Saturday, 10 January 2009

S-21 and the Cambodian genocide (1975 - 79)

In 1975, Pol Pot, the leader of the Communist Khmer Rouge, transformed two schools in Phnom Penh to a centre for detention, interrogation and torture. Twenty thousand people were brought to S-21, and only seven made it out alive.

By the end of Pol Pot's four years as Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea, an estimated 25 per cent of the population (somewhere between 750,000 – 2 million people) had died. Pol Pot had imposed a strictly agrarian society where everyone was forced to grow rice. Families were split up, and intellectuals were killed. Anyone who didn't conform, was sent to a security centre, like S-21, to be tortured until they 'confessed'.

The treatment of prisoners was horrendous and inhumane. Guards would tie prisoners' arms behind their backs and hang them upside down from the gallows. When the victims lost consciousness, their heads would be dipped into the water below. To stop prisoners committing suicide by jumping off the top of the building, the cell block had to have barb wire installed. As we walked around the museum, we stumbled across a pile of the victims' clothes in a store room. It was very chilling.

To date, the main perpetrators of the genocide haven't been brought to justice. Some lower ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge have spent a bit of time in prison, but many high ranking officials are still leading normal lives. Pol Pot died in 1998, just after the Khmer Rouge had agreed to hand him over to an international tribunal.

Wandering around the streets of Phnom Penh now has new meaning for us. On 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, and others, with fake threats of American bombing raids. Just 33 years later, Phnom Penh is again full of life. Looking at older members of society, we wonder what memories must haunt them? How does a country recover from a genocide committed by its own people?

Documentation Center of Cambodia
offers more information about the crimes and victims of the Khmer Rouge.

You can also read about our border crossing.

Crossing the border from Laos to Cambodia

We'd heard many warnings about the Voen Kham border crossing in Laos, and the advice was to buy a bus ticket all the way from Laos to your chosen destination in Cambodia. We followed this advice, as we didn't want to pay a sky high price for transport on the Cambodian side of the border.

The border crossing itself was actually very easy. The $3 in 'administrative charges' to the border guards got us our exit stamps from Laos and our visas for Cambodia. A young Cambodian guard came to have a chat with us through the bus window. He was very interested in the book Jen was reading, 'Castaway', as the cover picture showed Amanda Donohoe in a see-through lacy bra.

We stopped off at a little town called Kratie, on the bank of the Mekong. We had our first Angkor beer while watching the sunset from a little place on the boulevard. People were very friendly. A gentleman with two gold teeth taught us how to say hello, thank you and goodbye.

In the guest house, Andy caused a flood. The pipe connecting the sink to the wall suddenly shot off as he turned the tap on. High pressure water gushed out, soaking Andy and rapidly flooding the bathroom. As the water level rose, Jen had to get the staff to rescue him. They found the incident very funny.

On the way, we stopped off for some tasty snacks. We didn't eat any of these fried spiders but they were popular amongst locals. Live ones were on display to demonstrate their 'freshness'.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Don Khon and Don Det

Don Khon and Don Dhet are located at the southern end of the Four Thousand Islands, just across from Cambodia. The two islands are linked by a French-built bridge, the remnants of a sizeable civil engineering project. This project enabled cargo to be taken off boats, moved by railway across the two islands and then winched back onto boats at the southern end of Don Khon. The reason for all this – the impressive Tat Somphamit waterfall, which makes the Mekong unnavigable at this point.

Today we chartered a boat from the southern tip of Don Khon to try and catch a glimpse of the famous Irrawaddy dolphins. There's only 150 on this stretch of the Mekong and are critically endangered. We must've got incredibly lucky, as less than two minutes after landing on a rock barely the size of one square meter, we heard and saw the first dolphin surface behind us. Another came up within 30 seconds, and then more and more started breaking trough the surface of the Mekong. It was very exciting, and we had to be careful not to fall off the postage stamp size rock that we were standing on. Our “boatman” was no more than 12 years old, but he was very good with the boat and spotting the dolphins.

On a day trip to Don Det yesterday, we chose the worst restaurant in Southeast Asia. Any atmosphere in the place was decimated by Pink Floyd at full volume. We were surrounded by dope smoking westerners and people trying to sleep off hangovers. The owner was a real (read unpleasant) character stuck in the 1980's. In between seedy laughs, he refused to turn the volume down as 'this song about Margaret Thatcher' couldn't be played quietly'. His entourage thought they were the epitome of cool and that everyone wanted to join the latter years of their 20-year drink and drugs binge. On paying the bill, the owner inspected our 20 dollar note like a professional counterfeiter, and then proceeded to insist that he would only exchange it for 7,000 Kip per dollar (the rest of the island happily exchanges for 8,000 Kip). We couldn't get away quick enough.

Don Khon is very relaxed. We've spent two days cycling around the island on slow, rattling, heavy rental bikes branded as 'turbos'. Lunchtime is spent eating at a beach shack whilst the rest of the afternoon is filled with reading in our hammocks, waiting for the sun to set. At sunset, a procession of people, young to old, makes it way to the river to bathe. The day usually ends with a couple of Beerlaos. Its very pleasant just to watch the world go by.

P.S. We couldn't send this posting yesterday, but have now arrived safe and well in Kratie. The border crossing was straight forward and only cost us 20 dollars (plus three dollars in 'administrative fees').

Sunday, 4 January 2009

South of Laos: Four Thousand Islands

On our quest to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, we left the jungle airstrip at Luang Prabang with a Lao Airlines flight to Pakse, in the south of Laos. This saved us 20hrs of bus travel. From Pakse, we caught a public bus the same day to the Four Thousand Islands. It's where the Mekong river spreads out (14km at the widest section), creating numerous islands and sandbars in the middle.

On the bus, we travelled together with the locals including a couple of breastfeeding mothers and the obligatory chicken flapping around. Halfway through the journey, a dark brown pig got lifted into the bus, prompting everyone to squash up. The poor pig was just as panicked as the Israeli man, who had obviously never travelled with a pig before. Horror spread further on the bus after the pig did a trio of poos on board. The pig, its owner, and the poo (now in a plastic bag) got off the bus after 30 minutes. We were relieved that the smell disappeared soon after.

Today, we hired bikes and cycled for over 30km around Don Khong island past dry paddy fields, water buffalo grazing and little villages with houses on stilts. There was lots of 'traffic' on the road: cows, buffaloes, pigs and piglets, ducks, chickens, lizards and even a long and thin silver snake. Locals of all ages waved at us shouting 'sabaidee' (hello in Lao).

We woke this morning to the sound of exotic bird life and sunlight shining through the window. In the evening, an insect wall-of-sound filled the silence.

We also made friends with a very cute young cat (fortunately he wasn't rabid).

We're off to Don Khon today and then Cambodia. We may be away from the internet for up to week.