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Aug 05

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Throughout South-East Asia, vendors sell attractive lacquered wooden boards with prints of Tintin covers on them. A few days ago in Siem Reap, I spotted one entitled, “Tintin au Cambodge”. I thought that was strange, since I don’t ever remember Tintin visiting Cambodia. I looked closer and realised that, with Angkor Wat in the background, some joker had drawn Tintin hobbling around on crutches with a peg-leg, followed closely by Snowy, also missing a limb. A sign in the corner read “Danger! Landmines!”

Cambodia is perhaps most well known for the turmoil which engulfed the country at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the notorious Pol Pot, especially for the three and a bit years they came to power from 1975 (some believe this was in part caused by the “secret bombing campaign” the US had undertaken on Cambodian soil in the antecedent years). During that time, they attempted to radically restructure Khmer society, abolishing currency, religion, families and, by some estimates, 3 million lives. Even after Vietnam “liberated” the country from Khmer Rouge rule, they continued their aggression against the government, engaging in campaign aimed at “demoralising” it. One of the ways they did this was to heavily mine areas of Cambodia, causing death to many civilians in the process. Today, the Khmer Rouge is thankfully now only a presence in history books. Although much of Cambodia is still plagued by undetonated landmines, the danger to tourists who stay on marked paths is negligible.

A visit to Angkor is expensive. A one-day pass costs US$20, and a three-day pass costs US$40. Passes bought after 4.00pm begin the next day, so most people buy after this time and catch a free sunset. We rode into Phnom Bakheng, a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside, and waited for the sun to go down. Our driver, “Jack”, came up with us and explained he couldn’t tell us about the site because he was not a licenced tour guide. He told us that the government sold licences for US$1000 (which, to the average Cambodian is about three to four years’ worth of salary) and he was saving up for one. Until then, if he talked about the temples, the police walking around would fine him.

On our first full day in Siem Reap, we hired two motos to take us around the main temple sites of Angkor, visiting Angkor Wat, the structures of Angkor Thom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and Banthay Kdei. Angkor was an old Khmer city, home to some one million residents and part of the six century old Angkor empire which extended significantly beyond the borders of current day Cambodia. It left behind a legacy of innumerable temples, citadels and other structures which are all roughly 1000 years old.

Everyone is familiar with the silhouette of Angkor Wat’s inner temple. The Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok even has a miniature replica of it. However, nothing quite prepares you for its sheer size. Angkor Wat covers almost 2 square kilometres and is surrounded by a very wide moat which I initially mistook for a river. In a region of the world where wats are everywhere, it is easy to see why this one is regarded as a clear standout. We woke up at 5.00am to catch the dawn at Angkor Wat, and it is quite an experience to walk up the main walkway in the pre-dawn gloom and see the temple spires loom ahead, getting larger and larger.

Unfortunately, Angkor is an extremely touristed site, and even at that hour, the temple grounds were swarming with people hoping to catch a sunrise. However, by 7.00am, most of the Japanese and Korean tourists had departed by the busload, disappointed that overcast weather had obscured the view of the sun. Luckily for us, it meant that we were able to explore the temple without the hassle of human traffic.

Originally a Hindu temple, there is an extraordinary series of stone bas-relief carvings around the outer wall of the temple esplanade that stretches on for 800 metres. While the construction of a structure of Angkor Wat’s size is not too problematic with today’s technology, the intricacy of the carvings around the temple are as complex today as they were a thousand years ago. They are not something that can be mass produced by a machine, but have to be designed and chiseled inch by inch by painstaking human labour. (Although I suspect that CAD/CAM techniques today could probably do the chiselling a lot quicker, but still, art without a human touch is often not the same.)

Angkor Thom contains several structures. We first saw the Bayon – a structure replete with spires adorned on four sides with an enigmatic smiling face. The Bathuon is a structure currently undergoing restoration, but tourists are allowed to walk around it. A local who claimed to be a university student of Khmer history approached us and, unsolicited, started talking about the temple as a tour guide would. We thought he was just using the opportunity to practise his English, but our naive assumptions of his altruism were quickly banished when, at the end of the impromptu tour, he demanded money from us to help fund his education. As far as scams go, this one was fortunately very minor.

Ta Keo is an undecorated, unfinished temple, which stands above the treeline. By the time we had reached its summit, we were well and truly tired with grabbling with Angkorian steps. Temple steps, especially near temple summits were narrow, very steep and quite treacherous. You have to turn your feet sideways in order to climb them. This was not the result of bad design, but rather symbolised the metaphorical difficulty of reaching the heavens.

It is with relief, then, we came to Ta Prohm which is pretty much a ground floor only temple. Ta Prohm has a great deal of character, stemming from the encroachment of the surrounding jungle on it. Over the centuries, large trees have wrapped their roots around and through blocks of stone. Many are now only removable at the risk of destroying sections of stonework which the roots now ironically support. This is also the location where the front cover of the Cambodia Lonely Planet was photographed. After some wandering around, we discovered the Khmer man on the LP cover sitting down under a tree, selling some miscellania. A shrink wrapped copy of the LP with him on it lay nearby, and a curator gestured to us that he was indeed the man on the cover.

On another day we hired a remorque-moto – basically a two-person carriage attached to the back of a moto – to take us to the more remote structure of Banthay Srei. It took us 90 minutes to drive out there, over some incredibly bumpy roads, but it was a nice journey overall. The remorque-moto seats are very well padded, and you get a good opportunity to see the surrounding landscape and peasants. Banthay Srei is small, but holds some very intricate bas-relief carvings. They are so intricate that it is thought that only women could have done them (though I don’t know whether this is said in jest or not). On the way back we visited Preah Khan, which has a lot of information about how restoration work was conducted on the temples. Finally, as a favour to our driver, we spent ten minutes in a large, expensive souvenir store, which entitled him to a litre of petrol.

As great as Angkor is, it is quite tiring, and after you visit the major temples, things unfortunately do become repetitive. “All watted out” is a common expression used by tourists there.

Much of Angkor has luckily survived, and in most cases the only evidence of the touch of the Khmer Rouge in the area are the multitude of statues missing their heads (they sold them off for money). Back in Phnom Penh, however, the memory of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime are preserved in several locations, and are an essential part of a visit to Cambodia’s capital.

Two main sites high on the “must visit” list are the Choeng Ek “Killing Fields” and the Tuol Sleng Museum. The former is situated about 15km out of the city, and is the site of many mass graves, from which around 9000 Khmer corpses were exhumed after being slaughtered by Khmer Rouge soldiers. A stupa filled with skulls commemorates the dead. One of the startling things is how close the actual graves were to the area in which prisoners were held when waiting to die. They were clearly within eyesight distance, and earshot. Most were bludgeoned to death (children against a tree) in order to save bullets.

Tuol Sleng is the site of where prisoners were held in Phnom Penh. The prison was originally a high school, converted with the construction of small cells with irons bars in classrooms and barbed wire draping the concrete walls. In the interrogation and torture rooms, fairly gruesome photos (thankfully in black and white) show the results of Khmer Rouge handiwork. Another cell block shows hundreds upon hundreds of photos of the victims of prison, all taken by the Khmer Rouge who had an obsession with record keeping. It all makes for sombre viewing, but a necessary one.