One-armed Khmer Rouge Guide and Toilet Telephone


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November 14th 2015
Published: November 14th 2015
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The one armed man, former Khmer Rouge (although he was introduced as a Suryavarman supporter who had defected), was a lot more welcoming than he was in during the 90's. Back then, he'd greeted Sokum's tourist bus with guns and a rocket launcher, Sukum had to run out with his hands up shouting "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I have a bus of 30 tourists and it won't be good to shoot foreign nationals!" Sokum was laughing so hard as he recalled this to us, equally so was the one armed man. People move on I guess, especially when you consider that the Khmer Rouge killed 16 of Sokum's family. I didn't quite get how the arm was lost, but it was through conflict, the guy was miming all sorts of stuff and I think he also got stabbed in his ribs. Nowadays he works at the temples, following tourists around, not quite sure what his role is.

We'd arrived at Sambor Prei Kuk in Kompong Thom Province which is north of the centre of Cambodia. It's a 7th Century complex of temples situated in the jungle; recently replanted as most of the former jungle had been chopped down and sold to Thailand to aid the failing economy. Once a country covered by 73% trees, only 10% remains.

We'd arrived early and had the place to ourselves, apart from a few kids trying to sell us scarves, but they weren't pushy. One little girl had a slightly deformed face and I wonder if it's a result of something that had happened to her parents, she still seemed a happy, smiley, kid though. All the children speak good English whilst the older folk speak French, a reminder that the French once ruled over Cambodia.

Yiyi was concerned about the possibility of landmines especially when Steve went wandering off into the undergrowth, but Sokum assured us it was safe - although it is predicted that Cambodia won't be totally free of landmines until 2019. However we saw a few overgrown craters that were the results of bombings and some temples had been lost. Bullet holes were also visible on the walls.

The temples themselves were large gherkins, poking out of huge tree roots and bushes. If you've ever seen Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones films, you'll know where I'm at. Inside the temples were shrines with incense and gold coloured ornaments. There were carvings of Vishnu, the monkey god and others.

It was wonderfully shady in the jungle but so humid, it took a while for my camera to get accustomed to it, it was like walking around a butterfly house. So not a coincidence that a multitude of colourful butterflies flapped around us, but none sat still long enough for a photo. We walked a few kilometres and I was bosting for the loo, Sokum told me it wasn't far to the 'restroom' but in hindsight, I would have been far better off behind a tree: squat loo, no running water, no bogroll, lots of smell.

On the way to Siem Reap, we stopped briefly in a one street town name Stoung, to photograph the fish market, but really it was so that Sokum could get some sausages for his son who'd just called him. The fish is caught in the Tonlé Sap lake just south of the town. Local girls pulled up on their mopeds to laugh at the tourists photographing fish. I saw others texting whilst riding mopeds and managing not to crash, that's an impressive skill, I can't walk and text without tripping over.

Kampong Kdei Bridge is the longest corbelled stone arch bridge in the world, I kid you not! So we had to stop there for a photo opportunity and use the loo which we paid the equivalent of 8p each to use.

As we drove through dust orange and leafy green landscape, I noticed rather a lot of houses on stilts. I assumed that this was because of flooding, but Sokum says it's for luck. The higher your stilts, the more luck you get. This seems logical, if you have low stilts and the floods are really bad, you will be totally out of luck.

We passed a lot of school kids in their white shirts and navy blue trousers on bicycles (even though it is Saturday) as we drove to Tonlé Sap lake, the biggest fresh water lake in the whole of South East Asia. The next stop was a fishing village that I would say was the size of a small town, the road was dusty and dry, the stilt houses high in the air with steps and ladders to the ground which I guess will be under water in the rainy season. The village is mainly Vietnamese, why they came here, I don't know but the fishing is meant to be very good.

At the centre of this ramshackle looking village were fancy communal buildings such as places of worship. They are a complete contrast to the homes and shops: brick instead of wood, blinding white with ornate gold statues and brightly coloured paintings.

A small boat big enough for around 10 was waiting to take us up river where we photographed people going about their daily lives. I asked if they minded this intrusion but was assured that they appreciate the interest in their country and village. A lots of them did wave and smile, so it must be the general feeling. We saw people in the rice fields doing back breaking work, completely covered up to protect them from the grilling sunlight. Lots of fisher folk and families to-ing and fro-ing up and down the river; photographing them from a moving boat and getting them in focus is a challenge.

After disembarking the boat, Steve, Glyn and Yiyi spotted a scrawny cat for me lapping up a dirty puddle. Like a lot of the cats I've seen here, it had huge amber eyes and I photographed it. When I finished, I saw looks of bewilderment from the locals. Weirdos.

We were greeted with wet flannels at the Angkor Paradise Hotel in Siem Reap, possibly the poshest hotel I've stayed in - a complete contrast to some of the places we have spent the night recently. There's a telephone in the toilet, right next to the lavvy lest you find yourself caught short. I'm dying to make a phonecall whilst 'taking the kids to the pool'.

We went for a walk with Helen and Andy looking for ice cream and wandered up the street. Siem Reap is a lively French-Indonesian town, more touristy than most we've been to this holiday, this is due to it being near Angkor Wat. There's lots of restaurants of world foods, karaoke bars and large hotels, many in a classical french style.

All of us are getting good at crossing the road! It's a matter of staying calm and not running, as long as the traffic can predict where you're going, everything will be all right, or so we tell ourselves. There's little point trying to stick to the pavements as they are full of vehicles, food stands and other random stuff, so we walk along the roads, facing the traffic and trying to look comfortable doing so.

I've mentioned the traffic a few times in these blogs about Vietnam and Cambodia, claiming it was nuts and haphazard. I would like to change my stance on this. I've only witnessed one accident, but seen no traffic jams, no vehicles at a standstill, no bad tempers and absolutely no road rage. I may not understand how it works, but it does. People just avoid each other, stay courteous and so it never stops flowing. But I still can't get over people with babies strapped to their chests, using a mobile phone and driving a moped in heavy traffic in a city centre!

We stopped by a Quikie Mart where Glyn impressed a young girl by stretching of the top of the shelves to get something from the next aisle. He is a giant in a land of Lilliputians. We got a few snacks for tomorrow and beer for me and paid for it in American dollars.

We were originally planning to change our money into Cambodian riels, but were advised to use American dollars instead. Everybody asks to be paid in dollars but will accept riels. However, they don't have coins, so if you pay with a large note, the change will be in dollars and riels. I can see trouble ahead!


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