Lest we forget…

One of the joys of traveling is being able to visit new and exciting places. On the whole these tend to be sacred spots, buildings of cultural, historical or religious significance or areas of outstanding natural beauty. But just occasionally you have a day like today. One which reinforces the brutal side of unfettered power, the cruelty of a totalitarian regime and the sheer horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.

The killing Fields of Cambodia

I have to admit to having an initial internal debate about the ethics of visiting this site before we left. Was it basically commercialization of genocide? Was it Disneyfication of the macabre? Was it wrong for us to visit?

Visits to the site have increased by 8 fold in the last 10 years from originally locals paying their respects to now including far more foreigners than ever. But when we arrived my fears we put to rest. This site, 17km south of the city centre was a respectful, educational testament and memorial.

The site is quiet and for a modest entrance fee of $8 (£6.12) which included the audio guide we were able to wander around the site absorbing the atmosphere and learning much.

My knowledge of Pol Pot and his doings were sketchy until the release of the iconic film. I did have the benefit of working with an academic at St Martin’s College, Ian Harris, who has researched into the effects on Buddhism of the genocide and I had heard him lecture. His book is a seminal work on the subject.

This prior knowledge was useful but nothing like seeing the site and experiencing everything at first hand. It was a sombre and moving day which left my heart breaking at times but the victims deserve to be remembered.

In silence we wandered along wooden paths which straddled the uneven earth that had held the mass graves of approximately 9000 victims. Occasionally we heard witness testimonies or listened to the stirring revolutionary music which was played from loudspeakers with the intention of masking the cries of those being murdered. The graves had been exhumed but weather does shift the soil and from time to time more rags and scraps of clothing are exposed along with more fragments of bone. Every few months the caretakers of the site collect them up and put them into glass cases.

The stories which we heard were gruesome and chilling. Pol Pot educated in France had a warped utopian vision of an agrarian communist state. He was reacting against the US oppression when years of bombs had fallen in Cambodia during the Vietnam war. This coupled with a corrupt civil government left the country crippled and ripe for change. Pol Pot recruited young men and teenagers from the countryside. They were uneducated and willing to give unswerving devotion to ‘the cause’ as a promised solution to their woes and thus the Khmer Rouge was born.

Pol Pot basically led the world’s biggest offensive against the intelligentsia. Anyone who was a professional, could speak a foreign language, had soft hands or wore glasses was deemed the ‘enemy’ and had to be eradicated. In total 1/4 of the Cambodian population was executed in a 4 year period.

Pol Pot did not have a rich country and bullets were expensive so the killings were all from starvation, disease or brutal beatings with sticks, hoes or other farm implements. This was quicker and easier.

There are over 300 killing field locations throughout the country many of which have been left undisturbed. In this site though the bodies have been exhumed, catalogued and the bones displayed in a memorial stupa to stand as a testament to the atrocities and serve as a reminder to future generations of the folly of such regimes. I was reminded of the saying, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In the calm sunshine we meandered past the sites of sheds which had been demolished which had contained the chemicals used to mask the smell of the decomposing corpses.

Below us were shallow trenches which had each contained the bones of up to 450 people. We could imagine the fear that the 300 people each day felt as they met their deaths. Many of them had endured weeks or months of torture at the S21 prison before giving false confessions. Perhaps they felt that death was a release from their suffering. All the executions were conducted at night time.

It was all very sobering but perhaps the single most upsetting part was the tree festooned with colourful ribbons and bracelets. Here soldiers took infants by the feet and smashed them against the tree in front of their mothers who were then raped, murdered and thrown into the pit. As a mother I cannot bear the thought of what those women suffered. Words fail me at this point and I can only say that we offered prayers.

S 21 inside the city was originally a high school which was closed down as all education was forbidden and was taken over by the Khmer Rouge as a prison in 1975. Here classrooms were converted into torture chambers and some of the photographs inside were quite graphic. One thing which a totalitarian regime does very well is to document all its crimes very efficiently. Many of those captured and brought here were just kids.

Thousands were killed for being ‘new’ people not the simple countryfolk which the revolution aspired to. But even these ‘old’ people who were gathered into farming collectives were slowly being starved. The quota for rice production was tripled and those sent from the cities as forced labour had no idea how to farm. All Cambodians had to survive up to 13 hour working days on as little as two bowls of rice soup a day. Any excess rice they produced was sold to China so that Pol Pot could buy weapons!!! It beggars belief that anyone could think that working his entire country to death was in any way a sensible or sustainable option!!!

Men have a track record throughout history of being power hungry, violent war-mongers. This part of our visit here really drove that home. Most of the time that fact is distant, idolized in legends or glorified. But the stark reality of the consequences of genocide were before our eyes. We must not forget.

This is the logo of the International Women’s Peace Group and their exhibition at the end of the day gave a sliver of hope. They are working to bring an end to areas of conflict and violence throughout the world.


They deserve support.

Many members of the Khmer Rouge returned to society and now live normal lives. There were simply too many of them to track down and prosecute. Very few have been punished for war crimes or crimes against humanity. The Cambodians have accepted this. I found it hard to come to terms with that fact but there is a saying here

‘We forgive but we don’t forget’

One survivor we heard said,

‘When you hold hatred in your heart you hurt only yourself’

Such wise and humbling words.

As responsible tourists we have to see the bad alongside the good and the magnificent. We need to remember the atrocities to ensure that history does not repeat itself. The final words of our audio tour urged us to be ambassadors and to bear witness to the reality of what happened here to try to prevent it or anything like it ever happening again.

Canonball tree & other interesting facts

So we arrive in the capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh on our round SE Asia trip. And it is HOT here. It feels hotter than anywhere else we have been so far. As a result we are having siestas in the mid day heat and seeing sights in the morning only. Even then we very quickly get completely drenched in sweat! April in Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted.

First stop was the Royal Palace. The king is 65, unmarried and lives here with his mother. Good catch there ladies. The blue flag shows that he is residence today. This was for a special New Year ceremony where he makes an offering of fruit to the gods. And Fanta, apparently the gods like Fanta and Sprite.

King Norodom Sihamoni Was formerly a monk and then a professional dancer and has a PhD in dance (who knew that?) from Prague where he lived for 10 years.

He has a moonlight pavilion which has no electricity and no roof so is open to the sky where he holds dances.

The Khmer dynasty began in 802 AD and flourished for 600 years. In 1863 Cambodia came under the governance of France from which it gained independence in 1953. Then came the Vietnamese war and the country was heavily bombed by the US. In 1970 the king was overthrown and the right-wing Khmer Republic established. The opposition party, the Khmer Rouge is infamous and more about them anon.

The monarchy was restored in in 1993.

In the grounds of the palace grow this tree, native only to tropical countries it is known as the cannonball tree after its heavy, dense spherical fruit which you can see here. The flowers are interesting too. They bloom in the morning but die and fall off by the evening. The plant extract is used to treat skin conditions, stomach aches and colds. It has been know to cure maleria, toothache and even mange in dogs. So an all round great tree. It is also special to Buddhists as it is believed that this was the type of tree under which Gautama was born.

Here we have the elephant house. The balconies are so big as this was where the king would mount his beast.

Notice also the colour of the tiles on the roof. Yellow at the centre means Buddhism. The blue rim of the colour of the king and green around the edge stands for Cambodia. So country, king and religion.

Colour here is also significant in determining the days of the week. Sunday is a red day, Monday is yellow and so on. I guess it makes deciding what to wear in the mornings easy!

There are four Brahma faces on the planes of this spire. Each face represents a virtue





It was surprising how few visitors there were to this palace, especially after the extreme sardine-crush that is the Bangkok royal palace experience. Perhaps the heat kept them away.

Bear with me for this…

Today’s adventure was an hour long Touk Touk ride (which is more of a two bench vehicle than a Thai tuk tuk is). It was a bumpy ride at some speed but we at least had fantastic views of the countryside. It is the season for farmers to slash and burn so there is a constant haze in the sky and a tinge of smoke in the air most of the time.

The Tat Kuang Si waterfall was worth the uncomfortable journey though.

I have seen a fair few waterfalls in my time but I have to say that this is probably the prettiest one. The water cascades down different routes through the various levels into the brilliant turquoise pools.

This close up shows how the sediment in the water has shaped the limestone so instead of cutting through the rock it is depositing and creating stalactites type shapes.

The water flows down into a variety of terraced pools and there are some that you can swim in. So we did.

It felt pretty awesome to be bathing in the jungle! The water was cold but so refreshing in the heat of the day. In each pool were tiny fish who nibble your legs so we also had a free and totally natural fish spa!

Calcium carbonate particles in the water reflect the light making the water look such a vivid hue. The water colours were soothing on the eye but the jungle trail had some pretty vivid flora too which was delightful against the dense greens.

But the best treat of all was the bear sanctuary at the bottom of the hill. I hadn’t even realized that it was there until the trail took us through their enclosure. These are sun bears and moon bears a type of asiatic bear all of whom who have been rescued from trappers and poachers. The sanctuary restores them to health.

This short video clip shows the cubs play fighting. I guess kids are kids whatever the species!

Bear bile is highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine and bears are caught then kept penned up in cages with tubes draining their bile continuously. It’s an awful trade and the bears are in misery. It was so wonderful to see them enjoying being out in the open.

Our final stop of the day was to the library (bus Man’s holiday!); the Luang Prabang public library was tiny and had only a few shelves of tatty books but they had launched a book boat project

Anyone can buy a book from a preselected shelf for $2 and donate it to a Book Bag’. These are then taken by boat to the poor village schools who have few resources. We are always happy to help those less fortunate than ourselves- especially with the gift of books!

The Mekong

SE Asia’s longest river at 4350 km it starts with springs in Tibet and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Mekong literally means ‘mother of the rivers in Asia’ and as one of the worlds’ major waterways this was something I had heard of. Having watched Sue Perkins travel the Mekong I was keen to take a boat trip.

We duly booked a cocktail sunset cruise for 2 hours via our hotel for $15 each (approx £11.50) A bargain we thought.

I should at this stage point out that this is the low season as the temperatures can get quite high (40 degrees). Having said that, coming from Bangkok we can confirm that it is nowhere near as humid. So whilst we do get hot & a bit sweaty here during the afternoon the rest of the time is lovely for us. Anyway, to cut to the chase, its the low season and there aren’t many other tourists around. Most people come during the high season which is Nov – Feb. There are multiple restaurants along the river bank with empty tables which is quite sad.

Anyway we went down to the river to board our boat

In Laotian style it was long and very beautiful inside with polished wooden floors and little tables.

Then we discovered that we were the only guests so it ended up being a private cruise!!! for 11 quid each! We certainly lucked out there!

It was a magical evening floating gently down the river watching the golden sun sparkling on the water as it set behind the mountains

What could be nicer than sipping Laos Mojitos on such a special river.

And the nibbles were new to us too… (Not the peanuts)

The black curly things were actually locally sourced mushrooms made into crisps. Although the looked pretty grim and unappetizing they were in fact delicious. Organic and very more-ish.

We sailed up to the quite rickety bamboo bridge at the confluence with the Nam Khan River. You can pay £1 to walk across. I didn’t as it looked pretty ropey in the middle!

Our host was fascinating and spoke impeccable English (which he had taught himself when working as a waiter) his parents were farmers in the north but on their death he decided that he didn’t want to continue to cut down trees as they had done but instead he wanted to give something back to his country. He started his boat business and any profits he makes he uses to fund a school in the countryside. He has paid for classrooms, toilets and last week he made them some new tables as they don’t have enough and the children eat in the same place that they study. Sadly, he said that the low number of tourists this year would mean that he couldn’t do much more to help them financially so he was going to spend some time teaching English instead. What an inspirational man.

And what a beautiful place.

I guess that being landlocked most westerners don’t think of Laos as a holiday destination as there are no beaches. But if you like cultural experiences and nature you can’t beat this. I would recommend it for anyone wanting a holiday with a difference.


I have to admit that until I arrived in SE Asia I was woefully ignorant of the fact that Laos even existed as a country! Shameful I know, but it never featured on my school geography curriculum, no major (or minor) world events have happened here to mark it in the history books thereby raising it to my attention and it has spawned no remarkable citizens. It hadn’t really registered on my radar until I came to live in neighboring Thailand. And what I treat I have been missing all these years. It is a delightful country.

If any of you are as totally ignorant as I was here are a couple of fascinating facts for you:

Laos is the only landlocked country in SE Asia. It’s proper name is Lao People’s Democratic Republic and it has a Marxist-Leninist government. The country used to be colonial French (probably why I’ve never heard of it!) and it had several wars against that ruling power until finally gaining independence in 1953. Basically the land is a conglomeration of various hill tribes such as the Hmong, Lue, Khmu and others with the Lao tribe being the largest. The currency is the cutely named the Kip.

Our first stop is Luang Prabang, a provincial town on the banks of the Mekong River (which I HAD heard of) Here we sat on the river bank in cafes and bars watching the river traffic float by. There is none of the gaudiness of the party boats on the Chao Pharaya back in Bangkok. This felt like stepping back in time and witnessing how people have lived for centuries.

Originally a royal capital (in 1353) it was named Lan Xang Hom Khao which means Kingdom of a million elephants and a white parasol (this has got to be the best country name ever). Our hotel, located directly opposite the Royal Palace, was actually the home of the King’s brother! The current name comes from the precious golden Prabang or Buddha statue which is 2000 years old and which is processed around the streets on Buddhist festival days.

(Picture from a postcard as we weren’t allowed to photograph the statue itself)

In 1975 when the communist party took over the Lao royal family moved here but the city soon fell into desolation as many fled the new regeneration. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and it remains the cultural capital of the country.

We had been told about the dawn alms giving at the nearby Wat and so made the effort to get up at 5am to join with the local women waiting in the pearly early morning light.

With the sounds of cock crows ringing in our ears the first monks came out of the temple bare footed and carrying their alms bowls. We each in turn gave lumps of sticky rice as they filed passed us and I noticed that all of them kept their gaze fixed downwards.

I think that I should have been sitting or kneeling but is didn’t have a mat or stool so I just stood.

It felt like the Asian equivalent of the church ladies. They each prayed before making their offerings and gave more exciting donations of vegetables from their straw bags to the younger novices

At the end the novices chanted for us all which hopefully you can hear

It was a beautiful spiritual experience that I felt privileged to have been a part of.

… and now you know as much as I do about this lovely country