Posts Tagged ‘cambodia’

The Preferred Nomenclature

June 22, 2013 Comments off

As an Australian, I’m accustomed to being quizzed on some of the bizarre slang and abbreviations that pepper the Aussie version of English. I’ve heard stories of new arrivals to Australia being utterly confounded by our verbal manglings. Fair enough, too.

“Johnno’s on compo, his car’s out of rego, so I’ll pick him up for Davo’s barbie on Sat’di arvo.”

(John is on worker’s compensation, his vehicle registration has expired, so I’ll pick him up for Dave’s barbecue on Saturday afternoon.)

The most bizarre example I can think of in Australian slang is “Arie”. It sounds similar to RE, which is an abbreviation used mostly in Brisbane for the Royal Exchange Hotel. I’ve heard Sydney folk talking about having a few beers at the Arie, but I couldn’t think of any Royal Exchange Hotels in Sydney. After a while, I figured out that they were referring to RSL, or Returned & Services League, a club first formed in 1916 for military personnel who’d returned from war, which now has branches scattered throughout Australia.

Upon realising this, my first thought was, “You’re abbreviating an acronym! You lazy bastards!” I once heard someone referring to the “Granny Arie” instead of the Granville RSL, and I thought he was taking the piss.

The one that amuses and mystifies me more than most, however, is the abbreviation or malicious mangling with intent of foreign place names. I’m not talking about the Anglofication of city names like Mumbai or Beijing, but the somewhat childish diminutives extracted from the various place names.

I’ve heard ‘Honkers’ used as a substitute for Hong Kong many times over the years, but it wasn’t until I spent most of 2010 in Southeast Asia that I started hearing odd terms for cities in the region. Like ‘Bangers’ for Bangkok[1], or ‘the Penh’ for Phnom Penh.

(The latter convention seems to apply when referring to Cambodia; I’ve never heard anyone say they were in ‘Cambers’, it’s usually ‘the Bodia’ or, more often, ‘the Bodge’.)

While living in Cambodia in 2010, I overheard one English guy planning a December trip to Thailand, telling a friend that he would be “in Changers by Crimbo”. I eventually had this translated to mean that he’d be in Chiang Mai by Christmas.

I know I shouldn’t throw stones, given my country’s predilection for silly and often redundant abbreviation. At the time, I wrote to a friend about this, saying, “By that measure, I grew up in Griffers before moving to Sydders. I’m in Phnommers right now & might head to Reapers next week.”

When I visited San Francisco last April, I was told that the locals dislike hearing the city referred to as ‘Frisco’, and that saying ‘San Fran’ may get you lynched.

I’ve been bugged by this habit of shortening for some time, but then found examples of it in a book first published in 1977. When I read the below extract in Dispatches by Michael Herr last night, I laughed out loud.

When I got back to Vietnam in early July, [Tim Page] and I spent ten days in Delta with the Special Forces, and then went to Danang to meet [Sean] Flynn. (Page called Danang ‘Dangers’, with a hard g. In a war where people quite seriously referred to Hong Kong as ‘Hongers’ and spoke of running over to Pnompers to interview Sukie, a British correspondent named Don Wise made up a Vietnam itinerary: Canters, Saigers, Nharters, Quinners, Pleikers, Quangers, Dangers, and Hyoo-beside-the-sea.)

Seems it’s a much less recent phenomenon than I’d thought.

So if you’re heading to the Bodge, I can recommend Phnommers, Siemmers, Batters, Kampers and Sinners[2], but Anlers and Pailers might not suit everyone.

[1] Admittedly, Bangkok isn’t the proper name for the city either. Unless speaking with foreigners, Thai people call it Krung Thep, which is a shortened form of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, which is in turn a shortened form of the official ceremonial name for the city, that being Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. So abbreviating this one is fair enough.

[2] ‘Sinners’ being the Wise-ified version of Sihanoukville which, given the town’s reputation, is quite apt.


Visiting Pol Pot’s Grave

August 10, 2012 Leave a comment

ANLONG VENG, CAMBODIA – Grey clouds hung heavy in the dim sky, and a light rain fell. The sun was a milky disc and the air was noticeably cooler than what’s generally found in the rest of Cambodia.

A perfect day to inspect the final resting place of the former leader of a genocidal regime that slaughtered millions in under four years.

The site where former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was cremated.

Sunshine and twittering birds would feel out of order when viewing the final resting place of a man who had a major hand in the death of millions of his fellow Cambodians. Also vastly inappropriate would be some towering monument to his purity of vision, the glory of a revolution that was meant to make Cambodia a self-sufficient agrarian paradise, a vision that soon gave way to total insanity, the systematic slaughter of a nation, and the near-total destruction of a culture that has spanned over a thousand years.

Pol Pot died in mid-April of 1998 (nobody knows the exact date, though April 15 is widely cited) in Chong Sa Ngam village north of Anlong Veng, about a kilometer from the Thai border. Equally speculative is the cause of death. A heart attack, old age, pneumonia, suicide, poisoning by disgruntled ex-Khmer Rouge forces, even assassination by a Thai hit squad are some of the possible causes that have been aired since that day. Like many things in Cambodia, the truth is obscured by speculation, wishful thinking, and myth,

Immediately after his death, Pol Pot’s body was photographed in situ and promptly taken outside and cremated. His furniture and some of the material from his house were used as fuel for the pyre. Photographs of the event make it seem more like he was burned along with a pile of rubbish that was lying around.

Again, some would see that as fitting.

More impressive, if that’s the word, is the grave of Ta Mok (named Chhit Choeun at birth), the commander of the Khmer Rouge’s military.

Ta Mok’s grave

After the Vietnamese removed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Ta Mok fled to northern Cambodia with Pol Pot and continued to direct missions against the Vietnamese and, later, the Cambodian government lead by Hun Sen.

Eventually captured by the government in March 1999, Ta Mok was taken to Phnom Penh and placed in custody awaiting trial for his crimes. He eventually died without facing trial on 21 July 2006.

Prior to his arrest, Ta Mok spent his time at a house in the Dângrêk Mountains north of Anlong Veng.

Grafitti inside Ta Mok’s mountain retreat

He also maintained a villa on the outskirts of Anlong Veng.

Interior of Ta Mok’s house in Anlong Veng

A lake as seen from Ta Mok’s house. The lake formed as a result of dam construction on the edge of town. The dam was commissioned by Ta Mok during the Khmer Rouge years.

The town has a dark history, with Khmer Rouge elements being very active here as recently as 1998. But that terrible past runs in direct contrast to the spectacular beauty of the natural scenery. Deep green jungle covers tall mountains that are cloaked in mist during the rainy season.

Anlong Veng, because of its location and its recent history, has been isolated from the rest of Cambodia until recently. Many towns are given the “Wild West” tag in this country, but Anlong Veng deserves it more than most of the others. Despite being connected to Siem Reap by a decent road, it may continue to be relatively isolated for a while yet.

Photos from a Frontier Town

A small town 17 kilometers from the Thai border and 80 kilometers from Battambang, Pailin is often called the Wild West of Cambodia. During my three-night stay, I didn’t see another Westerner. I was even forced to try out my very limited Khmer when it came to ordering food and drinks and finding out how much things cost. Pailin would be the perfect antidote to anyone burned out from Cambodia’s “tourist trail”.

It’s true that there’s not a lot here for travellers, but for me that’s part of its appeal. There are no Western-style bars, no nightlife to speak of. It’s a true Cambodian town which has not felt the touch of tourism. In fact, every transport option that I was given while there offered me a lift out of town, either to Battambang or to the Thai border. For a Westerner to stay in Pailin is evidently still something of a novelty.

The town has a chequered past, from being a wealthy area famous for its abundance of gems and timber in the 1800s to being one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge as recently as 1998.

The area is populated with descendents of Burmese immigrants who came to the area in the late 1800s in search of fortune. One of the remaining influences from Burma is the golden stupa at Wat Phnom Yat on the edge of town.

The Road to Pailin

The day started, as always, with coffee. I’d successfully completed my second night of about 8 hours of solid sleep. Last time that happened was so long ago it’s faded from my memory. Both nights were filled with dreams which toggled disturbingly between fun as well as morbid. There was no common theme, except perhaps the impermanence of existence, but they were all insightful.

I sipped my sweet milk coffee and gazed out from the 4th floor rooftop terrace of the Royal Hotel, across Battambang’s skyline, the deep blue above speckled generously with woolly clouds. A strong soothing breeze drifted with purpose across the dining area on the terrace, flipping my notebook pages inconveniently as I tried to take jot down some pointers on the day’s intended destination. Not confident of mobile coverage further west of Battambang, I was using my smartphone to leach off the Royal’s WiFi for research purposes, and scribbling anlogue notes (with a pen and paper and everything (!)) into my notebook.

My destination: Pailin. A town 17 kilometers from the Thai border in a territory carved out of Battambang province in 1996 and given provincial status by royal decree twelve years later. A town long renowned for its generous gem and timber deposits in the surrounding hills, the proceeds of which went on to fund the Khmer Rouge insurrection force during much of the 1990s. It was here that Khieu Samphan, Head of State for Democratic Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge, was living between his defection from the KR in 1998 and his arrest in 2007.

There was very little online which could give me info re. lodgings and places to eat, which told me very few Westerners spend a great deal of time in Pailin. Possibly just a day trip from Battambang and then back before sundown, or maybe a night while transiting either to or from Thailand.

Armed with the flimsiest of notes (a couple of guesthouse names and the rough location of a hilltop temple close to town), I shouldered my bags and headed to the bus station half an hour early. It’s rare for Cambodian buses to depart on time, let alone early, but I do like to make sure I won’t miss out on transport.

I need not have bothered. I dropped my bags and sat down and waited, and watched the big hand on the wall clock slowly circle around.

I stood and walked out onto the street, where it was about 3 degrees cooler. I lit a Djarum and tried to maintain my level of quickly-fading patience. I wiped my face with my krama, glanced up and down the street, then went back inside and sat down.

Ninety minutes after I’d arrived (so an hour after the scheduled departure time), a rusting smoke-spewing steel and aluminium and glass box in the vague size and shape of a bus rumbled up to the depot. It was immediately beset by a locust-swarm of tuktuk and motodop drivers and accommodation touts while the exclusively Khmer passengers struggled to disembark, dragging their luggage behind them.

Ten minutes later, we were ushered onto the bus which I then dubbed the sketchiest heap of crap I’ve been on in this country (but not in Southeast Asia; that dubious honour goes to the bus I took from Pakxe to Savannahket in Laos last March, a joint-and-ligament-jarring 14 hour trek during which I could see the road through holes rusted through the floor). Quite a few of the windows were cracked, and some of the seats were only tenuously bolted to the floor. I selected one which seemed more firmly fixed than others, towards the back and on the passenger side.

A leisurely ten minutes after boarding, we were underway.

We jolted westward through neighbourhoods I’d never seen before, and then along Highway 57. I’m not sure if it was the condition of the road or the dodginess of the bus suspension, if it existed, that made the ride so rough. I knew it was a relatively short distance to Pailin from Battambang (80 kilometers), but all the same, I prepared for a too long and rough trip I slipped my headphones on, picked a playlist at random and watched the scenery trundle past.

The outskirts of Battambang dropped away to reveal tranquil rice paddies backed by tree-covered mountains, heavy white and pale grey clouds drifted above the scene while bright sunlight blazed through slender gaps in the rain-laden sky. Kids in school uniforms walked or bicycled along the road’s shoulder, sometimes having to make way for farmers herding cows or a water buffalo in from a day’s grazing.

There was such serenity out the window, rolling/bouncing by, life continuing there as it has for hundreds if not thousands of years. Except for a conspicuous period of war and horror in the middle of last century, of course… but since then, a relative stability had slowly settled over Cambodia… my head tilted forward and I was surprised at the improbability of feeling drowsy on this bus, on this road, particularly when I find it hard to fall asleep even while wrapped in the comfortable embrace of Emirates Airlines…

Languid slide guitar tunes by Ry Cooder unravelling into my ears… the jolting faded…

“L’via! No dejes de descansar!”

What the fuck?

“El la calle caminas!”

Who the hell is shouting at me in Spanish? A jangling set of guitars slammed my ears and tore me out of a light doze. The music morphed into a strange almost salsa-like syncopation. I jumped in my seat as the bus hit one of the lengthier sections of rough road, and any hint of weariness evaporated.

My iPod had started playing The Mars Volta at some point during my presumably brief snooze. It’s a dangerous thing to wake up to, especially while being roughly conveyed across western Cambodia in a disintegrating pile of spare bus parts.

I took the headphones off and looked around. Two very young Khmer kids, possibly brother and sister, had invented a game they probably called “Who Can Get Closest To The Foreigner?”, and so far the little boy was winning. As soon as I made eye contact with either of them, their bravado vanished and they’d hide their faces and giggled and run back to their parents, only to repeat their attempts moments later.

The road swept around some peaks rising gently from the rice fields. The sun had sunk closer to the western horizon, the clouds now low enough to be skimming the tops of the surrounding hills, ablaze with the late afternoon light. Stilt houses lined the road, families gathered for the evening meal.

The bus rumbled through the beginnings of town. We turned left at a monument under construction and came to a stop about 50 meters from a guesthouse, the name of which I recognised from my online searching from earlier. The driver unleashed a stream of Khmer, the only words I understood was “stop” and “Pailin”. I grabbed my bags and dragged them off the bus.

There were no high-rise buildings, and very little traffic, and no Westerners at all. The warm sun was tempered by a strong breeze from the west. Discounting the emanations from the bus, the air smelled clear.

A motodop dutifully pulled up and asked, “Where you go, sir?”

I pointed up the road. “Guesthouse. Ot ch’ngai. Aw khun.” Not far. Thank you.

“Not go to border?” he asked. “Thailand?”

I smiled. “No, I stay in Cambodia.”

“Ah, okay.” He smiled and nodded.

I threw my main bag over my shoulder and started walking…

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The Benefits of No Itinerary

I’m frequently glad that I’m the sort of traveller that doesn’t even really concoct an itinerary in the first place, let alone stick to one once I’m on the road.

My original plan for this trip was the United States, Israel, Burma and Cambodia. I’ve only hit two of those countries this time around, having changed my plans because of budgetary concerns. Also, I’d flown from Los Angeles to Sydney and then from Sydney to Bangkok over a two day period, so another flight from Bangkok to Tel Aviv appealed to me about as much as spending a night in Poipet.

Then I had to strike Burma off the list this time around because of budget reasons again. However, it’s been great to “fall back” on Cambodia again. It was far from a hardship, I’ll tell ya.

Soon after scuttling the plans for Burma, I realised that there are still loads of places in Cambodia that I’ve not yet seen, despite having spent a lot of time here.

The main reason I’ve been relatively inactive on the photo front is because I’ve had about two months in Cambodia, but have yet to spend much time in previously unvisited areas.

That’s about to change. I intend to explore as much of the rest of the country as I can before my visa runs out, and I’m sure that will mean I’ll be shooting more.

(Actually, I’ve shot a bit of timelapse around Phnom Penh, but the Net here is so slow that I can’t upload any of the footage yet.)

There’s something to be said for hooking up with a tour group. You can be reasonably assured that you’ll get to see most if not all of what you set out to see. If it wasn’t for companies organising everything from accommodation to transport and meals, my parents would never have come to Cambodia to visit me in April of 2010. They’d rather have someone else look after all those details which they find tedious and confusing. There’s no way in the world they would’ve come to a developing country in Southeast Asia if they had to book hotels and transport themselves.

In my view, though, to have the iron-clad itinerary of a package tour takes all the spontaneity away, and that’s probably my favourite aspect of travelling.

Also, I’ve also seen the “edge” of what most Westerners would call civilization in Cambodia, and it’s a place where tour groups just do not go. Some people wouldn’t set foot out of their own country if not for mass tourism, but it’s just not a method by which I could travel.

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City Of Ghosts

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Built in the early 20th century for the rich French elite, the village atop Phnom Bokor once contained a casino hotel, nightclubs, and villas. It fell into disuse just after Cambodia’s independence from France in 1954, and King Sihanouk attempted to revitalise the town soon afterwards. The town was abandoned again in the early 1970s when the Khmer Rouge were fighting to overrun the Lon Nol government.

From 1976 until 1978, the Khmer Rouge used the old casino as a prison, and the commander of the district lived in the old Catholic church. The site has been occupied only by park rangers since 1978.

The entire hill was recently purchased by a large conglomerate, and they have plans to build a 12-storey 5-star monstrosity just down the road from where the remnants of the French colonial buildings stand.

Fortunately (and surprisingly), the old buildings will be preserved.

More photos of the amazing and eerie Bokor Hill Station can be seen on my Flickr page.

Coming Home In A Strange Town

I’d gotten off the bus near Psar Thmei and waded through the touts while most of my fellow bus passengers stood in huddled groups, consulting their Lonely Planets, bombarded by calls of, “Motorbike? Tuktuk? Good clean cheap room?”

It wasn’t until I’d actually grabbed my backpack and hefted it onto my shoulders that it had dawned on me that not one single tout had said a word to me. How is it possible that I could arrive in Phnom Penh by bus, be dropped off at the most common arrival point for Westerners (besides Potchentong Airport), and not be hassled?

I almost laughed and cast a glance back at the other barang[1] who seemed a little flustered, confused, overwhelmed by the onslaught of touts[2], seeking solace and direction within their travel guides. The guys all wore t-shirts and long shorts, most of the women wore singlet tops and shorts or loose skirts.

Then it hit me; my obvious Western-ness (or barangitude) could not be hidden, but I’d made a conscious effort to at least dress like the locals. Cotton short-sleeved collared shirt and long pants. And instead of standing 5 meters from the bus with a Lonely Planet in hand and gazing around as if I’d just landed on (or from) Mars, I’d barely broken stride from the time I got off the bus. Hopped off, grabbed my bag and headed towards Monivong Boulevarde. Maybe the touts thought I was an ex-pat returning from a short trip to Vietnam.

As I headed south along Monivong towards “home”, my mind flashed back to a comment I’d made almost 4½ years previously. I don’t honestly recall if it was something I’d said while caught up in an emotional moment, but in the ensuing years it evolved from a comment to a commitment.


On February 6 2005, while at a dusty stop somewhere between Siem Reap and Poipet, stretching my legs and trying to realign my skeleton after the first leg of a punishing and slow and dusty bus ride, my then girlfriend and I sat on a bench, surrounded by local children who had been mesmerised by our impromptu drumming session.

We’d stopped at this outpost for a break, and were instantly surrounded by children carrying trays loaded down with drinks, snacks, postcards, etc. Jen and I broke away from the group, sat on a nearby bench and began absently tapping away on our drums. We weren’t really playing anything at all, just letting the rhythm drift randomly…

The children had momentarily forgotten their imperative to sell candy and drinks and instead were enjoying the makeshift show we’d put on. They stood in a semi-circle around us, smiling. I looked around the group while remembering all that I’d seen in the three months prior to that moment. I’d spent that time in four different Southeast Asian countries. And yet it was Cambodia that had really gotten into me. From the wonder of the temples at Angkor to the horror of Tuol Sleng. The spirit of the people was something I found inspiring, the will to rebuild their nation out of the ashes of the Khmer Rouge years. Here was a country that had quite literally lost everything; their past, their families, their homes, their history and culture, and in too many cases even their lives.

Amid the group of drumming aficionados, and with these memories swimming through me, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I have to come back one day and do something. Something real, something… useful.”

“Back to Cambodia?” she asked.

I nodded.

She looked up at the children and then over them, past them, to the dusty desolate countryside beyond. This was apparently farmland, but I could not see how anything could possibly grow out there.

I don’t know what was going through her mind at that point, or what she was seeing with her thousand-yard stare. But I remember her giving a slight shake of her head as she said, “Good luck with that.”[3]


Just before Christmas, 2008, after 4 years of letting my Cambodia experience[4] filter through my heart and soul, I finally set about putting a plan into action. I did a Google search for housebuilding cambodia and learned of the existence of Tabitha Australia. This is an organisation that raises funds for numerous projects designed to assist and sustain desperately poor families. As well as raising funds for houses, wells and livestock, the Tabitha Foundation also assists families with implementing savings schemes. Of particular interest to me, however, was the way in which Tabitha put together teams of volunteers to go over and put houses together.

I found a contact email address and fired off a preliminary inquiry off to Jude, who got back to me fairly quickly with a basic outline of what was involved. The builders were asked to contribute at least AU$500 towards the cost of materials for a house (which is essentially a 6m x 4m one-room cottage on stilts, with either wooden slats or sheets of tin for walls). One house costs AU$1500. The really hard work such as building the frame and the floors and so on was done by a team of Khmer builders. The overseas volunteers then came over to attach the walls and secure the floorboards.

Jude told me there was a two-day build kicking off on August the fifth.

I said, “Count me in.”

I then got a good friend of mine, Karen, on the case. Karen is a travel consultant, a damn good one. I remember walking into her place of work on January of 2009 and saying, “Can I book a flight to Phnom Penh?”

I’d done this before, with the destination changing. When I was involved with someone from Canada (in fact, the same someone I’d been through Cambodia with in 2005), I’d often present myself at Karen’s workplace with a pisstakey request for a one-way ticket to Edmonton.

“Ha-ha, nice one,” said Karen. She knew of my love of travel and my special fondness for Cambodia (and was also being mindful of the jocular requests for overseas tickets from the past).

“I’m serious,” I told her. “I’m going to Cambodia in August.”

I’d thought about how I wanted to approach the trip. I’d want some time to myself as well as getting involved with the building project. Plus, I liked the idea of arriving in Cambodia with a sense of occasion. Jetting in, while convenient, didn’t quite feel auspicious enough. Besides, there were no direct flights to Phnom Penh. Karen gave me a few options and I decided on a flight to Saigon with a overland trip to Cambodia’s capital.

I then told Karen, “I’m keeping this under wraps for a while, so if you could keep it quiet that’d be cool.”

“Okay,” Karen said, possibly without really understanding why.

The reason I’d had at that time was based on a superstition. I’d had big plans before, and told many people. Those plans often did not end up taking place. It was irrational, but I still felt the desire to keep it quiet.


Traffic shuffled past me as I sweated a lugged my backpack south along Monivong. The footpaths on most streets in Phnom Penh are very wide. So wide, in fact, that you could park on them. Cambodians, being practical-minded, tend to do exactly this. It’s therefore necessary to spend more time walking along the edge of the road than on what would normally be a footpath. I was not the only pedestrian on the road, however. People pushing carts fitted out with gas burners and woks and fresh ingredients shared the edge of the road with motos and tuktuks and the occasional cyclo, as well as one Westerner lugging a 12.6kg backpack in 36°C degree heat.

“Tuktuk, sir?” was asked more than once, and they’d seem puzzled by my knockbacks (always delivered with a smile and a shake of the head). The tuktuk and moto drivers would beam the most pleasant smile back at me, but I could imagine them thinking, Crazy bloody Westerner! Why would you walk? In this heat? With that backpack?

I’d done all my map consulting on the bus. All I had to do was head south, turn due west on Street 310 and then take the next street south. There, comfort and quiet would await. An oasis in the somehow laid-back pandemonium of Phnom Penh.

It was an old French colonial villa on a corner block. A group of very chilled-looking tuktuk drivers lazed in their vehicles. They saw me and before they could ask I pointed to the villa and smiled. They smiled back, nodded and went back to their siesta.

As I checked in, I was presented with a cold glass of water with a slice of lime in it. This was a heavenly gift after the half-hour trek from the bus stop. The staff greeted me as though I’d lived there for months. I then realised that I’d not stopped smiling since I started to recognise parts of the city on the bus on the way in.

Not for the first time, I felt truly at home in a foreign city.

[1] – Khmer word for ‘foreigner’.

[2] – Though you’d think that Vietnam is a baptism of fire re. tout hasslement.

[3] – Much later, she’d told me that Cambodia “did (her) head in” and that she could not go back.

[4] – It was a very touristy experience, to be truthful. We saw Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, and then got on a bus to Siem Reap to see the temples there. All the same, there was something about the country and the strength of the people that had really gotten into me.