Austin, the nice guy I met in the jungle somewhere outside of Chiang Mai who was staying at a neighbouring treehouse was the one who convinced me to go to from Thailand to Cambodia. It was so easy, he said. The land border recently been opened so I should just hitch a ride into Chiang Mai; get the train to Bangkok; change and get another train to Sa Kaew; get someone to drive you near Aranyaprathet ; get the visa at the border, walk across no-man’s land to Poipet and then get a truck to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. There was a boat in there at some point as well. Easy trip – 20 hours max. There’s very little chance of being shot these days, he added. The total cost of my journey was $28 and from Cambodia it’s easy to get to Vietnam too. Easyish…
Or I could get a plane. It’s safe, takes a few hours and costs $250, which was about 2 weeks of my South East Asia travel budget.
I did it Austin’s way. It was actually about 35 hours: He didn’t mention the potholes, the breakdowns leading to hikes through the jungle on dirt roads – or the inevitable discomfort and necessary use of plastic bags because you couldn’t go off said dirt road to dig your own toilet due to the land mines which, by the way, I thought had something to do with digging coal.
So I arrived en Cambodge and I spent 3 days pouring over the unique magnificent Angkor Wat and then travelled to explore the exotic Indochinoiserie of Cambodia’s exciting capital, Phnom Penh. I was looking forward to staying in a beautiful, French colonial building like I’d seen on the telly…
The $1.50-a-night hotel recommended to me by Austin was filthy – this man was obviously a hard core backpacker or just off his head all the time and didn’t notice that his room resembled the Black Hole of Calcutta. I went for a more upmarket place for $2.20 with less rats.
This was a long time ago, it’s much more civilised and cosmopolitan now but this visit of mine was just after the country was coming out from years of tyranny under the Khmer Rouge – it wasn’t there yet, Cambodia is still getting back on its feet.
The country lost over 20% of its population during this period and not just because of land mines and disease – people were rounded up and sent to labour camps for having an education, a pair of glasses or French-speaking relatives and friends. Most of them were never heard from again.This kind of tragedy effects the whole country – everyone had a loved one lost who was killed during the 1970’s and now buried in a mass grave somewhere.
I also noticed that the city was attracting some very shady characters from other countries – pimps, drug traffickers, drug users, paedophiles. It was a tough time for the poor old Khmers. I am happy to hear that the situation has improved over the past few years.
I felt the Khmer’s misery and desperation even though they never spoke of their troubles to and always smiled as they try to sell me fizzy drinks.Or a fried tarantula.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (former S-21 prison) was not quite the cheerful day out.I think it’s very important that people see such places at least once in their life, but I probably shouldn’t have gone alone at a young age. I have no idea what it’s like these days, but I will explain what I saw:
Tuol Sleng, or “Poisonous Tree Hill” in Khmer, is a former secondary school in a nice part of town. It was quite a posh girls school until the classrooms were turned into cells, poisonous indeed. The torture rooms have hardly been touched since 1979: It’s nothing like the civilised genocide museums you’ll find in Germany or Poland – nothing had been roped off or cleaned up, nothing has been changed, there’s still blood splattered on the ceiling, clothing and teeth can be found in the yard. I believe about 10 of the possible 20,000 prisoner survived and some of them still work at the museum.
There was something strange about one of the prisoner’s portrait galleries. When I looked closer I realised they were photos of corpses. It wasn’t any nicer looking at the pictures of the victims who were photographed alive as I know that that all of them, except the 10 survivors including the museum staff, all died a horrible death.
It was depressing and I returned to my squalid hotel feeling as though someone had let all the air out of me.
The next day I decided to walk around town after the museum I was mobbed by 30 children trying to tell me cans of fizzy drinks. It was clear that there weren’t many foreign girls walking around by themselves.I even had some local stalker follow me around the Russian Market (I shouldn’t complain: he was way out of my league) Everyone seemed to hassle me. I didn’t feel safe walking around.
I hired a scooter from a place called Lucky!Lucky! Motor Bike Rentals! with no helmet, no speedometer and no actual seat – all this just to avoid the kids and piles of smouldering rubbish but I kept bumping into all these goats (or funny looking sheep?) that were all around town, all over the road and had no fear of vehicles.I still feel bad for the poor things – sorry, Mr. Sheep – or goat.
And the rats! Sacre Bleu!
It was nice to meet some fellow lone travellers, people come with me on my trips to the temples, the markets, the shooting galleries… there was Julia from Australia – she was nice. We met a German guy who wanted to accompany us on an exciting, Indiana Jones-type mission to search for undiscovered ruins in the jungle. The we met K, who was, apparently, a Nigerian prince.
“Prince” K was very keen on hanging around with us grotty backpackers even though he was staying at a much nicer hotel – and we were hanging around our digs in the bar that was in a damp hut on Boeng Kak Lake that featured dissonant Khmer pop music, large fearless rats,broken ceiling fans, squat toilets – you can imagine the type of place… everyone except the German and myself were totally stoned (a big plastic bag of ganja was only a few dollars) but I must’ve been high on the fumes from everyone else because I agreed to go to the famous Heart Of Darkness nightclub with all the other drugged foreigners and the Khmer man who owned the bar. I persuaded the German to share a “cyclo” taxi with me and off we went .Mr Nigerian Prince was there buying us bottles of wine – at the extortionate price of $8 a bottle whereas everyone else was on the 80 cent beers.
First thing the next morning at 11.40am, the Prince was banging down my door. I opened the Louvre windows and told him where to go. He kept banging and banging, he was leaving town and wanted to say goodbye. I agreed to get up and join him for breakfast – anything to shut him up.I couldn’t find Julia or the German and they weren’t answering the door. K told me that they’d stayed out late and that I should leave them for a few hours. Stupid idiot that I am, I wasn’t at all suspicious.
So, I went with the K the Nigerian for breakfast (kebab) while he explained that he was leaving – he had just hired a car and was on his was to Vietnam. It was such a shame to leave the 3 back seats empty and why didn’t we (Julia, German and I) join him? I think Julia and I had mentioned the night before that we were considering a visit to Vietnam after seeing Cambodia – that was the end our discussion with him on the topic
I explained to him again that I’d planned to travel to Southern Cambodia first so thanks but no thanks, Prince K of Nigeria. I offered to exchange emails with no intention of ever writing to a very dodgy man who claims to be a backpacker but walks around in a linen suit and deck shoes.
Do you remember how Dr. Banner transformed into The Incredible Hulk? Well, he didn’t turn green but the same thing happened at the kebab shop that day. K was inexplicably furious and seemed to grow 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide. I couldn’t understand much of his diatribe in due to his thick Nigerian accent but I made out “already paid for it”, “ungrateful” and “last night you said you always wanted to go…” blah, blah. It wasn’t pretty.
Usually, I don’t like to show fear to strangers, so if I ever feel threatened – which happens occasionally when one travels – I just go mental, scream, even take my shoes off and hit them with it. It’s important not to appear weak and to always be prepared. I sleep with a pair of wedge heels or a metal water bottle (full of water) next to my bed in case I need to knock someone out and it works as well as a frying pan. These are good survival tactics as most people stand down.I have a 99% success rate.
Not this time. I wanted to throw my kebab at him and run.
It was obvious that his Nigerian because he was much crazier than I was, so wasn’t going to take any chances. I mumbled and apology to the Hulkish Price and said I’d go back to the hotel and think about it, as he was leaving that night…
You don’t need to remind me of what a coward I am, I know. I raced but to my room and stuffed my rucksack with all my stuff (I had a lot) as well as all the raw silk I’d bought and the t-shirts saying WARNING: LANDMINES AHEAD in Khmer. The beauty products had to stay, no extra baggage on this trip – I was absconding from a lunatic. It sounds exciting but I wasn’t at all excited, I felt sick and prayed for a safe passage out of Phnom Penh.
I went to the Germans room and peered through the louvre shutters. He’d done a bunk as well – the room was bare. Julia’s door was open (the locks weren’t up to much) and she was out, all her stuff was there. I left a note and told her to meet me on the coast as soon as possible.
I got to the bar/reception and there was a note for Julia and I from the German:
“I couldn’t find you and I had to go – I’m getting a boat back to Thailand then to Bangkok. I’ll be at that hotel near the monastery on Chakrapong Road. If you two want to go to Vietnam, come with me next week. Get the hell out of there, your Nigerian boyfriend went mental this morning. He’s taking drugs to Vietnam, DON’T go NEAR him.We had a fight and I lost – check your bag before you cross the border – you don’t know what that idiot man has put in there.”
He left about 2 hours ahead of me and apparently my German friend was a bit messed up. The staff told me he’d been belted around. They said he’d given K a bit of lip – I am so glad that I just ran off! I asked the Khmer owner why they let K The Nigerian hang around.
“Of course I will not bother him if he makes me no trouble: you don’t want to mess with the drug people like him unless you have to” the owner informed me. He told me that he knew many like him and it was only a matter of time before they ended up serving a 35-year sentence.
The Nigerian was in town once a month or so. Apparently, he and this mysterious blonde lady hung around with some of the high-ranking army officers and, unfortunately, he also liked to make friends with the travellers in this man’s bar. He liked the foreign girls, but was really after anyone who wanted to come on an impromptu trip with him to Vietnam. It was best to pay my bill and leave, but found that it had been paid…by the Nigerian man – he’s was just sitting over in that seat and would I like to see him?He’s been waiting for someone.
I looked over and I saw K and he saw me. I was wearing my rucksack and I saw that I had 3 choices: go to Vietnam with a drug dealer, get beaten to a pulp or run for my life.
I ran! I hopped on the scooter of a man outside the hotel and got a lift to Phnom Penh Station, just a kilometre away. His name was Vith. He didn’t charge me any money as everyone else seemed to but just did my bidding – maybe he knew what was going on.Crazy Prince K of Nigeria walked out and saw me hop on Vith’s bike but I didn’t see if he was following me as we turned the corner . I wasn’t taking any chances, so I ran inside the station.
Here I was informed that foreigners are forbidden to travel on the trains – they were very dangerous that that time and the targets for frequent Khmer Rouge attacks. They wouldn’t even let me get a ticket – I wasn’t going to argue with all the soldiers wearing their AK-47s that they love to stick in everyone’s face but I really didn’t need this hassle!
Vith was still outside and noticed me running around with my rucksack on like a panicked beetle. I told him what happened and then he gave me a lift to the bus station where foreigners could definitely get a bus to somewhere where I could get a car/bus/boat to the Thai border. I will never forget Vith and his kindness to a very scared traveller – he wouldn’t accept any money from me either.
So, I got to the boat, which was more of a raft with a bit of a motor as you see:
I was very lucky that trusting complete strangers paid off this time and I got to Bangkok safely. I even got out of paying the riverside “hotel” bill SO If you’re reading this K – and you know who you are – I owe you the $12 for my hotel bill in Phnom Penh. Let me know which prison you are in, I’ll send the cash directly.