Part two: Cambodia “More than just temples…”
Raiders of the Lost Temples…
As we walked across no-mans land between Vietnam and Cambodia at the Moc Bai – Bavet border crossing, a young woman handed me a leaflet. Thinking it was instructions on how to get through the customs and immigration I stared at it in bewilderment. It was in fact a flyer for the Casino 100 yards down the road into Cambodia.
I had always know Cambodia would be very different to Vietnam, and our trip was certainly one of contrasts – from having fun in the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider to some very emotionally challenging moments.
Our Cambodian minder for the first part of the trip was a rather serious looking lady called Thida. During the course of the bus journey to Phnom Penh, she began tell us some of the dreadful history her country had undergone in the not too distant past. The civil war had raged on in the country until 1998.
Cambodia, like Vietnam, had been occupied by the French until the late fifties, after which the rather ineffectual sounding King Sihanouk reigned until 1970 when Pol Pot’s insane regime took control.
Cambodian political history is particularly complex, and the Pol Pot regime is almost incomprehensible. In Vietnam they had a war (well, a series of wars) which although repugnant is at least understandable. Two groups fighting over a plot of land. Simple (Actually – far from simple, but by comparison so). In Cambodia, Pol Pot systematically wiped out a fifth of his own population – but to what end? What on earth was in the man’s sick mind?
The rise of the Khmer Rouge can be attributed to the war in Vietnam overflowing into Cambodia – The US dropped thousands of pounds of explosives on Cambodia in an attempt to cut off the supply of weapons coming down the Ho Chi Mihn trail. But why did the Khmer Rouge then take it out on their own people?
We arrived at our hotel late in the day, and after dinner in a local Cantonese restaurant (chopped chicken complete with beak…) we retired for an early start the next day. First visit was to the hideously opulent royal palace.
Second stop the silver Pagoda – similarly splendid.
Third stop the S21 prison where the Khmer Rouge incarcerated, tortured and killed thousands of intellectuals, politicians, doctors, actors, teachers and other such ‘dangerous’ characters. This stop brought us back to reality with a very brutal bump!
I really wasn’t interested in taking pictures of the cells, the torture equipment, the gallows – the images will stay with me forever. In very sober mood we drove out to one of the killing fields – where the monument to the victims is a glass tower filled with their eyeless, lifeless skulls – I walked around the field in somewhat of a daze until I realised with horror that the white stones under my feet were in fact human bones.
I defy anyone to explain to me how such an atrocity can be allowed to happen in any country in the world.
Thida’s seriousness soon revealed its cause when she told us her father and brother had both been victims of the murderous regime. Each year hundreds of people still traumatised by those evil years, fling themselves to their deaths from the bridge over the Mekong river.
That evening we had to lighten the mood – so decamped to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia - no longer a real press club, but a very pleasant and trendy hotel bar and restaurant – we had our first western food in two weeks!
I was glad to leave Phnom Penh the following day for the long drive to Siem Reap.
As I stared out of the coach window I felt bitterly for all those we passed whose lives could never be called ‘simple’.
On this leg of the journey we were in the charge of an ex-journalist who had given up reporting as it was proving rather hazardous. It hadn’t stopped him writing a book about the killing time, and speaking to us openly.
Fortunately he still had a good sense of humour and cheered us up by buying us a bag of deep fried tarantulas to eat as a snack.
Funny, Stephanie really doesn’t look as if it’s that yummy…
En route to Siem Reap we took a boat along part of the Tonlé Sap lake and saw the conditions of some of the people who spend their lives ekeing out a meagre living from the lake – these people are so poor they do not even have access to clean drinking water.
Cambodia desperately needs western investment, the average wage is about US$5 a week – the main investors are Chinese and Korean garment manufacturers. Child exploitation is rife, with children still being used in the same way that the Khmer Rouge used them.
Unlike Vietnam which has so much thoughout the country to attract the tourists, Cambodia’s only real major tourist attraction is of course the fabulous temples around Siem Reap. It annoyed me that people could fly in, stay at an opulent hotel, visit Angkor Wat and they fly out declaring they had ‘been to Cambodia’.
On this leg of the journey we also visited the land mine museum (our new friend Rathanak had lost his elder brother to a land mine). The museum was run by an ex Khmer Rouge fighter who had defected to the Vietnamese. He has dedicated his life to clearing his country of the menace that still kills hundreds of people every year – mostly children.
His rather crude technique, in the absence of decent mine detectors, is to poke a sharp stick into the ground and probe for the mines. This strikes me as only one step up from covering your ears with your hands and stamping your foot!
I urge everyone to visit the Halo Trust site to see just what a lethal menace landmines are around the world.
Rathanak also gave me a new insight into Bhuddism, which is practised widely in Vietnam and Cambodia. I have an issue with religion – not any one in particular, but the whole concept. I had until now thought of bhuddism as being a relatively harmless and gentle religion. But Nak’s take on it was somewhat different.
“Look at these poor people giving everything they have to the monks to build a new temple in the hope that it will buy them a better life in the hereafter.” he said. “What the people really need are new hospitals and schools, not more temples.”
In true western hypocritical style I arrived at my luxurious hotel with air-conditioning, swimming pool and as much beer as I could drink, and thanked my extreme good fortune.
The last four days of our trip we spent doing the typical tourist round of temples, bars, temples, pool, bars, and more temples.
Angkor Wat was impressive – but my favourites were the Angkor Thom temple and the Ta Prohm or ‘Jungle Temple’ where they filmed Tomb Raider. (I thought Rhiannon made a much more convincing Lara Croft than Angelina Jolie…)
I left Cambodia with very mixed feelings, I was disappointed not to have had time to visit Laos as well, but relieved not to have to face any more unpleasant truths.
At Siem Reap airport I came across just the kind of complete arse who I think should never be allowed to own a passport. He was complaining loudly to the poor girl at the airport tax desk that his travel agent hadn’t told him he would have to pay $25 and he wanted a receipt to claim the money back from the travel agent. I felt like asking him if this was the first time he’d been let out without his nanny…
This trip was both fascinating and emotionally challenging, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And not once did I wish I was back underneath ROJ with a spanner. One week back at work and I can’t wait to get back to the farm…