I could sit down to write about the Kingdom of Cambodia only after a good fortnight had passed after my trip. And that too on a bright sunny day when I had the leisure to help myself to a generous swig of absinthe we had got from a Cambodian island.
It all started long back when there was a strange pull from the temples of Angkor. Pretty agnostic from the time I can remember, the reason for that pull remains elusive. But going with the gut, things kind of fell in place when the visa stamp on my passport welcomed me to the ‘Kingdom of Cambodia’, which the locals know as Kambuja or Kampuchea.
Cambodia does not occupy a lot of space on the world map but spending a couple of weeks in this majestic land, I was surprised to learn about the kind of weight it has been carrying around. From the glorious times of Angkor during the 11th century when the temples were built, to the steady decline from the 13th century to a point after the 15th century when the country was almost lost. The empire had fallen and the place was evacuated by most of the locals. It was only 400 years later, in the 1900’s that the French discovered the place and opened up place which seemed like a new world.
But the story doesn’t end there, it only begins. During the late 1970’s, this country was caught in the grip of something very terrible. A war broke about between Cambodia and Vietnam over land disputes at the end of which, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and killed more than 2 million people (Cambodia’s population stood at 7 million)! One of the most horrofic genocide of the 20th century, the scars remain strong. The brutalities that were incurred on the Cambodians still remain in the killing fields that are spread across the nation.
Emerging from the gruesome acts, Cambodia has risen with a smiling face which softens one heart.
At this moment Eri wakes up and asks if breath comes from the inside or outside? I give her some cold water with palm sugar and rest the matter.
Our journey to Cambodia started from Bangkok in Thailand where we landed on a sunny February afternoon. Our first stop was a tiny community called Bang Noi which is on a Canal that merges with the river Meklong. Bop, our host is the caretaker of a space called ‘the Vanguards of Bangkok’ which was started by a German who goes by the name of Michael. We spent three serene days with this river community where we hardly understood the language but felt completely at home.
Moving over land from Amphawa over to the border city of Aranyaprathet by train, the excitement was in the air and it was apparent when the rain gods decided to pour down a little. Cautious of the scamsters on the Thai-Cambodia border, a Moroccan who had his heart in Hindustan showed us the way into the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Cambodia’s own currency, Riel, is only used as change since 1 dollar equals to 4100 riel. Getting hold of thousands of Riel and some Dollars, we set on a rickety bus that’d take us to Siem Reap, the entrance city to the temples (autocorrect suggests team peels) of Angkor. Completely overtaken by the tourists visiting the temples, one only gets to see the real Angkor once inside the temples. A thousand years old, these temples are more alive than most humans. To meet all the temples properly, a week’s time is the least one can devote.
Spending most of our time at Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom, we had the island of Koh Ta Kiev that was brewing a storm of a time. Three bright sunny days on two sides of a stormy island night, this small piece of land is nothing short of magic. Parking ourselves at the Last Point, a shack run by Tracy and Neil, Koh Ta Kiev is an island that reminded me of Cast Away. And also the fact that I wouldn’t mind if somehow I was swept away to an island for a few months.
Our last stop was the capital of Phnom Penh, a city that is rising with an energy that is infectious. Belonging to India, the surroundings resonate strongly but the atmosphere has a different energy. And the fact that most of the people lived through the genocide of the mid 70’s, it is amazing how the country has bounced back. Ending the trip by watching the ‘Killing Fields’ at a Community Theater (the Empire), my soul was stamped with an event that I’d remember for long.
Kingdom of Cambodia, you have a piece of me. And I have a piece of you.