Heartache and hangovers in Cambodia

Firstly, an apology for my lack luster and uninspiring blogs of late. It isn’t that South East Asia has been uninspiring, far from it. The countries are breathtakingly beautiful and the people’s generosity of spirit never ceases. For ease of travel it comes top of the list. The truth is these blogs take time and energy, energy I haven’t had in recent weeks. Now I know I’m not supposed to say this – extended travel is everything you’d expect it to be; eye opening; awe inspiring; mind altering; life changing. It is also exhausting! The constant movement, the need to be enthusiastic about every city, town and village that you enter, negotiating cultural differences, simply finding somewhere new to eat every night, these things can all take their toll. I have pondered recently how much of this exhaustion is to do with the fact that I have been stuck with the same group of people for six months, often going weeks without coming into contact with anyone new but I know from experience that independent travel poses its own set of challenges. No, I am sure this fatigue comes from the pace at which we set off and the length of time I have been away. Enthusiasm waxes and wanes and fortunately after a week of relaxation on a Thai island and three weeks of unforgettable wildlife spotting on the magnificent island of Borneo I am renewed, I have found a second wind. Forgive me, I am not complaining, I wouldn’t change a thing and as the date of my return draws ever nearer, despite the travel fatigue and depleting funds I find myself not wanting it to end.

Thailand and Borneo I will get to later, but for now, Cambodia. A country we all knew was going to pose an altogether different set of challenges. We enter through one of the most corrupt borders in the world (apparently). We arrive at the border and form an orderly queue, we have to, we’re British. Our passports are collected and handed to the official who promptly places them in a corner and resolutely ignores them. As a steady stream of foot traffic files past us handing over passports laced with cash to sweeten the deal it dawns on us that we could be in for a long wait. Our bus driver, wondering what the hold up is, wanders into the terminal, places a bribe on top of the passports and waits. It’s amazing what a small crumpled note can do to grease the wheels, before long our passports have been stamped, returned to us and we are on our way.

First stop Phnom Penh, the capital. We have been hearing reports of civil unrest in the area for weeks but in true Odyssey fashion these reports are duly ignored and we turn up anyway. Our journey to the hotel is hampered slightly by roadblocks meaning we have to get out and walk. An ominous sign? Perhaps not. The streets are quiet, police and soldiers line the pavements in an effort to keep the peace. Many roads are closed to us and as we reach our hotel we realise that heading out anywhere other than the immediate area is going to prove difficult. Confined to the hotel we make up for it by drinking copious amounts of happy hour cocktails delving into the Khmer curry, a dish you would be forgiven for thinking had a slightly bitter after taste. It was, in fact, delicious.

The morning that follows is a difficult one, and no, not because of the hangovers. Today we visit the Killing Fields. On the way we pick up a newspaper and discover that a man was killed the previous night in the riots over the recent election. Cambodia may have ousted the Khmer Rouge but they are still fighting for their independence. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, once an orchard, is now a mass grave and memorial to those killed by the Khmer Rouge campaign in the late 70’s. We ready ourselves as we walk in, most of us have a good idea of what today will involve, some of us have been before. As we cross the threshold we are handed a set of headphones and an audio guide. The perfect way to see this site, it allows you to remain with your own thoughts as a survivor of the regime explains his experiences and what each part of the site was used for.

Very little of the site remains intact due to looting and understable anger when the Khmer Rouge left. Signs have been erected to give you an idea of what would have happened in each area and the survivors story does well to immerse you in the devastating life under the Khmer Rouge.

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The resourceful Khmer Rouge would use the sharp edge of the palm trees to slit the throats of the prisoners

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5,000 human skulls are housed inside a Buddhist stupa, a memorial to the dead

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As we walk around the site we do our best to avoid stepping on the fragments of bone and clothing that are still, almost 40 years later, being washed to the surface. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s orders, executed almost 9,000 people at this site alone. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 million citizens were executed or died from other causes (lack of food, poor medical care) during the Khmer Rouge regime, at the time the country had a population of just 8 million.

Our morning has been heart wrenching but the grisly history lesson is not over yet. After a quick bite to eat we enter the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, more commonly known as the S-21 prison. Once a high school full of bustling children, during the regime this innocent building, once a place of learning was turned into a centre for torture. 14,000 people entered this centre under the Khmer Rouge, seven survived. We are shown around by another survivor, a local woman who was 13 at the time of the regime. She was forced out of the city, Phnom Penh, and sent to work in the rice fields with her mother, she never saw her father again. She describes how she was forced to walk from Phnom Penh in the south to the rice fields in the north. The journey took them weeks and thousands died on the road. As she takes us around the former prison she explains the gruesome scene that greeted soldiers after the Khmer Rouge fled, the bodies of 14 prisoners remained strapped to beds where they had died as a result of the injuries inflicted on them by their torturers. These rooms remain as they were found with shackles and a lonely bed, the shadows of blood stains can still be seen on the floor.

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The Khmer Rouge used the S-21 prison to torture the captured into giving false confessions of their involvement in the CIA. These confessions were documented and held at the prison along with mug shots of every prisoner that entered. In one chilling room we see photographs of these prisoners both alive and dead. Row upon row of sunken faces look back at us, frozen in a terrible time. The cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on one another never ceases to amaze me.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks, we have visited the DMZ, the Vietnam war museum and now the Killing Fields and we have been able to reflect upon our own lives, as cliched as that may sound. Thankfully it is time to move on. Next stop – Angkor Wat.

As we move away from the terrible history of the Phnom Penh our sorrow for the people of Cambodia is forgotten momentarily. This is one historical site I have been excited about visiting since I booked this trip. We arrive at the hotel mid afternoon and are delighted to find it has a pool (it’s the small things). Unfortunately it is also raining and our schedule for the next few days is going to allow very little time for relaxing. My journey here, for the most part, had been spent discussing Angkor Wat and the best way to see it. Aware that it is possible to enter the site in the evening to catch the sunset and return the next morning for sunrise at no extra cost this is exactly what we plan to do.

Alas, the constant drizzle that has followed us here shows no sign of stopping and the sunset is no where to be found.

The next morning we try again. We wake at 4.30 to find it has stopped raining, for now, but the clouds remain. It looks like we won’t be catching the sunrise either.

Angkor Wat, clouds and hoards of people

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As a steady drizzle sets in again we take cover in a near by temple to enjoy a spot of breakfast, before long we head inside the temple complex starting with Angkor Wat itself. Our guide describes in painfully close detail every aspect of the carvings on the outside of the temple. Whilst full of knowledge this man is also painfully dull. Oblivious to our boredom he drones on regardless, by now less than half the group is even pretending to listen. Finally at 8.30 we are allowed inside the temple itself. We clamber with trepidation up the wet steps to the top and are treated to grey view of the rest of the complex.

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As the day progresses we are shown a grand total of five temples, climaxing in the Lara Croft temple (this temple was used in the 2001 Tomb Raider film). The jungle attempts to reclaim this wonderfully beautiful temple as tree roots cascade down the walls, this should have been the highlight of an awe-inspiring day. However  the rain does not stop and our guide fails to become any more interesting!

Fi – loving life at Angkor Wat

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Unfortunately a mundane guide and miserable weather have done little on this occasion to muster any enthusiasm we had for the site. I am sure under different circumstances the temples at Angkor Wat would be worth every penny, it is truly magnificent.

Owl spotting – the most interesting part of the day

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Enjoying the Lara Croft temple before the rain sets in

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In the evening – our last on this whistle stop tour of Cambodia – when the heavens have finally relinquished their downpour, a few of us head out for a drink or five.

Despite our constant badgering the rest of the group have declined our request for them to join us. The Angkor What? bar comes highly recommended and when we stumble upon it almost by accident we decide that $12 for a bucket of alcohol is not all that bad. Some of you may have heard that the majority of South East Asia likes to serve it’s alcohol in buckets, yes much like those you would use to build sandcastles with at a much more innocent age. Now I’m not promoting this type of alcohol consumption, we all know its not big and it’s not clever but it certainly makes trips to the bar a hell of a lot less frequent. Or at least it would if said bar was not handing out promotional t-shirts to every idiot stupid enough to buy three buckets at a time. In our slightly inebriated state there is nothing we want more than to get our hands on one of these prized garments – sadly we left our wares in the bar, none of us quite lucid enough to pick them up.

The next morning I am fairly convinced there is a man with a hammer attempting to escape from my skull, no wait, that’s just the door, “Breakfast?” Louise chirps as I scramble across the bed to open it. “It’s looking doubtful” I reply as I collapse back on the bed. It is late afternoon before Pernille and I finally feel able to leave the sanctity of our bedroom and hunt for food. ‘Never again’ we muse, a philosophy that lasted at least a week…

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