Saturday, March 14, 2015

From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh - The Ancient Capital to the Modern Capital

14 March 2015


We left Siem Reap (the town) and headed to Phnom Penh, the capital.  We had hoped to take the boat that travels between these two cities, which travels down the length of the huge Tonle Sap lake and then along the Mekong River, arriving in Phnom Penh some five hours later.  But this is the end of the dry season in Cambodia, so the lake level is low.  The river levels are low.  And rumor is that the boat ran aground five times in the last week, arriving at its destination several hours late.  We figured if anyone was going to be stranded on a boat, it might be us.  So we chose not to take the boat.  Buses?  Well, we passed several tourist buses on the highway that had broken down and were being repaired.

For the same price as two tickets on the boat, and taxis at each end of the journey, we hired a car and driver and went door to door.  Easier, more convenient, and likely more comfortable.  One of those options that one chooses as one gets a bit older, sad to say.  (Our driver didn't speak much English, so we couldn't converse other than a little sign language.  I don't know our route, nor the names of the towns we went through.  Cambodian writing looks something like Thai, but maybe curlier.  And it's written from left to right, while Thai is right to left.  But we can't read either, so it doesn't really matter.)

Once we left the town of Siem Reap, we were on the national highway, much of which was being paved.  Since it's the end of dry season, things are extremely dusty and everything is beige, covered with dust.  The rivers are low, the rice fields and farms almost barren, and everything looks parched.  Even the cows, oxen, and water buffaloes looked thin as they grazed among the dry stalks of plants, foraging for something tasty to eat.  The only animals looking plump were the occasional pigs.

People in the country areas live in clusters of houses on stilts.  I asked Heng, the driver who took me around to the temples, if there was flooding, thinking this might be why people built stilt houses.  He said that during rainy season, things are wet but not really flooded.  He said people live in stilt houses because of the animals - there are snakes, such as cobras and boa constrictors, and the house on stilts makes it difficult for the snakes get inside.  Makes sense.

We also saw that some people corral their animals under the houses.  Really, cows and oxen would be standing or lying around in the shade under the house, with a few sticks nailed onto the stilts, making a fence to keep in the animals.  Easy fencing!

And of course there were the ever-present temples, with grand entrance gates, various stupas and cemetery monuments, and pagodas soaring high in the distance.

You can tell, I liked the stilt houses with the slightly curved roofs, the ceramic ornaments on the eave ends and on the crest of the roof, the brightly painted stairways.  Even though these are fairly simple, humble homes, humans just have this urge to decorate, add ornamentation, make things pretty and aesthetically pleasing.  That concept intrigues me.

Some of the older houses were actually covered in thatch instead of lumber, with criss-crossed bamboo holding the thatch in place.  I also liked the uneven lumber on the lower side of the house - sort of a "what's the point of making it even?" kind of attitude.

We also passed the occasional big outdoor tent covered with swags of bright colors, decorative bunting, maybe flowers or fake birds or other decorations.  These party tents would be full of tables and chairs, sometimes chandeliers, and often people all dressed up.  Plus music, loud pounding music!

Weddings!  Apparently this is how people hold weddings in Cambodia - and any day of the week works, people don't wait for weekends to have the big wedding party!  We're not sure if the wedding tent is near someone's home, or business, or if the space is rented, or what.  But it made the occasional bright and fun spot to look at during our five hour drive.

So, some facts and figures about Cambodia - the nation currently has a population of about 15 million people, mostly of Khmer descent.  The area of the country is 181,035 sq km, or 69,898 sq miles.  This is a very poor country, with the gross domestic product being about $1,100 (US$) per capita.  So, extremely poor.

We've heard rumors of the corruption of the government - that despite the large number of tourists, the money goes in the pockets of government officials and not to social services like health care and education.  Or that the Buddhism here includes a caste system, similar to the way Indian society is divided into castes, and that this affects how government funds are distributed and spent.  I don't know, our visa is only good for 30 days and it isn't easy to get a decent image of a country and its workings in that time.

But as you can see from the houses, many people are poor and live at a subsistence level.

This country also has an incredibly sad history.  People in our age group have a vague idea of this history, having lived through the time period that was probably one of the most brutal times in this country.  Anyway, a quick overview of Cambodian history, summarized from the tourist brochure we have:

Humans have lived in SE Asia since the early Stone Age, and the ancestors of the Khmer people have been in this region for at least 5000 years, possibly longer.  Cambodia's "Golden Age" was the Angkor period, roughly 9th to 13th centuries Common Era, the time when the Angkor Wat area near Siem Reap was the capital of the Khmer Empire.  By the 15th century, the Khmer Empire was in political and territorial decline, and challenged by the Tai kingdom in present-day Thailand, who were periodically raiding the Khmer capital and temples.  The Khmer court left Angkor shortly after it was sacked by the Tai in 1431-32, and relocated the capital at Phnom Penh, the confluence of the Mekong with several smaller rivers.

The new capital was moved a few times as  maritime trade with China and other Asian kingdoms flourished, and life became relatively peaceful again.  In the early 16th century, the Portugeuse and Spanish arrived, establishing trade as well as sending missionaries, and eventually becoming involved in the affairs of the Cambodian court.  Intrigue, murder, assassination of the Khmer king, big battles, and eventually the Spanish were massacred, ending their influence.

Enter the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, for a period of tranquility and trade.  Which ended in more violence and death, as well.  British and French explorers arrived in the mid-17th century, but interest waned and the area was left alone for a period of time.

Situated between Siam on the west and Vietnam on the east, with not a long coastline, Cambodia had a hard time during the 18th and 19th century.  Vietnam influenced the kingdom for a period of time, and the French arrived in the 1860s.  The French gained colonial control over much of SE Asia through a series of battles.  However, the king of Cambodia signed a protectorate agreement with France, hoping to have assistance fending off Siam and Vietnam.  

France remained in control of Cambodia (and Vietnam) for most of the first half of the 20th century.  Independence from France came in 1954, and the country grew.  In 1970, the Lon Noi coup plunged the nation into war between the government and the Khmer Rouge insurgents, who represented the communist interests in the country.  The Khmer Rouge took over the countryside, creating a huge refugee crisis, most of whom fled to Phnom Penh.  The city fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975 - this is the period of the "killing fields," when thousands of Cambodians were killed for their allegiance or affiliation (real or suspected) with the government, the royalty, any group not part of the Khmer Rouge - one of the bloodiest periods in modern history.  The Vietnamese army invaded in December 1978, supposedly to assist the Cambodian people, and the Khmer Rouge fled.  (I say "supposedly to assist" because many people feel the Vietnamese government has undue influence in the Cambodian government to this day.)

Since 1980 or so, the nation has been rebuilding itself.  Phnom Penh is again the capital and a vibrant, bustling city.  International investment has returned, as well as tourism.  There are seven political parties, elections are held, there is a parliament, prime minister, and the king is essentially a figurehead not involved in politics nor running the country.

Many of the sites tourists visit are part of the Khmer Rouge period.  Richard went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a school turned into the torture center by the insurgents.  Not a place I wanted to visit, with displays of systematic genocide, photos, skulls, all that.  I waited outside, where I met a nice cat sitting on a grave.  (That was morbid enough for me.)  Richard didn't spend very long there, and avoided some displays.  It's a very emotional place to visit, with signs asking that people try to remember the dead, and show proper respect.

People also visit the actual killing fields, the area where many of the government members as well as refugees were slaughtered.  Not sure I'm ready or willing to visit that place either.

That's Cambodia today.  A glorious past full of world-famous monuments.  A more recent history of neighbor turning against neighbor, full of death and misery.  Current times of trying to rebuild the country, bring the nation up to modern standards, as well as deal with the poverty in which most of the rural populations live.  

It's an interesting place.  We have three move weeks here, and we'll continue to explore both the modern and historic country.

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