This month Cambodia marked the fortieth anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. It’s prompted me to finally share on this blog something of my visit there late last year. My 9-day trip involved a 5-day cycle tour (with law firm Wotton+Kearney in support of International Justice Mission), plus time in Phnom Penh and Kampot.
Day 1 of the Cambodia Cycle Challenge looked a little like this. A 3-temple tour and 40km of mostly off-road riding down narrow muddy paths, past Siem Reap’s villages and rice fields, along temple walls.
The humidity was oppressive—particularly when we got off the bikes—and several times I nearly stacked myself. A lot of the team were staunchly braving what was a pretty intense first day. A lotta sweat. A lotta almost-tears. A real sense that we didn’t train for off-road cycling! But when we arrived at the day’s finish line the mood lifted immediately. Everyone was jubilant.
I was reminded that our work at International Justice Mission, particularly our casework in countries like Cambodia, is such a hard slog. There are so many moments where it’s no fun at all. Where we feel like what’s before us is not what we signed up for at all. We’re in the trenches, getting our hands dirty. But it’s worth it for our precious clients. It’s worth it for those moments of breakthrough when we see slavery flinch as justice systems are strengthened, transformed.
Day 2 was characterised by cute Cambodian kids yelling “hello!” at us as we rode through villages, rice paddies and street stalls. One kid threw mud at me.
Also, we survived our longest day of riding: 80,000m of potholed bitumen and red dirt tracks. My thighs were fine—the hardest thing was feeling nauseous for the last 30kms after lunch.
And then we went to the circus and it was awesome.
The Phare Circus is a great initiative working with at-risk youth. The show we saw involved stunts built into a storyline about encounters between staff and patrons at a nightclub. There were some super impressive flips, contortions, balancing and other crazy things by some very talented young Cambodians.
120km down; 130km to go.
We rode 30km on Day 3—a piece of cake after yesterday’s 80km, really.
In the late afternoon we hopped on Battambang’s bamboo train for a scenic ride through bright green fields under a brilliant blue sky. It’s a one-way track, so when two carriages are heading towards each other, one has to be literally hauled off the tracks to let the other pass.
And then in the evening, I decided I was no longer totally opposed to eating bugs and consumed a deep-fried frog, a grasshopper, a mystery insect and a grub.
The 50km we rode on Day 4 were brutal, mostly because it was an absolute scorcher of a day.
But it felt good to push my body that little bit further, and to get to Kompong Chhnang for a twilight cruise through the floating villages of the Tonlé Sap River.
Also, more cuteness?? This coy little girl was at a humble home near Battambang where we tried bamboo sticky rice.
It’s absolutely terrifying that a whole industry sprung up in this country profiting on the sale of kids even as young as this little one for sex. But it’s encouraging that years of work by IJM in partnership with local authorities resulted in significant reductions in the prevalence of minors (especially under 15s) in brothels. This video tells the incredible story of transformation.
Still, this children’s t-shirt on sale at a night market served as an unpleasant reminder that keeping kids safe will require constant vigilance and a culture that will not tolerate their abuse.
Day 5 actually began with a trek on foot up to the temple on a hill in the old Khmer capital, Oudong. By this time my thighs were definitely feeling the 200km already cycled.
Once we mounted our bikes, mud abounded! We were lucky to get to our lunch spot at a random temple before the rain poured down. While we ate, a group of boys—novices at the temple—borrowed our tour leader’s bike and took selfies on one of our iPhones.
And then, the triumphal entry into Phnom Penh. Mud-spattered, we rode into the outskirts of the city together.
250km, folks. Done and dusted!
With the cycling completed, it was my pleasure and privilege to help facilitate the Wotton+Kearney group’s visit to IJM Cambodia on Day 6. I’d met a couple of the IJM Cambodia crew before and it was lovely to see them again and meet other staff.
It’s a small-ish but powerhouse team in Phnom Penh, boasting a 100% conviction rate since beginning work on labour trafficking cases in 2016. They’ve taken the expertise and relationships cultivated in over a decade tackling the child sex trade in Cambodia, and transitioned them to address this other form of slavery.
Their efforts mean justice for Cambodian fishermen enslaved for 5, 10, 15 years on Thai fishing boats; for Cambodian women trapped in domestic servitude in Malaysia or tricked into abusive sham marriages in China.
It was moving to hear not only this hard data and the processes and challenges, but also the testimonies of our investigators and social workers. They shared with us their experiences on the frontlines, the personal/emotional impact the work has on them, what drives them.
Many of the W+K team described this as “humbling” and I totally agree. I’m so very proud of my Cambodian colleagues.
My last day with the W+K team was sobering—and a bit brutal, to be honest. We visited the S21 (or Tuol Sleng) Genocide Museum, a high school converted into a secret prison and torture centre during the dark years of the Khmer Rouge. Not unlike a visit to former Nazi concentration camps, this museum is full of stories and relics of abuse. Row after row of portraits of Cambodians of all ages who were victims here, their faces haunting and beautiful.
But what impacted me most was seeing two of only 12 survivors at the end of the self-guided tour. Now in their 80s, they were seated with assistants at tables by the exit, selling their memoirs. You could go up and talk to them. I still wonder how they can bear to return as often as they do to the place where they suffered such beyond-words cruelty.
We then wandered through The Killing Fields, where anywhere upwards of 10,000 Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge—including far too many babies.
The audio guide uses the word “enslaved” to describe what happened at S21, drawing a somewhat bitter thread connecting these historical events to what’s still a reality for many today. Violence. Cruelty. Dehumanisation. Slavery. Stuff this evil can be overwhelming. But stuff this evil must be opposed, fought, thwarted.
From one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, I got off the bus from The Killing Fields and onto another for a friend’s wedding at a resort near Kampot on the Cambodian coastline.
It was a full day of festivities involving seven costume changes (only the third is depicted above). We began in the morning with a parade of fruit platters and wrapped up with a restaurant banquet, at which several guests got up on stage to perform songs. In between there was a Western wedding ceremony (I really felt for the groom and groomsmen wearing suits in tropical heat and humidity), footwashing, traditional Khmer instruments played and confession to parents.
The long bus ride back to Phnom Penh was mostly uneventful, but worth a mention is this coffee shrine at our lunch stop. The 11 cups of coffee are accompanied by incense, US dollar bills and garlic, of all things.
It would seem that humans can’t live without coffee, but the gods love it too!
Some fine print: While this is not a sponsored post, I should make it clear that I travelled to Cambodia on a work assignment for IJM Australia, with all on-the-ground costs for Days 1-7 covered by Wotton+Kearney. The views expressed here, however, are entirely my own. Including my unpaid for view that the cycle tour company, Grasshopper Adventures, did an excellent job.
I’m still taking donations (tax deductible in Australia) – please sponsor me to help IJM strengthen criminal justice systems in the developing world and grow the movement to end slavery: https://give.everydayhero.com/au/hsu-ann-cycle-sweat-end-slavery.