In a nutshell, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world and is still trying to recover from decades of oppression and civil war.
From 1975-1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Communist Khmer Rouge (led by Pol Pot). During their despotic rule, an estimated 2 million people (25% of the population) were murdered in one of the worst genocides in human history.
Today, Cambodia remains blighted by that legacy. There are an estimated 4-6 million landmines dotted around the country that have still yet to be cleared, which continue to maim and claim lives.
According to the CIA World Factbook, out of a total population of 14.7 million:
- 39% of people have no access to clean drinking water,
- 71% have no basic sanitation facilities.
- 85% of men can read and write, but only 64% of women can.
- 31% of the population lives below the poverty line (less than US$2 day)
You get the idea.
Why would we want to visit, I hear you ask?
Largely because South-East Asia is a fascinating, enchanting place blessed with an abundance of culture, tropical weather and natural beauty.
Cambodia particularly appealed to us because it remains one of the few South-East Asian nations that has yet to be ruined by overdevelopment and tourism.
Having said that, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before it too is imperilled and pillaged by greedy developers looking to make a quick buck at the expense of the environment and Cambodian people. On the basis of our two-week stay, it was obvious which direction things were heading.
As is always the case, the rich will only get richer, and the poor will remain in poverty.
Anyway, to the holiday!
We had a disastrous start.
Upon checking in at Seoul-Incheon Airport, we were told that Amelia isn’t allowed to fly. Apparently her passport is full and Air Asia didn’t want to ‘risk’ her being sent back to Korea.
After 15 minutes (A long time arguing with check-in staff), during which Amelia and our Russian friend Sophia both turned on the waterworks in a ploy to play the sympathy vote, we persuaded them to let us fly. But there’s still no guarantees we’ll be allowed into Cambodia.
After an unproductive visit to the British Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, we decide it’s best to play the innocent, ‘we didn’t know‘ card upon arrival at Phnom Penh. Ignorance is bliss.
Immigration officials pulled Amelia aside.
IO – “Your Passport’s full”
AC – “Really? Oh, it can’t be. What does that mean?”
IO – “We can’t let you into the country”
AC – “Oh no, I didn’t know I’m really sorry….”
IO – “Ok, ok,. Well……. If you help me, maybe I can help you”
AC – “How much?”
AC – “Deal. Thank you”.
We’d just paid our first ever bribe.
We couldn’t believe he’d only asked for $10. We’d have paid him $200. Fool.
We got chatting to a British couple who also happened to be on our flight. They’d been working as teachers at a Korean School in China for the last 4 and a half years. They were fascinating. We hope that in 3 and a half years time we will be as cool as them, with stories as good as theirs.
I felt like I’d started secondary school again, looking up to the older children and thinking how cool they are and how I wished I could be as cool as them.
We checked out Phnom Penh. Historically, it’s known as the ‘The Jewel of Asia’. The architectures interesting, but not spectacular. It’s a pleasant place, but a day there is enough. We did the standard touristy things e.g. Killing Fields, Royal Palace, Torture Museum and got out.
Next stop Sihinoukville. 6 hours later we arrived after a bus journey sat next to three repulsive German men not that much younger than my Grandpa!
*One of them picks up his phone (answers in English)*
“Hello, do you remember me?” *In a perverted, creepy voice with the obligatory German accent*
“Last night, you give me massage”
“Ja, I had a good time”
“Can I see you again?”
Urgh. Urgh, Urgh.
Amelia and I had our suspicions about them, but that phone conversation removed what little doubt we had. Another downside to being a third world country popular with tourists….
Middle aged – old western men will often go specifically to these places to exploit the local women who have been enslaved, abused and forced into prostitution to survive. It’s really sad. And disgusting.
Gary Glitter went to Cambodia. He certainly wasn’t the only one.
Within half an hour of arriving in Sihinoukville, we bumped into 2 of my old friends from uni, Stu and Gaz. They are big rugby boys and for the first time in a year, I felt small again.
It was great to see them. None of us could believe the chances of bumping into each other, I can’t even begin to imagine what the odds must have been. We had a good catch-up, spent a day or two with them chilling out by the beach and having a few beers in the evening.
Whilst trying to relax on the beach, we got harassed by little kids trying to sell us sunglasses (Even though I’m already wearing a fake pair of Ray Bans I had purchased from somebody else in Phnom Penh. Does it not register that one pair is enough?!) some stupid bracelets, and body wax (“Do I really look like the kind of guy that waxes?! Can you not see my chest hair?!”).
They just wouldn’t leave us alone or take a hint. Some of them were cute and spoke good English, but they were getting downright annoying.
They started calling me ‘fat’ ‘lobster’ and told me I looked ‘40‘. Then they’d ask me to buy something.
Forty-five minutes later, they still won’t leave us alone. We’re trying to ignore them.
These 12-year-old girls then decide it would be funny to slap my sunburn. It does sound kind of funny, but I wasn’t amused.
I lost my sense of humour and didn’t take it very well.
I screamed at them, and caused quite a furore. I ordered them to ‘go away’ and ‘leave us in peace’. They scarpered pretty quickly. Result.
Nobody else came near us for the rest of the day. It was a good day from then on.
Amelia said that of all the places she’s been (Including India) she has never been harassed by people as much as we were in Sihinoukville.
It would have been nice a couple of years ago, but over-development and lack of regulation is going to ruin it.
It’s never a great first impression when you are greeted by a ‘gimpish’ looking 18-year-old British boy trying to persuade you to have a “free shot” as you get off the bus.
Our hotel room wasn’t great either. We had a wet bed and cockroaches running all over the floor. So we decided to leave.
I ‘Skyped’ my father at 4am as I couldn’t sleep due to the wet bed. He didn’t have much sympathy when I told him we’d only paid $8 for the night. He didn’t appreciate that $8 is relatively expensive by Cambodian standards.
We enjoyed the company of others more than anything in Sihinoukville. It was so nice being able to have fluent, normal conversations with everybody regardless of whether they were British, German, Israeli, Belgian or Cambodian. We don’t get that often in Korea (except for with each other) so we made the most of it.
That’ll do for now.
I’ll save the rest for next time.