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Asia » Cambodia » North » Siem Reap
May 20th 2006
Published: July 29th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

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The bumpy road

A short overland trip from Siem Reap to Bangkok, through a border crossing defining two different worlds in terms of modern development.

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Siem Reap
The one-legged teenager pondered the huge piles of rusty anti-personnel mines with the feigned disinterest common to those his age - I almost expected a drawled "whaaatever". Then he handed me one of the mines and said, with something approaching glee "Press here". It should have been obvious what would happen but when we heard the loud 'CLICK' of the internal detonator we all jumped nonetheless. He laughed, with something of a developing swagger. He would be a man soon, an Asian man, from a poor, underdeveloped country. A one-legged man.

The biggest thing that struck me about all these deadly landmines was just how simple they were. But for a few bureaucratic hurdles best circumvented by those with better connections, I think my immediate friends and I could have a landmine factory setup and running in a matter of a few weeks - certainly no more than a matter of a few months. And when one considers economic tragedies surely that of Cambodia must be near the top - it only costs $5 to buy and lay one of these landmines, but $500 to clear each one. The excellent landmine museum and relief fund had reserved a small area of forest
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Angkor Thom, Siem Reap
to demonstrate to us just how difficult these murderous devices are to see. In the dense tropical foliation of Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos you haven't a hope - even as a trained local if you enter a mined area you are going to struggle to spot the mines.

Of course they weren't all simple. Many of the American varieties (for example) were particularly sophisticated, designed to disable advancing troops by first launching themselves into the air when triggered, then firing a barrage of deadly steel at the advancing enemy, aiming to injure thirty or forty at a time. And of course in slaughter economics is again to the fore - an injured enemy is far better than a dead enemy. Wounded personnel have to be retrieved from the battlefield, given medical care and transported away from the front - all taking up valuable resources that would be unnecessary if the victims had been killed outright. Hence the clever designs with smaller directed charges aimed at merely removing a limb or two rather than indiscriminately reducing the careless and unlucky to scattered lumps of offal.

And here I must be careful, working in a graphics software industry a portion
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Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
of which inevitably helps to build more efficient and deadly weapons more efficiently. I remember seeing the newsletter from a small Western company that makes battlefield simulation software. The twenty or so employees were gathered on the sunny steps of their attractive modern office building for a group photo, all smiling and happy. It made me wonder - quite simply their software is used to help to train people to kill other people more effectively. I wondered if they ever thought about this. I guess the rationale would be that we are helping our countries defend themselves and perhaps there is something in that argument. But these days many believe we are also helping our countries to proactively defend themselves - before the other side has even attacked - as if they were ever able to effectively attack us unless we armed them first. And therein lies perhaps the greatest con, our greatest collective denial - for these days we all pretty much know that our great weapons manufacturers quietly sell those weapons to any and almost every murderous regime that would like them - often using our tax money to make the deal flow more smoothly. I don't think
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Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
this is all that controversial a statement for those of my generation, those who remember Ollie North, Don in Baghdad, Matrix Churchill, Sheffield's very own supergun and of course Britain's Eddie the Eagle of arms sales - Mark Thatcher. These days most seem to accept a significant proportion of our arms secretly, and not so secretly, reaches very nasty characters - this list of arms bought by countries between 1975 and 2005 from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute makes interesting reading. Whilst, as one would expect, recorded arms sales follow the patterns established by government rhetoric - Israel recieves most of its arms from the US, the Axis of Evil receives most of its arms from Russia, there are recorded anomalies - for example Iraq's list of recorded imports is quite illuminating.

I once asked a world-weary NGO employee what he thought about those who wouldn't personally hurt a fly, yet choose to work in the arms industry. His opinion was that most people simply don't consider it - they don't think that the weapons they make will ever be used by any other than their own governments ... but he was fairly sure that the salespeople and the CEOs knew different.

Enough hypocrisy - back to the mines.

The area around Siem Reap, and in particular the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temple complexes are surrounded by forests - almost jungle. In fact in many places the large fig trees have intruded into the ruins, clasping and crushing the thickest of stone walls with their massive roots - no surprise that the area was an ideal location for the first Tomb Raider movie. In a particularly obvious bit of corruption, management of the temples, which receive several hundred thousand visitors per year, with a three day ticket price of $40, has been passed on by the government to a private company, which is clearly reaping huge profits. No I've no proof, but I'd be very interested to know the exact ownership of that company. Well given the millions they make every year purely from entry fees, let alone the bribes/protection money taken from cafes, hawkers, stall owners, rickshaw and taxi drivers within the temple complex, they at least have sealed roads. But no toilets. The temple complex is massive, encompassing a 25km radius. People are everywhere. And there are no toilets. You can't nip off into the forest to squat behind a tree because it may be mined. Clearly the chances are with all these
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Angkor Wat
people there isn't a great deal of risk, but is it a risk you would take? Certainly it caused Kim great problems, which at least gave me a chance to rest from the oppressive and sweltering heat.

Like India, many backpackers love Cambodia and it is easy to see why. It is a place with an edge, where you can feel like you are doing something a bit different, but the people themselves are, of course, wonderfully friendly in their dejection, poverty and despair. I witnessed many young western women surrounded by Cambodian children, playing and apparently teaching, certainly doing some good and offering a human interaction that these kids will miss when they are turned to begging. But after witnessing several of these 'Out of Africa' type scenes I began to wonder if someone was selling a package deal. Why in Cambodia particularly? For myself, after witnessing the poverty and man-eat-man desperation of everyday life in India I found it hard to stomach the South East Asian variety - perhaps a little less brutal but desperately harsh nonetheless. I did what best I could and ignored it, but I could never get away from a surreal sense we
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were in a kind of real-life Disneyworld.

Except for the fact that storing hams and salamis in tropical temperatures with inadequate refrigeration is something of a challenge, Siem Reap is a gastronomic paradise with a variety and quality of restaurants better than we had witnessed almost anywhere. Chefs and restauranters from around the world appear to have fallen in love with the place, or perhaps run away to forget the blackened oaths of unfair and opportunistic critics back home - something of a Michelin Star Foreign Legion. And of course boutique hotels abound, catering for the more discerning amongst the super-rich that regularly traipse to the area for a bit of culture; along with the large Butlin's holiday camp type affairs along the airport road, with the obligatory mega-brothel next door, all filled with Japanese and Korean tourists on package deals. Siem Reap appears to be the cultural Blackpool of South East Asia.

But, with only a few days left on our fourteen month holiday, we decided we no longer want to try to beat them. Let’s join them.

We were aided in this decision by the rather rude welcome to the friendly country of wide smiles
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Angkor Wat
and missing limbs. We exited the understandably small airport and went straight to the taxi desk - after all, it was only about three feet beyond the sliding doors. We paid the fixed fee of five dollars and a smartly-dressed gent arrived and took us to his smart taxi - a newish Toyota Camry - actually worth more than any car I have ever owned. He asked where to and we said the name of a restaurant which we'd already told the man on the airport desk. Driving into town the driver chatted amiably but as we neared the centre he became increasingly pushy, wanting us to hire him to tour around the temples for the next few days. When we refused he said 'which hotel'. We said truthfully we didn't have a hotel and just wanted to be taken to the restaurant, just beyond the town centre. He claimed not to know where it was but we had a guidebook with a map and so directed him. Running out of options and realising he wasn't going to get any commission he simply stopped the car and said get out. Unsurprisingly we refused. To cut a long story short a
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battle of around thirty minutes ensued, with a lot of shouting, swearing and name calling. After taking what removable items from his car I could into my possession he said he would get the police. I called his bluff, feeling quite confident the police would not be particularly interested, and so we went to the police station. Sadly of course the police couldn't speak English but he explained his predicament, with great displays of injured innocence. When (I assume) it got to the part where he explained I had stolen his in car cigarette lighter and his dashboard pot pourri the two policeman started laughing. Clearly they told him to take us where we wanted to go (which was only a few hundred yards away) as he very begrudgingly did.

We learned later from Tales Of Asia, an indispensable read for any independent traveler to Cambodia, that in fact this driver would earn nothing of our five dollars - that goes to government mafia who have Siem Reap nicely stitched up. He works for the chance to gain commission from the hotel (as we had found all to common in Northern India) or by being smart enough to lure passengers into
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hiring his services another time. Learning this we felt a bit sorry for him, but logic dictates that, realising he wasn't going to get any money out of us, his best course of action would have been to take us to our destination anyway, in the hope that perhaps we might relent or he could give us a card. As it was he ruined any chance of future business through pure churlishness. And he nearly lost his bosses cigarette lighter.

Nonetheless our adrenalin was pumping somewhat from the experience and Cambodia suddenly didn't seem a very friendly place. The simplest course of action was to throw money at the problem. Our guidebook had an unusually strong recommendation for a nearby hotel (Bopha Angkor) so I thought I'd take a look. I wasn't disappointed, and after a bit of negotiation, aided by a misunderstanding which led me to hold out for a bigger discount than I'd really needed, we were installed in a room from heaven.

Our three days in Siem Reap were largely spent temple gazing until frankly we were sick of it. Our rickshaw driver behaved himself, and had many long conversations with Kim whilst I was out
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taking photos, shedding light on the life of the locals. We took advantage of his offers to buy amenities such as water and cold drinks, getting better deals than we could ourselves but giving him a chance to earn a little extra, but to be honest at this stage of the trip I certainly had seen enough poverty so I just turned my eyes away and tried to take some interesting photos of grey stone slabs in hazy overcast weather.

Photographically I found Angkor Wat something of a nightmare. Clearly you need people in your shots, at the very least to add colour, but I really couldn't be bothered to ask the many orange-robed monks to pose for me. The one time I did, the monk's visage transformed from serene, placid and holy to inane grinning reminiscent of Homer in a doughnut factory. I also approached a young hawker, looking thoroughly miserable, her head leaning against the stone and her eyes starting blankly at the miserable future that awaits her. It would have been a powerful picture but as soon as I asked her if it was ok an intense shyness overcame her, her face oscillating between grinning coyness
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and existential despair each time I raised and lowered the camera. Real photographers describe the lengths they go to make friends with their subjects, leaving the camera behind until they become an accepted part of the group so that they are then able to capture open and natural images. This wasn't one of those occasions.

We were still perplexed as to how we would make it back to Bangkok. I checked the Bangkok Airways site everyday but the short flight back never dropped below a minimum of $150 per seat plus taxes and nor did it rise above it, so clearly the planes weren't full. This is more than three times what we paid from Kuala Lumpur, which is three times the distance away. A well known guidebook describes that many locals believe a well known airline has bribed the Cambodian government to keep the road to the border in a dreadful state. Our situation was compounded by the fact that tourist bus services are notoriously unreliable, and scams are common. In the end we booked an air conditioned taxi to the border for $40. The trip was very quick, but the road was terrible - equivalent to many
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Angkor Thom
in Africa although not as bad as Mongolia. Our driver careered down the middle of the road at 70mph plus, scattering rickshaws and cattle to the sides, until inevitably one of his tyres gave out. After a ten minute break whilst he changed it we continued and were soon at the border. Although the border town was clearly an unpleasant place to be it wasn't as bad as we had been led to believe, and crossing over was uneventful. Before our fourth step in Thailand we had been approached by a tout offering a minivan trip to Bangkok for less than 10gbp each. We said ok and were led to an air-conditioned, leather-seated, luxury minivan with two other Brits who were teaching English in Bangkok and had hired the van to do a border run. With new, paved, slick and superfast roads we were back in Bangkok in no time.

Photographers


It wasn't just me that struggled to get decent pictures of Angkor Wat - many had tried and failed. To my mind two stood out particularly:

John McDermott

McDermott has an excellent gallery in Siem Reap and his photos adorn many walls and postcards. He has made to
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my mind the obvious but brilliant choice to shoot using infra-red film, which works particularly well in these temples. My favourites include:

The Causeway
Twisted Tree
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Steve McCurry
National Geographic legend Steve McCurry seems to have covered everywhere in Asia and Angkor is no exception.

That's the way to do it ...

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Oh, there's just too many.




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Phnom Bakeng
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Phnom Bakeng
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Phnom Bakeng (she survived with only her ego bruised).
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Ta Phrom

Scene of the first Tomb Raider movie



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