Kampot

Yesterday I caught an early bus from Sihanoukville to Kampot. What could have taken an hour door to door in Cambodian time (with endless messing around and errand-running en route) ran into hours. Frustrating. But I wasn’t exactly in a rush.

Kampot is just off the south coast inland slightly and on the river. It is dominated by crumbling French colonial architecture and if you look hard enough and shut out the sights and sounds of modern day Kampot you can just about imagine the town in its former glory. This is the old cinema.

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Yesterday I wandered around town taking in the sights and rhythms of the place, and was then talked into a tuk tuk ride to a fishing village. Right decision as it turned out to be one of the highights of my time in Cambodia, going out into the countryside and well off the tourist trail that is so well established here but so badly done.

First we stopped off at a salt farm – never seen one of them before! The land was aub-divided into small rectangular areas, each with slightly raised edges of earth, and within each sea water was collected and left to evaporate leaving the grainy sea salt behind. I watched men and women, hunched over brushing the salt free of the land into heaps and then collecting their gains in bamboo baskets that they carried into the collection shed. It was a truly amazing sight.

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Next, we went on to a Muslim fishing village where we saw women sitting under their houses making fishing nets, the only brick/solid building in the village (the mosque), children riding bikes several sizes too big for them, and endless buffalos grazing in the fields. Here is the bridge I walked over to reach the boats:

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As we drew into the next village, the tuk tuk was greeted by what seemed like dozens of beeming faces from the local children. If you can’t beat them join them, right? So I invited them all to hop on board (to their delight) and they laughed at me as I tried to pronounce all their names. Then they insisted I take their photos so they could see them in the camera afterwards.

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After that, my driver took me to his friends’ place for rice wine (actually, I think it was wine made from sugar palms) and some kind of sea food. It was at that point that he seemed to suggest we get married, at which point I thought it might be the right time to ask him to drop me back at my hotel. And that, thank you very much, but I didn’t want any more wine. But it was all done in a very good natured way, so all is good with the world…

Just a little more R&R…

Yesterday I arrived back in Sihanoukville from Koh Rong. The boat trip back was really choppy – the divers told me that it’s been uncharacteristically stormy for the last couple of months. Jonni and Louisa were on my boat – nice to catch up with them agai, although poor Louise spent the whole trip looking decidedly green…

Whenever I am on a boat or near the sea, I think of my dad. Even on rough sea crossing, you could rely on my dad being out on deck, almost certainly tucking into a ham sandwich and cup of tea, while everyone else felt queasy. And I think of him whenever I take a walk by some water. My dad was born and bred in Whitstable, a fishing village in Cumbria, which I had the pleasure of visiting with him last year. Given his roots, his love of water is perhaps not surprising, and I seem to have inherited it, too.

I decided to tag on another couple of days on the beach before heading off again, and have found a beach hut right at the end of quiet Otres Beach outside Sihanoukville. It is at the top of a hill top overlooking the beach, with some steps down to the white sand and tiny restaurant/beach bar below. I swear I haven’t yet played my guitar, but the rats are following me around… As yet (touch wood) they haven’t made it into my hut, but I hear scampering outside and have spent half an hour blocking all visible entry points to the bungalow. I will not miss this aspect of the quartergapyear experience. But, this is a taster of the last couple of days:

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It was such a lovely day on the beach today. As I arrived, there was an extended family of Cambodians playing in the sea together – the women were fully clothed, the men in swimming shorts and the children pranced around naked. As I approached, they were howling with laughter as they burried one of the small children in the sand up to his neck – he was taking it well – and once that amusement had passed, the men were finding small fish in the sea and throwing them at the women and children to make them shriek, and everyone was splashing around and having a fantastic time. It made me think of my own family and some of the pranks me and my brother and sister have played on one another (continue to do so, actually..). Happy days.

Tomorrow I catch an early bus for Kampot, an old colonial town on the river 4 hours east of here, where the architecture survives and there is lots to be seen and done. I’m planning to take a day trip into Bokor National Park to visit the old hill station that the French built to escape the heat and humidity, and there is some wildlife spotting to be done there, too. I’m pleased to announce that I am booked into a real building with floors, walls, ceilings, etc, so I am very much hoping to shake off my rodent companions.

I have spent some time this afternoon working out my exit strategy for Cambodia. I can’t leave without seeing Eastern Cambodia, so will head there after Kampot for a few days, first stop Kompong Cham which offers lush countryside, historic temples and much more, and then on to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri province, where there is amazing wildlife to be seen. While there, I am hoping to visit the Elephant Valley Project to see these wonderful creatures in their natural environment rather than giving pleasure rides at Angkor Wat. Watch this space…

As I near the end of my time in Cambodia and begin to plot the final leg of my journey through Thailand and scuba heaven, I em inevitably starting to think about life back home – not just thinking about the people who are still there that I love and miss, but also about what life will have in store for me as I start a new chapter. This trip has definitely cleared out the cobwebs and provided the transition time and space I needed. Who knows what my life will look like this time next year – the uncertainty is both a little scarry, but also exciting and invigorating.

I am also wondering where my travels will take me next – not necessarily for this long (well, not in the short-term anyway), but my wish list of places I need to visit before I die is growing by the day and I am determined to get through it, too. So where next? Probably Burma again, Borneo, Philippines (apparently the diving is incredible), Mongolia, train journeys through India, rural China, Western Australia, anywhere and everywhere in South America, Egypt, Morrocco, Ghana, California state, Grand Canyon, and that’s just for starters. Everytime I meet someone new or read another book it inspires me to add to this list. So many places, really not enough time, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Koh Rong – scuba fun

On Friday, I caught a boat from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong, a tiny island off the south coast of Cambodia. I am staying in a rather basic beach hut – so basic there are gaping holes where anything could get in. And that is exactly what has happened. Rat-gate! Yesterday and today I have come home to a rat. On both occasions he appeared after I played guitar (I’m thinking pied piper….) and yesterday he stole my soap (clearly not a dirty rat). I am not massively excited about going to bed tonight… Koh Rong is amazing – deserted island paradise. I spent my first two days here on a boat scuba diving off the coast. The visibility wasn’t great as it has been a bit stormy and there are lots of waves, but it was excellent to be back in the water. My love for scuba hasn’t gone. We saw some sea cucumbers, loads of fish and an enormous jelly fish which our dive master shone his torch on from underneath. Quite a sight. I also fitted in some snorkelling on the first day, which was good, too. I saw a manta ray within about 10 seconds of getting in the water. Below some assorted snaps from diving, including some coral-related scuba injuries…
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Chi Phat

After Phnom Penh, I caught a bus to Andoung Tuek in the Cardamon Mountains, where I then boarded a long tail boat for a 2 hour journey to Chi Phat, a community-based eco-tourism project based in a tiny village in beautiful surroundings which was established to provide alternative livelihoods to poaching and tree felling to the local communities. I shared a boat with Joni and Louisa, from Wigan and Bolton respectively. A lovely couple that I have seen a lot of since. It was so refreshing to hear their broad northern accents – made me feel at home, even though I am not from the north myself.

The boat trip was spectacularly beautiful – we heard birds singing, saw them flying by, and saw barely another person the whole 2 hour trip. The only movement in the water was from the motor of our own boat.

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When we got to Chi Phat, I managed to bag a bamboo hut in the eco-lodge – basically a collection of small huts on an island in the middle of the lake. It was definitely ‘back to nature’ and sleeping under the mosquito net that night I felt all Meryl Streep Óut of Africa’.

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The following day I took a boat trip with Joni and Louise and another couple – we left at 6.30am and spent our day being navigated along the river first in a motor boat and then in a paddle boat. We stopped for our packed breakfast…

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…and on the way back I had the chance to swim in a river – very happy indeed

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Later that day, I sat on my veranda playing guitar and a couple of local girls came to ask if they could sit and listen to me play and sing. Of course, I obliged, and tried to teach one of them a couple of chords, too. Through broken English and non-existent Cambodian, we managed to make ourselves understood. One was 21 the other 22. Both had left school at 12, and one couldnt read but told me that her boyfriend could. They were both lovely, full of life and giggles. You always wonder how life might be different for people but for the lottery of birth place.

A wierd coincidence happened on the boat. One of the guys was reading a book and, having done a spot of over shoulder snooping I thought it might be a book my someone I know. Sure enough, it was Cloud Mountain by Tom Hart-Dyke, who was kidnapped in Colombia in 2000 and whose mother used to be a trustee of Hostage UK. If that weren’t coincidence enough I had met another guy in Yangon who had recently read the same book. The guy in Chi Phat was blown away – he said he’d never met anyone who knew a published author before – and I promised to pass on his high praise for the book to Tom. Small world.

Two very different kinds of death

Today I experienced two extremes in the treatment of death. This morning I walked to the Royal Palce to see some of the events linked to the king’s cremation ceremony. Throngs of Cambodians lined the streets, not because they will see anything of the cremation, but because they loved their king and came to show their respect. All wearing white – the colour of mourning here – and with black badges bearing the king’s smiling face, they sat, gathered in shady retreats, eating, talking and sharing the occasion with friends and family. Some prayed and chanted at shrines. I am now watching the celebratory fireworks from the roof top bar of my hostel.

This afternoon I visited the killing fields – Choeung Ek – about half an hour out of the capitall. Walking around this peaceful and serene place it is diffiult to believe what lies beneath the ground, the vile attrocities that were committed here, and the terrifying last moments of the people who died here. As you walk around, you come across fragments of bone and scraps of clothing or blindfolds that are continuing to surface over 30 years after the last grave was dug. As the narrator on the audio tour said, it is as if  the souls of those who died here keep returning to remind us of what happened.

The most horrifying thing to see was the ‘killing tree’ – babies were held by their feet and their skulls smashed against this tree to kill them. Next to the tree is a grave where the remains of 100 women and children were found. Most of the women were naked. On the killing tree were found fragments of bone, brain tissue, and hair.

There are 300 killing fields around Cambodia, the resting place of a quarter of the country’s population from that time. The people who died here were treated worse than animals – shackled in the pitch black sheds when they arrived, subjected to blarring sound systems playing revolutionary music made even less bearable and more terrifying by the deafening roar of the generators. And finally when they were to meet their fate, they were taken to a grave side, beaten, had their throats cut, and were thrown into the grave. Because some even managed to survive this grusome treatment, DDT was sprayed into the graves to finish the job and had the added benefit of masking the smell of rotting flesh.

There was no funeral for these poor souls, no fireworks, nothing to mark their death except the cleaning of the agricultural tools used to bring it about. No respect. No tears from their loved ones at their graveside. Just pain, darkness and then release.

The last two days have been difficult but important. I’ve reflected a lot about life, death, what we might all be capable of, and the extreme suffering that so many have – and continue to have – to bear. I think it’s vital for everyone to see the killing fields and their equivalents around the world.. We must know what might be within our souls, to ensure it never is.

Tomorrow I move on to Chi Phat, a community-based eco-tourism project in the Southern Cardamon Mountains. The village has around 500 families, and the project was established to provide an alternative livelihood to felling and poaching. I have opted to stay with a family, which almost certainly means no power and definitely means I’ll be taking outdoor rainwater showers. But it means I’ll learn more about the country and it’s people than I would in a guesthouse or hotel. There are lots of activities on offer, including trekking, kayaking, cycling, etc. I can’t wait to get off the tourist trail and into the heart of the country.I’m not sure I’ll have any wifi, so this may be over and out for 5 days. I’ll keep you posted…

Tuol Sleng Museum

Today I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum. As you can imagine, there is normally a difference between my scriblings on this blog and what gets recorded in my personal journal. Today is a day for these two to merge – so here are my thoughts as I sat at the museum earlier todaym extracted directly from my journal because I feel it’s important that my raw thoughts are not filtered.

”I am sitting at the Tuol Sleng museum, site of the former S21 of the Kampuchea Denocratic. The building is in the heart of the city and before Pol Pot seized control was a high school. Sitting here now on a bench under a tree with birds singing their choruses, it is easy to imagine how the school had once been a haven of learning and understanding for the young people and open minds of Cambodia. In 1975, it was turned into a prison for internment, interrogation and torture of ‘traitors’ of the regime. Thousands were killed here between 1975 and 7 January 1979 when the regime was overturned.

There are four buildings. In each, you can still make out that each one used to be a school room – old hooks on the walls where the blackboard once hung, a a space alongside it where the teacher’s desk would have been, in front of which would have been rows of desks peopled by eager young minds. That the building was once a school makes its later function even more terrifying and barbaric.

As I walked from cell to cell, classroom to classroom, there were tiny unintentional touches of beauty – a randomly different floor tile or the intricate headboard of a brass bedstead. Not put there with the feelings of the prisoners in mind, and I was left wondering whether it would be possible for any of the inhabitants to have found beauty in this place during those times.

Some of the classrooms had been kept to their original size and were used to house dozens of prisoners lying on the floor, two rows meeting with their feet along the middle of the room from the back wall to the blackboard, feet shackled to an iron bar running the length of the room. The side walls were numbered, presumably each number representing a prisoner. No names or humanity allowed here.

There are other rooms that are sub-divided into tiny cells just a metre wide and a couple of metres long. On the ground floor the dividing walls are bricks, on the upper floors they are wooden. The smell on these upper floors was old wood, like you experience walking around an old stately home in the UK.

So much of the torture equipment was left behind when the regime fell and S21 was abandoned – tools for beating, tweaking, cutting, drowning and electrfying men, women and children. I was reminded of the accussations of torture that have been levelled against countries like my own and felt sick to the stomach to think that anyone acting in my name would ever use these instruments.

Perhaps the most difficult but essential thing was the photos. The torturers were clinical in their documentation of who came into the prison, their treatments, confessions and outcomes. There were thousands of mugshots. Many faces were passive and indifferent, no doubt in shock or denial about what lay ahead. A few appear to be smiling – perhaps excited to be having their photo taken for the first time, unaware or unbelieving of their fate. But many showed their utter terror, pleading with the man behind the camera, desperate to be spared. The photos of women with their children, some just babies, hit me hardest. That a child would even have to be in this place, let alone risk seeing or being subjected to torture is unbearable.

The photos affected me greatly. I really didn’t want to go on, didn’t want to see another face or look into another pair of eyes. But I had to look each man, woman and child in the eye, as if to bear witness to their suffering.

Afterwards, I watched a documentary about a man and woman who were killed in S21, told through their family, friends and neighbours who were left behind. Most harrowing of all was to hear from a man who worked in S21, who drove prisoners to their deaths in the killing fields. He talked about the fact that he helped to kill 5 people by hitting them on the back of the head with an iron bar before they had their throats cut and were flung into mass graves. He was at pains to say that he only did this when the warden was watching and that he never cut anyone’s throat. It is somehow difficult to judge someone in that position. We want to believe that if had been us we would rather have died ourselves than taking part in these attrocities, but we have the good fortune to never have had to make that choice. While this man came away with his life, he is also left with shame and self-disgust, I would imagine.

While I have been away I have been trying hard not to think about my work. Yes, I love what I do, but I knew I had to switch off properly in order to feel the benefit of 3 months off – go back refreshed and ready to start the next chapter of my life. But today has reminded me why I do what I do. It pales in comparison to the suffering I saw today, but I know first-hand how war and fighting impacts on ordinary people and their families after my uncle was kidnapped in Colombia in 1997. That event was seminal in setting the course of my professional life, so determined was I to understand and make sense of what happened, try in my own small way to prevent it and through Hostage UK to help ease the suffering of those affected. I know in the scheme of things, my contribution is tiny. But today reminded me that it is important and has renewed my commitment to this work. As I sit here in a beautiful garden terrace cafe opposite the old S21 prison drinking an Angkor beer about to enjoy some Khmer cuisine, I can see the buildings opposite behind their corrugated iron and barbed wire fence and the contrast couldn’t be greater. To think that Cambodia has recovered – physically and emotionally – from this terrifying episode in just 30 years is truly inspiring.”

Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh

I said goodbye to Siem Reap early this morning on a bus. It also never happened after the bus left without me, but with my rucksack and guitar safely stowed away in the hold. Two Cambodian men saved me – one with a mobile phone who called the driver, the other with a speedy motorbike. My heart skipped a beat or two, but the crisis was over almost as soon as it had begun. The moral of this story? Never make a last minute diet-coke run.

Fully alert on account of the diet coke fix and heart palpitations, we set off on the 6-7 hour journey to Phnom Pehn. I have to say I wasn’t that sad to leave Siem Reap – it felt a lot like a trashy European holiday resort. Yes, I had a very large amount of fun there, but the town didn’t do it for me, and reminded me that I’m looking for other pleasures from my travels. I also have to say I found the temples an anti-climax. I know, not supposed to say that… BUT, there are a few potential explanations for this a) temple fatigue, b) very crowded temples spoiling the atmosphere, c) hangovers, d) extreme heat and humidity, e) all of the above. I am sorely tempted to swing by again on my way out of the country to give it another shot. Here are some pictures.

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I have now arrived in Phnom Penh, determined to be able to spell it without refering to my guide book by the time I leave. I am checked into the Top Banana guesthouse (love it!) and have a rather spacious room with 2 double beds. We’re approaching tea time, so I’ll head out for a wander to get my bearings shortly. The bus journey over here warmed my heart a little more to Cambodia – beautiful countryside, and the usual assortment of funny sights (half a dozen cows enjoying a leisurely mud bath together, children chasing the bus, lush lush lush green rice paddy fields, horse drawn carts). This country is an insight into what Burma will become in the next 5-10 years – the buildings are sturdier, the motorbikes newer, the farming equipment fueled by petrol rather than cow-power, etc. It was also noticeable how much more plastic rubbish there was along the side of the road. A sign of things to come.

Tomorrow I am planning a sombre day of history, visiting the Tuol Sleng museum to see the horrors of the Khmer Rouge days and then onto the killing fields outside the city. No doubt harrowing, but important to see.

I have just had confirmation of my next move – I am heading for a homestay in the south Cardamon mountains. It is part of an eco-tourism project to protect the area from felling and poaching while giving local communities a sustainable livelihood. There is lots to see and do, including I hope, my first kyaking adventure. Have been wanting to do that for years but never got round to it. That’s exactly what this quartergapyear thing is all about.