A brief stop in Cambodia
I’m going to open with the conclusion; we LOVE Cambodia. We may have only spent 5 days there, but we feel so much warmth for the place; it’s hard to describe – but I’ll give it a try.
After a 3 day trip up the Mekong delta, from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (Charlie will be writing this up soon); we reached the border with Cambodia. This, in itself was an interesting experience. The border on the river was not clear – it was a dilapidated hut on the bank of the Mekong. A group of us handed over our passports to our Vietnamese guide, who then got on a motorbike and drove off – with little explanation – somewhat unnerving.
Eventually, our trust paid off, and he returned and asked us to follow him. It was a very strange process involving much sitting & waiting – and then eventually seeing a stern looking Cambodian policeman who scribbled some things down & stamped our passports. He didn’t look us in the eye once.
We then made our way to Phnom Penh, over typically very bumpy roads for around 3 hours in our non-air conditioned bus. The whole 3-day trip from Vietnam had only cost around $30 each – so I guess we can’t complain.
We spent 1 night in Phnom Penh, in an AirBnb in town. The city is quite impressive, if a little intimidating. We gathered it wasn’t quite as friendly a place as some major Asian cities, with plenty of stories of theft from travellers. On our way back to our AirBnB on a tuk tuk, the driver thankfully warned us we were being followed by a notorious petty thief, who would speed past tourists on his motorbike and grab their belongings while doing so. Needless to say, we were fairly prompt at getting into the Airbnb.
Our plan for day 2 was to explore some of the sights, and see S-21 (Tuol Sleng) genocide museum; see the killing fields in Phnom Penh; then after a full day of culture & hopefully good food – we would get on an overnight bus up to Siem Reap. This pretty much went to plan except we ended up not having time for the killing fields. The overnight bus was an experience; it had a normal toilet – with water at the bottom in it – on very bumpy roads – need I say more? You can see Charlie and I below, laying comfortably in our almost-bed designed for short Asian people (yes – even shorter than me!)
Anyway, back to Phnom Penh – We walked around quite a lot, and grabbed ourselves a nice lunch at Botanico Wine & Beer garden, where the owner sat and chatted with us for ages, and then offered us access to his driver for the afternoon. This was great, as it avoided all the annoying conversations about ‘how much’, where you were inevitably ripped off – and literally have to walk away if you wanted a half reasonable price. The driver took us to the S-21 prison (genocide museum) and we arranged for him to be back there after 2 hrs to take us to the killing fields.
S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
S-21 was our first eye opening to the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia – first hand, that is. You get an audio tour as you walk around the buildings which have barely been touched since it was an active prison. This is evident in the blood stains you can see in some of the rooms. Around 20,000 were imprisoned there during the regime, and all but 12 of them were killed. Chum Mey was one of the survivors, and somehow he manages to visit the prison every day to sell his story ‘Survivor’. We bought a copy but have yet to read it. This is Chum Mey pictured below – with his fans (us).
The audio tour describes each of the rooms in the prison, and there are some recordings of survivors as well as Khmer Rouge soldiers recalling their time there. It’s a very disturbing place; and somehow more disturbing given its relatively recent history (ending in 1979). Prisoners were often chained to the floor naked, in rows – dozens to a single room. Tortured if they made a noise; and eventually killed. They were normally taken away from the prison for this, to a nearby killing field where a serrated shovel would be used to crack their skulls open – as use of a bullet was considered a waste.
The prison was used to torture these people and get them to confess to things they never did such that the regime could document the confession and have an excuse to execute innocent people. Many would starve to death if they weren’t killed first, or die from illness or infection. Some would try and kill themselves to avoid the lengthy torture to an inevitable demise – but the Khmer Rouge would put a stop to this. One example was a man who jumped from a balcony & was successful, so the Khmer Rouge immediately covered all of the building’s openings with barbed wire to prevent future occurrences. See below.
There was no sense to this regime, and it’s both remarkable and insanely worrying that a leader can motivate an entire army to kill millions based on his logic (which primarily was to kill anyone that might be smart enough to disagree with us, and kill their entire bloodline so we don’t risk any revenge in future). It’s even more remarkable that they managed this for 4 years without intervention from the rest of the world. It seems Pol Pot was fairly clever about this; ensuring that any visits from foreign officials would be met with fake smiles from happy farm workers – who had been threatened with their lives if they failed to give the impression of happiness. Notably, the Swedish government were actively looking at the Khmer Rouge as a shining example of how communism could work for Sweden!
Genocide in Cambodia
Estimates vary, but generally around 2-3 million people are thought to have been killed under the Khmer Rouge. That’s from a population of only 7 million. Add to that the various deaths from involvement in wars prior to Khmer Rouge taking control, and you can see that nearly half the Cambodian population was wiped out in the 70s. HALF of a race killed. I find this impossible to get my head around. Where would Cambodia be today if it weren’t for this? They were nearly extinguished; all educated members of society killed. It’s horrific!
The Cambodian people
That brings me neatly on to I think our best observation about Cambodia – and that’s its people. In Siem Reap, we were lucky enough to have a driver for our whole stay, named Bib; who we got to know. We also met many others briefly, including a guide at the War Museum in Siem Reap named Rataa. These guys were, and still are directly affected by the genocide that hit the country only 38 years ago; their parents lost brothers, sisters, parents; even children.
Even more recently, Ratta who lost his mother and father to landmines was telling us of his best friend; the two of them were walking home from school together when his friend stepped on a landmine. The landmine took his friend’s legs, and Rataa managed to get him to hospital. But as his friend’s family didn’t have any kind of health insurance or money, he wasn’t attended to and later died. It’s heart-wrenching to hear this first-hand story. There are millions of landmines around Cambodia still; thanks to the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia toward the end of the regime; people are still dying. Like the clichéd tourists we are, there’s a picture of Charlie with Rataa below.
What we found remarkable though, is that despite all this; the Cambodian people seem to be so content, so friendly, kind & so genuine. Their attitude is one of positivity – they accept the past and look forward to the future. I am completely humbled by how a people can emerge from something so tragic with such a pleasant attitude. Even those that were there, that lived it, that lost everything they had & everyone they loved.
OK, onto a slightly lighter topic; naturally, we visited the Angkor temples – we spent one evening and a whole day there. We rose for sunrise (4:30AM start – but I do have a confession to make – see the end of this section) and then spent the day walking /tuk tuk-ing around the temples. Our photos of this can be seen in our galleries, or by clicking here. I could spend the next few hours googling Angkor, and regurgitating facts about the temples, but I’d be wasting yours and my time.
The fact is, from our perspective – the temples are incredible. There’s a lot of mixed (and more pleasant) history there, and the buildings are fascinating, in a beautiful setting. You cannot go to Siem Reap and not visit them – simple. We saw about 5-6 of the main temples in our one day. There is more to see. In the humidity and heat, Charlie and I will openly admit that by the end of the day, we were ‘all templed out’.
The below picture – possibly the most impressive of the Angkor pictures I took / created; this is what’s called a composite panoramic picture. We did indeed rise for sunrise (that’s no lie); but unfortunately, we were met with overcast weather. It was beautiful, and worth waking up for anyway, watching light slowly appear and watching Angkor Wat emerge from the darkness. But the photo is constructed of 3 separate images. 2 images create the wide-screen panoramic that you see (no dramas there); but the 3rd is a sunrise that was shot in Australia – on Nobby’s beach.
Now as a budding photographer I have mixed feelings about creating such imagery; and I’ve come to a conclusion. In my view it’s perfectly acceptable to create imagery in this way, as long as it’s composed entirely of my own work & photos, and as long as I’m up-front and honest that it is indeed a composite image. This makes it a work of art, rather than a photograph – yes? 🙂
I plan to do some posts about photography over the coming weeks (or months); and may do a step-by-step for this image. However I didn’t record the steps, so this would mean doing it all again; and it took bloody ages – so we’ll see.