. We were advised not to give them anything as this would lead to a begging frenzy. However, it was difficult to stick to this rule and we were anxious to get back on the train and leave the village as quickly as possible. The trains have steel frames overlaid with bamboo slats, which rest on wheels taken from abandoned war tanks. It is a one-way system and, therefore, when trains travelling in opposite directions meet, one has to be removed from the line. The process takes about three minutes. Motorcycle engines with a belt drive to the rear axle propel the vehicles. The maximum speed is approximately 30 kilometres per hour but feels like twice that. The line is uneven and crooked in many places; it’s a wonder it does not derail. However, it is a nice way to see the lovely countryside which has a lot of woodland. It is very picturesque and has locals living along the line in various places.
Cambodia has extreme poverty but there is also evidence of comparative wealth. Expensive cars, including Land Rover and Lexus jeeps compete with other traffic in the narrow streets of towns. I asked our leader, “Who can afford these vehicles?” “Government workers”, was his reply. The average monthly disposable income (net after tax) is about $200 per month. The cost of renting a one bedroomed apartment in a city centre is about $350 per month. Corruption is a way of life in Cambodia.
A scarcity of schools and classrooms, particularly in rural areas, restricts the number of children who can get access to education. I understand that most villages have a primary school where grades one to six are taught. However, the schools, in the most part, are badly lacking in resources and the student teacher ratio can be very high. In rural areas, it is almost impossible for children to get a higher level of education, i.e. grades seven to twelve, because villages do not have secondary schools. Due to poverty and lack of transport, children in Cambodia give up education, and work with the family to supplement the family’s income. I understand about twenty per cent of children under the age of nine are employed and this rises to eighty per cent for children under seventeen years of age.
We travelled by bus from Battambang to Bangkok in Thailand. We exited Cambodia at Poipet and we entered Thailand at Aranyaprathet. The border at Poipet has a distinctly bad reputation for travellers, with every sort of a scam imaginable being perpetrated on tourists; therefore, it is a luxury being part of a group with a knowledgeable leader. The crossing took us just over two hours which, we were told, was exceptionally fast. We had to leave the bus at the Cambodian side and were reunited on the Thailand side having walked through ‘no man’s land’ between the exit and entry points. Our leader described Poipet as a town without character; it is a hustle and bustle centre, full of scam artists who prey on tourists. In Ireland, we are familiar with the term ‘brown envelope’. At this border crossing it is used unabashedly.
We stayed in the Anantara Riverside Complex in suburban Bangkok. Each trip to the city began with a motorboat taxi across the Chao Phraya River to a central station from which trains departed to the various parts of the city. King Bhumibol Adulyadej died on October 13th 2016 and when we visited the city in early November 2016 people were still in mourning. The king’s body was taken from the hospital, where he died, to The Temple of the Emerald Buddha inside the Royal Palace where people could file past to pay their respects. We joined the queue but at the entrance gates to the palace complex we were turned away having not been dressed appropriately. We purchased black tee shirts and made a second attempt. However, our attire was still deemed not suitable. The king reigned for seventy years, from 1946 to 2016, and was revered by his own people and highly respected internationally. Thailand is a far more prosperous country than its neighbours Cambodia and Vietnam, which is instantly visible on entering the country. The majority of Thai people believe King Bhumibol protected their country from the ravages that befell their neighbours.
Kate and I visited Thammasat University and learned of its founder Dr. Pridi Banomyong. Pridi was an academic who studied in France and, in 1932, as leader of the “Khala Ratsado” (People’s Party), succeeded in the campaign to change the Thai political regime from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. He served the country politically with distinction for many years and both he and the king, it seems, were of a similar political persuasion. They were both intrinsically interested in the welfare of their people. A quotation from Pridi: “A university should serve as a water well to quench the thirst of the people who crave knowledge. And seeking knowledge is both their right and opportunity to which they are entitled, flowing from the concept of freedom in education. … One must not have prejudice against any race or nationality but should sincerely believe that individuals of all races and nationalities can live together in peace.” How fitting for our time!