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The basics of Cambodia: genocide & temples

Wide view of Angkor Wat in Cambodia

The lesson of Cambodia is about the remarkable depths of human resilience. A little more than 35 years ago, this was a country in ruins. In a four-year riot of mass murder, the psychopathic Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army of peasant-tyrants not only devastated the economy, but destroyed every intellectual asset the country had. Anyone with an education (including teachers and random people wearing glasses), any businessperson, anyone who had any connections with a foreigner, and anyone who dared dissent from the harsh regime was tortured and murdered; in all 1.7 million, out of a population that even now is only 15 million. The towns were emptied and left to rot, while the countryside imprisoned forced-labourers working and starving in the paddy fields.

Yet today Cambodia is a vibrant, hospitable country edging its way out of poverty and arguably one of the safest in south-east Asia. My itinerary is limited this time to the capital, Phnom Penh, primarily to witness its recent history of genocide, and Siem Reap, the closest town to the magnificent ancient temples of Angkor Wat. While a quick skim, this is sufficient for a taster of the immense variety this small country offers. I chose to travel between these gold star destinations by plane to save time, but it is easy to go by boat down the beautiful Mekong; it takes about 6 hours and costs around $40.

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Walking the streets of Phnom Phen and other cities is a challenge, it is true – the pavements have all been given over to cafes or parking spaces, forcing pedestrians to take their chances among the cars, tuk tuks and bicycles – but, remarkably, the accident rate is claimed to be very low. As a pedestrian, you soon learn the rules of crossing the road: find a gap, step out boldly, keep going with a steely eye on oncoming traffic and somehow it will always work round you. Show even the slightest lack of determination, however … I only saw one little green man traffic light signal and this figure was running!

Phnom Penh is built on a wide, murky stretch of a tributary where it joins the great Mekong River. Unlike nearby Bangkok, where the river is a constantly active, integral part of daily life, the river in central Phnom Penh flows ponderously by, undisturbed by anything apart from an occasional fishing boat.

There are luxury business hotels, tall new-builds pointing a symbolic finger from the seclusion of the quiet side of the river at the cacophony and smells of the street markets on the lived-in side. I stayed at the modest Ohana Hotel, still with swimming pool and on-off internet a few yards from the river, though the grand abode of the city, full of imperial splendour, is the Raffles Hotel.

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A short walk away is the Royal Palace, an extravagant collection of pointed roofs and Khmer symbolism. My guide explains that what Westerners think of as Thai culture is in fact an adaptation of Khmer, dating from when most of the south-east Asian peninsular was part of the Khmer Empire.

Here in the Royal Palace and in the famous temples of Angkor, there is a unique blend of Hinduism, Bhuddish and Animism. Successive kings in medieval times favoured one religion or the other, defacing artefacts from their predecessors’ buildings. Finally – much as happened with Christianity under the Romans – a new state religion blended the three to accommodate all tastes. Particularly dramatic are the ubiquitous seven-headed dragons, defending every entrance, and the celestial dancers, strategically placed at elevation around buildings to entertain the gods so that they will be in a good humour and well-disposed towards earthlings.

Still the home of the King (although he doesn’t seem to spend much time here), parts of the palace complex are closed to the public, but most of the buildings are open to visitors. The most impressive is the pavilion, colourfully decorated and protected by a variety of snakes and celestial dancers. Although the oldest of the buildings in the compound date back little more than 150 years, the palace follows tradition sufficiently to provide a useful representation of what the ruins of Angkor Wat would have looked like in their heyday. By comparison with the vast extent of these ancient buildings and with the royal palace at Hue in neighbouring Vietnam, this palace is much more modest in scope and size – and somehow a lot more human, so it takes little more than an hour to view the buildings and the small exhibitions of costumes.

While the Cambodians of Phnom Penh are proud of the palace and other brightly coloured buildings, such as the Silver Pagoda next door which houses a life-sized statue of Buddha in gold and diamonds, it is their recent past that they are most concerned to share with visitors.

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The memorial and museum of the Killing Fields, a few kilometres out of town, presents the harrowing story of Khmer Rouge brutality and inhumanity. The noise of the victims’ screams – 300 or more a day, often whole families, including small children – were drowned out by loudspeakers. This study of human depravity is at the same time both fascinating and horrifying. I felt that I was somehow intruding on the nation’s collective grief, yet also that it was important to them that I did so. Perhaps most impressive was what is not openly presented: the scale of forgiveness towards the perpetrators.

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S21, a former school building in the suburbs, was converted to a prison by Pol Pot, with hundreds of victims shackled to the floor in tiny cells, from which they would be taken for interrogation and torture. Most harrowing are the thousands of photographs – so many of them of young people – on display. What is it about the nature of such atrocities that makes it so important to record meticulous details of every victim?

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For me, this was particularly poignant, because it brought associations with what my own father would have endured as one of the few survivors of the prisoner of war labour gangs in northern Japan.

Not surprisingly, we are all sobered by the experiences of the day, and evening conversation in a bar overlooking the river is subdued. The area around our hotel hosts many of the bars and restaurants, most with happy hours. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club is right beside the river and is particularly lively and welcoming; on the higher floors, it is possible to find quiet spaces with a great view.

We are all looking forward to a different mood at Angkor. A short flight takes us to the brand new and efficient Siem Reap airport and into this charming former colonial town, with its quaint bridges and multiple markets.

This is a town that has embraced tourism in an intelligent way. The centre is packed with bars, spas and convenient services such as laundries (at less than a dollar per kilo of washing and ironing). The aptly named Pub Street is surprisingly relaxing and, as everywhere in Cambodia, the food is inexpensive and as good or better than you would find in an upmarket Thai or Chinese restaurant in Europe or North America. My hotel, the Steung Siemreap, is just around the corner and recently refurbished to a high standard in the main building. There is also another Foreign Correspondents’ Club and another Raffles Hotel.

It is the temple ruins we have come to see, however. Located just outside Siem Reap (which translates as Victory over Siam), all of the three main temple complexes and most of the minor ones are easily reachable by taxi, tuk tuk (or, if you feel really adventurous, on the back of a motorbike) for less than $5. The constant stream of visitors means that it is just as easy to catch one back to town. We bought three-day passes, which allowed us into all the sites. The passes were checked frequently, both at the entrances to sites and within the access to restricted area at the very top of Angkor Wat.

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Inevitably, we start with Angkor Wat, claimed to be the biggest temple in the world. Like most of the other temples, it is surrounded by a moat, crossed by a long, open causeway, which continues on through successive gates and open parkland, leading to the temple proper. You need strong, sensible shoes, both because it’s a relatively long walk and also to cope with scrambling over broken terrain.

The temple was built by King Suryavarman in the early twelfth century, at a time when Hinduism was the dominant religion of the Khmer region. Successive kings subsequently supported either Hinduism or Buddhism, defacing each other’s monuments until a rational compromise was reached in which the two religions were merged, along with elements of older animistic faiths (in much the same way as the Roman Empire created Catholicism).

There are three levels and the highest represents Mt Meru, the traditional home of the Khmer gods. There’s a long queue to climb the steep stairway to the third level, but it moves quite quickly and we wait no more than 20 minutes.

This and the other temples we visit were rediscovered and rescued from the jungle in the mid-1900s after centuries of abandonment by the occupying French. Many of the murals are in very good repair and it takes a couple of hours just to see the basics.

We return a couple of days later to watch the sunrise, when the ruins gradually emerge against the skyline and are reflected in the large moat that surrounds the complex. It is very crowded and not helped by hordes of people at the front with gigantic camera tripods and a sea of selfie sticks held high to see over each other’s heads.

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Just 15 minutes by taxi or tuk tuk, the temple of Bayon is a welcome contrast. From the entrance gateway a few hundred meters from the main ruins, we are met by large smiling faces in every direction. Many ruins have a melancholy aspect to them, but this retains a spirit of gentle humour that I took to immediately.

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Another 15 minutes further on is Ta Prohm, nicknamed the Tomb Raider Temple (because much of the Lara Croft film was shot here), which has largely been left to the forces of nature. The vast roots of giant trees grasp and throttle the stones and lend this relatively small but very beautiful temple an aura of mystery far greater than the others.

I had expected to get tired of temple bashing very quickly, but that just didn’t happen. Banteay Srei temple was also striking, not least because its smaller size makes it easier to absorb and appreciate. Unlike the larger temples, which impress with their sheer size and dilapidated grandeur, this is gentler and more human, with something of the air of an English country house in its walled gardens and pools.

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While I booked through Trailfinders, which used a local agency, Peregrine Tours, to plan my itinerary, it is also very easy to book hotels and transport once you are already in country. I found that having a guide, who was able to put what we saw into context, was valuable, particularly by linking accounts of his own family and neighbours with what had happened to the country at large. The guide was also able to translate the stories of the handful of death camp survivors, who now make a living describing their experiences.

I went in December, when the climate is at its most hospitable: dry, with slightly lower temperatures and an occasional pleasant breeze. One lesson learned is to leave sufficient time (at least an extra two or three days in each area) to find out about and explore places off the tourist trail, of which there are many. Some areas of Cambodia are still no-go because of landmines, and among the charities visitors are encouraged to support are the local bands of musicians who have lost limbs and/or eyesight to mines. My guides took us to restaurants in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap run by local charities that provide hospitality training to impoverished young people, and this seems to be a practical and direct way to support an economy where the average wage is only $135 a month and most people exist on much less than that. Strongly discouraged is buying from kids at the tourist spots: it keeps them away from attending school.

Cambodia is an exhilarating place to explore and I’m glad that my first visit was mostly a relatively standard tourist itinerary. It has given me enough understanding of the culture and how things work to feel confident next time to plan an itinerary into areas that rarely see tourists.

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