Adrenalin Rush Down Under; Cambodia, Killing Fields, Angkor Wat and Landmines

My last email was intended to be the last of 2005, but Brisbane and
particularly Cambodia were just too intriguing to ignore. So delete this
email if you wish, but if you have a few minutes between parties and festive
dining ............

Brisbane has been an eye opener to Australia  - there is a real sense of
Australia coming of age, of being 'home' rather than just a place people
have ended up, pride that when Australians compare themselves with the USA
and Britain, they generally come out as good or better, of growing as fast
as Florida, with $25million houses and a housing boom and real estate agents everywhere. We
were privileged to have 2 great Aussies to show us round -
Richard Kennedy is an architect with his own practice in Brisbane -
he gave us a fantastic architectural tour of Brisbane pointing out the
classical Queenslander houses which are saved from redevelopment (usually)
and the post 1945 houses which he is sometimes able to redevelop into
something more attractive, plus wonderful descriptions  of town planning as
Brisbane extends further and further out. An ex Irish mayor started the City
Cats - express catamarans up the Brisbane River, and created inspired cycle tracks and
pedestrian bridges which keep a green outlook.

On Sunday we went up the Brisbane River to the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary
where Nicky cuddled a Koala (their diet of eucalyptus leaves is so poor in nutrition
that they can only manage 4 hours activity and have to sleep the remaining
20 hours - maybe thats why Nicky likes them) then Richard and I went to
Cunningham Gap - the original gap in the hills 50 kilometres inland from the
coast that until the gap was discovered formed a real barrier to the
expansion westward. We hiked up to the summit north of the gap as a
torrential thunderstorm lashed Manley dropping a years rainfall in one
day - Australia does nothing by halves.

Then we moved Intrepid from the Waterfront Marina in the heart of the
Central Business District (just A$16(US$10/night) to Scarborough Marina
where almost 40 % of the boats are foreign, and Intrepid was lifted out
after 16 months in the water in a slow controlled lift and movement to the secure yard where she will
rest for 4 months guarded by a very large Rotweiler. We headed off to
Noosa, 100kms north of Brisbane to meet David Hughes who we had met in
Vanuatu building 7 new tourist cottages in Efate with Joel. David runs 3 businesses from home - the Vanuatu
tourist cottages, a wholesale nursery, and a business supplying grow bags to
commercial nurseries - rough wove nylon with cut out handles made in India
which  encourages proper root growth .

David's wife Gwenda died 2 years ago so he has been running all this by
himself until he hired Emma 8 months ago. We talked most of the evening,
then went to the vast Artisans market on
Saturday morning, where we bought Christmas presents and artisan bread
...and carrot cake, then to a view point over the whole Noosa Heads, which is a sort of St
Tropez of Brisbane. On the way down I narrowly avoided stepping on not one
but 2 - one metre long snakes sunbathing on the track down - rock pythons I
think...then Nicky found a huge spider in the  house, by which time we were
examining a 300 page book listing all Australia's venomous or dangerous animals
including spiders which can cause necrophylia - cell death - and assorted crocodiles, sharks
spiders, snakes and Nicky was wondering how she had ever been stupid enough
to arrive here.....in what even the locals call the stormy season - huge thunderstorms
had swept floods through shops and houses for much of the week. But there
are Pelicans,  usually sitting on lampposts above the sea, and sometimes in
the Botanic Gardens that are kept by local councils around the district.

The Bee Gees grew up in a house just 5 minutes walk from where Intrepid is
stored, so I have finally tracked down the other Andy Gibb, although
since he died at 35 of drink drugs and women, a result of too much money,
maybe I should avoid copying him too closely. Never could sing that high
anyway. Their house is still there, small, detached, clinker built in a
Redcliffe suburban street, only a wooden carved Bee Gees sign distinguishing
it from the rest.

But it is a tremendous country - Australia is a place you could really call
home - although listening to Emma there is a lot to do - domestic violence,
drugs, half the population seems to be after an adrenalin rush from extreme sports or
motorbikes or real estate, the other half gets their adrenalin rush from 'Pokies' (slot
machines which are everywhere) beating their wife or kids or taking drugs.
Bit of an exaggeration - but not too much. Then off to UK via Cambodia.

Cambodia - what does it mean to you? I knew next to nothing - west of
Vietnam, The Killing Fields, Angkor Wat Temple, landmines, the Vietcong
travelled through Cambodia to invade South Vietnam; What we
saw was living history, an object lesson to all of us privileged to view
this as a tourist and not as a lawyer, doctor or professional herded into
S21Torture School and executed in the Killing Fields. The killing of 6 million
Jews by Hitler, about 10 million Soviets (less directly but just as
effectively) by Stalin, similar numbers by Mao Tse Tung during the Cultural
Revolution, Tutsis by Hutus - Pol Pot's Killing Fields rank right down
there - 3 million Cambodians were killed in 3 years out of a population of 9
million - about 1 in 3. Everyone we met had a close relative killed, usually
mother or father, but often whole families were exterminated.

During 1971-1975 the war in Vietnam was winding down, the Americans were
declaring peace in Vietnam and leaving the South Vietnamese to be over-run
by the communist north, and the corrupt Government of Lon Nol in Cambodia
was fighting against the Khmer Rouge (the main ethnic group in Cambodia is
the Khmer) lead by Pol Pot, who had been educated in Paris.  In 1975, 2 weeks before
Saigon fell, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
They were largely welcomed in by a city population of about 1 million tired
of fighting and corruption.

But Pol Pot was supported by China, and this was just a few years after
Mao's Cultural Revolution to re-discover the purity of the revolution by
forcing professionals into the fields. Within 1 week Pol Pot's men forced the entire
city into the countryside, then rounded up all the professionals, and sent
them to a school in the middle of Phnom Penh, which became known as S21
(Security 21). Youths aged 13-18 were brought in from other provinces, and
the systematic torture and interrogation began. Prisoners were kept isolated
in small cells, padlocked to the wall with manacles, forbidden to even
whisper, and tortured until they had confessed in up to 1000 pages all
meticulously written down, implicating all sorts of other people who in
their turn were arrested and tortured, until finally each prisoner was
manacled again, and driven to the Killing Fields 15 kms south of Phnom Penh in an orchard
where graves to hold 50 - 60 people were dug, and the prisoners still
manacled by one leg were killed usually by beating or stabbing with bamboo
shoots because this was cheaper. There are 7500 such Killing Fields in
Cambodia.

Pol Pot ruled by dividing factions and people, and
each year the guards at S21 were tortured and killed themselves by a new
group of guards; and increasingly senior members of Pol Pot's own party were
arrested and tortured as Pol Pot drove against each region in turn. In the
end he attacked the 'moderate' leadership of the East Region next to
Vietnam. These fled to Vietnam, re-organised and with the Vietnamese,
invaded in 1978 and drove Pol Pot west into Thailand where he was
.....................welcomed and given facilities and trained by the US and
Britain including land mine techniques and 3 million landmines to try to
destabilise the new communist regime, using diamonds in the Pailin region
where they were based
to finance it all.

Pol Pot never visited S21 - the guards kept meticulous records and photographed each
prisoner - those who died under torture were photographed as they died to
prove their death, and make sure the totals who died matched those brought
in. 17000 people went through S21 - 7 survived, all artists who were spared
because they drew and amused the guards, one drew what he had seen and it is
grisly.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15 kms south of Phnom Penh has a giant
stupa filled with some 10000 skulls - its not every day you see that number  of human skulls piled in
heaps - but not all the mass graves have been dug up. S21 ex school is now a museum, Sigha showed me round - her
father was a MP in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge entered - her parents were
taken to the East Region and executed - at aged 14 she was an orphan made to
work in the fields - she showed me the scars on her lags where she was
beaten for working too slowly. Children were brutally killed and their
friends were forced to watch and laugh and clap. Its amazing anyone came
through this still human.

So have the perpetrators been brought to justice? Until mid 1990's the Khmer
Rouge with the support of the USA still had the Cambodian seat at the UN,
Pol Pot died in his sleep in 1998, and today the current PM of Cambodia (Hun
Sen) is an ex Khmer Rouge Commander who defected to the Government,became
2nd Deputy PM, then outmanoeuvred everyone in a coup. Brother 3,
Ieng Sary (Pol Pot was Brother 1) was denounced by Pol Pot in 1996, so
immediately led a defection which crippled the Khmer Rouge - he is now a
senior minister in the current
Government. Real Politik reigns. King Sihanouk exemplifies this - he has
been anti American, supported the Khmer Rouge, been a real power and at
other times acted as a figurehead, and abdicated 2 years ago in favour of
his son, as well as directing 19 full length movies including one with his
foreign minister as the star.

But military conquest is not new to Cambodia - between 900 and 1400 AD the
Khmer dynasty ruled over Thailand, Laos and Vietnam as well as Cambodia from
their capital in Angkor, near present day Siem Reap, about 300kms North West
of Phnom Penh.  The Kings assumed the title of God-King usually associating
themselves with Siva (the creator/destroyer) or Vishnu (the protector), or
Buddha, and built the largest and
arguably most beautiful religious structure in the world - Angkor Wat, and
the temples inside and around the walled city of Angkor Thom - Bayon -with
54 huge enigmatic Buddha faces overseeing the empire, Ta Prohm - mystical,
brooding with vast trees growing out of the atmospheric ruins, sublime Banteay Srei - artistry
already 1000 years old, and more than 20 other temples each of which would
qualify as a masterpiece. .

We arranged our own itinerary in Siem Reap with Sophea (a 30 year old tour
guide) who was excellent. He invited us to his home on the last evening tomeet his
wife Bora  and 2 young children. And we travelled on a Tuk Tuk - a motorbike
hitched to a chariot which holds 3 people in fresh air comfort, wiggles
round the traffic, and goes at a suitable speed to really see the wonders.
Sophea and Youne Chanrith our Tuk Tuk driver are good examples of what is
happening in Cambodia - upwardly mobile, each worked hard to finally earn
enough to buy a cheap motorbike on which they ferried tourists,then
progressed to driving a Tuk Tuk, then for Sophea a car, and finally he passed
the exams as a Tour Guide. Guides are $25/day but the hotel takes $5, and
the driver who introduced Sophea takes another $3, so I wrote the English
wording for the website Sophea is trying to set up. Tuk-Tuks are $10/day, a
car $25 ($5 to the  hotel). You can hire them direct: so_phea2001@yahoo.com;
and younechanrith123@yahoo.com.

The other temples are wonderful but Angkor Wat surpasses them by quite a
margin. Built in mid 12th century AD by Suryavarman II it is surrounded by a
rectangular moat or reflecting pool 100 metres wide, 1500 metres long by
1300 metres. Inside is a massive 3 tiered pyramid like structure 65m metres
high - but whereas the pyramids are plain, Angkor Wat is covered in finely
detailed carved sandstone. The first tier has a quite magnificent
intricately detailed bas relief carved frieze all the way round showing the
army of Suryavarman (-varaman means 'protected by), defeating the Chams
(South Vietnamese); 37 Heavens and 32 Hells in painful detail;
and the classic Churning of the Sea of Milk to release the elixir of life.
In perfect proportions,the next 2 tiers rise up to 4 steeples (one at each
corner, crowned by a central tower reached by very steep (70 degree) steps
from the top of which you marvel at the size and symmetry of the whole. The
temple was designed as Hindu temple glorifying Suryavarman, but his
successors turned to Theravada Buddhism and Buddhas were installed in place
of the Hindu linga - phallic male symbols rising out of female 'flowers',
and Buddhist monks preserved the temple through the ages. Later temples were
designed around Buddha like the Bayon, the centre of the fortified city of
Angkor Thom where 54 Buddha faces keep watch over the empire. Even later
many Buddhas were destroyed in a Hindu revival. but now 95% of Cambodia is
Buddhist. Cambodia really does lie between India and China - most parts of
the country could be China - rice paddies and floating villages.

Siem Reap lies about 350 kms upstream (north west) of Phnom Penh, about 200
kms from the western border with Thailand, near the huge freshwater lake of
Tonle Sap - 120 kms long, 50kms wide, fed by the Siem Reap River. Siem Reap
means 'Thailand Defeated - so you get an idea why Thailand welcomed Pol Pot
to fight against the Cambodian Government. There are ongoing border disputes
and Thailand even claims some of the Angkor Temples belong to them - there
were anti Thai riots in Phnom Penh on just this issue in 2003, and the Thai
Embassy was burned down.

During the wet season when the snows melt on the
Himalayas, the waters of the Mekong River (which flows out through Vietnam)
rise so much that it flows north back into Tonle Sap, reversing the flow of
the smaller Siem Reap River which normally flows south. This quadruples the
size of the lake, and whole floating villages have to move. In October to
March, the lake recedes and 5000 villagers have to move to the centre of the
lake in order to catch the fish that provide their livelihood. We visited
one of these villages - they seem desperately poor, hordes of scraggly
children living all their lives just a few inches away from muddy dirty
water - but when we asked (through Sophea) they reckoned they were well
off - they could catch all the fish they needed with gigantic fish traps,
sell surplus fish for $2/Kg buy rice for $0.25/Kg, have a change of view
every season, and be their own master. On the edge of the lake, water
buffalo cavorted as they were let into rice fields just harvested - the
richness of the waters enabled sometimes 3 rice crops /year, and increasing
numbers of tourists provided cash for those essentials like .......satellite
dishes and TV aerials.

The average income /person in Cambodia is $320/year, less than $1/day, and
corruption is prevalent - Sophea had to pay $500 'black money' to officials
to get his Guides Licence even though he had passed his exams, and teachers
refuse to teach kids unless they receive $0.25/child/day from the parents -
but then they get almost nothing from the Government so what are they to do?
The Cambodian currency the riel is so weak (4000=$1) that US dollars are
used for almost all transactions. The economy is growing at 5%, garment
manufacturing accounts for 30% of this, (your Gap, Levi, Hugo Boss or
Columbia clothes are likely to come from Cambodia), tourism only 12%, but
the number of tourists is estimated to increase from 1 million now (many of
these Thais, Chinese and Japanese - only 10% Westerners) to 3 million in
2010. Accommodation is cheap - we stayed at the stylish Foreign
Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh - a real designer boutique hotel with
balcony overlooking the river with just 5 rooms for $50-70/night and at
Peace of Angkor in Siem Reap. The latter, although cheaper at $35 had
(English) owners who seemed to have trained in the Fawlty Towers School of
Hotel Management.

I had been very wary of landmines - over 3 million had been laid, mostly
plastic anti-personnel mines impervious to metal detectors. They can only be
cleared by poking the ground with a pointed stick, but all the tourist areas
have been cleared, and the more remote areas are being cleared partly by
Government, partly by local farmers who were often trained in mine laying
techniques by the British or Americans in 1980's and need the land to
plant rice. These war years lead to an epidemic of Tuberculosis - as
millions were forced into camps by the war - and this continues to this
day - as many as 60% of Cambodians are weakened by some form of TB, and the
Government has no money for health - how do you tax someone earning $1/day?

But children in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap up to age 13 receive free medical
care at Western standards paid for by private donations of $17million/year
drummed up by a Swiss Doctor who is a non stop fund raiser, and runs 3
children's hospitals with 1000 beds, modern equipment and drugs and no
corruption. For children TB vaccines do more harm than good in Cambodia
since the disease is so prevalent, so hospital stays averaging 5 days are
often needed. The hospitals are a sign of hope - they even stop HIV mothers
passing it on to their children and the whole atmosphere we found was one of
youth optimism and vibrant entrepeneurship. Even the corruption in Cambodia is
said to be getting better, although until Government salaries of little more
than $20/month increase this will be difficult.

If you do get the chance, do come to Cambodia - it won't make you feel easy,
but it will make you think, and you will marvel at the temples especially
Angkor Wat, and the resilience and friendliness of the people - everywhere
people were selling, and even the perhaps 1-2% of people maimed by landmines
make a living by selling more than by begging.

We are now en route to UK, and I will try to restrain myself from writing
again until well into the New Year.

Happy Christmas and Exciting 2006!!!

Andy and Nicky Gibb
 

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