The rest of my time in Cambodia was spent with a lovely group of people – Rhi, Lachie, Jason and Sydney. We’d met in Siem Reap and decided to head on to Battambang together. It was nice to be in a group again, particularly as I didn’t have much of a plan for Cambodia, other than work my way south to the islands where I planned to do my PADI Open Water Diving Course. Thankfully, most of my new travels pals were already certified divers and keen to come with me for some beach time and diving. So we joined forces, and worked our way down.
Battambang was the first stop on our journey. After a minibus ride that would have thrown us out of our seats, had we not been so tightly packed, we arrived in sunny Battambang around mid afternoon, in time to check into our hostel and head into the town for an early dinner and a couple of beers.
Battambang is an unusual place, and as a tourist you will see the joyful, wacky and incredibly sad sides of the city. We hired a tuk tuk to take us on a tour of the main sights the following day. The trip included the famous (and inexplicably still operating) bamboo train. Far from the gentle, creaking roll along the tracks I expected, the speed at which this pallet made of bamboo hurtles along the actual train tracks can only be described as death-defying. There were several moments on the 15 minute ride where I thought this was going to be it, and what a sad way to go – on a novelty bamboo train.
I survived long enough to get to the end though, where of course there were children waiting to sell me bracelets, because that is what happens in Cambodia. Locals know that tourists like cute children and buy things from them, and looking around you can see it working. I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but this post by Friends International explains better than I could why it’s a problem.
Later in the day, in stark contrast to the levity of the bamboo train, it was time to head up the hills to see the Killing Caves, a site where atrocities were committed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Today, the cave serves a memorial to those who were killed, and a reminder of what happened. Human bones and skulls are displayed in glass casing as a memorial. I didn’t take any pictures here, but it was very moving to visit the site and learn more about what Cambodia went through under the brutal Khmer Rouge.
Near the cave, there are some beautiful lookout points, and a giant gold Buddha Statue, making it a nice spot to sit and watch the late afternoon sun over the city.
After a sobering afternoon and feeling the effects of the intense heat, myself, Sydney and Rhiannon decided we would go for something uplifting in the evening. What better way to end the day than seeing the students from the local performing arts college put on an acrobatic circus show. The circus has a professional show in Siem Reap, but there was something special about seeing the next generation of students performing their skills in Battambang, where the school is based.
The school originated in a refugee camp in the 1980s near the Thai border, as a way of healing young people express themselves through performing arts when they couldn’t find the words. It became a way for people to heal in a post Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and to celebrate a thriving cultural heritage in a country where art and creativity has been brutally suppressed. Today the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) or “The Brightness of the Arts” runs arts and educational programmes for young people in Battambang, who otherwise may not have opportunities for education or employment. The performance was brilliant and it was wonderful to see such a great programme making a difference.
All the performers were obviously very talented, but I think what I liked most was that it was clear they were still honing their skills. From time to time, someone would drop a prop or have to restart part of their routine, but this just reminded you that they were still learning. Each time, they kept smiling, picked it up again and went on with the show, all the while with the crowd behind them. Thankfully there were no moments like this during the particularly dangerous looking routines!
Koh Rong Samloem
The next day, we made our way towards Shianoukville, a seaside town in southern Cambodia. We were only there for one night, as a stop over on the way to the island of Koh Rong Samloem. We had dinner together and an early night before catching the ferry to the island the next day. I was excited to do my diving certificate, and when we arrived at the beautiful M’Pay Bay I happily settled in and looked forward to the days ahead.
The island is an ideal place to go to just kick off your shoes and forget what day it is. M’Pay Bay is a small and peaceful fishing village on the north of the island, and the main draw for tourists, other than the quiet and pretty beach, is diving. It’s a very chilled atmosphere and not a party place. We did enjoy our few beers in the evening, but it was all about getting up for the dives in the morning. Rhi and I even fund early morning yoga classes on the beach, which we did a couple of mornings before diving – perfect way to start the day! Nothing like hearing the waves lapping on the shore and feeling the sand under you as you do your yoga practice.
Around the beach, there are about 5 places to eat – all pretty decent, most notably The Fishing Hook, a bountiful veggie (and some BBQ meat and fish) buffet that you need to book our place at in advance. For $6 per head, it’s all you can eat – and it’s good. But to discourage the usual buffet plate piling, they have a tax on not finishing what you eat. Your greediness will cost you an extra $5 if you don’t clear your plate. They hate waste here, and rightly so, because what’s not eaten goes to the local community, so tossing anything out feels like a crime.
I did my Open Water with Cambodian Diving Group, and if you want small groups and to have the reef more or less to yourself it’s a good choice!
The diving course started out well. However, not long into my first day in the water, I was feeling very ropey. Halfway through a briefing from my instructor, I knew I was going to be sick. I had to excuse myself and leave the three guys in my group to it. I spent the rest of that day in bed, only getting up to be sick – which was quite a lot unfortunately. I felt very sorry for myself, but in fairness the diving school were very relaxed and just told me to take two days off and finish my course when I was better.
Thankfully I had the wiggle room and was able to extend my stay. So, I spent the next day lounging in the shade, sipping sprite, and occasionally dipping in the water. By the day after, I was raring to go again, and this time I had one on one tuition with my instructor, Tommy, which was cool. He was a great teacher and I enjoyed the whole course. After two days I was done with all my open water dives and a certified diver! One of the best feelings ever.
Because I’d stayed on a couple of extra days, I’d had to say goodbye to my travel buddies as they headed onwards on their adventures. Once I was all done with my diving, I booked my transfer to home Phnom Penh, where I had one day before flying to Hong Kong.
Although I was tight on time, there was only really two things I wanted to do in Phnom Penh, visit the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields. For any visit to Cambodia, I would say these memorials are a must. At the end of my time in Cambodia, the main thing I took away was that it was important to at least try to understand the scale of what the people have been through at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the country, and the people are so warm and friendly, it can be easy to forget that its had such a difficult past.
S21 prison has been meticulously preserved and the brutality that existed within its walls painstakingly documented. It’s not an easy place to visit, but it is an important memorial and it is very moving. Incredibly, one man who was held and tortured in the prison, but survived the regime, sits at a desk near the entrance to meet tourists and tell them of his experience. The strength it must take to revisit the place of your suffering, just so others can know what happened through your words, is remarkable.
The Killing Fields is probably the most well known site associated with the genocide in Cambodia. It is the site of a number of mass graves, and has been preserved as a memorial to those who died there. It’s most harrowing to see the tree where children were tortured and killed and of course to see the stacks of skulls of those who were killed there. It’s a memorial that doesn’t hide away from the monstrosities visited upon those that it seeks to commemorate. Its purpose isn’t just to memorialise, it is to educate. The Cambodia Government and people want the world to know its history.
For me, that was the essence of what I loved and admired about Cambodia. It is a country that shares its thriving and joyful culture with the world, while still acknowledging the suffering that has shaped the country it is today. It was a memorable couple of weeks and I will definitely be reading more about Cambodia to learn more about this fascinating country.