I wish I had the opportunity to repeat my journey of South Vietnam which I had completely six months ago, but alas I have neither the money or the time this time. I had previously spent almost a week in Saigon, where I could soak up the culture, learn about Vietnam’s distressing past and even attend the wedding of a close friend from home. This time, it was just a quick stopover before travelling west into Cambodia. I convened with Ross, a gap year student who I had met in Laos, and we planned our border crossing together. I had my last noodle soup, and said a quick goodbye to Vietnam. Cambodia was waiting.
The first stop on my trail was the capital, Phnom Penh. Despite being a hot and dusty place, Phnom Penh is a surprisingly modern city with wide open streets and a host of businesses build up a tall skyline. We checked into our hostel, which even had the luxury of a pool at the front. At $5 per night, you really couldn’t complain.
I wasn’t planning on spending much time in Phnom Penh, although I wanted to first learn more about the genocidal reign of Pol Pot at the head of the Khmer Rouge that had led to the death of approximately 2 million Cambodians just 37 years ago. I don’t normally go looking for morbid history, but I thought it was important in the understanding of a country that had gone through so much in its recent past. It never ceases to amaze me how a country can regenerate from such horrors as genocide and war, then welcome the world in with open arms just a few decades later.
Ross and I first visited the infamous S-21 prison where thousands of people were falsely imprisoned and tortured under the Khmer Rouge rule. Of the 17,000 who were housed at S-21, there were only seven survivors of the prison. Two of which remained on site to meet tourists and sell the respective memoirs of their experiences. It was sad to see those who have suffered at the prison working there. Still, they sat there with smiles selling their respective books, keen not to let anyone forget the atrocities committed.
After, we rented a Tuk Tuk to take us outside the city to the Killing Fields, where thousands of men, women and children were brutally executed and buried in mass graves. All of the memorials were filled with tributes to those who had suffered, and information boards contained broken english quotes warning all to never repeat the mistakes made in the past. It was a lot to take in, and it was a quiet return ride home to the hostel.
Phnom Penh also has plenty of international cuisine to enjoy, from Indonesian to Mexican, and it made a welcome break from much of the western food that was on offer across Cambodia. Khmer dishes include spiced curries which were reminiscent of dishes served in Thailand, along with simple fried rice dishes which I found myself eating continually in Laos.
After a couple of nights, Ross and I took our next steps onward to Kampot, a small river town a few kilometres from the coast. Kampot is sits quietly next to the river Praek Tuek Chhu, and has a similarly slow flowing pace. A few restaurants are tucked away at the central market, and a few local bars run by expats keep the streets murmuring into the early hours.
Our hostel was a 10 minute walk from the city centre, but with the frequent rain coming down, even that was sufficiently far to spend most of our time there. Again, our hostel had a pool, which was very much appreciated during the consistent heat of the day (despite the rain). After a night at the hands of our hostel barman (who was called “Tiger Silky”, apparently), we rose slowly the next morning. Ross and I brushed off the hangover and rented motorbikes to take up the nearby Damrei mountains. We had heard about the mountain route the previous night – a windy 30km road up to the abandoned Bokor mountain station.
The sky was clearly in a tentative mood before we left. White and grey clouds mixed together, with blue sky breaking through occasionally. A cool breeze blew through,
which generally means that rain is coming, but after an hour or so of waiting we decided to leave. We started ascending up the mountain, and were soon in line and driving through the clouds. The air would become thick with moisture, and vision reduced greatly in the thick fog. Suddenly, you would be on the other side with the sun beating down on your skin again.
Once we reached approximately 1000m altitude, we were at the Bokor mountain station. The Damrei mountains were always considered a spiritual place to both the Khmer and Vietnamese populations. In the 1920s, french colonials started building a resort to escape the heat of Phnom Penh, and erected a hotel/casino, church and post office. During the 20th century, the site was abandoned and reopened several times, before being taken over by the Khmer Rouge (and was one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds after their rule had ended). All of these factors gave the mountainside an eerie atmosphere, and the remote location gave the hotel the feel of something from The Shining.
The clouds stretched across the mountains, and all the buildings were shrouded in a thick mist. We reached the abandoned hotel, left our bikes and started to explore. The building was still completely intact, although there were no longer any furnishings and the stone walls were bare.
The only distraction was on the other side of the road, where a small shop had been set up with plastic chairs and a portable karaoke machine. A truly awful rendition of a Justin Bieber song started to blare out. Being one of the most popular activities in Asian culture, you can expect to find Karaoke bars in pretty much every town, but it was still a surprise to find one next to an abandoned hotel. It just goes to show – wherever you are, Karaoke will find you.