Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Killing Fields

Well this is a bit more like it. After a few days shy of a month in Vietnam with its sanitised, structured way of life we crossed the border into the dusty, dishevelled border region of Cambodia. It reminded me of the first time I crossed from Costa Rica to Nicuragua, a breath of fresh air. Ok, well maybe not, more a breath of dusty, gritty air soon to be damped down with stinging rain as we rode towards Kampong Cham and our first stopping place, but you get the picture.

Cambodia really is a different kettle of fish. Clear poverty alongside flashy new 4x4’s, tatty motorbikes and a return to horses and carts for moving crops. Things are easier to find here, there’s more choice. There’s also a little more formal order and rules - there are speed limit signs at the roadside, although they’re completely disregarded of course. The police, reputedly the most corrupt in SE Asia wave and smile at us as we pass. Every few hundred yards are signs for the ‘Cambodian People’s Party’ (which constantly make me smile and wonder if there is also a ‘People’s Party of Cambodia’). The roads are deep red dirt, luckily mostly dry at this time of year and large trucks thunder by with only a hair’s breadth between us, leaving us in a cloud of choking dust. By the time we arrived in the little town alongside the Mekong River we were black with dirt and dust and sweat and a little rain to the point where we looked like we’d been in an accident.

People are a little more resourceful here. Rather than balancing three van loads of stuff precariously on the back of their bike, they’ve built wagons that attach to the bike by way of a sophisticated hitch, thus allowing them to carry ten times as much volume. We’ve seen the same little bikes we have pulling trailers full of cows (white ones here, for a change). One even had four large, heavy carved wooden double beds piled on top of it. Coming up a hill we rode behind one such truck as two other bikes leant a shoulder each to push the load up the hill. Being air cooled, most of these bike trucks, as well as tuk-tuk’s in the cities have rigged up dripping water containers to cool their engines down.

That said, there are less bikes here. Collectivos are back as are four wheeled vehicles, and they cause havoc as they decide it is a good idea to try and squeeze through narrow market streets. Drivers on two wheels are pretty good for the most part, but give them four wheels and make sure you get out of the way. They can barely drive forwards and when they need to reverse it’s like watching a bad comedy sketch show.

The countryside here is beautiful, a brilliant, luminescent lime green. As in Vietnam, people here work hard whatever the weather. Sugar cane juice stands line the roads and mobile bbq carts pass us periodically. The meat here is better, succulent and full of flavour. A stark contrast to what we we’ve grown to expect. A local speciality we come across time and time again is Amok, a mild coconut based curry made with various meat or fish cooked in coconut milk with spices. It has egg whisked in and is then wrapped in banana leaves and baked to give it a souffle texture. We’ve had good and bad examples of it, but it has fast become our go to choice. Lok Lak is another, a beef dish cooked in a warm pepper sauce served with rice, onions and tomatoes and usually a fried egg on top.

So, after a couple of hours ride on pretty terrible roads that alternated between gravel, tarmac and a rocky combination of both we came to the wide open bridge into Kampong Cham. It wasn’t what I was expecting, in fact I didn’t have any expectation really as Evan had picked where we were going to head for and I didn’t know anything about the place. We easily found a comfortable room right by the river for $10 a night and we made it our home for the next few nights. We probably wouldn’t have stayed so long had it not been for the weather, heavy biting rain for hours at a time, ironic for the very middle of dry season.

We took advantage of the breaks between the showers, not always successfully, and decided to ride along the river to see one of the oldest wooden pagodas in the country. Only 20km away it really shouldn’t have taken too long, only this turned out to be along a dirt track that with the recent rain had turned into a quagmire in places and would certainly be inaccessible in monsoon season. We slid along for several kilometres before we came to a bridge that had been washed away. Here we had to take a detour through some fields and came to a place where we had to cross a particularly muddy area on a small plank of wood. Some enterprising young boys were scraping the plank clean between each crossing and I wish I’d have had my camera at the ready to take a photo of their joy when Evan handed them a dollar bill in appreciation of their efforts. When you compare their reaction to that of a child back home to be given such a sum it really makes you think. Eventually we reached the pagoda, which sadly was in an advanced state of decay. There were boards up showing how the monks planned to restore it but there was no evidence it will happen anytime soon. Somehow on our return journey we took a wrong turn and thus ended up riding over 70km on the way back. Still, it was through tiny villages and was truly fascinating to see local life up close, the people so welcoming and friendly.    

The renovations wouldn’t be for lack of skill or innovation though, as the bamboo bridge that stretches from the town across to the island of Koh Pen shows. Each December, after it is washed away by the floods, it is entirely rebuilt from scratch by local people. Constructed entirely of bamboo held together by wire, it is two lanes in places to allow vehicles to pass and can carry large 4x4 trucks, although the creaking and groaning as they cross is a bit worrying. It is a strange feeling to walk on it, a little unnerving as it flexes underfoot, but fascinating to watch it being constructed as we were lucky enough to witness. According to the girl who worked at our hotel it had only been officially opened a day or two before we arrived and work was still ongoing when we crossed.

In an attempt to fill our days until the rain let up, we spent another day visiting the Chup Rubber Plantation nearby. We’d ridden through hectares of forests on our way into town and had heard that we could just show up at the processing plant and have a look around. Of course, upon arrival a dollar was requested for visitor passes and maybe a misunderstanding on my part I gave the guy in the security box a dollar for each of us. His face lit up and he thanked us profusely. It’s easy to forget that the majority of the population here live on less than a dollar a day.

The factory was fascinating. Sap is collected and then moves through a coagulation process. It is then repeatedly washed, shredded, compacted and dried and comes out at the end as large rubber blocks that are then packed and exported. The whole production line is open for visits and the workers seemed pleased to see us, directing us and explaining the process as best they could and making sure we didn’t miss anything. It’d be impossible to do that in most places, the thought of random members of the public wandering freely around working factories, climbing through machinery, would be an health and safety officers nightmare!

Eventually cabin fever set in and we agreed that we needed a change of scene despite the high probability of getting soaked during the journey and so we set off for Phnom Penh. Again, it was a place that I wouldn’t have chosen to go any more than pass through if I had been alone, the big, bad city about which I had only heard negative reviews. After a mostly uneventful ride we arrived in town, a sprawling mass of buildings and busy roads packed full of bikes and trucks and tuk-tuk’s vying for space. It really is surprisingly easy though to navigate through the craziness. As a bystander it can look terrifying, but when you’re in it it’s really not hard at all. You just go with the flow, wait for the gaps and move with everyone else. Even U-turns on major dual carriageways become natural and if you miss a turn or a place you want to stop, you just turn round and ride the other way!

Phnom Penh is a large, dirty, seedy city that bares its dark side openly. It has one of the highest rates of sex-related tourism in the world and child prostitution/trafficking is rife. This place really is paedophile central. As we’ve walked the streets for days now the number of lone 30-70 something white western males here is startling. Every restaurant and bar is full of them, the streets too. Tuk-tuk drivers ask us a million times a day if we want a ride. They also sell weed and offer to take these guys to where they can meet girls. Not that they’d have to look that hard if they wanted to window shop on their own though. It’s all over the city, but there’s one street in particular that we’ve affectionately dubbed ‘Hooker Street’ where young women sit outside bars, trying their best to look demure whilst paying fake attention to the guys who sit between them. It’s sad and yet fascinating. Word has it that they make anything from $10 for half an hour to $50 a night (source - an overheard conversation between a group of European men sat at the next table to us, comparing their experiences loudly and sharing photos).

It’s a risky game though, statistics show that one in eight women working in the sex industry is HIV positive and that their careers are short lived. The ones who weren’t lucky enough to be able to invest their earnings wisely, or simply got too old, sit and beg on the sidewalks in the rain, usually with several small children. It’s disturbing to think that if the surface is so visible and tolerated, what the darker more carefully hidden aspects of the trade look like. Evidence of mental health issues are also plain to see. Despite this though, the city still feels very safe, even when wandering random back streets after dark. And we seem to do this a lot. We also happened to be there for the state visit of the infamous President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte and got to witness his extensive motorcade leaving the Royal Palace late in the evening with heavy police guard. We filled several days there visiting museums, temples, pagodas and wats and jumped on random ferries that we had no idea where they were going.

For many, Cambodia is synonymous with genocide and with an event so recent in its history it’s clear to see the impact this still has on everyday life here. Between 1975 and 1979, under the regime of the Khmer Rouge, around 3,000,000 Cambodian’s were slaughtered in cold blood, most after having endured weeks or months of horrific torture at the hands of their captives. In Phnom Penh stands one of the most famous interrogation centres, Tuol Sleng Prison, originally a school and now a museum and memorial site. It is believed at least 20,000 people were held here and tortured into writing false confessions to crimes they never committed before being transported to Choeung Ek or the ‘Killing Fields’ to be bludgeoned to death and buried in mass shallow graves. Today the effects are clear to see with 70% of Cambodia’s population under 40.

Visiting Tuol Sleng Prison or ‘S21’ is a harrowing experience. Presented exactly as it was found in 1980 when the museum opened, the site is a sobering look at what happens when crazy gains control. Rooms where the prisoners were held in cramped, squalid conditions are fully accessible as are the rooms where inmates were tortured. Photos on the walls of these rooms show what was found in each room when Vietnamese forces discovered the place in 1979. In other rooms are seemingly endless displays of photographs of the victims. Men, women and children, no-one was spared. People visiting the site were mostly respectful and quiet with only one Asian tourist feeling it a suitable place to sing xmas songs loudly with her toddler. The signs stating that hunting pokemon is not allowed were also a sad indictment of our times.

Perhaps the most shocking thing I discovered at the museum was Sweden’s support for the Khmer Rouge regime and that they visited while the atrocities were taking place and denounced reports of the horrors that had leaked to the media as false. Whilst I’ll admit that I knew very little about the detail of the genocide that occurred here, there was something strangely familiar about the place and it was only later that I remembered that scenes from Tuol Sleng were included in Ron Fricke’s film ‘Baraka’. In the last few days we’ve done a fair bit of reading and watched a couple of films - The Killing Fields is shown in several places in the city here every day so we went to see it at a little cinema with futon mattresses. We also watched S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. This is on youtube and well worth an hour and a half of your time. 

I’ve been to some places in my time where unspeakable things have happened - Auschwitz and Birkenau, Sarajevo, Mostar - and this was up there. I remember what our guide at Auschwitz said - you cannot explain the unexplainable. The other thing that struck me was that so many of the precursors to this bloody event are happening again with the recent EU referendum result, the rise of nationalism in Europe and the US Presidential election result. Frighteningly, it seems no matter how awful these things are, humans are incapable of learning.

On the way back from the prison, just after a stop to get a slow puncture in my rear tyre fixed once and for all, we we had our first run in with the Cambodian cops. We were the first through some lights as they changed to green and looked up to see a couple of cops standing in the empty road in front of us waving us over to stop. Thinking little of it as they stop traffic and close roads all the time for no obvious reason, we obliged, before realising they were actually just stopping us and not anyone else. It wasn’t because of our Vietnamese plates because they wouldn’t have seen them, but when they did they seemed even more interested. After a brief discussion in which they asked for our licences and we refused to show them them until they told us what the problem was, we reached a stalemate. They seemed to want to claim we ran a red light (we didn’t) and then didn’t believe we had licences (technically we don’t as riding in Cambodia is much like in Vietnam, a grey area legally but one that everyone turns a blind eye to). Finally one of the cops said ‘You pay money and then you can go, or we take your motorbikes’. I said that was fine, but I’d be calling my embassy first, at which point they didn’t really seem to know what to do. Getting nowhere, we did the only sensible thing we could do - we started the bikes and just rode off. They made no attempt to stop or follow us, they probably felt a little silly for trying to pull such a poorly executed sting.

The following day we explored the second part of Cambodia’s dark recent history with a ride out to Choeung Ek, one of over 400 killing fields and the place the vast majority of the prisoners from S21 ended their journey. Like Birkenau, it is a peaceful, green site full of nature. When we were there the sun was shining and there was a gentle, eerie breeze. An audio tour leads you through the site to where the trucks unloaded the victims before they were held in a dark and gloomy shed awaiting execution. Paths take you around between the excavated pits where around 9,000 bodies have been found so far.

A much larger area of the site is underwater and it is believed many thousands more bodies lie here, untouched. Victims were executed by blows to the head before having their throats cut and being thrown into shallow pits. Music was blasted through speakers hung from trees to drown out the sound of screams. Cases containing teeth and bones and clothing are dotted around the site and new pieces uncovered by recent rain sit on the bare ground near the path. A large tree next to one of the pits is covered with friendship bracelets. It was used by guards to swing babies and small children’s heads against to kill them before they too were thrown into the pits alongside their mothers. Human barbarity really does know no bounds.

The infamous centrepiece at the site is a Stupa built to house the skulls excavated from the site. Over 5,000 skulls rest on 17 floors and can be viewed from inside the building. The audio-tour contains several stories from survivors told in their own words that you can sit and listen to around the site. One in particular stuck in my mind or a child who survived his stay at S21 only because an older gentleman pleaded with the guards every day to release him. It was only later in life that the child realised the man had paid for this insistence with his life and it troubled him greatly that he could not remember the man’s name and therefore couldn’t trace his family.

The history of this beautiful country has certainly given us much pause for thought over the last few days. In need of a change of focus we’ve tried to include some fun things too - drinks in roof top bars, a fantastic roast beef Sunday lunch, a visit to the cinema to see the new Star Wars movie and general wandering in the markets punctuated with way too much good food.

Next? The coast and a beach-based Christmas. More soon!

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