A friend chastised me recently for giving the tourist’s spiel on my travels – that comment has bothered me a little while writing this blog. There are many levels of experience – a pressure to condense entire centuries of history into our limited comprehension and a greater one of getting to grips with what we already know and relating it to what we see.
Cambodia in the 20th century has been synonymous with the killing fields and a holocaust-style genocide of its own people and relentless bombing by the US, Russia and China from 1965 through till the end of the Vietnam war that have had a lasting impact to this day.
The small landmine museum near Siem Reap tells the chilling story of this aftermath. Aki Ra was a Khmer soldier and he started a de-mining operation of his own accord and later received help from abroad. The accumulation of shells and warheads stand testament to what was a civil war for twenty years. Amputees and orphans are supported by the profits from this museum.
Even now, the government has absolute majority (the Cambodia People’s Party) and there’s a lot of support for the opposition leader who lives in France. Our guide said that him and his lot are always under suspicion for spreading anti-govt. messages. Vietnam has a huge influence on daily governance and Cambodia is constantly under threat from its neighbours who try to encroach their land. “Cambodia is the rabbit being crushed by the two tigers on either side – Thailand and Vietnam,” he said. There is a danger that the rich tropical forest around Angkor Wat is under threat from mining and foreign interests are high. Even the companies that sell tickets to the tourist attractions are given to the Vietnamese.
Back in 1993, the writer Amitav Ghosh wrote a moving essay titled Dancing in Cambodia. That remains the ultimate travel writer’s account of what we saw. He first writes about a dance troupe that sailed in the 30s to Marseilles with the King of Cambodia, causing a stir in French society. Later he meets a dancer from that tour who turns out to be Pol Pot’s sister-in-law. In our visits to the temples, our guide kept showing us the figures of the Apsaras in the temples in various dance poses – the celestial creatures who appeared when Vishnu churned the ocean of milk. I could only remember that episode Amitav Ghosh describes in vivid detail.
The temples bear testimony to all the troubles of the ancient and recent past – the idol of Vishnu at Angkor Wat is right in front and not in an inner shrine – a deliberate attempt by the Buddhist takeover many centuries ago. The statue of Lakshmi stands beheaded – an act of violence during the recent civil war. The bullet holes on the walls don’t need any explanation.