A Travellerspoint blog

Mui Ne Beach

We arrived at Mui Ne at about 2am, and were pretty tired after leaving Phnom Penh at 6:30 so checked into the hotel where we were dropped. It was a little expensive, but we managed to get the owner to knock $5 off if we went without the included breakfast. This wasn’t a problem, as we haven’t been up in time for a single breakfast yet.

Mui Ne is a very quiet little fishing village about 200km from HCMC, where there isn’t much to do and no tuk tuks or public transport so we rented a motorbike after being approached by a moto driver. He agreed to rent us his personal bike for just $5 and didn’t ask for any security, which shows the Vietnamese are much more hospitable and trusting than the guidebooks make out. It seemed a little harsh to be renting his entire livelihood for just $5 so we made sure to return it with a full tank of petrol.

We took the bike to sand dunes where I had a go at sand sledding. It’s like tobogganing, but with a lot more sand in your eyes. Tabi didn’t participate due to an altercation with our 11 year old guide. I wasn’t very good at it, so two days later, I’m still getting sand out of various nooks and crannies.

We’re now in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as they call it in the South. We decided that as this was our last inexpensive country we’d push the boat out a little, so have got a suite in a hotel, with PC and hot water for just 7 pounds. We’ve just come back from a supermarket where we managed to spend $40 on cereals and cheese. So much for self catering being cheap!

We’ve got until the morning of the 22nd in HCMC, so have a few days just to relax, which will be nice after quite a hectic pace.

Posted by roblist 06:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Phnom Penh

S21 Prison

As soon as the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, they started a program of mass evacuations. Within 3 days the city streets were cleared and the entire population, including the hospitals' sick and dying, were making their way into the countryside. 2 million Cambodians gave up everything, traveling to far distant provinces to play their part in the 'agrarian utopia'. In a country that grows 30% of what it consumes the consequences are obvious - mass starvation. As one Cambodian put it "Where there were streets without people, houses without people and men fought over a grain of rice stuck to the tail of a dog".

An old school house in Phnom Penh stands as a museum to the cruelty and inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge. It was in this French colonial school, in the heart of an empty city, that 20,000 political prisoners were detained, questioned, tortured and raped. Security Office 21, or S21, was just one of many interrogation centres run by the Khmer Rouge. Here confessions and accusations were extracted under such duress that they couldn't be considered valid. For most, it ended at the killing fields – only 7 people of the 20,000 survived.

Amongst the cruellest of guards were the 12-16 year old wardens. Prisoners were regularly questioned and tortured with a variety of techniques, from fingernails being pulled out to electrification and suffocation. Important political prisoners were kept in their own 2 1/2 foot by 6 foot cell, feet shackled to an 2 foot iron bar. As horrible as this sounds it was infinitely preferable to the treatment of the bulk of S21’s residents. They were kept 60 to room, that in a different time taught classes of 25. Here there were just two iron bars, each the length of the room. 30 people would be shackled alternatively to each bar, feet touching feet. No bedding, sound or movement was allowed.

Killing Fields

After interrogation at S21, prisoners were taken 14km down the road to the killing fields, where, as the name suggests, they were killed. To save 'wasting' bullets, prisoners were beaten to death with bamboo, or had their necks sawn using branches from palm trees.

There isn't much to see now, only small dips in the ground that mark out where the mass graves once were. Scattered all across the ground underneath our feet were fragments of teeth, bones and clothing. In the centre is what looks like an ordinary monument, but as you get closer you can see it's a perspex tower, 17 storeys high, of skulls arranged by age and gender.

Other stuff...

Phnom Penh doesn't seem to be as dangerous as everyone makes out, although having said that we took the guide book's advice and stayed indoors after dark. Fortunately there was a fantastic French restaurant just a few meters away, where we had most of our meals.

We've taken a coach to Vietnam, and are now in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We're waiting to take another bus to a little fishing village called Mui Ne. We'll be returning to HCMC in a few days time though.

Posted by roblist 00:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Bye bye Siem Reap, hello Phnom Penh

Journey aside; we had a lovely time in Siem Reap. The only reason people visit is to see Angkor Wat, rather than the town itself, so it retains the charm of a small relaxed town rather than a busy tourist hub. The people were all warm and friendly, and even the tuk-tuk drivers were more interested in showing off their vehicle than trying to rip us off.

Angkor Wat is a world heritage site, one of the wonders of the world, and apparently, the biggest religious building ever constructed. It’s all that Cambodia seems to have going for it, and pictures of Angkor are on everything from the flag to beer and cigarettes – the message being that Cambodia might be in a bit of a state now, but the Cambodians built Angkor Wat, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

There are two war museums in Siem Reap, and they are themselves at war. The owner of the one we chose to visit was arrested when a former army general decided to open a competing museum. Strangely, to secure his release, he’s scrapped the admission charge (so that his museum is no longer classified as such) but this has only increased its popularity. Lots of photos of the museum and Wat to follow.

Keen to avoid the Cambodian roads, we booked a flight to take us to Phnom Penh. The flight was smooth and only 40 minutes. There was just enough time to take off, throw some food at us, and then land again. We took a taxi to a hotel that we’d pre-booked only to find that the price had gone up 50% overnight. Neither of us felt like being ripped off again so we took a tuk tuk and fortunately managed to find a reasonable hotel on the other side of town.

Posted by roblist 06:09 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Arrived in Siem Reap!

We set off from Ko Chang yesterday morning and spent the entire day in transit, arriving at about 10.30pm in Siem Reap.

The first half of the journey, from Ko Chang to the Cambodian border
was reasonable, although the driver thought he was Michael Schumacher
and had a right to drive on which ever side of the road he chose –
beeping and cursing furiously at oncoming traffic for being in his
way.

We got dropped off at a roadside café, which doubled as a place where
we got our Cambodian visa, and boarded a second bus, which, we
assumed, would take us all the way to Siem Reap. The bus took us about 200m to the immigration point, where we waited for almost two hours in the mid afternoon sun to be allowed out of Thailand.

Once though immigration, our guide informed us that it was best to
change our money now and then promptly took us to a bureau de change
that offered incredibly bad exchange rates – so we've decided to stick with our dollars, which seems to be the first currency anyway.

We were then taken to an incredibly shabby bus, which was absolutely
packed full with luggage lining the gangways and virtually no legroom
at all. This was not the air-conditioned 'VIP' bus we had been
promised. 'Sorry, you have been cheated' was the refreshingly blunt
opening line of our guide's speech. He continued 'Hotels in Siem Reap
cost from between 100 and 1000USD'; we waited for the inevitable story of how he just happened to have a good friend who knew where we could get a room for 50.

He then told us how the journey from the border to Siem Reap is about
60 miles, but would take us about 5 hours – It's true that Cambodia's
roads are in a very poor state of repair, but I was skeptical that
this was the fastest the coach could manage, thinking the idea was
probably to get us to a hotel that the guide was on commission for so
late at night that it would be too dangerous for us to trek the
streets looking for a new one. Not being very happy with the
situation I decided to ask where we were going to be dropped off 'I
can't tell you; if I tell you, I have to tell everyone" was the
response, so I waited for a toilet stop to ask him again, this time he
gave away a little more 'very central, a guest house' and how much
would this guest house cost? 'very reasonable price'. For sure we were about to be shafted, again.

In the end, we arrived at a little guesthouse about 6km away from town at 10:30; the rooms are fairly over priced at 10USD per night. The hotel was entirely empty, confirming that our entire coach had
probably been sold to the guesthouse in advance, and our extremely
long coach journey was probably unnecessary.

Despite the poor transport, we're pleased to be here. Cambodia is a
very interesting place: it was a French colony up until the end of
WW2, but was largely ignored, and had only one high school and no
universities by the time the French left and installed Prince Sihanok
on the throne. He was overthrown in 1953 by the national army in a
coup. In 1969 the United States carpet bombed large parts of the
country, the effects of which can still be seen thanks to 'Landmine:
Keep Out' signs scattered across the country. In 1970 the US invaded
in an attempt to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces based here.
They failed, but they gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, who took the
capital, Phnom Penh just a few months later.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership,
systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting
the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a
Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Currency was
abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work
force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off
from the outside world. Responding to armed incursions into their
borders, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to
flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border.
From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the
Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 80s, funded by the US. 1993, UN administered elections took place and once again King Sihanok was returned to the throne as head of state.

Posted by roblist 01:02 Archived in Cambodia Comments (3)

Last day in Ko Chang

Yesterday we went on an Elephant trek through the rain forest; it's so much easier seeing the jungle by taking a ride on an elephant rather than actually walking, and, as a bonus, it started raining through the trek. Not the little droplet sort either, the sort of rain that hurts when it hits you came down in massive sheets.

Today is Tabi's birthday (she sends her thanks to all those who wished her happy birthday via the blog, or at least she would,if I had remembered to tell her), so we had a fun day on quad bikes followed by Thai massage. Tabi envisaged the quad bikes as being 'something like lego land' so was a little shocked when we were driving around at breakneck speeds on one of the toughest offroad tracks I've ever seen. It wasn't so much a track as a mud path through the jungle. To add excitement, my quad would accelerate constantly, and the brake would only slow the acceleration, rather than slow the quad.

Most massages here in Thailand are the naughty sort, but we managed to find a genuine one on the beach. The main aim of Thai massage does not seem to be to relax, but rather to prod and poke you in as many intimate places as possible. Just as my massage was finishing, I turned over to see Tabi's masseuse lying underneath Tabi... thinking about it, maybe it was the naughty kind.

In the evening, we went to a fantastic Italian restaurant that even Momma would have traveled east for, and had a fantastic three course meal, and lots of wine for just a few pounds.

We've also been planning the next leg of the journey, to Cambodia. Cambodia doesn't have any cashpoints at all, so we decided to stock up on dollars while we were in Ko Chang. We visited the banks, and totally cleared them of all their dollars (230 in total). They arrange two night tours to Cambodia from Ko Chang, and we've managed to tag along with one of these tours on a 'transport only' basis - that is to say, they'll get us to Siem Reap, and then we're on our own.

In other news, the blog counter just notched up it's 2,000th visitor, each one of you is so bright that your leading cause of death is moth related injuries.

It's nearly midnight here, and we have to be up very early for Cambodia tomorrow. I'm also a little worried I might have a hang over... ho hum, best go to bed.

Posted by roblist 07:43 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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