The last century has been uniquely unkind to Cambodia, whose recent history has little of redeeming value. It began with French conquest, and the French were among Europe’s worst colonial masters. Then came partial conquest by Thailand and Japanese occupation during world war two. Fifteen years of corrupt rulers followed.
Then the country found itself caught up in the Indochinese War, with military rulers. When the US lost the war, Pol Pot and the murderous, genocidal Khmer Rouge took over. Apart from the killing and death, their policies destroyed the very foundations of civil society. They emptied the cities; they killed or forced into exile their educated citizenry, burned books and stopped formal education; they banned religion; they weakened the family; in total, they killed a fifth of the population. They ruled by terror.
Then, thankfully, the Vietnamese invaded and occupied the country. Since their departure (brokered by the UN and international diplomacy), the country has remained an economic basket case governed by another string of uneducated and uninspired men. The present leader, Hun Sen, was a bigwig with the Khmer Rouge before (to his credit) shifting allegiances and helping organize the Vietnamese conquest. The recent coronation of a western-educated king may be a ray of hope, however faint.
So it is to the ancient past, not the present, that you need to look for inspiration in Cambodia. Siem Reap is fantastic. This is the part of the country that hosts Angkor Wat and dozens of other huge and magnificent temples. Most were Hindu, but many were Buddhist. Constructed in the jungle, they were later reclaimed by the jungle, too. Angkor is unquestionably one of the wonders of the world. I began reading about Angkor Wat as a boy, and have read much about it since, but I was still quite amazed. Each of the many temples we saw was a marvel in its own right, but Angkor is unquestionably one of the wonders of the world.
We began our adventure by flying to Bangkok, then caught a bus to a Thai border town. We crossed into this tragic country at Poiphet, and there we rented a car. The Lonely Planet describes Cambodian roads as the worst in Asia and among the worst in the world. This is no exaggeration. It took us six hours to make about 150 kilometres in a Toyota Camry.
We eventually arrived in Siem Reap, in the region that hosts Angkor Wat and dozens of other huge and magnificent temples. Most are Hindu, some are Buddhist. They were constructed in the jungle, and later reclaimed by the jungle, too.
Archaeological studies of Angkor Wat have suggested some remarkable things. For example, it is the only temple in the area that you enter from the west – by tradition, the direction of death. Why? After more than a century of debate, in 1977 archaeologist Eleanor Mannika may have cracked the code. Using a traditional Khmer unit of measure, she calculated that the distances to key places in the temple correlated precisely with the years in the Hindu notion of the four ages of time, the yugas of the universe.
As historian David Chandler explains, these distances may be, in effect, “a kind of pun that can be read in terms of time and space….(Walking into the temple) from the west, which is the direction of death, the visitor moves backward into time, approaching the moment when the Indians proposed that time began.” By this interpretation, the central tower, which once housed a now-vanished a statue of Shiva, represented the beginning of time - the golden age of the Krita Yuga. As you depart this sanctum and leave the temple, you are walking toward the Kali Yuga - the present era - at the end of which the universe will be destroyed.
From Siem Reap we took the "ferry" (a wooden boat equipped with a diesel engine from a pick-up truck) to Battambang, Cambodia's second city. The trip along the Tonle Sap ("Great Lake") and up the river was fascinating. It took about six hours - one more than it should have - because the boat's steering system gave up on us half way. The very inventive crew made a fix that took us to our destination, however, and the view of both bird and village life along the way was quite amazing.
We thought we were pretty inured to the sight of poverty after Thailand, but we were shocked by what we saw in Cambodia. The country’s many recent tragedies have set the people’s living standards back to those of the 1920s.
Cambodians are trying to put their past behind them and look to the future, yet their children know little and are not being told about the atrocities committed in their country. The country is taking no serious effort to bring those responsible to book. In our view, the country is crying out for a process of truth and reconciliation. On a positive note, in one village we saw quite a fine school, and there is a medical ferry that delivers care to the people who live in villages along the river.
Except for the temples and the ferry trip, my most vivid memory is a visit to a food stall in the town of Sisiphon. The most prominent offerings included a grilled snake; skewered, roasted bats; and a variety of similarly prepared creepy-crawly cuisine. Various insects, land crabs, small skewered frogs and toads and other ghastly things were among the specials of the day. We bought bottled water and moved on.
Battambang is a desperately poor city filled with wonderful people. Few spoke English, but we found our Thai quite helpful. (Thai and Cambodian are quite different languages, but we could usually find someone who spoke Thai - just as you might fairly easily find someone who speaks Russian in Slovakia.).
We ended our trip by hiring a driver to take us back to Poiphet, thence home to Thailand. By this route the roads were much better, and the 85-kilometre trip only took three hours. Our driver had effective English, and during the trip told us quite vividly how the Khmer Rouge killed almost everyone in his family. Only a sister survived, and the two of them didn't reconnect (through UN efforts) until 15 years later. His commentary was riveting, and emotional. As he talked, I looked out the car window at the throngs in the villages and noticed how few old people (even our age) were there.
Most Cambodians who would have been my contemporaries are gone. Did they die during the Khmer Rouge madness, or from the effects of poverty in the years since? Both, I think.