Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cambodia, my home away from home

I will always have fond memories of Cambodia. I arrived there thinking it was a quick destination to see the sights, move onto Vietnam and then catch my pre-planned flight home. How wrong I was. I fell in love, and actually turned the quick 2 week trip there into a huge almost 3 month stay, and one that I would not regret.

My home for 3 months, Top Banana Guest House in Phnom Penh
Tuk tuk drivers in the busy streets of Phnom Penh
Cambodia has an atmosphere unlike any other country and to be honest and atmosphere I searching for and have been missing every since. There is opportunity in Cambodia unlike other countries, a lot of foreign investment at the moment and this once small city is growing everyday. Everyday you would notice some new construction taking place for some new foreign business trying break into Cambodia's new booming market.

But Cambodia wasn't always the positive welcoming country I have seen it to be. When you are there long enough you can see the scars the country's recent history has left. The Khmer Rouge started in the 1960s in the northeastern jungle of Cambodia and then eventually gained control of the government. In 1975 they gained control of Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh and evacuated the entire population out and into camps outside the city. These evacuations continued with every new city the group conquered. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge’s leader, had a vision to create Cambodia as a communist country free of religion, social institutions, without banks and modern technology, where everyone worked in the fields without pay.

He turned the clock back to “year zero” and anyone who stood in the way as a threat was immediately executed. This included scholars, artists, doctors, businessmen, foreigners and even people with glasses. Whilst there are no complete statistics on the number of fatalities during the Khmer Rouge’s power it is believed to be between one to two million people were executed, with thousands more dying of malnutrition or being worked to death in the “death fields” or from disease.

The Khmer Rouge continued until 1997 when Pol Pot was eventually arrested and sentenced to house arrest, and then died in 1998 without any charges. Everyone has been affected by this recent inhumane act of genocide, but together they are all working together to rebuild their beautiful country.

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh I decided to do both the Killing Feilds and S21 as i wanted to learn a bit about the history of this interesting city. This was a tough day. The Killing Fields were really well organized. You received a headset that told you about the history and had personal accounts of survivors, the prison guards an affected family members. What was surprising was that on the way back from the killing fields to S21 the tuk tuk driver offered to take us to the shooting range, the last thing I wanted to do at that time.
The memorial tower where the tower of skulls lies
The confronting tower of skulls where skulls from different victims of all ages are displayed to show the mass amounts of those affected by Pol Pot's regime.
"Do not smile."

What once used to be a high school turned into a prison for many people. Barbed wires show the horrifying conditions of the prisoners in the S21 concentration camps.
I have heard a lot of things about the shooting range, the people swear to be true and somehow I don’t find it that surprising. You can pay a reasonable amount of money and shoot a cow, or (and this is more disturbing) you can pay $2,000 and shoot someone who is fatally ill and has not a lot of time left to live. Some of the $2,000 reaches their family. Now I am not sure about the reliability of sources, but to think that there might be a market for activities like leaves you sick to the stomach. 

In Cambodia almost everything seemed possible- some in a good way and some in a bad way. People were thriving off the new opportunities and businesses were popping up everywhere. Cambodia has started to become a destination worth investing in. The atmosphere and opportunity was so great in fact that I had even planned to start a business in the buzzing capital, Phnom Penh! Three others and myself were going to start a cafe/bar/hostel/skate shop/boutique and skate ramp style business together. We had the building, menu, interior design sorted and were working on the business plan when I woke up from my dream and realised that the travel bug had a hold of me and that I was not ready to "settle down" and sign a 5 year contract- just yet. 

After many amazing trips down to Kampot, Kep and Otres Beach on the backs of motorbikes getting lost, burnt and covered in dust, relaxing on the beach, lots of drinking, eating fresh seafood, attending a local friend's Khmer wedding and a couple of visa extensions I had to say goodbye to the place I had called home for the last few months. I had to say goodbye to my dear friends I had met there who I will never forget, and had to welcome new countries to be explored. The next destination being Myanmar! 

The beautiful Cambodian landscape...

Lazy days on Koh Ta Kiev...

Our cosy little tree house cottage. $25 per night, right on the beach front at Ten103 guest house on Koh Ta Kiev, an island just off the coast of Otres Beach.
Every night the nice owner from Ten103 catches fresh fish and cooks a huge meal that everyone staying in his bungalows can enjoy together almost like a family meal.
He also brews his own absinthe which is a nice way to wash down the amazing feast!

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