Southeast Asia in Pictures: Week II

Every week during our eight-week trip across Southeast Asia, I plan to post a handful of snapshots and stories from the week just gone.

This week we caught an evening flight from Singapore to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia – a short two-hour hop across the Gulf of Thailand. Minimising our environmental impact was something that was important for us to consider so we chose to take only two flights on this leg, in and out of Singapore, travelling otherwise by train (and occasionally, by bus).

Given our limited time in Phnom Penh, we chose to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum rather than the Killing Fields outside the city. A former high school requisitioned by the Khmer Rouge and turned into a prison and execution centre, it was a harrowing, necessary journey into the country’s tragic – and shockingly recent – past. The audio guide is well worth it and I left feeling even more inspired by the optimistic nature of Cambodia’s people. Most people over 35 or so have lived through unimaginable horror, and yet so many people we met were incredibly good-natured, kind and instructively cheerful.

A Pacific almond tree on the streets of the capital. Green was pretty lacking in Phnom Penh, so this was a welcome sight.

Sunset on the edge of Wat Phnom, a temple built in 1327 on the city’s only incline. The evening air was thick with the fragrance of burning incense, monks in their flaming robes sat cross-legged at the summit and a young man hawked lotus flowers from the steps, pink as the setting sun. We watched, part-saddened, part-spellbound, as a Khmer woman paid a few hundred riel for one of a flock of tiny sparrows, held captive in a cage little larger than a rucksack. I winced, barely able to watch, as she cupped the bird in her palms, worried she would crush or injure it. Then, whispering, she thrust her hands into the fading light and with it the sparrow – a prayer sent upwards to the heavens. I later learned this ceremonial Buddhist release is a ritual thought to bestow good luck on the emancipator.

Riding Cambodia’s only operational train route on a Friday afternoon. The train runs only from Friday-Sunday and on public holidays, stopping at four stations. It was only resurrected last year, the tracks having lain empty for the past fourteen years. I’m writing a post on how (and why) to travel by train if you’re visiting Cambodia; coming soon.

For a small town, Kampot boasts an array of unusual roundabouts, built to celebrate local industry and produce. The Durian Roundabout in the town centre champions the durian, that foul-smelling Marmite of a fruit one can’t help but encounter across southeast Asia. Kampot’s durian-growing heyday peaked in the 1960s, but the Khmer Rouge torched the durian orchards in the area to make way for rice fields and murdered the majority of producers. Today, durian farms are gradually making a comeback, mainly for export to Vietnam.

Young bananas for sale at Teuk Chhou Rapids, five miles outside of Kampot Town. Cambodians we met told us that bananas for local consumption are rarely allowed to grow to full size, as we’re used to at home. Young bananas are far sweeter, and much preferred in Cambodia.