Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Carnage in the Cardamoms


Bullet points

-After 3 days resting in Phnom Penh we caught a bus north west to Pursat and from there rode west into the Cardamom Mountains.
-Riding via Pra Maoy and Ou Soam we traversed south through the hills to Koh Kong in the far south west of Cambodia.

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In the dull grey of the morning we ride slowly and quietly through this demolition site, speechless, both aware the other is deep in thought and shocked by the scene we behold. All manner of rubbish lines the roadsides, thousands of small stumps protrude from the burnt bare ground, charred logs lie scattered and wasted, some grand old trunks still stand but have been reduced to blackened lifeless remains. People squat under their little bamboo shacks, cooking breakfast over a small open fire, huge overhead lines run high above us, taking power from the many hydro electric schemes, and yet the local villages  are drip-fed only 3-4 hours electricity each day. What on earth has happened here? The place is a mystery, a horror, an apocalyptic-like scene. I find myself wanting to hear what the few chirping birds would have to say. If only they could speak my language and give me an honest account of historical events here. 

Deforestation near Pra Moy.

 Some of my questions were soon answered as I sat and read another chapter of ‘Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land’ by Joel Brinkley. As it turns out, the worst of what happened here happened quite some years back. Many of us have heard of the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they brought upon Cambodian people through the late 1970’s. What I’ve since discovered about Cambodia’s more recent history is almost equally appalling.

More deforestation. Pursat Province.

Deforestation and hydro-electric lake near Ou Soam

After being thrown from power after their short yet crippling four years the Khmer Rogue retreated to the region of Pailin, just north of our route through the Cardamom mountains. Left to their own devices and powerless to rule the country any longer they took little time in setting about gaining all they could for themselves, stripping the region of its rich forests and illegally exporting the timber across the border, mainly to Thailand. In a very short period of time Pol Pot and a small number of his buddies that he hadn’t already turned on became extremely rich men at the expense of large tracts of Cambodia’s forests, the lifeblood for people living in these rural areas.  This is all shocking but shouldn’t come as a great surprise that a man responsible for the death of around 2 million people would then go on and carry out further evil acts. What came as news to me though was the acts of the current Cambodian Government.

After the UN occupation of Cambodia in 1992 current Prime Minister Hun Sen shared power of the country with Prince Ranariddh. In a letter to the Thai Government they outlined that they were the only individuals allowed to approve timber exports and that all exports would occur through the Ministry of Defence! In reality what happened is that these two ‘leaders’ sold logging concessions to their fellow government officials, friends, and family, they pocketed the proceeds from the concessions and their mates ravaged Cambodia’s forests and pocketed the proceeds from the export sales. The local people who had forever survived by living off the forest were now left with no forest. So it was for much of our 260km journey from Pursat through the Cardamom Mountains to Koh Kong, there was in fact very little forest remaining. This area must have been an incredible place, the small sections of wonderful jungle we passed through with the sounds of tropical birds and gibbons a fleeting glimpse of what once must have been widespread across much of Cambodia.
Deforestation and overhead lines carrying electricity the locals can look at but can't have.

More dams under construction.

Typical village. Cardamom Mountains.
 The ride was a tough little adventure, packing in plenty of kilometres, plenty of gravel road and plenty of hills, with temperatures way too hot to be combining such things! Cycling in the heat on smooth flat roads has always turned out to be a surprisingly okay experience for us, the cooling of the breeze we generate always offers relief. Hill climbing on the other hand gets the body working so much harder and is so much slower that we don’t generate any air flow. Grinding our way up yet another steep climb with temperatures sitting around 40 degrees I swear I have never felt so unbearably hot in my life. My chest burned and my head felt about to implode! A new experience I hope not to repeat too often, yet at the same time strangely fun to widen one’s physical experiences in life! We arrived in Koh Kong pretty thrashed, happy we’d sidetracked and gotten off the beaten track, yet saddened and challenged to have witnessed such a beaten land. This was a side of Cambodia we hadn’t previously entered into.

Good gritty adventures.

Digging deep: Dust, heat and hills.

Thankfully some stunning forest filled with wonderful life does still remain.

Big country of the Cardamoms.

Final descent to Koh Kong.

Who would take these scruffs into their hotel??
 Further reading has revealed more of the awful situation Cambodians still face today. Corruption is rampant, engrained. People are being regularly thrown off their land as it’s sold to developers, it is not at all uncommon for activists and journalists to be jailed or even killed. Factory workers rallies are currently banned in Phnom Penh’s ‘Freedom Square’. Police have been paid cash bonus’s by interior Minister Sar Kheng for their work in controlling previous rallies, where beatings and killings have occurred. Many children must pay teachers a small sum on a daily basis before being allowed to enter class, the sick pay Doctors if they want to be attended to, drivers routinely pay Police a small sum if they want to avoid a larger fine. At every election time opposition party members are bribed and many are killed. These murders have repeatedly gone uninvestigated. Millions of dollars from international donors go missing every year. A tourist I spoke to was pulled over by Police and fined for not showing his drivers licence, the fine was $50 if he wanted a receipt, but could be reduced to $10 if he was happy not to have a receipt!
Hun Sen and his cronies from the Cambodia People's Party (CPP). Propaganda has lined the roadside from the first very kilometre we entered Cambodia. I think you do a little better in Cambodia if you have a CPP billboard in your front yard.

Does not apply if you are high up in CPP.
 For us Cambodia has been a pretty challenging experience, the insights gained from travelling and reading a relevant book simultaneously are quite profound. We have experienced beauty and kindness, and we have caught just a little glimpse of the devastation and oppression that so many Cambodians live under daily.  

Ollie

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