Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Monday, 17 September 2012
Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Since I've been back after 12 months away, I've been having a great time catching up with my friends. After dinner with a friend the other night, a friend emailed me:
So it was great to catch up with you last week. I have a follow up question: My brother thinks that because all news that is broadcast is "bad" that he doesn't bother watching, therefore is not informed. Is ignorance bliss? Is the outcome the same or similar if you are not in a position to change anything you observe on the 24 hr news cycle if you watch or don't watch? Thoughts?
I went on to reply...
...To be honest I don't know if I can really answer your question because it's been one I've been struggling with since I came back. Before I left Australia I was a total news junkie. Probably almost in the true sense of the word... I used to have "drug" seeking behaviour, I had total withdrawals and terrible FOMO (fear of missing out). It wouldn't be unusual for me to be working with ABC 24 news on the TV, Twitter in front of me and maybe streaming something else online. I was hooked.
But then I went overseas and while I tried to maintain my habit, it was much harder work. Less time to be spent watching endless (and frankly, repetitive) news coverage, Twitter feeds, reading blogs and overseas news websites... it's a lot to maintain. And when you are in a tropical paradise, somewhat less of a priority. And was my life any poorer during those 12 months? No.
Having said that though, the life I was living was without bounds, responsibility, time limits and was relatively stress free. I didn't give a shit about what Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard had said to/about each other that day, and I didn't even know that Bob Carr had been made Foreign Minister until just before I came back... All stuff I would have normally been on top of.
What I'm trying to figure out now is whether or not news actually enriches my life now that I'm back, or whether it actually just stresses me out because I can't control any of it and often it doesn't directly affect my day-to-day life (yet... I don't have a house/kids/mortgage). Have I really just surrounded myself with enablers? People with whom I need to be studying the news endlessly in order to be able to have a conversation? The answer to that is definitely yes. Now I just need to figure out whether or not that bothers me.
What probably bothers me more is that people don't do anything with their outrage... myself included. I get on Twitter and make clever remarks but I don't actually go out and picket parliament, start an action group to try and inform public policy or encourage others to do the same. One of my favourite quotes I found while I was viewing the Magna Carta in Salisbury was "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." So rather than just sit around on my arse being oh-so-informed, I need to get out there and actually do something.
So I guess in answer to your question, sitting around being informed is one thing, getting out there and doing something about it is better and probably more noble. But not knowing in the first place forfeits your right to be disgruntled. One of my other favourite sayings is "Do not complain about what you permit".
Wednesday, 9 May 2012
I'm at a complete loss, with only the bitter taste of incredulousness and rage left in my mouth. My mouth with a clenched jaw and pursed lips. I'm fucking pissed off.
I remember in 2007 when I partied so hard I got kicked out of the pub because that bastard Howard had been voted out. I remember thinking that at LONG LAST we could celebrate and finally move on as a nation.
When Rudd was ousted I was actually happy that Gillard was in and that snivelling jerk was out. Him with his overtly Christian values (I was even a little sad for him during his goodbye speech until he went all Godly and thanked his 'creator'. Fuck him, good riddance). Now we had an atheist, female prime minister who was living with her partner. I felt proud of Australia when we voted her back in, even if it was by the slimmest of margins.
And I know that the odds are stacked against a female prime minister on the 'left' side of politics. I know that much of the mainstream media and industry will do everything they can to de-stabilise this government by calling it illegitimate, running smear campaigns, or otherwise leaving it to its own ridiculous in-fighting that it simply self-destructs while they cover every minute detail.
So what could Gillard do? What about, I dunno, support gay marriage? It enjoys massive support in the community - surely this is a no-brainer? There is no apparent reason as to why she shouldn't support gay marriage personally - she's not religious. It's not like she's in with the God Squad anyway.
And yet she doesn't.
Now we hear the news that even BARACK OBAMA has stated he supports gay marriage. You know him, right? The President of the United States. He presides over one of the most religious places on Earth with some of the most vocal and politically influential Christian lobby groups. And he just backed gay marriage. Not even a half-way vote with the usual 'civil unions' compromise; marriage.
And yet she says she will maintain her position.
So why does this make me so angry? Because I don't believe her. I don't believe that there's any reason why she personally doesn't support marriage equality, particularly in a country where church and state are meant to be separate. This is about politics, and I can't believe that even on such a popularly supported issue such as this, she can still manage to fuck it up.
So much promise, so little delivery. Thanks for nothing, Gillard.
Thursday, 12 January 2012
I'm in Hong Kong. I honestly can't tell you how I've spent the last week or so. It's been brilliant. Very little site seeing. Walk up the hill to the reservoir with Mike, met up with Kat and Craig for dinner at Oohlaa in Soho - mojitos a-plenty. Dinner and dancing last Saturday night with Mike and Phyllis's friends. True Blood. Coffee. Ferries. Doctors. Fucking opthalmologists who won't remove fucking cysts. Trying to avoid the shops. Cooking pasta or Vietnamese salmon. A holiday from a holiday. A blur of conversations about What it All Means punctuated by Steve Jobs's death. Wifi. Tours. Emails and Skype. Missing people. Talking to Pfizer folks. Wishing I felt more grateful and less sad and scared. Two little girls with one pair of skates in the plaza laughing and showing off for their parents. I have two skates but only one of me.
Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Above is my only diary entry for Honkers, and as you can see it was very low-key. My uncle Mike is an air traffic controller in Hong Kong and it was great to see him and his wife Phyllis. I stayed at their place in Discovery Bay, an expat oasis on Lantau Island.
I'd been to HK twice before and both times I shopped until I dropped (it's almost possible to walk around the entirety of the city without ever leaving the air-conditioned comfort of a shopping centre). This time I felt as though I was living a completely different life, knowing full well that I would have to carry anything I bought. How things had changed!
It was funny to come to a more westernised part of Asia after travelling through other parts of the South East. I took this first photo which is almost the complete opposite of one I had taken a couple of weeks before in Vietnam (below).
There's a little something in that for all of us, don't you think??
In any case, the most important development was that I got my Chinese visa with little difficulty courtesy of an agent that Mike and Phyllis put me on to in town. Booked a tour with Gap Adventures, and soon, I was on my way to Beijing. Stay tuned :)
Tuesday, 27 December 2011
Coming out of Cambodia, I felt a great sense of relief in many ways. In retrospect, I don't think I was ready for the poverty I saw there, as well as the challenges it would present to me personally. I was really looking forward to Vietnam. Firstly, I love Vietnamese food, which is an excellent reason to go to any country in my opinion! Secondly, I'd heard so many fantastic things about Vietnam - that it was like Thailand was before the tourists got to it 15 years ago. But mostly, I was looking forward to seeing Mum, who had booked this trip before I took my redundancy. What better opportunity to travel with your Mum?? Best of all, Mum's friend Jodi is a travel agent who booked the whole trip, posh hotels, transfers and guides included. Bloody brilliant. Better still, she came too!
After a few nervous moments with my visa, I managed to get a flight in the night before Mum and Jodi arrived. I'd heard so many things about the taxi drivers in Hanoi - that they'll rip you off, possibly hold you in the car until you pay a certain amount of money etc etc. I was suitably prepared though - asked for a quote from the hotel on how much it should cost and then agreed to that cost with the (albeit reluctant) taxi driver. In the end he hit the nail on the head with the fare and I tipped him out of gratitude to the universe that I hadn't been ripped off. Try figuring that one out.
I cannot tell you how freaking excited I was to sleep in a proper bed, have fluffy towels and TOILETRIES! Oh the little soaps! The body moisturisers! Joy! Rapture! And also complete contrast to when I was working when I thought they were there for the schmucks who forgot their stuff. Not this greedy little traveller, I left nothing behind!
After a brief walk around Hanoi, I met Mum and Jodi back at the hotel for a long-overdue hug. They'd been picked up from the airport by Nam, our tour guide for this area. Looking a bit rough after their flight (sorry guys, but you weren't looking your best), they were keen to see what Hanoi had to offer.
And after going through Thailand and Cambodia, there are a few obvious differences. Hanoi was much cleaner, and I wasn't the only one with a smart phone. I was also aware that the people were much better dressed, the stores shinier and more expensive, and the pace was much much faster. I recognised more brands, but this may have been simply because I could read the letters. By adopting Arabic letters, the Vietnamese may have done themselves a huge favour in this era of globalisation. Compare this with Thailand which has 44 characters in its alphabet with 6 different tones, or Cambodia where they may not leave a space between their words, and you start getting a taste for the complexities of these languages.
Walking around the lake that evening was fantastic. In cities as crowded as Hanoi, the people really make the most of public spaces. Old people in a line massaging each others' backs then switching over in synchronicity, all the while chattering away, laughing and chiding each other. Tai Chi and other forms of calisthenics, people walking their dogs, children playing ... it's all happening.
But if you think this is a relatively serene environment, think again. The lake is surrounded by roads, which in Hanoi means it is surrounded by about a million scooters. All of them swerving in and out of traffic, beeping their horns incessantly, and dodging petrified pedestrians. This is in stark contrast with the Hanoi of even 5 or 10 years ago, where I'm told people predominantly rode bicycles. I'm certain things would have been a hell of a lot more peaceful then.
Our next day was action-packed. A trip to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (he wasn't in - possibly having a tea with Mao whilst getting patched up in Russia) and house where he lived during the war. Incredibly, it was here under his house where he held his war council. Next to the house was a bomb shelter, and that was about as high-tech as it got. Mentally I compared this to where the Americans and their allies may have made their plans and in my mind they couldn't have been more different.
We crammed in several more sites - a temple or two, the Lotus Pagoda (famous for being on a single pole), a rickshaw ride around old Hanoi, a water puppet show (which was just flat-out strange) and the relatively new Ethnology Museum. This was a real eye-opener for me. Vietnam is filled with dozens of different ethnic minorities, many of whom still observe their traditions in their every-day lives. Our guide Nam belonged to the Viet people who make up about 80% of the population, and he and his family observe the tradition whereby they exhume family members 3 years after their death to wash their bones and re-bury them in a smaller coffin. Bear in mind this is in Hanoi, not in some country backwater. Apparently the first time it's pretty full-on but then you get used to it. At times like this I'm glad for our Western ways!
While the museum details many of the different minorities' dress and traditions inside, outside it has full-scale recreations of their different housing. It's very cool to be able to walk around in these buildings - some of which were being frequented by pre-weds getting their wedding photos taken before the day in rented western-style dresses. On the big day apparently it's a relatively small affair with the family in traditional dress. We saw this couple during our rickshaw ride... Somehow I can't imagine us doing this in front of Myer...
The next day we had free in Hanoi, and we took the opportunity to meet up with my cousin in the Old Quarter and took some time out for pampering (it must have been about 5 days since my last massage at this point...).
That night we headed to the train station and caught the overnight Fanxipan train to Lao Cai. I'd never caught a sleeper train, but this one was pretty cool! You had your own compartments, clean-ish linen (at my cousin's suggestion, we brought along our silk sleeping bags) and air conditioning. We played Uno in the cabin, and while Jodi may have beaten us, her victory dance was truly retarded...
The next morning we met our tour guide for the north at the station and then embarked on the 2-hour drive to Sapa in the northern ranges of Vietnam. Despite the disgustingly early nature of this journey, it was absolutely beautiful winding up through the mountains with some of the most incredible scenery. I think we drove our driver nuts with requests to stop and take photos, but it was just so breathtakingly beautiful that we couldn't help ourselves! It will never cease to amaze me what tiny and remote places people will cultivate rice paddies on...
That day we saw the Ethnology Museum come to life. Right from when we arrived in Sapa, the local ladies were onto us, flocking to our minivan with shrieks of "she's mine, I saw her first" in their native tongue, translated by our guide. They followed us in their ornate traditional outfits with conversations of "What's your name? Where are you from?" trying to get us to go to their shops or buy from them in the street. Even if you were in a restaurant, they would talk to you through the windows. While relentless, everyone was very friendly.
We took our time walking down from town through some villages to Cat Cat falls. The main reason for taking our time was that it was bloody slippery and we were going down hill - a recipe for an Australia's Funniest Home Video if ever I saw one. We walked past rice paddies and local shops, bargaining along the way. We had the pleasure of seeing inside their houses - their massive stockpiles of dried corn and the huge vats of indigo dye used to make their local clothes. The local women's hands were the same colour as their clothes. It was such a privilege to see them in their homes and their traditional dress.
The falls were beautiful, and thanks to the rain, flowing rapidly. Once I put my camera away, it was great to sit there and be hypnotised by the falls. Every office should have one.
The next day we set off in a deluge to Cocly which has a small market not far away. It was times like these I was glad that I'd bought some decent footwear, which were nearly perfect for these muddy conditions in that they didn't come off. Unfortunately they had so little grip it was like trying to walk on mud on plastic ice-cream container lids. Let the games begin...
We bargained again with the locals, tried the local 50% alcohol corn wine (at 10am), watched our tour guide go from friend to friend trying out their tobacco pipes and refused some of the local animals' entrails for breakfast. The best thing about this market was the Flower Hmong Women were dressed in their traditional clothes, very different from their not-so-distant neighbours, but much more colourful.
We walked and slipped our way through a Trung Do village after a boat ride along the Chad River whose shores glisten with actual silver. I have to admit, I lost my sense of humour after coming a cropper in the mud at this point. Funniest Home Videos are funny because you get to laugh at others. While I was walking through the village I could smell something strangely familiar. We walked past ducks, geese, cats and houses, and all the while I was trying to remember what that smell was...
We had tea and a tour of a local family's house. We saw where they honour their ancestors, their bedrooms that open up to the family room. We also met her father and heard of how she was courted by her husband on the back steps of the house.
Our guide sampled some more of the local tobacco with the strange, whistling pipe, and we were off.
On the way back to the boat, I remembered what that smell was. It was the smell of the colonics in Thailand. I'm glad I remembered this on the way back to the boat.
After another trip on the Fanxipan, we headed back to Hanoi to be picked up and taken to Halong Bay. The boat we stayed on here was better than any of the hotels we had stayed in thus far - so luxurious and exciting to be on a huge wooden boat in the middle of some of the most picturesque scenery in the world.
We climbed all 440-odd stairs to the top of Titop Island and it was worth the trip. I'm just glad there wasn't a swear jar.
After a quick boat around the floating village, along with the enormous contingent of Australians on the boat, we enjoyed a cocktail on the top of the boat watching the sunset. Just magic.
The next day we headed into the Surprise Caves, and they were magnificent. I particularly liked their use of coloured lighting to perk the place up a bit.
A quick flight later and we were in Hue on the central Vietnamese coast. On the way from the airport we drove past the infamous 'China Beach' where the Americans spent their downtime during the war. Their hangars are still at the airport. More American troops lost their lives in this provence than in any other area of Vietnam. Hue is also home to the Forbidden City, a place where thousands of Vietnamese people died during the war after the are was bombed. There are large sections still under construction, and the enormity of the destruction is still evident. .
Hue is also dotted with beautiful Chinese style temples, some of which we'd had enough of by that point, however the boat ride down the Perfume River was intriguing, watching people in traditional Vietnamese hats trading goods from their boats as we bought knick knacks from our gracious hosts... their small boat was their entire house after all.
The next day we made the short journey to Hoi An. We stayed in the best hotel of the trip so far - the Life Heritage Resort, right next to the river. With enormous rooms and the best coffee of the trip so far, this place was a perfect end to our tour.
Hoi An is a charming place. Old bright yellow houses line the streets which are packed with tourists taking in the old-world atmosphere. Hoi An was left untouched by the war as the Americans were based here, and it retains its character beautifully. It also maintains its links to French colonialism in its cuisine, resulting in the most mouth-watering meals of the trip. These Hoi An wantons were my favourite - I didn't realise how much tomato the Vietnamese used in their food, so this semi-spicy blend was a delightful surprise.
We also had the opportunity to try our hand at the local fare with a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School. We started with a tour through the local markets which were packed with vendors, odours, herbs, spices and still-squirming meat.
Next we boarded a boat to travel down the swollen Hoi An River to the cooking school. We cooked several dishes, but the most exciting with Hoi An Pancakes - a steamed rice flour pancake wrapped in soft rice paper and filled with prawns, coriander and greens. These were so absolutely delicious, I have vowed to try and make them again when I get home!
Sadly our tour was coming to an end, and Mum and I were going to go our separate ways for an unknown period of time. Trying not to dwell on this, we made the most of the fact the sun had come out for our last day in town, before heading off to Ho Chi Minh City to catch our connecting flights; hers to Singapore and then home to Brisbane, mine to Hong Kong. Anyone who knows me knows I'm particularly shitty at goodbyes, and this one was never going to be easy. We survived, and I got to keep a friend. Pepe lives with me now - keeping me company around the world. Turns out he's a great drinking buddy too.
Vietnam is a great country. It seems to have the right balance of tradition and modernism tempered by communism. The people are incredibly proud. Interestingly the Vietnamese call the "Vietnam War" the "American War". This is to distinguish it from the other wars with Cambodia, China, Mongolia and France. A people who can continue to overcome such adversity while retaining their own character have every right to be proud.
Vietnam reminds me of a hornet's nest; they don't play. If you mess with Vietnam you will probably come off second best. If you're lucky enough to take the time to appreciate it, you'll uncover levels of complexity and beauty that are unlike anywhere else in the world.
Sunday, 23 October 2011
I was almost drunk on excitement when I landed in Cambodia. It looked so foreign as we descended. There were no homes as such to be seen in Siem Reap (near the airport anyway), just a vast expanse of flooded rice paddies, as far as the eye could see.
I'd been nervous about the Cambodian visa - I made an effort to learn some Cambodian phrases before I disembarked to make sure I sweetened up the immigration officers, and it worked. Ah kohn is thank you in Cambodian, by the way.
I had also been nervous about coming to Cambodia in the first place. I'd heard varying reports on how safe it was to travel there, with pickpockets, robberies and scams apparently commonplace. Also, I'd never been to a country which had been in a recent civil war before, with such horrific consequences. I wondered how much of this would remain in the Cambodian psyche and way of life?
I was picked up by Tom from my hostel - he was riding an open tuk tuk pulled along by his scooter. I was stupidly excited, grinning like an idiot to myself. The smell of the rain mixed with the smells of people cooking their dinner for the night, along with the smell of cow shit from the cattle grazing next to the road. Everything was so lush and green, the housing basic, the storm brewing, and I had the wind in my hair. This was an 'I love life' moment.
It wasn't until 5 minutes had passed that I realised that I was being driven on the right hand side of the road. Not that 'sides of the road' are strictly adhered to in Cambodia. I think of it as schooling fish - there are lanes, but they're really there as a guide. Everyone is mindful of everyone else and as people drive along they beep if they need to be overtaken. It just seems to work - most of the time at least.
My hostel (HI Siem Reap) was great - my room was clean, the bed was SO COMFORTABLE (at last - the beds in Thailand were like trying to sleep on a wad of paper), and they had Discovery Channel on cable. Perfect.
A short walk over the bridge, and you're at Pub Street, the main tourist strip in Siem Reap. There's so many different cuisines here to choose from, and plenty of people touting the menus and speed of the wifi. I came across a small bar called Picasso on the street behind Pub Street called The Alley West. Here I found a common occurrence - three different nationalities in a bar... an ongoing personal joke. In this case, a Norwegian, an Indonesian and an Englishman. Once I got completely shitfaced, the joke was on me - the lights I'd planned to walk towards to find my hostel had been turned off. Wobbling off, I managed to find my way... eventually.
The next day I acquainted myself with the delights of Cambodian cuisine. Cambodian food is different from that of Thai food in that they prefer to use pepper for heat rather than just chili. The penultimate Cambodian dish is called amok - this is a type of curry typically served in a banana leaf. Curries tend to be a blend of pepper, sweetness (palm sugar, coconut milk) and spices (galangal, turmeric and many more), occasionally with sour influences from lime, tamarind or sour leaf. A cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier costs about US$12 which includes a market tour (a bit rough with a hangover) and 2 courses. I made banana flower salad and a chicken curry; both of which were delicious, naturally.
A sunrise at Angkor Wat was next on the agenda. 30 minutes by tuk tuk out of the city, this two square kilometers of temples is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was lucky to mostly survive the ravages of war. Once laden with land mines, this site is now visited by hundreds of thousands of people per year, much to the chagrin of those trying to preserve the temples.
Even in the low season, a bank of tourist paparazzi gather to get the perfect shot of the sun rising behind Angkor Wat. The temple was designed so that as a person walks from the western entrance to the main tombs in the east of the temple, they are walking from death to birth where the sun rises. This is all well and good until you realise you have to walk out of the place again.
Stepping over the temple's threshold, a chill ran over me, causing me to 'whoa' like Keanu. These ruins from the 10th century are in incredible condition, and the sense of space and peace within the walls (despite the tourists) is unique. My favourite features were the seven headed snake-like naga - designed to represent the colours of the rainbow and to act as a conduit between life and death. These feature on the roofs of traditional Cambodian palaces and temples today, in varying forms.
While I visited many temples that day, special mention needs to go to The Bayon. This was by far and away my favourite temple. It is adorned with hundreds of faces of Buddha (which coincidentally look similar to the king at the time as well) that face out over all points of the compass. I have fallen in love with the varying faces of Buddha on this trip, and The Bayon represents it many times over in absolute majesty.
Like many of the tourists I spoke to, I felt a little 'templed-out' after a while. So many details in so little time can be overwhelming, and to the untrained eye, same-ish. Even in the low season the place is teeming with tourists and touts, the latter of which are exhausting. After three hours of being pestered (being a solo white female traveller I was a prime target), I ended up donning my headphones. It might be rude, but it was peaceful. It also helped me get my mojo back - dancing on the top of the Maebon, a 10th century temple in the Cambodian jungle, hoping no one could see me? Priceless.
As part of my all day tour, I was taken to the War Museum just outside of Siem Reap. Here I met a man called Sitead who had been shot three times and hit by land mines twice. Consequently, after showing me the shrapnel still embedded in his body, he guided me around the museum with the sight in one eye and hobbled on his prosthesis.
If I was wondering what remained of the war in Cambodia, this was a good indication. This decomposing graveyard of war machinery and weapons served as a weird summary of the Cambodian attitude towards decades of civil war. It was there to serve as a tribute to the past, of man's inexhaustible and inventive ways of hurting one another, of international intervention in Cambodian politics. Yet it was poorly maintained and curated. It's like the Cambodians do it for others, not for themselves. I guess if you've seen it first-hand, as many people have, you don't need a museum to remind you of history's lessons.
After the tour I returned to my hostel with my newly generated outrage for man's cruelty and spoke to Chris, one of the managing staff. He fought in the war, along with many others his age. After learning about some of the atrocities committed during the war, I asked him if the Cambodians follow the trials of the Khmer Rouge closely. He explained that there are only 6 people on trial, and they're so old that any sentence they are likely to receive will probably not allow them to provide any real sense of justice.
Apparently the Cambodian government isn't even really funding these trials, the money is coming from other countries such as France and the US - which according to the Lonely Planet has amassed to $150M. When I told Chris this he just laughed the saddest laugh. He pointed to the pot-holed, dirt road at the front of the hostel and said, "I'd rather they spend money on something that really matters".
And this is where I find things truly astonishing. After decades of war, millions of deaths and unspeakable cruelty... for the Cambodians now, peace is enough. To try and rebuild their lives is enough. Justice is a luxury.
And this is lived out every day of their lives. The main governing party, The Cambodian People's Party, is filled with many people who headed up the Khmer Rouge. Corruption is rife, and yet people continue to vote for them. People who fought in the Khmer Rouge continue to live side-by-side with their old enemy, who don't seek prosecution for their heinous acts. As a Westerner with the luxury of justice, this is incomprehensible.
A trip to the Mine Museum deepened my incredulousness at man's execrable weapons of war. Aki Ra, a Cambodian man who laid mines with the Khmer Rouge and then spent decades digging thousands of them up with his bare hands, has an incredible story. He tells of fighting as a child soldier, playing with this friends and then killing them on the battlefield the next day. Switching sides, digging up mines, and continuing to do so after the conflict had ended. Starting an orphanage to help maimed or disadvantaged children get an education he never had an opportunity to obtain. Starting the only Cambodian-run anti-mine organisation. Telling people from all over the world what mines to do people; that they are designed to maim and not kill the enemy. After all, an injured soldier is more expensive than a dead one, and takes up more resources to care for.
Most importantly, countries continue to make these weapons, despite their horrific consequences. And it's not just China and Russia - the USA continues to manufacture and use land mines. Mines which are embedded with thousands of tiny lead pellets, designed to cause carnage and abominable injury and/or ongoing illness during and long after a conflict has ended. What great ambassadors of the West they are.
It was time to go to Phnom Penh - Cambodia's capital. I'd heard not-so-great-things about Phnom Penh - that it was dirty, crowded, full of beggars, and not particularly safe. Personally, I was less impressed with the 6 hour bus trip from Siem Reap to get there, but at the cost of US$10, I couldn't justify a plane trip.
Six hours in a partially air conditioned bus listening to Cambodian karaoke, I might add. Watching the film clips was particularly hilarious: Boy meets girl. Girl doesn't like boy. Girl kind of likes boy. Girl eventually falls in love with boy. One of them meets an untimely death. Three clips in a row the girl had a stroke or an aneurism. All of this makes me think that Cambodia is a particularly unhealthy/accident prone country, particularly if you are one to use a shitload of hair product and/or practice longing looks out over a horizon.
I arrived into Phnom Penh and checked into a great hostel called Me Mates Place. I met up with a couple of cool French chicks and we decided to go to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng together. I was very happy to have the company - because honestly it would have been too much by myself.
In brief, Pol Pot was a radical Marxist who wanted to bring Cambodia back to Year Zero - remove all anti-government forces from the country and anyone who wasn't a worker or 'base person' with it. Even if you had glasses, you were at risk of being seen as being too educated and your life was at risk. If you had worked for the deposed government, you would be hunted down. And if you were killed, the Khmer Rouge would kill your family too for fear of reprisals.
If you were captured in the area around Phnom Penh, you were taken to Tuol Sleng, an old high school which was converted into a prison, where you were inevitably tortured into admitting your wrong doing. From here you were transported out of town to the Killing Fields, where you were killed. Twenty thousand people died like this, which is a small proportion of the estimated 2 million Cambodians who died as a result of the war or from famine and disease.
At the Killing Fields, people were usually bludgeoned to death at the edge of a pit (to save on expensive bullets). In case people weren't dead, the Khmer Rouge sprinkled DDT on them before they buried them, and it also helped to disguise the smell. Our guide took us along the footpath which had bones and clothes sticking out of it. At one point, I accidentally kicked a tooth along the ground. He showed us the killing tree, which soldiers bashed babies' heads against before tossing them into the pit, and the magic tree, where speakers playing revolutionary music were hung to drown out the sounds of the soldiers killing prisoners.
Today, you can see dragonflies over a green pasture in front of the monument which stands 17 stories high. The monument is filled with the bones of those that have been exhumed in order to gather evidence of war crimes. Many more bodies remain in the fields.
This all seemed surreal to me, until I got inside the museum and saw a young girl's purple crotched top. It was so pretty - you could imagine what it would have looked like on a little girl's brown skin. You knew it was a shirt a mother would buy her daughter, and at some point the mother would have seen her little girl and thought how beautiful she looked in it. Maybe only for a moment in her tired life, the mother may have taken solace in those feelings of calm and unconditional love. What I knew happened to those two people after this, the horror they faced as their lives ended... I felt it all wash through me. Sadness, desperation, dread, anger, hatred, reflection.
We took the tuk tuk to Tuol Sleng. Different wings were used for either torturing or housing prisoners in such appalling conditions. The Khmer Rouge photographed their prisoners, and these photos are here. Walls and walls of them - faces of men, women and children, looking directly into the camera. I looked at their faces to detect how much they knew of their fate, trying to detect their emotions. Standing in the middle of the room you can feel their eyes on you, beseeching saviour. I had to leave the room.
Barbed wire was strung up around the upper levels to stop desperate prisoners from committing suicide. Two of the surviving prisoners were at the prison selling autographed books for US$10. The place is ringed with beggars. The sadness here is quite unbelievable.
I returned to Siem Reap in order to catch a flight to Vietnam, only to find the center of town under half a meter of water. After walking through a kilometer of floodwaters to get to my hostel, I rejoined with some backpackers I'd met previously and went for a well needed drink in town. The kids who had been bugging us to buy stuff were dancing in the streets in the water and the rain. The tuk tuk drivers were making waves that lapped at our feet at Angkor What? as we sipped on some of the cheapest cocktails on earth.
Cambodia challenges you to question yourself, and you often find conflicting answers. It's a challenge to understand how people can recover from such a comprehensive and devastating war, and live peacefully with the perpetrators of war crimes in their midst. Cambodia is being challenged by the flourishing tourism industry, with the race to skim as much of the tourist dollar as possible. As a visitor, this means being continually challenged by knowing that you're being continuously ripped off by people much poorer than you are. Being stared at, pointed at, photographed and pestered by touts can be endless.
But knowing that you can leave Cambodia and return to a comfortable house in a wealthy country by some universal fluke is easily the biggest challenge of all.