Thursday, May 31, 2007

Good Morning, Vietnam

Written by Lynn

After spending the better part of a couple weeks in Cambodia, we headed into Vietnam. We had gone back to Phnom Pehn after Angkor Wat with the express purpose of getting our Vietnamese visas. This took a couple days, only because when we went to the embassy I wasn't really paying attention and didn't turn away while one of the officials was accepting bribe money. This meant that all the other tourists there got their visas the same day, we were told to come back in three. Oops..........

We caught the bus into Ho Chi Minh City when we finally managed to get our visas together. HCMC sits in the southern region of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. Also known as Saigon, HCMC was renamed in 1975 after the Vietnam war was over. I could go into some detail here regarding the war and the high esteem the Vietnamese people hold Ho Chi Minh in (affectionately called "Uncle Ho"), but Gilles is a lot more passionate about this subject, so I will leave this to him.

HCMC is basically another big city in SE Asia, nothing on first appearance to hold your attention. But what you have here is a city that has managed to recover in less than 2 generations from almost complete destruction during the Vietnam War. While here you can take in a lot of history, and from a perspective we aren't usually party to in North America. The war museums and other monuments are DEFINITELY not pro-American. The most important museum to visit is the War Remanents Museum. It has a large number of photographs and memoribilia collected from the war, as well as a few tanks and fighter airplanes. There is also an exact replica of the "tiger cages", a series of tiny cells that was used to house suspected Viet Cong while they were being questioned. Great detail is given to describing the types of torture used to extract information. One of the hardest things to see include a group of photographs of Americans slaughtering Vietnamese. There is one photo of an US soldier moving a body, which he holds up with one hand. There is basically nothing left of the body but the head and an empty bag of skin. You can also see here several human feti preserved in formaldehyde that were aborted due to deformities caused by the spreading of Agent Orange in the country side of Vietnam.

Agent Orange was herbicide used by the Southern Vietnamese Army and their American allies as a defoliant. Since the Viet Cong (elements of the communist Northern Army) were skilled at guerrilla fighting, and the main advantage the US had during this war was air power in the form of helicopters, removing ground cover was deemed a strategic advantage. 42 million litres of dioxins, including Agent Orange, were sprayed over sections of Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, devastating pristine forests and creating wastelands and rice paddies that could no longer produce rice. Agent Orange is the most notorious of the defoliants used due to its proven nature as a carcinogen. Exposure to it dramatically increases the risks of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. There has also been a multitude of other diseases that have causitive links to Agent Orange, which is to say that exposure to it means you have a better chance of contracting any of the following - Type II diabetes, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, spina bifida, skin lesions, renal cancer, testicular cancer and the list goes on. Here in Vietnam one of the most dramatic effects of Agent Orange is as a teratogen, meaning that the DNA of exposed victims is deformed and causes birth defects in the next several generations. Surprisingly it seems that the birth defects are getting worse. The children of Vietnam vets would often only be missing fingers or toes, their grandchildren are often born without limbs. Part of the reason for this may be that Agent Orange continues to be present in the environment, so that levels in successive generations are higher now than they were in the people originally exposed. In the area of Da Nang, Vietnam, Hatfield Environmental, a Canadian company, found in 2006 that the levels of dioxin were 300 to 400 times what would be considered acceptable. The companies responsible for producing Agent Orange, including Dow Chemicals and Monsanto, are still embroiled in several law suits of veterans and their families claiming for compensation. In 1984 there was a settlement worth $180 million, which entitled the most severely affected US soldiers to a whopping $1,200 each to help with their medical costs. In 2005, the Brooklyn Federal Court threw out a lawsuit filed by Vietnam victims of Agent Orange seeking financial compensation from the US government and the companies responsible, saying they had no legal claim.

After the museum the next stop is to go out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Over 200km of this underground network was created by the Viet Cong for the purpose of hiding from the Southern Vietnamese army and the US military, a good majority of it located just 70km away from Saigon at the terminal end of the important Ho Chi Mihn Trail. The importance of these tunnels to the resistance force (the National Front of Liberation of South Vietnam) can not be emphasized enough. It was begun in 1948 as a way to hide supplies and rebels from the occupying French forces. The series of tunnels dug labouriously in the hard clay were gradually expanded to include housing, hospitals, communication tunnels and supply huts. By the early 1960's the tunnels housed 100's of people literally right beneath American troops. The NLF exhibited incredible levels of ingenuity in both hiding and protecting the tunnels, disguising air holes as termite mounds and setting up a series of booby traps around entrances. These traps, which composed mainly of pits that were hand dug, contained everything from sharpened bamboo stakes, to vicious looking metals wheels designed to rip apart the legs of any soldier hapless enough to fall in. The tunnels themselves were extremely narrow, often too small for the average American to fit into (the picture to the left shows the actual entrance to one of these tunnels). Life within the tunnels was horrendous, exposure to mosquitoes, malaria, cholera, scorpions and rats a constant issue. On the other hand, other than intensive blanket bombings undertaken in the late 1960's for the express purpose of destroying the tunnel complex, soldiers housed in them were safe from most forms of US military attack. The tunnels themselves became such an important and successful tool in the NLF resistance that the American commanders had to design a specially trained group, the so called "tunnel rats", to try and combat their effectiveness.

These days a small section of the tunnels has been turned into a museum where you can transverse just 900 metres (more than enough) in the low lit tunnels that have actually been expanded for tourism purposes. At 5'5" I could barely squeeze through bent over at the waist, Gilles at 5'11" had to bend almost double to make it through. Gilles also took the opportunity to try firing an AK47, though he decided against spending the $60 to fire the hand held rocket launcher.

I think the most incredible thing about Vietnam is that the people are so friendly and welcoming to tourists. Only 30 years after the war, in a country that is still suffering from the effects of what happened, we found that most were happy that we had decided to come and appreciate what is truly a beautiful country.

After HCMC we headed up the coast, visiting the beach towns of Mui Nhe and Nhe Trang. These places are famous for their kite- and wind-surfing, though the weather wasn't so good for this at the time we were there (as evidenced by the following picture that demonstrates how hard it was raining). In Nhe Trang we met up with a couple of other tourists, Wolfgang and Stefan, and embarked on a decidedly ill advised trip to the local bar where we indulged in a horrible drink called a "bucket". Basically you get a plastic bowl filled with ice, place several shots of whatever you have at hand, usually rum, then top it up with red bull and sell it to unsuspecting tourists. So for the first time in 7 months we had a bit of a rough time rising in the morning. More surprisingly it was me who had to usher Gilles home, who happened to be more drunk than I have EVER seen him. Next day - straight to the beach for some recovery time............

From here we took an overnight bus to Hoi An. First off, the buses here are NOT designed for sleeping on, so getting in at 5AM after a restless 12 hours of upright snoozing is not my idea of a good time. But Hoi An was worth it. A beautiful town in its own right, with a UNESCO protected "old town", you can also rent bikes to ride around out to the lovely beach and the surrounding villages. Secondly, the town is famous for its tailors. You come here to buy, buy, buy. For a little over $100 I got 4 pairs of tailored pants, 4 tailored shirts, 3 dresses (one in silk) and a pair of shorts. Gilles likewise indulged having several spectacular dress shirts created. We found a good tailor, and were very sad to leave our new friend, Thuy, who helped us out. While here we also rented a scooter to go out to Marble Mountain, a surprisingly lovely place with enormous caverns created into temples with carved buddha statues adorning hidden little nooks and crannies. We bought some incense sticks to help us ensure good luck on our future travels from some of the older ladies (obvious betel nut addicts from the pictures) at their insistence (as in they followed us around sticking the bundles into our faces until we decided it would be easier to buy them than to put up with this for the whole day).

From here it was an overnight train (immeasurably better than the bus, being that we had sleeping platforms, though since we were in the top ones we were unable to sit up for the 12 hour journey) to Hanoi, the last stop on our Vietnam tour. In Hanoi we booked our tour of Ha Long Bay and spent a few days wandering the streets while waiting for this to depart. Our big outing was to see the Ho Chi Minh Masoleum and Museum. The museum is basically a shrine to the life of Ho Chi Minh, the downstairs being taken up with photos, letters and various memoribilia from his life. The upstairs is a bizarre, but wonderful, Dali-like extravaganza that highlights Vietnam's struggle for independence and the underlying socialism that formed the basis for "Uncle Ho's" life long quest for nationalism. You can also line up with literally thousands of Vietnamese that are here to file past and view the preserved body of Ho Chi Mihn, which is set up Lenin-style in the corresponding building. Before entering all of your cameras, cell phones and other electronic equipment is confiscated to prevent photo taking (this photo was "borrowed" from another website), and then you file past a number of guards (a total of 3 who searched my purse for smuggled camera equipment) and signs cautioning you to be sober and respectful. When you get to the room housing Ho Chi Mihn absolute silence is enforced, and you are to briskly walk past the body, pausing only to pay homage briefly before being ushered onwards. I think the experience of seeing so many locals overwhelmed by the presence of the great man was more impressive than the body itself, which resembles a figure from a wax museum, though in remarkably good condition, considering he died in 1969.

From here it was on to Ha Long Bay, the Bay of Descending Dragons. The bay itself has more than 1900 limestone monolithic islands topped with jungle vegetation, which rise from the surrounding ocean to tower over the boats full of tourists travelling beneath. Over 95% of people who come to Vietnam participate in a outing in the bay, and rightly so. Staying overnight on a boat so that you can watch the sun set over the bay was definitely a highlight of our trip. And for $45 for a 3 day trip, how can you complain?!

Well, Vietnam was a beautiful country and a wonderful experience. It is apparently the least expensive country to visit in South East Asia (which is really saying something) and they love their foreigners here, being well aware that the tourist industry is responsible for a large part of their national gross income. I'd highly recommend it to anyone, though I would suggest that you try to get out to Sapa or further into the Mekong Delta than we did, as a trip along the coast basically means going from one hectic city to another. From Hanoi we flew back to Bangkok to visit with our friends Tracey and Michel before taking off to Hong Kong, our final stop in Asia.

Friday, May 25, 2007


Coming soon..............the Ottawa Senators, winners of the 2007 Stanley Cup

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Angkor Wat

Written by Lynn

Angkor Wat is just one structure, though arguably the most well know, in a complex of ancient temples found just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. In the 9th century, Jayavarman II united warring factions within ancient Cambodia and declared himself a god-king (I was thinking of doing the same..........) He was the first in a long line of 39 rulers that controlled the most powerful kingdom of South East Asia at the time, the so called Angkor Era. During the following centuries much time and resources were invested in building a series of inspirational temples, majestic palaces, a complex irrigation system and a series of walled cities. Much like what happened on Easter Island, it seems that the rulers of Angkor became so obsessed with building grander and more imposing temples to dedicate to the gods, that they developed tunnel vision and seemed to forget about the other aspects of ruling. Repeated incursions from neighbouring Siam became harder and harder to repel, and finally the great Kingdom of Angkor fell in the 15th century and was abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle.

It wasn't until a French botanist "discovered" the ruins in the 19th century (the Khmers in the area had always known of its presence) that the West became fascinated by these structures. After years of work reclaiming the area from the jungle and restoring some of the more dilapidated structures, Angkor complex opened to the public. It is, without a doubt, Cambodia's most famous and well known tourist attraction, and recieves over 1,000,000 foreign visitors a year. Cambodians are so proud of Angkor Wat that its distinctive silohuette has become part of their national flag, the only building seen on a flag throughout the world. There are over 100 Angkorian monuments spread over some 3000 square kilometres to visit when you come to Siam Reap. The most famous include Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the jungle ravaged Ta Phrom, which was featured in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angela Jolie.

Most of the early temples were dedicated to Hindu worship when they were first constructed, and this is reflected in the extremely detailed bas relief carvings that adorn many surfaces. Many of the later designs also show elements of Vishnu worship, though most of the temples were dedicated Buddhist ones by the ends of their usage. Most are built with a large, imposing upright temple in the centre, representing Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. They are then surrounded by a walled compound and, in the case of Angkor Wat, a protective moat.

Many of the artifacts that decorate the temples are not the originals. Theft had always been common, though the process accelerated rapidly in the 1990's when peace, and therefore foreign trade, came to Cambodia. Because the Khmer Rouge valued the importance of the site, thefts were relatively rare until after they were overthrown. Some of the more valuable peices have been moved to the National Museum in Phnom Pehn to protect them. Sadly though, through out all the temples it is easy to see areas where carved statues have been dug out of the walls, leaving behind crude holes.

Interestingly, none of the structures built after the 13th century survive today, as these ones were built of wood, rather than stone. The type of stone used can help to date a temple (eg. sandstone was not used extensively until well into the 10th century) as well as the evolution of the decorations carved into the walls. A few of the temples, including Ta Phrom, have been left in the original condition they were discovered in (this is to say, overgrown and collapsing), while others have been restored to their former glory.

Angkor Wat in particularly has drawn much lavish praise over the past century, mainly for its detailed stone work and architectually pleasing symmetry. You approach the wat by passing over a large stone bridge that traverses the protective moat, then going through the outer walls. From here there is a 300m long causeway that leads to the temple itself. Sunrise and sunset at the site are the most popular times to visit, as the lighting casts the buildings in a reddish glow. Once inside the main temple you can tour the Gallery of Bas Reliefs, a truly amazing site of stone carvings that cover a wall 2 metres in height and over 700 metres long. Throughout the entire temple complex you must take extra care to look into corners and up high above graceful columns, as there are extrodinarily detailed carvings to be seen everywhere.

Angkor Thom was actually probably my favourite site. It's 2km north of Angkor Wat and was the last and greatest capital of the Angkor era, dating from the late 12th century. At this time quantity seemed to be more important than quality, so the extremely detailed bas releif carvings are missing. This is not to say that the stone carvings that make up the Terrace of the Elephants, or the Terrace of the Leper King are not magnificent, however. At the time of its glory, Angkor Thom was home to more than a million inhabitants, though most of the wooden buildings people lived in have rotted away. The Royal Compound remains intact, and is composed of a series of temples and palaces, all enclosed by a moat. The causeway over the moat is decorated with 54 carved gods and 54 carved demons, locked in an eternal struggle. The most impressive of the temples, Banyon, has 54 towers, with faces adorning all 4 sides of each. Though, in comparison to Angkor Wat, the workmanship is a bit shoddy, the smiling faces looking complacently down on you seem to be amused to be the object of so much interest.

Gilles on the other hand was more impressed by Ta Phrom. Still being gradually and systematically taken over by the surrounding jungle, it invites exploration amongst its ramshackle ruins. I imagine that the fact Angela Jolie wandered its corridors in the not too distant past helps too.

We stayed in Siam Reap for 4 days, 3 of them dedicated to visiting temples. For the first 2 we had hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around, but when he decided without warning that his price had increased for the third day, we told him to not bother and rented some bikes instead. Turns out this is a very leisurely and fun way to view the temples. Since it was rainy season you had to time things right to miss the afternoon showers, but on the bright side, it was not as hot as it could have been. The down side is that our "sunrise experience" at Angkor Wat just meant we woke up at 5AM to see a cloudy morning with thousands of our closest friends. We also had clouds and rain for sunset at Phnom Bakheng, the temple set high up on a hill and a "must see" in the late afternoon, early evening.

In a lot of ways, Siem Reap was like Cusco, very tourist driven, with plenty of nice hotels and European restaurants. Prices were a bit higher than the rest of Cambodia (which still means dirt cheap), but I think this will go down as one of our highlights on the trip, just by the sheer impressiveness of it.

A Brief History of Life in Cambodia

Written by Lynn

When the horrific word "genocide" is used, most people will think of the internment and incineration of European Jews by the Nazis in WWII, or of the slaughter of the Tutsis by Rwandan Hutus. While these events are heart wrenching, and inspire a deep despair in one faced with the depravation of the human spirit, somehow what happened in Cambodia cuts deeper. Somehow, the thought of a country destroying 20% of its own population makes an already horrendous word seem worse. We're not talking about an ethnic minority being ruthlessly cut from a conquered country's land or even soldiers caught up in a religious zeal. This was about neighbours killing neighbours because they had worked for the government, or drove a fancy car, or even just because they wore glasses. This was children being tortured into confessing that their parents had spoken against the ruling class, then being forced to execute them. This was simply a tragedy.

Perhaps one of the hardest things I had to face here was the fact that this had happened in my lifetime and that I knew NOTHING about it. I had heard of the Killing Fields, I think I may have even seen the movie of the same title. But I didn't really understand or comprehend what had happened in Cambodia until I came here to see it for myself.

Even with the benefit of hindsight and the clarity of time it is hard to peice together the "when", the "how" and, most importantly, the "why". So what I write here is a attempt to understand what I have gathered together from the information and books I have read. I realize it is just part of the puzzle, so I apologize for any inaccuracies or questions I leave unanswered.

The fervour of the Cambodian people to be completely self reliant is likely rooted in the French occupation of their country for over 100 years starting in 1863, and the constant incursions by Vietnamese and Thai military forces. Except for a brief period when it was occupied by the Japanese Imperial troops during WWII, Cambodia remained as a French colony and suffered under their rule, constantly concerned over the loss of their country's identity.

In 1953, with UN support, Cambodia officially declared independance and became a monarchy under the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk. For the next few decades King Sihanouk walked a fine line of neutrality, not willing to side and accept aid from either communist China and the Soviet Union, or the United States. He struggled to maintain the independance of his country while trying to establish a stable economy, not an easy task in the boiling cauldron of what would become the second Indochina War and that would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War.

Then in 1970, while King Sihanouk was in England, he was overthrown in a military coup by General Lol Nol and Prince Sirik Matak. The new government was openly pro-American and anti-communist, allowing US troops to station in southern Cambodia to make forays into neighbouring Vietnam. From his exile in Bejing, King Sihanouk aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge party, which automatically gained the political group a lot of support from the lower castes in Cambodian society. Civil war had come to Cambodia.

Pol Pot (french for "politique potentielle") was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. In the territories he controlled he began instituting small changes that would eventually snowball into a genocide of unimaginable proportions. He declared that the working class was the lifeblood of the revolution and that Cambodia's "bourgeois enemies" would have to be cut out of society in order to purify the people. His army consisted mainly of young men and women from peasant families and his goal was to reduce the people in "liberated" areas to feudal peasant equality.

By 1973 he controlled over 2/3 of the country side and enjoyed significant support in much of the remaining territories. In these areas he instigated restrictive policies, such as forbidding the ethnic Cham minorities from wearing traditional dress. He also started moving the population of conquered urban areas into the country side as an attempt to achieve enforced socialism. Pol Pot wanted the "parasitism of urban life" uprooted. Land reform was instituted, and all large properties confiscated then redistributed with the goal of making all holdings of similar size. All means of private transportation were reallocated for military use.

On April 17, 1975 the troops of the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia, with barely a whisper of resistance. The populace celebrated in the streets, cheering the conquering army and the end of war. The Khmer Rouge had finally achieved power.

Under the guise of the threat of American bombings, the Khmer Rouge immediately emptied the entire city of Phnom Pehn, some 2.5 million people. They were allowed to take only what they could carry and abandoned the rest, being promised they could retrieve their possessions once things were safe. Even seriously ill patients in the local hospitals were forced to leave. It is estimated some 3000 citizens died in this evacuation alone. The population from urban centres were termed "new people" (as opposed to the "old people", or rural peasants) and subject to the harshest treatment by the Khmer Rouge as their political inclinations and professions of patriotism were not to be trusted.

People sent to the country began enforced labour for the good of Cambodia. All forms of outside aid were refused, for fear of becoming indebted to another super power (the reason for the original occupation of Cambodia by France). Religion was abolished and a rule of communal property was instituted. Families were seperated, males and females living apart, their children taken from them. The children were instead raised by dedicated members of the Khmer Rouge, and indoctrinated into their way of thinking. They were considered the "pure souls", the only ones without past sins against the ruling government, whether by thought or deed.

Pol Pot developed an ideal of ruling that combined Marxist and Maoist principles. His goal was to return Cambodia to an agrarian society, based on agriculture and completely self reliant. His ministers once boasted to King Sihanouk "we will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermdiate steps". The Khmer Rouge banned all modern technological contrivances and ordered the people to begin the back breaking labour of establishing dike and transport systems that would increase production and distribution efficiency within the country. All of this was done by hand. Many people spent 16 hours a day in hard labour. The food was limited as war had managed to destroy or prevent production on arable land, and no foreign aid was accepted. Medical supplies, and those trained to use them, were not only in short supply, but considered unpatriotic to use. Use of traditional therapies was encouraged, though none of the required material was provided. People began to die in the thousands from malnutrition and disease, but the government seemed to not care. If anything, they seemed to encourage the wanton destruction of the populace. People were executed for such minor infractions as not cheering revolutionary slogans loud enough, or not having developed callouses on their hands (indications of "soft lifestyles"). Killings were done with hammers, axe handles and spades in order to save on bullets.

Pol Pot estimated that only 1-2 million people would be required to build his utopia. Based on this his decisions regarding how to deal with dissenters within the country seemed to be influenced. As he stated "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss." He began a campaign to weed out all "undesirables" from his new envisaged community. Former government workers, educated professionals, intellects, ethnic Vietnamese and Chams, Cambodian christians and Buddhist monks became the dregs of society in the new Cambodia, renamed the Democratic Kampuchea. "Re-education" of these selected groups began in earnest. Many were forced through torture to confess to pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes. Any previous contact with foreign agencies, such as missionaries, international relief organizations or even tourists was grounds for execution. Starting in 1976 people began to be classified as either those with "full rights", "candidates" or "depositees". Depositees were marked for destruction, and had their rations cut even further, down to a mere 2 bowls of rice soup a day.

While life for the average Cambodian continued to deteriorate, war with Vietnam continued. Thousands of refugees fled to the Thai border with their horror stories of torture, abuse and starvation. In January 1979 the Khmer Rouge was finally defeated by the Vietnamese army. Pol Pot fled with his supporters to hide out along the Thai border and continue their resistance. Vietnam used this as an excuse to leave a military force within the Cambodian territory. As a result the UN refused to recognize the new government, which was under Vietnamese control. This left Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia who was officially recognized on the world stage, meaning the country could not begin the process of rebuilding itself. It was not until Pol Pot's death in April 1998 that the Khmer Rouge army was finally declared defunct, leaving an opportunity for the renewal of life in Cambodia.

From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot as their leader, ruled Cambodia with an iron fist, attempting to create their vision of a perfect, independant, socialist country. In their fervour to acheive this goal, they slaughtered untold millions. Official estimates place the number dead somewhere between 1.5 to 3 million people, in a country with a population of a mere 7 million at the beginning of the 1970's. Pol Pot himself admits that his Khmer Rouge party was resposible for about 1 million deaths, an obviously grossly low estimate.

So with this as a barely understood history, we flew into Phnom Pehn to visit the "killing fields". The first question that should be asked from a pure interest perspective for future travellers, is "why fly". We were coming from Bangkok with our purpose of going to Cambodia two-fold. We wanted to visit Angkor Wat, a mere 7 hour bus ride east from Bangkok, then head south to Phnom Pehn. But the border crossing into Cambodia at this point is notorious in South East Asia for how incredibly common it is for tourists to get extorted. Hark and Tod, from Jakarta, had crossed here just a few weeks before and they strongly advised against it. The bus trip was delayed by 5 hours at the border while they negotiated with the Cambodian "taxi mafia" who insisted they would have to pay extra for another bus as the one they had booked was "delayed". The visa prices are doubled and the border guards insist that you must change your Thai baht into US dollars there, giving extortionist rates of exchange. The road from the border to Siem Reip/Angkor Wat is hellishly maintained, some say at the insistence of Bangkok Air, the only airline that has flights in and out of Siem Riep (hmm, interesting, and the cost of this flight just happens to be double or even triple any other in Asia). All in all, way too much trouble. Instead we caught a cheap flight into Phnom Pehn, with the plan of getting a bus ride to Siem Riep afterwards.

One thing to understand about Cambodia is that it is NOT Thailand. Up until 1999 there was minimal to no economic growth in this country that suffered from continual cival wars, internal strife and government corruption. Since then they have had a steady increase in general prosperity, their main sources of income being textile exports and tourism. Over half of the tourist who go to Cambodia go only to Angkor Wat, then leave as quickly as possible. People here are poor, and on a scale we haven't seen since Bolivia. This means that the rich white tourists are prime targets for beggars and schemes designed to wrest their precious dollars from them. The touts will appear in an almost constant stream to harass you when you are sitting at restaurants. Many of the beggars are children dressed in dirty rags, carrying babies and begging for change. As heart wrenching as they can be, NGO's working in the area strongly recommend not encouraging them by adding change to their begging bowls. Children who are successful beggars often become a family's only source of income, meaning they will not go to school and be educated, thus perpetuating their impoverished state. Other, more subtle ways of making money involving overcharging tourists for EVERYTHING, usually meaning there may be two different menus at small local restaurants, one for Cambodians, one for others. Hotels will ask for one price, which is usually grossly inflated, and you then have to bargain downwards. People wander the streets selling everything, common items being post cards, jewellry and photocopied books. What they charge depends on whether or not you look like you just stumbled off the bus. Sounds cruel, to complain about being overcharged what would amount to $2 or $3, when that money goes to someone who is desperately poor, and there were many times when we just didn't worry about it too much. But it does become a big struggle here, having to constantly be on your guard and wondering how much you should be paying. Gilles did overpay by about 500% for a book on Angkor Wat to these three girls who were the smartest, funniest group of teenagers we had encountered in a long time (their french was better than mine, and they got an extra dollar out of Gilles when they beat him at tic-tac-toe).

Phnom Pehn itself is not a city that inspires you to linger. It does have the Royal Palace and the National Museum, which are interesting, but brief stop overs. What people are really here for, and what they want to try to understand, is the Killing Fields.

Choeung Ek, the most well known of the killing fields in Cambodia, sits 15 km outside of Phnom Pehn. Here, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge executed 17,000 Cambodians. Some 8,900 of the bodies were discovered in mass graves after the fall of Pol Pot from power. A Buddhist stupa was built on the spot to commemorate the tragedy. In it there is a fibreglass case containing some 5,000 skulls from the victims found here. You can also walk through the back fields, where large pits bearing signs that indicate the number of bodies each contained cover an area almost 1 acre big. On the dirt paths that traverse this area you can still see the occasional shin bone or scrap of shirt poking out of the dirt. Near by I could hear the singing of children at a local school, making the experience all the more surreal.

After Choeung Ek, most will move on to Tuol Sleng, also called S-21. This former highschool was converted into a dentention and interrogation centre in 1975. It was used mainly to hold former Khmer Rouge members and soldiers who were suspected of treason. Often high ranking officials that Pot Pol feared were fomenting plans for a coup were detained here and occasionally their whole families would be brought in to be executed. There were also about 79 foreigners executed here, most of them of Thai and Vietnamese descent. However, 11 of the victims were western, being from the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand and the States, most of them journalists in Cambodia to investigate the rumours of what was happening.

Upon arrival at the prison, all prisoners were photographed and forced to give a biography of their lives, which was closely examined for evidence of a lifestyle deemed undesirable. The prisoners were often interrogated over and over, in an attempt to find descrepancies in what they had originally writen. It was not uncommon for torture, such as partial drownings and beatings to be employed. Should evidence against them be produced (and it almost always eventually was), the unfortunate prisoner would then be shipped to Choeung Ek for disposal.

When you first walk into the prison you encounter row after row of black and white photographs of the prisoners. Some appear afraid, some resigned, occasionally one or two is actually smiling. There are photographs of the emaciated bodies found by the conquering Vietnamese army, as well as the corpses of people still chained to beds. Other pictures taken at the time of discovery show corpses with flies collecting on their eyes, or with head wounds from large caliber guns. Some of the bodies had had their throats slit, others were covered with bruises from beatings, all were skeletal in thier appearance. Small, windowless, wooden cells line the rooms that used to hold students, each only big enough for a person to lie down in and have a bucket in the corner. The following sign is posted, which outlines the rules a prisoner had to obey, or face execution, upon being brought to S-21

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

8. Don’t make pretext in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Of the 17,000 prisoners who entered S-21, only 7 survived.

It was a hard, heart wrenching day, trying to put yourself in the place of these people. While it seemed awful to me that the only reason that Phonm Pehn was a stop on the backpacker trail was this tragedy, I think skipping it and remaining ignorant of the facts would be worse. After our visit here, suddenly we viewed the people begging for our spare change in a new light. These people, many of them our own age, deserved our respect because they had survived through something we never could and are now struggling to make themselves a place in a world that can quickly forget that this ever happened. Once again, I am humbled by how lucky I am to live the life I do.


Written by Lynn

Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand for over 400 years starting in the 1300's. It sits a mere 2 hour bus ride from downtown Bangkok (or 1 hour if you are squashed in a sardine can-like minibus). It was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1981 because of its unsurpassed collection of ancient Thai wats.

Here there is evidence of the creativity and beauty seen in ancient Thai architecture. It seems that every king that ruled ancient Siam was determined to leave his mark in the capital with a series of ever more impressive Royal Palaces and temples. Most of these buldings were constructed somewhere between the 14th and 17th centuries. Considering the time that has passed, the wats are in amazing condition. Several are in the process of being restored, while others need little to any work on them.

Jose Santen, a Dutch trader, was one of the first European's to visit the capital of ancient Siam in the 1400's. In correspondance home he wrote the following description:

"Pra Nakorn Sri Ayutthaya is the capital city in which the king lives, and so do the nobles, officials, and all administrators. The capital city is situated on a small island in Chao Praya River. Its surrounding area is a flat field. The stone wall was constructed to surround the city with 2 Dutch miles circumference. So it is a very big capital city. Its vicinity consists of many immediate Buddhist monasteries. The population is dense in the capital. There are long, wide and straight aligned roads. There are canals that are converted from Chao Praya River to the capital. So it is very convenient for transportation. Besides the roads and canals, there are also small ditches and alleyways. So, in the rainy season, people can easily travel to houses. The houses are built in Indian styles but roofed with tiles. Ayutthaya is therefore a luxurious city packed with over 300 Buddhist monasteries exquisitely built. There many are pagodas, topes, molded figures, and statues that are coated with gold brightening the whole area. The capital city situates on the riverbank and the city plan was orderly planned, so it is a very beautiful city. Its location is good, its population is dense, and it is a good trading area both domestic and foreign trade. As far as I am aware, there has not been any king in this region has ever reigned the beautiful and prosperous city as Ayutthaya. The city is on a very good location, regarding the militarily strategies, so it is very difficult for the enemy to impregnate because the surrounding area will be flooded for 6 months annually in the rainy season. The enemy cannot stay for a long time, so they will eventually retreat."

The first ruler of Ayutthaya, King Ramathibodi I, made the official religion of Siam Theravada Buddhism. This choice influenced many of the building structures, and as a result, shows a wide variation from the temples built by the neighbouring Hindu Angkor kingdom (see later posting regarding this).

The history of the royal family that ruled Ayutthaya is long and complex. It involves delicious intrigues of assassinations, military coups, and fraternal bickering. The shortest reign was a mere 7 days before Prince Thong Lun was killed by his prodigal brother. In total 33 kings ruled in Ayutthaya. During these 4 centuries there were a number of wars fought with neighbouring Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. Many of the altars are dedicated to the brave elephants that the warriors and kings used as war steeds, fighting hand-to-hand from their backs. Finally, in 1767 the last of the great kings of Ayutthaya was overthrown by a Burmese army consisting of 1,500,000 soldiers and 6,000 of these elephants. He fled the city and died a mere 10 days later of starvation.

Many of the temples, statues and other irreplaceable artwork were destroyed by the conquering Burmese army. The victorious Burmese king was so appalled by the wanton destruction created by his soldiers that it is said he wept in sadness and had an enormous temple built as an act of contrition. Still, in spite of being partially demolished many amazing structures remain and are open to the public for viewing.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of wandering through these ancient temples, meandering between the dilapidated structures and staring in wonder at the imposing buddha statues, where many people still worship. Somehow the crumbling stone makes it all the more impressive, especially in comparison to some of the relatively new wats we had visited in Bangkok. But this was just a taste of what was to come. Our next destination - Cambodia and Angkor Wat.

Bride Over the River Kwai...........oh, and tigers!

Written by Lynn

From Bangkok we caught a bus to the town of Kanchanaburi. This area has been immortalized in the 1960-ish movie "Bridge over the River Kwai". The real deal is here.

The actually story is a lot less romantic than the movie makes it out. During WWII, the Japanese Imperial Army needed to have a railway built to link Thailand and Burma. Previously they had taken supplies from the east to the north of Asia through the Straits of Malacca, but this route was now vulnerable to attack by allied forces. In 1943 they began the construction of the Burma Railway to connect Bangkok and Ragoon. It was over 400 km long and it was scheduled to be built in just over 12 months at the cost of thousands of lives. They used pieces from a disassembled railway in Java and forced labour consisting of Asian workers and Allied POW's. In total it is estimated that anywhere between 110,000 to 160,000 prisoners and civilian labourers died during the construction of this "Death Railway", the large majority of them Asian. Exact numbers are impossible to obtain as the Japanese did not bother to record the deaths of the "coolies", many from Indonesia, China, Malaysia and Burma.

Today it is possible to visit the reconstructed site of the bridge (which is actually built over a tributary of the River Kwai) and the Kanchanaburi graveyard where 6,982 POW's remain buried, their bodies having been dug up and relocated from the mass graves randomly dug beside the tracks they died building.

The real story here is about the treatment of the POW's and the Asian labourers during the years it took to build the bridge. Many who survived the ordeal and have seen the movie say that it doesn't even begin to bring home the cruel reality of the camps. Over 25% of the POW's who died did so as a result of malnutrition and diseases such as malaria, diptheria and cholera. Building this railway meant hacking through dense jungle by hand and breaking apart rocky cliffs and hills with sledgehammers. Food was limited and the work unrelenting. As one survivor put it.................

"The only food available from the jungle was wild bananas, about the size of your finger and full of black seeds, the young leaves of the banana palms, the red banana flowers and bamboo shoots. Our rations per day for the month of May 1943 were 537 grams rice, 12grams onion, 1 gram towgay, 1 gram dried whitebait and 1 gram of beef per man. Hardly sufficient to maintain anyone let alone men working up to 16 hours a day."

In addition to the unrelenting hunger, the unsanitary conditions and the threat of disease, many of the POW's recall vicious treatment and punishment meted out by the Japanese guards for minor infractions. One sign in the museum we visited posted just such an example. As punishment for stealing a tin of fruit from a red cross package, and that therefore theoretically belonged to the prisoners:

"I was propped against the tree, my arms pulled back and tied together with barbed wire and secured to the tree trunk. After a few more punches in the face they left me alone. The pain lashes your body after awhile. I must leave it to your imagination. When morning broke they put a bucket filled to the brim with water in front of me and left me to it. A sophisticated torture if ever there was one."

The bridge itself is rather unremarkable, you can take a short ride over it in an open aired tourist train. Afterwards the best thing to do is take yourself over to the JEATH war museum to have a look around at this quirky collection. JEATH stands for Japanese, England, Australia/America, Thailand, and Holland, the 6 countries who participated in the building of the railway. Here they have several first hand accounts of the experience of the POW's as well as collections of everything from guns and artillery used in WWII, to stamps and currency of Thailand dating back to the early 1900's. They is also an elephant skull and a monument containing several human skulls found alongside the railway, identity unknown. Several descriptions and displays outline the various torture and punishment methods that were used on the POW's in the camps. Most moving are the photographs, paintings done by the POW's and hand written letters to loved ones on scraps of paper. Many articles in the museum have been donated by the POW's or their families.

We, through pure unplanned timing, landed in Kanchanaburi on April 25th, the Austrlian ANZAC day. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and this is the day they celebrate the bravery of their fallen comrades. Because of the large number of Aussies buried in the Kanchanaburi cemetary, this day is also commemorated here. There were many families and members of ANZAC in town while we were there and on the morning of the 25th several ceremonies were held in their honour.

Our other reason for being here was to visit a temple, Wat Pha Luang. This temple is infamous for its work done rescuing tigers. Since 1999 the abott, Phra Acharn Phusit, has been saving abandoned tigers. Many of them come from private homes, where people who adopted a cute little kitten soon realized that having a full grown, 800lb tiger in your backyard was not conducive to quiet living. Others were young ones brought in after their mothers were killed by poachers. In total the temple houses 11 tigers, all of whom are imprinted on humans and non releasable. Some of them were born here.

The temple does have in the works an ambitious project. They are presently building a "Tiger Island" that will be surrounded by a moat. There they will raise the tigers born at the temple with little to no interaction between them and humans, in the hope of eventually being able to release them back into the wild. Perhaps a bit unrealistic, but never the less, lofty goal. More importantly this island will provide a place for the tigers to spend their days and nights when not on "display" in a fairly natural environment, rather than the sad little pens they are now housed in.

There has been some recent criticism of this temple, fearing that they are "commercializing". They have moved from the realm of asking for a donation to help feed the tigers to charging an entrance fee of 300 baht (about $9). When you get to the temple the first thing you have to do after paying is sign a waiver that says you won't hold the temple responsible if you get eaten, though they are quick to point out that no visitor has ever been injured. The next thing you have to do, if you're Gilles anyways, is buy a new t-shirt. This is because he forgot the warning we had read when looking up the temple that says you are not allowed to wear red for fear of inciting the wrath of the apparently red hating cats.

After changing you go through the gates into a large compound that houses all sorts of beasts from water buffalo to pigs of all ages and sizes to some stray dogs, peacocks and chickens thrown in for fun. Apparently they all live here, or in the land surrounding, and have free rein to come and go. Everyday at 4:30 the monks and volunteers will feed the animals, rolling out a big truck filled with squash and other vegetables that they throw on the ground in order to break them open. A friendly feeding frenzy results, and as you weave between cows and pigs on your way back to the parking lot you can see the monks going around the helping to open up unbroken gourds for the animals. It makes it hard to begrudge them the few dollars you donated, and I truly believe they are doing good work here. As of now it is a fairly "off the beaten track" tourist spot, but I have a feeling this will change quickly as word gets out (we heard of it when watching a Lonely Planet episode on Thailand, though it wasn't mentioned in our guide book).

But back to the tigers. After a short walk through a dusty field you head down a hill into a canyon, where about 10 tigers are lounging about. All of them are leashed and have at least one handler with them at all times. You can give your camera to one of the volunteers and another one leads you over to a tiger, making sure to approach from the rear. You can then sit or crouch down and have your picture taken. As an added bonus, if you stay until 4:30, the tigers are then taken back to their pens and you may get a chance to help walk them there.

The down side to this little adventure is that the temple was about 40 km from our hostel. We had rented a scooter and set out just after lunch (1:30-4:30 is the best time to be there as the tigers are out relaxing in the canyon, and playing in the water, all under the very close supervision of their handlers). Unfortunately, it was likely over 40 degrees and zooming down the black asphalt was hot work. Even more unfortunately, our gas gauge didn't work, so when we turned down the dirt road leading to the temple and the scooter stuttered to a stop, we knew we were in trouble. But as a testament as to why we love the people here, a guy stopped his scooter when he drove by about 10 minutes later and saw us pushing ours back towards the highway. Unable to speak a work of English, he managed to quickly understand out problem. First he tried to figure out how to get some gas out of his own scooter, but was unable to accomplish this. So instead he abandoned his plans, turned his scooter around and rode back into town to get us a pop bottle full of gas. We managed to get him to accept money for the gas plus a little extra for his time, though I'm sure he would never had asked if we hadn't insisted.

Overall, Kanchanaburi is a worthwhile side trip from Bangkok. Not only the sobering history is here, but also a chance to touch a live tiger. As well there are caves, temples, and waterfalls to see. All in all, never a dull moment here.