Saturday, 8 September 2012

Darkside - Cambodia under the Khmer Rogue

6th - 15th August 2012
7853 - 8175km
Siem Reap – Skuon – Sampong Chey - Skun – Phnom Penh

Shadows over Cambodia

There is a weight to the past in Cambodia. As we came through the border we could feel the inertia in our stomachs, feel the distant pressure drawing things its way. Everyone knows about it. This black horror that swallowed everything up, and still pulls at the country today.

Even cycling through these sunshine scenes of rural life; kids waving and farmers smiling, lean back in the saddle and gaze across the sparkling rice fields, we know there's something bad beneath it all. The glacial crunch of bones beneath the surface. There's no avoiding it. The trauma shook every life across the country, and not so long ago. After our week in Siem Reap we kicked off and headed east, towards Phnom Penh, and the killing fields.

The ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was a hot, fast, three day ride along the highway as it cuts a broad arc over the great lake. Early starts cleared up some kilometres before the heat got a hold of the day, and frequent breaks in the shade with a cold coconut made the journey a pretty pleasant one. We'd sit around for half an hour watching life unfold in these hairdryer-hot towns; chickens rummaging around our feet, horses hauling wooden-wheeled carts, and in the dust across the road taut faced cows lay scowling in the sun. Nice and easy.

We eased off on our hardcore camping ethic in Cambodia too. Hotels, motels and hostels were back on the menu. In part this was down to a conversation we'd had with a restaurant owner in Siem Reap. He'd taught us how to ask in Cambodian “Can we pitch a tent here”, but he'd thrown in some advice too. Cambodia is a poor country, he reminded us, and unless we found ourselves in a bind it was probably right to spend a couple of extra dollars and find ourself some lodging when we could, and help out the local businesses.

That was one excuse anyway.

The other, of course, was that it was bloody nice shelving the idea of camping in the heat being barked at by dogs.

But of course, getting into binds is what we do best, so it wasn't long before the tent came out.

We were lucky on our first night out of Siem Reap, and by chance ended up in a town with accommodation. The next night though we weren't so lucky. A late afternoon downpour pinned us in a village while the damp afternoon slipped into twilight. There was no accommodation here. There hadn't been any since we'd left our hotel that morning. We were too far from any large towns to make a push for it, so as soon as we saw the familiar gilded rooftop of a temple peeping through the trees we pedalled inside.

We were greeted by a crowd of waving children in orange robes. A few dozen of them came pouring out of the prayer hall to cheer and smile and stare at these strangers who'd arrived on the grounds. An older monk - although still a few years younger than us - stepped forward and introduced himself as Leedas. He showed us into the prayer hall that would be our home for the night, a gloomy place, there was no electricity and the thunderclouds had choked out the last of the day's light. Leedas lit the candles, and we got to work setting up our tent as bats chattered and swooped in the rafters above.

There was a strange Neverland quality about the place. All of the monks were younger than us. All of them. We kept expecting to bump into an elder when we went for a shower, or as we took a stroll around the grounds at dusk, but there were none. With all the distractions of getting set up for the night it took us a little while to click, and realise why.

We were face to face with one of the many scars left on the country by the Khmer Rogue, the communist regime that took power in 1975 and, by the time they were driven out in 1979, had managed to starve, hack and bludgeon two million people - a quarter of the population - into their graves. Anybody who did not fit in with Pol Pot's vision for the country was rounded up, tortured, and executed. Teachers, artists, doctors, anybody with an education, and of course, monks. So here we were, in a temple full of children who were left to pick up the pieces.

Cambodia got it bad after the collapse of the Angkor Empire. For centuries Thailand and Vietnam fought over it, gnawed at the borders, colonised, left, and colonised again. Were it not for the French stepping in in 1863 Cambodia would have almost certainly been swallowed up by its rivals and lost.

Yet the French rule was by no means a benign one. The Cambodians were regarded as a source of taxation and cheap labour, very little was invested in improving the country. Occasionally however this colonial arrogance tipped over into something more sinister. During the construction of the Bokor Hillstation, nightmare working conditions resulted in the deaths of 900 Cambodians. The French ideals of liberty and freedom evidently hadn't quite made it this far East.

This 'protectorate', as the French rule was known, ended in 1953, but worse was to come for Cambodia. The Vietnam war was spilling over the border, and an army of communist guerilla fighters were gradually snapping up areas of the countryside. Very little was thought of these red Khmers, or 'Khmer Rogue', because they were nothing compared to the encroaching Viet Cong or the might of America, any of which might overthrow Cambodia's fragile sovereignty.

A strong government may have prevented the horror that was looming, but Cambodia was blighted by rulers of the worst kind. Public money flowed into their pockets, they sanctioned their own mass killing of hundreds of ethnic Vietnamese, and they imprisoned and tortured their political enemies, driving many moderates out of the cities to join the ever growing ranks of extremists in the jungle.

Such a rotten government never lasts. Corrupt army officers had fabricated recruits in order to pocket their wages, while making it appear that they had the numbers to fight the enemy. Worse still, some even sold their weapons to the Khmer Rogue to pocket the cash themselves. Disaster was imminent, but the government just sank their teeth into the country and fed.


The tent was absolutely sweltering that night.. We were hungry too, since there had been nowhere to eat so we'd had to make do with a tiny tin of rice meal from our supplies. Sleep had not come easily, and we woke early, tired and hungry, and set off into the morning.

After a quick 15km pedal we came to the junction town of Skun, and a chronic beige restaurant serving noodles. Although seemingly a nowhere junction town, Skun is famous for a rather unusual delicacy that comes piled high in wicker baskets around the market stalls.


Deep fried tarantulas.

Yet another symptom of the Khmer Rogue years this one, as their disastrous agricultural policies pushed the country towards starvation, forcing people to find whatever they could to sustain them. Locals here found large spiders burrowing in the ground so they dug them up, fried them, and found they really rather liked them. We figured we'd have to give them a go.

But as we sat there shovelling noodle soup something scurried up Liv's arm. She swatted it, plucked it off, and saw to her horror that it was a bed bug! Now, bed bugs are notoriously shy creatures and do not venture outside during the day. They also tend to stick to beds, which makes their appearance on a restaurant table in the morning very unusual. Liv speculated that it may have come from her bags, as she'd been rummaging around inside just before the incident. Could bed bugs have infiltrated our gear? It would be a serious problem if they had. Very serious. Once they get a hold in there they're nigh on indestructible, only very high temperatures - or squishing them between fingernails – can kill them. If they'd lain eggs in there our whole kit could be compromised.

Well, there wasn't much we could do now. We'd check when we got to Phnom Penh. Liv was very worried though, because she reacts badly to their bites and they are pretty much her arch nemesis. I tried to reassure her, and suggested we might take our mind off things by going and finding a deep fried tarantula, and eating it.

They were far less crispy than we'd imagined. Our spider kind of flopped in our palms, his blank dead eyes holding us with something of a disapproving stare. “Now then” they seemed to say “You think this is appropriate behaviour do you?” It's true, when you look at a spider it's very hard to make the cognitive leap to 'food'.

Well, you've got to try it once I suppose, so we got to work chewing its legs off. As with the crickets in Mae Sot, it didn't taste too bad because it didn't really taste of anything. It's fried fat, with the remnants of a tasteless bug inside. Next time you're chewing on a bit of deep-fried sinew on a chicken leg, you're tasting tarantula. Remember that.

Apparently there are some other bits of the body you can eat, but for the unskilled you may pop some kind of bladder of bitter brown goo, so we just stuck to the legs. An eight legged feast of spider drumsticks. Breakfast of champions.

Capital company

The final stretch of road into the capital was appallingly bad. We spent several hours squeezing our way up a clogged, narrow road that was blasted by a headwind packing sand. Horns barked, cars drove right at us, and the temperature was unbearable. Thankfully Liv spotted a turning and we escaped from this hell pass to a quiet track alongside the Mekong. For an hour we bumped along this country scene of cows, kids and fishermen, that got us within striking distance of the city centre.

Our first glimpse of the Mekong!
After so long in rural Cambodia it was a bit of a shock finding ourselves in a bustling city. We pedalled southwards, hemmed in by cars and motorbikes, and finally found ourselves a touristy area tucked away in a grid of side streets.

Phnom Penh is not a particularly nice looking place, but then neither is it terribly bad either. Imitation French apartments line the streets, scruffy and mildewed but nice enough to look at. Markets swallow up whole streets, while others are commandeered exclusively by laundrettes or tailors or some other profession. The kids are still around, happy as ever, waving and shouting between their favourite game of 'throw a flip flop down the street'. Street dogs canter by, and the roads surge with motor-scooters. Life is busy here, but not as rushed as other cities.

View from the bridge over Tonle Sap river
Phnom Penh traffic
No $#!%

Selling fruit at the market
Our hotel was a very nice place, a little expensive at $8 a night, but with a big comfy bed, bathroom and balcony restaurant, it was worth it. But of course we had no time to relax, because we had bed bugs to deal with.

We brought all our gear into the bathroom to quarantine it, and then over the course of two days we went through absolutely everything - pockets, seams, tool kits, food containers, documents, everything – to try and find any signs of infestation.

We found another bug the day we arrived, but again it seemed to be on the outside of the bags, which was very strange behaviour for a creature of dark crevices. We had a good look at the little bastard, and then incinerated him.

Cleaning out the tent in the bathroom
Following our examination, and after some online research, we discovered that there was another species of bug, very similar in appearance to bed bugs but which live on bats. Bat bugs. We had ourselves an explanation to the mystery, since there had been plenty of bats roosting right above our bags the night before.

Although we read that bat bugs cannot breed without the presence of bats' blood we didn't take any chances. After going through our gear we took all our clothes to the laundrette for a high temperature wash, then got to work scrubbing out the tent, blankets, inflatable mattresses and sleeping bag. That was a few weeks ago now, and so far there's been no more sign of them. Phew!

During our epic clean we found time to apply for our Chinese visa. It would take 5 days to come through, so we had a bit of time to kill. Luckily for us our hostel had a fantastic host of travellers – Marie and Melana who were volunteering with the sisters at a nearby orphanage; Camille, who was on a solo backpacking mission; and Illia, an American who'd grown up in Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union and who now worked for an NGO tackling extremism. Very interesting bunch, plenty to talk about as you can imagine, and we wiled away our evenings with them, eating out, swilling beers, and sorting out the world's problems.

Camille and Liv enjoying a drink by the Russian market.
Camille, Illia and Marie

Year Zero

Two of the big draws for tourists in Phnom Penh are relics of the Khmer Rogue days. The tuk-tuk drivers outside our hotel knew this, and we were often greeted by a cheerful “Killing fields?” as we set out in the morning. Phnom Penh was at the heart of it really, and its fall to the Khmer Rogue in 1975 signalled the beginning of the darkest years.

The government had fled, or been killed, or gone into hiding by the time the black-clad troops of the Khmer Rogue arrived in the city. Many Cambodians knew people who had fled into the country to fight, but they had heard some terrible stories too. The atmosphere then was one of trepidation as the soldiers marched through the streets, firing their weapons into the air and shouting revolutionary slogans. Might this new regime be an improvement on the last?

Despite everything, this style of advertisement is apparently still appropriate.
Cambodia was about to find out. Just days later the soldiers came round and gave the order that the city was to be evacuated. Leave at once, go back to your home village. Anybody not cooperating was shot on sight The entire city was emptied, family's separated and scattered across the country. From now on everybody was going work in the fields. To be an uneducated, unquestioning peasant was the only acceptable ideal. Through a concerted effort out in the fields, Pol Pot believed, Cambodia would rise above its neighbours and dominate the region once again.

Cambodians with aspirations above serfdom were not only unwanted by the regime, they were regarded as a threat, something to be dug out and destroyed. Their contempt for life was made clear early on when Pol Pot issued this chilling message over the radio: Two million peasants were needed for his new agrarian utopia, as for the rest “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

People began to disappear, taken away for interrogation or re-education. Perhaps you had been seen speaking to a foreigner a few years ago, or did you teach a class in your village, or maybe somewhere in a locked room somebody had screamed out your name to put an end to their torture. Whatever the reason, you weren't ever to know. You'd disappear in the night, and find yourself at one of the detention centres with no idea of the crime you were charged with.

These centres sprung up all across Cambodia, but the most notorious of these was in Phnom Penh itself, Tuol Sleng, an old school converted for the purpose.

Liv and I walked the kilometre or so down the road to the building, a sombre place surrounded by high fences and barbed wire right in the middle of a residential area. Photographs show the corpses that were found here after the liberation. Bloated bodies strapped to beds, bloodied pick axes lying beside them. Elsewhere whole floors of classrooms have been swallowed up by compact cells constructed from brick and timber where thousands of people spent their final months.

The regime was meticulous about keeping records. Everyone who came into this prison was photographed and registered, as if by formalising these murders they were justifying them. Today you can see all the thousands of frightened faces of men, women and children staring back at you from displays around the building. Elsewhere there are photographs of prisoners in the midst of their torture, the life gone from their eyes, blood everywhere. Of an estimated 20'000 people that came through this prison, less than 200 got out alive.

Confessions were needed to legitimise what was to come, and so prisoners were taken in to converted classrooms where they were electrocuted, drowned, beaten, hung, and had finger nails ripped out. If through all of this you could figure out the crime you were charged with you would sign a statement admitting your guilt so the torture would end and you could go back to your cell. Many people didn't, and died during interrogation.

Soon after your confession the call would come that you were going to be sent to a new work project. Your re-education was complete.

As night fell a truck would come to the gate, your name called out, and you would be led inside, blind folded and with your hands tied. From here the truck would bump its way along the pot holed roads and out of town.

A few kilometres out of the city you would hear the sound of revolutionary songs blaring from speakers. The truck would stop, and you would be led up a small path in an area hidden by high walls. Soon after you would be made to kneel. No doubt many people knew by now. If the smell didn't already reach you perhaps you could peer below your blindfold where hundreds of corpses crowded the ground below.

Clothes of the victims protrude from the ground all around the site.
Bullets were too precious to the Khmer Rogue, so the executioners had to use whatever they could find. Farming tools seem to have been popular; spades, pick axes, cart axles, but anything would do.

'The Killing Tree'
Hundreds of children and babies died here, thanks to the KR's policy of disposing of suspects' entire family to prevent any retribution when the youngsters grew up. One tree, by a mass grave of hundreds of women and children, was found to contain blood, hair, and fragments of bone, purportedly where infants were grabbed by their feet and smashed against the trunk before being tossed into the pit with their mothers. This regime was about as savage and barbarous as anything you can imagine, and it ruled the country for four long years.

As we walked around the site of these old killing fields, and saw the mass graves, the teeth and bones, it brought to mind a guy we had met in Siem Reap. On our night out in town with Tim and Barbara, a local by the name of Three-Eye had sat down next to us. Shrapnel wounds pocked his body, with a small one above his right eye to which he owed his name. He got them fighting the Khmer Rogue in 1989. Three-Eye spoke with a wildness, and he held you with severe, watery eyes as he spoke. “I had thirty-seven family members in 1975.” he said, “How many do you think were left by the end?” There was a pause, and we shook our heads. He held up five fingers. “When you go to the killing fields, and you see the skulls piled up inside the memorial, you know that one of those is my father.”

Built on twisted ideals, and propped up by fear, the regime soon began to list and crack. The crops failed spectacularly, obviously, as they were managed by untrained labourers with no farming experience. Food became desperately scarce, and many hundreds of thousands of people perished in the ensuing famine.

As this disaster unfolded the regime's paranoia swelled and more and more people were gagged and dragged into their prisons to die. Fear chewed through the ranks like rot. Their own members fell under suspicion, and many, even the old prison guards, were sent to be interrogated and butchered. Something had to give.

Pol Pot's fanaticism would be the final straw. In 1979 he took his rather feeble army to try and attack the south of Vietnam – a country that had just emerged victorious after thirty years of war and had at its disposal one of the most highly trained and effective armies on earth. Encouraged by Khmer Rogue deserters who begged assistance for their broken country, the Vietnamese descended on Cambodia and quickly scattered the Khmer Rogue back into the jungle. The days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogue were over. Almost.

For decades they kept up a campaign of murder and terror in the countryside to thwart the democratision process in Cambodia, although they needn't have bothered. Vietnam did do the honourable thing in deposing of Pol Pot's regime, but they planted puppet leaders that were assassinated whenever they were bold enough to go against Vietnamese wishes.

Friendship bands around the posts of one of the mass graves. 
Finally, after far too long, the UN stepped in and assisted the country in holding democratic elections. The result was a coalition of rogues, quite happy to squander public funds and stab each other in the back in their scramble for power. This is what Cambodia is left with today. A kleptarchy suspected of wide scale corruption, investment in criminal activities, the unlawful imprisonment of journalists, and the occasional murder of particularly vocal critics. To give you an idea of their blatant abuse of power, during the 1990's when Cambodian police officers would earn about $10 a month, these lawmakers voted to increase their wages ten-fold to $650. This greed continues today unabated, as these leaders are quite happy to sell the whole country off to private investors to make a bit of quick cash for themselves.

The killing fields were recently sold on a $15'000 a year contract to a Japanese company who make about $18'000 a month off it. Top party leaders have been implicated in the lucrative industry of illegal logging that is ruining the country's ecology.Worst of all though are the land grabs. Stories abound of armed government forces driving locals from their land so they can sell it to outside investors. Welcome to the bottom end of free market economics.

The Killing Fields
Things don't look likely to change any time soon, frankly, but for all the greed and oppression it is at least not anything approaching the chaos of the Khmer Rogue years. But the funny thing about Cambodia is that despite their appalling recent past, and the sickening state of politics at the moment, this really is not what the country is about. The killing fields shocked us, and the stained floors of the torture rooms of Tuol Sleng are engraved in our memories for good, but by far the most memorable thing about Cambodia has been the wonderful people. Remember, they don't have to be like this. Life is hard for the farmers, working from a very young age and many getting by on much less than a dollar a day. Most people would be rather bitter given a lot like that, but not this bunch. Cambodian's are probably the warmest, friendliest bunch we've come across, so it would be unfair and inaccurate to dwell too long on their black past.

After a week in the city our Chinese visas came through so we were ready to move on. We had eyed up a track that followed the course of the Mekong north for a few hundred kilometres and into the quiet north east of the country. It was there that our final pedal through Cambodia would take us, so we could see some more of that wonderful friendliness and hospitality that defines a country dogged by bad luck and bastards. We packed all our gear away, hauled the bags back down the stairs, and saddled up for the next leg of our adventure.


  1. Cambodia looks beautiful. It has a incredibly sad past, but certainly a lot more to it than that.

    Really enjoyed reading about it, and your photos are great.

    Vietnam we did find tough and not so friendly, but Laos was the best time of our trip, and China we loved too, so you have plenty to look ahead to.

    We did not start the cycling until Vietnam, so can't say much for the roads of China except there are a lot of motorbikes and the roads are huge and busy in cities; but it's all very slow moving, and I would call them mope-heads rather than motorbikes (as the locals call them)- which we regularly overtook on pedal power.

    Laos was the most beautiful for us, but some roads could be very bumpy (and we had suspension...) but the view, and sparse (and not so horn friendly) traffic more than makes up for it.

    Christina and Hattie

    p.s our friend Robbie cycled from Bejing to Laos, his blog is...

  2. Fantastic account Robin - completely agree with all you say about Cambodia, and it was very much our reaction too - ie that in spite of its horrendous history, its people possess a kindness and happiness which is more than just skin deep but seems to imbibe their spirit. We found the same in Laos - not so much in Vietnam, although there a lively capitalism seems to be the overarching character trait rather than anything else more sinister. Looking forward to your account of Vietnam - please make sure to add your review of Danang!