– visited April 2015 –
Angkor Wat is full of people. Understandable, as it is totally worth a visit. The temple complex called “City/Capital of Temples” is the largest religious monument in the world and nearly everybody has seen pictures of its beautiful shape and towers. It is considered the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. But the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site is much more than just Angkor Wat. The city of Angkor was once the capital of the Khmer Empire that flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Archaeologists have concluded that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 km² with a complicated water management network. It is reckoned that the Angkor area may once have supported between 750,000 and one million people.
Only the temples remain of Angkor as all other structures were built from wood and not from stone. They number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat. Many temples are congregated in a central area but there are also outlying masterpieces. You can buy tickets for one day (big mistake), three days or seven days. We, I am travelling for a few weeks with my friend Lisa, rent bikes for one day and take a tuk-tuk the other.
The stone carvings are exquisite, portraying various stories from Hindu mythology like the churning of the milk ocean in order to obtain Amrita – the nectar of immortal life. The walls are full of Apsaras and Devatas, sculptures of sexy female spirits. Apsaras dance, Devatas stand still. Door frames, windows, lintels are all carved exquisitely. The face of Brahma looks in all four directions. I would gladly go back any day.
Siem Reap is the nearby modern town where everybody sleeps and which houses the museum to the archaeological site.
On the way to Phnom Penh we stop at Kompong Thom to visit the temple at Sambor Prei Kuk. The ruins date back the Chenla Kingdom who ruled the area before the Khmer Empire. The construction is more basic, temples are a lot smaller and bricks have been the material of choice, sandstone was only used for door lintels or window frames.
In Phnom Penh we meet the Mekong River for the first time. We visit the National Museum, the King’s Palace, the Silver Pagoda and stroll along the riverfront. Some people play Sai, also known as the Shuttlecock Kick Game, where an Indiaca-style feathery object is kicked with a backswipe of the foot. Great skills. Cambodians are very friendly and I am especially impressed by the girls. They are not as shy as in other Asian countries, they speak their mind and they are funny. Everybody seems to smile all the time.
Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum we learn about the darker parts of Cambodia’s recent past. Once a school, it was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime in the second half of the 1970s. Cambodia had become independent (from French Indochina) in 1953. By the late 1960s, it became sucked in by the bitter Vietnam war that was raging next door. Cambodia was used as a sanctuary and a supply route by North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters. The US air force had (secretly) started to attack their positions. The prime minister (and former and future king) Norodom Sihanouk was ousted by a military coup in 1970. The new regime demanded that all Vietnamese Communists leave Cambodia but this rather led to a civil war and an invasion by North Vietnam. Over the following years, the Cambodian communists, known as the Khmer Rouge, gained the upper hand and in April 1975 Phnom Penh surrendered and Cambodia was named Democratic Kampuchea.
Led by Pol Pot, the new regime modelled itself on Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward, immediately evacuated the cities, and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western. Estimates as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million. Shockingly, that is about a quarter of the population. Hundreds of thousands fled across the border into neighbouring Thailand. The regime disproportionately targeted ethnic minority groups. The Cham Muslims suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated. Pol Pot was determined to keep his power and disenfranchise any enemies or potential threats, and thus increased his violent and aggressive actions against his people. Professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, were especially targeted. Eyeglasses could prove deadly as they were seen as a sign of intellectualism. Religion was viciously persecuted, 95% of Cambodia’s Buddhist temples, were completely destroyed. This era gave rise to the term Killing Fields, and the Tuol Sleng prison became notorious. That prison has become a Genocide museum/memorial and one of the killing fields outside of town is usually the next stop for tourists.
On the first impression the killing fields are scenic. When you start to wander around, you start to realize what happened here. You walk past mass graves, the “Magic Tree”, which was used to hang loudspeakers to drown out the moans of the victims while they were being executed. You pass a vitrine with skulls, each marked for the way the victim came to death. By axe, by hoe, by cutting the neck, by hook knife. Some of the victims had their ear cut off before being killed.
There had long been unease that Cambodia lost territory in the Mekong Delta to Vietnam under French colonial rule. The Khmer Rouge started incursions into Vietnam (ruled then by another Communist regime, in the preceding years they had worked together) and Vietnam responded with a full-scale invasion. The end of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 took only two-and-a-half weeks. Vietnam stayed uninvited until 1992. In 1993, the country was re-established as the Kingdom of Cambodia and Norodom Sihanouk, who had been first crowned king in 1941, became king again (with only representative functions). Cambodia was not yet to reach stability; the kingdom was shaken by a coup d’état in 1997 led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam fearing internal purges is still prime minister of Cambodia to this day. Sen’s rule has been marred by human rights abuses and corruption. Officially a democracy (with elections and everything), Cambodia is in fact a one-party state dominated by the Cambodian People’s Party and its leader Hun Sen, all opposition and the press is repressed. Still, compared with the past, the current regime is heaven.
Sihanoukville is a coastal city situated at the tip of an elevated peninsula in the country’s south-west on the Gulf of Thailand. The city is flanked by an almost uninterrupted string of beaches along its entire coastline and we stop at one of them, Otres II beach. The small resort is run by a German. If we had known, we would have chosen somewhere else, locally-run businesses are better for the local development. We happen to talk to the owner of the place next door. She is in her early twenties, married to an older Australian guy who is getting drunk a few tables away. He is good at making friends so he is bringing in business, she says. She operates on a razor thin margin. It is low season and she has an offer with a beer for about 50 cents. That is about the price she is paying herself.
Koh Rong (koh meaning island) has become a backpacker heaven. We head to the classier, emptier Koh Rong Sanloem. The island is beautiful, we are living right at the beach and one day take a walk to the even emptier beach on the other side.
Kampot & Kep
Kampot is famous for its high-quality pepper and the smelly durian fruit. We rent a car that seems to be falling apart to head to the Phnom Bokor National Park. The waterfalls are devoid of water though, no rain. Apart from natural beauty, the National Park had been the site of Bokor Hill Station. In colonial times, French officials would head to the mountains to escape the heat. There is the now unused church and the abandoned Bokor Palace Hotel.
We take a tuk-tuk to nearby Kep. We head to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) with its beautiful beaches. The Swiss guesthouse owner tells us how to run a business in Cambodia. He is paying the wages with a 14-day delay. Before he started that policy, people would just stop working from one day to the other, not even telling him that they would not come again. Now, he gets a bit of warning to get new staff. He basically has a relationship with some villages, getting a lot of his staff from these places, mostly young girls in their late teens or early twenties. The villagers basically entrust him their daughters, they expect him to take care of them but also to supervise them. If they are off work, they ask him for permission to go into town. He does not want to be their substitute father at all, he hopes that none of them ever becomes pregnant while working for him.
We leave for Vietnam.