Cambodia

Travel Books: Cambodia

Good books I read while I was there: 

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Told by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge – a woman whose family lived in Phnom Penh as it was overthrown. Her father was a government employee from the previous regime, and so was led out to the Killing Fields. It’s a harrowing book. She recounts how desperate her and other families and children were, as well as the inhumane treatment from soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. I thought it gave a really good background into how extreme the country had become – as she describes how the entire population of Phnom Penh was cleared out and forced to work in the countryside. And, as a young girl, she of course was considered a jewel of the new Khmer movement, and enlisted in a work/military camp – only to be eventually liberated by the Vietnamese. It’s graphic, and I found it hard to read for the brutality in some parts, but a good read for a sense of how far the country swung from sanity.

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Written by another survivor of the Khmer Rouge period, but rather than a first person account, he interlaces his experiences of that period with modern day interviews with the former Khmer Rouge general who ran the S21 jail (the torture encampment where Rose and I went). He had the chance to interview Duch, because Duch was on trial for his crimes as the head of the Security prison. (He was indicted with a life sentence in 2012). Thought it was a good read, not only for a better understanding of what exactly happened during this time, but also for insight into how someone could allow torture, executions and other crimes while being able to sleep at night. The writer’s idea is that Duch was math obsessed, and revelled in the incorruptibility of numbers – and so, when given orders to wipe out a group of people, he saw it as numbers on a page – an equation – rather than people with lives and families. Also, backs up Hannah Arendt’s idea of  the”Banality of Evil”.

Books I want to read (but couldn’t find them through the library and right now am too cheap to buy) 

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Washington Post journalist who interviewed past Cambodian leaders (not only Khmer Rouge) and lays a historical idea down of how something like the Khmer Rouge could have happened at all.

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Written by New York Times journalist who covered the fall of Phnom Penh with his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran. Their story and relationship after the country’s fall was the basis for the 1984 film: The Killing Fields. This is the book or story (it’s only 112 pages) on which the film is based.

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Voila, that brought our time to a close in Cambodia. I really liked visiting the temples near Siem Reap and our time chatting with Kim-San, our guide, and hotel owner who led us through Angkor Wat, Thom and Ta Prohm. I thought they were amazing to walk through and see, and I really liked our chats.

For the rest of our time in Cambodia, I wasn’t as excited about. I don’t have enough chops to say the whys and hows, only a gut sense. And mine was that it is changing, but I didn’t feel it was as vibrant as Vietnam or as peaceful and friendly as Laos. I know, these are huge opinions for such a short time spent there, but there it is for now.

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What could Koh Rong?

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We’re heading to Koh Rong – an island three hours by putt-putt ferry from the southern mainland of Cambodia. It’s billed as a place that was reminiscent of what Thailand was like 15-20 years ago.

I’ve never been to Thailand, so wouldn’t know about that – but from the effusive comments of various people on comment boards, I take it to mean any or all of the following: undeveloped, secluded, rustic (i.e. bare bones), a new frontier, undisturbed, an idyllic environment that’s seen on North American screensavers continent-wide and posters on North American walls with one of the following words below it: MOTIVATION, SUCCESS, DREAMS.

In other words, what I’m getting is that it’s going to be a bit like The Beach described in Alex Mitchell’s book, later the film with Leonardo Dicaprio – a sun bleached, sandy wonderland where inhabitants drift away with their thoughts, in sync to the sound of waves lapping the shore, forgetting entirely about jobs, money, the Internet (no choice. there isn’t one), national citizenship and thick clothing.

On arrival, it seemed promising – as we passed the scene in the top photo, I thought – “Sweet. We got an amazing deal for the price we paid!”

Everyone else was also holding their breath as we approached, wondering what kind of goldmine we’d walked into, only to exhale after 7 seconds, after the little ferry passed the palace by, and chugged towards a group of palm trees ahead.

We got off on a long ferry dock, passed the main bamboo hut, and were given keys to our bungalows – all set back from the beach, sitting on sand, on the edge of the jungle.

“Ok. Easy recovery”, I thought. So far so good.

After the resident manager gave us a brief rundown of the place, we chatted over drinks with other people who just arrived, somewhat out of solidarity, as the other guests who were already there seemed to have their own well-established clique.

It felt a bit like high school, and Rose and I were back in Grade 9.

One of the guys in the clique, came over to pour himself a drink from behind the bar, and was taking drinks over to his group – and so I assumed he worked there.

Later that night, I chatted with his girlfriend and found out that the two of them had been staying here for two weeks. They were guests like us, but seemed to have crossed over into self-appointed duties as food and drink marshalls and island cultural attaches, who gave the air that they’d seen it all on the island, and were a little past it all, but would still be happy to pass on their knowledge: “You’ve gotta try the Pina Colada. It’s the best.” “How long are you staying? I hope you stay longer. We’re decided to say here for a few more days.”

The more we talked with them, the more it felt like they were a bit depressed, and were here to nurse the hurt. It was a bit odd, but then they had said they were at the end of a long tour of Asia, and decided to finish it here. Maybe this is what Rose and I will become when our return date nears?

After chatting with more people, we found similar story-lines: this was the end of a long trip or just the last stop on a short trip before heading home. Here we were, Rose and I, still at the beginning of our trip, and we’d accidentally steered into a terminal ward – a group of melancholics, taking one last breath before passing on into the next world – one which, based on the tenor of conversation, was filled with compromise, dread and dissatisfaction.

Welcome to island paradise!

Another component that I think, makes for a successful island visit is the weather. Sun. Fit that into things, and most things can be easily forgiven.

In tandem with sun, another component that goes well for a good time on an island with a lot of heat – air conditioning.

I’ll start with sun. We had some – one day it meant we were even in kayaks. While on another, it was all the more glorious because down the beach, out of the bush, walked my favourite beast in all of Southeast Asia:

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A water buffalo. I love them. I don’t know what it is – they just are these lumbering, massively strong things, that I think are great. Anyway, I tracked this guy as he wandered through our bungalows, eventually plopping down in a pool of water, only to slowly get up and keep moving.

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I had no idea where he went, until later that afternoon when his owner, had once again trussed him up by the nose and led him back down the beach from where he busted out.

Ok, now on to another beast. If you’ve read, any of my previous posts, you know heat often plays a central character. So, I won’t disappoint.

It did it’s thing, but this time around, we had no recourse. The island ran on a generator (remember: rustic, undeveloped, new frontier) between 6-11pm at night. All the bungalows were equipped with a portable fan, which is great until 11pm. Then, once everything plunges into darkness, the heat – ever the rebel- climbs.

And with it? Our aggravation. We didn’t get any sleep the first night, alternating our time between tossing and turning, sweating from the heat, and then staring up at the mosquito net around the bed, in disbelief, wondering how did that crafty f*&ckn bug find his way in?

I don’t know if it makes sense to correlate the size of a lizard with the number of bugs it has to eat. But, since I’m not a scientist, I’m going to assume it’s fine. This is how big the lizards were:

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About the length between your wrist and elbow. When I saw how big it was from two feet away, I was shocked, but then, after seeing one take down a sentinel of bugs, I learned that these guys are our allies, and could share our room as long as they liked.

After our sleepless night, the good news was that it was overcast enough the next day to be able to sleep outside during the day and catch up from the night before.

The downside was that once we woke from the nap, we were just in time to see a massive storm move in across the gulf, heading our way.

We returned to the bungalow, and sat with our books, wondering if bombs were being dropped on the island. Looking out at the water, Rose saw a huge fork of lightning hit the water, and leave a massive spray in its wake. I looked left and saw another fork, jaggedly move down the sky, and before I could say: “WHOA”, a massive boom from thunder clattered overhead, so instead I said: “SHIIIIT”.

The storm finally tapered off in the early evening. After we finished our meal, it started again. In most circumstances, this would suck – but in circumstances without air conditioning, and electricity to power a fan – this was brilliant. I’d never been happy to have rain on a beach, but then, I’d never been on a Cambodian island on the edge of the rainy season, where the heat takes turns getting you wet, first with sweat from humidity, then the traditional way with rain.

At this moment, the rain was a natural air conditioner, and we had an amazing sleep. The only trouble was that it decided to keep going the following morning. Then the afternoon. And kept up its tantrum into the evening.

At least we could sleep, we thought. But, a funny thing happened after we’d gone to bed that night. The rain stopped. And so, with rain out of the picture, its close companion humidity took up the cause with fervor, heating up our place enough to cook a casserole. Pulling my head off my dank, sweat drenched pillow in the morning, I only felt one, single humming thing I couldn’t shake until I fell asleep out of exhaustion later that day: betrayal.

Despite all the signs against it, we thought we’d gamble for one last day and stay, hoping to tilt the seesaw in our favour, after we’d taken advantage of a break between raindrops to have a kayak and thought, “This sun could last couldn’t it? Maybe one more day?”.

Nope. It couldn’t. It really had had enough. The next morning it poured again – giving the sun only a sliver of room in the afternoon, at which Rose and I rushed into the water, delusionally hoping to enjoy a swim, forgetting that there wasn’t a sandy bottom to be had, but hard rocks, as well as the occassional sea urchin hiding out in water that was just cloudy enough from the past storms that you couldn’t see where you were stepping.

Thankfully, we didn’t step in the wrong direction, and made it back in time to find shelter before the rain continued its overture for the night.

Now, partially sleep deprived and bouncing off the walls from all the rain, Rose and I decided to leave the next day. Once we had our hands on Wifi on the mainland, we’d plot our next move.

Of course, not all was as gloomy as the weather. We met a New Zealand couple who still had some life in them, despite the fact they were heading home. Also, we met a couple who did the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and gave us some good tips on it plus a German couple who were big on Southeast Asia and also shared their tips and ideas.

Around the side beach at night, there were also phosphorescent plankton, which you can stand in, and looks like you’re waving glow sticks all over the place when you move your hand threw it. So, yeah – that was neat.

However, the trip home had the same pall as the last couple of days: first the guy from the German couple was clutching his stomach before his ferry ride home, saying he’d eaten something awful the night before, and was laid out.

This was followed by our ride home with the island cultural attache couple who, I assumed had taken tenancy and were staying on forever – but they had finally given in to reality, which might also have had something to do with her food poisoning, that had her laid out for the past few days. Now she got on the ferry back to the mainland with us, looking much less chipper and flush than we saw her the first night.

Just to underline the point that we were leaving at the right time, it once again poured as the ferry pulled out, and bobbed through the swells on our way back to land. Once on wet land for once instead of sand, and with Wifi in the air, we began our fevered search for our next destination that we both decided would have to have one key ingredient – sun.

After a few back and forths, we finally decided, once and for all, ca suffit: we were going back to Bali.

And so we added our first new country to our travel list: Indonesia.

Talk more soon

Heart of Darkness

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“Paul Potts? Thas the singer innit?”

“No, Pol Pot”.

“Pall Pot?”

“Pol Pot”

I’m listening to two backpackers go back and forth on a bus Rose and I are taking from Siem Reap to the capital Phnom Penh.

“Ok. Pol Pot.”

“He was in charge. Over a 1 million people were killed”.

That number is still being debated. Between 1975 – 1979 when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, the standard estimate is that they were responsible for 1-3 million deaths. Which, to me, seems a ludicrous variance. How is it possible to say, “give or take 2 million people were killed”?

A Cambodian research group, who spent time investigating the graves, and documenting names – claims a figure closer to 2.2 million people, while Unicef has said 3 million. Regardless, assuming the truth is somewhere in the middle – the reality is that in four years, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge wiped out close to 25% of the population in the pursuit of an extreme form of Communism.

His idea was that the educated, or bourgeois class, were capitalist stains on Cambodia, infected with Western ideals that didn’t serve Cambodians (despite that he studied in Paris and apparently had an infatuation with French literature). Instead, Cambodia would become a new country, dependent on no one. It would be self-sufficient, based entirely on agricultural production from a working class who would produce rice for the country with no help or visibility of anyone who had a university degree.

To accomplish this, he went to where most educated people in Cambodia lived – the city – the capital Phnom Penh, and ordered everyone to move into the countryside. The entire city was emptied. Government workers from the previous regime were tagged for execution, authors, intellectuals, any one who had any independent thought and had any kind of previous popularity, even going so far as to include anyone wearing glasses. Why? Because they symbolized smarts. And smarts were on the chopping block.

Pol Pot wanted children or farmers. People who hadn’t, in his opinion, been exposed to ideas, and were malleable and impressionable enough to carry out his will. The rest could go. And, most did, ending up in a mass grave as part of the infamous Killing Fields, a site that lay 15km outside of the city. However, some people, had the unfortunate luck to also end up back in Phnom Penh, here:

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Called S21, it was a jail that had been converted from a public school (was the irony lost on Pol Pot?) where inmates were questioned, tortured and then 20, 000 were led out to the Killing Fields where their sentence was carried out.

Now the site is called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Rose and I are here, walking through the various rooms and grounds. It’s beyond grim. People have died here, in horrible circumstances, while others, who weren’t so lucky had been put through every imaginable torture device by Khmer Rouge leadership to extract a confession, preferably to say they were working for the CIA or the Vietnamese – to help justify the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia.

On the first floor there are rows and rows of photos, showing each prisoner who entered – along with torture devices used, and metal beds where prisoners slept. On the walls of each room are photos taken when the prison was liberated.  Each photo shows a dead prisoner tied to a metal bed.

Unsettling.

We moved upstairs where there are rows and rows of rooms:

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Brick prison quarters where the inmates were held. Higher up, on another floor, more cells, but these one wooden:

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I thought it was pretty horrifying. But it only got worse. In the last stretch of building before we left, there were display cases of human skulls and bones with photographs above showing what the Killing Fields looked like when they were first discovered – a mud pit of skeletons.

Also, to underline the completely twisted and demented acts the soldiers committed, there were paintings on the walls that could have been representations of Dante’s Inferno – as he witnesses people tormented in purgatory. It was unbelievable.

After more light fare in the courtyard showing yet another torture device, Rose and I decided we’d seen enough, and found a restaurant near our hotel to plough into a bowl of noodle soup for comfort.

For me, I’d never truly understood the horrors committed by Khmer Rouge – which isn’t to say that I had always underestimated them – it’s more so that I knew they were bad, but didn’t know the entire, horrible picture.

I know, it’s a heavy duty experience and not the most pleasant to read about.  I just found it incredible – the madness and how the Khmer Rouge actually retained nominal representation in the UN years after they were overthrown.

The whole thing just got under my skin. I also wasn’t big on Phnom Penh – maybe as a hangover from the museum – but Rose too said, even before going to the museum she felt a heaviness about the place that didn’t feel inviting.

So to balance things out, we fled the city. We’d read some good write ups about the south of Cambodia – a beach area known as Shihanoukville, and even better – an island off it called Koh Rong.

We packed our bags, booked a bus ticket, and hoped to find some sun.

Next stop:  big lizards, bigger water buffalo, mosquito nets and an almost deserted island.