“No, not possible” was the reply followed by “Too dangerous.” Apparently, travelling by bus could end up being stopped by bandits, or worse the Khmer Rouge, and taken hostage then a ransom demanded, or else. It appeared my plan to visit Angkor Wat had run into a hurdle.
Cambodian History | 1995
This was Chinese New Year 1995, and I had flown into Phnom Penh the day before: “No health card, not a problem; no visa, not a problem just pay over there,” the immigration official had said. I passed through a checkpoint and was given a good dose of radiation from a Czech X–ray machine used to scan luggage.
The broken-down taxi departed the euphemistically named Pochentong International Airport passing a destroyed tank on the way out. It was daytime, and you could see how broken the city was: years of civil war and occupation will do that.
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had recently left, its mission had had questionable results. However, UNTAC had helped to restore some semblance of order to the chaos that had resulted from Cambodia’s previous turbulent years.
Before I made my way to Angkor, it was time to explore Phnom Penh. The National Museum was my first port of call. This museum of antiquity housed a ramshackle collection of Khmer art and artifacts. Although there appeared to be no order to the museum, it gave a hint of the grandeur and monumental scale of buildings of the Angkorian period. There was a scarcity of visitors, so I enjoyed the museum to myself.
Phnom Penh Entertainment | Guns
Next, I ventured to the Independence Monument. While trying to take a close-up picture of the monument, a policeman wandered over and indicated that I shouldn’t be here. He had that look of a “fine” was imminent. I exited before he could figure out what I was worth.
During this time, there were a lot of people with guns: AK-47s, heavy machine guns, pistols, in fact, everything that used bullets. As I was to discover, more so at Angkor.
Phnom Penh was a compact city, and still is compared to most Asian capitals, and possessed a calm atmosphere: surprising as the Khmer Rouge were still on the rampage. I visited what are still the usual sites: Wat Phnom, S-21 with its gruesome map of Cambodia filled with human skulls, and the Killing Fields.
I was made offers to blast a target with an AK-47, $10; throw a hand grenade and blow up a bush, $15; or blow up a buffalo with an RPG, $25. It seemed the price went up depending on the quantity of explosives; I politely declined.
The next day I was confronted with my bus obstacle to destination Angkor.
“So, how do I get to Siem Reap,” I asked.
“Boat,” the ticket seller said.
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
The Japanese had supplied high-speed riverboats that plied the route between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap via the Tonle Sap. These thin and long boats were a combination of pressure cooker on the inside and furnace on the outside.
Speeding along the Tonle Sap was glorious. The river was lined with fishing booms that stretch halfway out into the water from both sides. The boat would weave with great sweeping turns on its way through the obstacles making it an exhilarating journey.
Along the way were army checkpoints perched in the middle of the water. Soldiers armed to the teeth would check the captain’s manifest, look at his cargo, then send us on our way.
It was the dry season and the boat slowed to enter the Tonle Sap. The bottom of the hull scraped the riverbed. Once clear of the entrance to the lake the boat picked up speed. The banks of the lake rapidly receded until they could no longer be seen. The boat was in the middle of this enormous lake.
After a while, Chon Cheas, Siem Reap’s port, appeared. This grimy, ramshackle and bustling port was the end of the journey. The boat jostled its way through the throng of boats and nosed itself into a sport next to the bank. Waiting for the boat was a mob of Tuk Tuk and mototup (motorcycle taxi) operators. Even before the boat was moored, they were swarming over the boat looking for a fare. I found an English-speaking mototup man named Vuth who proved to be an excellent guide.
Vuth found me a guesthouse on the edge of town and told me that he would pick me up at 5am for the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
Cambodian History |Angkor
By the time I was on my way to Angkor it was still dark, but it was pleasantly warm. A gentle breeze sprung up, bringing the thick odour of the jungle with it. As we zipped along the road, the sky had begun turning a rosy pink over the treetops. At the end of the road was a wide moat, the water an oily black, and its banks lined with sandstone steps. The other side of the moat was still in blackness and there was a dark wall. We followed the moat then turned a corner; at last, I was at the entrance to Angkor Wat.
Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time is an extraordinary experience; the overwhelming size of the temple is surprising, awe inspiring and inspirational … and there was nobody there. Then, the sun broke over the horizon and Angkor Wat was silhouetted against the sky.
Some other temples were off limits. A few days before some Americans had been kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, which had forced the closure of some of the more remote ruins. Many temples had mine fields around them to deter thieves. At sunset, the army planted mines across the entrance and at sunrise the mines were removed.
“Aren’t the soldiers worried they might forget where they bury the mines,” I asked Vuth.
“It okay, they have map,” he replied.
After several days at Angkor, two uniformed men on a motorcycle approached me. They claimed to be park attendants. They looked me up and down and asked for “$20”. I gave them the cash, and they handed me a ticket. Oh well, not much money for several days of exploring Angkor.
Last day in Phnom Penh
On the last day, I had one last trip to Angkor before returning to Phnom Penh. On the way back to Siem Reap, there was a loud thump from the jungle. Vuth told me that is was probably a buffalo which had stepped on a landmine. Guess it was steaks for dinner for the next little while.
Back in Phnom Penh I spent my last evening on Riverside, back then a dusty patch on the Mekong levee. Couples and families strolled along Riverside in the early evening. A freighter was moored out in the Mekong; a long way from the ocean.
In my diary at the time, I had written “see Angkor while you can; because, in the future, it might not be there”. It’s still there, but you must battle hordes of tourists and the entrance fee is astronomical. So, in a way, part of the majesty and magic of Angkor Wat has vanished.
Cambodian History | The Future
This was not to be my last day in Phnom Penh, but the beginning of a long relationship with Cambodia. I was to be inextricably linked to and fascinated by Cambodian history and to the future of Cambodia. You still have time to have your own personal Cambodian adventure by having an adventure or volunteering. Be a part of Cambodian history by contributing to it’s future.
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