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Down The Mekong – Part 1





After arriving early into Suvarnabhumi (Swampy) airport on our 11 hour Jo-burg/Bangkok flight, we realised that we now had close to a 5 hour layover. Also as the small commuter airline we were travelling on to Siem Reap only had economy, we didn’t even have the luxury of a business class lounge to relax in. It was further complicated by the fact that we had been unable to check our luggage right through to Siem Reap as the check-in clerk at Jo-burg airport had never heard of either Bangkok Air or Siem Reap! The result being that we negotiate through the long lines of Thai immigration, although this was not a huge issue as we had fast-track passes. Then collect our luggage, pass customs, traipse upstairs to departures and check back in for the short 1 hour Bangkok Air flight.

In the event we managed to get rebooked on a much earlier flight, finally arriving at Siem Reap at a little after 9AM. Fighting through the crowds of backpackers to the visa desk, I quickly secured us each a visa for $25 a head. The arrival time was of course far too early for the hotel courtesy car that I had pre-arranged to collect us. I was however pleasantly surprised to find that all taxi’s from the small modern, but well presented airport to the city centre were a set price of $7 and pre-paid to the desk at the airport. We thus avoided all the usual taxi rip-off nonsense that one usually has to endure on arrival in foreign parts and were swiftly and professionally transported to the French colonial Hotel de la Paix in the city centre.

We were of course again too early to officially check-in, but were invited to partake of a complimentary breakfast whilst our room was readied. In the event, after an hour or so, we were approached by the check-in girl from the front desk, to tell us that the room we had booked would not be ready until late afternoon. However rather than make us wait any longer, they had upgraded us to a suite on the top floor, which whilst lovely, was a bit over the top for our tastes.

A quick unpack, shower followed before we set about exploring the small town of Siem Reap. My only previous visits had been back in 1973 to photograph the then jungle enveloped Angkor Wat temples when the town was a mere spec on the map, complete with unpaved roads, soldiers and all the associated paraphernalia of war. My next visit was a weekend trip up from Phnom Penh in 1998 where I was on a brief work assignment, as I had heard that the Temples, having been rescued from the jungle were now open to the public. On that trip, although there were no more scenes from Apocalypse Now, the town still seemed deeply mired in the past. Still a relative frontier town, with many roads still unpaved, the few hotels open for business for farangs were really limited to the converted colonial mansions in the old French quarter. And like much of Cambodia at the time, was still considered relatively unsafe for foreigners.

Remembering that from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge had created the nightmare of genocide, effectively turning Cambodia into an almost prehistoric agrarian failed state. Since then and even on my previous 1998 visit, Siem Reap had largely remained a forgotten little backwater, visited only by the more intrepid backpackers.

Our hotel was right in the middle of town, opposite the market, so not quite knowing what to expect, we set out on a trip down my own personal memory lane. Guided by my female companion we immediately crossed to the market, which was apparently an excellent place to start our explorations.

The town today is the centre of a vibrant tourist industry, with paved roads, literally dozens of excellent hotels, great nightlife and entertainment. The tourist trade of course revolves around the incredible Angkor Wat temple complex – one of the top listed places to see in any of those 'Places to see before you Die' books. But the town has changed, fortunately developing dramatically from my memories of 15 odd years ago, which were nowhere to be found. Evening entertainment was provided on Pub Street, a single street full of bars and restaurants. Sadly the Cambodian food left a fair amount to be desired; accustomed as we were to the spicier and more exotic Thai or Vietnamese food flavours, the local food seemed bland and uninteresting in comparison – thankfully it was not however as dreadful as Filipino food.

Whilst I am told that there was a naughty nightlife available in Pub Street and surrounds, being with a reserved and reticent female teacher, did not allow for exploration. So I dragged my chastened body around the limited, but reasonably interesting entertainment that was available to me.

Having originally planned to spend two days at the Angkor site, we decided that we would first see the major sights in a one-day trip and then decide on a second day. So we hired a local English speaking guide and Tuk-Tuk, which provided us with a more personal and intimate experience than an air conditioned car, where one is insulated from the realities of the local scene. This proved to be a wise choice, as after a day traipsing around the ruins in the hot and humid Cambodian day, I was personally all 'templed out'!

Most people think that Angkor Wat is one vast temple, but in fact is merely the centre piece of a huge Archaeological Park covering some 25 square kms, with many individual temples. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Angkor city was home to over a million people in its heyday, more than London at the time.

We chose to visit just three of the many that are on offer; Bayon, with its bas-reliefs depicting ordinary Khmer life rather than Hindu mythology, unlike many of the other temples. The second was Ta Phrom, straight out of the Tomb Raider movie, although sadly there was no Angelina to act as my tour guide. This temple has been purposely left largely un-restored, overgrown with huge tangled tree roots, like some alien beings that are slowly consuming the centuries old structures – natures way of showing us whose boss! The last was of course the pièce d’résistance, the towering and vast Angkor Wat temple itself, dedicated to the Hindi God Vishnu. Its towers, moats, galleries and entrance causeway are in themselves impressive, but it is only on climbing the precariously steep steps to the top of the towers that one begins to appreciate the shear scale and complexity of the structure.

Even though we had previously completed a 'flight' in a hot air balloon over the Masai Mara in Kenya, the thought of rising several hundred metres into the air under a balloon still brought cold shivers down my spine. But ever one for pushing the envelope of fear, I succumbed to the challenge and accordingly booked a 'Sunset flight' for the next evening.

So being trapped in a wicker basket with a dozen or so other people we 'took off' just before sunset. The view over the Angkor Wat complex was stunning, made all the more memorable as the sun began behind the ancient and imposing structures. The 'flight' lasted around 40 minutes and was concluded by what I can only describe as a controlled crash landing. But as any pilot will tell you, any landing that you walk away from is a good one!

I won’t bore the reader further with all the amazing sights of The Angkor Park, suffice to say that as with Petra in Jordan and Machu Pichu in Peru, it was one of the few Unesco World Heritage sights that did not disappoint, with the reality being better than the expectation. Although we did arrive early in the morning, sadly missing the sunrise, the huge numbers of Japanese and Chinese tourists arriving during the course of the morning, did somewhat spoil the sights and overall experience. On reviewing my photos of the very full and hot day that we spent travelling around the various temples and ruins they seemed to have photo bombed virtually every shot!

After enjoying a relatively relaxing 4 day stay in Siem Reap, on the Monday, we had a brief ½ hour coach transfer to the waiting boat on Tonle Sap Lake for our cruise down the lower reaches of The Mekong to the Delta in Vietnam. This turned out to be a blessing, as supposedly our sailing was scheduled to be a low water one, which would have meant that the coach transfer would have been closer to 5 hours to join the boat on the actual Mekong River, rather than on the Lake. However due to the recent heavy rains the lake was deep enough for the boat to come right up to the ferry point.

It was late afternoon when we boarded the boat, La Marguerite, named after the French writer Marguerite Duras, who grew up in Indochina in the 1900’s and formed the basis of one of the excursions with an evocative visit to her Chinese lover’s house in Sa Dec. She was even the subject of a movie, The Lovers. The boat had been built and was managed by a Vietnamese company and although small was comfortable and pleasant enough. We stowed our luggage in our very small cabin which lacked any decent storage space, leaving us to navigate our cumbersome suitcases for the balance of the time on board. Had we known in advance of the size restrictions, we would have packed a lot less in smaller, more flexible cases. Typical of all women, my companion had hopelessly over packed (particularly shoes!) as we really never got out of shorts during the whole week.

Quickly retiring to the bar on the top deck, we had a panoramic view of our passage across Tonle Sap lake. This is a vast seasonal lake where one cannot always see land on the horizon and took us some 7 – 8 hours to reach the actual Mekong River. We eventually reached The Mekong during the course of the night, where we moored mid stream – I awoke briefly noticing the thump of the engines had ceased and the accompanying sudden quietness … I recall thinking that I was now officially on The River of Time, the title of the incredibly poignant and evocative book by Jon Swain. Tomorrow would be time enough to explore, experience and fall in love with Indochina all over again.

Our fellow travellers were in the main somewhat older than us and mainly from USA or Australia. I think there was one British party on board, who in true British and reticent style kept themselves to themselves for the duration. There was one couple, who although much older than ourselves were interesting as they ran a chain of sex stores in Sydney. The husband was particularly interesting as prior to have fled to Australia, had worked for the notorious and vicious Kray Brothers crime-lords in London's East End. With very few young couples, evenings tended to be a bit quiet. Fortunately we did team up with a younger Aussie couple, who were fun, so after the rigors of the day, much time was spent at the bar on the top deck, drinking under the stars. Included in the price, was all local booze, the only exception being international premium branded spirits, so we were able to seriously road test the limits of this wonderful facility. As most of southern Indochina is hot and humid 99% of the time, a cold and refreshing beer was the natural drink of choice – fortuitously mostly served slightly colder than a whores heart – just the way I like it!

A word about the available beer. The bar stocked 3 beers, Tiger, Angkor and Heineken. Tiger is brewed by a local Heineken joint venture and Angkor is likewise brewed by a local Carlsberg joint venture. Now both of these locally brewed beers are only sold in cans, but the Heineken is sold in bottles which are imported from Singapore. As this was considered a premium branded product and therefore attracted a premium price, we ended up drinking vast quantities of either Tiger or Angkor. As I am of the firm belief that there is no such thing as a bad beer, just some are made better than others, I was more than happy to drink the local stuff. After all, after a few, you most definitely develop a taste for them and they all end up tasting the same over the course of a professional beer drinking session!

Also, a simple, but worthy mention travel advisory here. When travelling in some of the worlds lesser known locales, I follow a few basic precautions regarding food and drink.

I never eat, salad, unpeeled fruit or vegetables, and anything that I do not recognise as edible. Also avoid ice cream, as many such products include water, or unpasteurised milk.

I never include ice with my drink. Nor do I drink anything other than branded and sealed bottled water. A safe bet regarding drinks is to stick to Coca-Cola and beer, both of which have a rigorous and stringent purification process.

The mixed Cambodian and Vietnamese boat crew were delightful, helpful and accommodating to our every wish. The predominantly Vietnamese food started out as being good, but quickly deteriorated to being just average, it did however improve dramatically when the chefs were changed at Phnom Penh. All excursions, most days there were at least two trips from the boat, visiting either other waterborne communities, or trips ashore to local villages or towns. Once again, these were included in the price. The result being that we really didn't have to put our hands in our pockets for anything apart from the likes of the occasional premium gin or whisky, laundry and the on-board spa, which I was told by my companion was extremely average.

The excursions were all aimed at introducing one to the local culture and people. Being a relatively small group of a little less than 60 odd (the boat carried a maximum of 90) we were able to get up close and personal in all the small villages and towns that we stopped off at en-route. We explored small back waters to visit floating markets, shops – complete communities, and at one stage, a left-over from the days of French colonial occupation of Kampuchea, a catholic church on the water. We visited floating fish farms, where the Mekong catfish and giant snake fish are farmed on a commercial scale by small independent family farmers. At one stop we were invited into a school, where my travel companion, a teacher became totally engrossed in the teaching activities of these farm children. We also visited the next door floating children's hospital, where volunteer medical workers were doing great work.

As we cruised at a relatively sedate 4 – 5 knots downstream, children and adults alike came out to wave at us. At every stop we were surrounded by smiling, eager and enquiring children, my travel companion teacher, wanted to take every last one of them home. Although they always asked for money “One Dollar mister”, were seemingly happier with the pens, pencils and note pads that we gave them. There was no aggression from any of the locals, only smiles from everybody we met. I do however wonder how long it will be until the novelty wears off once the tourist Dollar spoils the innocence of the locals.

It had been several years since I had travelled extensively in the Asian countryside and I had forgotten how verdantly green and lush the rice paddies of South East Asia really were. It became difficult to comprehend the country’s traumatic past with the peace and rhythm of rural life and timeless landscapes of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms. Fishermen throwing their nets for the daily catch, water buffalos’ grazing in the fields, children playing on the river banks, women in their traditional conical hats rowing their sampans along with one oar, entire families living in one room floating in the channels … this was the Asia of several decades ago and a glimpse into a fast disappearing life that will shortly be gone forever.

We spent close on 2 days in a fast revitalising Phnom Penh … a chaotic, but great little waterfront and surprisingly sophisticated city. Understandably it had changed dramatically since I was last there in 1998 and even more so since my first trip back in 1973. The measure of any economy is the amount of building that is taking place and Phnom Penh did not disappoint, with many new building projects on the go. Even the dirt roads of my memory now being in the main, tarred. But still in many ways a time capsule, one of the few remaining capital cities to preserve the sense of a vanished Indochina.

We visited The Royal Palace and national museum, which in itself was not enthralling, but the actual building and gardens were worth the trip. We shopped, or bartered for ridiculously cheap souvenirs, knock-off shirts and DVD’s at the Russian and Central Markets. We sipped G & T’s at sundown on the upstairs terrace of the FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club) overlooking the Tonle Sap River and were transported back in time by the nostalgic air of the place with its whirling ceiling fans, geckos and black & white prints on the walls. As I sat on the first floor balcony sipping my Gin and Tonic watching the sun set over the riverfront, It reminded me all so much of my earlier visits in the 90's, Also recalling passages from Jon Swain’s wonderfully evocative book, River of Time, set at it was in the Phnom Penh of the early 70’s before the city’s take over by the evil Khmer Rouge in 1975.

We were to see for ourselves first hand the horrors of that thankfully brief, but brutal regime. The next day we visited the infamous S21, or Tuol Sleng detention camp of The Khmer Rouge, headed by the infamous Comrade Deuch – a school that had been turned into a detention and torture centre in the middle of the city. It is today a genocide museum and is made all the more chilling by the hundreds of black and white photos of the many victims that stare blankly back at you the visitor. Bizarrely the classrooms had been joined by the simple feat of rough holes having been knocked through adjoining walls. The sets of gallows sitting in the courtyard tell a frightening tale of the atrocities that took place there. The first and second floor open verandas to the yard were fenced in to stop inmates from committing suicide by throwing themselves off the balconies. These were ‘the intellectuals’ whose only crime was that they were maybe educated, wore glasses (which meant that they were literate) were teachers, or worked for the Cambodian government. Over 12,000 people, were executed or tortured to death in the four years of S21 existence, including several westerners, as supposed 'Imperialistic Spies'.

Comrade Duech and his interrogators delighted in their work. One of the most chilling exhibits were the 10 rules of, "The Security of Regulations" notice board in the courtyard of the camp, on the spot where up to a few years prior to its founding, children would have been playing their innocent and joyful games.

1. You must answer accordingly to my questions. Don't turn them
2. Don't try to hide facts by making pretext this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3. Don't be fool for you are a chap who dare thwart the revolution
4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect
5. Don't tell me about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution
6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all
7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something you must do it right away without protesting
8. Don't make pretext about Kampuchea Kromin order to hide your secret of traitor
9. If you don't follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes or electric wire
10. If you disobey any part of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Only 12 people survived Tuol Sleng and walked out alive.

From S21 they were taken to one of the many Killing Fields a short distance from the city centre, where they were executed – not by bullets as that would have cost too much, but by being physically beaten to death and in some cases buried alive in the mass graves. It was said that in some cases the ground ‘moved’ for days as those buried alive tried to escape. The central memorial is a tall glass stupa filled with thousands of skulls of the victims.

As we left the site, our tour guide said to me, “its sad Tony isn’t it”. I was irrationally angry at him for using such mild words, as after such a chilling and sobering experience I could not begin to comprehend how any one human being could inflict those sort of horrors on another.

There are few places in the world that effect one in a similar manner. I have visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem; the Vietnam wall of remembrance in Washington DC; the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg; the memorial pagoda standing on the banks of the Saigon River depicting all 4½ million Vietnamese that died in the war; the Death railway museum and cemeteries of Kanchanaburi – Thailand; The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda; the monument to the tens of thousands that died in Gallipoli, as well as the vast and eerily silent WWII cemeteries of northern Europe. These emotionally telling experiences have I believe, a way of shaping our thinking on the world for all time. All of humanity should always be cognisant of how easily man can slip into the depths of horror that such abominations inevitably lead to.

There was very little talk on the bus returning us to the safety and peace of our waiting boat at the waterfront.

What happened in Cambodia in those short years of 1975 to 1979 was right up there with the Holocaust . And like the latter, all in the name of a stupid and cruel ideology, when Pol Pot and his henchmen managed to kill over 2 million Cambodian people. His “agrarian dream” was to turn the country into one huge rice growing co-operative, with things like, money, banks, books, education, post, telecommunication and religion all destroyed and banned. Cities were destroyed and their inhabitants thrown out into the countryside to work as slaves in the rice paddies. In many ways it was worse than what the Nazi’s tried to achieve.

For me, it was made all the more real by virtue of the fact that it took place so recently in historical terms, i.e. 1975 – 1979 … in other words, in my lifetime. I could recall what I was doing with my life at that time in the relative safety of a secure and stable environment.

On the Thursday, we reached Tan Chau and moored mid-stream whilst the border formalities of crossing into Vietnam were concluded. We were sorry to wave goodbye to Cambodia as it had been an absolute joy. For me, considering the horrific recent history of civil war, famine and invasion in the space of a generation, it is astounding how little bitterness we found amongst these wonderfully resilient people. However as always, among these lovely smiling, gentle and courteous people, reminders of the nightmare persist.

The hotel we stayed in Siem Reap had been excellent, right up there as one of the best in the world. The town itself a pleasure, small enough to become acquainted with relatively quickly, with its cosmopolitan cafes and diverse nightlife, is almost a destination on its own. Most things are very cheap, although in my opinion, the food left something to be desired – relatively bland, not spicy and flavoursome like Vietnamese or Thai.

Sadly in a few short years this country is going to become a tourist Mecca, as it has so much to offer, what with the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat. Great and relatively cheap hotels, lovely people, wonderful scenery with close and easy travel connections to the likes of Thailand. Also we have an almost morbid attraction to war and tragedy, which the visitor will find aplenty in Indochina.

When I first arrived here as a young eager photographer back in those war torn years, I had no idea what to expect. Sadly I didn't stay long enough to experience anything more than that lost temple city complex in the jungle, which in retrospect was like a scene out of a then unmade Indiana Jones movie. It was only during my time spent working there from Saigon in 1997/98 that I came realise that the most memorable and richness of Cambodia were its people, who had been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. But thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their with their infectious smiles and openness intact.

Now nearly 15 years later Cambodia still remains a genuine adventure, tinged with a little bit of 21st century luxury and comfort. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the people of this enigmatic kingdom.

The message being – see it now, before the tourists spoil it too much, even now Angkor is beginning to become overrun, but right now it’s like the Thailand of 30 years ago and Vietnam of 15 years ago.

To be continued …