From the air, flying into Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the Mekong river outline was barely visible as the river had broken its banks and flooded the countryside as far as the eye could see. We arrived 10 days after the deluge of 10 – 12th October, the worst floods in 25 years. See:
With the world’s attention focussed on that curmudgeon, Donald Trump’s hairstyle and Hillary Clinton’s seizures, this barely rated a mention in the news or the press. Phnom Penh however, had dried out by the time we arrived, with dust everywhere as the mud dried and vegetation floated down the Mekong river.
Kim, a Tuk-Tuk driver delivered us to the Double Leaf Hotel and after the hair raising 40-minute trip, we were covered in grit and badly in need of a drink. Traffic in this city is chaotic and the only rule of the road appears to be: “I can turn into oncoming traffic at will, change lanes, make U-turns etc. as long as I don’t make eye contact with other drivers. I don’t have eyes at the back of my head, so those behind me need to take avoiding action, because they can see me” Also, the continuous use of the hooter is mandatory. Still, we didn’t see a single accident – I can only presume Cambodians are born with a 7th (traffic) sense.
How to turn into oncoming traffic.
Cambodia is very affordable: Two nights in a good hotel with a pool and exceptional service, including breakfast: $75 – 100. Excellent happy hour cocktails from 5 to 7pm – two for the price of one: $4; bottled Angkor beer: $1; Dinners of fish, beef or chicken with rice & curries: $6-7. We asked Kim to take us around Phnom Penh the following day, showing us all the sights. He patiently waited or snoozed in his Tuk-Tuk while we took our time through the Cambodian national museum, markets and Buddhist temples. All this for the princely sum of $20 for the day. We decided to give the macabre “Killing fields museum” a miss, as we are familiar with the tragic consequences of the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge period. Instead we decided to look for the “Daughters of Cambodia” shelter for girls rescued from prostitution, where the girls are taught new skills.
The bus trip to Siem Reap took 5 hours and set my cracked coccyx back at least a week. This was however worth the effort as we could now visit the amazing World Heritage Angkor temple complexes near the town. Our daughters, who visited these temples on bicycles, wisely suggested to us, to use a guided minibus tour, as the temple complexes are huge. The guides also impart concise information, with the tour starting at 8:30am and finishing at 6pm.
The 12th century Angkor Wat temple is the best preserved complex, surrounded by a moat and exterior wall measuring 1.3km x 1.5km. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. Depending on the belief of the King of the time, the temples were dedicated to either Hindu gods, or to Buddha. In the end, Buddhism became more popular and today, 95% of the Cambodian population are Buddhists.
The Angkor Thom complex of 9 square km’s, is nearly 5 times as big as Angkor Wat. It houses the largest Buddhist temple, Bayon, which was constructed in the 12th & 13th centuries. The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of massive serene stone faces that grace its many towers.
The Ta Prohm temple commissioned in 1186 AD, was dedicated to the goddess of wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism. This temple is fascinating, because it was literally eaten up by the jungle after this area was abandoned by a subsequent king, two hundred years later, to move the capital to Phnom Penh. It was re-discovered 500 years later at the end of the 19th century, totally overgrown by trees.
We flew from Siem Reap to Sihanouk Ville on the south coast to spend two days at Ochheuteal Beach to relax.
Then followed a hair raising trip over the worst roads I have seen, to a fishing village, to catch a boat to Koh Thmei island. Michael and Kavita Scholz, a German couple, has built an eco-resort on the south side of the island with 7 bungalows and a restaurant. This is a jungle experience, not suitable for city-slickers, but we thoroughly enjoyed the total isolation for two days before we returned to Phnom Penh for our flight back to Singapore.
Having taken the time to speak to locals, particularly the younger ones who are becoming better at English, as opposed to the Khmer language and sometimes, French their parents speak, some problems become apparent. Cambodia was once the heart of the Khmer empire, but after the Vietnam war (actually, the Indochina war of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Vietnam has become the strongest country in this region. As a consequence, Vietnam has redrawn its border with Cambodia a number of times, annexing parts of Cambodia. Through marriage, Vietnam influences the King of Cambodia and the government, whilst syphoning off a large part of the aid from China to Cambodia. As a result, Vietnam’s economy is growing, whilst Cambodia’s remains poor and its economy stagnant. Cambodia’s debt to China is huge.
Although a democracy, the government has been controlled by one party, for the last 25 years. Evidently, nepotism and corruption is endemic and very little is spent on education, because it keeps the population under control through ignorance. Our driver back to Phnom Penh airport, said teachers were paid so little, they insist on extra payments from parents, should the parents wish them to give attention to their children. The military, media, money and health care is tightly controlled by the government. The younger generation is getting more savvy through the internet, but there is also censorship in this field. This younger generation is working towards change, but see it as a long term ambition, which may take 20 to 25 years.
A taxi drove us the 230km from the fishing village back to Phnom Penh airport. A final observation on traffic rules: The open road is white knuckle country – a broken yellow centre line means the road is yours; a solid yellow centre line means overtake when you please; a double solid yellow centre line means overtaking only allowed if you simultaneously smoke and talk on a mobile phone.
In the meantime, if you want to enjoy a rough and ready, cheap holiday, Cambodia is the place.