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Historical hot spot welcomes tourists

UPDATE: Watch for Graeme Mount’s travel story about Thailand and Burma in the Fall 2011 issue. It will be available at newsstands Sept. 15.

Cambodia has recently rejoined the tourist circuit after an absence of 25 years. On April 17, 1975, forces of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communist extremists) seized control of the capital city, Phnom Penh, where they remained until Jan. 7, 1979. During that period, 20 percent of the Cambodian people–some 1.5 to 1.7 million out of 9.7 million–died. Large numbers starved, while the Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted for death members of all ethnic and religious minorities.

They also killed, along with their families, anyone with an education: all doctors, nurses, engineers, and teachers; anyone who wore glasses or who could speak a European language; and anyone who owned real estate.

Their idea was to create a new and pure society, unencumbered by those who had benefited from the old order and who might transmit ideas from the bad, old days.

Why, then, should tourists go to such a place? There are several reasons: (1) to see Angkor Wat, truly one of the world’s archaeological treasures; (2) to enjoy the tropical beaches along the Gulf of Thailand at an affordable price; (3) to spend one’s money in a place where the people desperately need it; and (4) to witness contemporary history firsthand.

Angkor Wat dates from the ninth century, and it grew to become one of the world’s largest cities. Even today, a tourist needs a minimum of three days in order to explore the temples, palaces, and stone carvings.

Originally Hindu, subsequently Buddhist, Angkor Wat was once the centre of an empire that encompassed much of Southeast Asia.

The beaches are not as free of litter as their counterparts in Thailand, where the people avoided the Khmer Rouge experience. Landmine victims who are missing at least one arm or leg will beg. Yet, the water is clear and the weather is hot, even in January and February.

Above all, Cambodia is affordable. At Phnom Penh (the capital), Siem Reap (the city closest to Angkor Wat), and at Sihanoukville and Kep (on the Gulf of Thailand), it is easy to find a comfortable hotel room complete with bathroom and cable television for $20 (US) per night. Breakfast may be included.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed the local currency as money was not supposed to be necessary in revolutionary Cambodia. ATMs provide American dollars. Most restaurant and hotel prices appear in American dollars, but be certain to take a supply of one-dollar bills for tips. ATMs dispense bills of $20 and $50, and few businesses have change. Many travel agencies, hotels, and restaurants accept credit cards but will add a small surcharge.

Finally, there are the horrors. Near Phnom Penh, there is a Khmer Rouge killing field with a multi-level structure crammed with human skulls, carefully arranged by the Khmer Rouge according to age and gender. On one level are the skulls of teenage girls, on another those of men in their 30s, and so forth. A sign indicates Buddhists normally cremate their dead, but the successors of the Khmer Rouge left the evidence in place in order to thwart holocaust deniers.

Near Battambang in Cambodia’s northwest is Phnom Sampeau, a mountain with a cave inside that holds a huge collection of the bones of Khmer Rouge victims. Drivers of tuk-tuks (motorcyclists with an attached wagon for passengers) can take tourists to these scenes of recent horror.

Cambodia is home to some magnificent Buddhist temples, destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and later restored, usually with funds provided by Cambodians who have settled elsewhere. Near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, there is a memorable archaeological museum.

Most Canadians go to Cambodia via Thailand or Vietnam. The easy way is to fly to Phnom Penh from Bangkok or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

The adventurous way is to travel by bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap.

Beware of scams at the border, but they are part of the experience. A speedboat hardly larger than Ramsey Lake’s Cortina makes daily five-hour trips between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The views are unforgettable, and one really feels that he or she has been to the heart of Southeast Asia.

Graeme S. Mount is a retired Laurentian University professor who specializes in American history. He has written numerous books including 895 Days that Changed the World, The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford. His latest book is Adventures Along Borders: Personal Reminiscences (Black Rose Books). He co-wrote Come on Over, A to Z, stores about notheastern Ontario with Dieter Buse.

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