Days 295-301: Phnom Penh, A City of Extremes

S: Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh has suffered a great deal of setbacks. After the country gained independence it became a prosperous city in the 1960s. However, all was taken away in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over. Today it is a city which is still finding its feet.

Our first sobering visit in Phnom Penh took us to Tuol Sleng, or the Genocide Museum. Once the home of learning Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces in 1975. It was renamed Security Prison 21 (S-21) and the classrooms were converted into torture chambers and holding cells.

We couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness as we walked around the museum. Although there was not much information displayed, the bare rooms with their bitter scents spoke volumes.

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Once a classroom, under the Khmer Rouge pain and suffering were the only lessons.

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At the height of its activity, some 100 victims were killed here every day.

The Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed. When the Vietnamese army rescued Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21. They had largely survived because their skills – such as painting or photography – were deemed useful to the regime.

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The barbed wire was put up in order to stop individuals committing suicide by jumping from the windows.

In desperate need of something uplifting, we also visited the tranquil grounds of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace.

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The Royal Palace.

With its classic Khmer roofs and opulent gilding the huge palace complex dominates central Phnom Penh. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied the Palace since it was built in the 1860’s, with a period of absence during and shortly after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. One thing which did strike us as bizarre was that there were no benches or seats on which to sit back and relax. It seems a shame such an idyllic setting in Phnom Penh is so restricted.

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It could be a scene from a fairytale.

Although we weren’t staying in a five star hotel our accommodation was perfectly adequate. It felt uncomfortably salubrious though when we looked outside of our window and saw another side of Phnom Penh.

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The locals hard at work bagging coal.

Phnom Penh had one last gut-wrenching experience in store for us. On our last day in Cambodia we travelled fifty minutes out of town to Choeung Ek, infamously known as The Killing Fields.

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A serene setting you may think; perhaps even a golf course? No, this is where thousands of prisoners were massacred and then buried.

On the 17th of April 1975 the Khmer Rouge put into action one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia into an agriculture cooperative. Within days, the entire population of Phnom Penh, including the sick, elderly and infirm, were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Intellectuals were wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. The arrival of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero.

When wandering through this peaceful, shady former orchard it is hard to imagine the cruelty that unravelled here. A memorial stupa soon brings it home, displaying more than 8000 skulls of victims and their ragged clothes.

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Mass grave of 166 victims without heads.

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Killing tree…

The Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end by the Vietnamese, who set free the almost empty streets on 7 January 1979. It is estimated 1.7 million people were killed by the hands of Pol Pot and his followers.

As our time in Cambodia nears its end we have developed an unstinting admiration and respect for the country and its people, people who have suffered so much. Cambodia has been upsetting and exhilarating in equal measure; a county which has been through so much and is yet so resilient – an inspiration to all who visit.

The last country on our itinerary is Vietnam. Fellow travellers we have met seem to have either loved it or hated it. We are hoping for the latter. We plan to travel overland from Ho Chi Minh City north to Hanoi, stopping off at a couple of costal towns and backpacker hotspots. Today we journey from Phnom Penh to our last overland border crossing, and then onto Ho Chi Minh City – a metropolis which claims to have nearly as many motorbikes as it has citizens…

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Days 291-294: Angkor Wat Part Four

S: On our fourth and final visit to Angkor National Park we took in the last part of the grand tour, just northeast of Angkor Wat. This included the temples of Ta Keo, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup and Banteay Kdei. And of course our visit would not have been complete without a final visit to Angkor Wat itself. We were blessed with a beautiful day, a splendid opportunity for some more photography.

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Another day, another magnificent temple – Preah Khan.

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Our trusty tuk-tuk driver Thon.

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It’s a jungle out there.

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Unlike in Scotland, umbrellas have a dual purpose in Cambodia.

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A monk in a hurry.

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Just a small part of Angkor Wat’s western gallery.

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It’ll be nice when it’s finished (sorry, couldn’t resist it).

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The central tower of Angkor Wat.

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The eastern entrance to Angkor Wat – little known, little crowded, but just as wonderful as the rest.

Four visits to Angkor Wat may sound excessive but each time it has revealed something different, and each time we have seen it in a new light, quite literally: rain, cloud, misty dawn and midday splendour.

We now leave Siem Reap for Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a city with as many sides to it as Angkor Wat…

Days 286-290: Week Four at Grace House

S: ‘All good things come to an end’, and so too has my time at Grace House.

This week I stretched the children’s abilities by teaching them about the four cardinal points – north, south, east and west. Making them think hard I asked them which countries surrounded Cambodia. Then came the fun part, ‘pin the nose on the pig’, a Southeast Asian take on ‘pin the tail on the donkey’. I blindfolded the children, gave them a sticker each and asked them to place it on the whiteboard near to where they thought the nose would be. Outcome? Shouts, laughs, confusion and amusement.

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My class teacher Sophors with one of the pupils. Sophors has been teaching at Grace House for two years.

As I have become familiar with the children I have gotten to know their routines, habits and limits. For a lot of the children Grace House is a place where their imaginations are broadened and future goals brought that little bit closer. From listening to the children reading from their books, I have been able to recognise those whose understanding of English is slightly more advanced. And from observing them in different scenarios with new objects in front of them, it is clear to see those who are keener to progress.

For others Grace House is a place simply to be children, to play and have fun before returning home to reality. The reality can often be broken families and severe poverty, situations from which they may never escape. Some children are looked after only by a brother, sister or grandparent. Mothers having had their children very young often run off, and some fathers spend what little wages they receive on alcohol.

And let us not forget what Grace House is doing for the local villages: house repairs, installing toilets and water pumps, rice aid, medical care, disabled children’s day centre, domestic electricians courses and much, much more.

Grace House has been open for six years, and it is brilliant to see the difference it’s making. Determined to encourage sustainability in the community, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to achieve this.

On my last day at Grace House Richard and I bought the children watermelons, allowing them to tuck into a piece each. It is something which we often take for granted, but for the children it may have been their only piece of fruit that week. Children and their families tend to survive on a diet of rice and not much more, this is one of the main reasons they become malnourished.

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Playtime

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The children take their games very seriously here.

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Always smiling.

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Farewell hug.

My four weeks at Grace House have been incredibly enriching ones which I will look back on fondly. Anyone wishing to find out more about Grace House can visit their website – http://www.gracehousecambodia.org

Days 284-285: Angkor Wat Part Three

S: While we have been traveling around the world we have been attempting to follow the sun. With countless spectacular sunsets viewed in sublime surroundings, we thought we should make an effort to rack up a few more sunrises. So dawn at Angkor Wat was firmly in our sights as we made an early start this Sunday.

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The Angkor ‘Shot of All Shots’

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‘And that sweet city with its dreaming spires…’

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At Angkor Wat people will do anything to get a decent photograph.

Despite this being our third visit to Angkor Wat, we are due back for a fourth and final visit next week. So far you’ve only seen glimpses of its glory. This is for two reasons: first, its big; second, it’s blighted by scaffolding. But next week we will do our best to reveal its splendour while saving its blushes.

Days 279-283: Week Three at Grace House

S: This week I felt more at home at Grace House. I am slowly learning the names of the children in my class and understanding their abilities. This week I taught the children some key facts and figures about Cambodia. The fun part for the children, though, was making Cambodian flags!

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Grace House is fortunate enough to have a wide ranging library. The children spend one hour a week in the library, their only chance to read children’s books.

In addition to teaching young children English, Grace House has an English class later in the day for young adults. These students are either studying at university or have part time jobs and are looking to improve their English. Helping out in this class, for me, is very enjoyable. There are around 12 students in this class, roughly 19 years old and all have a passion to learn. I have been able to engage with these students much more easily than with the younger children. Mainly because their grasp of English is more advanced I am able to have conversations with these students.

I have been helping the older students with their pronunciation and trying to widen their vocabulary. Seeing the smiles on their faces when they are learning is fantastic. And hearing about their future plans, be it in education or employment, is encouraging. These students are the future of Cambodia and hopefully they will help Cambodia build a brighter tomorrow.

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The class of 2012

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My sweaty bike ride to and from Grace House has provided me with some memorable sights. Most pass by too quickly for me to photograph. I have been chased by barking wild dogs, and overtaken by a motorbike carrying a wooden pole alive with bottom-pegged ducks! My favourite by far was a monk, dressed in his robe and with a chainsaw in hand, cutting down a tree. Health and safety?!

Next week is my last week at Grace House. I wonder what memories await me…

Days 277-278: Angkor Wat Part Two

S: With so many temples to chose from, our second weekend in Siem Reap took us to Banteay Srei, a 10th-century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. One of the smallest temples in the Angkor group, it is tucked away 25 km north-east of the main site. Banteay Srei is built largely of red sandstone, a medium that lends itself to the elaborate decorative wall carvings which are still observable today. The buildings themselves are miniature in scale, unusually so when measured by the monumental standards of Angkorian construction.

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Banteay Srei – arguably the most beautiful, yet smallest temple at Angkor.

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Close up of Banteay Srei.

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Banteay Srei – If Carlsberg did stone carvings…

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Battle of the Cheesers – In the red corner…

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And in the blue corner…

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We just liked the light in this one…

Since we were in the area, we took a second trip to Angkor Wat at the end of the day.

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A sneak peek at Angkor Wat.

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The Two Sides of Angkor Wat: The Sublime & The Decline.

Days 272-276: Week Two at Grace House Community Centre

S: Each day is like no other at Grace House Community Centre (GHCC). Every day I learn a new heart-warming story about the people who live in and around the village here.

This week I took some time out from teaching the children English and accompanied Dani and Tina, when they visited two homes in the local village.

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Dani is GHCC’s Cambodian social worker.

And Tina, who gained his skills and knowledge at GHCC’s own electrician course, is a fully qualified electrician.

GHCC makes house repairs to homes of families in the nearby village who cannot afford to pay for them themselves. The two homes we were visiting had been chosen to be rewired. The cables, some of which were cellotaped together, were unsafe and in serious need of repair.

These two families had been waiting a long time for this repair work. They seemed very happy when Dani informed them that the work would go ahead soon. It was fantastic to see where the money I had donated was actually going. Bridget and Allan, GHCC’s managers, have explained at length about how the donations are distributed, but to see it for myself was far more enriching.

What do you do at break time? Another fantastic initiative which GHCC has in place is teeth brushing. Most of the children who attend GHCC have limited access to clean water and hygiene products such as toothpaste. At break time each day the children are handed their toothbrushes and given a spot of toothpaste each to brush their teeth. This means the children are brushing their teeth at least once a day.

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Teeth brushed, time for some poses.

Due to the remote location of GHCC there are no dining options when it comes to lunchtime. This has its benefits though as GHCC employs some of the local Mums to cook lunch for the staff and volunteers. The ingredients are bought from the nearby market each day. Delicious Khmer food is served, usually rice with freshly cooked vegetables, a hearty soup, fried fish caught from the local Tonle Sap River, finished off with seasonal hand cut fruit. All this for $2 a day each. GHCC also distributes meals on wheels to three elderly ladies who have no cooking facilities.

This week I have helped the children learn about pandas and tigers. They seemed to enjoy learning about animals and in particular drawing pictures of them. Most children have little or no drawing materials at home. When they do go home most children are expected to help with household chores and farming or look after their sick parents. For some, GHCC is the only place the children get to be creative, have fun and be children.

GHCC is the lifeblood of the people living in the villages nearby and I am incredibly happy to be spending my time here.

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