Siem Reap, Cambodia. Tuesday 5th June 2018.
Having very much enjoyed discovering Cambodia’s ancient history, it was the turn of more recent times to come under the spotlight. I’m referring to Pol Pot and his henchmen in the Khmer Rouge, and the appalling cruelty they visited upon Cambodia. A bit more history first, to give some context.
With the demise of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, and the subsequent land grabs by Cambodia’s neighbours, times were tough for the country. It was ruled, at various times, by both Vietnam and Thailand, with the two countries sometimes fighting over it. Eventually, in 1863, the Thai appointed king asked the French, already colonial masters in Vietnam, if it could become a protectorate. This may seem a strange thing for a country to do but it enabled Cambodia to regain most of the land it had lost to Vietnam and Thailand, and to become stable. The French remained for ninety years until Cambodia became fully independent once more in 1953. This was thanks to King Sihanouk, who the French had installed more or less as a puppet. He wasn’t prepared to have his strings pulled and independence was the outcome, with Cambodia becoming a constitutional monarchy. The other countries in French Indo China also gained independence soon after.
So all was sweetness and light now? No, not by a long way. The next ten years saw political changes but the biggest upheaval was brought about by the Vietnam war. Sihanouk had abdicated to become Prime Minister rather than king, with his father taking that position. But once his father died he became head of state once more, becoming a Prince. Despite being officially neutral, he allowed the North Vietnamese communists to use Cambodia as a refuge and also to move supplies down through the country to South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was born. Many Cambodians didn’t like this policy and in the late sixties Sihanouk let the USA know that he wouldn’t object if they bombed the Vietcong provided no Cambodians were killed. Quite an incredible turn around, with devastating consequences.
Sihanouk was ousted in a coup while he was visiting China. The new regime was friendly to the US and so the North Vietnamese, desperate to retain their supply routes, attacked its forces. The ousted king urged his followers to join in against the government. Civil war was the result. His actions were supported by Cambodian communists, who became the Khmer Rouge. Initially supported by the North Vietnamese, they grew stronger and took control of large parts of the country, needing ever less help from their Vietnamese sponsors. Eventually, in the spring of 1975, and having gained control of large parts of the country, the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh, and Year Zero had begun.
During the civil war many people had fled the country, many others had come to the cities as refugees, to escape the fighting. Pol Pot and the other leaders of the Khmer Rouge, instigated a reign of terror against ethnic Vietnamese, other minorities in the country, but mostly against their own people. He wanted to take the country back to an 11th century style of agrarian economics and to that end he emptied out the cities, forcing people to march into the countryside were they had to work on the land. He destroyed everything that could be described as ‘western’, including medicine, machines, libraries and universities. Intellectuals were killed out of hand, as was anyone who could be seen as being against his regime. How many people died in the near five years of his rule is unknown. Although the Khmer Rouge murdered tens of thousands, at dedicated torture and execution centres around the country, they weren’t responsible for the majority of deaths. It was simple starvation, disease and the brutality of the guards that killed the greatest number. Not enough food was grown, especially on the farms worked by city people, who had no experience in agriculture. They were forced to work sixteen hour days with very little food. They simply faded away or died from the constant beatings they received. The best estimate is that two million people perished – close to one third of the population.
But there’s a terrible legacy from this time and while I was in Siem Reap I went to a couple of museums dedicated to it; the War Museum and the Landmine Museum. The war museum has a collection of old artillery pieces, tanks, armoured cars etc, all dotted around the grounds. Housed inside some shelters is a collection of guns, bombs and other ordnance. But the most interesting display was of the landmines. I mentioned the limbless musicians in my last post, mostly victims of the dreadful anti-personnel mines laid throughout the country during the three decades of war, from the late sixties to the late nineties. An estimated five million of these were laid, along with anti-tank mines. The AP mines are extremely difficult to see and most of the victims are farmers and their children. Note that I used ‘are’ as against ‘were’. Approximately 40,000 people have been affected by them and it is still happening. These mines are very effective in a military sense. They’re specifically designed to maim rather than kill. The idea is that a wounded comrade has to be looked after and transported to a base where they can get medical help. A dead comrade merely has to be buried. The former inconveniences a military unit far more than the latter. 250 grammes of explosive is all it takes to achieve this. To a modern victim’s family the problem is threefold. The cost of looking after them; the loss of a worker; the loss of land they now can’t farm. The social consequences are massive, especially to such a poor country as Cambodia.
The Landmine Museum was set up by a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Aki Ra. He had been forced to take up arms by the Khmer Rouge as a child, something that happened to thousands of youngsters, both boys and girls. Post war, and now an adult, he went back to the villages where he’d planted mines and started to remove them by hand, using home made equipment. A point worth noting here is that even soldiers who laid the mines have great trouble remembering where they are. From the end of the 1990s there have been several organisations who’ve got involved in this activity, which slowly came under the umbrella of a government department set up for this purpose. It took some time for Aki Ra to be officially recognised but today he is still going strong. His organisation also set up schools to help the affected children, although now it concentrates on providing education in remote areas which would otherwise get none. Entry fees to the museum funds this activity.
The museum displays information about the mines themselves, where they were laid and about the NGOs involved in their removal. Progress is necessarily slow but happens in a determined fashion. After all, they were never meant to be found, except in the worse way. Tens of thousands of square kilometres of land have now been freed of this curse. The cost is about $1,000 to find a mine and was about $3 to lay it. As well as mines there is a huge amount of unexploded ordnance laying around. Between 1965 and 1973, an estimated 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped over Cambodia, mainly aimed at disrupting the activities of the North Vietnamese. That’s more than was dropped in the war against Japan .The trouble with bombs is that they don’t always explode, leaving a legacy of destruction for future generations to reap. I suppose bombs are ‘better’ than mines. At least they’re easier to find. Which highlights another problem: people often try to disarm the mines and bombs themselves, hoping to sell the explosives and scrap metal. The consequences are often disastrous. So with AP mines spread all round the western border with Thailand, and UXOs on the eastern border with Vietnam, Cambodia still has much work to do. However, it was really good to find out about Aki Ra, his story and the benefit he is now trying to bring about with his charitable work. I’ll be talking more about the Khmer Rouge later. http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-personnel_mine
Not too far north of the landmine museum is the temple complex of Beng Mealea, another jungle ‘find’. This one does actually appear to have been abandoned and the jungle had truly taken over. The Strangler Fig tree grows by wrapping itself around a smaller tree. They also do a pretty good job on temple walls. Beng Mealea was built around the same time as Angkor Wat, and in a similar style. It’s not known who built it but it is on an important route between Ankor Thom and a town further north, so it’s assumed it was someone pretty important. It is quite a romantic place because of its dilapidated condition, free from restoration, and its jungle location. They’ve made some areas safe by shoring up the buildings, and have laid a boardwalk for visitors to use. And that’s all. Many of the trees are still spread across the walls, making me think I was disturbing their lunch of masonry. I was free to wander around among the rubble, looking inside fallen down towers and broken down corridors. It is built from good quality blue sandstone, with carvings here and there, but nothing to match the bas relief carvings of the other temples.
It was time to leave Siem Reap, finally. It had been a great place to discover Cambodia’s ancient history and to begin to understand its more recent past. But now I was going to backtrack. It’s unlike me to do this, but I hadn’t made proper plans for Cambodia and had just headed straight to Siem Reap. I discovered there were things worth seeing in Battambang, back round the other side of lake Tonlé Sap. For the small sum of one dollar, I’d had my bike cleaned in Siem Reap. Neither Cambodia’s roads nor its weather lend themselves to there being any worth in such an activity. Rain and muddy roads left the bike looking just as bad as it had when I’d arrived in the town. Added to this was that my instrument panel seemed to be suffering a severe condensation problem, meaning that for the first part of the journey I had no idea how fast or how far I was travelling. On the up side, the bike ran perfectly, with no sign of the fuelling problem.
A long, hot walk took me from my guesthouse, along the side of the river, and out to Wat Samrong Knong. It’s the province’s oldest temple and was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge. There is a memorial to these times next to the temple, called the Well of Shadows and paid for by Cambodians from around the world. It’s very moving but also graphic in its design. It pulls no punches. Around the base are bas relief carvings showing scenes from life under Pol Pot. One of them shows how prisoners had holes drilled through their hands so they could be tied together with rope. The building itself, in the design of a typical Buddhist Stupa, is filled with skulls and other bones, found in the mass graves nearby. I was glad I went, but it was a very sobering place to visit.
On a much lighter note I also went to see the Bamboo Train. In SE Asia they make many things out of bamboo, but trains? Well, yes, and why not? The French built a railway line to link the sea with inland areas to facilitate the transport of the rice harvest. The Khmer Rouge ripped up long stretches of it. But enough was left so that when they were defeated the people around Battambang, with a typical ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ approach, used the axles of old wagons and coaches and built bamboo platforms across them to transport goods and people between villages. They’re used by farmers; for festival days; religious holidays; tourism etc. The railway is single track, the bamboo platforms don’t run to any kind of schedule, so what happens when two of them meet? It’s very simple. They just unload and dismantle the lighter of the two, then rebuild it once they’ve got round each other. This only takes a few minutes. The platform is light and is driven by a small bike or boat engine, connected to an axle by belt drive. What a brilliant idea! Unfortunately, with ongoing efforts to rebuild Cambodia’s railway network, it’s not known whether this piece of folk history will survive.
From there I went on to a temple at Banan. Interesting because of its location on top of a hill (360 steps to climb) and also the murals depicting Buddhist scenes inside it. The young lad who insisted on being my guide earned his dollar by showing me down to the Killing Cave, a place where many Khmer Rouge victims died. I’d loved to have been able to ask him what all of this history meant to him. Nothing to him, but very relevant to his family I would guess. I wonder how much they’re taught in school?
On the way back down from there I stopped to look at the Bat Cave, a completely un-ironic name, it has to be said. It is, of course, a cave in which live millions of bats. Had it been later in the day I could have sat at one of several cafés and watched them pour out, as the sun went down, on their nightly hunt. They’re considered a boon in this area because the insects they eat would otherwise be destroying the rice plants. It’s estimated they save about 2,000 tons of rice per year, enough to feed around 21,000 people. Unfortunately human activity, such as quarrying, is slowly destroying their habitats. But I’m glad I didn’t wait until sunset to see them because ten minutes after I arrived back at base, the rain hammered down.
I usually took a ten minute walk down to the riverside in the evening, where there’s a long row of food stalls supplying good, cheap local dishes. Cambodians seem to eat out all the time, sometimes at places like these, others at small roadside stalls, or even just carts that have pulled up and laid out a couple of picnic tables and plastic stools. It was always a bit of an adventure using these places because the language barrier meant you never quite knew what you’d be getting. I’d just point at some things and hope. Equally popular were the drinks stalls, where I could get freshly made fruit drinks, served over ice, and for not much money. These eating areas seemed to run on some kind of cooperative method because when you sat down there was never any kind of demarcation among the tables to suggest which ones belonged to what stall. The same even seemed to apply to the washing up. It made life more interesting though, and I definitely had the feeling of mixing it with the locals. On the walk back to my guesthouse I’d see small groups of women gathered along the central reservation. Ladies of the night? Not quite. They were small work gangs who’d be digging up and repairing the paving stones during the evening. And, given the lack of street lighting, mostly in the dark too. Very odd.
And talking of odd, I got chatting an Aussie guy who was staying at the guesthouse. Peter is about 75 and describes himself as ‘a cultural and economic refugee’. Given that he smoked constantly, and drank about ten cans of beer a night, I could understand the ‘economic’ part as both of those habits are very expensive in Australia. But cultural? Our chats led me to believe he’s just inflexible in his views, and that the modern world has left him behind. He used to be in the merchant navy so I guess he just doesn’t like the way the country has changed while he’s been away. He’s lived around SE Asia for many years and has had relationships with local women, so maybe he’s not quite the sad case I initially took him to be. He only goes back to Aus for regular medical check ups these days. He definitely seemed a bit of a lost soul.
I spent some time removing the instrument panel off the bike, taking it apart and trying to seal it up against the ingress of the moist air, hoping to cure the condensation. Dodging rain showers while doing so. I chatted to the owner of the guesthouse. He’s only twenty three and is trying to make a good go of his business. When you walk around these towns the poverty is very obvious and it’s good to see this helpful and hospitable young man trying to do something with his life. I wish him well but … flush toilets please!
By now I had taken the time to make some plans and had worked out a route that would take me more or less along the Thai/Cambodia border for a few days. My first target was the town of Anlong Veng, which had some Pol Pot history near to it. When he was defeated in 1975 he headed up to the Thai border and stayed there pretty much the rest of his life. His presence is the main reason for the landmines in that area. Although there was now a new government in Cambodia the western powers refused to recognise it because it was set up, and supported, by the Vietnamese communist regime. On the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, The Khmer Rouge were still recognised by the western powers as the legitimate Cambodian government, to the extent that they even occupied Cambodia’s seat at the united nations. This was despite the west now knowing about the genocide enacted upon the people. Isn’t politics a disgusting and dirty business? Cambodia finally got a democratic government under a UN brokered deal with Vietnam, who then left the country. Here ended three decades of horror for Cambodia.
I went right up to the Thai border and visited a peace museum that was off down a track. It was closed. I saw a sign that mentioned Pol Pot’s cremation site so I went down there. This time there was something to see, albeit just a small memorial. He died of a stroke, in 1998, while under house arrest, having finally been called to account for his crimes against his people. As I rode up towards the border I kept seeing very heavily laden pick up trucks coming the other way, crawling down the steep hill with rear springs completely flattened. I don’t know what it was they brought over from Thailand but it certainly seemed to be heavy and, I’m guessing, valuable too.
Still up in the border area, I’d noted a couple of temples I wanted to visit. While I rode out to find them, fairly remote now from the cities and bigger towns, I’d noticed there was plenty of agricultural activity around, although it wasn’t too obvious as to what was being produced. The roads were mostly in good condition, even the gravel road I found myself on at one point. It had been paid for by Japan, according to a sign. It struck me as strange, but even this road had plenty of small settlements along it, with shops etc. A lot of the housing tended to be up on stilts, as protection from the monsoon season I presume. Some looked new and well off, others were much older and more dilapidated. It was very a pleasant area to ride through, with small villages and, fortunately, enough fuel stations to keep me supplied. I’d always head for one of the towns as the day wore on, never failing to find a decent guesthouse. Being up in the hills, even the riding was fun. But it was a remote area, and judging by the stares I received, the people weren’t used to seeing an old, bearded westerner riding a big motorbike. Often I’d make eye contact with a mouth agape local and give them a big, cheesy grin. It never failed to get the same response back. This was so much more pleasant and relaxing than fighting the traffic on the main roads, and having to deal with the dust, traffic fumes and Asian overtaking. Even the bike ran well, for a change.
Preah Vihear Temple sits on top of a high cliff, overlooking a deep ravine. The ticket office was at the bottom, the road up was steep and I took a wrong turn off it too. Once the confused locals had put me right, I made my way along the rough track, easing my way over slabs of rock, until I reached a parking area. Then I walked along a rough path until I came, eventually, to the 800 metre causeway that led to the buildings. This place is massive and its size is only emphasised by its magnificent location. It sits on the top, and at the edge of, a 525 metre high cliff, which overlooks the Cambodia plain to the south. The view is fantastic, if somewhat hazy at that time of day. Behind the temple the land rises up as it approaches the Cambodia/Thai border, an irrelevance in the 9th century, when building started. It wasn’t completed until the 12th C, and honoured the god Shiva in his manifestations of Sikharesvara (mountain god) and Bhadresvara. The sanctuary sits on top of the cliff and the causeway, interspersed with various buildings, runs up towards it. None of it has been restored, just shored up. My favourite part was one small building that had been completely taken over by a tree, which was growing up though it as well as owning all the walls. When humans eventually die out this is what will happen to all the things we’ve built. A cheering thought really.
After a night in the nearby town, with the same name as the temple, I headed to my final temple complex, Koah Ker. This is a wooded area, with mostly small temples dotted among the trees. Once again, none have been restored and, again, it was clear they’d been hidden by the trees for a long time. Now, a road had been built that wandered its way among them. I rode along and every time I saw a sign I stopped to take a photo. There’s one thing of which there can be no doubt. The ancient Khmers did like a temple! The grandest of them was Prasat Thom, a seven tiered, thirty five metre high temple. At ground level the base was sixty metres long but at the top tier it was only five metres. It took a lot of climbing up a lot of wooden steps to discover that.
Enough of temples! It was time to go and engage with a different kind of large, grey edifice. I was going to see some elephants. A nice, but sometimes wet ride along a pleasant and twisty road, into the hills near to the Vietnam border, and the town of Saen Monourom. The Elephant Valley Project offers a mixture of tourism and volunteering. A one day tour was my choice. I could have gone for two days, part of which would have been helping out with some simple maintenance work. The third option was a week long stay, with plenty of work to keep me busy. I’d arrived on a Sunday, when their office at the Hefalump Café is normally closed, but luckily someone was there so I was able to book my tour for the next day. And that day was truly wonderful.
A 7a.m. start saw me, and a few others, being driven out into the forest along a muddy road, then along a muddier track, down to the meeting point. Our guide, Joel, talked us through what the day would bring. Key point: no contact with the elephants; no rides, no washing. This is not the raison d’etre of the EVP. They have ten elephants, all of whom have been rescued from captivity. Families used to buy elephants to work on their farms or to entertain tourists. They would be made to carry or haul heavy loads, work that these days is done by machinery. So they become a liability. The EVP will buy them and bring them to their 1500 hectare sanctuary. This land is rented from the local community. It used to be farm land but the forest has been allowed to regrow. The aim is to teach them how to live in the wild. That means teaching them how to feed themselves, wash themselves down and get themselves muddy. The new ones learn from the older ones and in the process will develop very strong bonds. Some of them looked to have raised spines but in fact it’s the opposite. Their ribs have been pushed down by the heavy loads on their back. One of them has PTSD, which developed because it was kept locked up in a concrete bunker. They all have mahouts, who help and train them to look after themselves. They are still hobbled at night, albeit on long chains. If they weren’t they simply go marauding off to the nearest farms and eat all the crops. It seems they do enjoy a melon! This has happened in the past, meaning that the EVP have had to pay compensation. So they’ll never be truly wild again but will get as close as possible under the circumstances.
A few elephant facts for you. They cover them selves in mud as protection against insects and the sun. They wash the mud off because dried mud encourages the skin to crack, leading to infections. They can make up to 250 different noises, many of which cannot be heard by humans. Add to that their body language, making a surprisingly sophisticated level of communication. Their large ears help them to keep cool. The blood vessels are very close to the surface and flapping them cools down the blood. Like many other animals, they will use tools, such as scratching themselves with sticks. Best fact of all? The human body has 639 muscles. An elephant has 155,000 – just in its trunk!
We walked down some muddy and slippery paths to where the elephants come to bathe in the morning, guided by their mahouts, who are all from the local Banung tribe. We watched in fascination as they splashed about in the river. I’ve seen this before, in Sumatra, but you can’t ever get tired of looking at it. Then they started wandering around, looking for food. At that point it was easy to see the special bond that some of them form, with two in particular staying very close together as they fed, one being helped by the other. We had to keep our distance, but were still able to get some great photos of the three of them. After lunch – very tasty, filling and organic, I should add – we went to a different area to see two more of them. Once again, we watched them washing themselves but also saw them spraying themselves with mud afterwards. In order to get the mud they trample down the edge of the river bank, bringing about changes to it which will help, or hinder, the activities of other creatures. Nothing exists in isolation in these forests. On the long walk back to base I managed to disturb a wasp nest, with painful results. I wished I had been isolated from that!
It was a terrific day out. The EVP’s methods and objectives struck a real chord with me. They run the project using practical environmental methods; don’t allow human contact with the elephants apart from what’s necessary, and only by the mahouts. Their finance mostly comes from visitor fees, with a few grants from NGOs. They will try to fund-raise for special projects. It means they aren’t beholden to anyone who may want to control what they do. Their Hefalump Café acts as a tourist hub for similar projects in the area. Needless to say, they have a website, full of information, and the link is here.
This seems a good point at which to take a break. More soon.