Next Stop: Battambang

We traveled to Battambang with a local bus, as we often do here, and everybody in the bus was watching some bloody ghost / murder / vampire movie on the TV in the front of the bus – including the bus driver…

But we wouldn’t dare to complain – especially as we were traveling obviously soooo much more comfortably than other people on the same route…

Every time the bus stops a big crowd of people comes running up to the bus offering snacks they have prepared at home – many of those vendors are wearing the traditional scarf to protect themselves from sun and dust, the Krama…

There is always a choice of interesting delicacies …

… roasted crickets…

… and of course the ubiquitous fried or grilled tarantula…

But more often than not we rely on the little food stalls that sell “packaged” food….

Cambodians love their Karaoke…

Battambang turned out to be a charming, bustling little town “with loads of French-colonial architecture in an appealing state of semi-decay” as Nat phrased it so perfectly in his earlier blog post. Not a lot of tourists are visiting yet, so it feels very authentic.

There is a nice riverside area where people are strolling along and working out in the early evening…

On the evening of our arrival we found a little kitten in distress, in the middle of the street – it was crying and obviously had lost it’s mother. We tried to walk away and let things go their natural way – but realized we couldn’t.

With a huge amount of poverty and street children in need of food and care it seemed almost absurd to want to help a little animal – and understandingly enough none of the locals we encountered during this episode showed the least bit of interest to help the little creature out.

First we tried to feed it some milk, and then Nat set off on a search to find its litter – which thankfully he did.

Before leaving Battambang we undertook to ride the “Bamboo train” – a very old, very simple train that was built by the French in colonial era and is being used by locals today to transport themselves and their equipment and tools to the widespread rice paddies in the area. (Battambang is said to produce the best rice in Cambodia, and it is very, very tasty.)

You find an excellent and more detailed description of this little adventure on my husband’s blog – who by the way is the most funny and most fun person I have ever met – and I couldn’t wish for a better travel companion.

Next Stop: Military standoff at Preah Vihear, a temple at the Thai – Cambodian border

Two days ago I sat at a bamboo picnic table positioned right over a fortified standoff line with two soldiers from opposing armies – one Cambodian, one Thai – with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades on both sides.

How did it come to that?

We left Siem Reap – which by the way is a must-see in Cambodia, not only because of the famous temples of Angkor Wat – and headed for Anlong Veng in the North. Anlong Veng was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge during the 1990s; several high-ranking KR officials were captured in the area during the last 10 years. Pretty much everyone living in Anlong Veng over 40 is a former Khmer Rouge, including the people who sold us lunch and dinner there. Weird thought.

We visited Ta Mok’s house (he was better known as “the Butcher”) where the KR had their strategy meetings and planned their guerilla attacks for more than a decade. This is the map they used, which Ta Mok is thought to have painted himself.

After that we saw Pol Pot’s cremation site… we are getting different answers on how he died, but the prevailing theory is that he died from a sudden heart attack in his old age.

His body was fittingly burned on a pile of garbage and old tires.

His grave is literally in a family’s backyard, and looks desolate. Again – fitting. But some people burn incense there every now and then – a disturbing thought.

These are the cages the Khmer Rouge officials used for their prisoners.

A lot of people in the area were sporting military clothes, including kids…

Our next stop was a smuggler’s market at the Thai – Cambodian border… where we saw people walking and cycling over the border in both directions.

We went into the market in order to explore the details- but Nat, who was walking 20 metres ahead of me – was yelled at by a wildly gesturing and very angry military guy and told to turn around immediately and get t.. f… out of that area…

Later we learned this is because guns and all kinds of weapons are being sold there – as well as stored for a possible Thai attack.

The next day we got up before sunrise in order to drive to Prasat Preah Vihear, a very large, beautiful temple which is exactly at the border between Cambodia and Thailand. Thailand has been unilaterally encroaching on Cambodia in this area. The Cambodian prime minister took the matter to the international court of justice, which ruled in Cambodia’s favor. But still, Thailand has taken bits of land here and there, and Thai nationalist politicians are even claiming the Preah Vihear temple itself (a UNESCO world heritage site). The Cambodian people are determined to keep Preah Vihear as part of their country and heritage.

As a consequence both sides have built up a fortified army base at the border and have deployed hundreds of soldiers there (you can actually read about this conflict on page 4 in this week’s time magazine.)

To get to the site, we rode in the back of a pickup up a steep mountain road. At the top we found a vast temple site populated exclusively by soldiers (not a single fellow tourist), grounds everywhere prepared for battle, with foxholes containing rocket propelled grenades and machine guns on tripods here and there.

We walked for about 10 minutes up towards the temple, through the prepared battle grounds, passing soldiers who were looking at us warily – though when I muttered some of the 20 words of Khmer language that I have managed to pick up until now a hint of a smile came to their faces.

At some point during our visit of the vast temple grounds a policeman offered to guide us through the territory and we gladly accepted, as there is a slight weird feeling of intrusion involved in marching past strategy meetings of soldiers on duty.

After we had finished visiting the temple he asked us if we were interested to see the actual Thai border.  Well.. yes… of course!!!

He led us down a big staircase of about 200 stairs towards an area where there was the border market – some little shops and restaurants for the soldiers, all occupied by groups of soldiers and their families watching TV. Walking further we came upon the border where there was wirefence and sandbag fortifications with machine guns on top of them.

After that he led us to an area where both the Cambodian and the Thai soldiers have built up their defense line only about 20 metres from each other, and as we approached a senior looking military official asked us to sit down with him at the table. He offered us food that we could not refuse under the circumstances – Nat, who is vegetarian, has eaten his first pork in many years; suddenly a Thai soldier came over from the other side, asking us where we come from and if he can take a picture of us with his cell phone. After that of course it was easy for us to ask them to sit down for a photo with us as well. And that’s how we got this picture.

Apparently on calm days Cambodian and Thai soldiers gather together at his table for lunch, dinner or just having beers together. It was clear to us that the tension at this border is entirely driven by far-away nationalist politicians, and not the soldiers themselves. As you can see on the following map both governments have a fundamentally different understanding of their countries’ borders…

All in all this was a mindblowing experience – walking right through the trenches and foxholes of an ongoing military confrontation.

Next Stop: Northern Cambodia

We spent the last few days traveling through the Northern part of Cambodia – people there are very poor but extremely friendly – and there are almost no other tourists in those areas.

This is what the roads look like.

We can see demining activities going on in many places – as some of those areas have been heavily mined during the Khmer Rouge period.

Six people on one motorbike is a common sight.

A very big difference to Europe or the US is that most aspects of daily life happen right outside the house – for everybody to see – such as cooking, sleeping, eating, washing up etc…

… and everywhere you see kids riding adult bikes whose pedals they can barely reach –  wearing adult shirts and shoes that are way too big…

… but even in the pouring rain we are greeted with big smiles everywhere we go…

Khmer Rouge: Falling in love is a death sentence.

From a political viewpoint this is an interesting time to be in Cambodia – with “Duch” (pronounced “doik”) , the director of the largest Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture center “Tuol Sleng” or S21, finally having received a verdict – more than 30 years after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and several other high ranking Khmer Rouge officials have already died of natural causes, without having had to face a court for what they have done to their own people. 

For those of you not familiar with the details about the KR regime: the KR were obsessed with the idea of “agricultural communism” – in its extremest form. They were in power for about 4 years between 1975 and 1979 – with civil war raging for many years before and after that. Between 1.8 and 2 million people were killed during that time – through individual and mass executions, torture, starvation and exhaustion.

The KR took power on April 17th and within hours forced everybody to leave the cities, intentionally separating children from their families and sending everybody to labor camps across the country. (People were lied to and told they had to leave only for a couple of days, as the Americans are about to bomb the cities – little did they know that many of them were never to see any of their family members alive again.)

The KR executed everybody who looked or behaved “intellectual” or “rich” or “urban” in the slightest way (in other words: capable of starting or participating in a counterrevolution…) – countless people and their families were killed for wearing glasses or being overweight. People were not allowed to have contact with other family members, and they were forced to eat in huge dining halls, never in small groups. Falling in love was a deadly sin – people were immediately executed when suspected of that. Money, clocks, religion, culture was abolished, in order to start a new “time”, Year Zero.

We had a guide at the National Museum in Phnom Penh who was 7 years old when it all happened. She was forced to walk for 3 months from Phnom Penh to Battambang, with people dying left and right from exhaustion and undernourishment on that journey. And she had to watch the KR kill her father and one of her brothers. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and the Khmer Rouge fell, she walked back to Phnom Penh to find her home occupied by squatters. It was first-come first-served.

The Cambodian people are silently outraged by the fact that it has taken so long for Duch to have to face the court and that now he has been sentenced to “only 19 years” of prison – after having admitted his responsibility for killing thousands and thousands of men, women and children. Duch was personally responsible for at least 14.000 people being sent to the killing fields – and in order to save bullets he ordered his soldiers to kill babies by smashing them into a tree.

Below you can see a pile of clothes from Duch’s victims; people had to take their clothes off for their march into the killing fields so that they could be reused.

So – spending time in prison with the hope of walking the streets as a free man with age 86 is the “just” punishment for that? 

Why – somebody tell me WHY – this man should not be in prison for life?

The Khmer Rouge era is over – definitively.  But some people who lived through it are still scared to talk about the Khmer Rouge period, as former Khmer Rough soldiers are a part of today’s government and former executioners live undisturbed among “normal” people in villages – causing fear and uncertainty for the village inhabitants.  Our guide at Tuol Sleng lowered her voice when she told us that she is scared of them.  There are also dubious and corrupt government initiatives and programs going on – and it is possible that abuse and terror is still happening.

After a couple of days in Phnom Penh I was actually surprised not to see more streetchildren and homeless people – and I have now learned that the government has started a “program” under which it regularlysweeps children and homeless people of the streets and sends them to a “reeducation camp” nearby. This camp is not accessible, closed to the public and UN watchers can only visit once a month at a preannounced time.

Not good. Not good at all.

Next Stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia has completely overwhelmed me. In a very positive way. I was prepared to see a very poor country that is still recovering from years and years of civil war and the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge.

But I was not prepared for the incredible warmth and friendliness that embraces me wherever I go. I have been to several Asian countries before, but I have never seen people so quick to smile, so happy to have a conversation, so eager to invite you into their groups despite the fact that they speak almost no English.

Walking through the streets of Phnom Penh feels like a trip back in time, with streets overflowing with all kinds of vehicles and people pulling carts and small motorbikes carrying 3 to 6 people at once dominating the street.

When you come to an intersection there seems to be no apparent rule for priority: once enough motorbikes and vehicles have gathered from one side they push into the crossroad and force the traffic from the other side to stop. The streets are extremely busy, but traffic as a whole moves quite slowly – and gives this small capital city a very pleasant, sleepy feeling.

People set up their little portable hairdresser shops and are roasting pigs right on the sidewalk, and sometimes you can see women carrying precariously balanced baskets on their heads (check out the woman on the left).

One phenomenon that really struck me is that in the early evening you find outdoor dance classes everywhere across the town. Somebody comes with a portable CD player, sets up big loudspeakers and starts teaching a choreography – and everybody joins in! They charge around 30 cents, and obviously – I couldn’t resist…

Wherever we go people pull out little plastic chairs and invite us to sit with them – they normally don’t ask for money, but simply seem to be curious about us. For example, I was asked if people in Germany eat snow – as it seemed just wonderful to them that in my homecountry clean water would just fall from the sky in such an easy to consume form.

This picture was taken after we sat and chatted with this family for a while – in a very poor and neglected-looking side street somewhere in Phnom Penh. I had the idea to make some prints for the family, so the next day we went to a photo store and had 5 prints made of the picture to bring them back to them. When we came there and showed them the prints they called everybody together and within 30 seconds we were surrounded by excited faces and happy exclamations in Khmer language. After a couple of minutes though a little girl looked at me sternly, thought hard for a moment, and then suddenly very shyly said “Thank you”. Thinking back to that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

Seeing the street children everywhere really gets to me – there are over 20,000 children living on the street in Cambodia, and it is hard to understand how one can help. It is both a result of the Khmer Rouge regime and various civil wars – but more and more often their mothers or fathers die because of HIV – and today HIV is already responsible for every fourth orphan.

While we are here we are trying to support local organizations like “Childsafe” and are eating at restaurants that are staffed by former street children, such as “Friends” or “Romdeng”- and by the way – the food they prepare is delicious…

Everybody discourages us from handing out money to children / people on the street, as it is hard to tell who is being controlled by gangs and syndicates that force them to beg – but I find myself giving food and water whenever my intuition tells me the need is real. This little boy for example talked me out of my bottle of water – and then emptied it in one go.

Nevertheless, it feels like not enough.

(Pictures from Phnom Penh follow).

Next Stop: Malaysia

In Malaysia we went to Kuala Lumpur…

… visited the temple of the Batu Caves…

…where we got attacked by a holy monkey…

… visited a pewter factory…

… went to a fish spa…

(these are NOT my legs….)

…visited a tea plantation…

…had a fun dinner with Phil and our Malaysian friends Yoon Kit and Ditesh (and I learned the hard way that if asked in a Malaysian restaurant if you like spicy food you ALWAYS say “NO”, no matter what you can handle at home)…

…and spent some days on the Perhentian Islands.

You get the whole story by clicking through the pictures!

Next Stop: Seoul

Korean Air turned out to be a very pleasant surprise – good food, very attentive service, and the most ample entertainment system I have seen in economy class seats. But upon arrival at Seoul immigration, I was stopped, and asked to accompany the immigration officer to the border control office.

Nat was not allowed to come with me, and I have to admit I had a very nervous moment there. Or two. Or three!

Being detained or deported from South Korea sounded like just the way to kick off a year of adventures…

As I sat in the office, a parade of immigration officials entered the room to stare and grunt at my passport and myself, each with more stars on his shirt than the one before.
Fortunately, after several hours of serious conversations and involvement of the German embassy we were admitted into the country and let free to roam the streets of Seoul.

What struck me in our 48 hours in Seoul was the juxtaposition of very traditional ways of doing things with high technology more advanced and ubiquitous than we have in the West.

Here you see a typical shot from the streets of seoul.

But for example after check-in at the airport you can hold your boarding pass against a scanner on a giant flat-screen, and up comes a beautiful interactive map that has a detailed explanation of the way to your gate.

I recorded a video which you can see below.

Cool, isn’t it?