30 May 2009

Je T'aime Kep Sur La Mer: Getting Crabs

Given Vancouver's proximity to the ocean and its hordes of cruise ship tourists looking to spend a lot of US cash, you would think that seafood restaurants would line our beaches – fresh fish chargrilled to order, salmon cedar-planked in front of you, baskets of still pinching lobster and crab plunged into their final boiling baths. But in reality – we don't really have any of this. Our closest big city neighbour – Seattle – capitalizes on its coastal location and port city past with an abundance of seafood restaurants both retro-kitschy and high end. But not us- NoFunCouver. We prefer to ship our pongy gold to Asia, Europe and America, leaving our beaches devoid of my favourite kind of eatery – the Crab Shack.

Ah, the very words bring up images of mythical sounding New England towns – Hyannisport, Kennebunkport, Bar Harbour - of 1950's stereotypes named Biff and Todd taking their gals to the local Crab Shack to gad about with Kennedy cousins and hand-jiving beach bunnies, getting directions to that night's clambake. I can imagine Archie's gang going to a Crab Shack on a weekend trip to a seaside town where they would be labeled “townies” by the locals, and Gidget - she would eat at a Crab Shack, hell, she'd surf her way right up to the front door and then join Annette Funnicelo and Frankie Avalon for some Beach Blanket Bingo when she was through.

I suppose it is the lack of this kind of beach culture in my own seaside city that has exotified it for me – and why when I heard that the crab capital of South East Asia (and I'd be willing to bet all of Asia) was located in the South of Cambodia in a sleepier than sleepy place called Kep I marked the map and set off.

Located less than 100 km from the frenzied party beaches of Sihanoukville on Cambodia's coast and a stone's throw from the Vietnamese border, Kep is a gloriously laid back town. Formerly a French seaside get-away called Kep Sur Mer, the troubled decades (to put it lightly) since independence have left the grand buildings to decay to mere skeletons, now filled with squatters who care for the vast gardens and string up hammocks in the empty, weather exposed halls. It is Kep's ruined villas and ornately stone walled vacant lots that give the place a deserted, haunted vibe – and an eerie ghosttown beauty.

There is almost nothing to do here – the beach is rocky and brown (the French had white sand trucked in during Kep's heydays) the ocean raging and grey, and everything is connected by meandering country roads and so when you find out that I spent three days here you have to realize that it was for one reason.....

....for Khmer people, the name Kep is synonomous with fresh steaming buckets of crab, and they swarm this unassuming stretch of sand every weekend in search of the stuff. Yes, I'll admit it – we came for the same reason. Good ole' crabby gold.

Our first full day we chartered a fishing boat and headed to nearby Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) – a near- deserted island inhabited by a few dozen Khmer catering to daytrippers from Kep. Rubberlegged upon reaching the shore from the bucking waves as we crossed the channel, we trekked for 15 minutes through lush deserted jungle. We emerged on the other side of the island, to an idyllic beach ringed with tree covered hills. A few crab shacks lined the shore, with hammocks out front and bungalows for rent, and so we chose a spot to lay in, went for a swim in the bathtub-warm water and relaxed in the morning sun.

Eleven-thirty rolled around and my stomach began to growl for lunch (but probably more from anticipation – only hours earlier my guesthouse had added rosemary and oregano from their beautiful little herb garden to my huge omelette– Asia egg win!) As we walked over to the tables, the sky cracked and shuddered and it began pouring rain, the wind whipping off of the water. “Good timing” I said to Sean, as we scanned the menu's offerings of fresh fish. Sean, not convinced that he liked crab (this is a guy that was vegan until 6 months ago and only eats fish in Asia, so he doesn't have a lot of experience with edible sea creatures) chose a small grilled ocean fish and I chose – of course – a medium plate of crab. As we sat and waited for our meal, we watched the owner of the restaurant head out into the sea, wade out to his crab trap anchored offshore and pluck out the unlucky specimens for my lunch – the freshest seafood I have ever eaten.

The crab arrived – 8 smallish guys chopped in half, all 16 pieces piled on the plate and drenched in deliciously oily sauce and freshly cracked Kampot pepper, another local specialty. No nutcrackers here – in Asia you dig into the crab with your fingers and teeth, spitting bits of shell out as you go and basically reveling in the extra sensuality of feeling your food so intimately (there is a saying in India “you first taste with your fingers and then with your tongue” - and it really does add another level of enjoyment.) The taste of this crab was sublime – delicate and fine while still maintaining its plump white meatiness. Each joint, knuckle and bend held a nugget of meat, no matter how small and we slurped and sucked and gorged for over an hour, emptying every coral-pink shell clean – Sean's earlier hesitation long passed. We occasionally paused to look up and beam at one another in a hazy food-drunk way and feed the yowling cat and pregnant dog plaintiffly staring from beneath the table the scraps of the grilled fish we were now ignoring.

The best part of the meal? The price. 3 pounds of ocean-fresh crab, one entire grilled fish and a hefty serving of rice came to 9 Canadian dollars. That is, of course, not including the many ice cold cans of Angkor beer that we downed while waiting for the rain to pass....


The next morning we borrowed the rusted creaky bikes at our guesthouse and cycled around Kep, visiting the huge crab statue (like I said, Cambodians take crab very seriously) pausing to photograph the abandoned architecture, and marveling at the densely forested hills surrounding the rice paddies. And that was nce.....but only a warm up for round 2: Sunset Point and its dozens of oceanfront crab shacks.

With aching asses and tense leg muscles from our shoddy bikes, we chose the second restaurant we poked our head into – the “Fresh Crab Restaurant.” It was late afternoon and the skies were stormy and grey, forcing the waves to splash up right onto the dining platform. In Asia, restaurants that cater to locals have no Western style ambiance. Tables and chairs are plastic, flies buzz around bottles of fish sauce, beer posters line whatever walls there are (sometimes it is just a plastic tent and there are no walls) and the kitchen is an open area often with no electricity, relying rather on tubs of water and charcoal barbeques. We grabbed some plastic chairs far away from the surging tide and ordered our biggest meal yet – 5 pounds of delicious crab stirfried with twigs of fresh green peppercorns.

I gave a silent thanks to whatever wonderful God or Goddess or Saint or Star/Planet Alignment that had made this happen for me twice in as many days and tucked in. This time the waitress provided us with a huge metal bowl of water filled with limes for us to dunk our greasy fingers into as we reached for our Angkor beers or the occasional mouthful of vegetables. Again, nearly one hour passed as we devoured the succulent crabmeat until we were both stuffed. Always the glutton, I looked at Sean earnestly. “Should we order another 5 pounds?” It took him a few minutes of ignoring my big, pleading eyes to talk me out of it.

We cycled back to our bungalow through the winding peaceful roads at dusk, glancing at cows grazing on the oceanfront lots once inhabited by imposing French villas, smelling the sweet frangipani flowers and answering the “Hellos!” of small children, I realized that this small place, despite its brown sand and quiet atmosphere, is one of my favourite places. And that's only partly the crab...

Most backpackers head to Cambodia's beach Valhalla, Sihanoukville, for fun in the sun and Southern Thailand/Bali style partying exploits, claiming that the mediocre beach quality is made up for by all of the clubs, restaurants and activities. But I, for one, will never go to S'Nook. No sir.

I'll be in Kep.

22 May 2009

Vietnam from the Back of a Motorbike - Careening Through Old Hanoi

I thought after all of the countries I have visited in the last 7 months I would discover that the intense love I felt for Vietnam during my brief visit last year would be revealed as more a love for travel and Asia in general. I was wrong. Still, like an addiction, Vietnam feels like home.

I was wondering if Vietnam would feel the same this time, if it would affect me and change and move me the way it did last year. The amazing experience I had then, on a work trip, could be chalked up to a few things: it was practically free, the amazing people I met and traveled with, the fact it was considered 'work" and I got paid to be there and was treated to high end hotels and food. It was such a life changing experience that it was the lynchpin in my decision to quit my job, cash in my RSP's and savings and travel this insane, sweaty, colourful, ethereally strange continent - Asia.

Vietnam, as you probably know, was not my first stop. In fact, I had been traveling for 6.5 months before I made it back here. While I backpacked through India, Maldives, Nepal, Laos and Thailand, people constantly asked me why Vietnam was my favourite of all the countries I have been to, and I could never give an answer that felt right. I would sit there, like a self absorbed douche with a smug dreamy look on my face, and say " I...I don't know. I really can't, I mean it's not just one thing....it's...It's just everything."

And it is.

I still can't describe it entirely, but I am going to try.

Vietnam from the Back of a Motorbike - Careening Through Old Hanoi

Sean and I stayed an extra six nights beyond what we really needed in Hanoi, so that Sean could take advantage of the free wifi and work on his VFX reel, more important in his industry than a resume. During that time, I lazed a bit, had some foot massages, ate food, took walks and wrote. On our second last day, I decided that I needed to see one more "sight" - The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. After debating taking a local bus to the museum located 30 minutes from the centre of Hanoi, I hopped on a motorbike instead.

People talk about the terrible traffic in Hanoi, but the reality is that the seething mass of pedestrians, motorbikes, cyclos (pedaled rickshaws), bicycles and cars (each carrying at least 3 times the recommended amount of passengers - I have seen 5 people on one Honda motorbike) never comes to a complete stop. The vehicles perform a complicated ballet of gentle swerves and honking horns that at first baffled and frightened me. As a Westerner trained never to step into oncoming traffic, I had to undo years of Pavlovian response to set my foot off of the curb and stare directly into the eyes of a motorbike driver 1 metre a way, let them swerve around me and begin crossing the street. Rather than shock or anger drivers,slowly crossing with deliberate movements is the norm here, and stopping or running is a guaranteed ticket to the morgue. Or, at the very least, a surefire way to an up close meeting with the pavement and the scorn of passersby.

As my driver and I careened through the streets, my knees brushed against many other people, cars and lampposts. Motorcycyling in big cities always freaks me out a bit, so I decided to concentrate on what was on either side of me rather than focusing straight ahead into the traffic, as I think that the driver had had enough of me shouting "Oi Choi Oi!" (Oh My God!) in his ear.

The sidewalks and narrow lanes that make up the Old Quarter are Hanoi's beating, bloody heart. The area surrounds Hoan Kiem Lake and is pulsating and manic, yet in ways seems like a glimpse into ancient history. Every street is named for what is sold there, there is Shoe Street, Metal Goods street, Gravestone Street, Toy Street, even Counterfeit Street (less fun than its sounds - dozens of shops selling fake money and paper goods used in Buddhist ceremonies.) This is a traditional Vietnamese way of organizing a city and it is not meant just to impress tourists – but it does. Sparks flew asI zoomed down the Welding Street. Sawdust filled my mouth and eyes on Woodworking Street, and my ears filled with the cacophonous tweeting of thousands of small sparrows on Birdcage Street.

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These traditional stores are not the only places to do your shopping. In fact, it seems tome that most commerce in Vietnam happens on the street. Sidewalk hawkers set up stalls selling anything you can imagine. On my right side we passed a man in a conical hat holding 6 dead geese in each hand, gesturing to the traffic to entice people with the notion of a goose bbq that evening. On my left side minutes later we were swarmed by women running into the road at a rare stop light, trying to sell us plastic raincoats, umbrellas and sunglasses. Blankets were laid out and covered in toiletries, traditional balms, trinkets, books and firewood, and officious looking people sat at small tables,selling lottery tickets, offering scales to weigh yourself and services as letter writers for the illiterate.

And food was everywhere. So much food! Not the sanitized, pre packaged neat-n-tidy things we associate with take-out in North America, but vibrant, spicy morsels and soups guaranteed to make you happy. Mobile restaurants on wheels zipped in and out of traffic with us, and beside the parked ones small child sized chairs were lined up on the sidewalks for people to stop and grab a bowl of noodles and a bia hoi (fresh draft beer - 10 cents for a mug.) Some streets smelled divine - like ginger and garlic just dropped into a sizzling wok, and other streets reeked of the pungent, dirty genital smell of fermented fish sauce. Globes of shiny fruit were carried by women with yolks on their shoulder, the heaviness altering their walk into a jaunty bounce, and we passed entire streets that only specialize in one dish - cha ca (grilled fish), Nem (springrolls) and thit cho (grilled dog - I try to never glance inside those ones, they are filled with small dogs in cages. No kidding.)The words Com and Pho (Rice and Rice Noodle Soup) were emblazoned on every available surface, and usually a small old women will be perched beside, working on her own signature broth.

My moto driver and I zipped and weaved past parks full of children playing badminton, imposing communist buildings covered in red and yellow hammers and sickles, chattering old men playing mah jong, all surrounded by piles of garbage in the gutters. The evening broadcast of “Voice of Vietnam” blared eerily into the streets from mounted speakers – a'la Big Brother, while huge propaganda posters of Ho Chi Minh and the happy proletariat beamed down at me and everything was kind of coloured by this haze that is common in Vietnam, this smoky, misty cloudiness that makes everything seem muggy and exotic.

And though this is cliche - after touring the museum for 2 hours and marveling at the replica hill tribe houses, the handicrafts and the tribal art on display - I can't help but feel that the most truly interesting anthropology of Hanoi is not in its museums, but on its crazy, beautiful, hectic streets. I learned far more about Vietnam there.

21 May 2009

Kompong Phhluk - Waterworld In Cambodia

“I guess this is what you meant about the road being bad!!” I shouted into Pi Sith's ear as we shimmied and roared down the muddy track, splashing through the squishy mud. I was perched precariously on the back of his motorbike, sitting further back than normal due to the metal contraption bolted to the seat, to which his “remorque moto” carriage was normally attached. He had unhooked it minutes ago, and now Sean and I were each straddling a bike as we completed the final leg of the “bad road” on our way to the boat launch.


“We want to go to Kompong Phhluk.” Sean announced to Pi Sith, “To see the flooded forest and the stilted village. Can we go tomorrow?” Pi Sith's face, normally so friendly and happy, clouded over with panic. “Um, Kompong Phhluk not good now, road is very bad. You will be unhappy, I will be unhappy...” But looking at my face, I think he knew that his resistance was not going to deter me.
“Pi Sith, other tuk tuk drivers are offering the trip, and at our guesthouse too? We really want to go. We want to give you the business. Is it okay? Can we take the boat?” His nervous smile, in retrospect, should have alerted me that he was going to absolutely make sure we got what we wanted, even if he should have been telling us no way. Cambodians, especially in the service industry, have a hard time saying no - they always want us to be happy. People will give you the answer they think you want to hear rather than the actual truth, all in an effort to please. He made a few phone calls, and announced that the next day we would meet him at 8am and head to the boat dock, where his friend would take us out for 2 hours to see the village, rarely visited by foreigners. I was excited. “Thanks! See you then!”

The next morning I was not so excited when at 6:45 Sean woke me up. “Nnyeh. Phhh.” I groaned and pulled the pillow over my head. “Tooo earrrrrrrly. Not going. You go.” I waved the camera at him. “Take pictures.” Eventually, as Sean waved a coffee in front of my nose, I dragged myself out of bed and we headed to meet Pi Sith. “At least,” I said to Sean, swallowing some passion fruit Danish, “we just have to sit here in this tuk tuk, and then get in a boat for a few hours. I can handle that.”

On the way to the boat launch area we passed the Angkorian ruins of Roulous, rising mystically out of the jungle on our left. We passed orphanages filled with excited waving children, vendors presiding over their stocks of gasoline filled pop bottles (gas and go, it seems) and women riding bikes with their babies sitting on hammocks made of kramas (the ubiquitous checked Cambodian scarves) between the handle bars. “The ride through this area was worth the trip alone!” I exclaimed to Sean, and snuggled into him on the padded seat, noticing that the frequency of the bone-jarring potholes on the road was increasing.

Ten minutes later: my body was bruised and my nerves filleted as we pulled into the driveway of a traditional stilted house. The potholes had indeed increased until the paved road gave way completely and we were dragged along the dirt road in our remorque carriage, thrown around like rag dolls. Pi Sith turned around after each major 'thud!' and sheepishly smiled. “You OK?”
I didn't have to nod – the motion of the tuk tuk did that for me. With bruises.

Pi Sith unhooked the carriage, and motioned for me to get on his bike, telling Sean to get on the back of a new fellow's. Hanging on awkwardly to the metal bar mounted to the seat, I tried desperately to smooth down my skirt to a more appropriate level (Cambodia, like all of SE Asia, is very conservative in dress – short skirts and tank tops, while tolerated, are not appreciated) but it was firmly hiked up to mid thigh. “OK!” I said, laughing nervously, not excited about the ride ahead, but assuming it was going to be about 5 minutes long. “Let's go.”About 2 minutes later Pi Sith turned his head slightly to me. “About 40 minutes more.” Normally I love being on the back of a motorbike, but in this case, helmetless, under the glaring sun and vibrating my way through giant puddles I was less than enthused.
“Great!” I said to him. Sarcasm doesn't always translate. He gave me a thumbs up.

Question: Do you want to be with the more inexperienced driver, who is much more careful? Or the seasoned pro, who takes bigger risks but whose confidence guarantees some modicum of safety? I know my preference. And Sean won.

Pi Sith seemed nervous to have me, the precious girlfriend of his esteemed friend Mr Sean, on his rickety bike as we zoomed our way through the mucky sludge and narrow dry paths running through the bushes. “All this,” he said, gesturing around “is normally underwater in rainy season.” Which certainly explained the condition of this 'road.' Bikes and motos careened past us, barely missing my legs each time, my legs that were already patina-ed in a fine lattice work of bramble scratches, and men popped their heads up occasionally from the fishing they were doing on the banks of the shrunken river. Young men, probably still in their mid teens, looked up and saw some 'barang' (foreigners) and waved frantically, giving me the thumbs up. After this happened a few times, I realized that it was probably due to the fact that my breasts, while not the heaving ledge they were mere months ago are still a respectable C cup, were practically hitting my chin every few moments as I bumped along on my bucking motorbike. “Yeah, yeah, thumbs up to you too. Western women are whores, yeah yeah...”

The sun beating down on my already weather abused face (if I look like Hatchet Face in CryBaby in 10 years, well – at least I had fun) Pi Sith and I reached the cusp of a dank, muddy hole in the earth, about 30 metres long, with a teensy narrow space running along one side. As he revved up to begin the ride along the ledge, I jumped off the back. “Ummm, no, thats OK – I'll walk.” As he wobbled his way along, I hopped from dry spot to grass patch, reaching the other side to discover another chasm the same size and precariousness. “Yep, still walk.” I said to him.

About 300 metres away was our boat, a less than reassuring sight due to the steep mud banks surrounding the river as far as the eye could see. As we began putting along I began to wonder why we had come all the way out to this muddy, slippery dirty place. But then, as we chugged along, I began to see the most bizarre sight – rising from the banks of the river were thatch houses and gardens and pig pens and shrines – all perched on stilts as high as 6 metres. Children scurried around, people repaired boats and fished and picked river spinach, all in the shadows of their impossibly tall village. “It's like Waterworld.” Whispered Sean. “It's like Mad Max too.” I responded and thought for a moment. “It is like nothing that Patrick Swayze was ever in...”

Slowly winding our way along the murky river, we passed hundreds of similar houses. In the rainy season, the water gets so high that it laps at the floorboards of these buildings, erasing the mud paths and gardens and turning the village into a literal floating city. I couldn't help but wonder what they do with all the pigs when that happens....

After half an hour, we emerged out of the narrow river and onto one of the world's largest freshwater lakes, and the largest in Asia – the Tonle Sap. This lake is so huge that it provides fish for half of the population of Cambodia – yet pollution and overfishing (with dynamite. Yes. Dynamite fishing. It is a pretty big problem in Asia, destroying many coral reefs and endangering river dolphins and fish. I think it is pretty deplorable, but then again, similar things can be said about Canada's pork farming industry) are threatening its ability to feed this hungry country. The Tonle Sap was bewilderingly huge – we could not see its banks on any direction but the one we had just come from – it felt like being adrift on the ocean. Dotting the water were dozens of houses, these ones permanently afloat and often connected to small subsistence fish farms. As we passed by small shops, noodle restaurants and family homes, I was amazed to see people carrying on normal lives. In Vancouver, living on a houseboat is considered quite posh, but not here. These are literally people who cannot afford to live on the land.

As we snaked back through a flooded mangrove forest and arrived back in the tall stilted village, children selling pencils and books “for the students! Buy pencils!” clambered on the banks. We passed a wee little boy pulling a toy car made from hollowed out plastic water bottle that had four wheels attached, waving frantically as he saw us. Moments from docking, I noticed a small white creature moving in the reeds. It disappeared behind the plants for a moment, and when it reappeared I had a split second to register that it was a severed head. As I was about to scream bloody murder, the head and the body attached to it burst out of the mud, along with the heads 2 other small kids, their bodies still buried in mud from the neck down. Their peals of ecstatic laughter filled the air, joined by mine and Sean's. I gave them the thumbs up. “Way to scare the barang, guys!”

My laughter dissipated moments later – the long, muddy, scratchy bumpy road ahead beckoned.

13 May 2009

Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh Cambodia

Creeping through this high school, this place that once housed studious, upwardly mobile Phnom Penh teens flirting and learning their way through puberty, this place with a swing set out back. Creeping and skulking and guiltily photo-taking. Coughing and crying and shuffling, eyes darting and looking for Sean in the small brick enclosures because I am afraid that there are ghosts here. There ARE ghosts here. And its so near to closing time that we are pretty much the only people here, creeping and skulking and coughing and crying.

This is a terrible place, a school turned prison, an ochre coloured hell.

This is the Tuol Sleng Prison Musuem. I am not going to give you a lot of carefully researched facts. I am not even going to spell check. This all comes right from my instant reactions after visiting the notorious prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge was the most brutal political party in history. No one on this planet has ever dreamed, ever fathomed of such rage carried out against their own people. Long story short – after decades of colonial occupation by snooty France (“we will lift these heathens from ignorance and also make them our slaves!”) invasion by the brutal, rapey Japanese and relentless bombing during the Vietnam War by the Americans, Cambodia was left smoking, blackened and wounded in a way that made the agrarian Maoist communism promised by “Brother Number 1” Pol Pot and his “Red Cambodians” (Khmer Rouge) sound very attractive.

Heavily influenced by China's Gang of 4, The Khmer Rouge distrusted all things intellectual and capitalist, which they lumped into the same category. As they took power in 1975, they emptied the cities - hotbeds of useless knowledge - of Cambodia in days – elderly women, babies, the disabled, the lepers, everyone was expected to march out any city of size and head to the countryside. Three million people had to leave Phnom Penh alone (the population is now in 2009 is only 1.5 million.). Once there, everyone had to pick up a tool and begin farming the newly collectivized farms, all land having been seized by the government. City people were branded as evil, as were doctors, Buddhist monks, Catholics, Indians, Muslims, Intellectuals and anyone deemed counter-revolutionary.

You are an 80 year old woman. The doorbell rings. Outside there are men with guns demanding that you leave your apartment in Phnom Penh, where you have lived all your life, and head to the countryside. You are confused and tired and scared and you protest. And then they bayonet you in front of your neighbours for resisting, not wanting to waste expensive bullets on an “Old Person.”

Old People was the term given to anyone who lived in a city. People who lived in the country were called New People. Wealthy women from the cities frantically dirtied their soft hands, because in this new world you wanted to be a New Person, and no one could know that you were educated. Days after marching people out of the cities - the killing began, and didn't stop for 4 years.

Can I mention that this happened in 1975 – a few years before we were all born? Can I mention that we in the West knew that this was happening but refused to get involved in another potential Southeast Asian quagmire? WE KNEW THIS TIME about the mass graves and the torture and the genocide committed not by “others” but the the same people against one another. We knew.

Famine and exhaustion killed many. The Khmer Rouge exported food as the locals starved, all in a false show of Maoist glory for the West to see. Children were orphaned and abandoned, starving to death in plain view of pork-fattened Khmer combatants. Do you speak English? Death. Do you know too much about science? Death. Do you wear eyeglasses? Death.

Currency was outlawed, and schools and hospitals (bastions of the educated) were closed – and prisons opened in their place. Tuol Sleng was the most notorious. Many peasants were killed in this time period – some estimate half of the population of Cambodia – but anyone suspected to have ties to any resistance or the Vietnamese were jailed and tortured and killed.

Bullets were in short supply so children were bludgeoned to death with hammers.

People were beheaded with sharp, stiff banana leaves.

And we wandered, scared and upset-stomached, through halls of the high school that housed 20,000 prisoners and only saw 17 emerge alive, we were greeted by the faces of the dead. The Khmer kept meticulous records of their prisoners – much in the way of the Nazis – black and white photos of the agitators line the walls, numbers pinned to their chests. Classrooms were transformed into torture chambers. Small rooms had been bricked up to make even smaller cells. Windows were decorated with barbed wire, walls studded with chains. As moans quietly escaped my throat, Sean turned pale, and more leg cuffs loomed in our vision. I have feared ghosts and supernatural things only a few times in my life, and this was genuinely one of them.

In the Third Building, starved and bug bitten people stared at me from the walls, cheeks hollowed and eyes bulging. Old women with proud eyes. Children with terrified eyes. Men with shamed eyes. If you were Pol Pot, these people were threats to your revolution.

As I took a photo of the blackboard covered in mugshots, on the display screen 7 little facial recognition boxes popped up. My camera recognized what the Khmer Rouge didn't.

I don't know what else to say.