Holidays in Cambodia

[i]Previously published in Voices From Downtroddendom Issue 2[/i]

Last one to find Gary Glitter’s kiddie-filth hideaway buys the beers…
As if Cambodia didn’t have enough troubles after years wracked by Civil War, genocide and internal strife, then disgraced Glam-Rock pervert Glitter moved in…

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After a fantastic month in Vietnam, my girlfriend, Lucy and I decided to venture across the border to Cambodia. Rather than take a short, sharp bus-trip over the border like most sensible people, we opted for a highly-convoluted trip down the Mekong River. Just like Apocalypse Now, right? But less hellish? Right? Only time would tell. The tour company made it sound like an extravagant guided tour, and I guess it was: in a way. After a bewilderingly-long coach journey, we traipsed around an alligator farm for all of ten minutes before negotiating our way across a dual carriageway (with rucksacks), trudging through a village and boarding a knackered-out old boat. As we cruised down the river, in pitch-black, under thunderstorm skies, I consulted the tour brochure: apparently we were on “the only fully equipped first class boat get you cruising along the Hau River”. Right about then, everyone decided to waste the rest of their Vietnamese currency on the strongest beer they could find as a coping mechanism of sorts.

The following day we continued our journey apace – travelling by wagon, rowing boat, 3 different, additional boats and a nerve-damage-inducing 2 hour minibus ride down a dirt-track to Phnom Penh – the final leg of the journey – exacerbated by a pair of English goons who demanded that their mountain-bikes be given priority seating inside the already-cramped vehicle! Twats. The hotel we had lined up in Phnom Penh was full so we were dropped of at a posh hotel in the city centre called the Asia Hotel, at the behest of some guy who urged us not to stray across the metaphorical ‘wrong side of the tracks’ lest we end up dying of an “opium overdose” like an Englishman the previous week. Welcome to Cambodia! After haggling ourselves a reasonable discount, we finally made it to our room, 9 modes of transport and almost 40 hours after leaving Saigon! (The room service menu featured the option of “beautiful men and women” on call to service you 24 hours a day. Nice touch.)

Woke up, fucked, watched wrestling on cable for a while, and then caught motorbikes down to the Russian Market for a spot of bargain-hunting. Lucy picked up some nice jewellery and I managed to buy the (then-)brand new Eminem album for $2 – 2 weeks before it had even been released in America! Surreal. Ate lunch in Tom’s Irish Pub – possibly the least Irish meal I’ve ever had, in possibly the least Irish pub I’ve ever been in. Further down the road we did some shopping in some great bootleg shops – Fantastic Planet avant-garde bookshop (top quality fake Ballard, Burroughs, Bukowski etc) and the Boom Boom Room record shop. The disregard for copyright law is frankly staggering, but the obscure stuff they bootleg is top-notch. And, where else have you ever seen a Cambodian guy in a fake-Burberry shirt grooving to The Cure in the middle of the afternoon? Nowhere, I’ll wager. Later, our slightly-confused walk took us past the Royal Palace. Bizarrely, the newly-elected King of Cambodia is a French-Cambodian ballet-dancer – essentially the French answer to Wayne Sleep! For dinner we sampled pizza at Happy Herb’s Pizza Parlour – as approved by Mickey Rourke. You can ask for your pizza to be Happy or Very Happy (ie covered in hash, or very covered in hash). Ours came complete with plenty of hash and a fried egg. Lovely pizza. Utterly ineffective, though. Some particularly naïve Dutch people claimed to be hallucinating, but, I have no idea how.

The following day we took a Tuk-Tuk to the Killing Fields. Eerie. Pol Pot was one sick fuck. A lot of bodies have been exhumed from their shallow graves to form a towering skull and bones cabinet in the centre, but wherever you walk you can still see shards of bone and bits of clothing poking through the earth. Cows graze in the fields now and you feel completely-detached from what went on as recently as ten years ago. Ragged war-urchins followed us around all morning and we must have handed out more sweets than Gary Fucking Glitter. After lunch we walked across the city to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – previously the infamous Khmer Rouge S-21 Concentration Camp, and, before that a primary school. Chilling. Even worse when you learn that the torturers and murderers were only between 10 and 20 years of age, groomed from birth to kill; and bludgeoned their foes with garden tools so as not to waste bullets. [A rather heavy-going day, all-in-all, but nothing compared with Saigon’s War Remembrance Museum – or as the locals refer to it “The American War Crimes Museum”. It begins as a tribute to all of the (dead)famous war photographers – whose iconic images defined the conflict, before quickly turning into a tour-de-force through the atrocities the Americans committed during the war, complete with Agent Orange photo gallery and malformed foetuses in jars. It was like Donald Rumsfeld’s wet-dream come-true.]

Caught an early morning bus to Siem Reap, and was almost torn limb-from-limb by ten tiny Tuk-Tuk drivers – all wanting to drive me into town. Found a driver/guide for the next two days and went to Angkor to see the rather spectacular sunset. Endured a torturous climb up some mountain terrain to gain our vantage point atop a ruined temple. All of the Japanese tourists present gave a standing ovation as soon as the sun went down and promptly left. We stayed until the bitter end – enjoying all of the best photo opportunities, but almost broke our necks on the climb back down. Anyway- Angkor Wat and other temples. $20. Roughly what you’d pay to watch Torquay United for 90 minutes. Where would you see the most wondrous sights? Plainmoor, probably. Managed to plough through 7 temples. Phew. Some good, some bad, some just plain uninteresting. Angkor “seven wonders of the world” Wat itself, while undoubtedly impressive was fairly boring and a lot less fun than some of the others. The pick of the bunch (names escape me, I’m afraid) were: the one where the huge tree roots have grown through and warped the temple (any culture-vultures out there will recognise it as the backdrop to Angelina Jolie getting all sweaty in Tomb Raider); and another one that looks like rubble from a distance, but in fact is covered in intricately carved faces. Elsewhere, dodgy types in fake police uniforms attempted to rip us off in myriad ways, but we weren’t having any of it.

Our averagely bad bus journey back to Phnom Penh (we had already been on 3 different buses before we left Siem Reap) took in a delightful service station in the middle of nowhere. Service stations in Cambodia are more like leper colonies. With the added bonus of deep-fried rats on sale – heads snapped off. And you thought that Little Chef was unpleasant… After a day drinking cheap beer and eating happy dope pizzas next to a guy who looked just like Nick Olivieri from Queens Of The Stone Age, we made our way to Sihanoukville. A nasty case of diarrhoea called for a healthy dose of Immodium, but I managed to make it through the journey relatively unscathed. Which is more than can be said of the bus… First of all the tyres fucked up, and then the bus ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere and the driver had to hitch to a petrol station with some jerricans. Sihanoukville is the Cambodian beach resort of choice, and has the potential to be really nice – one day. The sea was warmer than any bath I’ve ever taken, but none of the beaches were particularly spectacular. Half-way through our stay, we took a borderline-disastrous trip to a filthy little island off the coast called Bamboo Island. We were the only intrepid/dumb people on the boat who opted to stay the night and enjoy/endure the warm beer, diarrhoea and pollution for an extra day. Well, you win some, you lose some.

Our final night in Cambodia was spent propping up the bar at our guest house, quaffing awesome 7% Klang beer. On my right was a huge, bearded ex-Hell’s Angels’ debt collector called Steve (who quit a lifestyle of casual violence to teach special needs children!); on my left was a guy called Geoff from the Isle of Wight, who voted for Kilroy in the European elections and the National Front in the local elections (and I didn’t think that people like that existed outside the Daily Mail staff room). Anyway, booze flowed, drugs were jettisoned and nobody maimed anybody else. Next stop: Thailand.

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