Cambodia - 30.05.11 - 11.06.11
The war in Vietnam inevitably involved its neighbouring countries, some willingly and some not so. The Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam stretched into Cambodia and as such Cambodia became a vital link for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prompting the US to bomb and invade Cambodia during the 60's. The monarch at this time was Sihanouk who had established his own political party, during his 15 years he made clear his support for the communist China and North Vietnam but alienated young leftists by his repression and in 1967 a countryside rebellion ensued. Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970 but he had loyal followers who were willing to fight for their monarch. Sihanouk set up a government in exile in alliance with a revolutionary movement he called the Khmer Rouge and those who went to fight for this regime say they thought they were going up into the countryside to fight the rebels for their monarch and didn't know of Marxism or Maoism at all.
Our first stop was Phnom Penh, the capital city and epicentre of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was here in 1975 that the Khmer Rouge took the city to begin implementing their goal. The goal was to create a self sufficient nation, Cambodia was renamed Democratic Kampuchea and within days the cities and towns were emptied of the entire population including the sick, elderly and children who were forced to work in the countryside as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. The traumatic history of the country was evident at every turn, you could see it in the faces of the older generation, and in the younger ones there appeared to be a note of caution. The city itself now has a population of 1.3 million and seemed like any Asian city, bustling lanes, street vendors, a multitude of remorks (a motorbike with a trailer on the back, similar to a tuk tuk), markets and malls all along side the trauma of the Tuol Sleng Prison that is now a museum. The currency in Cambodia is riel and there are 4000 riel to $1 but if you get money out of a cash machine it comes out in dollars and they prefer to be paid in dollars. If something is $1.50 for example you have to give them $1 and then 2000 riel but if you only have $2 then they give you change of 2000 riel, it sounded very confusing when we first arrived but it was very simple. The thing we did notice however was that in comparison to Vietnam the prices were high though we were still only pay $3-$4 for a good main meal and $1 for a beer, oh how we had gotten spoilt.
We arranged for our first day to visit Choeung Ek killing fields followed by a trip to S-21 prison. During their rule records show that the Khmer Rouge killed 1.7 million people though it is thought that up to 3 million were killed. Mostly those killed were intellectuals, those who wore glasses were thought to be intellectual so were killed as well, and anyone who disobeyed orders were immediately sentenced to death though this was done through bludgeoning so as to save the precious bullets. The killing fields were the execution centre of around 17,000 detainees held at S-21 prison in Phnom Penh and the place was shocking yet peaceful. The huge memorial containing bones, old worn out clothes and the skulls of 8000 victims stands at the entrance as a stark reminder of the events that took place in this seemingly peaceful orchard. As you walk round you can see small bones and clothes near the surface of the earth, during the rainy season the water washes away the mud and more bones and clothes are unearthed. The mass graves which have now been excavated lie like craters and the buildings which the Khmer Rouge erected have been torn down, in their place signs tell the reader of what stood before. The killing tree was the most disturbing, the heads of babies and children were smashed against this tree until they were dead, nearby one mass grave contained headless corpses, all women and children the majority of whom were found naked. For some reason, although all this was shocking, the birds chirping above and the gentle sway of the trees in the warm breeze helped me to remain composed, an air of peace had descended on the place and I was not as troubled by the ordeal as one would have expected.
It was time for some lunch before heading to the prison and our tuk tuk driver very kindly suggested a plastic chair place close by, he assumed we were buying him dinner which was news to me and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu while the three of us ordered the cheapest. Martijn wanted to ask the driver about his experiences during the rule of the Khmer Rouge but wasn't sure how to broach the subject, it is still very real to so many. However, after asking his age and working out that at the start of the regime he would have been nine, the driver continued to talk. He told us how his father and both grandparents had died during the regime and instantly I felt real sorrow, it is different to merely read about an incident than to meet someone who has experienced it first hand. The conversation took a severe turn as he revealed that although his relatives had died he agreed with the regime and that although so many people died it was in reality only 20% of the population so it was ok. None of us knew what to do or how to react, I would have walked away there and then except we were miles away from the city and had already paid him for a full days driving, back in the tuk tuk we went into the city to visit the S-21 prison which is now known as Tuol Sleng museum.
S-21 was previously a high school that was taken over by Pol Pot's forces and turned into a prison. The classrooms had been sectioned off to make rows of single cells and other rooms were dedicated torture chambers for extracting confessions. When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1975 only 7 prisoners were still alive all of whom had kept their life by using their skills such as painting or photography. Every prisoner that went through the prison was photographed and meticulous records were kept. The photos now line notice boards all around the museum. Although 7 prisoners were found alive, the Vietnamese also found 14 French prisoners dead in the torture chambers. There are photographs in the rooms where they were found of the bodies, and the torture instruments they had used still lie on the bed to this day. The peace I was able to find at the killing fields was not present here, the purpose built cells with their chains remain, the beds and photographs in the torture chamber and the blood stains on the floor and walls serve as a reminder far too real for you to come away undisturbed. We had previously agreed that we would also take the tuk tuk the following day to visit an orphanage but I told the driver we would not be requiring his services any more, he finished the day by giving us his bank details in case we wanted to donate some money for his child to learn English at private school. There are no words.
We needed some time for reflection so opted to go for a nice meal. The restaurant of choice was called Friends. This restaurant is run by ex-street children, the children go to the school next door and when they are old enough learn the skills they can choose to learn to work in the restaurant. The chefs, the waiters, the maitre d' were all at the end of their training program that would hopefully be their first step into the hospitality industry working in Phnom Penh. The food and service was the best we had experienced since being in Asia and all profits and tips go straight back into the project. I tipped for the first time because I wanted to, not because I felt I should. We bought goods from the shop as well that were made by the students who also study art and the carrier bag was made out of newspaper. When we returned to our guest house the receptionist spotted the bag straight away and we told him of our experience with the driver and how we now were not going to the orphanage though we had bought gifts for the children. Samet, the receptionist, suggested if we wanted we could visit the village he grew up in. The village was so poor it had no name and was known merely as the village on corner one, he showed us pictures of beautiful smiling children and we were sold.
As I boarded the tuk tuk I was filled with apprehension, it felt in some way big headed to think that a group of people we had never met would be so desperate to take hand outs from strangers. We bought 50 kilo of rice which cost us $35, this surprised me because locals eat rice with everything and families cannot afford to buy in bulk to get the discount so they pay $1 per kilo and eat about 3 kilo a day that seemed like so much to me. We bought sweets, fake Werthers, crayons, rubbers and took the pencils, books and bowling set we had already bought on our one hour journey through the countryside. I should not have been so concerned about the reception we would get, the children had been told we were coming and when they saw the tuk tuk sweep around corner number one they came running after us. We got out and I didn't really know what to do, a lot of people were just staring at me expectantly and I had no idea how to react. The village was a dirt road, the houses all made from bamboo with a well for all to share the water. The children were filthy dirty, their clothes had so many holes in, one boy was wearing shorts that were completely ripped away at one side and some children were just naked. I started by getting a loaf of bread out of the tuk tuk to hand out and got pushed back against it in their attempt to reach for a slice of bread, there were hands waving at me from all directions including those of adults who were all desperate for a slice of dry bread. Next Samet, our hotel receptionist/tour guide, helped me to hand out crayons and colouring in sheets which were also grabbed as if they were $100 notes. We saw parents doing colouring and even a group of teenage lads colouring little mermaid drawings. The sweets were handed out over the course of the day and the kids hid them in their pockets while asking for more. Then Adam got on the tuk tuk with the 50 kilo bag of rice and rode down the street handing it out to the families. As there are 38 families who live in the village they got only over a kilo each but they seemed so grateful, their beaming smiles humbling to behold. The rest of the morning we played with the children, the fact that we spoke no Khmer and them no English was not an issue, the communication was on a completely different level to anything I had before experienced. The whole day was one I would not forget.
This town is on the south coast and is blessed with some beautiful beaches. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be much of a secret and the area we stayed in was lined with beach front bars, cafes and restaurants offering happy pizzas and happy shakes for $1 more than the non happy price in the day, and free shots with fireworks, fire dancers and wood fired barbeques in the evening. My initial reaction to the place was not exactly one of adoration but as our time there passed I grew to like it more. Adam had a bracelet made by one of the kids who are serious entrepreneurs and risk takers. Adam offered the boy $2 but he said he would rather play pool and if Adam won he could pay only $1 but if the kid won, he would have to pay $3. Of course, Adam won but he was certainly given a good run for his money. The kids at the beginning of our time there seemed harmless enough but they soon became a problem when we wanted to relax. It was not just the children but the women and the beggars, well basically everyone. It was impossible to sit on the northern end of the beach and not get harassed. The children want to sell you bracelets, sunglasses, fireworks and if you don't want to buy off them they want to play a game, for money of course. They play pool, noughts and crosses and rock, paper scissors all in the name of making a quick buck. The women will offer to thread your eyebrows, legs, underarms, men's chest hair, give you a back massage, a foot massage, a head massage and then finally when you have convinced them all that you really don't need anything along with the token guy who offers you all manner of illegal substances, the beggars who are selling nothing appeal to your sense of guilt. They drag themselves down the beach on their bum missing a leg and using flip flops to protect their hands, a blind guy will sing while being led along by his filthy daughter and a very small child will hold her hands out like in prayer to say please because her father accompanying her at 11pm has only one hand, if you leave this town with a shred of decency you definitely won't leave with a dime.
We managed to escape the madding crowds on an overnight trip to Koh Russei aka Bamboo Island though this was a bit too much of an extreme for me. We had gone from being hassled every 3 minutes to I could die here and no-one would find me. We had a bamboo hut on the beach and there was one bar on the whole island. I was grateful to see the boat the next day though that was short lived as we got tossed around through a storm on the 1 hour journey back to shore, as an idea to the scale of the panic, I actually put on a life jacket. An afternoon back in Sihanoukville on the southern part of the beach was much quieter and time to move on, our night bus to Siem Reap.
After my experiences of night buses in Vietnam I thought of myself as a seasoned traveller, oh how wrong I was. There is no way I could get used to the bouncing and turning that almost causes you to fall out of the bed and the sleeping on fake leather sticky sweaty thin mattresses while music blares and karaoke streams through fuzzy TVs. I had to think twice though when we stopped for dinner at 10pm and I saw a truck driver having a quick nap in a hammock that hung between the wheel arches of his lorry, perhaps I didn't have it so bad after all.
In general, Vietnam gets a bad reputation among travellers for the way the locals rip you off but in my experience, Cambodia was worse. When we arrived after our long journey, we were tired and a little bit dazed by the fact that we were thrown off the bus with our luggage into a gated muddy courtyard and were being accosted by 2 men who told us that we had to pay $1 each for a ticket to get a tuk tuk to the town centre. I never believe a word they tell me and sometimes it does turn out to be true but that is less often the case so I ignored the man and told him we would come back in to the courtyard if it turned out to be correct. Of course it was not and the same cheeky driver then told us he would take 4 people for $1 wherever we wanted to go. I should have known then that he was a bad egg and gone elsewhere. The reason why they offer to take you for so little is because they want to be your driver around the temples of Angkor for the following days. He did take us to a nice and cheap hotel and he did wait while we ate our breakfast and decided what we wanted to do but he also argued with us, aka me, profusely over the price and I refused to agree with him over the full day but said he could take us for sunset views over Angkor. The walk to the top of the hill was arduous though we could have hired transport in the form of an elephant which I declined. The views were rather impressive but ruined by the masses of shouting tourists who were climbing all over the temple, had they been absent the quiet serenity of the place would have been wonderful. We wandered down before everyone else and sat talking to the driver who told us that although Marijuana is illegal in Cambodia the fine is $15, it appears they don't take quite the same line as Thailand on the issue! Adam and I had slept all day since arriving but Martijn and Linda (a new addition to our small posse) had got a driver to agree to take us the next day for a better price. As our driver dropped us off for a burger on the way home we told him we no longer required his services. He kicked off and shouted and pouted at us but I didn't give a hoot and off he drove.
When we got up the next morning at 4am ready for our sunrise over Angkor Wat, Adam's reaction was a very mature "I'm not going", but at $25 each for a one day pass he was getting out of that bed. The sunrise over Angkor Wat is apparently a must see, I can't say it was at the top of my best things done list, seeing as there was no sun and the temple was rather unlovingly swathed in green scaffolding. The one thing that should have redeemed this dismal morning was that I ordered a pancake with Nutella and had the added benefit of being allowed to sit on a red chair while the sun rose somewhere else, but the thing was it wasn't a pancake it was a cake in a pan. I was so disconcerted by this that I must have repeated myself about 15 times, it seems funny now but I'm telling you at the time, it really wasn't. Angkor Wat is considered to be the heart and soul of Cambodia, it takes pride of place on their national flag and is the largest religious structure in the world, it even has its own moat. It was built in 1113-1140 commissioned by the then king, and the sandstone blocks used in its construction were quarried 50km away and floated down the river. Although the external vista was somewhat ruined by the reparation work, the inside was stunning and created some wonderful photo opportunities for posing for fabulous arty shots. The detail was astonishing and there was a real sense of calm within its walls. Angkor Wat is just one temple within the Temples of Angkor area and we visited as many as we could stomach in our one day. Martijn and Linda were keen to keep exploring so took another 2 days to explore more of the many temples. We visited a temple complex called Angkor Thom which was originally a fortified city and during its prime the population was 1 million at around the same time the population of London was a mere 50,000. The Bayon temple we visited featured a maze of 216 enormous smiling faces of Avalokiteshvera. I really enjoyed this temple but for me Ta Prohm was where I could have spent the rest of my day. The centuries old trees have taken over here as their roots burst through the towers and walls, the structure is crumbling and covered in moss and foliage and it had a real Indiana Jones feel, or should I say Tomb Raider as that was actually filmed here.
I'd like to tell you that whilst Martijn and Linda enriched themselves studying the temples that Adam and I did something equally useful but no, we ate ice cream, surfed the internet and slept until it was time for our bus to Laos. We had booked to leave at 6.30am and arrive by 4.30pm at the island of Don Det in Laos but this was one of our least successful journies. The tuk tuk arrived at 7:30am to take us to a bus which we got at 8:00am that took us to another bus which was a crap local bus that then took us to another bus and by 8:00pm we were told "Finish!" and we certainly hadn't crossed the border yet. It looked like Cambodia wanted us to stay one more day.
Looking back over our time in Cambodia I can now say I really enjoyed myself and I would return but while we were there and living in the reality of a country marred by such atrocity it felt too heavy and intense. If that's just me as a traveller for 2 weeks I cannot begin to imagine what it is like for those who have lived through it and live on into the future. The problem is that in comparison to their dark past the future looks pretty good but when comparing the country to its more prosperous neighbours, the large and growing income disparities, the rapidly rising inflation, the corruption and ecological devastation, it is hard to be so optimistic.