Long time no see people!Our fault entirely…the truth is we have had nothing to write about for so long because, after moving to Cambodia, we felt an urgent need to spend 7 whole days in a posh hotel in Phnom Penh doing nothing other than lazing around the swimming pool, drinking fresh fruit juice and reading a damn good book…what?Travelling's hard work!!
Fully revitalised, we then got back on the road and set about seeing what Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, has to offer.Answer - not a huge amount!The Royal Palace was beautiful, in typical Asian style (see photos) and its silver-floored pagoda was also not be missed but the greatest draw to this somewhat grimy city was its telling of the Khmer Rouge regime's brutal history in the country.We started off by visiting Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison.The building was originally a school, and still looks quite like one, but was transformed into a prison by the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot came to power and abolished the education system.It initially housed prisoners opposed to Pol Pot's regime, who had once been high ranking officials, but over the four years of the Khmer Rouge's power, it came to house anyone at all who the regime suspected of being against it.To call it a prison is putting it lightly; it was a centre for the most horrendous and brutal torture any human can imagine, all in aid of getting the victim to admit they were against the regime (most reached a point where they would admit anything just to make the torture stop) and then they were killed anyway.Shortly afterwards, their whole family would also be killed to avoid anyone growing up to take revenge at a later date.Anyone who has been privileged enough to visit similar genocide memorial sites will know there are almost no words that can adequately express the feeling of such places.Indeed, at Tuol Sleng, the fine line between life and death confronts you in a very visual way, as you are presented with room upon room and row upon row of portrait photos of the people who dies there.Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in cataloguing every prisoner they housed, but unlike the Nazis, they did this with photo mug shots.To see these photos, of living, breathing human beings, some with truly palpable fear in their faces, was extremely sobering but went some considerable way to achieving the Cambodians' goal of never letting the world forget Pol Pot's atrocities, so as to build, a stronger, more united Cambodia.
Coupled with visiting this prison, we spent an afternoon visiting the famous Killing Fields, just outside Phnom Penh.Many of you, we are sure, will have seen the film of that same title, which shows to some visual degree the brutality of the regime and brings home how recent these appalling events are.If you haven't seen it, watch it!It is a story that needs to be told.Killing Fields were where prisoners were taken to be executed once they had 'admitted' their anti-Khmer Rouge allegiance.They were more often than not bludgeoned to death in an effort to save on expensive bullets and were then thrown into an open pit with up to 200 other victims.There are many killing fields all over Cambodia, but this is the one that has been opened up to the public and, in our opinion, its set up was really very impressive.Everyone follows an audio guide around the site, which means you receive superb information but the calm nature of the site is not disturbed either by huge information boards or tour guides shouting to be heard.Some of the mass graves on the site have been excavated and the major bones of the victims housed in a memorial temple, but some have not.This means that, as water levels rise and fall throughout the year at the site, clothes of victims still buried and pieces of bone fragment often rise to the surface, requiring the caretakers of the site to remove them once every couple of months.We saw evidence of both the clothes and the bones ourselves and, as grotesque as it may sound to be walking amongst human remains, there is nothing sensational about it, it simply serves as an all too real reminder that we are fortunate enough to barely be able to imagine having to witness the brutal, callous and often savage killings of men, women and children.We have included a couple of photos of the skull memorial (a collection of skulls all found at these mass graves) in our latest album so you can perhaps start to get some idea of how physical our response to visiting the site was.
Early last week, we then set off for Kratie, a small town towards the north-east of the country, in search of the incredibly rare Irrawaddy river dolphin!We had been told by an English guy we met in Laos that, although these dolphins can, in theory, be found in several locations along the Mekong river, in the dry season the dolphins headed for Kratie, where the river level still allows them to swim about freely.In Cambodia, the only real public transport option is the bus so, having enquired and been told the journey to Kratie would take six hours, we gritted our teeth and hopped on board. Several issues then arose; firstly, 6 hours actually ended up being 8 hours and we were subjected to an incessant torrent of Cambodian karaoke/Benny Hill style nonsense for THE ENTIRE JOURNEY!Imagine the oldest bus you have ever seen, gears barely work, the driver has to be at least 100 years old (and incidentally clearly has a cataract as cannot see in the dark, so grinds to a halt whenever anything with a light on comes towards him and fails to see cattle crossing the road), the seats are sweaty, and a bit smelly and it doesn't hit over 50km an hour for the entire journey…..then put a brand new, start of the art plasma TV at the front, hook it up to an equally high-tech DVD player let the fun and games begin!Where the karaoke is concerned, you quite simply have to see it to believe it.The songs are ALL just schmolzy lovey-dovey nonsense and thus extremely irritating, but the videos are the best bits!They are reminiscent of some courtly love scene from tudor times (imagine Greensleeves Cambodia-style) and the failure to make the singing match the mouth movements of the ludicrously made up protagonists is nothing short of comic genius.The Benny-hill style stand-up shows we were also treated to however took the biscuit.A man and a woman, on a stage, displaying some of the most appalling school play-style acting skills you have ever witnessed, pretending to be a couple who fall out/make up/fall out/make up/fall out/make up whilst indulging the unforgiveable nonsense of various secondary characters who run around making a lot of noise, sing songs about what seems to be going on…badly.Believe us when we say, OUT OF TUNE IS A WESTERN CONCEPT!And we didn't just have to endure these apparently hilarious antics once, oh no, we were subjected to no less than 3 different couples, on 3 different DVDs having what appeared to be the same argument…..for 8 hours!
Nevertheless, when we hit Kratie, all was forgiven.That is, until we checked into our hotel and were taken to a room with a huge damp patch on the ceiling.The manager insisted it was an old leak that had been fixed and that we could move rooms tomorrow if we were not happy but he was full that night.Tired after our epic bus journey and hungry after surviving on pringles and oreos all day, we agreed and went out to eat.Come bed time however, the apparently fixed damp patch started to drip water into the room and more importantly onto the double bed underneath it.Not in the mood to argue with the Chinese owner, we spent the night crammed in a single bed up against the wall to avoid the flow!Still not perturbed form our reason for heading to Kratie (and having moved to a nice, dry, room), we headed out the next day to see the dolphins and were not disappointed.If you google them, you will see that they have a head shaped more like a small whale than a dolphin and we were lucky enough to spend our hour-long boat trip witnessing their early morning fun and frolics.Yet again, what a privilege to see such an endangered species happy and healthy in its natural habitat.On our way back from the river we also visited a beautiful temple, where we were treated to a rehearsal of what seemed to be the local 'orchestra/band/music group' (not sure??), practising their renditions of some Khmer classics.Then it was on to a Mekong Turtle conservation centre, where the local people are doing all they can to prevent the trade in turtle shells, largely to China and Japan, which is slowly obliterating the population.We also climbed a small hill (called a mountain by the Cambodians, whose country is about as mountainous as the fens) to see some great little temples, used and run by a small community of Buddhist nuns (don't do it girls, you have to shave your head) and, whilst the temples provided us with yet more examples of beautiful architecture, we became mesmerised by a small group of 3 macaques who live up the hill.The nuns weren't overly keen on having them around, in fact being quite un-nunly by throwing stones at them and trying to whip them with cane, but we were transfixed, watching them dig and play in a pile of building sand - we have tried to upload the video we took of their antics!).Back in Kratie, it was dinner time and we had found 'Red Sun Falling', a restaurant/bar recommended in the Lonely Planet as worth a visit.Indeed, how could we fail to be impressed by the absolute campest social hang out known to man!Joe, the American owner, is THE campest man we have ever met and just talks at you, whether what he is saying fits in with your input to the conversation or not, and he has covered the walls with giant pink paper hearts, each with a suitably camp double-entendre written on it ('Feast on the beast', 'my p**** needs stroking' next to a picture of a cat, of course, and 'Can my dolphin swim in your Mekong' to name but a few)!We loved it!Plus, the food and cocktails were good so we just kept on going back…every meal time in fact!
After a day of cycling round a local island (in hindsight not a brilliant idea in such stiflingly humid conditions!?) we headed back to Phnom Penh for one last day at the pool before starting our journey north towards Siem Reap.The trip will take us just over a week, with some great scheduled stops along the way, and it is from one of these, as small town called Pursat that we write now.Today, we headed out by trusty tuk-tuk to a floating village on the Tonle Sap lake, largely inhabited by Vietnamese who were granted rights to stay in Cambodia after the Vietnamese helped overthrow Pol Pot in 1979.It was a whole little world - police departments, mobile phone stores, a church, a cinema (of sorts) - just floating!The buildings are all floated on giant barrels or bamboo poles and anchored in place to prevent the whole town floating away.What was most impressive though was, as we drove away from the village, about 2km up the road our tuk-tuk driver told us how, in the wet season, the lake would expand to where we were and he showed us how high the water would come.Basically, the entire road we were driving on would be under metres and metres of water and the buildings that we were seeing built on huge stilts on land would once again come into their own!Thankfully for us, it is the dry season so no worries about getting swept away just yet!It was also great to spend a bit of time chatting to our driver about his own life, particularly as he was happy to tell us about how his father was murdered by the Khmer- rouge and that his older brother starved to death whilst the regime were in power; Pol Pot's ideas of an idealistically rural and self-sufficient Cambodia never did quite come to fruition.At 7 years old he had to look after cattle himself, having been split up from his family, and was in constant fear he would never see them again.Thankfully, his mother did survive and is currently living round the corner at the grand old age of 84!We both know how lucky we are, travelling around the world like this, but maybe we all need to remember how lucky we are.Some people in the world just can't say that and they need remembering too.