Goooooooood morning, Vietnam!

Although I knew little of Vietnam apart from what I had gleaned from watching ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’, I was excited to be on my way to Ho Chi Minh City. This was not only because Helena and I had heard good stories from Helena’s brother Simon, who visited in October 2014, but also because we had arranged to meet and travel with our great friend Tessa for a couple of weeks. Oh, and apparently the beer is incredibly cheap too!

Vietnam did not disappoint! So many stories arose from our two weeks with Tessa, far too many to be encapsulated here, but I’ll do my best to recount some of the highlights.

The geography of Vietnam almost determines its own route for travel; being a long slender country you simply either travel from south to north or vice versa, picking your stops along the way. We’d arranged to meet Tessa in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, and work our way north up to Hanoi, the capital. At the time of booking, we didn’t realise that the Vietnamese (and Chinese) Lunar New Year fell at the end of our trip and this was to cause a few complications in the travel department, but more of that later…

Meeting Tessa was fabulous – to travel is a wonderful experience in itself, as we are discovering daily, but to be able to share that experience and create memories with your best friends is even better!

The day we met Tessa we went for a wander around Ho Chi Minh City. In a way, it feels similar to Bangkok; modern, exciting, energetic…very little of the feel of the communist country that in reality it is. Anybody who visits Saigon, however, will be struck immediately by one thing – the scooters! Unlike the chaos of India, the roads do appear to have some sense of regulation but the sheer volume of two wheeled transport is simply staggering! And it creates one simple, but persistent problem: how on earth do you cross the road? The river of scooters is never-ending at every intersection, and the tail-enders from one red light merge seamlessly with the eager anticipators of the next green. Having been hardened by our Indian escapades, we quickly got the hang of spotting a whisker of a break in the traffic and stepping out with mixture of optimism and blind faith that we’d reach the other side alive. On more than one occasion, I had crossed the road only to turn back to see a concerned looking Helena and a bemused looking Tessa standing on the other side of the sea of scooters. Where’s Moses when you need him?!

Helena braving the onslaught!
Helena braving the onslaught!

Our first meal in HCMC was at a small ‘cook your own food’ BBQ place that Hels and I had spotted. It was an excellent affair that I particularly enjoyed as I was missing cooking desperately by that point. We ate too much, and drank far too much – but it would have been rude not to when bottles of Bia Saigon were 12000 Dong each – (you get 32000 Dong to the pound, hence our excitement!)

A taste of things to come...
A taste of things to come…

We then spent a few days using HCMC as a base for tours: one to the Mekong Delta, where Tessa bought a Vietnamese conical hat – I have no idea what they’re called but you know the ones I mean; and one to the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of tiny underground passages that the North Vietnamese Army used to evade the Americans during the Vietnam War. Both excellent days out, and worthy of blogs in their own right. Interestingly, our guide Lu (My name is Lu, L U, Lu. You can call me Handsome Lu) came out with a particularly memorable quote on the bus back from Cu Chi. I can’t quite remember the context but I distinctly remember the phrase, ‘…because in Vietnam we are communists so we are all very happy.’ Propaganda? Actual fact? Who knows! He seemed convinced, just about. Make of it what you will…but it did spark a conversation off amongst the three of us and a couple of other passengers beginning with, ‘What even is Communism anyway?’

Tessa's hat came in handy at nap time on the Mekong Delta trip.
Tessa’s hat came in handy at nap time on the Mekong Delta trip.
Helena disappearing into a tunnel.  Needless to say, I didn't attempt this feat...!
Helena disappearing into a tunnel. Needless to say, I didn’t attempt this feat…!

Moving north, we stayed one night in Da Nang and ate a meal in a ‘restaurant’ right next to our hotel. This establishment was no more than a collection of tiny plastic chairs and tables in a gravel space that resembled a car park but the food was good quality and cheap, even if we did get a few bizarre looks from the locals. The next morning, Hels and I went for a walk to the beach and were a little surprised to see absolutely no evidence of the restaurant remaining in the space at all…

And so to Hoi An. A beauty of a town located a few kilometres from the coast, quaint, full of markets, street-food sellers, and tailors who could make you anything you desired in an unfeasibly short amount of time. One of our biggest problems in Hoi An, however, was the now increasing list of alliterative Vietnamese locations beginning with the letter ‘H’. Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An – OK so far, but add in Hue, Hanoi, and Ha Long Bay and you have a problem! Particularly in the case of the mutual anagrams Hoi An and Hanoi. The problem reared its head immediately when, although I thought I’d booked us into a hostel in Hoi An, it turned out that the booking was actually in Hanoi…and the Hoi An hostel was full!

Tessa to the rescue – generously treating us to a stay in an excellent hotel… With a pool, a gym, and a breakfast buffet you would literally die for!

Hoi An turned out to be one of our favourite destinations. We went to a cooking class, on the recommendation of Helena’s brother, and it was truly excellent. We opted to spend an hour before the class going around the market with a guide to buy provisions. He did tell us his name, but we all promptly forgot it. When, for fear of being rude, I finally plucked up the courage to ask again, our guide simply smiled and said, ‘Just call me Jackie Chan.’ No amount of pleading would get him to repeat his real name, so Jackie Chan it was. He showed us all sorts of things including the special Hoi An noodle that is made with water from the special well in Hoi An to make their speciality dish, Cao Lau.

The end of the tour marked the beginning of the class, and we bade ‘Jackie’ farewell as we donned our aprons and started chopping various vegetables, noodles and other ingredients. Chef Son Trang was particularly impressed with my knife skills, I might add with modesty! The food we cooked (with a vast amount of assistance from Son) was excellent – clean, fresh flavours, simply delivered, presented without pretensions. Our meal of stuffed aubergines, spiced pork patties, Sea Bass steamed in banana leaf, and five spice chicken spring rolls was one of the best we had in Vietnam. Thanks for the recommendation Simon!

That evening was our last in Hoi An as we had booked a guided day trip riding scooters to Hue for the next morning. Common sense would say that an early night was perhaps in order, and that was the plan … until I fell into a game of card based ‘horse racing’ organised by one of the hostel guys affectionately known as ‘dreds’. (Yes he had dredlocks, not the most imaginative of nicknames on that count I suppose!) We met a bunch of English girls, Jane, Suzy, Ellie and Emma, and together with a motley crew of other travellers, and increasingly lubricated by the result of ‘betting on the horses’, the inevitable drunkenness ensued. Hels and Tessa were feeling a bit sleepy, and as I got more inebriated it was clear that this night was only going one way … out to sample Hoi An nightlife! I tagged along with the bunch and headed off to Tiger Tiger.

It turned out to be a fabulous evening of partying and dancing the night away but the highlight has to be the game of beer pong. For those who are unaware of this game, I won’t go into too much detail on the precise (and often much debated) rules, but safe to say it involves a long table, a triangular arrangement of cups at each end filled with beer, and a couple of ping pong balls. I teamed up with Jane against Suzy, Emma and Ellie, and the contest began. I could perhaps say at this point that Jane and I had superior, unassailable skills in the realms of beer pong, but it is more likely that we simply got lucky. A lot lucky! We took it in turns to try and get the ping pong balls into the opposition’s cups. Each time one hits the target, the opposing team has to drink. We were so successful at this (and the others so poor) that soon, we were drinking our own beer out of choice rather than forfeit! We ended with a spectacular victory, but, in all honesty, everybody ended up happily drunk and I turned back up to the hostel thinking it was a good idea to wake the sleeping Helena with repeated assertions of, ‘I’m a beer pong legend!’

I paid the price the following morning. The hangover was enough to cure me of any legendary aspirations I may have had! And yet, this turned out to be one of our best days, probably the best day, of our whole trip.

We’d packed the bags and I was downstairs eating an egg filled baguette and drinking a second cup of 3in1 coffee when I noticed a pleasant looking chap in what appeared to be motorcycle type clothing. He was sitting patiently on the benches outside the hostel and he caught my eye. I wandered over and enquired if he was was our motorcycle guide, which indeed he was. He introduced himself as ‘Number 10’. I was a little confused, thinking I had misheard him, but he eagerly pointed to a large 10 on the fuel tank of his bike. ‘Number 10’, he repeated. ‘Fantastic, I’m Chris’, I said shaking his hand, wondering at the name. It seems the Vietnamese have become accustomed to anglicising their names for the benefit of tourists.

I swiftly made a third cup of coffee and was hastily drinking it as Number 10 loaded our bags onto his bike. ‘No rush, no rush,’ he repeated. Tessa, Helena and I weren’t convinced that it was possible for all three of our large bags to be carried on a single bike, but Number 10 seemed unperturbed as he strapped them securely to the back, and then reached for my hand luggage as well. He was well used to it it seemed!

We’d heard about this particular tour from a South African couple that Teasa had got chatting to on our Cu Chi tour. ‘Lefamilyriders’ came highly recommended, and now we know why. We had a fantastic day working out way north from Hoi An to Hue with various stops along the way including: the Marble Mountain, the Hai Van pass, lunch at an incredible seafood restaurant, swimming at the ‘Elephant Falls’ and finally the city of Hue itself.

Tessa and I had opted to ride with Helena travelling on the back of the bike with me. Initially, the road was flat and tracked along the coastal road parallel with the beach. After our stop at the Marble Mountain where we explored caves filled with huge statues of Buddha carved into and out of the rock, we continued north. After passing through Da Nang, the road began to climb. We knew then that we were on the Hai Van Pass, made famous by a recent Top Gear Special. The road winds and climbs its way up and over the mountain revealing incredible views of the coastline along the way. Our feelings of excitement and expectation were rewarded with stunning scenery and we mutually agreed the climb would be fantastic to tackle on road bikes – that is if the road surface wasn’t treacherous of course, which it was in places. The descent was equally as exhilarating and soon we were scooting along at the edge of the sea once more.

With our exceptional guide, 'Number 10'.
With our exceptional guide, ‘Number 10’.
The awesome view gradually unravelled on our way up the pass...
The awesome view gradually unravelled on our way up the pass…
And this is what greeted us on the descent..!
And this is what greeted us on the descent..!

Number 10 then took us to a fabulous restaurant that was built on a ‘pier’ of sorts reaching out into the bay. We were then fed, and fed, and fed some more, and the food was phenomenal. We had huge plates of steamed cockles, grilled mussels, crispy crumbed squid, morning glory with insane amounts of garlic, stir-fried tiger prawns, a beautiful omelette of sorts, and rice, all washed down with Huda beer (but just the one can!). Best meal ever…? Quite possibly!

After lunch we rode on. At the Elephant Waterfall, Helena and I went for a dip while Tessa had a nap, before continuing the final 2 hours of the journey. Having left Hoi An at 9am, we were tired but happy to reach our destination. We bade a thankful farewell to Number 10 and checked into our hostel. I suppose the highlight of the trip, with all its many individual high points, was the riding itself – getting to see, hear, feel the country as you ride the roads, free from the constraints of public transport, the sterilised air-conditioned planes, trains and buses. The landscape unfolds before your eyes, an ever-changing canvas, like an extended symphony gradually modulating through various keys. What a day!

And yet…we were only half way through the trip in reality!! Hue was an interesting city to explore with its citadel and Imperial City. It marked a transition into North Vietnam and the feel is certainly a bit different, a bit more rustic, much less familiar than the modern Ho Chi Minh City. Happily, we actually bumped into Number 10 at a local restaurant in Hue the day after our bike trip. He came over and said hello, helped us order some Hue specialities for lunch, and then showed us how to eat them properly! It felt good to see him again as he’d guided us through such an enjoyable day the day before.

The final part of our journey took us to the capital, Hanoi, although it felt much less like a capital city than Ho Chi Minh City. Our main complication at this point was Tet – the Vietnamese New Year. Pretty much everything shuts down for Tet, and 2-3 days either side of it, which was an issue for us since Tet was on the 19th Feb and Tessa’s flight home was at midnight on the 20th. In an attempt to plan for this, we booked a trip to ‘Castaway’ Island while we were in Hoi An. This 3 day 2 night trip to Ha Long bay would sort all of our transport and accommodation issues while giving us an opportunity to visit the wonder of the world that is Ha Long. What we didn’t fully realise at the time is that ‘Castaways’ is essentially a 3 day debauchery aimed mainly at young travellers who want to feel like they are on a deserted island while getting insanely drunk.

I could write ten blogs about our Castaway experience but … it actually wasn’t that bad – and Tessa came up with a very handy Plan B! In brief (because I realise this is becoming a bit of an epic post), we went to ‘Castaway Island’ (which is technically in the beautiful Lan Ha bay as it happens), went kayaking while most others went booze cruising, and managed to organise our second night on Cat Ba Island instead of staying two nights at Castaway. I don’t really want to give a bad impression of our time though as coincidentally the girls from Hoi An were on the same trip as us and we enjoyed another round of ‘horse racing’, this time led by Suzy rather than dreds, and actually had a really good night. At one point Helena reminded me that I shouldn’t dance on the tables as our agreed refund was based on the idea that we had been sold the trip under false pretences (which we were to an extent) And the scenery was, yet again, incredible. The kayaking in the afternoon was such a liberating experience as we paddled off into the serenity of the bay, dwarfed by huge rock formations and surrounded by placid waters. We went out again the following morning and felt a mild sense of disappointment that the majority of the ‘castaways’ would never really take a look at their surroundings.

We loved the kayaking!
We loved the kayaking!

‘Plan B’ on Cat Ba was an unplanned yet awesome insight into the Tet revelry. After spending an exciting afternoon exploring the island on scooters (clearly our trip with Number 10 had had an effect on us), we were invited by our hotel to be ‘guests’ at the New Year celebrations on the harbourside. What ensued was an evening of watching a sort of variety performance of various singing, dancing and martial arts acts. The highlight for us though was when the announcer suddenly switched into English and said, ‘We’d now like to invite all the foreigners and tourists to join us on stage for a dance.’ All eyes were on us, and the thirty or so other foreigners/tourists who were sat with us near the front of the audience. So, with no other option, up we got onto the stage and were quickly embroiled in a traditional dance that involved jumping over moving bamboo canes. It was fun, and painless, and didn’t last too long. Soon we were returning to our seats, happy to have been a part of the celebration. But that wasn’t the end of it for us …

Five minutes later … ‘We’d now like to invite all the foreigners and tourists to join the children on stage for a flash mob.’
‘What’s a flash mob?’ asked Tessa.
‘Who knows,’ I said, ‘Let’s just go with it!’ And so we did. We interspersed ourselves between rows of young boys and girls and proceeded to dance along to the South African World Cup Anthem ‘Wave Your Flag’. We didn’t really know what we were doing but soon realised that it didn’t matter much. This was followed by a presentation to all the foreigners of gift bags, red carnations and red envelopes – which had actual real cash money in them!!

And so our time with Tessa came to an end. On the bus back from Ha Long/Cat Ba we suddenly realised that Tessa’s flight home was 24hours earlier than we’d thought (a very close shave!) so we had to say a premature goodbye in Hanoi, waving her off in a taxi from the doors of the Golden Sun Palace Hotel, another one of Simon’s recommendations.

Despite the length of this blog (sorry!), there are so many stories left untold. The Saigon Sky Tower, the wonderful pancake, the chicken legs that were really feet, running in HCMC and Hoi An, the Hue bottle opener, the Imperial city, the detailed versions of Mekong and Cu Chi, watching Platoon (to re-educate ourselves), the visit to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC and its Agent Orange exhibit, the speed boat to Ha Long, the dreds based love story, scootering and trekking on Cat Ba, the repeated examples of Vietnamese wiring… to name but a few. In a similar vein to our Cambodian experience, Vietnam has had a harrowing recent past, and we learned a lot on our journey, and yet there is so much more to learn.

This just about sums up our day on the bikes and the whole trip.  Awesome!
This just about sums up our day on the bikes and the whole trip. Awesome!
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Angkor who…? Angkor where…? Angkor Wat!

Sleeper buses and trains appear to be the right sort of environment for me to write in, it seems. Or should that be, ‘in which for me to write’? Who knows! Sorry if I am offending my literary friends with unknown grammatical offences in these blogs – ignorance of the law however is no defence against grammar nazis, of which I am one…normally! Ha!

Anyway, as I was saying, in order for me to write, an extended period of time during which we have little or no other option of entertainment or enjoyment (other than drinking, and that’s never a good idea on long distance transport (ref: delayed bus trip to La Tania circa New Year 2013/14 with a certain G MacLennan, his bottle of Jaeger, and that look in his eye!)), and a sense of perpetual motion offer the perfect conditions to recollect, remember and reflect. We’re currently trundling through Northern Thailand on our way back to Bangkok. It only seems like a month ago since we were there before. Oh, hold on…

But this blog isn’t about Bangkok, it’s about Cambodia. Crossing the border into Cambodia was an interesting affair involving much standing around, wondering if we were in the right place, and being told to wait in the corner because we refused to pay the bribe. Anyway, the Cambodian authorities now have a scan of all five of mine and Helena’s fingerprints on both hands, but we have visas and still have our 200 baht. I’ll take that as a moral victory!

We had booked a room at Downtown hostel in Siem Reap (again on the recommendation of the Lahneys, thanks guys!) and it was a great place to chill and have a party. They even had a pool – a proper pool that you could actually dive into and swim. What a luxury! With sun lounging beds strewn around it in various states of disrepair, and a slightly shabby but very functional – and well used indeed – bar built from bamboo in the corner, we seemed to have stumbled upon a little bit of travelling heaven! That’s excusing the desperate state of the single speaker sound system that they clearly abused night after night; the music gradually increasing in volume and decreasing in quality as tweeters and sub-woofers alike gave up in protest at the constant battering they were receiving.

Siem Reap is also clearly a town that is embracing the party vibe. We were a little disconcerted when we went on our first wander out into Siem Reap, and Cambodia – exciting, unusual, scary, different – to stumble upon a Hard Rock Cafe not five minutes walk from our hostel. But we were undeterred and ventured further into the town. According to the guide book, there was a ‘main street’ of sorts in Siem Reap that has so many pubs on it that the travellers and locals alike simply call it ‘Pub Street’. Now, one thing that I’m finding to be an intermittent but recurring source of frustration on this trip is the inaccuracy of various maps in the guide books. They are particularly bad at actually placing restaurants, bars and hostels in the correct places in reference to their actual physical location on the planet. They often name streets incorrectly or draw them in places where they simply don’t exist – I mean, come on, it’s not that hard is it? Surely?

So, having met a friendly girl called Gemma on the bus, we three decided to go for a meal somewhere. Pub Street seemed like a safe option for new arrivals such as ourselves, and with an extra person with us, there was suddenly a slight yet tangible pressure to find somewhere reasonable to eat. So I was espousing all the reasons why we may not find this ‘Pub Street’, ‘…because, you know, half the time you go to where it says on the map, and it’s just not there. Or it’s on the next street over, but the blob on the map is a bit ambiguous. So, you know how it is, hopefully we’ll find this place but it might not even exist at all…’ My words were trailing off into a sea of hopelessness and despair, although I needn’t have worried. As we crossed the bridge into the town centre, there it was, right before our eyes, not ‘lit up like a neon sign’ but literally – A MASSIVE NEON SIGN ACROSS THE ROAD: <<<PUB STREET!! – the series of flashing arrows pointing us down the so aptly and imaginatively nick-named street. I have never before felt so confident as to say ‘you literally can’t miss it’ when giving directions to other travellers at the hostel over the next couple of days!

The main reason for visiting Siem Reap, however, is not for Pub Street – surprising I know! It is the closest town to the vast complex of temples that are commonly referred to as Angkor Wat, although Angkor Wat itself is only one part of this ancient metropolis.

The super impressive Angkor Wat
The super impressive Angkor Wat

Helena and I decided to spend one day visiting the Cambodia Landmine Museum. We hired a pair of mountain bikes and headed off vaguely in the direction signalled by the guide book. The museum itself is about 25km away from Siem Reap though so it only has an arrow pointing to it off the edge of the map. On the way there, we passed an Angkor Wat ticket checking booth and spent an interesting (some might say excruciatingly frustrating) 20 minutes persuading the officials that we weren’t going to visit the temples. And yes we knew it was a long way to the museum, and yes we knew where we were going (that one was a lie), and no we didn’t have a ticket, and no we really didn’t want to see the temples, and yes we certainly could be trusted to go straight to the museum, and yes we understood that we’d be fined if we were caught inside a temple. It was quite a hot day and the negotiation had to be run by Helena as my patience waned very quickly! But eventually we were let through and carried on cycling.

Within minutes we were cycling past a ruined temple on our left and I was saying to Helena, ‘Wow, look at that!’
‘No! You mustn’t look!’ came the reply, ‘Just keep cycling!’ Moments later, there was a huge pool on out right, ‘That must be the Royal Bathing pond…’ It seems the doubts of the ticket checking staff may have been well founded..!

The Cambodia Land Mine museum is a small place that tells a very moving story – a story that should in reality never have to be told. A super condensed version is that Aki Ra, the founder of the museum, was, as a five year old child, a soldier in the Khmer Rouge who told him that his parents were dead. By the age of ten he was a child soldier, being put to work laying thousands of land mines in the jungles of Cambodia. After managing to defect and escape, he now spends his life clearing the millions of land mines that remain in the Cambodia landscape – mines that were set by himself and hundreds of others like him. The land mine museum started out at his house, where he brought back the cases of the defused mines. He also brought back children who had been maimed and orphaned by land mine explosions. Having built a new museum about 7 years ago, the museum now houses exhibits that tell Aki Ra’s story and a large school and living complex for the orphans behind it that are rightly not open to tourists. The story continues, and there are still an estimated 3,000,000 mines still live, still a potential threat to the lives of the villagers, the farmers and the children, scattered around the Cambodian landscape.

A small collection of some of the land mine housings that Aki Ra removed and made safe.
A small collection of some of the land mine housings that Aki Ra removed and made safe.

That afternoon was a pretty harrowing experience at times, but it was only the beginning in terms of what we were to see and hear about in Cambodia. To learn more and make a donation to support this worthy cause, visit http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org
The following morning, we hired bikes again but this time our destination was the temples – and we happily bought tickets! We started at Ta Prohm, which actually turned out to be our favourite of all the temples. Huge stone faces look down from above the gates as you walk underneath, and into the temple complex. Your sense of insignificance is then only magnified by the sheer scale of the nature that has overtaken this temple – huge trees have grown up around and within the temple itself. The tops of these giants are hundreds of feet in the air but it is the roots that have created the biggest impact, working their way in between the stones of the temple structure in immeasurably small increments over the course of hundreds of years in the never ending search for water. imageRoots as thick as trunks in their own right, sometimes seemingly caressing the ancient building, embracing it, preserving it, but oftentimes squeezing relentlessly and mercilessly through cracks and destroying the fabric of what once stood in supreme dominance of the environment surrounding it. It was so interesting to see not only the visual impact of the nature on the temple, not only the way that the roots and stones now seem to be inseparable, as if that is the way that they were designed, but the way that the man-made structure stood no chance over the course of time. All-powerful Mother Nature took back what is rightly hers, and didn’t worry about asking for permission! My mind wandered to the poem Ozymandias, so often on the GCSE syllabus…

image image

We spent the rest of the day looking around Angkor Thom, the Elephant Terrace, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Baphuon Temple, Bayon temple – with its 216 sculptured faces (I’m beginning to think this Jayavarman VII was a little bit of a narcissist) and finally Angkor Wat itself. It is undeniably and staggeringly impressive but I would agree with the guide book when it says that the sum of the parts of the rest of the complex and probably more astounding than Angkor Wat itself. My lasting impression, or thought perhaps, is that I cannot visualise this place as a living, breathing, working centre of a civilisation. It’s so cinematic in its nature, with its carved faces and vast structures (Ta Prohm was actually used as a set for Tomb Raider), that it has a sense of the unreal about it. Standing on the Terrace of the Elephants, you have to imagine the mammoth scale of ceremony that was once held in exactly that place. It literally blows your mind.

Ever get the feeling you're being watched...?
Ever get the feeling you’re being watched…?

Our second stop in Cambodia was the capital, Phnom Penh. It was another overnight bus ride, and turning up at 7am, bleary eyed we stepped down from the bus to be greeted by a gaggle of taxi and tuk tuk drivers. Employing our usual tactic, we headed for the nearest coffee stand in order to avoid the melee. We got a coffee from a particularly friendly old guy at his pavement stall and, perched on tiny plastic stools, tried to figure out where we were in relation to our hostel. Realising we were hungry, we opted for breakfast instead of moving and I got up and asked the old man, ‘Err, hi, do you have a menu?’
‘No,’ he said. I was initially a little put out by his short response and was about to walk away, but he followed it up very simply with, ‘Chicken soup,’ gesturing to the stand behind him. It wasn’t a question, and moments later we were being served a piping hot bowl of chicken noodle soup, and some fresh iced jasmine tea. A beautifully simple lack of choice led to one of our favourite breakfast experiences of the trip so far! Funnily enough, we had a similar experience the following night when we went to a street barbecue stall that we’d come across. Again, no menu and the only choice – chicken or pork – was made easier as the lady had run out of chicken. Pork it is then – and it was beautiful!

However, although Phnom Penh should stand in its own right as a worthy destination, the city has a more sinister and harrowing presence on the traveller map. ‘Oh, you’re going to Phnom Penh? I guess you’re going to see S-21 and the Killing Fields then?’ Yes – sadly, that is why we’re here.

We visited both S-21 and the Killing Fields on the day we arrived. Having heard that it was ‘a tough day out’, there was – I’m a little ashamed to say – a part of us that felt it was almost better to get it over with. That’s not quite what I want to write but I can’t quite express the emotion precisely enough.

I’m not a particularly good student of history, mainly because I have a terrible memory, (well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it) so I won’t start to write an essay on the historical build up to the take over of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 – you’ll be thankful to know, nor do I have a detailed understanding of the ideaology behind Pol Pot’s regime. I suppose, having visited Phnom Penh, I am only grateful that the barbaric nature of their rule only lasted just over three years. I say ‘only’ – it was far too long for hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, lawyers – anybody who was ‘educated’ was high risk and imprisoned or executed.

I think it is from my perspective as a teacher that S-21 is most shocking. ‘Security Prison 21’ used to be a school, and visiting it you can sense its unmistakeable architecture. It felt almost familiar to wander down the cold concrete corridors, with evenly sized rooms spaced out along the length of each; a simple layout, not dissimilar from my own school. The four buildings surround a central courtyard, a playground, but there are gravestones in it now, and a gallows that was apparently used for torture rather than execution. Quite a few of the rooms have chalk boards still screwed to the walls at the end of them, and you can imagine lessons taking place there, although as you look at it you notice metal hoops that have been cemented into the ground to which prisoners were chained in rows. The Khmer Rouge, meticulous in their work, photographed and recorded every prisoner who was detained at S-21. Now these photos line the walls, and standing display boards, in multiple rooms – like the faces of ex-students, these men, young and old alike, women and indeed children were never here to be educated. They look out at you, faces of ghosts of a past hell.

There is much to learn at and about S-21 – the exhibits are thorough and harrowing. You wonder how it all happened, how it could be allowed to happen, and you wonder if the world has learned a lesson? I suspect not. Not yet.

That afternoon, we cycled out to Choeung Ek – ‘The Killing Fields’. When the grounds and facilities of S-21 became too limited for the volume of executions that were being levied by the Khmer Rouge, the prisoners were put on the backs of trucks and taken 14km southwest to a longan orchard that had historically been a Chinese cemetery. Having been told that they were being moved to ‘alternative accommodation’, they were brought to the killing field, made to kneel on the edge of a mass grave, and bludgeoned to death. The Khmer Rouge did not wish to waste precious ammunition on executions.

Today, Choeung Ek is a remarkably peaceful place. There is an audio guide that they give you for free and the calm voice of the narrator allows you to understand the history of the place, while reflecting on your own thoughts. A side effect of the audio guide is that, since everyone is listening to it, the place is remarkably quiet. Behind a line of trees, the ground looks like a battlefield of sorts, with large crater-like holes gouged in the earth. But there was very little fight here as most of the prisoners had their hands wired together behind their backs. They know this as that is how they were found when the graves were exhumed – for you realise quickly, that that is what you are looking at – an innumerable collection of mass graves, some of which held up to 450 bodies.

The stupa that has been erected as a memorial to the atrocities that were committed at Choeung Ek is a simple, but large structure. You realise quickly that the remains of the bodies that were found have been preserved and placed in glass cases in the stupa itself. You are encouraged to go inside and look in, and remember. Remember the thousands who died there, whose skulls are lined up in row after row, on shelf above shelf, reaching high above you as you look up. Although I felt a mixed sense of fear, sadness and possibly a little bit of disgust at the graphic nature of the memorial, I came to understand that it is out of a sense of reverence and respect that the remains are displayed so openly. It is not gratuitous in the least. There is much more that could be written about these two places, but we’ll probably tell you the rest when we see you. It’s not a nice story.

The killing fields - each depression in the ground was a mass grave.
The killing fields – each depression in the ground was a mass grave.
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The memorial stupa which houses the remains of the victims.

Cycling back home was probably the best thing as the manic road (and we thought India was bad!) was enough to concentrate the mind. The day had indeed been a strain on the emotions but travelling is not just about having parties and lying on beaches. We feel grateful that we’ve been able to see some of these places first hand, yet still shocked at the incredibly destructive force of man. Is it power the corrupts minds? Is it money? Religion? Politics? All of these? I don’t understand how the minds of humans who co-exist with others end up with such twisted senses of morality. And yet, as I wrote earlier, the world at large has many challenges facing it… who knows what the outcome will be, and how future generations will feel when they visit the sites of our atrocities.

Cambodia – was a spiralling, wheeling, wind-milling series of twists and turns – ancient cultures morphing with the natural world, recent history playing havoc with our emotions, and amongst it all, the party hostels, no-choice menus and games of beer pong in swimming pools meant that this was a place that etched itself firmly into our memories. Next … we were off to Ho Chi Minh City to meet up with a certain Dr Tessa Oelofse. After Cambodia, we were wondering what we would find in Viet Nam…

But that’s for the next blog! We’re now on a different sleeper train to the one on which I started writing this instalment, now heading south from Bangkok to Ko Samui to meet up with Mr and Mrs Gavin Lahney. Apparently there’s a Full Moon Party soon. Shhh – nobody tell anybody that we’re in our 30’s!