The Killing Fields of Cambodia’s recent past

Please do not read this unless you are of a certain constitution – and there will be no pictures this time.  There is much in the World that is beautiful, but there is also the fearful.  It is too easy, at times, to Romaticise ones experiences and set aside those which caused discomfort, or unease.  This blog has been, and is, dedicated to the awe-inspiring and the breath-taking, but also to portraying true impressions of the reality of experiences.  In certain instances, the reality of the experience is provokative in a more horrific way, and these experiences are as valuable as those which inspire wonder, albeit in different ways.  I may take this down, I may leave it up – but we must not deny things that have happened to those we consider as our fellow men.

It was 18 kilometers outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and our faithful tuk-tuk driver ‘Mr Lee’ had carried us to the gates of the Killing Fields, not his usual jovial self, rather muted, contemplative.  The sights on the way to the Fields belied what was to come – two girls on a moped in ther pyjamas, 4 orange-robed monks cramped into an open tuk-tuk, a bike stacked high with livestock.  Even the entrance to the Fields was a picture of lush greenness and tranquility – silent but for the whisper of the wind, the rustle of the trees.  Paying our $2 entry fee we set out on the path alone towards a large spiral monument up ahead, marking the beginning of the Fields.  At a distance it was reminiscent of a Western war memorial.  Up close it was harrowing.

The spire consisted of 10 or so levels leading up to the top, glass-faced on each side so as to allow the viewer sight into each level.  On the first few levels were the bleached white skulls of hundred of Khmer men who were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s (within a decade of my birth, I realised afterwards).  Each had suffered some form of blunt force trauma; fractured jaws, cracked skulls, some with clear holes passing straight through.  The other levels consisted of rags of their clothes, broken ribcages, severed skeletal limbs.  The unsubtle implications were horrific.  It was all too much.  We solemnly pressed on.

The walk around the field is frequently interrupted by large dips in the ground, being excavated mass graves where bodies were found by the dozen, heaped without regard together in shallow divots.  One hole which barely looked big enough to hold 10 standing men had held 800.  And then there was the ‘Killing Tree’, which I refuse to speak of, out of horror.

It is easy to see, in Cambodia, how full of joy the people are with simply being at peace.  Almost every adult we met had either memories of, or had known family affected by, the Khmer Rouge regime.  The walking wounded were common, particularly around S21 (the prisoners of war camp) in the city itself.  And yet, so soon after some of the most horrific acts of hatred and violence in modern history, the people are together, resolute, determined, almost ‘happy’.  There is a glint of hope and forwardness in their wise eyes, the worry lines furrowed deep in their brows adding years to young faces, but they are young faces brought alive by smiles that bely the recent troubles.  They are young faces that show, no matter what, whatever the struggle, good people will always overcome those who seek to upset that order.  So as I say, we must not forget the bad, but take inspiration from those who have stood up to it and said ‘no’.  ‘No’ we do not live in such a world.  ‘No’ this is not how it should be.  The strength of those around Cambodia every day is in itself a true inspiration, and if you have read this far then I hope this has helped you realise or remember something of value, or given you strength to say ‘no’.  The World is beautiful, but only if we strive to make it so.

The Rice Terraces of Vietnam’s mountains

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The air was thin and crisp, and clean.  Every breath injected new life into a travel-weary soul. The valley fell away in a sharp descent, its face patterned with flooded rice terraces staccato’d with the small dots of local women working the land by hand.  A heavy downpour had cleared the skies overhead, and the life-giving combination of sun and water had brought the villagers from their shanty huts, and had brought good spirits out in all.  Cat Cat village was yawning in to life below, nothing ever rushed in the mountains.  The trail we were following wound down and through the small community, populated solely by the Black Hmong people of northern Vietnam, whose dark name belied the simple beauty within each and every one of them.

Descending further, we began to be able to pick out the lumbering forms of water buffalo pulling rusted ploughs behind them, wading through the knee deep flooding on the drenched paddies.  Fresh rivers wound their way amongst the ancient contours of the land,  dark robed villagers swung hoes into the patches of green that were lush and dry.  A woman picked the shoots of rice out by hand, individually pulling grains off the stems and collecting them in her handwoven basked of reeds.  Turning a long, gradual bend we were forced to edge our way around a grazing buffalo who paid us no heed as he tore up the long grass at the edge of the path.  To his right another buffalo lay fast asleep in the sun and, in a picure worth of any postcard, a small Hmong boy lay asleep across his heaving flank, rising and falling with every breath.  It was an image of peace, tranquility and oneness; an image that was sorely lacking in Hanoi.

We passed through Cat Cat, greeted by smiling workers and barely bothered with offers of trinkets or goods.  The village couldn’t have consisted of more than 20 earthy houses, several lacking doors (what need?), most filled with excitable beaming children and life-worn, grinning mothers.  At the edge of the village centre one of the rivers hit a sudden dip in the land and tumbled down a waterfall, breaking the otherwise absolute silence otherwise interrupted only by the scything of the locals.  A small wooden bridge, ornately carved, led over it, and back round to the beginning of the ascent on the other side of the hamlet.   The boy was still asleep on the buffalo as we passed by overhead, the sun showed no sign of relenting, and then the rarest of realisations struck.  In a life ever moving on, living out of a backpack, being transported, always in transit: in Sapa, the world was still.  The relentless green and unbreakable peace, the envigorating altitude and unspoilt air; the almost indetectable pace of life in beautiful Sapa sucked you in to a void of contentedness, wanting for nothing.

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As we shared some Bia Hoi with some locals that night, sat at plastic childrens tables and chairs on the street, not a common word between us, infinite stars shimmered in the background off the pools and terrances leading up to Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fansipan.  There was quite simply, in that moment, at that pristine village in the mountains, detached from modernising Vietnam, nothing else that anyone could ever possibly wish for.

Exploring the Kinabatangan river, Borneo

ImageThe rain was biblical, but the air roasting at the same time. The canoe bobbed uneasily down the Kinabatangan, in the east of Malaysian Borneo, the river dancing under the heavy rainfall. Passing a few small villages, the villagers washing in the murky brown water, fully aware that 6 foot crocodiles live in the water but with no other option, hours passed timelessly. Suddenly, a small wooden pier appeared on the right amidst the dense rainforest, to which we hastily tied the canoe and disembarked into the foliage. The light was beginning to fail, we didn’t have long to drop off our grubby backpacks before the night trek. Camp, on a quick glance, consisted of a wooden boardwalk raised above the sodden mud of the rainforest floor, an eating area, and three thin mattresses on the floor of an open sided hut, no pillows, no sheets; no need.

Armed simply with black rubber shoes which cost less than five malaysian ringits, and headtorches, we set off away from the boardwalk and into the rainforest. The noises of insects broke the airless silence, the heat a different kind of oppressive, the sky a blanket of brilliant stars when it wasn’t hidden by the canopy overhead. Colourful birds sat on branches, hiding their eyes under their wings, asleep. Fruit bats, wide awake, hung underneath eagerly seeking out any fallen food. Tree frogs chirped from beneath leaves, and more than once we had to divert our route around a line of feared fire ants whose bites, the Malay say, burn for days afterwards. A deep grunt in a clearing up ahead, accompanied by the familiar crunching of the shells of nuts, hinted at something more substantial – a bright white wild pig, alerted to our presence, bolted as we drew nearby. Despite the silence of the rainforest at night, it teems with life, never a dull moment. I returned to the ineffective mattresses and fell instantly into a deep sleep, stripped to the waist and exhausted.

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We rose with the sun the next day, before 6am, the temperature noticeably rising. A quick breakfast of flat breads and we were back in the canoe and pressing into the rainforest further. Early morning is a prime time for wildlife in the rainforest, the bright green kingfishers sitting on the riverbanks welcoming us warmly to the new day. In the high canopy beyond the banks a bright orange orangutan arose from his nest, undoubtedly planning on moving to the next, a strange sight to see such a human creature living like a bird amongst the trees. We floated underneath proboscis monkeys, their unusual noses comical in appearance, and atheletic gibbons whose long limbs flung them effortlessly amongst the high branches of the riverside trees. A small boy waved to us from the other side, about to have his morning wash, brown and sunburnt with a brilliant smile. Every being is in unison with each other in the rainforest, the fine balance all too easily destroyed by the palm oil farming which Borneo suffers from so greatly, but benefits from monetarily. The journey continued, the river winding into the unknown, great promises of adventure and beauty, a land once unspoilt now wrestling its very existence back from the brink, every sight, sound and sense so precious in time, but too fleeting. The sky had become a brilliant blue, and looking up, breathing deep, the wonder of the place filled my lungs and focussed my mind. In Borneo there are no distractions from the simple truth, that you are alive in a world which is beautiful, a truth which is all too easily forgotten.

Beneath the unspoilt waters of Sipadan Island, Borneo

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Sipadan sits in the Celebes Sea, off Borneo’s eastern coast. A conical spit of land breaking an otherwise endless blue, it rises from an otherwise flat sea bed nearly 600 metres, standing solitary and defiant against the horizon. Only a limited number of permits are issued each day for those who have travelled across Borneo, one of the few wild places left on Earth, drawn to the island by tales of wonders beyond belief. Nutrients washed in from the sea have only the small barrier of Sipadan standing in their way, making the marine habitat rich in food for the smaller fish, making it rich in food for the bigger fish.

We set off early from the port of Semporna, in the southeast of Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region and, with only one break-down en route caused by a stray plastic bag, the going was good. The sea was calm, the sky blue, the temperature rising by the minute. Eventually, the island came in to view, barely piercing the water, only the trees rising more than a couple of metres from sea level. The sand was a grainy white, the shallows a transparent turquoise swarming with life and colourful coral – it truly was an untouched piece of art.

We stood on the warming sand, awaiting our official registration, gazing whistfully into the entrancing water. Dozens of angelfish and bannerfish scattered themselves amongst the coral, to the left a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose under a rock seeking food, and only four or five metres from the shore a whitetip reef shark waited patiently, passing the day until the night time hunt. We were soon informed that our first dive site of the day would be “South Point”, at the other side of the island, the side facing the open ocean. Back in the small boat, we admired the 30+ metre visibility of the water below us as we raced to the rear of the island, keen to arrive before others.

Under now intense sun, still in the early morning, we donned our equipment and strode out into the unknown. The water was teeming with activity. The coral in the first 5 metres was exceptionally pristine, creating a garden of colour unlike any on land; reds, greens, yellows, oranges, purples in all imaginable shapes, textures and sizes. The smattering of butterflyfish now became a swarm, not one but six reef sharks swam gracefully before us. The sillouette of a green turtle floated peacefully and effortlessly towards the surface in the distance for a breath. The world was silent and majestic, a rare impression of peace in a restless world.

Suddenly, a shadow cast itself over us. It seemed to shift and change shape frantically, there was an unfamiliar noise in the water. I turned, and if I could have gasped I would, as within metres of me whirled a tornado of hundreds of great barracuda, swimming wildly around one another, razor teeth gnashing at the end of sleek, silver bodies. The storm grew and grew, ten metres wide and twice as deep, barrelling across the reef and out towards the ocean. I was gulping down air at an alarming rate, not scared but thrilled, in wonderment at the inconceivable sight. It suddenly tore away out into the blue, leaving us staring at one another in disbelief. In these more remote parts of the World, it seems, life exists on a whole new scale. Sipadan island, barely a speck in the waters of Earth, had played host to one of the most unforgettable encounters of a lifetime, and that was just the first dive…

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A storm at the Sea Temple, Bali

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The contrast couldn’t have been much starker. The romaticism promised by the offer of the seven sea temples of Bali was initially dampened somewhat by the carefully structured maze of trinket stalls and hawkers that led down towards the coast, but people need to make a living, via religious overtones or otherwise.

 

The thought of a temple hewn from the rocks in the Balinese waters conjured almost mythical images of peace and solitude in my mind. The place of respite of Nirartha, a priest in the 15th century, Tanah Lot had promised a certain solitude, a glimpse of a time that probably never existed, an existential contemplation bordering on fanciful. The timing of the visit, to coincide with sunset, was designed to heighten this experience – there is something primitive and magically regressive about the setting sun. However, our trip to Pura Tanah Lot actually offered a stark glimpse of the reality of the world. I had made the foolhardy error of having ‘expectations’. It was beautiful, but in an unexpected way, like much of Indonesia.

 

The sky was aggressively grey, laden with thick cloud, any light was barred. Passing through the elaborate gateway, typical of Bali, towards the land’s edge the wind whipped fiercely in the air, like the tails of a thousand snakes, venemously cold. The land poked out into the water in sharp shards, ragged and worn, ancient and tired but defiant and strong. The water was whipped into a foam, spray climbing up the cliff face and showering those brave enough to get close to the edge. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled. To the left, the temple in the sea stood seperated from the mainland by a fifty metre shallow crossing. The few trees on the islet swayed violently, waves crashed against the pillars of rock, a group of monks in bright orange stood hesitantly at the shallows, faith and duty being tried by nature, by the Gods.

 

The temple itself was beautiful. I could imagine it standing in the sun, in calm water, being perfect. Entered either by a cave or by winding stone stairs, conical towers hidden amongst the trees, standing placid in the storm, it represented hundreds of years of faith and devotion. In spite of the dangers, the Monks began to press through the violent shallows, drenched, occasionally losing their footing but assisting one another when one fell. They did make it, their duties fulfilled they disappeared into the cave mouth, swallowed by darkness. Working together, bound by common belief, they had prevailed.

 

I had come expecting a sort of spiritual fulfilment, an experience of beauty and serenity. What I had experienced was the defiance of man in the face of the elements, how he finds calm and sanctuary in religion, his devotion to his cause despite the obstacles presented to him. It was enlightening in an unexpected way, and as the sun, somewhere deep within the clouds, passed the horizon and the world went darker, I left Tanah Lot with a sense of something valuable, but intangible, having been learned. Hand in hand we walked away.

 

Standing on the shoulders of giants

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The gentle, almost timid sun tentatively broke the smooth line of the horizon and began her long climb into the early morning sky. She climbed and climbed, growing stronger with each passing second, and as the sky slowly reddened it struck me how effortless she made it look. That was because I was standing, with the wind buffeting against me, four thousand vertical meters above her. I was standing on Low’s Peak, at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.

 

We had started our second day’s ascent at 2am, head torches on, pulling ourselves along weathered ropes and forcing our tired legs to take just one more exhausted step. Our surroundings had rapidly transformed from a verdant, lush rainforest strewn with alien plants and unrecognisable sounds to this grey, scarred landscape of sheer slopes tumbling down into powdered clouds far below. Now at the summit, as daylight began to push back the last of the darkness, the entire curvature of the Earth was slowly revealed to us and the horizon, rather than its usual straight edge, circled all around without interruption. Legend says that a Chinese widow chose the mountain as a viewing point to look out for her estranged husband’s return across the sea. I could see why. The view was breathtakingly vast.

 

Occasional pinpricks of colour broke through the thin layer of cloud below us, as other climbers came closer, and the small gathering of us that had got to the top first smiled down upon them knowing the anticipation that was coursing through their veins. Behind them, the peak dropped suddenly away and was replaced with the rolling contours of the land below. Trees that had towered over us at sea level became indiscernible from one another, resplendent in bold combinations of greens and yellows. We got the humble feeling that the mountain was favouring us, many climbers got no view at all stood here at 13,500 feet, but as the sun burnt the last of the clouds away it was as if the entire planet revealed herself to us below. There is nowhere to hide on a mountaintop, there are no secrets, and in that moment I ‘knew’ myself better than ever before and felt an indescribable sense of peace and oneness with all around me.

 

Not long before 6am we began our descent, and as the sun boastfully overtook us on her climb we returned to the World below with an indescribable sense of achievement, wonderment and awe. Looking back up, it was hard to imagine how the mountain, apparently ”young”, had ever not been there as the cold, grey rock stood timeless and defiant, the sunlight glistening off the minerals but incapable of penetrating any deeper. I know that I will never forget that sunrise for as long as I live, and the experience of racing the sun to her zenith, and standing meekly on the shoulders of that formidable giant will be with me forever.