telling Cambodian tales
Our time in Cambodia revolved around interactions with people. We arrived in the country from Bangkok having lost one of our credit cards (luckily we have two) at Bangkok Airport, and feeling pretty upset and concerned about what to do next. After calling the bank and resolving the issue pretty quickly, I realised soon after that it was a ridiculously trivial situation and one that had a simple resolution.
Unlike much of Cambodia’s history, there are no easy stories to tell or simple resolutions to find – its long history comprises primarily of suffering and devastation. Our journey through Cambodia really highlighted this stark comparison – between what you think pain is, and what real pain really looks like.
The suffering the population experienced has traversed the wars, the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime continues to the present day. Today it takes the form of inequality and unfairness, across multiple strata. The one that we noticed the most was the inequality between our lives and theirs, and our first stop in Cambodia, Siem Reap, truly reflected that. Every shop, stall and restaurant in the city seemed to be aimed at tourists – all priced in dollars and selling all kinds of Western food and typical souvenirs at cheap prices.
There’s something very sad about Siem Reap’s infrastructure. Known for its proximity to the abandoned temple city of Angkor Wat, tourists (including us) indulge in the city’s foods and 50 cent beer, but we do not share this luxury life with the local people, and instead there lies a vast crevice between us, one that is felt more severely when exchanged in a bartar over clothing or when ordering food.
Despite this, it always struck me how friendly the people were. Of course, it is often the case in a tourist town when you are the tourist, but we both felt that their kindness ran deeper than just a welcoming smile, they wanted to tell us about the country and share tales of corruption and shame from both sides of the world.
As we walked through the vast and impressive temples of Angkor Wat we had this feeling of obscenity about our position. We are forever chastising the 1%, aka the superrich, of our country for their behaviour and unfair distribution, and then we visit a much poorer country and use it as a playground ourselves. Thankfully, the local people of the region access the temple for free for religious purposes, as it is still one of the most spiritual destinations in the area, while our $30 US goes directly to the Government (sadly not to the people, though).
Everyone we asked in Cambodia said that, in fact, they liked having tourists in their country, but I couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t the ideal scenario. It seems to me that they would much rather switch places with us and be able to travel the world without a care any day of the week – surely we are foolish if we think otherwise? Of course, some people are happy, but like anywhere, many people are not happy with their lot, particularly when have much less freedom with which change the course of their lives.
This was only reinforced by our visits to the War Museum, the Killing Fields and the S-21 prison in Phomn Penh. At the War Museum in Siem Reap we met “The Cat”, a man who had been forced into war as a young boy after finding his entire family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and had nearly died 13 times.
He had been severely injured by landmines (a weapon that still causes 3-4 deaths a month in Cambodia), gun shot wounds and even hornet stings. Somehow he survived, but he was sad. He was coping, not thriving. He has been supported by charities and individuals from around the world for his medical treatment, but you could tell he felt let down by the world. Destroyed by the past and uncertain about the future. I couldn’t help but cry for him, he kept saying that we (Stephen and I) are heaven while he is in hell, and I think that sums it up. His survival doesn’t mean he has transcended hell, he certainly doesn’t feel like he is heaven.
The two physical symbols of the devastating period of the Khmer Rouge – S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields just outside of Phomn Penh – have a cruel stillness about them that make you feel cold, even in the 30-degree heat. Over 20,000 people were killed at the Killing Fields, a site that was once a Chinese burial ground, and bones, clothes and other remnants of the people who were hit on the head and pushed into mass graves half dead are still rising to the surface to this day. It’s an unbearable place but is an important place, with a huge memorial in the centre housing the bones they have recovered.
Only seven prisoners survived S-21 prison in Phomn Penh, a former school and the site of torture and death during the Khmer Rouge, the place where 12,000 Cambodians were killed. The museum includes an audio guide, like the Killing Fields memorial, so you can hear stories from the guards who worked there. It’s a chilling place, but the Cambodian people and survivors of those torturous years have opened it up in the right way to visitors to ensure we do not forget the past.
Photographs of men, women and children, each with their own forgotten story, line the old cell blocks and the tales of horrific and archaic torture are relayed, including the water boarding technique which the US and many other countries have used in torture, I guess we really don’t learn from the past.
These are stark reminders to me at how precious life is, and how easy it is to lose site of humanity. We were luckily enough to meet one of the seven survivors at the prison, he was selling his book, which we bought to continue to remind ourselves of the horror but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it yet.
We also took a tour of a floating market just outside Siem Reap, which is usually a dry road in the dry season. The spectacularly resourceful life people lead in order to navigate the town when it is underwater is a fascinating site, and we paid to take a smaller boat out through the floating forest. The village for me was an example of human resilience and resourcefulness, a belief in their permanence even when other greater things threaten that.
When we arrived in Phomn Penh we were at first disappointed with its look and feel. But we couldn’t have been more wrong about the beauty of this city. On the outside it’s a busy, noisy and ugly city, but dig a little deeper and you discover the city’s soul.
One of the places that Phomn Penh truly comes alive is at the square outside the palace. Young families gather on the grass on picnic blankets, enjoying food and soft drinks together. Located just outside the high palace walls, they are on the peripheries of their own country’s elite, but they are in awe of what it represents and its compelling beauty. After speaking to a few of the young visitors who spoke English, we learned that people from the villages nearby visit the palace and the city regularly, almost like a pilgrimage. They drive miles by motorbike to the city to spend the day around the palace walls, rarely paying the fee to get in.
While I couldn’t help but feel that same inequality bear down again on us all from the thick golden gates of the palace, but at the same time there was an undeniable sense of hope coming from the people of the city. They are a very young population and they are looking to the future, they want the best for their country like we all do.
Our final destination in Cambodia was to the beach region of Sihanoukville, and the smaller beach of Otres Beach. Like Phomn Penh, Sihanoukville isn’t a pretty picture on a first glance, but just a few miles outside of the city you have the pretty site of Otres Beach and the idyllic nearby islands.
We stayed in a beautiful guest house, that seemed to be one of the few open in the low season, Palm Boutique. It had every amenity you could imagine, but it was surrounded by construction sites – from new restaurants and boutique hotels, to larger hotels on the beach front.
We met some great guys from Austria and Germany at the hotel, and took a boat trip out to the islands for some unassuming beach fun and snorkelling.
We’d been eating local food for our entire trip, but it was there that we relented a little bit and tried the local Cambodian pizza – delicious! Only our guilt about the inequality that exists kept resurfacing, enhanced by the number of extremely welcoming and friendly Cambodian people.
We always talked to people, the sellers on the beach and the owners of the restaurants, as much as we could. So many people lead a relentlessly hard life, even in beautiful places. Work is scarce and labouring on one of the new hotels or selling sunglasses on the beach are your two main career choices, and both are precarious and tough.
We left Cambodia with a true love for the people – their strength, resourcefulness and resounding humanity as they try to deal with their tangible past. A people I would love to get to know better.