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Skulls and scams: cycling through Cambodia

Leaving Bangkok. Leaving crowds. Leaving chaotic streets. The small back roads to Cambodia were rutted and quiet. One last night in a Thai monastery. I was left to my own devices and shared a simple rice breakfast with the monks while two cats, both bald in patches, and one limping, stalked each other around a heap of laundry.

The border was congested with tourists sweating their way slowly along the immigration queue. A 4ft wide tree grew through the floor of the building and disappeared through an opening in the roof. The queue diminished, my passport was stamped and the throng of tourists boarded buses. The road was quiet, mine, when I pedalled on and into a country very visibly poorer than neighbouring Thailand. The tarmac was loose and the lines faded. Unkempt verges and overgrown fields. I wondered if unexploded landmines from the 1970s civil war still lay in this area. Mental note: be careful when camping.

The roadside villagers waved more enthusiastically than in Thailand and their houses were of wood and thatch, not brick, tile and plaster. Men wobbled by with up to four live and squealing pigs mounted in wicker racks on their motorbikes. A night in a monastery at the end of a flooded mud track included a barrage of loud, angry words from the typically grumpy head monk and a half hour lecture in Khmer (Cambodia’s language) from the village idiot.

Siem Reap is the first major town I reach and is the staging post for Angkor Wat and the surrounding ancient temple complexes that attract two million visitors a year. The town is typically touristic: bars, cafés, guesthouses, tauts. One young boy in ragged clothes tried to sell me the same book (which I explained I had already read) three separate times in one day. After the third time I declined, he pronounced me a “stinky guy” and stormed off. That evening I went into an internet café and found the same urchin sat at the computer next to me spending his meagre day’s earnings on an hour of watching Youtube videos. He saw me looking and told me that I “still stink”. It may have been true before but this time I had just showered.

I bought a three-day pass for the temples and passed the first two with a French student called Charles who is half-Japanese. We enjoyed eavesdropping on large tour groups from Japan; the guides instructions, as if to a school class, about where and when to regroup; their conversations often about who hasn’t yet been photographed next to a particular mundane object.

Built in the 12th-century, Angkor Wat itself is the largest temple in the world (indeed, the largest religious structure). The size, detail and age of the thing are overwhelming. The amount of (likely slave) labour it would have required to build, and the empire-generated wealth are sobering considerations. An astonishingly intricate relief frieze depicting 11,000 figures runs around one of the enclosing walls and every surface has acquired a thin covering of moss, shimmering emerald in the piercing sunlight and rendering everything impossibly picturesque. Picturesque, that is, if it wasn’t for the milling, swilling hordes of tourists toting Canons or Nikons with foot-long lenses. Groups of 50 or more, often in matching t-shirts and/or baseball caps, congest every doorway and walkway. The perilously-steep ancient steps (18 inches high and as little as 5 inches deep) present these groups with a quarter-hour obstacle which, to the spectator, competes in interest with the surrounding architectural treasures. Mercifully, at lunchtime, the groups melt away to eat, leaving silence and steamy heat in their wake. Dodging the crowds became an artform and involved visiting minor temples during peak hours as the package groups, in their air-conditioned, window-tinted coaches, have no interest in places not on their fly-by checklist.

Charles and I made an excursion into the dense jungle, that eagerly encroaches on the temples, and found a different world just 70 yards from the freshly paved road. Bamboo villages; a lost chunk of ancient brickwork wallowing in long grass; a woman scratching the head of a buffalo calf; a cockerel, bent on satisfaction, lustily scattering a distraught clutch of hens; barefoot boys playing football with a hollowed coconut. We sat with one group of small children who seemed to have never had contact with a tourist before. They live just 200 yards from one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.

The temple of Ta Prohm is very literally being swallowed by the jungle. Mighty trees straddle 900-year-old crumbling buildings while their swelling roots snake their way slowly and inevitably through walls, casually edging aside half-tonne blocks of masonry in their thirsty quest for the fertile earth below. We climbed up a toppled stack of stones, navigating the mossy jags, and perched atop a tilting wall, older than the Magna Carta, overlooking a cut off courtyard of the complex. The sun dipped, the greenery intensified in the enriched light and the whole crumbling, glowing scene achieved an impossibly photogenic appearance; a peaceful melancholia.
The temples, great and small, are scattered everywhere. Cycling from one to another, a visitor might come across four or five anonymous stacks of stone or brick that have survived for a millennium or more. This amazed me at first but then I considered the early 13th-century church in my childhood village which is not only still standing, but still in use. Why shouldn’t equally old, or older, structures survive in South East Asia? I think the surprising aspect is the way these astounding buildings have been abandoned to decay. A short-lived empire falls, its gods and religious practices fall with it. Arguably the most ambitious architectural achievement the world had ever seen is left to the jungle while another transient empire is founded with the vow to out-glory the previous. These are the games and occupations of kings and priests while normal people continue their existence in the same place, under whichever power happens to sit atop a self-aggrandising stack or stones in a far off place.

Back on the road. To Phnom Penh and a different type of history. Less ancient and awe-inspiring, more recent and incomprehensibly brutal. Cambodia’s capital was evacuated on April 17th 1975 when the Khmer Rouge defeated the government forces ending a five-year civil war. The city’s entire population was instantly relocated into the villages and set to work, slaves to the existing villagers who now enjoyed relative privileges. Educated or urban citizens were to be re-educated to a rural, communist way of life to establish “Year Zero” in a pure agrarian society with no currency, cities, conflict or meddling foreigners.

Everyone worked in the rice fields, wore standard issue clothing (black trousers and shirts) and was supposedly provided with food and shelter by the ruling “Angkar” (base). Unfortunately, peace required guns to enforce it. These were brought from China with precious rice produced by the already starving population. Peace required soldiers to inflict it, and these were largely uneducated and indoctrinated village boys. Peace required the arrest, interrogation, torture and murder of anyone suspected of being “Bourgeois”. Having fair skin, soft hands, a foreign language, and even wearing spectacles were seen as proof that you hadn’t spent a life toiling in the fields for the greater good and were therefore eligible for a fractured skull and a shallow mass grave. Estimates of the death toll of the Khmer Rouge regime between ’75 and ’79 range from 1,500,000 to 3,300,000. The national population in 1975 was only 8,000,000.

Administration broke down, people disappeared and we will never know the whole truth. Mass graves are still being unearthed today, adding to the 19,500 already discovered. Only one of the Kymer Rouge’s leading cadres has been tried and sentenced (in July 2010). Pol Pot, the mysterious orchestrator and face of the party, died peacefully under house arrest in 1998, aged 73.

In the emptied capital, a school was converted into the infamous Tuol Sleng S-21 prison for political dissidents. In four years, 14,000 people were interrogated and tortured here before being transported outside the city for execution. When the Vietnamese invasion liberated the city in 1979, the prison guards fled and the mutilated remains of S-21’s last 14 victims were found in various states of gore in the torture chambers. Walking through the rooms where horror once reigned, I was struck by the perversity of using a school for such inhumanity. In the “interrogation rooms” the bed frames and chains are still where they were found and (thankfully grainy) photographs of the final corpses as they were discovered are displayed in the respective rooms. The images still feature clearly in my mind and I can only imagine being locked in one of the 2ft by 5ft cells, hearing screams and helplessly awaiting my turn. The repetitive museum exhibition gave several facts and showed plenty of photographs but was hopelessly unable to explain how or why.

The prisoners from S-21 were taken 10 miles outside the city to Choeng Ek for execution and burial in mass graves. Ammunition was in short supply so guards killed with blows to the head from farming implements or used the jagged edge of a palm branch to decapitate their victims. When one grave was exhumed, the bodies of 80 small children were found who had been held by the feet and swung, head-first, against a nearby tree (“The Killing Tree”) on which a dark, stained dent is still visible 30 years on. Choeng Ek “killing field” is an area of only about 250 yards squared. 80 of 126 graves have been exhumed and 15,000 of an estimated 19,000 bodies have been found. Everytime it rains, more remains emerge from the sandy earth. Human teeth are dotted about and protruding bones are visible everywhere. As at S-21, the “Genocide Centre” museum has facts (few and often repeated) but no explanation. I think the country as a whole has tried to move on and many see the past as a horror story rather than history.

One positive, which possibly results from these unthinkable atrocities, is a national desire to improve. I felt a real sense of industry and people genuinely seemed intent on progressing. The lethargy of neighbouring countries is less here. Less people sleep the day through in hammocks and less people passively watch the world go by. However, on how the killers and victims were all Cambodian citizens and now live side-by-side, John Keay writes in his book Mad About the Mekong:
The unbearable burden of recall placed on survivors of a conventional holocaust would be a relief to the survivors of a self-inflicted genocide. With no one to blame but themselves, Cambodians seem still to teeter on the edge of a pre-dug grave, restrained only by the presence of international agencies and the promise of foreign investment. The trees trill with the deafening protest of unseen insects. The earth smells of blood. Seeing the country as other than the site of a holocaust proves nigh impossible.

I was delayed for a while in Phnom Penh while my visa application trickled through China’s fickle system. I walked through the colonial quarter and along the riverside, visited night markets and day markets, read books and researched the road ahead. One night I was walking down a dark alley when a motorbike passed carrying three men. A figure leaped out of the shadows and pulled the hindmost passenger roughly to the floor. The motorbike sped off; the floored man jumped to his feet and was punched in the jaw before he could start fleeing. As he did so, about 20 figures emerged quickly from the shadows all around me and gave chase. Most looked under 20-years-old and one who ran close by me was wielding a sturdy, wooden table leg. Within 30 seconds, everything was silent again and I continued my walk.

The visa was finally approved and I began my last stretch of Cambodian roads. Simple villages; flat landscapes; children splashing around in flooded brown streams surrounded by lime-green rice paddies; a crowd of 17 young monks watching, transfixed, as I prepare dinner on my camping stove; the same young monks churlishly competing in vociferousness during a late night prayer chant; a large hairy spider (the same species I ate fried in Siem Reap) jumping out of my shorts as I dress in the morning; carts of firewood drawn by horses with red tassels similar to those of the Roma gypsies; temperatures of 30°C by 7.30am; short but powerful tropical storms.

More by Charlie Walker at his own website.

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