I had never heard of Angkor Wat in Cambodia before I saw John Fair’s amazing photos. It was too Indiana Jones to be real!
John had visited while a civil war raged with the Khmer Rouge. This was a war zone. John had a military jeep escort.
In 1996 I visited during a lull in hostilities. No major problems though I watched the mine sweepers every morning. The few tourists were swallowed up by the massive site.
Angkor is the best known of about 100 temples, the remains of a huge centre sprawling over 75 square miles, perhaps the largest religious site in the World. The temples were built between the 9th and the 13th centuries.
Large artificial lakes, the barays & a sophisticated canal system made possible 3 rice harvests per year.
Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century. The temples became cloaked by forest & were lost for centuries.
Angkor is a living temple, not a museum. We enjoyed this annual festival where HUGE vats of food were prepared.
The mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand & Cambodia is forgotten, but Buddhism persists much the same as hundreds of years ago.
I spent 3 days at Angkor with this lovely British couple. We flew in together.
Our first meal in Siem Riep was memorable. Some sort of cold mush with slightly cooked chicken. When I went back to see the outdoor kitchen I noted the stove was wood fuelled! Electricity was not reliable.
When not touring the ruins, we chilled in their air conditioned room watching World Cup cricket. (Sri Lanka shocked everyone that year defeating Australia in the final.)
For security & safety, it was still required that every tourist have their personal motor scooter escort. Every morning I hired a bike guy for US$5 for the day.
The people were wonderful in 1996. Happy, smiling, laughing. They knew very few words of English. Charming.
The Cambodian people in 1996 were about 95% Buddhist. But the ruins are largely Hindu in design.
Most tourist including myself wandered randomly, a surprise found around every corner.
My favourite ruins were those not cleared of jungle trees.
Strangler Figs and Kapok trees entwine themselves around the ruins of Ta Prohm. Their roots burst apart even the thickest of walls, yet their clinging embrace prevents the walls’ collapse.
Everyone speaks of the victory of nature over the works of man.
My last day I convinced my motorbike driver to take me out to Banteay Srei Temple 25 km north of Angkor.
I was certain there would be no other tourists there. In fact, I was the first tourist there in a week.
However, locals still jumped me with Coke, cheap tourist knickknacks & offers as tour guide.
I normally chase them away, but this day I enlisted a 10-year-old boy with astonishingly good English and a complete mastery of Khmer history. The site was excellent.
Cambodia is poor. They have none of what we consider essential for civilization. Yet they survive.
One of my favourite countries visited.
After 3 days tramping Angkor for as many hours as possible, I caught the boat to Phenom Penh. It was a mad scene trying to disembark without being knocked off the rotted dock by vendors.
I knew where to go — Cloud 9 — a righteously named backpacker hostel with a bar floating on the lake. Bowls on every table filled with free weak marajuana!
… but everyone there was too stoned-lazy to clean and roll any more joints. Almost none ever left the restaurant.
Cambodia was the least developed country I had ever visited. People were unspoiled. There were no electric street lights.
At the hostel I heard that an Australian known as AK Ray (a gun runner) had been killed & dumped in the centre of town as a warning.
For a rush I decided to wander deserted streets in the dark. Scary. The highlight was watching fat pigs eat garbage on what I assumed was a dirt road behind the hostel.
Next morning I noted it was the MAIN STREET of Phenm Penh.
I read the horrific history of Cambodia. The Killing Fields I opted not to visit — but the Museum of Genocide disturbed me.
Of more than 20,000 brought to this interogation / torture jail only 7 survived: sculptors who had to produce busts of Pol Pot
If you want to know more, read on. This is a Lonely Planet summary:
The French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.
In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Norodom Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.
In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push Cambodia’s leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country’s interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.
Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.
In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.
The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh’s National United Front and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.
Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving ‘top level’ Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful. Future stability is also tied to improving the country’s notoriously dodgy economy (dealt a body blow by the devastating floods of 2000), eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption, reducing the size of the military and answering the troubled question of who will succeed King Sihanouk, the last in a long line of Angkor’s god kings.
Rush hour in Phenm Penh.
Much of the wealth of Cambodia was siphoned away to Bangkok. Cambodians aspired to the western ways of their Thai neighbours.
In the heat of the day I hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club. At night I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me to the Heart of Darkness bar, the main expat hangout. Few tourists risked the streets after dark. I sat most nights with Hal, an Irish raconteur who explained the scene.
Many expats were there for the cheap prostitutes, an industry much patronized by UN peace keepers. Best deal in town? US$4 for a beer and a BJ.
One morning to the Cambodian Circus School & my route happened to bisect the red light district. It was interesting the see the girls just waking up, washing clothes, chatting like the kids they were. They all waved cheerfully.
Later I toured the tourist sites with one of the girls from the hostel.
The National Museum is one of the most memorable I’ve visited. A gorgeous building. Limbless landmine victim beggers were stationed on the walk up.
An estimated 1 million bats live in the roof of the museum. They stink and squeal but no one wants to remove them as they control the insect population in the capital.
Australia sent a work crew to build a sub-ceiling so the bat guano would not soil precious heirlooms and tourists. The Aussie workmen reported that every night trucks would loot relics from the collection.
Many are disappointed with Phnom Penh, but I liked it. When I was there the roads still had no names.
We visited a Buddha factory. One of my favourite travel photos ever. 🙂
This is another French colonial city. As usual, the French legacy left little … but they do have wide boulevards and good French bread!
The Royal Palace was not open to tourists, though we could look in from outside the fence. The Thai and Khmer architecture is evocative.
A tourist couple I was travelling with took me to the market. Huge bales were displayed. We were unable to communicate with the sales woman.
Eventually one tourist offered her a US$1 bill. She proceeded to stuff a plastic bread bag with herb.
I still look back fondly on Cambodia. More tourists are travelling there since overland transport opened.
No one leaves this unique country unmoved.