13.01.2013 - 11.02.2013
It is almost impossible to complete a meaningful or true sentence that starts with 'Cambodia is ...' Other than 'Cambodia is truly messed up'. A country of paradoxes, irreconcilable opposites and extremes, ruled by the demented logic of The Trial, Catch-22 and Alice through the Looking Glass all rolled into one. Where nothing is what it seems.
Three scenes from our first few hours in Cambodia. An apocalyptic landscape of burning trees and rice fields, with thick smoke engulfing the bus as soon as we crossed the border. Everything around us was on fire or smouldering and flames danced along the roadside. Then a beautiful Mekong river island of verdant abundance, lush orchards, peaceful shady lanes, elegant wooden stilt houses, community gardens of neat rows of all sorts of vegetables, women talking and laughing as they tended their plots. Then the slum end of the town where we were staying, the dirt road lined by tiny dark one-room shacks, toddlers in rags sitting playing on top of a big pile of rubbish, the stench overpowering. Welcome to Cambodia.
Some more images that have stayed in my mind. A buddhist monk kicking a yelping dog in the head. A young man, probably dead, lying in the road, his smashed motorbike metres away, blood running from his mouth, people standing looking and doing nothing. A little pig that had been befriended by a group of wild dogs on the beach, running and playing and digging with the other dogs, who treated him as one of the pack. The lavish four-day funeral of the king, revered as a demi-god and father of the nation, who also happened to bring Pol Pot to power. The most beautiful white beaches I've ever seen, with the warmest clearest calmest turquoise waters. The thousands of head-and-shoulders photos of prisoners entering the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre at Tuol Sleng, accused of betraying the Khmer Rouge revolution - schoolgirls, old women, and little children included, their expressions blank, defiant, bewildered,. The breathtaking thousand year old temples at Angkor, without question one of the wonders of the world and one of the most amazing places I will ever experience. How do you piece all this beauty and horror together?
Some Brits who have been working here for a few years asked what we made of Cambodia, a week into our stay. I said I felt there was a fundamental nihilism at the heart of everything here, that nothing really matters or has any value. Nods all round, and a correction - only money matters. Everything becomes a commodity, and everything is degraded.
The more time we spent here the less I understood. Everything I saw added to my confusion. There are no answers in Cambodia, and no conclusions in these posts. But despite the darkness, ugliness and tragedy, I found much to like about this country and was sad to leave (Caroline less so, admittedly). It's taken a while to get round to writing about our time there, partly lack of opportunity but mostly because it was hard to know what to say.
But never mind politics and history - here's beach-dog-pig. You may now squee.