Location: Never take this trip, Cambodia
Less than a week until my birthday woohoo.
The minibus set off early doors with fifteen of us and bags crammed on to the worst, decrepit bus we had seen in a while. At least we knew that when we got to the Thailand side that the roads would be better and in less than a week we were booked in somewhere smart for a few days for my birthday. The road out of Siem Reap started out ok but within ten minutes we were (as Chris Rea would say "On the Road to Hell". It really could not be all that bad, at the outside is was supposed to take a maximum of 8 hours including the border crossing.
Aircon was temperamental at best and to be honest even when it was on it made little difference. The road was hilariously (initially... the fun soon wore off) bad and it was impossible to imagine driving on this road at this speed for any considerable length of time (i.e. more than five minutes) but on we went. The most amazing part of the journey so far was that we appeared to have the slowest vehicle, lets hope that Bangkok has a decent spinal unit. How anything other than a modern equivalent Sherman or a Hummer could go any faster without instant disintegration was beyond me. I would be amazed if the bus made it to Thailand in one piece.
An hour or so in we came to our first hurdle, a crash on one of the many bridges. (For bridges read, poor quality meccano struts amid the odd rotting piece of timber which was to guarantee the safety of our crossing). A lorry had crashed into the side of the bridge blocking the path for both streams of traffic. "We could be here a while" the driver said laughing his little Cambodian socks off. Out we all got to go and have a closer inspection, some of us were still enjoying the novelty of it all, you understand. None of the locals seemed that surprised and some of them pitched in to get the van moving while others (as many as thirty on the back of a standard flatbed pick-up truck) slept where they stood or stared curiously at the westerners wielding video cameras.
Three quarters of an hour later we were back on the move the sun and road surface as merciless as ever. So that increased the journey time to 9 hours still pretty manageable considering we had had our bad luck for the trip already.
Bridge Two...same old problem only this time the bridge appeared to have simply imploded leaving a kind of Kickstart seesaw affair for our three tonne bus to navigate whever we could get close enough. There was yet another monsterous queue to get through before we would even get the chance to risk our lives. We inched forward painfully slowly with every driver jockeying for position and squeezing into every available gap in order to be the next across.
It therefore came as no surprise when nearing the bridge we side swiped a guy and his family in their nearly new saloon. We were not going quickly but still managed to cause shedloads of damage. The driver got out and had a look, a momentary shout, shrugged and got back in his car......just a minute where were we? Not what we were expecting.
Eyes shut and miraculously, bridge crossed we were moving again, we were up to a little over ten hours, people were starting to get a little tetchey...
Location: Still on the way to Siem Reap, Cambodia
The bus journey was pretty good and we even got food into the bargain. A brief stop in the pouring rain half way enabled me to decline the mixed bag of cockroaches and scorpions on offer as snacks....coward.
Nothing would have prepared us for the arrival in Siem Reap. We were used to people hawking us rooms and taxis when we got off buses but this was a different world. There must have been a minimum of fifty people holding up various signs for hostels and cheap taxis...this was going to be a nightmare as they crowded the bus (which had just sideswiped a truck trying to avoid a load of them already swarming around the front). To make matters worse the bus we were on appeared to have majority Cambodian travellers who unsurprisingly would not be interested in their over-inflated tourist accommodation.
Despite all of the above we were still shocked and horrified as we got off the bottom step of the bus. The crowd had multiplied and by now they were all screaming (tops of their voices, no exaggeration). "Free taxi Mister" etc etc. They grabbed clothes and bags, this was seriously out of control. Shouting at them was futile and even a swift elbow in the face could have ended up with the both us at the nearest hospital (probably back in Phnom Penh)....even that was starting to sound attractive.
Moving was difficult due to the swarm but we tried and got about ten feet and nowhere nearer freedom. As a last ditch attempt I pointed at one and shouted "You" as he was apparently free and five minutes later after various cursing and scuffles between tuc tuc drivers who presumably thought we were their property, we were on the road, possessions and all. FLY TO SIEM REAP and as you will find out later FLY OUT!
We found a bed for the night and booked ourselves an early trip the following day to see the Temples Of Angkor Wat. WOW, what a day, the pictures may not do the place justice but we were taken from temple to temple in a tuc tuc and had one of our more memorable days! In the morning we visited several smaller temples (no less impressive) in a jungle setting that we were both really impressed with. For once in Asia they had managed to keep something magical, magical. We saw the temples used in the filming for Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider and finally Angkor Wat itself, complete with chatty smoking monks wanting cash. "What happened to monks having no possessions?" I asked. No surprise that he didn't understand that one. One of the problems with this part of Asia is that any guy can do a couple of months at a monastery and come out with his orange robes and use them for whatever reason he sees fit. So as with the rest of the world, you get the ones that abuse.
We booked ourselves on a minibus for the following day for what is notoriously the worst trip on the worst road in Asia - the journey from Siem Reap to Bangkok. It lived up to all expectations and then some.
Location: Up to Siem Reap, Cambodia
We stayed in Phnom Penh for a night and booked our onward transport up to Siem Reap...another bloody bus! We had been told that travel around Cambodia was difficult even between the most touristy spots, now I don't know where these peopel had travelled before but rather sadly we had thus far found it far too easy and not the challenge that we had been looking for.
We had a beautiful set meal in the FCC (a stunning colonial building on the river front) and the first decent glass of wine for a while! Mmmmm bring on Italy I would kill for a good cheeseboard....sorry.
The following morning we arrived to catch the bus and were told that we were booked on the 12.00pm bus for the day before. I calmly suggested that this was unlikely as I had only booked the ticket yesterday and that was at 14.00pm.
Things started to spiral downward. This was apparently all my fault and the staff customer training manual had been written by Basil Fawlty. In my best Cambodian (i.e. loud English), I smiled (as per the Lonely Planet in the section entitled "Do not get angry in SE Asia, It Gets You Nowhere") and pointed at the time that I had booked my ticket and said that it could not have been for the previous day.
The girl behind the counter huffed and walked off to serve somebody else with the parting shot "Tickey gone, book nother, 5000 real" or words to that effect. Impending sense of humour failure. If only we had been to Thailand already, I thought, I could really make good use of those Buddhist meditation classes they do.
Needless to say without aforementioned meditation classes I started to get a little hot under the collar. I tried with someone else. Sod the Lonely Planet, it was time to be assertive. With stink duly kicked the bus driver came over and started saying something along the lines of "There is no way on Shiva's earth that this bloody Enlish burk is getting on my bus". Right....all we could then do was aim to get our money back.
A rather testy five minutes later that involved the thirty people in the waiting room hearing what I had to say we had our money back. We then legged it to where we had bought our visas and managed to get ourselves booked on a posher bus for a pound or two more that left in fifteen minutes. It left from across town and a ten minute high speed tuc tuc ride later we made it just in time, maybe they were right about Cambodia.
Location: South to Sihanoukville, Cambodia
We waited outside the museum for the minibus to pick us up and take us to out connecting bus as we were heading down to the southern beaches of Cambodia for a couple of days. Ten minutes until the bus went and still no sign. We had resigned ourselves to another day in the capital when a moped came whizzing around the corner, dodging as many potholes and foot deep puddles as possible and asked if it was us that was catching the bus. By the time that we had nodded to the affirmative we were both on the back of his moped and gunning it towards the hostel.
We arrived in world record time complete with the shakes and a big red burn courtesy of a childs moped not being big enough for three people and a very hot exhaust pipe. All worth it though as we managed to get the bus.
It was only five hours down to the coast and as we neared the beach the weather got worse and worse...well that was worthwhile then. An hour or so before arrival we overheard the guy in the seat infront of us talking about bombs in London. We asked what was going on as he had just been on the phone with someone at home, details were still a little hazy but he had a bit of information but nothing confirmed.
We arrived at the bus station in the pouring rain and got mopeds direct to the hotel to see if we could get any news. I wish I had thought about taking pictures at the time as there was Karen on the back of one bike, bags everywhere and her with the brolly up in a brief attempt to keep dry. Worked while the bike was still but as soon as they set off....well you can guess the rest.
We sorted out a room with satellite tv and sods law the bloody thing didnt work so we had a nervous twenty minutes whilst they tried to organise another.
Watching the events unfold was weird on the other side of the world. A sense of real connection and helplessness. We realised that the locations and times would make it unlikely that anyone we knew would have been involved...at least that was something.
The weather improved and we had a couple of days split between the beach and the news. We watched the next Lions Test in an expat bar (the place is full of them, married to young Cambodians and a little unpleasant if truth be told) and made plans for the rest of Cambodia.
We had to go back through Phnom Penh which suited as this would get us fairly easily up to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat as well as enabling us to go for a meal at the infamous Foreign Correspondants Club.
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
After a day of exploring the capital we booked ourselves on to a day tour of S21 (Tuol Sleng - the prison / extermination camp that Pol Pot's regime used during the autogenocide) and The Killing Fields. Many people had told us how profound they had found this trip so after one of the finest green curries I have ever had we got to bed and read about what was in store.
We set off with a small group (only an hour late so not bad) and after an hour or so pulled in to what looked to be a warehouse with accompanying pond. This wasn't right and we soon found out that a couple of guys on the minibus had paid to fire guns at a range and that we would have to wait.
I had heard about this back in South America and had thought that due to my years in the CCF at school that this would be something that I would like to have a go at. But then I started reading about the history of the country and a wicked book called "First They Killed My Father" (a biography about a young girl who lived through the regime), and could not think of anything less appropriate. To be fair the local communities make big money off gung ho westerners wanting to fire an AK or rocket launcher so I suppose you cannot get on your high horse too much, but how the organisers are able to work in an environment of gun shots and explosions is beyond me. We watched a guy throw a grenade into the pond which was a huge disappointment as my filming will show. Imagine someone throwing a fist sized rock into the local pond....splash, wait, small rumble and then some ripples and bubbles. Twenty quid well spent there then.
We were soon off again and firstly it was off to the Killing Fields, I will give those of you that don't know a bit of background.
On April 17th, 1975 the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, took power in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. They forced all city dwellers into the countryside and to labor camps. During their rule, it is estimated that 2 million Cambodians died by starvation, torture or execution. 2 million Cambodians represented approximately 30% of the Cambodian population during that time.
The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia to year zero. They banned all institutions, including stores, banks, hospitals, schools, religion, and the family. Everyone was forced to work 12 - 14 hours a day, every day. Children were separated from their parents to work in mobile groups or as soldiers. People were fed one watery bowl of soup with a few grains of rice thrown in. Babies, children, adults and the elderly were killed everywhere. The Khmer Rouge killed people if they didnt like them, if didnt work hard enough, if they were educated, if they came from different ethnic groups, or if they showed sympathy when their family members were taken away to be killed. All were killed without reason. Everyone had to pledge total allegiance to Angka, the Khmer Rouge government. It was a campaign based on instilling constant fear and keeping their victims off balance.
After the Vietnamese invaded and liberated the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge, 600,000 Cambodians fled to Thai border camps. Ten million landmines were left in the ground, one for every person in Cambodia. The United Nations installed the largest peacekeeping mission in the world in Cambodia in 1991 to ensure free and fair elections after the withdrawal of the Vietnamese troops.
It was an experience that we would not care to repeat but very moving and a must-do if you are ever in this part of the world.
We moved on from The Killing Fields and on to the "prison camp" of Tuol Sleng, a building that was a school pre Khmer regime. I used inverted commas for prison because out of the tens of thousands of men, women and children that were taken there for questioning, only seven came out alive. The ground floor of the buildings in the pictures are full of pictures taken of each person to pass through the doors. Tourists with glazed eyes wandered speechless through the thousands of pictures even then not comprehending the scale of the atrocities that took place.
It had been a pretty depressing and hard hitting morning, ironically as we would find out later that day, it was the day that the first wave of bombings hit London.