Cambodia: Tomb Raiding and Beyond.
14.05.09 - 21.05.09
Thrusting the thermometer in my ear, the health official welcomed the swine-flu-free me to Cambodian soil. To be honest, I was internally gambolling at having passed - after lugging my 18kg bag around for 2 hours in the dusty midday heat, i'd have quite believed them if they'd said i was running a high fever. But, grabbing my yellow slip and flashing a confident (if slightly soggy) smile, i followed the rest of the procession mainland-Cambodia bound.
Then, of course, came the inevitable tourist circus act - the "we stop here for you to change some money at this, the only available cash point in the whole of Cambodia, which yes, charges exorbitant rates, but what are you going to do?!"; the "the bus for your bus ticket goes in 4 hours' time, and takes six hours, but if you give me $10 now, i get you to Siem Reap in two..." kind of circus act. So it was in a beatific mood that i stowed my melting self in the back of a taxi with an ever-so-jolly Quebecoise couple who had pretended that they knew all along what was going on (and yet hadn't managed to notice that you need passport photos for your visa - or that you in fact NEED a visa) and glared steamingly out of the window.
Slowly, the countryside brings you back to life. Flooded paddy fields surround wooden houses on stilts; white cows with hollow, bony buttocks laze in the middle of the dusty red road. A road which - by the way - IS sealed for taxis. There's a travelling rumour that the national airline is keeping the bus road untarmac-ed to encourage people to fly to Siem Reap. But i'm glad we're driving; we pass bare-footed and bare-bottomed babies playing muddy puddles or on wooden gazeebo living areas, gaudy wedding ceremonies with bright pink and yellow canopies lined up along the street and - as a first indication of the political history of the country which we begin to learn more about over the next week - a million billboards advertising four political parties: the Cambodian People's Party (which controls the military, police and judiciary in a questionable democracy), the Sam Rainsy Party, FUNCINPEC and the Humanist Rights Party.
Pulling over in the centre of town (an interesting manoevre for a left-hand drive car on the right hand side of the road) we are hauled, with our luggage, into waiting tuk-tuks. Apparently when they said "the taxi will drop you at your hotel" they were telling the perfect truth right up until, well, the second word. So although we were subjected to a constant sales pitch for tuk-tuk services over our stay for the whole journey (an offer we eventually accepted), i was so glad to have finally arrived that i would have slept on a stone floor if that was all they had left. Thankfully for my back, we'd picked a winner and stayed in free-tea-fuelled comfort at the Red Lodge for four nights.
In what i think must be testament to our travel-befuddled minds, we'd agreed to get up at 4.30am the next day to visit Angkor Wat for sunrise. While this might not be the ideal situation the morning after a long tiring journey, it was worth it to see the eighth wonder of the world slowly wake to the day. Chugging gently around the corner of the moat by tuk-tuk as the sun rises beyond the three darkly-shadowed towers pretty much stifles the yawns. Which is a good thing, because you need all of your energy and powers of amazement to walk around the 11 or so equally intriguing temples which make up the "day one" tour. Anyone who has seen 'Tomb Raider' or Indiana Jones will know the highlights - the strangling fig tree trunks embedded in the blue-grey stone of Ta Prohm, the many-smiling faces of Bayon. Some of my favourite sites, though, were the less visited (so less busy) temples of the 'grand tour' - well worth the three day stay. The smaller, though more ornate Banteay Srei ('Citadel of Women', dedicated to Shiva) is a masterpiece of redder stone carving, with inscriptions even etched into the door frames. My favourite temple, though, is Prasat Preah Khan which celebrates Buddha's achievement of Nirvana and sits on an island in spectacular green-blue and red brick glory. It has the same strangler fig tree/stone formations for which Ta Prohm is famous, but is in a better state of preservation with more (and less crowded) nooks in which to explore the carvings (or to avoid the hawkers' cries of "just one dollarrrrr!!").
And the interesting thing? Angkor Wat, famous for its Buddhist connections (next-door Angkor Thom's gates are topped by the Buddha of compassion, for example) was in fact built to honour Vishnu, with the inner gallery bas-reliefs depicting the Hindu epics. The whole place is a palimpsest of religions, and effect is lovely to see.
We left Siem Reap (a town which is understandable tourist-driven, with literally tens of luxury hotels which noone seems to be staying in, as well as hundreds of guesthouses, which are full) on a (perfectly pleasant) Capitol bus full of Cambodians to Phnom Penh, the capital. Finding a hotel steps away from the bus station (in which we were initially taking refuge from the crazy tuk-tuk drivers vying for attention) for only $3 each a night (Cambodia is cheeeeeap!) we have 8 showers each before venturing outside again.
The Psar O Russei area of Phnom Penh is officially mental. Traffic hurtles past, laneless and hooting, in a cloud of dusty smog. Food sellers and beggars sit in the road and drivers scream at you for their services. There are no pavements. To cross the road, you stride out as if you know what you're doing, and hope people and scooters avoid you. Which somehow they do. Despite the chaos though, there's an orderly peace to the area - one morning over breakfast I looked up to the dirty, busy street and saw three monks in their bright orange robes calmly standing on the corner of it all whizzing past. And on the day I was foolish enought to enter the local market alone (a pale giantess among a sea of small, dark frames), hammock-bound women snoozed amongst piles and PILES of disordered Gap rejects.
I like the contradictions of it all: the large statue of a revolver as you enter the city which stands as a reminder somehow of the lack of conflict that they now enjoy; the heart-shaped country which was heartlessly crushed only thirty years ago, leaving a nation of youths today (40% of the population is under 15).
We visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, and Tuol Sleng museum, which both commemorate the genocide undertaken by Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge, but it's impossible to describe how the sight of the skulls disenterred, and the photos of all the tortured and killed detainees of the Security Prison make you feel. You have to see it for yourself, or read Loung Ung's 'First They Killed My Father', a real-life five-year old's perspective of the years 1975-9 in Cambodia and a book which had me in tears.
Staying only three nights in Phnom Penh, we also decided to spend an afternoon around the Sambech Sothearos Boulevard and to see the Royal Palace, a decidedly less frantic part of town. The palace itself is exceptionally ornate, with chinese-style gold curling rooftops and a tropical garden setting. And the boulevard itself is...well, french. The cafes have french menus, the architecture is similar and it is all testament to the historical French 'protectorate' from which Cambodia gained independence in 1953. As we tuk-tuked our way back to our hot-bed of crazy modernity through all the contradictions history has written onto the city, i couldn't help but wonder, 'What Next?'