Wednesday 6 February 2013

Border Country


Current Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia (click on Where We Are, above, to see map)
Longest Daily Ride: 117.8 km from Sa Kaeo to Pong Nam Ron, Thailand
Total Distance Cycled: 7,897 km
Snakes: Dead 25, Alive 2

Quotable Quote

"Keep your fur on Fido, or it's the wok for you," Judy the Stoker as yet another
dog takes an unnecessary interest in us.

We cycled into a nation in mourning, where television sets were broadcasting live pictures of a very dead man.
Former King Norodom Sihanouk died in October last year, and his embalmed body had been lying in state in Phnom Penh ever since. For touring cyclists though, the news is sometimes slow getting through and as we crossed into Cambodia from Thailand we had no idea what was going on - that the country was saying its final farewell before the funeral pyre was set alight. 

Sihanouk was a complex figure. He negotiated his country’s independence from France in 1955 but backed the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of an estimated two million Cambodians. In  later years he was seen as a peacemaker.

During the official mourning period tv and radio stations
 were not allowed to broadcast entertainment programmes.
We arrived at the Ban Pakard – Psar Pruhm border crossing after a morning’s ride through some of the nicest countryside we’d seen in weeks. The land was undulating, green and with a hint of mountains through the background haze. It was 30 km on a good road from our overnight stop at Pong Nam Ron to the border and we crossed with a minimum of fuss and none of the touts and scammers we’d heard operate further north at Poipet.

Hard to find guesthouse at 
Pong Nam Ron, on the Thai
 side of the border.The only
 place in the town itself,
  it took us an hour to find it. For
the record, it's on Highway 3193,
 on the right as you head out of town.
 At the restaurant where we stopped for lunch just inside the Cambodian border the young staff were glued to the tv set watching that live broadcast. We had to ask who had died. A young man wearing a black ribbon explained it to us, at the same time handing another black ribbon to his friend.

Sihanouk was cremated in a 15-storey purpose-built crematorium alongside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
Mine sign

The heat hung over the land as we cycled on. There was less green and more brown and soon our water bottles were nearing empty. The differences with Thailand were striking. The houses were more dilapidated, the people more ragged, and the farm machinery more antiquated. Roadside signs showed where teams had been clearing landmines.

It’s estimated there are 40,000 amputees in Cambodia, all victims of landmines.

From time to time we could hear the live broadcast coming from the houses we passed, the same discordant music.
There was only one show on tv, the
funeral of Norodom Sihanouk. 
Cassava chips drying in the sun.
We stopped for the night at Pailin, 22 km inside the border and reputed to be home to some of the retired big guns of the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of an estimated two million of their fellow countrymen during the late 1970s.
Fellow cyclists, near Battambang, Cambodia.
Border country
                                                  The Khmer Rouge Tribunal which is attempting to dispense justice to some of those responsible for the atrocities has been fraught with problems. Initially there was argument over the makeup of the Tribunal, then concern that some of those charged would die of natural causes before their cases were heard. Now the Tribunal is facing financial difficulties and some staff are threatening to walk out unless they are paid.

In the dark we traipsed along a dirty, scruffy road to the only passable restaurant we could find. A tv in one corner was screening a rerun of the day’s funeral proceedings. An elderly woman wearing dark glasses watched intently and reached for a tissue to wipe her eyes.

The next morning an ATM threatened to swallow one of our plastic cards, then relented and spat out our US dollars. It was just as well as we couldn’t have sought help from inside the bank. A sign said it was closed for four days as a mark of respect for the Father King. Later we learned the schools were closed as well.

Architectural influences in Banttambang.
A headwind held us back during the 85 km ride to Battambang and we arrived tired and dirty. That night’s tv viewing in a restaurant was more of the same, but this time hardly anyone was paying attention.

Tuk tuk driver, Banttambang, Cambodia
We spent the next day wandering Battambang’s streets, a town where French influence persists in its old colonial style buildings, shophouses and bakeries selling baguettes. A few, a very few, people displayed black ribbons. Hardly anyone wore white shirts, officially encouraged as a way of showing respect to Norodom Sihanouk.

Some news organisations say 1.5 million people attended Sihanouk's cremation.

The tandem being loaded for an eight hour journey on the
Sangker River from Battambang to Siem Reap.
Wine tasting at what must be
 Cambodia's only vineyard. We didn't
arrange to ship any bottles home.
At what stage does tourism become voyeurism? We felt increasingly uncomfortable as our boat passed by
riverbank villages and us tourists zoomed in with our cameras. In the end, I put the camera down but other passengers armed with long telephoto lenses had no hesitation in intruding into the lives of others. 
Boatman on the Sangker River, Cambodia 
At a floating village, Sangker River,

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Looks amazing and much different from Thailand. You must be relieved to get away from the tourist trail, but I guess that also brings its own challenges!


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