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Nick Walton In Cambodia
Nick Walton
I couldn't sleep on the night before I was to leave Vietnam for neighboring Cambodia. My whole trip had been based around going to this country, with it's surreal and turbulent past. This case of insomnia helped, as I did not have an alarm clock to wake me for my early morning departure. I caught the first No. 29 bus of the day into the city and hulked my pack and newly purchased guitar to Pham Ngu Lao. After cafe sua at Allezboo, where I scrambled to write down e-mail addresses on napkins and scraps of paper, I ventured across the road and went through the whole farewell process with my cyclo friends, Dat, By and Vun. I was sad to be leaving them, knowing that it would be a long year until I could come back and sit in the sun and drink beer and chat with these hard working men. I promised to be back in November, December at the latest. Never having been one for goodbyes, I told Sox to behave herself and waved goodbye, jumping onto the silver mini-bus and claiming the single seat up front as sovereign New Zealand territory. There were many buses outside the Saigon Tourist Office this morning, heading everywhere from Dalat and Hanoi, to Bangkok in Thailand. I did not envy those trapped in the hot silver tin can of a bus, on their way through Cambodia to Bangers. Although I was going to the same place, my 10-hour trip to Cambodia's boarder would be enough for today.

We headed out of Pham Ngu Lao with Jimi Hendrix screaming "All Along the Watchtower" on my new discman. Soon we were in dry fields betweens settlements, the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh's Victory Garden disappearing behind us. As always, we were made to wait for the navigator (come along-for-the-rider) to shop for his lunch (there is a habit in Vietnam where you find yourself at the mercy of your driver or conductor. Even on the city bus routes, you can be made to wait for fifteen minutes while your pretty conductress in blue shirt and face scarf waits in line for her fried and dried lunch pack at a local stall) but all the same, we seemed to be making good time. As old Jimi Hendrix's Ultimate Experience was coming to an end, we pulled into a road stop where we stretched our legs and watched as monkey's bounced around under the shade of ferns on a little island which had been made for them, between the road and the forecourt. Once again, I was amazed at how human their eyes were as they probed me and the limp sandwich, which hung from my hand with curiosity. I offered them some, and eventually they took some of the sandwich from my hand, perched at the end of a slim branch over the oily waters of the pool.

The sun beat down, and the endless chatter of two good-looking Argentine girls helped break the monotony of the drive to the border. They thought me much older than my 20 years (maybe it was my caveman beard or at least excuse for one!). Finally the road stretched long and straight and at the end were buildings, signaling the end of Vietnam. We sat in a cafe and waited for our turn to cross the pot-holed wasteland to the border. The heat was thick like molasses and flies dive bombed me as I sipped water from a drink bottle and talked to an Australian named Louie, who was still recovering from a run in with the local Saigon Mafia after buying drugs from the wrong person. To cut a long story short (something Louie never did!), they had knives and he was forced to spend the night in the bar until the sun rose and he had a chance to grab his gear and get on the van to Cambodia. It was an exciting story, but nothing like the city that I had seen over my two months there. I had actually gone out looking for trouble a couple of times, just to see what would happen, and to no avail.

Eventually, our guide told us that we could approach the border and make our way into Cambodia. A bored looking immigration officer stamped my passport and gave me one last menacing stare, as if to say, "The socialist Republic does not forget"! I laughed it off and made my way towards the huge white plaster arch, which was the symbolic end of Vietnam. The border of Moc Bai had been open and closed frequently over the last couple of decades, and as I hulked my pack across the wasteland between countries, I couldn't help but wonder how many soldiers and refugees had cross this dirt track since the time that Saigon was a Cambodian fishing village. This strip of dirt between Asian states was not empty. Along the right side of the track, which ran from border to border, tents and tatters of canvas were pegged beneath truck axils, and cooking was under way while naked children ran and played in the eddies of dust which swirled around these Asian gypsies. These were people that had been forgotten, by Cambodia, by Vietnam, indeed, by time. I looked at them like one would look at someone sitting in the middle of Queen Street in a deck chair, but the interest was not mutual.

The entrance to Cambodian territory was by way of a red Angkorian arch, whose red paint had now turned to the dull brown of rust. Just past the entrance, there were small huts assembled in a line towards the horizon. I continued walking past and only filled out forms at stalls where people considered it important that I did so. They scrutinized my passport, and I wondered if they had any more of an idea as to where New Zealand was, than most kiwi s would have of the land of the Khmers. Probably not.

I wobbled under the weight of my pack, which was now filled with film, cheap t-shirts and the other bits and pieces that you pick up after almost two months in Vietnam. I crash landed in a puddle of dust on the side of the road, and waited for my transport to the capital.

This was to be in the form of a van, even smaller than the one, which had got us this far. My face was glued to the window as we began our trip into Cambodia. The land was as flat as glass, the horizon only being interrupted by scattered bunches of Sugarpalms. Thatched, stilted homes rolled by, each with a deep moat in front, often with the family water buffalo wallowing in the black mud. These huge creatures would sit in the middle of the road, and stare at us with large, bored brown eyes as our young driver honked the horn and tried revving the engine to move them on. White cows with rolls of loose skin hanging under their chins meandered along the track under the mid-day heat, often with children sitting on their backs, illustrating the remarkable relationship between children and these huge beasts of burden.

Our van crawled along the highway, never driving more than a couple of meters in the same direction. The drivers t-shirt was soon soaked with his exertion as he tried to save our axils from the merciless potholes of Route 1. Every mile or so along the road, another route, arrow straight, would lead off on a tangent. At its head, an Angkorian arch would signify a way across the endless paddies and plains.

Construction is finally under way on the stretch of road between the border and the capital, and about time. We could see the dust storms of the diggers and caterpillars way before we entered the construction zone, the huge yellow machines emerging out of the storm, moaning and grunting in the heat. Ironically, the half finished clay and dirt road beside the highway proved to be smoother than the tarmac as our driver careered us off the main road onto the dirt strip in search of a way through the dust. I could taste dirt in my mouth but we were forced to have the windows open because the air conditioning unit had overheated before we left Moc Bai!

A town developed before us and we finally came to rest in a queue for the ferry across the Mekong River. Our van was instantly surrounded by young girls in bowlers and straw bonnets flogging off supermarket cola from portable chilly bins. They were persistent, I gave them that, and I finally relented, buying a bottle of water. I moved off towards what looked like the local markets, accompanied by Louie, the Australian. Children followed us around, this time not begging for money but for our cans and plastic bottles, which they hoarded and fought over in the dust of the market.

The stalls were consistently Asian, the usual assortment of designer pharmaceuticals replaced with chalk pills, Vietnamese and Thai cigarettes and warm local beer. What threw me a bit more was what I could only guess was the barbecue section. Along the mall were huge bowls of barbequed chicks, turtles, and grasshoppers and yes, even maggots! Now, I had not come all the way to Asia to turn my nose up at something, which could taste great. A small handful of Cambodian Reil brought me your average handy mix of insects with grasshoppers, maggots and a couple of beetles thrown in for good measure. The Kalahari bushmen and the Crocodile Hunter would be proud. They crunched and mushed under my teeth, each bug having a soft center underneath a blackened exterior. They tasted, of all the things in the world, like peanut butter!

I washed my bug feast down with warm coke as our van boarded the ferry and moments later we were on our way, across the mighty Mekong. After only a five-minute voyage, and a multinational crash start of the van on the deck of the ferry, we were back on the road to the capital. Shadows began to lengthen as I climbed into the front seat, not only to get a better view, but also to give me a chance to anticipate the potholes, which were still numerous.

We drove into the twilight, and through the thickly dusted windshield, I could see fires being lit at temple complexes that ran along the side of the highway. Under the Khmer Rouge, many monks were killed and those temples that were not destroyed became storehouses and barracks for the cadre. Small villages became more common as we neared the capital. Old men sat by the side of the road, smoking the Green Dragon and watching as the world went by, seemingly a popular Asian pastime. Suddenly the road up ahead was engulfed in yellow light and I could see Shell and Caltex competing across a busy intersection. We had finally entered the capital, after 12 hours on the road.

The van stopped outside the Narin Guesthouse, the most well known hostel in the city. Unfortunately the Narin was full and motorbikes and drivers were found to take us the last league of our journey. It was outside the Narin that I met Andy En Suran, and after I told him my criteria for a room that night, namely and simply, the BBC World Service (radio or TV), air conditioning and a hot shower, we strapped all my gear onto his bike and were away. I ended up in the lukewarm shower of the Riverside Hotel. The BBC was on air (I had been a bit out of touch) and the air-conditioner was noisy but effective. Thrilled that I had finally made it to Cambodia, I got dressed and decided that I needed to see a bit of the nightlife.

As if waiting for me, a middle aged motorbike taxi driver smiled at me from across the street and I pointed to where I wanted to go in my Lonely Planet. The evening air was warm as we cruised through the strangely silent streets. Golden street light bathed the waterfront, and the city presented itself as beautiful, if not a bit eerie in it's silence. I jumped off at Sisowath Quay and headed to the bright and comfortable Foreign Correspondent Club. Although one of the more expensive options for a drink in Phnom Penh, there is a great view from the terrace and roof bar. After a Tiger beer under the cool of huge ceiling fans, I headed to a table outside the Happy Herb Bistro. This restaurant is the stuff of legends to many travelers. It offers great Italian style food at good prices as well as a full bar, and if you ask for happy herbs on your meal, then you are in for a night you won't forget. Stoned on spaghetti or plastered on pizza, the Happy Herb is a good place to soak up a bit of the nightlife

In the morning, I met up with my guide, Andy, at a cafe on the waterfront. The far bank of the river looked desolate compared to the picturesque colonialism of the city. Andy and I sat in cane chairs and chatted like we had been life long friends, our conversation mingling with the shy giggles of several inquisitive waitresses.

At age 24, Andy was as slim as most Khmer, and wore a faded baseball cap and an oversized, short sleeved shirt. He told me how he had been born during the 'troubles' and that he had had to fake his age so that he would have the chance to finish schooling as the Red Khmers consolidated their power in the countryside. His English was fluent, thanks to private tuition and he prided himself on being a first grade guide. We talked of the war, contrasts between my country and his and the developing fear that Thai culture was invading Cambodia, similar to the paranoia that allowed the Khmer Rouge power in the first place.

Our first stop was the city for batteries and film. I found both at a tiny Chinese shop in the shadows of the Central Markets (also known as the Russian Markets).

"They sell everything" said Andy as we coasted by on his Honda dream. "Except car parts and chicken wire" he added almost apologetically. Soon we were on the red dirt road heading south out of the city and towards one of the notorious 'Killing Fields', the Khmer Rouge era execution camps.

My visit to the Killing Field made me want to see more of what happened during the Khmer's reign of terror. Boarding the 'dream machine' again, we headed off back along dirt roads where large trucks kicked up dancing dust storms, towards the city center, and a high school with a difference; The Tuol Sleng Torture Center.

I was silent after the prison, the magnitude of what I had seen, and at least a partial realization of what the Cambodian people had suffered slowly sinking in. I think Andy felt embarrassed. Typically Asian, he couldn't stop smiling as we toured through the cellblocks, and we ended up at one of the local markets to refresh my mind with the living after being submerged in past death.

Andy sat under a Coca-Cola umbrella and drank water from a plastic water bottle as I ventured into the anonymous market place. Sunlight peaked through a roof collage of tin-iron and weatherboard. There did not seem to be any kind of structured framework to the stalls, which consisted of a union between scraps of wood and metal, and a desperation, which electrified the air around me. Never had I been so aware of my consciousness as if I was being made to feel lucky for simply being alive. It was as close to a spiritual encounter as I have ever been and was refreshing and alarming at the same time.

The contents of the grubby display cases were the same as all the other markets; ancient watches and pieces of jeweler, which had long been raped of any sentimentality, to the usual assortment of woven and sewn tatters of colorful cloth. I found the darkness and narrowness of the aisles depressing, the darkness in peoples eyes blaming for something I couldn't even comprehend. Eventually I made me way out into the sunshine again, having purchased an Oakley shoulder bag for a couple of bucks, more to please Andy then out of necessity. I felt like I had stepped in and then out of a dream, like I had been side-swiped by an underlying current of fear, desperation and disillusionment that only existed in the shadows of the markets as well as people's minds.

My stomach was not so philosophical, grumbling like a V8 waiting to be unleashed, and I decided that it was lunchtime. We headed towards the waterfront again, passing abandoned colonial villas, beautiful once, now sitting silently waiting for families which would never return, while heavy machinery sat idle, gathering the dust of time instead of being used to help develop the country, another sign of the unexplainable corruption that lurks everywhere in Indochina.

My pasta dish at a waterfront cafe was both delicious and filling after weeks of soup and oily bread. The heat was oppressive, and everything I had seen had placed a dark cloud across my mind. I needed to chill so Andy drive me to my guesthouse, the Cloud 9 by the lake. On the way we passed beautiful silent temples and the UN compound. The UN are just one of the multiple non-government organizations still battling in Cambodia, including the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Kids cycled along the road on ancient mountain bikes and almost crashed their front wheels wobbling and their eyes bulging when I pulled out my concealed camera and flashed them (maybe not a wise thing to do in a country where there are so many guns!).

I sat at the floating bar at the guesthouse, a cold Angkor beer in hand, the Rolling Stones playing somewhere behind me, watching the sun collapse in a burning cloud below the horizon. Beside me sat an Israeli, who rolled and lit an enormous joint, his smile telling of a mix between a child at Christmas and someone who had already had enough Ganja! I spent the evening, clad in shorts and a Yankee's baseball cap, playing pool with a guy named Larry from New York. Calling it a night after repeatedly losing at eight ball, I bundled myself up in my mosquito net and fell asleep to the monotonous but truly appreciated world service on my little transistor.

Ghostly white skulls and grotesque post-death grimaces haunted my sleep, and I awoke to a cock crowing somewhere in the shack next door. Who needs an alarm clock when you have Mother Nature, I grumbled to myself as I dressed and clambered down to find someone to take me to the city and my bus to Sihanourkville.

The streets of the city were wet and chilly as the population woke for another day. My coach to the coast was luxury compared to some of the transport I had been on lately, though the huge spider-web crack across the windscreen warned of dangerous roads ahead. As we moved off, I sprawled across my two seats, my fingers tapping my armrest in time to Nice 'n' Urlich, which spun in my discman. The ticket to the Cambodian seaside only cost US$3 and was to take about five hours, leaving from the Central Markets and slipping quietly through the early morning sunshine. It was sad to be leaving Phnom Penh. It is a truly beautiful city, and the most romantic I have been in. It is a city that you can fall in love with, and in, and I dreamt of the couples, huddled together on the seawall by the waterfront, their faces barely illuminated by candlelight, as the Mekong glided by slowly beyond. Unfortunate but true, I believe the city retained it's beauty because the most corrosive element in the world, people, had been removed, even if for a time.

As we glided by, an impeccably uniformed solider shot bolt upright and saluted a white-gloved hand, and a car pulled into the Army Headquarters. Along the highway, women in cane coned hats and drag colored coats dug with hoes, tilling soil for a new crop of huge billboards, advertising toothpaste and potato chips.

Our bus took the Cambodian road rules authority as we cruised down the center of the highway. In the surrounding marshlands, children walked single file along paddy dykes while white cows, their tails waving behind them, stared with disinterest at the bus. Local women across the bus aisle giggled, wide eyed at me and I eventually gave up trying to watch the Cambodian stage drama on the bus's swaying television set. Children played soccer in schoolyards as lush mountains appeared on the horizon. Eventually we topped a plateau and the dirt beside the road was fiery red.

We came to rest for a brief stop at a roadside restaurant. I was still only half-awake, and was contented to sit in the sunshine and suck on a piece of fresh pineapple on a stick. Then we were off again, heading down quickly, so that high ridges raced past on both sides. On the valley floor, there was evidence of recent burn-offs of the sugarcane crops, and a smudge of yellow in the distance materialized into a solitary procession of monks, marching towards worship. The road was in better condition along this stretch, though invisible troughs made the bus roll like a ship instead of bounce. My mind was obviously warped from the previous day's tour as I started quietly rhyming to myself about the colors I was seeing; rough reds, brutal browns, dangerous greens.

The loud trumpet of the bus horn signaled each approach to a village. The huts of each settlement crouched on the very edge of the road, as if they had existed since the beginning of time but had been cut in sway by the thundering highway. I must have drifted off after being hypnotized by the shimmer of the heat on the road ahead, because I woke to two little eyes staring at me. Once I focused, they became the two white eyes of a little Khmer child, who peaked at me through the gap in the two chairs in front. When I smiled, she let out a little shriek and disappeared. At long last I could see the magnificent blue of the ocean at the base of the land, and began gathering my gear waiting for the chance to race down to the ferry to Thailand.

The bus door opened with a whoosh, and a crowd of young men greeted me, all with their arms outstretched to hurry me off to their waiting motorbike. After I had gone around and taken my three bags off three separate taxi-bikes, I choose one older looking gent and we descended to the coast and the ferry wharf at the end of the long spit. Sihanourkville did not look like much, though I had read that there were beautiful islands off the coast, and rarely visited beaches for those ready to battle the boredom. For myself, I wanted to get back to Bangkok without having to crash over-night in any of the small towns between here and there. Even though I had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for the Cambodian immigration officer to stamp me on my way, I made the ferry, climbing on board and lying flat on my back against the increasing swell.

I looked into its eyes and only saw sadness, such sorrow. The farmer leaned over the pig which was tied tight with weaved flax, and dripped lime juice into it's mouth. Its trotter was tied close to it, and it grumbled quietly as the long narrow ferry began to move out into the harbor. I was sitting on the roof with about twenty others, mostly tourists but some local Khmer. Beside me was a Brit who had decided to travel the world after working in a bank for many years, but the noise of the engine made conversation with my fellow passengers difficult. There was a stiff breeze coming off the oily water and I could see tankers out in the Gulf waiting for their chance to port. I looked back at the land, which reminded me of the Hibiscus Coast in Auckland, and the town with it's fishing fleet and industrial complexes. We passed a Cambodian Navy patrol boat, one of the few which scoured the coast in an attempt to stop smuggling. I lay back and watched as seemingly endless white sand beaches sailed by on the coast. The boat was rolling to the point where we were forced to stay lying down, though I had been assured that there were few sharks off the coast.

We finally came to the stop of Koh Kong after four hours on the sea. I was pleasantly surprised that I had not felt seasick in the coral blue swell, but I was glad to be on dry land again. We all milled around, none of us knowing where the hell we were! There was no-one to tell us if this was Cambodia or Thailand, so we followed each other up into orderly lines and were stamped on our way again, this time to long boats at US$3 each, onto the Thai side of the coast. This involved making our way through mangroves and shallow, sandy waterways to what seemed like the other side of a spit. A fifteen-minute bounce across tall waves landed us finally, soaked, tired and sunburnt, back in the Kingdom of Thailand.

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Contact Nick Walton: (Nick Walton) 

Nick Walton is a Newzealander who has lived and studied in Aukland New Zealand and Sydney Australia.  Besides being captain of the tennis team and a avid tennis player, Nick has a passion for writing, travel, and public relations.  He started his career by tackling some difficult subjects like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which we learned about while visiting a high school in Viet Nam.  (More about this writer.)


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