Saturday, 31 October 2009

Despatches from Phnom Penh

After another 6 hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, here we are in a tourist prison - a hot little cell with bars on the windows, otherwise known as a budget hotel! But at only $20 a night it's bearable, particularly as we have the Mekong river on one side and the National Museum on the other.

The museum is what we have come to see. All the remaining free-standing sculptures and important works of art from the Angkor temples have been brought here for safe keeping. All the ones that haven't already been looted that is ........ Much of it was carried off to Thailand in the nineteenth century. One Thai king even had the idea of dismantling Angkor Wat and re-erecting it outside Bankok! Other foreign visitors also appropriated artefacts for their 'preservation and protection'. During the Khmer Rouge period there was a great deal of looting. Even today carvings from the temples find their way onto the international black market.
The museum has the royal regalia from Angkor Thom - two twelfth century gold crowns with necklaces, bracelets and earrings worn by the Angkor kings and shown in some of the bas reliefs. These were returned to Cambodia, together with several statues, by Douglas Latchford - an antiquarian and collector living in Thailand with a strong interest in Cambodian Art. How many more fabulous artefacts are out there? No one knows.

We had lunch with TV producer and film-maker Cedric Jancloes at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Phnom Penh. This was the centre of Press activity during the war, but is now one of the tourist hot spots, though journalists and media representatives still use it. I was fascinated to see that Al Rockoff, the US journalist whose Cambodian experiences were the subject of the film The Killing Fields, was sitting just behind us. He still lives in Phnom Penh for much of the time and is apparently very critical of the way David Puttnam's film distorted the truth of his relationship with his Cambodian assistant.

Cedric Jancloes, who came originally to Phnom Penh as a documentary film maker with the UN, told us about a recent excavation in Cambodia. One of the historical legends records that Khmer civilisation began when a Brahmin prince from India fell in love with the daughter of the Naga (snake) King. This seems to explain the fusion of Buddhist and Hindu iconography in the temples here.

Left - female warrior carved in Preah Ko temple.

The same legends also tell of an army of women, and no one has given this much credit, until archaeologists began to dig up a necropolis containing the burials of female warriors - all tall and long-boned, buried with their weapons and regalia. The discovery of this army of Amazons is very exciting for Cambodia. But Cedric told us that the site is being constantly looted - the women's bronze bracelets and other jewellery simply vanish despite the best efforts of the archaeologists. This is the reason why, although they know where dozens of other important temples are hidden in the rain forest, they remain unexcavated. Cambodia doesn't have the money to protect or maintain the monuments it already has. A few wardens patrol temple precincts which stretch for miles.
In the afternoon we wandered around the city and went to the art college where students learn - among other things - traditional carving and other sculptural techniques. A young boy was casting a temple lion in cement outside on the pavement. Much of this expertise was lost in the war and most of the restoration work is now done by foreign governments. Hopefully they will soon have a skilled group of artisans to restore their own works of art though I suspect that the money to fund it will continue to come from wealthier nations.

We ended the day on the roof terrace of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, watching the sun go down and lights come on along the banks of the river.

Tomorrow we leave Cambodia to begin the journey back to England, and I'm surprised to find myself very reluctant to go. Despite the poverty, the blatant tourist trade, the heat and the mosquitoes, Cambodia's landscape and its people have been quietly clawing their way around my heart - like the strangler figs enclosing the stonework of the temples. Far, far too romantic an image I know, but that's how it feels at the moment.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Sacred Waters of Phnom Kulen

The Kulen hills are about 60 km from Siem Reap and apparently it was here that the Angkor civilisation began. On Phnom Kulen the Siem Reap river rises in a series of mysterious springs and flows down to the Tonle Sap lake and then on down to Phnom Penh to join the mighty Mekong. Without this supply of water to grow rice and other crops, the Angkor civilisation would probably never have developed.

We had a difficult journey on laterite roads washed out by the typhoon and still waiting to be repaired. Often we had four wheels in four different pot holes at the same time. It's a steep climb to the top, slithering in mud and clunking the bottom of the car on ridges left by the torrents of flood water.
There are very early temples here, several hundred years earlier than Angkor Wat, though our guide wouldn't take us, because the usual route was impassable and he wasn't sure which of the other paths were free of mines. He did take us to a pinnacle of rock with a reclining Buddha carved at the top, which is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, though few europeans come here.
He also took us to the sacred springs where the water seeps invisibly up through the sandy soil into clear pools. Only a puff of sand at the bottoms shows where the water rises. Here, the river bed is carved with a thousand Yoni and Linga - the square with a round stone peg that represents the union of male and female in the Hindu religion. As the river widens and grows in strength, Vishnu is carved in the bed rock close to the waterfall, so that all the water that flows through the temples and into the rice paddies on the plains below, flows from Vishnu.

The river falls off the edge of the rocks at Phnom Kulen into a pool below, sending up clouds of spray. Local people come here to swim in the sacred water. Neil went in, but I hadn't brought my swimming costume and there were too many people around for skinny dipping - the Khmer are a very modest people.

There were stalls everywhere selling incense, lotus flowers, food and chinese medicines. Under the trees, at a little distance, were two men with a freshly cured puma skin. I managed to get a photograph which has gone to the authorities in Phnom Penh. Big cats are almost extinct in Cambodia.
On another stall you could buy jars of yellow liquid with a cobra and a large scorpion pickled inside. Behind them were two small elephant tusks, which made me very sad. The stall holder wouldn't allow me to photograph these.

On the way back down the hill, in the afternoon, we visited another early temple complex - the tenth century Banteay Srei 'Fortress of the the Women'. It was probably called that because of the numerous female deities carved on the walls here - Parvati, wife of Siva, is represented in several of her incarnations as well as Lakshmi. There are also lots of carvings of the Apsaras - heavenly dancers who were created when the Naga snake was twisted to churn the ocean of milk. The temples are surrounded by a moat and it's a serene and beautiful place. The carvings are unusually delicate and intimate and the whole temple complex has an atmosphere of spirituality I didn't find in many other places. Banteay Srei is 30 km outside Siem Reap, so there are fewer tourists here, which may have something to do with it.
The temple was founded by the guru of an early Angkor king and is associated with Siva the ascetic - here pilgrims came to learn the journey from materiality to the Universal Soul. Music, dance and art seem always to have played a big part in the life of the temple - even Siva is seen dancing in the carvings. This is definitely one of my favourite places here.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


One of the disadvantages of Siem Reap is the level of tourist hassle - probably inevitable in a town where everyone depends on it for a living. Everywhere you go you're assailed by people calling 'Moto! Moto! Tuk-tuk! You want massage sir/madam? I sell you something - good price!'
Every temple complex has its satellite village of stalls selling food and souvenirs. Many of the vendors are children. As soon as they see the tuk-tuk draw up they descend like a flock of brightly coloured birds clutching scarfs, cold drinks, hats, and T-shirts calling and shrieking 'You want scarf madame? Two dollars!' 'You want bangle? Ten bangles one dollar!'
Some of them have a more oblique approach. ''My name Nom, what your name?''
''Kassie? You buy cold drinks only from me - you remember my name Nom.''
It's an order not a request, and - smiling broadly - she's still on the selling pitch. 'You buy scarf? I give you three scarfs five dollars. Best price from me.'
I've learnt the Cambodian for 'No, thank you', but whichever language you say it in they follow you, still calling until you reach the policeman at the gateway who inspects your pass. But you can still hear their voices. 'Kassie, I remember you. You buy only from me when you come back!'' And when you do return an entire flock of children runs towards you, all laughing and shouting 'Kassie, Kassie, you buy only from me!!!'
Nom, like her friends Maria and Tao, is about eleven and doesn't go to school (schooling has to be paid for in Cambodia). She's acquiring a very different education - the art of getting tourists to part with their cash. She can sell you anything in four languages. Inside the temples there are other children - girls of six or seven lugging infant siblings with huge, bush-baby eyes and solemn faces. They beg for money or sweets and biscuits. Some of them are orphans from the many orphanages around Siem Reap.

Older children, who sneak in through the ruined walls, sit in the shrines and will begin to talk to you if you linger, and tell you the history of the temple. They will also take you to see carvings you might have overlooked and tell you something about their lives. They don't ask for money, but it's understood that if you let them do this, you have to give them a couple of dollars for the service. This, rather sad little girl had a raccoon.

You can't help wondering what the future holds for these young people; it surely has to be better than this.
(All the children in these photographs were adequately recompensed for the photo-sessions!)

Monday, 26 October 2009

Police, Parakeets and Politics

In November 1859 French naturalist Henri Mouhot was on an expedition from Bankok exploring unmapped areas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. He heard stories of magnificent temples in the jungle from local people and braved encounters with tigers, elephants and rhinos to find them. His Cambodian guides took him to Angkor Wat and the ruined city of Angkor Thom. He crawled through fallen archways, scaled gigantic walls, and braved dark halls knee deep in bat dung. There were so many bats they were like ‘a second ceiling of black cloth’. The temple of Angkor Wat he described as 'a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo'. Mouhot died in Laos a couple of years later, but his drawings and diaries were published by his wife, and they started a romantic craze for the lost civilisation of Angkor.
It’s the scale of it all that knocks you speechless. I’d always known that Angkor Wat was a big temple and was prepared for the vast layout of moats and walls and temple precincts, but I hadn’t realised that the whole area is one huge landscape of similar temple complexes - many of them bigger - stretching for twenty kilometres out of Siem Reap.
Angkor Thom (Thom means big in Khmer) was a city that had a million inhabitants in the 12th century. Today the ceremonial gateways and the moats still impress the visitor as much as their original builder intended. Inside the gigantic retaining wall are the remains of royal palaces, terraces, dozens of temples (the most famous is the Bayon). It’s so big you need a moto to get from one end to the other without dying of heat exhaustion.

But it’s still possible to find areas of the city that no-one explores. We found a complex of four ruined temples - utterly beautiful - with a terrace that ended in two elephants and some ruined steps that led through bushes. Creeping through, bent double, we found a lake with two cows grazing on lotus stems.
The beauty and symmetry of Angkor Wat - a kilometre or so outside the walls of Angkor Thom - was impossible to appreciate in 35 degrees of humid heat in the company of several million tourists. Half the world seemed to be there taking photographs and following guides all raising their voices and coloured flags to be heard and seen over all the others. The central sanctuary was closed for restoration, so I couldn’t see that, or the section of bas-reliefs I’d come to look at. Impossible to get any kind of spiritual experience from this visit.
There was a student demonstration for the 350 organisation while we were there. I talked to some of the enthusiastic young Cambodians and they told me that they were taking part in a planetary day of action at iconic locations around the world, to force politicians to take action on climate change, reducing pollution to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We checked afterwards and sadly, although the day itself got wide coverage around the world, the Cambodian demonstration didn’t get a single news mention.
The next morning we got up to see the sunrise at the King’s bathing pool (large enough to float a couple of destroyers and an aircraft carrier - or their medieval equivalent), but the weather was cloudy, so we decided to use the early hour to look at one of the other temples. Ta Phrom is one of the most popular, because it has been ‘conserved’ and left very much as it was, embraced by the jungle, with kapok trees clawing their way through the temple ruins. The walls of some of these temple complexes are several kilometres long. Ta Phrom required about 79,000 people to keep it serviced and they all lived within the perimeter walls, though their wooden houses have long since disintegrated. It’s a long walk from the outer gate to the inner walls. Inside them, there is the most beautiful (adjectives fail you here) confusion of literally dozens of ruined temples covering acres of ground. Photographs show the tree roots dripping over roofs and walls, so I had imagined maybe one or two - but there are at least twenty, every one different.
We thought we would have the temples to ourselves, apart from the flocks of parakeets that gather in the morning and evening, but we were surprised to find ourselves sharing Ta Phrom with about thirty police and secret service personnel, complete with bullet proof jackets, at 6.30 in the morning. They told us that the Korean President was in Siem Reap on a state visit and was being brought to Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom by the King of Cambodia later in the day. So we had a police escort through the ruins, but it didn’t diminish the experience. Crawling through ruined corridors that would give european health and safety officers apoplexy, clambering over piles of fallen stones and watching the early sunlight begin to light up the tree trunks and the roofs of the temples, we could just begin to imagine what it might have been like for Henri Mouhot in 1859. There was even a bat!

Saturday, 24 October 2009


So here we are embarking on a 10 hour bus journey across Cambodia. We're travelling up from Sihanoukville in the far south, to Siem Reap in the north and quite close to the Thai border. Apparently the land around it actually belonged to Thailand until quite recent times.
The road goes through the straggling outliers of the Elephant Mountains which are covered in rainforest and cobwebbed by mist. In the valleys between there are rice paddies, single tall palm trees like rows of floor mops, water buffalo wallowing in pools among the pink and white lotus flowers, and stilt houses high above the flood water, all along the road. There's a piglet on a leash tied to the leg of one of them. A stall beside the road advertises itself as the 'Any Book Store', but the shelves are filled with cigarettes and Fanta cans. There aren't many books in Cambodia - looking for one for our little grandaughter either in Khmer (her preferred language) or English was a frustrating experience.
The bus has one or two europeans on it, but mainly Khmer or Chinese passengers. The battered screen at the front is showing the Khmer equivalent of a bollywood movie. There's a shrine to the gods who protect travellers under the television with little offerings and joss sticks. It's obviously needed. We try not to look out of the front window at the four lanes of traffic coming towards us on a two lane road, while the bus is overtaking a moto. Somehow everything avoids everything else and we hope it stays that way.

We stop every couple of hours for drinks and food and the stretching of cramped legs. Immediately food vendors gather round the bus selling banana fritters, french bread, small birds on skewers we'd rather not try to identify, boiled eggs (chick still in) and a range of drinks. Neil tries the fritters, but I'm sticking to things in packets, fresh fruit and ring pull cans. The standard of food hygiene in Cambodia is very low.

At one of the stops an itinerent european musician (his accent is vaguely New Zealand) gets on with various musical instruments strung about his body. He has a goatee beard and is wearing an akubra hat and quite a lot of jewellery. Within ten minutes of taking his seat he is already in conversation with the 'Single Female Traveller' of a certain age sitting three rows back. We hope he isn't pestering her, but later in Siem Reap see them sitting together outside a bar, so presumably his chat-up lines were acceptable!
The further north west we go the more water we see. In places the road has been washed away by this year's intense monsoon and is down to one lane. The dead leaves of the banana palms hang limp where they've been submerged in water. We can see in some places that the field boundaries have been washed away and the rice crop lies flat in the water like fields of wheat after a tornado. There are rumours of an anticipated humanitarian crisis. Several charity vehicles pass us on the road and just outside Siem Reap the UN World Food Programme have erected a tent village.

We are both rather sore and stiff when we reach Siem Reap, but very glad to have seen so much of the country from the windows. You don't get this view from the plane! It's too dark tonight to see any temples, so that will have to wait for tomorrow.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Sihanoukville is almost as far south as you can get on the coast of Cambodia, facing the Gulf of Thailand and just inside the hook of land that belongs to Vietnam. The town was named for King Sihanouk, an astute politician who managed to survive the Khmer Rouge and was invited back afterwards to become a constitutional monarch in an attempt to unite the country. During a filmed interview he said that he always regretted sending the brilliant young Pol Pot to europe to be educated. Like most Cambodians, he never anticipated what was to happen. The scars of it are still apparent and not just in the missing generation of people. Samnang is a popular male name for young people around 20 - it means 'lucky'. A lot of women of a similar age are simply called 'Srei', which means 'female'.

We've been staying in a small 'unit' built in the back garden of one of the more affluent Khmer families. We have one room with a bed and a wardrobe, an alcove with a sink and a small toilet with cold shower hose. A door opens onto a space at the back big enough to put a clay cooking pot. There are large earthenware jars to catch rainwater from the roof to use for cooking and flushing the toilet. The room was previously occupied by an entire Khmer family.

Up and down the road you can see the evidence of Cambodia's 'disappeared'. Elaborate wrought iron gates and fences guard plots of land swallowed by jungle. These were once the homes of the wealthy middle classes purged by Pol Pot. Only some of the plots have been re-occupied - our landlord Ba Om was one of the lucky ones. Some of the vacant plots are being re-developed for blocks of flats.

The city's rich now live on the hillside overlooking the bay. Their houses are painted and gilded like temples and guarded by electronic gates and men in security uniforms. They drive around in SUV's with tinted glass windows and without number plates because they're rich enough to pay for anonymity.
Sihanoukville is a mixture of squalor and five star hotels with immaculate palm fringed beaches. There are no pavements and the streets are lined with stalls selling banana fritters, squid on skewers, cigarettes, cold drinks and eggs 'with chick still in' - a local delicacy! You go everywhere on a moto; if there are more than two, you take a tuk-tuk.

Sihanoukville in the rain!!

Electricity goes on and off here - it fried my lap top on the second day and Neil's notebook is looking rather sick and has probably caught something contagious from the internet. This is Virusville.

The market is one of Sihanoukville's experiences. I really liked the fish section - apart from the smell. There are vats of crabs, cat-fish swimming in tanks, bowls of silver fish on ice.

The market is crowded with beggars - mostly with missing limbs. This isn't just due to landmines, but to accidents with tools - pangas or mattocks. Even the smallest wound invites infection in this climate and without antibiotics people regularly lose feet and hands to gangrene. There are several charities here helping the disabled to earn a living with more dignity. There is a 'Massage by the Blind' parlour and you can go to performances by the 'Limbless Orchestra'. It all seems very odd to someone from a country obsessed with politically correct language.
There are lots of Khmer places to eat - breakfast at the 'pork and rice' is a must - but you are also invited to sample 'Grumpy Dave's Sausages', or eat in the many Pizza houses springing up alongside the French, Italian and English restaurants beginning to cater for the growing number of european tourists. No visit to Sihanoukville is complete without a visit to the Snake House Restaurant, with a snake under every table and a crocodile on a lead in the middle. The menu is in English, Khmer and Russian, which gives you a clue to the ownership.
There's a seedy side, inevitably - all day bars with very young Cambodian girls being plied with drink by elderly european men. I didn't see any bars for elderly european women, but I suspect even that could be arranged at a price.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Cambodia For Sale

The Cambodian Daily, as well as reporting the Maldive Cabinet Meeting, also revealed that the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, has just borrowed $500 million from the Chinese government. Large parts of the country have been sold to wealthy government officials, the Chinese, Russians and even the Gulf States.

Not even the islands are exempt from this sell-off. A few months ago notices began to appear in the village and round the shore line warning that the land was now the private property of an investment company, nominally Cambodian but with unknown origins. Companies within companies like Russian dolls.

Here on the mainland the effects of this development are everywhere - huge hotels and holiday complexes going up along the beaches and the communities who lived there until the bulldozers moved in are living in tent villages, waiting to be moved on yet again.

I went to visit a gigantic hotel complex owned by a Russian oligarch who is currently in prison on charges of paedophilia and his assets frozen. He is building a vast marina, hotel and apartments as well as a bridge to one of the islands where more apartments are being built.

The Cambodians take the protection of their children very seriously and have no desire to go the way of Thailand. Notices, in English and other european languages are everywhere, warning of the penalties.

The main political party here is the Cambodian People's Party and the country is effectively a one-party democracy. So much so that 60% of the electorate didn't bother to vote at the last election. The population is overwhelmingly young. I've seen only two grey haired people since I arrived. Everyone is under 45.

I have just met Cedric Jancloes, who has lived in Cambodia for many years and is a producer for Cambodian television, working in current affairs. He says that there are just the glimmerings of more freedom to comment and question in the media and one of his programmes is unique in being allowed to discuss Cambodian politics with a greater degree of licence than has ever been allowed before. Cedric knows a lot about the spiritual side of Cambodian life, and told me that he is committed to 'working to rebuild the country's values and culture through media'.