Battambang

Before heading to Ankgor Wat, I decide to head north to a small town named Battambang, while Dev chooses to go down south to the beaches of Sihanoukville. This is the first time I'm traveling alone since the start of the backpacking trip.

I arrive in Battambang after a eight hour bus ride. My guesthouse had sent a tuk tuk driver to pick me up from the bus station. I like to use this option when possible, otherwise tuk tuk drivers tend to be most aggressive around bus stops, and will overcharge you because where you want to go is naturally always “very far”, even if it's just a five minute walk. They tend to take advantage of your lack of knowledge and orientation in this scenario. Having the guesthouse send me a tuk tuk driver allows the interaction to be relaxed both ways, bypassing the negotiation process. I make small chit chat with him. His name is Kip. When we arrive at my guesthouse, Kip asks me if I want to do a tour tomorrow, $18. Normally I'm not impulsive, and I like to do research, but in the spirit of deviating from my usual pattern, I say yes, without even bargaining (in hindsight, I should have, always bargain because the initial price is always inflated).

The next day Kip picks me up and takes me to the first stop, the Bamboo train. The novelty of it is that there are trains running in both directions on a single railroad track. Now, this isn't as dangerous as it sounds when you actually see the trains and the speed they run at. Essentially it's just a wooden platform on barbells, with a small motor. It's super quick to disassemble and reassemble; so when two trains going in the opposite direction meet, one party takes his car off the track, and the other train resumes in its direction. The entire route is about 20 minutes when going nonstop. The bamboo train had been used by locals for their purposes, but now it is just a tourist attraction.

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I meet two men from Malaysia, and we split the cost of a ride.

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Riding a bamboo train versus a train is the same difference between riding a motorbike versus in a car – you're not boxed in from the environment. However being low speed, and on a railroad track, makes it feel like a Disneyland ride. It's a new kind of experience form everything else I've seen so far on my trip.

After this ride, Kip begins to drive me to a pre-Ankgorian temple. Along the way we stop for gas, but not at a gas station. Along the road are stalls, with many one liter glass soda bottles filled with a slightly yellow liquid: gas! Somehow the gas here is cheaper than gas stations. These stalls are naturally more abundant than proper gas stations since there isn't much infrastructure required. Perfect for the motorbike culture.

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Filling up the motorbike tank.

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We reach the temple, and as I begin to walk up the steps, there are a group of young boys just sitting around. One of them starts following me and waves a hand fan at me, to keep me cool as I walk up the 100 steps or so. I haven't seen this before, but it's another form of making money from tourists. I politely decline by just saying “no thank you” and he stops following me. I've taken the stance of not buying products from children as it encourages child labor. Parents of the kids may decide to pull their kids out of school if there is enough money to be made from tourists.

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After walking around the temple for a few minutes, I find a isolated spot in the corner and decide to meditate here for 20 minutes. I'm all alone. Halfway into my meditation, I hear some other tourists come by, and I hear them around me, taking photos, laughing. I'm not sure, but I feel like they were taking photos of me while I was just sitting there. I keep my eyes closed through it, but I'm distracted anyway, wondering if they are taking photos of me. It's a big enough area that they don't necessarily have to be in the same corner as me…but in any case, those were my thoughts at the time.

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After I'm done with my meditation attempt, I have lunch. My driver talks to me about the Cambodian government, and how the People's Party doesn't really help the people. He tells me how he doesn't want to be a tuk tuk driver, but he doesn't have the time or money to go learn a new skill. He tells me of his young daughter who had recovered from typhoid, and how it took a lot of time and money to help her recover. He also told me how four of his relatives had died during the genocide. A melancholy conversation. He had been through a lot, and I could see it in his eyes. Yet somehow he had a calm and soft demeanor which he had preserved through all of this, which is partly why I felt impulsive and agreed to tour with him when he asked me; I felt like I could trust him.

After this we head to a hill where one can get scenic views of Battambang. It's a paved dirt road, but it's quite a bumpy ride in the tuk tuk. Kip tells me we are taking a shortcut so we can make it there with enough time before sunset, to see a daily spectacle that happens every evening. We stop halfway to let the motorbike engine cool down for a bit.

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We resume, and after another bumpy 20 minute ride, we arrive. I walk up the hill to explore the wats on top, which have scenic views of the landscape. Right around this time it starts to pour heavily, but I continue exploring. I head back down to the hill and find a nice path on the hillside. I find a large Buddha face. Recently construction had started where they were going to carve out a giant Buddha statue in the hill, but for some reason they stopped at the face.

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Afterwards I wait for the daily event of 20 million bats exiting a nearby cave at dusk, going out for food. I imagined there would be a lot of noise, as thousands of bats would be exiting the cave every second. It started rather unceremoniously, and the bats silently exited the cave, silently flying out to the skyline.

 

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After watching this spectacle for 20 minutes, I go back to the tuk tuk, ready to go back to the guesthouse after being out all day. I reflect on a day filled with new and novel attractions from what I had seen since the beginning of my trip – the bamboo train, the giant Buddha face, the bats.

I return to the small, relaxing town my guesthouse is in. The streets are small, quiet, and unlit. There's no need for a map, as one can walk for a few minutes to any restaurant in town. It makes it easy to decide where to eat. I've come to appreciate small towns like Battambang, which allow for a “break” from the usual process of needing to orient yourself in a new (usually busy) city: figuring out what are the top sights to see out of many, deciding which restaurant to eat at and then figuring out how to get there, and even feeling the need to socialize with other backpackers when in a busy hostel. It is a small, quiet town, and in my guesthouse I am the only backpacker in my dorm the first night. A two-night stop in Battambang is a perfect interlude before I proceed to the next destination: Ankgor Wat.

The Khmer Rouge

When I first arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I learn that two must-do things are to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum (aka S-21 Prison), and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. Before arriving in Cambodia, I did not know much about The Khmer Rouge, a group responsible for the Cambodian Genocide. When I did learn about it, I was appalled, and even ashamed that I didn't know about this piece of history earlier.

From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge was in power, led by a man named Pol Pot. Cambodians were essentially divided into blue vs. white collar. Anyone that was intellectual, burgeosie, Christian/Muslim/Buddhist, or even urban, were to be removed from society (the “new people”). And thus over these four years, around 1-2 million people were killed, but the estimates vary greatly since they are all doing estimations from the skeletal remains found in mass graves. In any case, that's up to 30% of the population (the population of Cambodia was 8 million then).

The first site I visited was S-21. This site was a school converted into a prison. Victims were first brought here, imprisoned, and tortured.

Those who were tortured were tied to a metal bed frame like below for many days. Victims would be probed for information, or tortured until an admission of guilt was given, even if it was not true.

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There are several three-story buildings that comprise this site. Below is a hallway of one of them.

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The empty rooms have boards with all photos of people who were imprisoned here.

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You may recognize the popular photo below. I feel like I can see the innocence and fear in the man's eyes.

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Barbed wire was used to prevent prisoners from escaping, or jumping from the second or third floors.

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I walked into one room in the museum and watched a documentary about the genocide. One part interviewed people who had taken part in the executions. Overall, the sentiment from these people were that they felt forced to kill others in order to save their own lives. They felt that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge should be held responsible and prosecuted. It's quite complex to determine who should be held responsible when a large percentage of the population is involved, it's not feasible to prosecute that many people. The executioners described executions involved bludgeoning the other person to death – bullets were too expensive. Instead farming tools like hoes, steel poles, or even the serrated branches of Palm trees were used. Gruesome.

I was astonished to learn how Cambodians had executed fellow Cambodians. I'm not quite sure how many people were part of the execution machine, but 25% were the “old people”, and a subset of them were given the role of executing the “new people”. Being a recent event in history, the people who have participated in these killings still walk the streets of Cambodia today. Eerie.

Leaving the S-21 prison, our tuk tuk driver takes us to The Killing Fields. The first thing I see is the building below, which contains seven levels, housing all the remains of the victims who were killed here.

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The site contains many mass graves, and each site is made prominent by fencing it off like below. There's not much to see, but the audio guide illustrates the process of how prisoners were ultimately killed: victims were marched to the grave site while blind folded, told to get on their knees, and killed by some crude weapon.

There was also a “killing tree”, where infants would have their heads smashed into the tree before being thrown into a mass grave.

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The brutality of it all left me speechless. And then walking into the memorial building, I saw seven levels of skeletal remains. The purpose of showing the remains in this manner is to remind humanity of genocide, and hopefully prevent it from happening again.

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Trials started in 2007 against big figures involved in the executions. The head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died comfortably in his home in 1999. Currently one person has been given life imprisonment. Overall though, the trials are proceeding very slowly, and some Cambodians see this as more of a formality at this point, and don't have high expectations for the outcome of these trials.

It's sad to know that during the genocide, and decades after, the Western governments supported the Cambodian government having a seat in the UN, indirectly supporting the Khmer Rouge. Did they know that the genocide was happening? Did they silently condone it? Only Sweden had withdrawn support for the Khmer Rouge regime after many of its citizens demanded so. So some people were aware of what was going on during that time.

Ultimately it's sad to accept that so many lives were lost meaninglessly.