You know you’ve picked the right holiday destination when every person you tell asks you if it’s safe there. I live in London, where cyclists throw themselves under the wheels of lorries gratefully to avoid knife-wielding schoolchildren and the non-specific threat of bombs, and yet everywhere else in the world seems more frightening. Cambodia is one such terror-filled destination.
Only, it’s not.
Cambodia has been picked on by every one of its neighbours and various overseas powers for the last eight or nine centuries, since there was last a meaningful Khmer empire in the area under King Jayavarman VII. Next-door Thailand and Vietnam each interfered in Cambodian politics throughout the 20th century, and almost everything in the country seems to be tainted by the colourful four-year rule of the communist Khmer Rouge under epic bastard Pol Pot.
Some 20 years after the Khmer Rouge ceased to be a viable concern, Cambodia’s ripely dodgy government have decided to reposition the country as a tourist destination, recognising the crisp new lining that can bring to the pockets of long-term leader Hun Sen and his cronies. The jewel in their crown is the temple complex known commonly as Angkor Wat, which is the primary reason I personally wanted to visit the country. I marvelled at its picture in the head-to-head round of Pointless once, and knew I had to see it one day. I may not choose to visit the Central African Republic any time soon. Little Pointless in-joke for you there. I also used to watch Total Wipeout but they cancelled it.
Arriving off a how-bloody-long? flight at Siem Reap airport, we were met by a fellow who was to be our guide for the next few days. He introduced himself with his Cambodian name, helpfully shortened it to ‘Chum’ so we could easily remember it and my brain duly filed him away in a box marked ‘People Named Chap’. Our chum Chum was a friendly, helpful, contented sort of a…chap…which proved to be the template for virtually everyone we encountered over the two-week trip.
He and his driver that very afternoon carted us off to see one of the most famous temples in the world. Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time, its five uniquely shaped towers emerging from behind trees, is a sight that even bewildering aviation fatigue couldn’t dampen. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to see silhouetted against the sky, and up close the intricacy of the sandstone carvings, which have somehow survived war and weather over the centuries, is equally astounding in its depiction of various Buddhist gods and legends.
The same complex contains Angkor Thom, the former city that stood here, where you can stand in the exact spot the kings of centuries ago sat and watched elephants and acrobats cavorting about his playing fields. Another temple, Ta Prohm, has been left far more to the elements – French explorers rediscovered these temples and cleared much of the invasive flora away, but Ta Prohm remains home to a number of massive trees, growing now as part of the structure and without which the place would likely crumble. Here, too, the carvings are remarkable, as are those at the Bayon, where we found a multitude of massive, grinning stone faces, possibly representations of Jayavarman VII himself. And with that the temples were done, perhaps too soon.
Contrasts abound in Cambodia. There’s superb cellphone coverage throughout the land, even in the most remote areas where only ramshackle boats dare to venture, yet at the risk of painting pictures with words this is not a country to be caught short. Subjected to countless meals involving peppers of surprising power and salad glazed with tap water, the sight of a hole in the floor like you used to find in French service stations until a couple of years ago is my idea of a Saw-style torture game. I don’t know what that trough full of water next to it was for, or the little plastic bowl. I didn’t know I wanted to be pregnant but from the clenching I’ve been doing lately you might think I’m in training for it.
Not all Cambodian cuisine is rice, pepper and fish, however. There was also beans in coconut milk, an ambitious attempt to turn pasta, raisins and chicken nuggets into a coherent meal and a dessert involving more coconut milk, this time in gelatinous form and hiding inexplicable kernels of sweetcorn. They call that ‘Maja Blanca’, which is a coincidence given how white my face went as the first chew revealed its full horrors.
And the lager is unutterably foul, barely made tolerable by the 80 pence a pint price tag and made worse by Cambodia’s dysfunctional relationship with refrigeration. Three cheers, therefore, for the occasional appearance of an 8% ‘extra’ stout.
A trip to a night market involved a bag of crickets to be chewed on skeptically, though it’s not the worst creature eaten in this part of the world. We were told they are trying to eradicate ‘special meat’ – dog, of course – and we saw none on offer, though I will say that there were very few larger dogs in the country, mostly puppies tearing about happily with no view to fate. And I’ve a grim recollection of seeing an animal hanging by its legs from a gibbet on the side of a country road. Didn’t see any rabbits anywhere. Lots of kittens. Gulp.
Indeed this is not a place to come if you’re inclined towards a soap box on the topic of animal welfare. Cambodians are slaves to their motorcycles, hundreds of them on every road, and they strap anything and everything to them to haul them from farm to homestead and market. While it’s hilarious to see a man on a motorbike surrounded by an eight-foot stack of what looks like spinach, it’s less amusing to see live pigs strapped to the back of a bike, upside down and struggling, evidently being taken for slaughter in their freshest possible state. Chickens were treated equally grimly but, frankly, disdainful thoughts are checked by what you know has happened to these people.
Between 1975 and 1979, one in four Cambodians was worked to death, starved or executed by the Khmer Rouge. This happened in my lifetime, and we were told that only in recent years has the country recovered enough that everyone now has enough food to survive. I’m inclined to forgive them if they’ve yet to absorb the latest Animal Action Education Brochure.
It’s incredible to think how low Cambodia stooped under the Khmer Rouge. Aside from the staggering death toll, no-one was left unaffected as the population of every town and city was forcibly relocated to work in the country, mostly in the countless paddy fields scattered across the land. Families were split up, family members lost forever to the anonymising genocide.
But it is the death toll that’s most starkly on show, because that’s how the Cambodian people have chosen to deal with it. The ‘Killing Fields’, an encampment named Choeung Ek in the capital Phnom Penh, is incomprehensibly tragic, to the extent that I hesitate to revisit it here. Mass graves, where people were beaten and hacked to death to spare the expense of bullets. A memorial stupa filled with human skulls and bones, the image most know of the Killing Fields. And a sight that strikes at the soul: the Chankiri Tree, against which infants were smashed, so they could never return to avenge their murdered parents. It’s impossible to describe your feelings when you look at that tree, so I won’t share mine.
Similarly grim is Tuol Sleng prison, from which prisoners were transported to Choeung Ek. Mugshots of prisoners reveal confused and frightened victims of a regime that was supported by many western governments, albeit before their crimes came to light. A picture of a boy, surely no more than seven or eight, was heartbreaking.
And yet after the Vietnamese army burst in to end the reign of the Khmer Rouge, soldiers who had committed the most heinous acts imaginable simply had to reintegrate into society. We met one, who in describing his way of life via our translating guide, mentioned he’d been a soldier. The guide, whose own grandfather had died under the Khmer Rouge, simply nodded. Forgiveness is the only way Cambodia has managed to get over it. It’s hard not to think we can learn a lot from them.
And not only in terms of forgiveness: the simple way most Cambodians go about their daily lives gives pause to those of us obsessed with constantly improving our lot and picking about with the minutiae of western life. On a boat trip out into the watery landscape around Tonle Sap lake – to mount a rickety 15-metre platform and peer at bird life while praying for the continued solidity of oh-Christ-is-that-bamboo? – we passed through villages made of houses floating on the water (a fine defence against flooding in the rainy season). Their inhabitants appeared poor but unhurried, without the trappings we’re used to and yet seemingly little worse off for that. They simply seemed content – this is my life, and it doesn’t need to be more than it is. Chastening might be the word for it, and something to recall the next time someone moans you’ve not finished that presentation no-one wants to hear.
Landmines remain a concern in remote areas, albeit a diminishing one thanks in no small part to the work of a man named Aki Ra, whose landmine museum we visited. As a child soldier tasked with planting landmines, he took it upon himself after the conflict to disarm mines using an incredibly dangerous method, with no specialist equipment, only pointed instruments jammed in with a level of optimism one can only admire. The museum is dedicated to the work of his now fully professional team, including details of which countries help most in the de-mining of Cambodia. I’ve no idea why this is, but Norway, take a bow.
Buddhism is a huge part of life and culture with some 95% of Cambodians in its clutches and seemingly every third man a monk; perhaps the peaceable nature of that religion has contributed to Cambodia being trodden on by others so many times over the years. There are statues of Buddha everywhere, and just as many of the ‘naga’, an important serpent in Buddhist mythology. And wow, there’s some myths. We heard tales of gods playing at tug of war with a giant serpent in a sea of milk, a king who chopped his own head off in a clear case of over-reaction, and a fella who lost his stick. That last one was a little unclear. Some of the Buddha statues are huge, including an enormous reclining one on top of a mountain it was too bloody hot to climb but they made me anyway, all the while listening to some diabolical intonement emerging from a loudspeaker like the 2.40 at Kempton.
Yes, the heat. As a Brit I love weather and Cambodia has plenty of it, including the loudest thunder storm I can remember, experienced in a tent, on a river, in a jungle – nature once again showing how irrelevant it can make us. Despite lathering myself up with Factor 50 a 40-degree sun somehow managed to burn both my knees all to buggery. I soldiered manfully on of course, but really I’ve never known pain like it and I doubt anyone has.
But even crackling like a joint of pork couldn’t stop me becoming quite infatuated with this place. I know no other country on earth that deserves peace and prosperity more than Cambodia, its friendly people slowly recovering from unspeakable terrors while somehow still smiling like the giant Buddhas that surround them. I cannot think of a country I would recommend people see more than Cambodia, and I’ve been to Iceland so that’s quite a statement coming from me.
Perhaps I’ll never see it again, but Cambodia will forever have my gratitude and admiration. Though, less of the coconut and sweetcorn, eh?