Forces of relativity

My first trip to Cambodia was both shocking and surprisingly pleasant. Our arrival at Siem Reap airport with visa applications, luggage, sim card purchases and airport taxis was a real breeze, very far from the kind of arrival in a developing country that I was expecting. Relative development points: Cambodia 1 – Laos 0. Our hotel was an oasis with its gorgeous pool area, delicious food and friendly staff.

The first shocks were experienced when we headed to the Old Market area across the river from our hotel. I couldn’t believe my eyes – or ears for that matter – of how jam-packed this area was of tourists. Sure, when you do the math of some 2 million visitors every year you realize that there are probably over 5000 tourists in the city on any given day. But there were way too many for my taste in such a small area, and the same kind of crowds were expected at the temples during the day. Whoa! So we tried honing our crowd tolerance to the max before heading to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Limited success, but I had great fun photographing the masses of tourists that were quite effective in blocking the view of the sunset.

Sunset seekers at Phnom Bakheng

Unmotivated to spend the next day amidst busloads of fellow tourists on temple tours, we selected two temples way out of Siem Reap for our Angkor temple experience: Banteau Srey and Baeng Maelea. We figured that not that many people would venture that far out to see piles of rock. Approaching Banteau Srey in the morning in a line of buses we were clearly wrong, and it was somewhat of a challenge to see parts of the temple for the groups that gathered around the main attractions. Thankfully most of the tourists seemed to be Asian and we had the advantage of being a head taller than many of them. Oh well… We were more successful at Baeng Maelea and started exploring the ruined temple for a good 20 minutes with nothing but butterflies and an odd monkey as our company. It was straight out of Indiana Jones!

What would happen to most buildings if humans abandoned them @ Baeng Maelea

Drives to and from the temples crossed through Cambodian countryside where we saw conditions similar to the Lao countryside, though with more variation in buildings that to me signaled larger differences in income levels within villages. Based on this cursory view of life in the rural villages in a relatively affluent area within the country, the poor in Cambodia seem to be on par with the poor in Laos, at least in rural areas. But the other end of the scale is certainly light years ahead in Cambodia relative to Laos.

My admittedly speedy visit to Phnom Penh left me in a state of awe that took days to shake. The city of some two million residents was full of mainly black Lexus and BMW SUVs (in Vientiane cars are mainly Toyota), despite some construction activities there was no dust in the city (I’m assuming all roads are paved), the sun was dazzling from the sides of what looked like brand new skyscrapers and generally everything was clean. I had been told though that poverty is much more in your face in Phnom Penh so it’s probable that I just visited the city at an unusual time when the streets had been cleared of debris and beggars for the ongoing ASEAN meeting. The only beggars I saw in the whole town were near the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, which was an utterly chilling place. UNESCO has listed the place on its Memory of the World register – let us hope that the world never ever has to live through another period of injustice and horror that was the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia.

Some of the last 14 prisoners executed at Tuol Sleng are buried in the courtyard

To avoid finishing on a totally depressing note, I add some photos I took of the drawings displayed at the museum, made by children in Cambodia and Japan and exhibiting their hopes and dreams of a better future. 

Some pictures taken on an early Sunday morning tuk tuk journey through the streets of Phnom Penh are available on flickr.

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