Monday, October 27, 2008

Cambodia: Grim history and black humour

Tim Roxborogh

The legendary Angkor Wat temple. Photo / AP

The legendary Angkor Wat temple. Photo / AP

We're sitting at the dining room table and no one is saying a word. We all have food balanced on our spoons, mouths open, but the stories from our host are so gripping and monumental that the two haven't quite met. Then all of a sudden: "Who wants to hear a landmine joke?"

Without missing a beat, our Cambodian tour guide and host of tonight's dinner party, Mr Lee, had switched from recounting his survival in the killing fields of the 1970s to a question our tour group was all certain we'd misheard.

We'd been sitting in respectful, awed silence as he told his brave, inspiring life, when suddenly we were immersed in some of that classic foreigner awkwardness as Mr Lee chortled on about Englishmen, Irishmen and Cambodians.

Still, it's fair to say he and his countrymen have probably earned a laugh or two, while we sat around him quietly enjoying food that puts even the delicious Thai and Vietnamese cuisines to shame.

We were in Cambodia's tourist capital, Siem Reap - a place we'd been told would be the highlight of any trip to South East Asia.

Fifteen years ago Siem Reap received 2000 foreign tourists a year, now that figure is two million.

Many step off the plane thinking they're coming to a town called Angkor Wat and just as many think Angkor is the only temple here. In fact, it has become the most famous due to its status as it is the world's single biggest religious building.

The other name never far from anyone's lips here is Angelina Jolie. The actress is revered here, thanks, not so much to her adoption of a Cambodian orphan or her charitable donations, but rather to the fact that 10 years ago her fun but rather silly movie Tomb Raider opened the eyes of the world's tourists to Cambodia.

But why the fuss? And how could a place with that kind of a ridiculous influx of tourists possibly still have any of its original charms?

Thanks to our freshly laminated Angkor temple passes we had three days to find out.

At the end of those three days our tour party is knackered. There have been countless steps up to stunning temples, glorious spires and beautiful carvings; not to mention the realisation that 1000 years ago man was advanced enough to build monuments such as these, yet just 30 years ago he was backward enough to commit the single worst genocide in any country's history.

As recently as the 1990s Cambodia was still reeling from years of war and genocide with a life-expectancy of under 50. While the country is still racked by corruption, high infant mortality and a depressing mistreatment of women, it has pulled itself out of a deep mire remarkably quickly.

People like Mr Lee attribute its new popularity with tourists to the fact that Cambodia is a beautiful, green, tropical country with one of the world's greatest historical and religious sites at Angkor.

The temples are about 1000 years old, but most Westerners didn't even know of their existence until Jolie swashbuckled her way through them.

Add to that the many other temples with their crumbling blocks, dark chambers with tree roots spilling over the walls and this place is worth the hype, and that's without taking into account the most overlooked asset of Siem Reap: the town itself.

It is a tree-laden river town with beautiful French colonial architecture, sensational food, lively backpacker nightlife and tasteful hotels. This could be a city transformed by tourist dollars into a Vegas-like nightmare, yet somehow all the development (while often lavish) seems in keeping with the laidback, tropical paradise vibe Siem Reap has always had. Even the tuk-tuks that line the main drag have a peaceful grandeur.

Tim Roxborogh travelled to SE Asia courtesy of Flight Centre.

SIEM REAP TOP 5

1: TA Prohm Temple 
Not as famous as Angkor Wat, this jungle temple was our favourite and is so surreal you'd swear its 1000-year-old walls were built by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s.

2: Angkor Wat 
The largest religious structure in the world is a colossus that should be visited as soon as possible: roped-off, no-access areas are increasing due to tourist numbers.

3: Hot-air balloon ride 
A cheap and brilliant way to get your bearings.

4: Pub Street 
Where some of the most fun, chilled-out nightlife in Cambodia can be found.

5: The countless markets 
The largest and cleanest markets in the region are so first-world you forget you're supposedly in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

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