Over my Easter holidays I gave up a little of my time to watch Tomb Raider. It is without doubt one of the worst films that I have ever seen, but I was tempted to sit through the half of it that I caught whilst channel flicking, so that I could be reminded of a country that I fell in love with at sixteen, Cambodia.
In between ridiculous plot and equally implausible action, you can catch glimpses of the truly awe-inspiring Ankor Wat temples. My estimation of Angelina Jolie increased considerably when I heard of her dumb struck reaction to the country.
Enough of Tomb Raider. What you can glean from the film is only a fraction of the real thing. The trouble with Cambodia is knowing where to start. But this time I think I’ll begin with the Foreign Correspondents Club. It’s hardly what a back packer would call ‘the real Cambodia’, but its appeal is purely this fact, it’s what a Brit abroad might have demanded in the 1920s. It’s a massive wake up call, to just how fucking crazy colonialism is; foreigners sitting in comfort in a gentleman’s club while looking down on the unruly banks of the Mekong River, there’s something surreal about this picture. The place is quite simply bloody weird, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact I was being offered up club sandwiches in the middle of Phnom Penh. Although when I went the place was almost deserted, as anglicised tourists had yet to return in numbers to the country after years of fear created by the Khmer Rouge.
Whilst those who would be frequenting the Foreign Correspondents Club were staying out of the country, the civilians were forced to stay and endure the turmoil. The people that I met amazed and humbled me with their life stories. One particularly jubilant policeman who showed us around one of the more over grown temples for a bit of extra money, told us, in amongst other details about his aspirations for the future, that all of his family were dead.
The reason why the country made such a deep impression on me was this mix of painful history, and the energy and beauty of the country and its people.
The temples of Ankor Wat were astounding. I’ve never been religious, but the things that people create to celebrate their Gods has never ceased to amaze me. The outer walls of temples were covered with engravings – even in high and hard to reach places the detail was perfect. Ramayana stories adorned the outer walls of Ankor Wat temple, which fascinated me particularly due to my introduction to these fantastical tales in my primary school years. There is no point trying to describe these places or catch a perfect picture, they truly have to be experienced in their sheer magnitude and detail…
Yet even the temples show a history of conflict, if you look carefully at the sitting position of some of the characters they have been scored over to change the normal crossed legged position to the lotus position in accordance with Buddhist Religion.
I only had two and a half weeks to see everything, so there was a lot that I could not see and yet also a great deal I haven’t mentioned. However I must convey the two memories that left the most searing impression on my mind. In the last two days I was taken to a fairly non -descript looking school building in Phnom Penh. At least it started life as a school, it was transformed under Pol Pot into the most inhumane of prisons and now stands as a museum to part of the hell that the country endured. It was an eery experience, perfectly peaceful, yet somehow twisted. I was shown small bricked cells, which wouldn’t fit even my slight form lying out straight. The balcony of one building had been fenced in with barbed wire to stop desperate inmates jumping off in an attempt to end their suffering. By the end of the afternoon I felt sick. After this ordeal, I passed a demonstration in the city centre. This mobilisation should be recognised in a context where the only real newspaper is little more than a fanzine-a handful of A4 pages. One sign caught my eye. It begged for America’s help, I couldn’t help but see the irony in this plea for help, from a country that had already aided so much in the country’s suffering.
Cambodia is an incredible, but sobering experience, yet I defy anyone to leave and not want to return.