Monday, June 08, 2009

Contrary Cambodia

8th June 2009
The West Australian

Cambodia is a country of contradictions, and tourists can find themselves marvelling at the ancient beauty of the temples of Angkor one day before being horrified by a memorial containing thousands of human skulls at the Khmer Rouge killing fields, on another.

The calm of the countryside is in stark contrast to the intense activity of the capital city Phnom Penh where the lively nightlife hides the country’s flourishing prostitution trade.

Bewildering? Yes. Boring? No. As first-time visitors to this increasingly popular South-East Asian tourist location, we started our journey in Siem Reap, a city which bases its livelihood on its proximity to the glorious temples of Angkor. Our limited time meant we had only two days to explore the 12th century temples, which stretch over a deceptively large area of which the famous Angkor Wat is only one part.

Starting our journey at the walled kingdom of Angkor Thom, our first stop was the Bayon, the King’s state temple. Our childish sense of adventure was delighted by its hidden passages, steep stairways and endless ornate doorways. Next was Ta Prohm, a temple so overgrown by giant tree roots it captures the prehistoric imagination of all who visit, including the Hollywood producers who filmed Lara Croft: Tomb Raider here.

The constant presence of beggars following us was a reminder of the crushing poverty of this country in which four-year-olds ask you to take their photo then demand money; and victims of landmines, less forceful but no less visible, play music outside temples in the hope westerners will donate. It was in that context we arrived at Angkor Wat, the national symbol of Cambodia and the creation of King Suryavarman II. While impressed by its splendour and size, I could not help feeling the glories of the past could not compensate for the problems of the present.

Our second day was filled with temples further afield and shopping at the Psar Chaa markets in the city centre. The markets are a haven of jewellery, silks and wooden ornaments that would never be allowed through Australian customs.

The next day was a six-hour boat ride south down the Tonle Sap river to Phnom Penh. We were unprepared for the circus that greeted us as our boat docked in the capital city. Tuk tuk drivers grabbed our bags without warning and tried to herd us towards their vehicles, promising cheap rooms if we followed. Refusing all offers of assistance did not make us any friends but it enabled us time to breathe and find our own accommodation in the riverfront area of Phnom Penh. Dumping our bags on the top floor of a guesthouse with no lifts, we set out to explore the city.

The Tuol Sleng torture museum was known as the S-21 prison during the reign of the genocidal Pol Pot. A former high school, the museum now houses graphic photos of torture victims, found when it was liberated in 1979, and a series of mug shots of the sad faces of each prisoner who passed through its barbed-wire gates. A 15-minute tuk tuk ride out of the city then took us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where most of the 17,000 detainees held at S-21 were executed. A glass tower containing 8000 human skulls and their clothes is overwhelming in itself. But walking through the killing fields, treading on human bones and clothing poking through the ground after years of erosion, was more disturbing.

The story of the Cambodian genocide is unavoidable in Phnom Penh. The city was emptied by Khmer Rouge soldiers in 1975, remaining uninhabited until the Vietnamese invaded in 1979. The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.7 million of their fellow countrymen through execution, starvation and disease. The impact was devastating but no one has ever been held to account for the tragedy. The former Khmer Rouge prison chief Duch is currently on trial for war crimes, while the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is a former Khmer Rouge commander.

The recovery of the country has been slow, with poverty endemic in most areas. We came face to face with an extreme example of this deprivation with a visit to the Stung Meanchey rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city. Here, hundreds of people live in nauseating squalor, making a measly living from collecting recyclable rubbish.

Our guide was David Fletcher, an English expatriate who runs a not-for-profit organisation that does food runs to the dump two or three times a week with the help of donations from young travellers. He also owns a local bar, mostly patronised by older Western men and young Cambodian women. After seeing our donations go directly into buying fresh food from the markets, we then helped out at the dump by attempting to keep order in the queues while bread rolls and fresh fruit were distributed. The scene was chaotic but our momentary contribution worthwhile.

A visit to neighbouring Laos was also on our itinerary and it couldn’t have been a more different experience. With a short history as a nation-state and a far less violent past, Laos, once a French colony, is known as a place to relax on the often chaotic South-East Asian backpacking route. The capital city Vientiane, has a population of just 300,000. We also visited Pha That Luang, a beautiful temple symbolising the country’s Buddhist influences and its fight for sovereignty.

Our next stop was a town called Vang Vieng, a 3 1 /2-hour bus ride north of Vientiane. Described by Lonely Planet as “soulless”, the whole town seemed to be on permanent school leavers’ week, with restaurants frequented by hung-over tourists playing Friends and Family Guy on a loop.

The main attraction of the town was the infamous tube ride down the Nam Song River. People have apparently died on the trip so it was with trepidation we hired our tyre tubes and jumped on a tuk tuk that drove us to the river bank. There we were greeted by pumping music, bars along the river serving $US3 ($3.60) buckets of cocktails, flying foxes and water slides. The recommended two-hour trip down the river took us six hours and, needless to say, was memorable.

A more cultural experience was awaiting us at our next stopover. Luang Prabang, a hairy eighthour bus trip north of Vang Vieng, is the former royal capital of Laos. A nature lover’s paradise, it is Unesco World Heritage-listed and attracts many eco-tourists.

Our adventures in this beautiful town and its surrounds included a visit to the stunning Tat Kuang Si waterfall and a kayaking trip to the Pak Ou Caves which contain thousands of Buddha images.

The future of this mainly undeveloped country rests heavily on its rapidly increasing share of the tourist trade. But its emphasis on eco-tourism will hopefully prevent the destruction of its largely untouched wilderness and unique national spirit.


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