Heart of darkness

From the sleepy to the savage, to the sublime…

Vientiane to Phnom Penh is possibly one of the more drastic transitions one can make in this corner of the globe. Cambodia’s capital is dusty, noisy, chaotic, and hellishly hot (most of the country is situated within a basin, trapping the heat). It often feels like you’re in the Middle East, and yet is unmistakably Southeast Asian. There is an undeniable verve to Phnom Penh; it houses buildings of such beauty, but there’s a slight crackle of danger wherever you are. Perhaps it’s knowing about the parasitic levels of corruption in the government, perhaps it’s the proliferation of illegal goods for sale and ferocious and unmissable poverty that gives the place its edge. But there’s something to it, and for all the apparent negatives to the city, it has a combustible atmosphere which is curiously intoxicating.

I was pretty quickly forced to accept that I was going to be regularly confronted with people living in the most despairing conditions, and that speaks not only for their circumstances, but also their bodies. Cambodia was absolutely covered with landmines during the Vietnam war, and victims do not receive any assistance from the government. Therefore, they have no option but to live out in the street, begging for whatever may come their way. When a bus full of tourists pulls up at a popular destination, you can be guaranteed that someone who has been irrevocably damaged by a landmine blast will be at its doors, desperate to receive something, anything, from the people exiting the bus. You can’t avoid it so you have to accept it. After visiting a temple in Angkor today, I made a trek over to the toilets, accessed by a bridge. Standing at its start was a young girl whose face had clearly been melted by a blast. She was unable to move her mouth, and so communicated with passers-by simply by moaning. I could hear her the entire time I was in the toilet. I’m sorry if this seems unnecessarily abrasive or unpleasant, but that is the reality of life in Cambodia – and this is in no way intended as a slur on the country, only on the lack of effort to help people in these situations.
And yet…somehow, I don’t know whether it’s because of or in spite of these circumstances, Cambodia has wriggled its way under my skin. An outstanding tour guide in Phnom Penh certainly helped, and I could not have hoped for anyone better to take us around the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (originally a school, then used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime, and now a genocide museum). I will not elaborate too much on these two places; all I can say is that one cannot help but feel crushed by becoming aware of what it is possible for people to do each other, to fellow human beings. Mindless barbarism is horrifying enough, but the creativity invested into the brutal methods of the Khmer Rouge is enough to leave you shellshocked. Perhaps it’s compassion for the endless suffering of its citizens that is tying me to this country…

So to the expected (and realised) highlight of my trip, which has been the time spent touring Angkor. Tomorrow morning will be the very highest point, with a trip to watch sunrise at Angkor Wat. Today has been spectacular enough, though; a good two hours at Angkor Thom in the morning, from its huge causeway lined with 104 seated statues, to its Bayon temple, a crumbling, mysterious behemoth of a construction. The faces on the towers have been a revelation for me, all smiling as if they know something that you don’t. It’s warming and unsettling at the same time. And this afternoon, an exploration of Ta Prohm – famous for being in the Tomb Raider film, and the one that is being slowly consumed by Banyan (or strangler fig) trees. Our tour leader produced a quote from the French writer Elie Laure: “With its millions of knotted limbs, the forest embraces the ruins with a violent love”, which perfectly describes the scene at the temple. It lies deep within the jungle, and is half filled up with blocks of fallen masonry. I seem to have discovered a sure-footedness that I wasn’t aware I possessed, and found myself scrambling up the haphazard piles of stone blocks with gusto – Ta Prohm’s detritus of damaged decadence felt like a playground, and for all the awe and wonder that it inspired in me, I never expected visiting it to be so much fun.

And that’s Cambodia for you – magnificent, charming, and saddening, but in possession of heart – albeit one that often seems to be battling with darkness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s