Monday, 26 October 2015

My Tuk Tuk Journey Part 1: Phnom Penh

A long overdue post about my trip to Cambodia last year in December. I know I am terrible at keeping my blog up to date. I think I am just on my computer so much for research and keeping in touch with people that I end up wanting to spend the rest of my time doing things away from the screen. Anyways, better late than never right?

I don't know how many people are aware of this but there is a rule when you are a PhD student in certain countries that you are not allowed to leave the country for more than 2 weeks in your first year of study. In my case my first 9 months, as confirmation, which is meant to be your 1 year review in which they confirm that you can continue your project, was pushed forward to avoid the crazy inter-semester period. Anyway, this rule meant that from the moment I signed up to my degree, I was pretty much stuck. My two weeks off were spent visiting family and going to my MA graduation ceremony. A nice break from studies but I didn't exactly get to see anything new and exciting. Luckily for me Confirmation came early so by late November I was free to jetset across the world, provided I still worked on my thesis and publications list. 

To celebrate my newfound freedom I went to Cambodia last year for about a week in December. Originally this was planned so I could visit a friend doing research there but about a month before he ended up getting sick and needing to go to the states to get medical care.

I had already bought non-refundable tickets and I was itching to get out of Australia. Not that Australia is bad that time of year, on the contrary it is sunny and there is tons to do. I just feel the need to travel after being in one place for too long. Plus I had gotten excited about the trip, especially about seeing the temples near Siem Reap. So I decided to go on my own.

Now you probably don’t know this about me, unless you have had me call you when abroad alone, but I am a pretty terrible solo traveller. Not in the sense that I can’t adjust well or anything, I am actually ok at finding my way around new places and making friends. I just like things to be well-planned and having a back-up. If I have another person around I feel more secure, like if something goes wrong we are twice as likely to figure out a solution. Somehow it is just easier to deal with setbacks when you are with someone else. Also I hate the travelling part of going abroad, you know getting to the airport, waiting for a flight, I just find it very boring on my own. I just want to be in the place, not spend hours in transit. Once I have been in the place for a few days I tend to be ok. Just getting there and back is stressful for me.

Despite all this, I know that every once in a while I need to go out and try. Just so I don’t get too comfortable having other people travelling with me, and I reckon the more I do it, the less stressful it will be. It hasn’t been stress-free so far but a girl can hope right?

Like I expected getting there was quite stressful. I was flying Asia Air. Not a bad airline, your standard budget flight, it was just at a ridiculous hour and quite long. For some reason I thought Cambodia was much closer to Australia, but you take a long flight to Kuala Lumpur and then it is another couple hours til you get to Cambodia. Doesn’t help that I had a 4 hour layover.

Anyway I finally got where I needed to be, Phnom Penh airport. From there I got a tuk tuk, the typical local mode of transport to the hostel I had booked by the river.
Now I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced traffic in Phnom Penh, but it is bad, like really bad. People are constantly weaving in and out of lanes, there are tons of motorcycles and tuk tuks that don’t really seem to stick to the normal driving rules. Not for the faint hearted. I personally was just happy I didn’t have to drive there.
My hostel ‘Velkommen Backpackers’ was amazing. The owner was extremely friendly and helpful, as were all the staff. I got there in the evening so after they showed me to my room they gave me a map and set me on my way to the riverside night market. The weather was nice and mild and the road was easy to follow, so I was able to relax a little after my long trip.

I was expecting a small local market, but what I found was a big outdoor bazaar. Apparently they happened to be celebrating the friendship between the Cambodian and German nations so there was a concert in the centre of the market. In front were souvenir shops, situated in little German Christmas market style stalls. As you got further into the market it became more local with shops selling regular household goods. However, what I was looking for was at the back of the market. A large area covered in rugs with dozens of food and drink vendors alongside it.

I tried a local noodle dish and then went in search of something sweet. I ended up settling for what looked like a milkshake stand with mounds of fruit piled up on the counter, pineapple, passion fruit, lychee, orange, some fruits I had never seen before. I ended up settling on mango and it was AMAZING, and extremely cheap. It just tasted so fresh. It became my new addiction after that. I think I had a smoothie every day I was in Cambodia, whether from a street vendor or from a restaurant. Full and satiated I went back to the hostel and fell asleep almost instantly, only to be whisked away again for drinks by my dorm mates. I was quite the odd one out only staying for a week while they were each backpacking for months on end. Two fifty cent beers, which did not taste as bad as they sound, and a lot of travel stories later. I was in bed, exhausted.

The next day I decided to go visit some of the sites. I was still tired from my long journey but I knew I only had a few days, I had better make them count. I went to the central market, visited some temples, saw the palace and a museum. My food consisted of a smoothie and bread roll in the morning followed by a delicious fish soup at lunch. For dinner I acted like a real tourist and just got a burger at the hotel. By that point all my energy had left me and I just wanted to go to sleep.

I got back to my room only to be whisked away again for drinks by my dorm mates. Though I was tired, I felt like I had to embrace the hostel experience. Plus traveling on my own it was nice to have a bit of social time. Two fifty cent beers later (not as bad as they sound actually), I was falling asleep at the table. Luckily I wasn’t the only one and while the others went off to party, myself and my sleepy American companion headed home.

By that point I had gotten around on foot for the most part. The city centre is quite manageable and I wasn’t too keen on spending too long in Cambodian traffic. However, the next day I had run out of things nearby I wanted to see and I was pondering what to do next at a local temple when I bumped into another solo traveller.

Now while I enjoy travelling with others, the great thing about being a solo traveller is that you can plan your holiday completely according to your own schedule and interests. No-one telling you to hurry up when you are exploring a museum (this happens to me a lot as an archaeologist) and no-one else to take into account when choosing a dining option. The other great thing is that when you don’t want to travel on your own you can most often find someone to go with you. Especially when staying at a hostel, but even just when out for lunch or visiting a local tourist destination.

It turned out the girl I bumped into was also out of things to do nearby, so we decided to put our resources together and get a tuk tuk out to the detention centre at the other end of the city, stopping in the market on the way to get some meat filled pastry and pineapple on a stick.

This detention centre exposes a less rosy part of Cambodian history. It is a complex dating back to the days of the Khmer Rouge. It is one of the many places where they used to hold people who opposed the regime. When Polpot (the leader of the Khmer Rouge) and his oppressive dictatorial government fell, the extent of their cruelty came to light. Rather than bulldozing the complex and attempting to forget this terrifying period in Cambodia’s history, the new government turned the area into an in situ museum. Showcasing photos of the various prisoners, allowing visitors to explore reconstructions of their cells, read letters that they sent and view a number of other artefacts and reconstructions, detailing the inhuman treatment that the many inhabitants of the cells had to undergo.

After this visit we shared a taxi to the killing fields, another confrontational site just outside of town. I had been told by the others at my hostel that this was an absolute must when visiting Cambodia and they were absolutely right. If you are the kind of person who travels to foreign countries purely to relax and leave the world’s problems behind, this might not be the best bet for you. I tend to travel to experience local history and culture, and this particular visit left a very deep impression on me. While but few physical manifestations of the events remain present at this site, the narratives and atmosphere are able to convey the history all on their own.

While normally I detest audio-guides, those provided at this site were essential to how you experience the place. The story of the Khmer Rouge’s actions is told by people who actually experienced the regime. They describe various structures that used to stand on the killing fields, and they describe the sights and sounds you would have experienced there, and under the Khmer Rouge more generally. They also do not shy away from giving conflicting stories, some from those who suffered through being targeted by the regime, others who had been the soldiers forced to commit these unspeakable acts.

It was very difficult listening to some of the witnesses’ narrations. They seem too personal to be sharing with random visiting tourists, strangers to the entire situation. There was an interview segment of the tape that you listened to while walking around a lake where I felt the need to pause and temporarily isolate myself from my companion. I cannot recount what was said in the interview, the details are all quite hazy now, now do I really want to. It feels like I would be doing a disservice to the people who actually experienced this period, those who had enough courage to retell the stories of their encounters with the Khmer Rouge.

The visit to Cambodia actually came just after a conference I had been to about Critical Heritage Studies held at ANU in Canberra. There, one of the speakers told us about the hidden histories of Bali, the terrible purging that occurred there, the discrimination, the oppression. While in Cambodia these types of difficult histories are openly discussed and displayed, in Bali this is all covered up and hidden from the tourist. Bali paints itself as a picture perfect exotic paradise. In my honest opinion, I think any kind of whitewashing of history is bad. History is something contested, something that is constantly reinterpreted and reformed. If we want to truly understand it, and get a grasp on where we are today, we need to explore as many of its facets as possible, hear it told through different voices, not all of which we necessarily agree with. But in the end it is not my history, and who am I to dictate which approach to history will best heal past inflicted wounds.

After touring the killing fields my companion and I sat in silence for a while, not really ready to get back into the tuk tuk and head home. It just seemed wrong to recommence our happy-go-lucky travels so soon after being confronted with something so sombre. Eventually we started talking, sharing the most difficult story we had each experienced. For her it was the photos of the inmates, the faces made them all too personable. For me it was the guard’s story, showing how they too, in their own way, were victims of the regime’s cruelty. Eventually we got up and went to find our tuk tuk driver.

While the experience was in a sense a very solitary one, my travelling companion and myself basically spent most of our time on our own, I think it was actually very important that I was able to share the experience with someone. Discussing my experience with her afterwards was kind of cathartic in a way. It is just such an unimaginable thing, the amount of death and pain caused by the regime, something difficult to come to terms with just in your own mind. By talking about it I was able to externalise my feelings gain some distance, and carry on with my day, rather than obsessing about the grief of those long gone. While it is important to realise that such atrocities exist in the world, and an awareness of them is necessary to avoid them recurring, allowing them to consume your entire day or trip really isn’t going to help anyone.

Heading back into town on the tuk tuk we slowly recovered after the self-shattering effects of the killing fields. Still quit unable to talk about more mundane subjects, my fellow traveller took out her ipod and turned on her travel playlist. As we pulled up to my hotel the song 'Send me on my way' by Rusted Root started playing, the perfect travel song for continuing my journey.