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Kindness defeats the Killing Fields: Falling in love with Cambodia and its determination to escape the horrors of the past

By Nigel Planer For The Mail On Sunday 21:01 30 Jun 2018


I'm in a village square in the middle of Cambodia; a teenager is showing off his football skills among a group of toddlers who are chasing him around and trying to tackle him.

He's quite good, with a repertoire that includes step-overs, keepie-uppies and fake shots.

The only thing unusual about the scene is that the teenager is a Buddhist monk in full saffron robes and flip flops. His head is completely shaved.

Must-see: The Ta Prohm temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Must-see: The Ta Prohm temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Many young people become monks or nuns for a few years in Cambodia. It's a way of gaining an education and going on to university.

Of course they have to swear to obey the Buddhist 'precepts', such as no sex and no eating after lunch, but all in all it doesn't seem too bad a deal, considering that it's not for life.

I'm in an out-of-the-way part of Cambodia, halfway up the Mekong river on the way to the riverside town of Kratie. I got here by what has to be the best possible method, a shallow-draft river cruiser, or Pandaw.

Traditions: A Pandaw, a shallow-draft river cruiser, on the Mekong river
Traditions: A Pandaw, a shallow-draft river cruiser, on the Mekong river

The good thing about going by river is that you can get to places that might take hours of uncomfortable road travel to access and so you see more of the people and real workings of a country.

Gentle breezes, the world going past, tantalising sounds from the shore and daily excursions from the boat make this a relaxing as well as an active trip. Not having to unpack every day is another bonus.

From the village square, we go out in small motor launches to try to catch a glimpse of the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, up in the shallow water past Kratie. After half an hour or so of eye-straining, we spot a couple of them. There is much excitement and the motor launches all lunge forward in pursuit – only to scare the creatures off.

Some of our group train their long-lens cameras, hoping to get a National Geographic-style picture. It's impossible of course, because the moment you spot one, it disappears, then pops up somewhere else completely unexpected.

The shot might be somewhat disappointing in any case. These freshwater dolphins are not as good-looking as the more well-known bottle-nosed ones. They are darker, jump about less nimbly, and look uncannily like a large sock filled with sand. They are very rare, however, and that’s why tourists want to see them.

Other excursions from the mothership included rides on cycle rickshaws through the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, and across rice fields in ox-carts, walking in villages and through markets, visits to family houses, to palaces and temples, visits by small boat to floating and stilt villages, and a peaceful sampan journey through the inland waterways of the delta.

There were a couple of day trips that weren't so lovely, but were nevertheless essential, in my opinion, to understanding Cambodia.

In the landmine museum outside Siem Reap, there's a kid's painting on the wall. It shows, at first glance, a lovely scene – rice fields, palm trees, blue skies, and a lake. But down by the lake’s shore are mangled bodies of children, blood pouring, limbs lying nearby and families around them, all crying.

Landmines are still a problem in remoter parts of Cambodia even now. The museum was set up by an uncle-and-nephew team who fought on different sides during the Cambodian civil war in the 1970s.

They spent 20 years defusing landmines but they're not allowed to do it any more, because their home-made efforts don't meet international safety requirements. So they started the museum.

In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge and its child army, under Pol Pot, laid mines all across the country. Areas on the country's north east border are still uncleared.

There's a scene in Angelina Jolie's brilliant film First They Killed My Father, where Loung Ung, the little girl at the centre of the story, treads fearfully through a forest where she had been forced to plant mines, while people running past her are being blown up. Loung wrote the memoir on which the film is based.

We visited the landmine museum on our way back from an even more gruelling trip to one of the infamous Killing Fields. I agonised about doing this one. It did not promise to make the holiday go with a zing. But in the end, I felt I ought to go – to bear witness, to show respect, and also because I'd feel cowardly if I chickened out.

It's important not to forget, and the Cambodian people we met were keen that we should go.

It's a horrible piece of recent history. In just two years, eight months and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill more than two-and-a-half million people – almost a quarter of the population.

At the Killing Fields there is a tower of skulls. They are stacked behind glass, five thousand of them – just a small proportion of the dead from this site alone. There are boardwalks across a muddy field where teeth, bones and rags still lie.

Our visit also took in the grim Tuol Sleng S21 detention centre, where thousands of people were tortured and killed and where I met one of the only two survivors, the remarkably cheerful Chum Mey, an old bloke who was signing copies of his book, Survivor.

A farmer ploughs in the centuries-old
A farmer ploughs in the centuries-old
Warning: A landmine sign
Warning: A landmine sign

I know it sounds grim, but somehow the optimism, openness and cheerfulness of the people we met made this visit worthwhile.

Yes, perhaps they are putting on a brave face – they wouldn't want to depress the tourists – but most seemed fine talking about their families and their losses. The phrase that kept being repeated was 'So sad, but we go forward now', and it was said with a smile.

It was odd to come away full of optimism from such a place, and prepare to return to a dull, grey, pessimistic, Brexit-limbo UK.

On the last day, we got up at 4.30am to see the sunrise over the massive temples at Angkor Wat. There's at least a week's worth of temples to see here, and it's easy to get 'templed out', so the one I would definitely recommend, if you see no other, is Ta Prohm, known as 'The Tomb Raider' temple – yes, the one where Tomb Raider and parts of Raiders Of The Lost Ark were filmed.

This was where Angelina first fell in love with Cambodia, and it's easy to see why.

This strange, haunting ruin has giant tree roots growing up all over it, as if monsters from the deep invaded and then became frozen in time.

Something beautifully captured in Angelina's movie is the fact that despite its involvement in the Vietnam War, and the later horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is still one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with some of the most charming people.

Writer and actor Nigel Planer (Neil in the 1980s classic the Young Ones) has just published a new book, a comedy set in 1910 London available on:



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Denzil O’Brien posted in Dec 2022

My partner Annie and I have now been fortunate enough to experience 6 or 7 Pandaw trips over the last 15 years. I also visited the Killing Fields and the prison during our trip to Cambodia many years ago. I echo Nigel’s mixed reactions to the experience. It is truly challenging, and to this day I find I cannot talk about it without tearing up. I went in response to our wonderful Pandaw guide, who was adamant that the West needs to remember the horror of the Pol Pot years, in order to prevent such a thing happening again. It is easy to forget that the Australian government recognised the Pol Pot regime, and we Australians mostly did nothing about it. I am very happy to have visited the Killing Fields, despite their lasting effect on me, as I can stand witness to the horror, and speak up against such horrors recurring.


Barry & Jan Hailstone posted in Dec 2022

I’ve had this experience as a Pandaw Traveller and it is one of the most interesting and enjoyable journeys I have ever made. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have been to many places this Pandaw experience is hard to exceed.


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