Out of the frying pan into the fire : Cambodia rises from the ashes

It’s gut-wrenching to write this blog. In the past 10 months, we have been to 5 continents and countless countries but Cambodia evoked special emotions like no other. You gotta feel for a country whose mind, body and spirit was broken not once, but twice in quick succession in the space of just a decade. Getting caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War in early 70s as collateral damage, Cambodia became one of the heaviest bombed countries in the world with America dropping 300,000 tons of bombs leading to 500,000 civilian casualties! As soon as the war was over, one of their own – the deranged communist Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoist party the Khmer Rogue with utopian visions of establishing an agrarian society – executed 2 million Cambodians (mostly city folks) and moved the country back to dark ages. Thank God they did not destroy the Angkor temples which perhaps stand tall as the fitting symbol of the resilience of the Khmer people.

As we left Thailand and landed in Siem Reap, we were already wondering how Cambodia had managed to rebound after such a brutal modern history. We got the answer within 15 minutes – its wonderful Khmer people. The sweet welcome at the airport by our ever-smiling tuk tuk driver Sukham (who would become the bedrock of our transport to Angkor temples over the next few days) followed by the helpful attitude of staff at the Villa Sok San hotel was enough to convince us that the Khmer people have come out of their tragic history and have moved on!

A quick primer: at its height, Angkor (here at Siem Reap) was the seat of the glorious Khmer kingdom between 9th and 15th centuries with a population of over 1 million. The Khmer kings (mostly Hindu, some Buddhist) built hundreds of temples dedicated to Gods Shiva & Vishnu – the most notable being Angkor Wat, Bayon (Buddhist), Ta Prohm , Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre and Preah Khan. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches. The Hindu influence came to Indochina from India via the trade route of Bay of Bengal. One needs 3-4 days to see the main temples at a relaxed pace as they are spread far apart.

After a quick nap, we headed off to Angkor Wat (AW) for the sunset, which frankly, was a little underwhelming!

The next morning, we woke up at 5 am to join literally thousands of people, for AW sunrise! Quite a shock specially when you want exclusive rewards for waking up so early. It was more fun watching the photographic circus than the sunrise itself, which by the way, was far superior to the sunset.

Based on the sun direction, we had optimized our temple-route to maximize our photographic opportunities. According to plan, after sunrise we immediately headed off to Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple. Angkor Thom is the name of the larger complex within which its main attraction Bayon temple is situated. The first glimpse of Angkor Thom south gate with 54 Devas and Asuras on each side representing the churning of ocean milk, is mesmerizing.

The Devas
The Asuras

The towering statues of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara above the gate gives it an truly imposing feel.

Bayon, with its 54 towers depicting smiling statues of Avalokiteshvara (with a hint of Jayavarman VII’s face – the king who built it) is breathtaking. Whichever angle you look from, the statues exude the king’s power.

The bas-reliefs add a beautiful dimension to Bayon.

Dancing Apsaras, a common feature in many of the temples

Mika produced a lovely sketch on the spot.

Next we headed off to the Baphuon temple followed by the Elephant Terrace – which was used as a huge platform for watching ceremonies.

The adjoining platform is called Terrace of the Leper King to support the legend which says at least two Angkor kings had leprosy.

By now it was insanely hot and we took a lunch break followed by a power nap. We then headed back to the big daddy AW for the third time, this time to explore it properly from the inside. In retrospect, it turned out that we loved Bayon and Banteay Srei more than AW – I guess its a matter of taste. Sometimes overcrowding influences your likes and dislikes – the crowds at AW are obviously not for the faint-hearted. Built by Suryavarman II, AW is dedicated to lord Vishnu. Its an impressive and massive complex surrounded by a moat on all sides. The stone blocks to build it were quarried from 50 Kms away! The bas reliefs are most impressive and if you know your Ramayana and Mahabharata, you would love it !

It’s the end of a long and tiring day and its time to head to Pub street which frankly is a tourist trap.

We managed to find some vegetarian food followed by fried ice cream rolls for Mika. She loved it!

It was a wild scene on the streets – have you ever seen cocktail bars on carts before?

Next morning we headed off on a long 90 minute tuk tuk journey to Banteay Srei – the hidden jewel of Angkor and the man of the match in our opinion. Interestingly it was not built by a king but by one of the officials. We were simply blown away by the intricate sand stone carvings.

Lovely folk music at the exit by some landmine victims:

We headed to the nearby Landmine museum founded by the Khmer man Aki Ra, who has dedicated it to thousands who were affected and continue to be affected by the dormant landmines laid out / air-dropped during Vietnam war. We were heartbroken to learn that USA dropped 300,000 tons of bombs secretly (without the senate approval!) on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia, killing half a million people (during the Vietnam War). Example of stupid things powerful nations can do to smaller ones. The museum gave as an insight into how children like Aki Ra were recruited by the Khmer Rouge in the days following the US bombings, how many of them fought on different sides with no understanding of what was happening around them. It all is very complex and we still could not fully comprehend how the Khmer Rouge came to power.

We were not expecting much from our next stop Banteay Samre but the isolated temple with its architecture, won us over.

The lovely Cambodian curries at at the pre-researched vegetarian restaurant Chamkar obviously resulted in a lot of brownie points for me.

We kicked off our last day with the atmospheric Ta Prohm Buddhist temple set amidst a jungle with roots of ancient trees making their way through the temple structure in many places. It has been immortalized by the Angelia Jolie starrer Lara Croft: Tomb raider. Completely different from the more organized and structured Angkor Wat: Ta Prohm is wild, unstructured, uninhibited and we loved it. Of special proud mention is the ASI’s (Archaeological Socieny of India) involvement in the temple’s restoration.

Our last temple of the day was the beautiful Preah Khan. The lesser the crowd, the better the ruins !

Our last stop was the War Museum at Siem Reap which was made really interesting by the guide who was an actual war veteran. He showed us ball bearings still embedded in his body from the war and landmine days ! It was here in a clear chronology of events that we understood how the Khmer Rouge came to power in the years following the 1970 US-backed coup to overthrow prime minister Norodom Sihanouk, (the last in line of the Angkor kings, who had campaigned for freedom from French colonial rule and abdicated his throne after independence) with a stated neutral stance but a slightly left inclination.

Our Angkor adventure had come to an end it was time to move to the capital city Phnom Penh to better understand the horrors of Khmer Rogue. A very comfortable Giant Ibis us whisked us to PP in 6 hours. I made full use of my time and mobile data to finish the Thailand blog. Time management !

The stylish Blue Corner Boutique hotel turned out to be one of the best of the whole world trip.

After a satisfying dinner at the nearby Indian Veg restaurant run by a Mumbaikar, we got lost on the way back to the hotel but google maps once again came to the rescue. It is amazing how much of a leveler technology is – countless times on this trip we have corrected taxi drivers and given them directions on their home ground much to their annoyance !

On a day that the world was celebrating valentine’s day, we visited its anti-thesis in the form of Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and were moved to tears.

The Cambodian civil war in 1975 was won by the communist Khmer Rouge – an organization with the flawed and demented vision of turning Cambodia into a giant agrarian society in which there was no place for education, religion, sports, entertainment and intellectuals. They were led by Pol Pot – the deranged leader who was inspired by Maoist ideas during his education in Paris. The genocide that he inflicted on his own people (2 million out of 8 million total population were executed) in the name of social re-engineering is a chilling example of how countries can be doomed under mad, unbalanced, one-sided leadership. The recruits were poor 15 year olds from the countryside who had no idea what they were fighting for. The population was divided into “new folks” (city dwellers) – the bad guys and “old folks” (village dwellers) – the good guys. If you belonged to the former category, you were doomed. All cities including the capital Phnom Penh were evacuated within 3 days and everyone was forced to the countryside where they had to work in fields for 12-15 hours a day under inhuman conditions. Factories, schools, transport, religious structures, offices, stadiums – were considered “evil” and destroyed. Educated folks (doctors, engineers, musicians, lawyers.. you name it) were brought to torture centers like this, imprisoned, interrogated, forced into false admissions and then executed. If you wore glasses – a visible sign of “urban excess” – you were automatically doomed ! Crazy stuff. 20,000 prisoners died here alone at this school-turned-prison and when KR run out of graves , prisoners were sent to the killing fields. It all sounds too horrifying to describe and we were moved to tears constantly.

This is the main building where prisoners were kept.

A typical bed with shackles in an “interrogation” room:

Decomposed body of a prisoner:

Translated from Khmer, these chilling regulations need to explanation:

This is Pol Pot – the mad leader who ordered it all. After the fall of Khmer Rouge he fled to Thai border and died 20 years later. He was never captured or brought to trial :

These are class rooms hastily turned into prison cells:

Mika’s cute message on the message board:

Inside of a solitary cell:

Some of the inhuman torture methods:

Memorial with names of all who died here:

What left us stunned was the fact that a bunch of Swedes who were a part of neutral international assessment team, kept supporting Khmer Rouge; garnered international funds for them and ended up influencing the western voices who would not believe that the genocide had indeed been committed, after it was unearthed in 1979. Khmer kept its seat in UN for a full 10 years and the trial only started 20 full years after the atrocities were committed. Pol Pot was never put to trial. All the influential nations – US, France, UK etc were completely fooled and did nothing to bring justice to Cambodians. They chose to believe the stage-managed glimpses of the country organised by Pol Pot rather than the harrowing tales of refugees who had managed to escape. Crazy stuff that shook us to the core !!

We came away very disturbed and headed to Empire cinema/restaurant to watch the award-winning movie “Killing fields” to go in depth into the genocide. Another Indian dinner rounded up a highly emotional and disturbing day.

The next morning we visited the Choeung Ek killing fields – part 2 of the genocide, containing mass graves of Cambodians, about 17 kms south of the city. To take us there we had booked the services of Huot based on great reviews on TripAdvisor. Found him to be a genuinely warm and extremely sharp person with whom we could discuss a whole lot of things, the political situation, the state of education, mindsets of the people, etc. We learnt so much !

When Khmer Rouge ran out of burial spaces in the torture centers  (like the one we visited yesterday) it devised an evil plan to kill people en-mass in these killing fields. Prisoners were brought here in the dark of the night by trucks, hacked to death and thrown in a mass graves. Bullets were expensive, so metal tools were used to kill. Babies were killed by smashing their heads against trees ! By morning, pits would be covered. All of this sounds too horrible to be true ! Remember there were 300 killing fields like this – we only visited the main one.

All the skulls that were discovered at this site are now kept together in a memorial:

The graves will shock you:

The memorial for the victims combines “Garudas” and “Nagas”, traditional enemies, to symbolise their coming together for peace:

What did we learn? It takes only one demented leader to screw a country for generations. If people are educated, their chances of being brain washed by extremist ideologies, can be reduced. Even that is easier said than done, as demonstrated in Germany. What of other countries who watch in silence ? They are equally responsible. If the world community stood up in these moments of horror and took prompt action, these genocides would never occur.

Since we were so happy to have chatted with Huot and found him a genuine Cambodian, we engaged his services again the next morning to drop us to the airport. On the drive we learnt this wonderful man who is very fortunate to have survived the Khmer Rouge years, (separated from his parents as a toddler and then fortunately reunited) manages an orphanage for children impacted by landmines.

Our driver Huot helped us get an insight into Cambodian life

In summary, we were amazed to note the resilience of the Khmer people. How they have rebounded from their trauma, buried their hatred for direct and indirect perpetrators and rebuilt the country from scratch in the last 30 years is an example for the world on how to overcome adversity and move on. Cambodia – you are our favorite destination of our entire trip and will remain etched in our hearts for ever. Love and good bye.

Sawadee-Ka : An Unforgettable 3 weeks in Thailand

It’s January 2017 and as Meha, Mika & I look back, it’s been an incredible nine months since we embarked on our audacious goal of traveling the world for a full year as a family. Even we are (positively) shocked at the ground we have covered so far – Egypt, North America, South America, UK, Africa, Australia and parts of India. Reminds us of the old adage – there is nothing called perfect timing; do when you feel like it ! Anyway, we took a well deserved break at my parents’ place at Muzaffarpur for a couple of weeks after our marathon one-month Australian trip (November 2016) and then headed off to Imphal for my 30 year school(RKMV Deoghar) reunion. The demonetization bomb hit India while we were in Australia which in hindsight was a good thing – away from all the madness ! It is instructive to note that after landing in Bihar, almost everyone from the underprivileged class I spoke to were in favor of Modi’s bombshell initiative:”Happy the corrupt are getting caught with their stashed cash, we have nothing to hide anyway”!

The reunion brought out the child within all of us with the realization that there is no substitute to school and college friends. Since we stayed in hostel for 7 long years, our bonding was very strong with an endless array of stories to share! And it was fun playing football after 30 years ! In a nutshell, we had a blast.

After Imphal, we were supposed to head off to Kaziranga in search of the one-horned Rhino but an unforeseen development forced an unscheduled stop at Bangalore. Mika’s passport-sleeve tore in Australia and it needed urgent replacement necessitating a trip to the passport office. Given the renewed efficiency of Indian passport office (the best of all GOI systems), it turned out be anti-climax and we had the passport back within 5 days ! A great stay with old pals Tanu and Sam was wonderful but the real blessing in disguise was the advance search (we saw around 10 villas) and eventual finalization of our rented house when we get back in March. 173 Phase 2 Palm Meadows awaits us from 7th March 2017 – what a comforting feeling to have found a home to go back to from day One of return! Satisfied, we headed off to Chennai to spend time with Meha’s parents and for the first time since our wedding celebrated Pongal with them.

18th January arrived and we headed off to South East Asia with eager anticipation. I would lie if I said we were not thrilled to realize how close home coming was; so admittedly it was difficult to maintain a high level of travel intensity in the last leg. However, we were determined to make the most of last 2 months of travel. We landed in Bangkok in the wee hours of 19th January and managed to dodge the infamous Bangkok traffic. The home-like ambience of Admiral suites at Sukhumvit Soi 22 was truly comforting. Lounging around the whole day in the hotel, we headed off in the evening to MBK for shopping. The chinese new year at Emporium mall was in full swing.

Going berserk at MBK, we must have bought the whole market and ended day 1 with a sense of satisfaction but not before trying the Thai Iced tea at the mall.

The next morning we headed off to Ayutthaya to explore the “finest city in the world in 1700’s” as proclaimed by European merchants. It was the second capital of Thailand after Sukhothai for over four centuries (1350-1767) with over 1 million inhabitants before being razed to the ground by the rampaging Burmese Army. Today it is a UNESCO World heritage site with some truly outstanding temples.

Hopes of making a 15-baht train journey from Bangkok’s Hua Lumpong station were immediately dashed as we had to cough 345-bahts per person for the first class journey as the train was a long-distance one 🙁

The clean Ayutthaya station immediately made us feel jealous.

The tuktuk-mafia at the Ayutthaya station had not bargained for a well-research tourist and we were on our way for a 3-hour package at a reasonable price.

First up was the highly photogenic Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon built in 1357 to house the monks returning from Sri Lanka.

Next up was Wat Phanan Choeng with a 19-m high Buddha created in 1324, surrounded by 84000 small buddha images.

It was really getting hot and we reached the big daddy- Wat Mahathat. It is here that Ayutthaya’s most enduring image is : the Buddha head entwined within the roots of a bodhi tree.

We learnt the shapes of various Chedis (stupas) & Prangs (towers) from different kingdoms and timelines. Chedi is a conical structure whereas prangs are corncob-like tower structures. Here is the Khmer-style prang, with visibly gradual tapering.

A great example of Khmer-style prang:

The holiest temple Wat Phra Si Sanphet has the Sinhalese-style Bell-shaped Chedis:

At our last stop Wat Chai Wattanaram, we can see that the Ayutthaya style prang has a sharply tapering corncob tower structure in contrast to the Khmer-style prang (gradual cone) in the background:

It was burning hot and we dashed back to Ayutthaya station to board the 3rd class 15-baht (yippee!) train back to Bangkok. Foot-massage at the Lek@22 (close to our hotel) was the best recipe to soothen our tired feet.

Now we are getting hypnotized by Bangkok’s cheap shopping and head the next morning to the famed Chatuchak market. A couple of hours of frenzied shopping followed, followed by REALLY-big Thai coconuts.

We woke up the next morning weary-eyed at 4:30 am for a 5:30 am taxi to the Hua Lumpong train station from where we plan to board the tourist-special Death Railway train to Kanchanaburi at 6:30 am. We had not bargained for the nasty surprise that awaited us at the station. “Train fully booked sir”, said the attendant at the counter of the highly-organized Bangkok station and our hearts sank; but not before we took the customary selfie. By now we have perfected the art of smiling to the camera in the toughest of situations !

Thankfully we were ready with our plan B having researched the night before and we took off by taxi to Thonburi station (alternative station in Bangkok) from where a 7:50 am local leaves for Kanchanaburi.

With nothing to do, we click some interesting shots of daily life surrounding the station.

We are not alone in the 1oo-baht 3rd class carriage. Giving company are all other tourists who missed the 6:30 am. By the way Thai class is very comfortable with cushioned seats !

Its a 3 hour loooong journey. We marvel at the cleanliness of some of the intermediate stops.

Finally Kanchanaburi arrives around 11 am and we happily alight. A quick primer on Thai-Burmese Death railway: During WWII, emperor of Japan had macabre ambitions to conquer all of Asia including West Asia & India. They needed a railway supply route from Thailand to Burma to support this misadventure. 180,000 Asian labourers (mostly Javanese,  Malay Tamils, Chinese, Burmese, Thai etc) and 60,000 Allied Forces’ prisoners of war (British, Australians, Dutch & Americans) were used in this infamous construction under inhuman conditions. The incident has been immortalized in the 1957 David Lean movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”. A bit of trivia – the film that made this bridge world famous was actually shot in Sri Lanka.

As our train departs, we get the first glimpse of the picturesque River Kwai bridge.

We walk on the bridge and the peaceful atmosphere totally betrays the monstrous conditions that existed just a few decades back.

We walk to other end of the bridge where River Kwai station is situated from where we turn back.

We head off to a vegetarian restaurant followed by visit to a nicely-curated private museum which gave us a great historical perspective of the Death Railway.

We also visited the war graves of the Allied Forces PoW who had succumbed to the inhuman conditions and learnt that there were none for Americans since they had taken all their dead back home. We were disappointed to see that the loss of Asian labourers’ lives had very little mention though they were the major casualties accounting for 82.5% of all the lives lost. Lesson: you have to become a developed country otherwise no one cares for you. Good going Modi, hopefully the fickle-minded Indians will give you 20 years to transform our rickety, corrupt, poverty-stricken nation with apology of an infrastructure.

It’s time to take the 3 pm train back to Bangkok. It takes another 2 hours to get back from station to the hotel – the dreaded Bangkok traffic! We crash after a very long and tiring day. Every hotel we have come back to in this trip has reminded us of what the comfort of “home” really means.

Our last day in Bangkok is reserved for 2 iconic landmarks : Wat Pho and Wat Arun.

It’s time now to switch gears and head to one of Thailand’s famed national parks : Khao yai. We look forward to being amidst nature and wildlife – away from the urban madness of Bangkok. The homely atmosphere of Greenleaf Guethouse immediately puts us at ease. We have also signed up for a half-day tour of the park today followed tomorrow by the more intense full day one.

A tiring but satisfying one-and-a-half days yield sightings of bats streaming out of a cave by the thousands at sunset, wild elephants, three different types of hornbills, enormous spiders, banded kingfishers, a rat snake, colorful cicadas, centipedes and tiny bats in a cave, monkeys, huge rainforest trees and some amazing mushrooms.

Our next destination Sukhothai is in Central Thailand – a long 6 hour taxi ride. We marvel at the lovely roads and the comfortable journey while constantly debating when India will reach middle-income country status. Half my time I have been hallucinating on this trip about becoming India’s prime minister and transforming the nation. Sigh !

A quick primer on Sukhothai: founded by King Ramkhamhaeng, it was the capital of Thailand for around 120 years in the 13th century. Sukhothai literally means “Dawn of happiness” and as we check into our resort followed by visits to the ruins of two historic parks, we can see why. Blissfully peaceful, we immediately fall in love with the place and it becomes our favorite Thai destination of this trip !

We head off the next morning to the first set of ruins – Si Satchanalai Historic park. We loved the calm and rugged surroundings in which different monuments lie in their natural state.

But Sukhothai’s real jewel in the crown is the “Sukhothai Historical Park” which is best explored by cycle. We visited the north zone in the evening.

A delicious Thai meal rounded off the day’s proceedings nicely.

The best (central zone ruins) was reserved for the last morning – it was magically spiritual – cycling in the blissful and fresh atmosphere of early morning sun. We truly have fallen in love with Sukhothai and have decided we will come back and meditate here every few years.

Bursting with spiritual energy, we board our bus to Chiang Mai from New Sukhothai bus stand. It turns out that it was a big mistake taking the Esan tour bus in quest of 1st class seats and on-board toilet even though all search had pointed to Wintour bus being the best. In the end, the 1st class seats were ordinary, the toilet sucked and we were 2 hours late ! Anyway, GrabTaxi (like Uber) worked like a charm at the Chiang Mai bus terminal and when the Park Hotel upgraded us to corner suite including Godiva chocolates, our day was made !

It was laundry time the next morning. We have been really impressed by $1/kg (INR 68) laundries all over south-east asia. Really helps to keep your budget under control, not to speak of the royal feeling of someone else literally washing your dirty underwear !

Today was super sports sunday with 2 huge events – Australian Open Men’s final with our favorite Fed-Ex playing, followed by India-England T20 cricket. A quick google search led us to nearby Downunder sports pub run by a very affable Aussie. We joined the festivities and were elated with the Roger win in a cliffhanger. We made a deal with the owner to keep our seats reserved when we returned for the cricket game after a quick walk through Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. When we returned, we were the only ones in the pub and the owner obliged by tuning his TV to some pirated internet cricket site. The flickering non-HD pictures and lack of English fans to tease meant we lost interest and took the 50-baht GrabTaxi back to the hotel. End of a very satisfying day!

Next day was spent visiting the spectacular Wats of Chiang Mai – Wat Phra Singh, Phra Luang & the grand daddy Wat Doi Suthep.

We are here in Chiang Mai mainly for nostalgic reasons. During our last trip 10 years back, we took little Mika to the Elephant Nature Park – the rescue center for tortured elephants where humans can repent and interact with these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. 31st January 2017 has been earmarked for our return visit so that teenage Mika can relive her precious childhood memories. Even though the camp has become something of a Disneyland swarming with tourists, their philosophy has remained intact so we had loads of fun.

A very early start the next morning takes us to Doi Inthanon National Park for some bird watching. Average day out with limited photographic closeups.

Last morning in Chiang Mai, Mika had a blast at the 3D Art Museum.

We signed off Chiang Mai with another great vegetarian lunch in an alley next to the museum.

Now we need a break from our hectic travel and what better way than fly to Krabi, one of Thailand’s famed beaches. We spent some time in Ao Nang beach at the great-value Real Relax resort, and did day trips to Railay/Phrang Nang cave beaches & Phi Phi Island. Phrang Nang  was simply paradise. Our 20th anniversary nicely fitted in between and we changed resorts to relax a bit more. The special day was spent doing nothing, lounging around, eating strepsils (for my cold) and in general wondering where did those 20 years go !

Thanks for reading this monstrous blog. If you made it this far, you truly love us ! It’s time to fly to Cambodia tomorrow to explore its ancient ruins as well the cruelty inflicted by Khmer Rogue. Keep reading www.manysharpbends.com and see you in Cambodia.