“Please don’t go” the handsome Frenchman said, looking into my eyes. His lovely wife leapt up, saying “ooh la” as she grabbed hold of my hands. “Don’t go” she said, so persuasively. “It’s been less than two weeks since the last pair of foreign tourists were kidnapped, then killed. Those men will do anything to protect their ruby trade”. We were in their beautiful home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The couple was attempting to dissuade me from going to Siem Reap province to visit the renowned Angkor Wat. There had been a recent spate of kidnappings and killings there by the ragtag remnants of the Khmer Rouge.
Literally they were the Red Khmers, the dreaded communist group that had attempted to socially re-engineer Cambodia so disastrously just over a decade ago, ending in a gruesome genocide. But this was 1995. The UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was firmly in place in Phnom Penh and national elections being readied for. A coalition government of sorts was nominally running the country and the Khmer Rouge were almost completely routed, except for the fierce band that survived in the northeastern regions near the Thai border. It was spoken of in rather loud whispers in Phnom Penh that the group kept themselves afloat by trading Cambodia’s fabulous red gems in exchange for arms from crooked Thai border/army officials. In the Cambodia of 1995 you never could tell a rumour from a news story.
I cannot honestly say that I met any Cambodians who were thrilled to have so many foreigners running about their capital, taking charge of everything. Still, UNTAC was generally viewed as an improvement on the Vietnamese controlled government that came into power, after Vietnamese troops chased the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh (and most of the rest of the country) in 1979. The opening up of tourism however was a blow to the Khmer Rouge activities in Siem Reap. An influx of tourists ensured higher levels of security and greater risk of being caught. Visitors to Angkor Wat were a prime target, simply because that is where we all flocked to now that the gorgeous temples were open to the public again.
The chorus of “don’t go” had been getting louder and more pressing each day I passed in Phnom Penh. These were good, brave people who lived with the risk of extreme danger everyday but they wanted to protect me, their guest. All my acquaintances were UN personnel who had learned to live with the risk of kidnapping and stray bullets, even here in Phnom Penh. We could hear it at night in our hotel rooms, the sound of gunshots that sounded like cars backfiring in the night. It was not a constant sound like in a warzone, but we did hear them. I never did discover who was shooting at whom.
I was exhausted by Cambodia and its horrendous problems. Making the trip from peaceful, prosperous Malaysia to Phnom Penh was like going back in time. Efforts were under way across the city to re-build and restore some of the damaged buildings and infrastructure. You could see it had once been a gracious city of wide boulevards, parks and french colonial architecture. The Khmer Rouge had done it’s best to destroy everything, from wrought iron balconies to the macadamised roads and water pipelines because they believed everything modern needed to be replaced, including people who wore glasses. That’s all it took to earn a shot in the head, your reading glasses, because they proved you were an ‘intellectual’.
I visited the National Museum to get a look at some of the amazing riches the Khmer empire that built the city of Angkor is famous for. It was a ruined place with much of its priceless art lying in pieces in some forgotten basement or attic. The destruction had been total. The few pieces on view were fabulous, if you could get past the score or so of limbless beggars you passed to get into the museum. A great many Cambodians have been maimed after the conflict,by landmines, lying forgotten, mined by both sides in the desperate struggle for power after 1979. The landmine sweeping expedition a Belgian explosives team took us on made me hopeful that there may be an end in sight but also left me breathless at the enormity of the effort. The trip to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum had drained me. How could these gentle people live under such a burden every day? My respect for the Cambodian people grew with each gruesome sight.
I had a couple of days before my flight back to Kuala Lumpur and I decided I must sample the glories of the ancient Khmers, which modern Khmers had tried so assiduously to destroy. Hence the plan to go to Siem Reap. The host organisation, CECI, were not too happy but it was my decision to make. I had a call from Naresh, safe in faraway Auckland. I asked him what his opinion was after I had enumerated the risks. “Go” he said, simply. Really? Was this guy trying to get rid of me? I asked him as much. He laughed and said he wished! “If you don’t go now, you’ll regret it forever. Do you even know if you’ll ever go back to Cambodia?” he said. As always this man has a way of getting to the very heart of the matter. I had been dying to see Angkor Wat and Borbodur since I had done a short course in Art and Architecture all those years ago in college. He was right. I hadn’t come this far to go back without seeing those awesome odes in stone.
And so I hopped on a tiny propellor plane to Siem Reap the next day. With a hope and a prayer I landed there and went to a tiny guesthouse near Angkor Wat, the beginning of another glorious journey. But that is another story….