Friday, 24 January 2014

Choeung Ek

NB: This post contains information about the actions of the Khmer Rouge, and images that some could find disturbing.
It's not going to be really graphic, but it's not a nice subject.

Beginning at the end seems to make the most sense for this post.
On our return from Choeung Ek, our tuk-tuk driver stopped for petrol. At the pump, a young Khmer man asked "Why do foreigners all want to go to Choeung Ek?" His tone of voice, more than his question, made it clear that he found it slightly distasteful, and potentially offensive, that foreign tourists flock there.

We answered that we wanted to go in order to learn, and to understand what happened in Cambodia during the years of Democratic Kampuchea. I don't know whether this satisfied him, or if he found it an acceptable reason - he got distracted by the arrival of an apparent paramour and went away to flirt with her.
I stand by that answer, though.
The Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnamese forces a few months before I was born. I always knew the name Pol Pot, but had no idea what had actually happened here in the short years of the Khmer Rouge. When Pol Pot died, I was old enough to pay some attention - it was a familiar name, after all - but there was little detail in the reports. It was old news, and there were more current repercussions from genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda for the journalists to cover.
I never looked into it further. I never really knew or understood what the Khmer Rouge was, or did. Until I came to Cambodia, and read about Choeung Ek.

In 1975, Cambodia had an unstable and unpopular government, and was caught up in the American War with Vietnam. The US was bombing Cambodia, believing it to be sheltering Viet Cong soldiers. The Khmer Rouge gathered an army, marched on Phnom Penh, and told all of the inhabitants that the US were going to bomb the city.
Within three days, Phnom Penh - and every other city in Cambodia - was empty.

The pattern is familiar, if not the details. Intellectuals were undesirable, and enemies of the people. Peasants were patriots, and work on the land was the means to national salvation.

Intellectuals were arrested, tortured and killed.
Those who worked the land were underfed, and many starved.
The rice produced on work communes went to China, to pay for weapons and ammunition supplied to the Khmer Rouge before their coup.

Of Cambodia's population of 8 million, the Khmer Rouge murdered between 2 and 3 million people - between a quarter and a third of the Khmer people.
They did not do this over the span of a generation, or even over an elongated administration. The Khmer Rouge were in power for only 3 years and 8 months.

In that time, at least 8,000 people were killed at Choeung Ek.
Their remains are displayed in a memorial stupa - many stories high, it is filled with glass cabinets containing nothing but the bones retrieved from the mass graves excavated shortly after the Khmer Rouge were ousted.

There is an audio tour available at the site - a series of recordings that are linked to various locations. We shared one, in English, and I repeated the information for Eva and Leon. The stories were profound, and disturbing, and repeating them aloud ingrained them in a way that listening alone would probably not have done.
People did not stay long at Choeung Ek. It was not a prison camp. Those transported there were killed on the same day they arrived. The tour details how Choeung Ek operated, and has some interviews with former Khmer Rouge recruits who worked at Choeung Ek, as well as those who survived the actions of the Khmer Rouge. The details are, as one would expect, brutal, disturbing and horrifying. They are told with dignity, by a narrator who works not only to record the history of the period, but to help bring those associated with it to justice, and to provide counselling and support for anyone who wishes to access them.

Choeung Ek now is an orchard and memorial site. The mass graves are enclosed, and tributes and offerings brighten the fencing around them. Despite the tranquility, it is impossible to walk Choeung Ek and forget the magnitude of what happened there, and what was reflected at similar sites all over Cambodia. Were there any danger of this, the audio tour frequently requests that visitors not pick up any bones or teeth that may be on the paths (they are washed from the graves in the wet season), and a reflexive glance at the ground around your feet is very likely to reveal something of that kind (they have groundskeepers who collect all of the washed up remains at frequent intervals, but the ground there is saturated with them, and it is impossible to keep it clear for any period of time).

I took a few photographs while I was there.
It felt strange to do so - I'm not a photographer by nature, and while in the right hands it is an important tool, a camera to me always feels a frivolous item. I tried to get over that, so below are a small number of pictures of various areas.

 The memorial Stupa, from outside

 One of the mass graves, with tributes on the fencing

 A shrine next to a glass case holding clothing

 A spirit house, next to a glass case housing unidentified remains not housed in the Stupa

 Loudspeakers were hung from this tree, and used to project revolutionary songs and music to cover the sounds of the executions

 Interior, the memorial Stupa

Interior, the memorial Stupa. The remains have been identified by gender and age, and are arranged according to seven characteristics, including bone type.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted and a new Government elected for Cambodia, the international community (including Britain) continued to officially recognise the Khmer Rouge as the government of Cambodia for several years afterwards - long after information emerged about the atrocities they committed.

I am still ill at ease with visiting sites like this. At least, those that are not part of my own heritage. Partly because I am worried about how people will perceive my intentions.
I believe, though, that it is important for outsiders also to try to know and understand how such things happen. To say another people's experiences can never be shared, or that it is none of my business to understand someone who does not have the same history as me, is to risk not only the proverbial repeating of history, but also to jeopardise the development of a better understanding of ourselves and each other. 

I hope the petrol pump attendant would agree it is a good reason.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Just capital (part one)

When last we met, dear friends, I was happily situated in a beautiful bungalow at the edge of the jungle, after intrepid meanderings through foliage.
The following morning saw Eva, Leon, Benno and me at breakfast, with Benno preparing to head for Koh Krong and the Thai border, and the remainder of us to Andoung Tuek for the bus to Phnom Penh. Transport to AT was again by moto-taxi, unhappily, but happily this driver knew the road, and it was only 20 minutes of slewing tyres along red dirt tracks that saw me safely back on heavily rutted tarmac to await four-wheeled transport.

As a brief note, my moto driver knew not only where Wales is, but it's population, and the fact that it ranks very highly in some random international scale of peaceful countries (which I guess when your country has spent it's recent history embroiled in civil war, genocide and civic strife, is the sort of thing you look up). He attributes all of this to the existence of Ryan Giggs.

This pattern has repeated itself in other small towns in Cambodia. I may have to get someone to send me a Wales football shirt... It feels anathema. Why do so few countries love rugby? The world, it is a silly place...

This is Andoung Tuek. 

When we collected our tickets from the ticket office (the red cooler to the right of the above picture), the bus turned out to be an hour later than advertised, at 10.30 rather than 9.30. This should be unsurprising, as Cambodians are very keen for you to be somewhere early enough to have a good long time to wait for whatever it is you're expecting to happen there.

Waiting is important, and ideally to be carried out while in a hammock.
When in Cambodia, always carry a book. And, if possible, a hammock.

The bus turned up nominally on time, and it was merely late lunch when we arrived in Phnom Penh. Avoiding the tuk-tuk and moto drivers at the bus station, we wended our way to a lunch spot mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide: Sam Doo Restaurant. Looking for something not made of rice, we ordered sandwiches that - on the menu - looked like they would contain some kind of roast duck, but actually turned out to just be toast with honey. So we ordered some dim sum also, which was actually very good. No-one starved, although I don't think Eva was entirely satisfied with the experience.

Over dinner, we looked for accommodation on the internet (this having been absent over our three days in the jungle). Sadly, Phnom Penh appeared to be full.
I managed to get a dorm bed for a couple of nights on Hostelbookers, but it meant changing dorms during my stay (no great hardship, but a bit of a potch, onetheless). Eva and Leon spent some time calling places from a coffee shop opposite my hostel, before giving up, and getting a tuk-tuk to drive them round until they found somewhere. We agreed to meet up at 10.30 the next morning to share a tuk-tuk to Choeung Ek. I spent the evening meandering around Phnom Penh...

I will hopefully do another post tomorrow, about Choeung Ek.
Stay tuned...

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Meetings and Misadventures

My first foray into Ecotourism with a capital E (rather than just the 'try not to accidentally do anything that supports bad practice' approach I normally take).
Chi Phat is part of an initiative (Community Based Eco Tourism - CBET) to provide an alternative economy to poaching and logging in the protected Cardamom Mountain region. About half of the families in the community work with they CBET project in one way or another - as guides, cooks or trailsetters in the jungle; or running guesthouses or homestays; or performing a role on the committee of the organisation.

Scouting out how to get to Chi Phat from Kampot was an interesting experience in the road less travelled. There is no bus to Chi Phat - that mode of transport abandons you at Anduong Tuek (a collection of about half a dozen buildings), and from there you can choose a 2 hour boat journey along the river, or a 40 minute moto taxi ride along rutted dirt road. Turning up at the bus station in Kampot, there was little opportunity to say where I was going before a list was fired at me. "How do I get to..."
"Phnom Penh."
"Sihanoukville"; "Battambang"; "Siem Reap"
"No... Anduong Tuek"
[confused looks - almost certainly due to my pronunciation]
Luckily, many Cambodians have a passing familiarity with the latin alphabet, so showing them the guidebook and pointing works better than it has any right to do.
The tourist bus rep wandered off at this point, leaving me with two helpful strangers who explained there would be a bus at 9am, any day of the week, from the petrol station, and it would cost them (very specifically excluding me) $5. This with an apologetic shrug - they couldn't help me with what the tourist premium would be. But at least I knew where to be and when!

On Tuesday morning, the tour bus rep tried to sell me a ticket for $8, and my tuk tuk driver then tried to hustle me into a taxi for $15. I resisted both, wandered to the bus by myself and agreed a price of $6 with one of the relevant people. (Not the driver. As well as the driver, there are usually at least one - often two - co-drivers who help load the bus and then sit up front; and at least one random other person who rides in the back, rearranges the passengers when more get on than there are seats, and occasionally leaps out of the moving vehicle to go and run an errand for the driver. You pay one of them.)

While sitting on a cooler and watching the assorted guys load assorted goods onto a wooden trestle strapped to the rear bumper (everything from a leaky sack of fresh meat, through kitchen furniture and finishing with my rucksack) I got talking to a local woman about where I was headed. Her name was Sreioira (as close to a phonetic spelling as I can get, as ever), and when we got to a lunch stop a few hours later, she offered to drive me from there to Chi Phat on her motorbike because she'd never been and was curious. I'm also pretty sure she was bored and lonely, and wanted some company as her husband was away for a few days. It worked for me as a deal, so I paid the bus guy, we got some lunch, and I hopped on the back of Sreioira's moto.

That is not a journey I wish to repeat anytime soon. The road from the stop to Chi Phat was very poor, and balancing with my rucksack on the back of a bike, with a driver who was not familiar with the road got rather unnerving. The tarmac road to Anduong Tuek was in bad repair, with a lot of potholes that needed to be avoided by weaving all over the road (as was the traffic in the other direction). The road from there to Chi Phat is just dark, rutted red dirt. In the midday sun it looked stunning against the green of the approaching jungle and a deep blue sky. The first rank of foliage at the side of the road was coated in the dust from passing traffic, and the contrast of all of it was amazing, but I wasn't able to take photographs of it, unfortunately. In all, it took about an hour and a half to get from the bus stop to Chi Phat (I'm still not sure exactly where it was, actually...), and I was very, very pleased to get to a guesthouse and get off the bike.
Sreioira and I spent the rest of the afternoon hopping on and off the bike to explore the area, until around 4, when Sreioira left to go back home, and I went to find the CBET office to see whether I could afford a trek.

Sreioira, on a very swingy suspension bridge

They aren't that expensive, considering you get a guide and a cook for the time you're there, but it's expensive for one as you don't share the costs.
Happily, there was a sign up on the noticeboard saying "We have booked trek number 2 for tomorrow (the 8th). We would be happy if you would join us to make a cheaper tour. Leon, Eva and Benno."
I'd been planning on a 2 day trek, but this meant the three day option they had booked was the same price as a 2 day would be by myself. At $75, this brought it within my normal daily budget, so I signed up!
Another guy, named Mike, later joined the same trek, accidentally making it more expensive as it's one guide to 4 people! (We only realised this later)
We 5 ate dinner together, and bid each other adieu to meet up at 5.40 the following morning.
Trekking Happened.
Day One:

 Mike. Contemplating breakfast. Or the meaning of life. But probably breakfast.

 Benno and Eva In Conversation

 Row, row row your boat..

 Unnecessary Arty Shot

 Leon tries his hand at the rowing

After the boats, we met up with Rose and Deb, who were on a 5 day trek, the first two days and nights of which were the same as ours. Mike defected to their itinerary on day 3...

 Lunch, with added pedicure fish
(They were *everywhere*)

 I have no idea which flower it thinks this is, but it smells like damp socks

Dorm room

 Here, tiger tiger tiger tiger...

 Benno and Rose

 Me and Mike

 Rose, Deb and Leon

Leon, Eva and me

The group contained two Dutch, a Dane, a German and a Brit. The Aussies started a conversation about Eurovision over dinner...

Day Two:

 The fauna was lacking in danger...

 How about the flora?

 Rose and Eva encourage ants to suicide. For SCIENCE.

 Naro chills out by a tree. Possibly also for science.

 Lots of chilling.

 This happened a lot

 Because I am a clutz. Or my right foot is competitive about being more swollen than my left. Or something.

The view from my hammock.

Day Three:

 Here be Ents

 Some of our jungle is missing...

 If your bridge falls down, just prop up some other stuff against the old one. Be reet.

 OK. But I'm not looking...

 "I carried a *coconut*...?"


 Saron, catching lunch



 Product placement

Me, in bathers, atop a waterfall, *not* swimming on my sprained (?) foot. Doh.

After that, we headed back to Chi Phat, and stayed in lovely bungalows that Leon and Eva had stayed in their first night. The owners also make a cracking rice wine, with a hint of Highland Park about it.

Thus ended the jungle adventures. Although not the foot issues. It's still somewhat swollen, and probably will be for a couple of days. 

That evening, we talked with some of the CBET staff, and also with a guy who used to work at CBET in Chi Phat and is now setting up another project in another part of the Cardamoms:
The first trek ran there just a couple of months ago. It looks fabulous, and if I come back this way one November (just after the rainy season, when the waterfalls are at full tilt), I'll go and check out those guys.

CBET seems to have a good system going. When we spoke to the staff there were a few things we suggested that they are looking at doing - setting up volunteer opportunities like helping to maintain or replace the bridges, for example. But also little things, like giving tourists a way of bringing the rubbish from the trip back with them (it's currently only collected once a month) rather than having bins in the camps. They are trying to get more community involvement, but they face challenges. Some residents are setting up alternative companies for transport or accommodation, for example, and as part of the CBET income currently goes to funding CBET activity and development, the financial benefit of freelancing is greater. It's a complicated balance, and it will remain one for the whole Chi Phat community for several years, as well as for those other communities along the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor that go down a similar route.

To foray briefly into politics, he showed us footage of some of the protests in Phnom Penh. Recent elections were, to say the least, somewhat suspect; and there have been protests to both try to precipitate new elections, and also to try to increase wages for factory workers. A couple of weeks ago, protesters were fired upon, and 3 killed. The incumbent government has been in power for 35 years, so it is very difficult to challenge the system in a meaningful way here.

It's calm again, for the time being, but Phnom Penh is the next stop for Leon, Eva and me. (Spoiler alert - it stayed calm, and we were fine.) Cambodia is having Interesting Times. I'll return to them later. In the meantime, you may wish to do some background reading. I don't have any recommended links for you, I'm afraid, as a bunch of stuff about it is blocked here and I'm mostly getting information from talking to people. I'm sure Google will help you out, though.