Cambodia has been through 20 years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge brutally killed an estimated 2-3 million people, or 20% of the population. Vast areas are still covered with landmines and it officially ranks as the 157th most corrupt country on earth. And yet the Khmers, as Cambodians are known, are friendly, speak relatively good English and are optimistic about the future.
We have found on our travels that most towns can be spelled at least three different ways and road signs can be unreliable, so we do rely heavily on our GPS. There are well know examples of where this can go horribly wrong, and as we approached the kilometer-wide Mekong River for the first time, with no bridge in sight, we thought we would be in for a long detour. As it turns out, the GPS knew there was a tiny ferry (did it really?), which took us over the river and on to Kratie, in the heart of the Mekong province.
Hot and sultry (thank god the air conditioning was fixed), there was a slower pace of life here. We swam in the surprisingly clean water and managed to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin – motorized transport on the river has been banned in some sections to help protect these dolphins, quite amazing.
After that, it was on to Phnom Penh, the capital. But not before we made a stop to try a local delicacy: deep fried tarantula. The legs were tasty, but the body was a bit much…
Phnom Penh is really just a big town, although the first high rise is going up. It also has no traffic lights. Despite this the trucks, Range Rovers, tuk-tuks, scooters and bikes blend seamlessly at junctions. There is no road rage, no horns – it just works.
We decided to join the chaos, and took our ‘new’ bikes for a spin around town, leaving Lara to take a couple of days off. Of course, we still camped and had a prime riverside spot for just $1 per night. Jude continued the big spending, joining the locals at the mass outdoor aerobics classes – $0.30 per session!
NGO is the current buzzword in Cambodia. There are countless NGOs of all shapes and sizes to look after land mine victims, orphans, wildlife etc etc. We discovered NGO restaurants, where street kids are taken on and trained to be chefs and waiters. It’s a great idea, and possibly the inspiration for Jamie Oliver who did something similar in London?
More sobering were Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng was a school converted into a Khmer Rouge prison and interrogation centre where suspected enemies of the state (in this case 17,000 of them) where forced to ‘confess’, before being trucked out to the mass graves of the Killing Fields. And this within our lifetimes. Even sadder is that to date, only one Khmer Rouge leader has been sentenced under the joint Cambodian / UN war crimes tribunal.
We then hit the south coast beaches, which will be the last time we see the ocean until Turkey, planned for November / December. Our last ocean sunset at Sihanoukville was spent camped right on the beach with a cold beer – perfect.
This area is also known for its pepper, used by the better French restaurants. Although the Khmer Rouge destroyed it all in favour of rice production, it is making a comeback – so look our for Kampot pepper in your local organic shop. We had a great afternoon in the swimming pool after doing the little tour of the pepper farm, a great way to spend a hot afternoon!
We are now heading back towards Thailand, and our final leg of the journey in Cambodia will be through the Cardamon Mountains.
Have a look at our video about Lara in Cambodia (link to you tube as we can’t add it here directly).