Sunday, 26 February 2012

Preah Vihear and Anlong Veng

By Mark

We left Siem Reap to head north to the Thai border to check out one more temple with a bit of a checkered past. Preah Vihear has been a site of turmoil for years with Thailand wanting this part of Cambodia for many centuries. Now still in Cambodians hands we still had a tough time trying to get up to this temple. We arrived and received our free ticket with no problems. On leaving we were quickly hailed down by the tourist police. The fellow who pulled us over said his boss wanted a word with us. No worries we thought and wandered on in to his office. "Can I see your licence and passport please". Ok we thought and handed them over. He then started going on about the dangers and so forth of travelling to this temple, the problems with the Thais and the dangerous road conditions was a huge issue for him. After repeating himself and talking in circles for about 10 minutes the truth to why we were here was revealed. Because of the dangerous conditions he considered himself responsible for us but maybe if we could pay him a donation of 3, 4 or maybe $5 or not, the choice was ours that things could be different. Maybe it could just become safe for us with a few more dollars in his pocket than to be weighing us down in ours! We told him straight up that we were not in for this donation giving and that we will be fine just to head on up this road. He didn't see kindly to us not donating money to his cause and changed his mind quickly and told us that there was no way we would be riding up the mountain to the temple. With this we got up and walked straight out without saying another word. I was so pissed at him that I was ready to get back on the bike and see if he would chase us up the hill. Surprisingly he had a change of heart and just as we were to leave he came out to tell us that his 'boss' said we could go on up if we were to write a letter accepting full responsibility for our actions in the case of an accident. By this stage we were now unsure of even going up after him painting such a bleak picture. Anyway we wrote this stupid letter to keep him happy and left. I think he let us go as he may be worried that we would tell someone about his efforts of trying to extract a donation from us. We headed on up having no idea of what he was on about as far as the road conditions go.

It was an easy ride up but it was at the top that had us worried. The place was covered with soldiers and police. With the Thai border just under 2km's away the Cambodians were leaving nothing to chance and were heavily equipped for anything that may happen. So we had an uneasy walk to the temple along army bunkers in clear view of any Thais that may have been keeping watch on their side. Once at the top we started to relax a little and took in the beauty of the place. We left with no problems and headed for our destination for the night that was to be Anlong Veng. Time to start getting nervous again as this was once Khmer Rouge strong hold. To this day virtually all residents here are ex-Khmer Rouge cadres or their descendants. Even the owner of our guesthouse we found out, was the official photographer at S-21. He is now the deputy governor of the town. We had no real problems here but always had a funny feeling about things. One older fellow approached us in the street as we headed home after dinner and started talking to us in Khmer, not having any idea what he was on about I put my hand out to shake his hand where I was greeted with the strangest of hand shakes as he dug his middle finger hard into my palm while giving me a stern look and muttered something in Khmer, possibly "Die white man" or something like that. I quickly retracted my hand and bid him farewell. The paranoia subsided and we both managed to sleep well. In the morning we checked out Ta Mok Lake. Brother No 5 also known as the ‘Butcher’ ordered this to be created, but the water killed all the trees that now stand as skeletons, another act of devastation that this movement left behind. Afterwards we moved on towards the Thai border again where we wanted to check out the cremation site of Pol Pot. Nothing special to look at and seems a fitting end to an evil man who was never officially convicted of the terrible crimes he committed. Many people visit this site, a few of them remembering brother No 1 with affection so they light incense for him, and it is believed he will give out winning lottery numbers!

We had a slightly uncomfortable walk to the temple
past the front line of Cambodian soldiers in their bunkers

The ancient stairway to the temple, we avoided most of the stairs thankfully

Most of the temple now lies in ruins

 Thailand take note

 The view from the top over looking the Cambodian countryside

Nothing needs to be said here
 Pol Pots cremation site, nothing special which is a fitting end to his evil life

Khmer Rouge soldier shrine

The usual curious boys checking out the bikes

 Ta Mok Lake

We were quite happy to leave Anlong Veng and once we had left
we were soon met with friendly smiles yet again

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Siem Reap and The Angkor Temples

By Sanne

After surviving the terrifying NH6 highway north from Phnom Penh we arrived in the city of Siem Reap. The main draw card for the city is the famous Angkor Temples, in particular the biggest and most impressive of them all - Angkor Wat. Built in the early 12th century it has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and is the country's main attraction for visitors. Hundreds of temples are scattered around this area called Angkor which once was a city in the ancient Khmer empire. A city that at its peak boasted a population of 1 million when at the same time London was a small town of 50,000. And it is pretty amazing. I have seen many temples but these have got to be the most impressive. Some temple ruins are being slowly reclaimed by the jungle around it (Ta Phrom) which makes for an impressive vision of giant tree roots strangling the stones. I also loved Bayon where 216 stone faces of the Gods stare out into the jungle.
While in Siem Reap we met a young Khmer guy, Vanna, who is studying to become a teacher. Until then he works as a volunteer teaching at a couple of different schools. He invited us around to his village where he took us to his home to meet his family and to some schools he is teaching at. A former monk, at only 23 years old Vanna has a clear vision what he wants to do with his life. His dream is to one day build a school for orphans and I have no doubt that he will achieve this. An inspiring person he is, young Vanna. We wish you the best of luck.

Angkor Wat

Ta Phrom


Mark and Vanna

Drinking sugarpalm wine with the locals

Some of Vanna's students

Pretty basic classrooms they have around here

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Phnom Penh

By Sanne

So, Cambodian traffic Actually it's not very fun at all. Scary would be a better word for it. We realised this while in Phnom Penh. It "only" has a population of 2 million but is much scarier to ride in than Bangkok with its 12 million people. Drivers here are mental! They don't seem to have any notion of road rules whatsoever. There is also a huge lack of traffic lights in the city so most intersections resemble something akin to chaos with traffic coming from all four directions at once! Fun it is...
Phnom Penh is a nice capital city though. It has a real energy to it which is particularly visible at night when all the parks, public squares and water front is packed with locals, playing football or having dinner with their families. As nice as it is, a very dark past lurks in the background. I think I only need to say two words: Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979 and was responsible for a genocide that killed 2 million people through execution, starvation and disease. Their vision was a pure Cambodian society based on strong communist principles. Anyone deemed a threat to this vision was killed. We paid a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, former security office 21 (called S-21). It was set up for the detention, interrogation, torture and killing after confession from the detainees were received and documented. It was an indescribably sad and dark experience walking around these buildings, in and out of rooms where the sounds of prisoners' tortured screams once sounded. The people who were imprisoned here included academics as they were considered to be corrupted by the West and could rise against the Pol Pot revolution, this included doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, even people with glasses were persecuted as it was seen as a sign of intelligence. People who for some reason were suspected of leading an uprising against Pol Pot, even some of their own soldiers were tortured and then killed. Whole families were in here and as you walk through the museum you pass by portraits of these people hanging on the wall. It is a mix of men, women and children. They never made it out alive.
After the prisoners had confessed they would be taken to a killing field outside Phnom Penh at the town of Choeung Ek. We went to see this place where 20,000 people vanished. This too was a harrowing place. Trucks would bring prisoners here to be killed. There were many killing fields but this was the biggest; at its peak 300 people a day were killed here. The Khmer Rouge did not wish to waste precious ammunition so people were killed in ways that did not include bullets. Blindfolded, they would be led to a mass grave and made to kneel in front of the hole. A soldier would then smash their skull with a blunt object such as a hammer or an axe and they would be pushed into the grave. You can sometimes see human bones around the mass graves here as the soil gradually subsides. One of the most disturbing things we saw was this one tree. At first sight it looks just like any other tree but then you learn what went on here. You see, many women brought here had little babies. And under the Khmer Rouge rule no one was safe. So the babies were killed too and that's where the tree played a role. The soldiers would rip the babies from their mothers arms, take them by the legs and smash their skulls on the tree trunk. After that they too would be dumped into a mass grave. The horror that went on here is so violent that it's hard to fathom how people could do this to other people. People are still questioning this today; how could this happen? And the worst part - only one person has been sentenced for the part he played in the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died while under house arrest in 1998 and the other former generals are all ageing so although a trial is underway it is doubtful whether any of them will live to see themselves sentenced. Nevertheless it is impressive that the Cambodian people have managed to rebuild their country from a devastated mess after the Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown to what it is today.

The manic Phnom Penh traffic

The waterfront

A UNESCO heritage building

Entrepreneurs set up everywhere on the streets like this tiny barber salon

 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Room used for torture

This was used for hanging prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness, 
then dunk their head into the jug filled with water, repeat.

Disturbing photos of murdered people

Brother no. 1 aka Pol Pot

So many innocent lives lost, many of them children

One of the cells

Tools used for torture

The Killing Field

The tree with a horrific story

Bone fragments and teeth from the victims