In Khmer Country

A few years ago in 2004 I had the opportunity to go to Cambodia. It is a fascinating country in many ways and it serves us well to remember that it was not long ago Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge spread fear and terror in trying to implement his distorted idea of communism in the countryside. Pol Pot executed so many educated people that the country was left depleted of knowledge. With help of their neighbour countries such as Thailand and other world-wide associations Cambodia is coming back now as a proper functioning country.

The Lion Temple

Phnom Penh

The capital city of cambodia is a place where there is always something going on. When you walk the streets you see a lot of lightweight motorbikes or vespa-type sometimes with five and more people on them. They are used for everything in this city, as taxis, for transportation and for just getting around.

View of Phnom Penh
View of Phnom Penh

I believe my hotel is the tallest building in the city, at least from my window I can not see any other, taller, buildings around. It is a nice hotel with good standard and an air conditioner that have five settings. Off, low, medium, high, a thousand monkeys. I crank it up to make the noise of a thousant monkeys and go to bed, exhausted from the long flight with stop-over in Bangkok, Thailand where I had to wait four hours with no place to go. Actually I have been traveling close to 20 hours now and I don’t sleep that well in tourist class on the flights.

Cars are also pretty common but for the ordinary family it is still too expensive. Perhaps the new Indian car Tata Nano will change all this.

I got all my sisters with me

The Mekong river and the Tonle Sap converges in Phnom Penh, a city that is by any standard a very busy city. The time when it is calm is when the mid day sun is baking it relentlessly but in the evening and in the morning it is very busy and a stroll down the streets is always turning up something interesting.

The Mekong is called the life blood of Asia. I would love to spend a month traveling down the Mekong river with my camera and document the life there. I have thought about that several times and now recently I saw that National Geographic has done just that! Bummer – they are stealing my good ideas.

Mekong River - Life blood of southeast asia

Today I see a man with a severely over loaded motorbike navigating an intersection without traffic lights. It does not go so well, he has to break and swerve and he keels over with all his load. People rush forward to help him up, there is no problem really. The car driver comes out and apologizes and helps him reload the sacks on his bike. Nobody gets upset everyone just makes the best of the situation and moves along.

Off he goes and I hope he makes it home with whatever he is transporting. It is a huge amount of sacks.

Transport Failure
Transport accident

I pass by the movie theatre and I reflect over that most films seems to be on the theme boy meets girl and has to struggle to marry her but in the end their love prevails. The struggle can be family problems, monetary problems or other cultural differences perhaps, my Cambodian language skills are not honed enough to make that out.

There is also a curious wall here with some photographs of actors and acresses performing in various situations. Perhaps they are for sale for the fans. I am not sure and there is nobody to ask about it.

Movie Theatre
Cinema house in Phnom Penh
Movie photos
Wall of photographs of strange scenes.

The small motorcycles or scooters are everywhere. There is probably 50 scooters to each car. I have seen up to six people ride one of these scooters and light weight motorcycles at the same time. Not once I have seen a single helmet. Not even on the police man on his MC.

Count down
Counting down to green light

In the traffic intersections they have these curious traffic light. When they are red or green there is a counter on the side that counts down the number of seconds remaining before the light changes. I ask a taxi driver about this and he tells me that before they started using them people waited maximum 30 seconds then they decided there was something wrong with the traffic light and just drove off anyway even if there was crossing traffic. This lead to a number of nasty accidents and after they started using these count-downs it became much better.

They do have long timers, when we stop it starts at 60 and then counts down. A full minute at the red light, it feels much more than a minute so I can sort of understand where they are coming from with these things.

Temple and Palms
Temples by the bushel, temples by the pound!

There are small temples (Wat, Prasat) everywhere, even in the city. There are small parks with an ancient temple there, people go there put down some flowers and offerings, light som incense and then go back to the busy life in the every day life they lead in the capitol of Cambodia.

Another thing that I see are shops for people who are getting married. There seems to be an abundance of these shops and I think I understand that people here spend a fortune on their weddings. The finest dresses you could imagine, the stores can also arrange for the wedding to be held in a certain place, cater to various religious beliefs, arrange the party after the wedding and so on. It seems great.

And now I understand a comment from one of my colleagues here that I am working with. He said ”no money – no honey”. The dowry that the family of the boy has to pay to the girls family is extensive. So much that many young men comes to the city to work and save money a number of years before they can go back to the countryside and marry the girl of their dreams. A slightly different culture from the one I was brought up in.

Bridal Shop
Wedding shop in Phnom Penh

One of the more funny episodes was when I watched how the phone booths works here. They don’t take money, instead there is a girl (most often a young lady) watching. When you wish to make a phone call she dials the number on an ordinary phone and then she starts a stop watch when you take the handset. When you are finished she stop the watch, checks her tables and you pay her for the use of the phone. You are also expected to give her a small tip.

Phone Booth
Phnom Penh phone booth

Although it is not so expensive calling within Cambodia, calls to other countries are quite expensive and the quality is very poor. I am phoning home on my mobile several times, my calls are routed over an ancient Russian communications satellite called ”Intersputnik 1” and most of the times the calls just ends in silence, sometimes I can get through and more often than not I can also overhear several other people talking on other ”lines”. Quite funny actually. Untill I discover it’s $4 a minute to Sweden. Whoopsie. An hour with my friend on the phone results in a $240 phone bill. Don’t want to do that too much. I resort to text messages ($0.25 a pop).

Although there is a Cambodian currency people deal in US dollars everywhere. They also have started taking Euros and probably even more so in the recent years.

On the Street
Street life

The poverty is definitely a problem but most people seems quite content with what they have. Actually I have been far less hassled by beggars in this country than in most places in Asia that I have visited including Thailand and India.

Side by side with rather modern buildings are real sheds made from corrugated steel plates. This is a mechanics shop and people come here to trade their punctured flat tires in for something in a slightly better condition. There are of course huge contrasts, I met these guys that had a mechanic shop where they fixed small problems and changed tires and things like that.

Side by Side
Vulcanizer and mechanichs shop

The guys where really friendly and did not mind me taking the photograph. Afterwards they asked if they could have one of my bottles of coke that I had bought to quench my thirst and although we did not speak the same language we laughed a lot and drank of the coke and made friends.

It seems life is not so busy and although they can’t be doing lots of money over this they don’t complain. I learn later that people are generally very happy and that when asked people are mostly worried about landmines from the war.

Into the jungle

When I was there we had to drive far in to the countryside to find the site to work on and as we are driving there the driver asks me if I am interested in history. I say ”Yes, very much so” and he takes off at a very small road straight into the jungle.

The country side on our way to Sambo Prey Kuk

We drive for a couple of hours before we take off on even smaller roads. After a while the road is not so much a road any more as it is a couple of tracks in the red dirt that is everywhere in this region. Somebody once told me that the darker the dirt is, the better it is for growing things and the lighter and more red it is the more meager it is. Perhaps so – but the jungle is still pretty dense. People here seems to grow mostly rice and some other typically asian vegetables.

The Mekong River
Mekong upstream from Phnom Penh

We always seems to be following the Mekong river, it can not be stressed how important this river is to the people living here.

A mountain in the background in an otherwise flat landscape

Before we arrive I am warned about the allways prevailing land mines. Hundreds of thousants of the nasty buggers has been spread over the country during Pol Pot’s regime and one wrong step could kill you – or at best just take one of your legs off. There is a long way to hospital care here so I remind myself to take things slow.

Busy Street
Village street not too far from Sambo

The Lost City

Sambo Prey Kuk, or Sambor Prei Kuk or Preikuk, the ways to spell the translitterated word in the lating alphabet varies – on the internet I found probably five or six different spellings. I can’t write in the original language of the Khmer anyway so this will have to suffice. The name litterally means ”Forest Temples” in the Khmer language today. Many believe that the name is a corruption of the words ”prasat samphubora” which means ”temples of the lord Shiva”. And indeed there are many such remnants here reminding of the old Hindi gods.

Stone pillars
Old columns that have fallen and shattered to pieces strewn all over the ground.

Compared with Angkor Wat who was built with massive clunky columns there is a refinement over Sambor that you won’t find in Angkor.

Rings of walls
The entrance to the temples had several brick walls circles around them. Probably you had to walk them in a ceremonial way before entering the most holy shrines in the middle.

This place was the center of the Khmere culture in the 7th century, and what an impressive site it is. There are still people living around here in small towns and villages and there are some locals who still use some of the temples but most were forgotten and claimed by the jungle and just recently they have started to clear away the jungle in order to get to the temples.

Still in use
Evidence of people using these temples even today.

We found perhaps 3-4 temples that displayed signes of people still using them today. However there were very few people around and the jungle was strangely silent as we walked around looking in where we could and taking some photographs of the area.

Details of a Temple
The brickwork is just amazing.

It is the biggest pre Angkorian cityr of the Khmers and although wars, weather and looters have taken their tolls there are many interesting things to see in this spot of the world.  The area extends over more than 25 square kilometers and the entire city was so much more than just the temples but all the resident places including the king’s temple was built from wood and destroyed with time.

Temples Everywhere
Look closely, can you see all the temples hidden in the picture?

We emerge from the cars and nothing could really prepare me for what I see. There are litterally more then a hundred of 1400 year old temples scattered about. I can see perhaps ten or fifteen at once just by looking around. The whole grounds are walled by an ancient brick wall, partly destroyed by overgrowth and vegetation but much of it remains quite intact. Many temples have fallen over and you can see where they where because there is a pile of brick on the ground. Brick seems to have been the prevailing material to build with here and some of the temples are fantastic.

Part of the Wall
Detail of one of the walls around Sambo Prey Kuk. Amazing masonry.

There are several walls it turns out, in circles around the temple grounds, in the middle was the most holy spot and there are still more temples to be found in the jungle. As we walk around in silence taking it all in a couple of other people comes and greets us, archaeologists working here. They advise us not to interfere with any digs, they are roped off, but otherwise we are welcome to roam around. They say they have not found any mines on the temple grounds so far, but that we as always should be careful if we get into the jungle. ”Better take a leak where someone see you than stepping on a mine and never leak again” one of them jokes in perfect oxford English.

I realise that most of these guys have not been schooled in Cambodia, they are Thai people here and some Cambodian people that went to universities abroad. Everything was such a mess after the Khmer Rouge that hardly any people with education survived. A most terrible time. And the worst thing is that the rest of the world did hardly anything about it. Millions of people murdered.

Old Stone Paths and Temples Everywhere
Footpath between the temples, some stone laid paths still remains.

And yet there seems to be very little resentment. When I ask people politely about it they shrug and say something like ”can’t change what has happened” and then they change the subject. In all the will to move on is so strong that it is sometimes a little bit strange. But I decide it is good that they are looking forward.

My mind wanders back to the temples. I can see some distinct hinduistic iconography there are also writing on the stones that I can’t quite decipher, and neither can my friends, but it does look distinctly like hindi writings.

Writings on the wall of one of the huge stones outside a temple. I wish I knew what it said.

Several of the temples have entrances that resemble the female genitals and I believe there is a religious reason for this, temples that have been built for fertility perhaps or just to honor the source of new life.

A typical entrance
"Vulva" entrance.

Some of the temples are still in use and well known by the locals. There are no tourists here though, they are all at Angkor Wat the famous temple about 1 1/2 hour from this place. There is silence and the sun is about to set and it is a beautiful evening.

One of the most well known temples here is the Lion Temple, guarded by two very beautiful statues of lions it takes a central place in Sambor and you can hardly miss it if you are passing by. The stone work is amazing and although I am not certain that the lions are as old as the rest of the temple they are incredibly well done.

The Lion Temple
The Lion Temple. Guarded by two lions.
Lion Head
Close-up on one of the lions.

1400 years ago was the pre-christian viking age here in Sweden. It was a time where we built houses of wood and ships and sailed the seas but there is hardly anything left that can compare to what these people built. They knew how to make proper bricks, bricks that will probably last more than two millennia! It’s quite incredible to thing about this.

That’s when I find it. A temple that I once saw depicted in a book about Cambodia. It is a portal held together by the roots of a tree while the rest of the temple has fallen into a pile of brick rubble basically. The tree probably started as a vine around the entrance and then kept growing. The rest of the temple collapsed with time, it might even have been blown up by treasure hunters who came here to find the offerings built into the temples and they used dynamite to crack the huge stone slabs in the temples and they must have collapsed some of them in the process.

The Entrance Remains
The only thing remaining is the portal, entertwined by the roots of this huge ancient tree.

This was the centre for the Khmer people in these days, Phnom Penh is a modern capital and has not been the capital for that long. It is also the birth place of Pol Pot himself, something I did only find out after I had come home again. It is so difficult to get your mind around the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and this.

Back at the airport

At the airport I check in for my flight. I have to pay a tourist flight tax of 20 USD in cash and then I can go to the passport control. No problem at all they are all as happy and friendly as I have come to expect everyone in Cambodia to be. Incredibly friendly people, there is always laughter and the attitude is great.

I meet an american waiting for the same flight. He’s been in Cambodia for three months working at building the new American embassy here. He wants to buy some cigarrs and I realize that there is still an embargo between the US and Cuba and cigarrs are something you can’t buy everywhere in the states. I advice him to not go with the cheapest local brands, I have tasted some of the local asian grown tobacco and the quality is widly varying. Suffice to say that the ones I had was not as good as those you see from Cuba!

We are sitting at a table and I hear there is some commotion by the bar. Two youn people around 25 or so are having an argument with the lady behind the counter. I can hear on their prononciation that they sounds typically scandinavian and they start to look around for a table to sit down. The come over to our table since we have two free chairs here. They present themselves and tell us they are from Sweden. I remain english speaking and do not reveal that I am also a Swede. They tell us stories about how much they had been drinking and the pot they had been smoking at a friends place and how cool that was and they show video on their pocket cam of a thai boxing match.

We are both wishing them to hell when the lady from the bar comes over. Apparently they have not paid for their beer and sandwhiches and she is asking them to pay for them now. The guys just grins and says ”if you did not charge us for it then you can’t charge us for it now”.

My american friend looks absolutely shocked. He, as well as I realise that this would come off her pay check if the Swedes do not pay up. He is reaching after his walled but I put my hand on his arm. The lady knows what to do, she signals the airport security guys who comes over with their rather indimidating sidearms and stares at the guys. Words are not necessary and I have rarely seen a $20 bill been produced so fast.  The beer and food is about $8 and this would be a huge amount of money for the bar maid to pay herself.

The Swedes are grumpy now and we are smirking at them giving them comments. They tell us they are going to the beaches in Thailand tomorrow and off they go to the gate. I am going to Bangkok as just a stop over to fly home, I don’t have the time to stay for any beaches. Which was just as well, this was the 23rd of December and if you remember the tsunami it hit on the 26th. I have no idea what happened with these two guys.

I got to Bankok without any problem and then switched to the 11 hour flight back to Stockholm and landed in good shape but tired with lots of memories and some nice pictures that I will keep with me forever.