After our previous experiences of travel in Cambodia we decided against the overnight bus and booked a flight. Everything went to plan, well, except that I had booked the hotel for the wrong month but luckily as there was a free tuk tuk pick up we were made aware of this the day we were due to arrive! (although we had tried contacting the hotel three days previously but they didn’t reply). The down or upside, depending how you see it is that when I went to cancel the booking on Booking.com so that I would not be charged later for a ‘no show’, I was informed that the property had free cancellation so I was not due to pay anything and that the cost had lower that month by $20 so our stay would cost less. When we got to the hotel though the Manager, who would not come out of their office informed the staff to charge us the higher rate, then the member of staff went back and came back with a figure less but still higher that what Booking.com were saying. We told them we could not pay knowing that everyone else had paid less. We asked them to check Booking.com. We didn’t pay or mention it again and just left them the ‘right’ money when leaving. Although, they then tried to charge us for a tuk tuk driver we had hired for a day which we had already paid, luckily Stuart still had the receipt. Yet another hotel palaver but hey, that’s travelling for you! And actually, as you read on and consider life here for many, I do find myself considering the need to thrive and survive here.
So, Siem Reap was hectic with lots of bikes and no pavements. The towns main central area was called Pub Street, this was several roads which as the name says is full of pubs and restaurants, there is also a good few market stalls. This area was good fun, it had a nice holiday atmosphere and we spent every evening here, our last one even included dancing the night away!
It was so, so hot and humid here it really felt a struggle to get around, our air con was very poor in our room and Stuart asked for a fan, bless them the staff tried very much to be helpful and sure enough they found him one, it was a full industrial size one, it was great for drying clothes on!
We spent a day and a half at the Angkor temples. I have to say they are very impressive and at the same time I didn’t get the wow factor I thought I would when I saw Angkor Wat itself. The workmanship in relation to the carvings is exceptional though. We went back here the next morning, having to leave at 4.30am to see the sunrise, that was very pretty. We stayed on the outside but later was told by someone we were chatting to (as Stuart and he were having their feet chomped by fish, whilst drinking their free beer) that sitting inside the temple is meant to be better.
Tomb raider was filmed here, do you recognise it?
Walking inside one museum complex we came across a women collecting fish from her net and her son ‘helping’.
Whilst here we went to two museums, Stuart likes to learn about the war history and so we visited the well known War museum where we had a guided tour by a young man. He told us about life here for him. Although the war officially finished in the seventies, really things were still going on for a further 20 years in the jungle. He told us of walking home from school with several of his friends when one of them stood on a land mine and lost his legs, he was taken to the hospital but as his parents did not have enough money to pay for treatment they were sent away and he died three days later. Can you imagine the physical pain he must have been in and the emotional pain for his parents, friends and family. He told us that although great work has been done, influenced when Princess Diana visited, all the mines were due to be removed by next year but there are still estimated to be one million left so it is doubtful they will reach their goal. Along with trained dogs, they have even trained rats to detect them. He told us of a farmer losing his legs two weeks ago when ploughing his field, which he had done many times and how a week or so ago a big truck with many people had driven down a busy road and had detonated a mine, they believe it was because the truck was so heavy and this weight did not normally travel on this road.
Heading to the new War Reminent Museum we got lost, as our tuk tuk driver had never heard of it, or others he asked and because someone has mapped the wrong place on Map.me, (it is right next door to the Temple Ticket Check/Control stop if you want to go).
It was officially still not open but welcomed Stuart and our Tuk Tuk driver, who was very excited to go in. You are now going to hear from Stuart:
To be honest we couldn’t find the place at first. This is the first, we’ll maybe second time Map.me has let me down!
I went inside the hut and thought surely this can’t be the place, there’s was a lot of old rusted rifles and machine guns hanging off the walls and as I was about to walk out and call it a day then a man came in and introduced himself as the curator of the museum.
When I shook his hand I noticed part of his hand was distorted, not that it bothered me, he went on to say he was previously a Khmer Rouge child solider and was so, up until the late 80s when he had the unfortunate experience of walking on a mine. He was walking across the fields in northern Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge had retreated to after the Vietnam Army removed them from power. He was fighting, as he put it, a gorilla war against the new government, and that’s where he stood on a anti personnel mine and lost his right leg from the knee down and a few fingers and then showed me the shrapnel wounds on his chest and stomach. (Not a pretty sight).
We had a discussion about his time in the Khmer Rouge and what he thought of the politics of Pol Pot and the other 12 “brothers” and what they were doing to the country duing that time. He was very open and frank about what he had been through, where he had come from and what type of things he went through during his early days in the KR, he was 10 years old when he was recruited!
He had come from a small farming village up north and had seen the comings and goings of “city and town” folk who were sent there in the war trying to work the fields for the first time living on a small bowl of rice and a cup of water a day while doing anything between 12-16 hours a day in the fields. Pol Pot who knew nothing about farming and told people that they had to produce a virtually impossible amount of rice per field which was then to be sold to China for money and ultimately weapons. The curator also said he had done some things that adults, never mind a child should never see or do. And being uneducated and young he didn’t know any better until later. He looked so sad and ashamed, it really got to me, thinking about how his childhood haunted him.
As the true diplomat I am I didn’t want to push him for more details and swiftly moved my attentions to the other items in the room, MINES lots of them, different shapes, sizes, anti tank, anti personal, different manufacturers, countries of origin etc. Also, he showed me weapons the KR had made to prevent their own workers from escaping, such as 4 spoked floor spikes which were made out of rusty metal and thrown out around the perimeter of the rice fields so if someone stood on one of them the spike sticking up would go through the bottom of someone’s foot and get infected. Then that person would either be very ill or in worst cases die and then they would be paraded around the camp as an example to others not to escape. He said if you couldn’t work to produce rice for the “KR cause” then you wasn’t much good anyway, then to put it bluntly you were treated badly with beatings and lack of food and water until you died anyway.
He also said that the other soliders in the museum still treat him different from the others there and he was sometimes called “Rouge” which he said was a term of hatred towards ex KR solider. He didn’t feel anger against them because as he said he and other KR soilders had done some horrible things in the past and a few name calling was nothing to what he and other people had put the non KR people through in the past.
I really wanted to get a feel of how things had improved since the KR had dispanded. I asked him whether he was now married and had children and to that reply I got a definite NO. He said he was still too angry with himself to ever want to put that kind of anger onto someone else or share it. It was “his” and he had to live with it. This is where some Counselling would help!! It was heartbreaking to hear how his childhood had and by the sounds of it was always going to affect his happiness.
Back to the mines. This section I thought was really insightful. Considering who had supplied them. There was American, Russian, French, Chinese and crudely constructed Cambodian, made from old bits of metal cut up into small rough cut bits and stuck in a old metal tubes. The idea of this was to cause the most damage without actually killing the person. This would then mean that it would take one or two people to move and fend for them.
We were later joined by another group of men. The curator explained that these men were specialist mine clearers and were the ones who had disarmed or blew up all of the mines and uncovered all the rotten and damaged rifles on display in the museum. These guys explained how they had traveled to many parts of the world either for the UN and for NGO’s (Non Government Organisations) clearing mines in various war torn areas many of then in Africa. He also mentioned and showed me photos of when he and his team met Princess Diana when she visited a minefield in which he was in the process of clearing.
What really struck me was the sadness in his voice when he explained that there was still years of work to clear the landmines still dotted around the country. Also, one other thing he said was that the metal mines were the easiest to find because they use metal detectors but there are mines with plastic tops which the detectors can’t pick up and these have to be done by hand which is not only more dangerous but a lot more time consuming. He also mentioned that some of the fields “cleared” in the early days are having to be rechecked due to the farmers being injured from mines which have come to the surface after years being buried. It was with sadness that he told me that someone is killed or injured everyday by a mine.
I left feeling sad that there was so much work to still do and privileged to have met them all.
In our travels we had not experienced such a range of emotions and and such high degrees as we have in Cambodia. I have felt deeply saddened, extremely frustrated, angry and then ashamed by my feelings when considering the lives these people have led and considering why they perhaps act as they do at times. I very much hope that their past does not negatively impact their approach to tourism as we felt it did with us at times. We met some lovely people, had some funny moments and happy times and wish for them a calm and contented future.
Two cleaners in one of the temples insisted we must take this photo!