Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Siem Reap: The Gate Way to Angkor

We arrived in Siem Reap on the 12th November after a comfortable sleeper bus journey and stayed in the heart of the backpacker district, Psar Chaa. It's a little charmer, with old french shop-houses, shady tree boulevards, a lively pub scene and a slow-flowing river that makes this a place to be savoured and defiantly not rushed. It is also the perfect place to plan a few adventures, one obviously being the famous temples of Angkor. But, we also wanted to do something more, a little bit different to the more predictable tourist conveyor belt. We decided that we would like to visit one of the many Orphanages and schools in Cambodia and give something back by teaching or helping out in any way that we could. The people in Cambodia are special.They are the beauty of this country, and for a people that have been to hell and back and are considered to be one the most poverty stricken countries in the world, on par with even the Congo, they are generous, humble and happy people are ways willing to help and serve you. I believe that if a family was hungry and had only one meal, with a smile that can light up a room, they would sit down and share that meal with you. That for me says everything about the people of Cambodia. 

We spent the first couple of days exploring the place and exploring this small district of Siem Reap at a slumbers pace, just enjoying the sights and culture that this South Eastern gem has to offer. For me when I say culture, I have to confess food and drink is high up on my list of expertise. I love trying all the different foods and drinks, and allowing my taste buds the opportunity to have a little party of their own inviting all their friends on this culinary explosion. The highlight was the local market that offers quality spicy, flavorsome food such as their amazing noodle dishes and BBQ meats. 

The night market
Savong's School and Orphanage is located 25 minutes from Siem Reap, and we decided to visit and support both in any way we could. Svay Savoung is a young Cambodian who had a dream to build this school in order to provide free language education to rural children. In this part of Cambodia, not far from the incredible Angkor Wat temples, tourism is the major employer, so skills in languages provide a passport for future employment. For 650 rural children Savongs School provides hope, opportunity and support. I was lucky to meet Savong during my visit to the school in the afternoon and his energy, motivation and commitment to the school and the orphanage center was an honour to behold. He is around the same age as me perhaps no older than his late twenties, and he had a vision to improve the future of the children and give them a chance to live a happy life. He is an inspiration and a hero in this part of town. He is also very funny and down to earth. I remember watching him in the classroom, teaching a young class, (around seven or eight years of age) the alphabet and his skill and charisma shone through like the sun and his love for the children created the perfect atmosphere for teaching. He was almost like a stand up comedian, or inspirational speaker, everyone was having so much fun, it was great, quite a moment for me. One must remember that he to was one of these children, from the same rural area, facing the same issues were the chances of employment and living a healthy happy life are practical zero. However, Savong has dedicated his life to ensuring these children are not forgotten, and the most important testament to this is that the children really appreciate the gift of free education. I mean the pupils favourite lesson here is English grammar, they love it. I had children surrounding me asking me asking me to read their work and offer suggestions for vocabulary and grammar. It was quite funny, because in what other school in Merseyside do you get that level of commitment. Me and Laura spent the afternoon at the school helping out, talking with the children and teaching them some English. It was great fun interacting with them all and getting back into the classroom.

Me with Phil Caldwell and Savong (center)
The joy of learning

Outside the simple but invaluable school

A boy and his classroom 
In the morning we visited the Orphanage Centre; here they look after children who have been abandoned by families who can no longer afford to care for them. This rural hinterland is the second poorest region of Cambodia, and there is no safety net. Savong provides full time care for these children, and the centre has quickly turned into a little community with around 30 children living there. At the centre children receive food, shelter, clothing, health care and full time education. When we arrived, the children inquisitively came over, familiar with foreigners they warmly greeted us and showed us around the centre. The age groups is varied between newborn babies to early teenagers, and just like any other child back home, all they want to do is play. We had lots of fun playing football, volleyball and indulging in a spot of arts and crafts, I also taught a girl to skip the rope like Mike Tyson. 

Laura getting involved at the orphanage

Arts and crafts at the orphanage centre-peace!!!

Skip the rope like Tyson

All together now, All together now

Having fun in the sun
Siem Reap is the gate way to Angkor and no visit would be the same without going to the ancient temples, and watch sunrise over the enchanting, mystical kingdom of the Gods. We arrived at 5am in the morning and waited with awe and excitement for one of the most anticipated spiritual events on earth. Welcome to heaven on earth, the earthly representation of Mt Meru the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of the ancient Gods. As we waited the first rays of the morning sun crept through silhouetting the temple on to the opposing lake, breathtakingly beautiful, a vision of the heart and soul of Cambodia in all its ancient timeless inspirational power.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Inside Angkor Wat
The Cambodian 'God Kings' over a 1000 years ago each strove to out do each other in size, scale, and symmetry of their temples, culminating in the worlds largest religious building, Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the Center piece, however it is only one of many temples that make up the ancient Khmer empire.  Other highlights included visiting Angkor Thom, a 10sq km  'great city' that once housed a million people, with its own centre piece temple of mesmerising Bayon; and Ta Prohm. This was one of my favourite awe inspiring places that I have ever been to. This is were Tomb Raider was filmed , so you have to imagine ruined temples, half devoured by the giant roots of the trees; here the jungle had long taken over the fabled ancient temples.

Looking out in awe over Angkor Thom

Temples of Bayon

The portrait of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII

The temple of Ta Phrom-any one seen Lara Croft

Frodo Baggins come hither
To end our journey of Cambodia we travelled to the province of Battambang. This sleepy little town west of Siam Reip was a great place to relax for a week before heading to Thailand. Here we spent a day exploring by tuck tuck some of the most famous places in Cambodia. We started the day with a trip on the Bamboo train; a one engine fence panel balanced on an axle to a train track and off you are on an remarkable little adventure. You feel so free as you accelerate down the track towards a remote farming village, with the cool air in your face surrounded by paddy fields.  From here we visited a couple of farming villages, a small vineyard and woke up hundreds of fruit bats just for the fun of it. We ended the day trip with a somber walk to the killing cave. The scenery is breathtaking but the history is heart breaking. The Khmer Rouge killed 17,000 innocent people at this location back in the 1970s. Cambodia has been an amazing adventure, full of surprises and enriched by beautiful genuine people.....its been emotional!!!
By the old french siding sheds
Me and Mr Philay our tuck tuck driver

The Bamboo Train

The children of one of the many farming villages

Friday, 2 December 2011

The South Coast is Paradise

Paradise Found-Kep
Fringed with tropical beaches, pristine mangrove forests, secluded unspoilt Islands and night life to fulfill the apatite of even the hardest of hardcore party goers makes the south a little bit special but be warned its going to make a few people a little bit jealous. 

On the 29th October we left the capital city of Phnom Penh for the Sunkist beaches of the south coast, still unsure of what we would find. I never knew anything about this region until I began reading up on it in the Capital and words such as; beauty, tranquility, palm trees, sunsets, tropical Islands and pinacolada's, sprang from the pages like long lost friends and done more than wet the whistle, I was more than in. We promptly booked our tickets and off we went in search of paradise, and believe me we wasn't to be disappointed.

We arrived at a little seaside resort called Kep, famed for spectacular sunsets, fresh crab and old French colonial villas that speak of happier times, line the beach and stand like ghosts from another age. The villas were destroyed by the Khemer Rouge and are now just abandoned blackened shells said to be haunted. They are very strange indeed and would make a great set for a horror film. We stayed in a slightly better French guesthouse on the beach, the perfect location to explore the area. Kep is a place were the locals enjoy their holidays and we arrived during the weekend so it was alive with locals relaxing and eating the local delicacy, fresh crab. This is what Kep is most famous for and it certainly lives up to expectations, its beautiful. We went for a walk to the local crab market to try it out, on the way encountering a local troop of monkeys, meandering about as the sun was going down. I tried the crap with Kampot pepper (famous in any French restaurant worth their salt). It must rank as some of the best sea food that I have had, its so fresh, aromatic and tasty. Fantastico!!!
Outside one of the old French Villas
The closest palce I have ever been to paradise is, Koh Tonsay, better known as Rabbit Island. It lies about 45 minutes from Kep and has the feel of an Island you would read about in a Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe book. There are virtually no foreigners to be found on this tropical hidden secret. Coconut tress fringe the beach, crystal blue waters lap up against a lone fisherman's boat, the sun glares down from the west, and all there is to do is laze on on the hammock on your raised bamboo shack and sip an ice cold beer. Perfect!!!  

Its a very peaceful and tranquil place and the perfect place for relaxing and just forgetting about the world around you. As night approaches, we would sit and watch sunset glow over the mountains or a storm raging in the distant ocean mesmerised by the lightening strikes that flicker and light up the sky for a split second like an ancient foreboding. At 9pm, what little light there is on the island goes off as the generators stop, the insects come alive and then like clock work the dogs on the island howl in competition with each other as the shadows created by the bright moon move and take on strange ghostly shapes creating this very mystical atmosphere. I remember during the first night looking up and just being amazed by the all the stars shinning so brightly in the sky; I have never seen so many stars and it feel so timeless.

Exploring the island

The beauty of Koh Tonsay

Paradise-Chilling in my hammock

Its hammock time again outside our bamboo shack

Sun Set over the mountains

Sun Set Glow
We got speaking to a couple from London, England and one of the locals on the island had asked them if they would like a boat trip to another island about 45 minutes away. The island inhabits only a small fishing village, its very remote and doesn't see many tourists. This sounded great, because Cambodia is no where as developed as its South East Asian neighbours and therefore was the perfect chance to see the real Cambodia before this changes forever. We travelled to the small island on a small fishing boat over beautiful blue sea the way the local do it. First our local guide took us around the back of the island to do some snorkeling in waters that no one else has the chance to go to making the experience feel so much more secluded, and the viability was great meaning you can see many variety of fish and coral. We then went a short distance to where the fishing villages are located. As we approached all the children came running out to greet us; all they wanted to do was play, they were fascinated taking pictures of each other and then looking at themselves and laughing. I had a walk around interacting with all the people and looking at the methods they used for fishing. They mostly use cages for catching crab, and crab remains litter the entire village. They took us into their homes and cooked us dinner, at least twelve big fresh crabs steamed and served with rice and chili source. It was beautiful and the whole day was an amazing experience as we were well and truely off the beaten track.

On our way to the fishing village

Our guide leading the way to our snorkeling location straight ahead

The children of the island

The boats used for fishing

Talking with the children

On our way back to Koh Tonsay

From Kep we traveled by a pink tuck tuck to Kampot, a charming riverside town, that has a sleepy relaxing atmosphere. Just like Kep it has a french colonial feel (and some great french cafes) and is a destination worth going just to lay back and get fat. From here we traveled further up the coast to Sihanoukville to party for a week. This is Cambodia's most happening beach destination and is a great place to party all day and night. We only planned to spend a day or two here but ended up spending a week; its infectious, vibrant, addictive, crazy, its gonna suck you and spit you out, right up my street kind of place and in the words of my American friend; 'its bloody god dam good fun man, awesome!!!' 

Inside the famous tuck tuck on our way to Kampot

'This is the life'- on the beach of Sihanoukville

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Cambodia: Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

'Imagine all the people living life in peace,
you may say am a dreamer, but am not the only one'
                                                 -John Lennon

Cambodia, the realm of the Gods has cast a spell on many a person who has ever set foot into this enchanting Kingdom. Famous for the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat, a temple that perhaps is only equaled by a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra is majestic as it is breathtaking. As you explore the country you encounter the hustle and bustle of two great heavyweight cities; Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. To the south you encounter beautiful beaches and deserted Islands that can only be described as paradise. Places such as Kep and Kampot have an evocative French colonial atmosphere that makes you feel as if you are in a bygone age, with its sweeping boulevards and old French shops. In contrast to such beauty the country has a much darker and depressing history. As you delve deeper you descend into the hell of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, S-21 Security Prison and Torture Center, Civil War and Genocide that resulted in the murder of millions of innocent people in the late 1970s. Pol Pot and his psychopathic revolution devastated a country but did not destroy the indomitable spirit of the people. For a people who have been to hell and back, who live in a country that is one of the poorest in the world and is considered to be in worse shape than even the Congo, they are simply the most beautiful, inspiring and positively infectious people I have ever met. For me the real treasure of Cambodia is its people as you will see.
On the 27th October we arrived in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh and I was greeted with smiles and optimism from the people. This was in total contrast to how I was greeted when we first arrived in North Vietnam. As I was waiting on the side of the road during a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, some children came cycling past me as they were going home from school. I smiled and waved at the on coming traffic being polite and happy to see them. A young boy on the back of his friends bike looked at me and raised his hand up as if to wave back, but, instead as he slowly raised his hand up in front of his face, he gave me a rye smile, and a different gesture was returned in the shape of the big fat middle phalange. I had to laugh at my welcome to Vietnam, very Scouse indeed.

Phnom Penh is a very vibrant city that is set against the Tonle Sap River and is home to the Royal Palace. Here it is impossible to ignore the extremes that form this city; poverty and excess, past and present, charm and chaos. When we arrived it was a weekend of celebration for the people of Phnom Penh, it was a national holiday in honor of the Kings fathers birthday. We spent our first day rambling around the city and sampling some of Cambodia's culture. As you walk along the tight busy streets one thing hits you hard and that's the weather, it is intensely hot and humid and you sweat constantly, but, I am not complaining to much when you compare it to the bleak weather back home. During the night we ate some traditional food outside the night market; baby cow is the main attraction on the menu that everyone indulges in. It is cooked whole on a giant spite and served with some rice and spices and is all washed down with a big pitcher of Angkor beer for good measure.

Since a lot of the cities main attractions were shut due to the National Holiday, we were at a loss of what to do on our last day in the capital. As we left our hotel, a tuck tuck (taxi) driver approached us and he asked us do we want  to go on a tour of S-21 Genocide Museum and the killing Fields. I was instantly intrigued when he explained some of the history behind this grim but fascinating place from Cambodia's darker past. We decided to go on this full day tour, which was not planned and very spontaneous giving the trip an even more interesting feel. We set off to the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security office better known as S-21, the office set up on the orders of Pol Pot on April 17th 1975 for the detention, interrogation, inhumane torture, and killing of detainees
Tuol Sleng, former office S.21 was actually a school before it became a scene from hell
On the 17th April 1975 Pol Pot, brother number 1 in the Khmer Rouge regime marched into Phnom Penh and implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of society ever attempted; its goal was pure revolution, untainted by those that had gone before, to transform Cambodia into a peasant agricultural cooperative. Within days the entire population of cities and towns across the country were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for up to 12-15 hours a day. Pol Pot's deranged idea was to develop an economic society that was based on the cultivation of rice that would be totally self sufficient. It promptly cut its ties with the outside world, abolished money and proclaimed the new rule as Year Zero. Anyone who showed disobedience or opposition was immediately executed; similarly intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, children, the sick, the elderly and many of their own party members and soldiers who symbolized the old way of life were murdered. People were deprived of basic human rights and disease and famine killed millions of people. In the eyes of Pol Pot the country had to be cleansed and for the next three years, eight months and twenty days the Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from everything they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith.

Behind the wire in S-21
It is a very strange and depressing feeling when you enter S-21 Security prison, its location defies believe; set in a school, surrounded by homes and shops within a leafy suburban setting makes it seem surreal and even more grotesque. And then you venture into the classrooms, once used as a place for learning, horrifically changed into prison cells and instruments of torture. The floors are blood stained, there are bullet holes in the walls, the tools of torture remain and the very classrooms still unchanged since they were liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979. Its hard to believe that children once played and 17,000 innocent people were imprisoned, either killed here or brought to the killing fields of Choeung Ek to be murdered. Out of these 17,000 people only 7 people survived the biggest detention center in the country.  

Prisoners were kept chained to the bed using iron clamps

Outside one of the classrooms

Inside a single wooden cell

An instrument of torture-A painting done by a survivor named Vann Nath
From S-21 we traveled the short distance to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the same journey that the prisoners of S-21 would have traveled to be executed. The weather was hot and the sun was shinning bright; their was hustle and bustle on the streets and people were going about their business without a care in the world. It was hard to believe that we were on the same fateful trail that thousands of people were forced to make only thirty years ago. When they arrived in the middle of the night, they were often bludgeoned to death there and then to avoid wasting bullets. If there were to many prisoners to kill during the night they locked them up in holding sheds playing music from load speakers to hide the screams of the dying. They would meet their fate the next night. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Many of the mass graves have been left untouched and still today bits of clothing, bone and teeth fragments still appear on the ground as if ghosts from the past trying to escape their dark world. This was evident when we walked around many of the mass graves and we seen human fragments lying on top of the earth. We were given an audio guide to help us around the site which gave us accounts and insights from people who worked here and from survivors both describing horrifying stories. I found it very hard to understand how people were capable of such senseless brutality.  As we walked around the site, we walked on a path close to the lake which flows past the back of the site and I remember listening to a very emotional piece of music by Him Sophy called "A Memory from Darkness". Listening to this piece of music in a place that has so many horrifying memories but now seems so peaceful was a very moving experience. At the center of this somber place lies more than 8000 skulls all arranged by sex and age, that are visible behind clear class panels of the Memorial Stupa. The Stupa is a symbol of hope and defiance and stands in memory of all the innocent people who were murdered here so generations never forget what the darker side of human nature is capable of.

Mass graves of the Killing Fields

Clothing that keeps surfacing like ghosts of the past 

A Memory from Darkness

Thousands of skulls in order of age and gender fill the Memorial Stupa

Victims being transported from S.21 to The Killing Fields

The victims meet their fate

Victims were simply tossed unmercifully into mass graves
A Symbol of Hope: A single flower sits stoically on one of the mass graves