Sitting in an anonymous international hotel room in the ultra-modern capital of Malaysia; Kuala Lumpur, seems an inappropriate choice of venue to write a piece dedicated to a country as old as Cambodia or Kampuchea; but not as much as you would expect.
Phnom Penh was my first taste of Cambodia, and the Royal Palace or Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk was where it all started. And this is where it got complicated. The palace is situated at the confluence of four rivers. Easy so far.
The king, who has no constitutional role, and also has no guaranteed heir. Upon death, the new monarch is elected by a nine member committee from the ‘pool’ of current male family members. And although the king lives in the palace, he only sits on the throne during his succession ceremony. He resides in one of over twenty pavilions sited on the current grounds.
And here’s the paradox of old or new. Travelling around South East Asia it has become apparent that what looks old seldom is. For a region that has a long history of hostilities; colonising and rebellion, internal strife, etc; much of its architectural heritage has gone. The royal palace is a case in point. Often rebuilt in a replica or new guise, many structures are modern. The building of the royal palace was originally built in the 19th century, but many of the structures were replaced in the 1910s. Construction continued as late as 1962.
Leaving the grandeur of the palace, visits continued to the national Gallery that houses several artefacts from the temples that were dotted throughout the country. Sadly, photography is prohibited.
This was followed by the Museum of Genocide Crimes or Tuol Sleng Museum. A place of former torture and incarceration, it is a reminder of the terror wreaked by the Khmer Rouge during the recent dark era of Cambodian history. This year I have visited the Rwandan Genocide Memorial, a KGB Headquarters in Vilnius, and the combined camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Never will we as a species learn the lessons of history.
One final point about Phnom Pehn, and one that I found disconcerting. The national guide and local city guide appeared obsessed (not a too strong word) with corruption in all walks of life. Parents paying teachers to teach as their salaries are not sufficient falls within the realms of ‘free’ education. And when, as a traveller, you see a policeman receiving a payment for ‘protecting’ a coach and its passengers from two frail mothers with their young children, you realise that all is not good in the world.
Leaving Phnom Penh behind, the next and last stop on this leg of the journey was Siem Reap; dropping off point for the temples, all 1081 of them. And oh joy.
I for one did not realise prior to visiting Cambodia that the preferred religion of the Monarchs has switched between Hinduism and Buddhism throughout time. And most of the temples fall into the Hindu religion.
An early morning visit to the vast Angkor Thom was followed by a walk around Ta Prohm which has two claims to fame. The first is that it has been swallow up by trees that now strangle the structure that survives. The second mention of note is that Angelina Jolie graced the temple when filming Lara Croft Tomb Raider (or she may have been ‘CGIed’ in; I simply don’t care)!
The morning had delivered much rubble; historical rubble but rubble nonetheless. So the afternoon’s visit to Angkor Wat was a delight. Built it 1113 it still retains much of the original structure and is a truly wonderful place to experience. A Hindu temple it is still possible to climb to the very top, albeit accessed by modern steep stairs. The view across the area is stunning.
A boat journey along the local river brought me to The Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Swelling to nearly four times its size during the rainy season, it is home to indigenous people’s whose whole lives can be spent afloat. Churches, schools, hospital, etc, are all here.
And to prove the point of all that is old can be modern…