Cambodia is a beautiful country, with some of the most welcoming people with the widest smiles of any place I have visited before or since.
But it is a country with a past so horrific, so recent, and so terrible that you wonder how people can ever move on.
From 1975 to 1979 Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a party, lead by Pol Pot, based on communist ideals that ultimately resulted in the mass genocide of its own people.
In just four years over 2 million people are estimated to have died in waves of murder, torture, and starvation, aimed particularly at the educated and intellectual elite.
Our first stop was at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was turned into the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous political prison.
Here prisoners were detained, tortured until they confessed to their “crimes” before being sent on their final journey to the Killing Field.
Classrooms became cells, crammed full of people, tiny rooms, with metal beds and shackles were still in place, left as they were found. An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. Only seven are documented to have survived.
Most victims were from the previous regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc.
Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest.
The images that will stay in my mind forever were the final rooms in the museum, empty but for row upon row upon row of black and white photographs of the prisoners. From tiny children to frail elderly people, they stare into the camera lens as if it is the barrel of a gun.
One photograph shows a young woman, a single tear falling down her cheek. Her tiny baby is in her arms.
You know that not one of these people survived. Whether from torture, starvation or being taken to the killing fields, they all came to Tuol Sleng to die.
And you can see in their eyes that they know it too.
Then it is onto Choeung Ek. This is the best known of the sites that became known as killing fields.
The sunlight shone over a field of green grass and butterflied flickered up and down, children played and laughed and it was only slowly that you started to see the mounds, and the bundles of rags under trees.
When I asked the guide what they were he told me they were the remains of the clothing of the people they had bludgeoned to death and pushed into mass graves. If you look at the paths you are walking on, he said, you can still see teeth and pieces of bone.
In the middle of the field stands a Stupa full of skulls. There are over 5,000 human skulls. Many have been shattered or smashed.
I debated long and hard about whether to take a photograph of this. I heard many people say they would not, it seemed wrong, or distasteful or they did not want a reminder of it.
I decided, on reflection to take a picture. If people are horrified so be it, if they recoil then good. History cannot be swept under the carpet and avoided because it is too terrible. These events happened in our life time. These people deserve to be remembered.
In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened sticks.
In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of trees. The rationale was “to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths.
As we left the site our guide Mr Sun, a cheerful, talkative man was silent for a while. He then told us the story of how when he was five, there was a knock at the door in the night and they took his mother away. She was a teacher. They never saw her again.
Now I am firmly in the travel zone I thought, for my own pleasure, I would go back a few years to an amazing journey in 2008 through South Vietnam and Cambodia.
As it was to be my first ever experience of Asia and I was travelling alone I decided to have the hassle taken out of it and go with a tour company.
I flew out to Ho Chi Minh and met up with a small group as part of a planned trip with Travel Indochina, a tour company who specialise in Asia. You can visit the website here.
I had no idea what to expect, my first and only long haul trip had been to West Australia way back in 2000 and I hadn’t ventured very far since then, a few Greek islands, Tunisia, but nothing to prepare me for what I was about to land in!
From the minute I stepped off the plane and my glasses steamed up as if I was in a tropical butterfly house I knew this was going to be interesting and awful in equal measures!
Weaving in and out of traffic on the way to my hotel, with a taxi driver I could only, at the time, assume was suicidal (I later learnt this was just they way they drive) I was having second thoughts about coming to a country that still had negative connotations for older generations.
My mum, when I announced I was off to Vietnam and Cambodia, rather nervously ventured that maybe I could just go to Greece again . .
First steep learning curve. Crossing the road. Waiting, in true British fashion at what appeared to be a pedestrian crossing lead to a frustrating, endless wait.
Upon observing the locals, I soon realised that what I had once again assumed were suicidal tendencies, was actually the only way to cross a road. Namely, step out in front of the oncoming traffic, maintain eye contact with drivers and pray.
Just try to maintain eye contact. With them all . . . . . .
The first stop on our trip was the War Remnants Museum (formally known as the Museum of American War Crimes) This was full of graphic photos of war and the appalling effects of Agent Orange and Napalm.
It was an uncomfortable introduction to Vietnam, a reminder of the horrors of war.
We also visited the Reunification Palace. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates.
Then it was off to Binh Tay Wholesale Market, my first taste of what would become an obsession of mine, markets! It is a chaotic, hectic, hot maze of stall, selling every item under the sun, from dried mushrooms to ultra cute bike helmets shaped like ladybirds!
Here’s just a tiny selection of the host of weird and wonderful things stacked to the ceiling!!!
A boat ride down the mighty Saigon River took us to see the tunnels at Củ Chi. These are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war.
The tiny, cramped tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, through which they secured victory eventually. The tunnels were designed to be too small for the larger American GIs to be able to get into.
They are catastrophically small, here is the tunnel guide showing the entrance to one. It is literally an inch wider than him, you can’t fit in with your arms by your side, you have to lift the lid above you head and lower yourself down with your arms above your head in order to get in.
Next up was Ayutthaya, one of Thailand’s old capital cities.
Located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River, the city was founded in 1350 by King U Thong, who went there to escape a smallpox outbreak in Lop Buri. Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai.
Strewn with epic sized Buddhas, swaddled in vibrant orange cloth, busy yet still serene at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Here you can see the scale of some of them, they make the tourists look like little ants.
Once again Neil scaled the heights while I sat and “contemplated” (mainly how to get out of climbing steps in 36 degrees heat!!)
Here’s one of my favourite pics of the whole holiday. Neil passing a line of serene, saffron clad Buddhas. Again at Wat Yai Chai Mongkon
And here you can see the ruined grandeur of the old city.
After getting all nostalgic over India I’ve decided to go back in time by a year and put up my pictures of Thailand too. We travelled there in December 2009, flying into Bangkok.
We stayed at the New Siam Riverside (www.newsiam.net) on the bank of the Chao phraya River. It provided a much needed respite from the hustle and bustle of the crazy city. Having breakfast overlooking the majestic river was fantastic. This is a wonderful hotel and I can’t recommend it enough!
So first on my hit list was obviously the Grand Palace in Bangkok. With its myriad of glittering spires and epic grinning demons, it has been on my travel wishlist for a long time.
So braving 36 degrees and a lovely heat rash that was developing nicely, off we trundled!!
After being way laid by lots of helpful people telling us the Grand Palace was closed! (it wasn’t) and offering us alternative trips in their tuc tucs (we politely declined) we arrived.
The sunlight was so bright it was almost blinding as it hit the golden tiles and intricate details of the temples. It was a beautiful sight. But sunglasses were a definate must!!!!
Huge demons grimaced and guarded the gates, detailing covered every surface. The work involved was immense.
So much detail that my snappy finger nearly overheated!!
But i was finally dragged away andthen it was on to Wat Po.
Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok (with an area of 50 rai – 80,000 square metres), and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, as well as one of the largest single Buddha images: the Reclining Buddha.
And a monk keeps cool in the heat of the mid day sun.
We also visited Wat Arun – The temple of the Dawn, perched majestically on the edge of the river. The full name of the temple is Wat Arunratchawararam Ratchaworamahawihan !!!!
The whole temple is decorated with broken porcelain and seashells, creating an amazing, if somewhat bizarre spectacle! Neil braved the steps, I however sat sulking and sweltering in the little shade on offer! (I should point out that i am not good in hot climates, ironically)
Then day one was over, so we retired to the hotel to sip cocktails at the rivers edge. Fantastic start to our trip!!