- An unusual border crossing
- The US´ devastating ´help´
- The Cambodian Genocide
- Tuol Sleng prison
- Coeung Ek killing fields
- A Happy Guesthouse indeed
- Chilled out Siem Reap
- The one and only Angkor Wat
- A mix of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones
- Oktoberfest plans
I am in Siem Reap now, western Cambodia. This is the first time I write a news mail twice. I wrote one back in Phnom Penh, but I realised that I had not digested the things I had and I couldn’t find the right words to describe it. When writing about the Khmer Rouge, you have to find the right words.
An unusual border crossing
So when I left you we were about to have our last evening in Don Khom. It was quite sad to leave as we really loved that place and the people. I will definitely be back. We arrived at the port to take a bus to Cambodia and then the standard dodgy border issues started. A guy, who tells you that he will sort out everything for you, lets you fill out some papers and pretends to know everything about border crossings. I would never ever give my passport to anybody I don’t know and we insisted on doing everything ourselves, which worked perfectly.
The border was basically just a few shacks and police officers in the middle of nowhere. They all want “stamp fees” which is basically how they make a living. you need to be stamped out of one country and into the other country, standard procedure, but here every officer wants a few dollars otherwise he wouldn’t give you the stamp you need. Classic corruption. After we got our visa we said goodbye to Shir, which was quite sad as we thought that we would not see her again (we met up again in Siem Reap, but by then we didn’t know).
The US´ devastating ´help´
So Cambodia. The reasons why we came here are mainly history related so here a few basics.
Between the 5th and 13th century Cambodia was reined by the Angkor Empire, which expanded all over Laos, Vietnam and parts of Thailand. These kings built the temples which still constitute the national symbol and pride of Cambodia and which we are going to visit soon. However, the empire collapsed and ever since Cambodia has been a mess.
The French occupied this country and exploited it from the mid-19th century until their independence in 1953. A relatively stable monarchy followed until, as always, the US interfered. During the cold war many Vietnamese fled to Cambodia and likewise to Laos, the only strategy the US knew was dropping millions of tons of explosives on the jungle. They did this in cooperation with a conservative right-wing movement in Cambodia and helped them with money and guns. This movement succeeded in overthrowing the king and established the Republic of Cambodia in the 1970s! The king told the people to flee to the jungle and take part in the revolution which was of Maoist kind and led by Pol Pot, a man educated in France who came back to Cambodia to start a peasant’s revolution and who was the leader of the so-called Khmer Rouge.
The Cambodian Genocide
In 1975 they attained power and what followed in the next 3 years lacks words to describe it. They deported and killed every educated person, and educated meant that you could read or write or even that you wore glasses. They abolished all schools and hospitals, they made religion illegal and forced all monks to disrobe. They forced all the remaining people to forced labour in the fields. They killed everyone who was even in the most remote sense an artists. They killed all foreigners, all diplomats and of course all politically engaged people. In total, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered around 2 million people in a country with a population of 10 million.
As most of the targeted people lived in Phnom Penh, this city today does not have any people older than 40, and 4/5 of Cambodia’s population today was born after the genocide. The Khmer Rouge, that was the name of Pol Pot´s party, established the Peoples´ Democratic Kampuchea, which was led by a dozen intellectuals who were nearly all educated in France. Pol Pot has never been charged for his rimes, he died 15 years ago. In Phnom Penh several memorial sites can be visited and that´s what we did the last two days, but what we saw was very tough.
Tuol Sleng prison
The first day we went to Tuol Sleng. This was a fairly big school until 1975 when it was turned into a torture prison. 20000 people died here and only 7 survived. There are 4 buildings and you walk through this school and can access most classrooms. The chalkboards are still untouched and you can see what the Khmer Rouge wrote on them, namely the instructions for the prisoners. They left most of the rooms unchanged and have a little museum explaining all the instruments of torture that you can also find in the classrooms. Moreover, you can read interviews with some of the survivors who tell their story. One of them was even there when we visited the prison.
The Khmer Rouge took pictures of the prisoners when they arrived and when they were dead and all these pictures are shown in the rooms, tortured, torn bodies, blood, I can’t really describe it. They killed everyone, the youngest was 2 months old, children, women, everyone. Then you go into the yard of the school, it has a playground and you know those elevated bars to do push-ups, well the Khmer turned them into killing machines and put people upside down and drowned them until they confessed and then killed them.
They also had some interviews with people who took part in the revolution and were employed in Tuol Sleng. They often took children, around 14 and brainwashed them to turn them into ruthless killing machines.
Coeung Ek killing fields
The other site we visited is Choeung Ek, a killing field, 15 km outside of Phnom Penh. The Khmer brought people there in trucks, blindfolded them and killed them in front of a pit with bamboo sticks or iron bars; they clubbed them to death to save the money for the bullets. This way dozens of mass graves were filled up with bodies. Today it looks a bit like a park and you walk around there but can see the pits, with grass grown on top, everywhere. Then in the middle of your path you would nearly trip over a thy bone or other bones as the whole site is still full of bodies. In the middle of the “park” they have a monument containing the skulls and bones of thousands of victims. It’s difficult to describe all of this. I mean facts are easy to recount but the horror you feel when you visit these places can only be felt at the spot and not put into words.
The big problem here in comparison to Nazi Germany is that they haven’t really dealt with their past. The Democratic Kampuchea leaders had a lot of power until the end of the 80s; they even held a seat in the UN. Trials against a few now 90 year old former leaders are carried out since 2006 with a lot of help by the UN. but it’s difficult in such a country, because in every village, every family somebody was involved in the Khmer Rouge revolution and I have the feeling that this country does not want to be confronted with its past and that they think by letting time run by people are going to die and it´s going to be fine. It is good that they have these memorial sites but I have to say that I got really angry when I saw how they present some information. The texts in English are poor; a lot of spelling mistakes to the point of making it very difficult to understand or even change the meaning to something incorrect. It would cost them one English native speaker for a few days to correct all of it and I don’t get why they don’t see the importance of it. I had the impression they don’t take it as seriously as they should. I mean, it’s a memorial site of genocide, it should prevent future crimes, and in my opinion the government should make sure that every single visitor leaves this site not only shocked, but informed and educated, and this is not necessarily the case.
But for me it was one of the most shocking places I have ever been to. It’s very different from the extermination camps. Shocking in another way. But how this genocide was carried out is something which lacks description. They just killed everyone, even in their own lines, trying to put a utopia, or better dystopia, into practice. Horrible. But I am glad to have visited these sites, it is important to see what happened and learn about it.
A Happy Guesthouse indeed
To turn to other topics: Phnom Penh. I expected a chaotic city, a poor Bangkok-style megacity. But what we saw was very different. Not too much traffic, very clean (the first public waste bins I have ever seen in Asia), nice people, nice riverfront, chilled bars and guesthouses, just a nice place to stay.
Moreover, we found the “happy guest house” (yeah you can guess what they do there; you can have every drink or meal “happy” for 2 dollars more). I love that place, a part of the room. Toilet got stuck on the first day, you couldn’t use it, the room smelled like hell and it was very hot. Also there was a night-time construction site right behind the room. But it doesn’t matter, as long as I have a bed where I can sleep, I am happy.
And the lounge was just so cool. Open air with a roof. Free pool (on a veryyyy crooked table), good food, good drinks, nice people aaaaaaand 4 little puppies!!!! They were so nice. You would wait for your food and get yourself a puppy! We were also able to watch the Champion’s League matches there (unfortunately not FC Bayern Munich, which had a very impressive victory against Villareal away, 2-0). So during the day we took a tuktuk to the memorial sites and at night we would chill there and play pool, good place.
Chilled out Siem Reap
The next place we visited in Cambodia is Siem Reap. I heard from many people about this city, which is obviously famous as the starting point for any Angkor tours, but not only. It’s a very cool city, nice bars, cafes, channels, clean. We found a guesthouse like I have never seen before. A single bed in a very simple dormitory is 1 dollar. A bed in a bamboo carpeted cell is 2 dollars, and a bed in a normal ensuite room is 2.5 dollars. We went for the bamboo cell! But with that ridiculous price you get free internet, free pool, a football pitch, nice people and a pint of beer for 0.5 dollars! So ridiculously cheap! They have a rooftop bar with a pool table where all the tuktuk drivers chill all day until someone from the guesthouse needs a ride. They play a Cambodian pool game and I saw them and this morning I asked them to explain it to me and played it all morning (of course for money, they play everything for money here). It’s a mix of card and pool game, with lots of special rules and a looot of money involved. But I won quite a lot and they want a rematch soon!
Also the people you meet here are just so cool. This couple from Barcelona, very alternative and left, of course diehard Barcelona supporters. He came up to me and told me that if I am German he needs to ask me a very important favour and then he starts singing a German song for children (alle meine Entchen) with his Spanish accent and tells me he misses the last lines of this song! So I taught him how to pronounce the entire song and he wrote it down and sang it over and over. There are just people from all over the world but the main reason we obviously came here is Angkor!
The one and only Angkor Wat
Angkor was built between the 5th and 12th century and everyone has heard the amazing stories people tell about it. There are 3 options. Either you go early in the morning, at noon or for sunset. although the nights here in the rooftop bar are long (the 50 cent beer is too appealing) David and I decided to go for the sunrise option at 5am! And god it was worth it!
Cursing we got up that early, around 4am, we started driving in the dark. The temples they build are very symmetrical, huge square compounds usually surrounded by an artificial lake, then a huge wall with a west, south, east and north gate and 4 paths leading from there towards the main complex. The temples have several layers rising into the sky with huge carved pillars in the middle. It’s just amazing because they are up to 1km in width and 50 m high and every single stone they used is carved. Sometimes its simple decorations but some temples literally have stories carved into their walls. Also they carved faces (huge up to 6m tall) into the pillars facing in 4 directions. It’s just amazing.
So we arrived at Angkor Wat (the main temple and the one you will see on postcards etc.). Everybody was waiting for the sunrise in front of the lake to get the perfect postcard picture! Such idiots! I mean you can get that picture on every postcard or on the internet; I did not come here to have a picture on my camera but to feel the incredible energy and atmosphere of this place! So me and David passed all these people and went inside the temple when it was still dark. And I am pretty sure we are among the few lucky people who can claim to have been 1 hour in Angkor Wat without seeing a single person (this temple gets tens of thousands visitors a day), just one monk praying. There was some fog and the sun was slowly lighting up the temple and it was just incredible. You can wander around everywhere and walking down these corridors, climbing up the steep stairs underneath the pillars or just walking in the surrounding forest was just an unforgettable experience.
I didn’t think I would enjoy Angkor this much. As like I told you already, for me it’s not about what you see, but about what you feel when you are there (which can’t be good if there are thousands of annoying tourists around). This is the reason why I really enjoyed the Wat Phu temple in Laos. But this was truly amazing.
A mix of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones
There are maybe 50 temples (smaller than Angkor Wat) shattered around an area of 50x50km and we drove around, the tuktuk driver dropped us off and we could walk around the jungle which has conquered the temples by now. You walk in the forest, then you find a temple, you climb it, and in some we were quite on our own, in others, the more popular ones, obviously not. But it was amazing. Like an Austrian guy I met described Angkor to me: “it’s a mix of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones”. Well, a little bit more than that maybe :).
You pay 20 dollars per day to access the site, which is a looot of money here considering that a bed is 1 dollar) but I have to say they really use it. They employ thousands of locals to keep the site clean, the grass cut and restored the temples. Whoever of you has the chance to come here, come! I am not into archaeology and not really interested in ancient history, but this is incredible!
So yeah that’s what we did yesterday. Today we are visiting the floating market/forest. There is a lake here, the Tonle Sap (biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia) and during the monsoon season its size is tripled. It floods huge areas and the people there live in houses made of bamboo which float on the water. They have fishing net on one end of the “house” and you can visit entire villages of this kind. Then you can take a boat and slowly paddle through a forest turned into mangroves during this time of the year. Well we will see. And tonight we are taking the night bus back to BKK. Can’t believe it’s going to be over soon. But it’s not yet!
Good news: Shir’s plan was to visit Vietnam after this, but well, 4 weeks with me talking about the Oktoberfest, playing all the songs, singing along have had a little impact and she changed her plans, is changing her flight and is coming for the same weekend to Munich!!!!! BAM! So yeah you will all meet her very soon :). Two people I have met on this trip, Dina in Nepal, and Shir in Laos, are coming to this year´s Oktoberfest! Standard!!!!!
I will have a few more games of Cambodian pool and earn the money for today :)
See you soon!