S21 – 7/3/2013

Written by Josh (aged 14)

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh was the Tuol Svay Pray High School, until it was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge and renamed S21 or security prison 21.  S21 was used to torture, interrogate and execute prisoners and was one of well over 150 torture and execution centers throughout Cambodia.  Prisoners were either tortured to death or sent to Choeung Ek (killing fields) for what they thought was re-education, but really it was their execution.  It is believed that over 12 000 people were imprisoned and there were only 7 known survivors.  Since the Khmer Rouge, the building has had another name change and is now called the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. 

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S21 is a former Khmer Rouge prison, but as you enter through the gates it looks like any secondary school from the 1970s, until you enter the buildings.  We visited the four buildings starting with building A. 

In 1979, Vietnamese photographer Ho Van Tay and a colleague followed the smell of dead bodies into the S21.  In Building A they discovered and photographed 14 dead people, including one women.  The building is furnished to replicate how it was when used as a prison and contains photographs of Ho’s discovery.

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Building B is where prisoners were forced to give detailed autobiographies beginning with their childhood until their arrest and to make fake confessions.  A majority of the prisoners were also photographed, before being stripped to their underwear and possessions confiscated. It is believed that despite foreigners evacuating from Cambodia in 1975, over 500, mainly Vietnamese and Thai, but also some Americans, British, New Zealanders and an Australian who had been traveling in Cambodia at the time, where taken prisoner.  None of the foreigners survived. Today Building B is a museum and contains nearly 6 000 faces of the photographed prisoners.

Building C was the most interesting as it still had all the original barbed wire across the windows to stop prisoners from escaping or committing suicide. There are biographies of the people that were part of the Khmer Rouge organization.  There are three levels of small prison cells that remain exactly as they were in the 70s.

Building D was very sad because it held stories of the tortures of the prisoners and detailed descriptions of how the tortures were carried out by the Khmer Rouge.  Some of the torture mechanisms used on the prisoners include electric shocks, pulling out fingernails and then pouring alcohol over them, holding prisoners heads under water, searing skin with hot metal instruments and sometimes raping women prisoners.  Only seven prisoners survived.

During our visit one of the survivors of the S21, Chum Mey, was seated in the courtyard with a book he has written about his time in S21.  He apparently spends a lot of time there and happily talks to tourists about his experiences.  We did not stop to talk to him, he had a bit of a queue.

Betelnut Tour – 6/3/2013

Written by Max (aged 9)

Our Visit

For my birthday we went on the Betelnut Tour.  The tour took us to a sanctuary.  When we arrived there were lots of sambar deer, who were really tame, they let us pat them. 

Our guide yelled, ‘Holy Shit’ so we all turned to look at her and she pointed to a beautiful bird, called the black necked stork and our guide said she has never seen one before and that we were really lucky to see it.  We decided to continue on and were followed by sambar deer as we went and then a little munt jac deer, the second smallest in the world followed too.

We had what we call the ‘killer bird incident’ next.  A bird started squarking and chasing us, so we all did the logical thing and ran, except Tristan who stood frozen still.  The bird was pecking at him and flapping its wings so Dad got to be the hero and with a stick started sword fighting it so Tristan could escape. 

We continued on to look at the primates and I held hands with a blind gibbon, who didn’t want to let my hand go. 

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We also got to feed otters some smelly fish.

We stopped for lunch and lay in the hammocks in the picnic area and then we had cake.

After lunch we visited the sun bears, who came close to the fence.

Our final stop was to visit the elephant enclosure.  There was a teenage elephant who had lost part of his leg and had been given a prosthetic and was learning to walk with it.  He is the first elephant to get one.

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Information on Betelnut Tour

The Betelnut Tour takes you to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, home to 1200 endangered and rescued animals. Native animals at the center include gibbons, sun-bears, tigers, elephants, deer and more. There are opportunities to pat deer, feed the otters some fish, pat the gibbons and get chased by large birds, as we discovered.

Betelnut Tours have been coming to the Center for 14 years and run a well organised tour picking up from the Lazy Gecko Cafe.  The tour provides a delicious lunch and even organised a cake for Max’s birthday.

Would I recommend the trip?  Regardless of calling it a rescue center, it is still basically a zoo and many of the animals remain in enclosures.  We were looking for something kid friendly to do for Max’s birthday and it suited the need.  As a couple would I visit the center?  Probably not.  As a family looking for a break from Khmer Rouge attractions? Possibly.  The kids enjoyed the day and that had been our aim.

Betelnut Tour Information

Tour Price:

  • Adults $40 USD
  • Children under 12: $35 USD

Tour Times:

  • Pickup is at 9.45 and return at between 5 – 5.30 pm
  • Tours are available on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
  • Pickup is from the Lazy Gecko Cafe in Phnom Penh

https://betelnut.tours/

Quad Bikes and the Killing Fields – 5/3/2013

Written by Tristan (aged 12)

Arriving at the Quad Bike Tour place of business, we were given a demonstration of how to use the gears and the throttle.  As all of us kids were under 16, we were not allowed to drive the quad bikes, but when we reached the countryside, Josh and I were able to have a go.  As we were driving around we were greeted by the local kids who waved at us or shook our hands and some even high fived us.

Arriving back at the tour company we caught a tuk-tuk to the killing fields.  A bit of a contrast really, having fun on the quad bikes and then visiting a site where so many suffered horrific deaths.

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, seized power of Cambodia in 1975 and reigned terror over the population for four years. The Khmer Rouge’s dictatorship aimed to make Cambodia a classless society based on agriculture, while ignoring the rest of the world.  People were rounded up and set to the countryside to work on the farms, separating families and working under appalling condition.  Anyone who protested or spoke badly of the Khmer Rouge or who didn’t conform, found themselves in prisons spread through Cambodia.  It’s believed that 20% or around 1.7 million of Cambodia’s population were killed.

The killing fields are a former extermination camp that ran between 1975 and 1978 and is believed to have executed about 17 000 men, women and children.  In 1980 some of the mass graves were exhumed, while other remain as is, although with heavy rain bones and clothing have risen to the surface.

You are given an audio guide which features Him Huy, a guard and executioner who explains the killing fields. During the Khmer Rouge’s reign, the once burial of the Chinese who lived in Phnom Pehn was taken over and used for executions and to house a mass grave and is now known as ‘the killing fields’.

Our first stop was the loading area where trucks came to drop off people, who though they were being moved to a new location but actually being brought there to be executed.

 ‘The Killing Tree’ is a very sad reminder of the fate of so many babies, who were held by their feet and swung into the tree trunk to crush their skulls.  Apparently as bullets were scarce the use of bludgeoning victims to death was the chosen method.  It’s hard to believe that mass genocide is repeated time and time again, will we ever learn from the past. 

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A nearby tree has speakers which the Khmer Rouge would play loud propaganda music to cover up the screams of the dying.  Today at the end of the tour you can hear the propaganda music.

There are glass boxes filled with clothing of the prisoners after their execution and other cases with approximately 8 000 skulls, jaws, teeth and other bones categorised into male and female and also age groups.

Also in the center is a prison which held people overnight prior to their execution. 

Tourist Information

We did a tour with the Blazing Trails Quad Bike Tour.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre Tourist Information:

Opening Hours:

  • 8 am – 5 pm

Entrance Fee:

  • $6 USD

Information updated in May 2019

Bamboo Train – 3/3/2013

Written by Max – aged 8

History of the Bamboo Train

Originally the French had built a train network throughout Cambodia, but during the Kmer reign it was shut down and abandoned.  After the Khmer Rouge reign ended, a UN peacekeeping operation began in the early 1990s to help the country.  The bamboo train or in Khmer the norry was introduced to enable the country to transport goods along the northern rail line. 

The bamboo train is essentially a bamboo platform covered with a rug which sits upon two sets of wheels and operates via a motor at the rear.  The train can reach speeds of up to 50 km an hour and runs between Battambang and Poipet.

Our Experience

We went to Battambang and bought tickets for the bamboo train.  We all sat on the mat, there are no seats or seatbelts and the train started to move slowly, it wasn’t long before it sped up and the ride became very bumpy.

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We had to stop when another train was coming towards us, as it is only a single track.  Whoever has the least people or things on the train has to disassemble theirs, until the train has passed and then reassemble it.  Assembly means removing the wooden top and lifting off the sets of wheels.

Tourist Information

After our visit the bamboo train was shut down in 2017 so the government could rebuild the rail line.  However the bamboo train has re-opened now with the function of offering tourists a chance to experience the train. It has also been moved to Wat Banan and re-opened in January 2018

Price: $5 USD

Opening Hours: 12 am – Midnight

Tourist Information updated May 2015

Le Tigre de Papier Cooking School – 2/3/2013

Written by Josh (aged 14)

After arriving at the cooking school we were given menus and were able to choose a starter, main and dessert.  I chose for my starter: spring rolls, main: chicken curry and dessert: mango and sticky rice.

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We then went on a tour of the local markets where our chef showed us the different fruit and vegetables eaten in Cambodia and we also saw pig heads and brains.

Our chef showed us how to cut the vegetables for the spring rolls and we all did our own.  Personally I think the Cambodian spring rolls were easier to make than in Thailand and tasted just as good.

The next step was using the pestle and mortar and we spent about 10 minutes of furious pounding to create our curry paste.  We asked the chef if she always uses the pestle and mortar and she replied, “no we usually use the blender”, now she tells us. 

After having cut up the meat and vegetables, we spent about 10 minutes cooking our curry.

It was then time to take a seat at the dining room table and enjoy our meals.  They were delicious and my spring rolls turned out much better than the ones I had made in Thailand.  We didn’t have to make the mango and sticky rice, it was already made.

For dinner that night we found a restaurant serving different types of meat.  Tristan and Dad ate ostrich, kangaroo and crocodile.

Tourist Information:

Cooking classes are held daily and are available at the following times:

  • 10 am
  • 1 pm
  • 5 pm

The classes last approximately 3 hours and include:

  • Visit of the market (30-45 mins)
  • Preparation (1.5-2 hours depends on class size)
  • Meal

Cost:

  • The cost for the course which includes a starter, main course and dessert is $21 USD (I think there was a discount for children)

https://www.papertigereatery.com/cooking_class

Tourist Information updated May 2019

Tonle Sap Lake -28/2/2013

Written by Tristan (aged 12)

Tonle Sap is a largest freshwater lake in south-east Asia and is replenished during the wet season.  Tonle Sap’s name is derived from Khmer, tonle meaning large river and Sap meaning fresh, not salty.  The lake is connected to the Tonle Sap River which joins to the Mekong River.  Interestingly fishing is not allowed during the wet season, to allow the fish to breed, but when the lake starts emptying into the Mekong during the dry season, the fishermen are allowed to fish again.  A majority of the 400 000 tons of freshwater fish caught each year comes from the Tonley Sap Lake. Likewise when the dry season starts is when the farmers surrounding the lake plant their rice.  As the quantity of rice produced is dependent on the rainfall, there are many festivals and celebrations to honor the gods in the hope of good rainfall.

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The river feeds the lake between May or June to October or November, during the annual monsoon.  When the lake has reached its peak and the monsoon season is over, it is also the time that the Mekong River is at its lowest.  This causes a reversal in the river flow system, resulting in the water draining from the lake through the Tonle Sap River and refilling the Mekong River.  So basically the river flows from the Mekong to the Lake for 6 months and then from the Lake to the Mekong for six months.

We were collected from our hotel bright and early at 5.30 am to board a boat on the Tonle Sap Lake. Unfortunately fairly early on it was obvious the boat had some serious problems.  So we floated on the lake until a replacement boat arrived.

We visited some of the floating villages on the lake.  Approximately 1 000 people live permanently on the lake and 90% of them are Vietnamese and the remainder are Cham communities.

At one of the floating villages we went to we were taken on a smaller boat to go bird watching.  There were great egrets that are easily recognizable with their white feathers and hooked neck.  We also saw black birds with beady eyes, yellow billed birds, yellow footed birds and brown pelicans.

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre and Banteay Srei – 27/2/2013

Our Visit is written by Ava (aged 7) and mum wrote the background information.

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre

Background Information

The Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre (BBC) works with farmers in the Siem Reap Province by training them on how to farm native species of butterflies.  They also help raise awareness of the importance of conserving natural habitats.  Butterfly farms offer a sustainable income to rural communities because it requires forests, so there is no habitat destruction or effect on endangered species.  

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What is butterfly farming?  Butterfly farming is the breeding of pupae which is exported to overseas zoos and exhibitions.  Farmers arrange a netted enclosure and establish plants edible by the type of butterfly to be raised.  A female butterfly is either caught or bought and kept in the enclosure to lay her eggs.  Once the eggs are laid the farmer will place them in a special container, where they hatch after 10 -14 days, depending on the species.  After the caterpillars emerge they are relocated to their food plants until they pupate approximately 14 days later.  During pupation the larvae attach to a leaf or stick and shed their skin to form pupae.  At this point the farmer will sell the majority of the pupae, while retaining some for further breeding.

The BBC also operates an exhibition where they have a netted tropical garden with thousands of free flying Cambodian butterflies.  Guides lead you through the centre explaining the project’s goals and the life-cycle of the butterfly.

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Our Visit

We went to the butterfly centre.  Our guide Lux took us see the butterfly’s life cycle.  We saw four things.  First an egg and it was yellow.  Second is the caterpillar and some are poisonous if you eat them.  Third is the cocoon which shakes if something lands on it.  Fourth is the butterfly, which can fly away from danger.

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After that we saw a stick insect.  I almost killed it when I dropped it.

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Banteay Srei

Background Information

Banteay Srei is a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva that dates to the 10th century.  The temple was originally called Tribhuvanamahesvara, but was later changed to Banteay Srei, meaning ‘Citadel of Women‘ or ‘Citadel of beauty.‘ It is speculated that it was renamed due to the pink colour of the limestone and the intricate carvings of female deities on the walls.  Along with its official names, the temple has many nicknames including; ‘The Lady Temple,’  ‘The Pink Temple,’ ‘Precious Gem,’ ‘Jewel of Khmer Art’ and ‘The Tiny Temple.’ The temple is primarily constructed with red limestone, giving it the pink hue that its famous for.  The composition of the limestone is soft, enabling the elaborate carving that still exists today. The buildings are miniature in size in comparison to other Angkor constructions. 

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Inscriptions found at Banteay Srei show the temple was officially dedicated on the 22nd of April 967 AD.  This temple is the only one found to have been constructed by someone other than the King.  In this case it is attributed to Yajnavaraha, a courtier and King’s counselor. The temple remained in use until the 14th century.

While the temple was rediscovered in 1914, it didn’t receive further attention until after a French politician and novelist stole from the site, prompting restoration work to begin.

The gate on the east side of the site leads you along a causeway, passing three enclosures before reaching the central temple. 

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Gateway

The causeway and beautiful doorways.

 Throughout the complex the surfaces are carved with detailed motifs, animals and flowers. 

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The details in the carvings are truly spectacular

The highlight of the temple is the inner enclosure which features the most elaborate buildings and carvings and incorporates the libraries and sanctuary. 

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Horse Riding – 26/2/2013

Written by Ava (aged 7)

We went to ‘Happy Farm’.  We saw lots of horses and patted a baby one, his name was Samson.  They told us our horses names; Mexico, Oliver, Silver, Baloo, Cocoa and Geronimo.  The man explained to us the different commands to use on the horses.  We then got on our horses, mine was named Geronimo.

We walked through the farm land and when we walked through water mine went wild and bolted.  I thought I was going to fall off.  The man calmed it down.  I was brave.  Then we rode back to the farm and had a drink.  It was fun.

Tourist Information:

Cost:

Countryside trail ride:

  • 1 hour – $38 USD
  • 2 hours: $60 USD
  • 3 hours: $75 USD
  • 4 hours: $95 USD

Operating Hours:

Trail rides are offered from 1 to 4 hours in length and they operate from sunrise to sunset.  The rides take you through countryside villages and rice fields.

Reservations:

You can either fill out a booking form by clicking here or going to the website: https://www.thehappyranch.com/reservation.html OR you can email your request to info@thehappyranch.com

Further Information:

  • Address: Group 4, Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap Angkor, Kingdom of Cambodia
  • Phone: +85512 920 002 │ +85516 920 002 │ 85597 792 000 2
  • Website: https://www.thehappyranch.com/

Tourist information updated May 2019

Ta Prohm – 25/2/2013

Ta Prohm remains in the shadows of the surrounding jungle, it’s towers and walls embraced by trees, while their vast root system dislodges the stone flooring, slowly causing the structures to crumble. While the tree encroached structures may be the most distinctive feature, there are smaller things like lichen and moss covering the walls and roofs that enable the visitors to experience what the first explorers did. 

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Brief History

Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple constructed in 1186 by Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother.  Inscriptions found on the temple by archaeologists, show that the building was used as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and a university.  Approximately 12 500 lived within the temple complex, including 2700 officials, 18 high priests and 615 dancers and a further 80 000 people lived in surrounding villages that provided supplies and services.

In the 15th century after the fall of the Khmer Empire, Ta Prohm was abandoned for centuries.  It was decided during the restoration works of Angkor in the 21st century, that Ta Prohm would be essentially remain as it had been found, merged with the jungle and picture perfect.  Ta Prohm has had extensive work to stabilize the structures within the complex stopping further damage and creating a safe environment for visitors.   

Our Visit

We visited Ta Prohm after lunch, the hottest part of the day and it was hot.  By the time we reached the site we were all red faced and sweaty.  There is so much to see that it is hard to know where to start.  Many of the towers, courtyards and corridors are impassable either due to buckled walkways or dislodged stone blocks from the tree roots, but you get the idea of what discovers first encountered. 

Ta Prohm was formerly named Rajavihara, meaning the monastery of the King and after the release of the movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider in 2001, the temple has also become known as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple.’  The scene in the movie where Laura Croft picks a Jasmine flower below a tree, prior to falling through the stone floor, has become a popular spot for tourist.  The location is so popular, that they have roped off the area and designated it a photo taking spot. While it is a very cool spot for a photo, there are similar ones nearby, that are less crowded and without having to join a queue.

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The tree made famous by the movie Tomb Raider

Similar style photo opportunities as the Tomb Raider one, but without the crowds.

Towards the end of our visit the kids were hot and sweaty and quite happy to sit and chat on the crumbling formations, than look around any further.