| Corruption is a part of daily life at the Cambodian customs where the officer in charge falsly demanded US$2 for a visa form….these government employees can lie through their teeth without batting an eyelid.
The ride through Eastern Cambodia was flat and straight. Here, the people are noticably poorer than in Laos however the land seems to be slowly recovering from the effects of the brutal revolution under the Khmer Rouge and the folk appear to be happy and relatively satisfied.
Huge strips of land are fenced in, made inaccessible due to the many unexploded landmines…there remains much work to be done clearing the land here.
In Kratje, a small town by the Mekong river, we enjoyed a rest-day, taking a midday stroll at the market to inspect the local wares while almost all the sellers were lying half asleep in their hammocks!
From Kratje, we followed an old road alongside the Mekong down to Chlong, a former colonial city. We were in the middle of drinking a refreshing „Ovaltine“ when a crowd of people appeared, led by a man pulling a wagon on which was a cassette player and loudspeakers, blasting out loud Cambodian music. Behind him came another wagon loaded with a flower-covered coffin, and the relatives of the deceased. They were all on their way to the burial in the temple complex.
In Neak Luong, we found ourselves on the heavily travelled main road from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City . After crossing a small border-post in southwest Vietnam to get into Cambodia we rode on a dirt road going to Kompong Trach and although our bikes ended up completely covered in red-braun dust, we still enjoyed the ride through the „Pampa“,observing the simple lifestyle of the farmers and the impressive cultivation of the fields.
In the city of Sihanoukville, in the Gulf of Thailand, are the famous beaches of Cambodia and it was here that we’d decided to take a week’s holiday after having replaced the gear cable on Nathalie’s bike and managed to finally rid our saddlebags of a plague of ants. However, the place just didn’t live up to our expectations: there were no simple, pretty, little bungalows with hammocks on the considerably small, white beach which is overrun with beggars trying their luck. Apart from that,hotel rooms and restaurants were relatively expensive, totally out of proportion. Everything has to be paid for in American dollars and one has to be on the alert all the time because of the amount of counterfeit money in circulation.
Kurt wandered off to check out a distant beach, and Nathalie went diving at a nearby island. On that day, the sea was extraordinarily rough and she had to feed her breakfast to the fish. The reef and the diversity of seelife was fascinating although underwater, the clarity of vision was not so good.
In this coastal city, we became very aware how close poverty and wealth, hope and despair existed together. Many modern businesses have been founded by western immigrants in the last few years, and the results can be seen in the new Jeeps cruising around driven by proud and probably totally corrupt VIP public servants while so many desperately poor people merely subsist, chronically sick, covered in wounds, and with amputated limbs as a result of the war.
We pedalled further along the Number 4 main road to Phnom Penh , stopping at the main post office to pick up a letter. A bored post worker dumped a large box in front of us on the counter, filled with hundreds of letters. After searching our way through the pile, we eventually found our post, whereupon the post attendant demanded that we pay for the „service“ he’d provided us, but naturally he didn’t get any corrupt money from us. People tried to rip us off simply everywhere, for example at the local market when the agreed price for a fruit-juice suddenly doubles without reason or a cycle-taxi driver decides to charge per person for the ride instead of the ageed-upon collective price, or in a restaurant where strangely the bill is incorrect, of course always in favour of the owner….yes, sometimes that sort of thing really gets on your nerves.
Often displayed at the tourist attractions are cages totally overfilled with small birds which arouse sympathy among the tourists who then pay to buy the birds their freedom, but of course this mercy-buying just serves to encourage the cage owners to further maltreatment of the birds.
In Cambodia there are various organisations which attempt to help disadvantaged people, like streetkids, solo mothers, and cripples, to find themselves some sort of job. We visited a shop called „Rajana“ which has a production workshop on the top floor. We were able to see how empty ammunition shells were melted down to make very pretty jewellery, observed skilled woodcarvers at work, and watched how nimble seamstresses took woven cloth and made all sorts of bags, towels and clothes.
In 1975, Pol Pot, the revolutionary leader of the Khmer Rouge, converted a highschool into the „High Security Prison S1“ which became infamous as the biggest torture center in the country. Here in the Genocide Tuol Sleng Museum , one can see the tiny recesses in which the prisoners were held like animals and tortured. Many black-and-white photos and rusty bed frames remind one of those tragic times which were no less worse than in the brutal days of Hitler. Almost all of the prisoners were taken to the massgraves of Choen Ek, 14km southwest of the capital city, to be executed. It was here that we visited the „Killing Fields“, thinking about the totally incomprehensible things that the Khmer Rouge did back then.
On the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we met an wise old man who had fought against the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, then later escaped to France . He told us a few stories of his experiences but always spoke of the Khmer Rouge in a whisper…it could be that somwehere there are still Pol Pot supporters around eavesdroppin….
Siem Reap is the starting point to begin a tour of the many Angkor temples. From the 9th to the 13 century, the Cambodian „Devarajas“ (God-kings), began to build an empire, which would outdo all previous constructions in, style form and size, and today the only remains are hundreds of sacred temples stretching from Burma to Vietnam. Angkor is the heart and soul, and the pride of the kingdom of Cambodia, and in fact, despite in need of restoration it really is breathtakingly impressive ,a place where one could stroll around for days on end just looking.
We rode around on our bikes visiting the various sights, amazed at the artful building construction, and the many interesting stone reliefs which „related“ stories about those ancient times. Much of the artwork and the edifice has been destroyed by water and the effects of the surrounding vegetation however many countries such as France , Germany , and Japan have financed an extensive restoration program.
After this extremely impressive time at Angkor , we pedalled on towards Poipet on the Thai border. This national road is in a really rundown condition, bumpy and sandy, and we were thankful for our facemasks but the layer of sweat, suncream and dust on our faces left us looking like crumbed Wiener Schnitzels as we finally arrived at the border.
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