The eventful past of Cambodia
Bijgewerkt: 20 feb 2018
It's a fact, today it’s the 24th and we are going into the last 2 months of our journey.
As you probably have red, we sold the scooters in HCM. This meant travel by other means such as a (mini) (local) bus. Much less freedom, fixed departure times and long waiting times. At these moments we really do miss the scooters.
Today we are traveling by bus (Vietnam to Cambodia) for the first time and we have clue how public transport works in this country. But our hotel is offering help and helps us with the first step, 'tickets for the bus'. The bus tickets are around $6, - and will take about 4 hours. It brings you to a town close to the border with Cambodia. Be aware of scammers as they are frequently found here. They will tell you the story that there are no busses going to the border or that you need transport to bring you to the right bus station. Don’t believe them as this is not true. You have to be patient and a mini-van will pick you up, free of charge and will drive you to where you have to be.
There are already a few tourists who go by bus, but on our next stop there is no tourist to be seen. So we ask the locals where we can find the bus to bring us to the border. With hands and feet (they don’t speak English) we are shown to a small cabin that offer rides to our next destination, the border town of Ha Tien. While enjoying happy Vietnamese music, we drive to the border town in 2 hours. Once there, we have no choice but to take a motorcycle taxi that will take us to Kep in Cambodia. We find two guys who can speak a bit of English and after a lot of negotiation with these 2 they bring us to our hotel in Kep for $ 28.00 in total. Be aware that if you take the bus you have to depend of this kind of guys as they are the only ones that speaks a bit of English and there is no bus that will bring you further to Kep. They will try to play you out as they have the advantage and they will always have the better deal.
Tip: At the border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia you need to know what a standard visa will cost you. If the border officials come up with a different price, then show them the proof and indicate that you will pay this and no more. Not even for the doctor, nor for the second stamp. This is it! There are too many stories on the internet around where many people pay an extra $5, - while that is not necessary.
Kep is a small coastal town that is known for its crab. Here you will find THE Crab market of the area and for less than $10.00 you have a kilo of crab at your disposal. At every restaurant in the area this is the main dish on the menu. And to conclude it all, there is a huge crab in the sea to put Kep as Krabcity on the map. Kep isn’t anything special, but good for a night’s rest and to visit the surrounding area. There is a bigger city close by called Kampot which is good for half a day. From here you can also take the bus to Sihanouville.
Our next destination Sihanoukville is a large, more touristy city south of Phnom Penh. Here you can especially relax ..., relax, hang out on the beach, drink a cocktail on the beach, swim in the sea, do nothing ... on the beach, eat ... on the beach ... .you catch my drift. Everybody is so relaxed, maybe a bit too relaxed. And finally we find out why as everybody is smoking a joint here…..on the beach. Apparently weed is offered as much as a TukTuk drive and we can say that is MUCH.
We stay close to Otres Beach, where you can find lots of bar/restaurants at the beach. It is the best place to go to if you are staying in Sihanoukville. We stay in a hotel which isn’t much, but it has aircon and it is cheap. And we are staying here only for 1 night.
In the evening we return to our hotel and walk back through the beach. The sky is beautifully illuminated by the stars and the full moon. The sea is illuminated by all kinds of brightly fluorescent yellow dots.! @ !? "Huh, what is that?" We wonder. Wave after wave crashes on the beach with these brightly coloured dots. This is the first time in our lives that we see this strange phenomenon and after looking on the internet later on we read about luminous plankton in the sea of Cambodia. So that is what we are looking at now. We try to catch it, but it turns out to be elusive. In the end, we take over an hour to get home, while we enjoy this wonderful place with natural lights.
KOH RONG SAMLOEM
After a night in Sihanoukville we take the boat to Koh Rong Samloem, a quiet island located 40 minutes from Sihanoukville. Here we stay in Sleeping Trees, a resort on the other side of the island from where we moor. Unfortunately, there are no boats going that way and that means that we have to hike to other side, packed with our backpacks and extra luggage. Despite the short distance (around 1 km) we take more than 50 minutes to get there. The main reason why is that you walk straight through the jungle, uphill, over loose boulders, over tree trunks, across a river and at the end a steep descent to reach Sleeping Trees.
Once you have arrived you immediately notice the peace and chill vibe that prevails here. Hammocks everywhere, a deserted beach with azure blue sea, tropical fish and bamboo houses.
Our bed for the next couple of days will be a tent. A hanging tent, which is stretched between three trees with the jungle on the background and a view over the sea. With just 20 meters between it, the sea is a refreshing place to wake up. WOW, what a wonderful place!!!
To get to know everybody who stays at Sleeping Trees the owners have thought of something, family dinner at the big table. It is a set menu so you don’t have to choose, you only have to let them know if you will join or not. And if you have tasted their cooking’s you will join them every night.
It's time to go to bed. Our first night in a 'hanging tent'. The tent is accessible through the bottom where you can find a small hatch with a zipper. Inside the tent you will sleeping bags (of cotton) and a pillow, nothing more. Keep in mind though that the tent is completely open, so don’t get in there butt naked.
We stay here for 4 nights and we love every minute of it. No internet, no TV, just sea, beach and hammocks. And of course, working on our blog. While we are doing this, we are sitting here with our thick ass in the sand with the sea less than 5 meters away. And yes, we have a cold beer in our hands. I would love to have these secondary employment conditions. Can we also get that in the Netherlands? What a life!
After 4 nights of chilling it’s time to do some more exploring, so today we are leaving for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We are accompanied along the way by a huge guy with a tiny little guitar that makes our 5 to 6-hour ride enjoyable with his music. We travel across vast open plains, with only a few palm trees. The road is littered with overloaded freight traffic and along the side of the road women are selling food at shredded market stalls. There is garbage everywhere, especially plastic. It is unbelievable that people live here like this. Every now and then we see a bright red sign with a skull next to the road: "Be careful, land mine dangerous!" It is hard to inmagine that next to that sign you can find houses where people are busy with their daily lives and children are playing on the streets. Later we hear that to date people are still injured or even die from this. But this is unfortunately the reality in Cambodia. The people are used to this and accept it in their way as they know the state is doing everything to defuse all landmines. But that will take years and years.
A nice and atmospheric city where you can find everything: from chic neighbourhoods to slums and from star food to local diner. This is how we can describe Phnom Penh. It is not the most beautiful city, far from it, but it has a certain appearance with brightly coloured temples, the majestic palace and the French colonial houses. We are going to entertain ourselves for the next 3 days by filling our bellies at local restaurants, drinking cocktails at a roof bar, visiting the Russian Market, the Night Market, Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, Wat Ounalom and Wat Phnom. And with this fine city atmosphere that should work out fine.
This fine atmosphere is very contrasting with the harrowing history of this city, but especially the whole of Cambodia. This is due to the Khmer Rouge with his leader Pol Pot. The story we are going to tell you will be intense, sometimes nauseating and is not for the 'faint hearted' or for children. But we think we should tell this story out of respect to the many victims. "Only through knowledge we can prevail such tragic happens ever again".
Our first stop on this journey of horror is the Killing Fields and we have chosen to go to one of the best-known killing fields, better known as 'Choeung Ek'. Throughout Cambodia, there were almost 400 of this kind of mass graves where innocent men, women and children were murdered.
How busy and noisy it is at the entrance of Choeung Ek, how calm and serene it is when you enter through the gates. Nobody talks, except the voice that tells the story of the Khmer Rouge ......
From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, led by dictator Pol Pot, was in power in Cambodia. He believed that Cambodia should become a communistic agricultural state where everyone was forced to work on the land 7 days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. This communist teaching was combined with the back-to-basics ideology where money and personal belongings were forbidden. The people had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Many died due to illness or starvation because of these barbarous living conditions.
Cities and intellectuals were labelled as 'bad'. Pol Pot wanted to return to a state with docile people and that meant that the 'smart people' had to be eliminated. Monks, teachers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, people with glasses, people who had soft hands were brutally killed by this regime. Pol Pot said the following about these people: "To keep you is no gain, to lose you is not a loss." And "the people of April 17th are parasites (this was the day Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh). They are losers of the war and prisoners of war."
Before being executed these so called smart people were first brought to S21 (also called Tuol Sleng). This is the most notorious prison in Cambodia. Today it is transformed into a museum to tell you it’s history. Intellectuals or people suspected of being against the regime were imprisoned, tortured and judged. Of the more than 17,000 prisoners who were in Tuol Sleng, only 7 survived. The proof are the hundreds of photos that we see. You see anger, fear, pride and emptiness. In a room next to it you see the same persons, only killed. They did not survive the torture chambers.
These torture chambers are chilly rooms where the sinister photos of torture on the wall betray that those dark spots on the ground are blood stains from that period. There is even a gallows on the 'schoolyard'. Here prisoners were tied upside down at their feet and hung, with their heads in a jar of water, until they were unconscious. Then they were pulled out and beaten so hard until they would wake up, after which the misery started again till they broke. Other torture methods were cutting off the fingertips or nipples, cutting people open and then putting poisonous centipedes in the wound.
The prisoners were mainly innocents and did not even meet the threat characteristics. But Pol Pot said: "Better to accidentally kill someone who is innocent than saving an enemy". They were tortured until they made a false confession that said that they had not done the work that was expected of them, stole rice, ignored an order, or had been spies for America or the Russian KGB during their teenage years. When you could no longer come up with a story, you were doomed and you were sent straight to Chunk Ek. This meant going along with the many transports that went every week, and even later every day. Up to 300 people per day could take part in this transport. In total, between 2 and 3 million people died during the Pol Pot regime on a population of 8 million!
Because killing all these victims had to be cheap, they used everything that was available. For example, used axes, hoes, bamboo sticks, hammers and cutters. The victims were blindfolded and had to kneel in front of the pit where the killing blow was given after which they were thrown into a mass grave (of which there were 129 in total in Chunk Ek). To suppress fears of cries, the vocal chords were cut by sugar cane (see photo) or loud music was played. For most people, this music was the last thing they heard.
Not only adults and children died here, also babies. They were lifted up at their feet while beaten to death with their heads against a tree. Why kill babies and children, you may wonder? Why in this inhuman way? Firstly, Pol Pot said the following about this: "To cut the grass, one must even remove the roots". Secondly, this was an easy and quick way to deal with tis. After all this misery, this tree has been given the chilling name 'Killing Tree'. In order to show support, bracelets are hanged on this tree.
To date, they still find people's bones, clothes and teeth. Once every 2 months they do a round and store all that’s been found in the monument 'Stupa’, which is built in a Buddhist form. At the bottom of the roof are Garuda birds and the magical snake Nagash, who come together and stand for 'PEACE!'
What a terrible time this must have been. What a misery. As we walk toward the exit with tears in our eyes, we look back for a moment, to show our sympathy to all the people who died here. Rest in peace!
For a long time, nothing was known about the isolated regime of Pol Pot. He was never publicly seen, but had the absolute power. The borders were closed and were deposited with landmines. But after some time, it became clear to the outside world what was happening in Cambodia. On December 25, 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and expelled the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and thousands of henchmen fled to the jungle near the border of Thailand where the Khmer Rouge managed to last for almost 20 years. They were still seen as legitimate leaders of Cambodia, even had a seat in the UN and received financial support. In 1997, Pol Pot came under house arrest, but was never officially tried for his crimes. He was murdered a year later. He died at 82 years old.
The Angkor area has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992. Until 1863 the rest of the world did not even know that Angkor Wat existed. Strange that this has only recently been discovered, because the area covers no less than 400 km2 with more than 100 temples! The largest and most famous temple is Angkor Wat itself, which is even the largest temple complex in the world. Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, but gradually changed into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century. The complex dates back to the Khmer era, a realm that was a major power in Southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th century.
Angkor Wat (meaning temple city) seems to be very impressive at sunrise. That's why we agreed with our tuk-tuk driver that he would pick us up at the hotel at 4.30. Like us, he was also still sleepy, but the fresh morning air during the ride was enough to keep us awake. Arriving at the entrance it soon became apparent that we were not the only ones. Together with hundreds of other tourists, armed with flashlight (because there is no lighting) and a bag with breakfast, we walked to THE place where the sunrise is best seen. From here you can photograph the entire temple from the front with its reflection in the blue water in front of the building, while the sun with its red glow appears behind the high towers. Before 5:00 am the die hards with their cameras and tripods where already at the ready to shoot this beautiful picture. Fortunately, we were there early and we had a front row seat right on the water. We had to wait until 6:45 AM as the sun wouldn’t rise earlier.
Touts had set out their blankets to give you a more comfortable seating while selling their food and drinks. And every tourist who sits there, feels somewhat obliged to buy something from them, at 'huge' prices. But this is all but true, so sit back and enjoy a dry and clean ass while you watch the sunrise.
After the sunrise we finally entered the temple Angkor Wat. This temple was built in the years 1113 and has a circumference of no less than 6 kilometres. The monument has 5 towers in total with 1 main tower and 4 towers of which the highest is 65 meters. Angkor What has to look like an earthly representation of the mountain Meru. This is the Mount Olympus of the Hindu faith and the residence of the gods. The walls are equipped with beautiful handmade sculptures that depict many different stories. Also, the steep, high stairs in this temple is a beautiful feature.
The next temple we visit is the 'the Bayon temple'. This temple is, just like Angkor Wat, one of the most popular temples and on arrival we also understand why. Between the high palm trees, we see high towers (54 in total) rising from afar; all equipped with 4 detailed faces. In the corridors and tunnels through the complex you can see detailed drawings about the Gods who were fighting with devils. You also see many Buddhas, but most of them are missing a head. It seems that most have been decapitated and then sold. In particular, kingdoms from Thailand regularly invaded the Khmer empire to plunder the temples. Despite this it is and remains a beautiful temple.
It is remarkable to see that 1000 years ago these temples where made by people without the technology of today. The sandstones, as smooth as marble, were laid without mortar or pin-and-hole connections, but simply by using gravity (1 block = 1.5 tons). They used pulleys, elephants and bamboo scaffolding to stack these black stones on top of each other.
For instance, Angkor Wat was made by 300,000 workers, 6,000 elephants and 6 to 10 million blocks of sandstone in no fewer than 32 years. What a fast pace at that time as in Europe they took over 300 years to build a cathedral in that time.
In the area around the Bayon Temple you can also find the Terrace of the Elephants. The kings who lived in this time, watched ceremonies from this terrace. This was the place where we first saw monks at a temple. A beautiful face, all in a red or orange-coloured robe, which of course had to be photographed 😉.
The Ta Prohm temple is another gem. This complex has been completely overgrown in recent centuries. Archaeologists have left it this way to show how they found it at the time. Huge roots of at least 4 to 5 meters high hold the remaining walls of what used to be a temple in their grip. Silk-cotton trees of up to 50 meters grow on the roofs and everywhere shrubs and plants are mixed with the complex.
While I am still admiring the whole, Inge Jolie has climbed into the temple and is swinging across a complex on a liana. After a few swings she finally let’s go of the liana and lands on her feet through a three double somersault, somewhere in the middle of the complex. Her prey is in sight: THE Tomb Raider entrance, which has been overgrown by enormous roots.
In her sexy outfit she keeps the hordes of mainly Chinese people at bay as they are not here for just a picture or two….no, no, the keep entire photo shoots. But now they have found their match, because Inge Jolie is in da house. And when the sun falls just right on the entrance, she makes a beautiful photo. Mission complete.
After visiting the last temple, Bantay Srei, we drove on to the landmine museum. This museum was founded by Aki Ra, who used to fight as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. His main task was to place mines in order to injure the enemy. It is estimated that about 3 million mines have been installed (not only by him ;-)). They were mainly placed in the west and northwest of Cambodia, along the Thai border. There are still many landmines active after so many years which still make a lot of victims. Therefore, Aki Ra has set his personal mission to strip Cambodia of all these mines and so he has already dismantled 50,000 of them, all by himself. In order to raise money for the victims, he has set up a museum where you can hear and see the story of Aki Ra and the mines in Cambodia.
The butterfly museum was the last stop on the program. Something else for a change. Here you can see the different steps of evolution, from egg to butterfly, that a caterpillar must undertake. When full grown they (about 20 to 30 species) are released into the garden where they fly around for 2 to 3 weeks before they face their deaths. Many use this time to flutter on and others prefer to spend time to mate. A one-night stand with butterflies lasts no less than 12 to 14 hours.
On Tuesday evening (8 March) we visited the circus "Phare, The Cambodian Circus". It was founded 20 years ago by 9 students and their art teacher when they returned from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The school offers the opportunity for street children, orphans or children of very poor families to get lessons in forms of art, including acrobatics, to give them a second chance in life.
With 200 people in total we are stuffed in a small tent. The temperature is around 188 degrees (as Inge always says). In one hour we are fully cooked or well done, but we want to see the show as this should be very awesome. The show consists of artists who have put together an act full of tricks, weird costumes (including a self-cuffed costume with a coconut on the forehead), humour and music (The drum band is equipped with a large 25 litre water tank that functions as a drum set).
Even now the tears roll down my cheeks while I am writing this. You should have seen it. And Chris had the time of his life. Never before had he been to a circus, he was clapping loudly to the simplest of tricks where a person has to hold up 3 balls. He thought it was GREAT!
After the show we let ourselves drop off in the Pub street. We had heard that you could get cheap cocktails at a mobile bar on the street and we really wanted to test that. I just need to say that we came home around 4:30 am, then you probably understand how these cocktails tasted ....
And when you have a hangover, what do you do? Indulge yourself in a spa. A facial treatment, full body massage and treatment for your feet all in 3 hours. Chris was lucky as a beautiful lady was his masseur for the day, someone who knew how to handle the job, but when he finally got a good look of her, it turned out to be a man! He could have known when he felt those callus fingers move over his body. But we leave the salon reborn and anew. The ladies and gentleman have done their job well. We can now travel to Battambang.
The second largest city in Cambodia, with about 250,000 inhabitants, is about a 4 hour drive (by bus) from Siem Reap. It is a city that you can easily skip when you have little time, but we did not have that, so we stayed here for 2 nights to pick up the few highlights that this city is rich. For example, you will find various temples including the Wat Banan which is about 1000 years old, Phnom Sapeau which is located on a mountain and has a beautiful view over the landscape, the Killing Cave (more about this later), the Bat Cave where Batman lives together with thousands of his friends and the Bamboo Train (also more about this later).
As soon as you enter the city and the bus stops at the designated area, you will be welcomed by about 10 to 20 men. They want to let you know, friendly, but urgently, that they can bring you to your hotel or any other hotel. By pushing and pulling they try to be the first at the entrance of the bus, so they have front row seats to help you get out and take your bags. Wow, what a service gentlemen ... ..but you should not stand in the way of us who wants to get out of the bus. So, after a little push and pull on our part, we could continue our way to the hotel.
Because we still had the whole afternoon, we decided to rent our loyal friend 'the scooter' and explored the neighbourhood. On the planning today was the Wat Banan Temple and a vineyard. A nice red wine goes well after months of not having drunk wine (wine is very expensive in Asia).
Wat Banan dates back to the Khmer era and was built on top of a hill. The temple can be reached by a steep staircase with about 400 steps. Easy Peasy, you think, but when it is so hot and humid that you leak on all sides (it was more than 40 degrees) this is a tough climb.
At the top of the stairs you will find 5 towers that have been preserved. These are kept alive by wooden constructions, but we hope that this will be restored once more as it is a piece of culture / civilization that has played an important role in the history of the Khmer.
Because we had lost so much moisture, we decided to drive on to the vineyard as this was the perfect place to refill our water loss. Unfortunately for us this wine was the nastiest wine we ever tasted. It smelled of mulled wine, but had the taste of sour, rotten grapes. You understand, the glasses were not empty when we drove away and the only thing we left here was a dry mouth.
The day after we made a ride with the 'bamboo train', a kind of bamboo raft on wheels, which goes back and forth across an old railway line. This improvised train was formerly used to get goods and animals from one place to another, but is now the biggest attraction of Battambang.
As soon as you arrive, you will be picked up by Uncle Agent. What he has to do there is a mystery to me, but the owner of this attraction pays him better than the government. Uncle Agent then leads you to 'the train', takes a picture of us and before we know it, we are already 100 meters further.
With about 20 km per hour you fly over the rickety track through the arid countryside.
When we see the first train coming at the same speed, we shit our pants. But the train quickly reduces its speed until it comes to a standstill. After that both drivers step down, lift the raft of the track and put the wheels on the other side of the oncoming car. Then the raft is put back on the wheels and on we go.
At the end of the track you will find a few stalls where you can buy drinks and clothing. It feels a bit like a tourist trap, but a nice cold cooola is really tasty after a ride of 45 minutes in 37 degrees. And now that we're there, we treat ourselves to bracelets and 2 tanktops of the same kind (family elephant is born).
The day is not over yet and so we continue to Phnom Sampeau, a former bastion of the Khmer Rouge. The nickname 'Killing Cave' immediately gives the worst suspicion. And upon arrival our suspicion comes true. Thousands of skulls and bones are piled up in this killing cave. Intellectuals or Khmer with an overly intelligent appearance (eg glasses) were blindfolded and pushed into this cave at a height of 10 meters. How many people died like this will always remain a mystery.
To the Batcave, which is also our last stop for today. A cave where millions of bats live that go out every day during sunset (5.30 pm) to find food. A wonderful phenomenon. Do not pay attention to the touts that try to sell a parking space or a drink. Just stand there, at the side of the road, and watch this natural wonder completely free of charge.
These were our last days in Cambodia. On Saturday we leave for the religious Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar.