Cambodia -

Trip Start Aug 03, 2004
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10
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Trip End Jan 27, 2005


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Where I stayed
Ochheuteal Beachside Bungalows

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

We travelled to Siem Reap in Cambodia overland from Bangkok in what turned out to be one of the most arduous and frustrating journeys in our whole trip. The travel company we booked the ticket with told us that the journey would consist of a three hour VIP bus journey to the border, two hours to get through the border, then five hours on another bus to Siem Reap. As we had set off at 8am we reckoned we would be there by 6pm - we actually arrived at 10.30pm! Things went well on the Thai side, but some organised chaos at the border and lots of waiting around in the baking sun set us back on our schedule. We were then 'handed over' to the Cambodian tour company and packed into one of the smallest and most uncomfortable buses known to man. Five minutes down the road, everyone had to get off the bus for a punctured tyre to be repaired, and this set the trend for the journey to Siem Reap which lasted for 8.5 hours along mostly dirt road, riddled with pot holes. Several stops at restaurants and a couple of stops to check over the bus were all part of the scam which aimed to deliver us to a guest house connected with the bus company as late as possible. The idea being that if you get there late you will be more likely to stay there than going elsewhere. It certainly worked on us - we just couldn't be bothered trying to get to the guest house of our choice and after checking out the room we decided it was ok and crashed out.

The town of Siem Reap is the ideal base for exploring the magnificent temples of Angkor, built by Khmer devaraja (God Kings) between the 9th and 13th centuries. We opted for a 3 day pass and linked up with a remorque moto (motorbike with trailer) driver from our guest house to take us round. We started off on the first day with Angkor Wat - the most famous temple which turned out to be our favourite. Amongst the others we liked were The Bayon with its stone faces, and Ta Promh which has been spectacularly overgrown with tree roots and was the setting for scenes from Tomb Raider. We clambered up and down the various temples and took a sunset balloon ride to complete the experience. On our 3rd day we made a final visit to Angkor Wat so that we could end as well as start with our favourite temple.

Our initial impressions of Cambodia were that it was a very poor and underdeveloped country. However, parts of Siem Reap were surprisingly well developed with nice bars and restaurants and huge luxury hotels to draw in the tourist dollar. Genuine poverty and hardship was never far away though, as shown by the numerous beggars, ramshackle houses and landmine victims hobbling around on crutches (or worse).

In order to learn more about the warfare and landmines which have crippled Cambodia over the last few decades, we paid a visit to the war and landmine museums in Siem Reap. The war museum contained relics from the recent armed conflicts and we were shown round by a former soldier who had fought with the Khmer Rouge and then with the Vietnamese army. As well as explaining to us the various weapons our guide told us stories of his own brushes with death. His list of war wounds was quite amazing and was totally believable considering each was backed up with a visible scar or lump under the skin where shrapnel was embedded. For the record, his list of misfortunes was as follows:

- Shot in thigh (broken femur pinned)
- Shot in chest
- Six months in prison for accidentally shooting his friends foot with an Ouzi
- Fifteen nails in his body from a nail bomb (2 removed)
- Ballbearing shrapnel from a booby trap bomb
- Leg blown off by a landmine
- Mother killed by Khmer Rouge
- Injured by hand grenade which killed children trying to use it for fishing
- Hit in temple by a 'Bouncing Betty' mine and partially blinded as a result
- Wife killed by a landmine

The guy was obviously welling up with tears as he told us some of his stories, although like most Cambodians, he was remarkably cheerful despite his experiences. He dryly joked 'If I go to the airport, I think I have big problems!' - referring to the many bits of metal stuck in his body.

The landmine museum, as the name suggests, concentrates solely on landmines and is run by Aki Ra, another former soldier who now concentrates on clearing mines and helping the victims in conjunction with international landmine charities. After reading the stories of some of the victims we were happy to make a donation.

We decided it would be nice to spend Christmas on the beach and as it was drawing near we headed for Sihanoukville - Cambodia's fledgling seaside resort. The first leg of the journey was to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh was by a 4.5 hour speedboat journey along the Tonle Sap lake. We sat on the roof to avoid the cramped conditions inside and were rewarded with views of floating lakeside communities and small fishing boats going about their business - some containing whole families with small children who waved enthusiastically. The downside of sitting on the roof was the drenching we got when the boat hit a wave, and the deafness in one ear from the sound of the engines. The second leg of the journey was by bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. This journey took 3.5 hours and compared to our previous bus experience, was luxurious and efficient in a full size coach on sealed road. However, as with all bus journeys in SE Asia, the standard of driving leaves a bit to be desired and there were several heart in mouth moments as we overtook other vehicles into the path of oncoming traffic. A heavy dose of horn blowing and split second timing always seems to get the driver through in these situations and we were unfazed by it after a few near misses.

We arrived in Sihanoukville and checked in to Ochheuteal Beachside Bungalows which we had booked by phone the previous night. Ig had already given up trying to spell 'Higginbottom' over the phone and instead gave his name simply as 'John'. Inevitably, Ig was referred to as 'Mr John' for the duration of our stay. The beach bungalows were exactly what we were looking for - a touch of luxury (again) for Christmas with a nice bar/restaurant, satellite TV and a fridge. Christmas eve night was spent at Eden - the liveliest of a number of beach bars which were literally right on the beach. We donned our Santa hats (bought in Singapore) and celebrated with a few glasses of Angkor draught while listening to the tunes and watching the fireworks and fire jugglers. Christmas day was also spent on the beach followed by a five course Christmas dinner at Mick & Craig's Sanctuary - a guest house/restaurant run by an English guy. We were full to bursting and full of Christmas cheer when we went to make our phone calls to our families at home.

It was on the beach on Boxing day that we first learned of the unfolding tsunami tragedy via concerned text messages from our parents. It was only when we went back to our room and tuned in to BBC World that we learned of the full scale of the disaster and realised how lucky we were considering that we'd been in Phuket and on Phi Phi island (in Thailand) just three weeks earlier.

From Sihanoukville it was back to Phnom Penh where we spent a couple of days before crossing into Vietnam. Despite a handful of 'normal' tourist attractions, any visit to Phnom Penh is inevitably dominated by harrowing visits to the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng prison and the killing fields of Choeung Ek. If you already know the recent history of Cambodia and the barbaric Khmer Rouge regime you can skip the next bit, but if you don't, then the following few paragraphs give a potted history. We borrowed this bit from an email written by a friend of a friend (thanks Laura and Paul) as it seems to sum things up pretty well:

On taking control in 1975, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the
most radical and brutal restructurings of society ever attempted; its goal
was to transform Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant dominated agrarian
cooperative. Within 2 weeks of coming to power the entire population of the
capital and provincial towns, including everybody in the hospitals, was
forced to march out to the countryside and placed in mobile work teams to do
slave labour - preparing the fields, digging irrigation canals - 12 to 15
hours a day. Disobedience of any sort brought immediate execution.
Currency was abolished and postal services were halted.

In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security
forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S21). It soon
became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. More
than 17,000 held at S21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek
to be executed. Detainees who died during torture were buried in mass
graves in prison grounds. S21 is now a museum as a memorial to the horrific
events. The walls of the museum are covered with photos of the victims
which the Khmer Rouge (like the Nazis) were meticulous in keeping.

At the killing fields the remains of 8985 people, many of
whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this
former orchard. Fragments of human bones and cloth are scattered all over
the grounds. Over 8000 skulls arranged by sex and age are held in a
memorial building. There are dozens more such killing fields all over
Cambodia. From 1975-1979 alone, the Khmer Rouge killed about 3 million
people.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge to communist Vietnam backed factions in
1979, the Khmer Rouge and allied factions (seen as a counterpoint to
Vietnamese power) were kept in operation, at least in part, by funding from
the US government and received training in mine laying from the British SAS.
The US even helped the Khmer Rouge maintain its seat at the UN. In the
early - mid 1990's the KR were still responsible for thousands of deaths a
year. It was only in 1997 that the KR started to fall apart. None of its
leaders have been brought to justice. It is shocking to realise that many
are still living safely in Cambodia.


Well, as you can imagine, our visit to S21 and the killing fields were both shocking and moving, and probably overshadowed the temples of Angkor as our overriding memory of Cambodia.
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