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  • Miguel Angel Cano Santizo

Cambodia Whispers

I just finished my trip through Cambodia and I feel a stream of feelings and emotions to throw on the paper, a delight cocktail with a touch of bitterness syrup. I have spent a week visiting a country which is not the same than it was yesterday and surely will not be the same tomorrow. Tremendously beautiful at the same time as wildly devoured by the voracious appetite of tourists, Cambodia is the home of the spectacular Angkor Wat Temples while it hosts unique beaches and spectacular natural settings. Nevertheless, the unconsciousness of tourists and avarice of foreign investors are rapidly devastating the natural charm of the country facing no opposition at all from local authorities. Thereby, after seven days of running and fabulous adventure dotted with outbursts of impotency, I am going to share my Cambodia whispers.

Cambodia border crossing of Poipet from Thailand
Cambodia crossing of Poipet

I walked in Cambodia from Thailand by the Poipet border crossing traveling in a local bus, although the majority of passengers were foreigners. Five kilometers prior arriving to the border, the driver stops next to a restaurant and announces yelling that it is the right time for getting the visa to enter Cambodia. Everybody steps out the vehicle while I am observing astonished through the bus window how they hand over their passports and a good wad of cash to a couple of comb-over locals sitting behind a wooden table placed in the middle of the place clearly on the fly. After spending around thirty minutes exposed to the artfulness of the locals, the travelers came back to the bus with passport in hand and a smile of please on face.

Cambodian People's Party Banner & National Flag of Cambodia
Cambodian People's Party Banner

When I got to talk to them, they told me that they just paid forty dollars for the visa, when I had understood that its price was just twenty. Besides, they had paid three extra dollars for the malaria test. ‘The malaria test? ´ I asked amazed. They just had their body temperature checked after having been introduced a thermometer in their ear by the locals, who claimed that in order to get the visa to enter Cambodia they needed to hold a certificate which said that they were not carrying the disease, and that, of course, had its price. I had just found out that there was a leading technology in a Cambodian restaurant able to diagnose the malaria right away after introducing a thermometer in your ear. That is quite something!

Once we finally got to the border crossing, I soon realized that I was entering a commercial area. After crossing the Thai border and getting to the Cambodia’s one, where my passport had to get stamped (for those who did not hired the improvised agency from the local restaurant), I got to a window from where three police officers where showing up. A banner said “Visa, 20 dollars”, so I handed them my passport together with a 20-dollar note and a smile which was replied with a cold look from the officers while they were knocking with their index finger on a paper glued with tape on the counter: “20 dollars + 150 Baht (5 dollars)”. My reply was, still smiling, hitting back lightly the banner placed over their heads, “20 dollars”. As if in a far west duel, they frowned and hit back, this time more intensely, the piece of paper demanding a small fee totally out of justification. Thus, I replied pointing the banner setting the right price this time more firmly as well. After three or four rounds where the exaltation was getting more serious pointing each side the banners defending our respective interests, an officer who was watching the confrontation from a couple of meters away came closer, took me from the shoulder, said “OK, OK, OK” and let me in. I was convinced that 20 dollars was the right price of my visa and 5 extra more meant a very high amount if it implied to contribute with a system of corruption. I got no doubts the answer lies in us, the revolution is played every day and we have to accept our responsibility in each action we take.

Once I entered Cambodia, first thing I saw was a little girl, visibly under aged, distributing business cards with her phone number where she offered erotic services. It was just an advancement of what I was about to see in Siem Reap, city hosting the majestic Angkor Wat Temples.

Temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Temples of Angkor Wat

The ticket to enter the complex of temples, 20 dollars a day, seemed a bit expensive a priori considering it was an under-developed Asian country, although of course almost every price would be worth for the chance of visiting such sublime location.

What surprised me the most was the very little respect and care about the installations both from tourists and staff on charge of managing and protecting the temple. We are talking about the ruins of temples built almost a thousand years ago which got to host over 800,000 people, turning Angkor Wat into (by far) the most populated city in the old times. However, now there is a brutal overcrowding of tourists climbing up the rocks, touching every sculpture, sitting down to eat and drink in the rooms of the temples and more nonsense barbarities which seem impossible for me to understand that a local management would ever allow over their patrimony. In fact, it was not the case, as after researching for a while I found out that the Cambodian Government had awarded a private company with a lease to manage the ticketing of Angkor Wat, invoicing 25 million dollars a year and giving back just 1 million to the National Government. Obviously, the conservation of the ruins is not one of the company’s priorities.

The place is just prodigious and extraordinary, being really hard to conceive the fact of such a beautiful and charming place being built almost a thousand years ago. One of the most interesting aspects is the way the temple has got integrated over the years with the forests covering now all the surroundings. The circuit to visit the most relevant temples is over 20 kilometers. The majority of visitors carry it out in tuc-tuc (motorized local transportation) and very few by bicycle. I made it by walking. Despite the main temples being over crowded, it did not prevent from being able to enjoy their extreme beauty. Furthermore, I enjoyed walking through the forest of the place, finding out even small villages of cottages and little temples camouflaged in the density of the woods where there was not a single tourist around.

There was a noticeable common factor with the rest of touristic attractions in Asia; the stubborn local peddlers trying their best to convince you of purchasing any kind of item. However, in this case there was an astonishing circumstance which is that many of them were managing a basic vocabulary in a big amount of languages. Thus, if you get to stop and observe a seller during a while, you could see the way he offers his products first in English and then, after finding out the nationality of that particular tourist, asking him how is he feeling and what is his name, in French, Japanese or even in Spanish. This fact gets to the extent that I could witness how a couple of Spanish tourists were passing by in front of a printings stall when, after answering “Spanish” to the question about their provenance from the seller, she yelled “buy some! It’s cheaper than Mercadona!” (Spanish low cost supermarkets chain). In this case, the amazed tourists had no chance left than turning around and smiling…to end up falling into the charms of the local peddler and purchasing one of the pieces.

Temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Temples of Angkor Wat

The visit to the temples happened to be an unforgettable experience. However, the day after, my first walk along the city that hosts the temples, Siem Reap, was not so gratifying since it has become a completely commercialized city filled with tourists who waste a wonderful chance of finding out a new gastronomy and traditions surrendering to restaurants serving Western food, European beer and where they only have the chance of interacting with other tourists.

Cambodian kid selling fried snakes to tourists in the streets of Siem Reap
Cambodian kid selling fried snakes to tourists

After a brief walk, I felt that having visited already the temples of Angkor Wat, my time in Siem Reap would get to its end the very next day. Nonetheless, before leaving I wanted to explore a little bit around and get to discover how a Cambodian village looks for real. Thus, I started walking in the opposite direction to the two streets designed for tourism, a move that happened to be a great decision.

The shock I got by the Western influenced occupation in the city center soon died down as I walked between dirty roads surrounded by wooden huts and fences, watching the elder locals dialoguing peacefully in groups while the children played all around.

After a while, I came to what at first seemed an abandoned temple, but as I approached I found a group of people dressed in white sitting and listening to the sermon of two Buddhist monks. I was stealthily approaching to the ceremony so as not to disturb, but soon I perceived a festive and jovial atmosphere, so I started documenting the scene with my camera. I kept on getting closer and to my amazement, after seeing a small wreath next to a photo, I realized that it was a funeral. Observing the surroundings, I discovered a cremation pyre, where they were cremating the dead body while the ceremony took place. How can I be sure of it? Minutes later, I had the fortune of meeting someone very special who carefully explained to me the details and philosophy behind the ritual I had just witnessed.

I kept on walking and getting further into this mysterious location until I reached a small village of wooden houses where I spotted the orange fabrics, typical for Buddhist monks, hanging on several ropes. After wandering around, I found a young monk playing with some puppies and I went to talk to him. Surprisingly he could communicate perfectly in English and I had the chance of enjoying an interesting and rewarding conversation time with him.

Young buddhist monk student in Cambodia
Young buddhist monk student

His name is Rathana Asous and he is 22 years old, having spent the recent last 10 being trained as a Buddhist monk. He told me that this small village is called Wat Bo, where there are 148 monks attending a Buddhist school and spending almost the rest of their time studying. Rathana shares his room with two other monks and he explained to me that here he lives in a very humble way, but he is extremely grateful to the people whose donations make it possible for this village to exist. In a certain way, on the one hand people contribute so as the monks can have decent living conditions and are able to study and train, while on the other hand, they are rewarded by the possibility to consult and seek advice from monks, converse with them and сount on their guardship in rituals and ceremonies.

His family lives in a humble village and sent him to this town to have the opportunity to study and learn, although he has the chance to visit them just once a year. While talking about the ritual I had just witnessed, I got the confirmation that it was a funeral and they were actually cremating the dead body during the ceremony so as to deposit then the remains at the bottom of one of the pagodas. When I asked how come it was that all participants were in white and cheerfulness reigned in the air to dismiss a young man who had just passed away, he smiled and said to me that for them death is not the end, but the starting of a new beginning, of another new life, part of a process that is repeated infinitely until reaching Nirvana.

After Siem Reap, I wanted to find out how the coast of Cambodia looked like, so I moved to Sihanoukville. I stayed at a local hostel and rented a motorcycle from a bar owner to discover uninhabited beaches beyond civilization. Again the feeling was bittersweet, because despite being a beautiful place that housed virgin sandy beaches and turquoise waters, also the breath of a crushing imperialism, progressing without any complexes, was perceived. Clear example of this fact was the bridge to the Isle of Kohpuos. Since I arrived I noticed its spectacular presence, so I went there with the intention to cross it and find out more about it. To my surprise, the bridge, despite being fully completed, was closed to traffic, a fact which aroused my suspicions. I had to find out more about it.

I went to the place that always works when there is a need in a thorough and shrewd research: а bar. After sharing few beers with elder locals and foreigners living in the city, I mentioned the subject and they shared with me the story of the bridge and the island, which later I was able to check with trusted sources.

The Isle of Kohpuos, where the bridge from Sihanoukville leads, proves to be a paradise on Earth, combining dense tropical forest with rich wildlife and pristine dream-like beaches… unfortunately, a too beautiful scene to endure. A group of Russian investmentors got a 99-year lease for the island holding the promise of “developing” the area. Well, basically what they have done is constructing a luxurious and modernist bridge, closed to the public, while building and devastating the natural habitat of the Island, making it become full of pompous, opulent restaurants, resorts and shopping centers to attract high-class tourism. Thus, I asked myself, if they destroy and transform a natural paradise that was always enjoyed by locals into a tourist spot where all businesses are going to be controlled by Russian tycoons, from what point of view you can call this "development" for Cambodia? Besides, the main leader of the investors group that got the lease of the Island, Alexander Trofimov, was convicted after molesting nothing less than 17 underage girls, being condemned to as many other years in prison, from where he only served 3 of them prior being granted with the Royal Pardon and released a bit after.

After finding out how in Sihanoukville natural beauty and controversy dance hand in hand, I moved to Kampot, I rented a motorbike and I went into a natural park searching for a French abandoned ghost town, from which there is almost nothing left at all.

Ghost Town in Kampot, Cambodia
Ghost Town in Kampot
Megabats at a tree in Battamgbang, Cambodia
Megabats in Battamgbang

Ultimately, before coming back to Thailand, I spent a night in Battamgbang, I rented again a motorbike from a local guy that I met in the city, I drove for almost an hour asking the locals for the way and finally I got to the home of the biggest species from the only flying mammal: the giant fruit bat or, the way is frequently called, megabat. It was one of those moments when, despite of having big expectations, they were greatly overcome. I was aware they were outsize animals, but when I got to see them from close in live, their appearance was really shocking. I was amazed by their charm and it was truly intimidating to see them flying 3 or 4 meters above accompanying their flight with an imposing shadow under them. Their wingspan varies within 1’20 and 1’80 meters and, as their name says, they eat fruit. Furthermore, the peculiarity of this place is that, even though there are hundreds of similar trees in the area, all the bats are distributed in the three trees located at the entrance of the Buddhist Temple of Wat Baydamram. This fact feeds the local myth of monks and megabats protecting each others.

Megabat from Battamgbang, Cambodia
Megabat flying

Undoubtedly, the adventure in Cambodia has been a pleasant and enriching experience where I mostly enjoyed getting in touch with the friendly and beaming local inhabitants, as well as, as soon I managed to run away a bit from the city, exploring pure and wild nature. However the feeling of grudge and impotency is unavoidable after witnessing how, once again, the greed and avarice of few ones are capable of having such a catastrophic influence over the local culture, traditions, way of life and, eventually, in the home of such a big amount of people. Nonetheless, I will keep holding the most important part of the reflection, which is that they are just a few and in the end I have the certainty that in how we approach our way of consuming and doing tourism is what holds or discredits these kind of investments and imperialistic behaviors. Witnessing those facts motivates and inspires me to keep fighting in order to spread the message that everything is changing, since if they are just a few, we are plenty of people and every day we are more aware of our own responsibility. We are becoming aware of the fact that a better world is possible and the answer lies within us.

Cambodian kid riding joyfully his bike
A joyful ride

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