Saying Goodbye to Cambodia. The Good, the Bad and the Best
It’s day nine of my journey already! And sadly, it’s also the last day of this epic journey. Time surely does fly when having fun.
For all its beauty and historical value, Cambodia has had a terrible and troubled past. In 1432, the Thai’s sacked Angkor and in 1863, the French invaded this country. During the 1960s and 70s, the country underwent a violent civil war when the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot took control, renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and started mass cleansing that killed an estimated 2,000,000 people (about a third of the population) brought on by starvation, illness, brutality and executions.
Pol Pot was the leader of the Cambodian Communist Party and began the radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia inspired in part by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He attempted his own version of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ with the ‘Super Great Leap Forward’ that included purification from capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences in favour of an extreme form of peasant Communism. According to The History Place “All foreigners were thus expelled, embassies closed, and any foreign economic or medical assistance was refused. The use of foreign languages was banned. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage curtailed. Money was forbidden. All businesses were shuttered, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated, and parental authority revoked. Thus Cambodia was sealed off from the outside world.”
Pol Pot forcibly evacuated all of Cambodia’s cities including two million people from Phnom Penh who were forcibly led on foot into the countryside at gunpoint with as many as 20,000 dying along the way.
Millions of Cambodians were forced into slave labour in Pol Pot’s “killing fields” where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease. Throughout the rest of Cambodia, deadly purges were conducted to eliminate the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, former government officials, ex-soldiers along with their wives and children and anyone disloyal to Pol Pot. “What is rotten must be removed,” a Khmer Rouge slogan proclaimed.
In memory of this horrible era is a small memorial called Wat Thmey (or Killing Fields). Having expected something much more significant, I find a small temple yard with billboards of fading photographs showing the encounters of those dark days. In the centre is a glass showcase crammed with skulls and bones of those who perished under the Pol Pot reign of terror. It’s a chilling reminder of that terror and an aide-mémoire to future generations.
From here, I am on my way to Tonle Sap Lake to visit Cambodia’s famous floating villages. I chug on the muddy waters in an open-sided boat. Along the banks of this lake are families casting their nets, washing their children, and preparing for the day. With over three million people inhabiting the banks of this lake, more than 90% earn their living off these waters. But the most distinctive feature of this lake is the floating villages. The villages consist of Khmer, Muslim, and Vietnamese households as well as schools, a Catholic church, a hospital, grocery stores and restaurants. It’s an undulating vision of another lifestyle that thrives on water.
Back at Siem Reap, we climb the steep and winding path to Phnom Bakheng and join a line of tourists, waiting impatiently to get to the top of the summit for a panoramic view of Angkor and its landscape below. I am told that seeing the sunset from the summit is worth the climb.
King Yasovarman, who was king in 889 built this temple as a dedication to Hindu god Siva. It is cut from rock and sandstone and was originally designed with 109 towers to look like Mount Meru. There were five towers on the upper terrace and 12 towers on each of the five tiers of the base representing the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac. The 108 towers (excluding the central sanctuary) symbolize the four lunar phases with 27 days in each phase, while the seven levels correspond to the seven heavens of Hindu mythology.
There is a limit to the number of visitors to the top and finally it’s my turn to climb the steep steps to the top. And beyond the countryside is another memorable light show as the sun sets over Cambodia and the priceless ancient remnants of yesteryear.
Tonight I relax and enjoy the hippest place in Siem Reap- Pub Street. Representing nothing of Cambodia, it is where every nationality meets and language is spoken, all in good faith and to have a good time. One common word is understood here… “beer”, the cheapest in the world they say. I enjoy the bright lights, the blaring music, the most modern open-plan restaurants, and some amazing food.
It is time to leave Cambodia (and return home). But I have lots and lots of great memories, hundreds of pictures, and a promise to return.