December 2017: I've crossed overland from Bangkok to the small town of Battambang in Cambodia and aim to spend a few weeks here before heading further east into Vietnam.


Batambang is Cambodia’s second city, but hardly bigger than a large town; famed for being a chilled out riverside town, both run down and hip, trendy and impoverished, and with a wealth of French colonial architecture untouched since the French left in 1954. It is far from the tourist crowds of Siem Reap or the southern islands of Cambodia, but nor is it an undiscovered tourist gem; the Barangs (Khmer word originally denoting the French, but now more generally any foreigner) are here in reasonable numbers. But anyway I'm getting ahead of myself, I'm still in Thailand.

The main tourist route from Bangkok to Thailand is to head to Siem Reap in one go from Bangkok, but I opt to take in Battambang first before I head to Siem Reap. I could take a ninety minute commute across Bangkok and take a local bus to the border, and from there walk across the border and hope to hop on another local bus on the other side, but provided I somehow manage not to get ripped off I would save only a few dollars, so I opt to take a through ticket from one of the tourist offices on Khao San Road. This kind of service exists all over Southeast Asia, a tourist office sells you a through ticket to wherever you want to go, and sends some form of transport to pick you up from your hotel. In this way you can stay at one hotel with English speaking staff, and have them arrange door to door transport to your next place, and repeat this whole procedure the whole way round Southeast Asia. It's so convenient, but I can't help but feel it kills some of the adventure of travelling. I'm told to wait outside where I am staying at 7.30 and the bus will pick me up; which I do. At 8.20 a man on a motorbike arrives and takes me to another hotel on the back of his motorbike, there I wait for another hour, and a bus finally arrives. This drives us to an office just before the Cambodian border. There I enter an office which claims to be the official Cambodian border control (it isn't) and sells me a visa for $35. This is the official price as far as I know, but the whole setup seems a bit shady. In any case I don't have a lot of choice, so I pay for the visa fee, and I get a printed visa in my passport. We wait there for another hour and a half, before another, much bigger bus picks us up and takes us to the border proper. Although the company in Thailand claimed that I was taking a direct bus to Battambang I'm told that I need to change to another bus at the other side of the border. The bus I'm on drives about five kilometers to the border. I'm then accompanied across the border, an completely unnecessary extravagance, the 'helper' ends up being more of a hindrance than a help, as I have to keep waiting for him and trying to find him after he leaves me to help someone else. The Thai-Cambodia border is one of the most ad-hoc disorganised borders I have ever seen; there is such a distance between the two checkpoints and inbetween a whole town of cafes, money changers and general nuisance makers, it would be quite easy to disappear into this crowd and sneak across this border. I walk through the border relatively easily, and on the other side a Cambodian midget directs me to sit on a bench and wait for a bus. I sit there for another hour and eventually a man on a motorbike pulls up and instructs me to sit on the back; I no-longer question what is going on and simply follow where I am told. The bike takes me a short hop to another bus. I sit on this bus for another 90 mins, more or less the only customer on the bus, but the bus is loaded almost to full with supplies; eggs, milk, noodles, rice etc. no actual livestock this time thankfully. Finally, we set off for Battambang. Through the window I get my first glimpse of Cambodia proper; it seems a world apart from the relative civilisation of Thailand. This place has the trappings of a tropical third world country; ad-hoc wooden shacks, livestock running amok. People scratching a living where they can; a bit of impromptu gathering of wild plants; some fishing in muddy brown water; naked children and people living on the streets, their house fronts merging imperceivable with the street. Cambodians are darker than their Thai cousins, although much of this is to do with the fact that, on average, they spend a lot more time living outdoors, a job in an airconditioned office is a middle class luxury that is seldom found here. The sun begins to set well before we arrive in a petrol station to refuel outside of Battambang, the journey of 350 km has taken me from dawn to well after dusk, more than twelve hours in total and via five different forms of transport, and one more to come. After the bus pulls out of the petrol station I check to map and see that we are a little past the town of Battambang and ask the driver what is going on; apparently the petrol station was the Battambang stop; I should have got off there to go to Battambang. The driver unsympathetically dumps me by the side of the road, pitch black and in a strange town, and instructs me to take a taxi. I can see a few cows and open fires, but, strangely enough, no taxi rank. However, the owner of a nearby shop spots me looking perplexed and offers to take me into town on the back of his motorbike; his young daughter translates for us. I tell him the name of the hostel where I am staying, which he of course has never heard of, but drives towards the centre of town and stops multiple times to ask for directions. Somehow we get there and I thank my driver and give him a dollar or two. Somehow, via transport number six, I have arrived at my destination, time to grab a quick bite to eat and a beer by the side of the river and then collapse exhausted into bed; I endeavour to fly across any border next time.

The hostel that I'm staying at is owned by a French woman, but staffed by young Cambodians who speak passable English. This is a common theme in this part of the world, a white, western owner starts a business and the locals do the leg work. I find all service staff in Cambodia a little more servile than their Thai counterparts; even in the most budget of hostels one must become accustomed to being referred to as ‘sir’ at all times. The service, whilst occasionally a little incompetent, is well meaning and friendly, if a little overbearing at times. I wonder if this is due to the colonial past of Cambodia, which Thailand more-or-less escaped. Outside the hostel I see a couple of rusty old bikes and ask if I can borrow one of these, to which the staff, very honestly, suggest that I go elsewhere and direct me to another shop that has more modern bikes. This I do, and for the princely sum of two US dollars a day I'm equipped with a set of wheels with which to explore the town at my leisure. Bikes, or any kind of transport is a great move in Cambodia, as the country is notorious for the hassling of tourists. One will be met with a constant haranguing for a tuk-tuk, massages, changing money, buying weed etc. Whilst not really sinister it does get a little annoying, and a bike is a great way to avoid the constant haranguing of hassle.

The town of Battambang itself is quite a sedate little affair set on either side of a wide muddy brown river, close to the border with Thailand. French architecture mixes haphazardly with more modern ad-hoc wooden buildings, both in a state of disrepair. Despite the dilapidated nature of the town it is highly charming, and the cluster of expats and tourists have led to a smattering of fairly hip coffee shops and restaurants. Battambang feels almost hipster, but with a genuine, rather than affected, third world dilapidation, this is the town that Shoreditch thinks that it is.

I take my bike north, upstream, along the river that runs through the town, towards a small village that is mentioned in the guidebooks as a place where you can observe traditional crafts and trades, such as the manufacture of rice paper for spring rolls. The joy of the day is simply in cycling along the river and taking in the life of Cambodia. Everyone outside of the towns seems to be living a traditional agrarian life: outdoors and in and amongst the fields and rivers. There is a radius around the town of how increasingly surprised children are to see a white person. Inside the town no-one bats an eyelid at my presence. Only about one kilometer out children begin to wave and say hello, about five kilometers out they scream in excitement, and about 10 km out the whole village's children come out to greet me, and run hysterically after my bike. Despite being so close to a centre of tourism these children, by the look of it, don't see a Barang too often; just me being here has made their day.

Soon to be handbags in Bangkok's finest boutique shops.

Along my route to the village I pass a number of sites of minor interest. First, a crocodile farm. For one dollar you can go and see the crocs, hold one of the babies and have a guided tour of the farm. A number of pits with water house huge numbers of crocs of increasing age and size. They are so lethargic in the hot sun, and so imobile, that I have difficulty truly believing that they are real; but for the occasional twitch or yawn. Despite a sizable gap between myself and these prehistoric critters I can't help but feeling a deep fear and repulsion and these scalley critters. No doubt they will soon be dog meat and expensive handbags in the boutiques of Bangkok and Phnom Penh. My next stop is a temple that I stumble upon without meaning too. I am the only tourist here, but the monks are happy to chat with me and practise their English. The temple is impressive to my eyes, but two a penny for Cambodia; rich gold tiles, and carvings borrowing heavily from Chinese and Indian influence. Once the part of land we now call Cambodia was a hindu civilisation, only later adopting buddhism. This conversion is apparent in the chimeric nature of the statues and decorations of the myriad temples, statues and pagodas of Cambodia. My third stop is one of the ubiquitous killing fields of Cambodia. Every town has one. As American bombs pummelled Cambodia in the 1970's the radical insurgency of the Khmer Rouge swept to power. Radically marxist, they believed in the purity of a borgiour free civilization of peasants who worked the land without the trappings of modern technology or pretensions. Anyone who was deemed too borgiour, too intellectual, anyone who could speak a foreign language, anyone with a middle class profession, teachers, doctors, artist musicians were slaughtered. Even wearing glasses was enough to get you killed in the reign of the Khmer rouge. Over 25% of the population was killed in the end; by percentage that died this was the worst genocide of the 20th century, against some fairly stiff competition. Those who were captured were forced to give names of other dissidents and intellectuals, thus perpetuating a cycle of insane violence. Battambang was, as was everywhere in Cambodia, a sight of mass genocide. One of the killing fields here has a small monument, a tall symmetric structure with glass walls, piled high with unidentified human skulls, many shattered. To waste bullets on such people was not considered a wise use of resources, instead Pol Pot's minions would shatter their skulls with pick axes and shove them into open graves they had but minutes ago been compelled to dig. The monument depicts a number of gruesome scenes, one particularly disturbing shows a number of people chained together, with the inscription "they tied us together, there was nothing to tie us to, so they drilled holes in our hands and passed the rope through our bleeding wounds to stop us escaping". An unthinkable horror, of which one is constantly reminded, whilst enjoying your holiday in this tropical paradise. A depressing interlude to my bike ride, which took me further into the countryside, and away from civilisation. If this country faced the abyss well within living memory, it is not apparent in the faces of those too young to know of these horrors. Young, often naked, children play in paddy fields, the midday sun pounds down on the cracked mud that makes up the rural 'roads' of this nation. Once again I am an impassive observer in an alien world. A simple agrarian life, but seemingly a happy one. Paddy fields and palm trees, cracked mud and dark brown rivers form the backdrop to my sudate, surreal cycle through the Cambodian countryside. 'Who are you people?', 'What do you hope for?', 'What do you know of the outside world', 'What do you think of me?', 'Are you happy?'. Questions I would love to know the answers to, but of course ones I can never ask, instead I must ride by and gawp at these foreign people.

Back at the town and I ditch the bike. A tuk-tuk driver accosts me and convinces me to take a tour to the nearby mountain to see the famous bat cave. At 3.30 he drives me out of the town to a nearby mountain with a temple at its summit. I spend a happy hour watching a family of monkeys fight and fuck in the trees near the temple, and look out onto the town and the surrounding jungle. The landscape seems like a childish view of hills. The plain is completely flat, and entirely forested, but out of the pancake flat plain rises the occasional symmetric hill, just as would have drawn a hill as a child. Although Cambodia is doing much to destroy its beautiful nature, huge dumps of plastic adorn all road and river sides, much of the country remains dense impenetrable jungle. But all this is killing time until the main spectacle: the bats! At the base of the hill there is a cave which is home to over two million bats, vampire bats to be precise. At dusk every day they all stream out, first to a source of water, and then on to feed on the blood of livestock and small animals. A large number of tourists waits eagerly at the bottom of the hill as the sun sets, but my tuk-tuk driver takes me to a back road somewhere away from the cave. As the sun sets the bats begin to appear, at first at a trickle, and then in a torrent. The spectacle lasts over an hour, and my tuk-tuk driver delights at clicking loudly at the stream of bats, disrupting their navigation systems, and deflecting the black stream of bats emanating from the hill. The bats cease to be individuals, and take on a communal form, an unending stream of black, flowing forth from the cave.

Couple of the locals hanging out at a temple.
The next day I decide to take a ride on the bamboo train, one of Battambang's famous attractions. However, the track is now closed, as the government has decided to build an actual train track through this route, which may one day connect Cambodia with Thailand, obviating the need to negotiate the land border and deal with tricksy Cambodian midgets. For now the track is closed, but the train is still not running. Although the French built a lot of tracks in Cambodia, the Khmer rouge didn't appreciate such a bourgeois form of transport, and the rail routes fell into disrepair. Only one route has now, and only recently, been reopened. In anycase, the bamboo train was not open to me today, so I spent a rather aimless day doing a bit more cycling around the town and soaking in the life and bustle of nothing in particular. Cycling in this tropical heat is exhausting, so I don't cover too much ground, opting to intersperse every kilometer or so with a fruit smoothie, or the local delicacy of a sugarcane juice.

The Boat

The next day I opt to go to Siem Reap, home to the famous temples of Angkor Wat. It's a four hour bus ride, which is why I opt to take an eight hour boat ride there. Although it's much slower, and twice the price, it is a hell of a scenic ride. An open boat, on which you can sit on the roof if you can handle the tropical sun, takes mostly tourists up a river, and a few canals, onto a massive lake and then close to the town of Siem Reap. It's a great way to experience rural Cambodian life. For the first four hours as we follow the river the banks are packed with human settlements. Wooden shacks back onto the river, families sit by the side of the water, wading and fishing in the murky waters. Young children wave to us frantically, most of them naked and unashamed. A group of three young boys in a small canoe pull up with our boat, the youngest one hysterically excited to see us, until his older brother pushes him cruelly into the water. This doesn't dampen his enthusiasm, and he continues to wave whilst treading water. This is how vast swathes of humanity live, poor, but not quite destitute, along the banks of a densely populated river. The water is filthy however, and the banks of the river are laden with plastic waste. Rubbish collection simply does not exist here, and so what other solution but to throw waste into the river. The sides of the river bank are dotted with huge fishing vessels, both backward and futuristic at the same time. Huge nets, suspended on four wooden poles are lowered into the water with a small diesel engine. The bounty has become increasingly frugal as pollution worsens. Many families give up on this marginal existence and head to the cities. An occasional wooden raft ferries collections of smartly dressed Cambodians on motorbikes from one mud path at the side of the river to the other.

View from the boat, as the journey wears on the distinction between river and field becomes less and less.

As we head further down stream human life gives up and the river turns into an open marsh land. Somehow our driver navigates a passage through this featureless expanse. On the roof of the boat we sit and soak up the life, occassionally ducking as we steer a little too close to an errant branch or hedge. Spotted along the marsh land are a series of small stilted villages made up of houses that are built on wooden stilts; as the wet season comes the waters rise alarmingly and the banks of the river disappear completely. The solution is not to avoid the river bank, but to build high and sturdy. Guided tours of these villages come at a hefty price from Siem Reap, but we are seeing them incidentally on our way between towns. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the marsh land gives way to a vast open lake, the driver plots a course across the lake and finds a hidden entrance to another canal, which we follow for another hour and arrive on the outskirts of Siem Reap. A tuk-tuk ferries a group of us to our accommodation, the day has been totally consumed, once again, by a short journey of a few hundred km, but what a way to travel, and to see a side of Cambodia that you would otherwise miss on a bus on a non-descript motorway.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a tiny sleepy Cambodian town turned industrial tourist machine; the reason: a complex of twenty odd Khmer temples that dot the landscape just to its north; the most famous of which goes by the name of Angkor Wat. Arguably Cambodia's only internationally known tourist destination, it's stunning, but it's also heaving with tourists.

I check into another hostel and walk around the town a little bit; it's too late to visit the temples today. The town is littered with tourist traps and aggressive tuk-tuk drivers. Many places in Cambodia suffer from the negative aspects of tourism, but this is one of the worst. Every thirty seconds one is accosted with plees to take a tuk-tuk, which is then followed by offers to sell drugs or to take you to a ‘boom-boom’ bar. I can only imagine what would happen if you followed one of these drivers; don't count on having both your kidneys when you return. Still there are a number of nice little bars and small ad-hoc restaurants to while away the evening.

The next day I hire a bike and begin to check out a few of the temples under my own steam. This way I can go at my own pace, and have a cheaper day. It's so hot and sticky, and the temples are a little spread out, so hiring a bike may have been, in retrospect, a bit of a mistake. I seem to be the only one who has opted for this mode of transport, most other people are sensible and use some form of motorised vehicle. First, I cycle around 8 km to the ticket office and splash out the ludicrous 65 dollars for the three day temple pass. The ticket office is far from the town and is the only place to buy tickets for the temple complexes. My first temple experience is Banteay Kdei, a smaller temple not on any of the main tuk-tuk itineraries, which makes it rather peaceful. The temple is made from a dark grey brick, not stunning compared to the others, but an atmospheric introduction to the world of Angkor's temples. I then briefly stop at a Srah Srang, a small and pretty reservoir that served the temples with fresh drinking water in their glory days. Third was the temple of Ta Prohm, one of the picture perfect postcard sights in Cambodia. It is here that Angelina Jolie immortalised this already famous sight by clambering over the mighty roots of the Banyan trees in the Tomb Raider films. Unlike other temples in the region this one has been left as it was found; a monument to this fallen civilisation and the creeping encroachment of the surrounding jungle. Surreally large banyan trees spread over the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm as if the architects had built the temple around the trees. Whilst the weight of these enormous trees are crushing the brick work of the temple, they are also an important part of the integrity of the walls; cut them down and the temple will crumble into dust. The work of man and nature in delicate symbiosis. I'd love to experience this temple in its eery solitude, but truth be told the fame of this place has lead to hordes of tourists, from start to finish walking through the grounds of a temple feels like queing for a fairground ride; culminating in the mandatory selfie que, where tourists of all stripes que to snap a picture of themselves at Ta Prohm's most photogenic spot, where the roots of the mightiest of the banyan trees flow over the crumbling brickwork like a waterfall in ultra slow motion. Even the business of this place cannot fully negate the majesty of this awesome sight.

Temple with Tree
A Banyan tree living in symbiosis with the temple.

After lunch the bike ride continues through the stickiest section of the day, a group of young tourists cheer my bravado as they wizz past me. At least it is flat here, even if it is 32 degrees and 98% humidity. The final stop of the day is Angkor Wat itself, the king amongst all the temple sights. I arrive at the seldom used east entrance. The main entrance of the temple, unusually, is on the west, leading some to speculate that the temple is a mausoleum, as west is the direction of the afterlife in Khmer tradition. For Cambodia's main tourist attraction this entrance is spookily quiet, the back gate is decorated with stone nymphs. Each of these one thousand plus saucy stone goddesses are unique, including the style of their hair cuts. An enterprising Cambodian might set up a hair salon here and invite young women to point at the nymph that strikes them as most beautiful and style their hair accordingly. There is, thankfully, no hairdressers here, nor are there really any people. I'm alone to explore the back of this temple largely by myself, only the incessant wail of the cicadas to keep me company. I've had a number of complaints about how I have described the size of other buildings in the past, but suffice to say that this temple is very large. Each successive king was compelled to outdo their predecessor with increasingly large and grand temples, culminating in this monster. Three layers are stacked steeply on top of one another, and in the centre four large prangs encircle a larger fifth. Eventually the Khmer empire fell to the dust of time, but this temple has stood ever since, never falling to the ravages of the surrounding jungle like its smaller brothers. The religion of the Khmer's was a chimeric fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism, and this is apparent, to those in the know in the exquisitely detailed carved murals. Important scenes and characters from both Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as important historical battles of the Khmer empire vie for space on the busy walls of the temple. One is struck by the extreme amount of skilled human labour that must have gone into this place, every square meter is an original artwork in its own rights. A full exploration of this place would take days. As I leave the spooky back passages of Angkor Wat I find myself in the central courtyard, and suddenly the place is overwhelmed with tourists once again, obviously without the imagination to explore the back of the temples. There is a long que snaking round the central prang to climb the narrow steps to the top, which I decline. I exit from the other side of the temple, I've experienced the temple in reverse, at the front there is an impressive view of the structure as a whole, that is obscured by the forest round the back. A large grand bridge spans a moat and onto a vast, perfectly manicured garden; what was originally meant as a build up to the temple I experienced as a come down. Back to my bike and a well earnt cold beer in the tourist jungle of Siem Reap.

On the second day I relent and take a tuk-tuk tour, which I share with a young Australian and a woman from Japan. The Japanese woman is suffering from a severe form of masochism, as she is here to run the annual Siem Reap half marathon in the tropical sun. Snaking through these ruins on your run must be magical in its own way, but in this heat she is a braver soul than me. Our tuk-tuk driver takes us to one of the smaller temples first: Pre Rup. He tells us that this serves as a death temple for the main Angkor complex. The body of dead important people would process out of the main temple and be intoumbed here. The temple is small but impressively dimensioned. Another three layers, impossibly steeply stacked on top each other, culminating in a series of three tall prangs guarded by stone lions. The brick work is an earthier red, compared to the dirty black of the other temples, and despite its diminutive size we are able to spend just under an hour here carefully exploring the brickwork of this fine temple.

The next stop is East Mebon, very similar to the previous temple and slightly less impressive. My memory of this place begins to merge with the last temple. The unique attraction here are the stone carvings of Asian elephants which sit on each of the four corners of the levels of the first platform.

And then another temple, Ta Som, another series of forgettable syllables attached to another exquisite piece of crumbling Khmer architecture. If this were anywhere else it would be known as a world class tourist site, but here amongst such illustrious company it barely registers. One theory of the demise of the Khmer empire is that they suffered ecological meltdown, perhaps brought about by cutting down too many trees. Here, like in Ta Prohm, the trees are taking their revenge. Unrestored, and unreclaimed from the jungle the mighty banyan trees are clambering and flowing over the brick work. It's in slightly less good nik than the more famous Ta Prohm, and slightly less impressive in stature, but the significantly fewer tourists here adds to the atmosphere, and gives Ta Prohm a run for its money.

Next we visit Neak Pean, as temple fatigue begins to set in. This is not an impressive structure in its own right, but the setting makes it very atmospheric. One crosses a large wooden moat over a man made reservoir, turning once again to swamp land, whereby, in a clearing not visible from the other side a large stone monument, partially destroyed rises from a symmetric body of water.

The final temple is Preah Khan, which despite my exhaustion is one of the most impressive sights of the day. Unlike many other temples here the structure is flat, not built onto multiple levels, and there is nowhere to admire the structure as a whole, unless one has a helicopter. Instead the temple is experienced by weaving through the claustrophobic narrow alleys and back passages. Despite the many corridors being set out in a regular grid it is easy to get the feeling of becoming lost, as you clamber through the not-quite-identical alleyways and door openings. It's deceptively big on the inside, which one cannot really appreciate from the overgrown entrance to the building. This temple is a hidden gem, and one of the most atmospheric of all the temples in the Angkor site.

On the drive home we pass past other nameless temples, which we barely register, the temple appreciating parts of our brains are well and truly fried and beg us to return to the sanctuary of a cold beer and a plate of fried rice, which is what we do.

Angkor Wat
The great Angkor wat itself.
The final day at Siem Reap and I'm determined to see one more sight, as I have paid through the teeth for a three day pass here; but I am temple fatigued, so I spend the morning by the poolside with a cool smoothie and a book, then pamper myself with a haircut. I think the hairdressers is meant only for women, but they agree to cut my hair nonetheless, the older of the three ladies there speaks some English and takes it upon herself to arrange a marriage with one of the younger girls in their who speaks no English, and I get the impression that the older lady was being a bit creative with her interpretation. 'She thinks you're very handsome sir!', 'She wants to go to England sir!', 'She's a good cook sir!' 'Don't you think she is beautiful sir!'. I quickly escape, content to take only the hair cut and politely decline the Khemer bride, but glad to have given these young ladies a little giggle, even if it is at my expense. In the late afternoon I feel recuperated enough to see one more temple, and I requisition a tuk-tuk driver to take me on a long drive to the outskirts of the temple area to see an not-so-famous temple, whose main appeal is its lack of fame. Being so late in the day I am able to explore once last temple in almost complete solitude, this one is very pretty, cast in red stone and with a steep stairway connecting the outside chamber with the inner area. Although this temple is nothing special in this area with such an embarrassment of Khmer fair I am able to claim this tiny part of Angkor Wat as my own, to be enjoyed without the bustle of selfie taking tourists. A bus full of noisy french tourists pulls up and the tranquil moment is over, I scarper, glad to have had this final peaceful moment with Angkor. I sleep and then board the bus to the capital: Phnom Phen.

Phnom Phen

After an agonising 9 hour bus ride, advertised as 7, I arrive at Cambodia's capital city. Prior to this trip I could not have told you anything about this city; one of Asia's great metropolises this is not. It's hard to write a romantic ode to this city; it's seedy and dirty and a little dangerous. As I enter the hostel my first experience is to stand behind a German girl who is complaining of having been robbed earlier in the day. My impression of the city does not get much better. Still accomodation is good, and cheap. I have a good bed for the night and turn in early, having achieved nothing today other than having changed location.

The next day I tag along with a German couple on the mandatory killing-fields plus genocide museum tour; commemorating the deaths perpetrated by the psychotic regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer rouge. When the American led invasion of Vietnam started going badly the Americans covertly started bombing Cambodia, which arguably sowed the seeds for the growth of the Khmer rouge, an extreme hard-line communist guerrilla group that eventually took Phnom Penh and the whole of Cambodia. They were intent on returning to a purer form of a basic agrarian life. The cities were emptied, and anyone with bourgeois pretensions was executed: those who spoke a foreign language, although Pol Pot himself spoke French and Chinese; those who had a bourgeois profession, even wearing glasses was deemed a crime worthy of death. Pol Pot recruited disenfranchised Cambodian peasants, who had mostly never heard of communism or the works of Marx. These violent young youths would torture anyone who the regime deemed unworthy of life, until they were compelled to give up further names of those who were enemies of the state, leading to further torturing perpetuating itself until the cites lay desolate and one quarter of the population were dead, making this the worst genocide by percentage in the 20th century. Unsurprisingly the death of the entire middle class, the insistence on strict self-sufficiency and the emptying of the cities and the all pervasive paranoia of the regime did not lead to a stable and prosperous state. In 1975 the Vietnamese communists invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, who fled to Thailand. Bizarrely, the international community, including the UN, continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. Just like Stalin, Pol Pot died of old age, never properly brought to justice. The shadow of these terrible times still hangs heavy over modern Cambodia. Near to Phnom Phen one can visit the sight of the killing fields, one of myriad that have been discovered, and doubtless many more that have not. It is here that the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned to death their victims. 'To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.' Was the tagline of the unselfconsciously evil Khmer Rouge. There is little to see as such in the killing fields per se, except for the unapologetically morbid monument in the centre of the fields, stacked high with the cracked skulls of the victims of Pol Pot's genocide; the audio guide is excellent, if harrowing, however. An occasional fragment of skull prompts another unflinching description of the depths of human depravity. Auschwitz, which I visited earlier in this trip, is an example of depersonalised, industrialized killing. The killing of the Khmer rouge was much more personal, individual soldiers were compelled to bludgeon their victims to death with anything they could find, or else smash their brains against a nearby tree. We'll never really understand what went through these young mans heads as they crush a baby's skull and then bludgeoned its mother to death, all that we can do is not to forget that these things happened.

The next stop is the so called genocide museum, which is the sight of where the Khmer rouge did their interrogation, extracting the names of yet further enemies of the state, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and death. If the killing fields are disturbing, then this place is down right traumatising. Each claustrophobic cell vies to outdo the last with pictures of mutilated corpses, rusty torture instruments and the sad desperate eyes of the victims staring back at you from rows upon rows of repeating yet unique photographs. A truly sicken experience, but one that I would implore you to endure, if only once. Back outside the busy streets of Phnom Penh clattered on regardless. Life goes on here somehow. Poor and dysfunctional though it is, Cambodia has returned from the very brink and now has a smile on its face.

In the evening I meet up with an old friend of mine whom I went to university with, who coincidentally lives here with his Khmer wife. He has found a life for himself in Phnom Penh and seems happy. He fills me in some more about life as an expat here. He speaks good Khmer, but most who come here live their whole lives without really learning a word of the language. There is certainly an uneasy coexistence between the locals and the expats, which is one of the things that I really do not like about this place. Cambodia seems to be a gathering place for lost western souls. Many come here to escape their previous lives and take on a nihilistic approach to life. Heavy smokers and drinkers, unapologetic misogynists many with dysfunctional marriages to a local woman many years their junior; accidental death and suicide is very high amongst the expats. An interesting website lists all the ways in which foreigners have been known to die in Cambodia, including an alarming number of sex related heart attacks, too much viagra to keep up with the demands of your much younger mistress perhaps! Petty crime and violent crime here are pretty common, there is no love lost between the locals and the often atrociously behaved Barangs (foreigners). After an enlightening chat with my friend over a few beers, fried grasshoppers and a game of monopoly I bid him farewell and head to bed.

The next day I try to muster the energy to explore the city a bit more by foot. I traipse around without too much aim, but it is oppressively hot and a thick layer of pollution hangs heavy in the air. My exploring amounts to little of note, and is punctuated with coffees, a spot of reading, sugarcane juice and a quick shave from a barber who has set up shop under the roadside shade of a palm tree. I'm constantly hurranged by tuk-tuk drivers and later ladies of the night, for business. I cannot say I am a convert to this city, tomorrow I head to Kampot, a sleepy village south of here to explore the Cambodian countryside in more depth.


Kampot is a small, nondescript town south of Phnom Penh, set on a wide river. There is nothing to do here per se, except enjoy the beer and fine food along the charming river which cuts this town in half. The bus is predictably late, and I arrive in the dark. I've chosen a hostel well out in the sticks to let my brain and lungs recover from Phnom Penh for a few days of serious R&R. The hostel is a charming rural getaway with beautiful little wooden buildings to sleep in. There are myriad little creepy crawlies, frogs and lizards to give you the true tropical experience. It's already too late to head back into town so I have a quiet beer with the only other traveller at the hostel and head to bed.

The next day I hire a motorbike, somewhat apprehensively. The term motorbike is used somewhat loosely here, applying to a small 125cc scooter rather than a fully fledged motorbike. The roads are a little hectic and lawless, and I am inexperienced with these things, but the owners of the hostel give me a quick crash course (no pun intended) and set me off to Bokor Hill station. The town of Kampot is near to sea level, but the hill station of Bokor lies 1000 meters above the town. One of Cambodia's best maintained roads winds its way up to the top of the hill, a former favourite retreat of the French colonists who made their home here. The ride is spectacular, and I warm to weaving this little beast around the sharp steep curves of this road, once you leave the highway the route is pretty quiet and a good place to learn to drive. The views are spectacular, spreading over the pristine forest out onto the sea and to the southern Cambodian islands, and over to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. At the top of the hill there is a monstrous Chinese casino, which somewhat ruins the ambience of the place, which sits more or less empty and unvisited, an unwise investment, and a corrupt perversion of the natural beauty of this place. Further along there are a number of ruined old French buildings which I spend an afternoon exploring on foot, including a bombed out old catholic church, an empty monument to France's ultimately ill fated colonisation of Cambodia. I drive further, along a back road now, which is completely empty. Caning the motorbike through this deserted tropical landscape is a highlight of my trip to Cambodia. At the end of the pristine road there is another waterfall for which I park my bike and hike down to the base of; and then back to the hostel, a definite convert to travelling on scooter through Asia. In the evening I enjoy a beer and some fried rice on one of Kampots many restaurant boats and watch the sunset over the river, feeling rather content.

French church
The ruins of a french church sitting at the top of Bokor hill station. A crumbling monument to French colonialism.

The next day I take the motorbike again to a series of less well known sights, including a pepper plantation, for which the region is famous. The road there is the more archetypal Cambodian affair: compacted dirt with countless pot holes. Getting over 20k is rare and ill advised, still fun in a different sense to yesterday. The scenery is stunning: tropical palm trees and women tending paddy fields by hand in a life unchallenged by modernity. I loop around a pretty lake and brave a swim to cool down, although the water looks a little groty. Further down the route and the road degrades even further, and the scenery becomes more remote and bare. I arrive at 'The Plantation', a place where the famous Kampot pepper is grown. A breed of pepper that can only be sold under that name if it is grown here. It is one of the largest exports of Cambodia, with converts in fancy Parisian restaurants. The tour is more interesting than it might sound, seeing all the different varieties of pepper and how they are prepared. The farm is owned by a couple of barangs, who are very tourist savey, and the tour is accompanied by the heavy sell, but all in good nature. I manage to escape without buying anything; I'm not sure what I could do with a kilogram of black pepper whilst backpacking through Southeast Asia, and back on to my bike. I had planned to go further, but I enjoy taking my time and head slowly back to the hostel and have dinner in the town. The town of Kampot itself seems to be a magnet for the usual line up of crackpot expats. Many come here to marry Cambodian women, or to set up a bar, and stay here, drifting aimlessly through their life, taking it easy. I could see myself joining their ranks; there is nothing to do here, but doing it seems to occupy a lazy lifetime, but I must continue. My next stop is the island of Koh Rong Samloem.

Koh Rong Samloem

Koh Rong Samloem is the smaller, less noisy brother to the island of Koh Rong itself. Development here has not proceeded at the pace of many other places in Cambodia, the accommodation being little ramshackle wooden buildings built tastefully in symbiosis with the thick jungle, which covers most of the island. There are no roads, the only way to get between the few settlements is to take a boat. Of course, this being Cambodia getting here consumes most of the day and involves a motorbike, a bus, a pickup truck and then finally a boat to the island, which drops me on the northern most beach, which has a more backpackers vibe to it than the upmarket lovers retreat on the eastern edge of the island. I arrive at the suitably named lazybones hostel, a place for drifting backpackers to get stoned and pass time in blissful inactivity.

The next day I take a boat plus snorkelling tour around the island, run by a nice man from Bristol. The Khmer presence on this island is fairly negligible, if not none-existent, serving mostly a western tourist clientele, unsurprisingly; most bars and tourist outfits have a barang at their head and this is no exception. Our guide is friendly and the tour involves a chilled out saunter around the island on our boat, stopping to dip into the waters with our snorkels, the water is not the clearest, and the correls are not too impressive, but this is not the point. To bob about at leisure in the water is blissful. Our dives are interspersed with smoothy stops and lazy lounges on beaches. I'm not usually a beach person, but here I feel content, the usual noisey chatter of my thoughts muted for a while as I sit and do nothing at all. The final snorkel sees the sun set over the sea as we bob up and down in the water, not too concentrated on looking at the correls. I head back and hang out at the hostel for a while with a young couple from Romania and we play a game of monopoly. Every single person I'm sitting with is of European origin and we speak in English; apart from the extreme heat and symphony of noisy insects I get the impression of not really travelling at all, but at the moment I don't care, happy to have this oasis of normality on this long adventure. That evening the Romanian couple suggest swimming to see the plankton. This involves a sketchy trek across to the other side of the beach in the pitch black and then wading out into the dark black ocean in the middle of the night. The experience well rewards the effort though. As we 'agitate' the water, as we are told to do, the miniscule plankton light up a bright fluorescent green to scare off potential predators. The experience is surreal and quite magical, despite being a fully grown man I find myself screaming in delight as I pound the dark water with my hands and it lights up a fluorescent colour. Much immature fun is had until we head back wet and cold to the hostel.

View overlooking the pier in Koh Rong Sanloem.

The final day on the island I take the trek to an isolated beach known as clearwater bay. To get there I have to wade through the sea up to my knees and then trek for half an hour through the dense jungle to another portion of the island. The walk is well worth it, however; clearwater bay lives up to its name, the water being crystal clear and the sands a pristine clean white. I spend the rest of the day here, having the place almost to myself, interspersing reading with sedate swimming and topping this off with some strenuous sunbathing; I could yet be converted to the beach. In the evening I eat at a delicious restaurant owned by yet another British man and his Khmer wife and slip into a deep peaceful sleep.

Otres Beach

I could stay on the island a little longer, but I want to make the most of my time in Vietnam, and the clock is ticking. It is a weird sensation: setting aside seven months to go traveling but then to find yourself always short of time. My plan was to spend one day on Otres Beach, a beach resort of sorts across on the main land from the island and then head back to Phnom Penh directly to catch a flight to Saigon, but there was an issue with my visa. As my passport is running out soon I cannot get a visa-free visit to Vietnam, and must apply for a visa online, which normally takes three days. However, the application was rejected by the Vietnamese, because I didn't put my middle name on the visa application! This of course means that I couldn't enter Vietnam; my errant middle name of course being a threat to the existence of the communist regime. This all means that I spent a bit longer at Otres beach than I intended. It doesn't quite have the idyllic charm of Samloem, clearly the expensive boat ride puts off the prostitutes and the tricksters; not so here. Otres beach is a little seedy, but I've seen worse and pass a pleasant, if uneventful few days here, staying in a nice hostel with a pool and catching up on some reading, and then back to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh Again

Back to Phnom Penh and I end up staying here for longer than I expected, still waiting for my visa to arrive. It's the weekend so the visa processing department is not working, there is nothing to do but wait for it to come and try to enjoy myself in this city. Being bored in a place is something that I advise you to do if you have time while travelling, as it invites you to find more creative things to do that you might not otherwise find if you have a tighter itinerary. I passed a few days in Phnom Penh exploring a few of the markets, and checking out an artsy little cinema with English language films and Khmer films with subtitles. I get a little sense of what it might be like to live here, albeit without the need for honest employment, only at my leisure; but something more than a tourist. On the third day of waiting the visa arrived, and I snapped up the next possible flight to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, call it what you will, and flung myself into a taxi. I'm going to Vietnam man!