By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
CAMBODIA – The lyrics of 80s’ punk band The Dead Kennedys, “a holiday in Cambodia, where everyone’s wearing black”, rattled around my brain as we bumped along back roads on a minibus across the Thai border to the Cambodian town of Sien Reap.
Only a few months earlier this frontier was closed due to skirmishes between the two countries that some feared would result in war. However, with few places with a history as rich or as bloody as this tiny country, Cambodians have understandably had enough of fighting.
From the black pajama-wearing Khmer Rouge, led by the genocidal Pol Pot, the ‘allied’ occupation of the USA during the Vietnam War, to the colonial presence of the French and right back to the ninth century when the Khmer kingdom ruled with an iron fist, there’s been enough blood spilt on this soil to last an epoch.
The World Heritage Site near Sien Reap, Angkor Wat, which translates as ‘city temple’, is one of the most significant archeological sites in South East Asia and the epicenter of the ancient Khmer empire that spanned Northern Thailand, Burma, parts of Malaysia and southern Vietnam from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. It is also a national symbol, appearing on Cambodia’s flag. Built in the twelfth century for the warlord and self proclaimed god-king, Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat originally honored the Hindu god Vishnu. Then as the Khmer Kingdom faded, it was transformed into a Buddhist temple.
The surrounding jungle was littered with many other ruins from the Khmer era, including Angkor Thom, with the cluster of multi-faced towers of The Bayon and the 350-meter long platform of the Terrace of Elephants, used for royal parades. However it was the nearby Ta Prohm Temple that held my interest. It was as seductive as the Lara Croft film, Tomb Raider, which used this location for some of its scenes. The site was still largely as it was first found, when it was re-discovered by a French explorer in the mid-nineteenth century overgrown with vines and trees.
Phnom Phen, the nation’s capital and former pearl of France’s Indochina, was ransacked by the Khmer Rouge who drove its inhabitants out to work in slave camps in the surrounding farmland. From 1975 until they were ousted by the Viet Con in 1979, they executed everyone with an education and then later up to a quarter of the nation’s population.
They abolished money and freedom and drove Cambodia back to the Stone Age, but were ironically given a seat in the United Nations until the early 1990s.
With a noticeable absence of an older generation and a trail of maimed cripples missing limbs, victims of one of the world’s most land-mined countries, the scars on this society were still apparent.
The recently-opened genocide memorial centre, Choung Ek, one of the hundreds of killing fields where hundreds of thousands of victims were bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves, is a stark reminder of the horrors of war. As is S21, the secret torture prison used for Spanish Inquisition-like integration.
That said, the petite Cambodians are good-natured people and the country is emerging as a new hotspot on the Asian traveler circuit with vibrant markets, exciting cuisine and a wok-full of adventure.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) marital bliss at the end of the road.