Musings from Siem Reap, Cambodia
Being English Gentleman of Leisure
we purchased a 7 day entry pass for the the Angkor Archeological Park. Most people buy a 1 or 3 day pass, but we wanted to take in the temples and ruins at a more relaxed pace, slow it down a little. Turns out, it’s a full time job due to the sheer number of historically important and impressive sites that archeologists have uncovered in the Siem Reap area over the last 100 or so years.
As I write this it is 7am and we are waiting for our Tuk Tuk driver to take us for 2 hours down a bumpy, dust track to visit a temple ruin that has been claimed by the jungle (Beng Melea).
Back in England, few eyebrows were raised when I rolled into work at 9.40am every morning, so this feels like the middle of the night to me. The tourist guides tell you Angkor Wat is the heart and soul of cambodian people, however members of the older generation would disagree. They have no interest in seeing Angkor Wat and on a number of occasions we have heard people say “Why do I care about stone? I want food. The heart and soul of Cambodian people is not Angkor Wat. It is just in trying to survive.
Fortunately, I will never begin to comprehend the attrocities that the Khmer Rouge committed against it’s own people. At The Killing Fields Genocide Memorial close to the capital city Phnom Penh an inscription in the exhibition there reads:
“The method of masacre which the clique of Pol Pot Criminals was carried upon the innocent people of Kampuchea cannot be described fully and clearly in words because the invention of this killing method was strangely cruel so it is difficult for us to determine who they are for. They have the human form, but, their hearts are demon’s hearts”.
The aftermath of this darkness is haunting and I can feel it thick in the air where ever I go. When it comes to genocide, if Hitler and Stalin et al were neuro-surgeons, Pol pot and his Khmer Rouge were back street abortionists.
Despite the continued poverty of the Cambodian people, a tourism industry has sprung up over the last decade and Angkor Wat is the Pin up Boy of Cambodian Temples, a beast of architectual endeavor. Whilst it is undoubtably impressive in size and grandeur, for me it is surpassed by the truly magical qualities of a couple of the other temples and ruins that left me completely awestruck.
I was blown away by Ta Prohm (the Tree Temple used in Tomb Raider)
and even more so by Beng Melea, which felt like discovering a lost ancient civilisation swallowed by the jungle. The whole experience was like a massive game of Lara Croft, clambering over ruins pursued by local kids (who may or may not have been packing darts with poisoned tips) whilst continuously dropping Indiana Jones quotes with Dave.
Having a seven day pass to the temples allowed us to spend time hunting down Japenese and Korean girls (hitting them with our best English Gentleman’s Japenese/Korean pick up lines) and to have an interesting discussion with a flute playing South American guy, about shifting world power, the imminant collapse of the American dollar and a new world order. All this in a small room surrounded by 40 buddah carvings in a quiet minor temple off the beaten track a bit.
A few days in Siem Reap visiting the temples and ruins can leave you with the impression that the country is developing and business is booming. Sadly that is not the case. Many of the older generation that survived the genocide are damaged beyond reprieve. Some of the younger generation are beginning to pick up the pieces and find a voice for change, but any grievences with the corruption and abuse of power by the government (many of the senior officials being former Khmer Rouge) are only whispers as to shout loudly would likely land you in a hole in a field.
To give you an idea of how corrupt the government is over here, they have called upon the services of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who is currently exiled in Dubai awaiting trial in Thailand for stealing from his own people. Asking Thaksin to become economic advisor to your country is like asking a wealthy businessman with a repuation for human rights attrocities to take over your football club. Nothing in Cambodia makes much sense.
However, many of the young people we have met have less political aspirations and a sheer drive and determination to drag themselves out of poverty. One girl we met wanted to be a journalist, but had wisely decided on a less dangerous career path. Whilst us English Gentleman were busy taking a leisurely stroll around ancient ruins perusing over women, films, music and the philosophies of the east and west, this girl was up at 4am everyday making breakfast for her family, before starting work at 6am for a 13 hour shift in a hotel then straight to school in the evening to study business and English. As the Older generation state, the heart and soul of Cambodian people is not in stone or the pure madness and evil of it’s harrowing past. The heart and soul of Cambodian people is in survival and only the younger generations determination for change and to make a brighter future for themselves will allow this to happen.