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The darkness and the glory of Cambodian history

July 25, 2013

After a few days in Saigon, of which I can’t really think of any interesting to say, I took the bus over the Cambodian boarder. My first impressions weren’t positive – the bus driver insisted he fill out of the visa form, charging an extra $5 to do so, and while I was in a strop about this I whacked my shin on a bit of protruding metal on the seats in the boarder office, so my first few minutes in Cambodia were spent in agonising pain.

I didn’t know what to expect of Phnom Penh, out of all the places I’ve been to orDSC_0638 am going to, Cambodia seemed to me like the most lairy place – I’d heard the stories of the horror of the Killing Fields, the stories about drinks being spiked and theft, there was the grinding poverty, the malaria risk, but Phnom Penh seemed pretty, well, quiet. I was slightly alarmed when I got to my guest house to find not one but three posters up on the walls of my room warning me not to go with prostitutes because they’ll probably mug me, not to bring locals back to the room because ‘they will probably expect payment’ and letting me know that child prostitution was illegal. It was unnervingly surreal, seeing this poster above the childish mat outside the bathroom, featuring Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella. There were a few lone middle aged men who would hang around the guest house restaurant. One in particular looked like a neo-Nazi and another was stupendously obese. You might accuse me of making assumptions but I did actually see one of these guys looking at a Cambodian women ‘dating site’. I’ve not seen that anywhere else in Asia – yet  – and it lent an unsavoury air to the place.

Tuel Sleng prison, pictures of genocide victims incarcerated here.

Tuol Sleng prison, pictures of genocide victims incarcerated here.

I made a day trip out to Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Terrible, terrible things happened in these places not that long ago. They say one in four Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, butchered in the most brutal ways. It’s incomprehensible that so many other Cambodians could be complicit enough to let Pol Pot’s regime get away with this and his absurd plan of agrarian communism, and also that the international community was, in a way, complicit as well. I’ve learnt about a lot of awful things on this trip – Auschwitz, the terror inflicted on Eastern Europe, the Vietnam war, the devastation in the Balkans, and there were many things about this genocide that were depressingly familiar, the way the humans seem to so easily embrace evil and rejoice in cruelty against each other.

But then I came here, to Siem Reap, to explore the temples of Angkor Wat, testament to the human races creativity, passion and team work. The

Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider

Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider

guidebooks all swoon over the ancient temples, and they are right to do so, it’s not over-rated. I bought a three day pass and then hired a battered old bike for $1 and set off around the ‘Big circuit': a series of ‘smaller’ outer lying temples that the guidebook doesn’t even have time to go into in detail, but would be the star tourist attraction of any other country. I slightly underestimated how long this big circuit was and was pretty knackered after cycling about 35km in the heat, but it was worth it. I even went off the main drag and found a couple of deserted ruins just sitting there in the Cambodian countryside.

DSC_0749On this Big Circuit, Ta Prohm is the main draw. It’s the one that was used in Tomb Raider and has been reclaimed by nature, trees  hundreds of years old themselves fusing with stone, the routes oozing over the archways of the temple. It’s strange to think of these temples standing here deserted in the centuries after the mighty Khmer Empire had fallen , being slowly encroached by jungle.

On the cycle home I came across a troop of very brazen monkeys, and then I checked my emails and found that Vanity Game, the French edition of my novel has been short-listed for the Prix Jules Rimet. I am so thrilled, and it was a fantastic end to a perfect day!

Bayon, Persona-style

Bayon, Persona-style

The next day I went to the eerie Bayon temple which features 216 faces bearing a resemblance to the king who built it, Jayavarman VII. Every doorway you step out of, you find one staring calmly back at you. To have been one of the old explorers, discovering this for the first time by chance, totally ignorant of the history must have been so cool and rather frightening. In our shrunken, globilised world of instantly served knowledge and Starbucks in every city, it’s a feeling none of us, apart from maybe astronauts, will ever experience, which is rather sad. Bayon was my favourite temple, it was just so bloody weird and fantastically gothic.

The next day I joined the dawn stampede of tuk-tuks, cars and bicycles up to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Well, just like when I climbed Tai Shan in China, the sun failed to show. I’m giving up on that kind of thing. What was great though was going into Angkor Wat as soon as it opened. Almost all the sunrise watchers headed back to their hotels, so it was so quiet… I walked

No sunrise

No sunrise

down empty corridors, past carvings and inscriptions made over a millennia ago, nothing but the sound of my Converses on the stone floor. I had a feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be there, which is, I guess, the closest it’s possible to get these days to the wonder of the old explorers. I stepped out the back of the temple and looked out in the early morning mist, the dew heavy on the grass like it is in England, but the sounds of the jungle beyond completely exotic. Nothing stirred, not even a bird, pretty magical. Suffice to say, I feel like giving up on crime and turning to adventure novels! How could anyone not after that?

I was so glad not to be in the UK to witness the vacuous, fawning news coverage of Kate Middleton and William whatshisface’s baby. Sod our meek kingdom, when they build a city of wonderous temples that lasts over the thousand years, then I will be impressed.

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