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From Temples to Torture

Currently in Cambodia, and here's what I've seen so far. . . . 

*Warning* - toward the end of this email I talk about my visit to the killing field, which may be distressing to some readers. Feel free to cease reading on my arrival in Phnom Penh.

I returned to Bangkok on 30th May, catching the early train from Kanchanaburi. After asking at a few places, I found one - Bella Bella Guesthouse - that had a vacant single. It was on the fifth floor, and I think that it was stomping up all those stairs, when I was already hot, bothered and hungry, that brought on my migraine. I managed to struggle out at five to collect my passport - complete with relevant visas, and very few blank pages - and re-climbed the five flights of stairs. Not long after I had a bit of an Exorcist moment - even while I was violently spewing, I was stunned and impressed at the volume of vomit that gushed out of me. It seemed to sort me out, as I felt much better afterwards.

The next morning I packed my bags and headed off to the Northern Bus Terminal to catch a bus to Aranyaprathet (A-lan-ya-pra-tet), the town on the Thai side of the border with Cambodia. The taxi driver told me to take care, as an English friend of his had been robbed at the border to the tune of US$2,000. The poor bugger had had to turn around, return to Bangkok, and fly home soon after. The bus was an air-con one - and I should think so too, at the steep price of £2.50. As a bonus, I did get a free cup of water and a cake. My teeth have been bothering me on and off for a while now - I think it may be an abscess (and yes, I did get a check up before I came away). They were pretty sore during the bus ride, with sporadic agonising bursts. I found that swilling water around my mouth eased the pain, but this meant that I consumed more water then I would ideally have for a travelling day. Thank goodness the bus had a toilet . . . which I visited five or maybe six times in the 4/5 hours I was on it.

As we pulled into our destination, the rain came down big time, so everyone waited under shelter until the worse of it had passed. Then I jumped in a tuk tuk for the short journey to the border, which was wet, muddy, and generally quite chaotic. I traipsed from the Thai departure booth, through no man's land to the entry point for Cambodia, and was duly stamped into the country. A constant stream of dark skinned people walked from one country to the other without entering the booths - presumably they were people who work in or around the busy border. Small wooden carts bumped by transporting goods on the rough, mud roads. I'd have loved to have taken some pictures of the border area, but didn't dare - I'd have needed a trusted back-watcher, and a lot less luggage for that. I particularly liked the carved archway that welcomed you to Cambodia - it looked like it should have been on a temple.

After a fair time of faffing around, I managed to arrange a share taxi to the town of Siem Reap, which was my destination that day. I would be sharing the taxi with a large Khmer lady, who had already snagged the front seat, and two French girls. During the negotiating stage, I noticed that the girls appeared to be communicating with the men in Khmer. Once we had settled in our seats, I asked them if that was the case. "Yes," one of them said. "We are working in Siem Reap." I'd heard that Khmer is a very difficult language to learn, so I was impressed by this, and told them so. The other girl gave a Gaelic shrug and said, "for me it is easier the English," in a rather nonchalant (or was it smug . . . ) way. I would have liked to have asked them what it was that they were doing in the town, and tap them up for a few useful words, but their manner made it clear that they had done me enough of a favour by deigning to share a cab with me, they certainly weren't going to talk to me as well. I later realised, by their difficulty in making themselves understood by the driver, that their grasp of the local tongue was not as firm as I had first thought.

The journey is a distance of 150km on roads that were reminiscent of Ethiopia's - although, in truth, they were probably not as bad; at least the transportation was more comfortable, although I think riding a camel bareback would have been more comfortable than the truck we had in Ethiopia. The vehicle I was in - indeed all the taxis plying this route - was a Toyota Camry. Strangely, they were all right-hand-drive vehicles. I say strangely, as they drive on the right in Cambodia. This makes the passenger responsible for letting the driver know whether the way is clear for him to overtake one of the countless trucks that had pulled in to change a blown tyre.

The scenery we past was mainly flat, and covered in the most part with paddy fields. Brahman cattle grazed in places, and I also saw countless contraptions that confused me: on the ground, plastic was used to box off a small square a few feet wide which was filled with water. Above this a wooden stake held up a horizontal sheet of plastic. The whole thing resembled a reverse boat, with the water inside instead of out. I later found out that these are traps set up to catch crickets, a delicacy in these parts, and as far afield as Japan. Ultraviolet light is shined on the sail section at night, the crickets jump into the sail, drop down into the water and drown, and are available to be collected and cooked the next day. I am reliably informed that the best way to cook them is by rolling them in herbs and flour first, then frying them. This makes them less crunchy than just frying them straight.

I could tell, several hours later, that we were approaching a city by the inordinate amount of push bikes that were heading towards us. We hit the tarmac around five, and from then on the roads were okay, and all on the flat. Going in the opposite direction were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bikes four or five abreast at times. They were all of the sit-up-and-beg design, and most had mesh baskets attached to the handlebars, and were ridden by cheerful-looking Cambodians with scarves wrapped around their heads.

After the best part of an hour we reached the outskirts of the town, and dropped the French girls off. The driver continued further in towards the centre, but refused to drop me at my desired destination; instead he stopped at the side of the road and smiled at me as he pointed in the direction I should go. I was not best pleased. A tuk tuk driver picked me up, and a short while later I was checking into the Ivy 2 guesthouse. Twin rooms with fan and bathroom were US$6, and I even got luxuries like a towel and a toilet roll. I emptied the entire contents of my backpack onto one of the beds, and readied myself to take the short walk into town for some food.

I asked the girl behind the bar if she could change $10 for me, and was surprised when she handed me a $5 bill and five $1s. I explained that I was actually after some local currency, and she laughed at me, and told me that was not necessary. Cambodia is unlike any country I have visited (with the exception of the States) in that prices are posted in dollars, you pay in dollars, and are given your change in dollars - unless it is an amount less than a buck. The standard exchange rate is 4,000 riel to one dollar, or 7,000 to the pound (though whether sterling is an appropriate currency to pay in, I do not know). There are 100 riel to the baht, and that too is accepted freely. It's all very strange.

My reason for coming to Siem Reap was to visit the famous temples of Angkor. There are a number of options for exploring the sites: you can hire a pushbike and pedal round (yeah, right!), travel on the back of a motorbike, or in a tuk tuk. I chose the latter, so as to get some shade in between the temples. The next morning I was picked up at eight o'clock, by the tuk tuk driver from the previous day, to begin three days of touring. First it is necessary to buy a pass; you can choose a one-day pass for $20, a three-day for $40, or a whole week for $60; I settled for a three-dayer, and then we began our exploration of the wonderfully photogenic sites. The place is commercialised, it is true, but somewhere that spectacular would be no matter what country it was in, I reckon - and I dread to think how much more commercial it would be were it in a Western country . . . or how much more expensive. Outside each temple there are stalls selling drinks, souvenirs and the like, their main salesmen being the small children, who would run up to me shouting, "Lady, lady, you buy cold drink? You need postcard? Guidebook? If you buy after, you buy from me, okay?" Now I'm not normally a huge fan of children - I think I'm a bit phobic, actually - but I'd read about these kids in advance, and about being patient with them. I was on my very best behaviour, and talked and joked with them; I found that they enhanced my experience of the temples, rather than irritated me . . . although I did end up spending much more than I had hoped to.

That first day was quite overcast, and while it was a shame as far as my photos were concerned, it was a relief as far as I was concerned. At times I would stand in the shade, and think to myself how much cooler it felt, yet still the sweat poured off of me. I left Angkor Wat until mid-afternoon, as I'd read that the temple is best seen once the sun has begun its journey towards the horizon, and I was suitably impressed. I ended up visiting it three times in all, including at sunrise the following day. This meant a five o'clock start, and it is a testament to the splendour of the temples that I didn't mind getting up at the early hour at all . . . and you know I'm not a morning person! Two of my other favourites were Ta Phrom and Ta Som. Restoration has been in progress since 1908 on most of the temples, but not here. Trees sprout out of the sides of walls, and their roots separate the blocks used to build them. I always enjoy seeing nature triumphing over man.

By the end of three days I had visited 21 temples, some of them more than once, seen two sunrises, and sunsets to boot. Unfortunately my plans for sunset on the third day were somewhat scuppered by the weather. It began raining around three, and really tipped it down for an hour leaving me trapped in a tower, sheltering my camera. Still, I have come in the rainy season, so I have to expect some rain. It did die down a bit, but was still too dull for decent pictures, and my lens got all smeary too. I was feeling a little despondent, but cheered up when I got to a huge, muddy puddle, where a multitude of tiny frogs - only a centimetre or so in length - were singing, their high-pitched croaking sounding more like chirping. I decided to persevere with my plans and visit Angkor Wat one last time, still hoping in vain that the clouds may clear. On the way, I saw a mini-van parked at the side of the road, where the occupants were feeding peanuts to monkeys, and asked my driver to stop. One of the guys let me have a go, and took my photo - I was really surprised how gently the monkey's took the nuts; they were ever so cute.

I took a day to recover before leaving Siem Reap - and to sort through my numerous photos - before travelling to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I'm staying on the shores of the lake, Boeng Kak. Actually, that is not quite true - I'm staying over Boeng Kak, as the guesthouse is on stilts in the water. It is a good place to watch the sun set, and it's at the end of a rough lane which houses lots of backpacker accommodation, Internet cafes and the like. It's like a very low-key version of Khao San Road. A multitude of plants float around on the water's surface, changing the outlook from one moment to the next.

*WARNING* The rest of this email may be distressing.

The afternoon of my arrival I took a trip to two of the "must see" places in Phnom Penh, although I cannot say that it was an enjoyable venture. First up were the killing fields of Choeung Ek, followed by Tuol Sleng museum, which is housed in what was once S-21 prison. It was the most harrowing afternoon I have spent in a long time, although I am glad that I went.

The Killing Fields are only 15 km away, but the journey on very bumpy roads makes it feel much further. After paying $2 entrance fee I was faced with a large stupa, which acts as a memorial to the dead, and contains more than 8,000 skulls. I gazed upon these for a while, then I wandered around the surprisingly small site, where 129 communal graves were said to contain the bodies of around 17,000 people executed by the Khmer Rouge. 86 of the graves have been exhumed, revealing the remains of 8,985 individuals. Many, including children, were beaten to death to save on bullets. Here and there between the pits are piles of bones. Looking at the ground beneath my feet I saw sections of clothing which were still mostly buried. White things were visible in the mud and, as I looked closer, I saw that they were unmistakably bones.

The second stop on our gruesome tour was at Tuol Sleng museum. Once a high school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. It became Security Prison 21, where the detainees' sentences would almost certainly end in execution - with 100 such murders taking place every day at its peak. The first rooms I walked into each contained a rusty iron bedframe upon which weapons of torture lay, and a large photograph on the wall of the body that was found in that room after the captors had fled; some were barely recognisable as human.

In each of the rooms in the next wing stood boards with pictures of faces; men, women, children - some not much more than babies. So many faces. Most are without expression; a few are defiant, some resigned - one or two are even smiling, no doubt oblivious to the fate that awaits them. In others' features are looks so full of terror that it broke my heart. The rooms lead on into more rooms, full of more faces. There are also some photographs taken after death, but - as distressing as these were - their impact was not as strong as those taken of the living . . . of human beings that were tortured and brutally murdered by their own people.

To think that these things happened just a few decades ago is particularly shocking; within my own lifetime, not way back when. And atrocities continue today all over the world. No lessons have been learned. Is there any hope for us? I looked at people differently on the ride back. I looked in people's faces and wondered, did they suffer under the Khmer Rouge? Did they cause suffering?

I arrived back at the guesthouse in time to watch the sun set over the lake. Life goes on.


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