Cambodia Part 2
June 1-7, 2001

>>Asia Journal -- Cambodia Part 2 (6/01/01 - 6/07/01)
-- Phnom Penh
-- Siem Reap & Angkor
-- A Chilling Haunted Vibe

-- Phnom Penh

After my little motorcycle accident, it was good to be riding in a bus again, rather than walking around all day. but the trip to Phnom Penh from Sihanoukville was a four hour trip, and my leg was still pretty stiff. So I got to ride in the front jump seat -- not as comfortable as the other seats, but it did give me a better view of the road.

although sihanoukville had been pretty dry, along the way to Phnom Penh there were stretches of lush countryside, farmers, and water buffalo. compared to vietnam, the land did not seem very developed, and cultivated areas seemed underutilized and spread apart. then again, decades of fighting had only recently concluded. there had been fighting in the streets of Phnom Penh as recently as July 1997, and an all out offensive against the Khmer Rouge in the north had lasted through 1998. As I read that from my lonely planet book, i wondered if things really were as "safe" as portrayed.

Arriving in Phnom Penh was a bit of a surprise to find a capital city that seemed a fraction of the size of saigon. dusty roads, narrow alleys, motorbikes, but not hoards of them, a sprinking of cars. there were areas of development. i saw a few cranes and some buildings that were higher than 10 stories tall. but those were the exceptions in this small city. i wondered what it must have felt like when the Khmer Rouge ordered the city emptied in the spring of 1975, and when weeds and brush had taken over the streets in the three ensuing years. now the people were back. but from pictures i had seen of the years prior, Phnom Penh still seemed a shadow of its "modern" and developed self as it had been 25 years before.

although my leg was stiff, it was still easier to get around the city by motorbike than by walking. so i rented a bike again from one of the hotel porters. i felt much more safe riding a bike around the city. especially at night, when all but the larger streets remained under a cover of darkness, punctuated by small sidestreet food stalls and an occasional shop. so the first night, it didn't take us long to find the comfortable safety of the Foreign Correspondent's Club, or FCC -- an oasis of foreign food and service on the main drag along the river quay.

in cambodia everything seemed to be priced in american dollars -- the tourist spots of course, but also the cafes, little restuarants, and the local fast food burger joint. perhaps the sole exception were some of the roadside venders. and things seemed so much more expensive here than in vietnam. i wondered if it was because not much was actually produced here locally, forcing a need to import everything.

there were things to see in the city. the national palace was interesting -- a manicured collection of beautiful structures, oddly surrounded by much less favorable settings. and the national museum was about six rooms with relatively few objects. but really the most interesting and chilling things to visit were the school house (Tuol Sleng) that had become a torture center for the Khmer Rouge as Security Prison S-21, and the killing fields in Choeung Ek where they had brought the bodies -- 17,000 bodies.

what was most spooky about S-21 was how innocent the place looked now under the clear blue sky in the middle of a typically residential and central area of the city. just blocks away from where our hotel was. the fact that the school had been in the middle of an ordinary residential area lended a sense of surreality to the place. and the exhaustive records that were kept to prove to the leadership that the prison officers were loyal to the Khmer Rouge cause were more than striking. men, women, even children had all been here, tortured and executed in the name of "brother number one".

Choeung Ek was equally chilling. but more so for the quietness about the place. that is the quietness, the calm pastoral beauty of the place, and the thin yet piercing whine of the local child beggars. when we first arrived, they waited along the edges of the trees until they worked up the courage to find us out of the group. and then it took a little while to understand that what they were softly wailing about was that they were asking for pens in a soft rising wail -- "paeenn", "paiiiiinn". . ."pain". their furtive looks, their soft piercing wail, the play on words, and the whole totality of what the place was and represented really crept under your skin. so we were all glad to leave that place, back to the relative security of the busy dusty streets of phnom penh.

-- Siem Reap & Angkor

from Phnom Penh, we made the trip northwest to Siem Reap by boat up the Tonle Sap River -- thankfully by boat, as the roads were supposedly horrendous and potentially dangerous from bandits. it was a beautiful day and stifflingly hot, so i decided to sit up on top of the crowded boat for the 5 hour ride to get the breeze. the boat was fully loaded. and it was so crowded, you could hardly move. by the time i realized that i should have put on sunblock i was already burned!

if Phnom Penh was a dust bowl, the Tonle Sap River and Lake were a big mud pit. in the middle of the lake, you could see a muddy brown out to the horizon. nearing the edge of the lake on the Siem Reap side we passed through oil slicks crammed full with a motley mass of fishing boats, houseboats, floating local government offices, and floating garbage. even after switching to much smaller wooden boats, at some points the water was so shallow that the newly overloaded boats became stuck on mud or items lodged on the bottom. and the boat boys had to get out and push. finally, we arrived at the edge of land under a merciless heat and the overpowering stench from harvested fish paste and refuse.

Siem Reap was searingly hot. as early as 9am in the morning, it must have already been well over 100 degrees farenheit. by the time noon rolled around, one could only search for some shade or an air conditioned room if you were lucky. that meant either a "luxury" hotel or the warm comfort of the minibus with the AC turned on full blast. the best thing to do was to try and wake up as the sun was rising around 5 or 6am and then at least you'd have two to three hours of manageable heat.

of course, the sole attraction of Siem Reap was the Angkor temples. and though they were wonderful and mysterious in many ways, i still came away with a little dissappointment from all the stories and images i had built up in my mind, all the way back to Mrs. Chamberlain's social studies classes as a kid. still they were pretty impressive. if not in each temple's sole grandeur, but in the collection and extensiveness of how many temples and complexes there were. weather worn and overgrown, they could easily blend in with the surrounding jungle, except where man had cut away and manicured the major complexes for the tourists. the eirily and enigmatic smiling faces staring out from everywhere, the fine architectural details under cover of trees and roots, the occasional warm breeze in the silence.

if anything, the size of some of the temples was a little misleading once inside the complexes. with some structures spread out over extremely large areas, and others closed into small spaces, the height and rise of the temples could sometimes be forgotten. except, that is, when climbing the steps to the peaks of the larger temples. with my stiff leg, it was a little difficult to get around as easily. but i made do. i had a few moments of fright, and one of momentary terror as i fell off the inner edge of one temple. thanks to the cries of two french girls, i only fell down a few steps and caught myself from falling all the way down to the bottom of an inner canyon, with the help of my sturdy metal contax645. so much for keeping my mind on taking pictures.

at angkor wat and angkor thom, even at the break of dawn, the complexes were often a little overrun by tourists and by innumerable local kids who wanted to earn money as guides. so the best experiences were the ones at the less popular deserted temples, where you could leisurely explore alone, imagining the place inhabited over a thousand years ago, and taking in the natural silence.

with the heat taking so much of the energy and motivation out of exploring, it was a pleasure to seek respite at the Raffles Grand Angkor Hotel. a great place for ice-cold afternoon cocktails, and the only spot to get quality food from what we could find. and, they had really good french fries. really, the Grand Angkor was the best place anytime you were not trying to tour the temples! ok, so we were already feeling a little needy for amenities and creature comforts from the heat. so we found ourselves gravitating to what an old colonial hotel must have felt like, albeit with the added comfort of modern air conditioning. did i mention it was hot?

-- A Chilling Haunted Vibe

Overall, where vietnam was haunting in its beauty, cambodia felt haunted and chilling. for example, when we had first arrived at the border, and through our trip so far, we repeatedly encountered locals who just seemed a little too happy. it was unsettling at first. then as we began to think that much of that joy could be simply a reaction to the end of decades of war, it was a little more easy to rationalize.

yet it was also easy to be haunted by a feeling that things were not all as right as they seemed. i felt as if i were ever waiting for something to conflict with the pretty picture that was being presented. it was a horrible feeling to have. not just from the doubt. but also from the guilt of doubting presumably good people who were trying to help. it was just a little hard not to wonder what their intentions were.

each new person we met had their own tale of personal horror. and while the first stories made us cringe with horror and empathy, after the first half dozen or so, we didn't want to hear any more. you could only take so much. yet we only had to listen to the stories. these people had had to live them. and so after decades of learning to survive by not trusting anyone, it was not surprising perhaps that an outward seemingly false and saccharine cheerfulness would be in the air. the contrast would be even more apparent as we left Cambodia and crossed back into Vietnam.

Cambodia images -- [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

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