To Siem Reap

To Siem Reap
Prasat Bakong, Cambodia

Prasat Bakong, Cambodia

An early start, though with a delay. My bus was at 7, so I was due to be picked up from the hostel and taken to the bus at 6.30. Nothing by 7, Anna explained to me but I didn’t follow. Hopping onto the back of a motorbike – backpack on, case stuffed in front of the driver – I pieced it together; something from the university had caused road closures. This after the driver had had to check where we were going, taking a phone for security and hadn’t been able to start the bike. It didn’t inspire confidence when he had the phone out within a minute, though he didn’t use it – it was in case he got lost rather than because he was. We went through a barrier and, seemingly at random, met a tuk tuk driver. He took me to the bus, which wasn’t far away, and after a short wait, we were off. I had spotted time keeping could be a bit approximate yesterday when chatting to an American who was waiting for a bus to the beach, so was kind of prepared.

Grand gate with a high, ornate decoration over the top
Gates like this are interspersed on the landscape.

The bus was a bit shabby but worked well enough, as did the tv and sound system, banging out some Bollywood number – talking dubbed, songs subtitled-at first and then several episodes of a Cambodian comedy. The bus rocked to the sounds of laughter up and down the aisles.

It took 20 minutes or so to be out of Phnom Penh. One toll took us to a road that was maybe slightly more of a highway. We paid a second toll and pulled onto asphalt. Briefly, then a dirt track work in progress. Houses lined the roads, suggesting this would never be a major motorway. In a petrol station, two men sat at a desk, for all the world as if occupying a commentary position.

“Well, Brian, he’s got to be unhappy with that”
“Yes, in the final third there he’s tried to overtake a bus in a tuk tuk, and that just won’t work even if you’re not carrying a shop’s worth of beer”

A market set up, small houses behind
Market time.

Much of the next few hours was the same, and I snoozed fitfully, waking up at a stop to realise that the lack of bouncing poor-road motion was what had allowed me to sleep. At around the time I expected us to pull in I spotted a sign that showed we were only at Kampong Thom, still miles away. I hoped my lift was still there, but I needn’t have worried – as we pulled in, a couple of hours late at around 3.30, I saw a sign saying ‘Mr John, pickup service’ and threw him a thumbs up. But, oops. That doesn’t have the hostel name on, surely their driver would use that and just as I gave the first man my bag, I spotted him with a better sign, Siem Reap hostel, welcome John. The first, then, was the friend of the driver who’d offered to set me up with a man who could ‘show me a hotel, if you don’t like it, go elsewhere’, which sounded like a waste of time. I’d obviously not been definitive enough in claiming my hostel (which I booked after our initial conversation) was going to pick me up. He insisted I talk to his friend so I did, feeling guilty. We got away, hostel bound. And the place is stunning. Cheap, but with all mod cons, pool table, cinema room, bar, restaurant – it really is, as they claim, like a hotel. Except that I feel old, but I can deal with that. I also keep spotting tall English scouse youngsters with a beard, but have at least realised that I don’t know them, they just remind me of Sal’s brother, Owen. They aren’t him.

A small structure, yellow and green roof
One of the views from the hostel.

Later, I ran. Finally my legs have unkinked enough to let me go. Technically, probably junk miles, 7.30s not quick enough for a tempo not slow enough for an endurance run, but it felt good. Very good. And surprising – I thought I’d overcooked the first mile in my joy and that I’d slowed but the third was nearly 10 second quicker. The last couple might not be so pretty when I check. Checking the web for ‘Siem reap running’, a search I do with most cities, I found a blog. Her father ran with her, and his description is perfect:

“I felt like I was running with, around, and from cars, bikes, motorbikes, trucks, people, and dogs.”

Oh boy, yes. The dogs were a bit of a concern for a mo, as I had got in late, grabbed a snack to ease my lack of food and water through the day and then not run till 5.30. I thought it was darker later here but no, so I did a loop west through the very pretty old market and round the river to a natural stop (couldn’t go any further by the river) in the light, and the same loop in the gloom and then dark. Previously mildly barking dogs then decided I was fun or a target, one becoming two running with me and do they have rabies here? To my surprise, either the shouted “down” (‘**** off’ is what I prefer back home, hoping the owner hears and understands the implied anger, even threat, but English abroad=simplification) or the finger pointed down immediately calmed them and they dropped off (…my amazing pace). I object to any idea that I should know how to handle dogs in order to cope with them doing anything other than shutting up and keeping out of the way, but was very pleased with myself. And it was a good run.

Flooded plain, with a gate and tree poking out of the water
Possibly the rainy season.

I was even more pleased to finally have enough voltage to take my clippers from N64 controller levels of vibration to one which allowed me to cut my hair. Weak vibes had let me sort-of-trim it in Japan and South Korea, but now I cut swathes back and forth.

There’s a half marathon here that is now on my very tentative list of ‘that’d be nice’. December, so a definite ‘if ever I…’ rather than an impending destination, but it runs from here round several temples. That’s an idea. Probably not a good one, given my lack of direction, but I might get to Angkor Wat, at least.

Blog at Running in Siem Reap looks a good one.

Read: The Zap gun, Philip K Dick. Reading: A Reacher Novel.

Phnomenal traffic

Phnomenal traffic
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

“Wannoo…put the lime in the coconut”

Yes! The barman really did just say exactly that, though he’s instructing and I think it was more along the lines of ‘put in the lime and then the coconut’, rather than a precursor to ‘and drink them both down’. Most excellent; I wonder if the line in the song comes from overhearing a similar bit of English-as-second-language.

View from the back of a rickshaw, traffic all around and a temple off to the left

The hostel had sent me a driver; I’d asked for him to come at 10, and not heard that was happening, but I was been hoist on my own petard, really, by her not replying to that request to say ‘yes, he’ll be there’ or similar. It worked in exactly what I’d argue is the right way – once you’ve written to say “can we pick you up”, had a “yes”, written to say “what time?” and had an answer, the rest is implicit.

He turned up at 10, in any case. The tuk tuk ride is part of the experience, even fun, here; turning is a case of sticking your bike/tuk tuk/car/body into a place from where you can head across the road, then edging into people’s way until enough have stopped that you can go. Liberal use of the horn, though in fairness it is also supposed to be used to warn people you are there in the UK, and that seems the standard thing here and in Korea. Roads are filled with motorbikes, fewer cars and bikes and the occasional lorry, all just about getting along in my experience, though not without the odd quick braking and of course accident rates here are greater. I’ve read some guidance. The tone always changes depending on how adventurous the writer is, and it has helped me to appreciate the job Lonely Planet and the other established guides do in making a fairly adventurous approach seem normal. Guidance suggests walking in Phnom Penh isn’t recommended, and certainly there are stretches with pavement, more often stretches where pavement is overtaken by markets and even more often stretches with nothing. Seoul often had no pavements, where in Tokyo an area was at least marked off at the side of the road, yellow paint marking off a walkway, Seoul didn’t always have that. I’m sure there are enough Asian cities in enough states of development that you could trace how they were first laid out and how that is then modernised; and by modernised, I mean updated in keeping with the original layout, so an area of no pavements becomes a group of swanky buildings and smooth tarmac. And no pavement. Cars at least seemed to reliably wait for pedestrians to walk past parked cars before they tried to fit through the road space left.

Motorcycles roll past the elaborate pagoda of the Royal Palace
Royal Palace.

I liked my driver, so I kept him. For the day, that is, after he’d made an extra trip to allow me to break a $100 note to pay ‘Mematesvilla’ and I’d then ripped myself off by giving the hostel too much money. I’ve just one day in Phnom Penh, bus booked to Siem Riep tomorrow at 7, so was in a hang the consequences mood.

First we headed for Choeung Ek, or ‘the killing fields’ which is just one of many such fields around the country, but the one with the monument to the dead, and 86 excavated graves. Theoretically it’s $3 to go in, $3 for the audio tour, but I’m not sure you can turn down the latter, and nor should you – without it you’re left to look at a few signs and pits without context. The buildings were torn down by the locals in 1979, belatedly realising what had been happening, hidden from them by DDT on the bodies (to cut down on the smell) and music played to cover any moans.

It’s all ever so slightly ramshackle, as is the separate genocide museum in town, but a disarmingly beautiful site. The lake walk is optional but not very long, and I’d urge anyone visiting to listen to all of the audio tracks. There’s a small museum, to introduce you to the first of many biographies of Khmer Rouge leaders, and a film. The voice over is English. Very english – it sounds like someone on a gap year completing a project, and as if it’s his first read through of the only reasonable-English script, giving him time to correct some basic bits, the tense of verbs etc, but forcing him to read sentences he certainly wouldn’t have written. Unfortunately, at least for me, he has that embarrassing tendency to put emphasis on the adjective in each sentence; fine when you’re taught it in school to prevent a monotone, but past 15 you ought to move on, lest you seem too much of a ((British) public school) numpty.

A large, busy, roundabout, with a tall monument in the middle
Phnom Penh.

After that I eschewed the offer of a trip to the shooting range nearby-sort of too close to what I’d just seen, though only sort of, because bullets were too expensive so people weren’t shot but died at the hands of farm implements, some of which are on display, looking undramatic. We headed back into town, with me glad for the face mask he’d picked up on the way and of the cushioning on the seat. He was obviously trying to avoid the worst bumps but it wasn’t always possible, and the road is not in the best shape.

I’d asked for the national museum but the rules of ‘if you liked x then you might also like y’ were in full effect and we went for the genocide museum, Tuol Sleng. It had an innocent past as a school, but then both Pol Pot and Duch (head of the school that was turned into a prison and detention centre) were former teachers themselves, which seems surreal. The prison itself has a lovely garden in the middle and for $2 you are free to wander the four buildings, discovering cells, mass detention rooms and, interspersed between them in no particular order, various exhibitions. Those on the leadership of the Khmer Rouge are very dry, almost certainly because they are currently being detained prior to trial. Embarrassingly, although the genocide took place over their four years in power, 75-79, it took much much longer for the Khmer Rouge to be arrested, with Pol Pot dying in exile in 1998, making it all much more recent history than it should be.

There’s also-all of a sudden, up on the third floor of one of the buildings-an exhibition on the peace museum in Okinawa, which is odd, but (so far as I could make out) is there because staff from here went there to learn better conservation and preservation techniques. There’s a nice ‘midterm report’ part way round, and then it’s back to stories of those arrested and the sins they were made to invent. Again the place feels ramshackle, though that does mean you can get very close to the bed and manacles that were used, and wonder why most rooms have ammo boxes in when they are so sparsely furnished. Getting closer to one I saw the sign – ‘container for excrement’.

A courtyard in an old school - the genocide museum
Genocide museum.

There are plenty of mugshots, and confessions from people. Essentially if you stopped confessing to crimes, of the nature of preventing work from happening mostly, you were dead. Even so, some seem easy to line-between-read, such as confessing to the rape of a local girl and to then blaming it on local soldiers. As if they would. Some of the mugshots have smiling faces in – either oblivious, still believing in the cover story that ‘you are being taken to a new home’ or hoping for better treatment, perhaps. Some of the exhibits show the same things, you’ll read biographical detail of the ruling few many times. But some of the repetition is effective, even if that effect is accidental. Early on I spotted some black and white reproductions of paintings showing torture and killing. The full colour ones I saw later are brutal. Finally, sat behind a desk of books by the snack bar is a survivor. An early inscription is keen to point out that the idea of seven survivors has been taken up by western media, when many more survived having been let go, but there were seven who survived the prison and were there at the end, and that number is used in other exhibits. Here is one of them, in the flesh, which is both perfectly ordinary in the fact of a man sitting at a table and quite incredible when you consider what he heard here.

It was late in the afternoon – if still over 30 degrees – so we did a last tour, of the lovely riverside, quick stop at the royal palace and national museum, before I headed back to book accommodation in Siem Riep for tomorrow. One of the other tuk tuk drivers was onto me straight away, knowing I was off tomorrow and offering to have me picked up by his mate; you’re never short of an offer of transport here.

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