Cambodia – What to do in Cambodia?


The best thing is to hang in the shade. Under a tree, under a tilt house, under a metal roof. Hanging is very democratic; men and women, elderly and children, rich and poor, everybody hangs. I visit Cambodia in the hottest month of the year and it’s all about finding a piece of shade and hanging. In a hammock.

No, I’m not saying people don’t work here. They do; sometimes a lot and hard, often for little money. Hanging doesn’t exclude working. A shop owner hangs waiting for clients, a tuk-tuk driver hangs waiting for passengers, a doctor hangs waiting for patients. It’s just that the best thing that you can do at your leisure is to hang a little.

The second top activity, right after hanging, is riding a motorbike. If people didn’t have scooters, they’d have to walk. And walking in this heat would be exhausting. It’s easier to ride a moped. Even for those 50 metres. Just like inhabitants of Central Asia are born in the saddle, inhabitants of South-East Asia are born on a motorbike saddle.

Riding is also very democratic. You only need to grow up enough to reach the ground with your feet while sitting on the saddle. That’s all. Then you can ride. People ride mopeds to far away places or nearby, alone or with a big family, empty or with huge luggage, for fun or for work. Or even at work, carrying a mobile eatery in a sidecar.

It’s just me who is different. I don’t hang and I don’t ride a scooter. What do I do then?

I visit

Colosseum is in Italy, the Great Wall in China, Machu Picchu in Peru. In Cambodia there’s Angkor Wat. I’ve been dreaming of the monumental temples of the ancient Khmer empire for a very long time. That’s why now, when I wake up in a small village Ta Seng and I’m about to see my first Khmer temple, I feel a bit nervous. What if the reality doesn’t live up to the expectations? I reach the place walking on a path in the forest and my eyes fall on a stone building with a mysterious face on top of it. I cross the bridge over a dry moat, pass the gate and enter the main temple surrounded by the walls. The temple is timeworn, partly collapsed, overgrown by huge trees. I’m alone here and for a moment I can feel like a real discoverer. The reality exceeded my expectations.

I solve puzzles

After crossing the border, I stop noticing outhouses in Cambodian villages. Or wells. Sometimes they are there, but very often not. There are huge stone jars instead. I cycle through Cambodia and the thing that I’m most interested in seeing in small villages are outhouses. I hope they are somewhere there and that it’s just me who can’t spot them. Piesas is the first one to confirm my suspicions. First, I met his mum because it was she who let me camp by their home and shop. Piesas with his father arrived on a tractor after dark. On the trailer there were endless containers full of water taken from a well a kilometre away. The water is poured from the containers to the jars and for the next week they will use it to wash themselves and their clothes, to cook and wash the dishes. I ask about the toilet but Piesas, unabashed, says they don’t have any. I stop my investigation there.

I repeat a history lesson

I look through barbed wire at the expanding capital and I wonder how it is possible that right next to the entrance to Tuol Sleng prison there is a restaurant serving lunch and coffee. In Poland, next to the Auschwitz gate, there are no such things. You know Stalin and Mao Zedong. In Cambodia there was Pol Pot. One in four people died due to executions, starvation and overwork during his four-year-long rule. One, two, three, you. The Killing Fields, tortures, forced collectivisation, extermination of minorities and intelligentsia, labour camps. Those suspected of betraying the party and the revolution were detained in Tuol Sleng prison. All of the prisoners were photographed and now, in former interrogation and torture chambers, there is a display of their portaits. Some of them smile, some faces are blank, in some eyes there’s pure horror. And estimated number of 17 thousand people were imprisoned here. A handful survived. Nowadays, there’s the Genocide Museum. And right outside of it, there’s this restaurant serving lunch.

I redefine words

For example, a pavement. A pavement is a part of the road for the pedestrians. You should be able to walk the pavement unimpeded to reach the crossroads and then another pavement. Right? Yes, but not in Cambodia. In Cambodia, first of all, almost nobody walks because everyone rides a moped. Secondly, the pavement, if it’s there at all, is not considered linearly but transversely. You cross it to enter a shop from a street, not to walk along in a straight line. The pavement is a parking area for scooters and cars and a place where you can display your shop’s merchandise or where you can install an eatery. That’s why, when visiting the capital, I steer between obstacles, pass barricades, walk on the road, squeeze through, skirt, stumble and detour. Giant slalom is a piece of cake.

I celebrate

For the fourth time, during my two-year-long trip, I celebrate New Year. In Cambodia it falls in April and lasts for three days. On this occasion people prepare New Year tables with flowers, refreshments, fruit and incense outside of their houses. Besides that, people pour water at each other and it’s also good to jump suddenly at passersby and put talc on their faces. When I walk to the market in Sri Ambel, I’m attacked by such a group and they put talc on me in a VIP style. Guys don’t want to scare me so first, they show me what will happen and then, they thank me for participating in the game. I thank them too. Other passersby are bepowdered, among screeching and laughter much more dynamically.

During New Year people don’t go to school or work so there’s even more time to ride scooters and hang. So it’s cool.

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