2nd March – Day 35

Alright? good.

It’s going to be a heavy one today – just warning you. Today was an interesting but deeply depressing day.

We were picked up at eight in the morning by the disconcertingly-named “Killing Fields Shuttle Bus”. It ferried us through the madness of rush hour Phnom Penh (as if there’s ever an hour when people aren’t in a rush here) to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

 

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A list of prison rules

Before I get into what we saw there, I’ll give you a quick history of what happened to Cambodia in the seventies so you can make sense of what I’m on about.

In the late sixties the Americans realised that a lot of Viet Cong troops were sneaking out of Vietnam and into the Cambodian jungle. Here they could hide out, regroup and reload, ready to launch attacks on South Vietnam. The US solution was to carpet bomb huge areas of Cambodia and Laos, in order to neutralise the threat that these communist guerillas posed. From 1969-1973 they dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia. To put this into perspective, the combined total of bombs dropped by all of the allies in the Second World War was just over 2 million.

What happened next is complicated, but to cut a long story short, a communist organisation called the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge, began to grow and grow. With support from communist China and North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were able to become a major force to rival Cambodia’s government. Realising that they’d created a monster, the Americans started bombing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as well as the Viet Cong. Their tactics failed and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and became the recognised government of Cambodia. As our mate Brian had explained a couple of days earlier at the Landmine Museum – the only people that the Cambodian feared more than the Khmer Rouge were the Americans. They were a nation caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, but no-one could have predicted what was to come.

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. In a top trumps game of “evilest dictators of the 20th century”, he’d probably come in at number three behind Hitler and Stalin. He was obsessed with what he saw as the glory days of Cambodian history when the great Khmer empire had existed, conquering much of South-East Asia and building the temples of Angkor. Pol Pot believed that the only way to return Cambodia to being the superpower that it once was was to start the country all over again, returning it to a simple peasant farming state. He declared 1975 the “Year Zero” and forced the entire population to live in forced labour camps in the countryside. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and everywhere inbetween was emptied of it’s people. As part of this demented brand of communism Pol Pot also believed that anybody who was educated needed to be eradicated, as there could be nobody better than anybody else. Doctors, dentists, teachers were all executed. A whole generation of university graduates were wiped out. As the regime got more paranoid the purge got less discriminate and more insane, to the point that a person wearing glasses would be put to death. In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. In the four years that they were in power, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people – a quarter of the country’s population.

Tuol Sleng is a good example of what happened to the country as a whole. The buildings was converted from a primary school into a prison when Pol Pot came to power. Together with our fellow passengers we were taken on a tour of the four high-rise blocks that made up the prison. The first block we visited had contained high profile prisoners – mainly former members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy whom Pol Pot had grown paranoid of. Each room in the block contained a rusty iron bed with shackles on it. On the wall of each room was a picture of the corpse of the inmate who had occupied it, photographed by the liberating Vietnamese soldiers in 1979. These prisoners had endured years of torture and neglect before being murdered by their fleeing guards when they knew that the game was up. The other three blocks contained similarly harrowing sights. In the old school classrooms crude brick cells had been built to house the prisoners – there was barely room to stand in each one, yet alone sit or lie down. The walls are plastered with photographs of the prisoners, taken by the Khmer Rouge to document their crime. Each haunted face stares directly into the camera, their features gaunt and undernourished. The final room contains a glass cabinet containing scores of skulls belonging to nameless victims.

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Having visited Auschwitz in the past I had an idea in my head of what it would be like to come here. There were two things that surprised me about Tuol Sleng though – one was the amount of children who were recruited by the Khmer Rouge and actively took part in the torture and killing of the prisoners. From reading the information boards, it sounds like there was such a climate of fear and paranoia that the guards would carry out anything that was asked of them – however unspeakable – for fear that they would be accused of treason themselves. The second thing that hit me was that this genocide ended less than forty years ago. When I visited Auschwitz I hadn’t really heard about what happened in Cambodia – I was able to console myself with the belief that what happened in the Second World War would never happen again. When we visited Tuol Sleng it became clear that it could, and had.

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Photographs of victims – too many to count

As we walked towards the exit two stooped old men sat behind desks, signing copies of hardback books. Of the 17,000 prisoners who had passed through Tuol Sleng, just seven survived the liberation. Chum Mey and Bou Meng were two of the survivors, and have spent the thirty odd years since telling the world about what they went through. Both were kept alive because they had skills that were valuable to the Khmer Rouge guards, though all of their family perished in the purges. A German lad in our group asked Chum Mey “How can you keep coming back here every day?” He replied through a translator that he wanted people to know what had happened here. Both these men were in their mid-eighties and in my mind they’ve never escaped the prison. In the intervening years I imagine they’ve made a comfortable living out of selling their life story to tourists, but in order to do so they must return daily to the place that took their lives and their families away from them.

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Chum Mey

We got back onboard the bus and drove to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here we were given headphones and cassette players, walking around the fields and playing each track in correspondence with the numbered signs that were scattered about the place. The audio guide was composed and narrated by a man who had survived the Killing Fields. Just a few miles outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were taken to be executed. At least 8,895 bodies have been discovered here, and every year during the wet season the rain exposes the skeletons of more victims.

The silence of the masses of tourists is oddly juxtaposed by the tweeting of birds and the cries of various other animals all around the site. Whilst what happened here is unthinkable, the flora and fauna of South-East Asia is so vivacious and abundant that even in a place like this it can give you a lift. Scattered around on the floor though, are little scraps of cloth of various colours – these are the remains of the blindfolds that the prisoners were made to wear before their execution. A huge tree is covered in ribbons, prayer flags and candles. This is the “Chankiri Tree,” which was used by the prison guards to beat children to death.  The theory went that if the children of the victims were allowed to live, they would grow up and try to avenge the deaths of their parents.

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A final haunting moment which I swear will stay with both of us forever, was provided by the audio guide. The narrator described the final moments before a prisoner’s execution. The executions were carried out under cover of darkness, with loud revolutionary music being played to drown out the sounds of the dying. In addition, a generator powering the lights and sound system would rumble in the background. A recording of this sound was played much louder than the rest of the tape had been, and in spite of the relentless sun, it sent a shiver down the spine and transported us both back to an era in recent history which should never have to be repeated.

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The Buddhist Stupa that stands as a memorial to what happened here

As we hurtled back into the heart of Phnom Penh, we tried to picture the streets standing completely empty as they had done under the Khmer Rouge.  It was impossible – the place is too full of life. In a country that’s undergone such recent trauma, the best recommendation that we could give Cambodia is that the countryside, the towns and the cities are full of people who carry on regardless, showing no signs of being detained by the past.  Sadly the same can’t be said for the government – a corrupt and occasionally brutal regime dominated by a bloke called Hun Sen, who was a prominent member of the Khmer Rouge until Pol Pot turned against him.  Until blokes like him are in the ground, it’s hard to see Cambodia making any real forward progress in the way that Thailand and Vietnam have.

That’s probably enough for today – I imagine I’ve thoroughly depressed you all. I think it’s important to remember though that although humanity is capable of the despicable, it’s also capable of the divine. In this trip Hollie and I have been fortunate enough to witness both ends of this spectrum.

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Peace and love,

Tommy and Hollie x

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1st March – Day 34

Alright.
About two hour’s of last night’s valuable sleeping time was spent trying to erect a mosquito net over the bed. In spite of the mesh over the windows, the ceiling fan and the air-conditioning unit, one of these joyless little parasites had managed to infiltrate our defences and proceed to buzz around the room at ear level. Usually we’d take the very un-Buddhist approach and swat it straight away, but this particular specimen must have been a spitfire pilot in a former life. He avoided repeated attempts to down him and kept taking sanctuary behind an immovable wardrobe. After a good forty minutes of waving our arms around at it in an almost epileptic manner, we gave up and decided to hide under the net instead. Mosquito nets are light, take up little space in your pack and are easy to set up – unless the ceiling is too high for you to suspend it from, and the walls are too far apart to attach them to. When hanging the net off the fan we found that the net didn’t reach down over the sides of the bed, and when attempting to attach the elastic to the wall I managed to pull a picture hook out – along with a lump of plaster, which I quietly stuffed back in the wall as if nothing had happened. In the end Hollie managed to create a temporary bivouac shelter over the bed using the headboard. We crawled underneath, turned off the light, and sighed in resignation as the net inevitably collapsed onto our faces. I finally fell asleep and dreamed that I was some Atlantic cod, writhing around in a trawlerman’s net.

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No matter how well we plan for the mornings, we always seem to end up rushing about. This time it wasn’t our fault. We powered through our morning ablutions through sleep-filled eyes before taking all our stuff down to the front yard. Having made good time we decided to have some breakfast in order to maintain our strength on the long bus journey to Phnom Penh. This was a naive decision – we didn’t account for the laxadaisical Cambodian approach to catering. Half an hour later the Giant Ibis minibus arrived to pick us up at exactly the same time as our Muesli and french toast. The ever-dignified Hollie cut her losses and abandoned her breakfast. Whilst she went to get her bag I tried to shovel what I could in to my gob before the minibus driver lost patience with me. With Hollie beckoning frantically at me from onboard, I climbed the steps onto the bus and greeted my fellow passengers through a mouthful of tea, toast and muesli.
The journey to Phnom Penh was more comfortable. We booked with the Giant Ibis bus company, and I’d be surprised if there’s a better way to travel around these parts. Comfy seats, aircon and a conductor who speaks excellent English make it worth the extra couple of quid out of your budget. There are of course external factors that make any journey in Cambodia more difficult. Because of the volume of slow-moving farm vehicles on the road, it’s unusual to go more than sixty seconds without having to overtake something. The intention to overtake is signalled by several blasts on the deafening horn, followed by a pathetic farting response from the tractor’s own hooter to acknowledge that they know you’re coming round them. Accidents are common and presumably from the constant driving on the wrong side of the road, head-on collisions make up a large portion of the accident statistics. At one point we were held in a queue of traffic for at least half an hour. A siren was heard from behind and the traffic parted to allow a shabby-looking minivan with “ambulance” written on it through.

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From the safety of our window we saw all kinds of sights as we passed by. As we left the suburbs of Siem Reap the landscape was cast back into perpetual poverty. The dust on the road is all-encompassing and sometimes it feels as if you’re in the middle of a sandstorm. It’ll clear to reveal half-collapsed houses and fields full of plastic bags and rusty farming equipment. For a hundred miles or more this is the scene. Then suddenly on your left the mighty Mekong emerges like a mirage from the arid plains. The road follows it’s meanders and as we progress into Phnom Penh the buildings that line the road get more frequent and less ramshackle. In the distance the Phnom Penh tower looms – a gigantic corporate skyscraper that wouldn’t look out of place in the New York skyline, but looks bizarre set against the tired prefabs and ex-colonial villas of Cambodia’s capital. Again, we’re reminded of the corruption and inequality in this country – which claims to be vaguely communist. Whilst generations of the same family squat under the same corrugated roof, people drink cocktails in the skybar and look out over the panorama of the city.

We were ferried to the hotel by a tuk tuk driver who was all sweetness and light as he made a show of swinging our bags onto his vehicle, but who’s face turned to thunder when we arrived at our destination and refused to book a tuk tuk tour with him. Our new hotel was a wierd place. We appeared to be outnumbered by young, overenthusiastic staff who seemed to start giggling every time we asked a question – it’s an unerving habit that makes you feel like you’re having the piss taken out of you. We were greeted with a champagne flute of orange juice upon check-in – a bit over the top for 12 quid a night, but nice all the same. The room was modern but the bathroom seemed to be infested with little black bugs that kept appearing from cracks in the tiles – Hollie hid in the bedroom whilst I blasted them with the shower nozzle, which made me feel quite manly and turned out to be quite an enjoyable game.
Later as Hollie took a nap I went for a wander around the city. I was offered marijuana and a girl within the space of a hundred yards – services which tend to only be offered to me on the rare occasion I’m not with Hollie. I politely declined and walked over to the riverfront to look out over the Mekong. It must be twice as wide as the Thames and three times as murky, but there’s a vital feeling about the river which you don’t get in Britain – people live and die on these banks on a daily basis, drawing their food and livelihoods from it’s cloudy depths.

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I turned round and weaved my way back through mopeds and rickshaws to have a look at the Royal Palace.

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My trouble is I can’t be on my own for too long, or I start trying to talk to strangers. In the absence of anyone else to talk to, I made friends with a soldier stood on guard outside the palace. At his side he held a rifle fitted with a bayonet, and for a second I thought “This is a bad idea”, but he had one of those faces that say “I don’t want to be in the army. In fact, I’d rather run a small vintage cafe in France and drive a Smart car”. He stood to attention as I took his photo, and told me he’d been stood there for four hours (temperature, 35 degrees celcius). We stopped in that night and had room service for tea.

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Tomorrow will be a dark day – we will go to the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where thousands of people met a gruesome end at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
Peace and love!
Tommy and Hollie x

28th and 29th February – Days 32 and 33

Song of the days: The Butterfly Collector by The Jam

Ayup.
On Friday we took a tuk tuk with our mate Som Bath to various temples around Angkor. I won’t go on about it because they were all very cool, but there’s no point in trying to describe the nuances that made each one interesting. In the evening we took a tuk tuk to pub street. On the way the driver seemed to be suffering some kind of mechanical difficulty with his moped – the engine kept spluttering until finally it gave out just round the corner from our destination. We made to clamber out and walk the last couple of streets, but our driver was adamant that he’d get us to our destination. He dismounted from the scooter and walked up to a roadside stall and bought a pop bottle full of a liquid that looked the same colour of cooking oil. Many stores along the roadside have racks of this stuff on display, and we’d guessed it to be some kind of homemade whiskey. He poured the oily contents into the scooter and it became apparent that the problem was that he’d run out of fuel. I couldn’t begin to guess what concoction he’d just placed in his petrol tank – these bottles of fuel come in different shapes and sizes and no two bottles seem to have the same colour.

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As promised, Ta Prohm.  Featured in the film Tomb Raider

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On saturday we were finally beginning to suffer the condition known to backpackers as “Temple Fatigue”. It’s not so much the temples themselves, but the heat and the dust that makes visiting them such a chore after a while. He fixed a price of 30 bucks for our driver of the previous day, Som Bath, to take us on tour of a few of the less crumbly attractions.
First we drove about 30 kilometres out into the sticks to visit the Angkor Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity. The drive was another amazing insight into what goes on outside of the main cities. Cambodia is like one gigantic farm on a scale that you can barely begin to imagine. The roads are cluttered with overloaded trailers full of hay, or cows, or people being ferried from one farm to another. It’s amazing what constitutes a safe form of travel in Cambodia. A lot of farmers drive these two-wheeled tractor things that I’m assuming are meant to be hooked up to a plough in the fields. Instead they are hooked up to a trailer and you’ll see a young lad balancing on the front of the trailer with his hands on two gigantic handlebars that are attached to this two-wheeled ploughing machine, steering it along.
The Angkor Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity (I’ll call it ACCB from now on to save time) is a charity project run by a German zoo. Animal experts and volunteers here are attempting to rehabilitate endangered animals back into the wild. In a country as poor as this, pretty much any animal is considered edible, and as a consequence a lot of the animals at the ACCB have been rescued from the cooking pot or the cage. We were taken on a tour of the animals by a girl who is currently volunteering there – the money for this place is all put up by a German zoo – again, proof of the fact that most of the infrastructure in this country is put up by foreign do-gooders.

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A Greater Adjudant stork would give Big Bird from Sesame Street a run for his money

We saw a hornbill – a bird with a horn-like protrusion above his normal beak, used for making an almighty squawking racket. Once he started hopping around from tree to tree and singing his song, it set the gibbons off. The gibbons were one of the star attractions, making an almighty din as they swung from branch to branch. The males were in a seperate enclosure across the path from the females, and they shouted and screamed at each other whilst we stood in the middle – it was like a school disco, with all the girls on one side and the boys on the other. Watching gibbons swing from tree to tree without breaking their necks in the process is an awesome sight to behold. They let go of a branch long enough to be almost in freefall, before grabbing another and pulling it down with their whole weight to bounce up to the next. I reckon being a gibbon must be a great laugh actually. One of the females had lost a leg but she didn’t seem to care as she swung from tree to tree – an animal that’s that agile in the air can afford to lose a leg. For me, the most interesting animals in the centre were a pair of gigantic Greater Adjudant storks – massive birds that were probably not much smaller than an ostrich. One of these monstrous creatures swooped from one side of it’s enclosure to the other, and I swear it’s the biggest living thing I’ve ever seen in the air – like some giant pterodactyl from Jurassic Park. According to our guide it has a wingspan of two and a half metres, and it’s easy to see how it’s endangered – one of these birds would feed a whole village twice over. They were being kept at the park because they kept flying into areas where people would try to hunt them, and every attempt to re-release them so far had resulted in them flying back into the dangerzone. We finished the tour with a sit-down session studying the bodies of snakes and small reptiles. Our guide showed us a dead snake that was coiled up in a bottle of alcohol. She explained that it had been killed by a bird near the centre, and that it was a Malayan Krait – one of the deadliest snakes in the world. After that our tour ended and we left the centre, checking the path very carefully as we walked back to the tuk tuk!
Our second stop was the Cambodia Landmine Museum – another place that exists due to the single-minded determination of an amazing human being. Aki Ra was very young when his parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war. He lived in a forced labour camp until he was ten, when the Khmer Rouge recruited him to be a child soldier. The selection process for these soldiers consisted of sticking a rifle in the ground by the bayonet – any young lad that was taller than the rifle was conscripted into the army. For the next few years he laid landmines for the Khmer Rouge, until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and he was forced at gunpoint to defect to the Vietnamese army, before moving back into the Cambodian army again. When he left the army he started turning up at old minefields and taking up the mines that he had helped to lay, using a pair of pliers and some wire. Aki Ra sees it as his mission to clear up the mess that he helped to create, although no-one could blame him for following orders as a kid. His reputation grew and people started turning up to his house to see the collection of mines and bombs that he had dismantled. He started a museum and a school, and adopted two dozen children into his family – kids who had been victims of landmines or who he had found wandering the street. He’s a national hero – and his government repaid him by shutting his museum down when they decided it was taking revenue away from another war museum that had opened up in town, owned by one of the country’s top generals. Aki Ra’s museum reopened a couple of years later and has since gone from strength to strength.

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On the day that we visited we were lucky enough to be taken on a tour by an American bloke called Bill, who had an interesting story of his own. He had been in the US army, in reserve to fight in Vietnam in the seventies, when he suddenly decided to quit the army and join the anti-war movement. These days he works with Aki Ra as a de-miner and teacher in the school for orphaned kids. His knowledge was impeccable and he had that matter of fact way of describing harrowing situations that you might associate with an ex-soldier. On display were 50,000 odd landmines that had personally been dug up by Aki Ra, and all sorts of military equipment left over from the war. Bill told us that between 6-8 million landmines and unexploded bombs are still in the ground around Cambodia, and that with the current resources in place it’s likely to take 150 years to clear them all. Though the incidents are getting fewer, people still step on landmines every year. They lose limbs but rarely die there and then – the mines are designed to maim an enemy soldier but not to kill, as it costs more to hospitalise somebody than it does to bury them. The most emotional bit of the tour came at the end, when he showed us a gallery of photographs of the children that had been helped by the school – almost all of these kids had grown up to go to live successful, fulfilled lives, despite having a variety of disabilities including missing limbs, polio and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a country so haunted by war and poverty, stories of hope and success are made all the more uplifting.

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Bill talks us through his ferocious papier mache army

The Landmine Museum was not as depressing as we’d expected it to be, but we were still in the mood for something a bit lighter. We bought Som Bath lunch and talked about football with him – he seemed to enjoy talking about the incident when Luis Suarez bit another man’s arm, and the time when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Mazeratti in the World Cup Final – in fact when I say we talked about football, we really just spoke about violent off the ball incidents, which he seemed better acquainted with than the beautiful game itself.

 

Further down the road back into Siem Reap was Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, where we wandered about a beautiful garden full of flowers and koi carp ponds, pointing and gasping at giant butterflies. Some of the butterflies were in the process of having it off, which according to our guide takes about fourteen hours – you’d be knackered! It all seems a bit unfair on us humans really – butterflies only live for a few weeks and it turns out that they get to spend a large chunk of that procreating. Some of the butterflies were easily as big as a sparrow, and it was funny watching the conflict in Hollie, who loved the patterns of the butterflies but has a pretty serious phobia of bugs. She leaned in to get some good shots, but bolted if any of them began fluttering their wings.

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Tomorrow we’re off to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.
Tommy and Hollie x

27th February – Day 31

Ayup.
We were picked up by tuk tuk at 07:30. It’s a strange quirk of South-East Asia that each different area seems to favour it’s own style of tuk tuk. Bangkok has traditional rickshaws, whereas Ayutthaya has tiny vehicles that are like a cross between a songtheaw and a rickshaw. Go north to Chiang Mai and you’ll find rickshaws and songtheaws, but each city seems to have a favoured variation of the tuk tuk which prevails in number over all of the other forms of transport. In Siem Reap they have little carriages that are attached by a pin to a motorbike, and the drivers tow you along at a maximum of about 30mph. The dust blowing up off the road is constant, and though you might not notice it during the drive, you’ll probably end up having a sneezing fit at some point during the day. When we arrived in Thailand we noticed that a lot of the drivers seem to have nasal and phlegm issues, and this dust seems to be the cause of it – many of the Chinese tourists come prepared with dust masks.
One of the most common plans for visiting Angkor Wat is to go while it’s still dark, jostle with about a hundred thousand other tourists for a spot by the lake, and try and snap a picture without another human being in it as the sun rises over the temple. We didn’t really fancy this, so we decided to go there a couple of hours after sunrise, to coincide with all of the big tour groups going back to Siem Reap for breakfast. After travelling along a straight road lined with thick forest for about a mile, we swung a left at a junction and began driving alongside a huge body of water lined with flagstones. This in itself was impressive to me – a huge moat, about the width of the Thames, almost entirely surrounds Angkor Wat. At this point you have no view of the temple which is concealed behind foliage on the island, but it’s possible to see the human labour that must have gone into digging out this enormous pool. After a month of being away and having seen elephants, gekkos and snakes, we finally saw our first monkeys. Intelligent creatures, they know that they’re never far away from a good meal around these parts, so they sit on the flagstones surrounding the lake sunning themselves, scratching their arses and waiting for someone to throw food in their direction.

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It took a full ten minutes from first pulling alongside the moat before we were at the front entrance, such is the size of the place. A stone causeway spans the water and leads you to the outer gate, outside which a monkey sat eating an orange. A tourist attempted to take a selfie with the monkey, who bared his teeth and hissed, pushing the bloke away in much the same way a drunken lager lout might push away a rival for a taxi on a saturday night. The panic on the man’s face as the monkey struck was priceless – I wonder whether he’d saved a bob or two on not having his rabies jab, and in that second saw his life flashing before his eyes. After passing through the outer wall the causeway continues to bear you towards the picture-postcard bit of Angkor Wat. Though the years have ebbed away at the symmetry of the temple, it’s still pleasing to the eye to see that everything is set very deliberately – perhaps the Kings of the Khmers suffered a kind of megalomaniac OCD, which could ony be treated by forcing hundreds of thousands of their subjects to build temples in pretty patterns. We were able to go up into the main tower which afforded amazing views over the temple grounds and the dense jungle beyond. From here it was possible to spot the sea of tourists charging towards us like tiny ants below, and we realised that it was probably time to move on. Amazing that these walls saw the vanquishing of the Siamese, the Burmese and the Ancient Vietnamese, but have now been over-run by a far deadlier foe – Chinese tourists brandishing selfie sticks. Of all of the international tourists, the Chinese are the most formidable when it comes to asserting themselves. They arrive in Blitzkrieg busloads, twisting their SLR cameras over your shoulder or through your legs to get the scoop, and then disappear as quickly as they arrived, not to be seen again until you develop your photos and find the backs of their heads on an otherwise perfect picture.

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Angkor Wat is undoubtedly an amazing experience and doesn’t look like ever being challenged as the largest religious building in the world. It is widely regarded as a “Wonder” of the world but I’d argue that it’s not Angkor Wat on it’s own, but the whole historical park that’s worthy of being called a wonder. For Hollie and me, it was the second temple that we visited that impressed us the most. Ta Prohm might have been like any other of the dozens of temples scattered around if it weren’t for the vegatative onslaught of the jungle, which has claimed the temple as it’s own and turned the whole place into a scene from “Day of the Triffids”. Over the course of a millenium huge trees have stretched out their tentacle-like routes around the masonry, first wrapping themselves around the arches of doors, then constricting them like a python would it’s prey. In some parts it seems that flower power has caused bits of the temple to collapse entirely, and other bits are propped up by wooden beams. Ta Prohm was used as a setting in the movie Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why – why spend billions of pounds on sets and special effects when you can have something that’s stranger than fiction?

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By the time we’d poked around these two temples we were knackered. It was getting towards mid-day and the sun was beginning to become an issue. We went to see the last of the “Big Three” temples; Bayon. Bayon’s special feature is 36 gigantic stone faces designed to bear a likeness to the man who ordered their construction – King Jayavarman VII. Now, there was a bloke with an ego. Each face is as big as a a car, and there is something quite creepy and impressive about being stared out by 36 faces that have gazed unerringly at their beholders for the last thousand years. These temples were constructed by various Khmer Kings in the belief that they would achieve immortality through the scale of their gestures of worship to the Gods. I’m not sure about the God bit but in a way they’ve certainly achieved a kind of immortality, which is more than can be said for the labourers that no doubt perished during the construction process.
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We wandered along a couple more temples then returned frazzled to Baphuon Villa. We took an afternoon nap then got our gladrags on to attend a cello concert by a Paedeatrician – no, you did not read that incorrectly. In the evening we found ourselves sat with a load of other Europeans in the lecture hall of a university hospital, facing a stage on which a chair and a cello were placed. A portly gent with glasses and wild curly hair marched on and introduced himself as Dr Beat Richner from Switzerland. Dr Beat had been a young paedeatrician working with the Red Cross in Cambodia before the civil war broke out in 1975. When the war started he was forced to move back to Switzerland, but he returned after the fighting died down in 1992. Since then he has dedicated his life to providing the kids of Cambodia with medical care, raising millions of pounds and overseeing the construction of five hospitals around Cambodia. Inbetween playing short pieces of Bach on his cello, he would talk for ages about the dreadful plight of the Cambodian people, and in particular the children. He was an eccentric, passionate modern day saint who spoke well about his cause, but went on to labour the point quite a bit. Cambodia seems to be crammed full of benevolent expats and their charities, which is just as well really because the government seem to have little interest in helping their own people. Dr Beat talked about the rampant corruption and the complete lack of a healthcare system, and it made us feel humbled and grateful for being born in a country where education, healthcare and safety are taken for granted. Though the doctor provided little humour and plenty of harrowing information about his work, it was a privelege to be in an audience watching such a charismatic and dedicated man – apparently a bit of a legend in his native Switzerland. At the end of the free concert he asked us to contribute “Our money or our blood” for the children of Kantha Bopha – the name given to each of the five childrens hospitals. The name Kantha Bopha is a tribute to a daughter of the King of Cambodia, who died in infancy.
It’s taken me three days to get round to writing all of this up, and I’m all out of sync now.  Sorry there’s no pictures of Tah Prom – the wi-fi doesn’t want to play ball.  We hope you enjoy it, sorry for the delays in correspondence but the days are just too full of discovery!
Have a great day, whatever you’re up to.
Tommy and Hollie x

25th and 26th February – Days 29 and 30

Song of the last two days: Gunga Din by the Libertines.  Why? Cos it’s a tune and I’ve been wanting to include it for ages!

Ayup.
On Thursday morning we got a taxi from our hostel over to Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal. It was easily the biggest bus station we’ve ever been in and looked more like an airport. Members of staff approached us and asked us where we were going. They were helpful and efficient in pointing out the Siem Reap bus to us – so efficient in fact that we were ushered onto the 8am bus as there was still space, even though we had tickets for the 9am departure. For the first half hour we crept along, bumper to bumper with other traffic as we passed through various checkpoints on the way out of Bangkok. The Thai police seem to enjoy a good checkpoint, though what they’re checking for is not apparent because a good deal of the traffic seems to get waved through at random.

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Down by the riverside at Siem Reap.  We’d have stuck some pictures of Poipet up for you, but it’s not the kind of place you should be getting your camera out.

I feel like our attitude towards Bangkok has softened since our first visit. Maybe a cocktail of culture shock and jetlag were responsible for our initial downer on the place, although I’m sure it’ll never be my favourite destination. In a country that’s changing so rapidly, you get the feeling that Bangkok is something of a fall guy for the rest of Thailand. As long as it continues to swell with more skyscrapers, fumes and western investment, the rest of the country will be spared from it’s worst excesses and remain charming and unique.

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US dollars – the currency of choice in Cambodia due to the weakness of the Riel

We drove for around four hours surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see, until we arrived at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. From here we would get off the bus and walk across the border into the Cambodian town of Poipet. To quote Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Poipet’s reputation precedes it and Hollie and I were pretty nervous about the place before we even got there.

Everybody passing through the Thai-Cambodian border must do so on foot, so we got out of the coach about a hundred yards before the gate. We followed the other passengers as closely as possible, keeping eyes ahead and ignoring the attentions of various grotty-looking geezers asking “You want help with your Visa?” A few of the less well-read amongst the group were picked off like wilderbeest from the rest of the herd, and we watched them disappear into shady-looking offices where presumably somebody tried to flog them a fake Visa. The first part of the process is to provide the Thai immigration staff with a departure card which we received when we arrived in Thailand. Our passports were checked, our Visas stamped and our departure cards were taken off us so that we were temporarily in limbo, officially not residing anywhere. We walked out of the Thai departure office and down a long gangway, and it was here that the beggars had positioned themselves.

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Cambodian riel – the amount that we’ve laid out in the photo is the equivalent to about £1

Women with their heads wrapped in scarves and tiny babies in their arms, who would approach you, pointing to the baby and say “Aaaah.” A little boy with a deformed leg, bent double on itself so that his toes jutted out of his kneecap, stretched out a begging bowl under the reproachful eye of his Mother a few feet away. Children who had barely learned to walk and talk, clad in old football shirts, who waved crumpled postcards at you asking for a dollar each. As heartless as it sounds we had no difficulty in saying no. Nothing about Poipet is as it seems and I wonder whether if we did give anybody a few dollars to ease our conscience, whether it would just have been taken off that person later by a beggarmaster. I have little experience upon which to base my judgement, but from what I’ve read, beggars in poor countries are often part of a much more intricate underworld than would first appear. We’ve read stories about women blowing smoke in babies eyes to make them cry, and children who have no relation to the women who pretend to be their Mothers being “paired up” by members of the criminal underworld to draw the biggest emotional reaction from tourists. As undoubtedly desperate as these people are, it’s unlikely as a backpacker that you can directly help, especially by giving out money in the street. For me, the best thing you can do is observe, let it enhance your understanding of the world around you and make other people aware of what you’ve seen.
After running the gauntlet we arrived in the Cambodia Visa Office, where we filled out an arrivals card and handed it over along with our passport and e-visa, which thanks to Hollie’s foresight we’d taken care of before we even left England. The immigration officer behind the desk was a complete tosspot. The delicate situation in which tourists find themselves in provides him with a licence to be as nasty as he wants without suffering retaliation. He succeeded in making us both feel like international criminals, huffing and cursing his way through a simple process which we had already sped up for him by doing the bulk of the paperwork online before we arrived. Come to think of it this may have been his beef – some of the border police have been known to make a bit on the side by charging people “extra” Visa fees – by completing the form online maybe we prevented him from being able to extort money out of us. I stood waiting for Hollie to have her Visa stamped whilst a young woman invaded my personal space and wafted her newborn under my nose – never have we been so glad to get back onboard a bus.
Cambodia is immediately different to Thailand. The reminders of French colonialism were spotted straight away as the bus pulled off from the kerb and occupied the right hand side of the road, whereas Thais drive on the left. Having said this, motorists in both countries – but especially Cambodia – have a penchant for driving up the wrong side of the road. It is a completely normal occurance for a scooter driver to trundle along the gutter in the face of oncoming traffic, with nothing but a smile and an indicator flashing by way of apology. In Thailand there were obvious signs of people being hard up, but it was a mobile kind of poverty in which you felt that a person was never far away from attaining a bit of work that could tide them over for a while. In Cambodia this is not the case – a perpetual cycle of hunger and want seems to exist everywhere. Barely any of the western-style signs and advertisement boards that are abundant in Thailand line the road here. Occasionally an extravagant sign will advertise the “People’s Party” alongside a smiling image of their Prime Minister, Hun Sen – as if the people need reminding of the fact that the same bloke has been in charge for the last thirty years.

The land between Poipet and Siem Reap is an infinite patchwork of dusty fields in which scrawny cattle are lead by slightly-built farmers in straw hats, past pools of filthy brown water where children play. Mopeds labour to pull massively overloaded farm trailers along the road and are frequently overtaken by cyclists or stray dogs. The Angkor Wat ruins that we seek are about a thousand years old, and the first impression gained from the coach window suggests that not much has progressed since then.
After another four hours we arrived in Siem Reap and were ferried over to our guesthouse, Baphuon Villa. It’s a beautiful place and at first I thought it must have been some old French ambassador’s house from the colonial days, before the owner told me it wasn’t that old and that he’d decorated the whole place two years ago, which shows you what I know about architecture. We went to the cashpoint and drew out US dollars – because of the weakness of the Cambodian Riel as a currency, dollars are universally used instead. Even more confusingly, shopkeepers will hand out small change in the form of a wad of Cambodian notes, so that you’re dealing with two currencies at the same time.
Both Hollie and me have been in poor health over the last couple of days since the long sleeper train journey down from Chiang Mai. Not for the first time, Friday was a day of doing very little but rejuvenating. The heat in the south of Thailand and here is unmanageable after a couple of hour’s exposure. The most productive way of dealing with this is to get up just after dawn and try to power through until about 3pm, after which you end up collapsing exhausted on the bed in your hotel, with the fan whirring above your head and palm leaves tapping against the window.
When we did venture out on Friday evening it was to the very Khao San-inspired “pub street” where a hundred or more different food joints compete for the custom of tourists from all over the world. A lot of these places are shady and grotty looking, and after our recent bouts of illness we didn’t much fancy coming down with food poisoning. In the end we went with a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen – Khmer being the ancient civilization who built the Angkor temples and ruled much of South-East Asia in the middle ages, along with the name of the national language. We both ate a stunning baked dish, almost in the style of a lasagne crossed with dauphinoise potato. Apparantley it’s a traditional Khmer style recipe and we need to get doing our research into it so that we can try and recreate it back home.
Competition time: It turns out that a very famous rockstar ate at the Khmer kitchen whilst on a visit to the Angkor temples. Can you guess from Hollie’s impression who that rockstar is??? The first to comment with the correct answer gets to pick the next “song of the day” for whatever reason they choose.  Were you hoping for a better prize!? It’s all we got out here!

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Tomorrow we visit Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples.

Tommy and Hollie x