Cambodia

I liked it the first time a year ago, even more so the second. This should be pretty easy:

Liked:

1) Cutest kids in the world. Just beautiful.
2) Kep fresh crabs
3) Sihanoukville sunsets and being inspired to run again
4) $2 bottles of whisky
5) (Liked is not right word) but greater appreciation for history of The Killing Fields and all that happened there.

Disliked:

1) Rats in ceilings, and some of the skankiest guesthouses in a while
2) The booze cruise brigade of Sihanoukville
3) The Cambodian obsession with light and dark, love the skin you are in!
4) Fake orphanages
5) Kep Beach, we just don’t get it

Where I stayed: Nomads Phnom Pehn, Utopia Sihanoukville, Monkey Republic Sihanoukville, Blissful Kampot, Star Guesthouse Kratie.

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Kratie, Cambodia

Right, enough of serious stuff, let’s get back to the nonsense. Dolphins. I haven’t seen any in at least a few months. It used to be a near weekly occurrence. Kratie is home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphin (although they also moonlight up the road in Laos as Don Det claims the same thing.) I’ll have to see them there then, seen as they were all avoiding me today.

I woke at 5am from my prison like cell room (but it’s $4 & has wifi so we will gloss,) to what can only be described as a mash-up between a Marrakesh Muslim call to prayer vs an ice cream van. My room overlooks the market/main square, so I did wonder who the hell was getting married at this hour, but it turns out it was a funeral. Oh. The market itself was getting a concrete facelift, and the roads around it all tarmaced, to much local interest. It’s definitely a likeable place, even though I’ve caught it at a bad time.

I spent the morning doing my ‘Go to’ activity. I hired a bike, for the bargain price of $1, or at least it would have been had I not lost the bike lock key and had to pay another $1 to replace it. Still. 15km/3hour round trip North along the river and no sign of the dolphins. Although to be honest I was happily sidetracked with the ride itself though loads of tiny villages/shanty towns. It’s a bit Eat Pray Love where she cycles the fields of Bali I know, but it was picturesque. I had company for the most part; an ever-changing gaggle of school kids cycling with me for a minute of two, or as long as it took them to do their set piece. “Hello, where are you from, what is your name, goodbye.”

Phnom Pehn (Revisited)

I am pained to make today’s tale sound like an Amnesty lecture, but I suspect it still does. So save your abuse (Kris) just accept that my blog is going through an ‘oh so worthy phase.’ It will pass.

All of the following happened this afternoon. My point being to demonstrate just what a tangled web of contradictions Cambodia can be, and how easy it is for us all to be hypocritical here. They are all related. Bear with me.

  • We set out this morning with the intention of ‘doing something nice.’ Claire has read about this City Dump Project, whereby volunteers take food supplies to the families that live in slums just out of the city. But from what we read it’s closed down so we needed an alternative.
  • All of us gave a few dollars to the street kids and bought their bootleg Raybands and a few of their pirated books.
  • Lindsey and I gave a street girl half of our $4 cakes from the posh bakery. (You can eat a meal for $25c here, to put into perspective how posh an éclair that was.) She shared it with her brothers/sisters before having any herself.

We also:

  • Visited what we suspect to be a fake orphanage.* More on what constitutes a fake orphanage, below.
  • We refused to by a $60 bag of rice for said orphanage (we learn by asking around that the actual cost price is $16 for 60 kilo)
  • We drank $12 Sauvignon in a riverside cafe, whilst having a debate about poverty/corruption. We are aware of the irony.

The problem is we have no idea which of these lists is good or bad anymore, or interchangeable. All are intrinsically linked with scamming, kickbacks, and the evils of voluntourism.**

*So the fake orphanage story is unfortunately so common. The whole place looks suspiciously like a school; with apparently 108 kids aged 3 – 18. We see about 20 kids, all relatively well dressed, one with a Ronaldo football shit, another with a laptop. We have a quick look around, to see some newborn puppies being man-handled by the kids, some pics of a trip to a waterpark, a TV – which may or may not have donated by tourists. We don’t know truth from lies anymore. They kids themselves are not really allowed to speak to us – the teacher does most of the translating, when I ask where the older ones are, Ronaldo suddenly claims to be 17 next week despite not looking a day over 12. We suspect they are village kids, rounded up and told to play for a few hours and given dubious backs stories. We ask the right questions, we interrogate it on the internet afterwards, but it’s impossible to tell. Our gut instinct was that it didn’t add up. Plus real orphanages have coordinated volunteer programmes, they don’t just let travellers rock up.

**A word on Haters of voluntourism – Save your preaching for the Thorn Tree forum! We are not under any illusions that we were saving the world this morning, but at the same time we like to separate ourselves from the cast of Jersey Shore types that lay around Sihanoukville, abusing local culture and pretending its Magaluf. At the end of the day, voluntoursim, in certain forms, IS better than apathy.

So now we have no real idea whether we are good or evil!

Did we do right by the street girls/wrong by the orphanage or vice versa?

Should we not give money to the street sellers (it encourages them/do they have a choice?)

Should we have donated to the orphanage just in case it was genuine?

Who do we think we are buying $12 wine in Cambodia as girls on a ‘shoestring’ paying $3 for guesthouses and haggling $1 out of tuk tuk drivers and kids?

Isn’t it good that we are here, and contributing, however small, towards an economy?

Shouldn’t charities be run like successful businesses? Shouldn’t grassroots projects be supported?

Are we damned if we care enough to blog about all this, damned if we don’t?

There are a million more. It hurt our brains that much that’s why we needed the wine! But to be honest if you can’t/don’t ponder this stuff you arguably shouldn’t really be in Cambodia.

Quote of the day has to be: “I feel as though if I’d have bought that rice, I’d have funded terrorism.” A joke from the ever so slightly melodramatic, but funny Claire. Are we wrong to have laughed?

Kampot & Kep, Cambodia

We decided to travel two hours along the coast to inject some culture back into our lives. In fact, we are all the way back almost to the Xa Xia/Prek Chak border. The island of Phu Quoc looms in the distance, where we all originally wanted to cross between countries. It belongs to Vietnam but is much closer to Cambodia. Incidentally there is apparently also a ‘Rabbit Island’ nearby. We don’t visit. Not that I could have taken the disappointment, what with all the recent misleading of animal islands (Unicorn, Monkey Island, and now Rabbit) all of them are yet to deliver on the wildlife front. It’s all a trick.

Anyway, a week ago and a half ago we all climbed Sam Mountain (Chau Doc, Vietnam) and stared out over Cambodia, and now it’s almost exactly the opposite view back as we climb Phnom Chhnork caves and look back over Vietnam.

Kampot is an odd little town, nothing really distinguishable. It’s meant to be full of French architecture and riverside views but must be having an off day as it’s not looking that attractive. You can hire a tuk tuk to visit the caves, which is nice dusty track through the Cambodian countryside. Unlike Sihanoukville’s little devils, the school kids all smile, wave, and yell ‘hello’ as we pass. Actually they yell ‘bonjour’ which amuses us, obvs we are looking French today. They act as eager little tour guides and lead us across the paddy fields and past water buffalo to the caves. Quite worryingly there’s a sign reading ‘area cleared of landmines,’ which my little girl claims to have cleared herself. Then cracks a smile and declares she’s joking. They are sweet and lend us their torches for a dollar so we can creep around the shrines in the caves. This would have been peaceful and a nice moment had my phone not decided it suddenly found the strength to push a week’s worth of messages to me, beeping every couple of seconds. Good old T mobile. They never have enough signal to make so much as a phone call in the UK, but travel to an underground cave in the middle of South East Cambodia and you are golden.

It’s half an hour further to Kep’s beach, although it’s so small and shabby it’s more of a bay. We stay long enough for lunch at the famous crab markets, where for $5 dollars a lady brings us four sizable red fellas and a pair of nutcrackers. Although we can’t get Sebastian from The Little Mermaid out of our heads, what can I say, they were absolutely delish.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

It’s taken us a week and we still can’t pronounce this. We’ve shortened it to S’ville/Seville. This place makes you dumb like that, you kind of loose brain cells if you’re here too long. And we are. It’s easy to get sucked in.

Serendipity Beach is where the action is. Imagine you are 15, imagine you are in Greece, and imagine you are on your very first girls/lads 18 – 30 holiday. Whisky costs $2 dollars a litre here and you need it to grin and bare the meat-market atmosphere of this partytown.

The scene here is hard core traveller. The ones that have brag about being here 3 years, although it might be 3 weeks, days, or hours. They are too out of it to really know. It’s like the scene in 50 First Dates where they meet ‘10 second Tom.’ Vacant. It’s utopia for the dreadlocked – practice fire juggling on the beach- vagrant- brigade. Luckily, I have flashpacker friends Lindsey and Claire (Devon), Scott (America) and Graham and Chris (UK.) We rough it in a $3 a night bungalow, but we have netbooks, actual real life jobs, and a vocabulary that just about extends beyond “do you want to go on a booze cruise.” I’ve been with the girls a week or so, since the Mekong Delta.  Much as we all embrace S’ville, and befriend the entire small town in the space of two rather blurry nights out, it all gets too incestuous. We know, for our sanity, we shouldn’t stay for longer than our 6 days.

Nightlife aside, ‘S’Ville’s second infamous reputation is for its hard core beach sellers. Four generations of women from age 10 – 60+, roam the shoreline with calls of “massage, bracelets, sarongs etc.” They are pure ABC; Always Be Closing. They are also not shy in telling us just how badly shaven our legs/armpits/upperlips are so they can sell us ‘threading;’ a ingenious yet painful technique involving just thinnest strand of cotton and years of practice plucking. At the same time they fire 20 questions on our names, ages, love life details. They reel off their own repeated answers in a tone that suggests they do it 100 times a day, to our own Western cliché’s small talk; how many brothers and sisters do you have, do you have a boyfriend etc.

‘Gem’ makes a beeline for me. She’s 12 (going on 20). Apparently she uses the dollars she earns to pay for English school. Yet we’ve seen here from dawn till dusk every single day. When we ask she tells us ‘school is 1 hour a day at 5pm.’ Going off the fowl mouthed phrases we hear from her, we suspect her English is not classroom taught.  Her favourite is; “No money no honey, no women no cry, no condom you die.” She’s 12, and one of the sweeter ones. Her friend Tai screeches ‘Choi’ every other word (which we think is f*ck) and lays into some Ozzie teen who was teasing her, with a mouthful of abuse worthy of an angry Vegas drag queen and a scowl to match. They are fierce and scary, then are sweetness and light the next second, making us pinkie promise to buy from them only, and letting us have IOU’s for $10 dollars or more as they trust us to back and find them they next day. Talk about brand loyalty.

They are both completely stunning girls, with westernized eyelined make up and highlighted hair. However they are covered head to toe despite the sweltering heat. All I get is inquisitive stares at my curly hair (like Rihanna?) and why I sit in the sun with my brown skin, which they claim to like. When I point out it’s the same colour as theirs, they look sad and say “to be beautiful in Cambodia is to have white skin. ” Which, no matter how many times I’ve heard it in SE Asia, never fails to be baffling and tragic to me. After a few days most people head to quieter Ortes Beach, 4k along the coast, to escape the pressure/heart sting pulling experience of it all. Obviously they exist not purely in Cambodia, but on beaches across the world. It’s sad, it’s hard, (and that very half a sentence is patronizing I know) but it’s a complicated an issue of whether our dollars help or hinder. Personally, i’d always say the former. But maybe only after watching this brilliance which stuck in my head from Doc/Fest a few years ago:

Ambulantes (2008) 17 mins: http://vimeo.com/2142856

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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