Published: March 13th 2013March 13th 2013
After the horrors of S21 and the killing fields, I took a bus trip up to Siem Reap with the aim of visiting the Angkor Wat temples. As the bus got further away from the city, the places we went past got visibly poorer until we got to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a relatively well off town thanks to the temples. It receives over a million tourists per year, so there are far more job opportunities for the locals. There were the usual tuk tuk drivers trying to sell you everything (marijuana, meth, cocaine, women...and lastly, a simple ride) and beggars, but nevertheless, it was a pleasant town.
I spent three days around the temples. There are so many spread over such a large area that 3 days is needed. I hired a tuk tuk driver for a couple of days and took the free hotel bike for a nice cycle around on the third day. The temples themselves are around half an hour away outside the town set amongst the forest, so it's a pleasant ride into the site itself. As for the temples, they’re simply amazing. It wasn’t just the sheer number of them but
the intricate details, the sizes and the gothic design that kept my interest for three days. The Khmer Empire was the most powerful in Southeast Asia at the time and had amassed vast amounts of wealth.This is evident in the huge structures and the large scale irrigation channels which fed the crops growing around the city. I think, after the Great Wall of China, it’s probably the most impressive man made ancient structure I’ve ever seen.
The markets in Siem Reap are less busy than those in Thailand or India but still good. I spent a day relaxing around town and another day taking a cycling tour of the surrounding villages. The thing I notice about the Cambodians most, apart from their poverty, is their friendliness. I’ve had time to reflect on my trip so far, but they’re probably my favorite people as they’re always so humble and so hospitable.
I also went to see Dr Beat Richner’s “Beatocello” concert in his hospital in Siem Reap. I’d occasionally donated to his Kantha Bopha hospitals foundation so I was keen to find out more. He is a Swiss pediatrician who had worked in Cambodia in
the 70s and had to flee when Khmer Rouge came along. He returned in early 90s and was so distraught at what he saw; he decided to raise money himself to build a hospital. People thought he was crazy, but 20 years on, his latest hospital in Siem Reap is his 6th
, in 20 years he has raised almost $400m and 90 percent of these are from private individuals (mostly Swiss) and the foundation is the only functioning health system in Cambodia. Remarkable man who’s hospitals provides free treatment to Cambodian kids and pregnant women.
He is an excellent cello player and the concert was enjoyable, but of course the whole thing was about hearing the stories.The Khmer Rouge legacy continues in many ways even three decades later. 65% of the population is under 30 thanks to the killings, 60% of the population are infected with TB thanks to the prisons and labour camps set up by the Khmer Rouge (was rare previously),malaria and dengue fever epidemics break out regularly and affect the children the most. The foundation hospitals have treated some 17 million children in 20 years, 10% with life threatening or paralyzing conditions, so I don’t think anyone can argue with how much one man’s vision helped to protect a country‘s future. At one point, he stopped playing, pointing a finger at the Chinese ambassador who was sitting in the front row, and said “I want to ask these countries who brought war to Cambodia why they don’t pay their fair share to rebuild the health system.” It was a reference to the part China played in the 70s when they bought most of the rice slave labour produced and paid for it with weapons that the regime used to kill them. It wasn’t only China of course. America bombed Cambodia to kill fleeing Vietnamese, and France, Britain and Germany all recognized Khmer Rouge as the official government even through their mass killings and did nothing to stop it. I’m sure the American ambassador would have got a bigger bashing.
But, as is the case with almost everywhere you turn in Cambodia, there is a tragic story. I have been told that things are vastly improved from even 10 years ago, but nowhere near enough as far as I can see.