Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cambodia and China

Oh, dear reader, I’m excruciatingly sorry that it’s been an age since I last posted a blog. You must believe me that the only reason I haven’t put my fingers to my keys is that I’ve just been so very, very busy. However, I am now sat on a train heading from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, and I’ll be here for thirty hours, so this is the opportune time to tell you all about our recent adventures. Since last time we spoke we’ve been through both Cambodia and Beijing, and I’m terribly sorry but I’m going to ramble on about both of them, so you can expect this to be a lot longer than other posts.

I’m currently sat in a small two berth cabin with gold and red patterned seats that convert into beds, the Chinese train conductor is parading the corridors trying to get everything in order and Natalie is napping on the chair in front of me. I can hear the steady, consistent sound of the train rolling over the tracks and Beijing is fading away from outside of the window as the buildings get fewer and fewer and we finally head out into the countryside.

It’s a much more pleasant ride than our bus journey from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Oh, I know I complain but the bus was just long and it felt like we had been travelling forever. Two days straight of long bus journeys really drains you. The bus wasn’t too crowded and we did befriend an Australian whose name was Daniel. He was coming to the end of three months on the road around South East Asia and was gradually making his way back to Bangkok. He had been to Cambodia before and gave us some trusty pointers on what we should expect. Immigration and customs procedures were relatively simple, albeit lengthy and irritating, our passports were escorted off the bus by the bus man (I’ll call him bus man if I want) and when they were returned to us they had shiny, new Cambodian visas pasted inside of them. We were heading to our last stop on our South East Asian circuit.

We arrived in Phnom Penh at about three o’ clock in the afternoon. The sun was beating down on the concrete as we stepped off and unloaded our luggage for the thousandth time. Daniel had a map with him and from what we could decipher we were quite far away from the backpacker strip of hostels, restaurants and bars which is where we were headed in order to find some cheap accommodation. So, we took up a tuk-tuk drivers offer to take us to the riverside. It was great to be back in a tuk-tuk, they don’t’ have them in Vietnam and we had been missing them. Once we were dropped off we walked with Daniel until we found somewhere decent to stay, Daniel stayed in a dorm just across the road from the guesthouse we stayed in. Both the hostel and the guesthouse were run by a pretty decent British guy who helped us out a lot during our stay. That evening we mellowed out and got our things together, put our lives in order and then had some dinner just down the street.

So, it was our first day in Cambodia. A whole multitude of possibilities awaited us, we could walk along the riverside and watch the locals fishing or playing games on the sidewalks, we could go to the National Museum and learn about ancient Angkor and the kingdoms of by gone ages, or we could do what we did do, and visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. Cheerful, I know.

It was raining; the perfect weather for such a sombre excursion. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to both locations and we set off into the city. The city was deserted as we drove past the huge independence monument and many temples and palaces that sit side by side with grey decaying apartment blocks, littered alleyways and corrugated metal shacks. It was deserted because we had come to Cambodia on their biggest national holiday in which they celebrate the lives of their ancestors and seek spiritual reflection and time with their families, it’s very much the Cambodian version of thanksgiving, but no matter, it meant there was no traffic and we sped along the highway about seventeen kilometres out of town, to the killing fields.

Now, I’ll digress a little in a vein attempt to summarise why the killing fields exist and why it was important to visit them. I usually have wikipedia at my side to help me make sure I have all my facts straight when writing these blogs but today I don’t have that luxury so please forgive me if I get any of this slightly wrong, but I like to think I learnt enough to try and communicate it effectively. Here we go:

At the end of the Vietnam War the country (Cambodia) was divided, the Americans had been carpet bombing the country in order to kill any Vietnam refugees who might be trying to flee and spread communism to other parts of Asia, and Cambodia was left to fend for itself. The government was unstable and the military forces depleted. So, the Khmer Rouge stepped up, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, overthrew the government and destroyed what was left of the military forces. Within a day the city was left deserted. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge (a Cambodian communist political party) took charge of Cambodia and set out to put in place what I consider one of the sickest social experiments I have ever seen, or heard about.

He ethnically cleansed the country in order to try and create a perfectly equal socialist republic. To do this he set about killing anyone with a degree, anyone involved with the old government, any doctors, lawyers, basically anybody with the slightest grain of intellect. He then set up what were considered to be self sustaining farming communities across the country and kept people enclosed in these communities by putting landmines everywhere. There are more landmines per square mile in Cambodia than in any country in the world. Sure, you could try and escape if you were living under the regime but if you did chances are you’d get your legs blown off in the process.

Backtrack to the killing of intellectuals and people who opposed the Khmer Rouge. People who were smart or who were in opposition to Pol Pot and his regime were sent to prisons across the country. The biggest of the prisons was called S-21 and is now the genocide museum. I’ll get back to that shortly. Once the Khmer Rouge had tortured as much information out of their prisoners as they could they would be told that they are going to a new camp. They would be shipped onto large lorries after dark and driven (you guessed it) seventeen kilometres down the road. They would then be taken off the back of the lorry and locked up in very small cells. In groups of ten to twenty they would be taken from the cells to the ‘killing fields’ and would all be brutally murdered and buried under cover of darkness. Whilst being killed proper gander music would be playing out of loudspeakers so that nobody around could hear the screams. They killed men, women and children, even babies who were brutally smashed against the side of a tree next to the mass grave. They wouldn’t shoot the prisoners as that would be too loud, so they used a series of awful weapons to get the job done, from axes to knives to farming equipment. It was truly awful and almost unimaginable.

There is no answer to the question: why, or how can a human be that brutal towards another human, it was a dark time and what is left at the killing fields today is a reminder of the brutality that took place there, and a memorial to the seventeen thousand people who lost their lives there. That was just at the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, there are many more across the entire country, mass grave sites where the Khmer Rouge executed thousands of innocent people.

We took an audio tour of the fields which gave a huge insight into what went on there. There is a memorial stupor in the centre where all of the remains of the mass graves that have been dug up now lay. You could put a flower down or light some incense and quietly pay your respects to the deceased. The tour takes you around several sites, where the cells used to be, where the truck used to offload prisoners, and then onto the mass grave sites themselves where still to this day, during the monsoon season, pieces of bone and clothing get washed up from beneath the ground. It was a sombre, saddening but educational visit, one that will be very difficult to forget.

After this we headed to the S-21 prison and visited the genocide museum, it was not very well maintained and basically just gave a further insight into what happened to the prisoners and how they were treated, which I’m sure you can imagine, was awful. There were still blood stains on the floors left over from the atrocities that took place there. We left feeling incredibly depressed and disheartened, we went back to the hostel and got some ice cream and attempted to find some perspective, but unfortunately the ramifications of what took place in the late seventies here is hard to ignore. Even at the killing fields themselves there were limbless men begging. There is poverty all over Cambodia and what is worse is that children get dragged into the problem. There are many street kids, sleeping, working and living on the sidewalks of Phnom Penh, all of them begging for money in dirty clothes, some of whom have lost their parents to landmines that still litter the countryside. As with Laos this is something that is going to take a long time to rectify.

On our second day in Phnom Penh the sun was shining once more so we did all of the more uplifting things that we could have done on our first day. We visited the Royal Museum and got an insight into the Angkor kingdom and what Cambodia used to be like back when it was still called Khmer, many years B.C. The museum was pretty big and interesting to walk around but the highlight for Natalie was that she got to feed the fish. After this we walked through town to see the independence monument and a few temples that caught our eye. Afterwards we walked back along the river and past the royal palace which was closed as the ex-king had died that day and they were having a memorial ceremony. He was no longer the king because he got extradited after the Khmer Rouge took control.

Well, alls well that ends well that’s what I say, and after a glorious dinner at a restaurant that helps take care of street children, we booked our bus to Siem Reap, which is in Northern Cambodia and is home to the infamous Angkor Wat. The bus ride was hellish as usual, loud Cambodian television blaring out during the entire journey, a boy who was feeling motion sickness the whole way, loud screaming children, bumpy roads and uncomfortable seats and before you know it you arrive.

We were picked up from the bus station by the most amazing tuk-tuk driver ever Mr. Ou Hok. He would be our transport go-to man the whole time that we spent in Siem Reap. He dropped us off at our hotel and we checked in, it was such a good place to stay, off in a quiet alley but close enough to town to be able to walk there. The owners gave us a tonne of advice on how to explore the huge Angkor complex straight away, and about an hour later we booked our tuk-tuk ready to watch the sunrise the next day.

Mr. Ou Hok picked us up at four thirty in the morning. I wasn’t actually that tired as I was so excited to finally see Angkor Wat. It truly is one of those places you ‘must see before you die’. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. How beautiful. Mr. Ou Hok dropped us to a spot right in front of the temple where you could see the sunrise, and we walked down and got a position right at the front. The sunrise was one of those “wow!” moments that you can’t quite comprehend you’ve experienced until a few months down the line when you’re back at work and feeling run down and then you remember, “wait, remember that sunrise at Angkor Wat”, and it makes everything okay again. The colour of the sky was effulgent, as things began to get brighter I felt like I was Indiana Jones getting ready to go and discover some lost treasure in the ancient ruins. After sunrise it was time to start exploring. You start with Angkor Wat, the biggest temple in the complex and you can walk there from where you watch the sunrise.

We bumped into two people from our trip here, the Australian lady who we shared a taxi to the train station in Hoi An (about two weeks ago) was snapping photographs at the entrance and we briefly chatted about her travels before leaving her to her own devices, and then just around the corner we bumped into Daniel and we explored Angkor Wat in his company. The building is unbelievably magnificent and awe inspiring and the architecture is intricate and mind boggling. Who built this? How long did it take? Where is the treasure? 

Back in the tuk-tuk and onto the next stop, Angkor Thom which was the ancient city of the Angkor Empire, ruin after ruin and beautiful building after beautiful building, there was a photo opportunity at every turn and the whole place took us hours to explore. Plants and trees had begun to grow in and around the ruins and it started to take on a whole new life, it felt like I was in a Rudyard Kipling book (just I wasn’t in India), the jungle rising from behind ancient carvings and stone sculptures of by-gone kings and queens. Gods no longer worshipped. We were both starting to feel tired as the sun got hotter and hotter but we were so awed by the whole place that we couldn’t wait to get to the next spot. The next spot wasn’t as impressive although still wonderful, it was the old king’s residence and whilst it was beautifully maintained it was very similar to the city we had just explored, so we quickly headed to the queens palace.

The queen’s palace was made famous by the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in the early noughties. It has trees literally growing through and around the whole complex. It’s like the jungle surrounding it wants it back and is consuming the palace. We spent a fair amount of time at this one and marvelled at the trees and the carvings on the walls, and I pretended I was Lara Croft for a while, a more masculine version, of course. A few more stops later and we settled down for lunch and we talked to Mr. Ou Hok for a while about his life and his family. He has four daughters all of them either finished university or attending university, he was a very proud man and he showed us pictures of his daughters and we talked about many things over some chicken, rice and delicious spring rolls.

In the afternoon we went a little farther afield and saw some temples that were not visited by so many tourists, we also stopped off at the landmine museum and learnt about the clean up effort that is going on in the country. By this time it was roughly three o’ clock and we had been templing for hours and hours so it was time to head back after our long day of exploring and pretending to be in an UnCharted video game.

The next day we explored Siem Reap town, visited the fruit bats that live in the park and we ate our first Asian bugs. We picked up some barbequed crickets from a vendor near the fruit bat park and I’m not going to lie to you, they were actually delicious. Once you get over the fact that you’re eating little bugs, and once you’ve picked all of the little legs out from between your teeth they become a protein filled delicious morning snack. Maybe it’s not for everyone.

That was the bulk of our Cambodian trip and besides some exploring of the markets and little alleyways around Siem Reap hopefully it gives an insight into our stay there. My back is hurting my friends and I’ve been crouched over this keyboard for some time, but fear not, I will continue, and let you know what happened next on this monumental journey.

Mr. Ou Hok gave us a ride to the airport the next morning and we boarded our flight to Beijing. It was actually two flights as we changed planes in Guangzhou. The flights were tiresome but pleasant enough, I suppose, and we arrived in Beijing on time and a little overwhelmed. It was much cooler in Beijing than what we were used too down in the Southern Hemisphere. That wasn’t the only difference, where did all the English signs go? There really isn’t much help for the English speaker in Beijing, especially compared to the tourist ready places we had been used to, but no problem, we hailed a taxi, somehow communicated to him where we wanted to go, and we were off.

It was about this time I started to feel like something wasn’t quite right in my belly, (oh don’t blame the crickets) but I decided to ignore it for now. Our hostel was located down a small ancient alleyway (hutong) and it was beautiful. It’s an old converted one hundred year old courtyard and it was so authentically Chinese that I felt like we had stepped back into ancient China. It was reminiscent of our trip to Kyoto earlier in the year. We were hungry when we arrived and even though it was very late we did go and get some food around a lake close to the hostel. Then to bed, ready for day one of China. Something I’d been looking forward too for a long time.

I was still feeling a little groggy in the morning but it was nothing that was going to put me off of travelling around for the day. We were going to do the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square on our first day but as it was raining we opted for the zoo instead. We didn’t just go to the zoo for the sake of it, we had a mission and that mission was Chinese Pandas. In fact, we didn’t really go around any of the zoo, we literally went there to see the pandas and they were worth it, they had a huge collection of pandas and they were so gorgeous and so cute that I thought I wasn’t going to die of a cute attack. You can’t come to China and not see pandas, right? That would just be, wrong. The rain had really picked up after we had got out of the panda kingdom so we took shelter in the aquarium. Beijing Aquarium is actually pretty high on the list of best things to do in the city but it was a little disappointing in my books, I mean it a big aquarium and it had many sea creatures and fish within it, but it just wasn’t quite as good as we had been led to believe it would be, but no matter, we were hiding from the rain so we took advantage of the shelter.

Next stop was Olympic village, the main reason to visit this area in the Northern district of Beijing was too be able to go: “na na na na na na” at my sister. She’s big on the whole Olympic gig and the Beijing stadium is a pretty cool building. We also saw the water cube and spent some time walking around and watching everyone flying kites and running up and down the boulevard between the birds nest and the water cube. Everything seemed pretty neat and tidy there and it was a glimpse into modern Beijing and where the city might be heading in the future. The Chinese government approved a plan known as the Beijing Master Plan 2020 that will completely revitalise Beijing and bring it quickly into the future and Olympic Park is the first sign that the plan is moving steadily forwards. The rest of the Beijing that we experienced felt very ancient, small narrow streets, old buildings, Chinese tiled rooftops and lanterns. The Olympic area felt like a slice of Shanghai had made it up to Beijing. You could imagine what the atmosphere must have been like during the games, the boulevard full of athletes and spectators, the hustle and bustle of it all, but it wasn’t very busy when we went, must have been the rain.

After getting drenched in yet another downpour we eventually found a taxi to take us back to our hostel. After getting cleaned up we decided to go to a traditional Peking Duck restaurant which had been recommended to us. It was actually reasonably priced considering it was by far the most posh restaurant either of us had ever set foot in. There was a traditional Chinese hand paper performance on a stage in the centre of the room, and we were sat off to one side. We ordered half a duck and some pancakes (a traditional way of eating duck) and before we knew it a whole duck was brought out on a silver tray and started to be carved up by a trained duck carver. Our server then showed us how to eat the duck the traditional Chinese way and I felt like I was having a rather authentic Chinese dining experience. Worth the trip. Although, by the end of the meal that groggy tummy from earlier had turned into something catastrophic, I couldn’t even finish all of my delicious duck, I spent most of the night in and out of the toilet but luckily that was the worst of it, whilst I’m still not back one hundred percent I’m feeling much better now, it did take a couple of days recovery.

That didn’t stop us doing what we set out to do on our second day. We collected our train tickets from our agency first, and then we explored the silk market and I haggled for about an hour for a very special gift for my father, he had better love it! Then we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square was massive and in fact so was the Forbidden City, we spent a long time walking around here. The architecture reminded me a lot of Korean palaces and buildings but it did have its differences, after a time the many grand halls did get repetitive but it was magnificent and it’s hard to describe the sheer magnitude of the place, it truly was gigantic. You can just imagine the tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square, and lines of soldiers marching through the Forbidden City.

The next day was the big one. The one you’ve all been waiting for. Roll up, roll up, the great wall of China. I could just write ‘it was great’ and it would sum it up quite nicely but I’ll go into a little more detail despite the fact that I’ve been writing flat out for over two hours. We got picked up super early and eventually got to the great wall at around ten o’ clock. We didn’t go to Badling (the tourist spot) as we had heard that it gets so crowded there that you can’t really enjoy it as much, so we decided to head to a more secluded area of the wall and indeed a more ancient area where we could hike the great wall for a solid four hours, scouring up and down over the mountains and watching the great wall fade away over the hills beneath the horizon. It stretched as far as the eye could see. We hiked the wall with two friends we had made at the hostel, Sophie from Bristol and Marika from the Netherlands. It was tiring, in places you had to scour hundreds of ancient steps to get to a tower at the top and then go straight back down the other side, it was totally worth it though, another experience that you could call a ‘wow’ moment. It’s a shame that tourism has taken over some parts of the wall to the extreme that it has but we were lucky to catch a glimpse of the majesty of the thing without having to barge through any crowds.

We went to the night market on our last night in the city and had some more bugs; we ate grasshoppers, secqatours and some baby pigeons. When in China, you’ve got too, right? I can’t say my belly is appreciating my culinary choices though. That’s nothing to what they actually had on offer, you could eat starfish, scopions, sheep penis, sheep testicles, snake, spider and seahorse. I’m sure there were other culinary delights on offer that we passed up, but we certainly got a flavour of Chinese cuisine, what with the Peking Duck.

Well, that was China and we’re onto the Trans Siberian leg of the journey, next stop Mongolia. I’ll try and post more efficiently in the future. I’ll be posting this when I get to Mongolia, so you’ll know that if you’re reading this, that’s’ probably where I am.

TTFN. Ta ta for now.

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