Cambodia: a land of contrasts

This isn’t very actual, at least to me, because I’m not in South-East Asia anymore, I’m doing a study on blisters and the right way to cross a cows field without annoying the bull (no one wants an angry bull) along st James way in France. But I haven’t mentioned Cambodia yet, the third country we visited in the summer,  and that is truly a shame, because it deserves full notice. 

In Cambodia, we started with Phnom Penh, which is also a big, motorcycle-crazy, polluted and frantic city, like others but still each has its own flavour (at least to me, and Phnom Penh has a nice river front as well) where I’m sure there is lots of fun things to do but we went for the horrible and instructive ones: we visited, on a row, the tuol sleng prison, where the angkar  (the Khmer rouge effective power, hiding under an elusive name (it means the organization) tortured, imprisoned and forced fake confessions from thousand and thousand of people (objectors, people who looked like “new people” (that is, that might be intellectuals/city people: with glasses or soft hands), and progressively just about anybody, including party members in a frenzy of paranoia and horror). The prison, that used to be a high school, still has blackboards where commandments of the Khmer rouge are written, in french, in a strange primary school teacher style handwriting, and the confrontation of the hundreds of faces of the prisoners, photographed at their arrival, the paintings from the few survivors depicting life (if you can call it that) in the prison and the mundane  suburban setting of the school building is particularly chilling. And raw, and awful. And so sad, to think of so many lives (1/4 of the population at the time!) lost and so much suffering in the name of nothing we can really grasp. 

To continue on the same theme we also visited the killing fields (it’s only one of many across the country, and that fact itself is horrific enough) where the prisoners would then be sent and bludgeoned to death, to save bullets. Again, it seems impossible to link the gruesome facts, and the bones and pieces of clothing emerging from,  the mass graves with the quiet surroundings, the fields at the periphery of phnom Penh. Just as it seems impossible to imagine it happened less than 40 years ago when you walk the streets of Cambodia now, meet smiling people. I’m guessing that of course if you do spend more time with people and hear their stories you would discover the horror every family has had to life through, but on the surface the horrors of the past and the quiet peacefulness of the present don’t seem to belong to the same time continuum.

But Cambodia must not be resumed to the Khmer rouge of course, and so we also went to the small town of Kampot, filled with expats, pepper farms and a distinctive post colonial vibe (even if the majority of the buildings are actually Chinese merchant houses, not french), then to a secluded corner of a beach near sihanouk ville (you can find some, of season) where we did nothing but play in the waves and read for 24 hours, which, after seeing the memorials of Phnom Penh, seemed artificial and somehow wrong, and, to close on a high note, went to Angkor Wat (well, Siem Reap) where we stayed much longer than we had previously thought, because, as mentioned somewhere else, it is much too beautiful and grand to just pass through. 

Sunset at the beach near sihanouk ville

And what I’m left with, as a lasting impression, is a land of so much contrasts (I think it just beat India which was holding the record for me up to that point, if there is such a competition) that is difficult to encompass, and to understand fully, but also a place of incredible beauty and a definite proof that you can evolve and – never easily- begin to recover from atrocities of the past. 

Coconut Sunset in kampot


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