Cambodia

The Lone Ranger in the Lake and the truth about Anchor Watt (part two)

The  Lone Ranger in the Lake

Its Rich and I's second day exploring the temples of Siem Reap and today its the big one – Angkor Wat itself. Its a well thought through strategic decision, part of Sunrise Strategy II. We didn't want to see it on the first day - and “peak too soon” but we're also slightly superstitious about saving it til the last day – in case for some reason we are let down (!) or the weather doesn't hold up. 

We leave again at 4.30am and this time arrive around 5am at a twinkling bank of fairy lights – a hundred tuk tuks already lined up and dropping off tourists. 

We situate ourselves at the edge of the lake so that we can look out over the water infront of us and watch the sun rise over the outline of one of the world's most famous temples. There is already a thick line of travellers who have beat us to it but we still get ring side seats. Or so we think. 

At first everything is deep black but then gradually the sky lightens to a petrol blue and the silhouette of a long, thin arc of a bending palm tree and its spidery fronds frame the jigsaw shadow of the temple. A silver slice of moon hangs above with its star. It looks almost biblical and as its December 18th it makes for a picture perfect Christmas postcard. The early morning light slowly shifts to apricot as the golden face of the sun rises above the rooftops. 

 



At this point one man decides that his view needs to be better than everyone else. He removes his flip flops and wades out into the lake – thereby ruining the photo for just about every other single person there. People shout and ask him to get back but he just angrily turns round and gesticulates back. Then the stone throwing begins. 

I'm almost in awe of this idiot. It really does take an attitude of complete, narcisstic egomanical selfishness to do what he's done and he really couldn't care less. 

“I wonder if we can guess his nationality” says Rich with a wicked gleam in his eye. 

“ooh thats a good idea!” 

“No.... it would be racist!” he says backtracking. 

Once the sun has risen I move angles a bit and gradually the invisible protocol not to mention the precedent set by the Lone Ranger of the Lake has dissolved as one by one people inch their way along the perimeter trying to crouch by the waters edge to get the perfect photo. 

I've made the mistake of leaving two inches of land spare between me and the water, a Japanese man comes and balances precariously in front and then bends over thrusting his buttocks up against my knees. 

The man from the lake wades out and walks away talking loudly to some one who isn't embarrassed to be his companion. 

“Oooooh French” I say. “well that makes sense.” 

“...!” says Rich. 

“Oh sorry” I say .....but a couple next to me laugh loudly in recognition. 

Thats the thing about travelling, whilst you realise how alike you can be in your basic human desires it does seem to draw out the national stereotypes in both us and our travelling friends we meet along the way.

 

 

I don't think I've ever felt British... until I started travelling that is. And now I've never felt more British in my life! I've realised i'm really quite reserved and very polite and more than anything I miss the “British sense of humour” and absolutely pine for a decent , proper, lovely cup of tea. Asians shout: 

"England? Manchester United!" at me pretty much every day! 

Would that be considered racist? 

Maybe its just when we begin reinforcing our negative pre conceptions about each other that laughing at and embracing our cultural differences ends and xenophobia begins. 

As the crowds have filtered away we make our way up to the entrance. The bright early sunshine reveals that the main one is covered in tarp and scaffolding. Not quite as romantic. 

“Shall we meet at 9am? “ asks Rich 

“We won't want more than two and half hours will we?” 

God I quail at the thought, my stamina for scaling ruins is minimal. I anticipate being done and ready for a thick Cambodian coffee by about 7.30... 

The grey crumbling brickwork of the largest temple is a site to behold. It is decorated by Devatas (Harem panted, bare-breasted women dancers with fingers curled into mudras and wry smiles.) Some of the breasts look more polished than others. A hundred thousand traveller hands have glided, groped and fondled their way past. 



In the corridors of stone it is cool and shaded, sometimes the alley wells are lit with golden buddhas and the smoke of incense. 

Rich and I have decided to go without a tour guide. We want to find our own way around and not be restricted by anyone setting a path. Also, I have the attention span of a gnat and tend to just tune out if people talk for too long so we both figure we'll enjoy it more if we do our own thing and read up on it later. Judging by the quality of some of the monologues I hear we made a wise choice – so if you do fork out for a guide make sure their English is excellent and they know their stuff! 

I make my way to the corridor that runs along the lower outer perimeter of the temple. Its quieter here. Looking up into the dark ceiling of a recess I can see the furry bobbing mass of bats and just hear their chittering. Around the corner a guide is explaining the relief work on the nearest wall. Marble smooth as milk has been intricately carved to tell the Hindu story of Vishnu and the Lake of the Burning sea. To one side I come across a large slim Buddha about 8 ft tall standing in a concave. He has the same fleshy enigmatic smile and unseeing eyes as the Devatas. I get a weird feeling looking up at him and then suddenly its as if all of my senses are switched up a notch and I can see and hear everything in minute detail: the hum of traffic far away, the insects buzzing and shuffling, the bird song. I take a seat on one of the marble walls and gaze out at the bright grasshopper green of the lawns below. 

I start to think about my cousin Sarah. She died very suddenly in her sleep three years ago when she was my age now, 37. When I was little she was like the older sister I never had. We used to spend time romping around the countryside of Esher picking fistfuls of blackberries, making midnight feasts – and she gave me a life long love of all things that go bump in the night by scaring me witless with ghost stories. As adults we had grown apart but more recently got back in touch again and just begun to forge the strands of a new friendship, unpicking the bones of our relationships past and marveling at their similarities. 

A runner and in good health, she simply went to sleep one night and didn't wake up. She left behind a partner and three young boys under the age of 10. The doctors think now it was a genetic heart condition -a virus that her mother's line was prone to. Only after her funeral did it come out that two other women in the family had also died suddenly and young. The older generations don't talk about things like we do... things get buried away and feelings and heartbreak gets stuffed down deep, somewhere dark with the memories; so the family never even knew she was at risk. I've never lost someone my own age before and I still find myself side walled by this grief that bubbles up like a well spring out of nowhere from time to time. 

I find myself questioning again the senselessness of her loss but this time i'm gradually overcome with this remarkable feeling of peace. 

 


There is a thought that introduces itself .... that there is a Grand Design. We can't question each and every single independent element of it because we are like a jigsaw – we all fit together to make the whole and cannot be understood separately. I see an image of an oyster shell, its scalloped lip shaped by many fine layers. I see that - for this lifetime part of becoming whole is accepting ourselves fully as who we are, imperfect. But part of this Grand Design is our constant perfection over many lifetimes: our souls are refined and sanded and perfected over and over until, like the individual layers of a shell pressed down on one another, we become whole again. Its the closest thing I've ever had to a spiritual moment. Not only was Sarah a keen traveller who was, at least in part, the inspiration behind my own voyage but she also sent her kids to Buddhist school so I think she would have approved of this morning's revelation. 

I look at my watch and realise its 9am. Somehow I have managed to be here two and a half hours. And It didn't seem like any time at all.

Angkor Watt and Sunrise Strategy 101 for beginners, Siem Reap, Cambodia (part one)

Its time for Awesome Angkor Wat. I'm beyond excited. We've parted ways with the Aussie girls I met scrubbing down elephants and i've stayed on travelling to Siem Reap with Rich, the laconic, blonde ad man from London. 

Rich and I have time to spare and really don't like the idea of cramming in all of the sites into one hot, touristy day – (1 day pass -$20) so we are opting for the 3 day pass ($40) . 

After much deliberation we have a plan – its Sunrise Strategy 101...for beginners... 

We want to do our own route and (steel yourself) we've opted to do sunrise at a different temple on each of the three days. That means a sprightly 4.30am start. Luckily the three day pass can be used on any day over a given week so we plan our selves a day off in between to recuperate by the pool. Which (as I am not quite as young as I used to be) allows time for the greying skin and bags under the eyes to retreat as well, and if you are not time starved I highly recommend. 

The logic is this: although there will be plenty of people hauling themselves out of bed at that ungodly hour to see Angkor Wat, the main tour buses don't arrive into the site until 9 am. We've been tipped off by the Aussies that if we catch sunrise at the other temples – Ta Prohm (the jungly temple where Tomb Raider was shot) and Bayon, the temple of enigmatically smiling Buddha heads, we may just get them to ourselves. 

The site is too large and spread out to do on foot; enthusiastic and very fit cyclists can show themselves around by bike, but otherwise if you are not part of a tour group - hiring a tuk tuk and/or a guide is your best bet. Rich leaves me with the job of sourcing our transport for the next day. As I leave the hotel i'm met by a bank of the fellows – who have a rather strange habit of raising their arm in a salute to command your attention whilst lying supine in the shade of their tuk tuk. 

“I wouldn't mind” says Rich later – “but its the fact that most of them can't even be bothered to stand up for the business that gets me!” 

The consesus amongst them seems to be $20 and $25 per day (the same quotes as the hotel) and they really don't like the idea of us going “off piste” as it were with our own route. 

Slowly they fall away. One driver comes out of the shadow of his tuk tuk and smiles hesitantly. 

“I do for $10” he says shyly. 

“Really?!!” I say 

So we agree $10 a day and for the one where we want to go further out – we agree $20 and the next day Mun (pronounced Moon) meets us bang on 4.30 am. Its wise to take along long sleeves and also something to cover legs, not just because its chilly at this unholy hour but because its required out of respect in some of the smaller temples (and within part of Angkor Wat itself.) 

I'm also sporting my new Cambodian Army baseball cap that April persuaded me to buy. 

“Good God you are not actually going to wear that are you?” says Rich looking aghast... 

“Yes why not?!” 

“Well it could go either way couldn't it?...I'm not sure 

how much sense of humour they have about their army... 

“The Khmer Rouge might see you and kill you!” he adds a tad dramatically. 

They don't, you'll be pleased to know. Actually the opposite is true –they laugh and shake my hand -Cambodians that is, not the Khmer Rouge...that would just be scary. 

We start our half hour journey to the temples and gradually shapes come out of the darkness. Villagers live within the temple grounds and as we pass little straw huts balanced on building bricks; we see the faces of children lit up by the smoke and glow of early morning fires as they crouch outside with their parents. One small boy is curled up across the thigh of a huge supine water buffalo. 

I'm accosted by a little girl and her mum selling “hot coffeeee!” as I stumble out of the tuk tuk which should please other night owls and caffeine freaks but is too early for me to drink anything or be polite. We watch the sun rise over The Royal Bathing Pools with only a scattering of other people for company. The palm trees across the lake create an inky silhouette mirrored back perfectly in the flat undisturbed glass of the water. Gradually the light at the corners of the sky shifts from indigo to turquoise and a warm peach glows lights the horizon. Its a tranquil, magical start to the day. 

At 6 o clock Ta Prohm opens so we walk over and through the ornate archway into our first Angkor Temple. 

 



We are the only people here aside from one other French couple. The first rays of early morning light filter through the leaves onto ancient stones grey and mottled with a pale moss, giving an unearthly feel to our first ruin. We stand and admire the entrance – a crazy paving of broken up slabs and archways speared by the bone white trunks of two large trees that leer out of the top of the temple. 

Ta Prohm was built in the 12th to 13th century by Jarvarmun V11 as a Buddhist monastery. It looks like the jungle has been trying to reclaim it ever since. Enormous tree trunks thrust their way through the open rooves and branches drape their way around windows. Its an extraordinary monument – nature at its wildest trying to swallow whole the offering man made to her. When the French couple leave we have the place to ourselves and we can explore the place in silence; its awe inspiring and just a little eerie. The pale rays of the sun send slivers of light through archways; touch with gold the curling tendrils of the vines; and light up the giant grey roots that lurch over doorways. My scream shatters the silence. A millipede as long as my hand winds past me and drapes itself over a stone step. The heat of the morning sun brings more tourists with her. So we leave, pleased to have shared our first Angkor temple with nothing but birdsong and the creatures of the jungle. 

As we leave Mun greets us where we left him and takes us to a restaurant he knows for breakfast. Usually tuk tuk drivers will have a deal set up with cafes but Mun says he doesn't get free anything and sure enough we watch him pay at the end. 

“ I don't know how you did it but I think you managed to find the only honest and cheapest tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap! “ says Rich appreciatively. 



Breakfast is thick Cambodian coffee with sweet condensed milk and a delicious Ban Xeo – a frilly edged, freshly fried pancake stuffed with bean sprouts and pork with sweet dipping sauce and aromatic herbs and crushed peanuts for garnish. 

Our next main temple is Banteay Srei – this temple is set a way out of the main tour circuit of temples so you will need to pay extra for a visit. In my opinion it is worth it. 

Built around 967 its name means Citadel of Women and it is strikingly distinct for its intricately delicate reliefs that are carved out of red standstone. It has an intriguing Pink Panther-esque history as well as its the victim of a theft by the French writer and artist Malreaux who tried to remove and take home two of the bas reliefs. Ironically he was arrested by French colonial authorities who much later in his career made him Minister for Cultural affairs! 

On our way back we visit the Landmine Museum. It was created by a boy soldier who fought under the Khmer Rouge and afterwards dedicated his life to removing landmines -using his technical knowledge and his bare hands. The museum is a little ramshackle in its set up but you can see all kinds of ammunitions and landmines that have been used both by Cambodia and the USA. Cambodia has the worst landmine problem with Unexploded ordinance still peppering the rural landscape, and its well worth visiting and supporting this cause. 

We finish our first day with a visit to a smaller temple - Thomanen. A woman in straw pointed hat offers me some incense and I say no. You have to pay to make an offering at the Buddha shrines within the temples and I'm feeling hustled but as she shuffles away she removes her hat to reveal a shaved head, she is a Buddhist nun. 

 



Thomamen is a series of curling arches set back amongst pine trees and away from the hustle and dirt of the road and its tuk tuks. It feels special here somehow, the air feels thick with energy. 

I go back and find the nun and give her some money for a donation. She smiles a gappy toothless sile and ties a red cotton bracelet around my right wrist. Its a Buddha bracelet -for good luck.
When I meet with Rich he says: 

“that place had something really …..magical about it. But maybe its because it was set away from the others...in the trees.” 

I nod silently. Its strange we've both thought the same thing. 

By midday we are ready to call it a day. Well we have been going 8 hours and the sun has burnt off the early morning coolness; the sky is a pristine navy blue. I like our Sunrise Strategy as it allows us to get in early and avoid the thrust and bustle of the packed tourists who are now scurrying over the remains like ants, and then leave when the heat is at its peak. We head back to the hotel to build up our energy reserves for another 4.30am start to morrow, and the biggy – Angkor Wat itself.

Down the Rabbit Hole in Phnom Penh

Once upon a time - in May 1975 - a little baby was born. She was fat cheeked with a tuft of black hair and eyes so big, brown and round that her Uncle nicknamed her “boncuk” - (bead in Turkish.) They called her Dominique after some tennis player's girlfriend who was doing well in Wimbledon that year and fed, clothed and educated her for the best part of twenty years in a relatively safe, middle class backwater of South East London that is – like so many suburbs these days - considered leafy and “up and coming.” 

One month earlier – in April 1975 – the Khmer Rouge under its leader Pol Pot - storm Phnom Penh. Babies, children, the old, the sick, the dying already and the soon to die - around 2 million of the mainly educated and middle class population are evacuated out of this arty and vibrant capital city and into slave labour camps. In April 1975, down the rabbit hole and half the world away: Year Zero begins. 

Not for the first time on this trip I pause for thought and think: There but for the grace of God go I. 
 


Over the next four years Cambodia would become home to one of the most brutal experiments in social engineering the world has seen, and result in the death through torture, execution, starvation and disease of between 1.8 and 3.3 million or at least a fifth of its population at the hands of its own people. 

I arrive into Phnom Penh airport – and get a pimped up, doof doof music blaring tuk tuk to my hostel – The White Rabbit. I have no idea where it is in relation to anywhere else in town, but the bar that greets me on entrance is laid back and sociable. The helper on reception has dope heavy eyelids and floral tatts and the cat is called Alice...of course. 

A couple of Spaniards start talking to me. Michel is a chubby, blonde haired translator from Madrid with dimpled cheeks and grey eyes that glitter with amusement, Antonio is his Eye-Ore counter part, a morose Catalan with hang dog expression and eyes hooded with a perpetual air of disappointment. 

They have negotiated a $15 tuk tuk for the day to do Tuol Sleng - the genocide museum (also referred to as S21) )and former prison where members of the Khmer rouge imprisoned and tortured their captives, and Choeung Ek aka The Killing Fields (a rural location about half an hour outside of Phnom Penh where the prisoners would then be taken to be executed, post - confession. ) 

On the way to S21 we talk about food – myself and fellow travellers are homesick for home comforts. They talk about the tiny village in Northern Spain where Antonio comes from. They have parties in their cellars amongst the cool and dusty caskets of wine, and feast on stuffed squid and beans, lamb roasted with garlic in the oven for hours and fresh baked brown bread. Its just as well we get the chat out the way now, we won't have much appetite for anything later. 



Prior to the Khmer Rouge taking over its premises, S21 was a school. The mustard and white checkered linoleum and large breeze block walls look as much. You could imagine the shriek of children's laughter and sound of little feet pounding the steps. The rusted iron frame in the courtyard was used for exercise – but then re-appropriated from Year Zero as a torture device. Men would be suspended upside down from it and beaten with pestles until they confessed. 


In this building the larger cells are dominated with nothing but a rusty mattress and shackles. There are boxes on some of the beds, where prisoners hands would be contained while they prised their nails off. These were reserved for the Khmer Rouge's own cadres (a communist word for volunteer soldier) their own armed forces. Everyone came under suspicion as Pol Pot's paranoia grew so did the death toll. The smaller cells on the upper level were for other prisoners – tiny, dark brick shaped rectangles with blood stains still visible on the floor. 

I'm struck by the similarities between Pol Pot's regime and the mythical dystopia that Orwell created in "1984" – i'm sure a thousand undergraduate essays have dissected as much. You wouldn't think this nightmarish vision were possible in any time but only some twenty years after Orwell created the faceless and all seeing Big Brother and Room 101 - Pol Pot 's psychotic vision for a pure and extreme Marxist society came into being – and death, torture, spying and informing on your neighbour in the name of “Angkar,”became the norm. The young were targeted particularly, encouraged to spy and inform on their parents, and trained in torture and execution methods on animals before becoming child soldiers. 

S21 was not a prison for redemption and mercy. Whether you confessed or not (after enduring months of torture prisoners did always confess to anything Angkar wanted) you would be killed. Pol Pot's vision was to create an “agragrian” society; that elevated the poor and uneducated rural peasant class and made an enemy of the educated, middle class. 

Under the Khmer Rouge all the strands of society that elevate and refine us as human beings - all love, passion, family, respect, etiquette, art, language, knowledge and faith were unravelled. To be seen indulging in any of them was to be “against Angkar.” Families were split up and destroyed, Buddhist temples were smashed and monks killed, sexual unions banned. The delicate hierarchies of respect shown to elders in Cambodian society ( one 22 year old I meet informs he will call me “older sister”) are destroyed. Everyone is “comrade.” Language is rewritten. Rural terminology such as “mae” for mother replaces the educated version “mak.” The word “nostalgia” in reference to a time pre Angkar becomes “memory sickness.” To speak of it is a crime punishable by death. 

Like all of the most paranoid and oppressive regimes knowledge was feared and abhorred. To have been to university, speak English, teach, or just wear glasses – were crimes punishable by death. 

This is ironic considering at S21 you also learn the background to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge - Pol Pot and his cronies almost without exception came from privileged backgrounds – with links to the royal family. They studied over seas in Parisian lycees, and some became professors. 

Part of the lower exhibition concentrates on paintings of the torture methods used by the Khmer Rouge followed by the printed confessions of the inmates along with their mug shots. Row after row of mostly Cambodian faces – stare out in black and white, sometimes insolent, mostly just empty eyed. But this was also an ethnic cleanse with Khmer seen as the purest “Aryan race” of the Asians. Chinese, Vietnamese and sometimes Cham minorities were purged as well. One of the shots I find most heartbreaking is of a Vietnamese prisoner. His lips are curled into a tentative smile, his eyes alight with hope. Unlike many of the other captives here, he hasn't yet realised that this is a prison where no one gets out alive. 



A very few British and Australian men had the misfortune to wander into enemy waters and find themselves in hell. No mercy was shown for foreigners. One white face with long 70's hairdo stares back at me. His confession reads that he is from Newcastle, his mum was a secretary for the shop Fenwicks – as I read on it becomes more and more unbelievable... he is a CIA agent, he is working for the Japanese. These are confessions extracted after hours, days, sometimes months of torture. A desperate last ditch attempt at gaining freedom perhaps, or just to make the pain stop. 

All the women staring back at me have the same bowl haircut. In earlier Cambodian society - great emphasis had been placed on long hair as a sign of feminine beauty –this was another thing undone by Angkar. Seen as a sign of egoistic individuality and sexuality, women were forced to cut their hair short. 



The last thing we see are the enormous iron shackles made to transport the prisoners to the Killing Fields. Great iron bars with holes for arms and legs that would confine long rows of men twenty at a time to be led blindfolded to the vans that would transport them to their death. 

The Killing Fields “Choeung Ek” are one of many mass graves around Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge used to transport and then execute its prisoners at. Set in a former orchard and Chinese graveyard, the area is mainly grassy fields, with a lake in the background, and large stone memorial in the foreground. You show yourself around with an audio guide. 

Many of the structures that were here were destroyed at the end of the regime so the huts where paperwork was carried out and the like are replaced with simple signs . Prisoners were told that they were being relocated when they left S21 and when they arrived sometimes given hoes to dig their own grave. They would then be bludgeoned to death by pick axes. It saved on bullets. An innocent looking palm tree is pointed out, and on closer inspection you can see the razor sharp spines along the branches that were used to cut men and to kill them. 

Along the way there is the opportunity to hear survivors' stories from the regime. When Phnom Penh was emptied of its educated middle class, they were forced into slave labour camps to try and meet the unachievable objective of tripling Cambodia's rice production a year to achieve self sufficiency. The majority of people who were forced to work 12 hour days with little to no food or water were city folk with no farming skills. Famine and disease were rife. One man talks of how the Khmer Rouge didn't need to kill people. Starvation and the disease did that along with the new diseases that the regime nurtured. Hopelessness and Loneliness. They split up families, they killed loved ones. They wore away at people through the creation of slogans such as: 

To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss. 

How did this man survive? He tells of a dream that his mother had where he escaped to the jungle and became a great man. For him, this dream kept him going, when everyone else around him had been taken away – that glimmer of hope that one day he could make his mother's dream a reality drove him to live. 

There are two trees in the camp. One is called “The Magic Tree,” it looks like a Bodhi tree – the one that Buddha gained enlightenment from, but this tree has no healing properties. Inside are sound systems that pump out music. The audio guide asks us to imagine the prisoners' final hours; arriving blindfolded to this camp, the smell of death and decay, the groans of those being killed and above it all the scratchy, tinny cheery blast of the Khmer Communist anthems that tried to block out the screams of the dying. 
 


Yet there is an even worse tree here. The large trunk is strung with multi-coloured bracelets that travellers have left as a sign of respect. Next to it is a pit. The man that discovered the pit tells his story on the audio guide. He arrived in the field once the Khmer had fled. He saw the broken bodies of children and their mothers in the pit, the blood, the skulls, the limbs. On the tree he saw bits of bone, and brain. This tree – The Killing Tree - was used to kill babies and children. They would be picked up by their ankles and swung against it until their brains were dashed out; often in front of their mothers. 



As we walk around the path the grass around us rises up in hilly mounds and falls again in soft ditches. These are the mass graves. On closer inspection you can still see the white shards of bone and teeth that nubble the surface. There are transparent display cabinets around the grounds filled with pieces of skull, and bone. Every day, every hour, the dead rise to the surface and volunteers place them in cases. But even in the minutes that I am there it is as if they cannot keep up. More and more rise to the surface, broken hinges of jaw bone and yellowing teeth are plucked from the ground and placed haphazardly on top of the cabinets in plain view. Its too much to deal with, the spirits are restless, they won't stay still for long. Next to one of these cabinets is a little wooden structure that looks like a bird house. Animism is the other main religion in Cambodia (along with Buddhism) and this is a house for spirits that have not found rest. 

A final part of the tour ends with time for contemplation. There is a large, shaded lake set in front of the green rice fields. Its hard to believe such horrors happened here, yet the lake is home to hundreds more bodies – it was decided to leave those in the lake in peace, rather than dredge them up. There are seats by the lake where you can listen to more survivors stories and a moving orchestral piece that has been composed for the grounds that provides a gentle backdrop for contemplation. 

It is thought that 17,000 bodies were found at this site. A memorial at the centre is filled with some 7,000 skulls. You make a donation to the man outside to leave flowers or incense and then pay your respects. 



And yet for all the gruesome details - they save perhaps the most shocking for last. Pol Pot's reign ended abruptly with the invasion of Vietnamese forces in 1979. However the Khmer Rouge retreated to the countryside and held a seat in the United Nations (supported by both the UK and the US) until the early 1990s. Pol Pot was later put under house arrest by one of his own armed guard but died in relative comfort and safety in 1998 depriving the country of seeing him brought to justice for his crimes. As recently as 2007 The ECCC – The Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia was set up to finally bring leaders of the reign to trial, and eventually “Duch” the head of S21 prison was given life imprisonment. 



A repercussion of the genocide is how young the population is. Walking on the streets of Phnom Penh I hardly see any faces older than mine. I make the crass mistake of asking a gentleman I meet later who is around my age if he was affected by the regime. He turns away and his eyes fill with tears. He is unable to answer me but he doesn't need to. Of course he was. Such was the extent of the mass murder it is unlikely that any of the older surviving generation have not been touched by it. The majority of the population however are too young to know about the events that happened in the 1970s and yet up until 2009 they were not educated about it either in schools. These days S21 does do school trips yet a couple of weeks later when I am Siem Reap, an Australian history teacher warns me to be careful when I speak about the Khmer Rouge – I should speak quietly or not at all in case of who might be listening.They still hold positions of influence in today's government. 

How could something like this happen? More recently America's role in allowing the Khmer Rouge to gain a strong hold has come under scrutiny. Although Cambodia declared neutrality during the Vietnam War it was still subjected to massive carpet bombing from the U.S which weakened the country, drove their leader to seek help from the Khmer Rouge ( at that stage a guerrilla faction living on the outskirts of town) and caused the people to unite in fear against “American imperialists.” Pol Pot's men were able to evacuate 2 million of the capital's population overnight into slave labour camps by telling them to leave their homes and possessions immediately for only a “couple of days” because the U.S was about to bomb the city. 

This is one of the most difficult exhibitions I've experienced, the details are extremely disturbing and I found it very, very upsetting. And yet if you can make a visit it is also one of the most important things I have done. The audio tour is excellently compiled with just the right amount of sensitivity, clarity, and time given to pause and reflect. It casts an unwelcome light on exactly what human beings are capable of doing to each other. I've debated in the past my belief that human beings are essentially good. Never has something caused me to internally reflect on that so much. But I still can't give up on this belief, because however warped our essential nature becomes - to not believe in that, is to accept the alternative. Having glimpsed down the rabbit hole of this dark parallel universe where love and faith are replaced by hate and fear, hope with despair and knowledge with ignorance, is there any other choice but to reaffirm at the least, the type of human being I want to be and the values of love and kindness that I choose to follow?

Skinny Dipping in Sihoukanville

"Snakville? Sihoonville? Si – hou – nak -ville...? Eeeeey 'ow you say it again bonita???" 

Never has a place been visited by so many ...whose name could be pronouced by so few. I leave Phnom Penh at 8am in the morning and arrive four hours late into the dusty bus station just outside of the main sprawl of Cambodia's “premier” beach resort down in the South of the country - Sihanoukville. 

Martin, Juan and Amparo (the Spanish girl I met on the bus ride from hell) are all staying in the centre of town at the optimistically entitled hostel “Utopia.” If your idea of spiritual nirvana is a bunch of ruddy faced 18 year olds swigging from whisky buckets surrounding a tiny neon lit pool to the obligatory thump of Gangam Style... then perhaps... 

“They say if you swim in that pool you can get pregnant!” whispers Amparo with a husky giggle. 

Sihouanakville isn't very nice. Its trying to be Thailand but it just doesn't have the pretty to compete. The waters are a rough murkish green, the sands are greying and every spare grain is rammed with tourists and child hawkers touting toot. 

The next day, Martin, Juan and I decide to ship on out to Bamboo Island - which is supposed to be better. We have our big backpacks with us and end up getting on a boat filled with Russians doing a day trip. When it doesn't look like we are going to reach our destination any time soon we strip off and join in their fun - throwing ourselves from the top of the boat. They are the archetypal definition of a White Russian: mostly middle aged with huge flabby paunches of pallid skin that hasn't seen sun for a while. 



A large arrow headed jelly fish floats in the waters. If this were Australia the crew wouldn't allow us in the water, but its not, its Cambodia - so they just watch as the Russians continue to hurl themselves from the top deck.. and one pasty girl comes up for air with a shawl of scarlet streaks across her shoulders where its tentacles have brushed against her skin. 

Juan starts chatting to a couple of the younger Russian girls and they obligingly begin to preen and pose for both boys' benefit. I'm hot and feeling uncharitable today (having to lug The Bastard around hasn't helped. ) Is this what happens when you are with someone very good looking – because to be honest bearing in mind my exes, I simply haven't had much experience of that. I'm not sure I could handle being with a guy so good looking he was always getting female attention. I would never make eyes at a guy if he had his girlfriend by his side but that doesn't seem to stop some women with less integrity flaunting it about. Later, when we decamp to another beach, the Russian girls happen to be there too and wade out and position themselves next to us even though we are hugging in the water. 

They ask “Where is Juan???...” but I have a feeling they've waded out to continue the show for Martin's benefit. It makes me feel churlish and petty, but I can't stop thinking “I've already got the face, I don't need to put on the parade...” 

Or maybe i've just caught a glimpse of the other ugly face of my feminine insecurities ...hmmmm. 

We finally get to Bamboo Island which is not quite what its cracked up to be, I heft The Bastard on my back and we make our way across the other side of the island, dodging hanging vines and millepedes as we go. There is a laid back bar with a nice vibe and we check out the bungalows. Its literally a bed: no fan and no ensuite. I'm not sure Martin looks that overjoyed to be staying either but I put on my best brave face nonetheless. Then I try and shut the window and a big wormlike creature wriggles out and I let out a blood curdling scream. 

"I'm not sure you really comfortable here, bonita” he says: “come on lets go.” 
 


It doesn't take much to persuade me, so we decamp and get the boat back and I suggest we take a tuk tuk to Otres beach which the owner of The White Rabbit in Phnom Penh has recommended to me. Its a 10 minute drive down the road, but its a world apart from the seedy sex slinging, grimy throng and seedy thongs of Sihouanakville. 

Martin is sick and I'm worried he's coming down with tonsilitis; it hurts for him to swallow and he's burning up. So the little romantic beach holiday a deux stumbles a little bit but as I scramble to go and sleep in the other bed he grabs me and says: 

“Eeey bonita, I'm sick that's all! Not dying!” How very ummmm Latin American.... 

We end up watching a couple of films. You are in paradise and you want to stay in a cheap hotel room and watch dvds??? Yes! It was heaven – there has been nothing I miss more (particularly after deciding to travel for a year enforced singledom upon me) than cuddling up at the weekend with a boy and a good film. 

I'm not really a chick flick, romcom kinda gal so we watch Unthinkable. It starts with an actor that seems to be doing his best “method – Juillard does Iraqi terrorist” face - sure enough its the British actor Michael Sheen working up a sweat. 

Sheen plays a terrorist who has planted three nuclear bombs around the US that he will detonate if the Government don't meet his pro Musli country demands. Samuel L Jackson is brought in to extract information by torturing him and when the clock is in its final moments of ticking, he wants to resort to mutilating Sheen's wife and children as well in order to find out the location of the bombs. It is, at its heart, a moral dilemma. Does the end justify the means? If the only way to save millions of people was the torture of a terrorist's two children what call would you make? I honestly don't know if I can answer it. Do I even have to? After the history lesson in horror that i've been educated in in Vietnam and then The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh – it feels too close to home. How do human beings commit the unthinkable against each other? Somehow they find a way of justifying it in their own minds. 

Its lovely spending time with someone with whom I have so much fun...so many laughs...and he strikes me as fairly together for someone about 15 years my junior (ahem.) When most of the men in my entire life have spent their considerable focus on complimenting my tits n' ass it seems remarkable this 23 year old cites my patience with his friends' English skills as something to find attractive in me. 

It also causes me to reflect again on how great it is to go travelling. I meet people who tell me tales that are so far removed from my own litle London world experience. Martin tells me a remarkable story. How his friend called round one day and encouraged him to go hunting with him. They killed a deer and cut it up. He helped lug the heavy weight of the carcass home, its back spread over his with the legs and hooves draped over each shoulder. He describes the ordeal of dragging the dead and furry weight through the mountains and the navy pleats of frozen streams in Patagonia. When he burst through the door of his home in a mustard shirt sodden purple with blood - his mother screamed. She thought he'd killed a man. 

He continues my love affair with Argentina. I think in part my fascination is down to the fact that the people i've met are so similar to me and my friends in terms of lifestyle and humour, except with the flip of a coin, they've grown up in a third world country; another parallel universe in which they or their parents experienced what it was like to live under a brutal military dictatorship that “disappeared” people. In the 70s and 80s his own parents (both doctors) who were students of medicine had to move out of Buenos Aires and to the North of the country as they were under threat for being educated people. 



We spend the next couple of days in a blissful haze, lounging on sun beds with proper white comfy cushions at a place called The Lighthouse. Its run by a Brit that understands the importance of proper freshly ground coffee, a genuine crumbly butter croissant, salty thick ham and fresh apricot jam as well as poached eggs. Impossible to find so far in Asia. 

Women come past hawking mediocre manis and pedis and massages, which while away a few hours. The water is calm and warm. On our final evening we eat at a beach BBQ (a tough critic of a BBQ - an Argentinian...) but for $5 dollars each we get a plate of chargrilled squid, prawns and white fish and a plate of grilled chicken, pork and steak along with fries, salad and beer.


The waves are crashing and the moon is beautiful and bright in the sky. It just peeps through the soft feathered branches of the pine trees and a gentle guitar music floats across the breeze. 

“Ey bonita you wanna come to my beach party?” asks Martin with quite possibly the dirtiest laugh I have ever heard... 

“Mmmm maybe – do you wanna see my full moon?” I retort. 

So we walk along the beach away from the bars and leave behind the sound of laughter and the dying embers of the fire. The moon is incredible – huge and bright and full with an extraordinary luminous circle around it; not the usual tight amber ring created by cloud shine but an enormous silver halo that stretches out far around it and fills the sky. The sand is glowing white under our toes, he strips off his clothes and wades out into the sea and I do the same. The water is milky and soft and lights our skin to pearl. This is, I think, my first time skinny dipping in the sea. I can't think of a more beautiful moment to try.

Hanging out at the Elephant Car Wash, Bob the Bastard and Greta Garbo

Mondulkiri elephant plains

Meet Bob. With sallow, sunken skull and steely “don't fuck with me gaze” this is one angry man i'm not going to mess with. In fact we've been told to stay 20m away at all times. Bob is the oldest male here in camp at the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri Province. When he first arrived he'd been worn to death in the logging industry and left without food or water. He is, as a result, very very pissed off. 

Jack the founder went to his rescue and offered him a banana: 

“He almost pulled my arm off taking it. At first i thought it was because he was trying to thank me ...Now I realise he was just trying to pull my arm off...He's been called “Bob The Bastard” ever since.” 



Mondulkiri is in the East of the country and takes 8 hours on the bus from Phnom Penh. After another night at The White Rabbit and Lok Lak for dinner – ( a Cambodian speciality of chunks of beef that looks a little like Pedigree Chum but tastes pretty good) ...I get ready to depart. 

I arrive at the bus station with only ten minutes to spare - only to discover i'm at the wrong bloody station... 

“What am I going to do!?” I exclaim to the bank of motorbike taxis and tuk tuk drivers standing laughing at my frantic arm gesticulations. 

“Don't worry we take you!” They shout back in unison. 

A few words are exchanged and one lucky chap hefts The Bastard (my backpack) between himself and the handle bars then steering with one hand and juggling his mobile in the other - he manages to call the bus company to let them know he has a “falang” who may be a few minutes late. 

Once he has a spare hand free he gives my thigh a good old squeeze. Cambodian dress is very conservative so I think i'm crossing a few boundaries, even in the capital city, by rocking out in a pair of short denim shorts and a vest top. 

“I love you” he feels compelled to declare. 

“If you get me to the bus on time i'll love you back” I mutter under my breath. 

We screech in just on the dot. 

Heading East the broad leafed banana trees and brilliant green 

Bob The Bastard

rice fields soften and flatten into great golden plains of grass. It feels like we've somehow driven out of Asia and into Africa...we are higher too so the humidity of the city gives way to a cool mountain breeze and swaying bamboo becomes the darker branches of pine. 

Just before we arrive most of the bus get off for a wedding. They leave pulling fruit trees, baskets of fruit, bright pink nylon ribbons, huge bags of rice, a rubber tyre and even some shelving with them - all drawn out from the back of a bus like the bottom of Mary Poppin's handbag. 

On the bus I meet a dimply, Chinese girl - Ling. We hike up the hill for 20 mins away from the capita Sen Monoram - to stay at Vibol Guesthouse. Its set in beautifully manicured gardens. We share a room with AC and HBO for $4 each and step out side to a sky full of burnished gold and sunset spectacular. Ling has bought a hammock which is heavy to drag around with her, but whereever she lays her hat she also pegs up her hammock – I like her style. . . 

Jack


The Elephant Valley Project is a sanctuary set up and run by louche Brit Jack -who trained as a Mahud (elephant trainer) in Thailand before creating this eco project. Jack by name, Jack Russel by nature, he's short and wiry with a cocksure attitude, Rasputin blue eyes and strangely self absorbed enthusiasm. Then again I guess you need a few of those qualities to set up your own elephant sanctuary in the middle of Cambodia. We get picked up in jeeps and taken over rough jungly terrain. The path has dried into deep split lips of caked mud from the rainy season and the Jeep sways and jumps its way down the paths one point driving through a river that swills over the hub caps. 

“Elephants are not actually that strong and they are not domesticated animals like horses. They are wild animals. When you think about it its actually a bit weird to want to ride one...I mean – you wouldn't think of riding a giraffe, or a hippo – get a pair of goggles on and go for underwater dive... (although that would be pretty cool actually) but you wouldn't do it!” says Jack. 

The majority 

The beautiful plains of Mondulkiri

of elephants in Asia suffer abuse being worked to death in the logging or tourism industry giving fat falangs a ride. The project takes in sick, abused animals and nurses them back to health allowing them to become elephants again, roaming in the jungle free from work. You do not get to ride the elephants at this project and it was one of the reasons why I chose to come here, safe in the knowledge that my hard earned traveller pound was going to a genuine eco project I knew looked after its animals. The money raised goes towards providing jobs, healthcare and support on land rights for the local community. 

A Cambodian family can make $20 a day from owning an elephant. Bob has only one tusk as each piece of ivory can be sold for $1000. The tails are cut off and the hairs sold separately to make magical good luck rings. When the average national salary is a $1 a day you can see why they want to milk the most they can out of this valuble resource. 

After his introduction is over we wander through the long gold green grasses of the plains and 

Rich and another hard day's volunteering

Bob the Bastard

down into the jungle and stop at a plateau to look out over Elephant Valley: a canopy of pale almond trees, twisting vines and lots of juicy bamboo for the ellies to munch on. The sun is scorching today and the heat is intensified by having to dress modestly out of respect to the local community, so no bare shoulders or thighs, always a challenge for my wardrobe. 

We pick our way across a little bridge made from a fallen branch and settle ourselves next to a river to wait for the elephants to come down. First up we meet the aforementioned Bob The Bastard, and his new girlfriend Onion. At 35 years old – Onion is a mere slip of a gal, and the best hope the project have of making a baby. 

San, one of the Mahuds, grasps her big fat flank and lets out a squeal of delight. 

“ I feel baby, I feel!” 

But they are not sure. If she is with child, Onion will be pregnant for 2 years before giving birth... I clench at the very thought. 

Next up we meet three ladies. Mae Wan, the matriarch of the clan omits a low rumbling growl. Its a sound used to reassure the more nervous in the tribe. They have stayed awake all last night, munching on bamboo, so they are sleepy today and sometimes they close their long feathery eyelashes for a quick snooze standing up. We get to stroke their sides and their long leathery trunks spiked with tough black hair then walk with them as they continue to feast on the forest. 

At the river we get to help bathe them by wading in and throwing buckets of water over their muddy hides. 

One guy urges his girlfriend to have a go: 

She looks like she has come prepared – Jungle Jane is in her full length camouflage trousers, and smart linen shirt.: 



“No! I don't want to get wet” 

“Aw come on honey! its only a little bit of water,” 

“NO! I said I do not want to get wet!” 

She remains, pristine and dry on a rock while every one else shrieks with delight as they slop the water about. 

Once bath time is over we head back for our first lunch. The accommodation is fantastic, a huge sprawling jungle camp with chill out lounge and open roof that looks out over the canopy of tree tops and gets prime views of the awesome Mondulkiri sunsets. Lunch is sweet and sour fried fish and rice and tofu and fresh fruit. 

It costs $30 a day to spend the morning with the elephants in Elephant Heaven followed by an afternoon volunteering in some “light” construction work around the project. If you would like to spend the full day with the elephants and shower and water them in the afternoon it costs $60. To stay at the camp accommodation and get all meals included is a further $15 dollars a day. Both the food and the accommodation are of a high quality...although the mark up on a Snickers bar is exorbitant, Jack certainly knows he has a captive audience. 

For the first afternoon of volunteering we are told we will be transporting buckets of sand and stacks of bricks from one side of the project to another – to assist in the construction of a new Elephant hut for the Mahuds. We must form a chain gang to the hut so that each of us has to walk no further than 10m each with the buckets or bricks. 

Its not for nothing I noramlly gain the nickname “princess” within two days of being in any group of people, manual labour just ain't up my street. But hey! this is for a good cause so it will be character building right? Yeeees maybe... or I could just happen to meet three other people exactly like me.... 

April's a hippy dippy from Byron Bay with a swathe of golden hair, huge blue eyes, milky skin and far away gaze. Laura is an effervescent, leggy brunette with a goofy smile and that effortless breezily outgoing nature that Aussies seem to have; Rich is a laconic, fellow escapee marketer avoiding the 9 – 5. We join forces. 
 

Ling!


April wafts over in floaty summer dress and strappy sandals: Jack eyes her dubiously: 

“You don't look like you about to do an afternoon's light construction work...” he says. 

I somehow I thought the voluntary work would involve the elephants more directly. An assumption that obviously comes from the part of their website that states you will be assigned your own elephant for the day to look after. This doesn't happen. 

We start the chain gang. I am placed in a ditch. A girl, ruddy cheeked and keen, runs over to me with a stack of bricks. 

“Its ok you don't need to rush...” I say. 

She runs enthusiastically back to her spot. I amble over to April who is standing a little way away. She inches a bit closer to the edge of my ditch... 

“Psychologically I feel better with you in that position...” I say. 

“Really? “ she says “And how do you feel emotionally? 

“Emotionally i'm uplifted, and spiritually its a knockout” I say... and then we dissolve into giggles. It all seems so inane. The evil commercial side of my brain goes into overdrive – all this resource to achieve such a small impact? Why don't I give just give them $10 and they can buy a couple of wheel barrows. See... Terrible volunteer! 

"Oh he's not stupid," says Rich 

"He knows people want to volunteer on an eco project, it makes them feel good about themselves. That's why he does this. He's not getting a huge amount out of it from man power/resources perspective." 

After an hour of passing bricks – the slacker end of the chain gang- April, Rich and myself – decide to instigate a break. We pass word down the route to the enthusiastic hard working end of the chain (run by Canadians and Germans) that we have decided we are all going to pause the production line for a while. About 20 minutes later we decide to start work again. Rich and April wander down to the ditch and then come back in hysterics: 

“It looks like the other end of the chain only took a 5 minute break, the ditch is filled with bricks. Typical German efficiency!" 

The Canadians start monitoring the number of bricks we are moving via keeping a tally on their phone. Apparently they are landscape gardeners so this must be a serious misuse of their talents. When we have calculated we've moved enough – one comes sweating and puffing down the chain, his mobile held aloft in front of him. He thinks we've miscalculated by about 6 bricks.. 

The next day we are told we need to cut our lunch break short by an hour to help move a new delivery of sand....April, Laura and myself go down to our room to “apply suncream and mosquito repellent.” By the time we come back Rich is sprawled in the lounge with a cat like grin on his face... 

"Why arent you volunteering?!" I say. 

“When I got there it had all been done....any way! I notice you three didn't exactly rush on out first to get things moving!” 



By now i'm mildly resentful of the fact that not only are we paying to help them out around the site but they are also telling us to cut our lunch hour short by an hour. 

Later Jack asks why i've decided to leave early and I say: 

“Volunteering...meeh its just not my thing” 

Which he looks slightly taken aback by and lets face it sounds a tad self indulgent. But i don't like it when i don't think my time is being used productively and once i've lost respect for the system then that's it. Its an attitude that means i've parted ways with the corporate world for now but hey i also like to think its the attitude that will help me earn my millions! 

So even though I intended to stay the full working week and volunteer every afternoon, after just two afternoons of walking 10m to pass someone a pile of bricks or a bucket of sand, i think: Sod this for a game of soldiers i'm just going to pay the extra and spend all day with the elephants on wednesday and then leave. April, Laura and Rich cut short their week long stays too. 

Spending a full afternoon with the elephants means we get to man the showers – which is like a big Car wash station only for elephants. The animals are led down to a concrete platform by the mahuds and made to stand still, whilst volunteers take turn to feed them water from hosepipes and scrub their backs with enormous brushes. 
 

At the carwash


After they are all clean the Mahuds lead them up the hill so they can roam and feed some more and we join them, taking a seat under a lone tree to watch them meet some more of their elephant friends, like Milot, Happy Lucky and Buffet, The Banana Slayer. 

Milot is the Greta Garbo of the elephant world. She suffered years of abuse in her former life being put to work in both the logging and the tourism industry, beaten with sticks when she was too tired to give falangs a ride and the baskets she was made to carry them in created abcesses on her back. To add insult to injury she had her labia (outer lips of her vagina) sliced off and sold to women in the local village to aid their fertility. She came to the Elephant Valley Project in Monulkiri province – Eastern Cambodia – “hardened, aggressive with emotional scarring.” Normally elephants form families and move around with their companions but Milot just “vants to be alone” and I, for one, can hardly blame her. 

Milot's mahud is fierceley protective of her so when Happy Lucky and Buffet The Banana Slayer...lumber over to see if she wants a quick game of trunk wars (the elephant version of thumb wars where they entwine trunks to try and push the gland in the mouth of their opponent, thus asserting their dominance.) He shoos them away by throwing gravel and straw at them. Which, because we are all feeling a little sentimental by this stage, manages to bring a tear to the eye. 

I have been critical of the volunteering portion of the project, it simply wasn't for me. Having said that I'm sure many people get a lot out of it and i would still recommend this project to anyone travelling in Asia who would like to see elephants. It is so much more worthwhile than contributing to the continued abuse and exploitation of these animals in the tourism industry over here. 

One of my very favourite travelling moments of the last nine months has been sprawling on the golden grass of the Serengeti like open plains in Mondulkiri watching as the huge grey bulks of these beautiful beasts wander freely across the landsape behind a sun caramelising into the horizon. 

And as for The Elephant Car Wash - I can't describe how happy it made me - sloshing great buckets of water over their muddy hides whilst these beautiful, gentle creatures stood by and watched, every now and again fluttering their long feathery eyelashes and curling up their trunks to receive water from our hosepipes. You get absolutely soaked of course. But hey... in case there was any doubt, I'm definitely the type of girl that likes to get wet.

Kratie and Irawaddy Dolphin Spotting

Mekong sunset gazing

 

Kratie is a small sunbaked town and the central square consists of not much more than the obliagatory indoor market jammed with cheap t shirts, baseball caps, toiletries ( the asian woman's quest for whiteness knows no bounds) and a range of stands selling strange school kid toys and sweeties. 

Many of the women here both working in the market and outside seem to be wearing pyjamas. Loose fitting, often multicoloured and garishly patterned flannel two piece pjs! 

“whhhhhy – I need to know!” says April. So we google it. Turns out the women of Cambodia have found the humble pyjama the pefect solution to the challenge of dressing both comfortably and also preserving modesty in this very traditional and respectful society. They don't shie away from the bright mismatched colours either, there's something rather glorious watching women going about their daily business, running their stalls, riding their motorbikes and nursing their babies in their pyjamas. 

We arrive at a restaurant ... 

“Is the restaurant we ate at yesterday when the two big cockroachs ran over our feet?” asks Rich. 

“Oh yeeeahh” we all agree, as we collectively pull out our chairs and sit down. 

“Wow that is hilairous! Imagine us doing that in London. Amazing how one's standards relax overseas isn't it?!” says Rich. 

The next morning we are up with the lark to go and see the rare Irawaddy dolphins. This almost extinct bottle nose dolphin can only be found in two locations, 4000 islands off the coast of Southern Laos and here in Kratie. There are only about 50 left. We get up early and take the half hour tuk tuk ride along the river banks of the Mekong to the pier where our boat will depart. The air is still cool as we leave the town behind and head off down a rural road with the bright navy strip of the Mekong running along side us. Traditional bamboo huts on stilts are set away from the road amongst the broad leafed banana plants and enormous ceramic urns tadorn the villagers porches. Their inhabitants squat outside on their hams lighting their little early morning bonfires. We arrive around 8am with the sky and river an intense navy and the sun burning in the sky. We are shown into a bright yellow painted row boat and and our oarsman starts rowing us down the river. The Mekong has remained a persistent muddy brown in Laos but for the first time here it glimmers a bright sapphire, banked with palm trees - it looks inviting enough to dive into . We get out into the middle and then he drops the oars and lets us float. After a few minutes a couple of sharp little fins cut the air and two snubb little noses burst through the ripples, jump a neat little arc and then submerge themselves again.

 

As ever my camera and I are pretty useless and i'm still not in the running to win “wildlife photographer of the year” award any time soon. These dolphins are rare and from Laos. So let me manage your expectations now and tell you they are not the brash American show offs of Miami's Sea World. They won't be soaring out of the sea to perform pirouttes and somersaults only to crash back into the waves and reappear for an encore... Their appearances are discreet and genteel. Often in twos – the most we see is a glimpse of their shiny snub noses, or their sleek flank as they crest the waves in a delicate arc and splash back into the water It is worth it though. As always ...getting up close and personal with nature is a privelege. We spend a happy half hour trying to take photos and predict which side of the boat they will be appearing from (and failing dismally ) then make our way back to Kratie. 

Back at the hotel Mr Dan the man who has sold us the half hour tuk tuk to the swimming pool with no water – has offered us a good discount on our next excursion to make up for it. Just as a precaution we decide to compare his prices before we book and realise that he's lied and is still charging us above average prices and it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. So we move out of the hotel en masse and go and decamp for breakfast down the road. Suddenly I feel a sensation and realise he is sitting behind me. I'm slightly unnerved – how did he suddenly materialise so silently. 

“The fact is you lied. You told us we could swim and we could eat and we coudn't do either. Then you told us you would give us a good deal and its more expensive than other hotels. So we don't trust you any more!” I say. 

“Oooh Dominique, you summed that up perfectly!” says April. Hmmm years of practise dealing with that kind of person I expect. 

He wrings his hands, but he knows he's been had. 
 


It is our final day together. We wander along the Mekong and then sit on the riverbanks to watch as the great coppery sun melts into the horizon. Asia really knows how to pull out the pretty with the sunsets. 

“I'd love an old fashioned ice cream!” says April. And as if by magic an old fashioned ice cream van appears. They seem to do only two flavours – coconuty condensed milk and nutty condensed milk garnished with nuts and...condensed milk. But its delicious creamy, cold and sweet. 

Tomorrow we part company – April and Laura are heading back to Oz via Bangkok and Rich and I are travelling onwards up to Siem Reap - to experience the temples of Angkor Wat together.

Baba Yaga, Harvesting spirit rice and the best cup of coffee in Cambodia

“You falangs, you love sunset, you can't wait to see it! – for Cambodians its different. We are scared of them....When its dark we can't see what is out there. What is coming, creeping out of the shadows. The Khmer Rouge - they hide in the jungle, and when the sun goes down, they come out...” 

April and Laura – my AussIe friends from the elephant sanctuary have joined me on a day trip to discover what else this hidden little gem of Eastern Cambodia has to offer. Our guide, the ebullient Mr Sam, is looking all boy about town, in fashionable denims, jaunty white baseball cap, and cheeky dimples. 

Originally from Kampot, he moved here seventeen years ago when the Khmer Rouge were still hiding in the hills – coming down after sunset to car jack, rob and terrorise the locals. It is only very recently that proper road infrastructure was built to connect this province to Phnom Penh and the rest of the country – Mondulkiri, is as a result, still relatively undiscovered. Its beautiful, off the beaten tourist trail and the sunsets are breathtaking.  

After the obligaory waterfall visit – we head out to a rural village to see how the locals live. There are rice fields on either side of us gradually growing golden under the huge, cloudless sky. Amongst the long shafts stand a farmer with his wife and young daughter. They have bags wrapped around their waist and are gently gathering the purses of seed that drip down the stems. This is spirit rice. Each little grain must be lovingly picked by hand out of respect to the spirit that dwells within. Its a long and arduous task, but so revered is this different type of grain - that no sicle or blade must come near. 

 



After watching for a few back breaking moments we are led to a little cottage, with stooped triangular thatch. A curl of smoke rises from the roof, it looks like Baba Yaga's hut (minus hopping around on a giant chicken foot of course.) The hostess within isn't dissimilar to the old crone of the fairy tales either. She beckons us inside and her walnut face concaves into a broad smile that reveals a top row of gums devoid of teeth (she pulled them out herself) and a bottom row that have been sharpened into points. She carried it out in the name of beauty ... “Sheesh...” I think... “the lengths us women will go to...” 

We crouch down and enter the hut, our eyes stinging from little fire glowing in the middle of the room. She has plucked a papaya fruit from her garden and sitting cross legged, deftly carves it into pieces with her machete. It is the creamiest, sweetest papaya I have ever tasten, fresh off the vine and a million miles away from the anaemic, tasteless gourds that fill the supermarket shelves back home. Her little black eyes glitter with amusement as she watches us and Mr Sam negotiating the cost of a bag of red beans. Seeing a woman as elderly as this is a rare sight in Cambodia, a lot of the older generation having been wiped out under Pol Pot's regime. 

Next stop is lunch at a coffee plantation. We have a little wander around the grounds first whilst they prepare their signature dish. Mr Sam's effervescent enthusiasm and near perfect English means he manages to give us a whistle stop guide around the sexual proclivities of a mango tree, introduce us to the large drooping purple flower of the banana tree and show us where cashew nuts grow – with the added bonus of managing to make it all sound incredibly interesting. 

When lunch is served we take a seat on rugs on a shaded pagoda and watch as the local speciality is laid out before us. Large individual Ban Xeo ( giant pancakes stuffed with fried pork and bean shoots) with our own side dish of sweet dipping sauce and crunchy peanuts are placed down along with a communal platter of diferent aromatic leaves. Some I recognise as sweet basil, mint and coriander but there are some with such lemony, soapy flavours that I think they must be soley native to Asia. Mr Sam demonstrates how we eat it- tearing off a piece of the pancake, wrapping it in a bunch of the leaves and herbs and then dipping it in the sweet sauce and then the peanuts. Its absolutely delicious, one of my favourite meals in Cambodia – and for $1 each - one of my cheapest. We finish with freshly ground coffee from the plantation. 

Unlike Laos where the coffee is watery and riddled with a thick, syrupy condensed milk, the coffee in Cambodia is great and the cuppa on this plantation one of the country's finest. According to Mr Sam they taught the Vietnamese how to grow and harvest coffee and now the Vietnamese buy it off them and sell it as their own. It has a deep, chocolately roasted flavour and you can buy the beans, roasted or whole at the plantation's gift shop. 

After a quick visit to a rubber plantation where we stand amongst the bone white trees and try not to inhale the stink rising from the gluey sap collecting in buckets at the tree bases, we drive up to the top of Spirit Mountain for views across nearby Sen Monoram and the pine dotted plains of Mondulkiri. 

An animist shrine has been set up here by a man called Mr Echo. The villagers regularly come and make animal sacrifices at the temple. Cambodia, like Laos, was a victim in the crossfire of the war between American and Vietnam. At Spirit Mountain prayers were made, and this remained un -hit by American b52s even though the surrounding area was riddled with bombs. 

“Ummm what is he holding in his hand?” asks April

– eyeing the notoriously phallic shape that the Buddha type figure at the centre of the shrine seems to be clutching. 

“Oh its his walking stick” Says Mr Sam oblivious. Of course it is. That's what we thought... 

We leave and head off in the jeep to our final destination today. It occurs to us that we seem to be on what looks like an air strip. 

“Oh yes!” shouts Mr Sam cheerfully steering the landrover “this is Sen Monoram's only airport!” Luckily there is nothing coming in to land! 

Our final stop is the Sea Forest. A beauty spot where you can stand on the baked, red soil and look out at the floating green sea of jungle treetops that retreat in misty swathes as far as the eye can see. The air is cooler still up here and the tranquility of the natural view quieten us to contemplation, until that is, Mondulkiri's resident drunk decides to stagger over and ask for money.

 

 

“Aaawww, sorry, I dunno maaaateeee...” says Laura backing away. 

I can't help laughing – 

“You couldn't sound more Australian if you tried!” 

As always this kind of excursion is made or broken by the quality of the guide. Mr Sam makes an otherwise rather ordinary day out, a delight, with his love of silly jokes, bounds of enthusiasm and he's bright as a tack to boot. He won a WWF scholarship to go to Indonesia which has honed his tour guide skills and his eco sensibilities. 

“ I don't think, in a few years, this will be here....” he says sadly gesturing out to the canopy of tree tops. .. 

"See the way it works here. Poor people, they don't understand their rights, they just want to own their land, so the government sells them it for cheap. Then after a while the government offer to buy back the land for lots more money – so the villagers sell. Then its sold on to the big corporations. They don't care about the forest, or the people who own it. They will cut it down to develop on it.” 

You can see how undeveloped Cambodia and Laos are compared to other bordering countries, and Mondulkiri is more untouched than most parts but I have a sinking feeing that Mr Sam is right and that the beautiful misty SeaForest we have the privelege of looking out over today may not be there even in a few years time. 

Later that night Rich comes to join us as he too has left the Elephant Valley project. The final defectee! We decide to share the traditonal Cambodian BBQ. It arrives in a silver urn that is lit up from underneath. We have a platter of raw meat to cook and vegetables and salads to cook in the broth around the sides. Instead of a sliver of fat to keep the hot plates greased we have a little pot of oil. The BBQ's first anointment causes a tunnel of fire to shoot up out of it and almost take off people's eyebrows. It also causes a large worm to make a sudden wriggle for freedom as it crawls out of the vegetables that we have put in the stock around the base. I scream and run to the other side of the table. 

“Better to discover a whole worm than half a worm” 'says Rich wryly. 

After dinner we head out onto the mean streets of Sen Monoram (there are two) to look for the party. We hear the sound of music and follow it off the beaten track until we get to a bar called The Fat Gecko. I really want a White Russian - but the only drinks they seem to have is beer or vodka. We sit and chat until a couple of sex pats join us and we make our excuses to leave. I still find it incredibly uncomfortable seeing large, ugly old western men with very young beautiful asian women (or boys.) 

Its pitch black when we leave but the stars are so bright we wander along gazing upwards and using the iphone app to try and see the constellations. 

I'm excited. Tomorrow - the roadtrip continues north. All four of us are going to Kratie on the banks of the Mekong to try and get a glimpse of the rare Irawaddy dolphins.