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Cambodia Revisited – Part Two


Cambodia Revisited – Part Two

The French colonial style railway station.

David Bennett
Our trip to Cambodia is our second visit, the first being 5 years ago. Obviously, we are very keen to see how things have changed.
On arrival in Phnom Penh, we discover that, ,unfortunately, we have timed the trip to coincide with a major construction project along the river. This flood prevention and drainage scheme, financed by the Japanese government, is due to last until March 2010. I remember this area from 5 years ago. At that time it was sleepy during the day, with just two or three bars and restaurants, and deserted at night. Moving away from the central area there was no street lighting, and one would often spot a character shouting and carrying an AK47. Today you are more likely to be accosted by a “barker” thrusting a leaflet into your hand advertising “The Blue Teddy Bear” or whichever other trendy restaurant has recently opened. Thankfully, the French influence is still very strong in this area with Bougainvillea, La Broche Doree, Le Atelier Café and La Marmick alongside the Pickled Parrot, the Frog and Duck and the Cyclo bar! Go back from the river a block or two and you’ll find simpler, local places offering not exactly fusion food but more a mishmash of Khmer noodles, French baguettes, good coffee and some interesting desserts at very cheap prices.
We spend many hours wandering aimlessly around this area. It’s a street photographer’s dream with street barbers, sidewalk computer repair shops, children, street vendors of all sorts, weird and wonderful vehicles made from motorbikes and assorted junk. No problem with taking pictures of people living and working on the street.
In the evening, over a ‘happy hour’ draught Anchor beer. This is one of the bargains we find everywhere we go in Cambodia-simply an ice-cold beer served in a lounging-type bar/café for 2000 riels. At this time I become slightly obsessed with railways and railway stations. The Cambodian railway system is shown on maps, train departures are recorded as happening in even quite recent guide books. Yet Cambodians I speak to say that ‘a train runs once a week’ or ‘they go sometimes’ or ‘there are no passenger trains, but you could go on a freight train.’ I’m also told they’re incredibly slow and sometimes fall off the rails! One track goes from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and the other from Phnom Penh to Battambang. It’s all becoming too much! We have to get ourselves to Phnom Penh railway station and find out the truth. We walk along the Tonla Sap river and turn left past Wat Phnom.
Wat Phnom I remember from 5 years ago. It hasn’t changed at all. Still covered in monkeys and I could swear I recognise the one that stole my lens cap last time. Anyway, we sit under a tree and receive visits from the locals who either practice the only English word they know – “hello” or who have very good English language skills and get into quite a meaningful conversation. About half point in the right direction when I ask about the railway station and none are very certain about whether trains exist or whether the last time they ran was last week, last year or a decade ago. With hindsight, I think some knew there were no trains and therefore pretended they didn’t know where the station was so that I wouldn’t waste my time looking for a non-existent train service! It’s very hot and humid. We are in no hurry so I get a look at the latest copy of the local newspaper. The Khmer Rouge trials have just started and, despite the international community pouring in millions of dollars to fund the things, it looks as if certain (very) high ranking Cambodians who are former Khmer Rouge members are going to do every thing they can to sabotage the process.
There are two English language newspapers in Cambodia. What surprises me about these papers is not just the fact that both are so well written but also that they are highly critical of the corruption in Cambodia. The reporting of the allegations of corruption at the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal is extensive. Employees at the court are said to have to pay up to 30% of their salaries to their superiors!

Phnom Penh’s ubiquitous street barbers.

So, a short walk. There, at last, is the railway station. A massive empty road leads up to a huge, cream-painted French monolith. The booking hall is locked and closed with steel grills, but we manage to find a side door that can be forced open. Inside the huge booking hall there are a couple of chaps asleep, and one motorbike. The original wooden seating, the ticket counters, display boards, luggage scales, even the ticket-issuing machines are there and in reasonable condition. It’s a very nice building. Back outside, I talk to a chap who says he would like to show me the station clock “It was made in Paris, isn’t it beautiful?” It’s okay, but no match for the railway station itself. Spacious with tall, mature trees for shade and lots of flowering frangipanis along wide paved walking areas. Further on, freight and passenger trains are resting on tracks overgrown with grass, not in good condition and obviously having not moved for some years.
People are living in some of the coaches and wooden-sided freight wagons. Unfortunately, none of them speak English and some seem a little wary. But it’s just the shock of seeing a Barang (Cambodian equivalent of the Thai Farang) poking about and taking pictures. The slatted wooden seats are good quality, well made and in good condition. Some of the original wood-slatted window shades are still in place, and, although the roofs have been damaged, there is no mess or graffiti. The Khmer Rouge regime destroyed just about everything in Cambodia, including the population, but they just let this great station fall into disrepair.
On our last trip to Cambodia, we met up with Mark and Phan in Vietnam and travelled with them to Phnom Penh. On Phan’s birthday, when asked what she would like to do, she said she would like to visit the killing fields. This is an area (a hamlet called Choeng Ek) about 15 kilometers outside Phnom Penh where the KR killed by the thousand. The site was discovered in 1980 and was converted into an outdoor museum under the guidance of the Vietnamese. It’s an inspired work. Very little has been altered, just discreet notices outlining the horrors that took place. As you walk across the fields you see scraps of clothing, fragments of bone and teeth. It hasn’t been tidied up or sanitised for public display. Although it’s incredibly upsetting, everyone should visit this place. On this trip, we plan to revisit the killing fields later but, for now, we are off to the seaside!
The next day we take the bus to Sihanoukville, the main beach area on Cambodia’s very small coast. It’s about 250 kilometers, 5 hours’ travel, to the south of Phnom Penh.
To be continued next week…