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CAMBODIA (updated 12/2011):RouteAranyaprathet (Thailand) - Poi Pet - Siem Reap - Kampong Thum - Kampong Cham - Phnom Penh - Chhuk - Kampot - Sihanoukville - Koh Kong - Khlong Yai (Thailand)Entering via Aranyaprathet/Poi Pet crossing (from Thailand)Took six hours. Ignore the herds of self-declared visa agents before the Thai border terminal. They're useless and their help is not needed. Cambodian visa on arrival cost USD 20. Cambodian officials want THB 100 more, but all will work out without paying them, too. Carnet de Passages is not officially required but preferred (less work for customs). Customs office often closed, lunch break 11:30-14:30h. Didn't get any vehicle insurance.Exiting via Koh Kong crossing (by the Gulf of Thailand, to Thailand)No problem, 20 minutes. Entered Thailand without Carnet, insurance wasn't asked for.RoadsDrive on the right. General conditions are acceptable. Highways 5 and 6 are good, local roads often bad. Driving style: little discipline, little risk awareness. Tolls apply for highway 4 (along the coast). In times of flooding huts and barns get built on road causeways, expect delays. The use of headlights during daylight hours is prohibited (while mandatory in Thailand), and police might therefore try to rip you off, especially in Sihanoukville.FuelDiesel costs EUR 0.86/L, petrol (regular) costs EUR 0.91/L, premium petrol EUR 0.96/L. Stations only in larger towns, petrol bottles available everywhere.CampingThe concept as such is not known, but it's rarely a problem. Police don't want you to hide. During rainy season large parts of the country are flooded. Belief in spirits is widely spread, so from sunset on you'll likely have most places to yourself. Check out my Camp Spot List for some recommendations.MiscellaneousThe USD is the commonly used currency and accepted everywhere, the Cambodian Riel only with small change. With foreign credit cards you can mostly only withdraw USD at ATMs (available only in bigger towns). The Thai Baht (THB) is widely accepted. Every now and then, English is spoken (much more than in Thailand). Many products are much more expensive than in Thailand. Cambodians seem relaxed but curious. Almost daily electricity blackouts also affect internet connections (low bandwidth). I did not have any trouble with police, just ignore any demands for bribes.All information subject to change (note time of writing).
November/December, 2011 -- After a welcome short cut through well developed Thailand, I arrive in Cambodia, again one of the worlds poorest countries.At the border I make my way through self-proclaimed helpers and scammers to the boom bar. Located next to a giant casino resort, you barely notice the tiny police and customs barracks.Inside, lazy and corrupt officials hold up their hands asking for bribes. His highness, Mr. Super Customs Officer, enjoys a six hours lunch break today. When, after an important meeting he finally shows up, he's wearing a sweaty wife beater and jogging pants. Obviously overworked and in a bad mood, he slams the necessary stamp into my car papers. Theyre invalid, but hey, at least we dont need to fill out another form.
'Ok, you in, Monsieur.'Like this, Cambodia welcomes me the way I like it: After dark I cruise through the chaotic, unlit streets of a developing country I've never been to before, looking for a safe and quiet spot to park for the night. A petrol station outside the grim border town of Poi Pet turns out to be a good pick.
An ancient world of its ownWhat lures me to Cambodia is mostly Angkor Wat, the biggest temple complex in the world, built by 120,000 slaves. From the 9th to the 15th century it formed the centre of the lost Khmer civilisation. Its huge empire reached from today's Laos to Malaysia and from the South China Sea to Thailand. Later Angkor Wat, for unknown reasons, became forgotten. French colonialists must then have been thrilled to discover this remote ancient capital.North of the town of Siem Reap, countless large and small temples lie scattered in the forest, partly hidden and overgrown by nature. The ruins of the former city of a million people are in pretty good shape, even though everybody is free to climb up the walls. On a rotten rental bicycle I ride from temple to temple in the oppressive heat. After clothes manufacturing, Angkor Wat ist he country's most important source of income. It attracts millions of tourists, from backpackers to all-inclusive travellers. Locals therefore have developed a pretty business-like approach to visitors.
Cambodia todayWhen walking through towns and villages, it's hard to ignore the poverty. Basic two storey concrete blocks dominate the cityscapes, with small, mobile food stalls installed out front. Kids play naked in the dirt, surrounded by smouldering piles of rubbish and hazardous traffic. International aid organisations are busy at work, on some highways there are more NGO vehicles passing than local cars.Due to the fact that most Cambodians live off farming (especially rice), life in the countryside paints a very different picture. Settlements blend perfectly in the flat southern plains. Chicken and pigs wander around simple clay huts while buffalos struggle to pull the plough through wet rice fields. Villages abound with kids and youngsters. The younger play with old motorbike tyres, the older are optimising the volume of their racing exhausts (the louder the better).
The floodsDuring my stay unfortunately large parts of the country are under water. Cambodia is being hit hard by the flood disaster which also affects the south of Laos and Bangkok (Thailand). 150 Cambodians lose their lives. Others often rescue themselves, their cattle and few belongings onto the highways. Having been built on causeways, road surfaces are some decisive centimetres higher than the surrounding water.
Bad memories, good vibesCambodians, like their northern neighbours in Laos, are mostly Buddhist. The people I meet seem to be sceptical at first, then curious, but actually always in a good mood. This is especially remarkable as Cambodians, too, have had a hard time in the past. With neighbouring Laos and Vietnam they share the land mines and other consequences of the Vietnam War. Above all, though, from 1975 on radical communists around Pol Pot drove the country into perdition.
The Khmer RougeUpon their marching-in to Phnom Penh, the new rulers are still being celebrated by Cambodians - as liberators who finally stood up against the foreign powers USA and Vietnam. Only hours later do they show their real face.Their insane goal is the creation of a new human in a new kind of agrarian society. The individual's only purpose is to serve his country and the party as a field worker, deprived of any rights.On the way to their final solution they deport all townspeople to the countryside. They shut down all schools, abolish money and prohibit religion.They force children into mass murderers, hunt for alleged intellectuals. In their paranoia against traitors the Khmer Rouge are responsible for one of the worst genocides in human history. Within only three years they massacre two million people, one quarter of the population.In 1979 Vietnamese troops invade Phnom Penh, installing a socialist government. From now on the Khmer Rouge continue to fight and murder - with Western military support - against the new pro-Vietnamese rulers for 30 more years.Only one Khmer Rouge leader will ever go to prison.
Phnom PenhIf you are only looking for the pretty and beautiful, you can easily skip the capital. There is little to see, instead typical problems include slums, smog and poverty. Without any wind it also gets sweltering hot.But if youre looking for traces of recent history, Phnom Penh is not to miss.
From concentration camp to beach campTo conclude my stay I follow the recommendation of some friends and rattle across bumpy tracks to a scenic beach near Sihanoukville. Next to other overlanders, Lorenz and Gisela from Zurich have set up camp here since a few months. We get along very well, make friends and enjoy relaxed and lazy times by the sea. Daily projects include further developing a swing, chasing paedophiles on the beach with dog Paula or watching movies under a night sky full of stars.On the last day of my visa I follow the coastal highway towards the west - and into the Kingdom of Thailand.
Rush Hour (Phnom Penh)
Typical landscape (near Kampong Cham)
Stoeng Trapeang Rung river (near Koh Kong)
Fishing port on the Gulf of Thailand (near Koh Kong)
Dwelling at/on Tonle Sap lake (near Siem Reap)
The giant stone faces of Bayon Temple,...
...which combines Buddhist and Hindu elements. (Angkor Wat)
Most Cambodians don't have such big butts. (Angkor Wat)
Everyday life, carved into stone: 'The Gallery' at Bayon Temple (Angkor Wat)
See what happens when you don't weed the garden for a few centuries. (Angkor Wat)
Angkor Wat, the main temple of a giant complex
Whether it's living geese, ...
... matresses ...
... or bananas: Cambodians take the moto, not the truck.
Fishing from the balcony: Living by the water is popular. (near Siem Reap)
But that's too much - it's a disaster.(near Phum Kreul)
One of only six survivors: Mechanic Bou Meng wrote a book about his horror. (Phnom Penh)
Remembering the Khmer Rouge's genocide: Skulls of 5,000 murdered civilians at Killing Fields Memorial (Choeung Ek)
Fighting suicides with barb wire:Toul Sleng or 'S-21' first served as a school, then as a torture centre. (Phnom Penh)
14,000 get tortured and murdered at S21. (Phnom Penh)
The children of alledged regime critics wer beaten to death at this tree. (Choeung Ek)
'Riverside', the manicured promenade along Tonle Sap river (Phnom Penh)
Royal Palace (Phnom Penh)
Nowadays a popular meeting place: the swing (Otres Beach)
Paula, our gregarious super dog (Otres Beach)
Gisela and Lorenz from Zurich...
...and their little speedster (Otres Beach)
My home for three weeks: Otres Beach (near Sihanoukville)