Category Archives: Cambodia

Churr Bru

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Home again home again jiggity jig.

 

294 days, six countries and more miles than Google calculator can be bothered to deal with.

 

Here’s a final map of our complete route (and no, Jesus was not born at every yellow star…) Start and end in Auckland and do a kind of almost-figure-of-eight around both islands. Big BIG stopover in Wellington, our home from home.

New Zealand Final

(Nb. There was also two weeks in Tonga but that was too complicated map-wise. Just imagine it yeahh….)

 

From there it was a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then wiggling overland up to Hanoi…

Asia Final

 

Flight back to Kuala Lumpur and then HOME. And home is just as good as we remember it.

Churr everyone and hello again.

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The Last Leg…

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THIS IS IT..the FINAL COUNTRY; last border crossing, last set of ‘useful’ phrases to learn, last feeling of utter confusion as we try to calculate how many (insert currency) to the dollar / pound / (insert whatever currency we’ve just left).

SO…

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Where we have been…

The first map (red line) shows where we have been. It looks a little unorthodox but remember we are still a merry company of seven so need to start and end at the same place. From Cambodia, we gathered up our gleaming halos and took an epic 36-hour bus ride to Nha Trang, a small city on the South China Sea.

After a few days in Nha Trang, we (or some of us anyway) got the bus five hours down the road to Mui Ne, an idyllic beach town just a little further down the coast.

Another night bus will take us back to Ho Chi Minh city and this is where we will say our goodbyes. Many thanks to Rhys, McEvoy, Chris, Daw and Jamie for being nutters.

 

 

Where we're going...

Where we’re going…

Cel and Imogen will continue down to the Mekong Delta before going back to Ho Chi Minh city and flying (we just couldn’t face another three-day bus journey, and price-wise there’s not much in it!) up to Danang.  From there it’s the historic town of Hoi An, the picturesque Halong Bay and finally ending up Hanoi.

 

See you somewhere along the way..!

Angkor Wat-What.

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In almost direct contrast to the atrocities and sheer hell described in the last post, our next stop in Cambodia was quite literally heaven on Earth. Angkor Wat, the ‘City of Temples’, is both the largest Buddhist temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world.

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Walking to Angkor Wat at sunrise

The temple came into being in the early 12th century under King  Suryavarman II and is the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the home of the ancient Hindu Gods. (Note: Angkor Wat was first Hindu, then Buddhist – as it is today) The Khmer King and his successors were known as the ‘God Kings’, and each strove to build enormous tributes to both honour the gods as well as illustrate their own power and strength to their subjects and against their predecessors.

We’ve heard that the first glimpse of Angkor Wat is one of the most breathtaking and stunning experiences of the modern world. They are completely right. As we rounded a corner, we saw the temple come into view, silhouetted against the pale streaks of the dawn sky and reflected in the enormous moat that surrounded the gates. To actually get to the temple, you walk along a wide stone pathway, always with the impressive structure ahead of you. I have never been to Agra, but I can imagine that perhaps there are echoes of the Taj Mahal in Angkor Wat – both stunning in their architectural riches and religious devotion, both modern wonders of the world.

Our rather unorthodox sunrise crew

Our rather unorthodox sunrise crew

As you enter the temple you can see the extensive intricate detail on the stones, illustrating the time and devotion that was spent on every little detail. There are four towers which surround one large central tower, standing 31m above the rest. This gives the whole structure a sense of symmetry and unity, the height of the towers emphasising their closeness to the gods. What really strikes you about Angkor Wat is that despite the hoards of tourists (it was packed at dawn!) the whole area is just so peaceful. Although it is one of the world’s most renowned tourist attractions, it has retained it’s original ambience of calm and religious devotion, something that has become few and far between in the modern world.

The temple walls - decorated with 800 m worth of bas reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II's victories

The temple walls – decorated with 800 m worth of bas reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II’s victories

The intricate detail on the walls

The intricate detail on the walls

Inside the temple complex

Inside the temple complex

Sunup

Sunup

Equally as impressive, if not more so by it’s diversity and size (10 square km) is neighbouring Angkor Thom. To enter, you drive through terribly imposing gates, made all the more foreboding by the pregnant clouds that hovered aggressively above. The gates are flanked on either side by stone statues that depict a tug of war between 54 gods and 54 demons – The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

The first temple you come to is the Bayon, which I perhaps wouldn’t recommend if you’ve got any sort of easily triggered paranoia issues. The whole temple, majestically dilapidated, comprises 54 Gothic towers that are decorated with 216 faces of the Hindu God, Avlakiteshvara. Word on the street is that the King (Jayavarman VII) who built this was more than a little off his rocker, and as if the feeling of constant surveillance wasn’t unusual enough, the faces are said to bear a strong resemblance to Jayavarmann himself. The whole place is eerie yet fascinating;  you clamber over piles of rocks and peer through darkened archways only to find that at every turn you are once again face to face with the coldly smiling Hindu deity. It is mesmerizing, enigmatic and very very weird.

The faces of Avalokiteshvara

The face (one of 216) of Avalokiteshvara

Cel's getting paranoid..

Cel’s getting paranoid..

The labyrinth of archways and entrances

The labyrinth of archways and entrances

 

The fallen archways

The fallen archways

More temple decoration

More temple decoration

Contemplating the crazy faces

Contemplating the crazy faces

There’s plenty more to see at Angkor Thom – the Terrace of the Elephants, Prasat Chrung, the Terrace of the Leper King. Each equal in beauty, each with it’s own story to tell. As we moved through, however, the blue-black sky which had been threatening us all morning finally broke and we were caught in a torrential downpour. Rather than a hindrance, it was a welcome cool from the closeness of the morning. Although photo-taking was now a no-no, the heavy clouds and sheets of rain only added to the ethereal atmosphere of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom (our next stop).

Everyone knows Ta Phrom. It was in Tomb Raider, it might as well have been in Indiana Jones, it’s that world-famous image of temple against jungle; human against nature. Ta Phrom has been completely left to the mercy of the jungle which, as we know, is merciless. The temple emerges from thick jungle, barely distinguishable from the dense foliage and layers of dark greenery. Nature has run riot and tree roots hug the crumbling walls, emerging at incredible angles from the once beautiful stonework. Foundations have been overturned, and stones and piles of rubble lie everywhere, interspersed with lopsided gateways and broken steps. Some roots look like serpents, their corpulent bodies gradually choking the building and bringing it to the ground. It seemed so apt visiting this natural playground in the pouring rain, as though we were trespassing on a jungle secret that served to remind us of the power of nature against the relative impunity of humans.

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Growing THROUGH the temple foundations

More roots...

More roots…

...that look like something from a sci-fi movie

…that look like something from a sci-fi movie

One of the desolate courtyards

One of the desolate courtyards

 

And that was that, our experience of Angkor Wat. We only had time for a one-day pass, but it’s possible to have three- or (for the hardcore) seven-day permits. All we have to say is DO IT – this ancient site will inspire, impress and instill a sense of wonder that will last for a long, long time.

Facing the Killing Fields of Cambodia

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How do you pronounce Phnom Penh?

Nyom-Pen‘?

Fuh-nom Pen-*huh*?

Puh-nom Penny?

Or is it just Puh-nom Pen  as we think the Cambodians do?

Regardless of how (in)correctly it is pronounced, the name can’t help but conjure up an image of the exotic. And that is exactly what the city is – an amalgamation of Khmer tradition, Pan-Asian history and a colonial French legacy. The city is home to 1.5 million, a mass of markets and museums, boutiques and bakeries, high-rise hotels, glistening embassies… all presided over by the flower-like Independence Monument.

However, exotic as it may be, it has been marred by the impact of war, revolution and genocide. Under 40 years ago, Cambodia was under the rule of despotic Pol Pot and his ruthless Khmer Rouge army, resulting in four years that tore Cambodia apart.

Potted History

The Khmer Rouge (the Red Khmers), was the name given to the radical Communist Party of Cambodia led by Pol Pot and in government from 1975 – 1979. It is the Khmer Rouge that orchestrated the Cambodia genocide, in which mass executions, torture, overwork and famine killed over a third of Cambodia’s population.

On the 17th April, 1975, Khmer Rouge troops, many of them uneducated rural teenagers, marched into Phnom Pehn and ordered the evacuation of all the inhabitants. Families were forced to flee their homes and move to rural villages in the country in order to create the ideal agrarian society as dictated by Pol Pot.  Under Khmer Rouge stipulations, the country was isolated from foreign influence; schools, hospitals and factories were closed; banking, financing and currency were outlawed; religions relinquished; private property confiscated; and a forced urban to rural migration was implemented. The Khmer Rouge idolised the peasant population, calling them ‘base people’ and putting them in charge of the city folk – who had been supposedly brainwashed by American Imperialism. Anyone who supported America, or capitalism, or education was an ‘enemy of Angkar (the organisation)’ and was executed.

Those that were considered fit were sent to labour camps across the country, split from their families, brothers, sisters, and near worked to death in order to meet unrealistic rice quotas. Those that didn’t survive the intense labour were no loss to the Khmer Rouge regime, if they weren’t fit to work, they were no use. Children were key to the regime, and were separated from their parents, indoctrinated into Communism, and taught to fight, kill and torture.

As an attempt to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge executed anyone they considered an intellectual, city-dwellers, minority people, capitalists, professionals, and people with connections to foreign governments. There was no rhyme nor reason to those who they executed, and they were said to have discriminated against people who wore glasses (sign of learning), anyone with soft hands (not used to manual labour), and those who spoke other languages (involvement with other countries).

The regime finally fell in 1979, following a Vietnamese invasion in which Phnom Penh was captured. Although Cambodia and Vietnam are traditional enemies, defecting Khmer Rouge Cambodians helped the Vietnamese and pushed the Khmer Rouge to the west of the country where they continued to rule for the next decade. The rest of Cambodia, meanwhile, became the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and the genocide was over.

 

Although there is much that I have missed, it is just a bit of background to set the scene for the two sites visited in Phnom Penh…

 

 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The site was once the Tuol Svay Prey High School, but when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17th April 197, they turned into one of their infamous torture and interrogation prisons. There were similar prisons and killing fields dotted around the whole of Cambodia, but it is S-21, the largest of all the incarcerations centres, that keeps the horrifying memory of the four-year genocide alive.

 

The whole place has been left exactly as it was found in 1979. The tall concrete school buildings have been both bleached by the sun and darkened by pollution and wear and the grounds are surrounded by high walls, topped with razor and barbed wire. The three high-school blocks were split according to their function. Building ‘A’ was converted into a set of rooms to be used expressly for torture. The former classroom had glass paneled windows installed to minimize the noise of prisoners screams and were almost empty, with just a wrought iron bed, iron ankle shackles, and a bucket for waste. These were the largest ‘cells’ in S-21 and were used for those accused of leading uprisings against Pol Pot.

 

The tiny cells

 

The classrooms in the other buildings, used for the ‘common’ people, had been divided using crude brick walls to create tiny cells, no bigger than a toilet cubicle, where inmates were imprisoned while they awaited their torture. Others, on the top floors, were used as crowded communal cells as the number of prisoners incarcerated soared in the late 70s. The second and third floor balconies of the school were covered in a fishnet of barbed wire, so the prisoners didn’t even have the option of committing suicide and instead were wholly at the mercy of their barbaric jailers.

 

 

Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept a meticulous record of those who passed through S-21 and on display at the prison is room after room after room of mugshots; photos taken of prisoners who passed through the prison, all of which were dead soon after. As you walk through the classrooms the bewildered ghosts of men, women and children stare out at you, their faces clearly etched with expressions of fear, or pain, or pure confusion about what is going on. Some are not more than kids; a couple of young boys smile at the camera, evidently oblivious to their impending fate. A blind woman with a shaved head, a beautiful young Khmer girl with a furrowed brow clutching a newborn baby, an emaciated middle-aged man – they were all taken from their homes, tortured and killed. Some of the faces are blackened and bloody and some are of mangled bodies with a number placed on them, people who are hardly alive yet still labelled before they are sent to die.

 

 

When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, they found only seven prisoners alive in S-21, all of whom had used their skills to save their lives. One of them, Chum Mey, was there when we went, talking to some visitors. After his arrest, he was kept alive as the Khmer Rouge needed his skill in repairing machinery and he was mainly employed in repairing the typewriters they used to document the names of prisoners passing through. He is in his 90s now and has in fact testified against some high ranking Khmer Rouge Officials in the war crimes tribunal. Chum is phenomenal; he has seen the Khmer Rouge kill his wife and young son, has witnessed the horrifying atrocities of S-21, yet he still sits in the prison day after day in order that we might not forget the atrocities that have been committed.
To tell you the truth, I only made it into building A. I didn’t see the tiny cubicles, nor did I see the rooms where curators have displayed the instruments of torture, nor could I find any words to say to Chum Mey.  The eerie juxtaposition of the quiet, sunny grounds, and barbaric relics and haunting memories is harrowing. And weak and prone to tears as I am, I didn’t cope too well. Yes, you must visit S-21, but it will be hard.

 

Number of Prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng

1975 – 154

1976 – 2,259

1977 – 2,350

1978 – 5,765

NB. Not including children although the number is estimated at 20,000

 

Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields

Eerily, we followed the path that hundreds of thousands of condemned Khmers must have followed during 1975 – 1979 and made our way from S-21 to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields. This is the site where those that had ‘confessed’ to being an enemy of the Khmer Rouge were taken to be executed and buried in mass graves.

 

This is a completely different experience, namely as the whole area is so peaceful, beautiful even. There are no buildings left, all were torn down and their materials used by starving Cambodians after the liberation from the regime in 1979. In their place is a huge memorial stupa, beautifully decorated and glistening in the late afternoon sun. It is mesmerising, yet as you look closer you see that the stupa is in fact filled with skulls – hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, neatly categorised and lined in rows, testament to the unimaginable brutality that once unfolded here.

 

The Buddhist Stupa

The Buddhist Stupa

 

Some of the skulls encased within

Some of the skulls encased within

 

You are provided with an audioguide during your visit, which is full of information about the Killing Fields themselves as well as survivor stories and pieces of music. You learn that often the executioners would use the tools at hand to kill, rather than bullets, in order to save money. There are clear marks on the skulls in the stupa that have been made by a machete, or the point of a sickle, or the blunt end of a hoe. One of the hardest sights is a mass grave that once held the bodies of women (most of them were found naked) and children. Next to the grave is a tree which, when the site was discovered had bits of hair and blood and brain matter on it. It emerged that soldiers would hold babies by their legs and smash their heads against the tree, before tossing them into the grave. Imagine how many mothers saw their own children killed in this way before they too were killed and thrown into the same pit.

 

The killing tree

The killing tree

 

On the guide you can listen to the horrifying sound of the propaganda music mixed with the whirr of the generator as it would have been played from this tree to mask the sounds of execution

On the guide you can listen to the horrifying sound of the propaganda music mixed with the whirr of the generator as it would have been played from this tree to mask the sounds of execution

Most of the mass graves have been excavated, hence the exact knowledge about the number and origin of the victims, and the preservation of the skulls in the stupa. Some, however, have been left and as each year passes and each rainy season floods and drains the ground, bones, teeth and bits of clothing get pushed up to the surface, speckling the path like a bad memory. Caretakers at Cheoung Ek gather those that have been pushed right up and store them at the site, perhaps this constant reminder is the victims’ way of showing that they will never be forgotten.

 

Clothes on the path

Clothes on the path

The caretaker's most recent finds

The caretaker’s most recent finds

Bones on the path

Bones on the path

The horror of both Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek is limitless and we could not even to begin to imagine what the people of Cambodia have been through. We saw but two of the Khmer Rouge’s centres of evil and there are many hundreds more. For us, it has taught us a great deal about the history of Cambodia and, although we may have seen some things that we would rather forget, it is important that we do the exact opposite and always remember.

 

 

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Recommended Reading:

Francois Bizot ‘The Gate’

Loung Ung ‘First they killed my father’

Pin Yathay ‘Stay Alive, My Son’

And then there were seven…

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So in the past few days we’ve gone from a company of two to a motley cru of seven. Little harder to manage, but a lot funnier to watch.

 

Here’s the route for Cambodia…

 

Where to?

Where to?

 

First stop after our 4,000-Island idyll is Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Next we make our way up to Siem Reap to spend some time with the gods at Angkor Wat, followed by a mammoth bus ride across the border and into Vietnam. Astonishingly, time is starting to run out, meaning that there are many parts of Cambodia that we won’t be able to see. But we can’t do everything and it just means that we’ll have to savor every moment of our brief Cambodian stint.

 

Here goes.

 

(Although we do wish that the roads were as straight and pothole-less in real life as they are on Microsoft paint…!)