This is a personal site. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Bus trip

Yes, I am a geek. Yes, I took some video footage from a bus trip. Yes. I used MoviePlus to edit it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


To continue with the cheery theme of my most recent blog entry, I thought I’d follow The Killing Fields with an entry on landmines and unexploded ordinance.

Hopefully I wont put people off reading, but I very much want this blog to be more than just a day by day account of my life in Cambodia – I’d like it to provide a bit of context and background as well, so that you understand more why I am here and the work that VSO are doing.

Arguably, one of the most pivotal points in Cambodia’s development was when Princess Diana started raising public awareness by visiting countries effected by landmines. This is not to suggest that the Khmer Rouge was not a major part of Cambodian history, but to recognize the fact that it was this media attention that put the issue of landmines on the world map and finally brought them into focus.

In accordance with my trusty Lonely Planet and informed by a seminar we attended in Phnom Penh, my grasp of the landmine situation is Cambodia is this: Landmines were not a big issue in Cambodia until the mid-1980s and the Vietnam War. It was then that the Vietnamese laid the 700km long K-5 landmine belt along the Thai/Cambodian boarder. After the Vietnamese withdrew, more landmines were planted by the Khmer government to make boarder crossings and supply routes inaccessible – mines were also planted by the Khmer Rouge to protect areas of land that they had taken. Sadly, in the 1980s the British sent the SAS to the Malaysian jungle to train guerilla fighters in landmine laying techniques – skills that were to be later adapted by the Khmer Rouge.

Anyway, the long and short of the situation is that today Cambodia has the world’s largest number of amputees per capita of any country, and correspondingly one of the world’s biggest landmine problems. An average of 30 people are victim to landmines every month (an improvement on the 300 people in the 1990s). And if it isn’t the landmines, it’s the unexploded ordinance bombs - particularly plague to Eastern Cambodia.

Fortunately, Cambodia is awash with groups dedicated to promoting landmine awareness and clearing mined areas, the main ones being:
CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) -
HALO Trust –
MAG (Mines Advisory Group) –

What I think bothers me most about landmines is the level of intent behind them. They serve no purpose other than to maim or kill people. They are designed to harm, and unfortunately it is often children who will pick one up, simply not understanding what it is that they have found. In fact, some landmines are even specifically designed to look like children's toys. I heard a story about three children playing in a pond in a remote district of my own province. One found a landmine and threw it to the other two to catch. I’ll leave you to imagine what happened next.

Worryingly, Banteay Meanchey is one of the most heavily mined provinces in Cambodia – and I find that when I start thinking about it I suddenly have all sorts of images in my head that I really don’t want to be having. But I have not written this entry to scare people, least of myself, my parents or my boyfriend. Yes, landmines are a reality and are something that people need to be aware of. But at the same time, landmines are continuously being cleared and are now only found in remote areas of countryside.

To put people’s minds at rest, the chances of my actually encountering a landmine are tiny – Sisophon is a well developed town and the towns are clear, paths to schools are clear, and I wont be needing (or wanting) to walk over any uninhabited countryside. And I really don’t want you to get the wrong impression – Cambodia really is a wonderful place and I am very happy here and feel perfectly safe.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Killing Fields

The text on the board reads: Magic Tree... The tree was used as a tool to hang a loud speaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.
There seems to be something of a sweepstake in Cambodia as to how long you can go without mentioning Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge, and having just recently visited the Killing Fields - my lot is up.

Say the word ‘Cambodia’ and you hear the word ‘Genocide’, and that would be about right. For over 20 years Cambodia has been at the brunt of civil war, the Vietnamese war and the Pol Pot regime. Did you know that during the Vietnamese war the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia and neighbouring Lao than were dropped on Germany during World War II? Cambodia is also home to the world’s largest landmine belt, K-5 which stretches all the way from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao boarder. And this is before we begin to even think about what happened during the years of the Khmer Rouge.

The goal of the Khmer Rouge (to give a brief history lesson) was to create an entirely self-sufficient and independent Cambodia that focused 100% on farming and the production of crops. In order to do this, Pol Pot ordered the immediate evacuation of all towns and cities. Within hours of his being in power, Phnom Penh was emptied and its citizens forced to walk miles into the provincial towns and work as slaves. But it didn’t stop there. As part of a cleansing ritual Pol Pot ordered the death of hundreds of thousands of Khmer – many of whom were tortured within the confines of S-21, an old school come prison that has since been preserved as a memorial museum. Look up, and you can still see blood stains on the ceiling and shackles on the floor. Bullets apparently, were too expensive.

Throughout Cambodia all trained intellectuals were killed, and as the regime gathered momentum this grew to include people that wore glasses, people whose names were too long and, of course, anyone that dared to question Pol Pot’s army. Indirectly, others died of exhaustion, starvation and disease.

The Khmer Rouge ruled for a total of three years, eight months and twenty days, between the years of 1975-1979. No-one has yet to put a figure on the exact number killed, but to give an idea – the Killing Fields of Choeung-Ek commemorate almost 9000 counted people. Only 43 of the 129 mass graves here have been exhumed, and the Killing Fields of Choeng-Ek are one of hundreds of sites found all over Cambodia.

It is difficult to describe the effect this knowledge has on you. Especially as you walk round the site of Choeng-Ek, which incidentally has been privatized so that a Japanese company can make some cash out of Cambodia’s tragedy. Choeng-Ek is very much a memorial garden, with the central focus being the Memorial Stupa which displays some 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age. There are also several other ‘points of interest’ – I wont go into too much detail, but I think the photo at the opening of this entry sums it up quite well. I felt quite awkward taking photos and only took two – I wanted to give an idea of what the Killing Fields were like, without being a tourist about it.

It is startling to think that every person in Cambodia over the age of 30 has a memory of the Khmer Rouge years. Many worked as slaves, others were soldiers, and yet no-one is openly resentful. My language teacher, for example, not only survived the Vietnamese war and the Khmer Rouge years, but also then spent the following 15 years in a Thai refugee camp. In total he has spent almost the sum of my entire life surviving, not living. But to look at him and to talk to him – you wouldn’t know. Everyone here has a story. Yet people seem to accept was has happened as history, and are just so relieved that they are living in fairly peaceful times that no-one is prepared to rock the boat.

For all its problems, for the country to have rebuilt itself as it has is really incredible. Even if I do keep having to have showers by torch-light.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A very fine house

Somehow, I’m not entirely sure how – I have ended up with a fairly swanky Cambodian house that is $10 under our allotted budget, bigger than anywhere I’ve lived before and even has hot water. What's even better, is that previous volunteers have struggled to find accommodation in Sisophon - so I’ve been really lucky and actually had a choice of two.

The first house was an ex-volunteer house, a little like a small and cosy tree house. Unfortunately though, it also came with a neighbouring volleyball court and several 20-something Cambodian males and two ‘guard’ puppies. I was actually quite fond of the dogs, until I trod in pile of dog shit. After that, the novelty wore off. The house was very sweet, but I met the landlord and they weren’t keen to put any extra locks on the windows or even really clean the inside – oh, and they also tried to up the price by $100.

Meanwhile, just round the corner a family from Poipet (about 1hr from Sisophon) were doing up their house for rent and were very excited to see me. The family are lovely and couldn’t do enough for me. They asked me what colour paint I wanted, would I like this… would I like that… the house had previously had unwanted ‘wildlife’ (rats, I think) and so was being gutted inside and out. It’s not too big – I was wary of the size at first – and it’s nice and secure, whilst still being accessible and traditional. Its concrete downstairs and wooden upstairs, has mozzi screens, a great little balcony and even a bit of a garden!

That said, I do feel a bit weird to be living somewhere so nice when I’m in Cambodia. I really was expecting to be holed up in some form of shack, but I do love my house. It’s cosy and best of all, it’s somewhere to make mine. It’s also under the VSO housing allowance - a distinct advantage of living Sisophon. Should I be in a shack? Well, perhaps... but then I’m here for a year and I can’t wait to start nesting. Plus it’ll be great for putting up other volunteers when they come to visit. And having a house warming party.

So, if you’re ever wandering around Sisophon, my house is between roads three and four. The landlady was unsure of the address and so decided it was on road 3.5 (Harry Potter eat your heart out). It also has no number… so I’m not sure if the postie will be able to find it.

I'm just trying to upload some pictures, but the internet is having none of it. I'll put them up as soon as I can!

Ah HAH! Success!