My first ever trip to Asia has recently concluded. It guaranteed to be culturally new to my Essex-programmed system. It did not disappoint with the differences between Southend and Saigon becoming instantly apparent. We visited 4 places in two Countries, being Vietnam and Cambodia. We deliberately set ourselves up to feel the benefit of a holiday, while submerging ourselves into local culture to have a well-rounded experience. This is my thoughts on our little educational trip away.
Before I go into my blog and thoughts, I think I better explain my accidental inspiration. In the weeks leading up to the trip, Fox were doing the re-run of an Idiot Abroad. Staged or not, I find it great viewing. I do laugh at the idiotic parts of the televised trip, but more worryingly agreeing with some of Mr Pilkingtons points. I honestly could catch myself saying the same as him. I do not see myself as an Idiot, but was concerned of potential mishaps on my adventure. At least I didn’t go with a camera crew. Originally I was thinking of myself as a real life Indiana Jones, complete with a bag of sand (if not for a different purpose), but have conceded that I may well be a mockney hybrid of the two!
Flying out from Sydney, I get caught up in my surroundings of the plane. We had been flying for an hour and was already feeling a slightly cultured. Being a people-watcher this was inevitable. I remember thinking about this and how different people are. Then I came back to reality with an announcement by the Captain, which in turn brought up the flight map. The map showed Australia and the city of Melbourne. We effectively hadn’t left yet, and was feeling cultured. It goes to show how much your immediate surroundings have on your thoughts and behaviours.
The first Asian Country we visit is actually Malaysia (if the airport counts). Nice airport with the pleasant surprise of a Harrods store there. Good to see a positive imperial backwash. The toilets soon reminded me we was in Asia. I will not go into too much detail, but is a quick reminder towards creature comforts of western bathrooms. We had 5 hours at KL airport. It dragged, really dragged. Nothing is comfortable for longer stays of 10 mins. The shops should be a distraction, but are limited. It is like willy wonka’s there. Every shop sells lifetime-size box sets of chocolate in either Toblerone, M&M’s or Ferraro Roche, and not much else. Even as a self admitted chocoholic I couldn’t justify carrying an extra chocolate passenger round Asia with us. When our time comes, bleary eyed, we work our way through open gate to another open gate. This is painful as all we want is to sit down and try to sleep a little. Every minute seems to warp into ten. Thankfully I bypass this with a distraction. The baggage handlers were absolutely throwing our luggage about onto the plane. I knew this happened but to not such a sporting effect. The TV is now showing Mr Bean making his calamitous mishaps. I switch my focus from one to the other only to realise that they are practically the same show.
We flew overnight into the morning. Making it very hard to sleep albeit my body was crying out for some slumber. Breakfast was worryingly a fish curry. A first for me, but was actually one of the best meals I have had on a plane. Itching to just dump the bags and relax at the accomodation we meander through Ho Chi Min airport. A snag is caught. There was an issue with our Visa’s. Never good in any Country, but even more so in a Country completely out of our comfort zone, and lacking sleep. After a dent in our US $ we are allowed in with an increasing desire to lie horizontal. The Taxi takes 15 minutes to get us to a manic (to say the least) area. We struggled to find the place as it was a home stay. Upon finding the place we are greeted by our host into his house. He spoke good English and reacted well to the tiredness in our eyes by showing us to our room without too much small talk. His house was fascinating. Tall like the old Amsterdam housing with the staircase disgused cunningly as a ladder. Awkward to get up as a final obsticle to our bed, but seeding thoughts of falling down trying to get down again. Adding to the unique feel of this house was the fish. The whole house doubled up as a pond. The outside began its journey as a moat, under the front door and as an open plan feature in the lounge. Nice touch I thought. Our room was on the second floor and was surprised to see the pond-plan had ventured into our room too. We had an outdoor bathroom with a rainforest style shower with strange creepers falling down around it. They dangled into the pond, which appeared to be the overflow for the shower water. Raddox was the fish staple breakfast. A home stay was highly recommended to us. Seperate from being cheap and incorporating of a local guide it gives the real insite to local life in a place rather than the common standard of the fake friend hotel. This is not to say we are not doing this too, but aim to see both sides of each place ventured.
Waking up as to not miss the day we brave the local shanty town. We are hungry and want to know where we are. We venture out careful not to loose our tracks. I wish I could do the ball of string trick as my childhood movies do. The place is a maze of confusion. It is not just the streets and buildings, but the smells, noise and traffic. It never stops. The lanes are like a constant stream of mopeds that do not give way, ever. To cross the road you simply step out into this moped river with your life in your hands. It works, as they dodge you. I feel like a rock in the river and everything slips around me with ease. If I was to close my eyes, the backing-sound track for Asia would definately be that of contstant bikes and their trigger ready horns. A bit like a soundtrack for a mediation CD that would not take you to a relaxing state at all. The smells are hard to pigeon-hole as new to the senses. There is a charcoal undertone with a fishy and meaty twist depending what stalls you are standing close too. For a communist country there certainly seems to be a lot of ‘get up and go’ in the community. Everyone is selling something. Every property has a stall out the front. You are in complete competition with your neighbours. Brings a new angle to keeping up with the Jones. We continue stunned from sleep deprivation in high heat and humidity, through the local lanes of sensory overload. Fantastic!!! This is what we came for!
The following day we decided to join the moped river and go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. This was a promise to my father as he visited them via the Merchant Navy back in the day. The mistake was not checking the trip. It was 65km away on a Moped. Despite witnessing a bloody accident on the roads, my main concern was my rear end. It was agony going this distance, this way. A great way to see the city and surrounding countryside if a lot more cushioned. For the second time in 2 days we arrive at our destination greeted with internal relief. With our guides we start the tourist trail of monuments while making quirky humoured photos with the statues. Nice but we wanted to see the tunnels. Walking further we get to see artilery collected that was used by the Americans in the war. Bullets to cluster bombs made the collection. You began to get a feel of what this area is about. Then we begin the tour of the tunnels. We walk a wooded track orchestrated by large manmade bunkers. Bunkers created by the bombs. They are everywhere. Then we go into the first tunnel which is only 15 meters long. Those keen followed the guide into the small dark tunnel to be greated by small bats. The tunnels have been made slightly larger for the visitors but still provoke clostrophobic jerks. I can make my way though them but it would be impossible to turn around or stand up. The 15 meters in those conditions felt like 50. I cant image living in them, fighting from them, and dealing with the bombs falling on your soil roof. We continue with the demonstrations of other tunnels, disguised landscape, fighting bunkers and formily hunting traps now designed for humans. We then find a tunnel still at its standard size. The local fighters would lower themselves in vertically and you would never know the entrance of the tunnel was there. They invite you to try it, but it is like a large post box. There is no way I am going through humiliation of getting stuck in that. I have attached an image of someone else doing it. Would you? Stopping for lunch ‘after’ squeezing through tunnels thankfully we have this delicious dish made up of tapioca, coconut and vine leaves. Before we leave we are invited to watch the video (1960’s black and white) about the war effort then. Naturally this was the local view point. It was a facinating bit of propaganda. From beginning to end an education to the side you dont hear about. one line stuck in my memory, “if you are having a bad day, remember there is more than one way to kill an American”. You can image how the rest of it was pitched. This is the end of our tunnel trip and the beginning of our agonising trip back to the home stay.
We move from the home stay to the Majestic Hotel on the Riverbank. An iconic french colonial building on the river bank, and now a 5 star hotel. Amid the chaos of Saigon’s communistic traffic game, this ‘butlered’ welcome with aircon, redcarpet and fake-friend curtesy is a pleasure. We lap it up to unwind from the total journey and road side intenseness. We arrange to meet up with a friend of a friend who does security for the Prime minister and choice celebs. We meet for a BBQ and hope to pick up tips and local knowledge for the rest of the trip while enjoying ourselves. It doesn’t take long to befriend our new friend and mingle in his world. In this penthouse full of treats and alcohol it is the polar opposite to our initial experience. Little do we know, we are rubbing shoulders with the big names in Vietnams pop culture. I still have no idea who they were, but cause a rushing crowd in the local bars for the autograph. Looking out over the panoramic views of the city you can see the changes. The shanty town is moving to one side for high spec glass office blocks with corporate branding as a statement of intent. Enjoying the hospitality of the lucky few we feel for the effects of change for the others. on the whole it will be a good thing, but like as in many other western development of Countries I foresee an increase in the wealth divide and not much anyone can do about it. A nice bit of food for thought as we leave the heart of Saigon for Hoi an.
We catch another flight into Denang. We are not booked in there, but decide when we arrive to stop for lunch on the way through. Its much quieter than the buzz of Saigon. Its new, cleaner and small. Disappointingly, its fake. A new beach-side resort created for convenience of foreign visitors. Great if thats what you want, but not for me. We stop for lunch at a recommended venue by the taxi. Being the only customers there we really struggled with the universal language of pointing. This meal was by far the worse thing I ate in Asia. I have no idea what part of the animal I was eating, or what animal actually. Chewing through gooey explosions, I felt like I was engaging in the challenges of ‘Im a celebrity get me out of here’. My gag reflex was tested and fully functional. Time to move on and hope my stomach survives what I have given it to endure. 20 minutes drive along the coastal road we hit the real town. Hoi An. We turn right away from the beach along the rice field cultivated by gloomy looking water buffalo. The view you see on the brochures. The town is small, yet authentic. Again, everyone is selling something, but instead of being able to eat everything for sale, you can wear everything. Fake trainers, bags, and suits. A town full of tailors, twinned with Saville Row. We like what we are seeing and see lots of places of interest, making a mental note to visit them all. Than comes the moment everyone hopes for when making decisions. We arrive at the hotel, (Anantara) and its an absolute dream. 5 star, beautiful grounds, friendly staff and amazing welcome snacks and drink at reception. We feel like royalty. Openly happy with this choice we go to our room, which is perfectly described as a honeymoon suite. The sort of luxury that instantly takes the weight off your shoulders and makes it impossible to fall out with anyone. Dumping our bags, and removing our welcome flower we innately take the deep breath of contentment while slowly lowering ourselves to the bed to test its springs and relax.
Pleased with our choice, we plan activities for the few days there. Picking good restaurants and bars is easy as plentiful. All seem to have won the trip advisor award 2012 lol. Eating out there has a romantic glow with great dishes. A pleasure and too many to get through. The buildings are from medieval to present day presenting architectural eye candy. The old town well worth a visit, showing the influence of the Dutch, French and Chinese in this trading town. The markets add a bustling heart to the town where you cant get far without being sold something. At night the lights complement the buildings and create a golden edge to everything.
As an excursion we visited the Marble Mountains, which we past on the road in. Two large lumps of rock randomly popping up from the ground. They are surrounded by shops selling large marble sculptures of Tigers, Buddha’s and Dragons. Reminded me of Chingford driveways. The welcome book recommended good footwear and fitness for the walking-climb. They don’t look that big so taken with a pinch if salt. We get dropped of and up we go up the worn slippery steps. We are told there are caves, temples and monuments up there. We could see a couple from the road so had a good idea of what to expect. We come across our first incense-enfussed temple. After pictures with buddha we navigate the multi paths from the first stop as to get everything in. Onwards and upwards we go, trying to remember the way back. The temples became more impressive, the caves larger and adventurous and views spectacular. The more we go on the more surprised we are at how much is hidden on this lump of rock. One small cave, opens to another larger, and so it goes on. The rock is larger than we thought, and need breaks to keep going. We now have a challenge to get to the top. It is steep and slippery and good footwear is highly recommended. We ascend to the top and gather our breath, dripping in sweat and enjoying the views. Upon our descent we nose into one more cavern. Its the best yet. Its, hidden, huge and impressive. We almost skipped this one as we thought we had seen it all. Glad we didn’t. Leaving to find our waiting taxi we are hassled to buy these 8ft Marble Tigers, eventually resorting to 1 inch chess pieces. We return to our dreamy hotel to unwind after our marbelous adventure.
We continue to indulge ourselves in this great town with massages, good food and drink and sightseeing. One activity of note was the hotel-recommended and organised river boat trip. They run these in the morning or evening. We booked ours for the evening as a nice way to see the town. We arrive at this 20 ft wooden boat, with the captain and a waiter. We thought there would be other people on this, but not, so great value. We are welcomed and presented with delicious canapés and drinks. We glide off and discuss football with our waiter. The view was magic, and experience a treat. However what made it for us was another boat. That night was an annual buddhist celebration. This other boat had monks on making their own music and dropping the coloured floating candles onto the river. A real joy to watch, especially at dusk with the colour contrasts. A high point of our trip. We are dropped back at the hotel, with iffy footing due to the red wine consumed by me.
We frequent the hotel bar a couple of times. A nice spot, wardened off so not to get pestered by the touts. Our boat waiter is the bar tender here. The reason I mention this bar, is it is my bar of personal achievement. They have a local game called ‘smash the pot’. Quite straight forward really. You are blindfolded with stick in hand. There is a pot hanging buy a rope. like a piñata you have a swing and aim to break it down. The first night I optimistically swung and missed. Thus meaning I have no choice but to go to the bar again the following night. A tough life. On the second attempt I had practised this in my head. I had mentally trained for this exact moment all day. I step up blindfolded. The crowd of ‘one’ is silent in anticipation. I take a deep breath. Three calculated steps forward. Without hesitation I confidently swing downwards with my stick. The satisfaction of blindly feeling the wood connect with the pottery, followed by the clink of broken earth-ware on the tiles was like scoring the winning goal at Upton Park. I was so proud. I cant say the crowd went crazy, but I was very chuffed. I still am. If anyone wants to know more about this achievement, feel free to contact me for a more detailed post-pot-smash analysis.
After buying our tailored suits, and enjoying Hoi An for all it is worth, we leave happy knowing we plan to come back and visit again another day. We bid farewell to Vietnam too, with the next stop Cambodia. Our part 2.
Flying to Cambodia is strange on the emotions. We had a great time in Vietnam and was sad to leave. We feel there is so much more to see and do there. I guess we will have to discover more another time. This is mixed with the re-ignighted sense of adventure for Cambodia. This is the moment the India Jones in me is waiting to get out. My boyish aspirations see me leaving this Country with treasure on a waterplane, after narrowly being mowed down by a rolling rock. Almost losing my trademark hat to a closed rock door. Then surviving poison darts being blown at me by irate locals. I thank Steven Spielberg for my outlook to holidays, my probable naivety and probable demise. Getting close we spend 15 minutes flying over a huge muddy lake. We are descending so having a good look. There are communities living right on the edge of this lake. I imagine what life would be like down there. No western entertainment. No mainstream creature comforts. Not many people to interact with. No West Ham. Not sure I could do it! Like Vietnam the landscape from above is water-logged. Im surpassed humans have no developed gills round here. The only difference I notice so far is the Mud. The lake is muddy. The rivers are muddy and the mud, is best described as muddy. I should leave here with good skin!
Landing we have a much easier task with the visa. You can arrange upon arrival. It costs $20 and everyone does it there. Nice and simple, cheap and stress free. Good start. The airport at Siem Reap is welcoming and traditional. We are staying at a hostel that was recommended to use for just one night. Our arranged transport doesn’t come to go to the Tuk Tuk’s to get our own. At this point is where I noticed the first difference between the two neighbouring Countries, separate from the mud. These guys at the Tuk Tuk rank were great. There was no need to haggle. No pressure or extra selling. They all had a great sense of humour. They were genuinely happy, and salt of the earth types. They seemed just pleased to have us there. Given how recent their troubles were, this would make sense as to not being spoilt yet. I hope this does not happen. We get our lift in and take in the surroundings. They don’t have much here. We arrive at the Siem Reap Hostel. A large place on 5 floors with plenty to do. My girlfriend goes straight to a Yoga class, and me the bar. An Ozzie barman presents me with a 50 cent beer. I like this place more still. He talks about the local area. He explains this Country is so poor it buys its Electricity from Thailand. Therefore they suffer blackouts a lot as out of their control. Makes you think what we take for granted. I ask him where is good to take my girlfriend for dinner when finished with her yoga buddies. He always recommends a restaurant round the corner called The Green Star. He continues to explain that this is a non-profit restaurant to fund a local school. The staff are all volunteers and the food very cheap. I knew my girlfriend would be impressed with this choice. He even said they serve snake. Im petrified of snake, but was tempted to give it a go if it was dead on my plate. We took his recommendation and ate there. The food was amazing, the staff were friendly and the choice great. A good cause makes for a better course. I decided against the snake there. The whole meal came to about $12 for both of us. This whole initial experience in Siem Reap has been a big thumbs up. I even got to tackle another couple of 50 cent beers till I was under orders.
We were only there for one day, as to get in Angkor Wat! This city of temples of the reason for my Indiana fantasies. Getting up early we hire the same Tuk Tuk for the whole trip. After a short drive through the town, then woodland we come to a huge square moat. We park up out the front with the others admiring the main temple from distance. We are advised the walk around here will take a couple of hours. How big is this temple? Crossing the bridge we are spoilt for photo opportunities. The first impression of this place is hard to put into words. The size and importance of it is jaw-dropping without sacrificing on the individual detail. So much time in craftmanship has gone into deliberate stories within the stonework. Just when you have think you have seen the trophy room, another opens like a reverse babushka. With a cultural theme park mentality you try your best to take it all in and see it all. We eventually get to the central part. There are steep steps to get up inside. Temporary ones as the ancient stone ones have taken dangerous wear and tear. We had been climbing gradually throughout each stage and this this final ascent takes us to a panoramic view that was unexpected. Didnt realise we had got this high. Inside the main towers are each on the statue gods draped in their bright cloths and dowsed in incense. Its like they have never been neglected since their carving. Its about this point I run out of battery as taking so many pictures. I thought it doesnt matter anyway as just caught the best bit. Pleased with ourselves we go to leave. Im petrified of heights. These steps seem deceivingly steeper than I remember coming up. Suffering vertigo I hang onto the rail for dear life, legs like jelly, fear spinning me out, sweat pouring out of my pale face. I make my way down to my safe land legs. That caught me out. We traverse our tracks back to find our driver among the masses ready to go back. He instructs us that this is simply the first temple. There are hundreds, and they are still discovering more. At this point you realise just how much a treasure this is to the world. Im impressed big time.
We drive temple to temple through the woods picking which ones to stop at. What gets me is the distinct look they have over the Mayan temples for example. Similar in structure, reaching ceremonially to the sky, yet distinctive to this corner of the globe. More than this though, is each temple has its own look and character yet still manages to identify itself to this area. It isnt just the temples there are giant gateways and other structures making up the landscape. The magnitude of the task needed to build all this, and especially back then inspires you to what can be achieved today with the skills, knowledge and tools we have available. We inspect a couple more of the structures, one I really liked as there was in the outer wall a sleeping giant buddha graduated from the brickwork sideways. At first it looks like a bulge from shoddy workmanship, but with closer inspection you see its deliberate and talented. We hear a guild describe Cambodia as a ‘pancake’ Country. What he means is they change from Buddhist to Hindu and back again by simply flipping over. This is evident in the temples as they are a blank religious canvas ready for the ‘pancake’ flip. I wonder if they will ever be Catholic? Doubt it. Walking to one temple there is a path with a band playing terribly out of sync music. I think nothing of it. Coming out the opposite side down the other path there is also another band with the same style. This time I comment ‘quietly’ are they deaf or something. They actually are, along with missing limbs etc. If you ever do this, please don’t make the same mistake as me. Not the best of looks I got when my ‘quiet’ comment was louder than I thought.
Then come to our personal favourite, Ta Prohm. This is one of the two tombs that was raided by Lara Croft in the films. Venturing in we are treated to the ultimate synthesis of architecture and plant created over 100’s of years. This accidental garden is immense. The building is impressive enough, until these giant creeping trees, their roots and trunks working the stone work to create a new entwined spectre. Most of the tree’s roots are taller than me, and seem to mortar the gradual stumbling blocks of granite together. It all looks like its about to tumble on you, but these huge trees seem to hold the blocks in the palms of their hands like lego, just enough to prevent dropping any. There is one word for this temple. Magic! Leaving here we get snapped up buy the google street view van. Im still yet to check that. Hounded by hustling kids selling everything you ever didn’t want, we seek salvage in our Tuk Tuk and go to our next destination after the experience of lifetime.
Continuing our day of exploration we move on to the floating village. Advised that it is a ‘must see’ we drive off, to tick off. Depending on the time of the year it is is the type of experience you have. As you drive into the floating village area every scantily-built hut is on stilts. There must be about 20 ft of twig. Delicately balancing each Cambodian mans Castle. If you visit during the rainy season, I assume you would just see the hut. In the dry season 30 ft of twig. We are in-between so just right to get the idea of this style of living. The twigs and society intensifies with the geography. Im left questioning if this is actually the floating village? Its not sinking, but its not exactly floating either! Shortly after my thoughts we drive through a half built posh hotel to a passenger terminal. Not quite the image I had for this culture. We purchase tickets at the rate of a month and a half average salary for the Country (still cheap though), and go to our gate for departure. Following the other passengers we are stopped for a photo we don’t want and ushered away from the others onto a boat on our own. Welcomed and sat we un-tied and begin our river journey. We are guided through what venomous predators lie in the murky waters below, followed by kids swimming and playing in there. We navigate the various buildings that are really floating. They have everything, houses, churches and a pub complete with pool table (Would be interesting games in choppy waters). The people seem happy on the whole and go about their business with no interest in us. Each house has a fish trap underneath. The net catches small jumping fish and they hit them with a ping pong racket to prepare dinner. There is one big school that is just for Orphans. I didn’t see where they educate the kids whose parents are still there, floating on by, spanking their dinner. The cynic in me has found a flaw in the experience and thus see the pitch coming. We stop off at a visitor centre which was interesting, to visit. There were kids holding snakes coming up to me. Relentless little buggers wouldn’t leave me along. Like indiana, I too hate snakes. They also have a small crocodile pit. Not much gong on there. They were patiently waiting to be sent off to the Gucci Zoo. On the return back we stop at the market. The market sells one product. 100kg bags of rice! The last thing we are interesting in, but the cynical penny drops and the pitch comes. Opposite is the school of fake orphans, and the charity pitch comes. Even if we were sucked in by their blag we didn’t actually have the amount of money they was asking to feed this school for the month. Our friendly host, stops talking. Our tour shortened to cut out any more stops. Looking back we see a line of boats ready for their Orphan pitch. Del-boy would’ve been proud of this little scam. We were dropped off, wouldn’t shake our hands and that was that. On one hand it was a good excursion, but on the other, to be pitched with such ignorance to our savvy and at the expense of those that are genuinely needy it ruined it for us. The hotel will be built soon and that floating village may well of been built in fibreglass by Disney soon. The spot is in danger of being ruined by greed at the expense of those genuinely impoverished families living, floating on that river and the surrounding area.
We wrap up this wonderful exhausting day with dinner and festivities in the towns Bar street. Nice as it is, its a cultural anti climax after the History Channels Junkie day earlier. We leave this great place tonight for our final stop, Phnom Penh. Cambodia does not have much in the way of transport, ie trains. Therefore we get there by Night bus. Seems straight forward enough, and hang about, tired ready for a sleeping ride there. Never again! In two vertical rows are double sun-bed inclined beds. Designed for shorter people or kids I fit in it like an adult on a tricycle. Legs everywhere and zero comfort. My girlfriend falls instantly asleep next to me, curling up, leaving even more limited space. We leave on this bumpy, half built treacherous road with me looking directly down the view of the headlights. Impossible to sleep in the most uncomfortable position ever with one eye on the road. This was the longest night of my life. No comfort, no sleep, cheesy feet and snoring. Lets hope the transport infrastructure comes soon, or at least they make the beds in adult sizes.
We are on the final stage, of what has been an awesome trip. The main things we wanted to do have been ticked off. We are here in this city mainly for transport reasons. However there are a couple of tasks to experience here now that we are booked in. Until then we decided to book up another 5 star hotel ” The Governors house” and treat ourselves. Tired, crooked and smelly we joyfully ask for a lift to our famous 5 star hotel. To our horror, not a soul has heard of it. Not what you want to hear. There are plenty of Tuk Tuk around us asking each other, but no joy. This is a problem. An unwelcome problem. After a slighty stressful, tired, genuine moment of concern, one comes over and knows where it is. Now they all are experts where this place is. Thanks guys! We retire. I click my back, back in to its fully-grown adult posture and drift off into my chiropractic slumber.
There are two excursions of sorts that we plan to do here. Both are quite solum, but it would be rude not too while in the locality. The first being the killing fields of Choeung Ek, and then the S-21 prison which linked up this horrendous time for Cambodia. Both of these affected us and for this reason I am being particularly careful how I write about them.
For those that don’t know what the history is, Cambodia was in civil war with the Communist Khmer Rouge against the Cambodian Government Army. It was a murderous revolution dictated by Pol Pot. How recent this was it how it got to us. It really only just wrapped up just before I was born. Meaning that it is still very fresh in everyones minds as everyone would’ve been affected by it one way or another. The Cambodian Genocide took place during the 70’s and the Killing Fields we visited were an active tool of genocide from 1975-78. There were many of these killing fields, but this is the one that is open to the public and the most symbolic. They have accounted for 8985 bodies from 43 graves in this one. 129 of the communal graves have been left untouched.
We arrive and pay our entry fee and presented with our audio guide put into English for us. Im not usually too fussed with these, but gave this one a go, and glad I did. The tour gives you the opportunity to take in this catastrophe, individually. It talks you around in logical and upsetting detail. There are 19 numbered points that it directs you to walk around. You spend a few minutes at each stop while it explains what did happen there. At the end of each talk it gives you the option of hearing a higher degree of detail and accounts for that spot. Its good it gives this option in case it is overwhelming enough already. The first point of notice was the stupor. A memorial to what was discover there and those that suffered. A tall thin calm momument that you can walk around. Inside are the Skulls, bones and general remains of hundreds of cambodians. They are seperated into gender and age. a humbling and fitting monument that really is just the begin of the horror to be told. Without the audio the place is green and lumpy. Hidden away up a back street and home to a blossoming orchard. Its surrounded by large trees and water at the far side. I peaceful and gentle spot. With the audio it transforms with gut-wrenching stories. It also describes that this natural beauty spot, secluded, water and sound-bound, created a natural spot to get away with mass murder without locals knowing. The lumps signify the mass graves. Evidence of what is below under your feet were human bone and clothes still resurrecting from the path. Each spot describes the same sense of methodological killing as the assembly line as witnessed in World War 2 with Auschwitz. There was a well run system the get through the numbers and make such a horrible task possible. The music tree is one chilling factor I remember. A large Oak in the centre of the compound. Speakers were put on here playing the propaganda music of the time. Locals would hear this and think nothing of it. More intentionally it was there to hide the noise of the screams and knocks of the killing process. They play this tune while you standing there which send shivers down your spine. Continuing round we learn of further cogs in this machine and piece together what recently happened here. Some of the mass graves have fences round and is decorated with 100’s of multi coloured string wrist bands. We learn that they are separated down the women, then children only. For me, I then get introduced to most horrific part of this place. There is another large tree next to this grave with even more of these bands attached to it. As we approach closer we now know it is called the killing tree. Further more we discover this tree was purely for babies, and infants. In brutal bluntness they were swung by their feet so their skulls were crushed against the timber. the grave next to it is the child’s grave. The way they killed here, was not with bullets, as to prevent the noise. This tree has a terrifying use. The audio offers more detail here and I accept this option. It gives a live account from the general that run this camp, when he was caught and brought back to the site. Where I stood, next to this tree he collapsed and begged for mercy for the atrocities he had commissioned, created and witnessed on this spot. I will not go into much more detail about here as to not ruin the experience for anyone that reads this and plans to visit. its personal to you! These were the main aspects that got to me and wanted to share with you. We leave this place, a little quiet, to the s-21.
While taking stock our emotions on our Tuk Tuk we don’t really have much time to contain them before arriving at the s-21 for the next part of this story. In this instance we are going back a step. This was the holding facility or prison that was used before they were escorted to the killing Fields. Therefore no time to really gather our thoughts. I think, knowing what happens next in this process makes this prison a little more potent. Like the innocence of the killing tree and orchards, this prison has a double life too. The building started its life as a primary school. They were kicked out and the building transformed overnight to a security prison to contain every anyone deemed a threat to the communist regime. Normal Cambodians primarily. To paint the picture, there are 4 concrete blocks, all at 4 levels each making a big square C. Two yards for play within this crescent and all this surrounded by a large wall. Again, another well prescribed double use of the surrounding area. With no audio tour this time, there are signs warning of making noise and even smiling. Not that you would think this is necessary. There is a natural order to the tour of going up an down the corridors of each floor from one building to the next. The first building contains the torture rooms, which were formally class rooms. They possess Metal beds with shackles and instruments of torture. We read there that when the Khmer Rouge were overturned, they quickly killed the people they had left there, using up the last bullets and burning the others. There were 13 people in these rooms and graves for them placed in the yard in front of that building. Next to these graves is a 20 ft wooden frame that was originally used for PT for the children. This was later used as a form of torture for these being interagated in these rooms. There were ropes that hung down. The victim would have their hands tied to these ropes behind their back. They were hoisted up, in assuming agony of the unatural position and intense pressure put on them. Furthermore, once hoisted to the top they were then dropped and suddenly stopped before they hit the floor. When they were down again, with hands still tied behind their back, they had their head put in a barrel of water and taken close to drowning. The relief would be offered in the opportunity to talk out. If nothing came they continued this for as long as it took. For me only true evil can take all these innocent places, and see the potential uses for them as they did. As we walk around each oF the other buildings we see the holding rooms for the 100’s of the inhabitants. Small wooden cattle-like booths with chains and shackles to the floor. The rest of the S-21 School/prison has pictures of each inmate that was unfortunate to be selected to be there. Mug shots of their own people that fell foul of an evil regime. These were the same people that were later trafficked a few Kilometres up the road to the killing fields. It was some of their bones and clothes that I was walking on earlier on the paths. The skulls on display at the stupor would be the remains of the people behind these photos. It was these people that would’ve heard that music playing to fatal consequences, and their children killing against that tree. As if the emotions of the fields were not enough, to see the faces of those that were simply processed through there and where they were as part of their journey to their end was incomprehensible. This experience affects us both and we relax the last day here digesting what we saw and trying to empathise with those that experienced this. We leave Asia with a story to tell.
This Essex Boy has taken a lot from my short stay in Asia, a place we plan to return and continue discovering. Every sense and emotion were touched in a short space of time. We saw the brutality of extreme society, its effects on the population and how easy it is for the wrong people to exercise power. The life I know from the UK and now Australia cant be taken for granted. We are so lucky to live in the world we do with this lifestlye and services that we take as a birth right. This part of the trip triggered the reset button on what we take for granted and I for one have had my attitude shifted slightly from it. What would Australia or the UK be like under a regime like this? How far would I go to protect my loved ones? Despite the media’s documented library of faults in our culture, we should always take stock at how it could be if only born elsewhere. On the positive we visited a place of outstanding beauty. Not only for the landscape and buildings, but the people and culture. We had many magical moments that will stay with us forever and will enable us to talk fondly of these Countries. The new smells, noise and behaviours in aligned with Asia’s lighting creates a plate full of surprise, learning and emotion. This was better than Benidorm. More enriching than the package holiday, and a better lesson than a classroom. I recommend my trip to others, as I am likely to do it again soon.