Visiting the Killing Fields

Skulls in the victims memorial pagoda
Skulls in the victims memorial pagoda
One of the things which has made up a major part of my life has been academic debate. I was on the debate team in high school, in college and coached high school for three years after I graduated. During that time I read volumes about almost every subject you can imagine.

In debate, you are forced to take both sides of an issue. You can become very detached about the subjects you research, and in all the years I was involved in debate there was really only one subject that really influenced me on a personal level. That was the genocide in Cambodia. My knowledge of what happened in Cambodia from 1975-79 wasn’t something I learned about when I got to SE Asia. (I will not outline in detail what happened there. There are plenty of resources online where you can learn more about it. Suffice it to say that between 1 to 2 million people, out of a population of 8 million, were killed in a span of four years through famine and outright murder.)

Memorial Pagoda Entrance
Memorial Pagoda Entrance
It is a sad commentary on a capital city of a country, when the biggest tourist draw revolves around mass killings. Sadly, that is the main attraction in Phnom Penh. The guesthouse I stayed at played the movie The Killing Fields every other night, and a documentary on the Toule Seng prison on the nights in between.

I wasn’t sure how I’d react to visiting the Killing Fields. I’ve never been to places such as Auchwitz before, so it was a totally unique experience for me. What happened in Cambodia has never quite stuck in the public’s conscious like Holocaust. In fact, one of the odd things I found myself doing (and I know I’m not alone in this) was trying to make comparisons between what happened in Cambodia and what happened in Germany. It doesn’t take long to realize how foolish it is trying to compare or rank degrees of evil, especially when the monstrosities you are talking about are so great.

You don't know weather to laugh or cry when you see a sign like this. Click for larger image.
You don't know weather to laugh or cry when you see a sign like this. Click for larger image.
When you visit the Killing Fields, you are struck by how underwhelming it is. Prior to gaining its notoriety, it was an orchard. There is only one permanent structure there; a large pagoda filled with the skulls and bones of the victims found in the mass graves. The closer you get, you begin to realize the enormity of what is inside. Piles of human skulls, many of which have holes in the top of the head.

The area around the pagoda is so cratered, it looks as if it were bombed. The craters are the remains of the open mass graves were victims were left. Up to a hundred people would be dumped into a single hole. They system for killing people was very organized, like what you saw under the Nazis. Records and photos were kept. Unlike the Nazis, they didn’t build elaborate camps. Bullets were deemed too expensive, so most people were killed by hand via strangulation, blunt weapons or blades.

Bed and cell in Toul Sleng Prison
Bed and cell in Toul Sleng Prison
I didn’t go through phases of grief, sadness and astonishment. I quickly went directly to being pissed off. The more I learned about the events before and after the Khmer Rouge rise to power, the more pissed off I became. The details surrounding that is another post.

After the Killing Fields, my tuk tuk driver took me to the Tuol Seng prison. Like the Killing Fields which turned a simple orchard into den of madness, the Tuol Sleng prison used to be a Phonm Penh high school. This was where prisoners were taken for interrogation before they were taken to the Killing Fields. Of the over 17,000 people who were taken to Tuol Sleng, only seven are known to have survived. (The official name the Khmer Rouge used for the prison was Security Prison 21 or S-21 for short).

Makeshift cells in Tuol Sleng classroom
Makeshift cells in Tuol Sleng classroom
Toul Seng was a torture center. It is hard to call it anything else. Prisoners were chained to the floor and many of the school rooms were bricked up to create more, smaller cells. Some of the rooms had prisoners chained to the floor as if it were the deck of a slave ship. There were hundreds of photos on display of the victims who came through the prison. It was chilling to look at them knowing that they were no different than the people you meet on the street, and that every one of them was tortured and murdered in cold blood.

Electrocution was a preferred method of torture in Toul Sleng, but they hardly stopped there. A bar in the courtyard of the school originally built for exercises was turned into a gallows and some inmates were hung. A painting in the prison also depicts water boarding.

I can’t help but think what Cambodia would be like today if it wasn’t for the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia is far behind its neighbors economically and has a high amount of corruption. Most of the educated class was killed, actually targeted because they were intellectuals, by the Khmer Rouge. It made it very difficult to rebuild when the people who ran things were systematically eliminated.

In the movie The Killing Fields, Sam Waterson’s character said that “Cambodia was a country he had learned to love and pity.” I think that sums it up quite well.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 3

Read part 1 and part 2 first.

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Made it! Note how totally dirty I am. It was even worse driving back. I still have a layer of Cambodia on my camera bag.

The Temple

We paid the dirt bike drivers $18 to take us round trip up the mountain. I don’t think they get much business lately. On the way up we saw periodic small groups of soldiers sleeping or bathing. They didn’t appear to be at Defcon 5. We also saw various propaganda posters by the Cambodian government along the road. As they were written in English as well as Cambodian, I don’t think they were made for domestic consumption. Several of the soldiers cheered and waved to me. I think they must have thought be to be a reporter.

The temple itself was almost a letdown given the efforts required to get there. The first thing you notice is stuck right in the middle of the ruins closest to Thailand is a highly unnatural looking flagpole with a Cambodian flag. It looked like it was giving the finger to Thailand.

The temple is very long with three major sections. The temple is designed such that you walk up a long flight of stairs (which terminate near the Thai border), go down a paved path through several buildings, leading to a final temple building overlooking the plains of Cambodia. During its prime, it must have been quite dramatic.

Lest there be any confusion
Lest there be any confusion...
In addition to soldiers, there were also women and children near the temple area. Why they were there is beyond me. They were not visiting. Some appeared to work there. One girl tried to sell me a CD, which I thought was very odd given the circumstances. I think they non-soldiers are there either to support the soldiers (food, cleaning, etc) or to solidify the claims to the temple by having civilians.

My total time at the temple was about an hour, which was really more than enough to explore all of it. I would like to have taken some more photos of the soldiers and talked to more of them, but we were on a schedule. If we were to make it back to Siem Reap at a reasonable hour. We pulled away from Preah Vihear at about 1:30pm.

The Road Back

View from Preah Vihear Temple
View from Preah Vihear Temple
So far, the experience hadn’t been a physical challenge. My legs and butt were sore from being on the bike for so long and I had burned my right calf on the tail pipe getting off the bike, and I had one of my left toes hit with a rock from a passing car. As we took the same road back, the pains of sitting in place for so long started to become worse. Image getting stuck on the middle seat of an airplane for a flight across the ocean, the seat is above the engine, has no padding, the flight is nothing but turbulence, your legs are locked into a position you can’t move from, and you have to straddle some other dude.

My knees were beginning to hurt from not moving for hours at a stretch and my ass hurt from the bumpiness of the road and not moving. Dirt and dust has crept into everything. Weeks after, my camera bag is still dirty from the trip. The only good thing was that we had avoided rain. There were storm clouds ahead of us that we just missed. We got back to Anlong Veng before sunset and I was hoping to be in Siem Reap by 7-7:30pm.

Then it started to rain…

We drove through the rain for about 30 minutes. We had no rain gear and it was dark. I had put my camera bag in my backpack, so all my gear was safe, but we slowed to about 20km/hr. We were on graded road at this point, but there were still potholes. Just went it looked like the raid would never end, it did and we managed to avoid it for the rest of the trip home.

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Part of the reason for the dispute is Cambodia's claim to the legacy of the Khmer Empire.
My shirt and everything else dried quickly from driving in the open air. My shorts however, didn’t dry as I was sitting on them. I assume you have seen what happens to skin when it is exposed to water for long periods of time. If you’ve been in the bathtub or swimming for too long, your skin starts to get really wrinkly. This was happening to all the skin on my butt because it was in contact with water for several hours.

About two hours out from Siem Reap, things were really starting to get painful. The backseat of the motorbike was starting take its toll. It was really narrow and wasn’t as padded as the part where the driver sits. The constant pounding and the wet clothes began to make sitting extremely painful. I had to adjust my position every 30 seconds or so else it become unbearable. This is very difficult to do on the back of a bike. My knees also began to ache from being locked into position for so many hours.

I eventually told Bhin that we needed to pull over to take a break and let me walk around to stretch. He didn’t want to because there might be gangsters out at night. At one point we did pull over after we went over a particularly bad pothole and a car pulled up as we were on the side of the road. I had no idea what was going on, but I felt if Bhin had been alone, they wouldn’t have stopped. I had no idea what they were saying as they were speaking Cambodian, but at one point Bhin lifted up the seat where I knew the gun was stored. I began to mentally prepare myself for whatever may happen, but thankfully nothing did. I still don’t know why he lifted the seat.

By the time we rolled into Siem Reap it was 9:30pm. It was in so much pain, had we not been back I would have suggested stopping somewhere for the night. I was cursing Bhin under my breath for the last two hours. He really didn’t do anything wrong, but I needed to vent at someone, and he was the only available target. He actually did a helluva job all things considering. I paid him his fee, a decent tip, and painfully stumbled to get something to eat.

15 seconds after I leave Bhin, the first words anyone says to me are “Sir, you want motorbike?”

No thanks.

A paved road never looked so good
A paved road never looked so good

Aftermath

My butt is still not 100% healed from that trip. Because of the wet clothes and the bouncing, I developed some sort of rash which hasn’t totally cleared up. The scabs from the burn I got from the tail pipe are mostly gone, but a bit still remains. My hat is still dirty as are my backpack and camera bag.

Would I do it again? No. This is the first time I can honestly say I wouldn’t do something again which I experienced on my trip. If Preah Vihear is really something you want to see, don’t do it how I did. Take a car, take your own motorbike, stay over night, or best of all, wait for the current issues with Thailand to settle down and visit from the Thai side of the border. There was a very nice paved road over the border with lines down the middle which taunted me while I was there.

The irony of the conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is that the infrastructure for visiting Preah Vihear is all on the Thai side of the border. I saw signs touting Preah Vihear in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but there is no real infrastructure to actually visit it from Cambodia.

While I wouldn’t do it again, I did do it, and visiting a “war zone” is definitely something I’m going to brag about over drinks for the rest of my life. I’m sure the story will morph to have me dodging bullets in a few years and and sores on my ass will be from shrapnel, not a motorbike seat.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 2

Please read part 1 first.

The view from the back of a tuk-tuk. The driver is Bhin
The view from the back of a tuk-tuk. The driver is Bhin
Getting to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap isn’t easy. In the future, I fully expect there to be day trips by bus. Currently, however, it requires a great deal of will and much more cash than you’ll spend going to temples around Siem Reap. If I had to guess, there are probably only a handful of non-Cambodian visitors to Preah Vihear each week. Since the conflict with Thailand started, there are probably a lot less. The day I was there I was told they had 10 visitors that day. I was the only non-Cambodian I could see. The border with Thailand was closed.

My tuk-tuk driver for my tour of the Angkor temples was Bhin. He was 21 years old, could speak reasonably fluent English and had a wife four months pregnant. I told Bhin that I wanted to go to Preah Vihear and he quickly offered to drive me. He told me that you can’t take a tuk-tuk to Preah Vihear. We’d have to take a bike and I’d have to sit on the back. “No problem”, I said. I clearly didn’t think through the implications of sitting on the back of a bike.

My estimates looking at the map, I figured Preah Vihear was about 200km from Siem Reap. Given the speed at which the motorbikes went, I figured about 4-5 hours each way. We’d leave early in the morning, get there about 9-10am and have plenty of time to get back before sunset.

Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple
Village at the base of Preah Vihear Temple
Bhin claimed to have been there before (a claim which I now doubt in hindsight) and said it would cost $200 for the trip. $200 seemed really expensive for a day on a bike, especially when a day in a tuk-tuk was $15. We negotiated back and forth for two days and I eventually settled on $120 and I’d pay for gas. Looking back, he earned it.

Early on October 6th, we met at my guesthouse at 5 am for the trip. I didn’t take my tripod (thank God). I just had my camera bag and a backpack an umbrella and some food. Bhin then tells me he didn’t get any sleep the night before because he was up convincing his father, who is a senior police officer in Siem Reap, to let him go. His father eventually agreed but gave him a gun which Bhin put under the seat of the bike. He described it in very Nancy Reagan-esque terms, “it’s just a little one”.

Hitting The Road

So, camera and gun in tow, we head out. First stop is to get gas. Bhin’s mother runs a small roadside gas stand where gas is sold out of old bottles of Johnny Walker (you can see them all over in Cambodia). We filled up, I give his mom $5, he kneels before his mother for a blessing, and we hit the road.

Bhin likes to talk. Before the sun even rose, we had been on the road an hour and he had been talking up a storm. We had two helmets but didn’t bother wearing them yet. That would get in the way of talking. There is little traffic on the roads at night and nothing moves very fast. The real reason for the helmets, as Bhin pointed out, is to block the dust and stones which fly at your head when a truck passes you.

Soldiers on a motorbike
Soldiers on a motorbike
The beginning of the trip was fine. The roads out of Siem Reap are paved and when we finally hit an unpaved road, it was still in good shape having been recently graded. I saw a lot of pseudo road construction. Most of it did not involve the use of big machines. Road crews would create small bridges by hand pouring cement into molds, then move the large pieces of cement into place. It looked as if they were given rebar and bags of cement by the government and told “There you go. Make a bridge.”

We had no real map for getting to Preah Vihear. Bhin’s father drew one for him, and that was it. There are also no road signs to be found anywhere in the countryside. That being said, it is difficult to get lost as there really aren’t many roads. The total number of intersections I saw was one road met another was probably less than 10. I had no idea, and neither did Bhin, just how close we were to Preah Vihear.

The only “city” we drove through was Anlong Veng, approximately halfway between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear. Anlong Veng was the last city controlled by the Khmer Rouge and is where Pol Pot was cremated. Had I known where his ashes were buried, I’d have gladly pissed on them.

The Rocky Road

Once out of Anlong Veng, the road got worse and our progress slowed considerably. The bike we were on wasn’t a dirt bike designed for off-road use. Several times we had to stop and I would get off and walk because the mud was so deep. The only real thing we had to deal with before Anlong Veng was a stretch of thick fog. The fog made us wet, but the road was still dry and dusty, so the dust would kick up and stick to our wet bodies. Fun.

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The Cambodian People's Party is the ruling party in Cambodia. I saw these signs everywhere on the ride. This is the sign in the village at Preah Vihear.
With only a few brief rest stops, we pull into the village below Preah Vihear at about 11:30am, six and a half hours after we left Siem Reap. As we neared the village, we had an escort of several guys on motorcycles who rode with us. These guys have off-road bikes and take people up and down the mountain, as the road it too steep, rough and wet for normal cars or motorbikes. The village is mostly catering to soldiers, which we saw on the road once we entered Preah Vihear province an hour earlier. We’d see small outposts of soldiers in tents or hammocks sleeping or hanging out on the side of the road.

The Cambodian military contingent in Preah Vihear didn’t really seem very menacing. There weren’t many of them, they seemed very unorganized, and had nothing beyond AK-47s, RPGs and pickup trucks It is amazing how many of the conflicts in the world today are fought with nothing more than those things. The Cambodians seemed to be there just to establish a presence in the area and to serve as a check to any small movements by Thailand (which is all that the conflict has been to this point).

With a half a day of hard driving, I’d seen more of Cambodia than I’d seen in the previous week, and we still hadn’t actually been to the temple.

Read part 3.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 1

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
My day traveling to Preah Vihear is one of the most interesting and grueling of my trip, and so my description of the events is going to be a lot longer than most posts. I’ll be splitting this up into two parts. Today will be a general overview of the temple, its history, location and a summary of the events in the area as of today (yes, things are unfolding there as I write this). Tomorrow I’ll describe what I experienced and what my day was like. It is important to get a background to understand what is happening and exactly what I was getting myself into.

History of Preah Vihear

If you are like me, you probably never heard of Preah Vihear until recently, either from the news or from my blog. It isn’t one of the big sexy ancient sites like Angkor. It is difficult to get to and few tourists, especially from the Cambodia side, make the trip. Preah Vihear came to my attention when it was listed at a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. When I was in Siem Reap, I knew I had to try and make the trip there.

Preah Vihear temple was contemporary to many of the temples of Angkor. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries during the reigns of Suryavarman I & II in the Khmer Empire, it was dedicated to the god Shiva. (Buddhism is a recent importation to SE Asia, having been adopted around the 15th century. Prior to that Hinduism was the dominant religion.)

Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple
Soldiers at Preah Vihear Temple
Preah Vihear is on a hill overlooking the plains of Cambodia to one side, and Thailand on the other. It is a location with a stunning view. From the temple you can see Cambodia unfold below you. You can easily see why it was chosen as a location for a temple. It was an important temple in the Khmer Empire, but never quite on a par with the temple of Angkor. Architectural styles are similar to what you will find in Angkor. The temple is aligned north-south rather than the normal east-west due to the alignment of the mountain.

Modern Conflict over Preah Vihear

The modern conflict over Preah Vihear began in 1962 when the International Court of Justice awarded possession to Cambodia. Unfortunately, it never resolved the status of several square kilometers of land in the area around the temple. Thailand considers the issue of the area around Preah Vihear unresolved and claims it. From what I’ve seen, there is nothing special about the land in question. It is forested with no particular resources. The conflict seems to be one of national pride and territorial grabs. (I should note that the US and Canada still have five outstanding territorial issues. I’d put the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia to be like the US and Canada fighting over the Machias Seal Island)

Thai flag across the border
Thai flag across the border
The Thai didn’t take the ruling too well. Rather than lower the Thai flag which flew over Preah Vihear, they dug up the entire flagpole and moved it to the Thai side of the border, where it currently still sits.

Since 1962, Preah Vihear was the scene for several important events in Cambodian history:

  • When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the last holdouts from the Lon Nol government took refuge at Preah Vihear. On May 22, the Khmer Rouge stormed the temple, making it the last piece of Cambodia to come under their control.
  • After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, the Khmer Rouge were pushed back to the border and took shelter at Preah Vihear.
  • The invasion by Vietnam caused a flood of refugees into Thailand. When they were forcibly pushed back into Cambodia, most were sent over the border near Preah Vihear.
  • In 1998, the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge surrendered and negotiated at Preah Vihear.

Land mine waring sign
Land mine waring sign

As a result of all this, the area around Preah Vihear is one of the most heavily land mined areas in a heavily mined country.

2008 Conflict with Thailand

The dispute with Thailand was put on the back burner for years and never resolved. In July, 2008 things came to a head with Preah Vihear’s listing as a World Heritage Site. Cambodians celebrated, Thais got upset, and troops were sent. The full time line of events can be seen here. It is too long to go over in detail here. Here are some of the relevant events surrounding my visit:

  • October 3rd A small three minute fight between troops. Two Thai and one Cambodian were injured.
  • October 6th Two Thai soldiers are injured by land mines after they wander over 1km into Cambodia.
  • October 14 A large firefight breaks out. Seven Thai are wounded with three Cambodians wounded and two killed. Cambodia claims to have captured 13 men, which Thailand denies

I went to Preah Vihear on October 6…..

Read part 2

Traveling to Tonlé Sap, Cambodia

Map of Cambodia
The majority of the population of Cambodia lives in the area around Tonlé Sap and its drainage areas
If you had to condense the essence of Cambodia down to one thing, it wouldn’t be the temples of Angkor. They are famous and draw the tourists, but they are nothing more than crumbling stones. The reason why those temples were built where they were, and the reason why much of the population lives where they do, is Tonlé Sap.
Technically a river (hereby referred to as a lake), Tonlé Sap is the body of water which is the heart of the country. It is a remarkable lake for many reasons.

  • It is easily the largest body of freshwater in South East Asia.
  • The size of the lake varies dramatically over the course of the year. During the monsoon it is over 16,000 sq/km and during the dry season is shrinks to 2,700 sq/km. The depth of the water can vary by over 10m as well.
  • The direction of flow changes throughout the course of the year as well. During the dry season it drains into the Mekong. During the wet season, it floods the surrounding plains.
  • When the water is high, the flooding into the forests and plains makes for an excellent breeding environment for fish. I was at Tonle Sap during the high water season, and fishing was restricted during this period. Once the dry season starts and breeding has stopped, fishing can start again.

Kids playing in the front yard
Kids playing in the front yard
All the nature trivia aside, the most interesting thing about Tonlé Sap are the people who live there. Thousands of people live in floating villages, living most of their lives on the water. Many of the hospitals, schools, temples and newspapers are floating and move with the water. Where you live in October might be many kilometers away from where you might live in March.

The people who live on Tonlé Sap are poor. Among the poorest in Cambodia. They livelihood is almost entirely dependent on fishing, which was not in season while I was there. Oddly enough, I watched a National Geographic show on Tonlé Sap last night which confirmed something one of my guides told me when I was there: when they can’t fish, they hunt and eat snakes. The ethnic make up of Tonlé Sap is also different than most of Cambodia. There are many ethnic Thai, Vietnamese and Cham (Cambodian Muslims) people who live there.

The family that fishes together, stays together
The family that fishes together, stays together
I was able to visit Tonlé Sap on two separate occasions during my time in Cambodia: once as part of a normal tuk tuk tour of the Siem Reap area, and the second time was a boat trip down the length of Tonlé Sap from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It is a remarkable life the people lead. Other than taking their fish to market, they can’t ever really be on dry land that often. I saw school kids coming home from school by boat, kids playing in boats, and entire families in some parts of the lake fishing together (I don’t think schools are available everywhere on the lake).

During my tour I visited a Vietnamese floating school. I was so moved by everything I saw during my day up until that point, I went to the local floating village store and purchased notebooks and pencils for the whole school. (At first I wasn’t thinking and just got notebooks. My guide then pointed out “they need to write with something”.)

Siamese Crocodiles are farmed in Tonle Sap
Siamese Crocodiles are farmed in Tonle Sap
Some of the villages I saw down river seems a bit more elaborate than the floating villages to the north. They were on stilts for starters, not floating, and you could see a forest of TV antennas sprouting from the rooftops of the houses.

Other than fishing, the big source of income for people on the lake is raising Siamese Crocodiles. Many houses will have a pen where the crocodiles are raised for their hide, which is the softest crocodile hide on Earth. The Siamese Crocodile has mostly disappeared from the wild in Tonle Sap, but are abundant in captivity. The feeding of snakes to the crocodiles are threatening native snakes who live in the lake. The snakes are fed due to the restrictions on fishing during the wet season.

I knew next to nothing about Tonle Sap before I visited Cambodia and it ended up being one of the high point of my time there. It is a place and a way of life which can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

Next Stop Is Vietnam

This is my last night in Cambodia. Tomorrow I’m off to Saigon at 9am. I’m not looking forward to the bus ride, but is only $12 so I think I’ll survive. Sadly, the ear buds stopped working today so no music.

Phnom Penh isn’t my favorite city . I dare say it is on the lower half of my list of favorite cities. It isn’t so much that there is anything wrong with it as there isn’t much very exciting about it. When your top tourist attraction revolves around genocide, I don’t think you are going to making many “greatest city” lists. I’d like to visit again in 10 years and see how it has fared.

I went to the shooting range in Phnom Penh yesterday (one of the listed attractions here) and fired an M16. I got to unload a full clip, half of which was on automatic. Honestly, the gun was really a rusted out piece of crap which was probably a left over from the war. Nonetheless, I did quite well considering I didn’t get to sight in the gun and I had never fired an automatic weapon before. 28/30 rounds hit the target.

Other than that, I haven’t done too much. I visited the Killing Fields and Tuel Seng museum as well as Wat Phnom and a bit of the Royal Palace. I’ve been told that Saigon is more dynamic than Phnom Pehn, and I hope so. I still have a ton of photos from Angkor to go through, so I am hoping the internet in Vietnam is somewhat better than here so I can get some uploaded.

Pnow in Phnom Penh

I’ve made it to Phnom Penh. I took a boat from Siem Reap down Tonle Sap, which was interesting. It was a very leisurely trip with most of the passengers on the top deck the entire time. Almost the entire length of the trip had elevated homes (shacks) on the water. Almost everyone who lives there fishes for a living. From what I saw, everyone fishes, including men, women and children.

Phnom Penh itself is unlike any city I’ve been to on my trip. I’ve been to poor countries before, but none had major cities in them (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and East Timor). The power here goes out several times a day. One major intersection I was at today had no working traffic lights. There are few if any stores as you would find in most cities (even Siem Reap had convenience stores). Even the “nice” parts of town aren’t that nice compared to cities like Manila or Jakarta.

There is a definite French influence here. I have read that in the early 20th Century, Phnom Penh was the nicest city in all of SE Asia. I can believe it. The street naming scheme is almost, but not quite logical. The names of some of the streets are odd. One is named after Charles de Gaulle (makes sense, former French colony), one after Mao, one after Yugoslavia’s Tito. It is like they were trying to suck up to countries in the 60s and 70s and just never renamed the streets.

The city is pretty cheap. I can stay in a room with a bathroom (and hot water) for $10/night. A meal is $2.50 and I’m sure I could go cheaper if I really wanted.

Tomorrow I’ll be getting my visa for Vietnam and visiting the Killing Fields and the genocide museum. The guesthouse I’m staying at shows the movie The Killing Fields every night, which gets to be a bit much.

I don’t plan on staying here for too long. I’ll probably head to Saigon as soon as my visa is approved.

On To Preah Vihear!

I’ve pretty much seen all most of the temples in the Angkor complex at this point, including many of the smaller sites away from the main park which few people visit. I even went to one site located in a monestary where there were zero tourists, zero people selling stuff, and zero government officials. It was pretty neat.

I also visited Tonle Sap, which is a big lake in centeral Cambodia. The lake is unqiue because every year it shrinks and grows dramatically with the season. The level of the lake can go up and down over 12m. There are people who live on the lake in floating houses. They have floating everything including stores, schools, newspapers, hospitals and temples. Many of the people who live there are Vietnamese, not Cambodian.

Tomorrow I’ll be off on my biggest adventure in Cambodia. I’ll be taking a 200km motorbike journey to Preah Vihear, an ancient temple on the border of Thailand, older than Angkor Wat and the location of many historic events, including the final surrender of the Khmer Rouge. The ruins are on top of a 1,500 foot cliff overlooking the rainforest below. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site just this year.

Preah Vihear was the location of a small border conflict in July between Thailand and Cambodia. There are also still land mines in the area. Thankfully, the area around the temple, the roads and paths have all been painstakingly cleared. The secret is to just not wander off into the forest, which I wouldn’t do even if there were no land mines.

Also, talking about recent military actions and land mines makes a long trip on a dirt bike seem like a much bigger deal than it really is.

…And the Grinch’s heart grew 3 sizes that day

I’m not really an emotional person. Those who know me might even agree in more stark terms than that. I’m not into causes of any sort. I’ve seen poverty on my trip (Solomon Islands) and some places which it seems that God has forgotten about (East Timor). Nothing however, has quite had the impact that the last few days in Cambodia have had.

  • Today at a temple, I saw a little girl, maybe about 10 years old who couldn’t speak. She had a cleft pallet. As she went about playing with a younger girl (they were both orphans) she could only grunt and make noises. Wasn’t even speaking Cambodian.
  • I’ve seen dozens of people with limbs blown off from landmines. Even if the landmine victims are more in sight begging or performing for money (they often play local instruments), there are still way more amputees here than I’ve ever seen anywhere on Earth, many of which are double amputees.
  • I went to a floating city today and saw a woman in a small wooden boat paddling with what looked like a 2×4. She had 3 kids in the boat which was loaded with stuff. She was going to all the boats trying to sell drinks and snacks for $1. As she came up to my boat, I realized that in addition to the kids and the boat full of stuff and the 2×4, she had an infant child in her lap.
  • There are lots and lots of orphans here.

All of this should be placed in the context of the fact that I haven’t even been to the killing fields museum yet.

I’ll confess to being a sucker for these type of hardcases. I’m not one to buy crap which is being sold at temples, but I have no problems giving a buck or two to a guy with no arms…or buying some bananas from the lady with her kids in a boat. I even purchased notebooks and pencils for an entire floating school today. (in the end, I just felt sort of bad for disrupting their class).

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture of Cambodia. This place is probably leaps and bounds better than it was after the Khmer Rouge were done here. Traveling outside of Siem Reap today, in a very non-touristy area, I saw a fair number of new homes and construction. There were still a lot of people in shacks made of sticks, but there does appear to be progress, albeit slow. Cell phones and motorbikes are also pretty wide spread. No one seems to be starving.

I have photos that go with most of what I’ve written here, but it is going to take a while for me to get photos uploaded and I’d rather write this now than wait for photos. I’ll probably just share them later on when they are ready to go.