The best way to arrive in Cambodia is in the darkness of early evening, on the back of an underpowered motorbike, whose spluttering engine can just about outpace the sweaty embrace of the tropical night. With the wind in your hair- literally: mototaxis don’t carry passenger helmets** – the breeze will clear the annoyance of the border from your head, where, despite being a *seasoned traveller*, you still couldn’t avoid the guards’ bullshit ‘visa processing fee’. The crickets will soothe you with their restless, hissing lullaby [do crickets hiss or chirp??]. Anything could happen. It’s going to be ok.
I’ve never been to Cambodia before (so luckily you are spared another of my ‘when I was last in blahblahblahistan’ intros..but I’ve had a couple of beers so you get the wiffle above, instead 🙂 ) and it wasn’t originally on my route for this trip. But a little over 3 weeks ago, somewhere high up in the chilly Pamir mountains a tropical detour between the Stans and Japan started to seem like a good idea, and I have a friend currently living in Sihanoukville, so the decision was made. It’s very easy to lapse into tired cliches when writing about travel (sorry about that..) so I’m just going to launch straight into one now: Cambodia is a land of intense contrast and contradiction. It vividly illustrates the extremes of human endeavour:the ability to create immense beauty, and the ugliest ways in which we can wreak destruction on each other. Its people are gentle and friendly, it has fantastic scenery, it’s one of the most corrupt places in the world, and much of the country is choking under the litter and sewage that it has no adequate infrastructure to deal with.
Like every single tourist who visits the country, I went to Siem Reap and crammed as much temple viewing as I could manage into one hot day, having spent the previous couple of days in Phnom Penh visiting the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, and Tuol Sleng prison. But before that, I had some less heavyweight experiences. I spent a day and night in Bangkok – cheaper to fly there than Cambodia, plus I love Bangkok (yes I have been before but nevermind..). I then crossed into Cambodia at the border just east of the Thai town of Trat and spent my first night in Koh Kong (see above!), before moving on to Sihanoukville (where the island of Koh Rong can be found) and basically lounging around for a few days.
So, Bangkok..As a Brit, you know where you are with Thailand. They drive on the right side of the road i.e. the left. We’ve been eating their food for decades now, and will happily scoff pad thai, green curry, and ooh err, the occasional phat prik. It’s the second most popular package holiday destination behind Spain (probably..) and there is an actual British law that says all gap yahs must include some time spent dossing on a Thai island (sorry, having meaningful cultural experiences). Bangkok still has a reputation for being pretty damn sleazy, but it has way more to offer than novel uses for ping pong balls and it’s one of my favourite cities (though one of my other favourite cities is Lima so I may not be the most useful benchmarker). If I was condemned to spending the rest of my days eating and drinking my way round the streets of the city it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. I stayed in an area called Bang Kho Laem, a 10 minute walk from the Charoen Krung road -apparently the oldest road in the city. In amongst all the modern development and 7-11s there are still original shophouses established by 19th century Chinese immigrants. I really like the feel of the area.
I also spent a couple of hours in the Khao San road, just for the hell of it. It’s one of the most notorious backpacker streets in the world, and not exactly the most sophisticated or hipster example of Bangkok life, but you can find what you need and it’s fun for a little while. I got my feet massaged and drank cheap beer, and some students doing a survey on cultural attitudes of different nationalities interviewed me. In amongst quite interesting questions about gender, employment, sexuality etc, they asked what site I would most recommend in the UK. I said Scotland. They also asked what sports we liked and I totally forgot about cricket, so I should probably hand back my British passport now.
**yes I know it’s dangerous and I’m not advocating it but it was a short ride and he wasn’t going very fast..