A is for Angkor

In 1992 new hope was adrift in Cambodia. The country had been through the most horrific thirty years. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were in camps on the Thai border. But there seemed to be a new mood for peace and the UN agreed to support a peace process, leading to elections planned for 1993.

So for the first time for many many years, foreigners visited Cambodia again. And with the presence of UN forces, the Khmer Rouge shrank back into the jungle with their guns, and allowed foreigners to rediscover the wonders of Angkor Wat.

Now you can fly direct to Seam Reap from Thailand and China, stay in foreign owned luxury hotels and travel in foreign owned bus tours, and see the sunset at Angkor along with thousands of other tourists.

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But back then, before Angelina Jolie made movies in the ancient temples and started collecting orphans, there were few tourists anywhere in the country. Fear of landmines saw to that, except for the occasional intrepid backpacker or ignorant motorcyclist. Most visitors to Angkor were diplomats, or UN or Red Cross workers like Dennis or Sergio. Local children still played and swam in the pond near the Wat. At the gate of the Wat, one entrepreneur ahead of his time sold small models.

It was quiet and peaceful. The jungle throbbed in the heat of the sun, we sought shade wherever we could. But we could hear the birds, and imagine what it was like with the jungle cleared, visualising the magnificent, sophisticated city that supported more than a million Khmers a thousand years earlier. If it had been a European civilisation it would be famous throughout the world. But it is Asian and largely forgotten. But that was part of its magic to us.

And being in Cambodia, it was good to think of a time when the country was great, when people were prosperous, when there was peace for a time.

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5 thoughts on “A is for Angkor

  1. That is a beautiful picture.

    The last school I taught math at, St. Pius V, was about 50% Vietnamese, but Lily Bui and her brother Ben were the only Cambodians. Lily was in my theology class (we were Catholic but half the school was Buddhist and we didn’t push), and she wrote one assignment on her great-uncle, a buddhist monk, who was killed with pretty much everyone else her mother knew. I gave it to her mom after school that day, who read it, cried, and told me what she could, in English that was better than my Khmer would have ever been.

    And for the rest of the year, every Monday she gave me a half dozen egg rolls.

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  2. Bridgett – you’re right every Cambodian has a story, but they’re scattered across the globe now. One of my favourites was Veng. (http://asummerafternoon.blogspot.com/2006/12/veng-17365.html#links)

    IB: I didn’t know Clear Path Int’l but I do now! When I was there in ’92 the NZers were involved in setting up the Land Mine Clearing programme, and I remember seeing a pile of mines that had been unearthed. The Colonel said “this one is Chinese, this one is Indian, this one is Russian, this one is French, etc etc” … and then there are the countries who won’t sign the Mine Ban Treaty (US, India, China, Russia). The only innocents in the ongoing slaughter are the ones who stand on the mines, sadly.

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  3. Oh, I’m going to enjoy being an armchair traveler as well.

    This will no doubt display my ignorance for all to see, but what is going on in Cambodia now? Is the Khmer Rouge still at large?

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  4. Welcome Helen!
    The Khmer Rouge has collapsed. Pol Pot died, and many former leaders have been arrested. A UN-backed tribunal is to put them on trial next year, I think. Ironically the Vietnamese backed regime which ousted the KR in 1979 and is still in power is led by former KR officers.

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