Day 63 Phnom Penh
Sadly, it's our last day in Siem Reap, and we're heading south to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. We have a taxi booked for the 320km journey, which on the roads here looks like it could take 12 days. Sam keeps the taxi (and us) waiting by depositing much of yesterday's food into the reception lavatory.
He comes out grinning, "I wouldn't go in there: it's Siem Ripe".
Our minicab is indeed mini, and by the time we've crowbarred in four enormous bags and all the snacks we've stockpiled for the voyage, it's quite a squeeze. Sam takes the front seat and Tash, Ruth and I jam in the back. It turns out our driver has, poor chap, recently suffered through a heavy cold and we're in the best seats in the house for its noisy, gluey epilogue. It's going to be a long journey.
He speaks no English (which is fair enough, we famously speak no Cambodian) but he's also a bit rusty on propriety. The car for the next few hours is a disgusting theatre of mucous and upper-lip curled hawking. We three in the back share sad looks every time a newly moistened finger wipes itself on the soft furnishings. Sam is virtually retching from the front seat.
A few hours into the journey, we stop at a street market so our driver can get himself a sack of walnuts. Some vendors spot us and proffer a plate of snacks for our consideration. We decline, mostly because the snacks are deep-fried tarantulas and candied locusts. Though I'm oddly curious to try tarantula. Do you start with a leg or the abdomen?
About half an hour from Phnom Penh's borders, the journey's already wafer-thin veneer of acceptability loses a bit more lustre. At a particularly pot-holed section of dual carriageway, which has brought already low speeds down to about 15mph with cars and bikes slowly weaving around them, our driver takes matters into his own hands. He swings across the carriageway at a break in the reservation and starts driving on the wrong side of the road, hurtling towards the oncoming traffic. Travelling the wrong way alongside a now unbroken concrete central reservation, our initial amazement quickly evolves into a very real fear of death. Oncoming cars flash and honk madly at him before wildly pulling into the outside lane to let us careen through. The language barrier again gets in the way of us telling the madman to bloody well get back over, but the gasps of terror finally sink in, and he grudgingly crosses back at another break in the reservation.
We show our disappointment in his behaviour in the most devastatingly English of ways, by not leaving a tip.
After a journey so heavy on emotion and drama, our hotel in Phnom Penh is a very pleasant surprise. An opulent, gold marinaded affair that looks like it was furnished by an ancient emperor. Gilding, red velvet, Angkor Wat-calibre carving and it smells like rich mahogany. The place a sanctum of calm after the madness of the last 5 hours.
We dump our bags 11 storeys up and rendezvous, slightly fresher, on the rooftop bar for more blue drinks. It is dark when we leave for town (the Mekong river, the other side of the delta we visited last week, is a warm 30 minute walk away) and we enjoy a stroll down the bustling riverside promenade with young locals chatting and eating, as well as food carts selling their wares.
Curiosity gets the better of me, and we buy a 'lucky dip' bag of late-insects. I can't quite bring myself to try the tarantula again, but the candied locust is fine, if crunchy. The battered frog literally sticks in my throat.
We find a nice-looking riverside restaurant where we sit and watch the lights winking on the opposite bank. We're drinking beers when the weather which has, for four days, been perfection turns inclement, and rain drops like water-bombs begin hurtling down. The restaurant quickly pull over an awning, scoops up our crockery and we're back sat down under cover with barely a faff.
We have an excellent Cambodian tapas; more great curries, seafood and noodles - the food really is fantastic here. However, it seems the waitress is keen to hurry things along. It's about 10pm and the city is still buzzing, but clearly she wants to go home. Our request for dessert is met with White Shark eye-rolling, and she informs us that much of the menu is unavailable with a satisfaction she doesn't even try to hide. We have dessert anyway, a series of petit-fours style sweets. When she plonks them down with a clatter which suggests the plates were considerably heavier than they looked, Sam asks her disarmingly, "Are you alright?" This doesn't defrost the mood. Also, disappointingly, after such an excellent main course, the puddings are pretty grim.
We walk back past the cheery riverside crowd, after a day of ups and downs.
Day 64 Phnom Penh
We were looking forward to breakfast in our golden hotel (on the 14th floor; there's 'no' 13th due to superstitious architects) which is a shoes-off, sitting on the floor exercise. A bit disappointingly, it is quite heavily Westernised though there is, at least, more delicious passionfruit.
Phnom Penh has quite a different skyline to our last two cities. The French influence in architecture is even more apparent than in Siem Reap, and there are many more towers dotting the sprawling horizon. It has grown out from the west bank of the Mekong into Cambodia's largest city. It was once called the Pearl Of Asia but the Khmer Rouge's occupation, conflict with Vietnam and lack of infrastructural development led to a fast decline in quality-of-life in the last century.
It's obviously still emerging from this: we drove alongside an enormous slum on the way down, its population trying to scratch out a living from the river and any opportunities they can get from the proximity to the nation's economic hub. Cambodia has nearly halved the amount of population living underneath the poverty line since 2004 and the middle of town shows signs of investment: good roads, Western restaurant chains and a (ubiquitous) friendliness to tourists.
We are heading this morning though, by Tuc Tuc, to a museum documenting what happened before this recent boom. S21, a prison facility used by the Khmer Rouge during their grisly tenure here. In brief; the Khmer Rouge (who were, I am always amazed to be reminded, active within my lifetime), began as sympathisers to the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The US bombings which often overlapped the borders of Cambodia (or the Khmer Republic as the nation was then known), drew resentment from many Cambodians and support for the new group, and its promise to restore the glory of the old Angkor empire, became more widespread.
As their influence under Pol Pot and several other like-minded idiots grew, they overthrew the existing military dictatorship in 1975 and renamed the place Kampuchea. They established a leadership operating a particularly hideous brand of social engineering. Essentially a return to an agrarian economy, the purest form of Communism as the leadership saw it. Cities were emptied, brutal agricultural labour camps were established. Foreign influences were rejected, starvation and disease were rife and opponents (ranging from dissenters to intellectuals to religious groups) were pitilessly dispatched. Angor Wat, only recently rediscovered, fell back into ruin.
The paranoia of the leadership, classic qualities of totalitarian regimes, lead to a purging which resulted in an uncountable amount of death, well over a million at even the most conservative of estimates.
After the end of the Vietnam war, Pol Pot and his leaders began to fear the influence of the neighbouring country, and dealt with that paranoia by invading southern Vietnamese border towns in 1978. Vietnam retaliated and captured Phnom Penh in 1979, forcing the Khmer Rouge leadership into exile in Cambodia's rural west border regions. Remarkably, in spite of its horrors, the Khmer Rouge retained a seat at the United Nations. The alternative Vietnamese-backed government, the PRK was seen as even less palatable. The next two decades were rife with rebellion, conflict and wrestling of power between a host of interested parties, while the rest of the world tried to work out what to do, and the people of Cambodia continued to suffer the injustice of it all. The leadership was disbanded at the end of the 20th Century, Pol Pot died under dubious circumstances while under house-arrest and the rest of the leadership has since died or been imprisoned.
We learn all this at the interrogation prison S21, in a nondescript, suburban part of town. It was previously a school converted by the leadership to interrogate suspected enemies of the regime and is now just plain chilling. The 'exhibition', for want of a better word, consists of the interrogation cells left virtually as they were found, (only cleaned of blood). There are photos of their final occupants on the walls. The following rooms are photos of many of the captives and harrowing accounts of their final days. The final room simply has a collection of bludgeoned skulls, a nod to the infamous Killing Fields outside of town, where prisoners were taken to be executed and then hauled unceremoniously into mass graves.
It is another fine reminder of humanity's hubris, and a testament to its resilience (the audio guide is optimistic about Cambodia's future). We all leave feeling cold in the midday heat. We had considered visiting the site of (one of) the Killing Fields, some 11 miles south, but noone feels up for seeing this first-hand now. Instead we get a lift back down town to see the Royal Palace. In the Tuc Tuc, Tash remarks that given the atrocities suffered by the last generation it's no wonder the folks here are so all-embracing to everyone. Having known such barbarism and instability, however unpredictable the 21st Century has been, it must hold a lot more promise. There's still a few bastards around though, as a passing motorcyclist hoiks the small rucksack from between my knees and drives off.
"Bloody hell, he just took your rucksack" Says Tash. I look down and he sure has. Our Tuc Tuc driver has seen him and is gesturing to some other bikers on the side of the road to chase him down, deck him, and retrieve it (I interpret this from the gesticulating rather than the vocabulary naturally). He's already uncatchable of course, tearing off down a side-street. Fortunately, all that was in it was some insect repellent, sun cream and a bottle of water. Hydrated and moisturised he may be, but richer he will not. The backpack is annoying though.
We console the Tuc Tuc driver (who is the most distraught amongst us) that there was nothing of value in it, and consider our options. Having a drink is widely agreed upon. By coincidence, we're opposite a bar I had read about in the Rough Guide.
The Foreign Correspondents Club housed the journalists reporting on the transitional governments during the 1990s, and is something of an institution. We enjoy its airy colonial rooms and views over the Mekong for a stiff drink and some light lunch. Everyone's a bit discomposed by the morning's events, but a few drinks in the sunshine and a game of pool where I beat Sam for the first time in my life (see 'Scrabble' in Siem Reap), loosens things up again. On the way out, a Tuc Tuc driver asks if we want a ride, (he was one of the bystanders our driver tried to motivate earlier) and when we say no thanks, he bursts out laughing saying what I assume the Cambodian is for "I bet you bloody don't."
Afterwards, we head to the Palace as originally intended, which is only a few minutes away, and the actual reason we don't need a ride. Sam is a bit morose for a while, which he claims is because he's dwelling on the bag thief, though I suspect is actually the pool result.
The palace is quite spectacular, house of the King of Cambodia, and incongruously opulent given the surroundings. The tombs of the monarchy's ancestors are bigger than our flat and gold is the primary colour-scheme again.
There is a small model of Angor Wat which is impressive, and gives more of a sense of the scale of the enterprise than the place itself did. Walking under palms and watching monkeys scramble around the walls makes for a diverting few hours. We look through the rooms we are allowed into at glittering statues of Buddha. One such idol apparently has 90kg of gold on it. They are quite heavily policed as you might imagine. Sam says "if I ate a baguette here do you think they would 'ban me'?" which I think is a pretty good effort.
We return to the hotel afterwards, which provides more rooftop bar action, more blue drinks, and an interminable stream of Westlife's back-catalogue piped in. The hotel has a floor of spa where a customer can indulge in a whole catalogue of R&R for comically small amounts of money. We book a massage for our last day here tomorrow.
The Rough Guide suggests a restaurant for the night which promises a traditional, locals-friendly evening. However when we arrive there, 'traditional' turns out to mean 'someone's living room', and the cleanliness level is sitting on the wrong side of acceptable. We laugh nervously about potential digestive ramifications at the massage tomorrow morning. A colourful metaphor involving toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube is explored. We order inoffensive looking dishes and a few beers ("no: no ice, thanks"). When the plates come out, the picture does not improve. They forget Ruth's meal, but she has a few forkfuls from mine and insists she "won't need any more." We poke at indiscriminate meats and curries for a while, trying to find good things to say ("I mean, there's a fair bit of food and it is going to cost less than £18 between us..."), but with plates still half-full and already feeling worse for wear (probably psychosomatic, but nonetheless) we pay up and head back to the hotel. Here we order some bar snacks, beers and while messrs Barlow and Keating witter on from the speakers, set the world to rights underneath the glowing skyline.
Day 65 To Ho Chi Minh City
After breakfast (noone is too unsettled from last night's meal, although there's a lot of "not feeling quite right" going on), we go for our massage. Turns out two and a half months of hauling around a rucksack does not do wonders for the skeleton. My back sounds like a famous brand of noisy breakfast cereal as it is moulded and prodded by a muscular masseuse. I can hear Ruth being similarly slapped about as I stare down, wincing, at the floor.
We sit oiled, scented and frying by the pool, waiting for Sam and Tash. It is our last few hours here, and we enjoy the view for a few brief more moments before getting a cab to the airport. There we try some fusion food for lunch: Chicken Pho and Krispy Creme doughnuts. Ruth says "Surprise me" when Tash and I go off to get the latter, and I duly return with a cheese doughnut. It is not, apparently the taste-sensation she was hoping for.
We have a short but rattly flight back to Ho Chi Minh City where we must, sadly, say goodbye to Sam and Tash. They are heading west to the island of Phú Quốc and we are heading east tomorrow to Nha Trang. It has been a joy to share the trip with these two for a week, and Ruth and I both feel blue on the way back to our hotel.
However, the promise of more of Vietnam's best yoghurt tomorrow morning lifts our spirits and after checking in, we head straight back out to get some dinner. We try a vegetarian restaurant by the War Remnants Museum, where we sit in the baking heat at close to 10pm, eating more delicious food and chatting about this amazing corner of the world.
While drinking something fruity and potent with dessert, we watch a rat the size of a skateboard scuttle up a drainpipe with commendable athleticism. We walk back to the hotel as the city closes down for the night around us, and the roads continue to surge with scooters.