11 August 2002

4. - 11 AUG: Beyond Angkor: silk, coconut, miniatures and land mines

More Angkor

A second day at the ruins of Angkor and I begin to feel more comfortable in the company of the Khmer gods. The initial awe give room to avid curiosity about the individual pieces of art, the urban setting, the organization of that amazing ancient culture. Heat and humidity are merciless, but I am getting used to them...

The hike up the Kbal Spean hill is pleasant despite the heat. An uneven path cuts throught the jungle, leading up to the one thousand lingams… well there is actually no more than a few hundred of them, and they are not real lingams but symbolic representations of lingams, just little round half-spheres carved into the stone in and along a stream. The stream itself is actually the main reason to be here in the first place, as the vivacious running water makes what might otherwise have turned out to be a dud of a trip a lively and sparkling place. OK this will not be the highlight of my stay in Cambodia, but the combination of ancient art, virgin jungle and running torrent of clear water is worth the effort of the ascent.

On the way down, on a different part of the hill, the river had a pleasant surprise in store: about half way to the bottom of the valley the water dropped off a cliff for about five meters, splashing noisily into a large natural swimming pool. Not a heart stopping view as waterfalls go, but a most pleasing water massage for the many Cambodians and assorted foreigners who come here for the sole reason of taking this cool invigorating shower. My friends quickly changed and jumped in; I initially hesitated, as vicious images of tropical micro-organisms leaping from the water into my mouth, nose and ears formed in my still antiseptic Western mind. I could just imagine these bilharzia larvae whetting their appetite upon seeing all those succulent host bodies get into perfect positions in the water for them to tag on to. I could just about feel them penetrating my skin, working their way through tissue and beginning to feed on my vital organs.

After a few minutes, however, the evil images wither away, killed off by the humidity and heat perhaps; I also thought the chances of bilharzia being released into the water by infected human excretion up the river was small, as there were no settlements upstream. Thus reassured, I joined the others under the waterfall, in a spot where gravity made the water strike my upper body just right, energetically but not violently. It was addictive: once the water began to massage my shoulders and its coolness pervaded my whole person, I was ready to sign up for an all-afternoon session. I left after a few minutes, but I just could not bring myself to wipe my body dry and put my clothes back on; I had to go back under the waterfall. It was as if some sort of unknown and hitherto bottled up secret energy had been released from my deep inside whole body whilst it was under the pressure of water dropping on my flesh, and it gave an intense and long lasting pleasure. We then all lay down in the company of some lizards on some large smooth boulders to dry body and clothes before resuming the march down to the bottom of the valley.

A short lunch break allowed me to slurp away at one more fresh coconut while I sat in the shade and watched the crowds go by. The most interesting part of eating a coconut was watching the young waitress prepare it for me.

This was fun but, with hindsight, it was far more inspiring to admire Angkor a day earlier while getting soaked under that heavy afternoon squall. For the remainder of my time I and my companions would be elbowing our way through throngs of tourists in postcard perfect sunny days. Travellers beware: make sure you visit Angkor during the Summer monsoon season, avoid those boring sunny months!

The Landmine Museum

The only reason why most travelers choose to include Siem Reap in their tour of South East Asia is the archeological site of Angkor, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and without a doubt one of the great artistic achievements of all time. Many come to Cambodia only for Angkor, flying in and out from Thailand. Without Angkor, few outside Cambodia would ever even know of Siem Reap. Yet, there is far more than Angkor here.

One reason why more people should travel to Siem Reap, and why those who do should perhaps factor in an extra day, is to learn about the work of Mr. Aki Ra. He is the founder and director of the Landmine Museum of Siem Reap. As a student of international security issues, I was familiar with the fact that Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, a record contested only by Afghanistan, Mozambique and Angola. The International Committee for the Ban of Landmines (ICBL, recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 1997) estimates that there are over 35,000 amputees injured by landmines in Cambodia.

When we asked to go visit the Landmine Museum our local guide, who usually extolled the wonders of each site we visited in turn, strangely made no comment at all. After a short ride through town, we filed past a row of impeccable modern housing projects for the army (the only spic and span buildings in Siem Reap seem to be the luxury hotels for foreigners, the army housing and the offices of the Cambodian People’s Party) and come to a halt in front of an iron gate. A chain was laid across two metal poles; it was held down on either side by defused hand grenades and it blocked the entrance. There were no signs announcing what it was that we were about to enter. An officer sitting at a small table on one side asked us to pay three dollars each to get in, which we did, and once inside we were welcomed by an old Soviet helicopter and a wrecked MiG fighter aircraft standing forlorn in a yard.

At this point I began to be suspicious: we were obviously on military premises but the Landmine Museum was described in our guidebook as a non government supported initiative. A quick look around and we realized we were in a military museum, which included, inter alia, a copious display of landmines, but we are not at THE Landmine Museum. The disappointment was compounded by the realization we had just contributed our entrance fee dollars not to a worthy NGO but to the army budget, or, worse, to who knows whose officer’s pockets! The army museum is an open air graveyard of rusty weapons and gruesome pictures from the war, not completely uninteresting as such, but rather dull and uninformative. Heavy weapons systems (tanks, artillery) were thrown around the gardens at random. A few open shelves displayed defused grenades, anti-tank mines, Kalashnikov machine guns and a number of other assorted light weapons. All of them were simply laid out for everyone to see, touch and easily steal. There were no guards looking over the displays. It would have been quite easy to grab some of the smaller guns, put it in a hand bag and walk away. If this was any indication of the care with which authorities practice gun control, it was no wonder that so many guns got into the wrong hands in Cambodia, to the point that “No Guns Allowed” signs are routinely seen next to “No Smoking” ones.

As we left the Army Museum in a fairly somber mood, I had a hard time trying to persuade the others to go to yet another war sight. Time for shopping, cried impatiently the majority! After a quick tour of an hadicraft shop it was almost dark, but we were on our way to the Landmine Museum. Our van struggled on the heavily potholed road (with a somewhat mobid grin, I could not help to wonder whether they tested their landmines here or what?) which took through some of the humble farm animals filled suburbs of Siem Reap, an interesting sight in themselves. We were tired at the end of a long day and I feared the wrath of my travel companions if for some reason this did not work out to be as interesting as I had made it to be…

When our guide tells us we had arrived it really did not look like we were at a Museum at all. Across a brittle iron gate – there is no entrance fee – we found ourselves in the small garden of what looked like one of the many flimsy suburbian dwellings of Siem Reap we had driven by to get there. That is because this is what it was, at least originally. A couple of dozen saplings were planted in the ground, with anti-tank landmines at their side. A small table displayed printed landmine awareness T-shirts and hats. A few fliers in different languages told the story of Mr. Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge conscripted child soldier who works as a deminer and museum curator, who has to overcome many problems to carry on with his work.

The mini Angkor of Dy Proeung

Another reason to spend a bit more time in Siem Reap than is necessary to see Angkor is to visit Dy Proeung. Mr. Dy is an artist, and his multi-year project is the chiselling of a miniature Angkor Wat, Bateay Srei and other temples in his garden museum. He is middle aged now but was very young when the Khmer Rouge came looking for the blueprints of the temples. He is a quiet man, peacefully adding to his work day after day. His English is basic, so we can't talk much, but what transpires from our conversation is a passionate dedication to his mission.

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