Friday, October 17, 2008

The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields at Choung Ek, outside Phnom Penh

A shocking window on just how dark human nature can be. The killing fields of Choung Ek were a half hour tuk tuk ride from our lakeside guesthouse in Phnomn Penh. One of the many sites around Cambodia where the Kymer Rouge, under the rule of Pol Pot, beat to death and buried millions of its fellow Cambodians.

Paul, our Tuk Tuk driver took us out from the guesthouse, through midday Phnomn Penh traffic and along the unsealed dusty road that leads out of the capital. The Same route that was travelled by the condemned in trucks from security prisons in the city.

We arrived in the almost empty dirt yard that acted as a car park and went off and got our admission tickets. As we walked into the site, it initially looks like a park or a peaceful recreation spot, with no immediately obvious signs of the horrors that occurred there. In the background were the noises of local children playing at a school. In front of us stood a large gold topped stupa. As we got closer, it quickly became apparent that this huge structure was absolutely crammed from top to bottom with the skulls of some of the 9000+ people that had thus far been exhumed from the mass graves at the site.

We spent some time inside the structure, completely shocked by the site. The cases and shelves containing the skulls are open, and tower, stories above you. The extremely narrow passageway that runs between the outer wall of the stupa and the cases of skulls means that you have no choice but to be inches from the thousands of skulls. Plastic signs request that you don't touch them. They are arranged by sex and approximate age at death. The point at which we entered brought us in front of hundreds of skulls of those aged 5 -9.

We left and started to walk around the site. Various information boards told of where buildings once stood, containing chemicals used in an attempt to subdue the smell, as well as kill any of the victims who were only stunned by the blows inflicted on them. Signs around the site requested that we didn't walk on the still unexcavated mass graves.

We came across a large tree with a thick branch running perpendicular to the trunk, on it hung a sign telling of how the Khmer rouge soldiers used the branch to hang a loudspeaker playing music at a decibel level high enough to drown out the cries and screams of the children who were being beaten to death against the trunk. Against this same trunk today were stacked piles of fractured bones that had been found on the ground nearby since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

As we walked around the unkept paths we could see pieces of bone, teeth and clothing embedded in the ground all around us. As Cambodia had slowly forged itself a position on the backpackers trail, the number of visitors to the site had been wearing away the earth of the makeshift pathways, slowly exposing the bodies buried just below the surface that we were inadvertently walking across.

A small acrylic sided box to the right of the pathway displayed a sign explaining that the contents was pieces of skeletons and personal effect that had been found around the site since the early excavations of the mass graves. As the box was fall and locked the lid was piled with many more pieces that visitors to the sight had found and placed there in the hope that one day someone may have the will and resources to catalogue them correctly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Python, Kangaroo, Ostrich and Crocodile then off to Angkor What?

We headed to Pub Street in the center of Siem Reap with a few people we had met in our guesthouse including a few of the Cambodian guys that worked there. Pub street itself is an oasis away from the beggars and hustlers of Siem Reaps streets. It is closed at both ends to anyone who is not Caucasian, western, well dressed or prepared to bribe the police at the checkpoints. We passed the piano bar, reportedly favored by Angelina Jolie, who stayed there whilst filming Tomb Raided at Angkor Wat. A huge board outside advertising the fact, along with a list of punny cocktail names related to their five minutes of fame.
We found a restaurant for a barbecue dinner, and between us ordered python, crocodile, ostrich and kangaroo, all surprisingly tasty. After washing it all down with a few bottles of Angkor beer, we headed around the corner to the Angkor What? bar, a Siem Reap institution, advertised across Southeast Asia by tee-shirt wearing patrons.
We met up with Casey later that evening and danced the night away to some very western music. After leaving at 2AM closing, me and Casey thought that it would be a good idea to go and find some more drinks elsewhere. After wandering the streets of Siem Reap in a rather inebriated state we surmised that the only logical next step was to try our hand at one of the local casinos.
Having found one that looked good we duly went in and sat down at a blackjack table. We were the only patrons of the huge flashy 24 hour casino. The croupier came over and we put down 20 dollars each. The table was fitted with electronic screens and our 20 dollars showed up in the bank. We tried to place our first bets, but despite our best attempts the machines didn't seem to like it. we asked one of the waitresses and then the croupier to assist up in losing our money. To our astonishment nobody in this huge Casino spoke a word of English! Breaking into Charades didn't seem to work either.
On auto pilot, I did what I have been used to doing when someone doesn't speak English and immediately switched to speaking Korean. To the complete surprise of both me and the croupier we continued the discourse in Korean.
Unfortunately the staff seemed none the wiser as top why the machines didn't want our money. Getting bored with our best attempts to give the casino our money (as the only customers) we asked if we could change the chips back into money. Not a problem at all, within a few minutes the staff were wishing us a cheery goodbye. I suspect that that particular casino will not be in business too much longer!

Angkor Wat, Preah Khan

As soon as the sun came up over Angkor Wat the hordes of people suddenly disappeared, back on their buses to return to the cities hotels and guesthouses for breakfast,. As it was just the two of us on our tour we elected to get breakfast from some of the street food stalls along the sides of the road outside and go and see Angkor Wat before the crowds. It was a wise choice, there wasn't more than 15 people in the whole complex. we had the place pretty much to ourselves. After about an hour and a half of marveling at the enormity of the structure of Angkor Wat we headed out back to join our driver on the other side of the great moat that surrounds the complex. As we crossed the courtyard there was an army of sixty or more groundskeepers cutting the grass with sickles. The idea of all those Cambodians sweating away for hours trying to cut the acres and acres of grass with in such a way seemed ridiculous when a guy with a lawnmower could do it in a twentieth of the time!
We rejoined our guide and headed for another temple called Preah Khan. An impossibly big grid of tumbled corridors and towers held together by the roots of the trees that has destroyed those around them. Again the place was deserted apart from one or two other people milling about. With the jungle so close to the temple you could really get a sense of how the first French explorers must have felt upon stumbling on this ancient wonder in the dense jungle. The whole place was like being inside a Tomb Raider film.
The freedom to explore is completely unrivalled by any western archaeological wonder. A few small signs written in bad English, warning you that poking around at the stones may result in a braining by a huge lump of the temple, along with some makeshift supports, are the only indication that anyone else in the world knows about this place.
After a good while taking it all in we again headed back to meet our guide and continue to a few of the smaller, but equally impressive temples at Angkor.
Absolutely exhausted by the climbing and the 38C sun burning down on us we returned to our guesthouse at about 4 in the afternoon. We slumped down on the sofas and ordered a few bottles of Angkor beer. Whilst there we met some other travellers and arranged to go out with them that night for a snake dinner on Pub street in the middle of town. We retired for a well earned power nap to prepare ourselves for a night out in Siem Reap

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Our tuk-tuk driver broke the news to us that we had to meet him at 4.20 AM to set off from Siem Reap in time to catch the sun coming up over Angkor Wat, he assured us it would be worth it.
We fell out of bed, at 4AM, still pitch black outside and headed, bleary eyed to the lobby to meet out tuk-tuk driver. We were soon on the road to Angkor, arriving about 30 minutes later at the gates of Angkor Wat. We walked across the immense moat and into the outer courtyard of Angkor Wat. We sat ourselves up in front of one of the small shallow pools that skirt the perimeter and awaited the sun. With the camera at the ready the sun started to rise up over the minarets of Angkor.
The next hour or so was spent casting rocks into the pool in an attempt to get an ever better "arty" shot of the sunrise