Every guy has a favourite hooker. Mine is a 20-stone Australian ex-rugby league player called Kevin!
It all started when I went to my local pub for a Liverpool game in 2008. While I was watching the match, an Australian guy came over and said hello. We ended up drinking nine pints together and becoming friends. He was living in Wimbledon with his fiancée Gerlinde, and we got to know each other via a few rounds of golf and the odd pub quiz. Sadly, they went back to Brisbane a couple of years later, but we kept in touch on social media, and this year they invited me to travel round south-east Asia with them to celebrate Kevin’s 50th birthday.
There were six of us on the trip, including Kevin (or 'Beachy'), Gerlinde (or 'Turtle'), a couple called Kathy and Allan and a woman called Bernadette (or Bernie or just 'love').
Gerlinde arranged all the flights, accommodation and activities, so all we had to do was confirm everything she suggested! We met up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and spent a few days there before flying to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, then Ho Chi Minh City for a few Vietnam battlefield tours and finally Bangkok for the temples and floating markets. Kathy and Allan flew back to Australia before the Bangkok leg of the trip.
16-17 August: Fly to Phnom Penh
18 August: Visit firing range
19 August: Visit S-21 prison, Killing Fields, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
20 August: Go shopping and fly to Siem Reap
21 August: Visit Angkor Wat
22 August: Attend Kevin’s 50th birthday party by the pool
23 August: Visit Angkor Wat
24 August: Take balloon ride, fly to Ho Chi Minh City and go shopping
25 August: Go to dentist for teeth cleaning, take tour of Cu Chi tunnels
26 August: Take battlefield tour of Long Tan
27 August: Go to dentist for teeth whitening, visit Can Gio ‘Monkey Island’
28 August: Fly to Bangkok
29 August: Visit Damnoen Saduak floating markets
30 August: Visit Bangkok Grand Palace and two temples and go shopping
31 August: Fly to London
It was great to see Kevin and Gerlinde again after so long, and I got on well with their other friends, too. I’d never been to any of the places we visited, so it was a good chance for me to ‘do’ south-east Asia for the first time, and there was a daily supply of beer and banter to keep our spirits up! We generally spent most of our time together as a group, but the women didn’t visit the temples, and there were a few shopping trips and one balloon ride when we split into smaller groups. Whatever time I had to myself I spent working on my photos. I’m supposed to be a wildlife photographer, so this was all a bit different from my usual trips, but I got a lot of decent shots of temples, palaces, the macaques at Can Gio and the floating markets.
We stayed in fairly nice hotels, but they were still pretty cheap. For breakfast, there was usually a buffet with a selection of Asian and international cuisines. I usually just had fruit and juice, but I did have dragon fruit in Cambodia and fried anchovies and spring rolls in Vietnam, In Siem Reap, I tried 'banyan pod' juice for the first time, and I asked for it again the following morning - only to find out I'd been drinking 'pineapple' juice all along! The weather was hot (and occasionally very wet!), so I didn’t feel hungry most of the time. Our schedule meant we didn’t always have lunch and dinner at the 'proper' time, but, when we did go out to local restaurants, they were mostly pretty good. I’m not terribly adventurous when it comes to Asian food, so I ate a LOT of spring rolls, but the meal we had at Baan Khanitha on our last night in Bangkok was probably the best Asian food I’ve ever tasted, and the staff were always friendly and helpful. Gerlinde arranged the transport, and we were generally picked up from our hotel in a minibus or an SUV (after Allan and Kathy had gone home). We also took a few taxis and tuk-tuks here and there, but the cost was always minimal. Everyone was very quick to settle the bill for our meals and tours, so it was quite hard for me to ‘pull my weight’ – especially after my dollars ran out and I could only pay by card! They were a very generous group of people, and it didn’t hurt that the beer was so cheap. It was only 50 cents a can in some places in Cambodia, and that suited us all down to the ground – especially Kevin!
Things didn’t get off to a great start when Kathy had her wallet stolen by a thief on a moped, but we tried our best to put that behind us when we went to a local firing range near Phnom Penh. Kevin had been pestering Gerlinde for over a year to fire a bazooka, and he finally got his wish.
He actually missed the target so decided to try again with an RPG – and missed again! Oh, well…!
I fired a whole clip with an AK-47 on full auto, and Bernie had a go with something called a Bullpup, which was another automatic weapon. We did wear ear defenders, but otherwise there was a glorious lack of all the health and safety nonsense that you’d get in either Britain or Australia - there was even a cooler full of beer to make sure we didn’t get too thirsty!
The next day, we visited S-21, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (one of ‘the killing fields’) and the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng, or S-21, was a prison and interrogation centre for the Khmer Rouge régime under Pol Pot, which killed 3.3m people from 1975-79. The prison got its name from the fact that it was number 21 out of 178 different prisons built to interrogate political prisoners in order to find CIA or KGB spies. The Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge, but they only provided them with guns rather than bullets, so, to save money, the guards starved the prisoners and killed them by hitting them on the back of the neck with a bamboo cane. Serious stuff. Our guide was a Mr Dara, and he was able to talk from personal experience as he’d lost his father and been separated from his mother due to the poverty brought on by Communist rule. When he was forced to live with his grandmother as she was the only one with enough food to feed him, he cried for three days. He was only reunited with his mother about 10 years later, and he didn’t even know it was her until she showed him a photo of the two of them together. Mr Dara himself was a victim of the Communist purge of academics and intellectuals. In 1990, he was arrested for being able to speak English and was fined according to his weight. Fortunately, he was able to bribe his way to freedom, but it was obvious from the way he choked up at certain points that these events were very real to him. It’s not often you get to experience ‘living history’, but the horrors of the Pol Pot régime are recent enough to be able to hear eyewitness testimony from the survivors. In fact, Kevin had his picture taken with with one of them. Chum Mey was imprisoned in S-21 and only avoided execution as he could fix a typewriter. In 1979, when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, he was put on a forced march away from the camp. The soldiers shot his wife, but he was luckily able to escape while they reloaded. And now he turns up for work every day at the very camp where he was tortured and almost killed. Extraordinary. At the end of the tour, we saw a display case showing the fate of a few of those responsible for the killings. Pol Pot himself was never brought to justice and died of natural causes. A number of his henchman were also never prosecuted, and some are even now still in government positions. Some leaders were sentenced to execution, but they had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment on human rights grounds, and one of the prisoners even brought a court case to complain about the heat in his cell – and was awarded an $80,000 air con unit by the judge!
The Killing Fields
The mood didn’t lighten when we were taken to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. Prisoners from S-21 were taken to the ‘killing fields’ for burial as there was no more space in the cities. Altogether, there were 388 killing sites, and the one we went to used to be a Chinese cemetery. There used to be a three-man team responsible for the executions. One had a bamboo cane, one had a knife and one a gun. If the prisoners were very weak, they’d be beaten to death using the cane. If they survived that, they’d have their throats cut. Prisoners thought likely to survive a beating were simply shot with the AK-47. All the while, music was played over the loudspeakers to mask the sound of the beatings, so the local residents had no idea what was going on. There were some chilling sights at Choeung Ek. At the entrance to the burial grounds, we were shown a tray of teeth belonging to the victims, and we saw their clothes and bones still lying on the ground. There was even a complete skeleton with a bullet visible in the rib cage. Among the monuments was a memorial to the dead that housed hundreds of skulls. What an appalling episode in Cambodian history...
Fortunately, the next activity planned for that day was a visit to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. On the way there, Mr Dara gave us a few insights into Cambodian society, including what you can and can't do on the street: “In your country, you can kiss but not piss. In this country, you can piss but not kiss!” There are 4,500 monasteries and 2,000 temples in the country, and he told us about what it took to become a Buddhist monk. Men can join the order as young as six years old, but they have to say no to perfume, porn and underwear! Petrol is less than a dollar a litre, but it's hard to find good coffee because every kilo of beans is mixed with two, three or four kilos of burnt corn! Finally, Mr Dara told us about weddings, which are hedged about with a thicket of obligations. Half of Cambodian marriages are arranged, and the bride and groom generally go to a fortune teller to choose an auspicious date for the wedding. The reception is paid for by the guests, who write down their donations in a book. They must then invite the bride and groom to their own weddings, where similar donations are obligatory!
Once we got to the Royal Palace, Mr Dara gave us a guided tour, and we had a chance to admire the beautiful architecture and forget the horrors of the morning.
The next morning, we all went shopping at the Central Market. The ladies enjoyed all their shopping trips, and this time Bernie came back with a fake Rolex for $40, a D&G belt and five pairs of sunglasses for $20! Gerlinde also bought bangles and earrings, and Kathy bought a ring. Everything is so cheap in Cambodia that going there is a bit like becoming a millionaire overnight. There is probably no other country in the world where money is just not an issue. You can simply buy whatever you want – and still often get change from a $10 bill! Having said that, if prices were expressed in cans of beer rather than the local currency, it would be the most expensive country in the world…
In the afternoon, we took a domestic flight to Siem Reap (pronounced ‘see-em ree-up’) in order to see the temples at Angkor Wat. It was 27°C when we landed at around nine in the evening! Kevin and Gerlinde had taken a group tour there the year before, but Kevin was happy to go back to the temples with Allan and me while the ladies shopped and had a massage. There’s a choice of two tours around Angkor Wat, the ‘small’ one and the ‘big’ one. We went on the shorter one and paid $62 for a three-day pass that was valid for a total of 10 days. We saw Angkor Wat, Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm, the temple that inspired the Tomb Raider video game and film franchise, and we missed out another one in the interests of time.
I have to say I was a little disappointed with my first sight of Angkor Wat. I’d read somewhere that the other temples were a better bet if I wanted to take pictures – and that was certainly true – but I was a bit put off by the thousands of tourists milling around, and Angkor Wat itself wasn’t in great shape. Some of the carvings were very intricate and impressive, but the whole complex had been abandoned, forgotten about, overtaken by the jungle and allowed to go to rack and ruin before modern efforts to make it all a bit more ‘tourist-friendly’. This was more Stonehenge than Canterbury Cathedral – even though the temples were built at around the same time (from the 11th to the 16th centuries).
The following day – the 22nd August – was Kevin’s actual birthday, so we all went down to the pool at the Popular Residence hotel to enjoy a 12-hour long birthday party that Gerlinde had organised in conjunction with half a dozen very enthusiastic staff, who helped to blow up balloons and put up a banner saying ‘Happy birthday, Kevin!’ As it was his 50th, the idea was that it was a chance for him to 'raise his bat' in celebration as if he were a cricketer, so we all dressed up in whites and put zinc cream on our faces. Not my finest hour...!
There was party food, three cocktails to choose from, presents, a birthday cake, a rudimentary dance floor – and we even had a CD of Billy Birmingham doing his Richie Benaud impressions on the sound system! Bernie fell in the pool at one point, and, after a few speeches, the presentation of a miniature cricket bat signed by us all (and lots and lots and LOTS of drinking!), we finally retired at around 11 o’clock. Kevin never says no to a beer, so I think he had a pretty good day!
Angkor Wat (again)
I made my next trip to the temples the following day on my own. I took the long tour and saw the following sites:
Banteay Kdei was my favourite – especially seen from the rear and framed by the trees – but walking around was often like visiting Harrods on Christmas Eve. Most of the tourists were dawdling slowly and constantly stopping to take pictures, and it required the patience of a saint to wait until the coast was clear to get the shots I wanted. I had an even more annoying problem when the shutter release of my Nikon D810 stopped working, which meant that I had to take the battery out for a good minute before I could take another picture! Fortunately, I only really needed my 24-70mm lens and not my 80-400mm, so I was able to switch lenses on my camera bodies and stick to the D850 from then on. Phew!
My final ‘visit’ to Angkor wat was a balloon ride I took with Bernie the next day. I wanted to book the ‘sunrise flight’, but it was full, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter as it was too cloudy to see the sun come up. Unfortunately, our aerial views were spoilt by a great green tarpaulin covering some scaffolding on one wing of the temple. I hadn’t noticed it when I’d visited in person, so it needed a little bit of creative editing in Lightroom to make the problem go away!
After that, Bernie and I met up with the others in Siem Reap. We had a late lunch, and then Gerlinde and Bernie helped me find a few sports shirts at the market. Gerlinde had proven herself the best negotiator out of all of us, so she took the lead once I’d found the Under Armour shirts I was looking for. She ruthlessly beat them down on price (with a late intervention from Bernie), and I eventually paid $20 for four XXXXL shirts in light grey, dark grey, blue and ‘Viet Cong’ green. The Cambodians are a very small people, so I had to try everything on for size, but I still couldn’t believe I needed XXXXL – I hadn’t worn anything XXXXL since I bought my last box of condoms!
After our successful shopping trip, I agreed to have a massage with Gerlinde and Bernie - and I wish I hadn’t! They gave me a male masseur, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I couldn’t believe it, but there wasn’t much I could do short of walking out the door. Not good. That was the closest I came to losing my sense of humour on the entire trip, and it put me in a very bad mood for the rest of the day.
Anyway, that was our visit to Cambodia. For tales of the rest of the trip, from Saigon to Bangkok, just read the next couple of posts.
To be continued…