‘Danger. Mines.’ T-shirts bearing those words can be seen all along the streets of Siem Reap, in the kingdom of Cambodia. They are printed above garish images of a skull and cross-bones, with a map of the country beneath. You can buy one for 3 dollars US, or two for 4.
“Take the red T-shirt,” a dealer suggests when I stop by. “Good quality.”
UNICEF believes Cambodia has the third-highest number of landmines in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates there may still be as many as six million mines in the country. Since 1970 — when they were laid by the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen and Heng Samrin regimes, among others — they have taken over 60,000 civilian lives and maimed thousands. There have been more than 35,000 amputees after hostilities ceased. Travellers are constantly advised to stick to marked territory, to avoid adding to the 200 or so victims that continue to get hurt annually.
“Take the red T-shirt,” the dealer says again, smiling as I stare in uncertainty. “For you, special price…”
Then, there are the killing fields.
The phrase is used to describe a number of sites in Cambodia where millions were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge Communist regime that ruled from 1975 to 1979. After torture and execution, victims were buried in mass graves.
In 1984, the film The Killing Fields was made by director Roland Joffe, based on the experiences of journalists Dith Pran, Jon Swain, and Sydney Schanberg. It went on to win three Academy Awards. No souvenir shop in Cambodia — and there are many — is complete without a copy. You can buy excellent pirated DVDs for 3 dollars each, unchecked pirated copies for 2, or pirated VCDs with photocopied covers for as little as a dollar.
For a country as poor as this, sentimentality is a luxury. It doesn’t put bread on the table.
Nothing else matters the minute the spires of Angkor Wat, five kilometres from Siem Reap, come into view. Nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of it, dark and brooding against a cloudy sky. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the largest religious structure in the world, but that piece of trivia is furthest from your mind when confronted with the sheer magnificence of it looming before you.
Built as the state temple and capital city for King Suryavarman II in the twelfth century, the temple was first an important Hindu centre, and then a Buddhist one. Designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology, it continues to attract thousands every year since its so-called discovery and rise from obscurity in 1860.
Without Angkor, the people of Cambodia would find life a lot harder to deal with. It explains why the temple adorns everything from the national flag to cans of the popular Angkor Beer.
Taking in all of Angkor is a daunting task. For one, you have more than 400 square kilometres to cover, and over a hundred temples vying for your attention within that protected area. The site was sacked by the Cham people — enemies of the Khmer — in 1177. A new king, Jayavarman VII, then restored the empire, establishing a new capital (Angkor Thom) and state temple (the Bayon), a few kilometres away.
No one knows what the temple was originally called. ‘Angkor Wat’ is a rather modern name that traces its roots to the vernacular ‘nokor’, which comes from the Sanskrit nagara’ (capital), while ‘wat’ is simply Khmer for ‘temple’. The moat around it protected Angkor Wat from the jungle that swallowed most of the other structures in the vicinity, hiding them from outside eyes for centuries.
As you walk across these ancient stones, you assume the temples have given up all their secrets. Until you look up and find a face carved in stone staring impassively down at you. Then, you are no longer so sure.
Ta Prohm is like something straight out of a movie set. The temple, built by King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university, is among few left in almost the same condition it was found in. It’s not hard to see why.
Depending upon how you look at it, these massive fig and silk-cotton trees either grasp or strangle it. Stepping carefully from one ruined corridor to the next, it’s hard to imagine young tonsured monks here, hundreds of years ago, poring over scrolls in silence.
Monks continue to stop by today, drawn by curiosity, if nothing else. It is still rather quiet, with only the hushed voices of awestruck tourists rising every now and then from the calm that envelops them.
“Are you Indian?” asks a smiling Vikram Chand, owner-manager-chef at India Gate, down a side street at Siem Reap. I smile back and order a vegetarian thali that costs me a little over 2 dollars. Chand rushes off to whip up the meal and hovers around as I eat.
“I was supposed to go to Italy,” he confides. “But my agent robbed me of the Rs 5 lakh I had saved, and left me here instead.” Faced with the prospect of starvation, Chand, who was born and brought up in the city of Dehradun, used the last of his money to set up a restaurant. He tells me of many others like him, all conned and stuck in Phnom Penh, forced to do odd jobs in a country that refuses to give them employment. With visas long expired, they can do little but concentrate on getting through the day.
A board outside his restaurant reads, ‘Cooking by the only Indian chef.’ Chand nods when I ask if that’s true. “There are a couple of other Indian restaurants here,” he says, “but they are run by locals. What do they know about authentic Indian food?”
For a second, something like pride drifts across his face.
The large speedboat chugs to life at Siem Reap jetty, ready to cut through the Tonle Sap — the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia — on its five-hour ride to Phnom Penh.
The Tonle Sap is a lake and river system combined. For locals, it is also an unusual lifesaver. Throughout most of the year, the lake is around a metre deep. But when the rains arrive, the river that connects it with the Mekong reverses its flow. Water from the Mekong is pushed into the lake, increasing its area from around 2,700 square kilometres to 16,000 square kilometres. Its depth drops to nine metres, flooding the fields around, multiplying the number of fish.
Floating villages dot its edges, complete with floating shops and schools. Dulled by the roar of the boat’s engines, I fall asleep and dream of river dolphins.
When in Cambodia, you do not use the words ‘Tuol Sleng’ lightly. Khmer for ‘hill of the poisonous trees’, this is the name of what, before 1975, was a school in Phnom Penh. Until the Khmer Rouge changed it forever. After the Communists took over, it became Security Prison 21 (S-21), a place where all who disagreed with the revolution were tortured before being executed.
Prisoners — mostly Cambodian, but also foreigners including Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, British, and Americans — were given electric shocks, seared with hot metal instruments and hanged until they lost consciousness. Those who survived the interrogations were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre and battered to death. Bullets were expensive, after all.
Of 14,200 prisoners held at Tuol Sleng, only seven survived.
It is sunny outside, and I walk towards a faded white board glinting in the light. It bears a poor translation, from Khmer, of the ‘Security Regulations’ — 10 rules all prisoners brought to Tuol Sleng were made aware of:
‘1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.’
‘2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.’
‘3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.’
‘4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.’
‘5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.’
‘6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.’
‘7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.’
‘8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.’
‘9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.’
’10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.’ [sic]
Sometime in 1979, after the massacre ended, a Vietnamese photographer followed the smell of rotting corpses to Tuol Sleng. The photographs he took are now exhibited inside the museum. There are others, in black and white: mug shots of placid men and women staring blankly into cameras, unsure of what awaits them.
The images disturb me, and clearly upset those around me. Yet, a large number of visitors to the museum are Cambodian schoolchildren.
It is 11 pm at the Riverside Cafe, a popular bar by the riverfront at Phnom Penh. There are young women in short skirts serving customers. Some women play pool, others take on the role of DJs. The air is smoky; the tables around me taken by swarthy Asian men and groups of foreigners downing mugs of Angkor beer.
I have been warned that Phnom Penh can shift from calm to chaos in seconds. I have been asked to carry no more than 30 dollars in my wallet at any time. Guns can be whipped out, and muggings are far from uncommon.
A friend of mine is tucking into a spicy Fish Amok, a traditional Khmer dish of curried white fish wrapped in a banana leaf and served with rice. He tells me that’s how we get the English word ‘amuck’: ‘to rush about violently and out of control.’ It’s an interesting piece of information and an interesting place to get it in.
Outside, young men and women hurry home. There’s peace in the neighbourhood tonight. But, in Cambodia, that could change in an instant.