Friday, December 31, 2004

The Killing Fields

Three years, eight months, twenty-one days. Every Cambodian knows this number by heart.

On April 17, 1975, an organization known as the Khmer Rouge forcibly took power in Cambodia. On that day the Khmer Rouge evacuated the cities of Cambodia, forcing men, women, children, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly to march for days into the countryside with only the possessions they could carry. Those who refused, or were unable to comply, were killed.

The Khmer Rouge, and their maniacal leader, Pol Pot, claimed to believe in an agrarian utopia where all citizens were farmers, and where everyone was equal. They touted a crimeless society without aggression, corruption, or greed. Yet, the methods they used to create such a “utopia” rank among the most brutal and insidious in human history.

The citizens of Cambodia were forced into slave labor in the fields. People were forced to work 12-15 hours a day growing food for the regime to sell to communist China in exchange for weapons, yet were given at most two meager meals of watery rice gruel a day. Families were shattered, as the fathers were often bludgeoned to death, kids were sent to labor camps spread across the countryside, and mothers and babies were left to die of starvation or disease in the villages.

Many educated Cambodians were considered enemies of the regime, and suffered greatly as a result. The most notorious of Pol Pot’s torture chambers was the prison known as Tuol Sleng Security Prison 21. Formerly a high school in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng was turned into a macabre torture chamber designed to extract “confessions” from the victims before they were murdered in the nearby killing field of Choeung Ek. At the height of the insanity, Tuol Sleng claimed 100 victims a day.

Killing fields dot the Cambodian countryside. At Choeung Ek, 76 mass graves containing 8,985 victims have been exhumed; 43 additional mass graves remain untouched. Fragments of bones and teeth litter the field, as do remnants of clothing worn by victims on the day of their execution. Although most of the victims were bludgeoned to death to save precious ammunition, bullets can be found along the paths between the graves. Nearby trees still bear the scars where the skulls of children were crushed against the trunk.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in an Asia torn apart by Communism and war. The Americans were struggling in Vietnam against the Chinese- and Russian-supported spread of Communism, and North Vietnam wanted to use the Cambodian countryside to advance southward towards Saigon. The fledging Khmer Rouge agreed to help the Vietnamese Communists in exchange for training and support. When America illegally carpet-bombed the eastern half of Cambodia and killed upwards of 250,000 Cambodian citizens, the Khmer Rouge gained legions of angry followers eager to fight the American-backed Cambodian government.

Ironically, it was the Vietnamese that ended Pol Pot’s terror in Cambodia. After Pol Pot ordered numerous incursions into Vietnam, the Communist Vietnamese government roared back on Christmas Day, 1978, taking control of Cambodia in a mere two weeks. Although the Khmer Rouge would continue to fight against the Vietnamese-installed government until 1998, the reign of terror had effectively come to an end three years, eight months, twenty-one days after it had begun.

It is still not known how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Most estimate the death toll to be somewhere between two and three million – over ¼ of the population of Cambodia.

Although the United Nations halfheartedly formed a war crimes tribunal to prosecute the Khmer Rouge leaders for the atrocities they committed against their own people, the UN inexplicably pulled out of the process in 2002. While Pol Pot died in 1998, many former leaders of the Khmer Rouge remain free. Despite heavy pressure from some in the international community, the Cambodian’s people’s search for justice continues.

The Photographs of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are graphic, troubling, and profoundly depressing. The images represented here are just examples of those that can be taken all over Cambodia, as no part of the country was spared the madness. It is deplorable that acts such as these can, and still do, take place in the modern world.

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Thursday, December 30, 2004


The tragedy in the Indian Ocean continues to grow. We have been glued to the news for much of the past three days, and are simply devastated by what we see. The death toll now tops 150,000; over 41,000 in Sri Lanka alone. There is no question in our mind that the people we know are now dead.

We stayed for over a week on the south coast of Sri Lanka - Mirissa, Galle, Unawatuna, Matara, Welligama - these towns where we were are all destroyed. We think of course about what could have been had the timing been off, but think more often about the people we know there. The dive master that took us scuba diving lived less than 200 meters off the beach with his sister and brother. They made us tea after our dive. The staff of the resort where we stayed in Mirissa – dozens of young Sinhalese with perpetual smiles. If they came to work that day they were literally on the beach when the waves hit. The Japanese guy that takes care of the stray dogs on the beach every day. Shit. The stray dogs are gone now too. The Canadian guy we met upcountry in Kandy. He asked us where we had been in Sri Lanka, and what we liked. We raved about Mirissa, and he told us he would definitely go. He could have easily have been there when the waves hit (and one could say it was because of us).

Much of the footage we have seen from Sri Lanka is from Galle. We stayed there for two days. The CNN footage shows the bus station, with buses upside down and on top of each other. We walked through that bus station multiple times every day. The coastal train was also decimated by the waves. We rode the train in Sri Lanka several times, and met many great people.

In Cambodia, we didn't feel a thing. Yes, we know how lucky we are. We look back at the Mirissa and Galle photo galleries, and have difficulty reconciling our Sri Lanka with what we see on BBC World and CNN.

What a devastatingly sad thing this is.

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Monday, December 27, 2004


Yesterday, early in the morning on the day after Christmas, the largest earthquake in 40 years occurred in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Indonesia. This huge quake caused a series of large tsunamis that flattened coastal areas, and swept everything in their path out to sea. The current confirmed death toll is over 21,000 people throughout Asia. The hardest hit areas are Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Indonesia, but people have been killed as far away as the Seychelles and the east coast of Africa. Thousands are still missing, and the death toll seems certain to rise.

This frightening disaster did not reach us in Cambodia. We didn't feel the quake, and didn't learn of the tragedy until we arrived back at our hotel last night after a long day of visiting the amazing temples of Angkor.

We consider ourselves unbelievably lucky, as we were on the south coast of Sri Lanka less than a month ago, and that area has been decimated by the waves (10,000 dead in Sri Lanka so far). Watching the news reports is shocking and devastatingly sad, as it seems an absolute certainly that the people we met and befriended in Sri Lanka have perished in this disaster.

What an unbelievable tragedy. It is a very sad day.

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Sunday, December 26, 2004

Welcome to Cambodia

Over the past millennium Cambodia’s fortunes have spanned the spectrum. A thousand years ago, the great civilization of Angkor was the most powerful in the world, with a capital city twenty times the size of London. On the other hand, just twenty years ago the Khmer Rouge decimated what remained of the once-great civilization, and, in its ridiculous quest for the perfect agrarian utopia, brutally forced the modern nation of Cambodia to its knees.

With such a varied history, and the overwhelming legacy of recent war and famine, many questions arise about modern day Cambodia. What is it like? How do people live and survive? How do people deal with the horrible specter of the Khmer Rouge, and the recent and brutal war? Several good books filled in part of the picture for us, but until we arrived, the questions remained. The reality is that modern Cambodia is a fantastic place, with spectacular architecture, a thriving society, and the warmest people we have met in our travels thus far.

The capital city of Phnom Penh is a thriving, vibrant city. The streets are lined with quaint shops and sidewalk cafes, and the city is dotted with spectacular parks. The architecture is a fascinating mix of French Colonial and both modern and ancient Khmer style. It is well on its way of reclaiming its title as “The Jewell of Asia.” If you get the chance, go. You won’t be disappointed.

Enjoy the Phnom Penh Photo Gallery.

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Saturday, December 18, 2004


A picture of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is worth a thousand words (or at least 120 elephants).

Enjoy the Elephant Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Elephant Videos:
Elephant Migration
Wide Load
Baby Peanut
Jumbo Dinner

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Misty Mountain Hop

Away from the palm fringed beaches, the brilliant white sand, and the impossibly clear water of the Southern Coast, lies a different Sri Lanka. Steeply forested hillsides rise up to meet the clouds, waterfalls thunder from the sky, and mist hangs over the endless green carpet of tea plantations. The interior of Sri Lanka is a different world.

We journeyed to the interior along the southern edge of the island, with stops in the colonial Dutch town of Galle and the Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project. As we turned north towards the mountains, the clouds closed in and the rain began to fall.

The de facto capital of the misty interior is the hip urban town of Kandy. Set along the shore of a spectacular lake, and surrounded by lush, jungle-draped hillsides, Kandy has a modern vibe missing from the rural towns of Sri Lanka. Cosmopolitan food, a myriad of shops and galleries, and beautiful colonial architecture combine to make Sri Lanka’s second largest town hum.

At the other end of Sri Lanka’s rickety mountain railway the sleepy town of Ella sits contemplatively, enjoying the best view on the island. Clinging to a hillside at the head of the Ella Gap, Ella gazes south through a thickly forested canyon more than 100 kilometers to the sunny coast. Unlike the bustle of Kandy, Ella is about sitting on a terrace, drinking tea, and watching the setting sun paint the surrounding peaks in crimson.

The interior of Sri Lanka offers the perfect juxtaposition to the spectacular ocean beaches of the coast. The result? Sri Lanka is a destination that has it all.

Enjoy the Interior Sri Lanka Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the video of Monkeys Wrestling on our Hotel Balcony.

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Pinch Me, I’m In Sri Lanka

A typical day in Mirissa, Sri Lanka:

6:00 a.m. – Wake up, walk 15 meters to the beach
6:05 a.m. – Watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean
6:10 a.m. – run
7:00 a.m. – swim
7:15 a.m. – breakfast
8:00 a.m. – swim
8:30 a.m. – read
9:30 a.m. – swim
10:00 a.m. – sleep
11:00 a.m. – swim
11:30 a.m. – leave the beach, walk 2 meters to the pool, swim
12:00 p.m. – return to the beach, read
1:00 p.m. – sleep
2:00 p.m. – swim
2:30 p.m. – lunch
3:30 p.m. – swim
4:00 p.m. – afternoon tea
5:00 p.m. – swim
5:30 p.m. – read
6:00 p.m. – watch sunset while swimming
6:30 p.m. – leave beach, walk 15 meters back to cabana, clean up
7:00 p.m. – walk 15 meters to beach restaurant, eat dinner
9:00 p.m. – walk along the beach
9:30 p.m. – leave beach, walk 15 meters back to cabana, sleep

Mirissa, Sri Lanka Factoids:

- The Indian Ocean is 82 degrees, and impossibly clear
- Pineapple with every meal is a good thing
- Sri Lanka has an amazing variety of fish swimming around its reefs
- Building sandcastles is still fun
- A vacation from your vacation is a surprisingly good concept

Enjoy the Mirissa Photo Gallery.

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