Recovery

24th MARCH 2019

Unsurprisingly, I sleep like an over-tired log after my hardest day of cycling. I wake to the restful sound of tiny waves lapping against the sand about fifteen metres from my shack, before crawling out from under my mosquito net around 8.30am. Breakfast consists of scrambled egg on bread followed by a fruit plate, although I find things are a bit more expensive here than in a normal Plastic Chair Cafe. I eat slowly, still feeling weak as a kitten after yesterday’s hot, exhausting trek through kilometres of hilly jungle.

A large chunk of my recovery day is spent swaying gently in a hammock, suspended between two roof support pillars at my bungalow. Morning involves me drifting in and out of sleep, whilst listening to the sea and the comings and goings of locals. By luchtime I’ve decided to spend an extra day here, just to make sure I’m properly relaxed and recharged before moving onto Thailand. The beach bungalows are a lovely spot to unwind, set on a quiet sandy bay in this isolated and under-developed corner of the country. It’s one of those beachside places where the stunning location and easy-going atmosphere makes up for the basic facilities. Who needs Wi-Fi and a reliable electricity supply anyway ?

In the afternoon it clouds over and a refreshing sea breeze picks up, which is such a boon after enduring the hot, airless days further inland. By this point I’m feeling more rested and go for a walk along the road towards Bak Khlang village. Within a few hundred metres I begin to feel spits of rain, and as I cut back through to the beach it starts to fall more steadily. The downpour becomes torrential just as I make it back to the shelter of my bungalow. I raise the front bamboo blind and watch the deluge over the sea, which has now been joined by a chorus of thunder and lightning. The rain doesn’t let up all day, and by nightfall it’s still pouring. Yesterday I was wishing for showers to cool me down, but after witnessing today’s storm, I’m doubly glad I made the effort to get here in one day.

For dinner I have Beef Lok Lak, which is tasty beef, tomato and onion in a dark, slightly spicy sauce. The chef is a local guy, but the property is run by a young Polish couple who took over only three weeks ago. One of their friends in Poland is the business owner and asked if they would be willing to move out here and manage the place for him. The girl says that two months ago she could never have imagined they would be running a beach bar and accommodation in Cambodia. I have water with my meal, but stay at the end to drink beer with the managers and a German couple. It takes me a while to realise, but this is actually my first beer since arriving in Cambodia. In fact, I can’t remember having any alcohol since Trung fed me all that rum at Doc Let Beach a month ago ! I’m in bed by 9.00pm, but I definitely feel far stronger after all today’s good food and relaxation.

Sometime during the night I’m woken by barking beach dogs and find I’m bursting for the toilet. Because I’m still half asleep, I take the lazy option of a short stroll down the beach to pee in the sea. I stand ankle deep in the warm water, pissing, while watching the lights of dozens of fishing boats on the horizon.

After a day of inactivity, I feel like I’m almost back to normal the next morning. I cycle the short 2km into Bak Khlang village for a look around, finding a messy collection of tin sheds and markets perched on the mouth of the Prek Kaoh Pao river. Most of my time in this run down fishing village is spent on a fruitless search for effective sunscreen, with me miming my requests to bewildered shopkeepers. First I point to the sun, then to my brown forearms, before rolling up my t-shirt sleeve to show the white skin underneath. The majority seem to understand my bizarre charade, but none of them have any sunscreen. Even the local chemist only has Whitening Sunscreen, which is more often used as make-up by Asian women so that their skin appears more pale. I can only imagine the reactions I’d get from wearing that and cycling along like a deathly white ghost.

On the way back I pass through Samotherean Pagoda, which everyone just refers to as The Black Buddha. This massive statue, sitting cross-legged and draped in golden robes, is unlike any other Buddha I’ve ever seen before. The tall, slim figure is painted entirely black, save for a pair of manic looking white eyes, that appear to be staring in two different directions. It would make a striking photo, but alas, it’s under renovation and covered in unsightly scaffolding. I ride out the main entrance through a corridor of one metre high golden buddhas, which remind me of the award statuettes given to Oscar winners.

Like yesterday, the wind gets up in the afternoon and the sea starts to become choppy. On the horizon to the South there’s an ugly, dark stormfront which appears to be heading our way. The Polish management couple run around fetching all the lounger cushions and other fly-away equipment from the beachfront, so I collect a few pieces to help them, and then settle down to watch the incoming storm. It’s all a bit of an anticlimax though, as heavy rain pelts into the sea fifty metres offshore, but somehow manages to miss us completely. It remains cloudy, windy and warm for the rest of the evening. For the third day in a row I miss out on sunset over the sea.

And then, a mere sixteen days after arriving in Cambodia, I’m getting ready to depart. Because I took the bus for my touristy side trip to Siem Reap, I’ve only cycled around 500km through the whole country. Mind you, 100km of that was my sweltering, energy-sapping trek of two days ago. I know it’s difficult to build up a true perspective of a country having only seen small parts in such a short time, but on the whole I’ve enjoyed myself. Cambodia seems less developed and less organised than Vietnam although, strangely, I’ve found it to be slightly more expensive. Physically, it’s been a challenge cycling through some of the flat inland regions, which is more down to me being drained by the heat in dusty, scorching dry season. The terrain has been relatively easy apart from the last couple of days. To make up for the barren areas between towns, there’s the modern vibrancy and cafes of Phnom Penh, the ancient temples around Angkor Wat and my current laid-back beachside location.

Like in Vietnam, the people have generally been friendly, warm and helpful. During the course of an average day in Cambodia, I would receive plenty of ‘Hello’s’ from the locals, which is always a good way to gauge a country’s friendliness. Part of me is amazed how the population and the country have bounced back so well after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. Although that era will always cast a dark shadow over Cambodia’s past, it’s probably a blessing that nearly 80% of today’s population are too young to remember it.

On my final night in Cambodia I fall asleep to the sounds of the sea, splashing lightly against the sandy shore outside my beach shack. It’s a great way to spend my last few hours in the country. Tomorrow I’ll be cycling into Thailand !

 

 

 

 

 

The Hardest Day

23rd MARCH 2019

The day I’ve been dreading for a week has finally reared its fat ugly head; a long, blisteringly hot cycle of 110km, with a bloody great big hill in the middle. I know that today is going to be a hard slog, so I thought I’d book myself into a beach bungalow for a couple of nights as an incentive and reward for making it. When the going gets tough I just need to motivate myself by the thought of feeling sand under my feet tonight and watching sunset over the sea at my destination.

My day doesn’t start brilliantly though, which turns out to be an ominous precursor for what’s about to follow. I had planned to get going as soon as I woke, attempting to get as many kilometres under my belt as I could in the coolest part of the morning. Alas, when I check the tyres I pumped up last night, I’m more than a little disgruntled to find that the rear one has deflated slightly. Bollocks. It must have a slow puncture to have gone down that much overnight. Grumpily, I sit cross-legged on the wooden floor, remove the rear wheel, prize off the tyre and take out the inner tube. Running my fingers round the inside of the tyre, I find the tiniest sliver of sharp metal poking through the rubber, protruding just enough so that it would re-puncture the inner tube. Lucky I checked. I remove the metal and simply pop in the second of my spare inner tubes, before rolling out the guesthouse a lot later than I intended to.

I pause briefly to stock up on cakes and water for the road, before leaving town and making for the dry, jungle-covered hills beyond. My rear wheel feels strange and wobbly as I depart, and within two kilometres I’ve stopped at the dusty roadside, courtesy of yet another flat tyre. For Fuck Sake ! Under the patchy shade of a young tree I begin that familiar task of removing the back wheel and tyre. Ironically, the offending tyre is the brand new one I picked up in Phnom Penh, purchased precisely because I was getting worried about puncturing the old ones. In the end I give up on the spanking new tyre, certain that it must still have a tiny, sharp, mystery object embedded somewhere that I can’t locate. This fragment would continually puncture any tube inside the tyre, so my best option seems to be a return to my old, worn original tyre. 

Now that the tyre conundrum is solved, all that remains is to pump up one of my inner tubes. Unfortunately, my Presta valve pump now seems to be ineffectual, it’s rubber-band ring having become too loose to operate. I’m faffing around, trying somehow to sort this, when a young lady on a scooter stops to check if I need any help. She tells me she had already ridden past, before deciding to turn round and come back to see if I was alright. By this point it looks like I might not be able to fix the pump, so she comes up with a couple of alternative solutions, including a taxi or bus to my target of Koh Kong. This is a distance of around 100km, but she seems to think it would only be a $10 taxi ride, a surprising revelation that I will certainly bear in mind today.

My helper is called Ul Sarann, a woman from the next village, who has that South-East Asian trait of looking at least a decade younger than her thirty-two years. Her English is excellent too, having spent time working as a home help for a rich family in Malaysia. As we chat I rummage through my panniers, chancing upon the forgotten pair of Schrader valve inner tubes I bought in Nha Trang a month previously. At the time I’d almost dismissed them as cheap rubbish that probably wouldn’t even fit, but now they might just be my salvation. I check I’m able to inflate the tube using my Schrader valve pump, before Ul Sarann helps me fit the tyre back onto its rim. She’s been brilliant, staying with me for over half an hour to make sure I get moving again. I take a selfie of the pair of us, before she rides off and I prepare to restart my day. Any thoughts I had of an early start are now long gone.

When I eventually get away from Botum Sakor, I find the road heading inland becomes a series of steady uphills and downhills. There’s one steep climb where I’m gradually caught by an oversized flat-bed truck, crawling slowly uphill with the burden of transporting a bulky digger. On the following downhill I’m then able to overtake the truck, as it can still only creep along. The driver gives me a big wave and an enthusiastic blast of the horn. He catches up with me on another uphill about ten minutes later. For the next few kilometres I fly along, aided by downhills and some lovely ‘false flats,’ which look level but barely require me to rotate the pedals at all. I reach the outskirts of Traepeng Rung village, just short of half distance, and pull into a large Plastic Chair Cafe set back from the road. Things seem to be going OK so far.

My meal is a surprisingly tasty fried rice with beef and onion, washed down by an entire jug of iced tea. There’s a guy at the next table who looks like a local, but tells me he’s actually a Canadian with Cambodian parents. He’s over here doing voluntary work as part of his university degree, monitoring the surrounding jungle and checking that locals aren’t chopping down trees to smuggle across the border to Thailand. He asks about my journey and which route I’ve taken, telling me the road I cycled in from Vietnam is the only ‘sketchy’ part of the country. We chat for a bit, before I head into the village after handshakes from all the blokes at his table.

Traepeng Rung village is only a small settlement, lined up along the main road with an incredible amount of food stalls for its modest population. There’s also a guesthouse, which I’d seen listed on Google maps, but couldn’t be sure if it actually existed or not. It does. And it looks a lot better than the mosquito-infested hovel I stayed in last night. Part of me wants to stop here right now, thus breaking a hot, hilly 100km day into two more manageable days of 50km each. I seriously consider this option, even though I’ve already booked my accommodation in Koh Kong tonight. However, I still feel pretty good at this stage, having just filled myself with food and tea after a relatively easy morning. I keep going.

On the way out of town I notice a few stalls that sell water, but I don’t stop as I still have two full bottles and a belly full of tea. About 5km later I meet a pair of cyclists going in the opposite direction, and stop to chat under a shady tree. They are a couple in their late 50’s or early 60’s who are heading to Traepeng Rung and staying at the guesthouse I had thought of stopping at. Again, a huge part of me wants to call it a day, turn round and go back to the guesthouse. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I should have listened to my gut instinct at this point.

From hearing them speak, I can tell the couple are from somewhere in North America. It’s only when the bloke talks about something being ‘ootside’ that I know they’re definitely Canadians. They tell me they began cycling in Singapore and have ridden up through Malaysia and Thailand to reach Cambodia. We all remark on just how bloody hot Cambodia is, with the old bloke’s crimson face illustrating this point perfectly. I ask about the big hill I’m about to face, to be told that the slope I’ll be climbing is long and gradual, whereas their side was shorter and steeper this morning. They are happy to hear that their guesthouse is only 5km away. I’m less happy to hear that the couple have already cycled 58km since leaving Koh Kong this morning. My accommodation is just past their starting point, which means I’m looking at another scorching 65km before I can stop. The guy asks if I have enough water, as there’s nowhere for supplies between here and some stalls at the top of the hill. Bugger. I knew I should have picked up more water in town when I had the chance.

When I carry on, the road does it’s undulating thing to begin with, so I’m never really sure whether I’m starting the big hill or not. I’ll begin climbing and think ‘this must be it,’ only for a downhill to arrive shortly after. However, the down slopes end soon enough, and the road starts to climb steadily, yet interminably, upwards. And My God it’s boiling now ! As I’m sucking oxygen into my lungs I can actually feel how hot the surrounding air is in my throat. I stop under the first shady tree I see, just to get out of the sun for ten minutes. Even the slightest waft of a breeze in this shade gives me some cooling respite. I’m chugging down my water too, even though I know I should be rationing it to get to the top.

The countryside is sawdust dry, with certain areas still scorched black after bushfires. I keep plodding sluggishly upwards, although I need to sit down under the shade of a roadside tree for another rest stop as I’m beginning to fade. I’m sweating so much that my three layers of padded shorts are saturated right through to my normal shorts above. Thanks to Google maps, I know that my reaching the summit will coincide with a sharp left turn in the road, but any progress I’m making on the map is painfully, tortuously slow. Of all the cycling days I’ve ever described as ‘a struggle,’ this is by far the toughest. I get to the foot of one slope and simply decide to dismount and push the bike up. It just looks too difficult. At the top I reach the shade of another tree and sit down cross-legged on the roadside gravel below. I’m absolutely ruined.

At this point I’m sincerely thinking about flagging down a passing vehicle and asking for a lift to the top. I’ve never felt so drained on a cycle before. I’m continually stopping, sitting and resting under shady trees to stay cool, although I now start to feel dizzy each time I stand back up again. My water supply is almost finished and I’ve still got about 5km of crawling, sweltering uphill left. I can feel a horrible, metallic taste in my mouth too, a sure sign that I’m dehydrating.

Another steep hill sees me getting off to push once more. I reach halfway, sit down at the roadside again for a breather and begin to think that I could be hallucinating. At the top of this slope there appears to be a large grey monkey sitting on the white line in the middle of the road. A couple of passing vehicles toot their horns, yet the creature is unfazed and doesn’t move. One car stops and the driver throws out an apple which the monkey accepts gratefully. Hey, I could have done with that ! I’m clearly struggling to push my bike uphill in a stifling, searing heat and now people are giving away their food to bloody monkeys ! I rest my head on my forearms for a few minutes, close my eyes and try to summon up the energy to resume cycling. About ten minutes later I open my eyes and look back up towards the top of the hill. There’s no sign of a monkey. Maybe I imagined the whole episode. I’m a wreck.

I get back on my bike and continue inching painstakingly forwards. A yellow warning sign alerts me to the possibility of elephants crossing, which would be an amazing sight, but is probably the last thing I need at this precise moment. The final couple of kilometres take an absolute age, with me spending far more time pushing, stopping or resting than I do cycling. Eventually the distance passes and the road begins to level out, until I’m spurred on by seeing the row of shacks and stalls which mark the summit. I feel like I’ve reached my lifeline, clamber off the bike and start rooting through a large container full of iced water like a man possessed, desperate for something to drink. A bottle of flavoured iced tea disappears down my throat in seconds, causing ‘brain freeze’ in my parched, messed up head because I drank so quickly. I’m still not sated though. I go back into the ice bin and pull out a pomegranate drink which is consumed just as urgently as the first. Goodness knows what the locals think, as they stare in bewilderment at this red, sweaty Westerner who’s guzzling their drinks like some kind of thirsty animal. I just sit there and chill for a while, letting my body absorb this rejuvenating liquid and trying to regain my equilibrium.

Then I roll off down the other side of the hill, steadily at first, before steepness and gravity have me speeding along beautifully. Since getting over the summit I notice that the vegetation on this side has become far more lush, green and jungly. This is the type of scenery I’d be expecting from a jungle, not the arid, scorched landscapes of the inland slopes I’ve just ridden. I fly down the steep hill that the Canadians had climbed up this morning, thinking that their short, sharp ascent may have been just as difficult as my prolonged, steady uphill. I’m taken all the way down to the riverbank village of Tatai, where I can see wooden stilt houses as well as modern resorts while riding over the bridge crossing. On the opposite side of the river I have to get off and push once again, which is a bit demoralising after my speedy descent. I know that I’ll be travelling generally downhill from here to sea-level, but it appears there’s going to be a few more tiring undulations on the way.

It’s almost 6.00pm when I catch my first glimpse of the coast below, the sun setting as a giant red ball in the thundery distance. With the way I’m feeling I’d love nothing more than to be caught in a refreshing downpour right now. It remains stubbornly dry however, with me being unable to focus on milestones for Koh Kong and my contact lenses sticking like glue to dry, blurry eyes. It’s starting to get dark by the time one final downhill and an easy flat section take me into the streetlights of Koh Kong. I rush along the town’s wide main street and cross a long, sloping bridge that takes me over a river and out the other side of town. At my turn off the streetlights stop, and I choose to ride by the glare of passing scooters rather than looking for the light that I know is lurking in my panniers. This isn’t the smartest move, but I’m not exactly thinking straight by this point and just want to reach my destination with the minimum of fuss. It’s almost pitch black by the time I reach the Hula Hula Beach Bungalows, a knackered and dishevelled mess.

I push my bike to the bar, order a bottle of water and down it in one go, before immediately ordering another and repeating the same trick. The young Cambodian barman shows me across the sand to a simple, wooden bungalow, raised on small stilts and with dried palm fronds for a roof. The design takes me by surprise as there’s only two solid, adjoining walls while the remaining two sides are covered by the flimsiest of bamboo blinds. The bed is just a mattress on the floor, shielded by a large mosquito net that hangs from the ceiling above. I chain my bike to one of the four corner pillars that support the roof and lie on the mattress for a while, trying to slowly recuperate after today’s efforts. The barman had told me about a barbecue tonight, but instead I just shower and return to lying in the bungalow, staring blankly into space as if I’m in some kind of shell-shock. I’m such a shambles that I can’t even be bothered to eat.

I honestly think this has been the toughest day of cycling that I’ve ever experienced. The 110km would be a long day for me anyway, and adding the big hill made it a slow, laborious slog. It’s when you couple both these factors with a blisteringly hot, high thirties temperature that the day becomes an absolute killer. Today is the weakest, most exhausted I’ve ever felt on a cycle and the closest I’ve ever come to jacking it all in and trying to flag down a lift. I peel the contacts from my moistureless eyes and basically don’t move from the mattress all night. I suppose when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be glad I made it and didn’t take the easy option of splitting the journey into two easier days. Right now though, I just feel fucked. And I missed sunset over the sea too.

 

Welcome to the Jungle

21st MARCH 2019

I’m awake reasonably early, munching on a breakfast made up of last night’s bakery goods and the remainder of my mini bananas from Vanny’s. I pay for my $12 hotel room with my final $100 note, triggering a frantic search for change and a few headaches for the young guy at reception. He eventually manages to find enough notes through a messy combination of low value US Dollars, supplemented by thousands of Cambodian Riel. Once outside, I pause immediately to buy two large bottles of water and, with an unusual efficiency, that’s me ready to depart. It’s only 8.00am when I leave, so I’ll be able to ride the first hour in slightly cooler conditions, before having to cycle the bulk of my 100km in mid-thirties heat.

Like yesterday, the road is full of trucks and buses, most of which give me a warning toot on their horn if they’re about to overtake. My normal tactic is to move into the roadside gravel to let them pass, but only if there’s traffic coming towards us from the opposite direction. However, if there’s nothing approaching on the opposite carriageway I don’t move, figuring they’ll have ample room to get past me easily enough. After a while I get to know the size of the approaching vehicle by the sound of their horn; trucks and buses generally give a deep, hearty blast, whereas with cars it’s softer and more tinny. Some cars still toot though, possibly expecting me to get out the way and pull over for them. I find myself shaking my head and saying ‘Fuck Off’ a lot when hearing what I think is merely a car tooting behind me.

For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe and choose a rice meal containing various chicken bits. I’m using the word ‘bits’ as it seems like all the grisly chicken off-cuts have found their way onto my plate. As I’m rummaging through my food, a single chicken’s foot makes a grim, unwanted appearance. It looks revolting, but I decide to give it a try anyway as I think that tasting these challenging foods should always be a part of travelling. It’s awful. I can feel chicken claws scraping my tongue as I attempt to extract some meat from the scrawny, wiry mouthful. It’s back on my plate within ten seconds.

As my day progresses, the surroundings gradually change from flat, dry countryside to more jungly, undulating hills. I’m also drinking water like there’s no tomorrow, with repeated visits to roadside stalls to gulp down chilled drinks, cool water or flavoured tea. I stop to take on more liquid today than I ever have before, drinking litre after litre, and don’t think once about going to the toilet. I’m losing so much in sweat that my bladder is being bypassed.

I carry on, with regular stops under shady roadside trees, before I reach the landmark I’ve been waiting for – the Srae Ambel roundabout. It’s at this junction where the main body of traffic, especially trucks and buses, carries on South towards Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s main seaport. The road I’ll be taking swings North to begin with, before heading West through a hilly National Park and eventually all the way to Thailand. I’m happy to see the back of all that traffic, but less pleased about the slow, baking climb that takes me away from the roundabout. I crawl steadily higher, past shacks on a roadside of red dirt, until I’m up level with the town’s radio transmitter. A nice, cooling descent then drops me back down for my final, sluggish 10km to Srae Ambel.

There’s a choice of two guesthouses on the long straight road into town although, lazily, I just pull into the first one I see. My ground floor room has a steaming hot shower and powerful air-conditioning, but also a large, black scorch mark all round the main light switch. The owner catches my worried expression as I’m looking at the burn marks on the blue wall and responds with a slightly unconvincing ‘No Problem’. For dinner I take a walk towards town as I didn’t notice any food places on the road in, but I also remember reading that the other guesthouse had a small grocery shop underneath it. I arrive to find that their product choice can only be described as ‘limited’, so my makeshift dinner consists of nothing more than pomegranate juice and a zip-lock bag of sugary cereal.

The following morning I leave my guesthouse just after 9.00am, paying for my $15 room with 60,000 Cambodian Riel. I’m really getting the hang of this currency malarkey now, plus I want to get rid of all my Riel before leaving the country. US Dollars will be easy to exchange or pay into my bank account back home. Cambodian Riel won’t.

For the first couple of kilometres I double back, taking the same road I cycled in on and accidentally stumble upon a Plastic Chair Cafe within two minutes. How the Hell did I miss this yesterday ? I order a rice meal with chicken bits and sit down near two guys in their twenties who speak a decent amount of English between them. They stick out like sore thumbs in this dirt-floor local cafe, wearing immaculate white shirts, ties and trousers while everyone else is in shorts and flip-flops. It turns out they’re on a work trip to visit the Botum Sakor branch of the bank they work for. We ask each other all the usual questions, before one guy gets out his phone to show me his wedding pictures. Generally, the wedding photos of strangers are pretty boring, but I have to say I’m rather impressed with this gallery and the amount of colour-coordinated outfits that the couple wore. An assorted collection of yellows, reds, golds, blues and greens, all in matching pastel shades, make them look like a pair of Bollywood superstars. I’m told the couple’s wedding lasted for two days and involved ten changes of outfits. Just as I’m looking suitably shocked by this, the other bloke writes a figure on his hand to tell me that each outfit can cost $1,500 ! I’m less shocked to hear that they hired the outfits.

They both shake my hand as I leave, with one guy offering a ‘Good Luck with your journey, Sir !’ When I’m at the counter buying water I can hear the two of them telling the locals what I’m up to. I can make out the words ‘Scotland’, ‘Hanoi’, and ‘Thailand’ as I pay for my meal. Leaving the cafe I pass a large Buddhist monastery, set amongst trees on a hill above the road, and have the oddest sensation that I’m cycling in the wrong direction. Since I’ve been travelling continually West for a couple of weeks now, I’ve become accustomed to the morning sun shining straight onto my back. Today, I feel so disoriented with the sun’s rays hitting the right side of my face. It’s such a weird feeling that I have to stop and check Google maps to confirm I’m moving in the correct direction.

The morning is roasting once again, with me feeling drained and listless after yesterday’s long, hot ride. I spend the day plodding along, stopping for regular breaks in the shade and trying to dodge wandering livestock that roam freely around the road. The numerous skinny cows don’t cause any problems, although I’m far more wary of the occasional tank-sized water buffalo, giving them all the time in the world if they want to cross in front of me. The afternoon becomes a sluggish, weary trudge through increasingly hilly terrain, punctuated by regular stops under roadside trees for shade and rest. The heat is energy-sapping.

Botum Sakor is another town where I’m relying on the accuracy of Google maps, hoping that their one marked guesthouse does actually exist. If the map is wrong, or the guesthouse has closed, then I’m faced with cycling a further 40km in scorching temperatures to reach the next town. And, again, there’s no guarantee of accommodation in that town either.

A gently sloping parabola bridge takes me over a wide, slow moving river and signals the entrance to town. I pass wooden houses on the riverbank below with coloured, corrugated iron roofs and raised on stilts to cope with wet season flooding. There’s one final slog up a hill on the opposite bank, before I catch a glimpse of the guesthouse sign, instantly recognisable from screenshots I’ve taken from Google maps. The accommodation is on the main road, but set slightly further back down a red dirt slope. I’m greeted by an old crone, who appears to be the owner, and through mimes I’m told it will be $6 for the night. That’ll do.

From reading reviews I knew the guesthouse would be fairly basic, but I didn’t realise quite how basic. The accommodation is separate from the family home, and is essentially just a large wooden shed on stilts that has been converted into rooms. In my bedroom I’m able to look down through large gaps in the floorboards to the dry earth a few feet below me. Mosquitos are going to love this set up. I go for a shower, to discover it’s a shared bathroom with no shower attachment. Instead there’s a large vat of water in the far corner, with a big plastic ladel to spoon water over yourself bit by bit. Normally I love a hot shower, but this is a quirky novelty and so refreshingly cool on this sweltering day.

The old crone had mimed there were three food options further up the hill, so I take a wander and find that the first cafe looks quite welcoming. The owner lets me sample the food before ordering, which is a first, and I end up with rice and spicy chicken bits again. It seemed the best of an odd looking bunch. I spend the next half hour sweating like I’m in a sauna, through a combination of sizzling outdoor temperatures and munching on overly spicy food. By the time I return to the guesthouse I’m pooped, so have a late afternoon siesta, whilst unintentionally donating some of my blood to the local mosquito population. I find that lying underneath the mosquito net lessens the desktop fan’s cooling effect, so consequently I lie outside the net. And consequently I get bitten.

For dinner I’m back at the same Plastic Chair Cafe for beef and veggies with yet more rice. The tiny owner is struggling to change a light bulb, having difficulty reaching despite stacking half a dozen chairs on top of each other. I make myself useful by standing on a single chair and replacing it for her, rather than see her falling from the precarious tower of chairs she’s constructed. As I eat there’s about ten baby chickens running around the floor, with some scrabbling about outside and getting perilously close to the roadside. They all look very cute at that age, but in Cambodia they’ll only ever be destined for a cooking pot I imagine.

At night I notice my arms have taken on a slightly red colour, courtesy of me applying low cost Vietnamese sunscreen for today’s short trip. It did feel like cheap rubbish as I was putting it on, so I should have realised it would turn out to be useless. No wonder I was so affected by the heat today ! Before going to sleep I ponder how to get maximum benefit from the table fan, while still being able to protect myself from mosquito bites. In the end I manage to pull the fan as far as it’s cable will allow and take it under the mosquito net with me. I fall asleep to the hypnotic sound of whirring fan blades about a foot from my head. At least the cooling airflow will help soothe my red skin.

I have a nasty feeling that tonight is a ‘Calm before the Storm’ moment. I’ve left myself just over 100km to cycle tomorrow, through a hilly, jungly National Park in uncomfortably hot temperatures. It could be a tough old day …

 

 

 

Back on the Road

18th MARCH 2019

I’m up at 8.00am for scrambled egg baguettes and a cup of tea before leaving Siem Reap and saying Goodbye to the Cashew Nut Guesthouse. The place has been a tranquil oasis in an over-touristy town, just the sort of calm refuge I needed to recover from my second bout of toilet ‘inconvenences’.

It takes around six hours for the bus to reach Phnom Penh, through a dry landscape of brown farmland, skinny cows and dusty roadside towns. I don’t mind spending all this time looking out the bus window though, having missed most of the passing countryside when I was ill on the way up. A motorbike taxi gives me a lift from the bus station back to my accommodation at Vanny’s, where he greets me with cold water, mini bananas and news of a further power cut. It’s hot as Hell upstairs with a redundant electric fan, so I jump straight under the shower to cool off and freshen up after the long bus journey. As I’m getting out the candle-lit shower room, the electricity jolts back into life and my room fan begins it’s cooling rotations once again. For dinner I return to No. 72 Restaurant, despite my suspicions that their food may have been the cause of my stomach upset. I’m prepared to take the chance a $2 per meal. This time I avoid eating anything chicken based, and settle for a fragrant Red Tamarind Beef with rice.

The following morning my waking for breakfast coincides, unsurprisingly, with yet another power cut. Fortunately my breakfast must have been cooked just before the electricity went off, as it’s still relatively lukewarm by the time it reaches my gob. I’m served the standard steamed rice with egg on top, with today’s extras coming in the form of vegetables. I sit with a Mexican woman who has been working in Phnom Penh for three years as an English teacher. It gets me thinking about how many English teachers I’ve met on this trip, and how many of them don’t even have English as a first language themselves ! There’s hope for me yet.

My final day in Phnom Penh is spent doing little chores and organising things before I get back on the road tomorrow. First, I visit the local laundrette and get them to do a service wash of every garment I have, apart from the clothes I’m wearing. The dodgy electricity supply at Vanny’s place giving me a legitimate excuse for being lazy and not doing my own. Then I go to a bike shop I’d been e-mailing to pick up a new tyre, as I wasn’t sure my current worn pair would make it all the way to Bangkok. The shop had told me my size of wheel isn’t normally found in Cambodia, so they’d improvised and ordered a tyre from their supplier in Thailand. Annoyingly, this difference in wheel sizes also means they don’t have any ready-to-fit replacement spokes for my bike. This doesn’t deter them though, and they go about making one from their existing stock of spokes by cutting it down to size and threading it. I appreciate their efforts; I’m in the shop an hour and a half while they manufacture a new spoke and fit it for me. The replacement tyre looks a lot more substantial too, despite being skinnier than the original. I’m a lot more confident about my prospects now. 

By mid-day I’m back at Vanny’s guesthouse, where the electricity supply has been switched back on again. He’s so deliriously happy with this development that he loads me up with another handful of mini bananas in celebration. Later I visit an ATM, making what I hope will be my final cash withdrawal in Cambodia. Unfortunately, I forget to ask for an uneven amount, and am dismayed to receive my $200 in the form of two $100 notes. Bollocks. Notes that size will be awkward to get rid of. My plan for unloading the first one involves finding a nice, Western supermarket where they are much more likely to have change than in a Plastic Chair Cafe. I fill my basket with essentials like sunscreen and mosquito spray, but also splash out on a feta cheese and pumpkin baguette. Oh, how I’ve missed cheese ! The $3 price tag would be worth it for the cheese alone, but the bonus is managing to offload one of my pesky $100 notes.

In the evening I return to No. 72 Restaurant for the last time, having now overlooked and forgiven the likely food poisoning episode. On the off chance I ask for Red Tamarind Prawn, the elusive meal I’ve tried unsuccessfully to order twice before. I’m surprised to find that it’s actually available tonight, so I sit down happily to wait whilst drinking iced tea and watching some chaotic driving manoeuvres on the small crossroads outside. I pay for my $2 meal with 8,000 Cambodian Riel, finally getting the hang of this weird, triple currency exchange.

Most of the evening is spent working out distances and accommodation stops that will get me to the Thai border, a distance of around 300km. Normally this would be a straightforward task, with maybe four days of 75km pencilled in to reach the target. However, a lack of accommodation, inconvenient distances between towns and a hilly National Park means crossing this section will be far from straightforward.

The next morning I afford myself a late start as my accommodation searches have led me towards a town called Chbar Mon, meaning today will be an easy 50km cycle out of Phnom Penh. This kind of distance will break me back in gently after a week off the bike, but it will also leave me with a big day of 100km to follow. Breakfast is fried egg atop steamed rice again, this time accompanied by a few pieces of chicken nugget type morsels. I faff around till about 11.00am as I’d like to say Goodbye to the whole family before leaving, only to be told that Vanny is out this morning driving his tuk-tuk. Bugger. I would have liked to have seen him before I go, although I do get to farewell three-quarters of the family. 

I’m soon to discover that leaving Phnom Penh on a bike is almost as slow and tortuous as leaving by bus. At one point the road is completely gridlocked where two streets converge to cross a bridge, the traffic inching forward amidst a bedlam of fumes and horns. Being on a small vehicle like a bike is really no advantage here as there are so many scooters and tuk-tuks competing for the small gaps between vehicles. I edge out of town on crappy, bumpy roads, giving my new tyre an unwanted first work out. Vanny had advised me not to take this road, due to it being full of trucks and buses heading for the port of Sihanoukville, and I’m starting to wish I’d listened to him. I spend a lot of time pulling over onto the roadside gravel when I hear the warning horn of a large vehicle approaching from behind.

My big breakfast and mini bananas keep me going for most of the journey, although a roadside stall offers an excuse to get out of the traffic for a while. A young girl serves up beef slices with rice and two boiled eggs in a dark spicy sauce, while an old guy at the next stall brings me over a bottle of chilled water. The water is most welcome, even though today’s temperature is almost ten degrees cooler than the scorching thirty-five and above we’ve been having recently. I rejoin the busy road and find that there’s no let up in traffic, industry or roadside businesses all the way to Chbar Mon.

By mid afternoon I’ve reached my destination and am checking into a hotel I found on Google maps which, confusingly, also directs to enter by the rear of the building. Although I’ve arrived unannounced, they do have rooms and I’m able to chain my bike to a roof support pillar in the gated back yard. When I go up to my room I’m amused to find a sign that warns of a $10 fine for staining the bedsheets, so I make a mental note to behave myself tonight. I shower, crash out and then head along the wide, dusty main street in search of food. I’m finding that outside of Phnom Penh and touristy Siem Reap, Cambodia really doesn’t have much in the way of food and accommodation, and certainly nowhere near as much as there was in Vietnam. With limited choices, I end up in a place called Phnom Penh Bakery, stocking up on pizza slices and two pastries that look like they could be apple turnovers. I eat half of everything, keeping what’s left for tomorrow’s breakfast. I’m somewhat disturbed to find that the inside of my pastry is filled with a gruesome hot dog sausage, where I was expecting to find sweet apple.

Tomorrow is, I think, my third 100km cycle of this trip, which is a distance I had planned to avoid tackling in such exhausting heat. I don’t have a lot of choice over the next few days though; the distances between towns and accommodation means there’s going to be a couple of long, hot days ahead.

 

 

 

 

Angkor Wat

15th MARCH 2019

You can’t come to Cambodia and not visit Angkor Wat. Well, obviously you can, but it would be a bit like visiting Cairo without seeing the pyramids. The vast, ancient temple is such a symbol of Cambodia that it even appears on the national flag. I’m excited to be making this side trip, although my day begins in rather unpromising fashion.

My stomach had felt a bit rumbly during the night, but I didn’t think anything of it until I go for my morning poo. The first one slips out very satisfyingly, before the second effort comes shooting out like a raging waterfall, spraying brown liquid splatter everywhere. What the Fuck ? How did that happen ? I sit there, dribbling, then go to wipe my arse. The act of doing so causes yet more brown mess to come shooting out all over my wiping hand. Jesus, this is gross. I wash my hands more carefully and thoroughly than I ever have before. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why I’ve got the shits, because yesterday I only had breakfast at Vanny’s and my two meals at No. 72 Restaurant. My best guess, based purely on timing, is that chicken from the restaurant is the most likely culprit. If only I’d stopped after the first meal !

I’m feeling so woozy that I toy with the idea of delaying my trip, but I’ve already booked my bus and accommodation. I traipse downstairs and pick lethargically at my breakfast, before heading back up to my room to lie under the fan for a while. The cooling air and some deep breathing makes me feel slightly better, and I decide to go ahead with the journey. Vanny orders me a tuk-tuk, driven by one of his mates, who weaves through busy traffic to get me to the bus station in plenty of time.

I find the bus and choose a seat, only to be told I have to sit in Seat 13 like it says on my ticket. A Cambodian guy in his forties sits down beside me with a Seat 14 ticket, even though the rear of the bus is empty. We get talking and I find that he’s a tuk-tuk driver based in Siem Reap and (of course) he offers me a tour. He also shows me a picture of himself alongside Angelina Jolie, from when she was filming Tomb Raider in the temples around Siem Reap. This chap was actually an extra in the film, playing the role of a Khmer Rouge soldier.

Leaving Phnom Penh becomes a painfully slow crawl through traffic, taking us a full hour to escape from the city. I’m not feeling great by this point either; the combination of a dodgy stomach and the motion of a hot coach has me feeling like I’m either going to throw up or shit myself. How the Hell am I going to get through a six hour bus journey feeling like this ? I’m nauseous, sweating like a pig and about one minute from getting up to be physically sick. Then, almost like a minor miracle, air vents above me start cooling the sweat on my forehead, which in turn makes me feel a whole lot better. I doze fitfully, until the bus stops for a rest break and I take this opportunity to go and lie on the vacant rear seat. When the bus resumes it’s journey, I remain crashed out on the back seat. There are a few more waves of nausea to deal with, but they’re a lot easier to handle when lying down. At some points I get really hot, at others really cold and my muscles are feeling a bit achy. My immediate panicky thought is that I might have contracted malaria, as you can’t help being bitten by mosquitos at some point. The muscle stiffness seems to pass though, and we carry on rolling slowly towards Siem Reap. From my prone position I notice rain on the bus window, and I manage to sit up for the final twenty minutes into town. This is the first rain I’ve seen in almost two months.

My accommodation, The Cashew Nut Guesthouse, is about two minutes walk from the bus station, which is an absolute godsend in my current condition. I check in, have a hot water and lemon to soothe my guts and book myself on two single day tours of the temples. I go upstairs, lie under air-conditioning and basically don’t move from that position all evening. By 10.00pm I’m beginning to feel far healthier, so hopefully a good night’s sleep will see me right for tomorrow’s temple tour.

The next morning I wake with settled bowels, feeling infinitely better than I did yesterday. A simple breakfast of baguette, scrambled egg and fruit salad sets me up for the morning and I go outside to meet Seth, who will be my tuk-tuk driver for the next two days. At our first stop I have to buy a ticket, emblazoned with my photo, which will gain me entry into all the temples over the weekend. I think the photo may well be used as an identification check, but it will also stop me from selling the ticket on when I’m finished.

Then we drive off to see temple after temple, some Hindu, some Buddhist, some Khmer. They all formed part of the ancient capital city of Angkor, and most of the structures have been dated back to almost one thousand years ago. I spend ages in the first temple, marvelling at the intricate designs and awed by just how long the building has stood here. Then, an uphill walk in thirty-five degree heat gets me to the second, while Seth (Sett) remains with his tuk-tuk. From up here I see jungle stretching out for miles below, and also catch a glimpse of the huge Angkor Wat temple in the distance, hidden tantalisingly amongst the trees.

When we stop to eat I find out that Seth expects lunch bought for him as part of the deal. He has a fish curry soup, whilst my stomach issues lead me to choosing the plainest, bland option of boiled spring rolls. I don’t really mind buying his lunch, even though the touristy food prices here are double that of Phnom Penh. Afterwards we head off to another temple ruin, situated on the far side of a giant wetlands. As I walk through on a raised pathway, I pass fishermen and boys standing waist deep in water and half a dozen grazing water buffalo. The final stop is a tall temple where you can climb up to watch sunset, although having three hundred other tourists at the top spoils the moment somewhat. The entire upper level is crammed with people taking selfies and trying to pose for photos that make it look like they’re ‘holding’ the setting sun. I really can’t be arsed with them, even though I’m a tourist myself. I better get used to it though, because tomorrow I’m off to see sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction.

On the Sunday I’m up at 4.30am, collect my packed lunch from the guesthouse fridge and meet Seth outside for a tuk-tuk ride in the dark. We drive along Siem Reap’s famous ‘Pub Street,’ which still has food stalls trading through from Saturday night, as well as new ones setting up for this morning. Half an hour later we park close to the Angkor Wat site, and I follow the crowds, torches and lights that are marching towards the temple. I sit on a wall overlooking a rectangular moat that surrounds the complex, whilst a stream of flashlight-carrying tourists cross a pontoon in front of me to enter the temple grounds. Through the gloom I can just about make out the shadowy outline of Angkor Wat, the distinctive towers a slightly darker colour than the surrounding sky. Gradually it starts to get lighter, but there’s no spectacular sunrise with a band of cloud on the horizon. The sky colour simply moves from black, to grey and then into daylight.

The normal, fixed walkway over the moat is under repair, so I squeak my way across to the temple on a temporary plastic pontoon. I knew a lot of folk had crossed this way in the darkness, but I had no idea just how many until I see them all inside. There are thousands. Nearly everyone makes for the main temple like a flock of sheep, so instead I walk round the grassy outside of the grounds to try and get some sunlit photos from the rear vantage. Most of the stones used to build Angkor temples are really dull and dark, so this direct sunlight makes for a much better photo.

Then I climb up to join the hordes inside the huge main temple. It’s a spectacular spot, three levels high and supposedly one of the largest religious monuments in the world. What makes Angkor Wat so distinctive are the five enormous towers, four in each corner and one in the middle, set out like the Number Five pattern on a dice. The towers are shaped almost like tall acorns, adorned with ‘petals’ to make them look like lotus flower buds. Inside there’s a queue and a thirty minute wait to get to the highest level, so I forgo that to explore the terraces, galleries and storylines carved intricately into the stone walls. Most of my time is spent wondering how these wonders could have been constructed nearly a thousand years previously. My tolerance for tourist crowds isn’t great, so after a few more pictures I call it quits and return to meet Seth.

We carry on to Bayon Temple, which has more stone-carved storylines of battles and myths, dozens of huge, smiling Buddha faces on columns and about two hundred Chinese tourists. Then it’s the very cool Ta Phrom Temple, which was used as one of the locations when parts of Tomb Raider were filmed here. This temple is unique, as a lack of restoration and human interference has allowed it to remain in almost the same condition as when it was discovered. The surrounding jungle has encroached and taken over, with massive silk-cotton trees and strangler figs growing straight through the roofs of some buildings. Enormous gnarled tree roots twist and crawl over the ruins below, appearing to strangle them like giant, woody constrictor snakes. Visually, the place is astonishing, but the scrum of tourists queuing for pictures makes it hard work.

We head off for lunch, with me treating Seth again and opting for a mild fish curry served in a coconut. Over food, he tells me that Cambodia was actually bombed far more than Vietnam during the ‘Vietnam’ War. He and his friends would find mortar shells and grenades as kids, with one friend losing a finger after playing with a grenade that exploded. He then tells me his older brother was once kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and forced to train with them, before escaping and making his way back home. I’m not sure whether to believe him, but then I reason that most stories from the Khmer Rouge era seem scarcely believable nowadays.

There are a couple of more temple stops on the way back, although I’m getting a bit templed-out by now. They all seem to pale in comparison after seeing Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom. On our return we stop alongside the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat, where Seth gives me a few more interesting snippets of information. I’m told that the moat used to contain crocodiles as a defence measure, and that if it ever dries up there’s a chance the Angkor Wat temple may collapse one day. Apparently the temple site is built on sandy ground that is kept damp by underground water wells. Now, with Siem Reap continually growing and attracting more tourists, there are many more new hotels and businesses that require access to water. All these new consumers then drill bores to tap into this underground water source. It’s ironic that the town has grown so much because of Angkor Wat, yet catering for all these tourists may end up damaging this crown-jewel of temples.

It’s roasting by mid-afternoon back at the guesthouse, so I have a swim and relax by the backyard pool. It never occurred to me until today that this swimming pool is probably using underground water that helps support Angkor Wat. I should feel slightly guilty, but I guess that Siem Reap wants to keep getting busier and busier as Cambodia becomes more accessible to mass tourism. I’m glad I got to see Angkor Wat now, before the town becomes even more stupidly crowded than it already is. It’s one of those places that would have been great to visit twenty years ago, just after Cambodia opened up to the world again. In the late nineties only 7,500 hardy travellers would come to Angkor Wat. Today that number has grown to over two million visitors each year. That’s a crazy transformation. It’s been a good few days though, despite the tourists, and great to see another ‘bucket list’ destination. Tomorrow it’s back to Phnom Penh and back on my bike.

The Killing Fields

14th MARCH 2019

My second Rest Day in Phnom Penh continues along much the same morbid lines as my first. Yesterday I learned that inmates at Tuol Sleng Prison were tortured into false confessions by the Khmer Rouge and then taken to a place called Choeung Ek to be executed. Today I’m going to make a short trip out of Phnom Penh to visit that location, the most notorious of the sites that came to be known as The Killing Fields.

As it’s only 17km away I decide just to cycle, heading South out of the city on streets that become steadily quieter with every turn I take. The final few kilometres include a road that has been constructed using prefabricated concrete slabs, with me jolting over the bumpy joins between sections every five metres or so. I leave my bike outside the Choeung Ek compound, chained to a supporting roof pole amidst scores of parked scooters. The attendant bloke gives me a paper ticket and says that parking will cost me 1,000 Riel (about 20p) when I leave.

I choose the audio-tour option again as I think this definitely enhanced yesterday’s visit to Tuol Sleng Prison. The extra information and personal back stories mean you build up a much clearer picture of events than if you just walked round randomly. It also appears that the same person has been given the job of narrating the English speaking version of both audio tours. I’ve now spent two afternoons in a row listening to shocking accounts of torture and brutality, all recounted in a reassuringly calm manner by a slightly German sounding reader. Before walking round the grounds, I sit on a bench and listen to the horrific chain of circumstances that led to this area being used as a Khmer Rouge execution site. What was once a peaceful orchard would soon become the mass graves where almost 9,000 victims of that regime were dumped.

At the centre of the site is a large Buddhist Stupa, like a memorial, that is supposed to be the final stop on the audio-tour. However, a whole army of schoolkids have arrived at the same time as me so I visit the Stupa first to avoid having to walk round with them. It’s a tall, narrow building that houses around 5,000 human skulls as well as various other bones, teeth and clothing that have been dug up here over the years. The skulls are balanced three high on top of each other in central glass cabinets which, chillingly, rise to a height of nineteen levels. Squeezing round the building between the cabinet and outside wall I can see that many of the skulls show signs of being shattered or pierced by a sharp object.

Back outside I walk along paths that skirt round the areas where victims were buried. These sites are marked by large, deep depressions in the dry earth where bodies have been unearthed from dozens of mass graves. Not all of the graves have been dug up though; there are still at least five mass graves at this site where the Cambodian government has forbidden exhumation, preferring to let the victims rest in peace. However, this policy often leads to the macabre spectacle of bones and clothing resurfacing nowadays during periods of prolonged heavy rainfall.

Testimonies from former executioners detail how the victims were blindfolded and led to the grave site with their hands tied behind their backs. Here they were forced to kneel down and were usually killed by a blow to the back of the head using iron bars, sharpened bamboo or any other implement that was available. If this didn’t kill the prisoner they would be finished off by having their throat slit. Bullets were thought of as too expensive to waste. Once the grave was full the Khmer Rouge would throw DDT pesticide on top of the bodies to cover up the stench of decay, although this poison also helped kill victims who were buried alive. After a few days the ground above these graves would often rise up, due to escaping gases from the sheer number of decomposing corpses.

What happened at the graves is grim enough, but ‘The Killing Tree’ takes things to an even more abhorrent level. This is the location where children and babies were killed by being swung round and having their heads smashed into the thick tree trunk. When the invading Vietnamese first discovered this location they were puzzled as to why a tree would have blood, bone and bits of brain on its trunk. They were only able to work it out when they found children’s bodies in amongst the mass graves and saw the horrific head injuries they had succumbed to. Can you imagine killing children by holding their ankles and swinging their heads into a tree ? It’s a truly sickening thought. Today the tree trunk is adorned by bangles, bracelets and other colourful trinkets as a sort of memorial. It’s clear to see that this spot is the one that affects visitors most on this tour.

Although Choeung Ek is the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge execution sites, there are thought to be around three hundred such locations around Cambodia. It’s almost unthinkable to learn that Pol Pot’s regime were responsible for the deaths of nearly two million people. In less than four years one quarter of the Cambodian population were dead as a result of execution, disease or starvation. The Khmer Rouge rule only ended after Vietnam’s invasion, forcing it’s leaders to retreat West to jungles on the Thai border. They were relatively safe here as the Thais were happy to use them as a buffer between themselves and the Vietnamese. Bizarrely, because Vietnam were seen as an occupying force, the Khmer Rouge were still viewed as the rightful Cambodian government for many years afterwards by a number of countries, including the UK. By the mid 1990’s their support had dwindled, Pol Pot died in 1998 and a year later the Khmer Rouge ceased to exist. The surviving leaders were put on trial for genocide, but the ordinary soldiers were given amnesty if they surrendered, and now live freely amongst the Cambodian population.

It’s been another heavy-going afternoon but, again, I’m glad I made the effort to come here. I leave the site, try in vain to find the parking attendant and cycle off without being able to give him my 1,000 Riel parking fee. That’s 20p he’ll never see again. On the ride back towards Phnom Penh I get caught in a bit of a traffic jam and resort to cycling along the pavement like almost every scooter and motorbike rider.

At night I’m back in No. 72 Restaurant, still trying to order Tamarind Prawn from their menu, and still finding that it’s unavailable. By now I’m ravenous too, as I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. In the end I opt for a tasty beef noodle dish with egg, vegetables and the most delicious sauce. As I’m sitting drinking my iced tea, I decide that I’m still hungry and order a second main meal, this time creamy chicken with rice.

Back at the guesthouse it’s so hot and sticky that Vanny brings chairs out to the pavement so we can sit and chat in the cooler air outside. I learn lots of little snippets about life in Cambodia; the fact that the number eight is considered so lucky that nearly every house number will contain an eight, even if this bears no relation to what position they are on the street. I’m also surprised to hear that almost nobody in Cambodia has car insurance. Anything other than a major crash gets sorted out by the two parties on the spot, and if your car gets stolen it’s just bad luck and you’ve lost it ! He says he can barely remember the Khmer Rouge era as he was only a child, living in his family village out in the countryside. I don’t ask about the rest of his family and he doesn’t mention it.

After a while his daughters return from extra Chinese lessons and I become an excuse for them to practice their English once again. It hits me how happy and carefree they are, and I think how lucky it was that they weren’t born a generation or so earlier. Their education and foreign language skills that are so useful today would have seen them killed in the 1970’s. I’m finding that a lot of my thoughts are Khmer Rouge related at the moment after immersing myself in their bloody history for the last two days. It’s time for something a little more uplifting. This will come in the shape of a side trip to Siem Reap tomorrow to see a much more positive symbol of Cambodia – the temples of Angkor Wat.

The Khmer Rouge

13th MARCH 2019

After riding in scorchingly high temperatures for eight days straight, it’s such a relief to get up late and not have to think about cycling. I’m feeling the same sense of relaxation that a Monday to Friday worker would feel when they open their eyes on a Saturday morning. And, even though a cycle trip bears very little comparison to work, it’s still lovely to have a day off.

The question is what should I do with a day off in Phnom Penh ? There are plenty of options from food tours, temples, visiting the Royal Palace or taking a sunset cruise on the Mekong River. It takes a bit of deliberation, but I finally decide I’m going to explore a very dark chapter in Cambodia’s history and visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Even beforehand I know that it’s likely to be a sad and sobering afternoon, yet somehow I still have a strong urge to visit the site. I know that people who go to Auschwitz say their visit helps them learn and remember the past, and in this way such genocides are never repeated. I’m not so sure though. The horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia took place twenty years after the horrors of Cambodia, which in turn took place forty years after the horrors of Nazi Germany. I don’t think we ever really learn. Human beings will always be capable of staggering levels of brutality under the wrong leaders or the wrong circumstances.

In Cambodia’s case the wrong circumstances came about as a result of an overflow of the Vietnam War alongside the country’s own Civil War. The ultra-communist Khmer Rouge forces were able to overthrow the Cambodian government in 1975 and went on to impose their barbaric and inhumane regime on the unstable country. Under their fanatical leader, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to turn Cambodia into the purest of communist states. His vision for the country included evicting citizens from all cities, forcing them to work on the land and making the country completely self sufficient. The regime isolated Cambodia from the outside world, stopped foreign imports, closed all schools and banks, banned religion and forbid anyone from owning property or having personal possessions. White collar workers would be sent to work on farm collectives for fourteen to sixteen hours per day with absolutely no idea what they were doing. Thousands died from overwork, disease or starvation.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers were mostly recruited from uneducated and easily manipulated peasants, who now had a steady job, food and a little bit of power. In the truest communist sense, peasants were now equal to the urban elite. People who were educated, had ‘soft hands’, spoke a foreign language and any employee of the previous government were all seen as enemies of the state. Along with teachers, academics, lawyers, artists, monks and foreigners, they were rounded up, tortured and sent to be executed. This is where the grim Tuol Sleng Prison (or S-21) comes into the picture.

When I show up there’s already a number of Western tourists milling outside and queuing at the entrance. I buy an audio-tour with my entry fee, put the headphones on and am transported back to a terrifying time in the late 1970’s. The first thing that hits me, for all the horrors that took place here, is just how ordinary the place looks. What became such a centre for suffering was once an everyday high school. There are five buildings, all three storeys tall, arranged round three sides of a rectangular courtyard of green lawns and palm trees.

Building A occupies the left side of the courtyard and is where most of the torture took place. Each bare room has dirty, yellowing walls and a floor with alternately coloured orange and white tiles. These used to be classrooms, but desks were removed in favour of a single metal bed, bolted to the floor and to which prisoners were shackled hand and foot. They would be immobilised and helpless as they were tortured into signing false confessions which implicated their friends and family members. To gain this information the prisoners would be beaten, electrocuted, have fingernails pulled out and even experimentally operated on. I’m staggered that one human being can do this to another, especially when the torturers knew their victims were innocent.

In each of the ground floor rooms there is a large picture on the wall of that room’s final victim, lying dead and still shackled grotesquely to the same metal bed that sits here today. Mercifully, The Khmer Rouge were eventually ousted in 1979, after the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia to defeat them. The victorious soldiers swept into Phnom Penh so quickly that the Khmer Rouge essentially just dropped everything and ran, without having time to cover up their atrocities. About two days after arriving in Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese soldiers noticed a stench coming from this very building, went to investigate and found the grisly sights within.

Buildings B and C run along the rear of the courtyard, with crudely built single cells on the ground floor and mass detention rooms on the top. These large cells held around forty people, crammed in like sardines and lying top to tail, chained to the walls by their ankles. To wash the prisoners a guard would simply put a hose through the iron bars once a week and spray them all. Malaria, ringworm and other skin diseases were rife. Part of the ground floor is given over to an eerie, black and white picture gallery, some of which are prison mug shots and some of which are head shots of deceased victims. In many pictures their glazed, dead eyes are still open and staring hauntingly upwards. Many of the victims are women, teenagers and sometimes even children. If a prisoner made a confession and was executed, the regime would then kill their entire family so there was no-one left who could take revenge later. There are also pictures of Khmer Rouge soldiers, the ‘cadres’, all dressed in black and, unsettlingly, most of them appear to be teenagers.

Building D shows various instruments of torture and has individual stories from the very few survivors. There are accounts of women prisoners being raped and of mothers having their babies killed in front of them. Again, I just cannot fathom how humans can descend into such savagery, save for the old ‘I was only following orders’ excuse. The regime made sure the teenage soldiers did follow their orders though, as any failure to do so would quickly result in their own execution. Apparently, almost one third of Tuol Sleng’s prison guards were also killed as the regime’s paranoia began to take hold. The last section of this room has a number of human skulls on show in glass display cabinets. On some of these skulls I see dents, holes and fractures, disturbing indications of a brutal and violent death. I exit the building and sit on a bench outside while listening to the final section of the audio-tour, as well as some personal testimonies from inmates and former guards. It’s desperately surreal to be sitting here on a beautiful sunny day listening to the horrendous stories that took place forty years ago at this very same location.

After prisoners made their forced confessions, they were then able to be trucked away and executed in a location known as Choeung Ek, about 15km South of Phnom Penh. A Cambodian journalist coined a term in the 1970’s that is still widely used today to describe the mass execution sites around the country – ‘The Killing Fields.’ Out of an estimated 18,000 prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng Prison, there were only twelve known survivors, of which five were children. This handful of survivors were either children who hid when the prison was evacuated or adults who had shown themselves to be of some use to the Khmer Rouge. An artist was kept alive to paint portraits of Khmer Rouge leaders, while another was spared because he could repair the regime’s typewriters and sewing machines.

One of these survivors, Chum Mey, takes up residence most days at a shaded stall in the courtyard, selling autographed books recounting his time at the prison. In the book he tells of getting so hungry in prison that he would resort to eating rats that scurried into his cell. He’s also still deaf in one ear as a result of having electrodes shoved in there during electrocution torture. He just looks like an ordinary, humble old man. Part of me is astonished he would choose to spend so much time here after what he went through. Then I read the blurb on his stall, which tells me he wants to spread the message to foreigners about what happened here during Khmer Rouge times and to make sure it’s never forgotten. Vanny tells me later that these books are his only form of income.

The museum is as depressing and confronting as I imagined it would be. I think this feeling is exacerbated because the site has remained almost untouched for forty years, a stubborn reminder of the sinister past while a new modern city has built up around it. As I walk back to my guesthouse I can’t help thinking about the sense of fear and hopelessness the prisoners must have felt. Their fate was inevitable; they would be tortured until confession, then trucked away in the middle of the night to be executed. And they would have known with certainty that this was their future.

Looking back at these events now, it seems almost unbelievable that they actually happened. I remember when I was a kid, hearing snippets on the news about Cambodia and The Khmer Rouge, but I really had no idea of the full, shocking extent of what went on. Todays visit has filled many gaps in my knowledge from that era, although I have to say it’s done nothing for my faith in human nature. Back at the guesthouse I tell Vanny where I’ve spent my afternoon. He just looks at me and nods his head ever so slightly. Cambodia has moved on massively from those tragic days, but anyone over forty-five will remember and will have had their lives shaped in some way by those terrible events.