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Dead dog afternoon

Throughout Cambodia I encountered an abundance of poverty, corruption and hardship but one of the most disturbing images I witnessed was an incident involving a dying dog and a callous human.

It happened at Otres Beach near Sihanoukville where I spent one of my last weeks in Cambodia.

Like much of Cambodia’s coastline Otres Beach is still relatively underdeveloped with just one long dirt road, a handful of guesthouses, a disproportionate number of beachside bars and numerous packs of stray dogs.

At my guesthouse lived a sick, malnourished and boney Alsatian, which would have been less than a year old. It was a lovely natured dog but like many K9s in Asia the neglect by its owners had left it lethargic and vulnerable.

Most of the time it would just lie around in the dirt, too exhausted to move. Every time I passed I would stop to give it a friendly pat while it gazed at me with its sad and tired eyes.

One afternoon, as I was walking back to my guesthouse down the muddy road, an SUV drove slowly by. I looked beyond the SUV and could see the Alsatian sleeping near the centre of the road directly in the vehicles path.

The SUV stopped just short of the dog and honked its horn. The dog lifted its head but didn’t have the energy to move so, without deviating, the SUV continued driving.

I watched as the SUV’s tyres slowly rolled over the dog’s rib cage as the poor animal folded in two, yelping in agony. Running over to the dog I shook my fist in rage at the SUV as it slowly drove off into the distance.

The dog’s internal organs had been crushed and I could see the pain and fear in its eyes as I tried to console it.

I ran into the guesthouse and told one of the boys their dog had been run over. I explained to them the dog was suffering and needed to be put down.

The boy said he could not make that decision as the dog belonged to the guesthouse owner who was not there. When the owner arrived 10 minutes later I explained to her that the dog needed to be put out of its misery. They said they did not know how to kill a dog and asked me to do it, an act I had not contemplated until that point.

I thought about the best way to do it: slitting its throat with a knife, dropping a rock on its head, choking it with my hands.

“No,” I thought, “I can’t kill this dog. We’re in Cambodia, a country where dog is a common meal for many. Surely there’s someone in this village who knows how to do it.”

All the while the dog was quietly whining as its breaths became shorter and less frequent. Fortunately, death was not far off and no one would have to commit the grisly act of killing this pet.

I watched the dog take its last breath before being picked up by its paws and taken to the garden where it was buried a few metres from my room.

For the next three nights I lay in bed thinking about that incident. I could not understand how the people in the SUV could have such disregard for an animal’s life.

I think this kind of reckless, self-interested mentality explains a lot about many of the problems facing Cambodia.

The SUV owners are usually the rich and powerful whose selfishness and egotism is a main driver in all that is wrong with this country.

They do as they please whether it’s the cruel act of running over someone’s dog or inhumane land evictions, which occur regularly throughout the country. They know their actions will largely go unchallenged.

The rich are a law unto themselves, living their lives inside a bubble of invincibility. I just hope that one day soon the lower classes will rise up and that bubble will burst.

  • On a lighter note, below are some photos I took of fishing families in the quiet town of Kampot (home of famous Kampot pepper). It was early in the morning and the families had just come in to sell their catch after a long night of fishing.

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

Photo by John Anthony

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Peace out Phnom Penh

After nearly two months of living and working in Phnom Penh it is time for me to say adieu to this delightful metropolis.

Phnom Penh is a beautiful city with its mix of French colonial architecture and traditional Buddhist buildings, pagodas and monuments.

Tree-lined boulevards add a luscious green glow to much of the city and the meandering Mekong River provides a calming juxtaposition to the chaotic streets.

Phnom Penh is such a buzzing, livable city it’s hard to believe that during the four year rule of the Khmer Rouge it was a ghost town.

When the KR stormed into Phnom Penh in 1975 they forced every single resident out of their homes and into the countryside. During the regime the city was completely deserted except for one block, which housed the interrogation and torture facility S21 in an old school.

When the KR rule ended in 1979 the people flocked back to Phnom Penh and took up residence in any empty dwelling they could find.

Now, like much of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a city on the move.

Around every corner new towers are being constructed and many older ones renovated. Casinos, apartment blocks, schools, shopping malls, banks and hospitals are sprouting up everywhere.

Despite such developments it still manages to maintain its old world charm, particularly in the countless markets dotted throughout the city.

These were my favourite places to wander through aimlessly.

Like many markets around the world they are hot, cramped and smelly. Early in the morning was the best time of day to observe Khmer commerce in its most traditional form.

Fresh cuts of meat hang from hooks in the humid and polluted air. Stacks of chickens sit stunned on tables waiting for imminent death. Live fish squirm around in large, waterless bowls.

I was particularly captivated by one man I saw skinning and gutting live frogs while his customers picked through a pile of naked, disemboweled reptiles, which were still gasping for air.

Right next to such meaty marvels were the buckets of beautifully arranged flower bouquets and fresh, radiant produce. The markets really are a feast for the senses.

And, like any good city, Phnom Penh is full of colourful characters.

Some of my favourites were the kids who were forced to sell goods to Westerners at night as a means to pay for basic education, which costs 1000 USD a year (a hefty sum for Cambodian families considering the average individual income is $2 per day).

The tiny touts tend to speak better English than the majority of Khmer adults and they all know how to use an iPhone and how to play Angry Birds.

I bought a number of books off these kids and, once finished, I would gift them back. I gave one particularly charismatic boy a camera lens I no longer needed and a belt. He proudly stated he had managed to sell the lens for $10. Then he asked if I had anything else to give him. Then he ate some of my chips.

I’ll miss Phnom Penh and its stark contrasts. I’ll miss the 50 cent draught beer and 75 cent DVD shops. I’ll miss the impressive government buildings and rickety riverside slums. I’ll miss the glaring morning sun and the afternoon monsoon rain. Shoot, I’ll probably even miss the tuk tuk and moto drivers, who are the most relentless I’ve ever encountered.

Farewell Phnom Penh, until next time.

I actually left Phnom Penh 10 days ago so this post is a little late sorry. Pics below.


Magical markets: Early morning in a Phnom Penh market. Photo by John Anthony
Sparks fly: A man welding on a wet morning in Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony
Morning commute: Young Buddhist Monks make their way to school in Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony

Sweet treat: Drink carts like this are a common sight in Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony
Balancing act: A woman sells rice cakes on the street in Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony

Green transport: A mother and her sleeping child transport plants in Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony

 

BFFs: A young girl holds hands with a gibbon at a wildlife centre just outside Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony

Here kitty kitty: A tiger eyes me up at the wildlife centre. Photo by John Anthony

Water waiter: A man sells goods to riverside shacks just outside Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony

Fist pump!: A boy gets rather excited at the prospect of having his picture taken inside a pagoda near Phnom Penh. Photo by John Anthony

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An afternoon at Boeung Kok Lake

A mother and daughter fetch the mail at Boeung Kok Lake. Photo by John Anthony

 

A boy with his puppy at Boeung Kok Lake. Photo by John Anthony

 

An abandoned boat sits on sand, which was recently pumped into the lake. Photo by John Anthony

 

Government buildings can be seen in the background as siblings play on pipes. Photo by John Anthony

 

Cambodian catwalk. Photo by John Anthony

 

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A sticky situation

I always thought quicksand was just a myth until I fell victim to this indiscernible substance the other day in central Phnom Penh.

My only prior knowledge of the menacing phenomena was the scene from The Never Ending Story where Atreyu’s horse, Artax was swallowed up by a pool of quicksand. I remember crying watching that as a child.

The other day, during a leisurely afternoon stroll, I nearly suffered the same fate as poor Artax.

It was a gloomy, overcast afternoon in Phnom Penh and I had little to do so went looking for somewhere to photograph.

I decided to head to Boeung Kok Lake, a 90-hectare water catchment in the heart of Phnom Penh, which was recently filled with sand to make way for a 133 ha residential and commercial development.

It is estimated that 20,000 people will be displaced by the  development.

Fishermen used to feed their families and make a living off the lake but now all that remains is a desolate sand mound dotted with the odd abandoned fishing boat and some yet to be laid steel drains.

Families and groups of kids were playing on the barren landscape so I decided to wander out and join in the experience of standing where there used to be 60 feet of water.

Walking out it seemed relatively dry and solid underfoot, kind of like an estuary at low tide on a hot summers day. There was the odd patch of ground where mud oozed over the top of my sandal but nothing of concern.

In the middle of the former lake a 360-degree vista of Phnom Penh could be seen, with its half-built skyscrapers, ramshackle housing and tomb-like government buildings.

I took some photos, smoked a cigarette and started meandering back to the streets.

About 100 metres from shore I took a step and watched my right leg disappear into some thick silt. I took another step to pull myself out and suddenly found myself thigh deep in ‘quicksand’.

I knew I couldn’t get out by myself and looked around for assistance. I saw a few families laughing at my predicament as a group of boys came running to my aid.

Four of the boys grabbed my hands and arms and started pulling. With each movement the quicksand’s grip tightened around my legs and had by now crept up to my trouser pockets.

With $4000 of camera gear over my shoulder and an iPhone in my pocket I was getting slightly nervous about how much deeper I would go.

Eventually the boys dragged me out but my sandals were left behind. I loved my Soul Shoes and desperately didn’t want to lose them so offered two boys $1 USD each if they found them.

Without hesitation they stripped down, jumped in and began their search.

After 15 minutes of hunting through the dense mud up to their necks they found the right sandal with much delight. We all cheered at the small victory – half way there.

A young man who was standing beside me translated what the boys were saying. “They’re happy in there but they’re also angry they can’t find them,” he said.

Another 15 minutes passed but to no avail. I paid the exhausted but smiling boys their hard-earned cash and walked back to the road in bare feet, half covered in thick mud.

The young man who had been standing beside took me to his family’s two-story lakeside home.

The ground floor had been inundated with sand and water just days earlier forcing the family of 12 to all live on the top floor. Knowing I was a journalist his father came down and spoke to me of their plight but there was little I could do. There had been a small story on it in the Phnom Penh Post earlier that week. This sort of thing happens in Cambodia all the time.

I returned to the street where a moto driver pointed me in the direction of a hose which I used to push the mud off my pants and legs. I jumped on his bike and we took off into the rush hour traffic.

I may have lost  a pair of sandals at Boeung Kok Lake that day but I gained a precious memory.

Mud monsters: The two boys who spent at least 30 minutes trying to find my sandals, which I lost after getting stuck in the mud. Photo by John Anthony

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Prey Lang in Pictures

Smoke screen: A villager passes time while he waits for free human rights education. The workshop was eventually cancelled due to pressure from the authorities. Photo by John Anthony

Fence sitter: A Khmer man watches on as discussions between the authorities and NGOs take place. Photo by John Anthony

Waiting game: An elderly villager wanting to learn about human rights waits patiently. Photo by John Anthony

 

Tiny tot: A young baby girl is mesmerised by a strange white man pointing a big metal thing at her. Photo by John Anthony

 

Moving mud: Young Buddhist monks do some yard work inside the pagoda grounds. Photo by John Anthony

 

Swing low: A woman with her grandson and dog play in the hammock under their house in the late afternoon. Photo by John Anthony

 

Close shave: A Khmer man shaves sticks for some reason. Maybe he’s making skewers or something. Photo by John Anthony

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This is no democracy

My body was numb and my head was heavy after eight hours of driving down a flooded, pothole covered road.

Swamped rice paddies and clusters of stilted Khmer houses flanked both sides.

Every few seconds the break lights of a United Nations Land Cruiser in front would sting my eyes. My grip on the driver’s seat tightened, bracing myself for more bone-rattling bumps.

In a state of stupefaction I stared vacantly at the muddy road ahead as hundreds of frogs leapt from pothole to pothole, fleeing the oncoming headlights.

The unlucky ones were flattened by the wheels of our Land Rover.

At this point I had slept only three hours of the past 48 due to a story I was doing about illegal logging in Prey Lang forest – the largest jungle in Indochina.

The previous night I caught a lift to Kampong Thom with representatives of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), a Phnom Penh based NGO. They were holding education workshops on human rights and law for villagers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by illegal logging trade.

Up front sat our driver and the CCHR president Ou Virak, an American educated Khmer man who emigrated to the States after his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

In the back were John, John and Johnny. John was an Irish guy working as a solicitor for CCHR and Johnny was a Londoner also working there.

Even though the workshops complied with the Cambodian constitution the authorities said they had to be shut down because there had been inadequate notification of the gathering.

In reality it was because most officials in the area have vested interests in illegal logging.

We arrived in the small town of Sandan shortly after sunrise and had breakfast at a dirty little restaurant. A news channel on a fuzzy TV flashed images of an extraordinary electrical storm we had driven through just hours earlier. At one point in the trip a lightening bolt struck the road about 20 metres ahead  of us.

The authorities were expecting our arrival and we later found out that undercover police had been observing us from inside the restaurant.

After breakfast we piled back into our 4WDs and drove the extra hour to the village where the workshop was to be held.

About 30 residents had gathered for the training despite fearing for their safety. About a dozen police looked on nearby, many with AK47s slung over their shoulders.

We heard news Virak was going to be arrested and also that a number of villagers heading to the workshop had been stopped and threatened by police.

Heated conversations ensued for about two hours between the authorities, CCHR and some brave villagers.

In the end the workshop had to be abandoned to protect both Virak and the villagers.

After devouring a lunch put on by the community we returned to Sandan to find internet reception and file copy and pics back to Phnom Penh.

The UN showed up shortly after to attend a meeting between village, commune and district authorities and CCHR regarding the day’s events. Virak said it was an unsuccessful forum and the workshop planned for the following day had also been cancelled.

We drove the four hours back to the national highway to find a place to eat and sleep for the night before driving back to Phnom Penh the next day.

Over dinner I asked what was the worst that could happen if a villager if he or she were detained.

”Would they just spend a few days in prison?” I said.

“They might be imprisoned for two years,” John the solicitor said.

“They could be killed,” Virak interjected. “The authorities often kill people and cover it up as an accident. I’ve seen it happen.”

This really opened my eyes to the brutal corruption that exists in Cambodia’s government: the Cambodia Peoples Party (CPP).

It is essentially a dictatorship ruled by one man, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, who has been in power for more than 30 years.

I asked how much longer the CPP will be in power and whether there was ever likely to be a revolution.

Virak said he thought maybe in five years there could be an uprising led by the disgruntled Cambodian youth supported by the impoverished rural population.

The UN representative was more pessimistic however and predicted it would be at least 10 years before there was any shift in power.

During my first month in Cambodia I have seen and met so many educated, intelligent and motivated youth who are fed up with CPP’s widespread corruption and disregard for human rights.

A new generation full of potential is slowly awakening in Cambodia and unlike its existing parliamentarians, there’s no blood on their hands.

The sooner they rise up the better.

Here is the link to my story.

http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2011090851530/National-news/armed-police-break-up-forum.html

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Life in a Remote Village

My first 24 hours outside Phnom Penh presented my first true taste Khmer culture.

I spent two days covering a story in a remote rural village, which was celebrating the recent release of 12 villagers who had been imprisoned two years ago following a bloody land dispute.

Without consultation the Government came in and sold two rice paddies, which housed a precious water reservoir, to a private company in 2008.

The 12 men, who refused to leave their land, were detained in terrible conditions and had to carry out forced labour each day before until they were cleared of all charges and released.

The Government has not returned the land and probably never will but the community will continue to make their voices heard. The strength and resilience the community has shown in the face of adversity is remarkable.

Land concessions are a major issue in Cambodia and have been described as a “national epidemic”. Between 2007 and 2011 there had been 223 land conflict cases with as many as 47,000 families affected.

This village, with a population of about 600, has no electricity, roads, drainage or running water. They live off the land and without it they will struggle to survive.

I ate with the villagers in the communal pagoda and slept on wooden floors in a traditional Khmer house with about 15 others.

The community welcomed me with open arms and treated me like one of their own.

Below is a link to the story. The Phnom Penh Post does not archive stories so I found it on a separate Khmer website which is dedicated to publishing sensitive information about Cambodia.

http://kimedia.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/ki-media-pressure-mounts-on-monk/

Here are some photographs from the two days I spent at the village.

All smiles: Cheng Saroeun, 31, a leader of the initial protest, was recently released from jail after being imprisoned for refusing to give up his land. Photo: John Anthony

Freewheelin’: A young girl catches a ride on the back of her brother’s bike. Photo: John Anthony

Heavenly glow: A Buddhist monk soaks up the early morning sunshine. Photo: John Anthony

Warm heart: Noun Heng, 55, whose husband was one of the 12 arrested, broke down in tears as she described to me how hard it had been for her while her husband was detained. Photo: John Anthony

Traditional farming: A man leads his cattle to a rice paddy field. Photo: John Anthony

Front row seat: A boy gets a ride with his older sister inside the pagoda grounds. Photo: John Anthony

Splish splash: Boys play in the river as the day draws to an end. Photo: John Anthony

Curious bystander: This is who the boys playing in the river were smiling at. Photo: John Anthony

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