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Cambodia: beyond the Killing Fields
Christopher Hudson had never been to Cambodia when he wrote 'The Killing Fields', his searing bestselling war story. Almost 30 years later, on his first visit, he discovers a country and a people that are moving on with optimism.
By Christopher Hudson
Between sparse clumps of trees, the ground dips in smooth, saucer-shaped hollows. No birds sing. It is bouncy underfoot, as if you are treading on invisible hands pushing upwards towards the surface. In fact, you are walking over the compacted bones of the thousands of corpses buried by the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries between 1975 to 1979, when they had run out of burial sites in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
People walk quietly, talking in hushed voices. These are the killing fields at Choeung Ek, 10 miles from the city centre, where “enemies of the state” were brought in lorry loads to be clubbed unconscious and finished off beside an open pit with a spade blow to the back of the neck – bullets being too precious to waste on humans. A paved walk leads to a circular, glass-and-concrete tower, each of its 17 storeys crammed with skulls. So far, 388 extermination camps have been found. Out of a population of seven million, around two million were killed during the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous reign.
Nearly 30 years ago I wrote a book, The Killing Fields, which, like the film, had its genesis in a prize-winning New York Times article by Sydney Schanberg, The Death and Life of Dith Pran. The story will still be familiar to many readers – it is about Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran, who bravely volunteered to stay on in Phnom Penh after it had fallen, and helped save Schanberg’s life. Schanberg was airlifted to safety, but Pran had to endure four years of unremitting horror until Schanberg found him again.
Back then in 1983, when I began writing about it, I knew only as much as the average Westerner about the Cambodian tragedy. But as I immersed myself in Dith Pran’s story – from thousands of miles away in a flat in Notting Hill, London – it took me under its spell. Years passed – other stories, other memories. It wasn’t until friends began returning from Cambodia with pirated copies of The Killing Fields that I woke up to my neglect.
For 10 years after their defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the Vietnamese called the shots. In Phnom Penh electricity remained sporadic and only one per cent of the population had access to clean water. Meanwhile, Cambodians waited in vain for the world to provide humanitarian aid.
I expected to see the scars when my wife and I flew in a few weeks ago. I was proved wrong. Central Phnom Penh is cosmopolitan, graceful and surprisingly sophisticated.
Men sit in cafés nursing beers (a habit taken from the French), boulangeries abound, and scooters whizz past carrying slim, pretty girls holding up parasols. The wide boulevards, shaded by jacarandas and tamarind trees, survive. The stately, white colonial houses are now inhabited by Cambodia’s elite. The beautifully kept gardens beside the Royal Palace, and the square where the royal elephants were stabled, now host an evening passeggiata of strolling Khmer families.
For 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, Phnom Penh remained frozen in time, ever since the black-clad revolutionaries drove the entire urban populace into the countryside in a mad attempt to create a pure, agrarian society. Now it is like a time capsule, one of the few remaining capital cities to preserve the sense of a vanished Indo-China.
Its great colonial landmark, the Hotel Raffles Le Royal, is a mirror of Phnom Penh’s changing fortunes. One of the capital’s grandest buildings, it was constructed in 1929 and became a port of call for the rich and stylish. In the Fifties, during the heyday of King Sihanouk, it was a mecca for cosmopolitan tourists. Later, during the Vietnam War in the Seventies, it became the hang-out of hard-drinking, hard-living war reporters. Jon Swain recalls having to decamp from the hotel’s top floor to the bottom when the shelling became too intense.
Raffles got by, serving as an emergency hospital and first-aid post. The ambience is unmistakable, from the high-ceilinged rooms and black-and-white tiled floors down to the mynah bird chattering in a centuries-old rain tree.
We are lucky. We have reached Phnom Penh in time to see the capital as it must have looked earlier in the last century, with little development along the riverside except for a Vietnamese floating village. But the first high-rises are beginning to go up: in years to come Phnom Penh will start looking like any other capital in the Far East. Tourists are arriving but not in any great numbers. Few visit the National Museum, with its collection of graceful Khmer statuary.
Our guide, Tee, is a scholar who worked at the museum like his uncle before him. He has deep-set eyes and a kindly expression and when I ask him how he survived Pol Pot’s decimation of the intellectuals, his eyes take on a faraway look. He was a child when the Khmer Rouge came. Luck sent him to tend the buffalo in the rice fields; there, far from spying eyes, he could catch and eat fish to supplement the starvation diet. (The Khmer Rouge sent the rice harvest to China in exchange for guns.) His family was careful, keeping their heads down and working diligently. But when they were ordered back to Phnom Penh, his father was recognised as an educated man, cruelly tortured, then killed.
There was one place in Phnom Penh that I had left for last. It used to be the Tuol Sleng primary school. From 1975 to 1978 it was converted into a secret facility for torture and extermination called S-21. Run by Duch, a former maths teacher who became one of the Khmer Rouge’s most feared inquisitors (he had, days before we arrived, been sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes), life at S-21 was horrifyingly brutal. Death came at random, for something as insignificant as leaning against a wall. “Interrogations” could last for weeks, the screams unheard in a deserted capital city. One block, in what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, has been left as it was. One cell has a bloodstained ceiling: a sense of evil pervades the whole compound like a stench.
The most haunting testament to survive is the collection of black-and-white photographs documenting each prisoner’s arrival. Cowed, dazed, some heartbreakingly young, they stare out at us. Most striking are the former Khmer Rouge cadres, boys and girls, some as young as 10, blank-faced, with nothing behind their eyes.
The next day we head for Battambang, travelling on roads raised to cope with the annual rains. Villagers build their houses on stilts above the flooded rice fields.
Life goes on in these cool, dark spaces underneath the house, where hammocks swing gently in the shade. Outside in the sun, a girl walks home clutching a lotus leaf as a makeshift sunshade, while a man holds his water buffalo on a leash as it wallows in an irrigation ditch. Plastic bags by the roadside contain lights to catch crickets, a prized delicacy; piglets travel to market in a bamboo basket strapped to the back of a motorbike.
Under the Khmer Rouge, there were, of course, no markets – nor money or schools or medicine. Even family life was forbidden: “familyism”, the term for missing one’s relatives, was a crime, often punishable by death.
The small town of Battambang is a popular tourist destination. It is a sleepy place, its wide, tree-shaded streets near the river lined with French colonial architecture. Our hotel, renovated in Thirties style, is understandably described as “one of Cambodia’s most romantic and evocative boutique hotels”. But when we arrive, it is to find that La Villa is now dwarfed by two massive hotels, one of them under construction just feet away. Good food, in a shady courtyard, restores our spirits.
Battambang’s thriving streets show that life has taken off here. We find, of all things, a vineyard which sells a fine brandy and is being wooed by a Californian winemaker. And we suffer a terrifying train journey – sitting on an open trolley on a narrow-gauge railway, rattling along at 20mph – nothing in front of us but a frail bamboo rail. The Bamboo Train, used to transport villagers and their wares, has become a thrill for passing tourists. The train pulls in at a couple of shacks where friendly Khmer families sell drinks and woven handicrafts. Conversation is relaxed: no one begs and no one hassles us. Yet always, among these gentle, courteous people, reminders of the nightmare persist.
We visit Battambang’s Heritage House, an old wooden mansion from more stately days. Its owner, a dignified old lady, still lives there, eking out a living. In a mix of French and Cambodian, her story emerges.
They were a prosperous, well-educated family who suffered dreadfully under the Khmer Rouge. Her home survived because the cadres used it as a communal dining-hall. But she lost four children, her husband, parents, brother and sister – of 20 in her family, only one cousin remains. I am unable to speak for several moments. My wife moves away, in tears. “Ah, vous avez des sentiments pour moi,” observes the old lady simply: she is far beyond crying.
Later that day I am taken to Phnom Sampeau, a temple complex on a high, rocky outcrop, crowned by a golden stupa. We are shown a machine-gun nest and two deep, narrow caves into which the KR threw people after beating them unconscious. Following their own twisted logic, they reserved a separate cave for infants.
Although it’s only mid-February, on the drive to Siem Reap we notice paddy fields being prepared for planting. Rice is Cambodia’s sustenance, its economy. Yet there is still land which is farmed at the risk of being killed or disabled. In the north-west, near the Thai border, countless mines were sown.
One of our most inspiring visits is to the Landmine Museum, set up by a former Khmer Rouge child-soldier, Aki Ra. From the age of 10, when he was given an AK47, Aki Ra sowed thousands of mines. After the war, he became a one-man removal dynamo, personally defusing as many as he had sown. But the residue of unexploded bombs and mines will take years to clear and there are no maps identifying where they are. Tourist areas are safe but elsewhere, stay on well-used paths.
This area south-west of Siem Reap is Dith Pran’s country, where he was born, almost in sight of the temples of Angkor Wat. He went back in 1989 and stopped at a mass grave where, 10 years earlier, as a punishment, the Vietnamese had ordered their Khmer Rouge prisoners to dig up the buried bones and skulls. Some belonged to Pran’s family: his father and three brothers had all been murdered here. On being shown these scattered bones in 1989, Pran began, tearfully, to rearrange them with his own hands.
Considering this history of civil war, famine and invasion in the space of a generation, it is astounding how little bitterness we found. We remind ourselves that these are the people who, in the 12th century, built the greatest city of temples known to mankind. If your guide is as good as ours, he will know to approach the East Gate of Angkor Wat around 9am, thus avoiding the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, who crowd together on the west side to watch the sunrise and then return to breakfast in their hotels. We walk alone through the forest and come to the magnificent temple, supposedly the largest religious building in the world, silhouetted against the sky. By doing the itinerary in reverse, we have the same comparative solitude at the beautiful but disquieting Bayon temple, where 216 enigmatically smiling giant faces carved out of sandstone watch our every move.
Our best day is reserved until last, when we drive out of Siem Reap to the isolated and recently de-mined temple complex at Koh Ker, once Cambodia’s capital. These 10th-century temples, long buried in the jungle, combine austere beauty with a touch of Indiana Jones. On the way back we visit the temple of Beng Mealea, an hour from Siem Reap. Still locked in an embrace with the encroaching jungle, its vast root systems, giant trees and dislodged piles of stones make Ta Prohm, judged the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, look tame by comparison.
Back at the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, we have drinks with an ex-cabinet minister. A child labourer for the Khmer Rouge, he managed to escape and end up, through family contacts, in Australia. One day he saw billboards for a new film, The Killing Fields. Sitting in the darkened cinema, he realised with anguish and relief that at last the world knew of Cambodia’s suffering. Shortly afterwards, he booked a one-way ticket home. He became a cabinet minister at the age of 28.
Such stories are told to me time and again. And I reflect that in not coming to Cambodia for all those years I had left something unfinished which has only now been mended.
Christopher Hudson travelled with Cox & Kings (0845 154 8941; coxandkings.co.uk), which organises luxury tours to Cambodia. Colours of Cambodia is a 16-day private tour costing from £3,595 per person including flights, private transfers and excursions and accommodation, with breakfast daily and some other meals. Upgrading to Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap for four nights and Raffles Hotel le Royal Phnom Penh for three nights costs from £875 per person.
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pure and simple romantic story telling
Bollocks to it all.
- I need professional help
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No better way to enjoy genocide tourism than on a £3,595 freebie luxury tour.
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Strange that he never dropped by for a look sooner. Did the KR have a contract out on him?
Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men.
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I think that he sums it up pretty well.
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It's a bit like the average visitor's blog. This piece from Travel & Leisure Magazine that was in Saturday's Cambodia Daily is a lot better:
Return to Cambodia
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, in 1994, I looked out the window of my descending plane and saw a landscape of rice paddies dotted with palm trees. It might have been, in a parallel universe, or perhaps just in a neighboring country like Thailand, a pastoral image, but for me it was synonymous with land mines, Agent Orange, genocide, death. My feelings were shaped in part by popular culture—movies such as The Killing Fields and Apocalypse Now and books like Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over and Nayan Chanda’s Brother Enemy. To say they told of a darkly mysterious place where terrible things had happened was only part of it; in 1994 the Khmer Rouge was still in control of large chunks of the country, even after the United Nations had sponsored a historic democratic election the previous year. I had come to Phnom Penh to write for a fledgling English-language newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, a decision whose logic had completely escaped me by the time the wheels hit tarmac. I swore that I would proceed through Phnom Penh with the utmost caution.
But by my second night I was at a party eating a piece of cake that I had just been told had an entire pound of pot baked into it, when someone rushed in yelling, “Coup! Coup! There’s a tank in the middle of downtown!” Because the party was filled with that strange breed of catastrophe addicts who have found their calling as journalists, everyone piled into the backs of pickup trucks and rushed off to look for the tank. I went, too, fretfully, like some eighth grader herded into a group activity he knows is wrong but is too spineless to resist.
We never found the tank.
To arrive in Phnom Penh today is to encounter a city teeming with energy and enterprise. There are skyscrapers, high-end hotels and restaurants, hip coffee shops, galleries, boutiques. The streets are thronging and chaotic but the overall mood is civilized. When I first came to this town, I was fascinated by the way women would ride sidesaddle on the back of motos, one foot on the footrest and the other with the ankle cocked gently upward so their flip-flops didn’t fall off. The modern bustle has removed only some of this charm.
For most of the past decade, until 2009, the country experienced an average of nearly 10 percent annual growth. The despotic prime minister, HE, has provided stability, which, as a local businessman whom I know remarked, “is the magic recipe for cheap labor for garment factories and two million pairs of feet each year wandering around Angkor.” He also said, “Ten percent growth in a country that didn’t have an economy a decade or more ago isn’t anything stunning.”
But I was stunned, mostly in a good way—Phnom Penh, once a lawless haven for adventurers, layabouts, and hedonists of all stripes for whom freedom was just another word for no real law enforcement, is now praised in similar terms but for different reasons by a new class of small-business owners who see the place as an opportunity.
“There are so many opportunities because they are not weighed down by traditional hierarchy,” said Yoshie Treiber, who runs La Clef de Sol, a fancy boutique specializing in housewares, bags, and dresses. It sits at the end of a quiet alley off hectic Sihanouk Boulevard. Originally from Japan, she spent five years in Cannes before moving to Phnom Penh. “Everything is new here. If you have guts, you can do anything in Phnom Penh.”
And yet, when I saw a friend who has lived here for 18 years, he said, “Phnom Penh isn’t as exciting as it used to be, but it’s nice that you can get good coffee and Wi-Fi is everywhere.” By this he meant that it no longer felt as if you had arrived at the drop-edge of the world.
I was visiting toward the end of rainy season, which I knew about, and the start of the Pchum Ben holiday, which was news to me. Nuon So Thero, the Cambodia Daily’s general manager, picked me up at the airport. Thero was the first person I ever met in Cambodia, having rescued me as I sat bewildered and a bit frightened outside the locked doors of the newspaper, suitcase by my side, transfixed by the steep pitch of the Royal Palace roof across the street, the bright orange-yellow of its tiles glinting in the sun. Now, 17 years later, I saw his smiling, intelligent face, changed but unchanged, beaming from the waiting crowd. “It still has that fantastic smell!” I said as we loaded the car. Phnom Penh’s air has a sweet, smoky scent, as though someone were slowly roasting cardamom over a fire.
“I live here,” he said, “I never noticed it.” We drove to my hotel, and Thero pointed out the new parliament building and the new office of the prime minister, both radiating prosperity and redolent of something built by Mussolini. We arrived at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, my last recollection of which was as a ruin. “I know exactly where I am!” I exclaimed. “We’re right near the Youth Club.” The International Youth Club was a whitewashed bastion of francophone leisure, fragrant with a colonial prerogative that was only partially antique.
“Youth Club gone,” Thero said. “The American Embassy is there now.”
“They built the American Embassy on top of the Youth Club?” I said. “Oh, the French must have hated that.”
“I think they did,” Thero said. We headed off to dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Monivong Boulevard. Once there had been an outdoor noodle stand with plastic chairs and a fluorescent light hooked up to a generator. Now, even after midnight, the place was filled with well-appointed revelers. The menu was epic, a scroll of fine print. I had crab soup. Salt-and-pepper shrimp. The restaurant took credit cards.
I spent the next day wandering the streets on foot and by cyclo—a bicycle version of a gondola, but with no singing—a now mostly antiquated form of transportation in a town filled with motos, cars, and SUV’s.
On my first trip into Phnom Penh, cars had been scarce; they pushed through the bikes and motos like a bull gingerly parting a flock of sheep. Busy intersections were manned by traffic police in sharp military-style uniforms and white gloves. They stood on battered metal pedestals and performed a rather ornate and formal set of gestures that combined, either by osmosis or intent, elements of Khmer dance’s fluidity with the more rigid hand motion one associates with the word stop! The effect was a bit like vogueing.
But these were vestiges of an old order. The city now has stoplights that people obey; metal dividers down the center of the avenues ensure traffic is mostly two-way. Once it had been four, or six, or eight-way and composed largely of two-wheeled vehicles, slender as minnows. Turning left had required entering a dream state of faith in which you drifted slowly across the avenue into the oncoming traffic, hoping the force was with you, until you got to your turn.
News from Cambodia
I met my old friend Ek Madra, who used to be a moto driver but then got a job as a translator and then as a reporter for the Cambodia Daily, and later became an accomplished bureau chief for Reuters. He picked me up at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in his car. “Madra, I cannot believe what is going on in this city!” I shouted after we hugged. He whisked me off to the Sorya Restaurant, near the madness of the Central Market. Located in a space that was once a movie theater, its lighting was bright; the napkins were red linen; at least one person catered to our needs at all times, which I took to mean that Madra was now a big shot.
“This is a new Cambodia on old land,” he said. “I believe in human lucky.” The phrase contained a boosterism that did not sound like a journalist. It turned out Madra had recently started a business himself. His firm is called Ek Tha & Madra Associates and imports dried fish from Vietnam.
“But Madra, Ek Tha is a pseudonym you sometimes use. Your company is you and you.”
“Yes,” he said. “That way no one can steal from my family!” Madra, who had always been very dramatic, said, “People are going from war to wealth.”
Completely by chance I was in Cambodia at the same time as Chris Decherd, my old friend from the Cambodia Daily who now runs the Cambodia division of the Voice of America, in Washington, D.C. The VOA had recently stirred up a hornet’s nest with a report on the current Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) prosecution of Khmer Rouge leadership. Pol Pot died in 1998, but Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary—icons of a genocide—are elderly and alive. The tribunal was supposed to be a cathartic national event, a moment of reckoning, but the VOA suggested it was being undermined by Prime Minister HE. This provoked a blistering critique of the VOA by HE, a strongman whose critics have, on occasion, met untimely deaths. I had thought Chris was here to smooth ruffled feathers. But the VOA’s television news clips are in high demand in Cambodia. He was here to negotiate distribution deals. We had dinner at a restaurant called Malis, no pun intended. The chef, Luu Meng, served a feast of green mango and smoked fish, spicy scallops with mint leaves, beef carpaccio, and lemongrass chicken. Chris said he was waking early the next morning for a four-hour drive to Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, in the north and asked if I wanted to join him. “You can drive to Battambang?” I said, amazed.
“Sure,” he said. “You can drive anywhere now.”
Up at La Villa
I am staying at La Villa, one of several examples of French-colonial architecture in Battambang. It overlooks the river. I collapse in the afternoon and sleep through dinner, waking in darkness to the sound of pouring rain. Within that sound is something difficult to identify, a kind of music. I go to the window and realize it is a monk, chanting into the darkness of Pchum Ben. The river at night looks like a tiny Seine, dotted with elegant lamplights and arching bridges. A moto comes into view, moving slowly through the downpour on the far side of the river.
My room is an attic-like space with exposed beams, ceiling fans, and dark wood floors. There is a bare wooden desk with a gorgeous old standing lamp beside it, and a writing mat. The room, the rain, the chanting, it all suggests the intrigue of a Graham Greene novel, the ruined mansion of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Bogart in Casablanca—I watch the moto move through the rain on its mysterious errand.
A little while later the rain tapers off and I go for a long swim in the pool. The air is filled with the singsong voice of the chanting monk as the trees and plants around the pool reveal themselves in silhouette against the dawn. I swim back and forth in the pool of La Villa, wondering if Cambodia has exorcised the demons of the Khmer Rouge.
In Battambang I go to school. First to an empty high school, where a conference on education is under way, and later to a place where everyone has more or less run away to join the circus. In the morning I hear the nation’s most renowned psychiatrist talk to secondary-school teachers. The title of the workshop is “How History Teachers Who Were Victims of the Khmer Rouge Teach the Khmer Rouge History to Students Who Are the Children of the Khmer Rouge Perpetrators.”
One teacher stands to say she had told her students of her suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and they had laughed. “I could forgive the Khmer Rouge but not those students who laughed,” she says.
Dr. Ka Sunbaunat, dressed in white linen, is an unlikely apostle of the talking cure. “You have to teach the Khmer Rouge history,” he says to his audience of teachers. “You have to get comfortable with it. Otherwise there is no catharsis.”
That afternoon I visit Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), an arts school that functions partly as a shelter for street kids; it is run by ethnic Khmers who were refugees at the Site 2 camp on the Thai border in the late eighties and received drawing lessons from a French teacher. On its small campus at the edge of town there is an outpouring of activity: drawing, painting, video animation, music. PPS is responsible for turning Battambang into something of a hotbed for artistic talent in Cambodia, producing artists such as Srey Bandol, whose intricate pencil drawings of Angkor’s temples subtly reconfigure the landscape, making it feel like it’s an old master painting from Europe.
Its centerpiece, both architecturally and as a business, is its circus, which puts on regular performances in Battambang and tours in Asia and Europe. I spend almost an hour watching kids of different ages fly through the air, twisting and spinning (and sometimes crashing) to the cheers of their peers. Standing amid such energy and laughter, with rhythmic music coming from the building nearby, where kids are jamming on ancient Khmer instruments, I remember a remark by a UN official in 1997: “I don’t think there is a good outlook for this generation. The hope is for the Cambodians not yet born.” Fifteen years later I am watching that future generation. They fly spinning through the air and, most of the time, land on their feet.
I had intended to take a boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, but the torrential rains have flooded the docks. I take a taxi instead. It’s a pleasant drive that arcs around the northern tip of the Tonle Sap. We skirt those areas once held by the Khmer Rouge. Anlong Veng, Pailin. The violence connoted by those names is mocked by the landscape outside the window. I love rice paddies. I love their green. I love the strange, weaving effect of so many tiny strands making a dense, textured whole, a kind of luscious rug. I love the mystery of their always being submerged.
All of Siem Reap, it turns out, is submerged in water at the moment. But the temples are open, and I rush to Angkor Wat and submit to its scale, which is both monumental and oddly soothing. One approaches on what must surely be both the world’s largest and most primitive runway—a runway to the gods—and enters its terraces of astonishingly detailed bas-reliefs of sex and death, monkeys and men, which spill across endless walls. Leaving Angkor I encounter actual monkeys who have wandered in from the jungle, and brought snacks in the form of coconut, which they leisurely eat while ogling tourists.
I first glimpsed Angkor through an airplane window during my visit in 1994. Siem Reap was then composed of just a few guesthouses and you could, if you went at the right time, wander nearly alone through the temples. It wasn’t entirely safe; not long after my visit an adventurous tourist was killed by suspected Khmer Rouge on the periphery of the temple complex. On the ground the temples feel monumental, but from above I saw them as a tiny arc of civilization in an ocean of jungle. A mysterious force had willed Khmer civilization to such heights that it could build these temples and then, with equal mystery, had laid them low and in ruins. There they sat silently for hundreds of years while the jungle encroached like the sea.
Ta Prohm, a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride from Angkor Wat, is where this feeling of discovering a modern-day Atlantis is most explicit. It’s a landscape from myth. Enormous trees have grown over the buildings and carvings like a forest that descended from the sky. Their giant roots drip down over the structures like candle wax or the tentacles of a huge squid. Beautiful figures carved in stone live within a tangle of vines and roots, which seem to imprison them. The natural and the man-made conspire to make a beautiful kind of hybrid art, and yet there is also the suggestion of strangling, choking, entwining. It feels like a metaphor for the unbelievable complications of telling stories about Cambodia, past and present, a superstitious place where epic horror has unfolded against a landscape of dreamy gentleness.
The changes in Siem Reap are as striking as those in Phnom Penh. It has justifiably become an international tourist destination, an item on the bucket list of every collector of the ancient and monumental. Legions of brand-new hotels line the main road, almost Soviet in scale. Because of the rains, I had decided to stay at Sojourn Boutique Villas, a gorgeous oasis just outside of town that strikes a balance between the escapism of a full-service resort and a kind of cultural tourism that encompasses the temples and also Treak, a nearby rural village from which Sojourn hires most of its wonderful local staff.
That afternoon, Sokheurm, a man who speaks with such calm, soothing attentiveness that I couldn’t help but feel I was in the care of a reassuring and talented therapist, arranged an in-room massage, a cooking lesson, and a visit to Banteay Srei, where I spent a morning obsessing over the fanatical detail of more temple carvings. But the activity that most intrigued me was helping plant rice in the nearby village. Which is how I came to be standing shin-deep in a rice paddy, bent forward and pushing with my thumb a clutch of rice stalks into the mud. We had walked for a long time along ridges separating the paddies, which stretched out across a perfectly flat landscape to mountains in the distance, interrupted only by shacks on stilts and the occasional palm tree. The people whose plot I helped plant made me lunch, which included a bowl of vegetables and rice with prahoc, a Cambodian delicacy involving fermented fish.
“This is heaven,” I said to Anthony Jaensch, Sojourn’s owner, and then without thinking added, “I could live here.” He waited a few moments before diplomatically pointing out that I might start to miss certain amenities, like electricity.
To the Sea
I arrive at Knai Bang Chatt at night. The wind is very strong. The air is warm. I can hear the waves rushing ashore in a continuous tumbling hiss. I want to go right to the sea for a swim but the sea is very rocky, I am told. And it is dark. “Perhaps you should swim in the pool.” And so as I had done in Battambang, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh, I inaugurate my time in Kep, this seaside resort area built by the French in 1908, with another long session in the pool. I feel a bit like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” Spalding Gray’s famous monologue was “Swimming to Cambodia”; mine seems to be swimming through it.
Gray was something of a pioneer in using a national horror as the setting for self-exploration and neurotic comedy. For a number of years in the mid-nineties young travelers flocked to Cambodia in the spirit of mountain climbers, except instead of proving themselves on the face of the Eiger, they flitted through the lawless world of Cambodia waiting to see if gravity would assert itself. For this group, traveling in the country was a form of playing with fire. Some of them got burned. Perhaps the most sensational example unfolded here on Vine Mountain in 1994. Three young travelers were kidnapped off a train. In part because they were French, English, and Australian and, in part, because it was a protracted baroque drama, it was a media sensation. They never came down from the mountain.
I have breakfast at a long wood table, sampling Khmer and Western food, and then set off by tuk-tuk to the Vine Retreat. The name alone amazes me, just as I am amazed to learn that a new private island resort, Song Saa, has been developed just down the coast. The mountain had once been controlled by the Khmer Rouge and festered with land mines. But the Khmer Rouge has gone. The land mines have been cleared. And the lodge, nestled among mango and jackfruit trees, with a spectacular view, is surrounded by a Kampot pepper farm. I find a few young people kicking back around the pool. Later, over lunch, in what feels like the fire tower of a national park, a man from the north of England who specializes in training plastic surgeons on the latest Botox techniques extols the virtues of Cambodia. “As soon as I am here, the pedal is off. I’m home.”
“Home? But this is a very exotic place,” I say.
“Yes, but as soon as I am here, all the cares slip away.”
And this is true of the lodge and the coast and much of the country—it lulls you. On the way down the mountain I pause at the train tracks. After the international scandal of the hostages—about which new reports are emerging to this day—the train was shut down. I see a new line is being put in.
My flight leaves late on Friday night and so I have one last evening in Phnom Penh. I have my last supper at the Chinese House, an old villa overlooking the river. Getting there is joyous mayhem. My tuk-tuk lurches through traffic along the quay, which is throbbing with colored lights, food vendors, and many groups of people partaking in what seems to be a cross between an exercise class and an outdoor dance party. I arrive to find a dimly lit building with gigantic doors that looks closed. Then two men pull the doors open to reveal a bar lit in hues of silvery blue; upstairs is a giant, modish room festooned with Chinese lanterns, where the restaurant, Tepui, serves excellent South American food.
I rush back to the hotel, then the airport, passing by the Olympic Stadium on my way. Mobs of people used to play basketball, volleyball, and soccer on its perimeter, me among them, but now it is being renovated and there is a fence around it. I am looking for the giant Seiko clock that used to adorn the side of the building. The clock had been permanently stopped at around four in the afternoon. But it seems it has been removed as part of the renovation, which is fitting. In the country of Year Zero, time is moving again.
By Thomas Beller
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^ How d'you do that? Cambodia Daily isn't online.
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andyinasia wrote:^ How d'you do that? Cambodia Daily isn't online.
It was published first in Travel & Leisure Magazine.
There's fair amount of nonsense in both articles:
Christopher Hudson wrote:Between sparse clumps of trees, the ground dips in smooth, saucer-shaped hollows. No birds sing. It is bouncy underfoot, as if you are treading on invisible hands pushing upwards towards the surface. In fact, you are walking over the compacted bones of the thousands of corpses
Loads of trees and birds around there, and I'm not sure if compacted bones bounce much.
Thomas Beller wrote:I had intended to take a boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, but the torrential rains have flooded the docks. I take a taxi instead. It’s a pleasant drive that arcs around the northern tip of the Tonle Sap. We skirt those areas once held by the Khmer Rouge. Anlong Veng, Pailin.
It's a bit of a stretch to say the road from Battambang to Siem Reap skirts Anlong Veng or Pailin.
I rush back to the hotel, then the airport, passing by the Olympic Stadium on my way. Mobs of people used to play basketball, volleyball, and soccer on its perimeter, me among them, but now it is being renovated and there is a fence around it.
Mobs of people still play sports at the stadium, and it isn't being renovated. They are developing some areas to the north and east, but they weren't places where anyone played much sport.
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There's a few errors but that's understandable if the guy hasn't been back since 1994. Overall, I enjoyed the piece, it captured a lot of the feel of Cambodia then and now.
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those are light pieces but don't be deceived, tom beller and chris decherd were in the thick of it in the mid-90s, and they were pushing the story at mt aurol--vine mountain--not just watching
thx for posting
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