It’s been two weeks of major contrasts. I’ve been to the most amazing and to the saddest places here. The contradictions were sharp and sudden. From one of the most disgusting cities of Cambodia, rampant with sex tourism and crass commercialism, an hour-long boat ride took me to the perfect island paradise. One morning I strode along the mass graves of the Khmer Rouge regime, and thirty minutes later I emptied out the clip of an AK-47.
After Angkor Wat, I headed to Phnom Penh for a quick visit to the Khmer Rouge sites there. The two main things to see are the Tuol Sleng prison, where the interrogators tortured their way into full ‘confessions’, and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where the victims would be shipped to be beaten to death and dumped in mass graves. The disturbing aspect of the Khmer Rouge is not so much the death toll as much as the willful malice to their own people. A blind rage was directed inwards and nobody was safe, all the way up to the most senior party members. And when the time of execution came they didn’t even have the ‘courtesy’ of ending it quickly with a bullet. Instead, the prisoner would be bludgeoned or hacked to death, undressed, and dumped into a mass grave. When all had been such disposed of, DDT was poured over the bodies to hide the stench of the dead and to kill off those who were still alive.
Somewhat anachronistically, included on that same daytrip is a detour to an illegal shooting range. It’s set up in a joint venture with the army who makes good money supplying the ammo and turning a blind eye. I did my part in resolving Cambodia’s ammo surplus by firing an M-16, AK-47 and even a Russian machinegun. The rocket launcher was too expensive at $350 and although a handgrenade was a reasonable $30, there’s no way I’m pulling the pin out of a rusting, Chinese-made, thirty year old grenade. What I learned there is that if the revolution or zombie outbreak begins you’ll want me on your side. From 25 meters out, with an old AK-47, I hit the torso target 40% of the time with an additional 10% being direct hits on head and heart regions. All those years playing Counter-Strike paid off – three round bursts for accuracy!
My next destination, beachtown Sihanoukville was awful, with middle-aged European men fondling their petite Asian ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ on the streets. So very dispiriting to see. Thankfully I didn’t stay long and made my way over to Koh Ru, the Bamboo Island.
The tourist boom has destroyed many once quaint, perfect places. Seasides are getting packed with endless bars and restaurants and drunken foolery. The islands are where you can find the real magic of the tropics, but ecotourism, 5-star resorts and shady Russian development is killing the options for an ordinary backpacker or socially minded individual. But I was lucky enough to chance upon just such a tropical paradise. A three night stay turned into eight nights as this place was really amazing. A great staff, perfect atmosphere building from the uberchillness of the morning to hectic drunken pandemonium at night to midnight skinny dipping where the motions set alight thousands of phosphorescent algae.
It’s the rhythm that’s so relaxing. It’s the mix of folks, everyone staying for different durations and mingling freely. Each morning started with bleary-eyed but happy folks dragging themselves to the bar for a solid breakfast and exchange of last night’s gossip. Each night ended with all of us dancing wildly, bright facepaint everywhere, smiles on all faces. And it wasn’t exclusive – every new arrival was greeted and made to feel welcome.
So with sadness in my heart I left that place behind, because tomorrow I’m going to Vietnam, and I now only have three weeks left in South East Asia…
Here are some photos!