It is amazing what changes once you cross an imaginary line. Going from Laos to Cambodia adults as well as kids started calling out enthusiastically, from the field, the house or the little stalls. And they all say Hello, not Sabadee. Villages are now called communes! Migrants from other areas of Cambodia build one room, featureless houses on stilts, 200m from each other, no power or water.
The countryside is just as dry and dusty, but even more ravaged, slash and burn is still the normal way of preparing country for crops here. Huge areas have also been cleared by Chinese companies for sugarcane, and other plantations much to the chagrin of locals who lose land and even homes with no likelihood of jobs beyond the establishment phase.
We return to the Mekong staying for our last night at Stung Treng beside the banks, staying at an NGO training guesthouse with ex streetkids as it’s trainee staff. It is an old wooden house with large, airy rooms and deep, deep verandas, a welcome oasis from the relentless dirt and noise of the chaotic little town. The staff are totally delightful – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen staff so keen to please, and to practice their English. They cooked us a really nice three course Khmer meal for dinner (fish amok, mushrooms and a chicken dish for mains).
There are lots of programs for street kids in Cambodia, and lots of signs and publicity promoting child safety. It is clearly a big issue, for internationally funded programs at any rate.
On another topic – although we are only seeing one corner of Cambodia, it is incredible to think our government is looking to settle asylum seekers here. They can’t look after their own displaced persons, there is so much poverty and a complete lack of governance systems at any level. It is a shameful decision that Australia is making.
Back to our trip. From the Mekong to Siem Reap (the base town for Angkor Wat) we were the beneficiaries of the Chinese investment in roads for their business interests, with new, huge bridges over the Mekong and then about 200k of new, wide, smoothly sealed road with very little traffic.
On the way we stopped to explore the amazing ancient Khmer capital (before Angkor Wat) of Koh Ker. Temples and palaces are in various stages of being rescued from the jungle. There were hardly any tourists, and it was the perfect setting, in the hot steamy jungle, to imagine past people and events in a city that had a million people (in the same era that London had 50,000).
Our last night on the road (the Chinese highway had come to an end) we stayed in a small town at a crossroads. It would have been dusty but it had rained just before we arrived so it was muddy, with most of the market stalls sitting in big brown puddles. It took a while to find the one guesthouse in town; it must have been a while since anyone came as they were quite surprised by us and shooed family members out of a room for us. It is the only place we have stayed which has been particularly dirty, but the bed was surprisingly comfortable (unusual for Asia) and the fan worked, so all was good. Buying a meal at the market was fun, with a dozen locals helping out. A 10 year old boy who spoke reasonable basic English was given the job of organising us, and coordinating between the meal stall, the rice stall, and importantly the beer stall, a job he did very competently and with much seriousness. In the end we had a good and sociable meal for about $3.
We took back roads for the last 30k into Siem Reap, arriving sweaty and very dusty at a gorgeous boutique hotel with a swimming pool; probably the best hotel or guesthouse of our trip (apart from staying with Carl and Phonla and family). A big difference from the previous night. What utter luxury (for the very expensive price of $30 a night including breakfast).
Siem Reap was a huge culture shock. The previous days had been spent in some of the poorest country we have seen. Because of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is teeming with tourists, with a Raffles hotel (and hundreds of other glamorous to sleazy accommodation places), pizzas and cocktails everywhere and tourist traffic clogging the streets.
Anyway we ended up staying four days – Angkor Wat was too good to rush, and is the subject of another story.
We caught the bus to the Thai border and a delightfully old fashioned third class train from there to P’Weed’s place. The bikes are cleaned and boxes, and we are ready to head off to the airport this evening. It has been a wonderful 8 weeks. We have cycled over 3400k and had so much fun in the process. And we have learned a lot about our Asian neighbours.