Sunday, 5 January 2014

A journey through two war ravished nations - Chapter 22

Like most kids in Britain, I'd never heard of Cambodia until the children's TV programme Blue Peter had an appeal to raise money for victims of the mass genocide that took place there in the late 1970's.

So, what was the genocide all about? I'll summarise it for you.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot attempted to form a communist peasant farming society, which resulted in the death of 25 percent of the countries population from starvation, overwork and executions. 

In 1949, at the age of 20, Pol Pot moved to Paris on a scholarship, to study radio electronics. In Paris he became heavily involved in Marxism and neglected his studies, eventually losing his scholarship. In 1953 he returned to Cambodia where he joined the underground communist movement. By 1962 Pol Pot had become the leader of the Cambodian Communist Party but was forced to flee into the jungle to escape the wrath of Prince Sihanouk. There he formed an armed resistance movement known as the Khmer Rouge.

Of course, as with many wars of the past 70 years, the Americans had their part to play in it. An American backed military coup in 1970 ousted Prince Sihanouk, who then joined forces with his enemy Pol Pot, in opposing the new government. The same year, the American military invaded Cambodia in an attempt to expel North Vietnamese soldiers from their border camps. Their efforts failed, instead driving the Vietnamese deeper into the Cambodian jungle, where they joined forces with the Khmer Rouge. Between 1969 and 1973 the U.S. attempts to bomb North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Eastern Cambodia resulted in the deaths of up to 150 000 Cambodian peasants. This led to a mass exodus of peasants from the Cambodian countryside to the capital Phnom Penh. The country became destabilised which led to popular support for the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

By 1975 the U.S. had pulled all its troops out of Vietnam and the Cambodian government had fallen out of favour with the Americans. Pol Pot and his merry bunch of commie brothers capitalised on these favourable conditions and took over Phnom Penh.

As had happened in the Chinese Cultural revolution a decade earlier, all foreigners were expelled from the country, the speaking of foreign languages was banned, and all foreign aid rejected. Money was forbidden, radios and bicycles were confiscated, media shut down, health care eliminated, education banned, and businesses shuttered. In short, the Khmer Rouge forced millions of city dwelling nationals into the countryside to work 16 hour days in the fields, where they often died of malnutrition or overwork. Anybody who opposed the regime was killed without a second thought. The fields became known as the Killing Fields.

I could babble on all day about the how the intellectuals were humiliated and executed and how families were torn to pieces, but I'm sure that you eager to get back to my own ridiculous antics so I'll finish my history lesson here.

"Bloody hell, I'm not flying on that thing," Ian chirped in. "Look at it! It doesn't even look capable of getting airborne". I must admit, I had to agree.

At the time we were walking across the tarmac at Bangkok airport and we'd just been confronted by what I could only describe as a flying pig. The tyres looked deflated, the bodywork shoddy and its twin propeller engine ancient. To be fair, I'd never flown in a propeller driven plane before and it all seemed like something from a by-gone era.

Inside the plane things got worse. As we prepared for take off, smoke (or what I thought was smoke) started billowing out of the air conditioning unit. "Shit, the plane's on fire," I shouted to Ian. "I think it's alright he told me, the air hostess doesn't seem phased by it." I turned to check her out, and it was indeed true. She seemed totally at ease with the smoke filled cabin.

For the next hour or so I sat there gripping my seat until we touched down at Phnom Penh International Airport. At least that's what the sign said. To be honest it looked more like a giant cow shed. Was this going to be an indication of how the rest of the country was going to look? Yes it was.

Phnom Penh didn't feel like a capital city at all, in fact it didn't even seem like a city. There were barely any cars on the streets apart from UN Toyota Land Cruisers, easily identifiable by the large red cross emblazoned on the side of the vehicles. If vehicles were sparse, the same could not be said about farm animals. Pigs, cows, chickens and a whole multitude of other animals perused around the streets in their eternal hunt for food. This was an extremely poor place, of that there was no doubt. If I've ever seen any country in dire need of foreign aid, this was it.

We soon found a hostel on a street that looked like I imagined a London slum to look like 150 years earlier. That is, unsurfaced, waterlogged, full of rubbish piles, and open sewers. Kids sat and played with whatever they could find, while rats ran around spreading their disease without a care in the world. The whole place stunk of human excrement which caused me to gag with great frequence. I honestly could not fathom how it was possible to live in those conditions.

We only had four days in Phnom Penh, and on first impressions I was quite glad about this. Like most things though I soon became accustomed to the squalor, and by the time I had to leave I wished that I could stay for another month.

On our second day in the city we headed for the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Of over 20 000 mass grave sites that have been mapped, it is estimated that 1.4 million people were executed there, whilst further deaths resulting from starvation and disease range from 1.7 million to 2.5 million.

As you can imagine, wandering around the graves was a very solemn experience. Bones and skulls had been left scattered around the site as a very real reminder of the trauma that took place there. Even these days it is not uncommon for bones, teeth or pieces of clothing to surface after heavy rains.

Most of those executed in the Killing Fields were brought from the S21 prison in the city, which Ian and I would visit later that day. The victims were generally killed by poison, spades or sharpened bamboo spears, to save on bullets. Often they were ordered to dig their own graves. In many cases, children witnessed their parents being murdered and then they themselves were murdered by having their heads bashed against a tree. This was done to stop the children avenging their parent’s deaths.

As if we needed a further reminder of the atrocities that had occurred there, a memorial tower had been constructed. In the middle of the tower was a large glass display case which was full of human skulls. Most of the skulls had large holes in the top of the cranium, where they had been bashed by heavy instruments of torture. By the time I left the Killing Fields an hour or so later I was feeling physically and psychologically fragile. It was probably not the best time to visit S21 (Tuol Sleng) prison, but we did anyway.

Even before we entered the prison we were reminded about the woes of war. Outside the museum were legions of seemingly homeless people, most of whom had limbs missing. It is estimated that there are over 40 000 amputees in Cambodia (one of the highest numbers in the world). The cause of this is the huge amount of land mines that were planted during the Pol Pot regime. It is said that there maybe as many as six million unexploded bombs still lying around the country to this day.

Once the prisoners were brought to S21 they would have their photographs taken before being forced to give a detailed biography of their lives. The photos of all the victims were hung on the museum walls giving the building a very eerie authenticity. To add to the dark atmosphere, the rooms had not been cleaned, and blood stains and finger prints could still be seen on the walls of the prison cells and torture rooms. Some of the torture implements, such as thumb screws and electric shock devices were still there on display.

To get a better idea of the lives that the prisoners lived in the camps, here's a list of the camp rules -complete with their poor translation.

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 about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get 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.

Needless to say, by the time Ian and I left the prison we were not full of the joys of life. And we were all too willing to give our money to the multitudes of limbless beggars who were gathered outside. Obviously they'd done their market research, and knew exactly where to stand.

The next few days were spent driving around the Cambodian countryside on mopeds that we'd hired. Considering that the people had suffered such trauma only 15 years earlier, they all seemed to have nice big smiles for us. The only vehicles that we saw (apart from mopeds and UN Land Cruisers) were buffalo drawn hay carts. I felt like I'd stepped into some sort of time machine, and gone back a few hundred years.

Along the way we made a toilet stop in a field. This was against everything that we'd been warned against. There were so many landmines in Cambodia that we'd been advised not to deviate from the roads or paths. I can't think of too many things that I'd enjoy less than losing my manhood to a landmine.

A short while later we were mobbed by a bunch of kids who found us quite fascinating. Their curiosity was such that they reached out with wonderment in their eyes, as they touched our skin. Ian got his video camera out and filmed the whole affair. The look on their faces as they gathered around to watch the video played back on the small video camera screen was a sight to behold. The general emotion that they exhibited was laughter, although a few of them ran away in fear.

We'd heard from various people that we should visit Angkor Wat while we were in Cambodia, but that it was hit and miss if we'd be able to get there. It was still a little dangerous in 1994 and the only way that we could have possibly got there was a long boat ride up the Tonle Sap river to Siem Reap. The river would eventually open up into the Tonle Sap lake where Angkor Wat was located.

We wandered down to the river to try and persuade some of the local boat owners to take us on the trip, but unfortunately nobody seemed to want to take us up on our offer. It was to our benefit that we didn't realise just how important Angkor Wat was, or we would have been far more disappointed than we actually were. As it was we just took it on the chin and went back to pack our bags for our imminent trip to Vietnam.

As mentioned earlier, when I did eventually visit Angkor Wat in 2010 the experience was made infinitely less enjoyable by the legions of tourists there. If only I'd managed to visit the temples in 1994, I imagine I'd have had a totally different experience.

Our arrival in Vietnam couldn't have been more dramatic. Well I guess that it could - the plane could have crashed. We arrived right in time for Tet (Vietnamese New Year) which was just about the noisiest party that I could possibly imagine. A day of listening to intense fire crackers which lined every street, would have just about been bearable. But after three days of it, it grew very old. By the time I left Ho Chi Minh my ears felt like they were bleeding, and I was left feeling so shell shocked that it seemed like I'd been in the Vietnam War myself.

The people in Ho Chi Minh were extremely welcoming. This is probably because they'd been up for three days hammering Saigon beer and throwing firecrackers at each other, but still it was nice to feel welcome. Not sure what I was expecting, but I guess after watching so may Vietnam war films and seeing the atrocities that had been committed there, I was fearing a far more hostile reception. I'd have to wait for Hanoi to witness this.

It was not difficult to see that the French had occupied the country not too long ago (they were only expelled in 1954). The wide, tree lined boulevards and distinctly French architecture left me feeling that I was in Paris. A visit to the War Remnants Museums soon ridded my mind of this romantic notion. The museum was full of reminders of how warped some of the American soldiers had been during the conflict. One picture that I found particularly disturbing was of a group of smiling American soldiers holding the severed head of a Vietnamese soldier in front of them, as if it was their prize. I'm sure that the Viet Cong inflicted equally as disgusting crimes on the Americans, but this museum neglected to show any of that.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom. On our third day in the city we were treated to free Coca Cola. Huge trucks were driving around the city booming out extremely loud music whilst dishing out bottles of the world's favourite drink to passers by. Upon inquiry we were to find out that they were doing this because Coca Cola had just had its embargo lifted and the Coca Cola Company were free to trade there again. We'd arrived to witness an historic moment in time, and by golly were the locals happy. Capitalism at it's finest - oh the irony.

Once again Ian and I hired mopeds. This time to ride out to the Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong dug hundreds of miles of tunnels to use as hiding spots, communication and supply routes, hospitals, living quarters and just about anything else you can think of. The Americans knew about the existence of these tunnels, only locating and then destroying them proved difficult. Finding them also proved difficult for me and Ian, as we drove all over the jungle searching.

Once we reached the site, our guide tested us out to see if we could find the entrance to the tunnels. After a short while we gave up, which gave him great pleasure. As it turned out we'd practically been standing on the entrance all along. But at 2ft by 2ft and covered in grass it was hardly surprising that we didn't locate them.

Even though the tunnels had since been modified to suit the bodies of Western tourists, it was still quite claustrophobic down there, and I was happy to re-emerge. God knows how they spent months in them. There's a photo of me in one of my albums, emerging from the tunnel with the trap door hoisted above me. In the photo, the sun is glaring down on my fine hair and you can see bald patches. This was the first time that I realised that I was going bald.

From Ho Chi Minh we headed south to the Mekong Delta, to discover the tributaries of the River Mekong, by boat. This incredibly green and fertile land produces half of Vietnam's agricultural output and more rice than Japan and Korea together. As we chugged up the river in our motorised wooden canoe, it seemed like life stood still. Around us people got on with the things that they'd been doing for hundreds of years without any cares of the modern age. Farmers ploughed fields, fisherman fished with nets, and small boats transported goods around. I put on my Walkman, sat back and listened to New Order's Technique album on repeat. This was the day that I truly fell in love with this album. I admired the view and clicked my mental camera.

This was also the day that I tried snake. Our boat pulled up besides a restaurant and we were asked to choose which snake we wanted to eat. It pains me to think about it now, after being a vegetarian for 15 years. Mind you, I wasn't too keen on witnessing a live snake being shed of its skin back then either. I won't even tell you what it tasted like, because I'm sure that you can guess already.

After a brief stay in Ho Chi Minh once more, we headed for the highland city of Dalat. The city was originally built as a playground for the French, who wanted to escape the heat and humidity of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh). Dalat had a rather Alpine feel to it, especially since many of the houses were built in a European style. With a fairly large lake in the middle of the city and surrounding pine covered hills, I almost felt that I had teleported to Swizterland. Courting couples wandered slowly around the lake, hand in hand taking in the view. It was about as romantic as Vietnam was going to get.

On our second day in Dalat Ian and I caught a motorbike taxi (Xe Om) out to the Prenn Waterfalls, where we stood and watched in amazement as legions of young couples paid money to have a photographer take their pictures alongside a giant tacky teddy bear. Asian's obsession with things that they deemed cute was becoming increasingly more apparent to me. The falls by the way, were mediocre at best.

In need of a little rest, we next headed to one of Vietnam's premier beach areas Nha Trang. Where we did very little, in preparation for our mammoth trip up the East Coast of Vietnam.

The coastline of Vietnam is actually longer than the West Coast of America. I remember being astounded by this fact when I first heard. That's probably because we were about to travel most of the way up the coast on a bus. We'd be making plenty of stops along the way, but still, travelling 800 miles on a chicken bus full of puking locals was no mean feat. (Note the coast in Vietnam bends like a boomerang). Especially when the roads were as potholed and full of agricultural transport. Often the bus would have to wait for several minutes because a buffalo was blocking the road.

The journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An was a distance of 256 miles. If this were a motorway in England this would have taken us less than four hours, if it were an autobahn in Germany we could have perhaps done it in just over two. But in a bus that had to slow down every two minutes to overtake a tractor, and constantly had to beep its horn to clear the road of livestock, this journey took more than 12 hours. That's 12 hours of crappy Vietnamese music blasting through the tinny speakers, and 12 hours of fearing for my life. When the bus did eventually gain momentum, we'd often shoot past a vehicle on the grass verge at the side of the road. Our arrival in Hoi An could not have come soon enough.

Thankfully Hoi An was worth it. A charming little town, whose multicultural influences from its time as a 17th century trading post was easy to see. With narrow lanes and quirky little shops, it took very little thought to imagine what it would have looked like 300 years earlier.

A couple of memorable events happened during our time there. We hired bicycles one day and headed alongside the river for an afternoon cycle. Everything was nice and relaxed until we passed by a group of about 20 kids, who were playing by the river. When they saw us, the kids got over excited at the sight of two white guys. They decided that it'd be a great idea to stand up on the back of our bikes and let us whisk them up and down the river bank. Each time we returned to the group, another pair would get on the back and we'd start the pleasure ride again.

Things were going fine for about 10 minutes, and Ian and I were quite enjoying ourselves. That is, until the kid on the back of Ian's bike fell off and his foot got jammed in the spokes of the wheel. Before we knew it we'd been surrounded by a whole village full of people, who had seemingly appeared from nowhere. Within minutes the mood of the mob had escalated and Ian and I were getting some pretty nasty looks.

"Shit! We need to get out of here fast," I told Ian.

"No shit, I think they're going to lynch us," he replied.

One of the villagers who had apparently witnessed the whole event came up behind us to inform us of what was going on. 

"They want your money, you must go quickly," he told us.

Fortunately for us, the mob were so engrossed in their decision of how much money to screw us for, that they didn't notice our escape. We felt rather cruel leaving a kid with a mashed up foot behind. But it really wasn't our fault.

The next morning as we slept in our room, we were awoken to a tremendous racket outside in the street. I threw open the shutters, to witness a naked man stood not three feet away from our window, with a bunch of people surrounding him. Not being one to miss an opportunity for excitement, I threw on some clothes and went out to investigate.

By the time I got outside the guy had run off down the street and was being chased by a mob of people (seems like mobs were a common occurrence in Hoi An). The mob soon cornered the naked man, who was visibly distressed. And a policeman started to beat him with a stick.

My appearance on the scene was not well received by the locals, who obviously wanted to shield tourists from this kind of lunacy. Eventually the guy was caught, his hands were tied behind his back, and he was thrown into a nearby house. I managed to break my way through the crowds, to push my head up against the window of the house to see what was going on. It wasn't pretty! The naked man was being beaten by around five police men. I left feeling rather disturbed by the whole scene, and wishing that I'd never witnessed it.

From Hoi An we headed to Vietnam's fourth largest city Danang, where the American troops first landed in the Vietnam War. Here we hired scooters and headed to the Marble Mountains some 10 km away. The Marble Mountains consisted of five rocky outcrops which used to be islands. We ascended one of the peaks, stopping off on the way up to check out Buddhist and Hindu sanctuaries which were housed in natural caves.

Once on top of the mountain, my mental camera was out of control. The view of the ocean and surrounding countryside was stunning. We even got a view of China Beach where American troops were helicoptered in for rest and relaxation during the Vietnam War.

Next up was the city of Hue which served as the country's political capital from 1802 to 1945, and was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the Vietnam War. We met up with a couple of American psychiatrists called Dan and Barbara in Hue, and spent a few days with them.

The four of us got invited for dinner with the family of some guy who we randomly met on the street. The meal, it turned out was just a guise to lure us into his house, so that he could bombard us with examples of how poor his family was.

"Look my window, it's broken, I can't afford to fix it," he told us. Followed by, "my family can't afford to eat."

I was in two minds to ask him why he was inviting a bunch of strangers to eat his family's food if they didn't have enough for themselves. But there was no need, his intentions were revealed soon enough.

As we were about to leave the house, the guy jumped in front of the door and demanded money from us for the food. It was a quite ridiculous scene, and one that left my blood boiling. We'd basically been lured into his restaurant, force fed and then mentally black mailed into giving them money. Thankfully, Barbara and Dan were rich enough to pay him, and caring enough not to feel anger.

Hue was full of religious and historical sites, which we quite easily filled our days wandering around. Most of this time was spent at the Citadel. This former Imperial seat of government had enough tombs, courtyards, ponds and gates, to keep us busy. But it was the Thien Mu Pagoda, some four km away that excited me most.

It was from this pagoda that the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set off from on the 10th of June 1963. He drove his car through the night to Saigon, where he parked up at a busy intersection. He then sat down cross legged, and in front of a crowd of around 400 monks, a friend doused him in petrol, before he set himself alight. An image that was captured on film and beamed around the world. His reason for doing this was to protest against Buddhist oppression installed by the new president's (Ngo Dinh Diem) intolerant regime.

The little blue car which he drove almost 400 miles in to the location of his death was on display at the pagoda. Seeing the car there after only seeing it before in the famous photo of him burning felt quite weird. By the way, most people will probably best know the photo as the cover of Rage Against the Machine's eponymous album from 1992.

What better place to end a journey through a country than the capital city. It was late February when we arrived in Hanoi and the cold temperatures caught me totally unaware. Until then, I'd only experienced cold weather in New Zealand, during my entire trip. Before our arrival in Hanoi the weather in Vietnam had been kind to us, indeed I'd spent much of my time in Saigon bare chested, and that was only three weeks earlier. Having no warm clothes in my bag, all I could do in my attempt to stay warm was layer up, using practically every item in my rucksack.

I've been back to Hanoi since 1994, and I find the city quite charming. But back then Hanoi was cold, grey and the best example of communist dystopia that I'd ever witnessed. Communist posters, statues, flags and other paraphernalia could still be found all over the city. The majority of men wore green army outfits, bikes outnumbered cars by about a million to one, and grimaces outnumbered smiles by the same ratio.

Just to add an extra element of communist misery to our time there, we queued up for hours to catch a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body in his mausoleum. I must admit, I found this quite fascinating, and I vowed to visit both Lenin and Mao if I ever happened to be in Moscow or Beijng. Although, I've since been to both these cities and I simply couldn't be bothered to queue up.

Our time in Nam was drawing to a close. And Ian and I had planned to go in separate directions. He was heading off to Hong Kong to find work, whilst I decided to go and find myself in India. If the truth be known I wasn't really too sure whether I wanted to travel to India or not because I'd heard too many horror stories about illness and theft, but it was rumoured to be an extremely cheap destination and my money was fast running out.

Financially Hanoi, had been good to us. With a litre of beer cheaper than a litre of water it was an easy place to get drunk in. And with carts all over the city selling baguettes filled with cheese and salami for a ridiculously low price, I was never going to go hungry. I'd hear rumours through the travellers grapevine that beer was expensive in India, so I'd decided to lay off it while I was there. I was also going to become vegetarian for the duration of my stay.

On March 4th 1994, I bid Ian farewell and I boarded a place back to Bangkok, from where I would fly to Calcutta to begin the final few months of my trip.

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