After spending 7 days in Vietnam, it was time to head to Cambodia. I had budgeted 6 days for the country with 2 days in Phnom Penh and 4 days in Siem Reap. 2 out of these 6 days went in traveling by bus. Two 6 hour long journeys provided me with a slight back ache but also 12 hours of primetime viewing of the Cambodian countryside. Along with visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and Wat-hopping in Angkor, watching Cambodia fly past the bus window became one of the highlights of my trip.
Cambodia on the road
I took a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. It is a 6 hour ride and costs $13. It takes 2 hours to reach the border from HCMC. It passes through the village of Trang Bang, the place where the photograph of the Napalm Girl was taken. From the highway, there was nothing much to see. But I did manage to take a quick hazy picture of the fields from the bus window.
(the paddy fields around the village of Trang Bang, Vietnam)
The first Cambodian town after the border crossing is Bavet. Bavet offers to Vietnamese people what their communist government does not allow – casinos. As one enters the Kingdom of Cambodia, the first thing one sees is the line of white concrete hotel buildings with names like Le Macau, 855 Crown, Las Vegas, and so on – each one of them trying to outdo each other in innovative ways to represent the word “Casino”.
As the bus started off towards Phnom Penh after all the border formalities were completed, the countryside changed into a vibrant green speckled with little red-tiled roofed houses that are a fusion of colonial French and Khmer ideas. All along the highway, as the bus passed through small hamlets and villages, there were food stalls and shops, all of them carrying two signboards – Angkor beer and Cambodia beer.
(The Neak Loeung Bridge over the Mekong)
Midway between the border and Phnom Penh is the Neak Loeung Bridge over the mighty Mekong. Immediately, images of Martin Sheen sailing up the Mekong into Cambodia in search of Marlon Brando filled the mind. Having traveled along the Mekong during my travel in Laos in 2011, it felt like I had returned to an old haunt. Later, in Phnom Penh, I went to the Mekong riverside for a walk and enjoyed the calming river breeze once again.
The second bus trip was from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. This was also a 6 hour journey and cost $12. There were more green paddy fields awaiting me. The roads were two lane highways and some parts were in pretty bad shape. Building wider roads or exploring new routes is still a problem as the land mine clearing process has still not finished. This is preventing more and more land from being used productively. Hopefully, in the future, they will be able to improve the roads.
The Boat People
Recently, the Australian government, which had intercepted boats carrying Rohingyas seeking asylum, made a deal where these asylum seekers were offered settlement packages in Cambodia. Given the economic situation in Cambodia, most people criticised the Australian government. Having said that, Cambodia has been a destination for many refugees in the last 40 years. Prince Norodom Sihanouk had, in the 1960s, kept Cambodia neutral – prefering not to take any sides in the Vietnam war. During this time, there were refugees from Laos and Vietnam coming into Cambodia. Many of them, with no land whatsover, have taken up residences on water.
On my last day in Cambodia, the cab driver who was with me for all three days in Siem Reap suggested a change from the ruins of Angkor. He took me to Tonle Sap, a large lake referred to as the Great Lake in Angkorian records. The Tonle Sap which meets the Mekong in Phnom Penh originates from this lake as does the Siem Reap river. A huge waterbody, this lake serves as a significant source of water for this part of the country. On this lake, along the shores, live thousands of people – on boats and houses built on stilts. There are floating schools, orphanages, a basketball court, churches, markets and of course, restaurants and bars. One such restaurant and bar had a small crocodile tank – crocodiles were bred for their leather.
(The floating communities of Tonle Sap)
People have adapted themselves to a riparian life, and this adaptation has provided some amount of peace and stability to these communities. With regular tourists coming in and patronising the restaurants and pubs, there’s some decent livelihoods that are provided for.
Skulls and Bones
In Phnom Penh I met a young cab driver, Kip, who, among other things, could speak excellent English. In fact, most cab drivers, restaurant owners, shop keepers, etc., were very fluent in English.. I wondered how many auto drivers in India would learn a foreign language just to facilitate business with people from outside their city? Kip suggested a visit to what is officially called the Choeung Ek Genocide Center. Only, he called it the Killing Fields. About 1 hour drive outside the capital, this was one of the largest execution centres of the Pol Pot people. There are over 300 killing fields but since this one was the closest to the capital, it had the maximum people sent here.
While the Nazis had scientists innovate on methods to make the executions faster and more efficient, here in Cambodia, execution was done in the good old rustic method – beating the head with a heavy weapon. Agricultural tools like hoes, pickaxes, rakes, scythes and pitchforks were used. The victims were brought in closed trucks at night. They were lined up first for checking (names of those despatched from prison had to match names of those delivered), then they were taken to the series of pits that were dug up and kept ready. As they stood in a line, Khmer Rouge volunteers standing behind them started the killing using those tools. The execution grounds had loudspeakers playing Khmer songs which drowned the screams and shrieks of the victims. About 2 million people were killed thus.
Anyone who had minimum education and was intelligent enough to be a potential critic of the government was sent to the killing fields. In the four years of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia lost an entire generation of scholars, doctors, artists, writers, journalists, engineers and skilled people of all kinds. It takes a while for a country to recover from such a loss.
The skulls of those killed are arranged in a pyramid, a permanent reminder of those times.
(The pillar of skulls at Choeung Ek)
After the killing fields, Kip took me to Tuol Sleng or S-21. This was the police headquarters of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh which served as their detention and torture chamber. The exhibits are stark. Detention rooms with blackened blood stains, rusted metal loops fitted into torture boards were open for visitors to walk in and feel the space. Photographs of all the victims who were tortured here before being sent off to the killing fields are put up with their names – male, female, teenagers, geriatrics, mothers-to-be, brides-to-be (there were pictures of girls in bridal wear). You walk slowly through it all and then when you come out, you need a cigarette. Maybe two.
Angkor Ad Infinitum
And then there is Angkor. It is on the flag of the country. It is on the currency notes along with the King Father Norodom Sihanouk. It is a brand of beer. Every third or fourth business establishment is named after some variation of Angkor. For Cambodia, Angkor is their sole identity (and currently the main source of their revenues, i.e. tourism). While the old city of Angkor is in ruins, its many temples have been in use and preserved by wandering groups of monks for ever. But like in all colonial lands, the French take the honours for “discovering” it. Along with archaeologists, historians, researchers and tourists, Angkor has attracted filmmakers as well though, the number has been quite less, understandably given the recent history.
The experience of exploring Angkor has many similarities with the experience of exploring Hampi. There are just too many things – ruins, artefacts, legends – all of them spread out over miles, hidden inside dense forests. The entire spread of Angkor can be leisurely explored over 7 days. But that is a luxury few of us have. So a 3 day trip is what can be salvaged. I won’t bother going into the story of the place, there’s enough literature on this.
(Climbing the final summit of Mount Meru – Angkor Wat)
I will suggest one interesting thing to look out for. The lost city of Angkor was a major urban centre and occasionally capital of the Khmers for over 400 years. In those years, series of kings came, ordered construction of various structures and went away. As time passed, the later kings were not too particular about the aesthetics of the construction. Part of the reason for the state of ruin for many of the structures here is the shoddy workmanship involved. While Angkor Wat stands tall in largely its original state, accounting for weather erosion and some bullet marks from the wars, many of the other places including what local guides called the “Tomb Raider temple” i.e. Ta Phrom are in pretty bad shape.
(Ta Phrom – Protected by trees and Archaeological Survey of India)
The last one is actually preserved by trees – the roots of the fig tree growing around the stones have, in a way, tied up the structure providing it robust structural support. Interestingly, the authorities have decided that Ta Phrom shall be preserved in this state of disorder and one of the partners in the conservation project is the ASI. It’s a bit funny to see the ASI being called in to help maintain the disorderly state of a structure. One may say, as a backhanded compliment maybe, that the ASI is quite good at it.
The Tourist Life
There are many other things to do in Cambodia especially for those who like to do volunteering – there are orphanages to work with; there’s art and craft schools which needs people to help revive and sustain it; there’s education which needs volunteers for teaching as most of the teachers were killed off and it will take at least two or three more generations of Cambodians to fill up the gaps. All this means that places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and no doubt the other places which I didn’t go to, have as many tourists as local people, if not more, and a significant chunk of the local economy runs on tourists.
I went to the much publicised Pub Street in Siem Reap but found it is no different from walking along the Baga-Calangute road in Goa. Bars and pubs on both sides with tables laid out right on the tarmac await those who stroll by. There’s music blaring from every door and it’s quite a din that one encounters while standing there. Besides the establishments, there were street stalls selling the iconic banana pancake, the staple for most travelers in Indochina. After trying out a few bars and tasting from a couple of street food stalls, I settled for the X-Bar, a 2nd floor terrace joint with a stage for live bands, couple of blocks away from Pub Street.
Cambodia was a very pleasant and friendly experience and for me, and is definitely worth visiting again. If only to relax in the simple countryside.