CURRENT LOCATION: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We managed another uneventful bus ride from Sihanoukville back to Phnom Penh, and arrived at our hotel. Holy crap, this place was amazing. We were greeted with cool towels to wipe our hands and faces, and a complimentary glass of iced tea. They arranged our Vietnamese visas for us, no hassle at all. We were then shown to our room. It was beautiful, and it had a rain plate shower. Given the state of the showers in Sihanoukville, I nearly wept. While Zev had a shower, I sneakily ordered some room service - I was getting right into this whole hotel thing!! Then I enjoyed one of the best showers of my life. We had an early night, enjoying the comfortable bed, air conditioning, cable TV, and complete and utter lack of Barry White.
We decided on an early start the next morning, and after a delicious hotel breakfast (included in the price of our stay), we hit he streets to walk to The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Having seen the Royal Palace in Bangkok, this was a bit of a let down, but was still a nice way to fill in a morning.
During some of our time in Sihanoukville, and our time in Phnom Penh, the World Championships of Beach Ultimate were being held in Dubai, and a number of our friends were attending. That afternoon, we decided to head home to watch the live streams of the finals. We didn't know anyone playing in any of the finals, but it was still fun to watch!
That night, we went to the night markets for an awesome and super cheap dinner with the locals.
The next day was pretty heavy. We had another early start, and went to the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, and Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison. Let me say from the start that I am so impressed with the way these two sites have been managed, and the way in which they've made them into historical sites for both Khmers and Westerners, without turning them into tacky, tasteless tourist traps.
We started with the longest tuk tuk ride ever, down the worst road in history. Upon pulling up at the entrance, you are greeted by the site of an enormous stupa, which is the last stop on the self guided tour. We bought our tickets, and collected our audio tours. The set up is brilliant. A large portion of the site remains untouched since they exhumed the mass graves in the late 80s and early 90s. The audio tour guides you around the whole site. Where the original buildings no longer exist, signs replace them, explaining what was there, and why it's not there anymore. The entire back half of the site is exhumed mass graves.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Cheoung Ek, it was an orchard, and the site of a Chinese graveyard. During the Khmer Rouge period, it became an execution and mass grave site for those who were seen as enemies, many of whom were from the nearby S-21 prison. It was considered wasteful to use bullets to kill prisoners, so most were bludgeoned to death using farming equipment before being thrown into the graves. Of course not all died from the bludgeoning, so after they were all in the grave, DDT was sprinkled in to kill those still alive, help decomposition of the corpses, and mask the smell. It is estimated that 9000 people were killed at Cheoung Ek between 1975-1979. The largest mass grave exhumed contained 450 bodies. One grave contained exclusively bodies of women and children. This grave was next to a tree, where the babies were killed by swinging them against it.
The tour finishes up at the stupa, which now houses the exhumed remains. It is incredibly moving.
The whole site is haunting, and heartbreaking. You can still see bones and clothing coming to the surface as the rains and erosion wash away the soil. That said, it was amazing that the Cambodian government chose to transform this site into a memorial for those that lost their lives, and as a reminder and a warning for future generations.
Next up on our light hearted day was a trip to Tuol Sleng S-21 prison. This former high school was transformed into a secret prison. Over 20,000 political prisoners entered S-21, and only 12 made it out alive. The site has been left largely as it was found in 1979. Some rooms contain a photo of the room as it was found, and contains the original furniture. The photographs are incredibly graphic and harrowing. Some rooms contain hundreds of photographs of the men, women and children who passed through the prison. Some rooms still have blood on the floor, or on the roof.
Parts of the exhibitions at both sites contained information about the Khmer Rouge leaders and the status of their trials. One leader, known as Duch, ran S-21, and headed the branch of the Khmer Rouge in charge of internal security and running prison camps. He was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity in 2010, and is the only leader to admit any guilt in relation to the regime. He admitted to being responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands of Khmers, and states that he prays daily for the victims of the Khmer Rouge and their families.
Four other officials were brought to trial for their war crimes. Ieng Sary died in March 2013, before his trial was completed, and his wife, Ieng Thirith was determined unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer's disease, and was released in 2012.
Nuon Chea was considered the right hand man to Pol Pot, but claimed no knowledge of what the government was doing during the genocide. He was sentenced to life in prison in August 2014.
Khieu Samphan was Head of State, and succeeded Pol Pot as head of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He was also sentenced to life in prison in August 2014.
Pol Pot died in 1998. On the night he died, Voice of America (which Pol Pot listened to religiously) broadcast an announcement that the Khmer Rouge agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal. According to his wife, he died in bed later that night. While it was ruled heart failure, the body was cremated before the government could examine the body, fuelling rumours that he committed suicide. He was aged 72.
This was a bit of a tough day for us. It's so hard to wrap your head around what it would be like to be one of these people, on either side of the conflict. I was going to write something here about the discussions we had in the following days, but actually, I think you guys should do some research, or think about it and have your own conversations. The whole thing is pretty overwhelming. I actually get pretty tired thinking about it. We finished up for the day at about 2pm, and I had to go home and have a nap.
We had a super lazy day the next day, catching up with home via FaceTime, organising bus tickets to Vietnam and accommodation in Ho Chi Minh, and lazing by the pool.
Our last day in Phnom Penh was amazing. We read about a rescue centre for confiscated animals just outside of Phnom Penh called Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary. We have been very careful about anything involving animals in South East Asia, to the point where we haven't done anything involving animals, just in case they're being exploited. Reviews for the centre itself were mixed, but we found a tour company that works with the park to do behind the scenes tours. Sadly we received an email the day before the tour saying that their most popular and friendly elephant, Lucky, was unwell, and wouldn't be able to take part in her walk around the park, or paint tee shirts for each of the tour guests as she usually would. Of course we were disappointed, but we're pleased to report that Lucky is doing better, and should be out of the woods (so to speak).
We were picked up from a petrol station and driven out to the park with our group of 7 (including us). We had two Khmer guides, and one Canadian guide. We stopped to pick up some fruit for the animals, and headed on to the park.
Background: the park is government owned, and is home to animals that have been confiscated during raids from animal traders or at borders, or rescued from traps, poachers, or people's homes. Cambodia is one of the only countries in South East Asia with laws against owning wild animals, which are actually enforced. Where possible, they try to rehabilitate and release, although they aren't always able to do this. If release isn't possible, they try to create breeding pairs among the rescued animals, and release the babies into the wild to regenerate wild populations.
We started with the elephants. The first one we met was an 8 year old boy who had lost his front left foot in a snare trap when he was young. We got to watch the keepers change his prosthetic leg, which was amazing. They use entirely positive reinforcement, with food and clicker based training. If he doesn't want to do it, he doesn't have to.
Next, we met two of his buddies, a male and female. We got to feed them bananas and coconuts, which was pretty awesome. The male had been shot in the leg by farmers because he was stealing their crops, and the female had battery acid thrown on her for stealing sugar cane. They explained at various points throughout the day that they work with school groups and local schools to educate people about animals and how to treat them. In this instance, they pointed out that before the elephants started stealing crops, the locals had been feeding them - of course they didn't know the difference between what was being given to them and what wasn't. All of the elephants they have on site are unable to be released, as they would just return to where they were found, and probably end up being killed by the farmers.
Next up, we got to hang out in the back of the tiger enclosure, and see them up close and personal (separated by bars of course. There is no situation in which you can pat an adult tiger where the tiger isn't being exploited. I don't care if the man with the tiger tells you he is a monk and has a spiritual connection with the tiger. He's not, and he doesn't. For it to be safe enough to bring in tourists, the tigers are usually de-teethed, de-clawed, and/or drugged. Just ask Sigfried and Roy.). These particular guys were unable to be released as they were hybrids of two sub-species of tiger that wouldn't occur in the wild, and as such have a few genetic quirks that would make life difficult (dodgy hips, small and skinny build etc etc).
From the tigers, we made our way to the gibbons, to meet a lovely friendly little lady who loved back scratches. She was rescued from someone's back yard, where they had kept her as a pet. She had been chained up and ignored when she became too much effort, and they think she was badly abused. She is terrified of Khmer men, and apparently exhibits stress behaviours which make it impossible for her to be released.
Then we met the bears, both sun and moon. One was called Ralph, which I think is a great name for a bear. All of the bears were rescued from hotels, or poachers who were selling them either to make bear paw soup (they keep the bear alive until all four paws are used), or to bear bile farms (they insert a catheter into the bear's gall bladder to drain off bile constantly, which is used in traditional "medicine").
After a quick trip to see seven massive pythons, we stopped for a delicious lunch of fried rice and coconuts. Around the lunch spots were huge aviaries, containing various birds of prey, including owls. Owls are amazing. They are huge, and super fluffy, and I love them. They also had heaps of mynah birds, which are popular pets because they are excellent mimics. These guys were so cool - one clearly had an Aussie keeper because he kept saying "g'day mate"!!
We detoured to the otters before heading into the back of the leopard enclosure (again, separated by bars). This was amazing. The female leopard hung out with us for quite a while, as one of our guides had been her keeper for a number of years, and she wanted pats. She was just like a big house cat, rubbing her face up against the bars. The guide pointed out that with most other big cats, if a keeper gets attacked they can usually say, "Oh, I should have known, the cat was acting weird", or that they'd done something to trigger the attack, like startle it, but with leopards, they're completely unpredictable.
Next stop on the tour was the nursery, where sick, injured, and baby animals are brought to be cared for. We met a couple of baby monkeys, some confiscated chameleons and iguanas, some jungle goat-antelope things, and the cutest cat thing ever (I can't remember what it was called, but if you cross it with a house cat, you get a Bengal). It hissed at everyone and I loved it. We also met a hairy nosed otter, which is the only one in captivity in the world. Until recently, they were thought to be extinct - there had been no evidence of any in the wild for 15 years. While at a school doing a talk one day, one of the guides must have hit a nerve with one of the kids. At lunchtime, he went home, and returned with a hairy nosed otter! He didn't know you weren't supposed to keep them as pets.
We also got to see bear-cats, or binturong, which are known for smelling like buttered popcorn. We can confirm that this is the case.
The last stop of the day was to play with some baby monkeys. They laid out some ground rules: no eye contact, don't show your teeth, remove anything they can take off you, like sunglasses etc. They explained that there was a 2.5 year old boy who was the 'alpha', but they would manage him. We'd been in there 2 minutes when he ripped off a woman's glasses and scratched her face. Yikes. I love monkeys, but am pretty scared of them (after several monkey 'incidents' for both me and Zev). So I was scared shitless. This guy was pretty big for a 'baby' monkey, and basically spent the entire time leaping between all of our shoulders and heads, terrorising all the other monkeys, and terrifying me. Don't get me wrong, it was awesome, but I wouldn't rush back in there as long as that jerk is in there.
And so ended our tour of the wildlife centre. The reviews of the centre (not the tour) on TripAdvisor are pretty average - the enclosures are pretty basic, and lots of the animals look pretty miserable. They pace, scream, and scratch themselves. If it weren't for the tour, it would have been pretty heartbreaking. If you went there expecting San Diego Zoo, you would have been shocked. What I loved was seeing the keepers working with the animals, and seeing how much the animals love them, and oh boy do they. They run up to them when they see them coming, and hang around where they're sitting, waiting for pats, or for the keepers to talk to them. The guides explained that the park runs on next to no money for the government and admission fees - almost all of their revenue comes from the tours. Would they like to build San Diego Zoo? Of course! But they're working with what they've got. Many of the stress behaviours that the animals exhibit result from their mistreatment before coming to the park. These animals are cared for and loved by the staff. One focus of the staff their at the moment is to work on the signage, both as an education tool for locals, and explain to tourists and foreigners why the park is the way it is. They're also working on upgrading the park, which was in a pretty sorry state when they took over. It was heartbreaking, but amazing to see the work both locals and foreigners are doing to protect the wildlife of South East Asia.
The next day was a doozy. We booked a direct bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And it went smoothly!! The bus drivers were great, and managed our border crossing with ease. As soon as we crossed the border, the scenery changed completely. Vietnam was as green as Cambodia was brown. Driving in to Ho Chi Minh was insane. I have never seen so many motorbikes and scooters in my life. We pulled up to the bus stop and grabbed our bags. And then we met the shit bag taxi driver from hell.
This is where I tell you that, other than the fact that the guy was a total slime ball, most of this was our fault. We had no Vietnamese currency when we arrived, so we thought we'd go to an ATM, then get in a cab after we had some local cash. But this guy offered to drive us to an ATM near our hotel. We both sort of knew that getting in a cab at an international bus stop with a guy who knew we didn't have any cash, and didn't know what the local currency looked like probably wasn't a great idea. But alas, we ignored the alarm bells and hopped in. Zev pointed out later, but I didn't notice, he didn't even have a sign on the roof - just magnets on the door. Yeesh, we are suckers. We used the last of the data in Zev's phone to look up the address of our accommodation, and see how far away it was using google maps. It was about 2 kms away, so we figured it would be a cheap cab ride. Sigh. Soon enough, I had the feeling we were being driven the long way around. We stopped at an ATM. We carried on. We finally made it to the street the hotel was on, while Zev and I had an in depth discussion about how the 2km taxi ride from the bus station to the hotel cost us more than our bus ride from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. At that point, the driver asked to see the address, so we showed him on Zev's phone. He realised he'd passed it, so did a u turn into oncoming traffic, and nearly killed some motorcyclists. Finally we stopped outside our accommodation. Zev gave him the money for the cab, and the driver gave him his change. About a quarter of it. Zev pointed out there should be more. He laughed and said,"Oh you're right, sorry!", and gave him some more. So now we had about half our change. "There should be more." More laughter, more cash. "Please can we have all of our change." More laughter, the rest of our change. Relieved the ordeal was over, we chalked it up to experience and headed in to check in. The hotel owner asked to see the voucher for check in, so Zev went to grab his phone to show him the email. Except the cab driver still had the phone. GAH!!!
So not the best welcome to Vietnam. We were both pretty livid, and bummed for the rest of the day. Neither of us cared about the phone, that wasn't the issue. We were annoyed that we knew we were getting scammed, but still got scammed, we were worried it would sour our impression of Ho Chi Minh City, and dammit, it just wasn't fair. We don't rip people off, we're nice people! But hey, if losing a cellphone is the worst thing that happens on this trip, we've done well. We went out for dinner, and ended up being fought over by two beer promo girls who poured our beer in bowls and kept giving us ice, while the people around us ordered all of the fish we named in the fish tank. We also sat on children's furniture. So the day improved.
Now, I apologise for the state of this post. I loathe typing on my iPad, and the fact that every time I type 'this', it changes it to 'his', it changes 'the' to 'he', 'that' to 'hat'... It has taken me three days to type this. I apologise for typos and grammatical errors!
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 20th March 2015)