Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Caught in Kampuchea
I have been enamoured by Cambodia for some time now: I don’t know if it was the exotic appeal of a lost country, I don’t know if it was the glory of being home to the imposing Hindu temples of Angkor Wat and I don’t know if it was the shadow of the mass massacre of a ‘revolutionary’ Communist, but the charm of Kampuchea had me blinded, which in turn led to beg friends/family/acquaintances to accompany me on a Tuktuk ride to the mystical Khmer region.
So when SH and AD moved to South East Asia, I was overjoyed (not because she was finally off my back) but because it meant that my dream to visit Cambodia was finally going to see the light of day. Convincing anon took some work, but there we were, all of us of Room No. 213, together again, with AD taking care of three hyper excited women!
And Cambodia didn’t disappoint me, though I found Angkor Wat a tad over-rated. Despite its majestic structure in the middle of nowhere, it failed to overwhelm me the way Ajanta Ellora did. Being someone who had visited the temples of South India, the ruins of Hampi, the marvel of Konark and of course, most recently, the breathtaking allure of Kailash Temple (Ellora), all that Angkor stood for was yet another masterpiece which was marketed extremely well! At times like these, I wonder if we tend to take our civilization for granted, that despite India having so much to offer, we hardly make an effort to promote them and that may be I haven’t seen enough of my country yet.
But otherwise Siem Reap was as charming as it gets, with all its delightful Tuktuk rides, the floating village on the Tonle Sap lake, the colourful roadside souvenirs, the experimental fish spa and the relaxing foot massage right in the middle of Pub Street, the street food comprising crunchy fried grasshopper and tarantula, the local delicacies (fish amok in particular), the dirt cheap alcohol (bottomless margaritas can make your nights longer), not to mention the happy herb pizza (for the uninitiated, it’s a generous dose of weed in your innocuous looking pizza) which can bring ecstasy to even the most depressed soul. And then there was the cab driver who drove us from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, who didn’t speak a word of English and coolly picked up a woman half his age on the way who snuggled comfortably on his lap while he drove for six hours, as we looked on, amused but slightly anxious, watching out for any sudden diversions lest he got distracted with the pretty girl’s ‘affections’. The ride back to Siem Reap was less adventurous as we decided to take a bus, not willing to trust our lives to an amorous cabbie.
However, for me, the highlight was definitely Phnom Penh, more specifically, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the former Security Prison 21) and Choeung Ek (Killing Fields), both of which serve as a chilling reminder of the atrocities committed barely thirty five years back, when almost three million innocent Cambodian civilians were executed out of a population of less than nine million. What motivated this hara-kiri was the blind belief in Communism, the ideology of agrarian socialism and complete government control espoused by the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. As we saw the mass graves, the remains of the victims, the tattered rags, the tree against which little kids were smashed till they died, the tiny prison cells, the naked skulls kept in the museum and as we listened to the blood-curdling descriptions, the gory details and the survival stories, we were left speechless by the human depravity and the sheer barbarism of modern times. For someone who has grown up in Kolkata and has seen the most erudite people swearing by the Communist manifesto, it was a familiar rhetoric and it scared me to even imagine that how easily we could have been in a similar situation but for our sheer size.
If you thought Cambodia with its depleted economy (1 USD is equivalent to 4000 KHR, the local currency), crumbling infrastructure and a gaping chasm between the rich and the poor, which was off the radar for the rest of the world, was just a forgotten dot on the map, think again, because...
it’s a country which makes you stop and think, while the rest are busy getting ahead…