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Tues 19 Dec. Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Up before the sun, the wonders of Angkor behind us, shoehorned into another pickup for transfer to the Phnom Penh speedboat. Driving along a pitted causeway past villages on stilts, the rising sun turns paddy fields to squares of molten gold.
The long, slender speedboat roars off down the vast Tonle Sap (Great Lake). The travellers packed onto the roof (no Cambodians, who are far too sensible to put up with this) are lashed by wind-blown spray and are soon cold, wet and miserable. Five hours of this??? I go below on the offchance there is a free seat, get not one but three seats all to myself, curl up and go to sleep.
In Phnom Penh, the hostess of my hostel gives a dazzling smile and says 'You wanna go see Killing Fields"? So, off on another moto with a firm grip on my drivers bony shoulders as we plough through the anarchy of Phnom Penh traffic. (Traffic too heavy to cross to the correct carriageway? No problem - just drive the wrong way down this side, showing no fear to the wall of motos and cars coming at you.) His name is completely unpronouncable, but he can't pronounce mine either so I guess we're quits.
Out of the city, slipping a few small notes to policeman as we pass, and into a quiet country field, where cows graze and butterflies and birds flit under the indifferent gaze of 4,000 skulls recovered from shallow graves. A woman runs a coke stall opposite a tree where children were battered to death.
Then on to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where rows upon rows of photos of the detainees of Pol Pot gaze down from the walls of the former school. The most distressing are a selection of before and after portraits, like a horrific version of pictures from diet ads. Before, flat-capped comrades smiling confidently at the camera: any face could be a moto driver, a postcard salesgirl, a waiter. After, the same faces gaunt from starvation, eyes dulled by brutality.
Reeling from this, I walk back out to meet my driver, and am surrounded by a crowd of the exact same faces grinning 'you wan' drugs? You wanna lady? Young girl - go boom-boom all night long?'
This is all a bit too much, so I escape to the calm of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia (where Sidney Schanberg, the journalist portrayed in the film 'The Killing Fields' is still a fixture at the bar) for dinner overlooking the Tonle Sap river.
A sudden violent thunderstorm pounds deafening rain on the iron roof as I fall asleep. Despite (or because of) the extremes, this has been a rewarding visit, Cambodia has been everything I hoped Thailand would be, but wasn't. Largely because the Cambodians seem genuinely glad to be getting visitors, and though they will - naturally! - try and screw every extra dollar out of you they seem proud to be able to show you their country. Unlike, for example, many Thais who seem to actively loathe us (not that I can blame them), and only just manage to be polite long enough to separate us from our money.
All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter