We’re frequently quizzed regarding the pros and cons of our Maggiolina Airtop roof tent. Not having any other experience with other styles of roof tent, other than camping with fellow overlanders, it’s hard to comment.
Our tent was our most extravagant purchase, but also our best. Essentially it has paid for itself many times over: It offers a little luxury which means we hardly ever stay in hotels. On an extended trip like ours that luxury and convenience is paramount.
We’ve camped in locations with views that far surpass any 5 star hotel. This really can be a room with a view (or several)... 3 of the sides have doors which roll up completely and the front end has a semi-circular window. For those hot, tropical nights, each opening has a mosquito netting flap which can be zipped up to fend off blood-sucking invertebrates and is perfect for wildlife watching.
It is surprisingly easy to set up; two clips at the front and one at the back and it ascends into position on hydraulic arms. Inside it is surprisingly Tardis-like; we can sit fully upright and have around the same space as a double bed. The tent comes complete with a comfortable mattress and pillows and is roomy enough when closed to store a duvet and sleeping bags.
It is one of the most convenient rooftop tents on the market and this is blatantly apparent when we camp with other overlanders who use canvas ‘fold over’ style tents.
Our tent takes about 20 seconds to “pop” and set-up and about one minute 30 seconds to pack away. To demonstrate this we’ve made a little video of us packing up in Kyrgyzstan (complete with obligatory high-5).
As we prepare for our upcoming adventure to 'The Americas' we've decided to set up an Instagram page specifically for our trip. Be sure to follow us and keep in touch!
FOLLOW US @overland800
When we originally left the UK in 2012 we had an old Nokia phone; absolutely nothing ‘smart’ about it… Unless you consider the fact we could use it to open beer bottles! To navigate we used a combination of paper maps and an old handheld Garmin 60cs.
In 2013 we inherited an old iPhone and delved head first into the world of apps! Since then we’ve also purchased a really basic Samsung smart phone. As a result our whole overlanding experience has improved greatly. Here are a few of the apps we use on a daily basis.
Galileo is a map resource (similar to Google maps), the beauty of it is that it works off-line using pre-downloaded vector based maps. With one click you can download an entire country, using the language you want. Because the maps are vector based they are generally small in size which means they are fast and responsive. You can record your trips and monitor your real-time speed, distance and time travelled, as well as altitude. Like most map apps you can track your trips, share your tracks with friends via Mail, Facebook and Twitter or export them in the most common formats: KML & GPX. Galileo has essentially taken over the role of our old Garmin hand-held GPS, which is good as it was stolen in Iran. Galileo is now also available for Android as well as iOS.
Maps.Me or Maps With Me, as it is official known is essentially the same deal as Galileo. There was a time when Galileo was only available for iPhone users and Maps.Me was only available for Android users. Now both are available for all platforms so take your pick. We prefer the Galileo interface and how it operates, but Maps.Me is pretty much the same deal. We use both as Emma has Galileo on her old iPhone and I use Maps.Me on our Samsung phone. Both have great search facilities if you are looking for garages, banks or restaurants.
There are stacks of MPG apps available, we’ve been using the same one since we got our first ‘Smart Phone’ and are more than happy with it. Road Trip is the fastest and easiest way to keep track of your car’s fuel economy, maintenance schedule and expenses. At a glance, Road Trip gives you all vital statistics on a single page: Minimum, maximum, and average fuel price per gallon/litre, Minimum, maximum, and average fuel economy (MPG, L/100km, etc.), Average cost per day, Average cost per mile or kilometre, Average distance per day, Total fuel cost, Total gallons or liters of fuel and Total distance travelled. Unfortunately it is only available for iOS (iPod Touch, iPad and iPhone).
Cam Scanner turns your mobile phone into a scanner and is a great resource for digitising paperwork and documents whilst on the road; especially handy during the shipping process, borders and applying for visas. Just take a photo and create PDF documents from it. Using a stack of settings you can produce multi-page documents, crop and customize. Incredibly convenient.
XE Currency Convertor
Again, there are hundreds of currency convertors available. We chose XE Currency Convertor as it had the best reviews. You can access live exchange rates, view historical charts, and calculate prices off line. It is available for all devices and with over a kabillion downloads worldwide, you know it’s going to be good. It’s also FREE.
World Map is a simple overview map of the world. No frills. Useful for planning and explaining to new found friends where you’ve been. The paid version has political maps and time zones.
Been is a fun little app that keeps track of the number of countries you’ve visited. Incredibly inspiring when you’re feeling a little low and incredibly annoying to your friends when you’re feeling smug. Available for iOS and Android.
iOverlander is more than just an app, you can also access it online on your laptop or desktop. Originally a mapping project started by overlanders it has grown into a useful resource. You can find campsites, garages, restaurants, watering holes and much, much more all entered by fellow overlanders. You can also add to the many overlanders who have dedicated their time, ideas and most importantly their GPS coordinates. Log campsites and share your secrets.
Commander Compass is an extremely well thought out car and walk GPS compass app for iOS (Apple devices). Crafted to military spec, it is designed to be used where traditional GPS apps fail — off the road. It features a milspec compass, gyrocompass, maps, GPS tracker, speedometer, gyro horizon and inclinometer. Tag, share, find and track your position, multiple locations and bearings, all in real time. It has way too many features to list here, but is worth checking out.
Most adventurous overlanders are typically drawn to the lesser-travelled, edgy countries. Travelling by 4x4 allows you to access some of the most beautiful, remote and sometimes inhospitable areas that most tourists generally don’t get to see.
Travelling in a self-reliant way in a 4x4 does however mean you cannot travel light; typically your vehicle is your home and this includes carrying everything from tools and laptops to the kitchen sink.
In most foreign countries a big muddy 4x4 with strange number plates, fully loaded with every conceivable extra is going to draw quite a bit of attention. As a result you, your vehicle and its contents can become a desirable target for criminals.
After we’d purchased Bee-bee in 2010, one astute bicycle traveller sensibly told me “the less you take with you the less you have to lose”.
These wise words are more pertinent having fallen victim to one of overlandings worst nightmares… robbery!
Robbed In Tehran
Way back in 2015, we were robbed whilst in Iran. The thieves smashed the drivers side window and indiscriminately took 6 storage boxes containing clothing, car parts, tools, medical kit, camping equipment and personal items. Sadly, this included the box that contained Emma’s travel diaries, all our used maps and books plus every sentimental little souvenir and gift we’d acquired en-route.
The financial loss was devastating but the inconvenience and time wasted was really problematic.
What We Did Right
Thankfully cameras, laptops, phones, hard drives, credit cards, money and passports were all with us in the apartment where we were sleeping.
Both Emma and I carry a micro SD card on us at all times in a hidden pocket in our ‘Adventure belts’, this memory card contains digital copies of all our important documents including the vehicle registration, passports, carnet, visas, medical records and prescription details. We have also emailed ourselves and a reliable family member a copy of this digital folder that can then be viewed using any device connected to the internet. Had we lost the entire car we would have still had access to our vital documents, this would have certainly sped things up at the police station and embassy.
Photos are simply irreplaceable; the basic rule to follow here is - don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. We always make sure we have multiple copies of all laptop content, including photographs of diary pages (fortunately). One copy is hidden deep inside the car and certainly isn’t locatable in a ten minute break-in. This solution is still not great if someone takes the entire vehicle. To resolve this potential problem we also back up our files and photographs frequently to the ‘Cloud’, this is painfully slow in most countries due to internet speeds and is not really appropriate for larger files like film footage. Backing up to SD or Micro SD cards and posting home is also a fairly secure alternative, if somewhat costly, the drawbacks with this are that many postal systems are fairly unreliable in other parts of the world.
Being married to a compulsive list maker has its benefits; Emma had made a full inventory of every item in the car and in which box it was placed, neatly organised into a deftly formatted spread-sheet stored on our micro SD cards. This simple procedure made identifying what had been taken a fairly quick process. This list was then swiftly given to the police. In hindsight it would have been beneficial to have a photograph of every item we carry as the police requested information regarding some of the more unusual or easily recognisable items that were taken.
All the rear windows of our car are completely blacked out using thick self-adhesive black vinyl, this does two things, it keeps inquisitive eyes out and also makes the glass a little harder to smash. Most thieves are opportunistic, if items are out of sight this is a great first step to securing your vehicle.
All our external accessories like jerry-cans and the Hi-lift jack are all secured with heavy-duty cables and waterproof padlocks. Our vehicle is fitted with an immobiliser, I would also recommend installing another hidden battery isolator switch to completely kill all electrics to the vehicle- this would also be handy when working on the car.
As for personal protection, we carry very little. In the tent at night we opt for WD-40 (although it’s not mentioned as one of the 2000+ uses on it’s website), a screeching rape alarm and a fairly hefty Maglite. Being lovers not fighters, we took a few self-defence classes before we left on our trip. Some overlanders carry pepper spray, but this can be problematic crossing borders in some countries.
What We Have Learnt
There are many things you can do to protect yourself, your possessions and your vehicle. Avoiding putting yourself in a risky situation is always the first step, followed by security should you be robbed. Having simple rules, being aware of your environment and trusting your instinct hugely reduces your chances of being targeted. Prior to Iran, sticking to our self-imposed rules, we’d travelled through 45 countries without a hitch.
Simply being aware of threats in your local area is often enough to keep you safe. In Russia for example we were warned by truck drivers to be aware of scam pleas for help by distressed smartly dressed men at the side of the road. Local knowledge is extremely valuable but be aware that most people will exaggerate the dangers and untrustworthiness of people in neighbouring countries! Careful selection of wild camping spots is vital; we always make sure no one sees us leave the road and try to remain out of sight from roads and habitation.
It is important to maintain a level of security in your vehicle that does not become a hindrance on a daily basis but is secure enough to ease your mind when the vehicle is unattended. There are times when you have no choice but to be away from the vehicle and it is during these times that your security options need to be religiously enforced.
It’s nigh on impossible to make your vehicle completely burglar-proof, ultimately if someone wants to get into your car, they will. All a thief needs is time and an opportunity, the more you can do to increase the time needed to get into the vehicle the less the opportunity exists. Your vehicle should appear to be a hard target, this will deter most criminals who will look for an easier target.
Most people tend to prioritise securing items that are perceived as valuable; laptops, cameras, phones, GPS, etc. The logic here being that no one is going to want to steal used maps, personal diaries and prescription glasses. The truth of the matter is, thieves are generally indiscriminate. In our case they simply took all they could in the time they had. Storage boxes are practical but they certainly made it easy for the thieves to empty our car. In this regard maybe a fixed and lockable draw system is more secure.
In hindsight we should have treated items like diaries and prescription glasses in the same way we dealt with other ‘valuables’. If you need glasses to drive and someone takes them you have a big problem. Thankfully I always have a pair stuck to my face and keep my prescription details on my micro SD card.
There are many smaller products on the market that are useful for overlanders including Baked Bean tin safes, these can be hidden amongst your food stash and are great for hiding smaller items. Combination key safes can be bolted or welded to the underside of your car and can hold a full set of spare keys in case you manage to lose your keys.
External heavy-duty commercial van door hasps are somewhat unsightly but they are also a great security addition, especially in conjunction with a draw system that can’t be accessed whilst the doors are closed. If a thief smashes a window they won’t be able to open the doors which in turn means they can’t access the draw system. This set-up should prevent the thieves from taking anything at all.
Most car thieves are small-time opportunistic criminals but in some extreme cases your vehicle may be targeted by a more professional outfit who actually want to take the entire vehicle. The simplest way to prevent this is not to leave your vehicle in the same place for more than one day. Think carefully about promoting your overland website and blog on your vehicle. Most overlanding websites like to feature photos of the vehicle build, storage systems and the equipment carried, this information can easily be used by would-be criminals who spot your vehicle.
If you can afford it, a hidden GPS tracker on your vehicle might save you one very expensive loss. We also recommend downloading one of the many remotely operated tracking and recovery apps that are available for most smart phones and laptops.
It is important to address security issues when prepping your vehicle; window grills, secure cages, safes and locking draw systems are easily available for vehicles like Defenders but are not commonplace in the UK for Toyotas like ours. You don’t need to spend a small fortune to be protected; simply having a few simple self-imposed rules is the greatest way of keeping you and your vehicle safe. Unfortunately we broke our rules and paid the price for doing so. Thankfully the people of Iran and our friends back home proved how amazing they are and came to our rescue helping us source and replace many of the items that were taken.
Fortunately the robbery didn’t dampen our adventurous spirit. It’s important to remember that most overlanders don’t ever fall victim to crime and the majority of people round the world are wonderfully friendly and honest.
The capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, George Town, is a hectic mix of distinct historic cultures, urban cool and some of the best food we’ve had during our entire trip.
The city’s history is rich; established in 1786 by the British East India Company, George Town was one of the first British colonies in South-East Asia. During it’s British heyday the port town served as a trading post, with various ethnicities and religions arriving on its shores and passing through. During World War II the town was conquered by the Japanese empire, at the end of the war the Japanese surrendered and the British took control again.
It’s this diverse mix of influences, the coalescence of local, British, Chinese, Indian and Islamic elements that has shaped George Town’s large variety of eclectic architectural styles. It’s this mish-mash of Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and all manner of buildings in between that led to it being awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nowadays George Town is considered a city; wandering around the narrow streets of the old town it is easy to forget that fact. ‘Little India’ and ‘China Town’ are authentic as it gets, the sights, sounds and smells of Little India transported us straight back. Like India, the British influence is apparent and the cities charm lies in its backdrop of colonial architecture. The architecture is easily on a par with the likes of Mumbai, although it lacks some of the grandeur.
Alongside the traditional architecture are stunning Art Deco buildings from the 30’s and 40’s and modernist buildings from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Then comes the post-modernist architecture from the 90’s and 2000’s; these later additions add something for any architecture enthusiast and augment a surprising amount of charisma.
The city is cultured. Cool coffee shops, art galleries, public sculptures and design houses are nestled amongst the quaint streets, they’ve even got a container hotel! The cities burgeoning street art scene is also drawing a lot of attention from tourists.
Reputed as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia thanks to the ubiquitous street food, George Town is heaven for foodies - but we’ll save that for another blog.
George Town really is quite unique; it’s colourful history and compactness means you can soak up the multicultural essence of the area with ease. One of our favourite stops in South East Asia.
Thailand has a love affair with the pick-up truck, literally everyone in Thailand drives a 4x4 pick-up. Sales of the Mitsubishi Triton, which is made in Thailand, practically saved the Japanese company from going out of business after a partnership deal with Germany's Daimler fell through. In 2007 they’d exported over a million Mitsubishi trucks to other Asian countries.
Mitsubishi’s are not the only popular model, all the Japanese manufacturers are represented, which is great for us being a Toyota owner as spare parts are easy to find.
What is noticeably different about Thailand in comparison to the rest of South-East Asia is that they like to modify their vehicles. Some are jacked up to ridiculous heights whilst others are slammed to the floor. One thing that Thai garages do well is suspension!
We spotted some incredibly well prepped off-road vehicles as well as some serious street racers. Like the Paykan pick-up in Iran most customised vehicles are still practical. In fact many of the suspension mods on the slammed vehicles are designed to handle extra weight, the upgraded suspension in combination with steel rear wheels and uprated tyres dictate the style of many vehicles.
Most towns and cities operate a private minibus system utilising the flatbed of the pick-up trucks as a seating area. This informal taxi system is the lifeblood of most cities.
Most of the minitrucks (the slammed ones) have custom soundsystems too that you’ll hear bumping from miles away.
Customization isn’t just limited to 4 wheels though; anyone who doesn’t own a 4x4 owns a scooter.
There are three models of scooter that are abundant throughout South-East Asia. The 125cc Honda Sonic, manufactured in Thailand and the similar Yamaha Mio and the Yamaha Nouvo. All three bikes are cheap, mechanically simple, relatively pokey and most motorcycle shops sell a whole host of accessories allowing for complete customization.
Scooters are frequently fitted with race handlebars, painted up in neon colours and covered in race inspired stickers. The mods are not just cosmetic, typically thinner wheels and tyres are fitted along with a big boar exhaust system, upgraded fuel delivery systems and brake upgrades.
Unlike any other country we have visited, and for reasons we don’t understand, Thailand is absolutely obsessed with modifying vehicles, which is great for any motor head!
As an overlander how your logo looks and the branding activities that accompany your dream trip may not be high priorities, after all, that Russian visa application is probably at the forefront of your mind! You should rethink this approach, and value the importance of your logo and branding.
The overlanding market is expanding at an exceptional rate. It is becoming increasingly important to stand out from the crowd. A strong brand is invaluable as the battle for audiences intensifies. It's imperative to spend time investing in researching, defining, and building your brand.
If you are planning your dream trip, setting up a new business or would like to overhaul your existing branding we can help. Being overlanders ourselves we understand the needs and wants of your customers, audience, fans and followers.
We can design you logos, brand your vehicle, print you stickers and even build you a website. We can also supply complete graphics packages for every social media platform making sure you have consistent branding at every point of contact.
Why Is Branding Important?
You may have a good operation running but if you are lacking in the visual department you could be hindering yourself. Humans are incredibly visually orientated. A logo is your face to the world and it is a key visual representation of what you stand for. A good logo helps people remember you and differentiates you from others. A professional appearance will gain you returning customers, an audience, fans and followers. Fan numbers and website hits can leverage sponsorship and sales. A decent logo helps…. and looks cool plastered all over your vehicle!
If you’d like some help with your branding please email us at email@example.com
The Jesada Technik Museum is the quirkiest car museum we have attended, essentially a motor museum, it does however house a few planes and boats too.
What makes the museum so unique is that the collection focuses on micro cars. The extent and growth of the collection is nothing short of miraculous, Mr Jesada Dejsakulrit purchased his first vehicle in 1997: a German Messerschmitt KR200 microcar. This early purchase set the tone for his collection and within 10 years he’d purchased over 500 vehicles. In 2007 Mr Jesada opened the museum to the public.
The collection is predominately micro cars although there are other vehicles on display. What is nice about the museum is the juxtaposition of typically classic cars you’d expect to find in a motor museum like a Ford Mustang next to an excellent example of a late 70’s “everyday” popular car like a Honda Civic.
The museum also has a DeLorean DMC-12, the iconic vehicle made famous from the Back to the Future film trilogy. The main attractions though are the smaller cars: Mini Mokes, a VW Type 181, Citroën 2CV’s, Bond Bugs, BMW Isetta bubble cars and numerous other micro cars.
The museum is free to enter with the purpose of public interest, preservation of history and heritage of these unique vehicles.
After Cambodia’s auspicious independence in 1953 the country began a period of transformation. This new social and cultural vision for Cambodia included numerous building projects in the capital Phnom Penh. This new architecture, integrating the ‘international modernism’ with local tradition and materials, became known as ‘New Khmer Architecture’, culminating in the construction of the National Sports Stadium, built in 1963 for the Southeast Asia Games the following year. Ironically the stadium never hosted any joyous unifying sporting events as the games were cancelled with the Vietnam War looming overhead. Instead it accommodated huge nationalistic political rallies!
During these prosperous times, these large, modern, angular concrete buildings became a symbol of Cambodia’s modernization. As the decade came to a close, dark clouds circled Cambodia as the Vietnam War started sucking in its neighbouring countries. Later the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime did little in progressing the countries vision of modernization. Miraculously, despite it’s recent history, numerous buildings constructed during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, many designed by one architect, Vann Molyvann, have survived.
Institute of Foreign Languages
What is now The Institute of Foreign Languages was originally the Teacher Training College. The original ‘Lab Buildings’ and ‘Library’ are two of the cities most interesting buildings. The group of three buildings by Vann Molyvann were his last work of the 1970s.
The Lab Buildings
The sophisticated lab buildings ooze 70’s panache, dynamism and chic. These structures are by no means style over form and function; but rather the perfect combination of all three.
The structure is a glorious demonstration of concrete ingenuity, a striking form that executes its function perfectly. Inside, the four elevated classrooms are joined by a long hallway, screened on one side by unglazed masonry lattice blocks allowing for fresh air to blow through.
Inside the raised space-age classroom pods, the cantilevered sloping floor supports stepped seating, originally tubular roof lights focused daylight onto each lab desk. The classrooms are small to encourage focused learning, a point re-enforced by vertically louvered windows that allow natural light in but restrict the view of the distractive world outside.
The Central Courtyard and Surrounding Buildings
The complex of buildings at the Teacher Training College centre around an open courtyard and raised walkways, bodies of water unify the site.
In his blog about the architecture of Vann Molyvann, Rémy Bertin writes “within the central courtyard is a beautiful old tree with an incredibly wide canopy, I think that the tree has to be older than the 35 year old campus, meaning that the buildings were composed around it.”
This approach to architecture respects the existing nature and incorporates it into the surroundings.
The courtyard, walkways and surrounding vicinity offer shady areas where students can gather and socialise. The large expanses of water have a cooling effect on hot summer days whilst reflecting light into what typically would be gloomy areas.
The Library at the Teacher Training College was built in 1972. Its unique appearance is an example of ‘form follows construction’ (if that’s a thing?). Like the Richard Rogers designed Lloyds building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris the structure of the building is integral to the aesthetic. The exterior columns encase the building like a ribcage.
Vann Molyvann created the Tardis-like building that accommodates offices at its core on the ground floor. A curved staircase leads to the 1st floor where the library is located. From the exterior of the building it is impossible to comprehend the complex workings of the circular roof. Inside, the construction of the roof becomes apparent as the complex geometry and concrete assembly is clearly visible and offers the same degree of sculptural form as the exterior. What looks like a concrete encased building from the outside is deceptively light and airy inside.
National Sports Complex
Like many stadiums around the world the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh was built in hope. Sadly, like its would-be Olympic bid winning counterparts the stadium has never really fulfilled its potential. As previously mentioned the Southeast Asia Games in 1964 never took place. Luckily, despite very few major sporting events being held at the site, the buildings have survived and have been adopted by Phnom Penh’s natives as a central recreational ground.
The Olympic sized swimming pool and diving pool are now filled with screaming kids, quirky impromptu aerobics sessions are held trackside and kids fly kites from the top of the stadium stands.
Like a modern-day temple to sports, the National Sports Complex was built using east-west alignment inspired directly by Cambodia’s most famous, and slightly more visited architectural site, at Siem Reap.
The original sports complex contained several giant pools, a sly nod to the lake that once stood on the site, and a homage to the temples at Angkor, which are often surrounded by moats and pools. Unfortunately the government sold off the surrounding land and these watery features have been lost, detracting from the overall feel of the site. The diabolical apartments that have replaced them have now obscured the view and lessoned the impact of the symmetrical array of buildings. The symmetry of the complex typifies the architectural layouts of the great temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Khan. The indoor stadium, the structure of which also supports some outside stadium seating, sits centrally, nestled into the raised horseshoe earthen mound which houses the concrete stands of the stadium. The stadium, which has a capacity of 80,000, is similar in construction to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, which I visited last year.
Inside the indoor stadium Vann Molyvann’s mastery of light is clearly apparent, he utilises numerous techniques to great effect. Underneath each of the stadium stands natural light is beautifully diffused through consistently spaced windows underneath each seat.
Institute of Technology of Cambodia
The Institute of Technology, on the aptly named Russian Boulevard, is an immense building of Soviet proportions. It comes as no surprise to discover that the designers were in fact Russian. Nothing instils communist pride like an imposing +400 metre long, 3 storey high, concrete dynamo of creativity. Built with Soviet funds, the building was a gift to Cambodia. Like many of its contemporaries the complex optimises the use of air-flow, a masterful display of ingenuity, constructed to allow natural light while also keeping out heat and rain, through screened open cavities that extend over the entire façade of the main building.
The building was completed in 1964 and used until its abandonment during the war in 1975. After the war the French rehabilitated the school and many of the classes there are still taught in French.
Other Notable Buildings
Other notable buildings include… The Royal University of Phnom Penh with it’s undulating roof, which somehow seems to defy the laws of physics and engineering, The 100 Houses Project and the White Building; an innovative socio-cultural housing project for Phnom Penh’s growing urban population of the 1960’s. The scheme included the iconic Chaktomuk Theatre, designed by Vann Molyvann alongside ‘The Grey Building’, an Olympic Village for the Southeast Asian Games, also designed by Molyvann.
Unfortunately the buildings virginal paint-job has long deteriorated. It does however continue to be at the forefront of cultural importance and is now the focal point of a photographic project that centres on many of the 2000 artists, families and individuals who still live and work there! The White Building has garnered somewhat of an iconic reputation, despite its cult following amongst Phnom Penh’s cultured youth the building faces an uncertain future.
If you are interested in New Khmer Architecture and are visiting Phnom Penh please check http://www.ka-tours.org for a guided tour. They come highly recommended! Unfortunately there were no regular public tours whilst we visited and we couldn’t afford to organize a private tour! They also have a great FREE walking tour map, which is available here! Most of the buildings mentioned in this blog are open to the public and accessible without prior permission.
The deafening quiet in the midst of a chaotic city has a profoundly moving effect on you as you walk into the The Tuol Svay Pray High School. Unlike other schools in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the sound of playing children doesn’t ring out from the gates.
40 years ago, in the year I was born - 1976, the Khmer Rouge renamed the high school S-21 and turned it into a secret centre of torture, interrogation and execution.
Like the Nazi’s before them, the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented their genocide; they carefully transcribed interrogations and created an incredibly haunting archive of inmates’ portraits. The photographs and confessions were collected by staff at the prison, fearing for their own lives, in order to prove to the Khmer Rouge leaders that their orders had been carried out.
Between the years 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians. At least 16,000 went through the gates of the converted school, including women and children; it’s believed that less than 20 people survived.
S-21 is now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide.
In 1979, after the regime was removed by Vietnamese forces, two photojournalists entered S-21 to discover bloated, decomposing, tortured bodies chained to metal bed frames. The resulting photographs, which are on display, act as a stark reminder of the atrocities that happened here.
In the courtyard, the playground equipment, which was converted for torture, reveals a dark secret about the interrogators methods. The guards, interrogators and other prison staff at S-21 were generally between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. The Khmer Rouge generally discouraged torture that ended with death, this was discussed at length in a torturer's manual found at S-21.
Of the information and displays around the building, the photographic portraits are the most haunting. Each one tells a story of confusion, fear, defiance and resignation. The innocence of a child’s eyes are lost as they stare straight into the camera lens. One photograph features a shirtless young man whose number tag has been safety pinned into his pectoral muscle.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the leader Pol Pot retreated, but continued to lead the Khmer Rouge as an insurgent movement until 1997. He died in 1998 in a tiny jungle village, never having faced charges.
Like the Perm-36 Gulag camp in Siberia that closed in 1987 and the numerous sites we visited throughout the Balkans that had witnessed ethnic cleansing in the 1990’s, what is so shocking about this is the fact it all happened during my lifetime. A sobering thought.
Sadly the world has not learnt from it's mistakes… and probably never will.