They have a saying in this part of the world – “Same same but different”. The meaning of it … it means like it reads. Once told, the tourists keep on repeating the phrase frequently relating it to everything in the region from temples to food, much to the annoyance of many. To compare Laos with Thailand you can say “same same but different”. Cambodia however was very different.
As I landed at the Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) airport and made my way through the immigration, I was stopped. I just had 1 blank page left on my passport – some countries would not let you in with that. However, I had pre-planned and asked the Cambodian embassy in Zürich if that was the case for Cambodia – the ambassador had assured me that it would be fine. I repeated the above to the immigration officer. He had a careful look at my passport and my visas … then in broken English asked me to pay 10 extra dollars. I had no intention of parting with a tenner and politely asked him if he would take the payment via credit card as I was not carrying any extra cash. That conversation was short and he handed back my passport without any eye contact.
Phnom Penh looks much like a suburban Indian town and as a matter of fact, the whole of Cambodia bears striking similarities with parts of India. It was hot, humid and like any peripheral Indian town, traffic was chaotic. I was living in a hotel right next to a market which had an eerie resemblance with Sealdah market – the smell and chaos made me strangely nostalgic.
S-21 and Choeung Ek
Now some facts. I realised that as I dug deeper into South East Asia, the recent history of the countries I visited just got progressively darker. For those of you who dont know this, a quarter of all Cambodians (yes 1 in every 4 people in the country) died in the 4 years between 1975-79 when it was under the Khmer Rouge regime. Most of the dead were intellectuals who were murdered by the regime, which had an utopian view of their country with an agrarian society. Remnants of their atrocities dot this country.
Tuol Sleng Security Prison 21 (S-21) was sort of a detention camp for the prisoners before they were sent off to be slaughtered. It was a school turned into a torture cum interrogation centre by the regime. The class rooms were split into small enclosures with one person per cell so that the detainees could not collaborate. The captives were chained to the ground so that if they moved too much it would make noise and raise alarm … I know it sounds horrible but it is exactly how it was. The school, which is turned into a museum now is quite well preserved – you can see blood stains on the wall. The history is only about 30 years old and it cannot be lost even if you try hard anyway. Out of thousands imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known survivors because individually they had some unique skills – like repairing cars or painting etc. Three of the survivors are still alive. If you ever visit the site you will probably bump into at least one of them – I met 2. One of them has written a book, which he is happy to personify should you decide to buy it. The other one was just hanging out.
A collection of mass graves is referred to as a Killing Field and the country has many of them. I visited Choeung Ek Killing Field near the capital. It was a Chinese cemetery converted to a killing field by the regime. About 10,000 people were murdered there. As you walk into the area you hit an imposing tower with glass windows stacked with skulls of the victims. It is extremely graphic and sort of a vision of hell. As you take the next step and enter the tower, the nauseating stench of rotting bones can only be overcome by holding a burning incense stick right next to your nose. Out of the tower, the management have cordoned off areas where they found mass-graves and noted the number of corpses in the graves. However new graves appear every year as the rain washes the mud away. You can see bones sticking out of the ground from those newly found graves and as a visitor, sometimes you walk over those bones as they have not been cordoned off. It was quite a moving experience and some tourists broke down in tears. Pretty much everyone I met in Cambodia was affected by the genocide. The following pictures cannot do justice to my experience … the sight, smell, touch … you have to be there in person.
The annoying thing about Cambodia is that a lot of the perpetrators roam freely as they were pardoned. As I had started writing the blog I was reading the obituary of Brother #3 Ieng Sary, who was the foreign minister of the country during the regime. I am not going to go into history lessons here. If you want to learn more about it, there is a lot of information freely available on the web – I am especially fond of this site. Additionally there are documentaries, books and I would recommend you to watch the Oscar winner namesake of Killing Fields. The film is based on a true story and one of the characters in the film (Dith Pran) coined the term Killing Fields.
Cambodia however is not known around the world for its genocide. It took a big busted woman in a tank top and hot pants to put the country on the world map for tourists. The most famous symbol of Cambodia is the Angkor Wat and I am sure you have all come across pictures of the monument in various places. The Angkor Wat is something that the locals take tremendous pride in and it is a genuine national symbol (more so than the Taj Mahal in India or the Pyramids in Egypt). The temple appears in the current Cambodian flag and it even appeared in the Khmer Rouge flag – the Khmer Rouge regime was kind to the ancient monuments in the country.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in the town of Siem Reap. It stretches over 400 km2 containing the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Angkor Wat is the most famous of the attractions inside the park, which also features the Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple. The Khmer empire was mighty and massive encompassing countries from modern-day Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal in the width; stretching from China in the north to modern day Malaysia in the south in the 9th Century.
Anyway I think best not to go into history lessons here too – a pictorial blog is the best way to go ahead.
As I went through the history and visited the remains of the Angkor Archaeological Park, I could not help wonder what makes the monument popular. There are sites in India which are older and more impressive architecturally – if you are interested have a look at this list. The Khmers were first Hindus and then Buddhists – both of the religions originated from India. The Khmer architecture of the ancient and medieval world, with its religious bent, resembles various monuments in south India … and sometimes poorly so. Most of the structures are not standing for 2 reasons – they were not maintained over the years gone by and secondly just because they were just badly constructed. So why do so many tourists flock to Cambodia and not go to India instead for a similar but better experience? I could think of the following reasons: First the complex is massive – I have not seen anything as big anywhere else. Secondly, the temples in the middle of jungle adds to the romanticism which is pretty much un-paralleled – the fact that the structures were not taken care of works for them basically. Last but not the least, it is in the South East Asian tourist trail and Cambodia with all its mess is still cleaner than India overall.
I quite liked this town. It was full of young travellers and the vibe was great with the night markets, food stalls and bars. I wandered around the town and ate street food – the local speciality is called Amok, which is ‘same same but different’ when you compare with a green Thai curry. I would recommend to walk around Arts Centre night market – it is touristy but nice. Truck loads of Japanese tourists come there hence stuff are a tad pricey. Siem Reap is on Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia which links to the Mekong River – hence you can reach anywhere that is on the Mekong from there basically. There are many floating villages on Tonlé Sap and I visited one. One thing which is quite unique about Siem Reap and the surrounding areas is crocodile farming. There are many souvenir shops in town selling stuffed crocs and croc leather accessories in Siem Reap. Anyway there goes some pictures …
The people in Cambodia were not as nice as in Laos, streets were not as clean as Thailand and traffic was more chaotic than both the countries. It was the least tourist-friendly but the most interesting of the countries I visited in South East Asia. It was full of surprises – from genocides to jungle temples. As I boarded my flight back to Bombay via Bangkok, I met an old Swiss couple. They did a road trip around Cambodia for about 3 weeks going from far north to the South … I pondered why not do that next time.