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Dirty toilets & genocide

25 Feb

I've always been a big fan of guest books. You can perhaps tell more about society by the comments left in such books than in an entire sociology text-book. Many are dull, many are clichés, but if you're lucky sometimes you may just find a gem of a comment that can bring a tear to the eye in profundity, or even better, utter pedantry.

The two guest books I have seen in Cambodia didn't fail to disappoint.

First, from the “impressions” book of the Choeung Ek – the country's most famous 'killing field'.

Not usually a place for laughter I couldn't help but smile at the first (English-language comment) in the book.

“The rest room is so dirty”

There are actually two comments made by the same person. The first is made in their native language. Perhaps they talk about the sheer awfulness, the emotional anguish and how the visit will change them into a better person. But for some reason – perhaps reflective of a very unpleasant visit – they have switched to English to make their complaint (or is it a warning to other tourists – why else the change of language?).

The second comment made directly below makes a reference to the comment above. A Vietnamese called Mi ends his entry:

“P.S. The person above me is indeed a fool.”

Indeed.

Randy from the USA also caught my eye.

“Worse, in some ways, to Dachau and Auschwitz, which I visited some time ago.”

He doesn't elaborate on how it is worse “in some ways”, but perhaps he shares the sentiment of “RS” from Japan making the comparison with the Holocaust.

“This case is very different to that of Germany in the sense of killing their own citizens.”

Brushing aside the historical inaccuracy, the moral implications are worrying to say the least. You often see the same moral reasoning in press articles when a murder victim was an “innocent man”. The murder of a “guilty man” is surely no less morally reprehensible.

Jensen from the USA uses the opportunity to complain about the imbalance in the site's stories (you get an audio guide including a number of short stories of survivors' tales of the horrors of the regime).

“I want more stories about the Cambodians that fought back against Pol Pot. 'Poor me Poor me' stories are important but the brave & heroic Cambodians is what would give me hope.”

My favourite comment is by Morzal Saber from the Netherlands.

“It made me more human.”

Well put Mr Saber.

 

Phnom Penh. A tough place to love.

24 Feb

Phnom Penh is a bumbling chaos. Motorbikes outnumber cars fifty to one. The only traffic rule seems to be that the largest vehicle has the right of way. The dust and pollution are best appreciated from the back of a tuktuk. Soaked in sweat from the 35 degrees heat, motorbikes and cars whizzing past, and being absolutely mortified and newly appreciative of how useful it would have been if your driver had any mirrors at all.

Lonely Planet should provide a translation service. What the Prozac nation of guidebook authors mean to say with “undiscovered gem of Asia” and “never fails to captivate” is that few people stick around long enough to experience Phnom Penh in all its glory. Most travellers we met said they hurried out after the second day.

This is the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. Cambodia is poorer than Sudan and Nigeria. Of course, there is beauty as well as grime. The temples, pagodas and saffron-robed monks are all there. French colonial-era buildings are found throughout the city. But so are the street children, limb less beggars and brothels. And they make a stronger impression.

 

Battambang – bamboo train, bats and Mr. Boren

21 Feb

Arriving in dusty and dingy Battambang, we started to long for the beaten track. By the time we had finished our small tour of the city at night, we were both thinking “what have we done?!”. But daylight came, we met Mr. Boren and Battambang turned out to be the highlight of our stay in Cambodia so far.

Mr. Boren – our tuktuk driver, guide and ex-monk

Taking us around a pagoda, our guide seemed exceptionally knowledgable. Honestly, it seemed like he was making it all up. It became less surprising that he knew the ins and outs of the monastery when he revealed that he used to be a monk. Coming from a poor family and “with no money for school, my father sent me to the monastery to become grateful.” Having learnt both English and Thai from his fellow monks, and thus able to work as a tour guide today, Mr. Boren said he is definitely grateful to his father.

It should have been his speech about the life lessons of humility, compassion and politeness that I remember the best in retrospect. But no. It’s rather how he showed us sleeping fruit bats, agreed they resembled obese fruit just hanging there in the trees, and thereupon placed a few firecrackers at the foot of the tree. (“Want to see them fly?!!”)

Oh, and also his monk anecdotes. For those of you who have not watched serious monks collect alms for their small vegetarian meal once a day (“I became very thin. Very little food”), this is how it goes down:

“You know, we walk barefoot”, Mr. Boren said, chuckling a bit as he pointed down at the pavement. “And the ground? Hot, hot, HOT! So you focus. And not smile. Smile internally to everyone”.

He also made both himself and us laugh when he summed up his life as a monk – sleeping, meditating, all in all not doing a whole lot. In his words: “REALLY BORING!!”

Battambang bamboo train

High speed fun on a bamboo shack on rails! The bamboo train will only exist for another three months; then it is replaced by a road.

Wine tasting at Cambodia´s only winery

A glass of locally produced red in Cambodia? Obviously we had to try that! Cambodia´s only winery came about when a Cambodian living in France sent his younger brother a guide on how to make wine. Grapes were imported from Australia, et voila, 2000 bottles are produced every year. That is probably enough.

Cambodia is the only Asian country that only produces one rice crop a year (hardly any of the land is irrigated), though the country´s wine producer has managed to put those statistics on their head. While French winemakers produce only one crop a year, the heat here enables the Cambodian winemaker to grow three.

Killing caves of Phnom Sampeu and killing fields

During its three and a half years in power (1975-1979), Pol Pot´s Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a giant concentration camp. One quarter of Cambodia´s population at the time – 2 million people – were killed.The Khmer Rouge horrors seem barely comprehensible when reading about them. Standing next to piles of cracked skulls and bones in a stupa makes the hellish crimes still difficult to fathom, but at least you get an idea of what a machete may do to a person´s head.

Perhaps because the brutal killings are hard to take in, what made me the quesiest was the story of how victims were transported to mass executions:

The bat cave

A sweaty and dusty 20 minute walk from the killing caves, about the time when you have a thick layer of grime on your face, you find one of the most spectacular nature sights in Cambodia. At sunset, over a million bats come streaming out of a cave through an opening in the cliff side to hunt for food.

They keep on coming out of the cave in a thick, seemingly choreographed, trail of black for 45 minutes. But, mind you, not too low. “They don´t fly too close to the ground. Because people toss spears. You may catch 20 in one throw. Or they put up nets between trees.”

And the obvious question that begged to be asked: Now, how do you eat a bat? “You steam. Then remove the skin.”

Fish market

Crocodile farm


Angkor Wat era temples / ruins

Wat Banan was my favourite, and I´ll readily admit it was all in the name. The temples around Battambang however resemble IKEA projects gone wrong. No, really – they do. I even checked it online afterwards and found this entertaining blog post by an archaeologist:

 

Oddly enough though, among an otherwise ruined landscape, full towers will rise, solid and looking almost as good as those at Angkor Wat. The different though, if you look closely, is that these ruins were not painstakingly rebuilt by history lovers and archaeologists looking to restore a bit of the past. No, these ruins were pieces back together by the hands of farmers and day laborers here in the countryside of Battambang.

Battambang is not a huge tourist destination but the locals know the value of the tourist dollar. And when your “must-see” site is a pile of rocks, the tourist don’t tend to stick around long. BUT, if you take that pile of rocks and stones and rebuild them, suddenly you have a “temple” that you can charge tourists to visit. “If you rebuild it, they will come.”

Siem Reap to Battambang

18 Feb

The 9+ hour boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang. Oh joy…

 

 

Angkor Wat is up with those stairs???

17 Feb

Our local guide couldn't believe the carvings were made by man. What I couldn't believe was that the steps were made by Cambodians. Not renowned for their height (modern malnutrition – an interesting phrase in itself – means that many are shorter than they should be) the Cambodians managed to make steps for giants.

Some of the places we visited you had to 'climb' rather than 'walk' up. How could such a nation of short people make such impractical staircases for their temples and palaces? The mind boggles. You get used to it in Holland – where skinny houses have steps the size of small children but it’s not as if the ancient Khmers were short of space..

 

 

 

 

A few more pics of the Floating Village of Kampong Phluk

17 Feb

Am a bit behind my girlfriend in posting her pics & blog posts so here are a few more pics of the '24-Dollar-Please-5-Dollar-Extra-To-Support-Local-Fishermen' Floating Village of Kampong Phluk.
 
Until I actually got there I was fine with having to pay a (relatively) large sum of money to the official tourism authority to enter a 'traditional' village. As Dolly Parton once said, “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap”.
 
As backpackers, our nirvana is to find the new 'Beach'; an untouched virgin site of natural beauty or anthropological curiosity that hasn't yet been spoiled by the dreaded 'tourists' (backpackers are a distinct species from tourists – whereas tourists ruin everything, backpackers provide a kind of spiritual nourishment to the locals).
 
The Kampong Phluk floating village is a solution to this contradiction. The tour is both extremely expensive and extremely poor. At the same time flooded with tourists, it seems highly doubtful the villagers will change from their traditional hand-to-mouth existence.
 
And rightly so.
 
If not they might loose their authenticity and by direct consequence the raison-d'etre of our trip to their village. They must remain poor so we can take pictures of them. Taking pictures of middle class Cambodians is much less interesting.
 
 

 

 

 

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