Tuesday 13 October 2015

Cambodia Adventures : 9. 'Shipwrecked' on Koh Sanloem Island, Phnom Penh City, Buddha's Footprint, S-21 Tuol Sleng Prison and My Final Farewell at The Killing Fields...


The end is now here *sniff* for my close to 3 month journey through The Kingdom of Wonder which is 'Cambodia' (still think it is such a cool name for a country..) has come to the end of the road and unfortunately you are reading my last blog from this little jewel from South East Asia. So this is gonna be a BIG one.....

I wasn't able to use my camera for a whole week as the camera charger blew up in the socket! so while sourcing a new one, I had some of my own adventures in the meantime.....

I borrowed a bicycle and followed the Mekong River 35km North from the town of Kratie, on route to the village of Kampi where I went out on a boat to view the Irrawaddy Dolphins and attempted to show a pair of young monks sweeping their temple an imitation of a turtle to direct me (we got there eventually) onto Sambour to see the Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre where they nurtured rare Softshell Turtles to stop them from being poached or eaten as babies - I fed them bananas and cooed at the little babies peeking their heads out of the sand.

Then I caught a small boat across the Mekong (Bicycle and all) with the locals to the Island of Koh Pdao in the middle of the river where I had to find my host family I was staying with in the village on the Island (was quite an adventure getting there and trying to find it with the locals trying to help me and hardly speaking a word of English!) I eventually found the family house before sunset and they too....hardy spoke a word of English! Speaking a little Khmer to introduce myself to them, they instructed me what to do....wash....eat now....sleep now and sent me to the neighbours house to eat dinner and breakfast. I slept under a mosquito net on the floor of their house with a mattress (and having the pet kitten confiscated from under my mosquito net ha!) I spent the next day cycling around the Island, getting lost to the point I had to sneak through some ones rice paddy and throw the bicycle over their fence! and sitting by the river side watching the Island life.,,,I then began to make my way back to catch the boat off the island cycling past lush green rice paddies and kids sitting on top of water buffalos to the port.

Halfway across the Mekong on the wooden boat with the locals with their motorbikes filled with duck eggs and the like.....a massive storm hit and once we'd reached the mainland children had to help me push my bicycle up the muddy hill to Sambour town to begin the 35km journey back to Kratie in the storm, palm trees swaying and lightning crashing right above me - I could even smell where the bolt had struck, but what a journey being soaked the entire journey!

I got quite used to making a fool of myself throughout my visit to Cambodia so this was no surprise!

Kampot Province

I then moved on to the coastal town of Kampot changing buses in the capital Phnom Penh and journeyed through the hilly gorgeousness of the province of the same name. I stayed in the sleepy town of Kampot taking a river boat out to see the night fireflies, blinkering in the starry night and rented a guide to take me across the province on his motorbike to show me salt fields, pepper plantations, Phnom Chhhngok cave where I clambered through and blessed myself with holy water from the holy linga inside the temple of the cave, dodging bats and marvelling at how the natural stalagmites looked like animals....we then stopped off at the coastal town of Kep at the crab market to watch the trading of fish and activities at sea off the Gulf of Thailand. I felt sorry for the poor blue crabs floating in wooden traps like buoys and being hauled in to be sold for the grill, tied up with elastic bands and struggling with their legs. I bought five of them and hurriedly asked a fisherman to fill the bag up with water and raced down to Kep Beach on the motorbike with these poor crabs blowing in the wind in the bag with their water all spurting out. They were still alive by the time we got to the beach edge and we untied them and set them free back into the sea.....it felt great.....and then a monkey came along and stole my lunch! how was that for good karma ha!

The next day, I wanted to go on an adventure of my own, so I paid $5 to rent a moto myself and hit the road under the sizzling sun joining all the locals whizzing along the highway towards the border of Vietman, cruising past the crab market and coastal view of the The Gulf of Thailand I carried on along the fringe of the mainland through coastal villages, more salt fields and stopped at a small village close to the Vietnamese border where I noticed alot of hub bub and stopped to by a drink of water.....the villagers were taking money, passing money to two men and could see they had two cockerels and were using electrical tape to fix barbs to the back of their feet. They then drew a big square in the sand and placed the cockerels opposite each other where they began to flare up and fight eachother, jumping up and digging the barbs into each other - the poor birds would bleed from the wounds and the men would pull the barbs out of them so they could continue fighting. I thought it was a cruel way for entertainment and was strange for the kids too for when the fight was finished, either the bird who caused the most injury or kills the other one wins, they would go from willing them to fight and find it exhilarating and then be nursing its bloody body and feathers.

I saw what I saw and hopped back on the moto, where I got stuck in the mud and the village kids had to come and help push me out! ha. I then ventured to see the caves of Kampong Trach which was a further 35km out of Kampot. The caves were in the side of the mountain as part of a holy pagoda and eager children wanting to practice their English ride their bicycles next to you leading you there and then hand you a torch and insist on taking you through the cave of reclining Buddhas and rocks that look like animals, spouting facts and saying 'this way please, this way please' I bought them a drink afterwards to say thanks - bless them.

Koh Sanloem Island

Time for some Tropical Island living....Saracen Bay, first port of entry

First here's a video from my time on the Island of Koh Sanloem floating in the Gulf of Thailand in the Fishing Village of Mai Pai...

As you can see I'm getting forgetful (I blame it on the malaria pills personally for my dopiness!) but I had ventured to the small island catching a fast boat off the south west coast from the town of Sihanoukville which was named after the former King of Cambodia King Norodom Sihanouk

The Cambodian dude on the 10,000 riel note....that's him.

As I say in the video, I managed to hitch a fishing boat which was sailing to the North of the Island from Saracen Bay on its way to the much larger and louder island of Koh Rong.

Paying a measly $5, I went adrifting on the Gulf of Thailand heading North a'hoy..where they dropped me off at the fishing village of Mai Pai Bay.....shipwrecked! closest thing I'll get to Melee Island in Monkey Island!

Mai Pai Bay is an active fishing village with ambitions to be 'Eco Friendly' think it still has a way to go but was keen to observe the daily Island life of the locals living in the village and recorded a ton of nice photos for you to see...

Life on Da' Island...

Please, cover your belly while viewing these photos.....just kidding!

Island Barber....

'The Fishing Hook' was a nice little place I liked to hang out with the dogs, restaurant on stilts owned by the local villagers..hearing the lapping of the waves

After a couple of days on the Island, I await for my water chariot to carry me back to the mainland, next to little local boys fishing...

On to Phnom Penh City...

Phnom Penh...capital city of Cambodia was always going to be my final stop on my travels here across Cambodia and the bus journey from Sihanoukville took close to 7 hours due to....well....its Cambodia of course!

Trading fashion tips with the locals.....nah didn't think it was my style!

Now...that's the way to travel!

Russian Market 

Locals making and painting Spirit Houses and Buddhas

'Say Cheeeeessseee' funky little Lion statues, got a red one myself...

Apsara murder???

Independent Monument

Central Market - which sells EVERYTHING!!!!!!!

Phnom Wat - a temple where locals come to pray for good luck in business affairs and studies in Phnom Penh

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

Of course you must have gathered from following my blog right to this point, that I love animals and with the amount of cool wildlife that exists in South East Asia I would be silly to bypass an opportunity to jump on board a Jeep and visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre outside of Phnom Penh city to go and view Cambodian wildlife that had been rescued from poachers or cruel circumstances and some of them are pretty cool, shown by our lovely Cambodian Guide Samphors....

Macaque Monkeys

Sambar Deer - Albino too!

Their horns fill like velvet.....so soft!

So cute, Giant Yellow Squirrel.....unfortunately they won't mate with eachother to breed more!

Funky Cambodian Owls

Loris - miniature sloth that moves in slow motion,,,really slow but really cute

Asian Weasel

Feeding fish to the excitable otters, they never do anything alone, always together

Gibbon Monkeys

The females have blonde fur and the males have black - look at that arm span! 

Gettin' a back scratch off me - lucky girl!

Little Gibbon Baby! 

'Sacros' is a blind aging Gibbon who lost his mate a few months ago, he is nearly completely blind and eye surgery has failed to restore his sight....he now senses by feeling you the poor little man

Myar Hill Birds

Crested Sea Eagle


At the Reserve, there is an initiative called Free The Bears which promotes conservation of Sun and Moon Bears in Cambodia, giving people opportunities to come and volunteer with them in the sanctuaries with donations going to their care and research...

Moon Bear

The Royal Palace and Buddha's Footprint

Back in the city, I went to visit Cambodia's version of Buckingham Palace, well, they call it the Royal Palace so as they say so very often in Cambodia 'Same, Same, but different' 

You can't technically go into the Palace, its home to his Royal Highness King Norodom Sihamoni who is about in his sixties now and appears still very youthful on the Riel Currency notes. The children are given half the Father's name and half the Mothers as their first name hence Siha-Moni...but you get the drift. You can however, wander about the compound and pay a guide to tell you some interesting information. Above is the Throne Room where the King was taken to be coronated after his older brother abdicated the title to him. The throne is sat in once a year and the Queen sits in a throne behind, but there is no Queen....the King is still a practising monk so has chosen to remain unmarried. The colours of Yellow (Buddhism) and White (Hinduism) represent the capital religions of Cambodia and the four Buddha faces on the tower offer protection and peace to all four directions surrounding the palace, as do the symbol of strength - the lion statues at the foot of stairs in Cambodia.

The Stupas outside in the compound, hold the ashes of the former Kings of Cambodia and ancestors of King Sihamoni along with their own statues to look down on them - not bad!

Another important landmark within the Palace walls is the Silver Pagoda which is derived from the fact that its entire floor is covered with five tonnes of gleaming 5,000 Silver tiles. Made from Italian Marble, its forbidden to take photography inside the temple, but it houses hundreds of gold and silver gifts from overseas friends, allies and royalty. The King visits there to do his own chanting and worshipping to the life size solid gold Buddha which weighs 90kg and adorned with 2086 Diamonds! A extra little treasure inside is the crystal 'Emerald Buddha'  which is a pretty cool centre piece to the room. 

Regal Traditional Clothing for the King and Queen to wear on their wedding day

In the Palace Gardens, Buddha protected by Naga, the serpent, sits under his birth tree surrounded by a special flower that only lasts for one day, dies and then regrows again - 'Everything is impermanent' as the Monks say....and mirrors the idea of reincarnation in Buddhist belief

Speaking of Buddha...I went investigating myself as the footprint shrine of Buddha was in the Palace grounds somewhere and I couldn't pass on seeing the huge footprint of the great Buddha himself...

After a lot of asking.....broken English....pointing and looks of confusion and gesturing to my feet.....found it...Mount Kailassa, wasn't really a Mount, more a shrine on a small hill surrounded by forest in the complex. Asked for good things from him whilst knelt in front of his footprint with my offering of incense...pretty cool...

Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison 

Now I go into the darker side of Cambodia, the horrific past that I felt I should leave until my last few days in the country to appreciate and understand the shattering past they are still rebuilding themselves from today.

But first, a bit of basic history into the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge genocide terror so you can gather what I'm talking about with the following photos. The stuff isn't pleasant, but it was part of my journey and learning process in Cambodia so you can read on or just skip to the end. Up to you!

Bit of a History lesson....

In 1975 Cambodian leader Pol Pot and his military organisation 'The Khmer Rouge' 'Khmer' meaning the native people and 'Rouge' meaning red, the colour of communism, captured the city to take control of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Pol Pot had spent time studying as a teacher in France and wanted to bring this radical ideology of making Cambodia a communist country, abolishing class systems and making the population more of a classless, peasant-community nation that he could control. His army forced nearly two million people from Phnom Penh and other cities and towns to evacuate to the country side and work in forced labour work camps in the fields where they were treated poorly.

The Khmer Rouge or also known as the Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pots control, abolished the Cambodian currency, religion (many pagados were destroyed), education system, hospitals, medical care, markets, business, you name it it was gone, so many people died from the lack of medical care that was now non existant. Buildings turned into prisons or re-education camps to brain wash uneducated rural youths that his organisation 'Angkar' was right and that they were starting again as 'Year Zero', that there was no past in Cambodia, that family and intellectuals of a higher class were their enemy and that noone could be trusted under the law of Angkar - many of these youths would disturbingly become the torturers and killers at the prisons themselves.

There are four buildings of the school which were turned into cells and torture rooms that were once classrooms - can you believe that what went behind these classroom walls?

Tuol Svay Prey High School on 113th Street in Phnom Penh was shut down and turned into the Security Office S-21 Prison to imprison, interrogate and horribly torture between 12,000 and 20,000 innocent Cambodians between the years 1975 - 1979 to extract information of treachery or involvement with the CIA or Russian Spy organisations against the Khmer Rouge. After they got a confession (the Khmer Rouge Cadres who were the interrogators might be killed too if they failed to get a confession from the prisoners themselves, but would eventually be murdered too for Pol Pot didn't trust his own officers or cadres either). The prisoners where then to be 'gotten rid of' and were at first killed at the prison and then in following years when there were too many, were sent to be killed at 'The Killing Fields' after getting a confession, even a false one to just stop the torture. 

So really, even the cadres who worked for the Khmer Rouge, lived in fear....

Graves of the officers who were the last to be killed at S21

Walking around with my Cambodian guide who is filling me in with the details of prisoners experiences here, there's a very peaceful air about the school grounds, the grass is freshly cut and butterflies flutter from the flowers to the staircases and windows.

But then you run into this and there's a pang of the past and the brutality of humanity shows

When prisoners came into S21 which was a highly organised system, all men, women and children were measured and then had to sit in a chair to be photographed with a number to be documented - this is just a handful of the prisoners that were brought in, many intellectuals like doctors, lawyers, teachers, government workers, even monks were suspected by the Khmer Rouge and children were killed so they could not seek revenge later in life. 

Inside the classrooms of the buildings are tiled rooms that look similar to this one. Some areas of the school you are prohibited to take photography of but was allowed to show what one of the torture rooms looked like and there is still blood spatter on the ceiling and yellow walls from murderous injuries that occured just 35 years ago....you would think you're looking at a war scene that was a lifetime ago, so its shocking at how recent this was.

Prisoners could be tied to the iron bed or chained to the floor and whipped, beaten, suffocated, stung by scorpions, electrocution.....the list of horrific tortures goes on and tools like electric cords, hammers, axes, pliers, hoes and other agricultural tools would have been used to interrogate or kill the prisoners for information in these rooms. Its unimaginable...  

Prisoners would be detained in these small brick cells or wooden cells upstairs in the buildings, some of them have blood stains on the floor from where prisoners would attempt to commit suicide to end the torture - it feels like you're examining a crime scene like a detective. If not here, prisoners were chained together in shackles and have to lay down on the floor, punished if they made a noise or spoke.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom...

The Khmer Rouge were overthrown on 7th January 1979 and the presence of the monks bringing peace to the site is reassuring and I was even lucky enough to meet a man who actually survived this terrifying ordeal and is still smiling day....

Chum Mey - The man who survived the Khmer Rouge and S-21 Prison

Probaby THE MOST bravest man I've ever met - Chum Mey is one of two living survivors of the Khmer Rouge and S21 Prison where he was imprisoned and tortured by electric shock, beatings, having his toe nail pulled out and finger broken for 12 days and 12 nights at the prison. At 85 and still managing to smile and open up about his experience, he told me he was suspected of working for the CIA or Russian spies but was a innocent humble mechanic. He told me how he would cry at night in his cell from his sore back and pray silently to Buddha for help. This poor man had witnessed his wife and son being killed in front of him and his mechanical skills was what spared him from the death sentence as he was able to fix the much needed type writers that the officers would use to document the prisoners paperwork. Lucky man.....and I bought his book 'Survivor' with the proceeds going to help the genocide museum, the elderly and other impoverished communities.

What he said to me, he wanted Cambodian youths to hone their skills and their gifts because one day it could save their life as his did for him.


Choeung Ek Killing Fields

The last stop in my travels in Cambodia and I wanted to do this last as on par with Angkor Wat, it is the most profound site to pay your respects in Cambodia to all those innocent humble citizens who lost their lives in one of the most tragic acts of evil upon the human race.

The Choeung Ek Killing Fields are about 13km south east of Phnom Penh and would be graves of close to 20,000 innocent people brought here after confessing their conspiracy against The Khmer Rouge revolution from the S21 Prison between 1975 and 1978. 

A memorial Stupa was constructed in the 1980's in respect to those who lost their lives so tragically and unfairly at this site. For $6 you get an English audio guide that takes you around the site with what would have gone on during those terrible years. 

Prisoners would be brought from the S21 Prison blindfolded in trucks at night. being told they were being moved to a different prison but in fact were being taken to the Killing Fields where they were killed instantly or imprisoned to the next day. Chants and music would be played to cover up any noises and sounds, to give the impression there were Chinese Ceremonies going on as the site was originally a Chinese burial ground,

I won't go in to too much details, you have to go and assess this for yourself but there are still traces of victims clothing and human bone and teeth around the site from the mass graves that are now protected.

My bracelet is the red one hanging in the top right hand corner of the photo

At the end of your visit you are encouraged to say prayers and offer a flower to the deceased at the Stupa, which is a peaceful affirmation to your tour, but I think after seeing 17 tiers of the magnitude of victims evident inside, that's when I'd seen enough and I was done....may it never happen to the human race again. 

Jump back to present day, there's always happy kids waiting to greet you outside

And So The End of The Road.....

My journey finishes here in the Kingdom of Cambodia with Eric, the black dog at my Guest house in Phnom Penh looking after my luggage for me..

'So, a plane is coming to take you away' says Mr. Rev my Tuk Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh....and yes, in a sad way, I believe it is taking me away from my time in The Kingdom of Cambodia as it comes to an end.....and its been one of my great adventures....learnt many valuable lessons.... and as I watch the Kingdom of Wonder fade into the mist I think about what a Buddhist Monk once told me....'Happiness comes from purifying the mind and doing good deeds.....everything is impermanent as you and I and everything around us is changing everyday.....' he then told me a story...

An old man who saw a young boy on a beach with hundreds of starfish on the sand washed up in the tide. The young boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water.... 
The old man, walked up to the young boy and asked 
'What are you doing son? You see how many starfish there are? You'll never make a difference'
The young boy paused thoughtfully and picked up another starfish and threw it in the ocean. 
'It sure made a difference to that one' he replied. 


And Thank You to YOU for following in my footsteps in my travels across Cambodia and making the effort to donate your time and money to help my International Relief Work.....I hope you've enjoyed following my adventure!

Orkuun Cha'raan  

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

With Lonely Planet Travel Guide Cambodia

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