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Siem Reap beyond the Temples - Two days of Temple visit in Cambodia

Siem Reap beyond the Temples

With Angkor Wat’s architectural glories nearby Siem Reap, it is easy to miss other points of interest in town. However, after two days of Temple visit, we tried to change direction and hunt for a different story.

The incredible story of Mr. HAK

If you think that a man can only live once, think again. Mr Hak Chay has lived at least four lives: from  Khmer Rouge evacuee, to refugee in Indonesia. From mine clearer for UN, to successful businessman.

We meet Mr Hak Chay at the Sonalong Village, a 3 star resort in the heart of Siem Ream. He is nowadays a businessman who has been running his own hotel since 2007 – but quite a lot has happened in his life before then.

Mr Hak Chay at Sonalong Village Resort

Hak Chay was born in 1962 as part of a Chinese family living in Phomn Penh: “I had twelve brothers and sisters, we went to school just like all kids. I was thirteen when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia – it was 1975. A few hours after they had taken the nation over, the soldiers told the inhabitants of Phomn Pehn that Americans were going to bomb the city, so everybody had to move to the countryside for the next three days. My father immediately understood that the situation was weird. He recognized communists by their uniforms and told us that things were more critical than people thought.”

And he was right. On 17 April, 1975 the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh city declaring that it was the end of the civil war and renamed the State Democratic Kampuchea. People gathered in the streets cheering and welcoming the soldiers, however, the situation immediately became violent. Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot, the head of Khmer Rouge, set about abolishing money, private property and religion, and setting up rural collectives. He forced millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside.

“The Khmer Rouge did not care about where we went, as long as we left the capital, so we headed towards Battambang, in the Northwest of Cambodia. My father knew that there were good rice fields there and lots of fish, so it would be easier for us whatever happened” says Mr Hak. “We walked one month along the National Road. We slept along the street and lived as we could. It was truly hard. We lost everything. My whole family ended up working in a rice field seven days a week, ten hours a day. The good thing was that  Khmer Rouge left us alone, they did not touch the Chinese, because China was a communist country. Instead, they hated the Vietnamese.”

People coming from the cities knew nothing of rice cultivation and whole families died from starvation, disease and overwork.

“After about one year, the killing fields began. People who had left Phnom Pehn were told that they could go back, if they wanted. People who had some sort of education decided to go back to the capital to avoid working in the fields, but they could not go back to their old life. They were prisoned, tortured and killed”

Forced transfers; forced labor; arbitrary detention; forced marriage; and systemic violence including brutal beatings, torture, mutilation, sexual violence and executions Three years, eight months and twenty days of horror. Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or because they knew a foreign language.

In 1979, less than two weeks after their initial attack, Vietnamese forces successfully occupied Phnom Penh, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee into the wilderness. Pol Pot himself escaped by helicopter as the city fell.

“I went back to Phomn Pehn from Battambang when I was 17, and completed high school. Khmer Rouge  had lost power, but Vietman invaded Cambodia. I decided to illegally run away to Australia. I boarded a boat definitely too small to carry the 124 passengers I could count. But things did not work as I had hoped. It was 1988. We were stopped and our adventure ended up in the Galand Refugee Camp of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Indonesia. At the beginning of January 1991 I was flown back to Phomn Penh.”

Hak at Galand UNHCR Regugee camp in Indonesia (second on the left)

“Two weeks after I returned to Cambodia, I applied for a job at the United Nations, hoping they would take me on. They recruited me to become a deminer in Siem Reap. I attended a 6-month training to clear landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs), according to the UN standards. The job was very well paid, 100 dollars a month, although it was dangerous, but I decided to take it because I wanted to start building the foundations of my future life.”

In 1993 the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia (UNTAC) was put in place, but it was rejected by Khmer Rouge, who kept launching attacks on its operations.

“In 1994, on my wedding day, the Khmers Rouge attacked the UN Operations Center in Siem Reap from 4 am until midnight. So my wedding only last 5 minutes! But I did not complain; we had gone through much worse events. That same year I decided to buy some land and I knew that one day I would open my own hotel.”

Hak’s dream has come true. The resort’s name, Sonalong, is a name composed by the names of his three sons, So Na, Long. Today the resort, with a nice swimming pool and a luxurious garden, has 10 bungalows for a total of 25 rooms, mainly reserved by Europeans and Australians.

The Sonalong Village Resort

What does Cambodia need in order to develop for its future? – we ask Hak. “Well, it would need more rain!  Water is the key for development in our country. Cambodia only produces rice once a year, unlike Vietnam and Laos who produce it 3 times a year. That is because my country is too dry. There is just enough to eat rice, but too little to export it and grow our GNP.”

Mr Hak is a very practical man, who has leveraged his energy to move forward in a country where things are not easy: a history that includes revolution, genocide, Vietnamese invasion and years of war in 30 years only. A country that is the 156 most corrupt nation out of 175 countries, according to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.

“I believe in hard work and moderation. Be careful when you drive and you will not have an accident – I tell my children.” Well, for as moderate as he looks, I cannot help thinking about Mr Hak as a deminer. Clearing mines is not being very careful, is it Mr Hak? He smiles and shows us the pictures of those years with the UN. “Every dog has its day, I like to say. My day was when I contributed to help my country get out of its horrible story and turn the page.”

Mr Hak, can you tell us more about your job with mine clearance for UN? – we ask. Mr Hak has got many pictures of old times, which he proudly shows us.

“Our first task was mine localization, that is identifying the areas in which fighting had taken place, by checking war documents, and asking authorities or village people.

Then the team moved to the field; sometimes we were 10 men advancing at the same speed in a row, 2 meters away from one another, sometimes we were many more, it all depended on the surface to demine. We were thousands of deminers for UN at that time.” 

Mr Hak as part of the UN team of deminers (second on the left)

“The second step was to leverage the mine detector. We could only work 30 minutes under the sun, since it was too hot, then we had to be replaced by a colleague. The job required outmost attention, we could not make mistakes if we did not want to risk life. We had to be concentrated to hear the detectors’ noises.

Mine detector at work

When we found a mine, everybody stepped away and only one man was left on the ground for safety reasons. The first thing to do was to put signage to indicate the mine.

Danger: unexploded mine signage

At that stage we had to determine if the mine or the bomb could be disarmed. If it could not, we had to blow it.

Man at work on a mine

If the mine could be disarmed, we could proceed to dismount it.

UN mine instructor demolishes a mine

Old bombs are hard to disarm, and only about 20% are easily disarmed. We had a very hard time with anti-personal mines made in Vietnam, since they were particularly hard to disarm; the Vietnamese were very clever in their construction.

Mr Hak prepares a mine for distruction

Even when land mines and UXOs do not directly kill or hurt people, they are a major obstacle to the development of Cambodia, because the contaminated land cannot be used for agriculture or resettlement.

Getting rid of land mines is a prerequisite to lifting affected populations out of poverty in the country. But it is quite difficult and costly. If, on average, a cheap mine costs $3 to purchase and virtually nothing to deploy, it costs around $1,000 to clear. It would take over ten years and tens of millions more aid dollars to complete the job of clearing Cambodia of land mines that endanger lives in nearly half the country’s villages.

The Cambodian Landmine Museum in Seam Reap

After our conversation with Mr Hak, we decide to visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, to learn more. Cambodia is still one of the most landmine-affected countries in the world and this causes a significant proportion of Cambodia’s mine casualties.

The museum was established by Aki ra, a former child soldier who fought for the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese, and the Cambodian Army until he decided to devote his life to removing land mines. The collection includes deactivated mines, mortars, guns and weaponry. All mines and bombs of the museum were inspected by the Cambodian Mine Action Authority and declared FFE (free from explosive).

At the museum we learn that there are still between 3 and 6 million mines left in Cambodia. While many mines were laid during the Vietnam war along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, most of the mines today are in the so-called K5 Belt, which runs along the entire 750km length of the Cambodia-Thai border, one of the densest concentrations of mines on the planet.  A lot of mines were laid during a 20-year guerrilla war period that followed the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, in order to interdict the Khmer Rouge that were being supported using Thailand as a supply base.

Landmines are victim-activated mines laid in the ground. A first type of mines are called blast mines and they aim at wounding the enemy soldier, that is mainly blow off a foot or a leg, or a hand if they are picked up (these were very widely used, because it was more costly for the enemy country, since it implied costs for taking care of wounded soldiers). Then there are fragmentation mines, which aim at killing. 5 kilos (11 pounds) are enough to set off anti-personnel mines. Mines in Cambodia come from all over the world, mainly from the old Soviet Union and China. Others are from Vietnam, Cambodia, USA, Singapore or Europe. No landmine goes “click click” like in Hollywood movies. When you step on it, it immediately explodes. A different type of mines are anti-tank mines that are conceived to blow off tanks, so they do not typically explode if a man walks on them.

Mines and bombs at Mine Museum

In Cambodia there are also millions of pieces of unexploded ordinance (UXOs). Two million seven thousand bombs were dropped by the USA troops during the Vietnam war. In 1965 US President Lyndon Johnson ordered the bombing along the Ho Chi Min Trail, which runs through Cambodia and Laos, since it allowed to supply Vietnamese troops in the south. In 1970 US President Nixon ordered a new carpet bombing of Cambodia to destroy Ho Chi Min Trail.  600,000 civilians died – which contributed to the rise of the Khmers Rouge, who used to go from village to village after the bombings to recruit followers and soldiers. At that time, 300 bombs could easily be dropped in 15 minutes.

A Mine Ban Treaty was ratified in 1997, with 155 countries having signed it so far. 40 countries, among which USA, China and Russia, have not signed it yet.

The Physical Rehabilitation Center in Siem Reap

Landmines last for hundreds of years and one person out of three hundred is the victim of a mine in Cambodia. To learn more, we decide to go visit The Physical Rehabilitation Center in Siem Reap.

The Physical Rehabilitation Center in Siem Reap was opened in 1988. It offers orthopedic-fitting, prosthetic devices and physical therapy to mine victims. Their hope is for the victims, who often travel great distances from the heavily affected countryside near the Thai border, as well as other areas, to be able to return to home with restored capacity to earn a living, and knowledge for future generations. It takes about 5 days to prepare the casting and the fitting of a prosthesis, so patients can live there, otherwise it would be unaffordable for Cambodian people. The center treats almost 2,000 patients per year.

Prosthesis for survivors of landmines and the tools to build prosthetics devices


    Hi from Rome! I am Italian, although I have spent a very large part of my life in France, and I have lived and worked in an international environment. With my husband and our two girls, we like travelling to experience extra-ordinary paths around the world, probably because I have been collaborating with Domenico and Giulia for almost 10 years now with the communication of Kiss From The World! As a job, I am a marketing communication manager for a global consulting firm. I love storytelling, writing editorials and novel writing: one day I hope to publish a long story that I am writing in my spare time. I have also worked with UNICEF and an NGO protecting children in Afghanistan as a volunteer, with responsibilities in cause-related marketing and fundraising.

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