Category Archives: Cambodia

Cambodia part 5: two experiences

As a rule, at the gates of every Phnom Penh hotel an army of tuk tuk drivers is waiting. A tourist exiting the hotel is met with a chorus of voices: “Tuk tuk, sir? Tuk tuk?” On average a tuk tuk driver earns 4 dollars a day, therefore a single trip with a tourist – a price of which will be at least one dollar – can be quite interesting. Nevertheless it is quite tiring to argue endlessly with them about the just price. I befriended one driver who did not argue with the just price that I named and therefore got all the business from me, to the jealousy of others. On my last morning we were discussing the various tourist attractions. I had visited all the usual suspects with which he was trying to seduce me. Finally he reached a strange place called “Sooting Rage”. Sooting rage? Only after a couple of minutes of deciphering I understood that he meant a shooting range. I couldn’t miss that.

The range is found close to the international airport, and it takes 30-40 minutes by tuk tuk to reach it from the centre of Phnom Penh. The gates are guarded by two rather lonely looking armoured personal carriers. An instructor in military uniform greets you at the entrance and hands you a menu, quite like in a restaurant. Each page of the menu contains a description of some new type of weapon, which one can try, as well as the number of shots and the price. Judging by the appearances, the whole attraction is controlled directly by the army. The very first item is Kalashnikov, though I had the impression that it was of Chinese make. It costs $40 for 25 shots. The American semiautomatic weapons are more expensive: from $40 to 50 to 100. The revolver is priced at $25 for 6 shots. One can throw a hand grenade ($100 for 1), shoot from a grenade launcher (also $100). For $350 one can shoot from a hand held anti-tank grenade launcher (which is kind of shocking considering we are in the vicinity of the airport).

I have never held an assault rifle in my hands. Thus the first shot from AK47 gave some adrenalin to my blood. I had sound blocking ear sets, so could only hear a muffled sounds, and of course the rifle’s inertia gives a slight hit to the shoulder. At a certain moment the instructor switched the rifle from semi automatic to automatic regime. At this point you have to hold the rifle very strongly, as the inertia is so strong that the gun turns upwards very easily. The whole thing was quite indescribable.

Of course remembering the just seen scenes of mass murder, this attraction leaves a very strange impression. Cambodians, to a European eye, look like children. This instructor, who explained to me the details of functioning of this killing machine with a certain tiredness, looked like a child who grew up too early. The Khmer Rouge and their victim in the Genocide Museum had the same look.

The entrance to the shooting range. The instructor sits behind the computer, the ticket window is to the right.

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Cambodia part 4: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, this very name evokes the exotic temples lost in the jungle. For most tourists, it is the main reason for visiting Cambodia. Angkor Wat is a huge temple complex, which occupies many square kilometres in each direction, and is surrounded by several other groups of temples lost in the jungle a bit further away.

Angkor Wat strictly speaking is the name of the huge temple in the middle of the complex, however by all means there are many more temples to see. For example the temple city of Angkor Thom is to the North of Angkor Wat and includes a number of temples all united by a single wall. Taken together these temples are even more impressive than Angkor Wat itself.

Like many ancient Khmer temples, Angkor Wat represented Mount Meru, the centre of the world, where the gods lived, according to Hindu myths. Only gods had the privilege of living in stone edifices, therefore only the temples remain of the Khmers’ imperial capital – the kings’ palaces and other buildings were built of wood, and nothing remains.

From the practical point Angkor Wat really is lost in the jungle. The distance from Phnom Penh by bus is around 6-7 hours, and due to the constant flow of tourist a village Siem Reap close to Angkor Wat has by now grown to be second biggest city in Cambodia. The city has all the tourist infrastructure, even an international airport, thus in principle it is possible to fly here from Bangkok or Phnom Penh. From Siem Reap to Angkor Wat it is around 7 kilometres.

The traditional tour of Angkor Wat starts before dawn (i.e. around 5 in the morning). At that hour in looks like this (note the other tourist’s camera, of which there are endless numbers of all directions even at that hour in the hot season):

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Cambodia part 3: food

If the Thai food is overall very spicy and is built on variations of curry, the food of Cambodia is a lot less spicy and is rather aromatic and based on varios herbs, souces and seasonings.

The most popular dish is amok – freshwater fish steamed until the consistency of a mousse, with interesting souces. In general freshwater fish is very popular in Cambodia, as the Mekong is the main artery of the country. Another popular dish is lok lak. It is beef cut in cubes and deep fried with lime, onion and salt souce.

Meat is often accompanied by lotus roots, as well as the plant called morning glory, typically served in oyster sauce.

Unusual dishes tried: very spicy quail egg soup with frog legs; fish rye soup; deep fried pig uteruses. Of course, fried tarantulas are very exotic. These are collected out of their burrows in an area about 80 km from Phnom Penh. When caught, their poisonous teeth are immediately removed, and they are shipped around the country.

As everywhere in South East Asia, the ready made food is sold on every streetcorner. Snails next to the Russian market:

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Children’s civilisation

Travelling around Cambodia, I couldn’t help noticing how the locals looked like children. For a European, it is often difficult to gauge the age of an Asian person, as the age markers that we are used to are less pronounced among Asians. But also the behaviour often reminded me of adolescents. The way they would negotiate a price, the way they would pass a little lie, the way they would herd or imitate a European.

In a seminar I once attended, The Seed for Fulfilment, based on process work, the facilitator described Andy Mindell’s view how we are still in our teenage years as a civilisation. In the context of the age of the Earth, we humans only possess a consciousness for several thousand years perhaps, and a way to effectively record it for even shorter time. We are teenagers, underage, maybe even still close to infancy. And therefore collectively we can be extremely cruel, the way small children often are, as they lack deep experience of pain and of extensive self-reflection.

The experience of Cambodia, with its absolute horror of a genocide, fits easily into this narrative. Sometimes it is creepily literal: the majority of its people is young, as the old were at a disproportional risk during the Khmer Rouge years. Children-people, acting with a teenager’s insouciance.

But as a civilisation, we all are children too. The passion with which we deny our obvious crimes. The way our various empires and their heirs deny or justify their atrocities against others and often against themselves: the British, the Belgians, the Russians, the Turks, the Japanese. The way our current world hegemon has a moral blind spot when it comes to its own actions: Barack Obama can be conceivably seen as a mortal hero from the Lord of the Rings, corrupted by the absolute power into authorising drone murders without involving any court of law. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Germany is a rare nation that has been forced into adulthood by the tragic realisation of its crime. Perhaps that explains its cautiousness in a crisis, so annoying for the more gung ho partners.

Cambodia part 2: the Khmer Rouge genocide

This post is not for the faint of heart.

I have been to a number of Holocaust sites and museums: Auschwitz, Anna Frank House in Amsterdam, Holocaust Museum in Washington, Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin. These museums leave me with the feeling of deep loss, deep emptiness, as if I crash into a concrete wall, which signifies the impossibilty of quite grasping the abyss of pain. That very feeling of abyss came back to me in this museum, probably the most important in Phnom Penh.

In 1975 the revolutionary troops of Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot broke the resistance of Cambodia’s reactionary government and took Phnom Penh. Immediately an order followed: all city dwellers were to leave the cities and proceed to villages all around Cambodia. The initial explanation was the evacuation from the coming American bombings, and it was said to be only for three days. In reality the reasons were of a fundamental nature: Pol Pot’s ideology, inspired by Mao’s cultural revolution, saw only peasants as true participants of the new society. Therefore the rest of the population was to be turned into peasants.

Former city inhabitants were referred to as “new people” and had a lower status in the new villages than the peasants – the “basic people”. The whole country, from former elites, professionals, intellectuals, to peasants, toiled non-stop for 12 hours a day in the rice fields. The slightest protest led to being sent by Angkar for “education”. Angkar, the name of the ruling organ of the communist Cambodia at the time of Khmer Rouge, means simply “organisation”. The very existence of the communist party was kept secret for a long time.

One of the 300 macabre “education” camps created by Angkar can be visited in Phnom Penh. It was called prison S21 and was located in a complex of buildings that formerly served as a school. Today it houses the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng:

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Cambodia part 1: royal Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh met me with terrible heat, as tropical cities often do. Every time is like that first time, in Bombay – a surprise. All of 38 degrees.

Phnom Penh is a relatively small city compared to other Asian monster-capitals. In its buildup it is strongly reminiscent of Bangkok, also situated on a river bend, also grows around the Royal Palace and the main pagoda, which is called the Silver Pagoda here.

The Silver Pagoda:

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