We fly into Siem Reap, Cambodia, in a ATR72. It has propellers – how quaint. The flight from Da Nang lasts one hour fifty minutes and goes without incident. We’re directed across the tarmac to passport control where we quickly complete a visa application before exiting. We’re met by a man and his tuk-tuk who whisks us through the warm evening to our guesthouse.
Our sightseeing starts early, the tuk-tuk is booked for 5am. We’re off to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise above the famous temple towers. We’re two amongst several hundred who’ve all been sold the same romantic experience but the sky fails to deliver and it ends as a bit of an anticlimax – any decent photos are ruined by the crowd sprouting selfie-sticks. This is the first of several temples that we visit chauffeured from one to the next by our driver over the course of a 12 hour day – all for $23 (£16.59), $30 (£21.64) with a tip.
Through every ancient archway and crumbling corridor is another street seller pushing postcards, guidebooks or fruit. They approach you all day and can be of any age from three or four to one hundred. The children ask “where are you from?” then respond to our answer with a well-rehearsed patter that usually starts with ‘David Cameron’ and ends with ‘lovely jubbly’. Somebody, presumably tired of these approaches, had taken revenge by teaching one poor young woman that Del Boy’s catchphrase was actually lovely jubblies.
Half an hour in a tuk-tuk will get you to Chong Khneas where you can catch a boat out to a floating village. Set on the tranquil fresh waters of Tonle Sap lake are several hundred floating buildings including homes, schools, supermarkets and crocodile farms inhabited by over 1,000 families. It’s a little like a mobile home park but with oil drums instead of wheels.
If you’re not careful you can get seriously fleeced here. Every price quoted is for one person so remember to double up for a couple. You pay $20 (£14.05) – that’s $40 (£28.10) – to get to the village in one boat that then drops you off on a pontoon where you then pay another $20 (£14.05) – times two – for a young lad to row you around the village. Both require tipping – to pay for schooling. There’s a stop–off at the crocodile farm where you can get a drink, something to eat and buy some souvenirs, handbags etc. Finally, it’s to the shops to buy a bag of rice at $50 (£35.13) for the school children.
The money works like this; US dollars for nearly everything but anything less than $1 (£0.72) is paid in Cambodian riels, 1000 riels is equal to 25 cents (18 pence), so you end up flitting between both currencies while trying to mentally convert to Sterling.
Our speedboat, the 7am, left on time at 8am. We’re setting a course across Tonle Sap lake and down the river of the same name to Phnom Penh. The lake is vast and there’s little to see for the first few hours so we doze in the cabin’s shade. When the distant shores came closer and we entered the river we went up on top and waved at the children and saw buffalo wallowing by the riverbank. At the halfway point we changed to a slightly more luxurious craft and sat with our legs dangling over the side. Sometimes the whole width of the river would be blocked with floating plants, water hyacinth, that had the occasional most beautiful lilac blooms. The boat would power through as best it could until it would have to stop and unclog the propeller by switching in and out of reverse. Then a puff of black smoke, the whistle of a turbo and we’re off once more.
On arrival in Phnom Penh the first thing we do is head for a bar, the Zanzibar. At first glance it looked like a good choice but when we entered the place was empty and the waitress, who had been standing at the door, immediately closed it behind us. We ordered two beers then noticed that the small bar was now filling with five or six young ladies that appeared, in a Mr Benn style, as if by magic. There was a strong smell of stale urine presumably coming from the loos. My instincts told me we should leave so I suggested we should go and sit outside. As we left the bar one of the ladies was stuffing tissues in her bra – perhaps she had a bad cold or leaky jubblies.
If you’re only in Phnom Penh for a couple of days like us, the thing you must do is the genocide tour including the killing fields – sounds fun! Actually, it’s a gruesome reminder of the cruelty that is within some human beings and what can happen when they manage to fool a large group – or even a nation – that their warped vision is the way forward. This is all recent history from the 70s that shows, as a race, we learnt little from the atrocities of Hitler and should think carefully before electing the likes of Trump and Farage that peddle fear and hatred of different communities and peoples.