In the heart of Cambodia
All images copyright Barnaby Jaco Skinner
Somewhere on the outskirts of the isolated jungle I cross a desolate railtrack, the civilization of the twin iron-girders an eternity away as I approch the off-road tracks on Mayday, a jet-black 125cc scooter. Soon we’re slipping along saturated muddy paths, the deep dark jungle towering either side two stories high, a chorus of insect chirps deafening the chug of an overworked engine.
Two girls sharing a bicycle pass-by, the only people I’ve seen since I crossed the tracks. They smile knowingly and pointing up the trail gave me the thumbs down. I’m too busy avoiding the pockmarked jungle path to pay much attention, I smile and wave back . Another hour passes, deeper into the jungle we venture, Mayday battling the terrain like a lion on speed, me like a clown on a bull. A derelict ten-story concrete block rises out the canopy ahead, a singlur lonesome structure once home to a water treatment plant, the bright blue corrugated roof contrasting wildly with the lush jungle green tree tops. And then… silence. Mayday stops dead in her tracks almost vaulting me from the saddle, dark red mud vomits from her rear wheel spray-painting the jungle wall with obscene graffiti. Mayday splutters, screams and finally dies.
Stepping off Mayday, my blue trainers take on a distinctly red tone as I sink a foot into the muddy soup pretending to be a track. Cursing my negligence I half-slide and half hop to the side of the pool and surmise in a most Bear Grylls manner that I’m a bit f*cked. No rope, no tools and no people to help leaves me with only a few dismal options, and with at least 70km to the nearest village I honestly didn’t want to start walking. Mayday had only sunk a foot or so and while the mud was saturated from recent heavy rain, it wasn’t too viscous. Pulling my legs free I accidently leave a trainer buried deep, spend 5 minutes extracting it and then penetrate the jungle foliage looking for nature’s tools to plan my escape.
Time passes. Maybe an hour, maybe two, I wasn’t sure. It could have been days, but more probably ten minutes. Finally I emerge with pockets stuffed full of leaves and branches and twigs underarm ready to exact Mayday’s prison-break.
With a bed of leaves jammed deep under each wheel and a make-shift track of pathetic looking branches I summoned Bear and Ralph for moral support and started rocking Mayday back and forth. Kicking the engine to life, the rear wheel screamed, bucked and awkwardly freed itself giving a jump of momentum to the front, now also free from the slippery mud and looking for purchase on meager twigs. Cursing loudly in my best Chinese, I pushed Mayday one final time. Burying the snapped and twisted branches beneath her she somehow found purchase and ejected victoriously onto dryer land. A passer-by may very well have likened the scene to that of a whale performing a somersault. Mayday clattered to the floor, her engine still turning and left me kneeling a foot deep in the mud somewhere in the middle of the Cambodian jungle.
Dripping with sweat, surrounded by graffiti, sucking in heavy engine fumes and burnt to a mid-afternoon crisp, I was finally free and blissfully happy that I might have a chance of getting home. I call that a win.Barnaby Jaco Skinner
The North Gate
Nikon D4 HDR / Nikkor 14 – 28 f2.8 / Siem Reap – Cambodia
A heavy summers rain sets in, all too soon filling the sunken stone passages to bursting. Water spills from the foreboding entrance of this stone-hewn labyrinth, oppressive dark clouds dissuading the dying light from illuminating what lurks within. Dancing shadows draw a maze of black twisting tunnels blocked and barricaded by rock-fall and mutant trees. At the centre of this Tomb-Raider puzzle stands a small stone alter surrounded by four passageways, each twisting off to black oblivion. Light particles rain down from a crack in the stone ceiling, a single beam of amber illuminating the ancient stone alter.
A child’s laugh echos momentarily somewhere within the underground maze, shrill sound waves bouncing off cold wet walls, beckoning me deeper. I pick a tunnel and venture down the causeway, knee deep in water following the eerie echos from behind the gloom. Tripping hard on an uneven stone I stumble through dense wet vines, falling through a small opening in the thick stone wall out to another world I emerge, the light of a mid-afternoon monsoon flooding my senses. The jungle here lays heavily over hidden red and green stone, a place of worship once devoted to monks and their daily routine, the entire area now laying derelict and eroded by zealous Fords and would-be Angelinas. Climbing large sodden stone steps, I make my way up to the tree line in an attempt to get a feel for the direction back out to civilization. I’m mildly lost, and it’s started to rain again.
/ Journal entry – Siem Reap
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 70- 200 f2.8 / Siem Reap – Cambodia
Clouds of swirling droplets tail two creaking bicycles as they forge a path through a ferocious summer deluge. Laden with firewood, the cyclists take turns to lead the pelaton, shielding one-another from oncoming tidal forces ricocheting off stampeding trucks.
/ Journal entry – Kampot
The Shore Line
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 70- 200 f2.8 / Kampot – Cambodia
Still waters quietly lap at the wooden bow of a small family fishing vessel, garish turquoise mirrored in a dull grey soup. Ancient nets are upholstered on board the cramped platform whilst a young boy stands thigh-deep in a morning ocean, guarding his family’s only means to a living.
/ Journal entry – Kampot
The White Building
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 70- 200mm f2.8 / Phnom Penh – Cambodia
Shrouded in mystery and built under a Utopian idealist, The White Building in downtown Phnom Penh stands as a stoic reminder of the country’s modernist hat-nod towards a burgoning artistic era in the early 1960s. By the early 1980s the situation had turned, hot on the heels of war and genocide most of the original occupants fled Cambodia and left the building empty, soon to be occupied by the homeless and unemployeed. By 2015 there was no electricity, sanitation or running water, a literal heaven turned hell but still home to some 500 refuges, orphans and homeless. The social disarray is too intense to stay long.
/ Journal entry – Kep Coastline
Update – 2017 and the Camdodian government have started to tear down the entire building for a new development.
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 14- 24mm f2.8 / Kep – Cambodia
A scent of oak filters through the morning streams of sunlight, wisps of white wood smoke twirling and dancing to the heart-beat of another day in Kep’s busy crabshacks.
Not particularly interested in joining in the morning dance, I opt to sit as far away from the kitchens as possible, instead at the very end of a pontoon watching the daily routines play-out from afar. Fish are caught and ferried directly to the shoreline where they are sold, off-loaded and cooked within minutes of arriving. A myriad of types, flavours and toppings to choose from, I lean towards a shrimp and beer combo and settle in for another day of serenity in Cambodia’s best kept secret.
/ Journal entry – Kep Coastline
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 70 – 200mm f2.8 / Phenom Penh – Cambodia
Tropical green foliage does little to hide the stark horror of a decaying concrete prison built by the bloody hands of Pol Pot and his Red Army. You can hear the screams echo still. Wandering the levels, one finds cells divided floor to ceiling by brick and wood, barricades acting as temporary homes to the accused rebels, rebels chained to the cold stone floor awaiting their personal integration.
A processing room, interrogation chamber, confession box, call it what you will. A solitary iron bed frame as naked as the soul shackled to it stands alone in the silent room. What little light falls through the shuttered and barred window highlights the stark rusted metal once spattered with glistening blood, life force dripping from a battered pulp of an unrecognizable human form raggedly gasping for air.
There is no re-education in this place, only forced admissions of an unfounded guilt worthy of a death sentence. A guilt shared by over 1,700,000 men, women and children, a guilt of being educated, free and ultimately unworthy of the Red Army’s redemption. A guilt of essentially being human. The punishment is unavoidable death by the most inhumane means; of hacking and slashing and hanging and raw chemical intoxication until final ragged breaths are drawn, bodies clinging on to life but crushed at the bottom of a hundred other buried souls, deep below the surface forever more. A curtain is finally drawn, but as the light fades but there is no applause, only silence.
Time erodes virulent passion, ushers away outdated evil, condemns and punishes those who sought to rule in vein, but history lives on forever. Saturated graves littered with horrifying evidence of mass cruelty remain visible to the hordes of tourists learning anew of the Red Army’s genocidal attempt at reaching for a Utopian state. No one will forget. In Cambodia, only anger and fear remain, a fear of returning to the dark days, another attempt at Utopia. A fear all too real in this state they still call Kampuchea.
A Hiding Pack
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 70- 200mm f2.8 / Kampot – Cambodia
A shrieking howl shatters my early afternoon serenity as a monsterous alpha male emerges from dense green undergrowth surrounding one of the derelict concrete structures littering the coastline. It breaks away from it’s rabid pack taking shelter from the scorching midday sun, sharp ivory flashing in the sunlight, mottled black fur tightly wrapped over it’s muscular frame. Shouldering my tripod I run for my life. Mayday takes a precious few seconds to start, panic overtaking as the old engine turns over with no ignition. Heavy paws pound the dirt behind me, the howling now tearing my soul apart. A final kick and a blast of power spins the rear wheel to life, the hound’s face clearly visible in the mirror, it’s eyes rolling in an incontrollable rage, white foam trailing behind as it ready’s it’s final attack. Mayday finds first and jerks forwards bouncing over the pockmarked field, ripping through brambles and bushes. We just barely pull away from the rabid guardian of this land, still chasing as we go, gnashing and clawing behind us. Clattering onto a dirst track, Mayday screeches in to third and roars away, both of us delierious with adrenoline and ready for an afternoon beer, or two.
/ Journal entry – Kep Coastline
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 14- 24 f2.8 / Kampot – Cambodia
Twenties tones sweeten the evening air surrounding the Two Moon Hotel restaurant. Amok and Anchor set the pace for a relaxing stay in this sleepy town at the base of Bokor National Park, The Hill as it’s locally known. Retired teachers, wayward Dutchmen and renegade backpackers gel together with a glue long forgotten in the bustling cities of The West.
The morning brings with it a cacophony of tired engine splutters as eager adventurers mount their cheap steeds and head off into early morning mists.
It’s only just light but the beer still flows in the local bar, music spilling out across the neighborhood un-apologetically. Ex-rockers, aging hippies, millionaires and wannabe gangsters hug the bar to refill their glasses and tell tall stories to friends old and new alike. As stories go, you can’t get much taller. Vintage guitars are tonight’s topic as a once superstar drummer-turned-guitar-mechanic recounts his hedonistic history of stardom to eager ears and full glasses. Retiring to my 8 dollar room at the Two Moons Lodge next door I can still hear the gentle laughter and gasps, the clinking of glass on wood and catch a faint smell of sticky sweet bud in the air.
A small table-fan bolted to the wall provides mild relief from the heavy summer night-sweats, Geckos chat happily all night long about the latest gossip from Kampot as the local dog pack digs up a freshly preened garden.
This place is untouched by commercial tourism but with cruise ships on the horizon and Casinos are on The Hill, an apocalypse is coming.
/ Journal entry – Kampot
Nikon D4 / Nikkor 14- 24 f2.8 / Siem Reap – Cambodia
Colonnades corral the time-beaten fascia of Cambodia’s most revered treasure, the faces of all-powerful Hindu gods now weathered away leaving raw stone and scaffolding in their wake. Thousands of pale white eyes look skyward for the twenty dollar silhouette cast by a dawning sun. It’s mildly disappointing to be honest, a beautiful stone-hewn building now aggressively blacked out by the harsh rays of first light. Within thirty minutes the hordes have dispersed back to their Tuk-Tuks, ever eager to get to the next breath-taking monument before their competitors.
Hanging back, however, reveals a visual marvel. A taller sun now sheds its light over the archaic complex, colouring the once black rock with reds and greens and oranges and browns, revealing complexities in the smooth stone surface texture, a rainbow of hues shining from within. Angkor Wat reveals its full magnificence and claims the real capital of Cambodia, if not the world.
/ Journal entry – Siem Reap
Stuck In The Mud With Bear and Ralph Somewhere back on the outskirts of the jungle I crossed a desolate rail track, the civilization of the twin iron-girders an eternity away as I finally hit the off-road on Mayday, a jet-black 125cc scooter. We slipped along...
Magnificence encapsulated by hand-worked-stoneColonnades corral the time-beaten fascia of Cambodia's most revered treasure, the faces of all-powerful Hindu gods now weathered away leaving raw stone and scaffolding in their wake. Thousands of pale white eyes look...
An aging concrete 'theme park' on the brink of something newNothing remains here except the stark battered concrete shells of mansions and churches eroded by time. Surrounded by dense rain cloud, isolated from humanity and miles from the nearest convenience store,...
A mountain pass makes mincemeat of me(and my gear)Topping 60 and things get a little dicey as I traverse the mountain road to Bokor national park. Its not the speed however that upsets my balance, moreso my limited attention span. In a split second I'm riding...
An Oasis In A Connected WorldTwenties tones sweeten the evening air surrounding the Two Moon Hotel restaurant. Amok and Anchor set the pace for a relaxing stay in this sleepy town at the base of Bokor National Park, The Hill as it’s locally known. Retired teachers,...
The Red Army's violent past leaves a distinctly bloody taste in the mouthTropical green foliage does little to hide the stark horror of a decaying concrete prison built by the bloody hands of Pol Pot and his Red Army. You can hear the screams echo still. Wandering the...
Exploring Banteay KdeiA heavy summers rain sets in, all too soon filling the sunken stone passages to bursting. Water spills from the foreboding entrance of this stone-hewn labyrinth, oppressive dark clouds dissuading the dying light from illuminating what lurks...