Postcard from the Edge of a Wat

Part 2 of 2 (chronologically screwed up, I admit)

The launch point of our holiday was Bangkok. Bangkok was chosen as a place to ease in to Asia, experience software and DVDs at low, low prices and to visit some wats (temples). The first couple of days were spent meandered along the mighty Choa Phraya river, visiting the royal place, locating an interesting fertility temple, shopping, being massaged and planning the rest of the trip.

After a couple of days, we decided to move on to Cambodia with two goals in mind:
1) to see famous Angkor Wat and surrounding temples and
2) to understand something of the country’s history with Pol Pot and the killing fields

Entrance in to Cambodia was a bureaucrats dream. Arriving in Siam Riep airport, a production line of six officials, each with a stamp and an open palm, pass you on towards your dream aspiration – getting out of the airport.

One of the first things you then notice in Cambodia, or rather do not notice, are the roads. Rather then “road”, a better description would be “great swathes of uneven orange dust trails cut between jungle, fields and houses” – and road “repair” consists of dumping a pile of dirt in the middle of a track and spreading it around a bit.

After an all too brief night, we were up at 4:00am to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat. Here you join a hording tourist stampede, stumbling around in the dark prior to this auspicious event. Once you can actually see the temple, there is a common intake of breath as its stunning form emerges from the blackness and you get up close to examine the intricate reliefs.

From Angkor Wat, we visited umpteen other Wats, including:

  • the Banteay Srei, so beautiful that only a woman could have created it yeah, right
  • Ta Prohm, which was the film set for the Tomb Raider film (and has some amazing trees) and
  • Beng Mealea, my favourite, which was about an hour away from the rest, but is how I think a temple should be. Totally ruined and over-run by the jungle, it was like discovering it for the first time (but luckily the local guides showed us where it was safe to put our feet).

To get from Siam-Riep to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, a boat trip on Tonle Sap Lake beckoned (at least there are no roads). We took the fast boat (6 hours) for the ca 280 km trip, as the slow boat (36 hours) has been attacked several times by pirates.

Phnom Penh is what I expect the old wild, wild, west was like. It is a wheeling, dealing town, with everyone trying to make a buck to basically survive. Here was the heart of Cambodia, and where in 1975 Pol Pot (meaning brother #1) and his Khmer Rouge party forced the country in to 4 year of becoming a “rural utopia” and ruining much of it in the process.

After coming to power, Pol Pot started by destroying all churches, cinemas, theaters and schools and forcing everyone to work the land. All intellectuals (defined as those people with long hair or that wore glasses) were interred and brutally tortured in the S-21 prison camp (a converted school). After a couple of horrendous months, they were driven out to the killing fields and beaten to death (bullets were too expensive). All in all over 200,000 people were killed and 1.5 million died of malnutrition. A memorial in one of the fields had hundreds of skulls (sorted by sex and age) and the surrounding grounds, where human bones and old clothes regularly surface, were deeply moving.

Those responsible for the atrocities (which ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded) have still not been bought to trial (including Pol Pot, who died a free man in the Cambodian jungle in 1998). This has bought much unrest and even the reigning king is pretty unpopular. The problem is how to bring the Cambodia up from a 3rd world to a 2nd world country.

In some respects this is working, by jumping technology generations e.g. as there are no telephone lines, they are switching to wireless technology, under which resides the whole of Phnom Penh (supplying a ubiquitous internet and phone network). However, years of physical infrastructure neglect can not be undone quickly; there is a single post box I found in Phnom Penh and a “petrol station” is a table on the side of the road with wine bottles, each containing a liter. I would really like to help these people, but I do not know how. However, a few thousand tons of tarmac would be an excellent first step.

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