Published: July 27th 2011July 27th 2011
So it’s my turn to write the blog for our next section of our adventure Cambodia. This isn’t going to be the happiest blog you’ve ever read, Cambodia has had its challenges and we wanted to experience as much of it as we could. It does get happier though peeps so grab a cup of tea.
We booked onto a coach from Vietnam to drive down to Phnom Penh. It was clear that the storage lockers under the coach were full so the back seats were now filling up with backpacks and cases. Taking our seats we prepared for the drive down, the coach was quite comfy and as always it gave me the perfect people watching opportunity. When we arrived at the border we handed our passports and cash to the coordinator on the coach and took our bags off with us to go through Vietnam immigration and into ‘no mans land’ back on the coach for a few meters and then through Cambodia immigration. Cambodia are clearly concerned with viruses spreading and were nice enough to take our temperatures as we cleared to ensure we were well. This was it, I was so excited to finally be in Cambodia.
I popped on my ipod and stared out of the window, the first thing I noticed was how green everything was. As we headed through the countryside the colours of the houses were so vivid. The majority of the houses were built on stilts and then in the space underneath a large table for cooking, eating and during the afternoon sun sleeping in the shade. All the houses were various colours which just made it so much more beautiful.
When we arrived in Phnom Penh we headed for our hostel. Mark had booked a deluxe room at 88 backpackers and as we walked in the reception area it seemed great with a pool a bar and restaurant. At that moment Mark realised he had no cash so left in the hunt for an ATM. The staff took me up 4 flights of stairs whilst I carried a very heavy backpack to the worst room Mark and I had seen so far. The sheets were maybe clean, and let’s not even go there with the bathroom. Mark and I understand basic accommodation when travelling but this place was dirty and more than basic for the price. We got changed and headed
downstairs where the manager had conveniently popped out. We began looking about online and booked a hotel for almost the same price. We grabbed our stuff and left, upon arrival at The Blue Tongue hotel we were relieved to find a clean room with bathroom and actually quite luxurious! We returned to 88 backpackers the next day and collected our money for the remainder of our stay we didn’t take.
I’d been looking forward to Cambodia the whole trip, it was the one place that I really had no idea about and was excited to explore it. I began researching Cambodia, as you can imagine reading about the horror and suffering that the people of Cambodia went through just 32 years ago under Pol Pot didn’t exactly fill me with happy thoughts of the land less travelled. I’m quite a sensitive person, I can’t watch horror films, I find graphic images difficult to look at and a story can reduce me to tears in just a few seconds. For this reason we planned to visit the S21 prison on one day and the Killing Fields on another. We grabbed a TukTuk for the grand price of $3 to TuolSleng or
S21 as it is better known. The prison was originally a children’s school but under the Khmer Rouge regime all places of education had been abolished and this school was turned into a place of terror, torture and death. Anyone who was considered to be an intellectual or even wore glasses were taken away to be killed. The main towns were emptied of all Cambodian people of all ages and sent to the country carry out back breaking manual labour under the Khmer Rouges’ plan for a totally self-sustainable country. At the gates there were a number of amputee victims begging for money which we were told was pretty common, we paid a small entry fee and headed inside. The first thing you see is a cluster of 14 un named graves, these graves are the resting place of the last 14 victims who were interrogated, tortured and killed at the prison. The first building we entered had a number of rooms, all of which had a bed frame, stained floors, various metal items and a picture on the wall. The picture was of the last person found strapped to the bed frame and brutally butchered, their resting place now
in the courtyard of the prison as the bodies were unidentifiable. It was a stark shock and we had only been into the first room. We turned out of the first room, above the second room was an animated sign of a woman smiling in a red circle with a line through it indicating no smiling. I found it hard to imagine how anyone could smile in this place but sadly there are some individuals who seem incapable of taking a picture without it being a big family Kodak moment, the mind boggles. So we went onwards and upward through the first building. The soldiers at S21 kept very detailed and documented files of everyone that came into the prison, their names, age, family information, occupation etc including a photograph of every person with a number which was sometimes pinned to the skin on their chest. On the second floor of this building hundreds of these pictures were on display from children to the elderly if the Khmer Rouge thought that you had links to the CIA or KGB or if they though that you had somehow betrayed them this was where you ended up. Walking along seeing these faces
was almost too much to take, every picture seemed haunted, each picture holding, sorrow, defeat, desperation, fear and some you could see had given up.
Outside the building a list of rules which prisoners had to adhere too was translated into English, next to it a piece of wooden gym equipment had been turned into a torturing device where by prisoners were hung by their feet before being submerged head first in freezing water, just one form of interrogation. We entered the second building; large empty classrooms with iron chains on the walls, sometimes 30 to 60 prisoners would be chained by their feet and told to sit in silence for weeks on end. The second floor rooms had been turned into cells, tiny rooms with a small hole to see out lined either side, the soldiers had knocked a walkway through the walls to make it easier for the guards to pick up on anyone who might try and communicate with each other. A blackboard still hung in one of the rooms the only item making the room resemble that of a class room. The balcony walkway was covered in razor wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. The
The Killing Tree
final floor featured information on the 4 remaining Khmer Rouge leaders who are now facing trial for their crimes against humanity in the Extraordinary Chambers court or ‘Khmer Rouge Tribunal’. Dutch, who ran the ToulSleng prison was responsible for the interrogation, torture & death of over 12,000 Cambodians he was given a 35 year sentence in 2010 minus the 11 years he has already spent in pretrial custody not really justice if you ask me. The trial is fraught with issues regarding interpretation of who should be on trial. Given that the current Prime Minister Hun Sen voluntarily joined the Khmer Rouge in his youth it is unlikely that the people of Cambodia will ever really get the justice they deserve when their government members are as guilty and corrupt as their former colleagues on trial. Efforts by the UN to include all members of the Khmer Rouge who committed serious crimes against humanity are likely to fall short of Hun Sen as he has commanded that the 4 members currently on trial are the only ones who will be punished for the deaths of a third of the Cambodian population.
Mark and I walked around the grounds before grabbing
Taking a rest!
a cold drink and sitting on a bench. The green grass and tall trees seemed so out of place in such a sad and haunted place. The bullet holes in the walls and the razor wire across the walkways of the buildings holding inside something which no one could ever contemplate or understand. We left soon after and headed back to the hotel, neither of us were in the mood for fun after that, we knew we still had to pay a visit to the Killing Fields too. Another day and it was the day of the Killing Fields, just one of many sites in Cambodia where an estimated 1.5 million people met their death in total an estimated 2.5 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime a third of Cambodia’s population at the time. The field we went to was one which was directly linked to Dutch and the S21 Prison we had visited. The Killing Field was a whopping 18 kilometers away and we paid just $5 to go there and back on this little guys TukTuk. I love TukTuks, even though they are pretty noisy and pretty dangerous I love being able to see everything as
Temple at 5am!
you drive along and basically people watch, it certainly took my mind off of where we were going. Dutch would send truckloads of prisoners to the Killing Fields if there was no more room for them, the Khmer Rouge believed that they had to kill from the root meaning that if a man was believed to have betrayed the Khmer Rouge then his wife, children, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins should be killed too. The Khmer Rouge were frightened that if they didn’t kill the children of the men and women that when they grew up the children would attempt to retaliate for the death of their parents meaning that whole families were wiped out.
We arrived and our driver waited outside for us. Cambodians are mainly Buddhists and believe that if you are not given a proper burial that your soul walks the planet for eternity, as such the Killing Fields are sacred ground and even a slight amount of knowledge would lead you to believe that this is a place which warrants respect. Sadly, as we entered the Pagoda, two blonde girls, make-up trowled on with mini skirts and need no imagination tops entered, having to
be reminded to remove their shoes as they stepped over everyone else’s. Seriously, who made these people? Inside on the bottom layer a giant layer of clothes lay in a pile behind glass these are the clothes of some 8,000 Cambodians whose clothes were removed from some of the mass graves which have been excavated so far. The rest of the Pagoda houses the 8,000 skulls of those people discovered in the graves. It is quite a sight to see and so difficult to understand how so many people met their death and were buried together in shallow mass graves. Upon exit we began to walk towards the field, large sunken areas revealed where the bodies had been removed in order to try and identify those who had died. As you walk along the narrow pathways with graves on either side, a glance down reveals that your feet are walking on clothing and bone which is now visable after the rains. Sadly it is also unavoidable. We come across a grave which has a short fence surrounding it, the sign lets us know that 166 bodies were uncovered without the heads. A second grave which had held 450 bodies mainly
women and children, they went on and on. The next sign we see by a large tree, The Killing Tree, as difficult as this is to type or to read, soldiers would take the legs of babies & children and swing their heads into the tree to kill them, some of the soldiers were just teenagers themselves and some of those teenage soldiers were ordered to kill their siblings in this horrific way. Ammunition was precious and expensive so the soldiers had to think of alternative ways to silence their prisoners. Some were tied to trees and beat in the head with the butt of the gun, their throats cut, a pick axe or a wooden baton anything that would do the job rather than use ammo. If it didn’t kill the prisoner they would more than likely be seriously injured and would die when chemicals were poured over them to cover up the smell of the mass graves or they were simply buried alive.It was sad to discover whilst walking around that there are still a huge number of graves which have not been interned we can only assume because of a lack of funding. Couple that with who
Roots taking over!
is on the government it is quite clear why their priority would not be to identify the people who they sentenced to death. We took a long walk around the moat bordering the graves, it was so quiet and peaceful I felt incredibly sad about what had happened, and thought about the Cambodian people we had already met on our trip. It was only 32 years ago in the face of almost every Cambodian we had seen so far each of them must have been affected in some way by what had happened. I was amazed that everyone was so happy even in the face of corruption. When we left the fields the first thing our driver said to us ‘You look so sad’ our response was that it was the saddest place we had ever been to.
The next day we were due to head to Siam Reap by people carrier for a 5 hour journey. We were happy to find that the van was empty when it turned up, bonus. We got in and grabbed a couple of seats, then we stopped and collected some more people, the woman who was in the front of the bus moved
Mark and I from the front seat with lots of leg room to a seat near the back where we had next to no room. A family of Cambodian people got into the van that now live in America. Another stop and a family of Singaporeans got on and the two children were put in the front seat with the legroom. We were quite pissed by this point not to mention that we were all very uncomfortable. As all 13 seats were taken, the luggage was dotted in and around us piled high or shoved into the space where the door opened. It was a very cramped and uncomfortable journey and we were glad to make it to our hotel. First impressions of The Golden Temple Villa were orange! It was so orange; the staff were so happy at reception and took us into the restaurant for a welcome drink and to register our info. We were in the restaurant about 15 minutes and I was covered in mosquito bites by the time we left, I had even been bitten under the arm! We headed up to our room with my new large bites, surprise surprise it was orange, and
Tomb Raider Set. Wheres Angelina?
the first thing was that the room smelt of damp but hey you can’t have everything, a quick trip to the local Circle K for some air fresheners sorted it out.
The main item on our agenda in Siem Reap was Angkor Wat , the biggest and oldest Temple in the world built in the 12th century as a Hindu temple & Capital City for the king at the time, it was changed into a Buddhist temple in the 13 century and still remains so today. Most people know of Angkor Wat from the movie Tomb Raider where trees from the ancient ruins were featured. Our morning started at 5am where we were collected by our driver and guide. It wasn’t a long journey to the Temple and as we arrived we paid our fee and had our picture taken. The first thing we learnt was that our fee didn’t go into restoring the Temple. The Cambodian Government rent the site to private company who swindle millions of dollars away while this amazing site continues to crumble. Figures suggest that maybe just 28% of entrance fees which aren’t cheap have gone back into restoration. It’s not all sad news many
About to get muddy
countries all over the world pledge funds to Angkor Wat and then bring in teams to help rebuild and renovate many of the temples. It’s difficult to imagine that Angkor Wat was once a Capital City in its own right, it is a monstrous sized site, the largest place of worship in the world and with just one day to cover as much as possible we headed for the walkway. Most people come to watch the sunrise but on this morning it was overcast so we took the opportunity to enjoy the view and the last of the cool air before the day heated up. Our guide Mr Varney walked us to the first stage of the Temple where evidence of bullet holes and destruction to the carvings was evident on the walls. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge almost all Buddhist statures were destroyed, including the ancient ones. The intricate details on the walls of the temples were astonishing, the stories flow from one wall to another and I’m sure you could spend years studying all of the images. The stories are too intricate and long to type in a blog but should you ever visit this amazing
Handing out books at the
place make sure you get a guide. Our guide was happy enough to give us an overview of each section.
As most of you know we’ve seen quite a few temples on our journey and I have to say we were both a little ‘templed out’ by this stage. Angkor Wat is unique in its size, age and history but the beauty of the other temples we had visited is absent. As we walked kilometre after kilometre through various stages of the temples I realised just how massive it was Angkor Wat is 820,000 square meters or 203 acres, also quite glad that we wouldn’t we walking all of it! It was difficult to imagine that where there is now forest were once streets and houses and people living their day to day lives around these amazing buildings. Some of the structures have collapsed and some are being held up by scaffolding or cotton trees (more on those later) awaiting funds to restore them to a safe structure. After many hours we were beginning to tire, Mark had been looking forward to Ta Prohm a temple which is now home to some amazing trees. The tree roots literally start from
the top of the temple structure and then have grown over the temple and into the ground. It is quite an amazing site and famed by the movie Tomb Raider. As we explored this weird and wonderful temple, I was amazed to see that the trees in some parts are actually holding the structure safely in place, such a beautiful thing really. We were at the end of our visit and shattered, we decided to head back.
One of the things Mark and I had planned in Cambodia was quad biking through the countryside. Mark had booked a tour for us which would take us through the Cambodian countryside to local villages, past rice paddies to visit an Orphanage. Ever sceptical and having heard about so called Cambodian Orphanages which were really places for child labour I looked on line for Chres village School & Orphanage. We had decided that we would purchase items for the children before we visited and Mr Varney our guide took us to a local store after Angkor Wat where he was kind enough to negotiate the cost of a number of reading books, colouring books, pencils, volleyball and a football that we could take
with us for the children.
We were collected from out hotel and Mark and I were both excited for the adventure ahead we had both been quad biking before but this was going to be different as it had also been throwing it down with rain that morning! When we arrived the French owner talked us through the controls and as we had both been on quads before gave us the bigger bikes to use. It was just me, Mark and a German girl on the tour. Off we went the roads were pot holed, the red dust now red mud and puddles that were ridiculously deep. I was behind the guide who was on a dirt bike leaving me to decide which section of a huge puddle I should go through. It was great fun getting covered in mud and sliding everywhere. As we drove along the sides of rice paddies into the countryside the views were breath taking, children of all ages would run out when they heard the bikes to smile and wave, careful not to come a cropper I waved back. We finally arrived at the Orphanage, we were met by one of the teachers who
took us to the classes to meet the children some of whom just go there every day for school and some who are orphaned. Most of the buildings have been built with the funds that people have raised all over the world. Teachers volunteer from all over the world for weeks or months to teach the children English, Khmer and other skills so that they will one day be able to work in the tourist industry which is what they all want to do. It was great to see such a happy place, and see the children learning and meeting them. We handed out our gifts and sweets before letting them get back to their learning for the day. We were then back on our bikes and headed just down the road to grab a break and a drink in a local village. We sat among the ramshackle huts, around a plastic table where the usual stares which once made us feel uncomfortable now just felt like normal. We chatted with our guides and fellow thrill seeker about how wonderful Cambodia is and how much it has achieved. Mark cracked a joke after purchasing two cans of drink and a
packet of cigarettes for $3 offering his Mastercard! Everyone erupted in laughter! Once we were refreshed we headed back, the journey as exhilarating as it had been on the way out we took a different route. As the guide rode through a rice paddy I thought they were joking when they wanted me to follow but no. So I took a deep breath as I headed down a steep embankment into the water and up the other side, sooo much fun. The last 10 minutes of the journey were on flat road so we sped along to the finish. We had an amazing time. We were dropped back at our hotel for a well needed shower and change, Mark and I couldn’t stop talking about the fun we’d had so we booked the sunset tour for the following day.
It had been much drier on the day we did the sunset tour, we were collected in the afternoon and after some discussion about which route to go on we made our way out. The scenery this time was even more spectacular and seeing people as they made their way home walking their cows and even ducks we stopped to
take pictures. It was amazing and at times it was tricky to keep one eye on the scenery and the other on what was coming up ahead. There were more children waving as we went by and I soon realised I had a permanent smile on my face, this was great. We stopped for the sunset in a wide open space of land, it was so quiet and as the sun changed colour so did the water on the rice paddies and then everything around it. For me quad biking in the Cambodian countryside was one of the best things we did, we got to see so much more of Cambodia and it’s people who are some of the warmest people with the biggest smiles we have ever met.
Cambodian people are doing all they can to restore their lives. There are so many projects which have been established to educate and equip young people with skills necessary to break the cycle of poverty. We visited quite a few whilst we were there Friends Restaurant and Joe's To Go Cafe
is a project which teaches young people how to work in the food service industry, most of the children are orphaned and were previously living on the streets. The food was amazing as it was in all the projects that we visited, we also headed to Hagar Catering
where they help women and children who have been abused or are victims of trafficking again training them in the hope they will find work in the ever growing tourism industry. I’m still keeping one eye on the progress of the Khmer rouge case, I know that it will never really be justice for the Cambodian people with a government that corrupt but I hope that for some it will at least help. Cambodia will always hold a special place in my heart, I know how corny that sounds but it is a very special place with amazing people. I hope one day we will go back there and see many more improvements and of course the beautiful smiling faces of the Cambodian people.