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Published: April 20th 2015
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
It's difficult not to be inspired by these countries; they are appealing on so many levels, ranging from beautiful scenery and landmarks, to the downright violent history of international and civil war. However, when you visit them, little evidence of war remains. It's almost as if the countries want us to understand that they are not affected, that they will not dwell on the atrocities which occurred and that they will continue to grow and prosper. After all, Edwin Starr really did get it right when he sang 'War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.'
Prior to crossing over the border into Cambodia, where the violent Khmer Rouge famously left their footprint, my journey actually began in Bangkok. I only really had a day timetabled there before I was scheduled to depart for Cambodia, and I admit that I approached Bangkok with skepticism. Predominantly, it hadn't really appealed to me as a travel destination (I guess that I'm your typical, bog-standard, 'let's see the wonders of the world' tourist) and I had initially assumed that it was well-known for all of the wrong reasons. Additionally, the thought of wondering around Bangkok on
Koh Rong Samloem, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
my own terrified me.
I didn't realise how wrong I could be. Basically, almost everything I did in Bangkok happened by accident and as a result of me getting things well and truly wrong. And I loved
My initial plan, according to my trusty Lonely Planet guide, was to visit Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Being new to Thailand, just the thought of getting a tuktuk there was exhilarating in itself. In hindsight, I probably got ripped-off by the over-friendly tuktuk driver (he could probably tell that I was a first-time tourist; I bet they can sniff us out from a mile away), but I'm glad I did. Being very clueless, I pointed out to him that I wanted to go to the Grand Palace directly, but he explained to me that it was very far away and that it would take a long time, or a lot of fuel, to get there. Looking back, I honestly don't think it was that far; he must have had some kind of deal wrapped up in this. Nevertheless, I got in the tuktuk and ended up being persuaded to go to the river and take a boat
A Friendly Face
Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
tour around the khlongs, ending up at the Grand Palace. Some might say that I was foolish and easily persuaded (which, to a large extent, I was a victim to the latter), but I'm pleased it happened. Bangkok, by khlong, is superb. Everything seemed juxtaposed: there were beautiful temples and modern, nicely maintained buildings which provided a stark contrast to the dilapidated, rickety old shacks which balanced precariously on simple, wooden stilts that almost looked like splinters. Yet, being a photographer, dilapidation is something that I delighted in.
I understand that this might not strike a chord with everybody, but you need to see all aspects of Bangkok to understand it. This is one reason why I wanted to visit Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace too. As I arrived, I attempted to navigate my way around the walls which surrounded the complex, questioning where on Earth I would find the entrance. Why, in God's name, were there no sign posts? As glory shined down upon an opening, I realised that I had instead found myself at Wat Pho and ended up thinking 'What the hell? It looks good anyway. I got ripped off on the khlongs. It's
Otres Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
cheaper here. Let's check it out.'
Somebody once said to me that when you've seen one Buddhist temple you've seen them all and, to some extent, part of me agrees. Asia is rife with them (obviously because of Buddhism being held at the forefront), China especially, although I couldn't deny the fact that the grandeur and the glamour of Wat Pho certainly caught my attention. As you walked through various buildings you see Buddha after Buddha and, whilst beautiful, their repetitiveness made them less and less interesting. What I found to be most impressive were the intricately tiled stupas, towering above you and pointing towards the sky. They were almost like miniature palaces in their own right and they made me feel in awe as I stared toward the heavens with their tiles glinting in the sunlight.
But enough of the Buddhas and the decadence. Let's get down to the more candid business. A travel agent friend told me to avoid Khao San Road so, naturally, that's where I decided to go. The words of Richard echoed in my ear when he famously had vividly imaginative encounters with Mister Duck in The Beach.
It's seriously great if you're
The Floating Market
Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
a nosey person like I am; you get to watch people from all different walks of life pass you by as you drink from a garish bucket of Tequila Sunrise or Sex on the Beach, decorated with straws and miniature parasols. If you're brave enough, you might even eat an insect or two. How does centipede or scorpion sound to you? You could tell the British and the Kiwis from a mile off; they have a certain behaviour and a walk (the Kiwis in particular) that makes them stand out from the others. Khao San Road lured me in like an insect to a light, minus the fact that it didn't leave me frazzled. More hungover. If you like bars with thumping music and haggling those 'finding yourself' trousers down to the equivalent of a measly £2 and drinking cocktails galore, then Khao San Road is where it's at.
Although it's difficult for me to judge (having only spent roughly one day in Bangkok), Cambodia shared many similarities with Bangkok, especially when it came to the subject of temples and climate. But there were differences. In a way, Cambodia reminded me
The Reclining Budda
The Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand.
of Kenya: the dirt was the same colour, the saturation of the vegetation was similar and the abundance of the roadside shacks selling their wares and the road rules, or lack of, took me back to the times of travelling around in a safari jeep and having intimidating-looking locals approaching your windows carrying machetes. Whether or not that local intended on using that machete to harvest crops or kill me, I will never know. But anyway, I digress. The fashion for women in Cambodia is incredibly different to that of women in the UK. As they walked covering their skin from head to toe, wearing tights, trousers, long sleeves and gloves, I wondered how on Earth they could tackle the heat. Apparently it is more fashionable for women to have whiter skin, for that demonstrates wealth. Whilst we British girls love to show off our fake tan and brag about the fact that we can afford to go somewhere 'exotic' like Ibiza or Malaga and expose ourselves to an excess of skin cancer, if you have tanned skin in Cambodia you are likened to that of a working class farm girl.
Additionally, I learned another fact about young
girls through visiting a Planterra project in a small village, although this one is quite disturbing. As I visited the home of a lovely family who cooked for me, the New Hope foundation really started to become rooted within me. Around the times between 1998-2010, girls working in the sex trade could've been as young as 10 years old. The New Hope project focused on opening free schools and educating girls in English, Information Technology and Beauty and Health in order for them to secure safe employment in the future. When I sat down with the locals and talked to the children, it was nice to hear that children from the village would come to this home after school and be taught English for free. In my experience, this mentality provides a huge contrast to a lot of children in the UK who take their education for granted. Here, the children seemed to appreciate what was given to them even more.
My appreciation of Cambodia grew and grew too. Standing on the Rainbow Bridge and watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was well worth the 4.30am wake up. The majesty and the serenity overthrew what would've normally been a zombie-like, bitchy mood, making me eager to explore the complex even further. The complex was full of ramparts and corridors, stairways and carvings, almost flaming amazement like the magic of Ariel in The Tempest. And, with that infamous sight in front of me, nothing could have been more inviting.
My inner Lara Croft had awakened and I became a little girl again. I wanted to explore everywhere, leave no stone unturned, and this was only heightened when I visited the many faces of Bayon and iconic trees taking over the temples of Ta Prohm. There's something special about nature when it overruns man-made structures; it's almost as if it is taking the Earth back, reclaiming it for itself. If you haven't done so already, I would seriously add the temple complex of Angkor Wat to your bucket list before it becomes overcrowded with roads and tourists, although you'll have to look out for the scorpions. I don't think telling jokes and white lies about the fact that they could jump two metres into the air and sting you in the face helped the people surrounding me, and throwing a leaf at it to make it move probably wasn't the best idea I'd ever had in my life. Also, look out for the monkeys. As cute as they may seem, they can be evil as hell. They reminded me of a time when I was hiking up Emei Shan in China and a monkey about the size of a baboon jumped on my shoulders, causing me to squeal and break my umbrella. I will never forgive that monkey.
Whilst Angkor Wat has put itself on a pedestal in my life for all of its ambience and splendor, the reign of the Khmer Rouge remains to be unforgettable for all of the wrong reasons. Following on from persuading Sihanouk to join their party, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the citizens of Phnom Penh, explaining that the USA were about to bomb the city and that residents should leave their doors unlocked. They also told citizens that they would be allowed to return to their homes within a matter of days, although many were forced to travel to the other side of the country to work as farmers in order to 'raise a better society'. Inevitably, many died on the road, and if residents couldn't walk the Kmer Rouge didn't listen and killed them. Pregnant women gave birth on the roadside and most died due to not having access to medical care.
The Khmer Rouge claimed that they wanted to build a classless society, but ended up creating two classes: the new people and the old people. Most of the old people were deprived of their rights to leave their village, even if they wanted to see their families from whom they had been torn away from. Phnom Penh residents were quickly forced to work as rice farmers, but the problem was that they had no experience. Many of them fell sick due to the climate and, if they asked for permission to pause from working to recuperate, the Khmer Rouge chief of the village accused them of malingering, pretending or being lazy. They were taken away and killed. More than 3 million died of starvation, disease, malnutrition or worse. The Khmer Rouge also educated people to not trust each other. Solders, teachers and intellectuals (including people with glasses) were killed as they were fearful of them supporting other parties. Sometimes, the Khmer Rouge invited these people to 'study' at universities. They never returned. Additionally, if people couldn't afford their uniform, they were taken away and killed for supporting the enemy. When I visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and the Genocide Museum, there were many more atrocities that I learned about and I couldn't help but compare it to Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
These brutalities, and the general idea of civil war, never cease to shock me and I often wonder why they would do this to their own people, but I was pleased to learn that there was some form of retribution, a kind of poetic justice, whereby leaders and generals from the Khmer Rouge were brought to the Killing Fields to be trialed and executed. Frederick Douglass once stated that 'At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.' This couldn't be further from the truth.
It can be said that Sihanouk did get something in particular right though: the beaches surrounding Sihanoukville, originally known as Kompong Som, were most definitely the place to be. After all, it's not every day where you take boats out to uninhabited islands and you see cows lazing around on the beach.
Koh Rong Samoloem was definitely the
place to relax. The sand was so soft and clean that it squeaked beneath your feet, and the water was so pleasant that it felt like you were stepping into a tepid bath when you sat in the sea, letting the crystal clear waves lap over you and cleanse you of your problems from the real world as you lounged around carelessly. Now that I've had a taste of Cambodian beaches, the beaches from home will never be the same again.
To be honest, I am finding it difficult to verbalise my thoughts about Sihanoukville. Sometimes, some memories are just that precious that it's virtually impossible.
Vietnam, on the other hand, was a whole different kettle of fish. As my friends and I (somewhat reluctantly) left Sihanoukville to cross the border near the Mekong Delta, I wondered how Vietnam would compare to Cambodia. Would it be as beautiful?
It certainly was beautiful, although in a very different way. As soon as we crossed over, I noticed an immediate contrast in the landscape. Whilst many aspects of Cambodia seemed dry (and occasionally dirty), the Mekong Delta was vibrant: the vegetation was densely saturated, the air felt even fresher and crops of rice, bananas, pineapples and coconuts seemed abundant. The Mekong River certainly benefited the area in many ways. It was a great giver of life, and it seemed that the locals and the nature harvested everything they could from it. There are approximately 90 million people living in Vietnam, and around 70 million of the inhabitants live around the Mekong River (which stretches for roughly 250km). The Floating Markets on the Mekong River were a hive of activity where farmers used it to transport and sell their harvest to merchants, and the buzz of the boats, arguments and persuasion filled the air. If you ever get a chance to visit the Floating Markets, I'd recommend buying pineapples from the merchants and watching them carve into it for you. Whilst my friends were sensible at having half a pineapple each, my attempt at conquering a whole pineapple left my mouth tingling. Whilst the acidity of the pineapple was clearly winning the battle, the taste was just too good and too fresh to waste.
But, like Cambodia, Vietnam comes with a past that they have so swiftly moved away from. Even the younger generation are trying to move away from old news: they crave more opportunities, seeking employment in economics, politics and the government as opposed to agriculture (posing a huge threat to farmers and the harvesting of crops). I'm also referring to the history of war as well. From the moment that I stepped foot into Vietnam, the phrasee 'Good morning, Vietnam' immediately sprang to mind. I was in Apocalypse Now
country. For all its beauty, Vietnam certainly did suffer.
You may be wondering why I decided to visit another war museum (for surely when you visit a country you want to leave with happy memories, right?), but I was incredibly curious about the portrayal of the role that the USA had to play in the Vietnam War. The USA have been allied with Britain for a long time, therefore in History text books in school we often saw a positive portrayal of the USA, and I was looking for a different point of view. It was interesting to see what happened from a different perspective, and the information that interested me the most was that of the Agent Orange. According to the Remnants of War
during the war, aside from using conventional weaponry, the US also used chemical weapons to wipe out surrounding natural resources and prevent the movement of the Liberation Army of South Vietnam. Between 1961 to 1971, Central and South Vietnam were exposed to continuous toxic rain. Dioxin is the name of a chemical called 2-3-7-8 tetra chlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD in short form. The most dangerous dioxin was found in agent orange, and as little as 85g of dioxin could kill a city with 8 million inhabitants. 4.8 million people were exposed to AO/D during the wartime. Seeing how agent orange affected the second generation of Vietnamese people was certainly a distressing eye-opener, including seeing the still-born babies preserved in formaldehyde. Many were born with a variety of physical deformities, and one baby was even born with more than one face. Inevitably, and sadly, this baby did not survive for very long. It also caused cancer and various diseases which could be transmitted through many generations due to damage caused to DNA molecules. When visiting this museum, my thoughts were similar to when I visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Many questions and thoughts sprang to mind, most of which started either started with the word 'Why?' or ended with an ellipsis.
To initiate war of aggression is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evils of the whole.
(The Judgment of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, passed on September 30 and October 1, 1946.)
To leave this blog on the note of war would certainly be a crime in itself, for the beauty of Cambodia and Vietnam should not be tarnished with it. They have a lot of wealth in terms of their environment and heritage, ranging from the scenic countryside to the magnificent temples and pagodas. These countries will be difficult to forget; they are firmly imprinted within me and I feel like I have unfinished business with them, especially with Vietnam. Asia is in my blood.
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