CURRENT LOCATION: Siem Reap, Cambodia
I cannot say enough great things about this wonderful city. We've been here for a week now, and we're not leaving for another two days. It's been really fun hanging out and getting to know the city. It's so vibrant and fun, and the people are really friendly and helpful. We've consistently eaten incredible food, and the fruit drinks are out of this world. A big part of our time here was spent exploring the Temples of Angkor, but I'm going to leave Zev to write a separate post about that.
As an example of what we love about Siem Reap, I'll tell you about our first proper night here. We'd had a bit of a lazy day, getting our phones sorted, going to the museum, sorting out our tuk tuk driver for the temples, and eating. We noticed a sign for a giant puppet parade, and decided to head out for dinner to a place on the parade route so we could eat and watch. We went to Pub Street (guess what's there), and went to a highly recommended Cambodian/Western restaurant. As we dined on incredible Cambodian spring rolls and curries, a huge lighted puppet parade made its way past the restaurant. Children from local schools had made huge paper animal puppets, and the parade was full of music, cheering, and happy kids. It was awesome.
Some other highlights have been a trip to the Butterfly Centre, where an incredibly knowledgable guide showed us around and talked all about the life cycle of butterflies and their natural habitats, and showed us caterpillars and chrysalises. We went to a silk farm and learned all about how silk is made, from an egg to a scarf! One of my favourite things was the circus - a kind of Cambodian Cirque du Soleil! It was a totally captivating show. The stars of the show go to a circus school in Battambang, where we're off to next. They are trained, and given schooling, and somewhere to live if they need it, all on a scholarship basis.
We also spent a fairly grim couple of hours at the Cambodian Landmine Museum. It was started by a young Khmer man named Aki Ra (or at least that's what he's known as now). The Khmer Rouge killed his family, and he became a conscripted child soldier, during which part of his job was laying land mines. He later defected to the Kampuchean (Cambodian) army, and began fighting against the Khmer Rogue. In 1991, he began removing land mines around the country, using a stick, a leatherman, a knife, and a hoe. He opened the Landmine Museum, before receiving formal training in the disarming of land mines. He started an NGO, training others to disarm land mines, and helping children orphaned or maimed by land mines in Cambodia.
A little history lesson, for those who aren't familiar with Cambodia (DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian. Most of this is picked up from reading, our time in Cambodia, and Wikipedia. If anything is incorrect, feel free to let me know! But this is my limited understanding.).
Cambodia was a protectorate of France from 1863-1953. After gaining independence, it became a constitutional monarchy. In 1970, the king was ousted in a military coup by the Prime Minister Non Lol. He ordered the Vietnamese communists out of Cambodia, a move that was supported by the US as it choked the Viet Kong supply lines in Vietnam (and this was during the Vietnam War). This lead to attacks on the military government by the Vietnamese communists. The king was also encouraging the people to attempt to overthrow the government. The Vietnamese communists began using this to gain support, and eventually and off shoot became known as he Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communist party. Between 1969-1973, the US and Vietnam bombed Cambodia extensively, in an attempt to disrupt both the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge.
The communist insurgency continued to grow, and Pol Pot took over as leader of the Khmer Rouge. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge controlled over 60% of the country, and 25% of the population. The government in Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge on April 17th, 1973.
They changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea, and modelled itself on Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward, immediately evacuated the cities, and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country's agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western.
Estimates as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million (about a quarter of the population).
In November 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in response to border raids by the Khmer Rouge. The People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), a pro-Soviet state led by the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party, a party created by the Vietnamese in 1951, and led by a group of Khmer Rouge who had fled Cambodia to avoid being purged by Pol Pot and Ta Mok, was established. It was fully beholden to the occupying Vietnamese army and under direction of the Vietnamese ambassador to Phnom Penh. In opposition to the newly created state, a government-in-exile referred to as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed in 1981 from three factions. This consisted of the Khmer Rouge, a royalist faction led by Sihanouk, and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front.
Peace efforts began in Paris in 1989 under the State of Cambodia, culminating two years later in October 1991 in a Paris Comprehensive Peace Settlement. The UN was given a mandate to enforce a ceasefire and deal with refugees and disarmament known as the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as King of Cambodia, but all power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
If you'll indulge me a little more grimness... Land mines.
Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that there are as many as 4 - 6 million unexplored mines and other ordinances in Cambodia. There are no maps identifying where they were laid, and as a result, it is incredibly difficult to find and disarm them. Cambodia has one of the highest Landmine casualty rates in the world. Most of the victims of land mines are young boys, playing in fields. They are the worst kind of senseless weapons, often designed to main rather than kill.
What an horrific recent history. It is so hard to reconcile this past with the country we see before us today. The people are so friendly, open, generous and kind. It's so difficult to remember that a majority of the people we deal with on a daily basis lived through this incredible bloody civil war and genocide. And it's a massive cliche, but we've really realised how lucky we are, and that we can't possibly imagine what a life like that could possibly be like.
With all that to think about, it has been an interesting week. As I've said, we really do love it here, and we'll be sad to leave our little guest house. In other, less interesting, news - Zev was the first to fall prey to illness. He spent the night in the bathroom... You'll be pleased to know he's perked up now, still feeling very tired, but much better. We're not sure what it was, as we both ate and drank the same things last night (delicious burgers from a place owned by a kiwi guy, then a couple of cocktails at a sweet jazz bar around the corner), and I escaped unscathed. It did mean we had to cancel our cooking course today though, which was a bummer, but we didn't lose any money, so we're hoping we can find one in Phnom Penh instead.
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 26th February 2015)