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Published: February 23rd 2013
Bringing us right up to the two month travelling mark was our next stop for 5 nights: the Kingdom of Cambodia. Compared with our other destinations, we had left fairly little time to see Cambodia and this was due not simply to it's limited expanse and places of interest but also to the impression we had of it. Of course, you can't judge a place (especially an entire country) on the opinions offered by others but you can form some pretty good preconceptions and to be honest, we all felt a little unenthusiastic and for the first time (apart from the spider) quite scared.
Cambodia was indeed one of the most unnerving places I have been to and if three white girls rambling along the street with rucksacks and no clue where to go didn't draw unwelcome attention then I don't know what would. The unenthusiasm though was completely off. It wasn't the funnest place we have been to, it wasn't particularly relaxing and it certainly wasn't the prettiest but its gritty culture and history left the deepest impact on me and my perspective out of all the places we have visited. I left with a twinging guilt at how
little regard I had given to a country with such a devastating history of unprovoked brutality. I left with greater respect and a want to know more.
We arrived in Phnom Penh on Tuesday 5th February and were dropped right into the centre of the chaos. Gone were the (relatively) clean, built up streets of Vietnam and in their place appeared dusty roads littered with food, an array of unsavoury lingering smells and swarms of painfully thin and grubby children begging for dollars. The worst thing about this was the fact that the begging seemed not to be a choice but a need. Cambodia is without doubt the poorest and most deprived country I have ever been to. The poverty is not concealed in the shacks of a shady back alleyway but open and before your eyes at every turn as disabled beggars drag their body weight along the dirty floor in the hope you will spare them a little change. And why not? I know that there are places of greater suffering, there are countries a great deal poorer, but a dollar, whether they use it for food or not at least gives them the opportunity and realistically
is worth much less to us. The ecstatic joy a can of 7up brought to a gang of skinny young boys was proof enough.
On our first day in Phnom Penh we visited the killing fields. We walked through the eerie wasteland of mass graves, the tragedy, devastation and sadness palpable in the air as we learnt about the torture, suffering and death of Cambodia's people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge army under Pol Pot's communist regime. I was thoroughly unaware as to the scale of devastation embodied within Cambodias killing fields. It's incredible how little attention is given to the massacre of millions of innocent people under a communist regime striving for an unattainable "perfection" of society in which everything from having an education, to wearing glasses, to living in a city or exercising your religious beliefs saw you as a threat and equalled your murder. The evil was equally evident in the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison we then visited in the centre of Phnom Penh. I remarked to the girls how much the three story buildings reminded me of the schools I taught at in Thailand and as we looked around we realised that it
was in fact a former high school closed by the Khmer Rouge as an educative threat, the classrooms used as mass prison cells and the gym equipment in the playground used as a torture device to beat out false confessions. There could not be a harder hitting image of the time than this; a place of growth, education, freedom and individual identity turned into a platform for mass murder in a contradictory strive for the idealistic communist society. The prison is now the Genocide Museum, Cambodia attempting to revise its use as an educative and preventative medium for the future. One of the worst realities of Cambodia's killing fields is how recently it stands to our lives today. Beginning in 1975 and ending in 1979, it happened and was allowed to happen a mere 40 years ago.
With only five days in Cambodia, we travelled six hours North on Thursday morning and arrived in Siem Reap that afternoon. As a town famed for the neighbouring temples of Angkor, I expected a fairly quiet town but although it was relatively small, as we ventured onto 'Pub Street'
(exactly as it sounds; like a very downscaled version of Khaosan) we felt
the opportunity for drinking and partied in 'Angkor What?
', a graffitied, neon bar full of cheap drinks and travellers. Shots happened between chats and in the early hours of the morning we carried each other back to our room at 'Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse
The following morning we paid a Tuk Tuk driver for the day and he drove us between the different temples. There are actually many more than we had realised and with only one day to see them all, we decided to visit just a few. There is one word I would use to describe the concoction of splendour and spiritual culture encased within the crumbling remnants of each temple and that is: impressive. We began with Angkor Wat
, the most well known and immense, described as the seventh man-made wonder of the world. It's pure size and grandeur is breathtaking from a general perspective but as you wander through the endless, chambered stone passageways, intricate carvings cast across every surface, the scale of detail filling the entire temple seems impossible. We climbed to view the towering decorated faces of Baton
. We watched monkeys jumping into the lakes surrounding Baphuon
, a temple rebuilt like a huge
unfinished jigsaw puzzle following a great deal of destruction by Khmer Rouge for its religious threat to the communist ideal. Our final and possibly favourite temple of the day was Ta Prohm
, mainly for the fact that we all felt like we were Indiana Jones creeping through the many derelict passages blocked off by jagged rockfalls. The ancient trees encase the ruins, nature engulfing and claiming the heaps of broken stone as the roots snake down around them and it becomes hard to imagine them in their original state as free standing works of man.
The temples were extremely impressive to behold, their construction impossible to envisage but the heat made for an exhausting day and as we looked down at our dust coated, decomposing feet we realised that dirty Asia had well and truly devoured us. Our final day in Cambodia and we relaxed in the town, shopping for silver jewellery in the old market and lying back to enjoy a foot massage. The following morning on Sunday February 10th it was time to move on and we boarded the 8.20am flight to Kuala Lumpur where great things awaited us.
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