rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-05-30 14:47

Anlong Veng and Prasat Preah Vihear

The last two places the Khmer Rouge ruled in Cambodia. Until 1997 or so, there was apparently no road into Anlong Veng - it was a border town in a malarial jungle swamp, backed up against a rugged range of mountains which form the border with Thailand. In 1997, Pol Pot, who'd lived thereabouts since 1979 or so, did one last deed which turned even his own men against him, ordering the assassination of Son Sen (formerly in charge of Tuol Sleng) and everyone with him - fourteen people in all. This was the last straw, and Pol Pot's successor (he'd retired from the Central Committee Secretariat in 1989 or so) Ta Mok ordered him to be arrested and tried by the Khmer Rouge. If that wasn't enough, Hun Sen (also a former KR cadre; then and now Prime Minister of Cambodia) ordered government troops to take Anlong Veng, and build a road to it to prevent it falling back into KR hands. The remaining Khmer Rouge militia peppered the area liberally with booby traps and landmines and faded into the jungle, eventually fleeing 100km East to the Angkor-era mountain temple at Prasat Preah Vihear, on the Thai border, where they made their last stand.

Anlong Veng is an awful place. It's still a filthy border town in a malarial jungle swamp, even though there's an average-quality dirt road in there nowadays. It's still under siege from landmines; only areas within 30 metres of a road have been (mostly) cleared. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge apparently still have some influence here. There are a few stone or brick buildings, but mostly it's a dusty street with sagging wooden stilt-houses on either side. The water table is so low that when holes were dug for the stilts, water flowed up, creating a stagnant pool of water which the house's inhabitants immediately proceeded to fill up with polystyrene food containers, plastic bags, food scraps (nothing in this world, <>i>nothing, smells as bad as a scum-filled ditch full of durian rind. Really. Nothing.), shit and piss (I saw people pissing out their windows), anything. The people are cagey and hard-looking; there's only one restaurant which seems safe to eat at, etc. We arrived just before dusk on the 26th, on the only bus, which leaves Anlong Veng early in the morning and returns from Siem Reap in the evening, and were besieged by moto drivers. We worked our normal strategy, which is to immediately sit down somewhere and have a beer, waiting for the eejits and hangers-on to leave, while the serious people stay around. We checked into the most expensive guesthouse in town ($6 per night, woo) because it had cable TV and the super 14 final between the Hurricanes and Canterbury was on the next day - sadly, it wasn't shown, and the Hurricanes lost. Bollocks.

Te 27th was spent arsing around and trying to stay out of the heat - by the time we got opur cat together and negotiated a sane price for a treip to Preah Vihear, it was too late to go, so we called it for 0500 the following day. The plan was ambitious - six hours on bikes, an ancient temple, Pol Pot's house and grave and the border crossing into Thailand, all in one day.

We bought an alarm clock, which failed to wake us up, so we didn't leave until 0530. At about 0630 it started to rain torrentially. The road turned to red slush and we took shelter in the grounds of a school. At about 0800 the rain was mostly over, so we carried on; breakfast in Sa Em at 0945; we reached the town at the base of the mountain at about 1020. At this point we switched to souped-up bikes for the climb - 125cc honda dream, with a home-made water-cooling system added. Apparently bikes without this kit don't make it up the mountain, and I believe it. Much of the road is on a 35% gradient - 35% is about 30 degrees. These parts are relatively good, concrete slab with rebar, but the rest is rocks and mud and holes - not really even a road, just a place which isn't jungle. The trip is 5km, and takes about 30 minutes on a bike. For those foolish enough to walk, it takes about three hours if you can do it without stopping - it would have taken us all day. The real kicker is that this temple is utterly trivial to reach from Thailand - the Thais, in violation of territorial boundaries, bulldozed a sealed road up to the temple stairs from their northern side; the Cambodians accepted it on the grounds that Thais have to pay $10 entry, whereas visitors from the Cambodian side pay $2.50. This is a good earner - aircon buses full of tourists come from Thailand all through the busy season - one bus nets between $500 and $800 in revenue for the temple.

The temple itself is spectacular mostly because of its commanding location at the top of the highest mountain in the range. It's built on three layers, each connected by a rough flight of stairs. On the southastern face of the third (top) layer, you have a commanding view of all of Cambodia - pancake-flat and jungly, excepting a few hazy massifs on the horizon; a rocky outcrop allows control of all the roads and rivers of the region. One man with a mortar could defend this position from a far superior force. The northeastern face is even more interesting; on it is the site of the Khmer Rouge's last stand in the middle of 1998. There's a bunker containing a lot of chalked writing in Khmer, left untouched, and a smaller bunker - a sentry post - which now contains an urn with ashes, incense, and a few dry bones. Outside the main bunker is an artillery piece - the wheels and levers have been hacksawed through and welded shut, but it's otherwise intact, and it points down the three-layered staircase which is the only entry point to the temple complex; and directly at the Thai border control buildings which have been set up at the end of the road at the bottom. Some parts of the temple have been demined, but not all. There are signs at the edges of most paths warning people not to stray, and not to pick up strange objects.

Back down the hill, and back to Anlong Veng, leaving at about 1300. We made better time on the way back, getting in at 1500 or so. We abandoned our planned visits to Pol Pot and Ta Mok's houses (apparently there's not much there anyway) and headed up the mountain to the border town, where Pol Pot's show trial for Son Sen's murder was held, where his sentence of life in KR custody was pronounced, and where he was ignominiously cremated in 1998. According to the account in David Chandler's Brother Number One: A political Biography of Pol Pot, he recieved word from Ta Mok that Hun Sen's government was convening a tribunal to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. He took ill, went to rest, and died quietly less than three hours later. On April 17th 1998, the 23rd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's 'liberation' of Phnom Penh, his body was taken up the mountain and cremated on a pile of rubbish and old tyres. Nobody close to him was present. We visited the site; there's a bed of ashes with a four-post corrugated iron roof over it, the edges trimmed by empty soda bottles. A sign, erected by the Ministry of Tourism, is all that marks whose remains these are; nobody else seems to care.

The border town is much like Anlong Veng, but it does share a direct border with Thailand. We changed $20 into baht because the rate was extortionate. Because it was late in the day, there were no buses. Sareth, speaking english even though he's lived 14km from the thai border his whole life, organised us a gratis ride to Srisaket with a thai medical aid organisation, which we happily accepted. Thus ended our holiday in Cambodia. It's tough, kid, but it's life.

They dropped us off at a hotel not far from the railway station in Srisaket, where we had our first hot shower since ... Hoi An, I think. Sunday is market day in Srisaket, and we wandered down the market, bought tickets, ate chicken on a stick and fed the bones to the cats and dogs which hang around. Thailand is several continents away from Cambodia - people are relaxed and happy, they wear stylish clothes and go out for walks in the market just to be there; fathers and sons sit and eat dinner and joke together, people smile at you for no reason - not trying to sell you anything, just because they're happy. After China and Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand really is the Kingdom of Smiles. Life is easy here, even in this poorest part of the kingdom. They were fortunate; the French decided to leave Thailand as a buffer between their Indochinese empire and the British empire in Burma, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which hasn't in recent history been invaded, colonised or annexed by a foreign power, and it shows.

Our major problem in Srisaket was lack of money. We had enough for the train tickets (second class, which gets you a seat and an openable window for the 12 hours to Bangkok), the hotel, dinner, two beers and a roll of toilet paper. When we got on the train at 0800 the next morning, we had 30 baht left - three quarters of a dollar. That, coincidentally, is how much a punnet of rice and meat and egg and chillies costs on the train, and that was what we ate that day. The trip was just as I remember - hurtling on a narrow track through the flat northeast, then up into jungly mountains before descending back into the floodplais of the Chao Praya river. In the mountains we ran through an incredible lightning storm - twice, objects on either side of the train were struck - the sound is deafening and the smell of ozone was in the air. I wasn't sure if the train itself had been hit. Still, we made it.


2006-05-26 05:19

Aki Ra - One Man Bomb Squad

Aki Ra doesn't know exactly when he was born - he doesn't remember anything before 1978, when the Khmer Rouge killed his parents and made him, as a kid of about five, walk through minefields in front of their military patrols. After the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, he ended up attached to a Vietnamese army group still fighting the KR, and that's where he got the training to do what he does today - locate and disarm landmines.

He reckons he's found at least 30,000 mines, with somewhere between three and six million remaining in Cambodia. The land his house and the orphanage for landmine victims and the landmine museum he runs was itself a minefield in 1994 - he was one of the people who worked with the UN in 1994-95 to clear landmines out of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Aki Ra's methods are simple, fast and dangerous. He clears mines, mortar and cluster bombs, tripwires, and mechanical traps and snares using a humble bamboo stick, sharpened, and disarms them using such complex tools as pliers and screwdrivers. He does it all voluntarily, recieving no payment - indeed, the places now most affcted by landmines are so rural and impoverished that they couldn't afford to pay even a small fraction of his costs, which run to thousands of dollars per month, mostly in fuel and vehicle rental. He runs the Landmine Museum and Gallery in Siem Reap, which attracts donations, and it seems like he is sponsored by anti-landmine campaign groups and a few foreign donors, but there's certainly no surfeit of money.

Today (in about half an hour) we're going to Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge; the town where Pol Pot gave his final interview in 1997, where he died in 1998 and was buried. Anlong Veng and the surrounding area is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. I promise we'll be careful.


2006-05-25 10:28


To Khmers, and more or less to foreigners as well, Angkor is Cambodia and Cambodia is Angkor. Every Cambodian flag since the French annexed the place in 1863 has featured Angkor Wat - including the gold-towers-on-red flag of the Khmer Rouge, who did what they could to destroy and deface the Angkor temples. The national beer (slogan: My Country, My Beer) is called Angkor. The flashest hotels in Siem Reap are the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Le Meridien Angkor, La Residence d'Angkor, the Victoria Angkor, FCC Angkor, Sofitel Royal Angkor, Angkor Century Hotel, DayInn Angkor Resort, Angkoriana Hotel, Angkor Village, Angkor Palace Spa Resort, La Maison d'Angkor, Lotus Angkor Hotel, and the Royal Angkor Resort. That's not counting any number of smaller places, or restuarants, shops, tour companies, travel agents, taxis and whatall else. You aren't worth a damn in this town unless you've got the mark of Angkor.

The entrance fee to Angkor Archaeological Park is about the most expensive attraction in Southeast Asia - $20 for a day, $40 for three days, $60 for five days. That gets you into the main complex containing most of the more famous Angkor temples and ruins, but unfortunately doesn't protect you from the madding crowds of Korean herd-tourists or the touts and hawkers. We visited on May 23, and we were there by 0630, leaving Jen and Ben and Ossie in bed for another couple hours. There's a lot to see: something like thirty full-size temples in varying stages of ruin and repair, and many smaller monuments and features. The big daddy, of course, is Angkor Wat itself, more like a castle than a temple.

So much has already been written about Angkor Wat that I'll keep my account brief. We visited the four-faced sandstone towers of Bayon (also a Cambodian beer) first, then went on to the Elephant Terrace and climbed the tower of Phimeanakas nearby. Preah Khan, the monastery of the sacred sword, is very extensive and partially ruined, still - it's peaceful and set away from the road in the jungle, and there was only one Chinese tour group. Neak Pean is an island in the middle of a small lake, which is currently a lawn since it's the dry season. This seems to be the place to come and sit around in the shade, watching dragonflies and butterflies. Ta Som is another small temple, notable in that the apsaras (female air and water spirits of Hindu legend) are each carved to represent individual women; true enough, they have very distinct features, shapes and postures. East Mebonn, formerly in the Eastern Reservoir but now in the Eastern Rice Paddies, has complete, undamaged elephants and backs onto a section of jungle; I saw a snake. Pre Rup is a tall templewith a grand view from the top, from which you can see the tall central tower of Angkor Wat itself. The last, and best, temple we visited before Angkor Wat was Ta Prohm - famous now as the temple in which they filmed most of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; a massive, sprawling complex still left partially overgrown and mostly in ruins, though they are currently building more walkways. It's the sort of place you need to climb through holes in the wall and over piles of laterite blocks to get around, a wonderful, cool, quiet place of spiders and birds and jungle and old musty stone cracked by tree roots.

Angkor Wat is, of course, the most popular and heavily touristed of the temple ruins, and also the largest - not in the complex, but apparently the largest religious building in the world. It is indeed huge - across the bridge and through the first gate you come into grounds containing smaller temples, lakes, and enough flat ground for many football fields. The main structure is itself vast, as well, and is the only truly multi-leveled building in the group. It also bore the brunt of early looting, and extensive destruction by the Khmer Rouge and who knows who else. The quality of the construction is notably superior to the other temples: the stone of the side corridors still sits square and flush, and the destruction is mostly cosmetic rather than structural. What this all means is that Angkor awes you for reasons of scale and solidity, rather than because of its decorations and carvings. This was the only really crowded temple we visited. Apparently the season is in full swing now, and Angkor is pretty full of Korean and Chinese and Japanese and Thai and, to a lesser degree, European package tourists. The central building of the wat is a four-sided tower complex with the three (originally five) towers which are so well-known in silhouette; it's reached by the simple means of Climbing The Stairs. You'd be amazed how much of a rigmarole this is, however. It's a fairly high staircase - perhaps ten or fifteen metres - but the horizontal depth of the staircase is no more than three or five metres. When it comes to staircases, there are two important measurements: the 'lift', or the vertical size of the stair - how much you go up with each step; and the 'going', or horizontal depth of the stair - how much you go forward with each step. In the case of the stairways here, the lift is normally three or more times the going, which is my very roundabout way of saying that it's an incredibly steep staircase. One staircase (the South) has been doctored for the thousands of fat, aged americans and soft korean ajummas who want to climb to the top every day; a set of sturdy square stone stairs and a handrail, one person wide, have been installed. The funniest thing is seeing the incredible queueof people at the top, stranded but for the until it's their turn to descend, when anyone who's got full use of both their legs can simply walk down any of the other staircases, if they're careful.

The Done Thing is to take in a glorious Angkor Sunset on Phnom Bakheng, but since the rainy season has now started, evenings tend to be overcast and the sunsets are less than memorable, so we walked back out to the bridge and sat there with a beer until dusk, and home time.

We considered buying a second pass and returning to see some more temples, and the River of a Thousand Lingas, and Phnom Kulen, Cambodia's most sacred site, but have decided instead to go north to Anlong Veng on the Thai border, and then East to Preah Vihear, a temple on the mountain range separating Thailand and Cambodia, which historically the Thai keep trying to claim as their own, and to which they've built a superhighway and allow tourists from thailand into Cambodia on a day pass. On the Cambodian side it's apparently not so easy - combinations of share taxi, pick-up and moto are required to get there. We'll see. We should be leaving tomorrow.


2006-05-22 12:08

A week in the jungle

Actually, only three days really in the jungle, but this part of Cambodia is so damn rural we weren't far from it the whole week.

We left Phnom Penh early on the morning of May 11, I think. I'm pretty sure it was the day of the UEFA Cup final, because that afternoon in Kratie, we saw a few minutes of it. Kratie is about the halfway point between everywhere and Cambodia's mountainous Eastern Provinces of Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri, basically the only places in the country which aren't as flat as a pancake. It's a fairly sleepy town which is home to a bunch of aid workers and most of the world's 80 or so remaining irrawaddy dolphins, which we didn't go and see. It's also home to a slightly spaced-out computer programmer from North London, who works from here because his job allows him to work anywhere he has an internet connection - he's in his 50s and says he spends more time here and in Bangkok international airport than anywhere else.

The following day we got a share taxi to Ban Lung, the eventual destination - a provincial capital of 6,000 people near the national park which covers most of the province's border with Laos. The trip is supposed to take 6-7 hours, but we did it in three and a half hours, including a flat tyre and lunch. Badass driving was indeed the order of the day - our man threw his camry around those dirt roads, potholes, wood-plank bridges and what the Khmer call 'saw roads'- dirt roads with the washboard effect - with remarkable alacrity. We didn't feel close to dying too often.

At the Tribal Hotel I dropped the name of one of the waiters in Kratie who'd recommending it, saying that the owner, Ms Kim, was his second mother - and promptly got our room rate cut from $10 to $5 per night. Not bad. We sat and talked with a bloke called Sitha, a trekking guide who wanted to take us around the place, and said we'd meet him again that evening. We wandered the town a bit trying to get a feel for a sane price and a sensible itinerary, but didn't turn up much, so we agreed to go with Sitha - three days and two nights in the bush.

The next day (13th, I think) was a day of planning, so we went to the market in Ban Lung for supplies and gifts for the villagers, and off to Yeak Luom crater lake. This lake isn't far from Ban Lung - you can walk there in an hour, but we got a moto and did many return trips because we were lazy. The lake itself is so round that many people don't think it was actually a volcanic crater at all, but a meteor crater - the volcano cone itself is long gone. It's 48 metres deep in the centre, and drops off very quickly, and I believe the ear infection I now have was caused by diving too deep into it, clogging my ears with space mud. Leaving the crater lake I had another of those bizarre asian experiences - a very drunk old woman offered me a cup of - you guessed it, the same old rice-turps as in Viet Nam. There must be something about me which just makes people want to get me drunk. I drank a little, but since I had to go back on the moto in the dark, I figured it a bad time to get toasted, and she wasn't very pleased. Nevertheless, she drank it herself, and then beckoned towards her house, just down the way. Another guy who was there spoke english, and said she wanted me to go with her to say goodnight. I politely declined on the basis that my friends would be back any moment. Very bizarre.

Deb's and my daypacks weren't big enough for a three-day trip, and our main packs were too big and too full of gear, so we bought a North Farce and a Lowe Apine bag from the market, which were shit, but did the job. Carrying water and hammocks and mosquito nets - not much, really, but bulky. We met Mr Ngai, our local local guide - Sitha is a local from Ban Lung, but Ngai is one of the tribespeople of the area, who's lived in the jungle all his life. He's a short guy, stocky and lean, who wears jandals and carries all his gear in a bamboo pack. Some well-meaning tourists once gave him a pair of hiking boots, but he worse them once and found them uncomfortable and heavy, so back to jandals it was - wet and dry, snakes or no snakes.

We set off through slashed and burnt fields, and virtually the first thing we did was cclimb a bloody great hill to Ngai's farm. Climbing and moving in mid-30s temperatures is a hell of a lot more pain than at NZ temperatures, and the first climb more or less did me in, and the rest of the day's walking I was more or less a zombie. I was a lot fitter last time I did this. We were allsweating out water as fast as we could drink it.The jungle up here is different from at Bokor, which was much like NZ bush - here there are fewer ferns and less undergrowth, the trees are tall and straight and white-trunked. Insects are everywhere - yellow and black ants which sting, millipedes which can bite but aren't dangerous, centipedes which are very dangerous.

Night 1 we camped by a stream where there's a rather withered swimming hole. Ngai and Sitha had used the camp before, and it's a good size for a tarp, seven hammocks and a fire. Ngai cooked sticky rice inside green bamboo - apparently the reason the jungle people and the Lao are smaller than Khmers is because they eat sticky rice in preference to proper rice. The key to cooking rice and whatnot else in bamboo is to get the bamboo where the wall is thick, but the diameter of the empty space inside is not - if the bamboo wall isn't thick enough it'll burn through in the fire; if the space is too thick, the food inside won't cook evenly. Sticky rice cooked in bamboo is something else - it forms a sort of skin, and is chewy, a little like the korean rice cake ddeok, but fragrant.

The next morning we set out for the village where we'd spend our second night - this time heading through dense, trackless jungle. The second day wasn't as bad as the first, but only by virtua of the fact that the biggest hill was towards the end, rather than at the start, of the day's movement. I'd seriously underestimated how much fluid I needed, and had to drink a couple litres salty, sugary water with limes in just to have a game of football with the locals. Ngai ad Sitha had picked some small, spiky red fruits during the day which are just the ticket to keep you moving - like lychees, except incredibly sour and slightly sweet.

The night before we'd arrived, the Chief of Swai (mango, because it has a very old mango tree) village had had a nightmare about a young couple killing and eating their baby. There had also been some sickness in the village, and one of the houses and some banana trees were cordoned off, surrounded by a string fence with dead branches tied to it. In order to combat these evil happenings, he'd ordered the sacrifice of a pig, and when we arrived a big party was being held in the aftermath of said sacrifice - dancing, noisy khmer tekno on a battery-powered ghetto-blaster, and very much drinking. The sacrifice had clearly been a success, and chief and the deputy chief were drunk enough that they joined in the game of kick-around, despite being of advanced age and clearly never having kicked a football in their lives before. Crowds gathered around to watch our every move, but the kids weren't friendly or smiling - afraid, maybe a little curious. Perhaps the strangest piece of cultural difference I've come across: these people (either the Krung or the Jarai, I forget which) have no word in their language, or conception of any need for, 'hello' or 'thank you' - they greet each other with some specific and meaningful enquiry about how you are; whether you've eaten or where you're going, or such, and when you hand them something they take it without a word, or any acknowledgement. So much for certain things being universal.

After dark and after dinner, most of the village gradually gathered in the meeting house, and a tall clay jar of rice wine was brought in, with a bucket of water and a long bamboo straw. The deal is that the jar, which is still full of husks and rice as well as wine, starts out brim-full. They ram the straw in (there's a lot of solid, so it's not easy), and you drink through the straw. As you drink, they top the jar up with water. Before you drink, you agree on a certain quantity - usually one cupful, and if you don't drink the full amount, the rice wine spirit will get angry. It's a pretty ingenious system - at the start of a session, the wine is very strong, but asmore water gets added it gets weaker. To make it temporarily stronger again, you can sink the straw in a different place. The villagersslowly came in and sat around, watching whitey drink rice wine and laughing at us when we didn't know what to do with the cup. Sitha dished out the pressies, but there was a bit of bureaucratic interference as the deputy chief wanted a toy bb gun for himself, and soon enough all the other men did too. Ossie reckoned he was setting up a drunken armed coup. The night wore on and everyone went to bed; it was uneventful apart from the very loud cow noises from beneath us.

The morning was, however, far from uneventful. Ben got up and put on his trousers from where they'd been hanging outside, to dry. He put his hand in his pocket and started swearing about how something had bitten him. We, just waking up, looked on in bemusement, and a fter a short pause to make sure he wasn't going to faint and swallow his tongue, off came the pants again. The wound was weeping and pussing, so I figured I'd get a stick and have a look in the pocket, where I found a little scorpion, a couple inches long, had made itself a nest. Sitha squashed it with a jandal as soon as I let it out and told Ben he wasn't going to die - every time you go collecting bamboo you apparently get stung by scorpions, and it hurts for half an hour and then goes away. The funny part about this was that this day - May 16th - was Jen and Ben's 5th anniversary. Jen is a scorpio.

The rest of the day was spent on the Tonle San river - shallow, partly because of the dry season, and partly because the Vietnamese dammed its headwaters outside Cambodia's jurisdiction and there's bugger all water left. We went upriver to visit a bizarre cemetery at Vern Sai and then back to town after a swim. Coming out of the bush is always a much more exhilarating feeling than going into it, for me. After a few days surviving on very little I get used to is, and upon return to civilisation I feel as if I can do more or less anything, that I'm the master of my surrounds, because civilisation is so much easier than the bush. I found this not quite so much the case in the Cambodian jungle. Partly because of the heat, partly the bugs, but mostly because I don't know it as well as NZ bush, I found it a much less forgiving environment, and came out feeling more relieved than anything else. We have become very firm friends with Sitha - I've told him if he ever makes it to NZ we'll go out into the bush there, and we (mostly Deb) agreed to make him a website to encourage travellers to support him. Again, we've been lucky enough to find one of the good ones. You can see the site at http://jungletrek.blogspot.com.

The 17th, our first day back in Ban Lung, was another reserve day during which we did nothing but make Sitha's site and bum around waiting for washing to be dry. In the afternoon we visited a waterfall, the first genuinely cool water I've experienced since swimming in Xiamen. That night was the Champion's League Final, but power supply and sattelite connection to Ban Lung is so flakey there was no danger of watching it. On the 18th, we left Ban Lung for Kratie, on the road to Siem Reap and thence Thailand.

But things don't always work out as planned. Our five packs didn't all fit in the boot of the camry, so I tied it down using a length of what I considered to be tough chain, which I'd used before for fastening overfull boots closed. It turned out not to be tough enough for the roads, and Jen's pack, which was on top, had fallen out when the chain had snapped at some point. We retraced our tracks as it started raining, but to no avail - we spent an extra day in Ban Lung as they filed claims with their insurance agents, got a police report and as Jen went about trying to buy a few clothes and so on. She lost everything except her money and her passport and the clothes on her back - her least-favorite clothes, since we'd be spending the whole day cooped up in a hot car. The insurance claim is somewhere around 2200 pounds.

On the 20th, we left again for Kratie, and this time arrived with no real hassles. The bus trip the next day to Siem Reap was 10 hours, and we stopped at Skoun - the place in Cambodia most famous for such delicacies as fried tarantulas and crickets. Tarantulas are good eats - like crab, but the skin is a bit oily and odd. Like crab, they set off my allergy , so I have re-stated its bounds to 'anything with more than four legs'. Works for me.

Siem Reap is squarely back on the tourist trail, but also a good time to get things sorted out - for Jen to get some clothes and a new pack, and for me to get my ear - which packed up after the waterfall seen to. These things we did today. I went to the Cambodia - China Friendship Hospital here, and a young guy about 20, with long hair and a little asian goatee and cargo pants asked me what the matter was, then translated for a doctor who looked rather more stupid than I'm accustomed to doctors looking. The young guy was a just-qualified nurse, and was working to become a doctor; he was one of those people who you know instantly are intelligent and capable, and spoke almost perfect english. They tell me I have an ear infection, and have given me vitamins and antibiotics and ear drops. Seems to be working, too - after the consultation my hearing improved somewhat.

Now it's time for grilled chickens and beer for dinner. Tomorrow is probably Angkor Wat.


2006-05-09 10:43

Prison Camp at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

I suppose the Killing Fields have the distinction of being Cambodia's second-best known place - I won't say 'attraction' - after Angkor Wat. Visiting places of significance - historic places, important museums and art galleries, ruins, palaces, cemeteries, battlefields, fortresses - tend to make me moody and sullen, partly because of the history and atmosphere of the places themselves, and partly because of the attitude of what seems like every other motherfucker there. People who bring their kids and let them run wild, or who travel in colour-coordinated herds with tour guides bearing loudspeakers and flags, who point at exhibits and say "ooh, doesn't it look funny" or who compulsively take photographs and video of every little thing they see, as if they don't trust their eyes and ears and nose to remember it.

The Genocide Museum at Toul Sleng in Phnom Penh was initially built as an elementary school, similar in every way to the schools I've taught in in Korea the past three years, with big classrooms and a courtyard with a flagpole, lots of windows and high ceilings. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, they changed the name to Toul Sleng, meaning something along the lines of Poisoned Hill, and gave it the codename S-21, Security Prison 21. Nobody outside Cambodia heard of it until the Vietnamese army recaptured the city in 1979, but in the intervening four years, somewhere between 14 and 20,000 Cambodians were incarcerated there for crimes which will sound familiar to anyone who's studied Stalinist or Maoist communism, or has read Cancer Ward or The Gulag Archipelago; effectively nothing. Of these, seven people survived. Tuol Sleng was a torture prison, designed to extract confessions of crimes meriting execution from its prisoners.

The ground level of A Block remains individual rooms, each containing an iron bed and various apparatus of torture; these were the confession rooms, better called torture rooms. Not execution rooms, since actually killing prisoners here was discovered - dead men make no confessions of counter-revolutionary guilt. Blocks B and D have mostly been cleaned and repainted, and now house a huge collection of photographs; mugshots of the prisoners as they checked in, and in a few cases photos of them during or after torture. These photos are probably the most remarkable part of the whole thing - the Khmer Rouge was very thorough indeed, and kept dossiers on all its prisoners. The faces in the photos are no different from the Khmers of today. One old man, perhaps a monk in a traditional robe, has a bodhisattva-like half-smile as his photo is being taken, but the rest of the thousands of photos are just frightened, shocked, surprised, sad, angry, confused, defiant, crushed, half-dead.

I took great pains to avoid the tour groups, the amateur photographers and the clingy young Thai couples. It's not that I think I'm any different - I'm a tourist and a ghoulish sightseer just the same - but strong experiences like this are not a group activity for me, and the less noise and bustle I have intruding upon my thoughts the better. By the time I got to C block I was mostly alone, and C Block is itself the hardest bit of the prison - electrified barbed wire covers the balconies, and the interior is mostly unaltered, definitely uncleaned, cells built twenty to a classroom out of red bricks and mortar, and on the upper levels, from wooden planking like pigsties. I say uncleaned, because even thirty years on, there remain bloodstains on the floor, walls, cielings. The place smells musty and quite literally leaves a bad flavour. Having left it this way may well be lack of labour - one of the record rooms on the third level of B Block is in an utter shambles, with potentially valuable genealogical and photographic records piled into corners, shoved in boxes under tables, everything covered in dust and bat shit, but I think there's value in seeing the prison as it was, rather than some tarted-up reconstruction.

The trip to the Killing Field at Choeung Ek, 15km southwest of the city, was strangely more of the same bleakness: crippling poverty, foully polluted water and a rough dirt road, even though it gets a million tourists every year. Choeung Ek isn't THE Killing Fields - just the most accessible from Phnom Penh. Only 9,00 or so bodies have been disinterred here, of a total somewhere between 1 and 3 million out of Cambodia's 8 million population who died under the Khmer Rouge, which they refer to as the Pol Pot Clique. Like in Russia and China, and I suppose we'll find in North Korea eventually, most of those executed were minorities of some kind - ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Lao, ethnic Cham, Christians, buddhist monks, and most of the millions weren't executed, but died of starvation, disease or exhaustion. The Killing Field at Choeung Ek is quite small in size - you can easily walk arounbd it in fifteen minutes and unlikeToul Sleng there's very little to see here. Come here without having gone to the museum first and you wouldn't really have a grasp on what you were looking at. It's just holes in the ground, partly filled with repugnant slimy green-grey water. The bones have been cleared away and mostly housed in a great white stone stupa in the centre of the grounds, but a large proportion of the area is still unexcavated.

It feels like a cemetery, but on the other hand, the locals don't really seem to treat it so. A few cows were grazing on the edges of one of the larger graves - now ponds; kids hassle you for money and coca-cola and photos and trinkets, there were a couple of old men sleeping in hammocks along one fence, it's all quite relaxed. On the way back to Phnom Penh,our tuk-tuk driver took us to a local place to eat - not half a kilometre from Choeung Ek - where we had lovely duck soup and rice and warm coke, as much as we could eat for $1 per person. Not even a restaurant per se, just a home who sold food for people if they wanted to stop by. Happy, relaxed Khmers living and getting on with life so close to the Killing Field helped lift the mood a bit.

Back in Phnom Penh the mood was lifted yet more; a family of grey monkeys playing and larking around with the locals on top of a banboo roof. People would hold their arms up and run towards the baby monkey, who'd be oblivious, then the mother monkey would jump up and down and snarl, then the baby monkey would go and play in the power lines, and the whole thing would start again. The father monkey just sat back and watched it all happen. Why can't we all just get along, maan?