Bussing to Laos

As travel sometimes goes in the developing world, our travel from Siem Reap to the Cambodia-Laos border didn’t work out as we had expected.  The man who sold us the bus tickets told us we’d be on an air-conditioned ‘VIP’ bus to the Laotian border, about 10 hours away.  We thought we’d be travelling in style! 

Well, the bus we got onto was air-conditioned but other than that it was a fairly humble vehicle.  About an hour into the trip, black water started to drip from the AC ducts above our heads.  As those passengers who were being dripped on began to move to empty seats, the options to sit in seats that didn’t have the water problem diminished kilometre by kilometre as more and more of the AC vents began dripping the sooty liquid.  To remedy the problem, the driver turned off the AC and the ‘steward’ wiped up the dark water as it dripped and pooled.  Soon, to provide dry seats to all passengers, boards were placed in the aisle between the seats.  We continued this way until we stopped for a washroom and snack break.  There, the driver threw buckets of water on the engine to cool it down.

Back on the road, it was somewhat merciful that the bus blew a reaDSCN9905 (Medium)r tire an hour or two down the road.  The bus rumbled to the side of the road.  As the crew worked on the tire, the passengers all hung out in what shade we could find.  Even before the repair was completed, another bus stopped to pick us up.  It too was heading towards the Laos border.  Thankfully, we continued with this one without incident to the city we were to change to a mini-bus.DSCN9909 (Medium)

We squished into the mini-bus together with a few other foreigners and six energetic middle-age Cambodian women.  They talked and laughed, passed food around to everyone in the vehicle and made the hours go by quickly for everyone.  They were on their way to a friend’s place in northern Cambodia.  It was a ‘girls weekend away’.  They were so DSCN9911 (Medium)much fun to be with!

The mini-van’s final stop was the northern city of Stung Treng, about 90 minutes from the Laotian border.  It was here we were to change buses to one that would go to the border.  Unfortunately, were told we had missed the only bus going to the border that evening.  At that point, all we could do was find a hotel and wait until morning.

The morning bus was to leave Stung Treng at 8:30.  While we waited, we were first told the bus was broken down and would be 30 minutes late.  A little while later, we were told the repairs would take an additional half hour.  So, other than sitting and waiting, we walked to a nearby shop run by the young women (and her daughter) in the picture below, to the Mekong River nearby (see pics), to a gas station where petrol is sold in pop bottles or pumped from barrels instead of using the new pumps (see pic), and around the surrounding streets.

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Finally, the bus arrived so we made our way to the border.  There, our passports were processed and we bought our Laos visas.  For some reason, Canadians pay more for Laotian visas than any other country.  The picture below shows the Cambodian checkpoint on the left (blue and white building) and the as-of-yet unused Laotian checkpoint building in the distance.  The space in between the two buildings is the no man’s land.

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After the paperwork was complete, we walked from Cambodian and entered Laos.  We boarded a waiting bus and drove to the village of Nakasong, the jumping off point for the 4000 Island region of southern Laos.

A bit of an adventure but we made it!

Kantha Bopha Hospitals and Beatocello

We were very fortunate to find out about and then attend a concert at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap.  Swiss pediatrician Dr. Beat Richner plays his cello in concert every Thursday and Saturday evenings.

Dr. Richner began his work as a pediatrician in Siem Reap back in the 1970s.  At the time, he had intended to stay only a short period of time.  He’s still in Cambodia.  Since 1970, he has established  four children’s hospitals, servicing more than 90% of all Cambodian families.  After all these years, he still does much of the fundraising for these hospitals.  This takes him to various countries and twice a week, he plays his cello for tourists in the auditorium at his hospital in Siem Reap.  A video is also shown, highlighting the services provided by the hospital. 

A typical income for rural Cambodians is about 1 dollar per day.  All hospitals run by the Cambodian government charge fees for all services rendered.  The Kantha Bopha Hospitals, on the other hand, provide all their services for free to children in Cambodia.  All Cambodians know about the Kantha Bopha Hospitals since they are the only hope for the vast majority of families with sick children.

Dr. Richner told the audience why the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t support the Kantha Bopha Hospitals.  He said that the WHO’s standard for hospitals throughout the world is to reflect the economic situation in each country.  This means, in essence, that the standards of medical intervention would be inferior in poorer countries.  Therefore, the Kantha Bopha Hospitals are funded by donors worldwide.  It’s certainly a worthy cause and a remarkable story of hope and compassion.

By the way, the name ‘Beatocello’ is a combination of Dr. Richner’s first name and ‘cello’, the instrument he so capably plays.  The pieces he played were haunting and beautiful.

For more information about the Kantha Bopha Hospitals, go to the following website http://www.beat-richner.ch/.

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Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and the Tomb Raider

The 11 kings of the Khmer reign in the 11th and 12th centuries each constructed magnificent temple complexes.  The most famous and largest of these is Angkor Wat.  We also visited Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.  A map of the whole area indicates where all the temples are located.

Angkor Thom isn’t as large as Angkor Wat but it has at least as many statues and architectural points of interest.  On the many four-sided stupas, the face of the king looks out to all directions.  This was certainly the most beautiful of the temples we visited.

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We also visited the temple called Ta Prohm.  It’s sometimes called the jungle temple since the jungle has overtaken much of the temple with large trees growing in and through the temple walls.  A portion of Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, was filmed here.  Although this temple is in the process of being reconstructed, much of it lies in ruins with huge slabs of rock lying in jumbled piles.  We loved the mystery of this place.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, ‘city of temples’ in the Khmer language, makes up the largest temple complex and largest religious monument in the world.  Originally constructed as Hindu temples, most of the wats here are now used as Buddhist temples.

Angkor Wat, the largest of the 11 major temple complexes in the area, was constructed in the 12th century.  A large moat surrounds this complex.  We went into Angkor Wat during the evening as the sun was setting and then awoke at 4:30 the next morning to see the sunrise over these temples.

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The lotuses are open early in the morning.  They were gorgeous in the new day’s sun.

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We entered the temple while the sun wasn’t too hot and the crowds weren’t too crazy.  The building is absolutely amazing for its sheer size and complexity.

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The temple is built in several layers.  The lowest level depicts the earth and mortality whereas the highest level depicts heaven.  The stairs to reach the highest level are very difficult to climb, symbolic of the difficulty in reaching heaven itself.

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Although the temples were originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Buddhists use the core of the temples to honour the Buddha.

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On the way out of the temples, the monkey pictured here charged up to Aaron to get the apple he was eating.  Aaron dropped the apple so the monkey had a free lunch.

Stilted houses

Siem Reap is a relatively small city of about 170,000 residents.  Located next to the world famous Angkor Wat, Siem Reap sees about 1 million tourists each year.  As a result, the city boasts an active night life and many, many hotels ranging from guest houses to 5-star mega hotels.  We stayed in a 3 star hotel with a pool and paid only $18 per night.

During our stay in Siem Reap, we took a 45 minute tuk tuk ride out of the city to a fishing village.  Due to the high variations in water levels from the rainy to dry seasons, all the buildings in the village are built high up on stilts.  To see this village, we had to take a long-tail boat several kilometres up a river.

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We transferred from the long-tail boat to a smaller ‘canoes’ in order to go into the flooded forest and jungle.

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We had lunch in a stilted restaurant where we ordered frog.  We thought we’d be getting frog legs bus, no, we got the whole animal.  Spicy and crunchy!

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The drive mechanism for the boat was a crudely ‘stick shift’ welded to a sprocket and chain.  The clutch and accelerator were made from plate metal and rebar.  It all worked!

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In the end, we squished back into a tuk tuk for the 45 minute bumpy ride back to Siem Reap.  Chalk it up to another unique experience!

That’s disgusting!

On our way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we stopped for a bathroom and lunch break.  Instead of eating, I wandered several streets nearby and discovered an assortment of insects fried up and ready to eat.  Emily-Ann had been saying that she wanted to try to eat some bugs somewhere on the trip so I went back to tell her.  It so happened that another foreigner was at the bug vender also wishing to try the ‘tasty’ snack.  Together, this other girl and Emily-Ann each ate a tarantula and a large locust!  Yuck!!!  No, they didn’t say they tasted like chicken.  They said they didn’t have much taste as they had been deep fried.  Nonetheless, that’s disgusting!!  I have eaten bugs before (deep fried termites in Nigeria) but I don’t think I could bring myself to eat a big spider.  All credit goes to Emily-Ann for her bravery!  If you dare, click on the pictures below to enlarge the pics of crunchy goodness.

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PIO School

That’s right, we visited another school!  No, it wasn’t our kids’ idea.  They don’t like going to school THAT much.  Smile 

We heard of the People Improvement Organization School (PIO) through Celeste at the Canadian International School in Singapore.  CIS partners with PIO and provides used CIS uniforms for use by the PIO students.

PIO is a private school set up in a slum next to a Phnom Penh city garbage dump.  The 450 kids who attend the school, do so free of charge.  If not attending school, these kids would be working to survive by scrounging in the landfill.  The school has been built and continues to run entirely on donations.  The students here receive a superior education to the public schools (unfortunately, this doesn’t take much) which charge money from all students attending.  PIO also runs an orphanage next to the school.  These students also attend PIO.

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Students attend PIO up until the 6th grade after which they enter the public school system.  Since public school only runs half days, many of the students return to PIO for the other half day to take practical training such as computer work, hairdressing, and sewing.

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We were toured through the school.  When we entered each classroom, the students immediately stood up, placed their hands together in front of themselves as a sign of respect, and greeted us with “Good afternoon”.  I asked  our kids whether this would ever happen at our schools in Winkler.  They thought that was funny.

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Several of the teachers are volunteers from other countries.  When one teacher (the one in yellow in the picture below) said she was also from Canada, we asked her where.  It turns out she’s a Froese from Steinbach!  It’s a small world after all.

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We visited the orphanage nearby.  The 35 boys all stay in the same room on the main floor and sleep in bunk beds.  A picture of their room is included below.  The 35 girls stay in one room on the second floor.  A picture of the girls’ room and the general kitchen are also included. 

We noted that the boys’ room must have a pet rat since food was set out for one that scurried around.  In the girls’ room there were lots of plush toys.  When we asked the orphanage director what they need, she said rice.  I can imagine that the toys are donated by well-meaning donors but staples like food are needed more.

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We also met a teacher named John Thompson.  He had retired from his teaching career in England but wished to give more to kids somewhere in the world.  He applied to volunteer in Cambodia and was placed at PIO.  He says he has never done anything as rewarding as this work.

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Before we left, students at PIO put on a show for us.  They performed several beautiful traditional dances and then several rap routines.  They were fantastic!  They asked us to join in.  Madeleine danced and danced with them.  They followed her every move and absolutely loved her.  That feeling was mutual on her part.  Later, she said that this had been one of her favourite experiences ever.

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As we left, the kids surrounded us and gave us huge hugs.  Then, they gave each of us bracelets they had made.  In the picture below, I’m sitting with the girl who gave me a bracelet.  This really was something special.

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This place does incredible work with these kids.  Especially in light of some of the atrocities we’ve seen about Cambodia’s history, it’s heartening to know this school provides a hope for a brighter future for this country.  It starts with kids who would likely never otherwise have opportunity to become citizens who contribute significantly to rebuilding this amazing country.  PIO is certainly worth our support in whatever way possible.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

An old Chinese cemetery and surrounding rice paddies near the community of Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh, became the site now known as the Killing Fields.  Those tortured souls who were still alive after the horrors of torture at the S-21 prison and many other ‘enemies of the state’, were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge at Choeung Ek.  The lucky ones, received a bullet to the brain.  By far the majority of victims died at the hands of soldiers bearing common field tools, axes, iron bars, and the like.  Loud revolutionary music was played so as to muffle the screams of the dying.

Today, Choeung Ek is a site of remembrance, a stark reminder of the inhuman atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.  Like the S-21 prison, it’s not an easy place to visit.  It so starkly displays the final moments and resting places of thousands of victims of the worst of what people can do to each other.

Each visitor to Choeung Ek, receives a headset and mp3 player to listen to as they tour the grounds.  The tour takes you through the process of genocide from the arrival of the trucks of victims to the mass burials of the slain.  Personal stories are featured as well.  Sign boards also tell much of the story.  I’ve included photos of them below.  Click on them to enlarge.

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The cavities in the earth pictured below, are excavated mass graves. Some were 4 or 5 metres deep.  Most mass graves (more than 120 here) have not been excavated.DSCN8717 (Medium)

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This is a ‘spirit house’, located next to the mass graves.  A spirit house is a shrine to the protective spirits of a place.  It is also a place of shelter for the spirits.  Every house and business has one, placed in an auspicious location on the property.  Offerings of food and incense are provided by the living.



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As evidenced in the photos above, bones and bits of clothing still rise to the surface of the earth.

A towering building sits at the centre of the memorial complex.  This building, a stupa, has about a dozen levels of glass shelves all piled high with human skulls and bones.  On many of the 5000 skulls you can see the evidence of the horrific ways in which these people were killed.

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Even amidst the horror and depravity this site bears witness to, small things of beauty flourish.  Perhaps they are there to be testament to the resilience and persistence of all that is good in the face of so much evil.

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Tuol Sleng Prison

Prior to the Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975, this facility was the Tuol Svay Pray High School.  DSCN8969 (Medium)In 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turneDSCN8842 (Medium)d it into a torture, interrogation, and execution center. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered this place, only seven survived.  All prisoners were photographed and their interrogations were carefully transcribed.  These records and photos were found and have been preserved.  They, together with the prison, bear witness to the horrific acts perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.  It’s important to note that S-21, also called Tuol Sleng Prison, is one of hundreds of such facilities set up by the Khmer Rouge.  This one, in the capital city, has been maintained as a Museum of Genocide.

DSCN8910 (Medium)Inside the gates of S-21, it looks like nearly any high school.  Five buildings face a grass courtyard with green lawns and playspace equipment.  The ground-floor classrooms in one building have been left to appear as they were in 1977.  Most of these interrogation rooms are furnished with only a school desk and chair that faces a steel bed frame with shackles at each end. On the far wall are the grisly photographs of bloated, decomposing bodies chained to bed frames with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January of 1979.

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Another building houses the portraits of the S-21 victims.  Thousands of girls, boys, older men and women, mothers with babies, and men were tortured and murdered here.   “At first glance, the photograph of a shirtless young man appears typical of the prison photos. Closer inspection reveals that the number tag on his chest has been safety pinned to his pectoral muscle. With a bruised face and a pad-locked chain around his neck, a boy stands with his arms at his sides and looks straight into the camera. A mother with her baby in her arms stares into the camera with a look of indignant resignation. The photographs and confessions were collected in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.” (from Museum of Genocide website)

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Yet another building holds copies of many ‘confessions’, created through the torture of those detained.  Confessions usually include names of dozens of other supposed traitors to the regime.  As a result, many more men, women, and children were brought in for torture and extermination, resulting in a never-ending supply of victims.  Several foreigners were victims here as well.  Many victims were forced to confess that they had been agents of the CIA and had promoted subversion to the Khmer Rouge.  Of course, all confessions were false, created through the most heinous and gruesome of tortures.  The examples below include English translations.  Click on them to enlarge.

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Yet another building features the methods of torture implemented here at S-21.  I have not included some pictures I took as many of them are too gruesome to post here.

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As noted earlier, of the approximately 14,000 inmates, only 7 survived.  We met two of these men.  They come here everyday, to the place of their detention and torture. They come to ensure that people remember.

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The visit to Tuol Sleng certainly impacted me.  I think that’s largely because I’ve only seen the Cambodian people to be gentle, friendly, and peaceful.  I can’t imagine the horror they lived through, the betrayal by their own friends and neighbours, and the cold-blooded torture and murder by their own people.  I’m moved by the resilience of the Cambodians and even more profoundly by their apparent lack of bitterness of these events that so tragically shaped their country.  Tuol Sleng showed me the depths of evil humanity can so easily sink to as well as the heights of boundless strength, remembrance, and compassion that humanity is so capable of.