S-21 and Choeung Ek

Thursday morning one week ago I went first to the S-21. As this is within the city I could easily use the Phnom Penh city bus, which is much more cheaper, about 0.30 € per ride, than any Tuk Tuk. The security prison was set up in a former high school and consisted mainly of four main buildings. In these four buildings up to 1,500 people were caged at the same time. The purpose of the prison was to get a confession from each prisoner and per definition of the Khmer Rouge every prisoner is guilty, otherwise he wouldn’t be here. The “interrogation” and torture of the prisoners were mainly done in the first house, whereas in the second and third houses the improvised cells are located. In total about 20,000 people were imprisoned here in less than 4 years of the power of the Khmer Rouge….but only less than 20 survived! As another rule of the Khmer Rouge was, it’s better to kill an innocent person, than let an enemy survive. It is the most brutal and violent place I’ve ever seen so far. It might be also due to the fact of the relentless workup of the history and the plain violence was on display. You’ll can hear plenty of violent stories on the audio guide, compared with numerous photos of tortured dead bodies, where sometimes only the face was blurred for the sake of anonymity. Nevertheless, there are still (American) tourists, which are taking pictures of them, even it is always shown per sign, that this is forbidden inside the displays. And honestly, I don’t understand for which purpose they need these kind of photos. How can such a system work at all? First you need young, bad educated people from remote rural areas. These can be easily influenced and manipulated. Then you divide the work flow into several sections. Hence, each guard is only responsible for a small part of the whole process and never gets the big picture. And finally put pressure on the guards. If the don’t follow the orders, they easily change from a guard to a prisoner, which also happened quit often. After the Khmer Rouge came into power, they “evacuated” Phnom Penh and every large city within 3 days, sadly this was very effective. The inhabitants believed these young soldiers in the beginning, but were afraid, because they had a different accent. They told the people to move to their home villages. But what’s the home village of young children and teenagers, when they were born and raised up in Phnom Penh. The basic idea of the Khmer Rouge was to transform the whole society into an agricultural country, which solely is based on rice production without modern technology. Hence, each area has to produce the same amount of rice, regardless of the soil quality. And the amount to produce was three times higher than the average amount per area. In essence, neither the Khmer Rouge nor the workers from the cities had any idea of rice plantation. Hence, the whole theory from the Khmer Rouge didn’t worked out…not surprisingly at all. But sadly in almost 4 years about 3 Mio. people were killed, which equaled to more than 20% of the total population. The power of the Khmer Rouge, which was backed by Maoist China, just ended after a government supported by Vietnam, and hence Russia, took over in 1979. But the Khmer Rouge just went back to mountainous area and still represented Cambodia in the United Nations, and were also officially acknowledged until 1991 by, among others, Germany. Surprise. Surprise. This was the time when the cold war was still full active.

As the S-21 is located more or less in the city, the prisoners were, after writing their confession, brought to Choeung Ek, about 15 kilometres south of the city. Here about 300 persons arrived each night. This was a killing field. There are supposed to be 20,000 dead on an area of about 2 hectares. About 9,000 dead bodies were exhumed from the mass graves. Nowadays, this is a peaceful place, but 40 years ago there was 24 hours operating Pa system, playing propaganda songs. In essence it was in operation to suppress the sound of the victims. As shots are too loud and bullets to expensive, they used every tool to kill the victims which were available. The exhumed mass graves are now just small holes, but indeed were up to 5 metres deep. As the Khmer Rouge were scared about the revenge of family members of the prisoners, they were not just killing the prisoners, but also the wife and children of them. Typically the innocent babies and small children were hold on their ankle and their heads were smashed at the so called “killing tree”. It really affected me and makes me speechless, when I realised what happened here. It’s always unbelievable how human beings are able to perform a genocide. This place makes one really sad.

Inside the S-21. The 14 white graves were the last dead prisoners, which were still fixed on the iron beds in the interrogation rooms when the Vietnamese troops arrived. Their identity is unknown.
Two rows of barbed wire were around…nobody could escape
Rules of the prison. In the end it’s only about to get the confession, because then they can officially kill you.
Also the free spaces are covered with barbed wire, in order to prevent someone to commit suicide. That happened, and was a big issue for the guards, because they won’t get a confession any longer from a dead person
Resettlement of people from the cities across Cambodia
Improvised cells in the old teaching rooms. Some have doors at others the prisoners are just locked at the ankle
The exhumed mass graves are nowadays only small holes in the killing field
Some of the mass graves are covered by a roof to protect them from rain
This place really affected me.
Clothes and bones still appear from the ground in rainy season
Almost 10,000 dead bodies were exhumed and their cause of death determined
Killing Tools

Descending Mout Aoral

Tuesday morning two weeks ago after a short breakfast we started our walk going down. As the track was not difficult we managed it in about 2 hours. Then I took the motorbike and started driving back to Srae Kan 3, which took additional 90 minutes including some photo stops. If we wouldn’t have done so much breaks before, one could do the hiking also in one day, and sleeping again in Srae Kan 3. But I was afraid of driving back the motorbike during sunset or even during the night this few kilometres back to the village. Hence, I was OK to stay this night up in the mountains and it was also quit nice over there.

Now the next few kilometres unpaved road were pretty easy compared to the ones before and when I hit the paved road again in Spien Daik it was a pretty enjoyable drive home. As long as I was actively doing something I wasn’t suffering from my toothpain, only when I stopped. In the afternoon I was back in the loud city of Phnom Penh and needed to pay the expenses of the mirrors. And they insisted that the handlebar needs also be adapted. Well OK…couldn’t hardly argue against that. So in the end I needed to pay the bill.

The orange scarfs from the monks clearly show the way
That’s already the road I drove with the motorbike…this section was pretty nice, but became suddenly worse just a few hundred metres later
Empty lorry for logging…yes there was a boulder which needed to be climbed 😏
View back to the peak and the place where we slept in the night. Unfortunately, already a lot of humidity in the air
Railway crossing at national road 132…
…with the tracks to Battambang and Poipet

Hiking Mount Aoral

Monday morning two weeks ago I got up pretty early and at about 6 o’clock in the morning we started our hike to Mount Aoral. In the last minute I got another guide, Mr. Sot, I was told that he also was very experienced and already more than 100 times on the peak. I asked if we could drive the first kilometres, as I read from other blog posts, that this should be possible and I worried a bit about my knee. As I always get knee pain in this fake shoes from Vietnam, when I’m hiking the whole day. First Chim insisted that we walk, but then I pointed out that I’ve a motorbike. So my guide was on the back and we started driving. The first two kilometres the “road” was still OK, but then it became gradually worse. When I changed the double track path from right to left, we got stuck as the front whell didn’t moved further on in a pothole. Then my guide neglected to drive with me, but rather walk behind me. After crossing 4 creeks I ended up in a defile and suddenly lost the balance of the motorbike…hence, crashing down at zero speed, but I couldn’t stop it and broke both mirrors…and scratched my knee. Well, way back is not an option for the moment. Therefore, I made another 3 kilometres until I told my guide, that I wanted to stop here. As I always needed to wait for him and as the track was so bad, I didn’t saved any time. At least not much. And in the end, once you’re at the base of the mountain, the adventure is also over. Getting there is more complicated than getting up. Now, it is a normal hike up the mountain. The path is clearly visible and sometimes also marked, but for sure you can’t miss it, once you’re onto that. In the morning you could hear already all the chain saws in the forest as there is a lot of logging around. This is also the reason why this track is in such a bad condition. As they drive there also in the rainy season, when everything is just mud. After we reached camp 1 the path was a bit steep for about 100 metres altitude and let us to a small lookout back to the plain. The rest of the track is in the forest. Hence, you don’t see much. After reaching Camp 2 we made a break and Mr. Sot prepared some food. Unfortunately, I suffered heavily from my tooth pain, especially when I sat down, so I need to stand up every few minutes. After an extensive break, we hiked up to the peak. On top of the peak there are some large birds with a bad aerodynamic. At least you hear them much before you see them. Also because they are flying above the large trees, and hence are hidden from the view from the ground. Mr. Sot knows also all points in the forest where to get water. As we were pretty on top, there was no reason for purifying it. But if onw wants to be sure, one can still do that. I was also fine without. There is a small creek about 10 minutes away from camp 2 where one could also get a short bath after the whole day of sweating. In the evening I tried to enjoy the beautiful sunset, and once I was sitting on the table the large moon was directly on top of me in the extension of the large trees. Never have seen it like that before…but unfortunately due to my toothpain I couldn’t enjoy the whole scenery. The hut is already equipped with solar powered lights – inside and outside, installed by Mr. Sot, as he told me, and for some reason these spots are on the whole night. I don’t know why they like it to be on, especially inside. We went early to bed, because it became a bit chilly in the night. Luckily I was prepared for that, and Chim had also a hammock for me. So the night was OK, until I heard some noises of animals being around the hut. Chim later told me these are wild pigs, and not wild tigers, which are also living in this area. OK, that made me happy.

Mr. Sot in the jungle
Camp 1 is pretty simple
Lookout to the plain after the short steep passage
Camp 2 with the hut, and a nice place for enjoying the sunset
The way to the airplane is also marked
There are some boulders around, but I was for sure not in the mood for that
And also this markings can be found around the trees, as well as orange scarfs from the Buddhism monks
Finally reached the peak…
…but as I still suffered from tooth pain, I couldn’t really enjoy the nature around me
GPX track

Approaching Mount Aoral

Sunday one week ago I rented a trail bike for three days, it took a bit longer than expected to get one, but after my last experience in Balung, I checked now almost everything, as I didn’t want to get stuck. Afterwards I visited one of the large shopping malls, but beside my lunch, I couldn’t found what I was looking for. As the time run quickly I started my drive in the early afternoon. I knew it’s only about 120 kilometres, but that can easily mean you need about 4 hours in Cambodia. Via national roads 4, 44 and 132 I approached Spien Daik. It took already more than one hour in order to get out of Phnom Penh, and until I was finally on national road 4. As this is again a 250ccm engine, the top speed and acceleration is much higher than a scooter. But car drivers doesn’t expect that and are surprised when I overtake them. Additionally, if a motorbike is overtaking on the left hand side, this is quit surprising for them. On my way on national road 4 I stopped in order to drink something. Within this few minutes, an old, ugly, white man came by, holding the hand of a young, very young, Khmer girl. Their appearance didn’t looked as this was his daughter, it looked more that he paid for her. I knew that child is still a large problem in Cambodia, but I’ve never seen it such openly. I mean in Phnom Penh you’ll see a lot of this ugly white men walking side by side with a decades younger beautiful Khmer woman, but this is ordinary business, and it’s supposed to be the oldest in the world. Hence, as long as they are old enough and doing their job by there own, one couldn’t argue against it. But in the other case I just felt angry, but in the end I could nothing do, as I was just guessing, and holding hands might be not forbidden in Cambodia.

As it was becoming really late I speeded up a little bit and was able to reach Spien Daik by about 17 o’clock. It’s somehow possible to reach Spien Daik by “public” transport a.k.a. local bus plus shared minivan/songthaew, which might take you the whole day and for the last 15 kilometres you still need to hire a local driver with a scooter. The landscape was very similar all around with either rice paddies or cashew nut trees. I still had about one hour until it’s getting dark, but the last 15 kilometres are unpaved and the larger the distance to the paved road, the worse are the road conditions. The first 10 kilometres were rather easy to drive, but the last 5 kilometres, after the iron bridge, were pretty interesting. Because I needed to ford at least 3 creeks and the road was very bumpy. Nevertheless, it was still fun with this dirt bike, but locals are doing it just with their scooter. Hence, they’re looking at you, when you drive with such a dirt bike there. After stopping several times and asking for a guide I finally managed to find the house of Chim. He seems to be the main guide in the village, at least everybody was pointing me to him and he could even speak a bit English. At least so much, that we could negotiate everything. I could sleep the night in his homestay and his wife prepared the dinner for me with some Khmer specialities. The kids, his and the neighbours, were playing “catching” in the evening. It was very interesting to look at the them and I was a bit surprised that this game seemed to be played everywhere. In the end I was just happy that I made it in time and that I directly met him without any problems, as he told me that he just arrived from the mountain that day.

My dirt motorbike, again a Honda, which seem to have some kind of monopol on every small thing here
Me on national road 44
Mount Aoral is the second peak from the left on the background ridge
Shortly before sunset I arrived Srae Kan 3

Back to Phnom Penh

Saturday one week ago I finally headed back to Phnom Penh. When I left PP I was supposed to be back within 7 days but now I’m finally back after 7 weeks. Yeah, things can change faster than one might expect. I wanted to get on the large bus which is leaving Kratie at 9 o’clock. But when I arrived in the morning at the guesthouse where I booked the ticket, I didn’t book in my current guesthouse, as it was much more expensive, hence I headed back to my old guesthouse and asked there, anyway, the lady told me that the bus was broken and will not drive today at all. Well…ok, now only bad options are available. The local shared minivan leaves at 11 o’clock, but it turned out, that it was already fully overbooked. So only the VIP shared minivan which is leaving at noon is left. Without any other options I take this one, and I even get the same price as for the large bus. The first third of the road was identical to the one to Kampong Cham. This leads us along the Mekong river downstream, and we are passing several small Islamic minority villages, before we are at the junction to the large road. Then we are taking a shortcut directly south to the other large road, which will lead us directly back to PP. And also this large road I already took, when I was on the way to Mondulkiri…as I said already 7 weeks ago. In PP my host Roberto welcomed me warmly back at his place. He just moved to the another flat at the same floor, but now has even two rooms and a flatmate Dan from South Africa, but which was not at home that Saturday evening. Has he worked late that day I just stayed at his house and relaxed a bit on his couch.

One of several mosques we passed by
You can use bamboo specifically everywhere
Just for reference…that’s the Mekong river, and for the time being my last crossing
Rob, me and, Dan
Rob, me, and Gundars from Latvia, but actually back on his way to Bali, and stayed also a few days with Rob