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Published: September 5th 2012
Phnom Sampeau is home to the terrible 'Killing Cave', near Battambang.
On many hours spent on public transport in Asia, we had noticed that the locals rarely seemed to read a book, or anything else. Illiteracy rates are still high and presumably books are too expensive for many. Despite this, Cambodia is home to countless on-street booksellers. They offer contemporary favourites, travel guides and everyone’s favourite, Khmer Rouge genocide memoires.
We read one of these, the emotive and gripping “First They Killed My Father”, by Loung Ung, who was only five years old when the Khmer Rouge took power. At the Choeng Ek ‘Killing Fields’ and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, and at the ‘Killing Cave’ near Battambang, we saw with our own eyes what remains, including victims’ skulls and bones. More emotional still was the audio guide at Choeng Ek. We walked around trees, fields and the small lake in the pouring rain, listening to first hand recollections of abduction, starvation, torture and murder. Disturbingly, the ongoing heavy rain brought macabre remnants – clothing and fragments of bones and teeth – to the muddy surface beneath our feet.
The systematic and random violence and inhumanity are difficult to comprehend, especially as they happened partly within our lifetimes.
(Alarmingly, the Khmer Rouge, as the ‘legitimate’ government, held the Cambodian seat at the UN as late as 1993!). The Khmer Rouge rivalled Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia for ruthless efficiency and its legacy is still felt in Cambodia today. There’s a notable shortage of people our own parents’ age, a higher than average number of people with missing or impaired limbs, and the most malnourished street urchins we have seen anywhere. But Cambodia is on the long road to recovery. If nothing else, it is apparent that education and money from tourism can begin to improve lives.
At the furthest reaches of the Khmer Rouge’s hateful grasp, lies Koh Kong Province, sheltered by Cardamom Mountains in South Western Cambodia. Our plans to visit the unspoilt island of the same name were scuppered by the early onset of the rainy season. Luckily, what must rank as the best waterfall on our travels was only a short distance away, via narrow-boat along mangrove-lined waterways and a leech-infested forest hike.
Regular readers will have noticed that we have seen lots of waterfalls. Big, small, wide, narrow, for swimming, paddling or jumping in, or merely for admiring. This one had it
A view of Koh Rong Saloem from Koh Rong
Beautiful barely populated islands where we did a few dives.
all. It wasn’t the biggest or most voluminous, but it was the best for swimming, great for diving and jumping, and contained no other people and absolutely no litter or pollution. Surrounded by forest, the only sounds came from gushing water, splashing humans, and the breeze, insects and birds in the trees. If you’re in the area, go before it changes; it’s worth the minor hassle of (small, painless) leeches on the way.
Still accompanied by Mr Robert Mead, we finally indulged his (and our) desire for idyllic islands with a trip to Koh Rong, where a small community shares the tree-fringed shores with fish barbeque shacks and two scuba dive outfits. We dived off nearby Koh Rong Saloem in some of the murkiest and choppiest waters we've encountered, thanks to the recent rainfall. Visibility was barely five metres, but thankfully, despite the huge number of fishing vessels leaving Sihanoukville every night, we didn’t have look far for sea-life, including tasty-looking jackfish schooling around us as we ascended. Mmmm, time for another fish barbeque...
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