Bon Om Tuk, Water Festival

Spectators watch the boat racing on the banks of Tonle Sap
Spectators watch the boat racing on the banks of Tonle Sap

All the preparations have been completed. A fresh layer of white paint covers the concrete curves of all the main roads. The propaganda is in place: flags, billboards and enormous effigies of the benevolent Hen Sun are everywhere. The beggars, homeless and mentally unwell have been rounded up, imprisoned and are now being “reeducated”. Vacant blocks which just a week ago were littered with garbage and filth have been cleaned up and are now home to hundreds of market stalls and a concert stage. The exodus of city dwellers has in no way offset the influx of visitors.

The girth of the great Tonle Sap has grown fat and swollen from months spent gorging thirstily on the flow from the Mekong. The rains have lessened with the turning of the seasons and the upstream flow goes slack. The full moon approaches and soon the accumulated water in the lake will begin to seep back downstream making its way for the shores of the South China Sea. In Cambodia this changing of the tides is cause for celebration. Water Festival (Bon Om Tuk) is here.

The festival runs for three days (Sunday through to Tuesday) during which all roads lead to Phnom Penh, traffic comes to a standstill, the population doubles in size, the city doesn’t sleep and crime goes through the roof.

People as far as the eye can see crowd the banks of Tonle Sap to watch the boat racing. Long boats piloted by a crew of up to eighty compete head to head over 1700 metres. Standing upright the crews row like a chain gang furiously hoeing the ground. In some races there seems to be a large gap in talent. This is most obvious when a one of the provincial teams comes up against a team of expats. Even funnier is watching the expat crew struggling to negotiate the upstream row back to the starting line. After two days of heats the results are tallied and the boats are allocated into one of four divisions for the final day.

This racing gig isn’t risk free: while the surface water flows downstream, the undercurrent still flows upstream meaning that if a boat floods the crew better be strong swimmers. This year, the river claimed the life of one unlucky crew member.

When night falls the long boats are replaced by slow moving barges laden to the rails with neon towers of Buddhist kitsch. A fireworks extravaganza provides a fitting backdrop.

While the boat racing and fireworks provide the water festivals obvious highlights, the real joy is to be found treading the pavement. For many people from the provinces the festival will be their only trip into the city. Every piece of pavement and section of park is covered by straw mats on which families eat, sleep and sell anything and everything: secondhand clothes, cutlery and meat skewers.

Negotiating the streets in certain sections of the city is not for the faint of heart. Our house happened to be located next to the thoroughfare closest to the festival that was still open to traffic. This meant that the normally quite streets around our house provided thousands of truck taxis with a drop off point for streams of festival punters.

We pulled up a bar stool at a high-rise bar/restaurant in order to bear witness to the madness. The intersection near our house (Sihanouk Bvd and Street 51) was becoming the bottleneck to end all bottlenecks. Thousands of punters all traveling in different directions converged to strand Tuk Tuks, Motos and cars. People were at a standstill for hours, food stalls collapsed with the press of bodies and the cabins of Tuk Tuks became legitimate thoroughfares. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about our privileged vantage point, six storey’s above the chaos. This feeling dissipated at the moment of our departure when, in order to get home, we were forced to negotiate that crowd. Who would have thought climbing through a maze of thousand parked motorbikes would be quicker than the road? Apparently the number of visitors this year was far less than previous years; I can’t imagine what the crowds would have been like then.

It is easy to understand why the celebrations have such energy; Tonle Sap is the lifeblood of Cambodia. Outside the comforts of the city most of the population live and die by its whims. Its fertile depths provide the lion’s share (eighty percent) of protein for the population as well as the moisture required to grow the country’s rice. On the flip side, regular floods claim the lives of hundreds and leave tens of thousands homeless every year.

Cambodia is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the whims of its neighbors. If the sea level were to rise by one meter a large proportion of the country will be underwater leaving more than eight million Cambodians homeless.

China’s phenomenal growth is an even more immediate threat. When the eight hydroelectric schemes which China has planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong come online, the flood flows into the Tonle Sap will be devastated. This will jeopardise the food supply to more than 60 million people.

I am glad to have experienced the exuberance of water festival as who knows how much longer people will be able to celebrate?

The night crush
The night crush
The moon over the monument
The moon over the monument
Boats race on the river
Boats race on the river

Kep: a town time forgot

I got a feeling in my waters the moment we boarded the bus for Kep. One of those good feelings that only gets stronger the longer it lasts. A sea of green rolled by the bus window: rice paddies, swaying palms and rocky outcrops. Before the bus rounded the corner my nostrils were filled with the smell sea. Soon we began winding our way along the coastal road, jungle covered slopes leaning down on one side while the tropical waters reached for the horizon on the other.

We stepped off the bus in the little seaside village and quickly negotiated a lift up to our hotel. The beaten up Fiat bounced and banged its way up the bumpy dirt road that leads up to Kep Lodge. Its thatched bungalows nestle comfortably in to the green slopes that rise behind the town. Owned and run by a Swiss expat and his Cambodian wife the lodge combines a relaxed feel, an interesting mix of cultures and amazing poolside views.

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Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeung

On 17 April 1975, after more than five years of civil war, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. People cheered as the soldiers marched the streets. But their joy was short lived. A new nation, Democratic Kampuchea, was founded. “Year zero” was declared, money, schools and religion were outlawed and the communist revolution began.

Two million Cambodians – more than a quarter of the population – were systematically killed during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign. Two instruments of this genocide, Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, have become the most iconic reminders of this brutal period in Cambodia’s history.

Prior to the revolution the corridors and grounds of the Tuol Savy Prey high school, located in central Phnom Penh, would have been filled with the sounds of children laughing and playing. Under the Khmer Rouge this school was converted to Security Prison 21 (S-21), Toul Sleng, the nations most notorious prison. After the place was filled with sounds of a much different sort. It was here that those deemed to be a threat to the “Angkar” (the organization) were interrogated and tortured.

How this threat was determined seems arbitrary and in most cases imagined. During the early stages of the regime, city dwellers and intellectuals were targeted: public servants, monks, academics, doctors, teachers and students. Something as trivial as wearing glasses, as it was assumed to be a sign of intelligence, was enough to sign a death sentence. After this racial prejudices came into play; pure Khmer were thought to have black hair, flat noses, full lips and dark skin. Anybody who didn’t fit this ideal – had Chinese, Vietnamese or any other foreign ancestry – were also targeted. In the final stages of regime, paranoia was so rampant that anybody and everybody, including Khmer Rouge soldiers and leaders, were implicated and executed.

It wasn’t just those directly implicated who were targeted; in most cases when one person was implicated their entire family including the children were also executed.

Toul Sleng consists of four, triple storey buildings surrounded by a double row iron fence topped with barbed wire. From a distance it looks like many of the other abandoned civic buildings that are scatted throughout the city but once you get close, even if you have no knowledge of its history, you can feel that this is a place where bad things happened. A morbid solemnity radiates from the walls; as though the despair experienced there was so great it couldn’t be forgotten, it penetrated the building itself, seeped into the stone, infected the ground. All the pain, agony and angst of the twenty thousand broken souls has infused the very essence of the place.

The front of each the buildings are covered with a net of barbed wired to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by leaping from the balconies. The ground floor classrooms of Buildings “B”, “C” and “D” were divided into tiny (0.8m x 2m) brick holding cells. The rooms on the first and second floors were used as group holding cells.

On the southern side sits Building “A”, the ground floor classrooms have been converted into a row of 6m x 4m rooms where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Your flesh crawls the moment you step inside. A rusty single bed frame mounted with arm and leg irons stands in the centre of the room. The tiles beneath are stained with the blood of thousands broken on the rack. Despair drips from walls. A single photograph hangs on the wall documenting a moment more than thirty years prior when a broken and bloodied body lay chained to that very rack.

Prisoners were subjected to all methods of torture. They were beaten, water boarded, had electrodes attached to their genitals, their nails were pulled out using pliers and they were stretched on the rack. The frame from which the schoolyard swing once hung was transformed into an instrument of torture. A prisoner, hand bound behind their back, would be hoisted upside down  over and over until they lost consciousness. They were then revived by dipping their heads into a drum of filthy water and the interrogation would continue.

In most cases imprisonment would last somewhere between two and four months with political prisoners often held longer. After that period of time the prisoner would have confessed to anything and everything as well as implicating everyone they had ever meet.

Just as disturbing was the fastidious detail with which every aspect of the interrogations and torture were recorded. Every prisoner – man, woman and child – was meticulously photographed, their personal history including family and acquaintances recorded alongside their confessions. Thousand upon thousand of files were discovered following the Khmer Rouge’s defeat.

Once the interrogation, torture and subsequent confessions had been completed the Toul Sleng prisoners were trucked fourteen kilometers to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs, they were led out onto the field. They were ordered to squat by the edge of an open ditch and, to save bullets, most were clubbed to death. A guard would take a hoe, axe or ox cart axle and smash in their head. Their throat was then slit using a palm knife. The lifeless body was kicked into the open mass grave. Chemicals were thrown over the bodies to mask the smell and finish off any unlikely survivors.

Any infants who were brought with the prisoners were taken by the ankles, swung and had their heads smashed in on the trunk of “the killing tree”, which grows in the centre of the field.

The open fields of Choeung Ek feel different to the buildings of Toul Sleng. No contaminated walls remain to hold in the horror and despair. Instead a profound sense of sorrow emanates from the ground.

A tall white stupa, a Buddhist monument to those who lost their lives at that place, dominates in the centre of the field. Encased in glass are thousands of skulls taken from the surrounding field and stacked one atop the other. In all, 129 mass graves have been identified at Choeung Ek. Eighty-six of these graves have been excavated and 8985 corpses were found. Thousands more remain buried beneath the ground.

The atrocities played out at Toul Sleng and Choeung Ek were so primal, so inhuman, so barbaric I found them almost beyond my comprehension. Stepping into the torture cells at Toul Sleng it took me an eternity to process the scene that lay in front of me. Finally realisation dawned on me. Acknowledgement of humans’ capacity for evil made my mind and body reel in horror. Sorrow flooded my soul.

The fact that other human beings are capable of such acts means that I too possess that potential. The humanity of every man, woman and child who has lived as well as those who are yet to live is diminished by the cold, calculated acts of inhuman brutality committed at Toul Sleng and Choeunk Ek.

Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeunk Ek were just two cogs in a nationwide apparatus established by a small group of deluded fanatics to purse a utopian fantasy. It is estimated that the genocide in Democratic Kampuchea produced 189 prisons, 380 killing fields and 19,403 mass graves.

A chance encounter at Serendipity Beach

I don’t know what it is; perhaps being born seaside plants some primal desire for salt water and the smell of the sea. Life in Phnom Penh was good but being landlocked too long makes you stir crazy. Ignoring a number of warnings from fellow travelers it was time to escape the confines of the city for Cambodia’s premiere seaside resort, Sihanoukville.

Five hours on the bus and we arrived at the home of the humping lions (a pair of golden statues sit atop the hill near Occheuteal Beach). It is an appropriate emblem for what is, well and truly, a backpacker town.

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Locked, stocked and two stinking barrels

Cambodian locksmith

I’d been pissing out of my arse for nearly a week. We had well and truly run the food gauntlet during our Cambodian holiday; dubious skewers of barbequed mystery meat from street vendors, plates of steamed tripe and fried liver prepared on dirt floors in ramshackle restaurants, ice in everything. You can’t avoid the inevitable and I was finally struck down by the traveller’s curse: the runs, the squirts, the shits. Whatever you call it, I had it bad.

I foolishly thought that it would be safe sneaking around the corner to grab a bottle of water. I didn’t time my run(s) very well, missing that five-minute window of gastronomic normality. I only got a hundred metres down the road before I had to dash for home.

With a severe rumbling deep in my bowels, I threw the key in the lock. The key turned and I was one step closer to relief. I twisted the handle and pulled but my only reward was disappointment. The lock had been catching for days but we hadn’t thought that much of it. Like all things unpleasant it was biding its time, waiting for the most inconvenient moment to stop working. The handle turned but the barrel was broken so the door remained locked.

I tried jiggling the lock, jiggling the handle. No joy. At this point primal desperation kicked in and I began yanking the door. I leaned back throwing all my weight on the door. It tested and teased, getting to the point where it might pop open if only I could exert a fraction more force. The problem was, the only potential source of explosive force lay in the wrong part of my body.

The security guard from our apartment wandered around to check the ruckus. I explained my dilemma in broken sign language – my limited Khmer didn’t stand up when subjected to the threat of a thorough pants shitting.

The guard went through what I’d attempted. He tried the key, jiggled the lock, jiggled the handle and then resorted to brute force. He failed dismally and suggested I try the back door. I shook my head. It wasn’t an option: I didn’t have the key and even if I did, the door was bolted from the inside.

Now I have been locked out of a lot of places: houses, hotels and pubs. In the past these instances were the result of:

  1. an informed and justified decision made by the proprietor of the respective establishment; or
  2. my own ineptitude.

Being a serial misplacer of keys teaches you a number of skills. You often dabble in a little recreational break and enter. There was the cat flap at Sercombe Grove, the second floor bathroom window at Lennox Street, balcony doors at numerous hotels. Years of bitter experience also taught me you can avoid these outrageous feats of flexibility through simple pre-planning; hiding a spare key in the backyard, taping a bent coat hanger inside the bumper bar of the car. I had done none of that.

I’ve got an eye for vulnerable entry points. I had assessed the situation: ground floor, bars on every window and no cat flap. I wasn’t getting into this place anyway other than through the front door.

Shifting my weight from one leg to the other provided temporary relief for the bum gun and I set about explaining the hopelessness of our situation to the guard. He was a picture of relaxation, in no hurry to take further action. Maybe it was my crazed look and shallow breathing, perhaps it was the disturbingly loud rumbles bubbling from the darkest depths of my bowels, but eventually he relented and rang the landlady.

Had I not been on the verge of shitting my pants the scene that followed would have been hilarious. I’m sure even Abbott and Costello would have applauded the senseless repetition.

The landlady arrived and the guard filled her in. Going through the same drill: she failed just as we had. She suggested we try the back door. I shook my head. The guard shook his head. The violent churning in my bowels was causing my arse-cheeks to clutch uncontrollably. Her unhurried calm showed she was happy to spend the rest of the day looking for a way in. I didn’t have a moment to spare. I shot her a look bursting with desperation and she rang her husband.

He arrived and the routine was played out again: key, jiggle, jiggle, ram. When he suggested I try the back door, I nearly punched him in the face. Instead, I closed my eyes and concentrated on anything other than a gushing flood of poo.

Cambodian locksmith
How many Cambodian locksmiths does it take to open a door?

The three of them began a long-winded debate in Khmer about how to proceed. I was left to sweat profusely in the corner. When they glanced across and saw me rocking, quietly whispering like a broken soul, commonsense finally prevailed and the husband went in search of a locksmith.

You can spend hours waiting for tradies but luckily for me (and those around me) this is not the case in Phnom Penh. The husband returned within five minutes, locksmith in tow.

Locksmithery is a mysterious art combining subtly and force. Unfortunately I wasn’t in a position to appreciate the skill of that particular tradesman because I was busy foot hopping like a wino dancing a jig for a dollar.

After an eternity the locksmith chiseled out the lock barrel and the door opened. I burst into the house, a hurricane on heat, and locked myself in the bathroom to unleash the fury. There was sobbing, screaming, pain, involuntary grabbing of the bowl and ungodly noise from the full ensemble of my bum trumpet band.

I returned, slightly embarrassed, and offered the locksmith the money for his services. He looked at me like I had leprosy but took the cash carefully.

Relieved to have ready access to the amenities of home once again, I wondered how many weeks it would be until I could fart without following through.

Pho, toothpicks and satisfaction

They say the simple joys are the best. Well, a noodle soup (pho or ka teav tirk) is as simple as it gets, but enjoying this traditional Khmer breakfast in a noodle-shop is one of the many joys of our life in Cambodia.

Whether it is a lean-to, little shop or a big open-plan eatery, Phnom Penh’s noodle-houses are packed every morning with men and women grabbing a quick bite or families breakfasting together. Irrelevant of whether the place is clean or filthy the food is always good.

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Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat

For most the Cambodian working week spans all seven days so public holidays are special occasions. Fortunately for us we timed our stay here well as it coincides with a number of the major festivals.

Our first, Bchum Ben (the festival of the dead) meant that Amy had a five-day weekend. For this holiday people discard their urban existence and return to their place of birth to spend time with family and celebrate the lives of those whom have past. Even better, this simple celebration of family and loved ones doesn’t seem cheapened by the commercialism typical of most western holidays.

For our first weekend away, we decided to journey to the home of the ancient kingdom of Angkor. The city of Siem Reap, a five-hour bus-ride from Phnom Penh, is the gateway to the most magnificent of the temples built by the kings of Angkor to house their gods.

After another bus trip overseen by a maniac we arrived in Siem Reap thankful to be alive. We made our way to our hotel, the Golden Temple.

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Neverending adventures from the flying saddle

I have owned a number of bikes over the years.

My first was a wooden tricycle turned from the hands and heart of my great uncle Alf.

A Christmas gift from the early stages of my pre-pubescence provided my primary school ride. It was antiquated even when new, compared to the shiny alloy rigs of my contemporaries. But damn, good times were had with that rust ridden, heavy, old shit truck BMX. Wagging school, tadpoling and piffen yonnies. It also had sweet pegs and character.

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The streets of Phnom Penh

The best way to know a city is to walk her streets.

Immediately evident in Phnom Penh is the number of cars and trucks on the road in comparison to other Asian cities were the Moto tends to be king. The roads are definitely indicative of the divide between rich and poor. The affluent in the air-conditioned comfort of their brand new Hummers, 4WD and SUVs fly by while a naked toddler shits in the gutter, parents nowhere in sight.

For those lacking their own ride, Phnom Penh offers a number of different ways to join the procession.

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A relaxed ride from My Tho to Chau Doc

Having arranged transport at the hotel we made our way out to the front where our chariots awaited. Our destination, Chau Doc, on the Vietnam/Cambodian border. A direct six-hour trip where one can appreciate the tranquil surrounds from the spacious air-conditioned comfort of a deluxe coach, so our trusty salesman assured us.

On the back of our respective motos, we snaked in out of traffic on the semi-paved road at a bowel loosening 90km/h.  Amy’s driver had taken it upon himself to comprehensively flog my driver in a race neither Amy or I wanted or needed to have. Heading in the opposite direction to our ultimate destination we sped past at least three highway bus stops situated closer to our hotel. We arrived at the roadside tarpaulin that served as a bus stop, both shaken and pale (and who wouldn’t want to be whiter here? It makes you attractive to everybody from street-merchants to muggers).

While we waited a stocky Vietnamese woman of about sixty took it upon herself to protect Amy’s virtue.  A grunt indicated that our fellow traveler was satisfied with the bra strap to singlet ratio. Ten minutes feasting on the highway dust and fumes then we were bustled on to our awaiting chariot.

It was obvious from the early stages of our journey that our driver, Speedy Steve from Saigon as I came to call him, was of the Brock school of driving theory. The bedrock principal of this theory holds that the best way get somewhere is to get there quick. As such straddling lanes is preferable as it maximises ones options, which includes the other side of the road and the footpath. So we went up the 1A at pace, the fringes of Hi Chi Minh flying by, little road-side mechanic shops, open-air restaurants and tightly packed ramshackle open plan houses.

All Vietnamese drivers (be they in charge of bus, car or moto) love their horns. It was obvious from the outset that Speedy Steve had taken his love for the horn to another level. He especially loved using it to tell all the jerks in his way to move aside, quickly, or end up on the grill of his hog.

About an hour in, Speedy Steve was forced to jam on the anchors. Pulling to a screaming halt we managed to surprise three lanes of traffic. As fellow passengers looked for the source of our hilarious hiatus, I snuck a glance at our hard man of the road. A weary shake of the head seemed to concede that this wasn’t going to be his day. The Saigon traffic police usually content themselves fining foreigners but today Speedy Steve had been nabbed by the only two traffic cops working the 1A. Twenty minutes, an animated exchange, a little tea money later and we were back on our way.

Not long after the skies opened up. Amy and I both reveled in the novelty of liquid precipitation falling from the sky (having come straight from Melbourne’s big dry) but not Speedy Steve. His shoulders tightened in frustration as he was forced to reduce his speed back to a paltry life-threatening.

We pulled in for our first roadside stop. Speedy Steve’s death-defying feats of automotive skill meant that we enjoyed a thirty-two minute break instead of the customary thirty minutes.

After a couple of hours back on the road the urban fringes had given way to the lush green wetness of the rice fields sprawling between the small townships of the Mekong plains. The pastoral splendor of our surrounds was lost on Speedy Steve, less people meant less opportunity for toot’n. The constant rain had also forced him to curb his natural inclination for ridiculous speed. Deprived of his two great joys, meant a shit-boring day for Speedy Steve.

Everybody knows the best way to combat boredom and tired eyes is with a Nanna nap. Now Speedy Steve was nobody’s fool so that was what he opted for.

A couple of factors proved problematic:
a) Sleepy Steve was in command of a bus carrying 35 passengers.
b) The bus was traveling at 110km/h down a semi-sealed road
c) The semi-sealed road had been rendered marginally slippery by a torrential tropical downpour.

Nobody would have been any the wiser to Steve’s snooze had he not lost his shit when he woke, causing the bus to fish-tail out of control.

Luckily a restaurant veranda was conveniently located on the other side of the road up ahead. This provided Speedy Steve something to bring our little joy ride to an abrupt halt on.

Several people bundled out to inspect the damage, the veranda was collapsed in a heap, the side of the bus had received a substantial work over and all the passengers on the left hand side (including Amy) got a face full of thatching from the restaurant roof. Despite this we all agreed it was a small price to pay to ensure Speedy Steve was well rested.

Either our little scrape with death or an arbitrary decision by Speedy Steve brought about a change of rig at the next town. Everybody was herded into minibuses.

We had climbed aboard our crowded chariot and someone used our ignorance as a punch line, something along the lines of, “Stupid round-eye, they come to our country and don’t even bother to learn the language.” Everybody laughed. We laughed. We didn’t get it. Good call though, we didn’t have a fucking clue where we were or how long we had to go.

We stopped to deliver some mail, then to deliver some rice. Domestic duties fulfilled, we hit the highway again. After an hour or so we pulled into another bus station so the driver could ask our destination. Relived that our fellow passengers also said Chau Doc, we waited while the driver counted heads. Our driver mumbled something prompting a tirade of abuse from our fellow passengers. Obviously, not enough so we waited.

Sure enough, a 1975 Mitsibishi seven-seater rust rider rattled to a halt next to us. We all clambered in. As I was the biggest, I got the best spot, right above where the back shocks should have been.  The rear door wouldn’t close because of my bag so we had to drive with it unsnibbed. The constant banging behind my head provided welcome distraction from the constant banging of the back axle on my arse.

As we had traveled 10km we had to stop for brake fluid. We traveled another 10 km and whoola, we were at our destination, only nine hours, a brush with death, three changes of bus, and a broken coccyx later.