A week in Cambodia

Trip Start Aug 19, 2006
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Trip End Sep 01, 2007


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Friday, October 20, 2006

Hurrah for multi-culturalism! Because Malaysia is full of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, we get all their religious holidays plus the commercial Christian ones. The end of Ramadan and the Hindu light festival fell within one week so it was a good opportunity for Marta to take a few days off and scamper off to the true Asia with me. We flew AirAsia, the very successful local budget airline, out to Phnom Pehn (PP), Cambodia's capital and got a taxi to our hotel of the next few days.

PP is not a major attraction, the temples near Seam Reap are, so it's a nice mix of locals going around doing their daily business, the occasional tourist plus quite a lot of horny expats. It was clear from the few bars we visited that the combination of an older foreign man and a young local girl was quite normal. There's some of that, and also a lot of prostitution going on. Scarily enough that sometimes involves small children, though there are now efforts to put an end to this, like the organisation of taxi drivers who promise to report any suspicious behaviour. Once in a restaurant we saw an older Western man dining with a young local girl, and the first thought to cross our minds was to assume he's messing around with her... which is in fact an embarrassing knee-jerk reaction, as many locally-married expats will have children or adopted kids, and which sane pedophile would go take a kid out to eat in a nice restaurant?

There aren't many sights in town - there's a large temple on a hill, the royal palace with its own temple, two popular markets (the fantastic Art Deco central market and the ramshackle-but-oh-so-cheap Russian market) and the Killing Fields memorial out of town. The city reminded me a lot of Vietnam - the same French architectural and food (fresh baguettes!) influence, a grid pattern of roads, many more scooters than cars and hot, hot, hot. The tatty Cambodian currency (the riel) is only used for small payments and is nearly completely replaced by the US dollar, which is also the currency of choice rolling out of the ATMs.

We spent plenty of time at the markets harvesting presents for you all, getting me gear (several trousers and shirts, and a North Face bag that broke the same day, all for a few dollars) and of course a krama, the red shawl popular with the Khmer Rouge and also very useful against dusty rickshaw rides and against the hot sun in your neck.

We used a taxi to get out to the Killing Fields memorial - a very bumpy 30 minute ride along very dusty roads... glad we didn't take a rickshaw. This is the site of the prison and execution area used by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. They managed to kill up to one million people in the 5 years they were in power, and some 60,000 of those were brought here to die. Trucks would arrive, music would be switched on to drown the screaming, and the prisoners would be killed using axes, hammers, agricultural tools etc, no bullets were wasted on them. Some were just buried alive, with chemicals dumped on top to make sure they wouldn't survive. The memorial consists of a stupa (Buddhist tower) filled with hundreds of skulls and bones found at the site. Wandering around, there's not much left of the few buildings that stood here, but the area is dotted with craters where bodies have been removed. After 30 years, many bodies still lie buried at the swampy northern end of the area, and the tattered clothes of the prisoners still can be seen in the ground.

The same day we visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that had been used as a prison for torture under Khmer Rouge rule. Of the thousands of people that were arrested and brought here, only 12 survived. The old classrooms were partitioned into small cells, and barbed wire nets prevented prisoners committing suicide by jumping from the balconies. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were avid administrators and kept photos and files of most people passing through, and the hundreds of photos of men, women and young children were used to great effect.

Most Cambodians around nowadays were born after the terror of the 1970s and there's not too much else to remind you of it - they seem have to have their sights set firmly on the future (despite living in one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world).

In the evening, we took a rickshaw out to see a theatre performance with traditional Cambonian dance and music. The play was based on a story of the Buddhist version of the bible involving gods and demons, but basically a story of lost love, travel, war and victory like any soap story. The music, essentially religious temple music, is a strange pleasant stream of plonkity-plonk kind of sounds made with xylophones and metal instruments, with a male and female voice doing all the singing for the mute actors. The actors offered food and burnt joss sticks at the stage altar before starting the show. In very elegant costumes and with very precise hand and facial gestures, they performed a mix of dance, theatre, martial arts and shadow figures (like in Bali and Thailand) for little over an hour. As the theatre tries to get the community involved in these cultural expressions that were nearly wiped out in the Khmer Rouge period, they let in a dozen neighbourhood children who at first sat grinning and wide-eyed around us, but later all nodding off and falling asleep as the play progressed.
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