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.


  1. Thank you for your series of posts on Cambodia.
    I have absolutely enjoyed everyone. The sensitivity you approach your subject matter with is heart-warming.
    It isn't surprising you're falling for the place, it looks beautiful and endlessly fascinating. As for the people, I have yet to meet a Khmer I didn't like.


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