Byron Bay and beyond…

Tags

, , , , ,

If there’s one thing I expected Australia not to be, it’d be wet. Ever since we left Melbourne airport Gold Coast-bound, the rain has been pretty relentless. But, as a true Brit, I’m soldiering on and trying not to let the soggy weather get in the way of things…too much!

The next stop on our itinerary was Byron Bay. I’d heard so many great things about this place and, despite being a little ‘beached out’ after southern Thailand, couldn’t wait to get there and see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, a week or two before we arrived, Australia’s east coast was hit by a fierce cyclone which tore through its coastline. And the weather had made little improvement for our visit.

We ambled down to the beach and the recent storm damage was evident: its dunes had been stripped and its waters were more brown than turquoise. Nonetheless, it’s an incredibly scenic stretch of coastline and its thunderous waves make it a surfers’ paradise.

No wave-riding for us: we made the ascent to the Byron Bay national park and lighthouse, passing through coastal rainforest and stopping off every so often to admire the roaring ocean. That was until a tempestuous storm blew in from the Pacific, of which the battering wind and driving rain eventually drove us back downhill to the refuge of our hostel. We did, however, make the entirety of the track the following day, in glorious sunshine, and even caught a glimpse of a pod of dolphins breaching the waves up top.

Despite Australia being (apparently) overrun by them, the only ‘roos we’d seen hopping about down under had been at Melbourne Zoo. Determined to feed a joey and cuddle a koala, we made Brisbane’s Kangaroo and Koala Sanctuary our next destination. A wasted journey, in the end, because the all-day-long torrential downpour left us with no other option than to stay indoors and read. We may’ve sent our criminals there all that time ago, but I hadn’t realised we’d sent our windy and wet weather along too!

The next pin on the map was Noosa – on the Sunshine Coast – which, I’m delighted to say, stayed true to its name, and where we got to enjoy the company of the lovely Rani and Eug, who kindly put us up for a few days.

My god. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll be buying a little place of my own here. I can only describe it as a dreamland – because its perfection is surreal. And, I guess, striking those lucky numbers will always be nothing but a dream!

Rani and Eug managed to take a few days off work, so we booked a three-day camping trip to Fraser Island, just off the Sunshine Coast. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting here, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed and unfulfilled by what it had to offer. Good company was what made it for me, rather than the endless visits to creeks and freshwater lakes. Although I can now tick dingos off my seen-wildlife list.

Next? A gruelling 28-hour bus journey to Cairns to catch our flight to New Zealand. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

G’day, Australia!

Tags

, , , , , , ,

After a short but very sweet stopover in Singapore, we hopped aboard our Qantas flight to sunny Sydney ready to kickstart the next chapter of our journey. We hit the runway bright and early greeted by the jolly, jovial banter of Aussie folk. And how good it felt.

I took full advantage of the free bar on the plane, hoping that the red wine would help me sink into a slumber and gently ease by body into yet another timezone. The endless vault of in-flight music and movies put pay to that idea, as did the intermittent turbulence. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to airplanes so I was pretty happy that we were seated upstairs and, unlike our Sri Lankan airlines flight, were flying long haul on an aircraft that didn’t look like it was going to be displayed as a historical artefact in an aviation museum anytime soon.

There was just one little thing about Australia that had been niggling at the back of my mind, and that was the fact we’d be staying in hostels for the first time. Unless you’re a flashpacker, on a short holiday or get paid an Australian wage, there’s a good chance you’ll be staying in a dorm—because it’s just so damn expensive out here! For someone, like me, who adores their personal space, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope sharing a room with total strangers. I’ve always had confidence issues – and I guess there’s no better way to tackle them than to be thrown into situations where if you don’t make an effort to be sociable, you’ll just appear plain rude. Which I’m not.

The welcome meeting and $5 fish-and-chips night was the perfect way to get involved with all the action at the Jolly Swagman, and we ended up meeting two girls from Gravesend; a lovely lady called Kelly (or Elly) who’s originally from Maidstone and her partner, Kinder, who’ve come back to take a trip down memory lane and to decide whether to jack it all in and make the move; and a guy called Phil, who used to live about five roads away from me, used drink at the same bars, has mutual friends, and had yet to meet until now. We decided to take the conversation to the pub where it led on till the early hours … can you see where this one’s going?

Today was the day I’d been waiting for for months and months, because I was getting to meet up with the one and only Todd Kelly who I hadn’t seen since he’d left London two years earlier. But before that particular avenue of excitement, it was time to partake in the customary visit to Sydney’s botanical gardens and the Opera House (which was even more impressive than I’d imagined it to be). Paul, Phil and I took our necessary snaps and then headed to the CBD to have a mooch around before our big night out in the city.

20130227-222241.jpg

Using his own terminology, I was absolutely ‘stoked’ to see TK. Paul, Phil, Kelly, Kinder and I had an ‘awesome’ time with him and his work mates and Pete – the legend I’d heard so much about but had yet to meet, and who’d been the one to introduce Todd to my London mates. I can’t wait to hit Global Gathering and Ibiza with him and those guys in the summer (job dependent).

20130227-222838.jpg

We all bowled into our hostel at 6am, ready for Paul and I to shower, pack and catch our 9am flight to Melbourne to do it all over again with Ashlee and Gareth …

These two guys were the ones who essentially spurred the whole trip when I met them (slightly inebriated) in Ibiza two summers before. How embarrassed was I when they came to meet us at the airport and I was in exactly the same state as I’d left them on the White Isle! The next three days panned out in a similar way: partying and a trip to Melbourne Zoo, and a visit to the top of the city’s tallest building, Eureka Skydeck, to admire its spectacular skyline. Was so great to hook up with them again and I hope to see those possums in London in the not-too-distant future … *hint hint*

20130227-222858.jpg

Ko Lanta: paradise, finally

Tags

, , , , ,

What do you do when it’s raining, internet is down across the island, and you’ve read all of your books? Write a blog, of course! I’ve already taken a walk to the town’s only book shop which, much to my annoyance, was closed…

After fleeing Thailand’s version of Tenerife, arriving in Ko Lanta was a breath of fresh air. Living in south-east Asia for three and a half months, I’ve become used to fobbing off annoying, intrusive hotel touts with inventive stories – and quite an expert at it, if I do say so myself. Although on this occasion my line of “We’re already booked in at a place called the Bee Bee Bungalows (looked up speedily in the Lonely Planet). I called last night to make a reservation” slightly backfired on the ferry over, because this particular tout owned the resort and had a list of people who had bookings! Had to swallow my pride and Lewis, the owner, found it hilarious because he gets the same thing all of the time.

‘Back to basics’ was certainly the phrase that sprang to mind when we unbolted the feeble-looking lock to our ‘cosy’ hut. I never thought that having a washroom with a sink, walls not made of bamboo, and more than three square metres of living space would become my definition of luxury accommodation – especially as a former hotel reviewer! It did have a certain charm, however. But after six days of living in a confined space and getting caught in the mosquito net every time I moved an inch, I was definitely ready to move on.

Anyway… I totally fell in love with Khlong Kong. It wouldn’t be your typical person’s vision of a beautiful beach – especially as part of a group of islands renowned for their white powdery sands and crystalline waters. It’s got a rugged, rocky coastline with grainy golden sands and thousands of crabs – which, I think, gives it heaps more character. Combine that with the laidback hippy vibe and the lack of people, and you’ve discovered the epitome of relaxation. Hours could go by and not a single person would pass. Heaven, in my books!

20130227-215631.jpg

Six beach ‘daze’ were clearly not enough, because we extended our stay on the island and moved to another place along the coast called Khlong Nin. This area was just as relaxing but less rocky, and you could actually move around in this bungalow! However, the aforementioned rain put a slight dampener on our last day.

So here it is: our last two days in south-east Asia before we head down under. We’ve arrived in a town called Krabi, where we’ll be flying out of to catch our connecting flight from Singapore. This little gem totally exceeded my expectations, and I’d wished we’d moved onto here sooner. Unlike some of the other (dare I say insignificant) Thai towns we’ve come across during our travels, this place had a certain loveable charm – a lively, friendly atmosphere paired with stunning scenic views…and all in one tiny little area.

20130227-215912.jpg

Goodbye, Asia. It’s been an absolute pleasure, but I’m ready to get back to civilisation now!

Tenerife – or thereabouts

Tags

, , ,

The fusion of whiskey-and-coke-filled buckets, likeminded revellers, fluorescent trees and the non-stop beats of psy-trance were a surefire way to an unforgettable Half Moon Festival. After hooking up with some fellow party-goers at the Beach Village, we headed to Koh Phangan’s home of hedonism daubed in rave paint and raring to shake our stuff ’til sunrise. After many years of practice, we sensibly gave ourselves a day’s recovery before moving onto Koh Phi Phi!

20130208-212948.jpg

After eight-and-a-half hours of boat bus boat, I arrived expectant of an island comprising serenity, sophistication, stunning beaches … how wrong could I have been! If spending an hour scouring the island to find a room that didn’t cost a bomb hadn’t put a dampener on my mood, walking into a large-scale Club 18-30s resort, reminiscent of what I’d imagine a holiday in Tenerife’s Playa de las Americas to be like, didn’t put much faith in me enjoying my time Phi Phi… Since then, I’ve discovered that the island does in fact have some amazing beaches–they’re just populated by crass, narcissistic Brits!

20130219-210636.jpg

We spent our first evening at a beach bar watching drunk, brazen teenagers trying to skip a rope of fire which, despite their own stupidity, was pretty amusing. The devil in me was waiting for someone’s hair to go *puff* into a cloud of smoke … just a few burnt garments of clothing in the end! I’m not really that mean. Honestly.

A lie-in was on the cards the next day – not that you can get a decent night’s sleep here with raucous teens coming back at all hours! I realise this makes me sound extremely old and moany, but at the same time I never thought that any of Thailand’s southern islands would be so completely determined by western tourism. We spent the remainder of the day baking ourselves on a bay close to our guest house. Despite the people, it really is a stunning little cove and I don’t think any photo, however good the camera, could do justice to its true beauty.

20130219-210752.jpg

Final day (THANK GOD) was spent touring Phi Phi’s other smaller islands, including a stop-off at the beach where they filmed..The Beach. Its powdery white sands lined with tall, lush pine trees were a vision of true paradise. There were a few good opportunities to snorkel around the area’s coral reefs which are abundant in tropical fish. Shame I don’t like sealife! Waking up to the news of a magnitude eight earthquake in the Pacific Ocean and threat of tsunami was a little alarming, especially after Koh Phi Phi was completely devastated during the tsunami of 2004. Luckily my poor geography served me well, and I’m glad the earthquake wasn’t anywhere near as destructive as first thought.

20130219-211042.jpg

We’re off to Ko Lanta now. I’ve got very high hopes for this place!

You really couldn’t make these things up!

Tags

, , , , , ,

I detest the terribly clichéd phrase ‘it’s a small world’. But after today’s events, I’ve come to the conclusion that it really bloody is!

After four days’ peace and tranquility on the beautiful island of Koh Tao, we chose the town of Ban Tai in Koh Phangan for one reason: to indulge in some deep-in-the-jungle hedonism at its bi-weekly Half Moon Festival. We docked in Koh Phangan, made famous for its moon-inspired ’till-sunrise’ parties, a few days early–and to our surprise the place appeared to be deserted! When the taxi dropped us off at our bungalows and realisation set in that there wasn’t a soul in sight, I was left feeling a little forlorn and immediately scoured the web to try and find out where the hell it was going down! Discovering that our five-night reservation at the Blue Parrot Resort couldn’t be cancelled without full charges put pay to any ideas of moving to a another part of the island — so we decided to make the best of what we’d signed up for, preserving all of our party spirit for the Half Moon Festival in a few days’ time. And I’m so glad we stayed put.

20130219-214541.jpg

The following morning we headed to Ban Tai’s soft, white sands; I laid out my beach mat and plonked myself down and said to Paul “We’ve actually got this whole stretch of coast to ourselves!” I looked out to sea; the turquoise waters coruscating in the sun’s rays, the gentle waves lapping at the shore; grinning to myself at what a gorgeous day it was going to be. Coldplay gracing my ears, I sat up once again to admire the view and noticed a western couple strolling towards our patch. We exchanged the usual friendly and knowing smiles, and I laid my head back down and shut my eyes while the pair slowly sauntered off on their path. Next thing I hear is “Is that Ross?!” OH MY GOD! … it’s only my old friend and ex-work colleague from Topshop, Hannah Byrne, who I haven’t seen in a good five years!

20130219-211232.jpg

We began catching up on lost time and found out that Hannah’s partner is a DJ and, much to Paul’s disbelief, realised that it was world-famous drum ‘n’ bass legend Micky Finn – the guy who influenced his taste in the genre of music as a young teen. It turns out that we’re staying in between their hotel and another place, Beach Village, that’s currently under development by one of Micky’s friends from back home. What a gem that’s going to be once it’s completely finished! I can see it becoming the Ibiza Rocks or Ushaia of south-east Asia. At the moment it seems party-goers descend on the area for the Full Moon and R&S, but I’m sure Beach Village is going to turn Ban Tai into an all-year-round destination for dance music lovers.

20130219-211343.jpg

We spent the day relaxing by the beachside pool at this new resort, swapping stories and having a good crack. Unfortunately, it all ended prematurely when I realised that the UVA 30 sun cream I’d bought in the morning, which I’d been religiously lathering into my skin throughout the day, had absolutely no sun protection in it at all. What’s worse is I’d used the UVA 50 cream I already had on areas of my face and body that burn more easily – so I look like I’m suffering from a horrific skin disorder. Great! Do they make sunglasses that cover your whole face?!

I’m now writing this blog in between smothering myself in after sun lotion, and while still being totally baffled as to what a random day it’s been. It’s all part of the journey, and you just never know who or what’s around the corner.

A different side to Halong Bay

Tags

, , ,

Brrrr! Stepping off the plane in t-shirt and shorts was a shock to the system when we arrived in the thick of Hanoi’s winter. I wasn’t anticipating it, that’s for sure! It felt like I’d landed back in the UK after a lovely sun-soaked holiday … luckily we weren’t being thrown back into reality just yet, and we had the delights of Halong Bay to look forward to.

After a much-needed decent night’s sleep, my first mission of the day was to buy a wooly jumper and another pair of trousers. The late arrival of my new and not-so-large rucksack the night before we left home put me into ‘packing panic’ mode, and I’d left myself rather unprepared for those days when the sun doesn’t shine.

We did our research and booked onto one of the best boat tours of Halong Bay; one night sleeping on the vessel, the second in a bungalow in the middle of the Cat Ba national park. Some might say that we were headed to Halong at the wrong time of the year – but I think we went at the best time, because we escaped the hordes of tourists and saw a completely different perspective of the bay than we would during northern Vietnam’s summer months.

20130219-211611.jpg

We sailed across Halong for a few hours. Words can’t do justice to just how stunning the mountain-like rocks, submerged in the bay’s calm blue waters, looked among the hazy, wintry landscape. On our first day we climbed to the peak of Ti-Top island and visited Amazing Caves – and they really were amazing! A shame, once again, that my camera is no good at taking shots in the dark. Like our past treks, we were travelling with a real mixed bunch of people from all over the globe. Unfortunately, Paul was coming down with the flu and that evening decided to catch an early night. I got hooked in conversation with a guy from Guatemala and we spent hours chatting about the ways of the world and our perspectives on life. The beers were flowing, of course.

20130219-211710.jpg

Needless to say I woke with a fuzzy head the following morning. We ate breakfast, which soon cured my hangover, and we sailed towards our first stop: an oyster farm. We learnt how they’re bred and the process in which they make pearl. Then we were led to the pearl shop where we discovered how ridiculously expensive they are!

20130219-211906.jpg

The funniest part of the day was visiting Monkey Island — the cheekiest monkeys I’ve yet to meet. We climbed a challenging rocky hill so we could take some decent snaps from the top, and rewarded ourselves with a cold can of coke each once we’d reached the bottom. Paul didn’t even get as far as opening his; a monkey swiped it before his eyes, and there’s no reasoning with those little guys once they’ve grabbed what they had their eye on. I think he was just grateful that they didn’t swipe his cigarettes too!

Our final stop of the day was the Cat Ba island national park, where we cycled beside the bay and took a stop to trek through some of its dense, untouched woodland. It was so peaceful, and the bungalows we were booked into for the night were just as serene. I love falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle.

Our final day was spent sailing back to the shore, and then travelling back to Hanoi. I’d recommend Halong Bay to anyone who’s planning on visiting Vietnam. It was a total retreat and I finished the three-day trip feeling refreshed and ready for the next adventure.

The sights and sounds of Saigon

Tags

, , , ,

I’m sure there aren’t many backpackers who come to Ho Chi Minh and get a grand tour of the city by a British expat, and who’ll get to crash at their pad for diddly-squat. Especially if you’ve never met them before!

We were lucky enough to be introduced to Chris by Dee, one of Paul’s good friends from back home. And what a guy! Not only ’cause he cooked us a much-needed Sunday roast, but because he took us to places we’d never have found or considered without his expert guidance.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh and tried to hunt down a guest house with reasonably-priced rooms … it eventually turned into a mission to find a guest house that had rooms! Once we found somewhere to stay and dumped our rucksacks, we went and met Chris for a few drinks at his regular Saturday-evening haunt. He kindly offered to let us crash on his couch for a few days. So armed with a box of Valium and suffering a hangover, we hailed a taxi and headed for Chris’s place the next morning. It was nice spending the day chilling out and tucking into a tasty pork roast dinner.

20130219-212335.jpg

We made a plan of action for our time in Ho Chi Minh and headed back into the city the following day to book ourselves onto a tour to the Mekong Delta, and to have a mooch around some of the less touristy nooks and crannies of Saigon. On another note, I finally managed to buy myself some genuine Sony earphones. I’m now, somehow, on my third pair, and they’re an essential when you’ve got to endure 10-hour-long bus journeys with screaming kids and the overbearing hum of the locals.

20130219-212417.jpg

I guess, you could say, we became flashpackers for the day by delving into middle-class Saigon, sipping coffee in posh cafes and dining in Parisian-style restaurants. It was nice to dip back into the western world for a few hours and not feel like a backpacker on a budget. While we were exploring the city, we strolled past the Saigon Opera House and picked up tickets to a show the following evening.

On Tuesday we experienced a mixture of history and culture. Our first stop was the Unification Palace, formerly the Independence Palace — the home and workplace of south Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam war.

Later, we made our way to the Opera House to see ‘The Soul of Vietnam’. The show portrayed the country’s history through Vietnamese dance and music, and it was lovely to do something that, for me, was out of the norm. Food was next on the agenda, and Chris led us to what I can only describe as a series of pop-up night restaurants. We watched them erect the structures which took them about fifteen minutes. It’s fair to say that they’ve got it down to a fine art! And I sampled some of the best food I’ve tasted in south-east Asia yet.

The Mekong Delta tour. If I’d had the option of going to work or going on the trip, I probably would’ve opted for a day at work. I was really looking forward to the tour, but it turned out to be one big and long sales pitch. Although I did learn something from our extremely knowledgeable ‘guide’: apparently rice paper is made from rice…

20130219-212436.jpg

Next stop: Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city.

The ‘real’ Cambodia

Tags

, , ,

After the tourist trap that is Angkor Wat, we decided to get out and explore more of Cambodia’s countryside. So we headed south west to a little place called Battambang – although I like to call it Battenberg, which I really fancy a slice of right now…

There are so many meals I’m craving from back home at the moment. I wish I could fly back for a few days, see my family and friends, sleep in my own bed, and gorge on endless amounts of western food — and I mean proper western food; not the stuff they pass off as western food out here!

Enough about my stomach. For now, anyway. Almost every bus journey we’ve taken in Cambodia has been eventful so far. Coming into the country, the coach’s engine caught fire; the 14-seater minivan from Kratie to Phnom Penh became a 17-seater; then on our way to Battambang from Siem Reap, I had my second shower within about an hour after the bus’s air conditioning unit decided to chuck a load of water over me. It’s all part of the journey, I keep telling myself!

We arrived in Battambang, eventually dried-off, and all I can describe it as is sleepy. Our main purpose of visiting the town was to book ourselves onto a countryside cycling tour which is run by a company called Soksabike. Its aim is to support sustainable tourism in the area, and to bring a supplementary income to some of the poorer families who live out in the countryside (a sum of the tour fee is given to the families). And I can’t rate it highly enough.

Our guide, Reaksmey, was absolutely fantastic and we learnt so much from him about the Khmer people and Cambodian life. He took us on a tour through beautiful, lush countryside, stopping off every now and again to meet families, learn their history, and find out what they do to earn a living. Our first stop was at a family’s house where they served what I guess, in the UK, we’d call breakfast on-the-go. They get up at 4am to make cakes similar to waffles – made with rice, flour and coconut milk. A lot healthier than in the western world, and very tasty too.

20130111-182411.jpg

Our second stop was at a family’s house where they made rice paper. They, too, start working at 4am – there are two of them – and their little production line churns out about 1,200 units a day. That’ll bring in a mere three US dollars. I had a go on a yarn at the third house we stopped off at. Next, we moved on to visit a family who produced dried banana flakes. Their story was pretty sad: during the time of the Khmer Rouge, they were forced to abandon their home and the rice paddy fields that they owned. They lost everything. After the fall of communism, there was a rush for the country’s people to occupy whatever land they could get their hands on. I couldn’t get over how happy and content the whole family seemed, even after everything that has happened to them, and it was lovely to see that they’re able to sustain themselves and live freely once again.

20130111-182609.jpg

Lunching with the locals was probably my favourite part of the day. Our guide took us to a family who own paddy fields and sell palm-sugar juice, and I still can’t believe I ate egret and mouse!!

20130111-182654.jpg

I’m absolutely loving trying different things and experiencing cultures that are so different to our own. It’s changing my perspective on everything, and it’s making me think about what I want out of my life when I’m back home. I loved my job before I came away, however I feel like I want to do something worthwhile and actually make a proper contribution to the world. Sorry to any of my former work colleagues who read this, but writing about airport parking and hotels isn’t particularly life-changing!!

The temples of Angkor

Tags

, , ,

Angkor Wat was one of the main reasons that we came to Cambodia and although the temples are absolutely awe-inspiring, I’d say it’s probably not one of my biggest highlights.

Being the eighth wonder of the world, it’s not surprising that the area was bursting at the seams with tourists – but my best experiences of the country so far have been when we’ve gone out to explore, what I would call, the ‘real’ Cambodia.

Anyway, when we arrived in Siem Reap, the entrance to Angkor, we decided to indulge in a little luxury and stay in one of the nicer hotels. We found a tuk-tuk driver and hired him for three days to take us to see all of the Angkor sites, and he was very grateful for the business. There are so many tuk-tuk drivers out here — too many, in fact — and they’re all pretty ruthless when it comes to fighting with their peers for business. They’ll always try to rip you off, but I enjoy playing them off against each other. If they weren’t so greedy, you wouldn’t need to!

The travellers’ bible, Lonely Planet, recommends that you do all of the smaller temples before going to see the ‘big one’ – Angkor Wat (apparently, the others would seem inferior afterwards). We decided to go against the grain and do Angkor Wat first, and I’m glad we did.

Angkor Wat is undoubtably impressive and majestic, and I don’t know if this makes me sound unappreciative, but I actually found it slightly disappointing (the below photo I took has been edited, by the way!) I’m not sure whether it’s because it’s so hyped-up and I had high expectations; because it was so busy that I felt I couldn’t properly appreciate its architecture; or whether the restoration work on the temple has somehow taken away a little bit of the mystery and character of, what is now, a 1,200-year-old wat.

20130111-100429.jpg

The best part for me, funnily, was when we were passing woodland beside the temple and found troupe of monkeys scrabbling around on the ground and swinging between the trees. I was a little apprehensive about getting close to them at first, but in the end I plucked up the courage and managed to get some brilliant snaps. Especially the one of the cheeky monkey who stole a man’s bottle of water!

20130111-100614.jpg

We spent the next two days exploring some of the more ruined temples, including Angkor Thom, and I found that I preferred these to Angkor Wat; their state of disrepair gives them so much more character and lets your imagination run wild. I felt like I was in a scene from the Jungle Book at one point (one of my favourite films from when I was a child – the Disney version’s the best). Was just waiting for “Now I’m the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP…” to start playing!

On the final day of our tour, our driver took us to a nearby river so we could take a boat ride through the countryside where families live and work, and catch a snippet of rural Cambodian life. It was amazing to see how people live and sustain themselves. The photo below shows you how high the river gets during monsoon season!

20130111-100722.jpg

All in all, I had a very interesting and enjoyable few days. Although I’m sure I’ll have fonder memories of Cambodia to look back on.

Khmer Rouge: S-21 and the Killing Fields

Tags

, ,

Visiting the S-21 Genocide Museum and Cambodia’s Killing Fields will go down as one of the most emotional and heart-wrenching days of my life.

The Khmer Rouge was the name of the Kampuchea Communist Party led by Pol Pot – an extremely powerful sick and evil man. Unfortunately, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge became the ruling party in Cambodia. It subjected the country’s people to radical social reform; there was mass genocide, and suspected capitalists or the educated were tortured and executed for fear of overthrowing the regime. The result: more than three million Khmer people were murdered in three years. And all of this occurred just over 30 years ago–which I still find utterly beyond belief.

An audio guide is included in the entrance fee of the Killing Fields. I found myself having to fight back the tears when I discovered some of the ways that innocent people were severely tortured and murdered; and when I heard stories from the families of victims who, still to this day, never give up hope that their loved ones will return. We saw mass graves with the remnants of bones, teeth and clothing; but the most disturbing and awfully horrific graves were the ones of women and children who, left with no dignity, were thrown naked into the pit. Next to this particular grave was the killing tree: the place where children were picked up by their feet, their heads smashed against the trunk, and their bodies chucked into the pit. Words can’t even describe how distraught, sickened, disgusted and chronically sad this makes me feel.

If the Killing Fields weren’t a sobering enough experience, S-21 took it to a whole new level for me. Before the rise of the Khmer Rouge, S-21 was a high school. When the communist party took power in 1975, it was turned into a prison and became the place where Cambodia’s most educated were sent to be brainwashed and tortured, and eventually transported to the Killing Fields to be executed. These included doctors, teachers and intellectuals. You’re free to walk around the whole museum, and I can honestly say that it was the most eerie and haunting place I’ve ever stepped foot in. Walking into former classrooms to see the blood-stained floors and beds with chains is an image that’ll remain etched on my mind forever. The next block, with no larger than 1 metre x 1 metre cells, was so tough to see that I couldn’t even bring myself to look inside one. The third block is both a museum and a place of remembrance for those who were cruelly murdered at S-21. There’s a photo of every victim with their prisoner number; some taken just before their death, and some just after. I found myself staring into the eyes of the victims and trying to imagine what must’ve been going through their minds.

When the Khmer Rogue finally fell in 1979, there were just 27 living prisoners left in S-21. Hearing their stories of survival at the final part of the museum was overwhelming.

I’ll never forget this day. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever witnessed, and I think it’d be a crime in itself for tourists to not take the time to learn about Cambodia’s raw and not-so-distant past.