All posts by pollytheperil

Tuesday, 28th November

Well, here we are in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Breakfast was served on the top floor of our hotel, which gave us a birds eye view of the city. We have to have a local guide here and at 9.30 we set off with him to see some sites.

Our first impression was of a much less frenetic city than Pnom Penh. Many roads had the French boulevard feel and there was a lot less traffic. Having said this, the overhead wiring was more reminiscent of Delhi!

How does anything work!?!

We saw the presidential palace, which looked almost untouched by human hand

And then crossed the road to a Buddhist Monastery now used as a museum. The city of Vientiane was razed to the ground in the 1800’s and this was the only building left standing.

The complex is quite large and passing through a tall outer wall, we found ourselves in a well tended garden interspersed with gold coloured shrines.

An inner gate took us into the main ‘business’ area. The large temple was surrounded by covered niched cloisters.

We were lucky to arrive when we did and could take some photographs without too many people. Within about ten minutes of our arrival, the place was swarming with other tourists. 😡

We escaped by another gate and set off to get some local currency. Unlike Cambodia, Laos does not use US dollars as its main currency, so we had to go to a money changer to get some kips. Money changing is a too lowly occupation for banks it seems. Kips come with lots of ‘0’s so we were millionaires in minutes! We carried our loot off in the black plastic bag provided. Monied up, we wandered past the fast food stalls…..

Fast food starts early here. It was about 10.30!

We found ourselves walking up a broad avenue with an Arc de Triomphe like archway at the end. It transpires (we think, because our guide’s English is not very clear) that this was used as a runway during the Vietnam war. Laos was another country not involved but badly affected by it. More of this later.

On reaching the arch which had a lovely interior ceiling

We were able to scramble to the top, which gave us views over the city below.

Clever, eh!

Moving on, our Laos guide left us and we took a tuk tuk to a local rehabilitation centre run by an organisation called COPE. Here they make and fit artificial limbs, tragically much needed by the victims (many very young) of the cluster bombs dropped in that awful red ‘corridor’ of the US bombing raids…….

The red areas are where clusters bombs were dropped.

It is thought that 30% of the bombs did not explode on impact and remain in the ground to explode when touched by unwary farmers tilling their land or young children playing. People are still being wounded by these things although much clearing still continues. Once again a sobering reminder of the horrors of war, but it was good to see the success the centre was having. It not only fits the limbs, but some of the people helped stay on to work in making the prosthetics.

They are doing amazing work. It is a tragedy that it is still needed. They also supply limbs for those born with deformities which their pioneer work can also benefit.

Back into our tuk tuk……

an up market model of the Cambodian version, we set of for lunch. After a brief pause we were out again to wander the markets and eventually walk to the Mekong River.

The green in this last picture is algae ….😳. I can feel Keith’s heart sinking at the thought of me in a basket selling area😖😄

The Mekong River jaunt was to take pictures of the sunset. As it happened, it was overcast, so although we could see Thailand on the far side of the river, it was through fairly heavy gloom, and the sunset was to say the least a bit eerie…….

However, we saw some interesting things on the way…….

A king with dangly bits……

Some monks…….

Some flags…….

Strawberries!

And more street food served on a motorbike sidecart!

Monday 26th November

It was raining and very dull when we woke up, which seemed appropriate for the day ahead as we were going to view a very dark period of Cambodian history. We were going to what has become known as the Killing Fields and on to the building known as S21.

The start to the day was interesting in that, due to major works taking place on the building, we had to take a tuk tuk ride to breakfast to another hotel. Here the meal we had ordered the previous day was delivered on a sort of airline tray, together with a whole baguette for each person! The first bread we have seen this journey and it certainly arrived in abundance. For the tea drinkers though it was not such a good experience!A first excellent cup of tea could not be followed with a second due to a major communication issue. As an old colleague of mine would have said, the young lady concerned was something of an ’empty vessel’. No amount of pointing, enunciating or acting out could get her to understand that a second cup was required! Eventually after management intervention a teapot was produced – but not before the cups themselves had been removed and the requirement for a replacement had been identified. Somehow breakfast seemed really hard work!

Back to the serious business of the day. Having done a little homework in preparation, we had already established these horrendous atrocities that we were to hear more about, happened in our lifetime and were so horrific that I found them difficult to assimilate. It took mans inhumanity to man to a new level.

Modern Cambodian history can only be described as tragic. By the mid 19th century the once mighty Khmer Empire was much weakened and dominated by Vietnam to the east and what was then Siam in the West. It was at this stage that the then king accepted the support of France. Cambodia became a French Protectrate and the French influence can still be seen in lay out of some parts of the city of Pnom Penh. All was reasonably quiet in the country until 1941. Then the war in Europe and the Indo Chinese wars impacted on the political situation and finally the Vietnam War, when the American Air Force started bombing the Cambodian border, ostensibly trying to eliminate the Viet Cong rebels hiding there. Or so Mr Nixon said. It was against this background that Pol Pot and his cronies came to power providing retaliation for the people living in fear of the US bombing which was killing thousands of the rural population. They operated under the banner of Cambodian Communism. They were to become known as the Khmer Rouge. It was 1975.

This date was to see the start of a period of unmitigated cruelty and terror. It is beyond belief that a man who himself had been born to a good family with a close association with the royal family, had been well educated, spent some time as a monk, had benefited from a scholarship to Paris and became a teacher could head an organisation that was responsible for the death of an estimated third of the population either killed outright, tortured, starved or worked to death.

The so called Killing Fields are an area just outside of Pnom Penh, previously a Chinese Cemetery. It was the place where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge regime prison known as S21 were taken to be killed. It is now a memorial to those who died there. There were another 196 prisons and 388 killing fields in other parts of Cambodia. This was the largest and has become the most famous. It serves as a chilling memorial to those who were caught up in the Pol Pot regime.

As you enter the area, a tall monument rises up in front of you.

At first you do not notice that it is full of the 8,985 skulls of the people murdered on the site. And then you realise what you are looking at.

The prisoners were taken to the area at night. They were then killed by having their throats cut with the serrated edge of a branch of the Super Palm tree, or being bludgeoned to death with axe handles or hoes to ‘avoid wasting bullets’.

The bones and clothes of those who were killed continue to rise to the surface of the ground when it rains. I found this one of the most poignant features of the site. Men, women, children and babies were all killed there, by boy soldiers as young as 12.

I have given much thought about what I should record of my visit to this and building S21. I think a few photographs will serve to capture the nature of the place.

First the drawings that tell the tale

Music was played over loudspeakers during the killings to drown out the noise.

One of the mass graves – only a few have been excavated.

Others can be seen …….

The killing tree where babies were battered to death, now covered with the acknowledgements of those who come to see and mourn.

The contents of the monuments…….

The cat nestled on an alter in the grounds seemed strangely comforting ………

We then travelled on to the Museum, the site of the prison called S21.

Although it is difficult to imagine, to many, death in the killing fields must have come as a relief after the horrific brutality of the interrogation in the building known as S21.

This was in fact an old school converted that the Khmer Rouge converted into an interrogation and torture machine to house those accused of conspiracy against the regime. ‘Confessions’ were gained by the most vicious and brutal means. Amazingly 7 people survived (one an artist) to give witness to what occurred in the prison. Corroboration, if it was needed, was provided by the regime itself in its careful record of all those detained there to demonstrate to Pol Pot that his will was being done. Ultimately the guards themselves were subject to the same fate as the prisoners they had guarded as distrust within the regime grew and they were considered to know too much. There is evidence that the young soldiers killed were beheaded and their severed heads were used to terrify those who were to replace them. Even those in the upper echelons of the organisation were later tortured into confessing to being members of the CIA or KGB.

I will leave the museum to talk for itself…….

The rules of the establishment……

The school building, just like any other……

The photographs……..

A particularly haunting face…….

The cells, for men……..

……and women

The shackles……..

A poster relating to the number of deaths, published after the activity of the Khmer Rouge was revealed, and then withdrawn as too horrific……

Journalists entered the prison three days after the Vietnamese arrived to liberate the City in 1979. By this time the Khmer Rouge had killed the last VIP prisoners being held there. The stench of these bodies led to the building being investigated. The soldiers, like Pol Pot had disappeared either into the jungle or to the Thai Border.

Only a few of the senior figures of the regime were ever arrested and tried. Many of them and the people who worked for them have reinvented themselves. The current Prime Minister was a member of the Khmer Rouge elite. Pol Pot himself remained at large for nearly 20 years, eventually dying in 1998.

Three of the survivors of the prison were at the Museum. All had been boys when they were released from the prison. One was even photographed when pictures were taken of the prison being liberated in 1979.

All were tortured and only survived due to various spurious circumstances. All are allowed to tell their stories and sell the books of their ordeal for charity. The artist among them painted some of the pictures in the Museum.

The whole morning was extremely disturbing and I will never forget the experience. I have limited my commentary on the sites because some of the information seemed too awful to repeat, but the memory of it will remain with me always, as will some of the faces……..

It seemed appropriate that the rain continued when we emerged from the museum. We arrived back at the hotel in somber mood.

After a brief visit to the market and a snack lunch we were launched into heavy traffic as we made our way to the airport. We were leaving for Laos.

Sunday, 25th November

Despite the rather unusual surroundings, I slept well until about 4.00 am, when the cockerels started their day! There were also sounds of life beneath us. The lady of the house had also started her day.

Having decided to abandon further sleep, it was time to get up and leave my comfy bed.

Although the house was well appointed for rural Cambodia, it was pretty primitive when compared to our standards. Nevertheless our hostess looked a woman who was definitely in charge of her domain and it was a privilege to spend time with her and her family.

Breakfast over (rice, cold fried eggs and pork) there was just time to identify the culprit of our early alarm call, pose for a family photo, say our ‘thank yous’ and depart. It had been quite an experience, not to be forgotten.

We then retraced our steps to the main road and were off again through the countryside, catching up on some sleep on the way……..

Gradually things became less rural and more commercial. Bigger lorries appeared. En route, we stopped at another busy market. People and their luggage were spilling out of their transport and fried spiders were very much the order of the day……..

I decided against this particular gourmet opportunity and some of the other offerings – both recognisable….

…… and not so much……. I think they were some sort of small bird.

There was some amazing fruit on offer even though it is the low season for fruit variety apparently.

This is apparently pickled fish. Once again, despite the temptation (😳) I chose not to try it!!

It was time to move on to the City. To say Pnom Penh has a checkered history is something of an understatement. It’s status as a capital has come and gone, its Kings have shared the same fate, it still shows signs of its French occupation and it was home to the headquarters of one of the most evil regimes the world has ever known. Pol Pot. More of which tomorrow. For us just arriving, it was a very large metropolis, teeming with people, with occasional wide boulevards and gardens and the first roundabouts we have come across since arriving in Cambodia.

We arrived at about mid day and met again at 3.30 to take a rather scary ride by a bicycle powered chair. It felt very precarious and exposed, hedged in as we were by the speeding cars, tuk tuks and motor bikes around us, but it enable us to see the sites!

Happily we lived to tell the tale!

But only just! En masse we looked like a bit ‘special’ and let out for the day…..

We were dropped off at the riverside where you could buy lotus blossoms to lay at the feet of the gods to bring good fortune……..

Or if you wanted more clarification you could have the cards read……

It was then off for a cruise. Pnom Penh is the place where two rivers converge – one that comes down from Siem Reap and the other the well known Mekong River.

The sun went down,…..

And the lights came up!

What a difference a day makes!

Saturday, 24th November

It was a leisurely start to the day. We had already prepared our overnight bags for our night in a ‘homestay’. After breakfast we gathered ourselves together for the several hours drive. We had a new bus – and it was new! Gleaming white leather seats – not what was expected somehow. However, luggage aboard and lazily watched by two tuk tuk drivers who lounged with their vehicles at the entrance of the hotel ready to carry off any guest who passed them, we set off.

On the outer edge of town there was a big local market selling everything you could think of! The stalls were laden with goods. Highlights were fine baskets, brooms and brushes of every shape and size. An egg man passed with mountains of eggs on the back of a bike trailer with a man perched on top of the egg cartons – I am not sure how that works! Bread – mainly of the baguette variety. Cooked food is available, of all types, from the start of the day!

Once out of Siem Reap we were on to the main road to Pnom Pen. It was to be like a rolling film set of rural life. The first over arching impression was of a vast flat landscape, disappearing in to the distance of mainly bright green rice fields and grassland. Trees hedged the route and drainage ditches marked off the fields. Banana trees provided the only real height, together with coconut palms – two staples in terms of the Cambodian diet. We saw very few people working the land. Young boys minded the cattle.

Intermittently ‘face on’ to the road, were properties of all sorts. Some looked quite well to do and several storey affairs, others were in the early stages of being built. However the majority were rambling ground level buildings, evolved over years to accommodate whole families with evidence of several generations of inhabitants. Babies through to great grand parents. There was often a fair amount of anything that could provide shade, quite understandable in the searing heat and constant sunshine of the dry season. While most of these were single story dwellings, there were also a surprising number of buildings on stilts. I say surprising because there was often no evidence of water around them, but there is a constant reference to monsoon rains which must make anything that can lift you away from water beneficial.

There were noticeably few big lorries. As we moved further out of town we saw water buffalo and occasionally a buffalo cart. It is interesting that motorbikes have more or less taken the place of donkeys and oxen in terms of cart pulling…….. they seem to carry enormous loads of all sorts behind quite small motorbikes.

Every few miles there was a bigger community with larger shops and often something entitled a ‘depot’ where it looked as though produce was centrally collected, but it turned out to be a filling station! Different thing altogether!! One is never sure of anything. Tyre companies seem to be quite the thing – a useful trade to be in with so many wheeled vehicles!

If there is any area of water there will be people fishing on it, down to the smallest murky puddle it seems. Fish forms a large part of the diet here and rice comes with everything.

We stopped at a stall selling sticky rice. This is rice mixed with coconut milk, sugar and black beans and is then stuffed into hollowed out bamboo and cooked on a barbecue. It was very sweet and, as it’s name implied, very sticky.

Further along the road, we stopped by the roadside where a family were creating popping rice using a real Heath Robinson device of an old generator attached to a hammer to crush the rice. There were a lot of processes before it emerged husk free and popping!

It was fascinating!! There was also a very pretty young woman with her child….

Lunch was eaten on the edge of a lake. It was a very busy place! Denise and I shared some chicken and mushroom steamed in a lotus palm. It was very good!

Moving on into the afternoon we visited the Sambor Prei Kuk Hindu Temple. Built in the 7th century and dedicated to Shiva, it was an interesting place, not least because of its being made of handmade bricks, with no mortar. The site was surprisingly whole considering its age, although it has also been taken over in parts by the dreaded fig. Another interesting feature is that all the buildings are hexagonal! The whole place had a lovely aura.

A gateway –

The Lion Temple

That brickwork…..

The woodland……..

The ultimate takeover……..

I still found it was very reminiscent of the sites we saw in Mexico. Very weird given how far apart the locations are…… It was at this site that we were to hear the first reference to Pol Pot and the tragic events of Cambodia’s so very recent history. Bombs were dropped on the site when it was thought to be a jungle area full of village communities. 6,000 people died there. A very sobering thought. Deng, our guide to the area had lived through the troubles and had obviously been very badly affected by the experience.

Leaving the temple and it’s ghosts behind, we headed off to the Deng’s mother in law’s hous, where we were to stay the night.

A very large and impressive house in Cambodian terms, but it had no flushing loo or shower, both processes being handled by ladling water out of a bucket😳

Our accommodation was dormitory style in the upper part of the house.

Deng took us for a walk across fields of rice straw to see the sunset. On the way we saw oxen and cattle heading home for the night….

The highlight of the walk was the sunset.

Despite the late hour, some were still fishing –

The sky just got better and better…….

After a supper of rice, fish and green beans we had a very early night…..

Friday, 22nd continued

With my usual high standard of technical skill, I am going to continue my commentary on yesterday on a new page – adding to yesterday’s was a bit challenging! So here we are, early on Saturday morning, in my air conditioned room, looking out on a day that is sunny, and looking very hot. It is 6.30 am

……. to continue the story. It is obvious that tourism has become a major industry in Cambodia. For those who can get into it, it is a pathway to riches. Getting there is another matter. Free schooling lasts to the age of 12 and is ‘compulsory’, but it was evident when we reached the rural areas that access and other pressures mean that children often drop out of school much earlier. Certainly financial issues prohibit many from going further. Not only do you have to pay for school but things like language tuition is an additional cost far beyond the reach of the majority. In the lakeside communities we saw evidence of this.

When we got nearer to the lake, there were literally hundreds of boats……. some of the drivers were certainly no more than early teens.

We boarded our craft and set off. Initially our route took us down a broad channel, but soon this widened out and we were travelling through a forest on the lake. Apparently this inhibits the rush of water during the monsoon season when the lake swells and the whole area floods.

Everything travels by water and a boat is obviously vital. There was a floating ‘corner shop’ run by an enterprising lady!

The houses show how high the water gets.

Some were obviously substantial. Others less so.

Once out on the lake there was a restaurant that housed crocodiles, imported from local crocodile farms. I have to say they looked dead – but they obviously sleep with their mouths open!

Others just sleep.

We got out onto the roof and you could see for miles……..

The lake is certainly a size – 150 k long and 70 wide – and provides a livelihood for the communities around it. These floating villages of between 1,000 and 4,000 people make a living from fishing or growing rice in the flood plains. We got off the boat in a village called Kompong Pluk. There were signs of Buddhism and Christianity, but the poverty was obvious.

But the children were having fun – playing in an old boat!!

Or maybe it was a new boat yet to be launched!

This one was left over from the New Year celebrations apparently!

On the way back we saw an interesting indication of the poverty in that a boat passed where the sightseers had thrown bags of dried noodles into the water and children and older women were swimming and boating to get to them to add to the day’s food. A sobering thought when a packet of noodles is a highlight of your day. We saw one woman literally thrust a small child into a life jacket and throw him into the water to go and get a packet of noodles floating past.

We eventually turned for home. Back on dry land, we stopped at a road side vendor selling barbecued frogs, chicken and fish. The frogs were gutted, stuffed with curry and peanuts and cooked. They were surprisingly good – I just hope I don’t live to regret it!

The afternoon was spent back at the hotel. A short rest. A long drink and then off to centre ville for dinner.

Two margaritas later and a power cut and it was time to get a tuk tuk home to bed. Tomorrow a ‘homestay’.

Friday, 22nd November

It was a lazier start. We were up to go for breakfast at 8.00 am. It was a nice sunny day. We were off to the country!

We set off out of town. The traffic was quite heavy. It is still a public holiday it seems.

However having headed out of town, we found the rural community busy with the timeless hum of life away from the hustle and bustle of the City. The broad thoroughfare lined with shops and works of all kinds, garages and hotels is behind us and now there are fields being worked by older ladies and wooded areas. We then came to a small community, tuk tuks, motorbikes and scooters ruled the traffic. Cars seemed in the minority.

We were dropped off at the entrance to the market. The whole place was humming. First stop was a stall selling some thing that looked like a small potato but turned out to be a very sweet fruit with a black pip. Next came a similar coloured round fruit similar to a lychee.

Next came barbecued rice bananas …..

We tasted and we stared and wandered for an hour, occasionally jostled by scooters mixing with the pedestrians.

Many stalls sold fish from the lake nearby – all were being gutted and de scaled by very skilled hands wielding huge cleavers with amazing dexterity. I could not help but feel that I would lose at least three fingers in the first five minutes if I attempted these activities. Sometimes one feels very inadequate and in awe of other people……!

It was a true kaleidoscope of colour and delight……

There were live crabs from the rice fields – apparently you have to put your hands in their holes to pull them out……..

They were sold live!

Corn……

Morning glory and water hyacinths – all used in cooking!

…….ice and chickens

Firelighters…..

And betel nuts to make your teeth red!

Sadly in the end we had to leave, but what rich pickings!

Just around the corner en route to the bus – a petrol station!

We were then off to the water. We were heading for Tonle Sap Lake. As we neared the area, canals appeared either side of the road. Here men fished in very shallow muddy water. As we watched, their nets frequently came up empty…….

At this point I am going to pause as it is lights out! Tomorrow we are off to a ‘homestay’ with few facilities. I am not sure when Wi-fi will be available, but I will return to this extraordinary outing……..

Thursday, 22nd November

After a pretty sleepless night, we were up at 4.00 am to be ready to leave at 4.45 to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. This is the big one. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is said to be one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Armed with this information we put the best face possible on being up and setting off in the dark to see it.

First stop was the ticket office. It had the feel of a busy railway station, with countless booths selling tickets. Each ticket has a photo of the owner on it, which is a nice touch and I thought I did not turn out too badly for the unearthly hour it was taken……!

Of course when we arrived at the site with a million other people to see this wonder the inevitable occurred. It was cloudy and there was no real sunrise! Nevertheless it was amazing to see such a world renowned edifice slowly emerge from the gloom in which we first saw it.

Gradually as the light gradually infused the scene the silhouette and reflections improved. It is a vast site and (very reminiscent of the Mexican Mayan monuments I thought ) emerged from the vegetation which engulfed it over centuries. Of choice ruse the local villagers knew it was there, but it took Europeans to draw attention to it and reveal it from its overgrown state.

Angkor Wat derives its name from the terms ‘Angkor’ meaning city and ‘Wat’ meaning temple. Angkor was the capital and wealthiest city of Cambodia until the capital was moved to Pnom Penn. It, and it’s surrounding religious sites, cover a vast area. Angkor Wat is seen to be the finest and best quality structure, although we were to see 5 very different monuments during the day. Angkor Wat, built in 37 years, started life as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu for the Khmer Empire. It was built in the early 12th Century by King Suryavarman and ultimately became his mausoleum. By the end of the 12 century it had been transformed to Buddhism.

There was a lot to see and some lovely shadows and etchings but we were unable get to the highest point because it was a Buddha day and there ceremonies taking place. The sound of chanting could be heard throughout our visit.

Leaving the Angkor Wat site……..

Following this we visited four temples and one citadel. Many showed signs of being adversely affected by tree roots. Most figures have lost their heads due to looting or heads being removed to prevent looting – to my mind amounting to the same thing, headless figures! It was a challenging day because of the heat and the number of other tourists involved, but all of the places we saw merited the visit and were fascinating in their own way but we were exhausted at the end!

A few pictures to tempt you and I will try to get the names right in the order we saw them……. As my first typing letters would say ‘E&OE’ – Errors and Omissions Excepted!

First came the Citadel, which was near a lake.

The chap in charge at this stage sounds a pretty good egg. He built hospitals and free road houses for travellers. All very enlightened!

Next we visited Preah Khan where we saw the first evidence of trees growing through stonework. Extraordinary! The area was approached by a bridge where monks created a great contrast to the dark stonework….

On the way there we came to a sort of side chapel where, once again I was surprised how similar the architecture was to that which we came across in Mexico. Even the way it was built……..

The next picture is tricky – the alert will see the head of a sleeping Buddha in the brickwork. 😳.

I liked the next one – at Angkor Thom, The Bayon, where all heads came the right way up and all different…..

Finally, we visited Ta Prohm where the ruins were literally riddled with roots making some amazing pictures but by this time I think we were all drooping. The heat was nearing 40 degrees and I was running out of charge – both in device and in person!

I have to report that we were pretty pooped when we got back to the hotel and only managed an hotel sandwich for supper and then bed.

What a day!