Thursday, 21 February 2013

Chinese New Year in Cambodia

Most countries have a character who seems to personify the nation. Clearly for the UK it's Kate Middleton, or maybe Sid Vicious; for America: Obama or perhaps Ronald MacDonald; France: Edith Piaff or Coco Chanel and for Cambodia it's Sihanouk. He died a month ago after looming large over Cambodian affairs for half a century.

Sihanouk grew up under French colonial rule and (like Pol Pot) studied in France. The French appointed him king at the age of 18 in 1941 and he then manoeuvred Cambodia out of French rule. He abdicated to allow himself to stand for election and was Prime Minister for a decade. Ousted, he returned to power several times including under the Khmer Rouge. Flamboyant and glamorous he also made films and wrote songs. In fact, according to the taxi driver who drove us from the airport, there was nothing he couldn't do.

This taxi driver clearly loved him and talked about how the streets had been lined by the people a few weeks earlier for his funeral. Everywhere we went in Phnom Penh, there were huge pictures of him wreathed with black ribbon and flowers.

The Royal Palace

Beautiful murals at the royal palace

A big part of the tourist trail in Cambodia, morbidly, is visiting sites which commemorate the genocide which took place under Pol Pot (or Brother number one) and the Khmer Rouge from 1976-1979. These atrocities somehow seem more poignant because they are so recent, in my lifetime.

Like many revolutionary movements the Khmer Rouge wanted to strip society back to basics, destroy and re-build. Peasants, the uneducated, the poor were good. Intellectuals, those with soft hands, rank and money were bad and they were executed. Meanwhile the good peasants and people from the corrupt cities worked and starved on farms, while the food they grew was exported to pay for the civil war. Figures vary but it is said the population decreased from 8 million to 5 million in three years.

Eventually neighbouring, also Communist, Vietnam invaded, irritated by Cambodian violence spilling over the boarder. All the politics of this region are mixed up with the ruling powers interfering. First France and Britain and later America and China. Cambodia had got on America's bad side pre-Khmer Rouge when Sihanouk supported Uncle Ho in Communist northern Vietnam against nasty (but American supported) Diem in Southern Vietnam.

It's uncomfortable tourism, both because of the subject matter, but also because you can't help but question whether mass graves should be visited by tourists. The killing fields are one of many killing fields all over Cambodia. You walk round with an extremely good audio guide. It ends by saying that they want these atrocities remembered, for the people who suffered and died and also because they didn't think it could happen to them. Genocide can happen anywhere, remember and beware, was the message.

As you walk in you're greeted by a shrine to the victims. Glass cases show skulls and bones piled high. The voice over points out you can see the dents in the skulls where the victims were struck. They didn't want to waste bullets so people were killed with axes, farming tools, even the razor sharp leaves from the trees. You walk around and see the pits were bodies were discovered. When the weather has been wet sometimes the bones still rise to the surface. There are glass cases with fragments of the victims' clothes.

Most appallingly you are directed to a tree next to a pit. When the site was found fragments of flesh and bone covered the tree's bark. The soldiers had swung babies into the tree to kill them and then thrown them into the pit, alongside their mothers.

When someone was denounced, or tortured into a confession the whole family would be killed so there would be no come back. Everything: torture, confession, killing was precisely documented. People were sometimes photographed before and after a torture session. Feeling queasy? Me too. But I agree it's better not to close your eyes. The least we can do is remember.

Schools were shut down under the Khmer Rouge. They were anti education. Teachers were killed. Pol Pot didn't manage to pass his degree, perhaps that's why, though he and several of the other leaders had been teachers.

One school became a prison. A place where people were tortured until they 'confessed' and then sent to the killing fields. Or just killed there. It looks just like the other schools you see in Cambodia. There are still blackboards on the walls. It is horrific. Even writing this now I feel sick at the memory.

The most horrible thing is that Pol Pot was never brought to justice. Even after the Vietnamese had invaded in 1979 and deposed them the Khmer Rouge escaped, fighting back. They, bizarrely, continued to be recognised by the UN and to have a seat at their headquarters in New York. The politics of power in the region allowed appalling things to happen to the people of Cambodia.

Despite the recent horror both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in particular are friendly places to visit. I'd heard bad things about tourism in Siem Reap. That tourist would be hassled a lot by beggars and postcard sellers but they've clearly had a clean up as we were hardly bothered at all.

Phnom Penh lies along a smelly river which turns into a huge lake, Tonle Sap, which you can boat up to reach Siem Reap. We decided to bus it instead as it takes five hours instead of seven plus, depending on tides. The word on tripadvisor is that the boat is overcrowded, dangerous, the view uninteresting and that the boats break down very regularly. I think the bus would have been great except I was suffering from food poisoning, felt too sick to read and was praying for the next toilet stop. Occupational hazard for the traveller in Asia.

The mini-van driver didn't mess around. He drove FAST, his indicators flashing all the time ready for him to swerve out and overtake. About three quarters of the way through our journey while we were driving along FAST there was a sharper than usual swerve, a sickly bang and bump and the two backpacker girls in sitting in the two front seats squealed and gasped and stayed with their hands over their mouths for the next five minutes. The driver didn't slow down. He pulled his mobile out a few minutes later and called someone. We kept up our pace. Another five minutes down the road he pulled over. A young monk walked up. The driver rolled down the window, handed the monk a roll of notes, wound up the window again and drove on. That must be how much killing a dog costs God.

Siem Reap is all about temples. Like Bagan in Burma it's a small area with a lot of very old temples. It was built in a similar era - 10th - 13th century. Unlike those in Bagan these have been far more sensitively restored so you feel your are looking at something old rather than something that got re-painted and re-built last year. (Which those in Bagan and other place in Burma often have.)

When the area was 'discovered' in the 1860's (by discovered I mean brought to international attention by a French explorer, the Cambodians, of course knew, the temples were there, and even other western explorers did) it had been eaten by the jungle except the enormous Angkor Wat which had been renovated in the 16th century and was still a working monastery.

We hired bikes and cycled around them. They are amazing. Huge, crumbling, enormous faces looming over you out of the jungle. They feel other worldly.

The downside, of course, to anything that wonderful is that there are lots of other people there enjoying them too. And lots of them are Japanese and Chinese in large tour groups together standing just in the way of where ever it is you're going. But it didn't spoil it for me.

I love watching disgruntled teenaged tourists being dragged around the sites. I heard one stroppy French teenager saying in a very put out way 'il y a du monde!' at Angkor Wat and another slightly younger, floppy draggy boy moaning 'not another temple' to his parents.

And I hear you all saying 'not another holiday!' That's right. Another one and I ain't done yet.  Three weeks until we're off skiing in Japan. Yipee!

The hoards arrive at Angkor Wat

Ta Prom, the roots of trees have eaten into the walls of the temple and it would be dangerous to remove them

These are our feet at the  end of a day of temple, cycling and dust

And this is what we did about it (after washing)