Day 8 & 9 - Siem Reap

We have spent the last couple of days at Siem Reap, the stop off point for visiting the Angkor Wat temples. Built in the 12th century, they are a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu as the kings swapped from one belief to the other and back again. The locals seem to still be pretty pragmatic, with our guide describing himself as 70% Buddhist, 20% Hindu and 10% Animist.

The Angkor Wat complex is impressive, the carvings extra-ordinarily detailed and the whole place spreads over a vast area. I think it’s about 500 acres and housed up to 1m people at one stage. I won’t try to relate the history of the Angkor Wat complex as I am still confused about how over a period of 50 years the Cambodia Kingdom built the place and don’t seem to have left much behind of consequence subsequently. That said, with recent archaeological discoveries by Dr Damian Evans of Sydney Uni the whole issue of the area’s history seems to be up for grabs:  Our guide seems to up on all of this as his wife works for Damian.

Sam our guide is an interesting character and probably reflects a lot about current Cambodian society. He is 35 years old. Cambodia has the youngest population of any country with an average age of 36 as a result of so many being killed in the civil war. He fought for both the Khmer Rouge and the Government armies from the age of 9 to 16. He is an effervescent character which belies the fact that 3 of his siblings, most of his relatives and a large number of his village were killed in the war. His job for most of the time in the army was to lay land mines. We got the whole story on every type and technique used to lay them and the problems. Seems that most people forgot where they laid them and blew themselves up.

Land mines are still a problem as a few days ago 3 kids were killed when they stumbled across one. And wandering around town there is a significant number of blind or limbless people. The process of finding and removing them painfully progresses.

Sam is also sanguine about the level of corruption in the country, with the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen and his relatives in control of not only the government, but the army and the police, the major telecom company and a host of other enterprises. Plus, the leader of the opposition party is in exile. But I suppose on the scale of things, it’s a lot better than it was. The civil war has been over for nearly 20 years and the economy is now starting to progress with new foreign investment, improved schooling and health care. the locals are optimistic and always cheerful.

Tourism accounts for about 20% of the GDP, with Angkor Wat the centre piece. Tony recalls he first came here in 1992, just after the UNESCO declaration and there were 2 hotels and around 9000 tourists visiting Angkor Wat a year, understandably as there were still land mines everywhere as the Khmer Rouge use the place as a base (although the US did not bomb the place, you don't need to look too far to find bullet holes in the walls). Today there are over 2 million tourists (we are told that all the land mines have been removed from the complex). Interestingly the biggest contributors to tourism growth have been Lara Croft and Indiana Jones with the release of Tomb Raiders and the Temple of Doom. Despite the growth, we can still wander all over the place with very few restrictions, but one wonders how long that will be for.

However, despite the hustle and bustle, the gaudy flashing neon lights, the touts, the bars and throngs of tourists in Siem Reap poverty is not far away. I think we are about to get a different view of Cambodia tomorrow when we head north to Kratie.