Siem Reap Cambodia. . .

Siem Reap was the last place we visited on our SE Asia trip. We took a taxi from our hotel in Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. I had read somewhere that this trip was not for the fainthearted but I figured it couldn’t be that bad. It might seem rather decadent to take a taxi but the cost for a 6 hour trip was only 120 American dollars. It should have been 90 but we were travelling on Saturday 15th April which happened to be the middle day of three days celebration for the Cambodian New Year. We didn’t do our research! This event was massive and everyone (except us) became involved in the activity of firing enormous water guns, or hoses at passers by, either on foot, tuk tuk or moped. They gave everyone a good shot of water and a dowsing of flour. I have not got to the bottom of this tradition, but if I ever find out I’ll let you know. The whole thing escalated as the day went on and by the evening it was a full blown battle. Geoff and I kept our sightseeing to the daytime, when all the revellers were sleeping. There was not much evidence of over-consumption of alcohol, and we only saw the riot police once so it was an orderly event on the whole. Nobody got hurt — they only got wet and sticky.

Our taxi driver, Vanay, was friendly and happy. He spoke very little English but nodded and smiled at everything we said. He had two mobile telephones that constantly pinged and beeped. He spoke on the phone — not hands free — and sent several text messages, all whilst driving along a two-lane main road at furious speed, weaving in and out of the traffic, overtaking cars, buses, bicycles and mopeds and honking his horn every single time he passed the latter of these. It was hair raising and nerve wracking. The trip was 342 km and for every single one of those kilometres my heart was in my mouth. The sad thing about the journey was the amount of plastic rubbish we witnessed on the sides of the road, the animals grazing amongst the empty bottles and bags. I don’t think there was even a 100 metre stretch that was clear of it. Come on Cambodia . . . sort this out if you can. We made a couple of stops on the way. The first one was for Vanay to hose down the car, for no apparent reason, it didn’t seem dirty. We thought he was stopping for fuel but no. ‘Would madam like the toilet?’ he grinned. I declined as we’d only been on the road half an hour and had not even left the outskirts of Phnom Penh! The second stop was at a popular roadside cafe/shop/toilet area, which was nothing like a UK motorway services except for the tat they had for sale there, hats, plastic toys, cheap toiletries etc., you know the sort of thing I mean. There were some impressive dragon fruit though, for less than a pound (5000 riel). I found the money very confusing and couldn’t get used to spending thousands or millions on something that in sterling was very little money. At the the third stop, Vanay unloaded a large box from the boot of the car and passed it to an ‘associate’ who had arrived by moped, not sure what he was delivering but the mind boggles. There was more room for our luggage after that stop. At the last stop he delivered another package in a plastic bag, which had been nestled on the floor of the car beside him, in the front. I thought it was his lunch but obviously not. A young boy and girl came up beside our taxi on their moped, money exchanged hands and then they were given the package. Hmmm… interesting.

Siem Reap was buzzing with New Year activities as we drove into the city. The taxi was sprayed with water from hoses and everyone ran about the streets excited and happy to be soaked or soak others. We were glad to reach the haven of our hotel, the Chateau d’Angkor La Residence. Our room was again a suite with kitchenette and sitting room. There was even a washing machine so I was able to do a wash, which dried on our balcony in no time. It was still very hot so we took a swim before eating in the hotel dining room. We did this each night while staying here, mainly to avoid the party goers in the streets. It was fun to watch them from the safely of the hotel balcony. I thought I had captured some video of the water fights but sadly they’re all rubbish. You’ll have to use your imagination. Sorry. Lots of noise, water, fun and laughter. . .

One morning at the hotel we were visited by a group of dancers. They told the story of a young deer being caught by hunters. That’s about all I can tell you. Guests and staff at the hotel threw money at them which they collected in baskets and naturally we joined in throwing notes of thousands of riel (it was all monopoly money to me). I noticed that the staff were throwing HUNDREDS of notes at them, great wads at a time, how generous I thought. However, later that day when we walked to the museum there were people selling wads of notes, 10,000 riel (£2) I think they were. It was obviously some kind of tradition to have fake money to bandy about the place. ‘I hope the dancers at the hotel realise that the money we threw at them was real riel!’ I said to Geoff.

We wanted to take a car to Angkor Wat but were advised not to do this until Monday when the festival would be over. So on Sunday we visited the museum, a walk away from our hotel. Air conditioned and very well set out, we walked around for a couple of hours looking at various exhibits and watching short films about the history of Cambodia, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Thom Wat. Geoff was far more interested in it all than I was, I’m ashamed to say, it all left me rather cold. I couldn’t get enthusiastic at all. Perhaps I would be more excited about visiting the actual sites.

We arranged to leave the hotel at 7.30 on the morning, for our visit to the temples. ‘The earlier the better,’ said the receptionist. Our driver and guide, Khoshal, took us first to buy tickets from the Angkor Wat ticket office located in the city, they took our photographs and handed us our personalised passes for, I think, five temples. It was a short drive to Angkor Wat and the receptionist was absolutely right to tell us to leave early. It was already heaving with people in the car park and by the time we left, two hours later, you couldn’t put a pin between the visitors or the parked vehicles. The lovely Khoshal, parked up and waited for us.

We had to walk through a rather large commercial area with a great deal of stalls selling souvenirs as well as food and drinks, rather as one is forced to walk through duty free at any airport before you can find a place to just sit and wait to board the plane. We didn’t stop at this point but just followed other people who appeared to be heading in the right direction for the temple of Angkor Wat. It was an impressive sight, reached by walking along a causeway over the man made lake that surrounded the temple, like a moat. It is impossible to imagine how many people (slaves?) it took to build this huge, extraordinary monument. Although it has been restored to some extent, the pathways, steps and corridors were in places precarious. We walked from one side to the other and then all the way around. It was interesting to see that only a few people ventured around to the rear of the building. We were almost alone, compared to the front which was as packed as Piccadilly Circus on a Saturday night.

There was some kind of community exhibition on, we couldn’t quite work out what is was all about, but there were thousands of small hearts on sticks stuck in the ground like fields of flowers and also pinned on strings and hanging on square frames. Quite a sight to see. I think they were all made by school children.

From Angkor Wat we went to Angkor Thom, which as one time was the largest city in the world. It has many gateways, causeways and temples, the most well known being Bayon. The driver parked up just opposite the Bayon temple and waited for us. I was flagging in the heat but Geoff was keen to look all around. There had been some kind of festival there the night before and they were dismantling the ‘scenery’. It was odd to see the golden polystyrene Buddah, rocks and temple parts being loaded onto the back of a truck. The remnants of the flowers were wonderful.

We stopped at one more small temple before visitingTa Prohm, the temple of the trees, which was to be our final stop of the day. This, I found most impressive. We were dropped at the West Gate and Khoshal said he would meet us at the East Gate, we just had to walk straight through, which took us about an hour. The trees have grown through the ancient walls and are now make up an intricate part of the architecture. The most famous one was almost impossible to photograph without a tourist posing in front of it, but we did our best.

I’m truly glad we went to Angkor Wat and all the other temples, but I think I prefer more modern history and visiting places where I can imagine how people lived and I just cannot relate to these ancient times, although I can when it comes to ancient Roman history. Is that because there are so many films about Rome and not about Cambodia?

This concludes my posts about our trip to SE Asia, except to say that I found the money very confusing indeed. We flew back to Bangkok where we had a one night stay before flying back to the UK. We had no baht left when we reached the hotel and Geoff had some work to do. I left him and went down to the hotel shop to buy milk, teabags and a few snacks to see us through. I had forgotten they didn’t take cards in the shop. They showed me to the cash machine outside and I promptly withdrew 10,000 baht thinking it was about £50. Oh dear me. Geoff was slightly horrified when I told him. ‘You’ve just drawn about £250 from the bank and we’re not even here for 24 hours!’ he said. Oh well. . . next time he can go for the milk and teabags. 😂

Phnom Penh . . .

The Silver Pagoda in The King’s Palace Phnom Penh

We flew from Vientiane to Phnom Penh with Vietnam Airlines. Both The Man and I were a little anxious. It’s our ages I think and remembering the flying reputation Vietnam had in the past (very old Russian transport planes), but, it was a brilliant flight. The aeroplane was very modern, the flight attendants pleasant and smiling, the women elegant and the men smart and pleasing. I sound like an old lady but honestly they were so lovely and attentive. I’m not a great flyer but they made me feel quite relaxed. The flight was short, only an hour and five minutes but they still managed to serve us an in flight meal which was not at all bad; a meat roll, fruit, cup of tea etc.,

Arrival at Phnom Penh airport went much smoother that I could have thought. We managed to get some dollars from Bangkok airport so the immigration was quicker than Luang Prabang. It was more organised in any case. We filled in the little immigration document on board the plane, waited in line for them to check everything. They took our passports at one window and they were passed along for us to pay and collect. A line of officials all sitting down behind a long glass barrier. They worked like a conveyor belt handing the passports from one to the next until they arrived at the end of the line. It took less than five minutes I think. It was a big relief after the kerfuffle at Laos.

I had booked a taxi through to collect us and I wasn’t too sure if it was going to work but. . . there by the exit was a man with a sign saying Ninette Hartley in bold letters. A miracle. The place was very busy but our driver helped us through arrivals and we were soon in an air conditioned car heading for the centre of Phnom Penh. Just to mention here that booking through meant that the car was paid for from my card and we didn’t have to mess about looking for cash. I think Geoff gave the driver a tip anyway.

I have absolutely no idea what I expected Phnom Penh to offer me. The drive from the airport took us through the suburbs and into the city. The landscape was very flat. No hills or mountains. The streets were busy with heavy traffic; the usual million mopeds carrying more than two people but at least they were wearing helmets this time. There were more shop fronts and fewer street sellers. The area of the city which is for the government and embassy buildings etc., had wide boulevard type roads with flower beds, grass and walkways. Most buildings sat behind attractive high walls and iron gates. It didn’t feel like a communist country, although what I expect that to be I’m not really sure.

A few shots of Phnom Penh. The Mekong River in the middle.

Our hotel entrance was just one door set in a high wall. There was a man in a wooden booth with glass windows checking to see who was entering . As we went through the door we were transported from a busy, street into a complete oasis. We had to walk past the swimming pool to get to the hotel lobby and it was just like walking through a clearing in the jungle. The hotel restaurant where breakfast could be taken was right beside this pool. What a delight it was. We upgraded to a bigger room, a suite in fact, as we were to have three nights at this lovely place and honestly, it was so cheap considering we were in a city. Later on the next day we would be very glad we had done this.

Photos of the Pavilion Hotel Phnom Penh

We decided to visit one of the 300 Killing Fields just outside the city, and S21-Tuol Sleng Prison in the city centre, on one morning. We knew it was going to be difficult and emotional and Geoff wasn’t sure I would be able to handle both on the same day but I agreed with him that it would be better this way. So we booked a taxi to take us out to Choeng Ek (The Killing Field closest to Phnom Penh), wait for us and then bring us back to S-21. He waited for us there too before returning us to our hotel.

I don’t know how much to write about our visit to the Killing Fields and S-21. I made a note in my journal and I’ll copy some of it here:

*CONTENT WARNING, the following might upset some readers.

I found it disturbing, unbelievable and very sad. Man’s inhumanity to man at its very worst. Cambodian against Cambodian. Awful. I was especially affected by ‘The Killing Tree’. This is the infamous tree where Khmer Rouge Soldiers smashed the heads of young infants and babies against the trunk, holding them by their legs, in front of their mothers, and then throwing them into the pit. The mothers, mostly naked, were killed and thrown in after them. This whole scenario is so appalling I found it hard to take in. It is beyond my comprehension how any person could behave in this way. In my journal I wrote: unbelievable, SAD , awful, horrid, terrifying, cruel, inhuman. Beyond anything I can imagine.

Above are some photographs of the Killing Fields

The S-21 prison was originally a school, three stories built around three sides of a square courtyard. I saw many schools after this as we drove through the towns on our way up to Siem Reap and every time I was reminded of the awful atrocities that happened in the converted school in Phnom Penh. The S-21 prison was a cruel, horrendous place. Torturing innocent people until they confessed to something that wasn’t true and then they were taken out and killed. At first with bullets but in the end they were beaten to death or hacked with machetes. Classrooms were prison cells and some classrooms were divided into many small cells by building brick walls creating small, cramped cells about 6’x 3′. Four years this continued. 1975 until 1979, when the Vietnamese came into Cambodia and beat the Khmer Rouge into surrender. Between 14,000 and 17,000 people went into this prison and only twelve are believed to have survived. One survivor was there at the prison, Bou Meng, there is a book about his experience and we bought it from him as he sat behind a table in the courtyard at Tuol Sleng. I did do some reading about the history of Cambodia and when we came back home last week we watched again the film The Killing Fields. This time I understood it all so much better. Those young (very young) boys who made up. the Khmer Rouge army really had no choice. Brainwashed and in fear of their own lives, I guess they did what they had to do. But some of them did it with relish I think. Others did not.

A few photographs from S-21 Prison. Top includes photographs of some prisoners.

Centre top includes John Dewhurst and Kerry Hamill

Bottom is from left: The memorial, Bour Meng’s book, The courtyard today.

There were so many photographs showing tortured, and dead bodies with many stories behind the pictures. You can only take so much. One story touched me particularly hard and I expect that was because of losing my son Tosh when he was 27. There were three young foreigners John Dewhurst and Kerry Hamill and Stuart Glass. They were on a boat off the coast of Cambodia when attacked by a Khmer Rouge gunboat. Stuart Glass was shot on the boat and the other two were taken to S-21 prison and were killed after being tortured. They were around the same age as Tosh when they died. I cannot begin to imagine what their parents went through. It’s a dreadful story. You can read more about their story here and also a more detailed account of S-21.

I am sorry if this is not my usual kind of jolly blog but I felt I had to write about it even though it was not a good experience. We cannot hide from these things that have occurred in the world. They are complicated emotions that I feel; guilt, sadness, hopelessness, despair — but I’m not an activist and I am guilty of letting these things happen. I know it was something that Tosh felt strongly about, knowing these dreadful things are going on in the world but not actively doing anything about it. We are all guilty of standing back and letting things go by. I guess we fall back on, ‘what can I do about it?’

It was incredibly hot while we were there, 39 degrees for most of the time. When we got back to our hotel Geoff began to feel unwell. He’d lost his cap sometime during the morning and the heat obviously affected him. He was burning up although we’d not been ‘in the sun’ it was cloudy and the smoke was still hanging about. He just overheated rather dramatically. He went to bed and I kept putting wet flannels that I had cooled down in the freezer over his head. He slept for something like 17 hours and didn’t eat until breakfast the next day.

I swam in the pool and tried to take in all that we had seen, although it felt decadent and disrespectful to be just relaxing and doing nothing. We had paid our respects and I had thought deeply about the people and what happened from 1975-1979 in Cambodia.

The rest of the day I spent in our room. As I said at the beginning we’d upgraded to a suite so I was able to be in the sitting room while keeping and ear and eye on Geoff who was flat out in the bedroom. I read the book about Bou Meng. It was thought provoking and moving. I wondered how must it feel to be one of the only survivors out of thousands of prisoners. He survived because he was an artist and they were able to use him to paint portraits of prominent communist leaders and other posters for propaganda.

The next day, Geoff stayed out of the heat but I thought I should make the effort to go to the Royal Palace which was very close to our hotel. A very different experience from the day before. Such opulence, gold and comfort everywhere. I could only see 50% of the palace because it was the beginning of three days celebration for the Cambodian New Year and the king was practising something (sitting probably) in his throne room. In any case it was extremely boiling and I didn’t want to get struck down in the same way Geoff had. I went into the Silver Pagoda which is known as ‘The Temple of the Emerald-Crystal Buddha’ . No photographs allowed sadly. A few people were bowing and praying on the carpet below the buddha which was not that big but set high up on top of a gold plinth in the middle of the building. I walked around the grounds but for a very short time, always trying to keep in the shade. There was a model of Angkar Wat – we would be going there the next day. Finally I walked towards the exit where I found a magnificent model of king’s litter with soldiers and servants attending him. It was absolutely magnificent. Housed in an air conditioned room I spent some time there before walking back to our hotel.

My next post will be about Siem Reap and hopefully a jollier one. Cambodia is a beautiful country, we should not forget that and Phnom Penh must live with its history. Anyone over 50 is a little reluctant to talk about it.