13.01.2013 - 17.01.2013
We were met by an apocalyptic landscape of smoke and fire as soon as we crossed into Cambodia. Flames turned trees to charred sticks, blackened fields smouldered and thick smoke engulfed the bus. A group of Spanish girls and a Frenchman with a guitar sang La Bamba, repeatedly. The bus conductor flirted with the Spanish girls. A sunburnt French lesbian drank most of a bottle of Pernod and passed out. We're not in Laos any more.
Cambodia went through pure hell like nothing ever before under the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, preceded by napalming and pounding by B52s in yet another of the secret bombing campaigns the USA was so big on at this time (see also Laos). The landscape of casual pointless destruction seemed fitting. The country is still in a desperate state, in many ways. The poverty and hardship are extreme and impossible to ignore. There are tiny thin children in filthy clothes and landmine victims with missing limbs everywhere in the towns. But everyone smiles all the time - you pass a street snack vendor, a rubbish collector, people doing backbreaking work in the fields and they all smile at you. Nothing is straightforward here.
We eased ourselves in as gently as Cambodia will allow, starting in the quiet provincial towns of Kratie and Kampong Cham in the east. We cycled round an idyllic island in the Mekong, Koh Trong - shady peaceful lanes, lush green fields, smart wooden stilt houses in tidy villages, everything looked after, lots of hellos and waves. Another ride the next day through nearby villages along the river, and more of the same - beautiful temples, clean roads, friendly people. And a few minutes away from our guesthouse, a shanty town of grim shacks of scrap metal, tarpaulins and cardboard, the dirt road that is the main thoroughfare carpeted with plastic bags and cow shit, the smell nauseating, the centrepiece a big pile of rubbish with three filthy little kids sitting playing happily on top - who all beamed and waved as we rode past. The Cambodian kaleidoscope of paradoxes and extremes would take some getting used to, that much was immediately apparent.
Side note: Unexpected pleasures 1 - cycling
As an extremely unenthusiastic cyclist, I have to say that cycling in rural southeast Asia has often been absolutely lovely. The terrain is often completely flat so no great physical exertion is required thankfully, people are happy to help with directions when you're lost, children point and laugh at you, you get to see much more, and apart from the inevitable day-after saddle-soreness it's generally very enjoyable. And it's how a large proportion of people here get around (children and the elderly anyway - everyone else has a moped). Cars are uncommon, public transport is virtually non-existent: two wheels rules.
Side note: Unexpected pleasures 2 - Cambodian food.
It quickly became apparent that the food here is seriously good. Who knew? In the first few days I'd had a wonderful tangy pickled lime soup, a rich nutty Khmer curry with crisp fresh vegetables, kicking chilli and excellent tofu, and a vegetarian amok - spicy sweet potato (instead of fish) wrapped in tasty leaves in another rich complex delicious sauce. Oh, and proper chip-shop-style-chips. If you were around in the late seventies Cambodia may well be inextricably associated in your mind with famine and starvation - it was for me anyway. My gastronomic expectations were therefore low. How wrong I was.
Footnote: The French
In an earlier post I said the French left nothing of value as a legacy to their former Indochinese colonies except the baguette. This is not true - they also bequeathed the shady tree-lined boulevard. Beyond that there is nothing positive to be said of the French colonial era, or indeed of the French tourists who now make up the largest proportion of visitors to these parts, many of whom seem to be unaware that they are no longer the lords and masters around here. Time after time we have seen the most disrespectful, insulting, cultural-supremacist behaviour from the French and a contemptuous attitude towards local people that can only be described as racist. Yes, I know they are contemptuous towards everyone, but in this context it leaves a particularly unpleasant taste. Witnessing the appalling behaviour of the French abroad makes a very nice change from feeling embarrassed to be British, it must be said.
A final word on the French. One of the oddest synchronicities of this trip so far was Caroline getting an email from an old friend not seen for many years saying she was due to be in Cambodia around the same time as us. It turned out that she was not only arriving in the same slightly obscure town the same day as us, but was booked into the same guesthouse, and was in fact in the next-door-but-one room to us. This friend (hello Florence!), a native of France, rightly has nothing but pure withering disdain for the French, so I am confident that these words will not offend this blog's French readership, as the French readership has made it clear that she has an even lower opinion of the the French than we do.
Another retraction: when I said Lao kids are the cutest we'd ever come across ever, well that was before we came to Cambodia.