Posts Tagged ‘crime’

SOTM World Tour – Cambodia

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

DSC_0003I didn’t know what to expect from Cambodia. I was keen to go because Kate raved about the place, and also I wanted to delve into the history of the Khmer Rouge, a group whose name I knew but whose scale of crimes I was unsure of.

What I found was a complicated country, enriched by many of its people, hindered by others. It’s a fascinating place which has understandably weaved its spell over many non-Cambodians. However, while it’s easy to like, it’s a tough place to love, depending on your experiences.

Let’s start with how I found the country to be a photographer’s dream. Its landscape is eye-catching, even its simplest architecture is carved out with an aesthetic eye, and many Cambodians are keen to pose for the camera, making street photography a real joy.

I spent a happy afternoon in the capital, Phnom Penh, walking around taking photos of the streets and its inhabitants. This gent was keeping a fire going on the street, presumably for culinary purposes.

DSC_0056I found this chap astride his hog, which I was quite taken with.

DSC_0012And speaking of motorbikes – well, we are in South East Asia. The motorbike here is king, and there are literally endless examples of them in Cambodia.

DSC_0040-2 This family were astride one bike – and there’s frequently an awful lot more people, and goods, to be seen expertly balanced on bikes around here.

Texting on a bike with a small boy on the front, while neither of you wear a helmet? No problem.

DSC_0079-2None of these bikes were going very fast, but you still wish people would protect their noggins while on them.

You see babies and small children perched on many bikes, and those kids clearly grow up to have expert balancing skills.

This chap didn’t seem to have a bike, so I assume he pulled people around with this contraption. Tiring work, clearly.

DSC_1038I popped into the capital’s Olympic Stadium one evening (no idea why it’s called that as the Olympics were never in Phnom Penh) just to look around, and stumbled across an international friendly, Cambodia – in blue – against Guam.

Guam were much better than Cambodia, sadly, and won 2-0, the second goal coming from an own goal. I did capture this shot, a split second before Cambodia’s goalie came charging out and got clattered – by his own defender, the chap in blue.

There were no tickets or anything at the ground, you literally just walked in. The crowd was sparse, too.

I later learned that the stadium was the site of executions by the Khmer Rouge. This is an example of how much terrible history is never far away from Cambodia’s landscape.

While the game went on, there was some rather loud UNTZ UNTZ UNTZ music polluting the airwaves behind me. All around the top perimeter were people of varied ages, but mostly older folk, waving their arms and legs around aerobics-style to the beatz.

It was painful to listen to but the whole thing was a great idea, because as much as I hate exercising myself, it’s the right thing to do of course. Not that this philosophy ever made my Bikram yoga classes any easier.

DSC_1032 This guy dreams of being a choreographer on Cambodian X-Idol Factor, I reckon.

DSC_1022Excitingly, one day Kate and I stumbled across a network of temples not far from our Phnom Penh lodgings, called Wat Ounalom. It is here that you can literally crawl into a tiny, hot room, crammed with many Buddhas and dominated by a dark-coloured one.

It was overseen by this gentleman, who gave us a blessing and sprayed water over us. 

He kept saying “eyebrow, eyebrow”, the only English word he seemed to know, and immediately afterwards we found out that an eyebrow hair from Buddha is kept in that tiny chamber. So the story goes, anyway, but I was delighted to have been so close to such a relic, albeit one that does require a dash of faith in accurate historical records.

At one point I managed to get up high in Phnom Penh, atop the rather nice Green Palace Hotel. It has a rooftop bar that affords excellent views of this captivating city.

DSC_0845And while looking down on the sun setting over Phnom Penh. I met the Rather Amazing Amy Hanson, who runs the Small Steps Project, and also her friend Benedicta Bywater who runs Safe Haven Cambodia Children’s Trust.

Both do superb work in helping the poor in this country, so do check their respective charities out. Amy runs an annual, brilliant, celebrity shoe auction which contains the former Scooby Doos (shoes) of very famous types.

And both took part in SOTM, happily. Here’s the tour de force that is Amy.

And this is the unforgettable Benedicta.

But while I did enjoy my time in Cambodia, it’s clear that the country’s many problems include an increasing level of crime. 

I’ve never newly-arrived in a country and heard of, or experienced, so much crime in such a short space of time.

In no way were we looking for it, or asking about it, but as we went about the place we randomly met travellers who had their cameras snatched out their hands on Phnom Penh’s streets, or witnessed backpacks being ripped off of people’s backs in broad daylight by motorbike riders, and other such stories.

My Swedish friend stayed at the same hotel as we did in Phnom Penh and was violently mugged while in a tuk tuk – he fought back in a street battle involving him, five thieves and his driver who came to his aid. He retrieved his friend’s bag but he then went to Siem Reap and had his phone stolen there by a gang of street children. Again, he managed to retrieve it.

We came across these stories easily, and more. Worst of all Kate got extorted $200 to get her own iPhone back after she lost it on the way to Kampot and the man who found it made his costly demand, after failing to sell it for a better price.

Interestingly, while some Westerners we encountered seem willing to claim that there is nothing, or very little, in the way of criminal acts in Cambodia, the chief prosecutor of Phnom Penh says that there has been a yearly increase in crime in the country.

He does blame that on an increase in political protests, a claim which seems false to me and has certainly been disputed by Cambodian human rights groups.

Also, the British Foreign Office gives advice for travelling to the country and states how as of 2013 there has been increase in the number of crimes reported by Britons in that country, particularly in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, where a fellow traveller told me he personally knew five women who’d recently had their drinks spiked.

And just the other day, a Finnish woman I met travelling in Thailand went to Sihanoukville and was attacked by two men on motorbikes. The next day she says the police took her bike and refused to return it unless she paid a fine (she cried for an hour and they eventually gave it back for $10).

When she then returned the bike to the hire place the owner said it was damaged and that she had to pay a fine (she cried for another hour and they eventually returned her passport). She’s now left the country and says she isn’t coming back.

My position is that Cambodia is a hugely interesting country, with a wonderful landscape and terrible roads.

It’s also got an awful, compelling history which needs to be healed yet still told,  and while it’s got an engaging population there’s an increasing element that is fed up of being so poor and is starting to steal what it wants. If they continue to do this, people will stay away, not invest in the economy and Cambodians will be worse off, through the fault of the more unscrupulous members of its society.

Here’s a noble expression told to one Cambodian woman by her father, and I rather wish that more of her countrymen and women would take heed of it too. Click on the image to learn the translation.

If you’re interested in Cambodia then you should certainly go – but be more vigilant there than anywhere else. It is absolutely not a place to drop your guard such as by leaving your camera or bag within easy snatch-and-grab reach of expert motorbikers, the victims of which I met in Phnom Penh.

And if you do go I recommend popping down to Kampot, a slightly ramshackle town well worth the trip.

DSC_0374 The place is famous for its pepper, and also known for its amusing roundabouts. Here’s the one which pays homage to a giant durian fruit (which Kate hates and says smells of feet.)

There is one theory as to why many of these roundabouts have large statues on them – it’s so that any uneducated people can get about without having to read road signs. So it’s straight on till the durian roundabout, then left until you hit the salt workers’s roundabout etc etc.

DSC_0203Kampot is sweetly run down in parts but also very interesting to look at, and some of its buildings are actually in decent shape.

DSC_0495We stayed in the excellent Magic Sponge, a smashing guest house that was affordable for us ($12 a night for a large en suite room which actually had two double beds.)

The owner is a flawlessly friendly Alaskan called William. No idea how an Alaskan ended up at the bottom of Cambodia, but he runs a great setup down there. If you go, tell him Kate and I said hello.

One day we went to Kep, which has superb crab. On the way we stopped at a Muslim fishing village, which is pretty small and quiet and not visually interesting in the slightest. Tours of the area often include it on the itinerary but it really isn’t worth a visit unless you’re actually a fisherman.

Still, while there I spotted one boy and his cat.

DSC_0441 Here’s just one example of the beautiful architecture that you’ll find out in the countryside, ageing beauty queens who must content themselves with passing flirtations from those biking by.

DSC_0481 And it was while we were in Kampot that our tuk tuk got stuck in terrible mud on the way to the Les Manguiers resort, located just a little way out of the town.

I had to push the machine out of the thick, grasping, infectious mud. I managed to do so and felt manly afterwards, I don’t mind telling you.

mud While we were at that place, a storm lashed down with the rage of a bear awoken early from hibernation to find that a fox has stolen his supply of honey and is now wearing his slippers.

When we managed to get back to Kampot itself we found many of the town’s streets had flooded. This is a regular event and the locals took it all in their stride, as you can see.

DSC_0334 In Kampot I also spotted this guy. He was looking over his shoulder while still driving at speed a lot longer than he should have been…

And there’s plenty to photograph on Kampot’s network of wide streets, which are sometimes smooth, often not and frequently do not have pavements. When they do, they’re sometimes in such bad repair that everyone walks on the street anyway.

That’s it for this bumper blog edition. Next time, I learn about the Khmer Rouge and their appalling reign in Cambodia in the 1970s.