Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



Having got up at an ungodly hour for the bus from Bangkok to the Cambodian border, I passed through the formalities with little problem apart from the excessive heat. Then boarded a pick-up truck for the remaining seven hours to Siem Reap. Nothing too eventful so far, the other travellers on the truck were all reasonably tolerable, until we came across the scene of a motorbike accident. The truck pulled over and we went and had a look at what had happened. Basically a Khmer fellow had crashed his bike and slid along on his face for a bit, breaking his teeth and taking off a fair amount of skin and was now lying in a pool of blood. Unfortunately not an unusual sight on Asian roads. However one of the girls decided to get hysterical and interfere with the situation although she had no idea what she was doing, making the locals move him, exacerbating the chance of any injury etc. and generally giving the worst advice possible. So, having just completed a first aid course as part of my DM thing I decided to take over (once I had been supplied with gloves), I cleaned him up disinfected and dressed his wounds, then instructed the locals to make sure he stayed lying down as he was obviously in shock. Then having done all we reasonably could and with someone gone to get an ambulance or whatever for him, we went. For the rest of the journey the stupid woman just complained about the way we left him and how we didn’t do enough for him, admittedly we did leave him, but I for one didn’t want some Khmer fellow coughing blood over me or my belongings in the back of the truck. I also had no desire to get involved in Cambodian bureaucracy, so ultimately we did the best we could. Something she could not accept, although everyone else on the truck could. It can be bloody infuriating to be stuck for hours with someone who can not appreciate how differently things work in these parts.

With what wasn’t the best of starts to the country, finally arrived in Siem Reap. This is the town next to the Angkor complexes. For those of you who don’t know, Angkor is a large area that has numerous Khmer temples all over it, dating back as far as the seventh century. In order to see all that I wanted, I hired a motorbike and driver, as many of the temples are quite distant from each other.

The most famous of the temples is Angkor Wat, a massive temple with impressive reliefs along many of its walls. The central tower is 182metres high and the temple is one of the largest structures of antiquity. There are however many other impressive structures, one of my favourites being the Bayon as it has huge smiley faces on many of the surfaces, pointing in the four cardinal directions, so wherever one looks one sees a smiley face, very nice. Some of the temples were almost ziggurats in style, some were small, some extremely large, some rather plain, others embellished with reliefs on almost every surface. In other words there was plenty to see for the three and a bit days I went around looking at the things. By the end though, I confess I was pleased to get off the bike for a while as my arse was feeling rather battered by the lack of suspension on the bumpy roads.

From Siem Reap I got the boat to Phnom Penh (the capital) as the waterways are the best means of transport in this country as the roads are poor at best. In Phnom Penh, went and saw the National museum, which wasn’t particularly impressive and almost entirely consisted of artefacts from Angkor (which would make more sense if they had them in a museum there). Unfortunately many of the artefacts were stolen either by the French during colonial times, or by thieves who then smuggled them to Bangkok. The most interesting bit was a Buddha effigy that had been restored by the local experts, there were photos of what it looked like before and during the restoration process. At the beginning it was covered in gold leaf, and was almost complete. By the end it was a ragged reddish black colour with the fire on top of the head and one of the hands broken in half as well as numerous other defects. Bizarre that they actually showed pictures of what it looked like before, one would have thought they would destroy all evidence of what damage they did to the artefact.

After this went to the Royal Palace, which looks very Thai in style, and has a couple of interesting rooms, but is mostly off limits for visitors. The most impressive bits were the nicely groomed greenery. The silver pagoda next door was much more impressive though. It is so called as it’s floor is tiled with pure silver (must be a bugger to polish). It is also the repository for numerous religious or valuable objects the royals don’t want in the palace any more, like a Cambodian Royal attic, where objets d’arts go to live. Amongst the collection are hundreds of Buddha’s, including some of solid gold, decorated with diamonds (one weighs in at sixty kilos of gold with 2,066 diamonds some of which are not small). There are also silver and gold goblets, cutlery and crockery.

It is a shame that for many their knowledge of Cambodia is limited to the slaughter that took place by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, under the leadership of Pol Pot, “Brother Number One” The Khmer Rouge were trying to create an agrarian society and so slaughtered the educated and privileged primarily. This extended to their families and associates, anyone thought to be opposing the revolution or just anyone in the way. According to most recent estimates about two million people (from a total population of about seven million at the time) were exterminated during the brief period in question, but as the west was generally pre-occupied with the American-Vietnam conflict, this was little more than a sideshow and the genocide went unchecked until the Vietnamese came in and deposed the regime. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge the range and scope of the atrocities became known. The famous “Killing Fields” were excavated and thousands upon thousands of skeletons were unearthed.

As a result it has become very much a part of the itinerary here to visit Sleung Treng, a former school that became S-21, the main torture centre through which many thousands of victims passed. When being guided around the centre, the guide a woman in her mid-forties explained the sole reason for the torture was merely to get the captive to confess to being an intellectual or whatever in order that they could then exterminate them. The reason they did not readily give this information was that if they died during torture it was possible only they would be killed. If they confessed, their whole family would be liquidated. Some of whom were inmates for as long as six or seven months in these depraved, disgusting conditions. Of the over ten thousand inmates that passed through Sleung Treng, there were only seven survivors, only one of which is still alive. The reason they survived is that they were able to manufacture sculptures of Pol Pot, which gave them a value.

As one walks through the classrooms converted to minute cells, one tries, yet fails to appreciate what went on. There are pictures of the thousands of victims taken on their arrival at the centre and also pictures of some during and after their treatment. The guide pointed to a map, explaining how she and here family had to move from one part of the country to another. As she explained this she said where and how her father was killed, then her mother, then her brothers, then her child then her husband - all with an understandably emotional voice. She went on to say that a couple of years ago the chief guard of Sleung Treng was invited to the centre by the government for a film that was being made and she had tried to have him killed but he was constantly protected by a ring of armed men. Another macabre stop was the pictures that showed the cadres using babies for target practice in the same way one would a clay pigeon. This is somewhere that definitely provokes thought.

From Sleung Treng went to the “Killing Field” just a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh, where nearly nine thousand skeletons have been unearthed. The most surprising thing was how small a plot of land it is that contained all this carnage. There they buried many of the victims alive, there is also a tree that was used by the soldiers to smash the small children’s heads in, saving bullets. At the site they have built a huge glass sided stupa containing thousands of skulls. After seeing all these things however one of the most disturbing facts about it all is that aside from the elite clique coordinating the revolution, most of those committing these atrocities were children from ten to fifteen years old and that they now have families and have never had to suffer the repercussions of their actions. Even in recent years, all the Khmer Rouge but Pol Pot himself were under an immunity of sorts and have been slowly absorbed into the government.

From Phnom Penh I got a boat up to Kratie, there I met some folk I had previously played some pool with in Siem Reap. We decided to spend the next day off exploring the vicinity, with motorbike guides.

Our first stop was to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins (although we were on the Mekong), an increasingly endangered fresh water dolphin, now very few in number. They are quite an ugly dolphin but in a somehow attractive way. We had to get a small boat over to the part of the river they live in, but once there we saw a number around us porpoising. At only about one and a half metres long they aren't huge but they just seemed somehow out of place in a river nonetheless. From there we went quite a way to see the Hill tribe. When we got to his house (as it seems to consist of one old man with big pierced ear lobes and horrendous teeth) we sat about for a while until another not so old man with pierced ears but not quite such dangly lobes also joined us. We waited out the rain and then headed back from our less than profound anthropological encounter. We also stopped off at a couple of temples at one of which there were children receiving musical instruction for the various xylophone, glockenspiel, gong, type instruments. At times it sounded like Gamelan music from Java, at other times just a cacophony of bad musicians. They found it amusing though when I decided to have a go and I'm sure it renewed their faith in their own abilities.

We had decided that we should have a game of volleyball (it appears to be the Cambodian national sport) somewhere en route back to Kratie and when a net was spotted in a small village. We commandeered the court and ball and challenged our drivers to a game. They started by scoring it, something we decided from the beginning wouldn't be a good idea. They played admirably, we played enthusiastically if atrociously. The village where we were though found the whole thing incredibly amusing and within a short time the whole village was in attendance, regarding the spectacle more as slapstick comedy than sport. Oh well, we got some exercise and they were amused. Back to Kratie in the evening then to relax over a bit of food and beer.

From Kratie I got another boat up to Stung Treng, essentially a border town, albeit an hour and a half from the Laos border. In Stung Treng I had to sort out the local immigration official as the Cambodia / Laos border there is not officially open to tourists. So, after a little bit of palm greasing a letter of authority was produced allowing me to cross the border into Laos. The next day got another boat for the last leg of the journey, the immigration guy on the border wanted more money, but didn't get any and I left Cambodia for Laos. My arrival coincided with a group doing a little tour of the area seeing the waterfalls etc. which I then joined and got taken to a nice little island called Don Deth to chill out. There being no electricity etc. just reasonably basic accommodation but good people and good atmosphere.
After a few days relaxing there, I headed up to Champassak, to see Wat Phou (for your amusement you might like to note it is pronounced "What Poo"). A pre-Angkorian Khmer temple complex dating from between the fifth and seventh centuries. Rather nice, with very few people around and more of a lost feel to it. It is also set alongside the Mekong in a particularly deserted area so it provides nice sunsets and pitch black skies at night.

Leaving the Khmer stuff behind I am now in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, weighing up my options as to what I do from here. I'll tell you in the next exciting newsletter. Just a couple of little things first though. For an informative and at times amusing read get "Off the rails in Phnom Penh" by Amit Gilboa, it has some very funny stories. The other thing is that here in Laos the currency is the Kip, which is currently at an exchange of about 9,500 kip to one US dollar. The largest note however is the 5,000 kip - about fifty cents. Why the hell is it they still have problems changing it though?



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