Cambodia, February 2009

Cambodia is on most people’s list of “must see” destinations these days but the temple complex of Angkor Wat has continued to exert a fascination for me ever since I first became aware of it during my gemmology studies in the 1980’s (Cambodia is an important source of rubies). I’m very sorry to say that faraway wars, even the genocidal variety, did not much impinge upon my daily life during the killing years of the Khmer Rouge and their aftermath so I’d filed this remote jungle kingdom away in the “in your dreams” category.

When Sylvia and I took our Peregrine trip there in 2009 I was delighted to realise this long held ambition but also a little nervous of being a tourist in a place whose inhabitants had so recently suffered so much. The first impression was of a country as different from Laos as it was possible to imagine. In Cambodia the US dollar is the universal currency, the main internal airline is operated from Thailand and (so we were told) much of the ticketing for the archaeological sites is controlled by foreign investors. In other words it is questionable how much of the revenue from the recent rush of camera-toting visitors is being invested back into this poor, ravaged land.

We learned little of the current administration as our guides seemed unwilling or unable to enter into discussion. At the Royal Palace we were told that the current king, a classical dance instructor who has spent most of his life outside of Cambodia, was currently on retreat in China. The fact that he remains a bachelor in his fifties causes no particular concern as he has numerous half-siblings from whom he himself was chosen to rule (?) by a council vote. But even the most cursory glance at the last few decades of his country’s history means that one cannot possibly blame his apparent vagueness. If the restored mahout chambers seem to echo with the terrible cries of the royal elephants left there to starve to death during the Terror, then what further nightmares must haunt the palace halls?

Against this background it wasn’t always easy to concentrate on ancient history but my photographs of the magnificent relics of the great Khmer civilisation, which flourished between the 9th and 13th centuries, are all that I could have hoped for. However they are probably similar to everyone else’s so I am delighted to find that the Golden Temple Across The Bridge in Phnom Penh doesn’t seem to be in anyone else’s album at all. In fact I can’t even find out its proper name but you can see that it was still being built when I visited with Chea, the friend of one of my gem dealing contacts who had offered to take me around. Unfortunately I was unable to take up the offer of a visit to the forthcoming dedication ceremony as it took place a few days after my departure but I was absolutely charmed to be invited.

On this little excursion-ette I also visited the slightly older Kien Khliang temple and welfare centre where I accidentally captured one of my best ever photographs: the ladies at prayer (142). I did have permission to take pictures here but a sense of decorum meant that I quickly snapped this one from a distance at maximum zoom. Good manners have for once been amply rewarded. The welfare centre itself specialises in rehabilitation of land mine victims, training and finding employment for disabled people; it is staffed entirely by Cambodians although much of the funding still comes from overseas charities. I suppose this is an improvement on the amputee music groups that set themselves up to perform around the historical sites.

I think that this last visit may have taken place at the time when Sylvia and I had declined to go with the rest of the group to the Genocide Museum. Judging by the expressions of some of them when they returned we had made the right decision, especially as this was right at the end of our trip. I don’t mean to be¬†disrespectful¬†but I don’t usually do Atrocities while I’m travelling; personally I feel I can show my consideration in other ways and, when it comes to plumbing the depths of human depravity, well, that’s what books are for.

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