It’s 11:00 am, the Irishman is already nursing a Beer Chang
at the next table. His bloodshot eyes are shining, evidence of yesterday’s
binges. His T-shirt is emblazoned with scull, crossbones and red lettering: Danger. Mines. Cambodia. In the airy restaurant of the Thai
guesthouse, I’m picking at a plate of fruit, paging through Lonely Planet Cambodia and wishing travel
guides had more photographs. Boredom compels me to ask the man about his T-shirt.
He had spent a month in Cambodia dirt-biking the ravaged
back roads with his ginger head shrouded in cloth to keep out dust and sunburn,
and to evade traffic police while driving under the influence of yabba. His tourist
activities included shooting off multiple rounds on an AK47, exploding a
live cow with a grenade launcher for a mere hundred bucks. He cut short his trip and returned to Thailand because
the constant drug use caused him to lose touch with reality like a modern-day
Kurtz. Perhaps guidebooks ought to include an ethics section, “The Unethical Traveler’s
Moral Guide to South East Asia".
At the Cambodian border, a van waits to collect passengers arriving
by bus from Bangkok
to take them to Siem Reap. The driver’s first announcement is that
“everywhere in Cambodia
is a toilet". Passengers are instructed to pee on the road and to never leave the
beaten path because of landmines. The roads inside the border jar my initial
Cambodia has one
of the most pathetic road systems in Asia,
with many of the country’s so-called national highways in a horrendous state of
repair; most have not been maintained since before the Vietnam War. Numerous
bridges have foot-wide gaps between land and bridge; the construction is
little more then a few shifting, wooden planks. Much of a journey is spent off-roading
in paddy fields and ditches to avoid potholes and downed bridges. At one point,
all dust-coated passengers unload to push the van out of its lodging in a foot
of sand of one of the “short-cuts”. The passing countryside is a patchwork of
symmetric rice paddies and huts on stilts, dotted intermittently with Cambodia’s
signature sugar palms.
Walking down a busy street in Siem Reap in the heat of the
day, I am nearly run down by a pig on a motorbike. The live pig is strapped horizontally across
the seat, hooves waggling in the air between the driver and his wife. The
smells of dust and car exhaust, mix with that of street meat are what I’m subjected to as I cross the
bridge over the almost dried up river.
The contrast between the beauty and brutality of Cambodia
divides one’s feelings as a traveler. In a ten-minute interval, I am approached by
three different amputees on crutches. A physically mutilated minority is the
legacy of land mines with an estimated 4 to 6 million dotted about the
countryside, buried in rice fields and roadsides claiming about 75 victims per
month – weapons against peace that recognize no ceasefire. Cambodian history
for the past three decades has been one of violence and suffering from both
internal and external forces. Although the political and economic situations
still lack stability, conditions are improving.
The Angkor temples are one of the main traveler attractions
Over one hundred temples make up the remains of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 14th centuries. Angkor Wat rates as one of the foremost
architectural wonders of the world. "For thirty years, war and communism removed
from the traveler’s map. Coupled with its remote location and the popularity of
its sister countries, Angkor has been
preserved from the destruction of mass tourism retaining an untouched quality
that is one of its greatest appeals," I read in Lonely Planet. The
jungle has already reclaimed many of the temples with tangled vines and mammoth
fig trees fisting their roots into sculptured walls and giant Buddha faces. One
is given the experience of being the first explorer to discover this place,
stepping back in time a thousand years.
After several days in Siem Reap, I decide to visit Phnom Penh. The boat is the preferred mode of transport,
but due to the dry season, the water levels were too low to keep boats afloat.
The trip takes eight hours of lurching and teeth gnashing in forty-five
degree heat with no air conditioning. The van progresses at little more than
twenty kilometers per hour. The “tourist attractions” in and around Phnom Penh, as I read in my guide, are not for
the squeamish: The Museum of Genocide and the Killing Fields of Choeung
In 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces took
over a high school and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21).
It soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1978, more than 17,000 Cambodian
men, women and children were held and tortured here by the Khmer Rouge. They
were then transported to the Killing Fields and buried or bludgeoned to death
if they were still alive before being dumped in mass graves. Each prisoner that
passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The
museum displays include room after room of these photographs from floor to
ceiling, torture rooms, holding rooms. The ordinariness of the place makes
it more eerie: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy
playing areas, rusted beds where prisoners were chained, instruments of torture
and wall after wall of black and white portraits conjure up images of humanity
at its worst.
The Killing Fields are outside the city in a field that was
once an orchard. The remains of almost nine thousand people, many naked, bound
and blindfolded were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves. Forty-three of the 129
communal graves were left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are
scattered around the empty pits. Over
8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age are visible behind the clear glass panels
of the 5-story Memorial Stupa which was erected in 1988 on the field.
While I walked around the site, made up of
many pits with occasional signs, I noticed life around me. A
stone’s throw away, a man was washing his cattle in a pond. Two little boys
were running around the pits, racing each other barefoot wearing nothing more
than shorts, still wet from swimming in the nearby pond. They had caught a fish and wanted to sell it
to me. The Killing Fields are now just
another stretch of dried up grass.
The children playing in the Killing
Fields are a reminder of Cambodia’s
resilience and ability to heal. A police
officer tried to sell me his badge for three dollars on the steps of Angkor Wat. He said it would make a souvenir of Cambodia. This
is a country full of dichotomies: a high school converted to a torture prison,
a police badge that is a souvenir, rice patties with land mines, smiling faces
with missing limbs, a crumbling kingdom evidence of a once powerful empire. I
passed on the badge, but bought the T-shirt.
Rebekah Pothaar is a writer and editor for ChinaTravel.net. She lives in Shanghai.