Cambodia 27th November - 3rd December 2010
This is a very long Blog entry and the part under Phnom Penh is quite distressing due to the details I've included from the genocides in Cambodia's recent history. You may want to grab yourself a coffee and a maybe even a tissue before you read it.
Phnom Penh 27th - 29th November 2010
I had been chatting to Cara on email since leaving Koh Lanta and we decided to meet up for a few days in Cambodia.I was flying in from Bangkok, and she was taking a bus (or 6 as it turned out!) from Laos.
My journey was pretty mundane, except from a series of lastminute.com sagas at the airport which involved; realising I needed passport photos for the Cambodian visa and finally got them taken at the airport in the tourist police office 45 minutes before take off! Then I had to run to the front of a massive queue in departures and ask a Japanese guy in sign language if I could push in front of him, got through security (this is now 25 mins before departure), had to get US$ as that's all they accept as payment for the visa in Cambodia!, then jogged all the way to the other side of the airport (which ironically it's the biggest airport I've ever been too) and got there 10 mins before departure. Thank god they were late as otherwise I would have been denied boarding! Hehehe :) Hey I've only missed 7 flights in my life, and my nearly missed number has now increased to 3!
Before I go into details about the sights we saw in Phnom Penh, I firstly need to explain about the ultra Communist party called the Khmer Rouge, who seized power of the country between 1975 - 1979.
They came into power on April 17th 1975, after 5 years of civil war. They were welcomed and celebrated as they marched into the city of Phnom Penh as they were the soldiers who had fought in the war, but this only lasted for one morning. As they marched, they started ordering everyone to leave and head for the countryside. They believed the cities were breading grounds for Capitalism, and wanted everyone out.Their view was there were old and new Cambodians. The 'old' would be good for their regime, the 'new' (the ones who had chosen to live in the cities and who were therefore the root of all capitalist evil) were seen as the embodiment of capitalism and the enemy of communism. All city dwellers regardless of occupation (it didn't matter if you were a doctor, teacher, tailor, a civil servant or a monk) were now classed as enemies of the new communist state, a status that would cost hundreds of thousands of them their lives.
In order to move everyone from the cities they were told they needed to leave to escape an air raid attack from the Americans and no-one was allowed to stay.Professionals were forced into a life of farming, and the new rules that were being imposed by Angka ("The Organisation") which was a secretive team of Khmer Rouge leaders dictated the lives of every Cambodian. These new rules included banning religion, money and private ownership, all communications with the outside world were eliminated (including the importation of any goods, Cambodia was now to be completely self sufficient), and family relationships were dismantled. All rights and responsibilities were destroyed. The Khmer Rouge often quoted "2000 years of Cambodian history has now come to an end; April 17 was the beginning of Year Zero for the new Cambodia: Democratic Kampuchea (DK)."
However, all of that was just the beginning. Paranoia about Cambodia's citizens trying to overthrow the dictatorship slowly started setting in. The Khmer Rouge estimated up to 5% of the population were traitors to the communist party and they set about exterminating this infestation.
The Khmer Rouge rounded up thousands of people including fellow communists, sending them to a prison called S-21 or Tuol Sleng, in order to extract confessions. No one was immune from the paranoia - not even some of the most committed members of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Members such as Minister Hu Nim and Deputy Prime Minister Vorn Vet were arrested, interrogated, subjected to prolonged torture and finally condemned to death at Tuol Sleng.
Pol Pott's regime / the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the worst genocide of the 20th Century and in the 4 years they were in power they killed 3 million people - 25% of the country's population. The majority died from starvation and needing medical treatment that was no longer available as the doctors and pharmacists had been killed or disbursed and the medication could not be imported.
S-21 / Tuol Sleng Prison
The events that have taken place in this compound are absolutely horrific.
S21 was originally a Primary and Secondary school, until the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975 - 1979. They turned this building into a prison, dedicated to torturing confessions from every one of the 20,000 inmates it held during that time, including high ranking military officials, doctors, judges, politicians, even movie stars - basically anyone who could speak out against them. They also included the wives & children of a lot of these prisoners, who were also mercilessly tortured until they named co-conspirators to crimes their loved ones were charged with (and yes, that did include the children too). Of the 20,000 people known to have entered, only 6 people survived.
The prison was for what the Khmer Rouge called Political Prisoners and they were taken here and tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes the interrogators felt reasonable. These interrogations were relentless and for normal prisoners lasted up to 2 months, and for high ranking prisoners they lasted anywhere up to 6 months, before they were all taken to the killing fields and executed.
No-one was spared. They had a saying "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." They believed in killing everyone in connection with the suspects, including babies and children to avoid revenge in years to come.
Also along with the immediate loss of life this also had further catastrophic effects on the lives of Cambodians. As the Khmer Rouge were set on Cambodians being completely self sufficient this meant that along with the severe food shortage, when people got sick they no longer had the medical professionals to take care of the sick, or manufacture the medicine, so if / when you got sick, it was actually a death sentence.
I just couldn't comprehend the violence, pain, and inhumane actions undertaken in this building. I couldn't even look at some of the images, let alone take in the actions. To think of the different uses this building has had was also very sad.It's been a Primary school, a Secondary school, torture processing centre, Prison, execution centre and whether or not you look at this for historic value but it's one of Cambodia's top tourist attractions.
This was a very surreal day and very sombering, but I must say how well everything was presented. It is not aimed at making you sick to your stomach, but rather educating you on the atrocities that took place during this era.
We left here and headed back to the hostel.Both feeling a bit strange really and I don't think either of us took a lot of it in. Maybe that's just a survival reaction when you see atrocities of this scale.
The pharmacy incident
Whilst in Phnom Penh and just after the killing fields we had to visit a pharmacy as Cara had quite a list of bits she needed to get, so we headed out in search of one that hopefully would speak English. That hope was however far too optimistic.We finally found one that was open, but I don't know if I'd actually call what we ended up at an actual pharmacy. Firstly, there we were standing on the side of a dirty, dusty road, at a counter with a load of glass cabinets, absolutely bursting with packs of tablets. I'm sure they knew where everything was but it just seemed like unorganised chaos. The 'pharmacists' were mainly children standing in a row behind the counter cutting up packs of tablets into various denominations and giving them out to anyone who asked for it - not a prescription in sight! Now as I said Cara had quite a list which involved gauze dressing which was shiny on one side so it wouldn't stick to the 2nd degree burn she had on her leg, some contact lens solution and a pregnancy test! Well lets just say we got enough looks as it was walking along the backstreets of Cambodia, so it was pretty interesting having the pair of us standing there on the street, in front of a load of Cambodians trying to mime the shopping list! Whilst we were trying to mime this list we were both in fits of laughter and all I could envisage is the scene from Bridget Jone's Diary where she skis up to the pharmacy counter and tries to describe a pregnancy test in German. That wasn't actually the most difficult item (although it did feel wrong buying it from a minor!), the one we really had trouble with was contact lense solution, and I was again crying with laughter at Cara's miming, which included sleeping, cleaning them in solution and putting them back in the next morning.Highly entertaining! The pregnancy test also came back negative thank god! Imagine trying to carry a little one around in a back pack! Lol.
I'm going to keep this part pretty short and sweet as I don't want you all crying into your coffee whilst reading it.
The killing fields were where the men, women, children and babies were brought to be executed. They were apparently told when they were being removed from the prison that they were being released and were being sent to a forced labour camp, so they would be well behaved and wouldn't resist.
When they got to the killing fields, if they were lucky, they were executed quickly. The Khmer Rouge didn't use guns as the bullets were deemed too valuable, so they were killed with axes, blunt instruments, spears, ropes, whatever they could find. Sometimes they had up to 300 people arriving a day and as this number couldn't be executed all at once, some of the prisoners were tied up and held in metal sheds until they could be executed the next day. I couldn't even begin to imagine what that must have been like. And as I overheard a tour guide say, it would have been even more horrific for families that were brought here, as they would not only be watching hundreds of people being brutally murdered right in front of them, but they would be watching their husbands, wives, children, brothers and sister be killed whilst they were forced to watch, and if they couldn't kill them all together, they would put the others into the shed until the next day! I still feel sick now.
The Cambodians believe that the majority of these souls are still not layed to rest as they were not given the proper burial. I stood there for a long time praying that this was not the case and that with everything they suffered that they were finally at peace.
The whole area is a mass of large pits that had once been the mass graves. 126 pits were created and 89 of these have been exhumed. I'm not sure what they are doing with the remaining pits.
The pits we saw had been exhumed so were now deep ditches, covered in grass again.There were so many of them, literally only a couple of foot separated one from another, that it looked like a intense crazy golf course. The graves that we saw included general mass graves for hundreds of people, a women and children pit when they were all killed together, a headless soldier pit and a killing tree (where children and babies would either be violently smashed against it until their skulls were smashed, or they were thrown in the air and used as target practice or stabbed with bassinets, often whilst their mothers were still present as they had just been ripped from their arms!) I just hope that every single one of the perpetrators rots in hell!
That is all I'm going to say about the atrocities that occurred at the Killing Fields because quite frankly I don't want to even think about the rest of the stuff I saw, let alone write it.
The Pagoda which houses all of the recovered remains was actually very tastefully completed and is a very pretty building, for what it has to hold. The Killing Fields were again tastefully presented and considering the contents of its history, they did a good job in conveying the information without having everyone in floods of tears.
I'm really sorry if this part has been depressing, and I've actually not put a lot of information in here due to how distressing some of the images and stories were that we heard, but it's a very big part of Cambodia's history and I wanted to add it so I can remember in years to come. I think it's really important no matter how upsetting they are, that we remember moments like this in history so they will never happen again.
Siem Reap / Angkor Wat 29th November - 3rd December 2010
We left the sombre Phnom Penh behind and got a bus for 6 hours up to Siem Reap. When we got there we headed straight out for an authentic Cambodian meal, which was very tasty and got an early night as we were both knackered.We were staying in a dorm and I had a top bunk. I honestly felt like I was climbing up into the rafters as the height of this bed was beyond a joke.I thankfully picked the one that didn't bring you within a couple of inches of the fan blades swinging around, and we both zonked out for a well deserved sleep. The next day we brought a 3 day pass to the Angkor Wat complex and hired Th'aur, (Tour) our Tuk Tuk driver for 3 days. :)
The complex is divided into many temples and we gave the ones we went to names as we just couldn't remember what they were all called. My favourites were Angkor Wat, the faces one, the stairway to heaven (butt crunch a-hoy :)) and the Elephant corners. I didn't really like the stagnant ponds one, but Cara made me walk round it anyway as we were there.
We watched a sunset one night from the top of a huge temple, which sits on top of a huge hill.The walk up it (I wish we hired an Elephant and saved our poor little legs!), in the blistering heat took about 40 minutes and then we had to climb what looked like a vertical wall with steps not even as wide as with width of your hand. Cara not only had a serious knee surgery 4 months ago, but was also wearing a dress and when I looked up to start climbing, just burst out laughing. I just couldn't climb it, and stood there til she got to the top of the first flight. When she realised what I was laughing at she kept trying to cover herself which was not helping as she was having enough trouble climbing up this thing as it was.
At one point a guy tried to move me out the way and start climbing but I wouldn't let him. I pointed up at Cara trying to climb it whilst holding her skirt down and when he realised why I was waiting he started cracking up. I suppose you had to be there really, but everyone climbing this thing was laughing which was just making the situation even worse! :)
We watched some of the sunset but as it was cloudy we decided to leave early. This was after we were both nearly pushed 40ft to our deaths by a stupid laughing Japanese tourist who fell over a rock and onto the pair of us!Jesus! Then as we were climbing down another Japanese guy decided he needed help jumping down the last couple of steps, so lent his full weight on Cara (who was having trouble supporting her own weight on her recovering knee) and jumped! Fecking idiots!
Considering the somber time we both had in PP, we both had quite a laugh in Siem Reap. We went out for a nice meal to an authentic Cambodian restaurant which had traditional dancing, went to a restaurant that supported local street kids, we sat in the post office sorting through hundreds of letters and searching through books with hundreds of entries to try and find Cara's missing bank card (yep can you believe she doesn't have hers either!), we saw monkeys playing by the side of the road, watched a sunrise over Ankor Wat where Tour brought us a bamboo cane full of coconut rice and beans, which we carried round like an offering enticing interest from the other tourists until we could find a bin and we went for a gorgeous 'western' meal which I was in desperate need of, having eaten nothing but Thai and Cambodian food for nearly a month!
I left Siem Reap on a night bus headed to Bangkok to get my connecting flight to Vietnam, but will put all of that in my next blog. :)
The negatives of Cambodia
The one negative thing that I have to say on Cambodia is that unfortunately a lot of the people seem to be playing on this terrible history, and I got the feeling that they expect people to help them out, and sometimes very bluntly.
I of course understand that they are a developing country, and money especially generated from tourism is such a vital part not only to growing their economy but literally means hand to mouth.
However, they would be well reminded that if you constantly try and rip off the tourists and give across the attitude that they almost deserve to be ripped off, then this kind of attitude quite frankly is going to shoot themselves in the foot!
I've been to quite a few developing countries now, but the attitudes of a lot of Cambodian people really let it down.They have no idea how to care for their environment, constantly hassle anyone not Cambodian and they significantly overcharge. It's very common for locals to see sights for free and tourists to pay for it. I don't really have a problem with this when it comes to say sightseeing at temples, when a small donation goes very far, but when we're talking about things such as toilets and tourists paying 4 times the amount of a local, if they even pay it at all, it really starts to grate on you.
The final straw was when we were going to go on a tour of a floating forest.Firstly, this turned out to simply be a mangrove, and secondly for a 90 minute tour they wanted US$30 per boat for it! Now you may not think that's a lot of money, but an average days wages is $10, which is very good money for and is usually with a skill or a mode of transport such as a boat, motorbike taxi or Tuk Tuk. So not only was the amount they were charging nearly 4 times this daily rate but they didn't seem to didn't that charging $30 to see some mangroves was enough. Cara and I agreed with a couple who had also just pulled up in a Tuk Tuk to share a boat, but when the greeter saw this horrific act he ran ahead, shouting at the other guy in Cambodian what we were trying to do. When we asked for just one boat the guys behind the counter said we couldn't as we'd all arrived separately and had to take 2 boats. So $60 for 4 of us to look at some mangroves - I don't blimin' think so! It's also the look they give you, like why are you being tight, just pay it. We told them that they needed to price it either for a boat or per person, and not chop and change it to make them the most amount of money as possible. And then to their utter disbelief we said we weren't paying a massively over inflated price and we walked off!
The street hawkers are also beyond belief and you have at least 5 of them shouting at you and shoving things in your face before your tuk tuk has even stopped. It drives you to insanity.
All in all I'm very glad that I took the time to visit Phnom Penh, rather than just heading straight for Angkor Wat. It was a very hard place to visit, and was extremely sombering as their very recent history is so horrifically violent, but I just didn't think I could come here and just see the 'prettiness' and pretend it didn't happen.
I also can't believe how quickly the time is now going. It's like the closer it's getting to the end, the faster it's going. I've been in Cambodia for 6 nights and I feel like I've blinked and I'm now about to start my journey to Vietnam.