Tourism in Cambodia falls into two categories: Angkor Wat and death. That we may end on an up-note, let’s begin with the latter.
But first, some historical context:
I. Apocalypse Then
Cambodia is a country that’s still trying to reconcile itself with the horrors of its past. I don’t mean the 2001 film Tomb Raider, though that does require a great deal of reconciliation, but rather the Khmer Rouge.
Founded in 1968, the Khmer Rouge was a group of Cambodian communists. Under the leadership of schoolteacher-turned-psychopath Pol Pot, the group blossomed, bludgeoned, and conquered Cambodia by 1975. (To put this in perspective, I’ve been working on The Judgment of Quintus for 8 years. Pol Pot took over a country in 7.)
Pol Pot, like most dictators, wanted his country to be a utopia. And like most dictators, he used less than utopian methods to make it such. Under his direction, the Khmer Rouge relocated all seven million Cambodians to the wilderness, forced them to farm, and punished the dissenters. There were, understandably, many dissenters, so Pol Pot established prison camps across the nation.
The most infamous of these camps, S-21, was formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School. Strangely, the transition from public school to prison involved little remodeling: they put cells in the classrooms and bars on the windows; to transform the playground to gallows, they removed the tanbark; and they posted a sign at the entrance for all incoming prisoners to see: “Don’t be a fool, for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.”
Ultimately, of the 17,000 people sent to S-21, only 12 survived and only because they could paint pictures of Pol Pot or build busts of his likeness. (If your friend is going to art school, think of it not as a poor life choice, but as a hedge against future dictators.)
The other prisoners were sent to the Killing Fields, whose name is depressingly self-descriptive. In these secluded meadows, the Khmer Rouge would club its prisoners—bullets were too expensive, stabbing too ineffective—and bury them in shallow pits. Today, a memorial pagoda stands testament to the horrors; it’s filled with skulls sorted by age, gender, and method of death (clubbing has many subgenres).
You’re likely thinking, “But that’s terrible! Why didn’t America intervene?” Well, Cambodia’s neighbor is Vietnam, and as any follower of American history (or, in my case, Miss Saigon) could tell you, come 1975, we weren’t about to return to Southeast Asia. But the Vietnamese stepped in, and led presumably by Lea Salonga, they ousted Pol Pot in 1979. By that point, however, the Khmer Rouge had effectively destroyed Cambodia. For over their four-year reign of terror, they had razed cities and infrastructure alike, and through starvation and mass executions, they had killed 2 million Cambodians, nearly 30% of the population.
II. Cambodia 2.0
With Pol Pot finally deposed, Cambodia had the unenviable task of rebuilding its infrastructure from scratch. The priority in this reconstruction was speed rather than efficacy, which becomes particularly evident in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Throughout the city, telephone poles sag under hundreds of wires, streets flood at the slightest provocation, and a road layout straight from M.C. Escher keeps traffic in an eternal snarl.
In Cambodia, traffic follows the rules of straight-people bars: antagonize whoever you’d like, provided they’re smaller than you. Thus, in order of decreasing clout, you have buses, vans, cars that are Toyotas (the country’s prestige vehicle), cars that are not Toyotas, motorcycles, and at the bottom of totem pole, tuk tuks. The Cambodian version of taxis, tuk tuks are essentially motorcycles with a goiter in which tourists may ride. Other drivers mock them shamelessly, pausing only to snatch the bags carried by their occupants.
As an alternative to automotive travel, Cambodia has a rural train system which the French built in the 1930s. While the tracks are normal enough, the cars are bamboo pallets, placed atop axles and powered with a speedboat motor. There’s only one track, so whenever two trains approach each other, one of them must entirely disassemble itself that the other may pass. This is also the model used by Amtrak.
Along with infrastructure, religion suffered under the Khmer Rouge; however, in the past decades, Buddhism has made quite the comeback. Brand-new temples have popped up throughout Cambodia, and they put Western churches to shame. Catholics, as you know, designed their cathedrals to impress the laity. They had soaring turrets, flying buttresses, stained glass windows—the bells and whistles of the day. Buddhist temples, in contrast, have literal bells and whistles. This is in addition to devices that spin, beep, light up, and shoot sparks. At some level, it’s unclear whether they’re meant to facilitate prayer or summon the Coast Guard.
Given its sordid history, Cambodia doesn’t have many resources—in the National Library, the English language section consists of FrontPage 2000 for Dummies and Facing Your Job Insecurity: The New Truth for Japanese Youths. Accordingly, many Cambodians seek opportunity in whatever niche they can find it. Where gas stations aren’t available, vendors stand on street corners hawking Pepsi bottles full of petrol. Deliverymen transport sizeable freight—up to and including refrigerators—on the back of motorcycles. And in the Central Market, vendors have perfected the art of the hard sell.
The Central Market is a giant four-pronged building with a ring around the outside. (Think X-Men logo meets Grand Bazaar.) The products are easy enough to find: there’s jewelry in the center of the X, clothes and electronics in each prong, and food and services (tailor, barber, mani-pedi) in the outer ring. However, browsing is a challenge. For if vendors see you looking at their wares, they instantly pounce and start thrusting products upon you. Accordingly, you must stand a ways off, ideally around a corner, and pretend you’re staring into space while sneaking looks at the desired items. Most of these are counterfeits of dubious quality—my “Polo” shirt has a blob that looks less like the customary man-on-horse than the Loch Ness monster—but the salesmanship is superb. When you buy something, the vendor instantly tries to sell you more of the same thing, and should these attempts fail, they hide extra goods in your bag and then charge you for them.
Nevertheless, for Cambodia’s economy, street vendors and central markets are small potatoes (diminutive durian?). For the country as a whole has come to rely on a single, seemingly inexhaustible resource:
III. The Touring Machine
In recent years, Cambodians have realized that the Khmer Rouge, and the death and destruction they wrought, hold a grisly allure for tourists. In fact, the most visited “attractions” in Phnom Penh are the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields. As you walk down the street, countless tuk tuk drivers pull up next to you and ask, in a hopeful tone, “Killing Fields?” It’s a plum fare.
Smaller cities try to siphon off tourists by claiming Khmer Rouge atrocities of their own. For example, Battambang advertises the “Killing Caves,” whose tagline is basically “People were killed here too.” But cities figure that tourists aren’t about to visit any old mass grave, so they’ve gotten in the habit of adding “Resort” to place names, no matter how incongruous. The Killing Caves, for example, are billed as the “Phnom Sampeau Resort.”
This tactic is cynical, sure, but it works. At S-21, I met an American preschool teacher who decided that teaching preschool was too stressful, so she came to Cambodia to visit death camps.
However, most tourists (at least those you should trust with your preschoolers) come to Cambodia with one destination in mind: the Angkor temples. You’ve likely heard of Angkor Wat, and that’s indeed the most popular. However, there’s a whole complex of temples—over fourteen in a five-mile radius—hidden in the middle of the jungle. Well, “hidden” is a relative term; the number of tourists at each temple is directly proportional to its screen time in Tomb Raider.
Built in 1100ish C.E. for King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of the Angkor temples. It consists of a series of rectangular courtyards, each located inside and above the others, like a petrified wedding cake. In the innermost courtyard, each corner and the central tower have a giant acorn-shaped ornament, suggesting that Suryavarman may have been a squirrel. That central tower is called the Bakan, and it’s not open to the public unless you bribe the guards. Now, I don’t consider myself a smooth operator, and luckily, neither did the guards. When I started an awkward conversation (“Excuse me…”), they cut right to the chase (“Pay us $5.”)
Other temples of interest include the Bayon in Angkor Thom, which is essentially Easter Island in temple form. And there’s Ta Prohm, a marvelously scenic ruin that the jungle has spent the past 850 years reclaiming and Cambodia has spent the past 13 rebranding. (Signs throughout refer to it as the “Tomb Raider Temple” and direct you to such culturally relevant sites as the “Tomb Raider Tree.”) Filmmakers, take note: shoot your film in Cambodia, and they will promote you until the end of time.
As in India, the locals build a secondary economy off the ruins and offer their services as guides. In India, however, the guides hang by the ticket booths. At the Angkor temples, they hide inside, at the top of very long, very steep stairways. You ascend the stairs unwitting, and then as you’re gasping for air, a guide swoops in and starts guiding. By the time you’ve regained your faculties of speech, they’re done with the tour, and it’s time to pay them.
At a cosmic level, it seems appropriate that, to pull itself from the ruins of its recent history, Cambodia has used the literal ruins of an earlier, happier era. And the effort has largely succeeded. Though chaotic, Cambodia is functioning once more. The economy is growing, tourists are coming, and as long as it does and they do, the country will continue to rise. Granted, it’s a long, slow journey. But still, faster than tuk tuk.
A tuk tuk.
The Tomb Raider Temple, nee Ta Prohm.