The Horror… (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

A Breath of Fresh Air – History of Angkor – How the Mighty Have Fallen – Poverty – School No Good – Corruption – Changed Perceptions – The Horror…

In Phnom Penh I saw Cambodia in her ugliest and most shameful form. I needed a breath of fresh air. I needed to go to Angkor Wat, to stand in awe of one of the Wonders of the World and learn about the Cambodia the Khmer people are proud of. I caught a bus to Siem Reap, a pretty town nearby the ruins and an excellent base for exploring the regions ancient temples.

The city of Angkor spans for miles in every direction and the empire’s temples can be found across north-western Cambodia and into Thailand. Between the 9th and 13th centuries the Khmer empire grew and eventually spanned from the Mekong delta in Vietnam all the way across Thailand into Burma.

The Angkor Empire rose to greatness by constructing an intricate network of irrigation canals that effectively captured and stored the monsoon rains, allowing multiple rice harvests each year. Trading surplus harvests brought prosperity and the Khmers built the magnificent temples at Angkor to honor their divine kings. They traded with other civilizations up and down the Mekong and steadily expanded their empire until incessant attacks from the aggressive Thais finally defeated the empire in 1441.

I walked through the ruins of this great civilization for three days, spending quiet moments in secluded temples and joining the crowds to watch the sun rise over the most famous temple, Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world.

From the top of temples I gazed over the jungles and imagined how different the city would have looked during its golden years. When London was a city of only 50,000 people, over a million Khmers lived in Angkor in wooden houses that eroded long ago.

Today, the jungle still covers many of the temples and plenty are still unexplored. Cambodia has fallen far from the prosperous time of Angkor Wat. Once an agricultural giant, today Cambodian exports cannot compete against neighboring Thailand and Vietnam and the country has a current account deficit of $1.27 billion. Cambodia is forced to import many basic goods, making the cost of living in Cambodia extremely expensive.

I felt the pinch in my pocket. Though I could scrape by in Laos, Burma and Thailand for under $10 per day, my daily costs in Cambodia were nearly double that. Food was expensive and the horrible infrastructure raised the cost of transportation.

I felt selfish worrying about my budget when I knew many Cambodians had to survive on half of what I spend. With such a high cost of living, I wondered how they could feed their families.

Often they can’t. The GDP per capita is about $2,000 a year. There aren’t enough jobs for the 50% of the population under 21 so many children have to work to support their family. As I walked between the temples at Angkor, armies of children surrounded me and tried to sell me everything from The Killing Fields to souvenir handicrafts.

I took one of these kids aside and asked him why he wasn’t in school, why he was selling books instead of getting an education. School no good, he replied. Would he go next year, we asked. No way, man, he snapped, School no good, I can’t make money in school. Too many children have only two options: go to school and starve, or sell books and have something to eat. And an empty stomach always screams louder than an unlearned mind.

In addition to sending their children to work, Cambodians must bribe government officials and people of influence for basic everyday things. You can see the effects of this corruption everywhere. Just getting across the border from Laos required four separate bribes of $1 each! Tuk-tuk drivers sell bags of weed openly on the street, knowing the police have already been paid to turn a blind eye. Money from international donors is siphoned off by government officials instead of helping those in need – just think of the children who live in the dump with not a single government official in sight.

Most noticeable is the unusually high number of luxury cars in Cambodia, specifically Lexus SUVs, Hummers and Toyota Land Cruisers. Considering the import tax on such automobiles is around 200%, such luxuries are out of reach for Cambodians with annual incomes of $2,000.

And yet these SUVs are everywhere, all conspicuous symbols of corruption and inequality. In Phnom Penh you see them parked next to United Nations Development Project trucks, while legless landmine victims beg for change from their owners. Never before have I seen such widespread disparity.

My three days at the ruins of Angkor Wat served both to highlight Cambodia’s glorious past and to underline her current state of desperation. At nighttime I enjoyed myself with my new friends from around the world, but no number of beers could make me feel easy in Cambodia.

Maybe I had seen too suffering to feel comfortable. Maybe I should have visited Angkor Wat before I jumped into a world of genocide, poverty and unimaginable suffering. I had tried to use Angkor Wat as a chaser, but even the beautiful temples could not wash away the bitterness of what I had seen in Phnom Penh. I began to think something within me had permanently changed, as if my eyes had been opened to the horrifying realities of the world and I finally began to see things the way they truly are.

I wonder where my search for Truth and Understanding will lead me. Will I ever be able to return to normal life, knowing that others suffer while I live in comfort?

I took a bus to Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s small stretch of coastline. The oppressive heat was getting to my head, and I needed some R&R to keep sane after so many months in the jungle. I felt oddly like Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now, on a mission up the Mekong into the jungles of Cambodia.

I wonder what will happen if I complete my mission, if I find The Truth somewhere out here in the jungle, unmasked, naked and vile as it may be. I wonder whether discovering of the atrocities of the past will be enlightening or if it will forever taint my view of humanity and the possibility of making the world a better place.

But if we wish to change the world for the better, we must understand the world at its worst. If we wish to prevent atrocities like genocide, then we must understand the mentalities of the most atrocious people.

So a world away from the Great Halls of Power, I continue onwards in my journey, searching for the Truth and trying not to end up like Colonel Kurtz: disillusioned and lost in the insanity of the jungle, muttering to myself about, the horror…the horror…the horror…

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