SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
Cambodia has always topped my bucket list, and I think many would agree that it is no accident that there is a certain mystique surrounding the country. Rife with history, some of the world's most revered heritage sites, and a brutal military regime that orchestrated the auto genocide of its people, many consider these elements to be remnants of a time bygone, but I think it is still very much reflected in the ethos of the place. I was warned by my colleagues who had backpacked to Cambodia that I shouldn't expect to see people in Phnom Penh— the autogenocide had wiped out generation in the bloodshed of the late 70's, and those who survived had (understandably) left to forge a new life. Bracing myself for this disturbing, sobering truth, we arrive in Siem Reap and checked into the Sofitel Hotel.
Now, I’ve always considered the wealth disparity in Hong Kong to be pretty in-your-face-promit, but the grandiose and wildly unnecessary hotel just seemed completely anachronistic and simply out of whack. Just four feet from the library in the picture below were families selling food in makeshift kiosks, fruit peddlers, drivers soliciting "tuk tuk" rides and various construction sites. Before I centre this article on my own guilt (which it should not) I can’t help but wonder how people make a living from selling coconuts, ice-lollies and assorted condiments. Sure, the standard of living may be cheaper, but how many packaged snacks do families have to sell before they can reach breakeven point?
The other thing I can’t help but notice is that instead of the setup we typically see in Southeast Asia of a woman with a toddler sandwiched between the wheel, here it is common to see four kids jam-packed on one motorbike, never mind safety helmets. The oldest kid doesn’t look a day over 8 and steers the bike with a backpack bigger than him, while the other four in tow are hanging on to his shirttails for dear life. Unpaved dirt roads crisscross the land, and for students from rural parts of town, getting to school is an unconceivable hassle. There are many other things that I wish I had situated myself with—culturally and politically— but I didn't get to do my research unfortunately, until after the fact.
We were pressed for time, but managed to pack our schedule to the brim in the span of two days. I've taken the liberty to of rounding up a list of things to do if you ever find yourself in the heart of the kingdom:
1. Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple” in Khmer)- Majestic ruins would be my best description for every archeologist’s dream, known to others as the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site, which showcases Khmer civilization in all its splendour. If you're one of the lucky ones who manage to thread through the throngs of people to secure a spot, pay particular care to the intricate carvings dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, a tribute to Hindu mythology and sacred scripture. Beyond all else, the sheer magnitude of this site is alarming-leaving little speculation as to how it’s earned its place as the largest religious monument in the world.
2. Angkor Thom – otherwise known as “Great City,” Angkor Thom is slightly smaller but no less compelling. Completed in typical Bayon style, it once used to house the priests and officials of the palace and military where tourists now mill around. The temple of Bayon supposedly serves as a symbolic link between heaven and earth, but joining a local tour will clear any doubts that there is much more than meets the eye.
3. Kulen Mountain - Take a break from the temple tours by taking a car (because that's really the only to reach this inaccessible) serene waterfall, which requires getting on a bumpy dirt road.
4. Ta Prohm – The intertwining roots of these weathered trees are vastly different from the conical and temples in typical Khmer fashion seen in other places (and for the Lara Croft fans out there, you might know this better as the famous Tomb Raider scene). Largely untouched by tourism, the site once housed over 12,000 people, until the demise of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century.
5. The Bayon – Yet another temple, the smiling and serene faces of the Buddha have been formed by crevasses and bas-reliefs, the sculptural technique of the Khmer empire.
6. Phnom Bakheng HIll- Finish off the day with a spectacular sunset view from a hill. Phnom Bak Heng Hill is a temple mountain dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. My advice would be to go early, or be prepared to face the long, long lines like we did.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
By Day 2 of the journey, I'm embarrassed to say that we're all templed-out. We hop on a domestic flight to Phnom Penh and soon arrive in a world where we're met with cement, more cement, a mall complex, and some other not-so subtle trappings of urbanisation. After a quick lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club' in Cambodia and a quick detour to Silver Pagoda, we get right to the thick of it.
The not-so-inner- history-nerd in me has always wanted to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Security Prison 21 (S-21), a prison used by the Khmer Rouge to torture some 20,000 skilled Cambodians and "intellectuals" and later purge within their own ranks. But no amount of reading about one of Cambodia's 150 execution chamber could have prepared me for what I was about to see: walls that were barely bleached to cover blood stains on metal cots, hundreds of black and white photos from victims blankly stared, and exhibits on electrocution and waterboarding techniques.
What I found truly disturbing was that of the seven known survivors of the genocide, two were selling their autobiographical book of their time in the prison right outside the vicinity. Can you even imagine the degree of psychological trauma these victims have to confront everyday when they come to work? But here they are, inured to it and selling their stories.You would think that after all the atrocities that the survivors suffered and amount of torture they've witnessed that the Cambodian government would install some kind of restorative justice or pension system in place. Apparently not.
The Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Fields), was no less disturbing, difficult to articulate with words; but no less important. I'll just leave it at that.
Things regretted: Not trying the infamous—and undoubtedly illegal—"happy pizza" which is a signature dish in Cambodia. Apparently you can choose between "a little happy," "very happy, and "extra habit." I hope you can make it out of the hospital with the last one.