Sunday, 23 October 2011

Now Showing: My Cambodian Conflict

I was almost drunk on excitement when I landed in Cambodia. It looked so foreign as we descended. There were no homes as such to be seen in Siem Reap (near the airport anyway), just a vast expanse of flooded rice paddies, as far as the eye could see.

I'd been nervous about the Cambodian visa - I made an effort to learn some Cambodian phrases before I disembarked to make sure I sweetened up the immigration officers, and it worked. Ah kohn is thank you in Cambodian, by the way.

I had also been nervous about coming to Cambodia in the first place. I'd heard varying reports on how safe it was to travel there, with pickpockets, robberies and scams apparently commonplace. Also, I'd never been to a country which had been in a recent civil war before, with such horrific consequences. I wondered how much of this would remain in the Cambodian psyche and way of life?

I was picked up by Tom from my hostel - he was riding an open tuk tuk pulled along by his scooter. I was stupidly excited, grinning like an idiot to myself. The smell of the rain mixed with the smells of people cooking their dinner for the night, along with the smell of cow shit from the cattle grazing next to the road. Everything was so lush and green, the housing basic, the storm brewing, and I had the wind in my hair. This was an 'I love life' moment.

It wasn't until 5 minutes had passed that I realised that I was being driven on the right hand side of the road. Not that 'sides of the road' are strictly adhered to in Cambodia. I think of it as schooling fish - there are lanes, but they're really there as a guide. Everyone is mindful of everyone else and as people drive along they beep if they need to be overtaken. It just seems to work - most of the time at least.

My hostel (HI Siem Reap) was great - my room was clean, the bed was SO COMFORTABLE (at last - the beds in Thailand were like trying to sleep on a wad of paper), and they had Discovery Channel on cable. Perfect.

A short walk over the bridge, and you're at Pub Street, the main tourist strip in Siem Reap. There's so many different cuisines here to choose from, and plenty of people touting the menus and speed of the wifi. I came across a small bar called Picasso on the street behind Pub Street called The Alley West. Here I found a common occurrence - three different nationalities in a bar... an ongoing personal joke. In this case, a Norwegian, an Indonesian and an Englishman. Once I got completely shitfaced, the joke was on me - the lights I'd planned to walk towards to find my hostel had been turned off. Wobbling off, I managed to find my way... eventually.

The next day I acquainted myself with the delights of Cambodian cuisine. Cambodian food is different from that of Thai food in that they prefer to use pepper for heat rather than just chili. The penultimate Cambodian dish is called amok - this is a type of curry typically served in a banana leaf. Curries tend to be a blend of pepper, sweetness (palm sugar, coconut milk) and spices (galangal, turmeric and many more), occasionally with sour influences from lime, tamarind or sour leaf. A cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier costs about US$12 which includes a market tour (a bit rough with a hangover) and 2 courses. I made banana flower salad and a chicken curry; both of which were delicious, naturally.

A sunrise at Angkor Wat was next on the agenda. 30 minutes by tuk tuk out of the city, this two square kilometers of temples is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was lucky to mostly survive the ravages of war. Once laden with land mines, this site is now visited by hundreds of thousands of people per year, much to the chagrin of those trying to preserve the temples.

Even in the low season, a bank of tourist paparazzi gather to get the perfect shot of the sun rising behind Angkor Wat. The temple was designed so that as a person walks from the western entrance to the main tombs in the east of the temple, they are walking from death to birth where the sun rises. This is all well and good until you realise you have to walk out of the place again.

Stepping over the temple's threshold, a chill ran over me, causing me to 'whoa' like Keanu. These ruins from the 10th century are in incredible condition, and the sense of space and peace within the walls (despite the tourists) is unique. My favourite features were the seven headed snake-like naga - designed to represent the colours of the rainbow and to act as a conduit between life and death. These feature on the roofs of traditional Cambodian palaces and temples today, in varying forms.

While I visited many temples that day, special mention needs to go to The Bayon. This was by far and away my favourite temple. It is adorned with hundreds of faces of Buddha (which coincidentally look similar to the king at the time as well) that face out over all points of the compass. I have fallen in love with the varying faces of Buddha on this trip, and The Bayon represents it many times over in absolute majesty.

Like many of the tourists I spoke to, I felt a little 'templed-out' after a while. So many details in so little time can be overwhelming, and to the untrained eye, same-ish. Even in the low season the place is teeming with tourists and touts, the latter of which are exhausting. After three hours of being pestered (being a solo white female traveller I was a prime target), I ended up donning my headphones. It might be rude, but it was peaceful. It also helped me get my mojo back - dancing on the top of the Maebon, a 10th century temple in the Cambodian jungle, hoping no one could see me? Priceless.

As part of my all day tour, I was taken to the War Museum just outside of Siem Reap. Here I met a man called Sitead who had been shot three times and hit by land mines twice. Consequently, after showing me the shrapnel still embedded in his body, he guided me around the museum with the sight in one eye and hobbled on his prosthesis.

If I was wondering what remained of the war in Cambodia, this was a good indication. This decomposing graveyard of war machinery and weapons served as a weird summary of the Cambodian attitude towards decades of civil war. It was there to serve as a tribute to the past, of man's inexhaustible and inventive ways of hurting one another, of international intervention in Cambodian politics. Yet it was poorly maintained and curated. It's like the Cambodians do it for others, not for themselves. I guess if you've seen it first-hand, as many people have, you don't need a museum to remind you of history's lessons.

After the tour I returned to my hostel with my newly generated outrage for man's cruelty and spoke to Chris, one of the managing staff. He fought in the war, along with many others his age. After learning about some of the atrocities committed during the war, I asked him if the Cambodians follow the trials of the Khmer Rouge closely. He explained that there are only 6 people on trial, and they're so old that any sentence they are likely to receive will probably not allow them to provide any real sense of justice.

Apparently the Cambodian government isn't even really funding these trials, the money is coming from other countries such as France and the US - which according to the Lonely Planet has amassed to $150M. When I told Chris this he just laughed the saddest laugh. He pointed to the pot-holed, dirt road at the front of the hostel and said, "I'd rather they spend money on something that really matters".

And this is where I find things truly astonishing. After decades of war, millions of deaths and unspeakable cruelty... for the Cambodians now, peace is enough. To try and rebuild their lives is enough. Justice is a luxury.

And this is lived out every day of their lives. The main governing party, The Cambodian People's Party, is filled with many people who headed up the Khmer Rouge. Corruption is rife, and yet people continue to vote for them. People who fought in the Khmer Rouge continue to live side-by-side with their old enemy, who don't seek prosecution for their heinous acts. As a Westerner with the luxury of justice, this is incomprehensible.

A trip to the Mine Museum deepened my incredulousness at man's execrable weapons of war. Aki Ra, a Cambodian man who laid mines with the Khmer Rouge and then spent decades digging thousands of them up with his bare hands, has an incredible story. He tells of fighting as a child soldier, playing with this friends and then killing them on the battlefield the next day. Switching sides, digging up mines, and continuing to do so after the conflict had ended. Starting an orphanage to help maimed or disadvantaged children get an education he never had an opportunity to obtain. Starting the only Cambodian-run anti-mine organisation. Telling people from all over the world what mines to do people; that they are designed to maim and not kill the enemy. After all, an injured soldier is more expensive than a dead one, and takes up more resources to care for.

Most importantly, countries continue to make these weapons, despite their horrific consequences. And it's not just China and Russia - the USA continues to manufacture and use land mines. Mines which are embedded with thousands of tiny lead pellets, designed to cause carnage and abominable injury and/or ongoing illness during and long after a conflict has ended. What great ambassadors of the West they are.

It was time to go to Phnom Penh - Cambodia's capital. I'd heard not-so-great-things about Phnom Penh - that it was dirty, crowded, full of beggars, and not particularly safe. Personally, I was less impressed with the 6 hour bus trip from Siem Reap to get there, but at the cost of US$10, I couldn't justify a plane trip.

Six hours in a partially air conditioned bus listening to Cambodian karaoke, I might add. Watching the film clips was particularly hilarious: Boy meets girl. Girl doesn't like boy. Girl kind of likes boy. Girl eventually falls in love with boy. One of them meets an untimely death. Three clips in a row the girl had a stroke or an aneurism. All of this makes me think that Cambodia is a particularly unhealthy/accident prone country, particularly if you are one to use a shitload of hair product and/or practice longing looks out over a horizon.

I arrived into Phnom Penh and checked into a great hostel called Me Mates Place. I met up with a couple of cool French chicks and we decided to go to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng together. I was very happy to have the company - because honestly it would have been too much by myself.

In brief, Pol Pot was a radical Marxist who wanted to bring Cambodia back to Year Zero - remove all anti-government forces from the country and anyone who wasn't a worker or 'base person' with it. Even if you had glasses, you were at risk of being seen as being too educated and your life was at risk. If you had worked for the deposed government, you would be hunted down. And if you were killed, the Khmer Rouge would kill your family too for fear of reprisals.

If you were captured in the area around Phnom Penh, you were taken to Tuol Sleng, an old high school which was converted into a prison, where you were inevitably tortured into admitting your wrong doing. From here you were transported out of town to the Killing Fields, where you were killed. Twenty thousand people died like this, which is a small proportion of the estimated 2 million Cambodians who died as a result of the war or from famine and disease.

At the Killing Fields, people were usually bludgeoned to death at the edge of a pit (to save on expensive bullets). In case people weren't dead, the Khmer Rouge sprinkled DDT on them before they buried them, and it also helped to disguise the smell. Our guide took us along the footpath which had bones and clothes sticking out of it. At one point, I accidentally kicked a tooth along the ground. He showed us the killing tree, which soldiers bashed babies' heads against before tossing them into the pit, and the magic tree, where speakers playing revolutionary music were hung to drown out the sounds of the soldiers killing prisoners.

Today, you can see dragonflies over a green pasture in front of the monument which stands 17 stories high. The monument is filled with the bones of those that have been exhumed in order to gather evidence of war crimes. Many more bodies remain in the fields.

This all seemed surreal to me, until I got inside the museum and saw a young girl's purple crotched top. It was so pretty - you could imagine what it would have looked like on a little girl's brown skin. You knew it was a shirt a mother would buy her daughter, and at some point the mother would have seen her little girl and thought how beautiful she looked in it. Maybe only for a moment in her tired life, the mother may have taken solace in those feelings of calm and unconditional love. What I knew happened to those two people after this, the horror they faced as their lives ended... I felt it all wash through me. Sadness, desperation, dread, anger, hatred, reflection.

We took the tuk tuk to Tuol Sleng. Different wings were used for either torturing or housing prisoners in such appalling conditions. The Khmer Rouge photographed their prisoners, and these photos are here. Walls and walls of them - faces of men, women and children, looking directly into the camera. I looked at their faces to detect how much they knew of their fate, trying to detect their emotions. Standing in the middle of the room you can feel their eyes on you, beseeching saviour. I had to leave the room.

Barbed wire was strung up around the upper levels to stop desperate prisoners from committing suicide. Two of the surviving prisoners were at the prison selling autographed books for US$10. The place is ringed with beggars. The sadness here is quite unbelievable.

I returned to Siem Reap in order to catch a flight to Vietnam, only to find the center of town under half a meter of water. After walking through a kilometer of floodwaters to get to my hostel, I rejoined with some backpackers I'd met previously and went for a well needed drink in town. The kids who had been bugging us to buy stuff were dancing in the streets in the water and the rain. The tuk tuk drivers were making waves that lapped at our feet at Angkor What? as we sipped on some of the cheapest cocktails on earth.

Cambodia challenges you to question yourself, and you often find conflicting answers. It's a challenge to understand how people can recover from such a comprehensive and devastating war, and live peacefully with the perpetrators of war crimes in their midst. Cambodia is being challenged by the flourishing tourism industry, with the race to skim as much of the tourist dollar as possible. As a visitor, this means being continually challenged by knowing that you're being continuously ripped off by people much poorer than you are. Being stared at, pointed at, photographed and pestered by touts can be endless.

But knowing that you can leave Cambodia and return to a comfortable house in a wealthy country by some universal fluke is easily the biggest challenge of all.

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