The Horror – Face to Face With the Tragic Chapter of Cambodia’s Recent History 

“One evening, I saw a 16-year-old guard walk in my room. He then approached an old man who was sleeping opposite me. He stamped on the chest of that old man again and again. I did not know why he did so or what was wrong with that old man. I heard that old man groaning as his mouth bled. No one was able to help anyone else.”
This is, believe it or not, one of the tamer excepts from the memoir of Buo Meng, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

For four years, 1975-1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime inflicted one of the worst genocides ever seen on this planet in the small Asian nation of Cambodia.

The horror described by Buo Meng of what he saw from his time in prison is just a small part of the widespread human devastation. 

At the Chong Euk killing fields just outside the capital, a memorial stupa stands in the middle filled with human skulls piled high – a fraction of the victims who died at the whim of the regime. 

Walking around the fields and listening to stories of what occurred there brought on severe anguish and nausea. “Why, why, why” I kept repeating my head, getting more exasperated. 

I was reminded of my similar feelings when I visited Auschwitz more than ten years ago now. There I thought I would never come close to seeing such a grim stage for man’s inhumanity to man. 

But history repeats itself around the world at an alarming rate. 

The Soviet Union, China, Burundi, Bosnia, the Congo et al. 

Bone fragments can still be seen in the mud as one walks around Chong Euk. Bits of clothes stick out of the ground where once hundreds and thousands of bodies were dumped on top of one another, left to rot. 

The foul stench lingered for miles. 

It’s something that one cannot comprehend from reading about it in a history book at school. It almost seems other worldly, as if in a distant universe where lives don’t matter as much. 

But they do. And you only have to speak to almost any Cambodian to hear how the genocide affected their family. Indeed, most of the population is under 40, such was the scale of the horror. 

Blood still stains the floor of the Tuol Sleng S-21 torture prison. Thousands were held captive there, forced in tight cells with many others with a communal bucket and bottle as their bathroom. If they didn’t die there, most inmates were sent to the killing fields to meet their fate. As soon as they were arrested they were photographed, and their pictures are on the walls of the prison now like ghosts frozen in stone. 

Their crimes? What crimes. This was not a purge of enemies of the state, this was simply a purge of the people. Crimes were fabricated and people signed fake confessions in the vain hope that the brutality would come to an end. Beatings, water torture, electrical shocks, hangings and so on. 

What hope then that history will not come round again in such horrifying fashion? Justice still evades most of those responsible. Pol Pot never answered for his crimes, dying in 1998 before he could trial. 

Even those who are in court now at the UN assisted Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (Khmer Rouge tribunal) are using every bit of red tape their lawyers can muster to essentially see out their lives before ever facing a sentence. 

Some still stand by their actions. In what world I cannot fathom. Just as I could not and still cannot comprehend the willingness of the Nazi’s to enforce such hatred, so I despair at the inability to understand what warped mind would be capable of inflicting gruesome pain and suffering on another human being. 

Buo Meng sits in the S-21 museum now selling his book and smiling with foreign visitors. He is one of seven survivors of the prison, and he has continued his life. To have half his strength, would make many very resilient individuals. 

In his book, he recalls how he and his wife worked for the revolution believing they were fighting for a brighter future. On the day they were both arrested, Buo and his wife were separated. He never saw her again. 

“There was no single day that I did not shed tears. I endured much pain. I wished I would die soon so that I would not continue to suffer. My life was so miserable.”

The most haunting part of the visit at Chong Euk was when we came to a large and distorted tree. It was then we were told this tree was used for smashing babies and children against. 

No words can express the feelings I experienced upon learning that ghastly fact and staring at that very tree. It is something that will haunt me forever.

But something I did feel was a strong sense of hate. I was raging inside at the memory of those perpetrators. Clenching my fists I screamed silently in anger at them, wishing their end was infinitely more painful than those of the innocent. 

And then I realised – that was part of the problem. 


Stumbling around Thailand: Trivial Thoughts

Thailand is a vast and beautiful country. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the beaches and the parties but there is so much more to it. 
It’s an odd mix of ancient traditions and western-embracing vendors. But what it creates is an experience unlike any other in the world. 

Here are just a few trivial thoughts I had from my four week visit: 

– The temples are so refurbished that they almost look like a Disneyland representation of Buddhism.

– You are never more than 20 metres away from a 7/11. 

– The islands, such as Koh Samui and Koh Tao, are so flooded with westerners that you could be mistaken for thinking you were in Tenerife or Malia.

– The Thai new year festival of Songkran is an incredible experience. It’s essentially one big water fight. Possibly the biggest waste of water on the planet…?

– White sandy beaches with clear blue are hard to get bored of (who knew?)

– Yes, there are ladyboys – lots of them. Everywhere. 

– The full moon party was actually less raucous than I was imagining. I pictured the last days of Rome on a littered beach. It was actually quite pleasant and positive. 

– Thai people in the rural areas are much friendlier than city folk – then again this could apply to a lot of places in the world? 

– There seem to be as many stray cats as dogs. The felines holding their own in this country it seems.

– Children as young as 10 compete in professional Thai boxing bouts. It is very surreal to watch two infants kicking ten bells  out of each other. 

– And finally, be prepared to be called “Hey tuk-tuk” wherever you go in Thailand.

Nepal Earthquake One Year On – Residents Suffering Psychological Damage, Living in Fear

The scale of the Nepal earthquake in April of 2015 has left many residents with psychological damage and living in fear with every tremor.
Even a relatively minor tremor measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale in January of this year, while not causing major damage, left several people injured and others crying and panicking on the streets of Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu.

Reports at the time suggested that some were wounded from leaping from windows as soon as the earth began to shake, such is the desperation to flee buildings that in a few seconds could easily become mass graves.

Yadev Nidhi Niraula, a local school principal, says that while he and some of his compatriots may not be physically wounded, the mental scars are still there and are still raw.

“I am still disturbed psychologically because of this earthquake and of course economically,” says Mr Niraula, who has two children. “We are still living in fear, so every time there is an earthquake we try to run away. Still we have aftershocks and even when the aftershocks come we try to flee.

He continued: “Many people are affected psychologically by this earthquake. They lost their family, they lost their houses, they lost their property. So it was very paining. But slowly life became normal, but after 15 days there was another bigger earthquake and that has destroyed so much. Many houses collapsed, many people died.”

The effort to reconstruct Nepal has largely relied on the private sector and NGO’s. Despite receiving billions of pounds in international donations, the Nepali government only announced the official start of reconstruction in January.

Rebuilding Nepal

That has left it to locals to take matters into their own hands such as engineer Narayan Acharya, who runs the company Rammed Earth Solutions which specialises in the building of low-cost, green, earthquake-resistant houses.

With his knowledge, Narayan is frustrated at his government’s lacklustre response, especially during the harsh winter months in Nepal.

“I know it is difficult, there is thousands and thousands of houses to rebuild,” he says. “But something the government could do is run effective programmes to help, like distributing warm clothes and when building small houses, installing insulation is such a simple thing to do. It doesn’t cost that much money. Put some mud on the side, some grass on the top, and the house will be insulated.”

Narayan constructed his own house in 2011, in a small village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, using rammed earth and bamboo. The concept is influenced by a New Zealand house building method. The home is solar and uses recycled materials, but most importantly it can withstand earthquakes, so Narayan’s desire to see the compressed earth concept is not purely for his own business gains.

He says: “I built my house, I was on BBC news. I don’t want any money but I want to promote the technology, the government should support me. Then other people can learn as well.”

Unfortunately until new methods are embraced, many people could be rebuilding structures in a way that if another earthquake were to happen – and a bigger one is predicted by experts – they would come crashing down all over again.

Lindsay Burns, an Australian disaster relief coordinator for the company Projects Abroad, believes that Nepal will sadly take longer to get back on its feet than other disaster-affected countries.

“It’s my understanding that most of the money that was raised internationally has not reached the ground,” Burns says. “It seems most the development work is coming from foreign NGO’s. It seems as though the aid money that was raised has been filtered in the government and has sat there.

“I understand the constitution changes, but as someone living here, with the limited knowledge I have, it feels as though the government is not doing what they ought to do from a financial standpoint and without development organisations and without people coming to volunteer, it seems like the work wouldn’t be done.”

When asked how long it will take for Nepal to rebuild, calling on his experience in global disaster relief, Burns says: “Five to ten years. A very long time. In Kathmandu you have access to materials, but there are so many people in isolated mountain regions, a lot of these places are a days hike away or two days walk away.

“A lot of these people are in severe need and don’t even get the minimal exposure that Kathmandu residents get. So it’s going to be a very long time for those people especially to get back on their feet”.

A remarkable railway – remembering sacrifice of war heroes in a small corner of Thailand

Approaching my month in Thailand, much of the focus from others centred on the time I would be spending on the countries famous islands. 
When it comes to idyllic locations, Thailand clearly can boast a plethora of sites, from Koh Tao, to Koh Samui, Phi Phi and beyond. 

Indeed, Koh Phagnan has its famous Full Moon Party that apparently no trip to Thailand is complete without. 

But for me, the real highlight of my trip was not the white sandy beaches, or the delights of Bangkok, nor even the traditional and beautifully ornate temples scattered around. 

It was instead a relic of World War Two that without certain films, could very easily be consigned as an afterthought when studying the global impact of the conflict between 1939-1945. 

The bridge over the river Kwai forms part of the Burmese railway that was commissioned by the Japanese forces as part of their Burma campaign in 1942. 

It’s estimated that around 13,000 Allied prisoners of war died in the construction of the 415km long railway. 

Upon arrival in the city of Kanchanaburi, where the most famous part of the railway is, a visit to a small war museum set up very starkly what prisoners went through to build the transport system. 

The exhibit only included photographs and artist impressions at the time but they were enough to evoke the hot, sickly, conditions where men suffered in various ways. 

Hunger, disease, exhaustion were clear to see in black and white evidence. There’s no getting away from it, even in holiday locations – war is hell. 

Like many places in Thailand it’s not uncommon to see dusty buildings or litter in the street. But the most clean and well kept area shined like a beacon as our taxi rounded the corner. The war cemetery is rightly kept respectfully preened. 

Around 7,000 graves paid tribute mainly to British, Australian and Dutch soldiers who gave their lives so far from home. The loss of life can not get any sadder, but I couldn’t help feel an greater pang of discomfort in my stomach that these men had given their lives on the other side of the world to their loved ones. 

We are used to seeing war memorials in Europe; they have almost become part of the landscape. But it’s easy to forget how far the war stretched across the globe. 

The bridge itself is a feat of engineering to behold. The famous film (based on the book by Pierre Boulle) may exaggerate the British engineers influence in its design but there is something familiar in its arching loops. Perhaps because it’s something that harks back to Brunel’s Victorian designs that did influence engineering as a whole the world over. 

What was startling though was the amount of grinning selfies and funny poses taking place on the bridge. I myself can admit to an almost childish glee at visiting not just a famous historical war site but a locomotive icon too, something I had read about as a young boy with extreme fascination. 

I caught myself and remembered to hold in my thoughts the loss of life that was suffered to put this in place. Indeed, the construction of the railway is considered in Asia as a war crime committed by Japan. 

Riding the death railway was an even more surreal experience. In equal measure, one cannot help but feel astounded and horrified that a line of such complexity with more than 600 bridges and in dire conditions was completed in less than 12 months. 

Nowhere more impressive is it than when the train reaches a point where the track is suspended above the ground, alongside steep rocks, held up only by thick wooden struts. One can see right down to the perilous ground, maybe 70, 80 metres below wondering how on earth one would even begin to build such a structure. I am no engineer so I am sure I can be enlightened. 

But it all reinforces what an (unfortunate) motivator forced labour can be. Construction camps existed all along the railway housing thousands of prisoners. Men often had a two foot wide space to sleep in and nothing more. Food was scarce, so too was water – and I in 2016 with all my travelling comforts, am suffering in the Thai April heat so I can’t comprehend what intense physical labour must be like to undertake in this humidity. 

Then there was the torture. As Eric Lomax puts it in his remembrances of building the railway in his memoir The Railway Man: “Torture, after all, is inconspicuous; all it needs is water, a piece of wood and a loud voice. It takes place in squalid rooms, dirty back yards and basements, and there is nothing left to preserve when it is over.”

Now only a portion of the railway is in use, and plans to reconnect it to Burma have not resurfaced of late. 

As many other war relics it’s important that it is kept, to serve as a reminder more than just as a means of transport for locals. 

The rickety click-clacking along the track is validation I feel for those who suffered here. Of course it’s not just POW’s who built the railway but thousands of local workers, struggling on in the same conditions. 

When I was a boy, I remember watching David Lean’s epic film The Bridge On The River Kwai in my Dad’s study, wide-eyed, and listening intently. 

Coming to the end of my ride on the rails, I thought about one of the quotes in the film by Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson: 

“One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.”

War – what is it good for? Vietnam’s rise from the flames

Walking through the jungles in southern Vietnam, it’s hard to imagine the amount of devastation caused by the millions of tons of bombs dropped on this country by the USA.
But every so often, our guide will point to what just seems to be a wide ditch in the ground and says “bomb crater”. 

That seems to be the case here in Vietnam. On the surface, you would not notice much hangover from the war. But look a little closer, and then you notice; a man with no legs (blown off), buildings still in ruins, and people with skin conditions (agent orange). 

Yet, the perceived antagonism towards America is not widespread. I was shocked at how embracing the country was of western goods and services, despite a horrendous conflict with France and then later our partners across the pond.

Indeed there has been incredible development in Vietnam in recent years. Since 1986 when certain economic reforms were introduced, Vietnam has gone from being one of the world’s poorest countries to a development success story. 

In the early 1990s, more than 50% of the population were living in extreme poverty. According to the world bank, that number is now 3%.
Vietnam has also achieved several significant targets recently, confirmed by the United Nations last year, such as implementing universal primary education, reducing maternal and child mortality, and promoting gender equality in education. 

The country is firmly rooted in looking towards the future, with a focus on achieving business growth the next big target. They are spurred on in their quest by the man who’s face adorns the currency, murals, and so much more: Ho Chi Minh. 

History has been kind to ‘Uncle Ho’. He’s fared much better so far than his Communist counterparts such as Lenin, Mao and Stalin (not hard, one might say).

But perhaps Ho Chi Minh is still so revered because Vietnam had not had a powerfully strong national identity until he founded the democratic republic in 1945.

It can be seen even in the way that Vietnam looks at the past. The ruins of the Emperor’s palace in Hue and the royal tombs are in a such dilapidated state, that renovations are not easy to spot. They are overgrown, dirty and to put it bluntly, shabby.

This could be put down to the country’s attitude towards the former ruling classes but then look at the how the Chinese keep the Forbidden City in Beijing in such good knick. Or even the nostalgic reverence many European republics hold for their imperial palaces.

It is not surprising therefore that Ho Chi Minh’s former residence and even his embalmed body itself are protected and kept clean to a fastidious standard. 

One cannot even enter his residence, such is the high esteem in which it is held. Visitors can only glance through thick window panes at where the man worked “for the service of the people”. 

His body is open to the public for a few hours in the morning and protected by many guards. You have to walk round at a brisk pace and in respectful silence. 

Even though Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, his legacy really is the national culture of Vietnam. It’s strange to see a country still so relatively young in its development. Then again, coming from Britain where arguably the last biggest establishment shakeup was the civil war of 1642-1651 means most countries seem young in their growth. 

But Vietnam’s strength is in how everything is seemingly done for the people. This point is always stressed no matter where you go, from Hanoi, to Hue and down to Ho Chi Minh City.

Even with a mighty superpower like the USA dropping their bombs, sending kids to fight in a far away jungle, Vietnam just kept saying no. This is by no means meant to romanticise what went on, as both sides committed horrendous atrocities.

Of course Vietnam is a one party state, and whatever positives may have come from their recent economic successes, including a rising GDP, it must be said that people should have a truly democratic choice in who governs them. 

The people I spoke to said it did not concern them that they could only vote for various candidates from the same party. They insisted they were happy. That faith can very easily be tested in today’s unfortunately volatile political climate. 

With new channels of communication opened up to the younger generation such as social media, it will be interesting to see now where Vietnam takes its place in an ever changing world. 

We’re playing for England – footballing deja vu in match against Vietnamese locals 

I hear my blood pumping in my ears as I run forward through the thick Vietnamese humidity. The ball is crossed into the opposition area just as I arrive. 

One defender runs to close me down from the right hand side. I turn so I collect the ball with my back to goal and shift it to my left side as I spin. 

Without looking where the goal is, I instinctively strike the ball with my left foot, mustering all the power my short backlift would allow. 

The ball skims across the turf like a smooth stone hurled across a lifeless pond. The goalkeeper looks on behind him as he watches the ball career off the inside of the right post and into the net. 

I turn and wheel away in celebration, running down the pitch and lifting my shirt above my head through sheer jubilation. My teammates beam with congratulations. We were back in the game. Only a four goal deficit now…

Everything about this fiercely contested match on a hot, sweaty March night on Vietnam’s coast was actually quite typically England-ish. 

Before our match against a team made up of locals from nearby Mui Ne, Vietnam, our team (which consisted of four Englishmen) was full of unbridled enthusiasm. The expectation that our technical qualities from the home of football would be too much for our underdog opponents. 

In familiar style, that proved to not be the case whatsoever. 

The plan was to play a possession game for most of the match. If we found ourselves tiring towards the end, we would consider the switch to route one football – launching the ball up to lone front man. 

After 10 minutes and a devastating flurry of goals and running from the locals, the call went out: “Route one, boys. Route one.”

The old adage of English players made to look good by foreign counterparts held up, as my hat-trick of goals were all assisted by Vietnamese teammates. 

After the game the talk about the humidity came into play (sound familiar?). We just simply weren’t used to the conditions, despite having two weeks in the Asian country to acclimatise. 

Also the absence of away support counted against us, with at least 10 locals cheering on the home side. WAGS were not present – not shunned a la Capello style, but merely disinterested. Perhaps they could sense their support would be wasted. 

But as ever with English football players (professional or ridiculously amateur) we didn’t go down without a fight. 

Even with our opposition toying with us, our team kept up the effort to attack and try to get us back into the game. It was never going to happen but it was closer than a humiliating thrashing (it was certainly no Germany-Brazil). 

Goals came from three of our English contingent, including myself, while our fourth member provided heroics in goal. Stopping the score line from ascending into rugby territory. 

An attempt to invoke the playground rule of “next goal wins” didn’t quite translate. Frustratingly so, as we were the team to clinch the “golden goal”. 

But in the end we left the field with due respect from our opponents. We had harried them, attacked them, shown a bit of the English football quality that more often than not comes down to a hefty “50/50” shoulder barge. 

Indeed, even an old fashioned crunching slide tackle from yours truly earned an appreciative applause from the home crowd. (In modest terms, I’ll describe it as Ledley King-esque.) 

Our goal count meant we were not totally embarrassed coming away from the match, and we could convince ourselves if we *really* stretched our minds that we were in fact quite close to getting something from the game.

Glorious failure. 

Three lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet still gleaming… 

Trivial thoughts about Myanmar 

Despite it feeling like only yesterday when I landed in Yangon, I am suffering from the exhaustion of having packed so much into two brief weeks in Myanmar. 
I’ve travelled up and down rivers, flown across the country and even boated to a village in the middle of a lake.

It’s been a whirlwind, but here are just some of the trivial curiosities I noticed about this enigmatic land:

– There are pagodas. Lots of them. Everywhere. I knew Buddhism was important here but seriously, you cannot move for pagodas and stupas.

– Speaking of religious worship, the amount of gold leaf that is around decorating these structures meant that I had Spandau Ballet’s song ‘Gold’ in my head for the entire duration of my trip. 

– When you enter a shop you are invariably followed by two or three Burmese shop assistants, silently. I went into a shop in Bagan and was so put off by the three girls shadowing me I completely forgot what it was I went in for and had to leave.

– The railway circuit in Yangon, taking in most of the city, costs about 20p a ticket. (Sort it out, London). 

– Burmese food is happiest when dripping. Only touristy places offer this strange notion of “grilled” meat.

– Everytime you enter a temple you have to take off your shoes. Presumably, Burmese people have developed Hobbit like hard-feet. 

– The local lager is actually pretty good. Mostly it’s a choice between Myanmar beer or Mandalay beer. Both are fairly light but refreshing in the Burmese heat.

– The watermelon here is the juiciest and tastiest I have ever tasted. 

– Burmese people can’t get enough of images or statues of Buddha. One cave we went to had more than 8,000 statues in there. That’s a lot of Buddha. 

– Golden Rock is exactly that – a big golden rock. Who knew.

– There is no apparent resentment towards the British. In fact, the people seem quite the Anglophiles and like the Queen, the Premier League and practicing their English. 

At no point did I not feel safe or welcome in Myanmar. 

Definitely a place to revisit, with so much more to see.