It's a decade since I commenced my Bachelor of Arts International in Irish Folklore & Sociology at University College Dublin. Upon disclosure of the nature of my undergraduate studies perplexed people ponder purposefully and ask "Is folklore about the myths and legends we were told at school?' I reply: "Yes it is partially but folklore is a umbrella term which encapsulates calendar customs, life cycle traditions, folk religious beliefs and traditional medicine.
One of my favourite myths in Ireland is Tir Na Og or The Land of Eternal Youth. Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Capital, I felt like I was on the Land of Eternal Youth as the majority of people who I seen were in their early twenties. The reason for this predominantly young population is due to the fact that between 1975 and 1978, a Dictator named Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party exterminated half of the country's population reducing it from 7 million to just 3 and a half. In the 1980s, the birthrate amongst the survivors was high thus leading to a youthful population today.
Phnom Penh contains two museums dedicated to the genocide. Tuol Sleng was formerly a secondary school that was transformed into a prison where anyone who was considered a threat to regime was incarcerated. These included those who wore glasses, spoke a foreign language, possessed weak hands or had a moustache. 14 people survived Tuol Sleng. The remainder were transferred to Choeung Ek, nicknamed the Killing Fields. Victims were bludgeoned to death as bullets were too noisy and could raise awareness of what was happening. The most horrorfying aspect of my visit was a tree against which infants were flung against until their skulls or spines fractured and they died. Pol Pot evaded justice and died in 1998,
Battambang a city whose cuisine and architecture is heavily influenced by the French who controlled the country until 1953. After sampling both I took a ride on a bamboo train which is a open carriage powered by a petrol engine. The journey provides a alternative view of the countryside and I couldn't help myself in singing The Locomotion by Kylie Minogue as we moved! Subsequently my motorbike driver Toothan rode me to the Bat Cave where two million bats emerge at sunset daily.
Siem Reap the home of Angkor Wat and hundreds of other temples was my next stop. I awoke at 3 30 am on the first day to witness sunrise over the iconic Angkor Wat. This was a mesmerising, magical, and memorable sight and preceded my tuk tuk driver escorting me to other temples in the area. These included Ta Prohm Temple where Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie was filmed. In total I spent three days exploring approximately three dozen temples and their intricate carvings and statues to worship various deities. Next stop was the coastal resort of Sihanoukville where I read, relaxed, swam and wrote on the beach. Unfortunately my relaxation ended when I asked for the return of my neck and waist wallets. I always have left these items containing my emergency cash at reception upon checking in. On this occasion however, they weren't placed in a safe and the $200 they contained had vanished. The hostel took no responsibility for this as they claimed they didn't know what they contained and therefore weren't placed in the safe. I now realise that I have to distribute the emergency cash in separate places to ensure that this never happens again.
A boat trip led me to the secluded island of Koh Rong Samleon. During my time there, I sampled several delicious dishes at a beautiful buffet including succulent scallops and aromatic aubergine. At 12 pm the electricity was cut off until dawn and the lapping sea waves collided gently with the beach that my hostel overlooked. Back to the mainland, I travelled to Kep, another coastal town. Whilst there I obtained the ultimate luxury for backpackers-my own private room! It's delightful to be able to lock your door, remove all valuables, and sleep undisturbed for as long as you like. After two days of hermit-like hibernation, I loaned a free bicycle from the guesthouse to explore the surrounding area. In a delightful village, I discovered a French cafe and bakery where freshly baked bread and honey was washed down with pure orange juice. Back in the saddle, I explored decadent temples and dilapidated villas abandoned by their owners during the genocide. For dinner, I tried what Kep is renowned for- crab! This is a challenge to eat and was a complete and utter mess to eat.
Kampot was the next destination for me and the most memorable experience was totally unexpected! Bokor National Park is a half an hour away and my roommates and I decided to ride there on......motorbikes! This was a wonderful experience and as the saying goes in South East Asia YOLO-you only live once! Although I fell off at 3 Mph, I still felt immense pride at my achievements that day, especially since my father had sacrificed many months encouraging, enticing and enthusiastically teaching me to ride my bicycle a quarter of a century earlier.
To conclude my Cambodian conquest, I headed to Koh Kong which is the gateway to the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor. I explored the jungle during a two day trek. Each rest stop involved swimming in delightful waterfalls and consuming delicious food cooked over a camp fire. Accommodation involved sleeping in hammocks and neither a toilet or shower. To wrap up day one of the hike we commenced a search for fireflies which was highly successful! The following evening we returned to Koh Kong and after a day or two resting I returned to Bangkok where I would travel to Malaysia. My Malaysian antics are another blog entry which I am already working on as you read this!
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