Published: December 7th 2006October 10th 2006
The sound of birds singing is drowned out by the voice of an excited little girl "Look mommy there's an airplane up in the sky". Minutes later her village amounts to little more than smouldering ashes, her excitement replaced by a bewildered look of shock and fear. She looks at the people around her, one-by-one their fearful eyes narrow to expressions of hate.
"Did you see the frightened ones? Did you hear the falling bombs? The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on..."
The next minute I'm on the back of a moped anxiously looking up as the clouds swallow the remainder of the clear blue sky… I've overslept, it's almost midday and as my driver accelerates to make up for lost time he pulls a wheelie. Then my alarm clock goes off; it's 5am.
I rarely remember my dreams, so catching one in the act at this early hour is quite disturbing.
I've spent the last week feverishly reading books about the Khmer Rouge, so much so it seems the issue has colonised my subconscious, with Pink Floyd providing the soundtrack.
And now back in the real world, I'm driving along on the
back of a moped, it's stars I see in the sky. It's going to be a good day I congratulate myself; a little effort and I've beaten the crowds. We reach the ticketing booth, which resembles a motorway toll station. An unhealthily long queue for such an hour, leads me to think of a comment made by "Duch" Cambodia's chief torturer under the Khmer Rouge.
'Who now thinks of the price of those murdered during the French Revolution and the thousands who've died from endless labour through the centuries to create great things?... all that matters is the end product'.
Untold thousands died during the construction of Angkor Wat, and yet millions each year come to admire the majesty and audacity of the architecture; the greatness of the goal.
I have always been intrigued about the Khmer Rouge's short and bloody reign in Cambodia during the late 1970's. How could it be that a seemingly peaceful Buddhist country could consume itself in evil genocidal madness, under the guise of communism ?
During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was a neutral country, allowing the Vietcong to pass troops and weapons through it's land unfettered by American bombing raids. In
1969 Nixon and Kissinger instigated a secret bombing campaign within Cambodia (Operation Menu) which was so secret that neither generals nor the pilots conducting the carpet-bombing raids were aware of the targets they were destroying. The massive B-52 strikes delivered approximately 3 million tons of bombs, more than the Allies dropped during all of World War II, killing tens of thousands of Cambodian civilians and destroying hundreds of villages.
Then a coup in Cambodia replaced the neutral prince with the pro-American Lon Nol. And with a new government safely installed Cambodia gave the US permission to extend their bombing campaign deep within Cambodia in return for money and arms to eradicate communist elements hiding within their own land. A terrible civil war ensued in which thousands more died and the country's infrastructure was brought to its knees.
The Khmer Rouge which numbered just a few thousand before the American bombing campaign had begun in Cambodia saw its numbers increase into the hundreds of thousands. Researchers interviewed countless Khmer Rouge recruits during and after their reign, the majority of whom confessed to joining the Khmer rouge after their villages had been bombed and family members killed by American and
central government bombing raids.
The Khmer Rouge were seen by the vast majority of aggrieved inhabitants of rural war-torn Cambodia as the only vehicle for ending the indiscriminate destruction of their lands by the imperialists and their lackeys in the government.
This divided the country between the perceived rural communists and the urban imperialists. When US Congress, now tired of war, suspended aid to Cambodia in 1973, the Khmer Rouge made sweeping gains in the country. And less than a year after the North Vietnamese rolled into Saigon, the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh.
Greeted as liberators by many, the Khmer Rouge immediately began to evacuate the cities for fear of a US led counter offensive, an inability to control enemy elements within, the very real threat of mass starvation due to the US cutting off aid to the heavily dependant capital city and ultimately to implement the start of their master plan.
Anybody who was associated with the government was systematically murdered, including politicians, soldiers, police, civil servants, teachers and perceived collaborators. The Khmer Rouge recruits who had seen the very fabric of their existence brutally torn by the American backed regime began to
...not sure about his choice of t-shirt though!
seek bloody and indiscriminate retribution.
One and a half million people died as the result of execution, starvation and forced labour in just over 3 years and then with the perceived imperialist threat eradicated, the Khmer Rouge paranoia turned on Vietnam and began to consume itself as anyone with the loosest affiliation to the Khmer Rouge's former backers was also tortured and executed.
As always, the most zealot converts were the youngest, who were easily conditioned and indoctrinated into a belief system most people would consider to be pure evil. Kids as young as ten years of age were encouraged by elders they loved and respected to kill babies by hitting them against tree trunks and to betray their own parents. The difference between right and wrong turned on its head.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, deposing the Khmer Rouge regime and replacing it with a new pro-Vietnamese puppet government. Despite their removal from power, the Khmer Rouge retained their seat at the UN until 1993.
If an owner abuses his dog, locks it in a cage, starves and beats it, can he then be held responsible when that dog escapes,
enters a field of sheep and starts to savagely attack them? What if after the dog has been flushed out of the field by the farmer and the owner then attempts to put the dog back into the field knowing full well the consequences of such actions? After the Khmer Rouge was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979. The Americans, British and Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge in its attempts to regain power and topple the Soviet backed Vietnamese presence in Cambodia.
We come to a barrier and park amongst hundreds of other motorbikes, I hop off the bike and join the throngs hurrying along excitedly towards the orange glow emanating from beyond the silhouetted ruins of Angkor Wat to the east. The energy is palpable as it's certain the day is about to open with a spectacular curtain raiser, feeling like a pilgrimage as the throngs narrow in order to a cross a bridge over the moat, heightening the contact, the chatter, the excitement. Entering through a gateway into the main plaza, a long stone causeway stretches away towards the black quincux of towers silhouetted in a pink marbled sky.
Is this how the creators meant them
to be seen? Scholars are divided as to the significance of Angkor's orientation towards the east, though at first light on a day like this you surmise that whatever the reasons lay behind it, there cannot be a more spectacular introduction to this architectural representation of Hinduism's mythical home of the Gods; Mount Meru.
Hundreds line the steep banks and outer walls, cameras feverishly flashing away, reminding me of Lake Balaton, Hungary in 1999, as people then gathered in anticipation of the total eclipse of the sun.
After a couple of quick snaps for my own scrap book, and despite the spectacular light show unravelling before me, I am inexorably drawn along the causeway towards the temple proper. Three silhouetted towers growing before me, all the while looming larger, fleshing out claims that this is the largest religious structure in the world. Up onto the terrace and into the enclosure which is still shrouded in darkness I climb the stairs and disappear inside, where I explore the corridors and the temple's western side, virtually alone for well over an hour.
Walking back away from the Temple, the sun now virtually at full force, one cannot help throw
countless looks over the shoulder in an attempt to fathom the sheer majesty of such a grandiose construction in all its glory.
On my return to the car park my driver is easier to spot than I had anticipated since he was one of only a dozen or so still there. He recommends we drive over to Bayon since it's close by, and is routinely viewed after the sunrise. After considering this I opted for somewhere a little further afield and we drove to Tha Prom (of Tomb Raider fame) where I had an enjoyable time clambering over the ruins with a couple of 10-year old guides.
Then, in order to demonstrate the benefits of my unorthodox approach to visiting the ruins, at 8am I informed my driver it was time for us to head home to bed, since two spectacular ruins were more than enough excitement for one morning - after all I didn't want to become 'ruined' by lunchtime.
At 4pm we drove to Bayon, with its distinctive multitude of smiley faces beaming down from every tower. I then explored the dearth of surrounding temples, finishing off the day, as it started, amongst the throng,
though this time for mother nature's coup de grace, the sun's spectacular disappearance over the horizon.
After a wonderful day I requested an encore with my driver, starting once again with sunrise at Angkor Wat. He didn't seem too keen on another early morning and was a little confused about my motives for a repeat performance. Nevertheless he begrudgingly agreed, though as I waited outside my hotel the next morning at ten past five I had the feeling he'd unilaterally decided we wouldn't be watching the sunrise again and so I flagged down a random biker, who was doing what random bikers do at 5.10am. I was actually genuinely intrigued as to what he was doing, however his English and my Khmer weren't up to the challenge.
The dawn atmosphere at Angkor Wat this time around was very different, due to a few clouds clinging stubbornly to the horizon, stifling the sun's arrival. After 5 minutes I cut my losses, doubled back and was driven the hour or so to Banteriy Srei, arriving just as it opened for the day in a soft amber glow.
Then it was off-road into former Khmer Rouge territory; destination Kbal Spein.
I assumed my driver had never been out this far before as he enthusiastically joined me on the hike up into the jungle to the river of 1000 Lingas, which are carved into the riverbed to bless the waters before they passed on their way down to ancient Angkor. A mini Ganges for Cambodian Hindus of old.
Shiva's Lingas placed within the womb or Yoni of Parvati. And carvings of Vishnu on his serpent and his consort Lakshmi at his feet. I've seen carvings similar to this in Colombia though these were more detailed and interesting since I recognized a few old faces from my travels in India.
That afternoon, as I'd filled my 512mb card, I decided to harvest the fruits of my labour and burn them onto CD. I gave my memory stick to a smiley man behind the counter at the local Internet Cafe -- you already know where this story is leading-- at the ninth attempt he jams it into one of those plastic card-reading contraptions. After 15mins he hands me a CD which I place it in the computer, open the file and discover I have a grand total of 28 pictures for my
Cha Ong Waterfall Ratanakiri
A couple of hours of frantic panic, recrimination, downloading and praying enabled me to retrieve a whole load of previously deleted images from my time in Phnom Penh, hundreds of picture 'body parts', some grey stripes, a couple of dodgy collages and a dozen or so Angkor pics.
Now totally resigned to the fate of losing an immeasurable amount of photos I was surprisingly upbeat and philosophical. It's happened before, it will happen again' I had such a wonderful time taking them and nothing can take away the enjoyment from that. And now I have a reason to go back and recapture the beauty once again. In fact the only loser in all this are you picture vultures;-)
Whilst looking for a shared taxi on my journey up to the Laos border I met Stewart (Scot) and Tim (Irish) who in the course of our intimately cramped yet very jovial taxi ride convinced me to head up to Ratanakiri or 'rat-uh-too-ee' as it quickly became known (A lot easier to get your tongue around!) which they irresistibly described as deep inside "Apocalypse Now" territory.
Ratanakiri is one of the most beautiful regions of Cambodia, it
is nevertheless also one of its least developed. It sees very little contact with the outside world, squashed up, as it is against Laos and Vietnam, and has very much that edge-of-the-world feel to it.
Anticipating a region of dense jungle, I was slightly surprised to see gentle rolling hills and fields, farmed by as many as twenty indigenous tribes, who make up 65% of the population, many of whom hunt with crossbows and poison darts. There are no paved roads, only simple pot-holed tracks...well that is in the dry season... During the rainy season, villages become virtually inaccessible.
So somewhat predictably we hired some mopeds for a couple of days to find out just what 'virtually inaccessible' entailed, and discovered the true meaning of that widely used contemporary phrase 'QUAGMIRE!'
Around Ban Lung there were plenty of outstanding destinations to keep our small group entertained over the days we were there, including the beautiful volcanic lake of Yeak Laom, a collection of lovely waterfalls and numerous tribal villages.
After a very adventurous and demanding trip to Voen Sai - where the chance of going off-road was preferable to on-road - we reached the Sresan River
caked from head-to-toe in thick red mud. After a further half an hour or so travelling up the river by boat we arrive at Kachon, a Tampuan minority riverside village that has developed into something of a tourist attraction due to a graveyard where curious totem-like effigies are carved of the deceased.
Then, with a little arm-twisting and a few dollars more we persuaded our boatmen to take us up one of the tributaries, we dubbed, for want of a better name; The Liger. It was on our exploration of the Liger we came into contact with our first Cambodian animist tribal group, The Krueng.
A few days after our visit to Kachon cemetery I discovered that many village elders wish to prohibit tourists from disturbing the spirits by visiting the cemetery. Though, as The Lonely Planet travel book strongly advises travelers to make the trip to Kachon’s cemetery, and once there tourists are charged a dollar entrance fee, it is clear that a rift is appearing between economic necessities, and the old ways.
People in this poor region will clearly benefit economically from the increasing influx of visitors, but if they’re not the agents of their
own change, the cultural consequences could far outweigh the benefits.
There are many different tribal groups in the region each with its own distinct customs, culture, clothing, handicrafts and dialect. The Tampuan, Krung, Jarai and Brou tribes farm with the slash and burn method, hunt with crossbows and poison darts and practice animism. Krueng women, often bare-breasted, wear sarongs, while Brou women tattoo their faces and wear heavy ivory tusk earrings.
The Khmer Rouge used Ratanakiri as their main base of operations in the early 1970s and when they came to power in 1975, they wiped out at least half the remaining tribal people who'd survived the American raids. But in one those twists of fate it is probably the horrific consequences of the last quarter century that have allowed these tribes to remain unfettered in this forgotten niche by the sweep of modernism that will inevitably see their old ways lost. As sadly nowadays many younger tribal people resent their heritage, creating a culture of shame, leading many young tribal people to aspire to become more Khmer than the Khmer themselves.
There are more photos below