A Travellerspoint blog

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

A Human Tragedy within our lifetime

29 °C

I had heard about the Killing Fields but had never read into the history of one of the most tragic episodes in modern times. It is truly hard to understand unless you visit the Killing Fields. Those who have visited the Nazi Extermination Camps of Europe may understand but what’s so different about The Killing Fields, and what I still find hard to grasp is the fact that this human tragedy on such a large scale was allowed to happen in our lifetime, only a generation after declaring “Never Again”.

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I listen to our guide as he gives us a quick history of Cambodia starting from the Vietnam War era. We are on a bus to the most well known of these Killing Fields called Choeung Ek, where over 8,895 bodies were found in multiple mass graves around the site. We all listen intently as I suddenly realise that he lived this. There was not a Cambodian who was not affected by this human tradegy.

my blood chills as I start to make the outline of skulls

The Killing Fields are thousands of mass graves around Cambodia and were a result of the atrocities conducted by the Khmer Rouge Regime between 1975 and 1979. Its Communist leader, Pol Pot wanted to bring the country back to ‘Year Zero’, through agrarian socialism. This form of socialism would force the country and its people back to simple agricultural ways through force labour camps. For this to happen, he had to ‘cleanse’ the population of intellectuals, academics, scholars and anyone else that could be considered, or could become a dissident. Just like the Hitler a generation before him, he did this by mass extermination, but of his own people, leaving only those that can easily be brainwashed, the children. By the time Pol Pot was exiled and his regime overthrown, over 1.3 million had died from the genocidal policies, and between 1.7 to 2.5 million when you include disease or starvation. This was out of a population of 8 million. I am already emotional before we enter Choeung Ek. The gravel entry path leads us to the famous Commemorative Stupa (mound like structure), containing the skulls and clothing of victims. As I near it, my blood chills as I start to make the outline of sculls, stacked in shelves all the way to the top of the Stupa. The sun shines bright but it may as well be dark.

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Our guide starts to talk again, but this time he starts talking about his own experiences. He tells us of how he was a little boy when he was separated from his parents and family to work in another labour camp where he would gather cow dung. He tells us of how little they had to eat and how they would gather and eat bugs, rats, anything they could get their hand on. And he tells us of how he would feel very jealous, along with those that weren’t picked to go along to a ‘party’ the guards would have. The party music was so loud that everyone in the camp would hear it. “We found out later that the music was to drown out the gunshots and the screams of those they had invited to the party. I now feel very lucky” he concludes.

I am wearing sunglasses but I’m sure anyone could have seen my own reaction through them

Few words pass between us as we make our way through the site, pockmarked with graves, some as wide as 2 metres, others up to 5 metres. We come up to the largest of the grave, which contained up to 450 corpses. I can’t even bring myself to take pictures. Our guide points to the path we are walking on I notice there is cloth bits sticking out of the ground and before he can finish explaining, I realise that these are the clothing of the victims. Years of rain have washed them up through the ground and mud has hardened so that parts of clothing are buried or sticking out. I become conscious of this and step around every time I come across one.

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I notice a tree ahead with a big white sign where Nick and Amber are heading towards. They stand there for a second and a moment later, Amber turns to Nick and is in tears. Nick puts his arm around her and they walk away. I walk up to the tree and quickly I realise Amber’s reaction. The sign reads “Killing Tree against which Executioners Beat Children”. I am wearing sunglasses but I’m sure anyone could have seen my own reaction through them. Amber is a Primary School Teacher so I can only imagine what she is feeling. I move on, feeling numb. But for all the evil that this place stands for, a kind of peace emanates from it. Almost serene and forgiving, with the green grass, shady trees and the strangely beautiful Stupa, surrounded by flowers and incense burners. It was almost like it was telling visitors that Cambodians have moved on and forgiven, but they will never forget the victims and their history. I head towards the bathroom before we head back to the bus to wash my face, both from the heat and from the emotions.

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We are now on our way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was a high school turned into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S21), one of many that were around during the Regime. These were basically prisons for those academics, professionals, teachers, doctors, monks, political rivals and any other dissidents that required detention and forced confessions through torture, eventually resulting in death. Those who entered never left.

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We are taken around to the interrogation rooms and most are left the way they were found when the Vietnamese Army invaded and over threw the Khmer Rouge. A metal bed frame without a mattress dominates the cold room, with large metal shackles for wrists and ankles. It feels so unreal it’s like the movie set of a torture scene. Above the bed hangs a photo of the last victim found in the room when the prison was liberated. An empty ammunition box on the floor indicates what was used as a toilet but most shocking of all is the still visible blood stains and splatter against the walls and ceiling. The next few rooms are very similar, with different photos, and its own sickly blood splatter patterns. Even with a few other people in the room, I feel alone. It feels almost wrong to talk or make a comment so I move on silently and without a word to the others.

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We move over to the holding cells where dozens of people would be shackled together in over 40 degree heat and were given less than a cup of water per day. If they moved or tried to communicate to one another, they would all be beaten. We enter a section where they have put up photos of all the victims of S21. The young, the old. Brothers, sisters, mother, fathers, grandparents. Farmers, doctors, teachers, singers, foreigners. Another room contains members of the Khmer Rouge army. Young boys, brainwashed. They were all later to be exonerated as only the Khmer Rouge Leadership were prosecuted. The succeeding Government had agreed that to move on from this tragic period of their history, they must forgive those that had no choice and grant them amnesty. It was truly the Cambodian way.

Almost instantly I knew what it was but as I drew closer I felt almost sick with emotion

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I move to the last part of the museum which contains torture devices and graphic paintings from an artist who had survived the Regime. He painted what he had experienced and from the stories he had heard from others. There was one painting that grabbed my attention. I see it from across the room but not because it is large. There is a certain familiarity, as I notice a tree in the painting. Almost instantly I knew what it was but as I draw closer I feel almost sick with emotion. I make out the Killing Tree, the tree where children were beaten and murdered. It is also said to be where babies were killed too. The painting depicts a scene of two Khmer Rouge soldier in front of the tree. One of the soldiers has thrown a baby into the air whilst the other is using his rifle to shoot it. I quickly step outside for some much needed fresh air.

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Very few words are exchanged between us on the way back to the hotel. It’s only 11am but it feels like a lifetime since leaving the hotel for the Killing fields this morning. Slowly we start making tentative plans for the rest of the day and night. Like the Cambodians, it was time to move on from the tragedy and time to celebrate the Water Festival with the rest of the country and the resilient Cambodians.

Posted by Al Jam 20:45 Archived in Cambodia Tagged fields museum rouge killing s21 khmer s-21 genocide pot phnom penh pol tuol sleng choeung ek Comments (0)

Tire and Thong blow outs

Good and Bad luck on the road to Phnom Penh

sunny 31 °C

THUMP! Everyone jumps up from their seats and immediately scan outside their windows. Even those of us dozing off a hangover are up looking around. “What did we hit?” someone asks. “I think it’s a flat tire” I respond. I wasn’t exactly confident in my answer but the bus didn’t stop and wasn’t even slowing down. But then again, the way these bus drivers drive these 15 tonne weapons, maybe they expect to hit something (or someone) now and again. The bus finally starts slowing down and starts running at around 20mph. It stays like this for another couple of miles and I’m thinking we’ll never get to our next destination at this rate. We had left Siem Reap an hour ago and we still had another five hours to Phnom Penh. I start thinking why doesn't he stop and change the tire and then as if someone had called ahead to build a garage, one pops out of nowhere in between the rice paddies.

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We pull over and spend the next two hours waiting for a replacement tire to be driven in from Siem Reap. There is a scooter in the baggage compartment underneath the bus but yet they're not carrying a spare tire? We take turns trying to find the best place to go to the toilet. Not the best way to nurse a hangover, nor is the loud ‘call centre’ coming from the bottom of the bus stairs. A local woman with two phones had been continuously talking LOUDLY on each phone, and sometimes both. Just when you thought the call centre was closed for the day, the other phone would ring. I tried my best to drown it out with some ‘Clap your hands say yeah’ but the batteries on my noise reduction headphones had run out some time ago. SHUDDUP! We all yell collectively...and silently in our heads.

Now I just feel like I’m having a Bloomin’ Onion at The World Bar

I guess this is as good as any time to muse over the year that's past. I was travelling back and forth to Cape Girardeau (Pop. 73,000) for my first month at my new job. ‘The Cape’ is two hours south of St Louis, Missouri, so I would fly from Chicago for an hour to St Louis and then drive two hours to Cape Girardeau, home of Rush Limbaugh and the only inland cape in the world. It was very different from the Chicago Head Office and the Cape office only had around 30 people. I think at first they were a bit reluctant to get to know me, but after I stopped wearing the suit ‘n’ tie, and taking a few hits on being compared to Crocodile Dundee, they started to see me more than just another Suit from Head Office. I also became the Mayor of Cape Girardeau Outback Steakhouse on Four Square. Not because I was playing into the stereotype but bcause of the close proximity to the hotel I was staying at. “See how the lights in here are red?” I was once asked the barternder at the Outback Steakhouse. I look around and notice the red tinge in the lighting and shake my head to answer no. “That’s to give the effect that you are in the Outback” she says proudly. I'm thinking, "no it doesn’t". Now I just feel like I’m having a Bloomin’ Onion at The World Bar, a nightclub in Kings Cross, Sydney.

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I doze in and out of sleep as the malfunctioning aircon system in the bus reminds me of how hot and hung over I was, but that’s public buses for you. Luckily for us, we switch to a smaller private mini-bus just outside the Phnom Penh city limits. The Water Festival is currently underway in and they're not allowing large buses into the city centre. As we pass the city centre barricades, the traffic increases tenfold. I have never seen such a large concentration of scooters in my life. It is like watching swarm of insects the way they would collectively merge into other swarms of scooters. We finally make it to our hotel and once again are happy to be having a quick rest before heading out to the city for a feed.

I catch glimpses of food carts filled with unidentified local delicacies

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We jump into some Tuk Tuks after some hard negotiations with the drivers. The streets are as busy as a bricklayer in Bagdad. The traffic is almost at a standstill but because it is 99% scotters or Tuk Tuks, it somehow manages to keep moving. Traffic is so packed together it feels like I am sharing this tuk tuk with ten other people. We are in town for the Bon Om Thook Festival, or better known to westerners as the ‘Water Festival’. It was pure coincidence that we were here during this festival and hadn't accounted for it when I planned the trip. Like when I was in Paris for Bastille Day by coincidence or in Thailand for thier New Years without knowing. I wonder if my luck extends to lotto.

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The banks of the Tonle Sap River that runs through the city is busy with locals and tourists alike, here to enjoy the festival. It is where the Water Festival Boat races would be held tomorrow. We weave our way through the crowds as I catch glimpses of food carts filled with unidentified local delicacies. I knew what they were but we had all decided as a group that we would wait till tomorrow night to try out these delicacies. Suddenly I hear “Al! Wait! Wait. My thongs, they’ve broken”. We stop and I double back to find Sam hopping around, holding her blown out thong. I’m about to offer her mine but as if someone had called ahead, from out of nowhere, is a street stall selling shoes and thongs. It is no more than 30 feet away so I piggy back Sam over to it. I know she loves shopping for shoes but there’s better ways to find an excuse, I joke to myself. We make it to the restaurant without any more drama. It’s been a long and exhausting day and it’s showing. Not even our stunning balcony view of the river and the crowds below could stir our interest and shake off our tiredness. We ordered our food and enjoyed our beers. The girls are almost asleep on the comfortable pillows they are sitting on. The German boys and Rod go and check out the city but the rest of us head back to the hotel. It would be another early start tomorrow to beat the crowds at the Killing Fields and S21 Museum.

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Posted by Al Jam 20:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged phnom penh Comments (0)

ANGKOR

... and then Anchor

sunny 30 °C

It’s 9am, it's hot and it was just going to get hotter. We stop just outside Angkor where we were 4 hours earlier to witness the sunrise. Our local guide, Kim, gives us a quick rundown on the day’s schedule and a brief history of Angkor. His English is good and even asks us a “question with a funny answer”. He asks “why do you see lightning before you hear the thunder”. We all reply with various permutations of “light being faster than sound”. He responds with a smirk “No, because the eyes are closer to the thunder and lightning than the ears” and laughs. It takes us a while to realise that the question with a funny answer are what we would call Jokes. I laugh at this fact more than I laugh at the Joke.

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With almost every wall, column and ceiling covered in some kind of carved pattern or a scene depicting a story

We are to spend the day exploring the Angkor Region. What people don’t realize is that Angkor Wat (Temple), although the largest, is actually just one of over a thousand temple ruins scattered over a 100 square miles. Angkor itself is actually the Region which served as the seat of power for the Khmer Empire in 9th to 13th Century. Angkor Wat is also the world’s largest single religious monuments in the world.

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Kim leads us through each section of Angkor Wat, explaining the cultural and religious significance of the art and architecture. The carvings on the temple are unbelievably intricate. With almost every wall, column and ceiling covered in some kind of carved pattern or a scene depicting a story. We are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a bridal party getting ready the ceremony. I wonder how that conversation went when they decided on wedding venues. “What do you think of Angkor Wat as a wedding venue honey?”... “Not sure pumpkin, does get kinda awfully busy with tourist that time of year, but if it makes you happy…”

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We spend almost 3 hours wondering around Angkor Wat and make our way up towards the top. I slowly realize that this is, and will probably be the largest archaeological structures I will ever get to climb. The steps are steep to the top level and carefully make our way up to be greeted with amazing views on all sides. It is hard to think that such a huge structure sits in the middle of the jungle, almost as if it just magically appeared, or some would believe aliens built (These aliens being a bit more creative than the ones that built the Pyramids). But it is hard to believe that the temple was estimated to be built in 40 years even though modern engineers estimate that with the technology and tools available during that time, it should have taken 200 years. We make our way down and Kim tells us a story, with a smile, of how some people have died or had serious injury whist falling down those stairs. “Be careful” he says ending off the story. A bit late Kim, you could have told us BEFORE we went up.

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It’s 12pm and I’m getting hungry and so are the others. Not sure if we are going to stop for lunch before heading off to the next ruins, I start munching on some dried fruit I bought back in Bangkok. It’s really come in handy for times when I need a sugar boost. The sun is at its peak but it’s not as hot as I thought it would get and my damp Buff around my neck is keeping me cool.

It’s kind of chewy and the taste of the sauce is very familiar

We hop in the van and find out that we will be stopping for lunch at a restaurant nearby. We all slump back in our chairs, studying the menu carefully. I decide to try the pepper squid and when it arrives, I quickly regret my choice before I even pick up a fork. It’s covered in some kind of brown sauce and someone points out that it looks like intestines rather than squid. It doesn’t put me off as I chow down on the squid surprise. It’s kind of chewy and the taste of the sauce is very familiar, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. Although it doesn’t taste horrible, there’s something wrong but it doesn’t stop me from almost finishing it. “How was it?” asks Nick across the table. “Edible. I’ve never had pepper calamari with sauce before. You want to try?” I ask him, presenting him what’s left of the calamari concoction. “Yeah why not” he says as he reaches over. As soon as he takes his first chewy bite, he looks at me with a smile and says “Mate, this is Peppercorn Gravy you use in steak!” Bingo! That’s what was so familiar. That’s why I couldn’t put my finger on it because the sauce just didn’t match the calamari. Meanwhile, Chris is having his own dilemma with his Lok Lak dish, a traditional Khmer dish which Chris is now starting to question whether it contains beef. The usual jokes of canine and feline substitutes fly thick and fast. He tries to convince others to try it but we quickly and adamantly decline.

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With our energy levels revived by the food, or the humor generated from it, we make our way to Ta Prohm ruins where Tomb Raider was filmed. In some ways, Ta Prohm fascinates me more than Angkor Wat. It’s in no way near as large and it’s not because I’m hoping that Lara Croft or Angelina Jolie (or both) will suddenly appear. It’s the way the jungle has almost reclaimed the temple. The trees have started to wrap its roots around the walls and columns and the green moss makes for a photographer’s delight, clashing with the faded red and orange artwork on the walls. The trees stand as tall as 100 feet with roots sprawling out to as far as 30 feet.

Yes it’s childish but hey, aren’t all toilet jokes?

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Kim takes us to an opportune spot of what he calls the “Bum Photo”. Another one of his ‘funny answer’ stories? As we walk through a narrow corridor leading to the outside, Kim holds us back and points to the opening. Amber and I look on as Nick continues through, oblivious to the sight before Amber and I. Kim is smiling like a Cheshire cat and I quickly bring my camera up for the opportune ‘Bum Shot’. Amber and I snigger as Nick turns around just outside the doorway, probably wondering why we’re giggling at him. We all move forward and see that what looked like a ‘bum’ just outside the doorway is actually the roots of a tree making its way down the outer wall. Yes it’s childish but hey, aren’t all toilet jokes?

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Someone mentions that this is the scene where Angelina Jolie does something. I am too busy taking photos and not really that interested in Tomb Raider scenes. If Angelina were there to re-enact, well that would be a different story. We spend a little over an hour exploring Ta Prohm and another two hours exploring other ruins. It’s 5pm and I can truly say that I am ‘ruined’ (Boom Tish). The heat, sun, crowds, climbing, descending is starting to take its toll and I can see it in the others. Kim tries to keep our interest but it’s no use.

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We decide to skip the last scheduled ruins and decide to head straight for the Sunset viewing of Angkor Wat. It takes a good 20 minutes of uphill walking towards the summit of a hill. There was the option of going up on an Elephant but being on one before, the novelty wears off after 1 minute...about the same time the pain in your pants sets in. We finally make it to the top of the hill where more ruins await us. I cannot see Angkor Wat through the trees although we are quite high up. We follow the crowds and see that everyone is climbing the ruins to the top for what I suppose is a vantage point. The stairs leading up to the top look ridiculous...and they are. They are so steep and uneven, I feel sick watching old men and women carrying babies go up and down. One tumble from anyone near the top and you’ll have an Angkor Snowball of Human Flesh. We get to the top after some nervous moments and are utterly disappointed. Angkor is miles away and the sun is setting way to the side of it. I’ve seen plenty of sunsets and I can see this one was going to rank low on the pecking order. There is no kind of pleasing visual affect at all. It’s also crowded and I start thinking of the dangerous debacle that could occur when dozens of people try to climb down those stairs in the dark!

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I Manage to convince the others to ditch the so called Angkor Sunset and make our way back down the hill and to the van. We are all exhausted but it has been a full day and we have seen some beautiful sights. We sit back as we enjoy Kim’s last story with a funny ending. Something about a dream about chickens, axes and crocodiles and I laugh because it makes no sense. I give him 6 out of 10 for effort.

We all look at each other again but this time with smiles as big as the jugs

We manage to get a bit of a rest back at the hotel with a nice shower and a quick lie down but we’re all back in the foyer before we know it. Tonight is also Nick’s Birthday and Rod has organised a dinner at one of the local favourites on Pub Street. We hit the beers and cocktails early, enjoying the local brew called Anchor Beer and Angelina Jolie Cocktail, tasting similar to a mojito. The drinks are going down well and helps lubricate conversation as I get to know my fellow travellers. We are joined by two of Jenny’s friends who are coincidently also in Siem Reap.

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The birthday cake comes out and we sing Nick his ‘Happy Birthdays’. Then the real party begins. We move to another bar where we quickly hit a round of ‘Temple’ shots to start with. There seems to be a theme with the drinks around here, you think? We order 3 jugs of Anchor Beer and ask the waiter what the damage is. He says “Nine” ... We look at each other and someone asks “$9 each?”, holding up one jug. The waiter replies “No, $9 all” motioning his finger to encircle all 3 jugs. We all look at each other again but this time with smiles as big as the jugs. “This is going to get messy” I hear myself saying. It does. Someone orders a whole jug of Vodka and Red Bull, someone else a jug of some Jungle Juice concoction, in between all that, shots of randomness. I cool song comes on and someone is on the table. I find myself standing on the bench dancing, thinking that if this continues, I’ll be on that table too. It does continue and I become one with the table. We have become the obnoxious foreigners but no one seems to mind. They seem to enjoy us making fools of ourselves. We are, after all, young, energetic and on holidays. Not quite ‘Fear and Loathing in Cambodia’, but messy all the same.

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It’s time to leave. We stumble back to the hotel singing Queen songs and yes, being the loud obnoxious foreigners. Kids run to our sides and try to sell us all kinds of things. One of them even tries to sell Amber her comb she gave them. Cheeky! Next stop, Phnom Penh...“Don’t Stop me now...I’m travell’n at the speed of light”

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Posted by Al Jam 20:25 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia angkor ta wat reap siem prohm Comments (0)

Angkor Wat a sunrise!

Another one of those amazing moments...

sunny 25 °C

I had prepared well for the long day at Angkor Wat. The camera batteries were charged and all the digital cards formatted. I would wear my quick dry Socceroos Jersey, comfortable for the hot day ahead. The plan was to get to Angkor Wat at around 5am for the sunrise, obviously the thing to do judging from the numerous photos taken with the dawn rays streaming through it. We would then head back to the hotel at 7am to chow down some breakfast and try and sneak in a power nap. We would then go back to Angkor at 9am and spend a whole day exploring the ruins.

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We all hop in the van that would take us to Angkor, only 10 minutes from the hotel. It is still dark and we were advised to carry flash lights as we would be walking on uneven ground. I decide against it, leaving my natural night vision to take care of me. The roads steadily grow busy as we approach the site and even passed some joggers. Jog to Angkor Wat to enjoy the sunrise?...What a way to start the day!

My restlessness is probably due to the excitement

We grab our tickets and make our way into Angkor. A long bridge that crosses the moat surrounding the Wat (palace) is made of stone and is slippery in some places. There is a steady stream of people but wouldn’t call it a crowd yet. Even though it’s still dark, there’s really no need for torches as the light from the moon and the water's reflection is enough to safely navigate with. Some people still felt the need to have head torches point directly horizontal, blinding anyone they looked at. “At least learn how to use it properly and point it down to the ground you’re stepping on, you fool” I say to no one in particular.

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There’s already a crowd gathered on the edge of the lake in front of the Wat. You can see the outline of the Wat but it’s still too dark to make out its features. We find a spot on the side of the lake which still gives us a great frontal view and I set up my tripod and camera as I hear the other guys talk of coffee. I wouldn’t mind looking for some but I wasn’t going to give up this spot on the lake’s edge. I take a few test shots to calibrate the camera but I know it’s too soon as the light will start to quickly change and I’ll have to adjust as it does. My restlessness is probably due to the excitement. Very few words are exchanged within the group and I can see that Sam is still half asleep as she’s not a fan of early starts. I’m no fan either but I take it a whole lot better. Must be all that Army training (That joke was for you Gemma).

It feels like watching Angkor Wat being built right before my eyes

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Slowly but surely the black turns to dark blue, the dark blue turns to dark green, as the dark blue is saturated with orange and yellow from the unseen rising sun. I take the first shots fired in anger and I look around to see the faces of the others, serious with anticipation also snapping away with their cameras. I start to make out the features of the Wat and notice some people on the other side of the lake, right in front of it. It’s only then I grasp the enormity of the structure. It’s massive. The first few direct sun rays break through and the sun peers out to the right of the Wat. The lake lights up in different shades of blue and orange and the pink water lilies add to the beauty of the scene. The reflection of the Wat and clouds on the lake is stunningly clear and I make sure I capture a few shots of that. It feels like watching Angkor Wat being built right before my eyes as the dawn slowly reveals more of its features. Unfortunately, a small part of the Wat is covered in scaffolding and bright green nets. Wouldn’t you at least get netting that was the same colour as the palace? I shook of that minor interruption in thought and went back to admiring the sight before me.

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I take a little peak around and feel like that guy who takes a peak during a meditation class to see if everyone’s meditating. Everyone is transfixed to the awesome sight before us but I do get smiles and nods from the other guys, knowing that this is a moment all of us will share and none of us will forget. It doesn’t get much better. You share a special moment with your partner, along with 7 other people whom you’ve only known for two days and it feels like you’ve known them forever because you share a passion of travel and moments like this. There would be more to come.

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The sun finally clears the Wat and our long shadows start to quckly shorten. I snap out of my special moment and my body quickly remembers that it’s still only 7am in the morning. We make the walk back out of the Angkor, which obviously looks very different from what it was two hours ago, being just shadows and outlines. We will return in another two hours but for now, it is breakfast of Fried Rice and Egg...Well what else did you think I was going to eat?

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Posted by Al Jam 11:42 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia sunrise angkor wat reap siem Comments (1)

Onto Cambodia

Leaving Bangkok and crossing over to Cambodia, A village in Siem Reap invite us for a traditional Cambodian meal as we relive our childhood with the village children. Dr Fish also pays a visit

sunny 29 °C

We arrive at our next Bangkok hotel and it becomes quickly apparent it’s not as nice as our last hotel, the Chatrium Suites, but then again, there aren’t many that are. We make our way to the foyer where we would meet our Gap Tour group. The noticeboard indicates a group of 9 people including the tour leader. We had used Gap Adventures during part of our South America trip and were impressed by its format. It’s not like your normal tour group where you had a private bus and get led around by a tour ‘guide’. We would be led by a tour ‘leader’ and would use public transport to get around, built more for backpacker than tourist. The difference between a tour leader and guide is that a leader is only there to make sure you get tickets for the bus, a room at a hotel and made suggestions of stuff to do. A tour guide will basically do the same thing but will also wipe your arse. There’s an ongoing debate between travellers on whether the use of tours is ‘real’ travelling but that’s for another blog.

I will try almost anything, except eating brains from a live monkey, apparently a delicacy in some parts of Asia

We meet Rod, our tour leader from Peru and the six others who we’ll be our travel buddies for the next 9 days. Amber and Nick, an English couple from Plymouth are taking 4 months off to travel Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Jenny, another English girl is travelling through Asia and Australia after just completing a month’s internship in China. Tuula is from Switzerland and is taking a 2 week break from the rat race. Last but not least are the German boys, Chris and Fabian, who have not yet arrived from the Airport due to the notorious Bangkok traffic

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After introductions, we decide to head to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar to grab some street food. One of the things I love about travelling is eating the local fare. There’s nothing like trying out the local cuisine to immerse your self in the culture. I will try almost anything, except eating brains from a live monkey, apparently a delicacy in some parts of Asia. The temperature is perfect for outdoor dining and we make our way through the food stalls. The seafood looks too good to pass up and some would think us crazy to eat seafood from the street. Sam and I decide on one of our favourite Thai dishes, grilled garlic and pepper snapper. Wash that down with a 60 Baht (USD$2) long neck and you’ve got the start of a great trip.

The van feels like a disco floor on wheels

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We get an early start the next morning and are up at 7am. We meet the German boys at the breakfast buffet and I again take on the Fried rice and egg. Sam prepares us lunch by sneaking a few crossiants and slices of bread, one of the tricks you learn when you come across a breakfast buffet, travelling on a budget. We load up the 2 vans that will take us to the Cambodian border, 4 hours away. The van feels like a disco floor on wheels, with coloured roof lights, pimpin’ speakers and you could catch your reflection no matter which way you looked.
We were out of the city limits in less than an hour and into the countryside. I take out my earphones and catch up on some reading. I had picked up George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four back in Australia at Sara and Amo’s. Winston Smith has finally found the fabled brotherhood and things are starting to get interesting.

I start to feel conscious of my Ray Ban sunglasses and large silver headphones

We make it to the Cambodian border where we leave the Disco on wheels and go through customs. The border looks like something out of a movie set. A huge stone arch welcomes us into Cambodia and in the background is a modern style building that turns out to be a casino. As we walk past between the borders of Thailand and Cambodia, you can see the poker machines through the glass windows and sometimes catch the reflection of old men pulling carts with all kinds of goods. The scene would seem ridiculous to the unaccustomed but every border crossings I’d done always seem to be some kind of twilight zone.

DSCN0529.jpgNote the white building in the background that's actually a Casino

We hop onto a local bus and it’s another 3 hours to Siem Reap. Cambodia is the poorest country in South-East Asia and it’s noticeable straight away. The roads are not as developed as Thailand and the poverty is evident, but the children still wave and smile at us as they instantly identify that we are foreign. I start to feel conscious of my Ray Ban sunglasses and large silver headphones but I quickly get over it. Somehow, Asian locals always seem to know I’m a foreigner, no matter how much I try to NOT look like a foreigner. I think it’s my hairstyle, which at times defies gravity.

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The roads start to improve as we approach Siem Reap, the second largest city in Cambodia, named after control was regained from the Siamese and translates to Siam Defeated. We know we are close when the number of luxury hotels increase and the signs for Angkor Wat appears, which is just outside of Siem Reap. Before we know it, we are at the hotel and meeting back at the foyer to have a quick walk around the area. ATMs here, main street there, Night markets down that way and Pub Street to your left...Pub Street?

we share around the local brew which taste likes a mix of dessert wine, port and vodka and probably more lethal

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Tonight we are invited to a dinner at a local home just outside the city limits. We jump in Tuk Tuks (motorcycle powered rickshaws) and make our way to the village. We head off the main road and onto dirt tracks, going past small villages, children waving and smiling. Reaching our destination, we are greeted by the family hosting the dinner. Small children surround us as we are taken through the village and to a local shop, which is really a table out the front of the house selling bits and pieces. We buy a few of the sweets and homemade biscuits and we share around the local brew which taste likes a mix of dessert wine, port and vodka and probably more lethal. I take the opportunity to take a few snaps of the children, one little girl was just gorgeous. Big brown eyes and hair any teen would kill for.

The kids grow in confidence and start approaching us again seeing that we are near the end of our meal

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We head back to the house and prepare for dinner. We are taken to an outside porch, separate from the house which serves as kind of multi-purpose area. The night was perfect for al fresco dining and this porch would serve that purpose, sans table and chairs. We grab a few cans of beers and settle down on the floor. The food slowly comes out, curries, fresh vegetables, stir fry and a delicious Tom Yum Soup I keep going back for. I eat till I can’t eat no more, knowing that such fresh, homemade food like this will be few and far between. The kids grow in confidence and start approaching us again seeing that we are near the end of our meal. They bring with them pencils, paper and large blades of grass which the girls start to make bracelets and head bands to give to us. The boys make paper airplanes and we start to break off into little groups as the kids show off their drawings and practice their English on us. “How old are you?” I ask one kid. He holds up 8 with his two hands and then proceeds to start shadow boxing me. I quickly oblige and hold up my palms for punching mitts. I feel like a kid again, looking around and seeing all these small smiling faces. The kids may be lucky in that they are able to interact and practice their English with visitors like us but I feel much luckier for the experience. I start to think what kids of the same age are doing back in Australia or the US. This is what a childhood should be without all the distractions of modern day life.

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Sticking my feet in, I can’t stop giggling as it feels like a dozen midgets tickling my feet

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After a few group snapshots, we say our goodbyes and head off back into town. We get off on Pub Street where there are, you guessed it, pubs, bars and restaurants. We wander through the street, eyeing out possible hangouts for tomorrow night. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow with Angkor Wat and decide to forgo any bars and head for the Night Markets for a quick look. Sam and I decide to check out this Dr Fish shennanigans. There are quite a few Dr Fish set ups in town but we decide to go with the one in the Market, which comes with a free beer for only $2. It is basically a tub full of small fish that nibble on your feet to eat and remove dead skin. It sounds kind of gross and it basically is, but when in Rome...Sticking my feet in, I can’t stop giggling as it feels like a dozen midgets tickling my feet. I can only stand it for 10 seconds before I quickly remove my feet to get some relief. After a few more go’s, I manage to keep my feet in for good and I let Dr Fish(s) do their magic. Ten minutes and a beer later, I’m done but I feel like I’m walking on air. Not sure if it worked but it’s good to know I fed some fish.

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We walk back to the hotel for an early night as it would be an absolute tragedy to sleep in and miss the famed sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Dr Fish does it's stuff

Posted by Al Jam 20:05 Archived in Cambodia Tagged fish cambodia thailand bangkok reap siem dr Comments (0)

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