14th - 17th April: Phnom Penh

Accommodation:  Eureka Villas  -  £26 per night, double room

First thing to do when preparing to visit Cambodia is check out www.canbypublications.com website, where you can view or download good guides to all of the tourist destinations. If you're lucky you'll find free copies in your hotel, I found them much better to use than Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Research had revealed that the preferred currency is actually the US Dollar, which you can withdraw without surcharge from Canadia Bank, among others.

There are countless horror stories about coach journeys from Hell in Asia so I’d researched intensely and concluded the best option, though most expensive, would be Giant Ibis or Mekong Express. By expensive I mean $14 from HCMC to Phnom Penh and $16 on to Siem Reap, all bookable on-line http://www.giantibis.com and http://catmekongexpress.com

Luckily the bus wasn’t full so, as a solo traveller, I had a pair of seats to spread out on. With earplugs in & music on I could settle back and take in the sights. We arrived at Mộc Bài border crossing after a couple of hours where the entry process proved pretty painless, I’d pre-arranged my visa on the Cambodian Embassy website http://www.embassyofcambodia.org/visa.html but the Visa On Arrival didn’t take any longer. We were soon hurtling through the Cambodian countryside on Highway One, first impressions were that the housing isn’t as ramshackled as I’d expected and there’s quite a bit of new manufacturing investment. Three hours later we were boarding the ferry at Neak Leung to cross the mighty Mekong River, 60km on we arrived in Phnom Penh where a short tuk-tuk ride soon had me checking in at Eureka Villas, situated in a quiet street behind the Royal Palace. The pleasure of a refreshing evening dip after hot, sweaty days in Hoi An had encouraged me to change my original booking, twice the price but totally worth it. The rest of the day was spent checking out the riverside bars & restaurants, what really hit home was the amount of rubbish strewn everywhere, pretty shocking!

Next morning I set off by tuk-tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, about an hours ride away. Although lacking formal education, my driver Piset was both articulate & knowledgeable, stopping occasionally en-route to point out places of interest and give some background info. Thankfully he’d given me a dust mask as the final part of the journey was down dirt tracks, where we ran the gauntlet of partying locals celebrating Khmer New Year. The crack was that you’d give them a few riels & they’d daub your cheeks with talcom powder. Hence it was with a ghostly pallor that we finally reached Choeung Ek, where you’re provided with a headset which relays the story of what happened in given locations around the site. This compliments the serenity that exists today while the tale is both harrowing & thought-provoking, it’s hard to imagine what would compel anyone to commit such atrocities. It is, however, understandable that ten years of the US dropping 800 tons of bombs a night on the countryside might provide all the propaganda Pol Pot needed to stir up the natives against city-dwelling collaborators, as he had portrayed them.

Piset was keen to point out some of the abuses going on today so on the way back into town we stopped at a vast tract of land which has been stolen from the impoverished locals by the government for development leaving them homeless and nowhere to grow their food. We then stopped at the sumptious palace the Prime Minister has built for himself, I cynically noted that the equally huge building behind the palace is the EU Delegation to Cambodia, it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude where the funding came from for both buildings. My final stop was Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (S21), which had originally been a high school but was used by Pol Pot to imprison & torture ‘enemies of the revolution’ before sending them to their death in the Killing Fields. Never was a dip in the pool more welcome and feel so cleansing than when I got back to the hotel.

My final day was spent exploring the city on foot checking out the landmarks before heading up to Wat Phnom for the Khmer New Year celebrations going on that day. Everybody was having a whale of a time but, I have to admit, I never had a clue what any of the games they were playing were about! I'd earlier visited the National Museum which, on hindsight, was pointless given that I'd be going on to Siem Reap where the artifacts are more abundant and all in situ. I'd been approached by a very articulate woman claiming to be a South American musician who'd like me to meet her friends to talk about England, which they'd be visiting later that year. All very plausible but this is actually a scam whereby they lure tourists into a fixed game of cards where they'd then lose all their money.

For food & drink I stayed around Sisowath Quay, which lines the Tonie Sap River with a wide variety of riverside restaurants & bars. Déjà Vu was good for a few late afternoon Angkor beers and the Fish Amok here was also delicious. I’d generally finish off each night with a few Jamesons & Ginger at the Riverside Bistro as they always had live music on and enough customers to create a good atmosphere.