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An Expert insight into Cambodia

Cambodia seems to embody all that is wrong with a developing world country. The politicians are institutionally corrupt, the gap between rich and poor is enormous, the rainforest jungle has all but disappeared, the waters have been fished out and the country is dependent on (and purposely makes itself dependent on) foreign aid. Even all the snakes have been eaten (reputedly!).

But it has two great assets that give hope for the future. The first is the people, who are incredibly welcoming, friendly and hospitable. They are deferential to authority and that makes them unwilling to vote against the current government even though they acknowledge it is thoroughly corrupt. This unwillingness stems from their Buddhist religion in which merit accumulated in previous lives goes a long way to explain a person’s social position.

The other great asset is the ancient monuments of Angkor that bring around two million visitors per annum into the country. These monuments represent the golden age of Cambodia when the Khmer Empire was the most powerful in Southeast Asia. But these monuments have been allowed to fall into ruin and disrepair. The truth is that the government spends nothing on its ancient monuments, preferring to rely upon the goodwill and charity of other nations. At the moment, it is the Germans, Indians, Japanese and Koreans who are involved, providing funds and expertise.

The same goes for the clearance of land mines. Between them, the Americans and the Khmer Rouge managed to plant millions of anti personnel mines all over the country. Today, some 30 years on, it is estimated that there are still between 3 and 6 million land mines active and undiscovered around the countryside. There are whole areas that we are advised to avoid and rural people (at a rate of about 40 people each year) are still being injured or killed by accidentally stepping on one of these dreadful weapons. It could be imagined that land mine clearance would be the number one priority of the army but, in fact, it is being carried out by the British, Canadians, Koreans and Australians.

However, it is to see the magnificent ancient monuments that draws us to Cambodia and brings us to the town of Siem Reap. It is a charming town with a distinctly French influence in its buildings and tree lined boulevards. The Stung Siem Reap (river) flows slowly through the centre and into Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, which was the richest freshwater fishing ground in the world. At the moment, it is almost empty, partly because it is the end of the dry season and it has yet to be replenished by rain and the rising waters of the Mekong River, but, mostly, because the Chinese have diverted the Mekong for their own purposes (electricity and water), with no regard for the effect it has on those downstream.

Despite the fact that some 2 million people now visit the ancient monuments around Siem Reap, the rural people are among the poorest in Cambodia. Our first visit was to Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world. It was built sometime in the 12th century as a Hindu centre for the worship and learning of the deity Vishnu by Suryavarman II but, later transformed into a Buddhist temple by his successors. It was completed around the same time as the European gothic cathedrals of Notre Dame and Chartres. Built from sandstone blocks, Angkor Wat replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mount Meru with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (represented by lower courtyards) and the ocean (represented by the moat). The access across the 200 metre-wide moat is via a symbolic rainbow bridge that enables humans to reach the abode of the gods. The whole area takes up over one square kilometer of grounds and the summit of the temple at 63 metres dominates the flat forest area that encompasses the temple. The significance of Angkor Wat to Cambodia cannot be understated; it is a source of great national pride, it is the epicentre of the Khmer Kingdom and appears in the middle of the national flag.

The first sight of the great temple is awe inspiring. Crossing the moat, the surrounding walls are ornately and meticulously carved into thousands of nymphs who serve Lord Vishnu. It seems, every other available bit of stone is delicately carved by expert stonemasons into patterns that are sometimes simple and often complicated. Originally, this whole area would be a beautiful, lush, tropical garden that flashed colour and scent, giving the pilgrim a feeling of trespassing into an ethereal world occupied by gods.

More impressive in many ways is the fortified city of Angkor Thom (Great City). It is 10 square kilometers in size and, at its height, boasted a population of one million people at a time when London was a scrawny town of 50,000 inhabitants. It was built by King Jayavaraman VII, some 50 years after the completion of Angkor Wat, in the style of the Buddhist faith. The inhabitants lived in wooden houses because the right to live in brick and stone was reserved for the gods. The wooden buildings decayed long ago, leaving the skeleton of extravagantly beautiful religious structures. It has 54 Gothic-like towers decorated with 216 large, coldly smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara that, reputedly, bear a strong resemblance to King Jayavaraman himself. These huge visages glare down from every angle watching over his vast empire and serve to remind all subjects who is in charge. The walls are richly decorated with murals that vividly depict everyday life in 12th Century Cambodia. Standing slightly aside from the temple is the Terrace of the Elephants, a giant viewing platform for public ceremonies and games. Watched by the god-king who would be flanked by mandarins and handmaidens, this would be the place where the power and pomp of the Khmer Empire would have been on display with infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants parading across the grass central area in a colourful procession of pennants and standards.

Around the two dominant temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are, seemingly, hundreds of others that pop up out of the countryside wherever we turn. The most interesting of these old temples is Banteay Srei which some scholars consider to be the crown jewel of Angkorian art. Begun in AD 967, it is built from pink stone and is full of fine, delicate stone carving that is stunning in its intricate detail. The doorways are all tiny and, it is claimed, that the small and beautiful complex was built for women. The other temple of note was called Ta Prohm which was, apparently, used to film Tomb Raider. Here, the jungle has taken over despite the restoration efforts of the Indians. The crumbling walls and towers are locked in the muscular, python-like grip of centuries old strangler vine, the roots of which twist and turn and delve into the stone construction like virus.

In contrast to the temples of the rich, the countryside is home to the poor, agrarian people who still have to scratch a living from the earth. The tarmac roads soon give way to the rutted surface of baked, red soil and the mortar and brick houses become huts thrown together from wood and palm leaves and/or corrugated iron. There is no telephone, electricity or running water. Work is provided by duck farming (for eggs mostly) and small rice fields that stretch across the flat land for miles. A good yield of wet sticky rice provides the highest sale value at US$250 per ton and a farmer needs around a hectare (two and a half acres) of land to produce this much crop. After expenses, there isn’t much left. It’s a hard existence of back breaking manual work and it is difficult to see how a family could break out of the cycle of poverty.

As a contrast to the history of ancient Angkor, we could not avoid visiting the Land Mine Museum and Killing Fields of modern Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rose to power, sponsored by the Chinese and Thai governments, towards the end of the Vietnamese war with the US. Led by Saloth Sar who called himself Pol Pot or Brother Number One, about 2 million Cambodians died (1 in 8 of the population) during a four year period in one of the bloodiest and inept pieces of social engineering the world has ever experienced. The number of casualties and their enormity are almost impossible to understand. The regime abolished money, forcefully evacuated cities, prohibited religious practices, suspended education, newspapers and postal services, collectivized eating and made everyone wear peasant clothing. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery struck down whole families. Disobedience of any sort brought immediate execution. Anyone considered to be a monk or an intellectual was shot – having glasses was reason enough to be killed. The bones of the dead can now be seen in a number of impersonal displays all over the country.

Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end after they undertook an invasion of Vietnam which responded in force. The Rouge had neither the resources nor the manpower to win such a conflict and the near empty capital of Phnom Penh was liberated in early 1979.

To their credit, the people of Cambodia have bounced back from these atrocities and they are an optimistic, cheerful and hospitable lot. It is a pleasure to travel in their country and to experience their culture and their way of life. However, they acknowledge that they continue to be ill served by a government that seems to be wholly detached from those they are suppose to serve. But, in typical Cambodian style, they shrug their shoulders and hope for the best.

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