(ENG) Cambodia travel documentary

We entered Cambodia from Thailand via the Poipet border, deliberately chosing the land route, rather than flying directly. On this border, Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani nearly lost his life when he was confused as an American spy by the Khmer Rouges that that day conquered the town. It was 17 April 1975. The following 4 years saw one of the most terrible genocides in human history. During those years, Terzani came many times to this border, trying to understand what was going in a country that was completely closed to the outside world. 41 years later, we are crossing the same border to visit this country that is now on all tourist maps. We split our travel on 3 conceptual parts. First, we will try to see what is left of the old Cambodia: not only visit the ruins of the acient Khmer civilization, one of the finest in the World, but also experience the rural Cambodia, based on agriculture and rice cultivation. Then we will try to understand the Cambodian Olocaust of the XX century. And finally, how Cambodians are coping in today's globalised world

First day in Cambodia has been charachterized by the first glimpse of Angkor. I just realized that there is too much to tell about the Khmer civilization that ruled South East Asia until 1400. I'll talk about that in future posts, as currently too tired. For today, the picture is about our visit of Siem Reap night markets where we tried delicious things like crickets, worms, frogs and this one here that should be a fried water beetle (hope not a cookcroach). Taste like a potato crisp. But we haven't yet been so brave to taste the fried tarantula

 

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire which ruled present-day Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Loas during the middle age. When London was a city with just 18,000 people, Angkor had more than 1 million people and the city was covering an area larger and than NYC. The temples and king's palaces were built with stones. This one is the Bayon, with the face of one of the Khmer kings - Jayavarman VII - carved out in the stones dozens of times. They were to remember to the people the the king is always watching; a sort of early version of the a Big Brother. Residential buildings, on the other side, were made with wood and perisheable material. That's why, today, the temples are separated by kilometers of jungle. In that jungle, back in the days there was one of the greatest capitals of the past times

 

Angkor Wat is the largest and most impressive temple of the Angkor complex. But it's only one of the many that we visited in the last couple of days. And probably not my favourite, as I tended to prefer the smaller, less visited sites. Unlike Bagan in Myanmar, the temples have been abandoned for years and hence today are no longer primary religious destinations for the pilgrims. This takes away some of the poetry of this place. I think that Angkor Wat in particular has more tourists than St Peter in Rome. Despite that, this is, probably together with Petra in Jordan, the most grandiose historical complex I ever seen

 

1st day of the year was dedicated to explore Cambodian countryside on a Vespa tour. After a wild NYE party in Siem Reap (which turned to be an Asian Magalouf), we had to wake up pretty early to be able to hit the road at 9am. Traditionally, Cambodia has always been extremely reliant on agriculture thanks to a fertile land. The Angkor expansion was based on the ability to construct massive water reservoirs and irrigation systems that allowed the Khmer society to increase the number of the harvests per year. Much more recently, in 1975-79, the Khmer Rouges tried to re-create a new society entirely based on agriculture. In this pic we were at one local market where the villages around gather in early morning to exchange fruits, vegs, meat and fish

 

We arrived today in Phnom Penh after 6h by bus. Angkor was abandoned around 1400 and the Khmer capital was moved here due to the better position, far from the attacks of Siamese (Thai) and in the middle of the trading routes along the Mekong river. During the 1920s, it was called the Pearl of Asia thanks to urban development under Franch colonial rule. Today, our first impression is that PP is one of the few enjoyable Asian capitals, that can be still enjoyed and visited by walk. This pic was taken at the Royal Palace which is still the residence of the King of Cambodia today

 

Today was tough. We visited the infamous prison 21 in the hearth of Phnom Penh. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people were here brutally interrogated and tortured. Only 12 survived. They were defined enemies of the Revolution and of the Red Khmer regime of Pol Pot. The definition of enemies included teachers, merchants, engineers and virtually everyone who knew how to read and write. Wearing glasses was enough to be defined an intellectual and be killed. Only paseants were spared. Red Khmer tried to clean the society from the old corrupt regime. They disliked the intellectuals, the elites, the people with know-how and international expertise. They claimed to give control back to the people. Does it sound familiar in 2016?

 

These are the killing fields of Cheoung Ek were thousends of people were brutally executed between 1975 and 1979. Pol Pot's dream of a new society was similar to the idea of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The Red Khmer regime was stopped by the Vietnamese forces in 1979 as response of frequent border incursions by Khmer guerrillas. Vietnam back then was just reunited after the long wars with France and US. As retaliation, China tried to invade Vietnam from the North but Chinese were badly defeated. Pol Pot and Red Khmer guerrilla survived until 1998 in the jungle bordering Thailand. What is most impressive is that US and UN continued to recognize Red Khmer as the official Cambodia gov until 1993. I.e.: when politics count more than everything. A parallel with Syria?

 

At sunset, Cambodians in PP gather in the parks to play any sort of sports. Running is quite popular among the 30-40y old. Skate is for teenagers. Football also for the youngest, badminton for all ages. But the funniest are the open-air aerobics classes with proper homemade DJ sets. They are the favourite among the eldest, especially women. We took part to one of these classes in front of the Royal Palace and it was really a good fun. Sweating out some of the garlic taken in during our Cambodian dinners

 

We left Phnom Penh today by bus. Our next destination is Sihanoukville, on the coast. The town is named after Norodom Sihanouk, the most famous king of Cambodia of the XX century. He was king between 1941 and 1955. Then he resigned to become prime minister and head of state. In 1970, he was deposed by a military coup led by general Lon Nol. The coup was backed by CIA as US were upset by Cambodia "neutral" position in the Vietnam war. In exile in China, he was the most prominent figure in the civil war agaist general Lon Nol, which saw the rising of the Red Khmers. He was a cerimonial Head of State diring the first year of Pol Pot regime. Then he resigned and was under house arrest until 1979 when Vietnamese forces freed up Cambodia. He became king again in 1993 until he resigned i 2004. He died in 2012. A controversial figure, although ultimately still celebrated. With statues and portraits in PP and his figure in the banknotes

 

Phnom Penh has been a surprise on this travel to Cambodia. We came here mainly to remember the Red Khmer Genocide but we got a taste of this interesting and lively city. This is not like other Asian metacities. Once known as the Pearl of Asia, PP is still relatively enjoyable, easy to walk and has nice and easy restaurants and cafes. It is now building its skycrapes but many of them are not dull and have interesting architectonical feautures. In the parks, locals gather at sunset to play sport. The riverfront also offers some good strolling opportunities. Galleries, bookstores and caffes can be seen walking. How many bookstores have you seen by randomly walking in Bangkok or Shanghai?

 

Sihanoukville is a weird city. A mix between Las Vegas and Magaluf in a developing country. The city is trashed with garbage everywhere, even on the beach. Small favelas can be seen around the town centre; this was not the case in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Western tourists are also somehow weird and they seem to have been taken from the Only Way is Essex put here only because (booze) is cheaper than Thailand and marijuana can be easily bought. In Siem Reap, the party was led by Cambodians with Western tagging along. Here, it seems that the entertainment is off-limits for the locals and only to tourists. Not my favourite but interesting to learn

 

Theravada Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia. It arrived in the area between 3rd century BC and 5th AD and in the 13th AD became official state religion. Before Cambodia embraced Buddhism, the official religion was Hinduism. In fact, Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, the largest one in the World. Monks in Cambodia dress in Orange (as opposed to red as in Myanmar or Mongolia). They do not need to dedicate their entire life to worship. They can chose to be monks for a certain period of time, and then go back to normal life and build a family

 

I came back from Cambodia full of good memories. This time we were a group of 10 friends, quite a large number. We had a mixed group: a few veterans like Lucio, that I met in India in 2007 and has been a travel companion since then. But also two new joiners: Adriano and Stoppy, who brought new energy. And, with the return of Matteo and Olga, we had some cambacks after a few years of absence. Vale was supportive as always. Travelling in such a large group is different than travelling as a couple. It makes things easier, safer, funnier but also reduces the opportunities to interact with the local environment. It's a differen kind of travel, less spiritual, more funny. I have now organized travels for friends for 10 years. What makes me proud in the end, is to see the faces of your friends at the end of the journey ... tired, exhausted, but also surprised, happy and smiling. I conceived this trip by reading a book of Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani last Summer, who wrote about the terrible story of the Red Khmer and the brutal international politics of the 70s and 80s. I was keen that we all get the chance to know more about this almost forgotten tragedy. And I was quite proud when I realized the all of us, with no exceptions, were quite touched by what we saw and learnt in the killing fields and at the Tuol Sleng prison

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