Leave Phnom Penh early by vehicle for Kompong Thom to avoid the busy roads. After lunch cycle from Kompong Thom towards Siem Reap. The road will be busier than we are previously used to, but the scenery provides an interesting contrast to life we saw along the Mekong Delta. There may be an optional ride to the 7th century SamborPrei Kuk temple complex, 35km north of town.
Having felt the Killing Fields Visit was not as we would have wanted, we debated at breakfast to go to S21 (Security Prison 21) or not. I wasn’t that fussed but as Siem said it was just round the corner, we went. I’m so very glad we did. S21 (The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) was the name of the secret prison in Phnom Penh where thousands were tortured and then sent the to the killing fields to be murdered. Originally it was a school before being changed into to torture prison.
We got there at 7.50am and it opened at 8am. We all wandered round and listened to the explanation of S21 through audio guides.
There was much discussion between us about;
- the madness and insanity of man committing atrocities against man
- genocides of different types all over the world
- how do these awful actions keep happening
- how does anyone think of the things that have been done in the name of their cause
- how can masses of people be taken in and compelled to do such things against fellow man.
There are of course no answers, only questions. We can all be philosophical sometimes.
The visit helped me put yesterday’s visit to the Killing Fields into more context. We definitely would have had a different experience there with the audio guide – but then again everything is for a reason. The experience we had had probably caused us to question and debate the subject more than expected.
This is clearly a struggling county. Struggling to improve economically and working under a controlling communist regime. Why the killing fields is not better presented I don’t know, but I could offer various theories. After all it was only physically a field and huts, what more does it need to be as a memorial? What happened there is the issue along with why and what can be learned from it. Like the forests in Germany and Poland, that were used for murdering in the holocaust, those areas are merely trees and ground. It’s not the place itself but the event. Simple perhaps but I get it now.
At the end of going round S21 we met one of the 7 people who survived. I bought his book to read later. The reason he survived is that after 2 weeks of torture, the Khmer Rouge prison wardens found out he was an engineer and could fix their typewriters. They needed his help and so released him from the cells and he worked in the jail fixing the mechanical items.
After discussing with Siem, we are still going to cycle Koh Duch Island (Dutch Island). The plan is to then transfer 175km to the Siem Reap area, have a late lunch and then cycle 30km to a temple. After that we will transfer 30km back rather than cycle. A good plan we are all happy with.
An hour on and we are still picking our way through the capital. It’s a big busy place. RP and DB took the time to snooze. The others were chatting and I was doing this pesky blog!
I was so happy to have got the blog done yesterday mostly in the day, on the boat and coaches. It was all sent by 8pm and I felt like I was free to have a relaxing few hours…..
…….well that was an eventful few hours! We went to get the bikes set up (we had to change bikes now we were in Cambodia) and had a few problems. RR has very squeaky breaks and poor gear changes. The bikes look lesser quality than the Vietnamese ones. Saying that, mine looks almost new!
Generally it is less well organised here, and Siem seems to not quite know what we are doing. He seems to be more just showing us the way than a great tour guide. He does tell us little bits of information but I have decided to ask more than normal if he doesn’t explain as we go along.
The ferry crossing to the island was only 5 mins or so and busy again with people, scooters and cars. One scooter had a washing machine strapped on the back! It was fun watching from the upper deck. As we were starting to move away a scooter came down the gravel ramp and just made it, then another and another! A woman carrying a baby came walking as fast as she could and the captain allowed her on too – then we were away.
We started cycling on a nice concrete path with houses on each side. They were more “normal” with front gardens which meant the path was far less crowded than Vietnam.
We stopped at a house where silk was made. It is one of the main items produced here. It was interesting seeing the loom and how very long it takes to make anything. We then probably paid hopelessly over the odds for some things we bought there for our loved ones. When we got back to the ferry we were offered the same things at a cheaper price, even before bartering. Oh well, ours must be better quality!
A short while later we stopped for a water refill. The shop/kiosk had some large worn-out glass bottles in a rickety wooden crate and Siem explained that was the petrol being sold on the black market!
The island had a wide single-track road for some of the way, the rest was rutted mud or sand. The latter was difficult to cycle through as it is easy to get stuck if you’re in the wrong gear. David had a little tumble in the sand, but no damage done. Then on one of the mud paths RR got a puncture. As in true Team Danish style we watched as someone else repaired it (the mechanic for the group who cycles as our second guide at the back). It only took 5 minutes or so and we were off again.
A stall outside a house by the puncture place was selling some farm produce. I now know you can buy water lilies (long stem and closed flower) to make soup. Who knew!? But I’ll give it miss and not bother to grow any in my pond!
We had to concentrate to pick our way through on the bumpy, uneven and muddy paths – some would say it was technically difficult. Both us on bikes and the scooters coming the other way wanted to use the same thread of flat mud through the ruts. I was doing well until I allowed a scooter, coming in the opposite direction, to take the groove that I was using so I was forced into a deeper channel. My front tyre got through ok but the back one got caught diagonally. The result was the bike stopped and I continued! Fortunately, I had unclipped my shoes some time before as a precaution and I fell palms first to break my fall. Apart from feeling annoyed with myself for letting it happen no harm was done. I instantly got up (well, I hadn’t officially fallen down) and dusted myself off. Dusting was needed as the mud was mostly dry. I took a breather, had some water and the guys checked I was ok – meaning a vague genuine concern – that’s about as good as it gets! And off we went. I got away with no grazes and possibly bruised palms at worst.
Our cycle round the island had taken around 2 hours and a short while later we were back on the concrete path and soon after back at the ferry. A few minutes later on the other side back at the van. They put our bikes on another van to travel 175km up north to the Siem Reap area.
It was now about 1pm. We had a long transfer to do and clearly the cycling would be cut back drastically. We are a bit disappointed but never mind. We knew the day wouldn’t be as planned as we had decided to go to S21.
An hour later we pulled in for lunch at the now famous Ramdul 88 restaurant. It was at a local market selling various fried insects, locusts, tarantula, silk worm, crickets etc. Not our thing at all (no surprises there) and we left the locals to enjoy it all. Thankfully, the restaurant had more normal food.
I had seen some stalls selling dried dates, bananas etc. so asked Siem to help me buy a mixture. We bought those and also sweet turmeric, rice, sesame and taro root. They are all nice and tasty and when we cycle will be a good variety of carbs to refuel with.
“When” we cycle is now the issue, because it won’t be today. We thought we were going straight to the temple but the plan has changed again because Siem tells us there is a ceremony in the temple this evening and we are not invited! So we are not cycling any more nor seeing anything either. We arrived at 5.30pm and the sun sets at 5.45pm. There is also apparently nothing else to do on the way which sounds ridiculous! Now we are not happy. We feel that Siem should have worked things out better and lunch should have been a quick stop in order to make the most of the rest of the day. Unfortunately, our fears that he is a poor guide are coming true. It’s getting rather like the guide Stuart who was meant to lead us when we cycled London to Paris, but was hopeless, famously getting us very lost in Kent! At least here, we have turned the right way out of the hotel! (For those who can’t remember of haven’t read about that adventure you can read about it in the Basil Fawlty of Cycle Tours blog. Also, I hope the “red mist” doesn’t come down for me over here like it did at one stage in France!)
One good point about not cycling today is that there is less time for RR to become annoyed with his bike’s brakes and gears!
So far in Cambodia we didn’t cycle to the Killing Fields and only did 13 miles round the island (which I did enjoy). So that’s 15 miles yesterday and about 25 out of today not done. And so we have had 2 days doing hardly any cycling. Oh well, let’s stay positive here, it is a lovely and fascinating county we are visiting and I do feel they are trying, although it would be better if Siem took more control. He is probably doing his best and is a lovely man, being very humble and not wanting to tell us what to do, but we would prefer him to do exactly that and sort things out. We don’t know the timing of things and if the S21 visit or even lunch were taking too long, him telling us to make it quick would have been appreciated.
After my question ‘is there anything else to do on the way’?, he told us we are going to visit a town where they carve the Buddha statues that are transported all over the country. So we agreed to go as that was better than nothing.
Now he tells us we can go up a mountain with 200 steps to see a temple. Apparently it’s ok to do this wearing flip flops which is just as well as that’s what we have on. He did want us to go to the hotel which is past the temple and then come back to see it! We put him right about that and are now going to the hotel via the temple. Oh dear. I’m not sure what’s happened to the Buddha carving town visit but think it’s been relegated!
We are starting to question the itinerary for tomorrow which will now start with the temple we should have seen today. Given what’s happened so far we need to make sure we get a good days cycling in too.
Good news. It’s now been 10 minutes and the plan has not changed. Apparently the temple opens at 5.30am so it looks like it could an early start tomorrow!
One other thing that strikes me is that both Stephanie and Jason went backpacking for quite some while around this region last summer, Stephanie for 4 months and Jason for 5 weeks. Well, all I can say is, I was proud of you both then, but having now seen the countries first hand, I am even more proud and full of admiration for you both. It’s not easy to understand these places and how to get around. It’s incredible you have managed to do so and have such a great time.
Some other facts I heard today are:
- 80% of Cambodia is Buddhist and the rest mainly Khmer Islam. There are some minorities also such as those who believe in the spirit of the forest
- The average living cost for a 4 person family is $300 to $400 a month
- There is no tax on business profits for the villagers. Cars and scooters are taxed each year
- Schooling is free but kids need 25 cents a day for snacks. If there are several kids in a family this can be a financial problem
- The islanders paid communally for their concrete road, it was not built by the government
- They grow silk worms and make silk. Also lettuce and something else I forget
So what about the rest of the countryside here?
- Well it’s still very green and lush with palms, green fields and trees of all sorts
- Lots of water, streams and some flooded fields
- Houses and shops are set back from the roads and so it seems more open
- Still many bikes and scooters
- Still a mix of well kept property sprinkled all other types
- Most of the houses we pass are built on legs – not against flooding but so they can work and live under the house in the shade and cool
- They live and sleep in the house when the sun has gone down
When I was chatting to Siem whilst cycling round the island (when we were on a concrete path) he said something that put their lives into context for me: “because of the Pol Pot period they are only second generation to have anything substantially material”. It then hit me that the country had to practically start again after that time, the subsequent war with Vietnam and the war with America not long before. Even without their political problems this is a horrid recent history and it’s not surprising they are still recovering and developing.
Oh no! We just missed the turning for the mountain temple by a few hundred metres, so have now turned round! To be fair it was a small road and a rather faded rusty sign!
The temple was worth seeing. 200 steps turned out to mean 200 metres high which turned out be 800 steps but it was good to do some exercise today! We got to the top just for the sunset which was lovely. The temple was nice with a variety of buddhas and temple buildings. There were also some monkeys around and a few dogs. It was getting dark on the way down and was pitch black by the time we reached the van.
The hotel was 10 minutes away and looks very impressive. We were all led to the top and 3rd floor but the lift wasn’t working so had to climb more stairs! I took pity on the bell hop who had to bring the cases up.
Given the hotel seems mostly empty I don’t know why they didn’t put us on the first floor! Crazy place!