A Duck Walked into a Bar… Cambodia

A duck walks into a bar.

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, we have no bread.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, I already told you, we haven’t got any bread.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “Listen here Daffy, if you ask me for bread one more time I will personally nail your stupid ducky beak to this very bar.”

Duck says: “Got any nails?”

Barman says: “what? NO!… we haven’t got any nails”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

This yarn highlights the utter frustration resulting from a short walk through downtown Siem Reap, only for ‘bread’ substitute ‘Tuk-Tuk.’ “You wanna tuk-tuk?” “No thanks we’re walking.” Ten metres on down the street; “You wanna tuk-tuk?” the exact same question from a driver who just witnessed the previous response… I know they’re just trying to earn a living but the endless repetition every time you walk down the street gets maddeningly irritating, although I didn’t quite nail anyone’s beak to the bar. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

“The worst border crossing in all SE Asia!” seemed to be the consensus of several bloggers travelling through the region. That would be the single point of entry from Laos to Cambodia at Veun Kahm / Dong Kralor where tales abounded of fistful of dollar bribes for this and that and, most worryingly of all, folk on motorcycles being refused pointblank entry to Cambodia. Reading more carefully these tales all seemed to relate to individuals who had bought or rented small bikes locally and were travelling on shop assurances that you could go anywhere and it would all be OK. Pulling up at the Laotian exit point, the duty customs officer seemed to confirm our worst fears… “You better leave the bikes here and walk over into Cambodia to see if they will let the bikes in before we stamp you out. Many people are refused.”

A stifling five-minute trudge, wearing all our bike gear, took us across a small stretch of no-man’s land to the Cambodian customs office where upon production of the ‘Carnet de Passage’ the smiling officer efficiently stamped both bikes in, before they’d even been stamped out of Laos. We wandered back to complete the Laotian exit procedures and then got our Cambodian visas and were all done. In total it cost $2 each to get our passports stamped out of Laos (I guess this was a small bribe) and then the normal $35 visa fee for Cambodia that everyone has to pay. At a final check back with Cambodian customs, a young French guy was being turned away on a 125 he’d bought in Luang Prabang. He was distraught and furiously waving a scrap of paper claiming it was the ownership document but the customs guy calmly explained he couldn’t let him pass with that level of documentation…

We had a magnificent ride through some stunning hill country chasing and occasionally being drenched by monstrous thunderstorms. Our first major halt was the aforementioned Siem Reap, jump off point to visit the fabulous Khmer ruins at Angkor Wat. It’s a very touristy town for sure but, pestering from Tuk-Tuks aside, what’s not to like about a town with a place called ‘Pub Street’ at its heart serving 50-cent beers? We checked in to the Blossoming Romdoul Lodge, an easy stroll from the party but far enough away for a quiet nights sleep. A Romduol, for your information, is a small, heavily scented, yellow flower, indeed the national flower of Cambodia, and local vernacular for a pretty girl. The name of our lodgings was inspired by a song by a famous Cambodian singer, Sin Sisamuth, who sang of how he fell head-over-heels in love with a beautiful woman he spied walking along the banks of the Siem Reap river, imploring the intervention of the gods to make her return his love.

Before delving in to Angkor Wat, we spent a morning at the Siem Reap War Museum, a collection of rusting armoured fighting vehicles and military ordnance that have been collected from around the area and deposited in a pleasant plot, reminiscent of a jungly orchard, on the edge of town. Walking around these orange-stained carcasses alone is interesting enough, hypothesizing on how each vehicle met its end. Tracks are gone, wheels missing, tyres burned off and underbellies ripped asunder, thick steel armour-plate peeled back as it if it were mere foil. Our guide, Sinarth, explained that most had met their end by landmines and he showed us inside one T-54 tank pointing to a piece of shinbone and a shrunken rubber plimsol, final relics of the crew upon the tank’s demise. Even more poignant; his friend had died in that very vehicle.

The tour with Sinarth really brought the museum to life. He explained how at 9-years of age he went out to collect honey with some friends near the village where he lived, not far from Siem Reap. When he returned the Khmer Rouge had called, rounded up his entire family, took them off and executed them along with the rest of the village. He wound up working as a child labourer in the Killing Fields and later, when the Vietnamese invaded, he became a soldier fighting in the war to liberate his country. As we followed Sinarth around he regaled us with his war stories from which he would emerge as the sole survivor from a group of twenty similarly aged kids. He had been shot and blown up several times. To emphasise the point he let us feel lumps of pellet-shrapnel still embedded under his skin or raised his shirt to display slash like scars of old bullet wounds. In spite of his ordeals he seemed like a fit, gentle, man until he surprised us all by stopping to sit down and remove one of his legs, the result of stepping on a Bulgarian-made anti-personnel mine, shredding his right leg below the knee. He beckoned us to come closer to stare into his right eye where the inky black pupil was flecked with shards of grey-white matter. These, he told us were pieces of bone from his foot, blasted up into his face by the mine to blind him for a period of five years. One day, when the war was over, some UN officials saw him begging at the side of the road and organised appropriate treatment for his eye injuries, restoring 70% in one eye and 20% in the other.

We finally relented and spent a day in a tuk-tuk, touring the temples at Angkor Wat. Travelling off-season meant we had most of the place to ourselves with uncrowded views of all the sites. Hin, our driver was a lovely smiley kid and very enthusiastic about showing us around for the day. We left at 6-am and set out against the rising sun. Hin was riding with one hand raised to shield his eyes against the glare of the low sun. We rectified this at the first opportunity with a pair of $5 Ray-Bans, broadening his lovely grin even wider. The temples were spectacular and the highlight was Ta Prahm where strangler vines grip crumbling walls like gruesome alien tentacles dropped out of the sky.

We had to prise ourselves away from Siem Reap… Here we caught up with fellow overlander David Kretz, a Swiss youngster travelling on a KTM690 with a vague notion (like ourselves) of one day making it around the world. David introduced us to the party-life in ‘Pub Street’ best viewed from the rooftop bar of the X-Bar, with its live rock-band playing decent covers through the night. Later we descended into the mayhem of ‘Pub Street’ itself, where two nightclubs vied with each other to see who could play the loudest music. We were highly amused to see a tiny young Cambodian lass berate David through all the din. “What was all that about?” we shouted at him… “She was telling me off for bringing you, my Mum and Dad, down here into this chaos” he replied with a cheeky grin!

Now feeling ancient, we rode across Cambodia on the main transit highway to the capital, Phnom Penh, stopping to visit more Khmer ruins at Kamphong Thom along the way. We witnessed the drought that has been plaguing the country with mile after mile of dried up paddyfield that should have been awash by this time of year and ready for the next rice crop. It was harsh to think that not so long ago these vistas were scene of the infamous Cambodian Killing Fields and in Phnom Penh our education into the tragedy would be completed in a harrowing manner when we visited Tuol Sleng, a former high school that became the Khmer Rouge ‘S-21 Interrogation centre’ and the Killing Fields memorial at Choueng Ek.

In the last blog I mentioned how Laos suffered such massive collateral damage from the Vietnam War as the US sought to choke the Vietnamese Ho-Chi Minh Trail. The trail continued south through Cambodia so naturally it was bombed here too. A flight of just three B-52s could devastate a swathe 3 miles long by 1 mile wide and like Laos, Cambodia has been left with a massive UXO problem. By 1975 the US were propping up an anti-monarchist government led by a superstitious Cambodian general called Lon Nol. His opponents were the Chinese backed, communist Khmer Rouge. The campaign was a disaster for Lon Nol and gradually his forces were forced back on the capital now swollen to 2-million people with evacuees from the US bombing in the east. Lon Nol’s ‘cunning-plan’ to defend the capital included the use of helicopters to sprinkle a ring of sacred sand around the capital that Buddhist advisors assured him would render the city impervious to all Khmer Rouge attacks.

When the Khmer Rouge entered the capital in April 1975, breaching the line of sand (surprise, surprise), Lon Nol had fled. People warmly welcomed them as liberators and looked forward to a period of peace and stability. They were immediately advised to flee the city as the Khmer forces had intelligence that the capital was about to be bombed by B-52s. This was a ruse to empty the entire city population into the country and there would be no return as Pol Pot set everyone to work in the Killing Fields for the next four years. In the end it was the Vietnamese who intervened. They had heard brutal tales from Cambodian refugees and some of their own citizens who became victims of the regime. They tried to involve the international community but no one in the civilised world would listen to a bunch of communists spouting off about the behavior of their communist neighbours, so in the end Vietnam invaded and liberated the Cambodian people as we heard from Sinarth. As they gradually reclaimed control over the country the big question was ‘where are all the adults?’; the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed or surrendered were mostly young men or children.

The simple truth was that the ‘adults’ were nearly all dead. Anyone suspected of being an intellectual (and this definition extended to something as innocent as wearing glasses) was summarily executed as everyone was put to work the land. Artists died including Sin Sisamuth, our singer from The Blossoming Romdoul, allegedly murdered by Pol Pot’s own hands. An estimated one-in-four of the population were killed in the genocide and this is evident in the fact that over 70% of Cambodians today were born after 1979. This harsh recent history affected us both very deeply especially as we trod the interrogation centre at S-21, where prisoners were assumed to be guilty on receipt and all that remained was to brutally extract their confessions before a trip to Choueng Ek for murder (if not already dead) or burial. It is so hard to contemplate and reconcile that all of these events happened in our own lifetimes. Those dark times are rendered even more brutal by the aspect of the Cambodian people today; a more beautiful, smiling, fun-loving and delightful people you would be hard pressed to find. How can such people turn on themselves and produce a Pol Pot?

From Phnom Penh we rode soberly south down to the coast. Along the way we rode the spectacular Bokor National Park road for a magnificent afternoon just scratching on the bike to reach fantastic views over the Gulf of Thailand. At Otres Beach we finally stopped to chill out and enjoy some of the best sunsets in SE Asia and met up with David once more, downing a few beers together before saying farewell for a while as he rode off east to Vietnam and we set our sights on a return to Thailand.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Cambodia

 

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4 thoughts on “A Duck Walked into a Bar… Cambodia

  1. Another great post. I sense that Cambodia has been a roller-coaster ride with the spectre of Pol Pot never far away. There seem to be three types of people who aspire to run countries and indeed entities at smaller scales. The principled leader, the conviction leader and those with neither principles or convictions. The principled ones are what I want to see but we often get the third type. The really scary ones are the conviction leaders who have such a narrow view, in which they have absolute confidence, that they will pursue policies which usually end in disaster. I see Pol Pot in this category. Bringing it home I see our current prime minister as being the third type and with a serious absence of the first type in her government. At least we don’t have a conviction leader at the moment.
    I hope your Swiss ‘son’ gets on alright without you. 🙂

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  2. Cheers Brian! The thing with Pol Pot was he was university educated in Paris (I think he studied Radio and Electronics) but it was there that he drifted off into communism. His game plan seems to have been to put everyone to work on a nationwide farm, which just seems to be totally crazy until he starts to kill off any criticism expanding this to anyone perceived as being possibly intellectual in any degree… As you say a very narrow view but with such horrific consequences. In spite of the history, where you might expect to be walking in a very dark shadow, Cambodia is a marvellous country peopled by some of the friendliest people we’ve met anywhere. I’d highly recommend a trip out here Brian; you’d love it!

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  3. Such a wonderful story teller! I do so enjoy ‘riding along’ with you guys. I also wish my imagination was not so visually heavy, the imagined actions at the killing tree chilled me to my core as a father. It made me smile when thinking of Pub Street and keeping up with the younger generation! Great effort guys.

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    • Cheers James! Glad you enjoyed the post. Re. the Killing Tree, there is no other way to tell this as I never before came across any regime so systematically set up to annihilate its own people in such a brutal fashion. When this happens to the young and innocent it is especially poignant. Pity more people can’t be exposed to this sort of stuff as once you’ve seen it you never, ever would want it to ever happen again. But then I felt the same looking at WW1 battlefield cemeteries yet 20 years later it did happen again only on a much grander scale.

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