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Within minutes of entering Cambodia from the east and being driven along the main road which connects the capital with Vietnam, it's clear to see that this is country playing catch-up with many of it's more developed neighbours. Small rural villages, comprising of little more than makeshift wooden huts, are dwarfed by acres of agricultural rice-land, all of which line the dusty, pot-holed road leading to the country's capital.

Four bumpy hours later, and it finally becomes apparent that we're nearing Phnom Pehn. Crowds of school-children begin to appear and the traffic becomes a little heavier as we enter the outskirts, until suddenly the bridge spanning the Bassac River drops us almost unwittingly into the city centre. As our rickety bus navigates the congested roads, it begins to dawn that this is no small city, and the advice we'd been given to see the city at leisure, rather than rushing through the obligatory sights, appears to be sound.

The people we'd got chatting to on the bus were all heading for the riverfront area, and so we decided to tag along (stalkers?) and see what was over in that direction. Checking into our slightly grotty room, we only really had the energy for dinner and a couple of drinks with Jo and Andrew (our Easy-Rider pals from Vietnam) before hitting the sack. We did however manage to find a good restaurant called Friends, a tapas bar which plays a vital role in the community by not only giving jobs to street-children, but also allowing a huge chunk of their proceeds to go towards training and education of these unfortunate individuals. This was something we were yet to encounter for ourselves but had heard much about.

There's no doubting that as a country, Cambodia has had it's fair share of doom and gloom in recent years, and the poor souls who line the streets each and every day are a constant reminder of the civilised world's failure to act, and in some cases, willingness to contribute (whether unwittingly or not is for each individual to decide). It's no over-exaggeration to call many of these sights upsetting at the very least. Ranging from incredibly deformed, maimed or disabled adults and children (disability in this part of the world will invariably mean becoming a social outcast), to whole families with small children lying naked in the streets because they have nowhere else to go, it's a harsh reality to accept and although the begging is a nuisance to many tourists, we found it hard to turn a blind eye to this kind of deprivation.

Unfortunately, it's a typical 'swings and roundabouts' situation, especially where children are concerned. There are many free schools running now in Phnom Pehn, but the parents will inevitably send their children out to beg instead, beating them if they come home with less than is expected. If they are given money, this undoubtedly raises the bar, and their chances of a good thrashing, if not today, then tomorrow when they come home with less. For those without parents, if given money they will only be encouraged to continue skipping school in favour of begging (or stealing if the opportunity arises). For those in the know about the idea of 'responsible travel', this only makes the conundrum even more tricky to navigate, and there were a number of occasions when we ended up giving out cereal bars, water, sweets and pens, or whatever other items we had with us. Whether this is the right thing to do or not, we are still unsure.

Of course, this leads inevitably to the question as to why so much of this exists here, and yet again, a history of war will play a vital role. Our main sightseeing excursions whilst in the city were not something we were relishing, but felt that we needed to see in order to broaden our knowledge of the country's past, another unsurprisingly complex one.

After World War II, Cambodia was left to fester by the French who had turned their attention to Vietnam's economic potential. The current leader, King Norodom Sihanouk, began a crusade for independence, which the French finally granted in 1953, leading to fifteen years of economic prosperity for the country. By 1969 however, Cambodia had been sucked into the Vietnam conflict as the United States began secretly carpet-bombing huge areas of the countryside which they suspected were communist bases for roving Vietnamese troops. By 1970, King Sihanouk's erratic and repressive policies had alienated many of his allies. He was overthrown by the army and fled to Beijing, where he was eventually pressured by the Chinese into throwing in his lot with a weak rebel party called the Khmer Rouge, boosting their support dramatically.

Unbeknown to US leaders, their insistent carpet-bombing, and ensuing invasion into Cambodian territory to root out Communist forces, only served to provide the Khmer Rouge leaders with the propaganda they needed for widespread recruitment from peasant communities. By 1975, they had a force big and ruthless enough to enter Phnom Pehn and take control, piece by piece, of the whole country. Soon after, the public face of the Khmer Rouge emerged in the figure of Pol Pot, a fifty-year-old man who had learnt all about radical Marxism in Paris before returning to his native Cambodia as a school teacher, a fact that tends to make what happens next even more appalling.

After the taking of Phnom Pehn, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, implemented one of the most terrifying revolutions that the world has ever seen. Communications with the outside world were eradicated, and a plan of turning Cambodia (now called 'Democratic Kampuchea') into a peasant-dominated cooperative was steadily implemented. During the next four years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian's were relocated to the countryside, tortured to death or executed. Educated people became the most sought after, the mastery of a foreign language, or amazingly, the wearing of spectacles meaning you were branded as a 'parasite' and systematically killed. Hundreds of thousands more died of mistreatment, malnutrition or disease. Between 1975 and 1979, it is thought that almost two million people died as a direct result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge. They were finally overthrown in late 1978 when Vietnam invaded, but continued to fight a guerrilla war with the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the 1980's, armed and financed by China and Thailand, and with indirect US support.

Our first visit was to the aptly named 'Killing Fields of Choeung Ek', a site lying approximately fifteen kilometres outside of central Phnom Pehn. This now quiet and serene place, one of many dotted throughout Cambodia's countryside, is the site of one-hundred-and-twenty-nine mass graves, where men, women and children were brought to be exterminated. Arises from it's midst, is a blinding white stupa that serves as a memorial to the seventeen thousand people who died here, and contains a startling collection of some eight thousand skulls which were excavated here in 1980. Some display the tragic hallmarks of bullet-holes, whilst others still bear witness to the fact that they were bludgeoned to death in an effort to save precious bullets. The graves themselves were full of water after heavy rainfall from the night before, and we're still unclear as to whether this saved us from any more unpleasant sights.

To continue the history lesson, we moved on to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school which was turned into Security Prison 21 (S-21), the largest centre of detention, interrogation and torture in the country. As we strolled in silence through the basic museum pieces, we were confronted with a number of the extensive records kept by the prison, which somehow failed to be destroyed when the Khmer Rouge left in 1979. Expressionless faces of photographed victims stared back from walls and walls of displays, whilst hand-built brick and wooden cells lined the edges of one particular building. A bare classroom holds nothing more than a single rusty bed, while gruesome black and white photographs stand as testament to some of the unthinkable horrors which took place here. Towards the end of the exhibition, paintings by a survivor of S-21 adorn the walls, depicting torture and life, if it can be called that, in the prison. To be alive after such an experience can only be appreciated when you understand the numbers involved. Of over seventeen thousand total detainees here, it is thought that during the first part of 1977, the prison claimed an average of over one hundred victims a day, and throughout the three-and-a-half years of the prisons running, less than a dozen survived.

Back in Phnom Pehn, it's clear to see that the city's dark past is thankfully being put to rest. Plush bars and eateries line the riverfront area, the Grand Palace and National Museum stand tall and proud, while tourism appears to be on the up, with swarms of shoppers heading for the art-deco Central Market with it's array of cheap goods. We ended up really enjoying our time here... there's plenty of culture and history to be observed, whilst the numerous nightspots in town made for some entertaining evenings with our pals from the bus and the various locals we got chatting to. Particular thanks goes to the owner of one establishment who stayed open until the small hours especially for us, and ended up passing out in the street while we played pool. Good lad...

Time constraints eventually meant we had to move on however, and so we took the bus six hours up the road (one of two major routes through the country) to Siem Reap. We'd been expecting a fairly small town, but development here appears to have blown up in recent years, mainly thanks to the fact that it has one of humanity's most captivating architectural achievements sitting in it's back yard. I talk obviously of the Temples of Angkor, the political, religious and social centre of the Kingdom of Cambodia, dating back as far 800 AD.

Now, it's here that I must point out that we are by no means great appreciators of a good temple. The whole thing just isn't really our bag. Seeing as many of the recommended sights in South-East Asia have been these kinds of structures, especially through Thailand, we've systematically avoided them, knowing that we'd eventually reach Angkor, the world's most renowned and culturally significant bunch of religious buildings to grace the Earth, and wouldn't want to be 'all templed out'. In theory, a fine tactic, but the reality was going to prove slightly more difficult than we'd first thought.

With good, but realistic intentions, we booked ourselves a guide who would take us on a one-day tour of the principal sights (there is the option of two or three day tours, but we weren't about to get naively ambitious) and by the time it came to actually going, I think we were quite looking forward to it. And so at the break of dawn we were up and at 'em, confident that the day in front of us would hold some kind of spiritual awakening. As per usual however, half of our energy was sapped almost as soon as we stepped out the door of our air-conditioned hotel and into the ridiculous heat of the morning...

First up, was the most famous Temple of them all, Angkor Wat, a culmination of the Cambodian 'Devaraja' (God-Kings) need to better their ancestors efforts and produce a place of worship that would out-size and out-decorate all of their previous work. Nowadays, this place represents the source of inspiration and national pride to all Khmers as they struggle to overcome the terrors of recent years. Soaring skyward from the middle of a huge moat, this is one of those moments that you've seen hundreds of times in photographs, but still takes you slightly by surprise when you're there in the flesh. Of course, there is the deluge of tourists (predominantly Japanese, boasting an astounding array of giant visor-like headwear) to wade through in order to get any decent photographs, but the sheer scale of the architecture still manages to captivate, even if just for a few moments.

It is thought by many experts who have been studying this particular site since the beginning of the 20th Century, that the structures all replicate the spatial universe, the large tower in the centre being the Hindu's mythical Mt Meru, surrounded by lesser peaks (smaller towers), surrounded by continents (lower courtyards) and the oceans (in the form of the moat). Of course, we didn't really see any of that, instead admiring the intricate handiwork in the bas-reliefs with little analysis, and tackling the steep stone staircases and giant inner courtyards like kids in an adventure playground.

Next up, we were driven through on of the huge monumental gates and into the fortified city of Angkor Thom, a walled selection of important monuments built by Angkor's greatest king, Jayavarman VII. In Bayon, 216 giant faces watch over curious visitors, whilst elaborate carvings on the outer walls vividly depict 12th Century life with scenes of kick-boxing and cockfighting. Meanwhile, in a separate part of the city, the Terrace of Elephants, a three-hundred metre long deck with it's walls laden with hunting scenes stands proud around it's central stairway.
It was here, I must confess, that we began to labour slightly. The clock had just struck midday, and the heat was almost unbearable. Although the scenes we were viewing were very impressive, the huge hunks of stone in front of us were gradually turning into just that, and it was getting hard to see into the history behind it all.

Explaining (a little embarrassingly) our dying enthusiasm, our guide seemed quite happy to whisk us off to our final stop. This, he explained, was the 'Tomb Raider' site. Apparently, Ta Prohm was used in one of the movies and from the moment of entering, you can kind of understand why it makes such a good film set. Unlike many of the other temples, which have undergone massive programmes of preservation and clearing, this one has been left to it's own devices and would probably look the much the same today as it did when it was discovered by French explorers over a century ago. Many of the crumbling corridors are roped off (with reason we suspect), but most of the good spots for photographs are easily accessible. Giant tentacled roots are gradually strangling the stonework as the natural environment of the jungle takes over, the shapes and damage they cause becoming instantly intriguing.

And that was our temple tour over, as well as our Cambodian adventure. It wasn't particularly thrilling, but we'd come to understand a little more about the history and culture of a country that is getting itself back on the map. It's hard for anyone with a civilised western upbringing to fully grasp what the people here have had to go through to get to where they are today, but with the magnificent temples as a symbol of their strength it's nice to imagine that they will overcome the dark past which has plagued them for so long, even if justice will probably never truly be done...

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Posted by dbo 04:04 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking

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