Wandering and Wondering

Friday, February 6, 2009

Khmer culture

We began our tour of Cambodia a little over a week ago. Today we are in the capital Phnom Penh, and this morning I was asked by a tuk-tuk driver if I would like a ride to the “killing fields”. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is an area where approximately 17,000 people were executed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978 under Pol Pot’s brutal regime. For many Khmers (which is what Cambodians call themselves) including our tour guide, the Khmer Rouge years are the source of many painful memories and it has taken a long time for the country to rebuild itself. It was only in 2007 that a tribunal commenced to bring genocide charges against the Khmer Rouge leaders, and there are still many who haven’t been brought to justice.

I didn’t take up the tuk-tuk driver’s offer as we had our own mini-bus transportation already organized. Before visiting the killing fields we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum building was originally a school until 1975 when it was converted to a prison and used for detention, interrogation and torture by the Khmer Rouge. Every person who passed through the prison was photographed, and the photographs remain today as a brutal reminder.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The killing fields contained numerous mass graves, the biggest of which held 2000 bodies. Most of the bodies have since been exhumed and are now on display in a large monument, but there are still many bones scattered around the fields, and every time it rains more get revealed. Our guide pointed some out to us on the very path we were walking along.

Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Even though the Khmer Rouge regime ended almost 30 years ago, Cambodians have only really been living in peace since the year 2000. It makes you realize why much of the country’s infrastructure isn’t in the best condition – rebuilding a nation takes a long time. Tourism is helping to bring a lot of money into the country, but many of the tourist facilities are foreign owned, so a lot of the money doesn’t stay here. Even the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are privately owned by a Japanese company after the government privatized them in 2005.

Despite the country’s recent problems, the Khmer people have a rich heritage. The golden age of the Khmer civilization was between the 9th and 13th centuries, when the centre of power was located at Angkor. The temples that were built here during this time still remain standing today. Our base for visiting the temples was the touristy town of Siem Reap. As part of our full day tour we were up at dawn to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat, after which we visited several other temples including the Angkor Thom complex and Banteay Srei. My favourite temple complex, however, was Ta Prohm, which has become overgrown by the jungle. This is where some of the scenes from the Tomb Raider movie were filmed.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Carvings on the Bayon Temple

Tomb Raider Temple at Angkor

Apart from the temples, the other highlight of Cambodia has been its friendly people. In Siem Reap we visited an orphanage to spend some time with the children. After playing some games with them and letting them take photos with our cameras, they performed a traditional dance for us. One little girl attached herself to me from the moment we arrived.

English lesson


Emma with one of the kids

We also had a chance to meet with some local families while staying at Kampong Cham. We went on a cycle tour to an island that involved crossing a bamboo bridge. On the island we visited the home of a local family and they shared some home-grown food with us. Later in the evening we had dinner with our tour leader’s family, and they provided a delicious spread of traditional food. And for dessert? Tarantula! With Em hiding outside the front door, I had the experience of holding a live tarantula in my hand. Some of the other members of the group even tried eating tarantula, but I decided to pass on that.

Bamboo bridge


Dinner with a local family

Making friends with a tarantula

Another interesting experience was our home-stay, where we got to experience sleeping in a hut on stilts with the locals. We went to sleep listening to the sounds of the farm animals, including a couple of small pigs that were running around below our hut (or was that the sound of our tour leader Sam snoring?), and in the morning we were woken by the sound of the roosters crowing.

Football star

Ashley's nail salon

Young girl

Our final destination before reaching Phnom Penh was the beachside town of Sihanoukville. The main beach was far too overcrowded, so we decided to go on a boat tour to some islands just off the coast. On the first island we did a bit of snorkeling, and on the second island we spent a few hours just relaxing on the beach. But it seems you can’t have a day in Cambodia without an adventure of some sort – on our way back to Sihanoukville the propeller on our boat broke and we were stranded in the middle of the sea. We had to wait about 45 minutes before another boat came along and towed us back to shore.

But our adventure wasn’t quite over just yet. Our boat couldn’t be towed all the way to the shore, so we either had to jump from our boat to the other boat (both of which were rocking up and down quite vigorously), or jump from our boat and swim the 150 metres to shore. Most of us chose the second option, but then there was the problem of our bags. I had thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment in my backpack, which I watched with trepidation being passed from one boat to the next. I’m happy to say that everyone arrived safely back at shore along with all their luggage. Except, that is, for one of Elle’s thongs, which she had to swim back to the boat to fetch.

We had the option of going on another boat trip the next day, but surprisingly no one took up the offer. Instead, Emma and I spent the afternoon at Ortres beach, which was a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride from the main beach and a lot more peaceful. Here we tried some wind-surfing which took a while to get the hang of, but was quite fun.

Relaxing at the beach

Stranded at sea


Tomorrow we leave Cambodia for the next part of our adventure – Vietnam!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bangkok, Dangerous

Emma and I arrived in Bangkok a couple of days ago for the start of our 5 week "Indochina Unplugged" overland tour. On the plane I watched a movie called "Bangkok, Dangerous". The opening scenes of the movie described Bangkok as a "city full of con-artists and hustlers". Having been to Bangkok once before, I already had the experience of being scammed by a tuk-tuk driver who promised to take me to see some temples for a very cheap fare, but ended up taking me to a tailor shop where they tried to sell me several suits. It is a pretty standard scam, and this time in Bangkok I noticed a sign up at the hotel warning about it. So for my second time visiting Bangkok, I was a little bit more travel wise. But that didn't stop me running into problems.

The first problem started back in Sydney when we were on the plane waiting to depart. There was some sort of problem with the radio system on the plane which delayed our departure by 40 minutes. Our flight to Bangkok was via Hong Kong, where we were scheduled for a stop-over of just over an hour. With our flight delayed by 40 minutes, however, we were only going to have around half an hour after landing to get off the plane, go through a security checkpoint and get to the boarding gate for the next leg of our flight. We voiced our concerns to the flight attendant and they agreed to move us up to the front of the plane just before landing, so that we would be the first to disembark. This meant that we got to sit in business class for the last 20 minutes of the flight, which I must admit was a very nice way to fly.

After landing, we pretty much ran to the security checkpoint and then on to the gate and made it just as boarding was commencing. My luggage, however, wasn't so fortunate, and we arrived in Bangkok to find that my bag was missing, even though Em's bag was there. On reporting this to the lost luggage counter, they told us they had no record of either my bag or Emma's bag in the system. We were left with no choice but to head to our hotel and hope they would find my bag and fly it down on a later flight that night.

Come the next day and my bag still hadn't arrived, so I was thinking I would need to buy a whole new set of clothes, toiletries and other travel gear, not to mention all the chargers for my camera, phone and laptop. I finally got a call later that evening saying that they had found my bag in Hong Kong and would fly it down that night.

So I know had my bag, but my troubles in Bangkok didn't stop there. The next day we visited the Grand Palace, and after wandering around the amazing palace buildings and temples for about half an hour I realised that my mobile phone was missing from my pocket. Em tried calling my number on her phone, but couldn't get through. So I'm not sure if it fell out of my pocket somewhere or was pick-pocketed. Either way it was gone. To be honest, after going thru losing my entire bag of luggage, I wasn't really all that concerned about the phone - losing my wallet or passport would have been a lot worse. Sure, I'll be without a phone for the rest of the trip, but when I get back home I can buy myself a brand new iPhone with the money from the travel insurance.

Tomorrow we leave Bangkok and head into Cambodia, so hopefully my luck will improve. "Bangkok, Dangerous"? Maybe. "Bangkok, Unlucky"? Yes.