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Hacktreks in Asia- From Our Travel Archives
Cambodia - Then and Now
James Evans
The History:
The tragedy of Cambodia's tragic and infamous past is that it was as a result of outside forces, compounded by weak leadership, that permitted the atrocities of the 1970's to occur. In a case of paranoid whimsy Prime Minister Sihanouk committed his country to its nebulous take on communism because he thought the USA planned to assassinate him. His 'Peoples Socialist Communist Party' was no such thing yet its name was implication enough for the North Vietnamese to assume sanctuary on Cambodian soil, and coupled with the CIA threat from across the border, Sihanouk casually acquiesced.

This was not enough. Sensing indifference to his political responsibilities and becoming increasingly aware of the military's desire to align itself with the American cause, there occurred a rural based insurgency forcing Sihanouk to back sanctions against a strain of Lef-wing thinking on which he must have assumed placated. It was too little too late. Alarmed by the Vietnamese incursions and fearful of losing the money America had been providing in aid, General Lol Nom took the Prime Minister’s vacation in France as an opportunity to depose the leadership and seize power for himself. Sentenced to death, Sihanouk's response can be seen as the defining moment in Cambodian history. In exile he set up the Khmer Rouge, a beast that would be used to commit genocide on an unfathomable scale.

What then followed was an example of geopolitics gone mad. Out of need, rather than desire, the Khmer Rouge formed an alliance with the North Vietnamese in a bid to overthrow Lol Nom's United Sates sanctioned regime. American funds had found their way into the wrong pockets resulting in corruption and scandal driving all neutrals towards the leftist Khmer Rouge. So, in effect, both America and Vietnam had created an environment where the Red Khmer's could flourish and with Sihanouk in exile it was left to Pol Pot to assume leadership and implement his particular brand of communism. After forcing out Lol Noms regime the Khmer Rouge turned their attention to expelling the Vietnamese and set Cambodia on course to it's bloodiest period of history. Ironically it was Vietnam who were finally forced to end it all in 1978 and after the death of some 2 million people through war and famine the whole thing is a human tragedy of epic proportion.

Travel Now:
Heading east from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville is a bit like driving from Bodmin to Bristol. The initial part of the journey takes you through a rugged countryside no more spectacular than Dartmoor, only with more trees. After navigating several river crossings on primitive rafts you hit a flat plateau surrounded by hills formed in very much the same way as much of Somerset. Only the heat reminds you that you that nothing could be further from the truth.

It is advisable to adhere to the rules of supply and demand when in Cambodia, which, contrary to logic, dictates that the less the customer demands the higher the price you pay. Accommodation is reasonably priced and generally of a very high standard, but transport works out at about four times the amount you expect to pay in Thailand or Laos. Considering Cambodias infrastructure is not nearly as advanced as the former, all in all it's a bit of a rum deal. Despite this, it is still well worth the $13 it takes to see Bakor National Park.

Resting on the edge of a plateau some 1000 metres above sea level there nestles a ruined town that was once the playground for French colonists before it was evacuated around the time of the Khmer uprising. The view of the surrounding Cambodian coastline is impressive to say the least. The feeder town for such a jaunt is Kampot. Once renowned for its high quality pepper there is little now that marks it out. Despite its commercial isolation the residents are by no means hostile and walking the dimly lit streets at night is akin to finding yourself on the set of the 80's horror flick 'Vamp'.

This is Asia! Phnom Penh -It is total mayhem. A million motorcycles jostling for position. Lorries with widescreen visors, elevated bicycle taxis and the sounds of a minor crash every couple of minutes. You feel very postcolonial here. Drinking in the local journalist haunt FCC you half expect this city to burst into civil war at any moment. Of course it doesn't and given the energy levels of local city folk it is unlikely it ever will. Still, it's a strange atmosphere that pervades this most Asian of cities. The taxi drivers sleep in hammocks on the street and on every corner lies a mosquito net with some cacooned Khmer dormant within. Brassy street urchins constantly assaulting you. A strange dichotomy then. In the most evidently poor of the three nations I have visited it is here that I find my tourism the subject of the most organisation and expense. The killing fields, the Khmer Rouge prison 'S-21' are to be seen at a price and for $20 I am more than welcome to visit the local firing range and release a cache of ammunition from a AK-47 semi automatic machine gun

The journey up the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap should have been a sublime experience. It passes through a lake of immense proportion where upon about half way through you can look both port and starboard and genuinely struggle to see the riverbanks. Stoked by the confluence of the Mekong it's comfortably the largest lake in Indo-China, yet it was marred by an act of pure folly. Somehow I lost a camera film in Phnom Phen. For solace I instead filled my camera film with images of tanks and various munitions at Siem Reap War Museum. I would have probably done so regardless. Russian T-54 tanks are plentiful along with an array of heavy artillery and small arms. In the forecourt they even have a MI-8 helicopter and a Mig-19 fighter plane. Yet this is not what Siem Reap is famed for. It is Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, most dating back to the 1100's, that brings tourists here in their droves. Imposing, perfectly located amongst the sub tropical flora, expensive but a must see if only to throw into some sort of relief this country's uglier past. Here in lies the nexus of Cambodia. One can not delve into this medieval spectacle without simultaneously inuring oneself with the all too visible aftermath of over 20 years of in-house fighting. Missing limbs, a reliance on foreign money and a bizarrely insouciant sense of humour all come together as a backdrop to this most unique of nations.

Ancient ruins, contemporary horror, cool bars and the loveliest people. It may lack the scenery of its Indo-Chinese neighbour to the north but Cambodia’s atmosphere is lethally intoxicating.
© James Evans September 23rd 2003

LAOS - From Bangkok to Laos and the Mekong River


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