Cambodia (Part 1): A nation of contrasts?

It’s the summer holidays and I’ve returned to South East Asia to continue my explorations. I’ve travelled along the coast of Vietnam and I’m now in Cambodia for the last 5 days of my trip.

Cambodia, with its iconic temples of Angkor Wat, was the next stop on my travels. My knowledge of this country mostly related to the genocide under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot and that tourism is its second largest industry. Made in Cambodia labels are increasing and I’ve a vague recollection of a case study of sweat shops in a KS3 course being updated from Bangladesh to Cambodia.

Entering the country at Bavet land border crossing from Vietnam, the contrast in the buildings and landscape is phenomenal. Either side of the road are casinos, some grand and golden and others looking slightly worse for wear, catering for the Vietnamese market as gambling is illegal in Vietnam; ironically for the number of casinos, it’s also illegal for Cambodians to gamble. The second thing you notice is the contrast between the different buildings from highly adorned, gated houses on solid concrete raised platforms to wooden and tin constructions on stilts. These buildings are all on plots that are larger than those in Vietnam, the narrow long houses seem to have been left behind (at least in the countryside). I didn’t notice any outside toilets driving through Vietnam but here they are in the corner of the plots.

Driving out of the border town you see rice paddy after rice paddy but as it’s the wet season, with unusually high rainfall, and the recent dam burst in Laos, large swathes of land are flooded and the farmers will need to wait another few months for the waters to subside before they can grow rice again. Those areas that are not flooded are a hive of activity with crops being sprayed and weeded. The floodwaters do bring one advantage though, they bring fish to the smaller rivers and nearer to the houses and you can see where banks have been built to trap the fish in. Small rowing boats can occasionally be seen fishing in the waters.

Along the main road to Phnom Penh there is evidence of huge amounts of construction. New white and shiny petrol stations with Amazon Cafes (the Cambodian equivalent of Starbucks) and toilets are springing up. New buildings are modern and include glass fronted shops with white LED lighting and air conditioning. A huge contrast to the wooden stalls on the street if the neighbouring properties selling soft drinks with plastic chairs and hammocks.

Driving into Phnom Penh it is clear this is a rapidly growing city and space it is a premium. Narrow and tall buildings squash in streets between areas of new high rise blocks. The waterfront with its wide promenade links the gold adorned Palace to the river; although is it absolutely covered with the ‘royal’ pigeons so it’s a bit like home! Heading out for dinner showed another contrast between the clean, wide streets around the Palace and Government buildings and the narrow, rubbish strewn, pot hole streets beyond this area. Here construction is everywhere and again you see modern air contained shows next to wooden stalls next to massage parlours. Tangled cables are slung low across the streets and you just hope they really are all now disconnected as they appear to scrap along the top of the bus.

On Wednesday we headed out for a tour of the city only to find the roads round the Palace and the Palace itself shut for the morning – something which didn’t seem to phase our local guide (the law states that all tour groups must be accompanied by local guides when in Cambodia) as it apparently happens a lot! Cambodia has a King who is really now only a figurehead and without any real power. The country is run by its democratically elected Prime Minister who has been chosen as the leader by the Cambodia People’s Party (you can see party signs and buildings al along the roads as you drive through the country). With a large anti-corruption unit building in Phnom Penh, government corruption is acknowledged but I’m not really sure how effectively it is being tackled (eg despite bans on logging, there are a number of millionaires close to high ranking officials who seem to be continuing to log and sell to China).

With the Palace due to reopen at 2pm, we changed our plans round and headed to Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A solemn morning was spent learning about the atrocities suffered by Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s rule from 1975 to 1978. It was hard to see a high school, with its building layout and classrooms the same as the ones we’d driven past the day before, re-appropriated as interrogation rooms and prison cells. A survivor of the prison shared his story of how he came to be used as the artist in the prison, drawing and painting to order (he showed a picture of Pol Pot he had had to draw from a photograph for display in the prison) and how it was this talent that ultimately saved him from being sent to the Killing Fields. Our local guide shared part of his story and how as a toddler he was taken, as all children were, to live with state nannies while their parents worked the land on the cooperative farms. Parents were able to visit their children but the harsh working conditions didn’t really enable this to happen very often, usually only when the children were ill. He talked about how individuals and families were not allowed to cook for themselves and instead were served two meals of watery rice every day in the cooperative kitchens. In the displays of photographs of the prisons there were many cooks who are believed to have been detained for trying to smuggle more food for their families. The short drive from the high school prison to the Killing Fields made it hit home just how close to the city the killings took place. Some of the mass graves have been exhumed but others have now been left untouched and wooden walkways link the known mass graves around the site. A central monument holding over 8000 skulls is a place to remember and honour those who lost their lives and a plaque marks the tree a loudspeaker was hung from to play music at night to drown out the sounds of the killings. As someone who has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, Daucau and a number of memorials in Rwanda, I do feel it’s important these sites remain open so that people can ensure such atrocities are not allowed to happen again. After our morning, our lunch table was, understandably, quieter than usual.

In the afternoon we headed back to the Palace and this time it was open. The Khmer roofs and gilding shine in the sun and this iconic building dominates the waterfront. The complex also includes the Silver Pagoda with its floor of silver tiles, gold and diamond Buddha, emerald Buddha and a very large ruby ring amounts other ornate treasures. After the Palace we visited the only hill in the city, Wat Phnom, which is believed to have given the city its name and the National Museum of Cambodia which, while home to the world’s best collection of Khmer sculpture, just seem a very brown room filled with grey and brown sculptures to me! In the evening we went to Friends restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is part of a project to support street children in Cambodia and the internationally inspired menu gives young people the opportunity to be trained and gain valuable work experience.

On Thursday morning we left Phnom Penh to drive north to Seim Reap. The adventure continues for three more days…

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