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?

Seoul Airport: the airport of the future.

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Next stop: West Virginia

Before finally leaving the weastern hemisphere for an undefined amount of time, headed for South-East Asia, we visited my awesome grandparents-in-law in their lovely home in West Virginia.

My grandmother-in-law, whom we call Big Mommy, introduced me to their newly acquired pets: 3 little fish in a small outdoor pond. Then I learned their names – she proudly introduced the three of them as: Useless, Needless and Pointless.

What is more they had had a new arrival the day before – and I had the honour to baptize the little blue fish that you can see in the middle of the pond.

Only one name came to mind. Superfluous.

Don’t you agree?

The most difficult subject

The most difficult subject can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.

— Leo Tolstoy, 1897, as quoted on the opening page of The Big Short by Michael Lewis, the book I was reading on the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Really good.