17th April 2016
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
…..so I dedicate this blog to my cousins who are travelling to Cambodia later in the year. My story began growing up in the 70s in London. All I ever heard about Cambodia was stories about Kampuchea (the name was changed) and, Khmer Rouge (Red Army) and Pol Pot. Then, much later on a famous British movie called ‘The Killing Fields’ was released in 1984 [but you need to see it to learn more].
So Cambodia had been on my travel list for many years, before I managed to make a trip a few years ago in 2004. Unfortunately, it was before the advent of digital cameras (or maybe I was just a bit of a techno-phobe at the time!).
My trip was booked through Explore, a well-known, global travel company who organise small group trips to fabulous and amazing places. The trip took in a couple of nights in Bangkok on the outbound leg and a night there on the return. I am not a big fan of Thailand, as although it has stunning islands, coastal areas and countryside, it’s a police state and can be quite scary. I was having an argument with the Explore local representative, in the Bangkok hotel and voices were raised. Next thing I knew I was being approached by a couple of gruesome looking security guards. Anyway we resolved the issue but be warned!
I am not a big fan of group tours either as the group becomes cliquey as it did on this trip, but wasn’t brave enough at the time to travel to Cambodia on my own.
After some sightseeing in Bangkok, including a pretty awful and smelly river ride, we took off for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Our hearts sank as we drove in the coach from the airport to our hotel. Then we had to appreciate what an awful, recent history the country had had and it takes time re-build infrastructure.
I never like giving too much away in these blogs, as inspired travellers will find out more by experiencing these trips themselves, but a brief history might put a trip to Cambodia into context. The Khmer Rouge was formed in 1968, by members following the Communist Party and led by the dreaded Marxist Pol Pot. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge led the country and was responsible for one of biggest acts of genocide in world history. The intelligentsia were targeted for the killings, and other people were moved en-masse to the countryside to work in the fields, forced into rural collectives. We saw first-hand, in what used to be a school which was then turned into a military barracks, paintings of the atrocities which are too gruesome to describe here. This was also used for torture and execution. It was called S21 or Tuol Sleng. The bodies were buried in what became known as ‘the killing fields’. At one point embassies were being evacuated as the Khmer Rouge began their advance, but there wasn’t much time to get foreign nationals out.
We heard a first-hand account from one of local tour guides of the suffering which resulted when two thirds of the country’s population were killed. There are 74 ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia although we were only taken to one, and the memorial erected which is dedicated to the dead. Our guide told us his story – he was a child when his father, who was working as a translator for the Americans, managed to get passage on the last helicopter out of the city, and was evacuated, finally arriving in the USA. He later heard that his father had settled in America, had re-married and had more children. He never saw his father again. It brings tears to my eyes now as I recall his story although it was one of many similar stories and at least the son survived. Pol Pot died before he ever had the chance to ‘pay’ for his cruel regime.
The local guide showing us the memorial also told us his story of how his father was killed by the regime. We had to stick close to him when we walked around the area as he said there were still unexploded mines. I don’t remember all the detail of his story which is why I started writing blogs, to remind myself of the wonders of the world, but also the stories of the world.
On a happier note, our tour then took us on to Siam Reap, and the Angkor Wat Temples by airplane. The temples are the most amazing sight, the largest religious site anywhere in the world. It was an unknown treasure, buried under forest for 500 years until recently discovered. It was built in 113-5 BC and truly a wonder of the world!
I found the Cambodians friendly and hospitable, and keen to protect tourists from local harassment and begging. The food was amazing and cheap, although at the Angkor Wat lunch stop, it was about a half-a-mile trek to the nearest facilities and locals weren’t allowed to use the facilities. Well, perhaps half a mile is just a bit of an exaggeration!
I went to Cambodia at Christmas-time and was amused that the hotel in Siam Reap had a Christmas tree, and a hotel worker dressed up as Santa Claus! Just trying to be welcoming really but most of the group had taken the trip to get away from the consumerism of Christmas-time. One guy on the tour drove us all mad with his complaining (for no good reason) and in the end we just had to tell him to shut-up or we were going to leave him there!
A trip to Cambodia is well worth the effort and the guide books can provide much more detail, if you can be bothered to plough through them, which I never can. They are always such hard-work. Much better to listen to the locals, make notes, be observant and write your own guide!
Our trip back to London, as mentioned, meant overnighting in Bangkok again. Little did we know, as our flight took off on 26th December, from Bangkok to London, another worldwide disaster was looming. Our flight left at 10am local time and the tsunami that was to claim so many lives was just approaching the Thailand coast. By the time we got back to London, and in the days that followed, it transpired that at least 250,000 had died. We were greeted at the airport by Sky TV News Reporters asking what we knew about the tsunami. We knew nothing until we got home and switched on our televisions. A few of the group, however, didn’t head back to London and were planning to join friends in Pattaya and Phuket, down the coast. I still wonder if they ever found their friends.
If I can make some digital prints of my photos I will add them later. In the meantime, go explore!