Friday, 30 April 2010

Khmer Rouge

Being in Cambodia, and having seen and been really impressed by "The Killing Fields" , I thought I should find out more about the Khmer Rouge, so I went to the killing fields of Choeung Ek, near Phnom Penh, and to the prison at Toul Sleng. It was pretty heavy, so this entry is not very light.

I didn't realize that the Khmer Rouge regime only lasted three years, much like the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. Like the Terror, they started off killing members of the old regime, then moved on to dissidents and intellectuals, and finally members of their own gang who weren't revolutionary enough. Before the Vietnamese invaded in 1978 there were more people getting carted to Choeung Ek in a day than they could get rid of.

The killing fields were just that, a place where they killed people, one by one, lining them up by the side of a pit, and knocking them over the head with something big and heavy and reuseable, like an ax or an axle, and then covering the resulting pile of bodies with chemicals to keep down the smell and finish off anyone who might not be quite dead. Simple and brutal.

Now Choeung Ek is peaceful - chickens rustle around in the underbrush and you can hear a school playground nearby. There's a small museum but none of the original buildings are left. Instead there are hand painted signs around telling you what happened where. The english translations aren't very clear, but it's somehow a relief because it softens the blow a little. It takes you a minute or two to understand what happened, rather than being hit with it all at once.

If I remember right, there were around 160 pits found there, of which 86 have been excavated. The bones and clothes are on display in a large buddhist stupa in the middle. After heavy rain more bones and clothes rise to the surface and get put aside too. Outside the fence there are kids asking you for money. It's a little surreal.

People were sent to Choeung Ek from Tuol Sleng, where I went next. It used to be a school, and I was impressed by how easily schools can be transformed into prisons. The building is falling apart now. A lot of the rooms are as they were, with maybe a picture on the wall to show how it was found - usually showing the last victim. Some of the rooms were essentially unchanged, but others were divided up into small individual cells.

The Khmer Rouge apparently kept very thorough records of all their victims, and the most powerful part of the museum is the section of photos. There are few captions, and many of them are only in Khmer, so I didn't understand a lot of it. I think some were members of the Khmer Rouge - generally young, some of them smiling, without numbers. Most are pictures of the soon-to-be victims. There are hundreds of them, and it was the sense of individual personality in each of them that struck me most. Some looked scared, some looked defiant. One man had a calm smile.

Most of them had simple laminated numbers, but one area showed people with a plastic information card, like in a mugshot. The writing was in Khmer, but they also had dates, I assume the date of their arrest. The ones shown were all in 1978, and many of them in February. I looked at them for quite a while. There were 4 on the 14th and 3 on the 15th, a few on the 17th and 18th. None on the 16th though. That was the day I turned 4.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


We left Dondet, Laos, at 8am on what was supposedly an 11 hour trip to Phnom Penh. As with most bus trips I've taken here, the time estimates are pretty optimistic. I don't think it's a very busy border crossing and we got through in no time, greeted on the Cambodian side by cheerful shouts of "Hello Cold Water" from the ladies with the coolers. It was another hour before we left, though, presumably because they needed to fill our bus a bit more. We were almost all foreigners: Belgian, Spanish, French, American, Australian, even a Chinese family on whom I made the mistake of testing out my meagre Mandarin at the first breakdown, and the mother chatted away to me merrily - completely un-understood - for the rest of the trip.

At 2pm, shortly before we were planning to stop for lunch, we blew our first tire. We sat for two hours in the shade by the side of the road waiting for the returning bus that eventually brought a spare. A second rear tire went around 7pm, blowing a hole in the floor of the bus and projecting shrapnel that cut up the legs of the two people sitting nearest. Not badly, but enough to make all of us pretty nervous. This time, after standing around in the dark for a while, we drove on - slowly - to the nearest town to get it changed. We finally made it to the capital at 2am, not in the best of moods.

I had one full day in Phnom Penh, and I started out with the National Museum, housed in a fabulous building and including some really impressive sculpture, mostly taken from the temples around Siem Reap. After that, I caved in to relentless pressure from the tuktuk drivers and got one to take me to the Khmer Rouge museums (more on that in Khmer Rouge entry).

The following day I was on the bus, again, to Siem Reap, base-town for visiting Angkor. The bus was only an hour and a half late, and no breakdowns.

My grand-mother was here about 45 years ago, and it has been nice to feel like I'm following in her footsteps a bit, and to wonder what has changed and what's the same. I spent 3 days, with a tuktuk to take me to some of the outlying temples on the first two days (thanks for the advice, R&A!) and a bike to see Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom on my last day. All of it is very impressive, but my personal favorite was Bandeay Kdei. It really looks like something out of Tomb Raider, and you're not totally convinced it won't come toppling down on you. And it has a lot of beautiful carvings, of course.

My last day fell on Visakh Bochea Day: the Birth, Enlight-enment and Death of the Buddha (just found that out, thank you Google, the explanation being a little beyond the English skills of the people I met there). It was apparently the first time they had it at Angkor, and the place was packed, almost entirely by Cambodians. They were all beaming and made me feel really welcome, even though I couldn't understand anything.

The following day I had hoped to go by boat to Battambang up the Tonle Sap river, just because it's supposed to be a beautiful trip. It seems, however, that I'm destined to travel only by bus in Cambodia. Being the end of the dry season, the river levels were too low for the boat to pass. Of course it rained the entire ride. At least it only started after our breakdown (a leak, fixed pretty quickly - kept the cows entertained, though).

Battambang is not particularly charming, but has a lot of character and there aren't so many tourists. I was only there for one afternoon - probably long enough - but I liked it. I was planning to head straight for the Thai border and take the train into Bangkok, but it turns out things are worse if anything there. They recently put a bomb on the Skytrain, and the regular train passes through that area, so I figured I would fly from Phnom Penh instead. Back on the bus.

I think my favorite part in Cambodia is the people. They are much more in-your-face than the Lao, but they're really friendly. The universal greeting: "Hello Tuktuk" got a little overwhelming, but I found that many of the people seem genuinely interested in you (as well as the sale). Even the tshirt/scarf vendors at the temples, who are extra persistent, sat down to chat with me while I waited for my lunch,
after I finally I convinced them I wasn't buying anything for myself or my mother or my friends. At the end of a conversation/transaction, they'll wish you good luck, which is really nice. And if you're on the bus, you'll need it.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Laos (part 2)

As much as I love public transport, the idea of a 24 hour bus ride to Hanoi was more than I could handle. So even though that was the only visa I had actually succeeded in getting before setting off (Australia doesn't count - they give it away), I decided to skip Vietnam (good thinking, Amelia and Rob) and head directly from Laos to Cambodia.

The roads aren't great in Laos, especially in the north. It's 390km from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and it took 10 hours on the bus (even a fancy VIP bus!). It was a beautiful trip, especially around Vang Vieng, but I was happy to finally get to the capital.

I had two days in Vientiane, which is a lot less pretty than Luang Prabang, but also more of a real city - in some ways, more interesting (like the guy snoozing at the construction site).

I heard the museum was good for a laugh, mostly because of the English captions, so I was pretty surprised to find it quite interesting, and full of some really beautiful old Lao art. It used to be the Lao Revolutionary Museum, and there are still a lot of random artifacts in the recent history section, like bamboo spoons used by Pathet Lao leaders while living in the jungle, and guns brought "by American Imperialists to kill the Lao people". Overall, though, I was pretty impressed.

COPE helps people who have lost a limb, mostly due to (previously) unexploded bombs dropped by the US on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their National Rehabilitation Center is in the city, and the museum is a little heavy but really interesting.

Needing a little zen after all that, I went to Wat Sisaket, where in the cloiser all the way around the courtyard (pictured) there are literally thousands of Buddhas of all sizes smiling serenely down at you. It was perfect.

After Vientiane I headed south on the overnight bus to the Siphandon, or 4000 island, region at the border with Cambodia. It's a delightfully sleepy, bungalow-and-hammock-filled cluster of islands in the Mekong. I stayed on Dondet, probably the most touristy island but still really mellow. The bungalows range from pretty swanky to about to fall down. I chose one that looked a little more solid than the ones above, but without a bathroom - my idea of roughing it! I only had one day there though, so didn't get as much use of my hammock as I would have liked.

The next day I was back on the road, this time to Cambodia, with Kim Wilde ringing in my ears (Thank you, Dominique).

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Laos (part 1)

I have only been through the north so far, but Laos is delightfully serene. The people seem very dignified, almost timid. Even the kids celebrating the new year (Pii Mai) asked my permission to soak me.

I stayed 2 nights in Huaysai (or Houixai), the capital of
Bokeo province. There are basically 2 things foreigners do here: take the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang (2 days), or go on the Gibbon Experience in the Bokeo Nature Reserve (3 days). If I didn't get a spot on the latter I would have done the former, but as it was I got onto the "classic experience" leaving April 14th.

It was a blast. We stayed in a treehouse 40m above ground level - especially exciting when a nearby tree fell down on the last evening. There are 7 treehouses in all and we saw five of them, three on a 3 hour trek in the heat on the second day. The down side to ziplines is you always have to climb to get to the next one. Our guides were great though, pictured having a well deserved Beerlao on the last day (my treehouse had the two guides on the right, Boudlun and Nuan).
Next stop was Luang Prabang, after a pretty painful overnight bus trip. I went with Anna and Jenny, two Swedes who were also on the Gibbon experience (I think that's Jenny on the zipline in the picture). There are lots of tourists there, but it's still really mellow and appealing. I saw a man chasing chickens out of his restaurant one morning. It's that kind of place.
The town sits at the fork of the Mekong and Namkhan rivers, and everywhere you look is another scenic view. There are temples, colonial buildings and cafes, not to mention handicraft shops and a night market that put a serious dent in my wallet. There are also some really nice restaurants, including Tamarind, where they have a sensational honey and ginger cocktail. That's right, I'm branching out from my standard rum & coke.

We also visited the Kuang Si waterfalls, which were a lot better than I expected. There are several levels, all of them stunning and a few open for swimming. There were lots of locals enjoying it too (as in the picture, cooling themselves and their Beerlao), along with the foreigners. The water is kind of cloudy, and the fish do occasionally nibble - definitely wakes you up - but it's really refreshing.
As with most places on this trip, I could have stayed a lot longer. After two nights in Luang Prabang I was off south again. Next stop: Vientiane.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand

Now I'm going through countries at breakneck speed. It has been a little dizzying, but fun.
I had a delightful day and a half in space-age Singapore, thanks to the Keegans. We visited the Asian Civilisations Museum and Orchid Garden, both spectacular, and did the ridge walk at dusk with beautiful views over the city. Of course my favorite part was the Marina Barrage pumping station, complete with museum, green roof for kite-flying and fountains (first picture).

Then it was north by train to Kuala Lumpur, where I spent a couple of days visiting the city, including the Petronas Towers which are very impressive, especially at night.
To get to Bangkok I had to change trains at Butterworth with a 7 hour wait, which gave me plenty of time to take the ferry to Penang. Apparently it's a great place for Malaysian food, but I got there at 8am, not a great time to sample the culinary delights. Still, I had a nice time exploring the markets, which was where I saw the frog vendor pictured. Mmm.
I wanted to avoid all the unrest in Bangkok, so got a train ticket north to Chiang Mai on the same day I arrived, Saturday. That still gave me about 9 hours, so I wandered around the areas near the station, which included quite a few temples, like the one where I saw this buddha. I didn't see any sign at all of trouble, but a woman on my Chiang Mai train wasn't so lucky. She had been at the bus station, but all buses out were full and taxis were charging an arm and a leg to take her across town around the trouble.
Chiang Mai is getting ready for Songkran, the Thai New Year, which starts tomorrow. That seems to involve getting a bucket and an abundant supply of water and drenching everyone else, especially in passing traffic. The best place was clearly next to the moat (shown left), but a fair number of people were riding around in the back of pickup trucks with barrels of water. There are throngs of backpackers there, too, who were really getting into it, although their water guns weren't as effective as the buckets. After the first two or three soakings I was less amused, but it definitely helped against the heat.
I spent one night in Chiang Mai and then headed north again this morning to the border with Laos. This involved an AC bus to Chiang Rai and a non-AC bus to Chiang Khong (don't know what Chiang means, but it's popular here), merry villagers showering us with water all the way. Then I took a ferry across the Mekong (the Mekong!) and now I'm in Laos. :0)

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia

After three weeks taking it pretty easy in Brisbane and Sydney, I've had whirlwind tour of the rest of the country. I don't mean to suggest that I've seen all the rest of the country, just that the rest that I saw I went through very fast.
I took the overnight train from Sydney to Melbourne and set off right away along the south coast on the Great Ocean Road. The top picture is from there. It was incredibly beautiful, and one of the best parts was a walk along the cliffs in Port Campbell.
I stayed the night in Port Fairy (with a name like that I couldn't resist) then headed back to Melbourne via an inland route that took me through the Grampians National Park. At the Brambuk cultural centre, they pointed me in the direction of a local rock art site, Bunjil's shelter. There I also saw a couple of wild wallabies. That was especially nice since the only mammalian wildlife I had seen in Victoria so far was roadkill, of which there is quite a lot.

Back to Melbourne after dark, I stayed at a hostel near Victoria Market. The next day was Good Friday, a holiday here and probably not the best time to visit. There was virtually no one around - it was like the set of a survivor movie. Eventually I found everyone at the Botanic Garden, where the whole city had gathered to barbecue.

Friday night I took an overnight bus to Adelaide, going through several of the towns I drove through a day before. I had 6 hours in South Australia before my noon flight to Perth. It was pretty quiet, I think I was the only person awake, but I saw a beautiful sunrise, and lots of very colorful lorikeet-type birds.

Around midday yesterday I arrived in Perth, Western Australia (abbreviated WA, which I find very confusing, having been born in the other WA). It was a beautiful day, and I spent the afternoon in Kings Park, where I took the picture here. As suggested (thanks Sue!) I went to Fremantle today. I did the Prison tour, which was pretty intense and interesting to compare to Alcatraz. I also dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean.

In a couple of hours I'll be heading to Singapore. Hard to believe I'm already more than halfway through!
Look, I've finally figured out how to put more pictures in!