Money and things

Another bus, this time from Phnom Penh to Kampot, a small riverside town just short of the Cambodian coast. Bex chose it because it’s meant to be provincially beautiful. We are staying in an atap right on the river; no air-conditioning, but a fan and mossie nets.

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The coach was $10 each, including pastry and water, and that brings me onto currency, always a traveller’s concern.

Korea, Singapore and Malaysia work solely in their own currencies. We’re using our HSBC cards. We get the (sensible) Visa rate with HSBC charging 2.5% on top of every transaction. You might remember that we have a Caxton currency card which allows you to put money on the card at a competitive rate and then use the card abroad as you would in the UK at no cost. The problem is, it doesn’t work in SE Asian currencies. Steven, Bex’s husband and ahead of me in the ‘be prepared’ stakes, took out a new Halifax credit card, which does the same thing as Caxton but works over here. We didn’t get round to that – should’ve.

Thailand differs slightly in that the same ‘use your Visa card as normal’ applies, but all ATMs charge 220 Baht (about £5) regardless, and it’s a countrywide fee. So it’s best getting as many Baht as you think you’re going to need for your entire stay in a oner.

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Cambodia is, unsurprisingly, crazy. They work in both dollars and their own currency, the Riel … in a way that is completely interchangeable. There are 4,000 Riels to a dollar and you can pay in either – or both, and will often get change in both. At first you think that someone is swindling you, but they’re not. It does mean you do have to have a head for numbers. I’m not yet sure about Vietnam. I’ll let you know when we get there.

Kampot is as end of the line as you can get. Riverside and run down, but untouched by the US bombing and with an international quarter which serves any food you like, it seems a magnet for older ex-pats, mostly men. It doesn’t take much to leap to a bit of a seedy conclusion, especially as our French host tells us that there are a good number of ‘girly’ bars recently opened in town. But I’ll let you make that jump. Certainly, having now spent a day here it seems that Kampot is somewhere you could easily lose yourself and live by your own rules if that’s what you wanted. It’s cheap and, well, a long way from anywhere.

Our two nights here are care of a glamping spot (Retro Guesthouse), thatched huts by a small river. No air-conditioning, shared bathrooms and accessible only down a mud path just big enough for a tut-tut. It’s new, but is so well done it feels old. And it’s fab. We had time to take a canoe down the river … which was quite ‘African Queen’, and had supper and cards before a night under a mossie net. To add to the atmosphere, C found a sleeping lizard in her shoe. Eek.

I went for a run round the paddy fields the next morning (I’m not managing every second day, but I am getting out where I can). And then C and I walked the same route before we caught a tuk-tuk for a full day tour of the local area including a trip to the internationally renowned pepper farm and then lunch on the, very windy, beach.

And now onto Vietnam, specifically to Puh Quoc, an island off the coast for some R&R after intermittent bursts of moving about. Hurrah!

The Killing Fields

Could we do this full time? That is travel from developing country to developing country, making the most of the cheap cost of living? I reckon £80 a day would easily do you, especially if you stayed in some places for extended periods (as travel, even some coach and rail travel, eats into your daily allowance). And for that money you could get B&B and eat out, plus a couple of beers. It might be the ultimate life of Riley? Imagine never having to cook or wash up?

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C and I had a breakfast discussion about this and, whilst we agreed we were having a royal time, there were two red flags. First, the heat. We are both good in the heat, but if there were no escape in sight, I think it would drive us a bit mad. I did six months in Sierra Leone without an air-conditioned bedroom, and whilst I worked through that it wasn’t a long term solution. The second red flag, waving madly for me, would be living as a rich white man abroad. I struggle with the deference, the smiles and bowed heads, even if there’s a different reaction when we’re not in view. I can understand how some people might enjoy that level of service, but for me it grates. What about working over here for an NGO?, C asks. Not a bad idea, but then the heat becomes a factor … and, in any case, I do want to write.

So, no. Probably not. Any extended time away will be in Doris. Like the 8-month extended tour of Italy and Greece we did 5 years ago (was it really that long?). Yes, that’s it.

The coach journey with Giant Ibis coach company to Phnom Penh ($15 each) was comfortable, included free water and a croissant, left on time and reaffirmed to us that coach and rail travel is so much better than flying … if you have the time. And our driver did not knock over a single motorcyclist.

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Which is a surprise when you consider how many there are (motorcyclists, not coaches) and how ruthlessly our driver drove. Motorcycles and tut-tuts are everywhere. Everyone has one, including most children. They are used to transport four people at the same time, adapted to carry loads you’d need a skip for back home, and many are made into travelling shops. I love them. And, thankfully, we have yet to see any accidents, although I understand that motorcycle usage moves to another level in Vietnam. Looking forward to that.

Phnom Penh is super crazy. Built on the confluence of the mighty Mekong (which rises in the Himalayas, don’t you know) and a lesser river, and remembering that the city was emptied by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s, it is a city alive with endeavour. They’re building everywhere and some of it looks both modern and safe. There’s money here, mixed brashly amongst the poverty, and high-rises are on the up, so to speak. The streets are alive with vendors, with cars and motorcycles traveling in all directions, not all them complementary. And yet it seems to work. There’s no angst here, just life. A miasma of it. And it’s fab.

Our homestay is … interesting, down a backstreet of a backstreet, but it’s clean, comfortable, has WiFi and air-conditioning. The owner dropped us off at a restaurant-cum-garage where we were offered beef or soup. We had both, and then brought some crisps on the way home. And none of us got injured crossing the roads. Result.

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And then down to earth.

On Sunday we visited S21, the genocide museum, after which we went to one of the killing fields. We’ve done Auschwitz/Birkenau and Bergen/Belsen and I’ve written about the former before. Here, like then, it’s very difficult to put into words what you feel. But I’m going to try.

Like the original Auschwitz camp, which was cavalry barracks before it became the test-case centre for mass-murder, S21 was not purpose built. It was originally a school; four, three-story concrete blocks around two courtyards. The museum had tried to leave it as it was, with the wretched, tortured and then often murdered inmates replaced by horrific photographs. The make-shift cells (some wooden, some brick) are as they were. Some of the barbed wire, put there to prevent prisoners commiting suicide over the balconies, is also in place. C took an audio-guide, whilst I wandered and read the many signs and notes. For me that was enough. The stained tiles told the story. The grainy photos added depth.

 

I closed the door of one of the 2×6 foot wooden cells – whilst I was in it – and tried to imagine the lashings with electrical cable, the beatings with sticks – swapping guards when one of them got tired, being hung from tied writsts behind my back knowing that to cry out was against the rules and that more beatings would come if I did.

Of course I couldn’t. There was no way to transport yourself to that hell. But in fairness to the museum, the environment enabled me to give it my best shot. Being left as it was with little elaboration makes it more poignant than if there had been electronic displays … and a coffee shop.

It was something else, and a must if you come to SE Asia.

And do you mind me making a contemporary point? Dictatorships are driven by men who crave authority and power. Their currency is fear. They’re sustained by the desires of those in power, not by the needs of those they control. As such they are self-perpetuating, that is until the grip is broken. And, once dictatorships have a taste of unopposed rule, those in power will resort to anything to hold on. Free speech, the rule of law, human rights … they go in time.

Liberal democracy is not dead at dictator Putin has recently argued. It can’t be. It mustn’t be. As I understand it, His Orangeness had hijacked the 4th of July celebrations in Washington. Apparently there wil now be VIP enclosures, with tickets etc. His daughter, not his Secretary of State, was at his side at the recent G20 summit. These are small steps by a man who would be king. Over here Brexit breaks us from a group of nations designed to be held together for the common good – among other things, to prevent a replay of our continent’s very recent ‘horrible history’. We only have to look to the very recent mass-killings in Bosnia to know what we’re capable of.

No, liberal democracy is not dead. It can’t be. And, if it is, our descendent’s decendents will be visiting camps such as these where we might have been guests.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Sorry. More positive news next time.

Angkor Wat

We did a day looking around Siem Reap and took a late tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat (you can get in to watch the sunset if you have a ticket for the following day = $37 each).

 

Siem Reap is lovely. Provincial, a bit tatty, but very ’boutique’ with a lovely river/canal running through it. We did a temple and then the palace gardens where we came across a colony of fruit bats, which are like bats but bigger and who’ve spent a lot of time in the gym. C was fixated. We had coffee at a v colonial, open-centred (around a pool) hotel and retired to our place post-lunch (where I went for a run having had 20 mins in our pool before breakfast … no ‘well-dones’ necessary.)

Angkor Wat at sunset was magical, sat on top of a crumbling, 10th Century, sandstone pyramidal temple – with quite a few other respectful tourists. The sun didn’t quite make it to the horizon due to some low clouds, but other than that it was a fab evening.

 

A few words on Cambodian history/politics, but only a few as, until recently, it has been v depressing. The Khmer people have lived here for eons and have pretty much been put upon by the Thais, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the French, bombed during the Vietnam war by the US and then, most horrifically, purged by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 70s/80s until the Vietnamese invaded them + the UN to stop the rot.

Two million people (TWO MILLION) were murdered in the ‘Killing Fields’ … in our life time. I’m not going to make a contemporary point, but why, or why didn’t we do something about it then? Phnom Penh, the capital, was literally emptied by the Khmer Rouge with the aim to take everyone back to 11th century fuedalism. Anyone remotely intellectual was murdered – those wearing glasses were considered middle class and had to go (I’d have been a goner). Whatever next? The fact that Angkor Wat survived after they dismantled all of the temples remains a bit of a mystery.

Since then there has been a dictatorship in any other name (think Putin’s Russia where one bloke stays in power regardless), but they have a king … who doesn’t quite attract the reverence of his Thai neighbour. But the people seem happy and genuinely lovely … which is maybe not a surprise if you consider their recent alternatives. I mean, the French … come on.

And then a day at Angkor Wat, although that’s just one temple among scores. The place is massive, I reckon as big as Thetford Forest, and all there is is a tourist road network joining more temples than a templey thing. In the end, with our own tuk-tuk driver ($20 for the day), we did six. Which, by mid-afternoon, was more than enough.

Think Tomb Raider. Sorry, don’t. I can’t get Angelina Jolie out of my head. Try Indiana Jones. Yes, that’s better. Think sandstone temples, large moats, jungle, ruins and intricate carving, some small, some as big as a barn door. Think tall, steep, uneven stone staircases, with an Indo-Chinese regard  for health and safety. Think uneven blocks and simmering heat. Now multiply that by 100 and you’re not even close.

Oh, and the carvings are fab, especially the big faces. And the long corridors and large stone windows. Yes, the colour has all drained out, leaving a patchy grey brown finish and the jungle backdrop is all one shade of green, so the pallet is muted and samey, but each of the temples is a world-class attraction in its own right. And there are many, many temples. All in various states of repair.

We got hot and tired. We refreshed ourselves with ice-cold water, thanks to our driver, and the odd can of fizz. And we loved it.

 

 

Could we do a three-day pass which appears to be the norm? No. Not for us. It’s not our period of history and whilst the architecture is stunning (and almost overwhelming), it’s just not varied enough. And I sense you would grow tired of the enormity of it all, which would be a shame because that’s what makes it ever so special.

Phnom Penh by coach tomorrow. Our tour guide, Bex, has booked us into a ‘homestay’.

I’ll let you know how that goes …

Life is good

The train to Aranyaprathet, which is the Thai town on the Cambodian border closest to Siem Reap (the Angkor Wat temples), was more 3rd and a half class than 3rd. The four of us also got on the only carriage without soft seats. And it was full. Deep joy. But at £1.29 each (the experience was free) it wasn’t really any trouble … at all. Although, here’s a thought. We made a snap decision about which side of the train to sit on, to avoid the sun. We thought we’d chosen the wrong side (we were travelling east and sat on the right side of the train), but the sun shone through the other window … result.

But why?

Because it’s mid-summer (northern hemisphere) and we were south of the Tropic of Cancer. Simples?

 

 

As we approached the Cambodian border the flat terrain remained flat … agricultural in a paddy field, other short crops way, and, other than some fabulous birds, the scenery was uneventful – unlike the previous day where there were spiky hills and jungle aplenty. The good news was that the train thinned out later on and we were able to stretch our legs.

And then Aranyaprathet. The edge of nowhere. A long, wide sandy/tarmac road with local industry spilling out onto its fringes. It could be southern US (not that I’ve been). We decided to walk the one mile to the Indochina hotel. Dogs barked defendingly from their plots, cars and trucks sped past. Where were we going? What had we booked?

An £15 a night oasis, as it turned out. Opposite the hickest, most bizarre rock ‘n roll bar in the east, with a beat-perfect, 5-piece band and supper and a number of big beers for £7 each. What a night. What a place. I was even invited (I think it was an invitation) to sing. All my dreams (but nobody else’s) coming true. Could things get any better?

 

 

Well, they did. Breakfast was, I kid you not, full English, which was fab after my early am swim. Then … the border, which we’d read and heard so many wincing stories about. In the end it was straightforward, although you had to be on your toes.

A hotel bus took us to the Thai crossing (others will take you to a ‘pre-crossing’ where you get badly shepherded through the process for an almighty cost. We got our passport exits stamped on the Thai side and then walked into, what can only be described as, a dystopian no-man’s land. It was 300 metres of building site, moped park, vagabond stop, furtive individuals keeping an eye on you type of place. The visa shed didn’t look cosher, and we almost walked past it. Inside we paid our $30 and an extra TB4000 (= £1) each, the latter appearing to smooth the wheels of administration. We didn’t need our passport photos, although they took them originally, but then handed them back. And then our visas were done.

 

 

Next, another 50 metres on, was another shed marked ‘customs’ (all the way we were walking alongside a road full of traffic and people). We weren’t encouraged to  go in, and I was concerned that it was another ruse … which it wasn’t. Suprise, surprise it was a 3rd-world passport control, which we could have walked past. Photos and fingerprints scanned later and we were officially in Cambodia.

Next, the big roundabout that everyone spoke about, where you can get a taxi to Siem Reap. Or some other disease.

Take your choice. A cordial 10-second barter and for $40 we were off in a tatty Lexus 4×4 headed for our hotel … which, and we knew this, was two and a half hours away. It was easy, though. Our driver spoke perfect English, and he even stopped so we could buy a tourist SIM.

And then Residence 101, delightfully picked by Bex for our three-night stop in Siem Reap. Absolutely fab. Drink and fruit on arrival, a poolside apartment that is really tastefully done, more smiling service than a Wimbledon finals match, and breakfast = £24 a night. I can’t tell you how good that is.

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Two days here … and more reflection from me in a bit.