Danger! Mines! Cambodia

Cambodia Travel Blog

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Where the beaten track is the only option

By Rebekah Pothaar 

It’s 11am and the Irishman is already nursing a Beer Chang at the next table. His bloodshot eyes are shining evidence of yesterday’s binges. His t-shirt is emblazoned with scull and crossbones and red lettering: “DANGER!! MINES!! CAMBODIA.”  In the airy restaurant of the Thai guesthouse, I’m picking at a plate of fruit, paging through Lonely Planet Cambodia and wishing travel guides had more photographs. Boredom compels me to ask about his T-shirt.

He had spent a month in Cambodia dirt-biking the ravaged back roads with his ginger head shrouded in cloth to keep out dust and sunburn and evading traffic police while driving under the influence of yabba. His tourist activities included shooting off multiple rounds on an AK47 and exploding a live cow with a grenade launcher for a mere hundred bucks. “The best way to take opium,” he says casually, “is roll it in a ball, dip it in sugar and stick it up yer arse.” He had cut short his trip and returned to Thailand because the constant drug use had caused him to lose touch with reality like a modern-day Kurtz. Perhaps guidebooks ought to include an ethics section, “The Unethical Traveler’s Moral Guide to South East Asia.”

At the Cambodian border, a van waits to collect passengers arriving by bus from Bangkok to take them onward to Siem Reap. The driver’s first announcement is that “everywhere in Cambodia is a toilet.” Passengers are instructed to pee on the road and to never leave the beaten path because of landmines. The roads inside the border jar my initial enthusiasm. Cambodia has one of the most pathetic road systems in Asia, with many of the country’s so-called national highways in a horrendous state of repair; most have not been maintained since before the Vietnam War. Numerous bridges have foot-wide gaps between land and bridge and the construction is little more then a few shifting, wooden planks. Much of the journey is spent off-roading in paddy fields and ditches to avoid potholes and downed bridges. At one point, all dust-coated passengers unload to push the van out of its lodging in a foot of sand of one of the “short-cuts”. The passing countryside is a patchwork of symmetric rice paddies and huts on stilts, dotted intermittently with Cambodia’s signature sugar palms.

Walking down a busy street in Siem Reap in the heat of the day, I am nearly run down by a pig on a motorbike.  The live pig is strapped horizontally across the seat, hooves waggling in the air between the driver and his wife. The smells of dust and car exhaust, mix with that of street meat as I cross the bridge over the almost dried up river.

The contrast between the beauty and brutality of Cambodia divide one’s feelings as a traveler. In a ten minute interval, I am approached by three different amputees on crutches. A physically mutilated minority is the legacy of land mines with an estimated 4 to 6 million dotted about the countryside buried in rice fields and roadsides claiming about 75 victims per month – weapons against peace that recognize no ceasefire. Cambodian history for the past three decades has been one of violence and suffering from both internal and external forces. Although the political and economic situations still lack stability, the conditions are improving.

The Angkor temples are one of the main traveler attractions to Cambodia. Over one hundred temples make up the remains of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 14th centuries. Angkor Wat rates as one of the foremost architectural wonders of the world. For thirty years, war and communism removed Cambodia from the traveler’s map. Coupled with its remote location and the popularity of its sister countries, Angkor has been preserved from the destruction of mass tourism retaining an untouched quality that is one of its greatest appeals.  The jungle has already reclaimed many of the temples with tangled vines and mammoth fig trees fisting their roots into sculptured walls and giant Buddha faces. One is given the experience of being the first explorer to discover this place, stepping back in time a thousand years.

After a several days in Siem Reap, I decide to visit Phnom Penh.  The boat is the preferred mode of transport, but due to the hot season, the water levels were too low to keep boats afloat. The trip takes eight hours of lurching and teething gnashing in forty-five degree heat with no air conditioning. The van progresses at little more than twenty kilometers per hour. The “tourist attractions” in and around Phnom Penh are not for the squeamish: The Museum of Genocide and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.  In 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces took over a high school and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in Cambodia.  From 1975 to 1978, more than 17, 000 Cambodian men, women, and children were held and tortured here by the Khmer Rouge. They were then transported to the Killing Fields and buried or bludgeoned to death if they were still alive before being dumped in mass graves. Each prisoner that passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of these photographs from floor to ceiling, torture rooms, and holding rooms. The ordinariness of the place makes it more eerie: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing areas, rusted beds where prisoners were chained, instruments of torture and wall after wall of black and white portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst.

The Killing Fields are outside the city in a field that was once an orchard. The remains of almost nine thousand people, many naked, bound and blindfolded were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Forty-three of the 129 communal graves were left untouched.  Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the empty pits.  Over 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age are visible behind the clear glass panels of the five-story Memorial Stupa which was erected in 1988 on the field.   While I walked around the site, made up of many pits with occasional signs, I noticed how life was going on around me. A stone’s throw away, a man was washing his cattle in a pond. Two little boys were running around the pits, racing each other barefoot wearing nothing more than shorts, still wet from swimming in the nearby pond.  They had caught a fish and wanted to sell it to me.  The Killing Fields are now just another stretch of dried up grass.  

            The children playing in the Killing Fields is a reminder of Cambodia’s resilience and ability to heal.  A police officer tried to sell me his badge for three dollars on the steps of Angkor Wat.  He said it would make a souvenir of Cambodia. This is a country full of dichotomies: a high school converted to a torture prison, a police badge that is a souvenir, rice patties with land mines, smiling faces with missing limbs, a crumbling kingdom evidence of a once powerful empire. I passed on the badge, but bought the T-shirt.

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15,309 km (9,513 miles) traveled
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