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Clare’s Travel Diary

Monday, 09 Jun 2008

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

MapWell we made it through the Delta on our selection of little boats and actually really enjoyed it.

I hadn't realised what a vast area the Delta covers and just how big the Mekong is at its mouth. We travelled for 3 days from Saigon to Phnom Penh, pretty much all by boat and it was nice to take the slow route rather than just bus it. Along the way we visited little cottage industries such as Rice Paper manufacturing, Bee-keepers (I tried some Bee Larvae), Coconut & Banana sweet making, Fish farms etc. All the traditional crafts that the Delta people continue to make their living from. There was loads of activity on the waterways ranging from little dugout canoes for hand fishing, up to sand barges and dredgers and then great big container ships loading up at the ports closest to the sea where the Mekong is so wide it looks like film I've seen of the Amazon.

We stayed a night in a home-stay on an island with a lovely family who cooked us a simple but fantastic meal and we stayed a night on a tourist boat where we chugged up the river all night to get closer to the border and could see the sunset, which was gorgeous. I've never really travelled on a river that big so it was a really fascinating couple of days and a nice way to finish our 3 weeks in Vietnam - yet another completely different part of the country we would not have seen if we'd just hopped on the bus.

I have to admit though the 3rd day was bit of a trial as we after a brief visit to a Cham village (the modern descendants of the people who built My Son) we basically just sat on a small boat with about 12 other people chugging up the river towards Cambodia. The land is really flat and featureless in Cambodia and the life along the river peters out a bit so we were pretty bored for most of that day - not to mention annoyed by the scam for getting Cambodian Visas at the border. All sorted though, I only actually had the amount for the Visa itself on me so I couldn't have paid more even if I wanted to! We finally pulled in Phnom Penh at sunset on the 3rd day, got ourselves a guest house and dinner and started planning our time in Cambodia.

Cambodia is one of those countries that has really been through the wringer and spending time here is split between being horrified at its recent history and amazed by its glorious past. Our first day in the capital we wandered about visiting temples and the fantastic National Museum which is full of rescued sculptures and statues from the Angkor ruins. Day two was a different story, it was mainly recent history with a visit to the S-21 detention and execution centre (formerly a school in Phnom Penh which became the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge prison/death-camps) and the Killing Fields themselves, which though peaceful and tranquil today, bear the scars of having been one of the most horrific places I could ever imagine. I think one of the things I found most disturbing about the rise and fall of Khmer Rouge was that it is such recent history, within my lifetime, and so completely incomprehensible. None of the aims were achieved, the whole scheme failed and it was all dreamed up by the elite of Cambodian Society who had all been educated in France. Of course, with French interests in the area diminished, it fell to Vietnam to put an end to the regime, but the UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legal government of the country for another 15 years, and most of the ringleaders, Pol Pot included, have since died comfortably in their beds in exile. So, thats a good lesson in consequences isn't it?

After those two terrible encounters we dragged ourselves back into the city to the glittering Royal Palace for some restorative peace and calm and then passed the afternoon watching some movies back at our guesthouse - too drained to do much else. Phnom Penh though was a bit of a hit with us, we liked the bustle without the craziness of Vietnamese cities and the setting by the river with the faded colonial glamour is very enticing. Dining out is good and the city seems to really be on the up - after what the country has gone through I only hope it all continues for some time.

So tomorrow we take the bus north towards Siem Reap and the Angkor ruins which are of course the proud showpiece of the nation - and we are both really looking forward to them. Lara Croft I am not, but after a few days picking through the jungle around Angkor I just might think I can be!