Song of the days: The Butterfly Collector by The Jam
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow we’re off to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.
Tommy and Hollie x