Monthly Archives: March 2019

A taste of Cambodian countryside: Kampot.

24th to 27th September 2018

With plenty of time to explore a bit of Cambodia’s countryside, we head for Kampot: a small, sleepy town – not quite near the coast – renowned for its pepper plantations and salt fields.  And, of course, the Durian Roundabout named after the ‘Marmite-fruit’ Kampot is equally famous for.  Durian, you either love it or hate it.

As the durian season runs from mid-May to July, we have arrived a little late to ‘enjoy’ the fruit in all its olfactory and pungent glory… Not that this worries me; a fruit lover at heart, I have never developed any fondness for this tropical delicacy.  They rave about it in China and consider it a absolute delight in Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, but hotels and Airbnb places in SE Asia forbid guests to bring the fruit into the accommodation.  Once the smell permeates the room, it lingers rather longer than one would wish.  Personally, I don’t know what is worse about the fruit: its taste, texture or smell…?   I only sampled it once, two summers ago in Malaysia, and was totally unimpressed: it was like chewing tasteless custard.  An experience I have felt unnecessary to repeat, as just like Marmite, durian divides folks into lovers and haters and I definitely belong to the latter group.

We book our Giant Ibis coach from Phnom Penh to Kampot through our hotel; dead simple.  After travelling though Vietnam on the Futa buses, we feel like pros at budget travel.  A four-hour trip at a drop of $10 in the lap of luxury: wifi, seatbelts, AC, legroom, charging points…  almost the same as travelling on the UK’s National Express coaches.  Only: no toilets!!  ‘At Giant Ibis Transport, we’re not fans of onboard toilets. They take up a lot of space and smell bad,’ their website explains, although they relent for the night buses…  Luckily for those with limited bladder capacity, or great thirst, the bus makes a couple of stops on the way…

Kampot is a tranquil town, nestled between the Elephant Mountains and the Praek Tuek Chhu river. Traffic is almost non-existent and once the ‘morning rush’ has passed, the streets empty as locals retreat to the comfort of cooler inside rooms.  Quaint buildings, a reminder of Kampot’s and Cambodia’s French colonial past, line the deserted streets. Women, head to toe protected from the blaring sun, pedal past, heaving baskets either side of the back seat of their bicycles.

The advantage of sparse traffic, and the miles of flat surface skirting the river, is that it makes the town and surrounding areas easily navigable by bicycle. Unfortunately, the cycling and kayaking trip we had booked with ‘WE’ was cancelled at the last minute by the tour company. A pity we missed out on joining a bicycle ride with local guides, but bicycle rental is widely available.

With Google Maps in hand, we set off on our own adventure. The tricky bit is finding a road-worthy bicycle… Flat tyres and unreliable brakes dictate that we do not venture too far out of town, just in case, and it doesn’t take too long for potholed tarmac roads to turn into dusty, orange tracks.

We follow the river, inland first, passing guesthouses where tourists can indulge in kayaking, paddle-boarding or swimming or just lazing about in the heat of the day. We plough on, trying to discover a bit of Cambodian real life and are rewarded with a glimpse of how those huge baskets on the back of bicycles are made. However, without a local guide to explain the details, we can only take photographs and guess the rest. English is not widely spoken in the Cambodian countryside.

Cycling along the river towards the Gulf of Thailand leads to the famous salt fields, which are mainly situated along the road between Kampot and Kep. When we are there, the place is totally abandoned. Some of the salt reservoirs are full of fresh water; it has been a particularly wet rainy season. During the dry season, from mid December to April, the fields are flooded with seawater. They are then sealed off to allow the water to evaporate, leaving behind the treasured salt crystals.

The Cambodia Natural Salt Production Exhibition Centre, or the Salt Museum, is only 5 minutes outside Kampot, on the road towards Kep.  Entry to the one-room museum is free and, as well as giving an overview of how the salt is harvested, you can buy some locally produced salt in 2 kg bags.. Rather too much salt to add to our travel essentials, so we’re giving this souvenir a miss.

Pepper, on the other hand, is a different matter… Both cooking aficionados, Liz and I definitely find room in our bags for some samples of Kampot’s finest BoTree Farm pepper. Although ‘La Plantation’ seems to be the pepper farm on most tourists’ itineraries, we opt for BoTree Farm, enticed by the mouthwatering and delightfully piquant samples in BoTree’s shop in town as well as the packaging which looks so ‘Waitrose’ and exclusive … with price tags to match.

BoTree Farm is wholly owned by a Scottish-Cambodian family, according to their website. And indeed, during our visit, our guide elaborates further on how the Scotsman bought the farm and, together with his Cambodian wife and her family, gave it a new lease of life and a lucrative market back home in the UK. Another form of colonialism? Maybe, but Cambodia relies heavily on foreign investment to shed its poverty and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. At least the pepper farm provides employment for locals, which is more than can be said of the China-run projects. Chinese investors are eagerly eyeing up this ‘needy’ country but definitely with more mercenary motives on their mind… (more about this in the next post on Bokor Mountain)

But what really makes our trip to the Pepper Farm exciting is travelling inland, deeper into the countryside, and watching people going about their daily life. After all Kampot is a town, and a tourist magnet for that with a liberal peppering of expats. Even our guesthouse, The Magic Sponge, is run by an expat American and his Cambodian wife… More Western than Cambodian food on the menu, but at least it guarantees good coffee for breakfast…

As we make our journey to and from the pepper farm, we pass the Secret Lake. Not secret because no one knows about it, but because of the secrets buried beneath, the peaceful surface belying the atrocities perpetrated during its construction. The lake is not a natural lake, but formed by a dam built with the hard labour and lives of prisoners and locals who were made to dig the reservoir with hand tools by the Khmer Rouge. No one knows how many people died and are buried underneath the vast expanse of water. Another macabre heirloom from the Pol Pot regime.

We get back to Kampot in the early evening to enjoy a short cruise on the river and watch sundown. It may not be the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed, but still a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Nothing can prepare you for The Killing Fields of Cambodia.

21st-22nd September 2018

Nothing can prepare you for The Killing Fields.

I’d seen some of the movies; I’d read some books. But no versions of the truth made more palatable and less gruesome for the wide-screen audience, or left to avid readers’ vivid imagination, come anywhere close to walking through the grounds where so many Cambodians were brutally and mercilessly executed during the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.  There are several such sites within Cambodia, but the best-known mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge, Choeung Ek, is situated about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. 

Having barely digested the horrors of the Vietnam War after visiting the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon only a few days before, Liz and I set off early on a grey morning, befitting our sombre destination.  It is not something we look forward to, but a must.  As a matter of fact, the Cambodian government and the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia(*)) encourage visits to The Killing Fields and former prisons such as Tuol Sleng: a lesson in history to prevent similar atrocities in the future.

Set in a former orchard and Chinese graveyard, the now peaceful surroundings belie the cruelty of the site’s recent history.  Numerous dips in the greenery mark the mass graves excavated to date; a polite notice reminds us not to stray of the paths, lest we should step on not-yet uncovered or recovered remains.  Human bones still litter the site, as during every rainy season more bones and skulls are exposed when the gush of the downpours washes away soil.

We walk through the grounds in silence, accompanied by the words of a former Khmer Rouge guard, narrating his story through the headphones of our audio guide.  And you cannot stop wondering about those guards’ humanity.  How can one human being inflict such gratuitous horror onto another human being?  But often Khmer Rouge cadres and officers themselves only had one stark choice: obey the orders or be at the receiving end themselves.

But no more macabre a legacy than the Killing Tree.  Whereas adult prisoners were executed in all kinds of cruel manners whilst loud music blared out of loudspeakers to muffle the cries and moans, small children were killed by bashing their heads against the tree as their mothers were made to watch.  Bullets were expensive and the noise of gun shots could be heard outside the perimeter of the camp, so the executioners availed themselves of whatever tools they could lay their hands on.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial marked by a buddhist stupa, housing many of the skeletal remains found in the mass graves.  The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls.  Many have been shattered or smashed in.

Buddhist monks regularly attend the stupa to pray for the souls of the thousands of victims, joined by visitors and relatives of the people who perished there. It is a solemn moment and you cannot help being swept up in its enormity.  The sheer scale of the genocide, in which around a quarter of the Cambodian population was exterminated, and the horrific manner in which it was carried out, are overwhelming.

Although most tour packages in Phnom Penh combine a visit to The Killing Fields with a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Liz and I decide not to take up our tuk-tuk driver’s offer for taking us there in the afternoon.  Somehow it seems too much to bear in one day and we cannot stomach it.

With only a few days for Phnom Penh on our itinerary, we walk to the Genocide Museum the next day. It’s not far from our hotel and gives us time to muster up the courage…

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is set in a former secondary school, the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, and was used by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise in power in 1975 to its fall in 1979 as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21).  In that time, at least 20,000 people were detained and tortured there until they signed confessions to ‘crimes’ they never committed before being sent to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Tuol Sleng, an education centre turned into an interrogation centre, was just one of at least 150 such torture and execution centres. 

At first, most of the victims were from the previous, ousted Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers.  In fact, anyone who was deemed to have had an education or understood a foreign language was regarded as the enemy. An estimated 90% of artists, intellectuals and teachers were killed in an effort to return the country to “Year Zero” – Pol Pot’s vision of a classless, agrarian society.  Later, the Khmer Rouge leaders’ paranoia turned to its own members; country-wide purges resulted in thousands of party activists,  including some high-ranking communist politicians,  and their families being brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

To ensure prisoners could not escape, the school buildings were encircled by barbed wire and windows were fitted with metal bars.  Some classrooms were divided into tiny individual cells for special prisoners; others had iron shackles fixed to the floors to stop detainees from being able to move around as they were crowded into the space.   Some classroom were used as torture chambers; the metal bed frames only meant to tie prisoners down whilst being beaten… 

The purpose of the torture, which included any means imaginable but too horrific to describe here, was to extract confessions, not to kill.  Most prisoners would remain incarcerated at S-21 for about two or three months, others who were deemed more ‘valuable’ might have survived longer.  All were continuously subjected to torture.  Medical treatment was administered for the sole purpose of keeping people alive until they had signed their confession. Most were subsequently murdered in The Killing Fields, killed by a team of teenage executioners.  Only a handful survived.

Photograph taken just after the Vietnamese liberation of Phnom Penh. Many S-21 prisoners were killed in the last few hours before the Vietnamese entered the prison.

As the Vietnamese troops closed in to liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the guards did not want to leave any loose ends or witnesses.  Some prisoners were taken along with them; others were executed where they lay. 

Only seven adult prisoners are known to have survived the Khmer Rouge imprisonment in S-21. One of the survivors, a car mechanic, believes he was spared because his skills were useful; another survivor, Bou Meng, was an artist and had painted a portrait of Pol Pot himself. Both are still alive and spend every day in the centre to remind people of what happened. They even have a little stall outside where they make a modest living selling their autobiographies. Inside, Bou Meng’s paintings of the brutal torture methods make a chilling contribution to the exhibits in a room dedicated to the instruments of torture used by the Khmer Rouge.

A painting by Bou Meng © Kirstie Brewer (

The most haunting room of the Museum houses a gallery of portraits. Row upon row of countless headshots taken of the prisoners when they first arrived. Men, women, teenagers, children. I did not take any photographs; it felt disrespectful at the time. But ultimately, it is their only legacy and the only way in which their stories can be told and their voices be heard. Whatever happened to each one of them afterwards has been lost to the whispers and anonymity of the mass graves of The Killing Fields. One can barely imagine the horrors.

Source: AFP (

If Liz and I had felt unsettled after our visit to Choeung Ek, coming face to face with the depravity of man at Tuol Sleng is even more disturbing. And still, as one of the survivors of S-21 remarked in an interview for the BBC News Magazine: “If those guards hadn’t tortured a false confession out of me, they would have been executed – I can’t say I would have behaved any differently [in their position]” ( ).

(*) ECCC: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the Cambodia Tribunal or Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is a court established in 1997 to try the most senior responsible members of the Khmer Rouge for alleged violations of international law and serious crimes perpetrated during the Cambodian genocide. To date only three former Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted and sentenced. Most of those responsible for the killings, including Pol Pot, died before they could be tried.

On 16th November 2018, an article in The Guardian online read :

The two most senior Khmer Rouge leaders still alive today have been found guilty of genocide, almost 40 years since Pol Pot’s brutal communist regime fell, in a verdict followed by millions of Cambodians.

Nuon Chea, 92, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, 87, who served as head of state, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity carried out between 1977 and 1979, in what is a landmark moment for the Khmer Rouge tribunals. The pair are already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity.

As senior figures in the Khmer regime, the court declared both men responsible for murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation imprisonment, torture, persecution on religious, racial and political grounds, enforced disappearances and mass rape through the state policy of forced marriages .‘ […..]

[In 2010] the first life sentence was handed to Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, who ran S-21 concentration camp in Phnom Penh where at least 14,000 people were tortured and killed. In 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were then found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Their second trial, for genocide and mass rape, drew to a close in June last year but the verdict has taken 18 months to reach by the panel of three Cambodian and two international judges.’

(read the full article at :

Sights of Phnom Penh

(19th – 23rd September 2018)

Silver Pagoda inside the Royal Palace grounds, Phnom Penh

The man behind the desk looks up, unsmiling, my passport in his hands.  ‘Visa cancelled.  Why?’  It doesn’t sound like a question, more like an accusation.   ‘You overstay your visa?’

Liz and I have made it to the Giant Ibis office in Saigon, the bus company recommended by one of my colleagues for our border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia.  We are both a little on edge.  Experienced travelers indeed, but having been spoilt in previous lives, we are more accustomed to border hopping via the air and are pretty adept at negotiating the trials and tribulations of immigration at airports.  Travelling on a shoestring and with adventure in mind, this is new territory for us, but for a fare of around $20 to get us to Phnom Penh, a land crossing is a no-brainer.

I sigh, it’s a sore point…  The man’s job is to inspect our passports before we board the bus to ensure there are no hiccups at the border post.

‘Are you from immigration?’  I retort.  ‘Please look at my visa, you will see it is/was valid until November…  I finished my contract and my boss insisted on cancelling my visa… Apparently it’s the law.’  Strange that in this instance the letter of the law should have been invoked when it had been flaunted on numerous occasions in the past, depending upon whose needs it suited… 

Way back in November 2017, before signing my contract and paying for yet another visa at $150 a pop, I had been reassured that with this new visa I would have plenty of time to travel after finishing my 1-year contract in early September 2018.  Plenty of time to explore Vietnam at leisure, I had thought, as the visa did not expire until 11th November 2018.  Only just a couple weeks before I was due to leave and was in the throes of finalizing details with Liz, it transpired that, at best, I could hope for a two-week period of grace at the mercy of the local immigration officers to be granted on my final day of work…

Oh, I was given a choice alright…  ‘Either I cancel the visa and you take the two weeks, or you leave and travel longer in Vietnam.  You let me know when you have left the country, and then I will inform the authorities that you have left your job without permission, but you may find it difficult to get a work permit in the future…  The contract you signed ends in November…’ Not a choice at all really, unless I have no intention of ever working in Vietnam again…  I’ve fallen victim again of the vagaries of SE Asian contract negotiations.. It isn’t worth the argument, so Liz and I adjust our plans to exit Vietnam no later than 19th September, my passport emblazoned with the offending cancellation stamps all over every Vietnamese visa…

Back in the office, the Giant Ibis man eyes me with suspicion, then relents and nods his head as I hand over my $25 Cambodia visa fee, plus the obligatory $5 to ease our way out of Vietnam and into the next country.  We pile onto the Giant Ibis coach and settle in for a comfortable ride, mobile phone charging points at our disposal, complementary bottled water and Blue Pumpkin pastry snack provided. 

At the Vietnamese border, we disembark and join the long queue of people leaving Vietnam…  The immigration officer is in no hurry and seems to have a penchant for solo travelers, or small groups of travellers, whose passports have been boosted with a few dollars inside.  We wait, and wait… and, finally, when lunch time approaches and our line has dwindled to just the Giant Ibis passengers, the immigration officer slowly picks up our stack of passports.  Clearly the extra $5 we paid in Saigon does nothing to speed up our departure from Vietnam.  Luckily, entering Cambodia proves less of an ordeal and we are on our way to Phnom Penh in no time. 

After Saigon, Phnom Penh is an oasis of calm.  Gone are the clogged roads heaving with the exhaust fumes from motorbikes and cars, gone are our mad dashes across the road when motorists ignore traffic lights and crossing the road on foot becomes a game of Russian roulette.  Although it may be that our hotel is in one of the quieter neighbourhoods of the city; we are after all but a stroll away from the mighty Mekong River and most of the sightseeing highlights that Phnom Penh has to offer. 

View from the rooftop swimming pool and bar area of our hotel
Mekong River at night
Independence Monument in the evening
Moonlight Pavilion, inside the Royal Palace grounds
Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, suitably disguised as was our luck…

Still, when my friend Andy asks me a few months later, ‘What’s different about Cambodia anyway?’, I struggle to immediately put my finger on it.  A seasoned traveller himself, Andy has previously visited Vietnam, but given Cambodia the cold shoulder.  ‘Surely, being neighbours with similar histories, they must be much the same..’  he surmises.  However, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, the country has such a different feel to it: a slower pace as tuktuk taxis rather than Grab motorbikes take passengers across town;

ubiquitous saffron-robed monks wielding yellow umbrellas keep the Buddhism vibe in full view;

Wats and pagodas dotted around the city resemble those in Thailand rather than the ones in Vietnam;

we discover Western style coffee… all Arabica, just as Liz likes. And to be honest, although I have grown accustomed to Vietnamese style coffee, there is nothing like a ‘normal’ cup of coffee to start the day ;

People are friendly and smile.  And of course, I’m on holiday rather than being irritated by a ‘saving face’ and work ethics culture that remains alien to me…  I smile a lot, I laugh a lot.  Cambodia is a much-needed tonic.

New country, new currency to get familiar with of course.  As always, I have not given it much thought, relying on the hole in the wall (or ATMs) and my currency card.   As a matter of fact, I have no idea what Cambodian currency looks like and on my first attempt to lay my hands on some at an ATM, I am bitterly disappointed to be presented with a stack of US dollars…  Foreigners cannot withdraw Cambodian Riel, it transpires!  Although it comes as a bit of a surprise, in the end it does not matter a hoot because in practice, Cambodia uses a mixture of US dollars and their own currency: big amounts in dollars and change in Riel..  It makes perfect sense once you get the hang of it, but Liz struggles with the concept for a few days…  Granted, she has only just mastered the conversion rate of Vietnamese Dong to British Pounds.  After a while, we just stop calculating…  Seems simpler that way, although not necessarily prudent on a tight budget..

The days are hot and sultry and heavy evening downpours are conveniently just that: short lived and timely; they hardly interrupt our tourist ventures. We live in shorts and strappy t-shirts and forget to pack tourist essentials in our day packs… Not sun cream or sun hats, but sarongs and shawls to cover legs and knees and to drape over naked shoulders… Whereas most establishments, including Buddhist temples, seem rather forgiving, not so the Royal Palace. Although many parts of the Palace grounds are open to the public, it is still the official royal residence. No admittance unless suitably attired. Of course, you can buy the necessary garments at the entrance, but at the exorbitant prices and ‘do we really need another t-shirt in our luggage?’, we turn back and decide to give this auspicious complex a miss. At least Liz does. We retreat to the hotel and, whereas Liz opts for an afternoon near the pool, I get changed abiding by the dress code and walk back and spend an hour meandering through the impressive sprawling grounds and gardens: a sanctuary of greenery tucked between the mishmash of buildings and dwellings in the area.

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we make it to the Russian Market.  Not that we are particularly enamoured with kitsch-laden markets plying tourist with cheap trinkets, having already sampled the night market in town which turned out rather disappointing.  Still, the tacky tourist stuff aside, the main attraction is exploring the diverse quarters of the market where hairdressers, beauticians, dressmakers, butchers, etc all rub shoulders. A little glimpse into Cambodian life, not so different from Vietnam after all.