Miles on the clock: 16,265
Leaving Bangkok. Leaving crowds. Leaving chaotic streets. The small back roads to Cambodia were rutted and quiet. One last night in a Thai monastery. I was left to my own devices and shared a simple rice breakfast with the monks while two cats, both bald in patches, and one limping, stalked each other around a heap of laundry.
The roadside villagers waved more enthusiastically than in Thailand and their houses were of wood and thatch, not brick, tile and plaster. Men wobbled by with up to four live and squealing pigs mounted in wicker racks on their motorbikes. A night in a monastery at the end of a flooded mud track included a barrage of loud, angry words from the typically grumpy head monk and a half hour lecture in Khmer (Cambodia's language) from the village idiot.
I bought a three-day pass for the temples and passed the first two with a French student called Charles who is half-Japanese. We enjoyed eavesdropping on large tour groups from Japan; the guides instructions, as if to a school class, about where and when to regroup; their conversations often about who hasn't yet been photographed next to a particular mundane object.
Built in the 12th-century, Angkor Wat itself is the largest temple in the world (indeed, the largest religious structure). The size, detail and age of the thing are overwhelming. The amount of (likely slave) labour it would have required to build, and the empire-generated wealth are sobering considerations. An astonishingly intricate relief frieze depicting 11,000 figures runs around one of the enclosing walls and every surface has acquired a thin covering of moss, shimmering emerald in the piercing sunlight and rendering everything impossibly picturesque. Picturesque, that is, if it wasn't for the milling, swilling hordes of tourists toting Canons or Nikons with foot-long lenses. Groups of 50 or more, often in matching t-shirts and/or baseball caps, congest every doorway and walkway. The perilously-steep ancient steps (18 inches high and as little as 5 inches deep) present these groups with a quarter-hour obstacle which, to the spectator, competes in interest with the surrounding architectural treasures. Mercifully, at lunchtime, the groups melt away to eat, leaving silence and steamy heat in their wake. Dodging the crowds became an artform and involved visiting minor temples during peak hours as the package groups, in their air-conditioned, window-tinted coaches, have no interest in places not on their fly-by checklist.
The temple of Ta Prohm is very literally being swallowed by the jungle. Mighty trees straddle 900-year-old crumbling buildings while their swelling roots snake their way slowly and inevitably through walls, casually edging aside half-tonne blocks of masonry in their thirsty quest for the fertile earth below. We climbed up a toppled stack of stones, navigating the mossy jags, and perched atop a tilting wall, older than the Magna Carta, overlooking a cut off courtyard of the complex. The sun dipped, the greenery intensified in the enriched light and the whole crumbling, glowing scene achieved an impossibly photogenic appearance; a peaceful melancholia.
Back on the road. To Phnom Penh and a different type of history. Less ancient and awe-inspiring, more recent and incomprehensibly brutal. Cambodia's capital was evacuated on April 17th 1975 when the Khmer Rouge defeated the government forces ending a five-year civil war. The city's entire population was instantly relocated into the villages and set to work, slaves to the existing villagers who now enjoyed relative privileges. Educated or urban citizens were to be re-educated to a rural, communist way of life to establish "Year Zero" in a pure agrarian society with no currency, cities, conflict or meddling foreigners.
Administration broke down, people disappeared and we will never know the whole truth. Mass graves are still being unearthed today, adding to the 19,500 already discovered. Only one of the Kymer Rouge's leading cadres has been tried and sentenced (in July 2010). Pol Pot, the mysterious orchestrator and face of the party, died peacefully under house arrest in 1998, aged 73.
The prisoners from S-21 were taken 10 miles outside the city to Choeng Ek for execution and burial in mass graves. Ammunition was in short supply so guards killed with blows to the head from farming implements or used the jagged edge of a palm branch to decapitate their victims. When one grave was exhumed, the bodies of 80 small children were found who had been held by the feet and swung, head-first, against a nearby tree ("The Killing Tree") on which a dark, stained dent is still visible 30 years on. Choeng Ek "killing field" is an area of only about 250 yards squared. 80 of 126 graves have been exhumed and 15,000 of an estimated 19,000 bodies have been found. Everytime it rains, more remains emerge from the sandy earth. Human teeth are dotted about and protruding bones are visible everywhere. As at S-21, the "Genocide Centre" museum has facts (few and often repeated) but no explanation. I think the country as a whole has tried to move on and many see the past as a horror story rather than history.
One positive, which possibly results from these unthinkable atrocities, is a national desire to improve. I felt a real sense of industry and people genuinely seemed intent on progressing. The lethargy of neighbouring countries is less here. Less people sleep the day through in hammocks and less people passively watch the world go by. However, on how the killers and victims were all Cambodian citizens and now live side-by-side, John Keay writes in his book Mad About the Mekong:
The unbearable burden of recall placed on survivors of a conventional holocaust would be a relief to the survivors of a self-inflicted genocide. With no one to blame but themselves, Cambodians seem still to teeter on the edge of a pre-dug grave, restrained only by the presence of international agencies and the promise of foreign investment. The trees trill with the deafening protest of unseen insects. The earth smells of blood. Seeing the country as other than the site of a holocaust proves nigh impossible.
The visa was finally approved and I began my last stretch of Cambodian roads. Simple villages; flat landscapes; children splashing around in flooded brown streams surrounded by lime-green rice paddies; a crowd of 17 young monks watching, transfixed, as I prepare dinner on my camping stove; the same young monks churlishly competing in vociferousness during a late night prayer chant; a large hairy spider (the same species I ate fried in Siem Reap) jumping out of my shorts as I dress in the morning; carts of firewood drawn by horses with red tassels similar to those of the Roma gypsies; temperatures of 30°C by 7.30am; short but powerful tropical storms.
Having already lost ten days of my one-month, fixed-date visa, I entered Vietnam prepared for long days with my head down. I had a race to reach China before my visa expired and I'm ashamed to admit that I was mentally absent for the majority of my time in the country. The culture slipped me by and I was unreceptive to the language (which, amazingly, seems to be constructed of little more than six tones and about 12 syllables). I had been in South East Asia for five months and its heat and humidity had worn me thin. I closed my cultural eyes for the final leg back to China where cooler weather awaited.
I largely looked ahead; in a metaphorical sense as well as a necessarily literal one as Vietnam has 25 million motorbikes and their drivers are partial to zipping down the wrong side of the road. I covered 80-110 miles daily, often camped in graveyards, the only places not water-logged, and enjoyed a rich red sunrise most mornings. Suncream quickly ran off with an excess of sweat so my skin burned, bubbled and blistered before burning anew.
The Buddhist temples I had seen so often in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand were nowhere to be found. War and communism largely removed religion but a surprising amount of large churches line the road in the South. People lay, inert, in hammocks while their goods (rice, wheat, husks, seafood shells, seaweed) lay spread out, drying on the tarmac's edge. Red national flags flap and snap everywhere while the communist hammer and sickle adorn most walls.
I saw white people daily; their snoring visages, a glimpsed image, as their sleeper buses ferry them, hungover, from one party beach to the next. I felt further isolated.
Possibly because the country's recent emergence as a party destination, and the plane loads of 19-year-old Australians on a two-week bender, the local people on the coast were surprisingly indifferent. As in every country I have visited, I met plenty of kind people who bought me meals, gave me drinks, opened conversations and offered me a bed or a shower. However, more than in any other country I have visited, I encountered unfriendliness too. One van, honking and swerving while beside me on an otherwise empty road, threatened to force me off the paving. Later, I saw it again, pulled over on the roadside with the driver and passenger (both young men) laughing at me. One tried to punch me as I passed. They soon caught up with me and overtook again, this time actually nudging my pannier and nearly knocking me over. My temper almost boiled over but the car had sped off and what could I do?
A couple of days later Michi went ahead to Hanoi to apply for a Chinese visa. I got back on the road in light rain which fortified as the day drew on. I came to a four mile tunnel where cyclists and motorcyclists must put their bikes on a truck and take a bus. Here I met Paul, a Dutch motorcyclist who drove through the rain for 40 miles while I cruised alongside, clutching a strap on his backpack.
I entered China with only a few hours remaining on my Vietnam visa. Despite my general sogginess, crossing the border felt like a breath of fresh air. I was back in the moment. Life was good again. It felt like a land of opportunity and I was freshly arrived. I reached the provincial capital of Nanning and began to dry out myself and my kit. An email from Michi arrived saying he would have to wait ten days for a visa due to a Chinese national holiday. He had tossed a coin to decide whether he would wait and come to China or board his flight back to Germany. The coin had come up heads. He would wait and was happy with the outcome. It was only afterwards that he realised the coin (a Thai 10 Baht piece) had a head on both sides.
I will continue north and Michi and I plan to join forces in the town of Guilin a few days from now.