Tag Archives: history

Week one in Cambodia

Our first stop after a suspiciously easy border crossing from Vietnam, was Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. We arrived in the evening, and the following day went to learn about Cambodia’s history.

This wasn’t an easy introduction to the country. I’ve ummed and ahhed about writing about the Khmer Rouge, because it isn’t easy to write about and it won’t be easy to read either. However the people of Cambodia want tourists to visit the memorials, and they want the world to know their history, so it only seemed right to get it down in words on my blog.

In the late 1970s, the Cambodian government was lead by the Khmer Rouge, whose rule eventually lead to a huge genocide. They orchestrated a mass famine, and wanted to create a “peasant nation.” They began by getting rid of educated people (I.e people who might have questioned their ideals) the first victims were scholars, teachers, and even people who wore glasses. The country was isolated, money was banned, religion was banned, and a huge percentage of the population were sent to work in slave labour camps.

Our first stop of the day was the Killing Fields Genocide Memorial. We were given handheld audio guides, which enables you to take a tour silently and at your own pace. The Killing Fields is essentially a mass grave, one of many all over the country. As you walk around, you step over pieces of human bone and clothing that rise through the soil every time it rains.

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Cambodian people were brought here by the truck load, lined up at the edge of a huge grave and bludgeoned to death. (The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste their precious bullets.) The workers would spread chemicals on the bodies to help eliminate the smell and also kill off anyone unlucky enough to survive the blow. I can’t write more. Yet there’s more. There are all the human skulls stacked floor to ceiling, more than you could possibly count, with holes in the top, or completely crushed. There was a killing tree. That makes my blood run cold to even think about it, I’ve got goosebumps all over my legs.
They hung huge speakers in the trees and played deafeningly loud patriotic songs all day, over the whirring of the generators. The audio guide played a sample of the sound, so you can imagine what people heard drowning out the death cries.

Next, we visited the S-21 prison. We didn’t pay extra for the audio guide this time round. I couldn’t face the descriptions of the torture methods. The prison used to be a school. Here, people were held and tortured for up to six months before being sent to their deaths in the fields. The floors still have bloodstains on them and there’s bloody handprints on the walls. It’s a very somber place, and I barely even heard birdsong whilst we were there.

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For some reason the Khmer Rouge photographed each victim before they locked them up. In the museum, all the photos are displayed and make for very haunting viewing. I tried to look at every face as an individual, I felt like I owed them that much…but in the end…. There were too many.

Cambodia has broken my heart. This atrocity happened just over ten years before I was born. I almost can’t believe it’s real, yet walking around Cambodia, I’ve hardly seen anybody over the age of fifty, so it must be real, right? One quarter of the population was wiped out. The regime forced marriages that lead to many children (the people my age) being born of unhappy circumstances.
What I’ve taken from that day in Phnom Penh is an incredible sense of gratitude for what I have, and a growing urgency in my mind that I should never take it for granted.

We left Phnom Penh feeling a little bit like different people to the ones who arrived there.

Next stop: Kampot.
We had a nice time in Kampot. We were only there for one night. It’s a small town built on the banks of the river. We had a nice meal by the riverside watching the sunset.

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After Kampot we went to Kep, which is by the sea. I always feel excited to be by the sea when we travel. I’ve always loved the ocean, but I think my love has been enhanced recently because the climate is so damn hot, a sea breeze does me the world of good.

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I loved Kep! We were taken by tuk tuk miles from the town to our accommodation, which was a little bungalow in the jungle, run by a lovely French couple. We chilled out for two days, frequenting the local sailing club which had stunning views of the sunset over the sea. (And two for one cocktails) we wandered round, and just had a lovely relaxing time.

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Then we hopped on the bus to Sihanoukville, our stepping stone to Koh Rong Island. After a night here we were off to island paradise.

We had a wonderful time. It was stunning! So here’s a little ode I wrote to Koh Rong Island (I had absolutely nothing better to do, we didn’t have wifi because the island hadn’t paid their bill and so got cut off by the supplier.)

 

 

 

Here’s to the peacock-coloured ocean drenched in turquoise, green and gold.

 

Here’s to waiting for it to be pitch black so you can swim amongst the glowing plankton that is so magical and sparkly that it almost feels like you’re swimming through space.

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Here’s to sleeping in a bungalow on the beach, cooled only by a fan so you wake up with the sun, drenched in sweat. Here’s to your nighttime curfew being determined by the monstrous moths who come out at night, forcing you to switch off the light and listen to music instead of reading as usual.

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Here’s to pure white sand so fine that it squeaks underfoot.

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Here’s to 4km of beach with no people and more importantly, no litter on it.

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Here’s to skipping meals because there’s no ATM on the island and we want to eek out the little cash we brought in order to stay as long as possible.

 

Here’s to stray dogs who dig themselves a hole in the sand under your sun lounger so they can sleep in your shade and company, only huffing occasionally when water drips on them because you went swimming.

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Here’s to planning birthday surprises, being eaten alive by mosquitos and waking up to Tom doing a magical salsa dance stood on the bed whilst clapping the bastards to death.

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Here’s to the sea that’s as warm and clear as a swimming pool, to cans of yucky cheap beer and getting accidentally sunburnt because the anti-malaria tablets make your skin more sensitive.

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Here’s to the ache of there being only four weeks left balanced by the excitement of seeing my friends, family and cats again. 

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….. And here’s to being the happiest I’ve ever been.

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Tam Coc and Hue

Hello dearest reader! We are currently sat in our hostel room in Da Lat, sheltering from a rainstorm. Once again, I’m playing catch up on the blog… One day I’ll be up to date! Imagine that!

After beautiful Halong Bay, we were off on the bus to Nimh Bin. After about six hours, our bus stopped in apparently the middle of nowhere. It was pitch black outside and completely tipping it down. We asked the driver if it was the final stop, to which he nodded and so we jumped off into ankle deep water.

After consulting Tom’s phone we discovered we were in a small town called Tam Coc, miles away from our original destination (and pre-booked hostel) in Nimh Bin. Once again, the travel gods were smiling at us and we managed to cancel our hostel without getting charged and stayed in the hotel next to the bus stop! That was a relief. We ate in the restaurant opposite whilst we watched everyone running around in the rain. We weren’t expecting rainy season whilst in Vietnam, but most days it chucks it down for a couple of hours. In a way this is a good thing, because it clears out the stifling heat!

After some rest, we woke up the next day and realised we were in such beautiful surroundings. The landscape was filled with huge natural stone blocks similar to the ones in Halong Bay, and it was also quite jungly.

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We went downstairs for some breakfast (which was grim) and as I was poking down some kind of cremated egg, a woman on a bicycle pulled up and started screaming and pointing. We were like “what.” (My coffee hadn’t kicked in at this point.) After a whole chorus of people started shouting in Vietnamese we finally noticed the large snake that was in the bush by our table. I was like “do you reckon it’s dangerous?” Tom said “yep!” One of the staff came over with a big stick and poked the snake which leapt a few foot in the air and out of the bush towards our table. Tom jumped on his chair and I started running around the restaurant like a headless chicken. And thus, breakfast was over. Nothing like a brush with death to start your day!

We hired some bicycles from the hotel and went to look for some caves. The cycle was nice because it was flat and it’s nowhere near as hot as Thailand. So, no death threats for Tom this time!
The cave was a bit disconcerting as we just walked around on our own. We were the only ones there, and I couldn’t help but picture that scene in The Descent when the cave collapses. Anyway, we made it out alive and headed up 520 steps to a view point over the river. It was hard work, but worth it as the view was amazing. We could see people enjoying a row on the river, so decided to do that the following day.

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The boat trip was incredible because the woman rowing the boat used her feet to row which I just found absolutely fascinating! The landscape was stunning, and we had a really nice time.

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Weirdly there were all these paparazzi men taking photos of us which we got bullied into buying. (Silly me for imagining you can do ANYTHING in Vietnam without being bloody hassled to death.) oh well, the result is a hilarious photo to put on the fridge. We look so unimpressed!!

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After a few hours of waiting around and rinsing the hotel’s wifi, we got a taxi to the train station. Our taxi man was the smiliest man I’ve ever met, and spent the whole journey offering us pineapple. We arrived at the train station, and boarded the sleeper train with much trepidation on my part.
We found our carriage, slid open the door to find a family of four on the bottom two bunks and the top two bunks clear for me and Tom. After trying to silently shove my backpack under the bottom bunk I faced the challenge of getting onto the top bunk without the help from a ladder. The bunk was at chin height, and those of you who know me will understand that I’m very athletically challenged. I didn’t dare put my foot on the bunk below as it was full of people, so in order to get on to my bed I had to get my foot above my head – think John cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks with Tom pushing my bum upwards. Utterly ridiculous. Luckily the family were asleep so no one saw the display. I lay there trying not to be sick (damn motion sickness to hell!!) and praying I didn’t need the toilet in the night.

The carriage was okay, very basic, and the sheets weren’t at all clean…. But I value my own life enough to avoid taking the sleeper bus in Vietnam. After a few minutes, the door opened and a guard came in, and gestured for Tom to follow him. I sat and waited for about ten minutes thinking “what the hell is going on?!”
It turns out, Tom was taken into a “posh” carriage, the guard closed the door behind them and patted the bed for Tom to sit down on the bunk opposite. The guard then asked if Tom would like this carriage for fifty dollars. Tom said “it’s very nice but no thank you!” And quickly exited. As he was leaving he saw a rat coming out of the air conditioning vent. I found all this out as Tom and I communicated through texts on our phones as we didn’t want to make any noise. Modern technology eh?

The night was.. Ok. I had about two hours sleep because the train constantly stopped and started all night. I and was lying awake when the guard came at 7am to tell us it was our stop. Phew! For some reason we were super early, so our designated taxi hadn’t arrived. We were pushed into buying some coffee which arrived in the fucking DIRTIEST glass I’ve ever seen whilst some bloke tried to convince us to book a tour with him. I felt like punching him in the head, not only because he was annoying, but I was also very sleep deprived and it wasn’t even 8am, so I definitely didn’t appreciate the sales pitch. Luckily we managed to get in touch with the hotel so they came to pick us up before I committed GBH.

Our hotel was sent from heaven. They gave us cold fresh mango juice and let us into the room hours early, which had two double beds in it. I was so happy! We spent the day chilling out and then walked around the city of Hue (pronounced hway.) we booked a tour for the following day.

Our tour took us to the demilitarised zone which was the no fire zone between north and south Vietnam. We visited the Khe Sanh American military base which is now a war museum. There were lots of remnants from the war including bunkers, helicopters, planes and bombs.

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And in the afternoon the Vinh Moc tunnels. The villagers of Vinh Moc built the tunnel system and hid below ground for six years. The tunnel is essentially a series of long corridors with rooms coming off. The “family rooms” are scarcely big enough for two adults to lie down in. There was a maternity room where seventeen children were born. The tunnels have been widened for tourists, but they’re still incredibly small, I was constantly bashing my head and had to walk doubled over on many occasions. Also it was SO hot down there. I thought it’d be cool. It was a really humbling place to visit. It was so dark. I can’t begin to imagine living my daily life in a place like that. I left feeling incredibly lucky.

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(A bomb crater)

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Bangkok to Kanchanuburi

Next on the agenda: Thailand. Ever since I read Alex Garland’s “The Beach” as a teenager and watched the film adaptation I’ve had a burning desire to see Thailand! Okay, so the novel kind of degenerates into cannibalism but let’s sweep that under the carpet and just say that I was very excited!

 

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The flight from Osaka, Japan to Bangkok, Thailand was truly hideous. I think midnight is one of the worst times to fly: you’re hysterically tired and arrive in an unfamiliar country at a ridiculous time. Also we’re flying budget. Air Asia is the equivalent to Ryan Air (who the fuck is Ryan?!) so no leg room and incredibly narrow seats for a six hour flight wasn’t fun. Also, I’m certain that 80% of the passengers on the flight were screaming toddlers. It got to the point where I was ready to join them in a tantrum and I found myself muttering to Tom “let’s NEVER have children!”

Anyway. Rant over. We arrived in one piece which is the main thing! To my delight we hopped into a bright pink taxi and were whistled over to our hostel. The taxi driver insisted that we should pay extra to take the highway to avoid the traffic, to which I responded “traffic at 6am? Yeah right!” He laughed but we agreed anyway, too tired to argue. I fell asleep about four times in the taxi, with Tom poking me to keep me awake. The hostel was really nice and we learnt that a free breakfast would be served from 7am. Not wanting to miss out on free food, we set an alarm for an hour later and climbed into bed fully clothed. I’m glad we did because breakfast was an INCREDIBLE buffet, which was a surreal dreamlike experience.

After food we went back to bed and woke up at around 2pm. It was SOOO HOT. Japan was one of the coldest places on our trip so we had to readjust to the tropics of Thailand. The day was pretty much a write off because we were bloody knackered and a bit disorientated. We basically wandered bleary-eyed around the block, bought water, did some laundry, had some food at the hostel and went back to bed.

The next day we were up, feeling refreshed and ready to explore Bangkok. We walked to the river and caught a boat to Wat Pho. The boat was pretty much like a stressful bus journey but via water. It pulled up and we laughed because it was so rammed with people. The workers onboard would have given the gestapo a run for their money “GET INSIDE! HURRY UP!!! GET INSIDE!!!!!”
Thankfully there were no windows so there was some airflow and it cost around 20p each, but it wasn’t a pleasant journey.

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Wat Pho is one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Bangkok and home to the famous reclining Buddha. We arrived at around 9.30am so it wasn’t too busy and really beautiful and hot. We explored, taking our shoes on and off and on and off as we went into the shrines. We then came across the Thai massage school that’s inside the temple. We decided to treat ourselves to a massage, going for 30 minutes rather than an hour each in case we didn’t like it!
We were led to two beds next to eachother and instructed to lie on our sides. What followed was a whole body massage including feet, legs, having your fingers pulled and clicked, back clicked, shoulders, head, ears….
It was painful but relaxing at the same time, and I realised how sore my feet, calves and back were! I felt amazing afterwards and managed to not laugh too much, even when I could hear some loud slapping noises and someone screaming…. I kept my eyes closed but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Tom!
We then went to check out the reclining Buddha. He was huge!
Wandering onwards we found a Thai restaurant for lunch and sat giggling whilst we ate listening to incredibly loud and incredibly terrible karaoke.

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We then headed to the famous Khoa San Road, described in The Beach as “the backpacking centre of the universe.” It’s basically loads of bars full of backpackers, stalls selling clothes and ornaments, tattoo shops, and neon signs. It was good to get our bearings in preparation for the upcoming Songkran celebrations the following day….

That evening we got tickets to visit the Calypso Theatre to watch the famous Ladyboys of Bangkok perform. It was something else!

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We were ushered into a really posh cabaret style theatre where we sipped beer and waited for the curtain to arrive. Well. I don’t know how to put it into words but it was essentially a very camp cabaret show, complete with the Sound of Music, Chicago etc. It was easy to forget that the performers were born men. They were very captivating! There were some very bizarre moments, as you can imagine.
Afterwards we went to the exit where all the ladyboys were lined up offering to take photos with the audience members. We grabbed a photo with a few of the girls, and then one of them had a 500 baht (£10) note in her hand and was saying “mister! Mister!” To Tom and pointing at the note. I had a sensation that we were about to be fleeced and they all started pulling notes out of Tom’s wallet and we legged it…
Haha. Kind of a surreal experience really but we managed to get away before we were left completely penniless.

 

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The following day we headed to the supermarket to buy some water guns. We’d timed our trip impeccably by accident to be in Bangkok for Songkran (Thai new year) the Thai people celebrate by bathing the Buddha in water, and then their families and friends. The idea is that you are cleansed of your misfortunes and given lots of luck for the next year. This degenerates into a huge street water fight. We headed to the boat, where we went to find the train station we needed the following day. We were anxious that the tickets would be sold out due to the festivities but we were in luck. The boat and walk in 30 degree heat were pretty taxing – we were both drenched in sweat – so I made the executive decision that we’d get a taxi the next day – I really didn’t fancy doing that journey with my backpack.

We headed to the hub of the water fight – Khoa San Road of course! I can’t put into words what an experience it was. I don’t even have any decent photos to show you because it was so wet we couldn’t take many… But there were hundreds and hundreds of people running around, squirting eachother, chucking buckets of water at eachother and hugging and dancing to super loud dance music in the street. It was a huge water fighting rave! I kept screaming “THIS IS SO MUCH FUN!!!” It felt amazing in the boiling heat and it was hilarious to see fully grown adults acting like kids. Songkran was one of the most amazing experiences of our trip so far, I’ll never forget it. After a few hours, we headed back. We dried out in the sun and then we got soaked again heading to the hostel. The streets are lined with groups of friends around huge water coolers full of water. The locals also have buckets of white paste which symbolises protection and is to ward off evil. We came back covered in the stuff!

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The next day we checked out and got a taxi to the train station. We were ridiculously early so we sat around baking on the platform for a few hours before the train arrived. The train to Kanchanuburi was crazily slow, and would often stop in the middle of nowhere for fifteen minutes at a time. We were drenched in sweat and sticking to the seats. The air coming through the windows was like having a hot hairdryer blown directly in your face. I could literally feel my eyeballs drying out.

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After a while, I put some music on and began to relax and enjoy the view. Opposite us was a female monk, bald headed and dressed in white robes. She held her friends hands in hers and read their palms, each reading taking around thirty minutes whilst the receiver hung on to her every word.
In the end I really enjoyed that journey!
We were met from the train by a tuk tuk organised by the hostel. A tuk tuk is a motorbike adapted to carry passengers. This one was essentially like a big side car. It was such a cool way of seeing the town, I felt like I was flying. I’m sure we’ll ride many many more before we go home! At the hostel the person who checked us in photographed our passports on his phone and then proceeded to spend 10 minutes screaming in rage and punching his phone and throwing it around the room whilst we sweated and wondered what the hell was going on. No answers there.

We chilled out in the room for a while. In the evening we met the owner and she drove us down to the edge of the river Kwai where the locals were all sat celebrating Songkran (no water fights this time, just food and drink) it was one of those really special evenings where there were no other backpackers in sight and we enjoyed a delicious and ridiculously cheap meal sat with the locals.

The next day we moved to a different hostel. We arrived too early to check in so we dumped our bags and headed to the death railway museum. Kanchanuburi is the town closest to the famous “bridge over the river Kwai”. To be honest, I’d heard the title of the film, but I’d never seen it, or knew anything about it. At the museum, I learnt all about the stretch of railway from Thailand to Burma that was built by the Japanese in world war 2 to get supplies into Burma. It was built using forced labour, in absolutely horrific conditions. Hundreds of thousands of Asians, and prisoners of war from England and Australia perished in the making, due to lack of adequate food and water, incredible heat, and untreated illness.
It was incredibly poignant to learn all about it in a beautifully air conditioned museum, then step outside and instantly want to seek shade and cover yourself in sun cream. I can’t imagine how terrible it was, but I can empathise with the heat.
Just outside the museum is a huge war cemetery.

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A moving day. We went and cooled down in the hostel and then that evening went to visit the bridge. You can walk over it and it’s flooded with tourists, and locals selling ice creams, cold drinks and nicnacs. It wasn’t as big as I’d imagined. I’m currently reading “the Bridge over the river Kwai” (kindles are good aren’t they?!) and it’s a good read.

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On our final day in Kanchanuburi we mostly chilled out. We took Tom for a haircut. It cost two quid. I can’t decide if he’s really brave or just sick of my dodgy haircuts. We then had a Thai massage. My masseuse was really lovely. She lives in England now, and was back to Thailand for Songkran. In London she charges £60.00 an hour for a massage and we paid… Four quid. Isn’t that insane? I’ll have to get as many massages as possible whilst I’m hear to make the most of it. It was a wonderful massage, I even had all my toes clicked! I felt awesome afterwards. The lady also told me that British people have awful backs and necks because we all work too hard hunched over computers all day, whereas the Thai people rarely have this issue. Interesting, huh?

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