Mental photoshop: Cambodia, part 2.
As the bus races through the endless dry flatness of central Cambodia, I apply some imaginary photo editing to what I see outside the window. First of all, I replace the yellow, parched unattended rice fields with rice fields that are in use, of the most vivid green imaginable, such as I’ve seen in other places before the dry season became really dry. Next, I remove the eternal hazy, pale dull sky with a stark blue one, adding a few little white fluffy clouds to make the blue even stronger. Now, in my mind the landscape already looks a lot more spectacular.
Then I turn my gaze back out the window and it’s all yellow and dry again. After the truly amazing temples of Angkor Wat (a must-see place, for sure), a five hour bus journey brings me to Battambang, the second city of the country. But just as in Laos, the second city of the country feels more like a big, sleepy village, totally shutting down after 10 o’clock. It’s refreshingly Khmer again, after the tacky tourist circus that was Siem Reap, but with the necessary comforts for tourists: English menus, WiFi and the like. I meet up with Petr, a Czech friend from Brussels whom I hadn’t seen in two years but who happened to be travelling through the region too. I spend three nights in Battambang even if I don’t actually do much there. I don’t feel like taking the standard tuk tuk tours to the temples in the area or riding the bamboo train, so I just chill out, have a cooking class (was thinking about doing that ever since India) and go on a bike ride around some of the villages in the surrounding countryside.
Up next was Phnom Penh, the capital. I place I found eminently skippable, except for the particularly grim and moving Tuol Sleng genocide museum. The beautifully restored central market building also warrants five minutes of your time, but other than that I didn’t find PP all that captivating. It’s weird that in a city that big, there is no official public transport. If you don’t have your own means of transportation, the only way to get around is by motodop (motorbike taxi) or tuk tuk. A weird fact: all the cars in PP were either Toyota Camry’s, or Lexus jeeps and other similar big SUV’s. I even saw a couple of Hummers (not only in PP but in other places in Cambodia too. This country must have the highest Hummers-to-population ratio).
My possibly favourite part of Cambodia came all the way at the end. As it happens, I found the south of the country the most beautiful part, and the town of Kampot was probably the nicest place I’ve stayed in. It’s five kilometers inland from the coast, on the bank of a big river, with the Elephant Mountains providing a scenic backdrop. The small town is full of old, mostly yellow colonial buildings in various states of decay, and I found it particularly charming. Must be the reason too that there are so many expats, volunteers and ngo workers in town. Again, i didn’t do so much there (I skipped the most popular excursion, the one to Bokor Mountain), but it was just nice to chill out. On the weekend, I went to Kep, a nearby town on the seaside, for a music festival. It was the first time I saw the sea since Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. It’s not really a tropical paradise though. To be honest, I found Kep an overpriced dump. The only good thing probably was the music festival that was one (once again, with a really high concentration of expats). Trust me, your life will never be the same anymore after witnessing concerts by Khmer screamo and hip hop bands. (Note: Khmer does not refer to the Khmer Rouge, it’s just the national language of Cambodia.) I also ran into some people which I met just after crossing the border, which was pretty random and fun.
Time in Cambodia was running out by now, and there was no time at all left to go to some tropical island in Thailand to laze on the beach or do a diving course. I decided to be active again and went to the Southern Cardamom Mountains, a huge area of protected forest in the Southwest of the country. It was a relief to see that there are actually some forests left in Cambodia! Apparently, even tigers, sun bears and wild elephants still live in these forests (but of course we didn’t see any; we heard gibbons though). Chi Phat is one of the bases to explore the Cardamoms. It used to be a village of loggers and poachers, but now they have set up a well-run ecotourism outfit, and the poachers turn into guides for tourists wishing to explore the jungle on foot, mountain bike or boat. The weirdest thing was seeing a Hummer (again!) parked by the river when I got there after a muddy moto ride. I did a two-day trek (leeches!) and a one-day mountain bike trip (hard work!). It was a really beautiful area, totally different from the rest of Cambodia (green and hilly vs. yellow and flat). The drive to the border town of Koh Kong was quite spectacular too. So that’s how it turned out that the South of Cambodia was my favourite part of the country.
One last night in the sketchy border town of Koh Kong, watching tsunami images on tv, breaking the key of my hotel room door, and a toilet that didn’t flush… And next thing you know I’m back in Thailand, which once again looked surprisingly rich and over-developed in comparison with its poor neighbours Laos and Cambodia.
Cambodia was good, even if I didn’t have the same “WHOA THIS IS AMAZING” feeling as in Laos, but yeah, good. The people were certainly lovely, less shy than in Laos, always smiling. They say Thailand is the country of smiles; Cambodia could be the land of laughter, shrieks and giggles - this includes grown men. Quite amazing, knowing all the atrocities this country has been through in the second half of last century. Cambodia was also the country of perspiration. Seriously, I’ve never been as sweaty as in Cambodia, it was insane. In the shadow, not moving, 10 in the morning, drenched in sweat.
Of all the places I saw in Southeast Asia, Cambodia was the one that most looked like India: flat, yellow and hot, with towns and villages strung out along the roads. There were quite a few beggars (many with lost members, presumable from landmines). The towns and markets were a bit grubbier, smellier than those in Vietnam and Laos. And the random cows running across the roads just completed the similarity!