My original plan, for traveling down to Phnom Penh, was to take a six-hour cruise down the Tonle-Sap. Within a few hours of being in Siem Reap I learned this option wasn’t possible; apparently there were no ferries running due to the low water levels for that time of year. My next option was to use a taxi but, after getting some helpful info from a fellow traveler, I canned that idea as well. Apparently there was a stretch of road works just north of the capital causing lengthy delays in negotiating this final thirty kilometer stretch into the nation’s largest city. In the end I opted for the short, but relatively expensive, flight with Cambodian Airlines. The timing of my arrival in Pnomh Penh couldn’t have been worse; 5.30 pm on a Friday afternoon. I had a room booked at a hotel – The Lux – along the riverfront; needless to say it was a one hour patience test as the taxi weaved its way through the peak hour traffic jam.
The Lux Hotel sits just off the river front road on what is, effectively, the most economically developed swathe of tourist infrastructure in Cambodia. There is a wide, paved, tree lined walk way/concourse which hugs the river’s edge for approximately one kilometer; end to end. This is tourist central for Phnom Penh with a hodge-podge of hotels, eateries and bars crammed in along the roadside. The river front road, in many ways, is like a facade with air-conditioned restaurants, and bars, masking the grime, and poverty, a few blocks inland. No doubt with the continuing influx of tourist dollars and foreign investment things are improving rapidly but, as one wends your way through the melee of tuk-tuks, noodle stands and street crowds, behind the facade, the combination of heat, dust and refuse stench is a bit overpowering sometimes.
Day time temperatures in Phnom Penh weren’t much different to what I encountered in Siem Reap; the only saving grace being the rains had begun to cloud in the sky’s. The humidity was still thick in the atmosphere during the day and it was hardly surprising there were significantly more people out on the riverfront once the sun had set. In fact the first part of the day – up until midday at least – seemed completely uncrowded compared to the latter hours. The river front is also the location of some ornately decorated Khmer styled buildings with the National Palace, and it’s associated buildings/wats being the stand out towards the Eastern end of the concourse. As already mentioned, when the sun dips below the horizon that’s when the locals can be seen out in force along the river front. On my second night in Phnom Penh I took a leisurely stroll down towards the National Palace and came upon a frenzy of activity taking place in, and around, two small shrines/temples almost directly across the road from the grounds of the National Palace. There were what seemed like hundreds of locals – mainly woman – all trying to get there turn, at being blessed, inside one of these small buildings. It was a cacophony of noise as a bunch of traditional musicians, on a raised platform directly in front of one of the shrines, banged drums and tapped away, uninterrupted, on those wooden xylophones as dozens burned incense and joined the line into the shrine/temple. There was no indication the festivities had anything to do with Buddhism. A closer look into the building revealed no images of Buddha; just three strange looking male effigies with Zapata style mustaches as the couples worked their way inside with handfuls of lotus flowers. I found out later that these two small temples were dedicated to fertility rites; one was for woman and the other for men.
It would be easy to dismiss these festivities as an example of paganism, or the older folk religions of the region, but the fact is, when one does a small amount of research, you can see that celebrations such as these fertility rites are part of the original Brahmanical belief system of the Khmer/Angkorian civilization. This was a belief system/religion which predates the influence of Buddhism in the region and can still be seen in many of the ceremonies conducted not only in Cambodia but also in Thailand. In ceremonies performed to ensure a good harvest, to restore health, or to celebrate rites of passage (puberty, marriage, death) non-Buddhist formulae are used and beliefs are expressed that stem from the popular forms of Brahmanical religion known to have been practiced in Angkorian days. This was made abundantly clear to me during my trip up to the remote temple sites outside Siem Reap. I was fortunate enough to have a driver, Phan, who spoke good English and, during the two hour journey to the first site, we discussed a number of subjects regarding Cambodia’s troubled history; including the Preah Vihear situation.
“Well, everyone knows that Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple. You can see that if you visit there. It is Khmer design and part of our Angkorian Civilization,” said Phan assuredly.
“Yes, but it’s now on Thai territory,” I said as a counter.
“It was Cambodian land before. It’s a difficult situation but I think the Thai have too much pride. They know deep down in their heart who was the first civilization, the mother culture, but they don’t want to admit it. If you look at Thai language it has many letters the same as Cambodian language. In fact, we can read Thai but they cannot read Cambodian. Also, about Thai dancing; that is just a copy of Apsara dancing from Khmer. One thousand years ago the Angkorian Empire included all of what is now Siam or Thailand. The Khmer culture has influenced the region very much about religion, art and local beliefs.”
From what I’d seen, during my relatively short stay in Cambodia, I think Phan had a point. Like most other parts of the world the story of historical evolvement of newer civilizations is simply about borrowing portions, from older neighboring ones, and then adapting them to conform to one’s own requirements. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed that, as Phan had stated, the Angkorian Civilization of the tenth century completely encompassed the land area which would later be known as Siam/Thailand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Empire This, of course, tends to make a mockery of Thai claims that they’ve never been colonized; they were colonized well before they became an official entity. There’s no doubt the influence of being vassalized, and subjugated, for three to four centuries had an effect in terms of cultural development; most of what is Thai was originally Khmer/Angkorian.
Over the years of living in Thailand one hears a lot of stories regarding what Cambodia was, is, or might be. A recurring theme is it’s a bit of lawless place; that it’s still the Wild West and very importantly, for many, it’s still cheap compared with Thailand. Within a few hours of being in Pnomh Penh it’s very noticeable that poverty abounds and, after a couple of days of the constant stream of limbless beggars, grimy looking mothers with infants, young book sellers, and tuk-tuk drivers, it becomes wearisome. So much so that relief is found by taking a coffee, or a meal, in one of the air-conditioned eateries along the river front; in effect, cutting yourself off from the miserable situation of some of the poor souls scrambling for an existence out on the curbside.
No doubt some foreigners revel in this situation due to the increased leverage to be found by things being cheaper. But, what is so often the case, cheap doesn’t necessarily translate into quality; most of the time it’s the reverse scenario. There is a bar scene, in two main areas in Phnom Penh. Street 136 has a strip of beer bars near to the river front road (opposite the LUX hotel). There’s also a night entertainment area along street 51 with beer bars and night clubs populated with freelance prostitutes. I’ve never really been a fan of beer bars, probably because I’m not much of a drinker but also I can’t stomach the way in which the ladies working in the bars constantly pester for drinks. The Walkabout is one of the more popular bars in Phnom Penh so I dropped by to check it out. One word would describe this bar and the ladies on offer in the premises; rough. Think of a down-market version of the Beer-Garden, in Bangkok, and you’ll get the general idea. It may be cheap but, as I’ve already stated, that doesn’t necessarily translate into good. No doubt there will be a few who think otherwise about the Walkabout. To each their own I say and if this “last Chance Saloon” environment floats your boat then fair enough; perhaps it’s not so much about the ladies but more the fact the bar is open twenty four hours a day that many find appealing. Needless to say I had one beer and departed quickly into the night.
I dropped into another bar further up the road; a bar which was quieter and being ran by an American lady in her late thirties. The place was in a state of disrepair and as she poured my beer I could only wonder what a single, western female would be doing in a place such as this. A Brit entered the bar and started talking with the American and they both did their best to make me understand I was in a travelers/backpackers bar; the inference being this bar was a better standard than the trashy, girly bars down the road. Most of what was being said between them was the same type of conversation I’d overheard, many times over, between foreigners scrambling to eke out an existence in tourist areas of this part of the world. I’d heard the same lines of dialogue in Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok and there was a boring repetitiveness to it all; new ideas to generate more cash flow, what the competition was up to, the latest scams by the local constabulary, and the next visa run, etc.., etc.. It’s seems, for expats, Cambodia is no different to Thailand in this regard; it’s just there’s less money about.
My final full day in Cambodia’s capital was going to a busy one with a trip to the killing fields in the morning followed by a drive, thirty seven kilometers to the west of the city, to the well regarded temple complex of Oudong. I woke early and by nine am I was getting an up close look at the outer suburbs of Phnom Penh from the tuk-tuk I’d hired for the round trip. As I’ve already mentioned, the river front tourist area is a facade. A couple of hundred meters back into the chaotic streets and one can easily see the place is very much third world. As the driver weaved his way through the traffic mayhem the thought crossed my mind that a tuk-tuk may not have been the best option health wise. At times the exhaust fumes, and dust, was choking. The number of new SUV’s on the road indicated there is wealth in Cambodia but, as a number of people pointed out to me, most of it ends up with the small minority at the top of the pyramid. Apparently Cambodia (along with Burma) is the country with the greatest economic disparity in the Asean region. While a very small fraction of the population become ultra-rich, the majority are doing it tough. Which, in a way, is history just repeating itself all over again? The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule have been well documented and no justification could ever be found for their reign of terror and murder. However, as with all “peoples” revolutions there are initiating, or motivating, factors which allow despots such as Pol Pot, and their associated Politik, to rise to prominence and, dare we say it, popularity. As it was in Russia, and China, one of the prime motivating factors of these “people’s parties” was the idea that the ruling elite, or the wealthy classes, were living a life of decadence completely out of touch with the hungry masses. Simply put; one extreme begets another.
In some ways this is an example of a life principle that many Asian folks hold dear to their hearts; Karma. The KR wiped out the ruling elite of the country but the vacuum is quickly being filled by a rush of mainland Chinese keen to profit where opportunity exists. But the fact is that the average Cambodian doesn’t seem to mind that much or, if they do, they just don’t show it. They seem like a very patient lot. Patience, perhaps, resulting from the horrors of their recent tragic past; as if they’ve seen the worst of mankind and nothing else really surprises them. They have an ability to cope like no population I’ve encountered before. Some of the poorest street beggars look pitiful but they still seem upbeat; even though their situation maybe dire and they’re treated like cattle by their masters.
The Killing Fields:
There’s no doubt that many visitors, to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, would be appalled by the descriptions of the sites past inhumanities as they wander about listening to the tape they’re provided with. While it may be shocking; the sheer ruthlessness is hardly surprising. Barbarism on this scale is a collective or group thing. People get caught up in it and before they know it they’re just following orders and killing, raping and pillaging, with the best of them in the name of the cause. We’ve seen it in China, Russia and Germany in the past. What also isn’t surprising is that, with the exception of “Duch,” no one has actually admitted to any wrong doing. But, once you’ve lived in this part of the world for a number of years, one understands that the maintenance of “face” takes precedence over any admission of wrongdoing. And that, unfortunately, must impact to some degree on the moral base of the thought processes of the population.
The fact that many, who killed with impunity, have simply returned to their homes must leave a population in a lingering, unresolved mindset. Perhaps not but if there is a hangover from the past it may help explain why Cambodia seems to be a place where the rule of law is some way down the scale of life’s considerations. The pervading feeling, as one moves about in the chaos, is that life is pretty cheap here; it’s Rafferty’s rules, and each to their own, in the daily scramble to eke out an existence on the mean streets.
I was completely unaware that the civil war which ravaged this country for twenty eight years is still an unresolved issue. According to Phan, my driver for the trip up to Koh ker and Beng Mealea, nobody actually won; the whole thing just petered out after a long and ineffective series of negotiations between the nationalist forces and the Khmer Rouge.
“Sihonouk came back in 1992 and he kept telling the people they must stop fighting and go back to their homes and villages. To continue fighting would be very bad for our country. Six years later, in 1998, the fighting finally finished. It was mainly because of the king that it finished but the leaders of the Khmer Rouge continued hiding out in the jungle because they knew they would be accountable for their crimes against the Cambodian people. In the end all the Khmer Rouge leaders died; Pol Pot, Ta Mok and the others.”
“And no one else was held accountable?”
“No, they just went back to their homes and carried on with their lives.”
Perhaps, in the end, that was the best way. After twenty eight years of misery and suffering enough was enough and even though there may be forgiveness, you can be certain they’ll never forget.
My final place of visitation, before flying out, seemed appropriate enough; a large temple complex thirty seven kilometers to the west of Phnom Penh. The hotel organized an SUV, and driver, for me and at bang on three pm we were on our way to the impressive site of Oudong. Most, once you’ve lived in this region for any length of time, tend to get a bit jaded, even cynical, when the idea of visiting a temple is bandied about. “Seen one, seen em’ all,” is something I can relate to but sometimes even the most cynical, me included, will have pause for thought when we experience a truly unique site/structure. About an hour west of Phnom Penh, and just off national route #5, lay the hills of the abandoned royal city of Oudong. The surrounding countryside is entirely flat so as we cleared the city limits the peaks of the Oudong site became clearly visible in the distance. The following is taken from a local visitors guide and is a brief description regarding the history of the site:
“Oudong was the capital of Cambodia from the early 17th century until 1866 when the capital was officially moved to Phnom Penh. Several temples, stupas and other structures cover the hills. The highest peak is crowned with stupas containing the remains of several Cambodian Kings including King Monivong (1927 – 1941) and King Ang Duong (1845 – 1859). The earliest structure is from the 13th century. These hills were also the site of some of the Khmer Rouge’s most prolonged resistance against the encroaching Vietnamese army in 1979.”
At just over an hour, after departing from the hotel, we were pulling off the main highway and heading down a small country road towards the tree covered peaks of Oudong. The driver, knowing I was keen on getting a few good shots, suggested going to the new temple first. Located at the base of the hills, and just to the west, the new temple site is an ornate, gold colored complex with the central feature being a large windowless building. The driver parked under the welcome shade of a stand of trees as I got myself, and the camera gear, organized for a tour of the complex. It was just after four pm; the light was good but it was also scorching as I moved around working the camera and the angles. The main temple looked quite bizarre to say the least. It had unusually high – twenty meter – walls which were completely devoid of windows. After getting some good external shots I made my towards one of the doorways of the main temple and, after kicking off the shoes, stepped inside to find an amazingly beautiful interior. The reason there were no windows was due to the fact that the entire internal spaces were covered in paintings depicting the history of Buddhism in Cambodia. All the way up the sides of the building, and across the ceiling, was some of the most colorful artwork I’d ever witnessed in a temple. It was quite remarkable and the thought came to mind that it was the Buddhist version of the Cistern Chapel. At the western end sat an ornately painted large green Buddha statue with artwork branching out on the wall behind. As I worked the camera a couple of monks busied themselves with their afternoon cleaning duties. The following is a series of shots of the temple interior and exterior.
At a couple of minutes past five pm I was back at the car and ready to get on with my primary objective for coming to Oudong; getting some great sunset shots from the peak. As the driver worked his way back along the road to the grounds of the old temple site I could see there was a distinct possibility that I wouldn’t get the sunset shots I was looking for; to the west, ominous black clouds were building up in the high heat and humidity of the day. As I made my way up the long flight of stairs, to the stupas at the top, things were looking even less optimistic as light rain began falling. By the time I arrived at the stupa the horizon to the west was dark and thick with rain. As the threatening mass moved ever closer the wind picked up and heavy thunder rumbled across the plain. As I moved around getting a few shots a team of local ladies arrived and began cleaning the tile work around the stupa. We exchanged pleasantries while they made themselves comfortable, on the tiled floor, for a tea break. It was after five pm, the horizon was thick with cloud and there was very little chance of getting a sunset shot. As the wind intensified even more, with the approaching rain, I resigned myself to the fact I was probably just a couple of days too late in the season; it was the beginning of June and the rains had arrived. As the lightening flashed in the distance I put the camera away and settled in to enjoy the panoramic vistas and the power of nature as the storm rolled across the horizon beyond. It had been a great few days in Cambodia and this seemed a fitting end. The poverty and grime of urban areas has never been something I’ve been all that comfortable with. Sure, it makes for some powerful images but the fact is I’ve always been a fan of the wide open spaces and the natural world. In the distance the rain moved steadily across the landscape bringing cooling temperatures and adding freshness to the atmosphere.
A final word for those who consider there’s leverage where there’s poverty:
“But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”