Indochina and Siam
A road trip in South East Asia - part 1

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The route
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This is part 1 of a report in 3 parts.

Most of my generation immediately associates the word Indochina with the Vietnam War. It appeared a remote and unreal part of the world, in the sofas of our living rooms, when we watched the ubiquitous TV news and documentaries between 1965 and 1975. I actually never dreamed about visiting the place - until recently.

When I use the word Indochina, I refer to the countries that once where occupied by the French; Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Siam is a more vague name. Although Siam was the name of Thailand before 1932, I think of the land of Siam in a broader sence, from time to time invaded by ancient kingdoms of Burma, China and Laos. Right or wrong, but history and ancient spirits are everywhere.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Cambodia was once the heart of the great Khmer empire, which ruled most of today's Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. The empire lasted from early 9th to 14th century and it's Capital was Angkor. The temples of Angkor are sometimes called the 8th wonder of the world, and as a whole Angkor is well in class with the Pyramids of Luxor, Machu Pichu and Taj Mahal. The largest temple, Angkor Wat (photo above) is said to be the largest religious building of the world.

Angkor was the political, social and religious centre of the Khmer empire, a city of a million people at a time when London had a population of 50,000. Although there are hundreds of temples made of stone, the houses, public buildings and palaces were made of wood - now long gone - because the right to dwell in structures of stone was reserved for the gods.

Angkor is the heart and soul of the Kingdom of Cambodia (yes the country actually is a kingdom again). It is a source of inspiration and national pride for Khmers who struggle to rebuild their lives after years of terror. Angkor Wat is present everywhere in Cambodia: on the flag, on the money, the national beer, cigarettes etc.

The temples are a point of pilgrimage for all Cambodians today and as seen from the photos above, it is a favorite destination for wedding parties.

Angkor Wat, the mother of all temples and surrounded by a giant moat, covers more than 1 km square and the lotus-like towers rise 65 metres from the ground. The walls of the temples are covered inside and out with thousands of bas-reliefs and carvings.

We also visited to other magnificent temples. The eerie stone faces of Bayon, staring down from the walls and towers have probably become the most recognizable images of classic Khmer art and architecture.

At Ta Prohm, pure Indiana Jones territory and our favorite temple, the jungle appears to be taking over. This temple was apparently used as the setting of the film Tomb Raider (below right).

The old ruins are still active temples
A scene from Tomb Raider?
The city of Siem Reap, just a few kilometers from Angkor Wat, has became the life-support system for the temples of Angkor. A parched, slumbering remote corner only a few years ago has become the regional hot spot for accomodation, shopping and night life. There are very few cars, however, and most people use the Cambodian version of the tuk-tuk for transportation. This vehicle is actually a two-wheel trailer hooked to a moped. Tuk-tuk is an onomatopoetic word, refering to the sound of the engine.
Wrong hotel, and our tuk-tuk driver
Angkor rush hour
Cambodia has gradually recovered from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars remain for survivors and their families. Cambodia now has a very young population, and (already by 2005) 75% of the 14 million (2008 census) Cambodians are too young to remember the holocaust, which ended in 1979.
There are over 1,000 kinds of rice in Cambodia
Teas and spices
Spices and seeds
Food is more important to Cambodians than to most (according to Lonely Planet), as they have tasted what it's like to be without. Rice is a staple with every meal and there is said to be over a 1,000 kinds of rice here. The photos above are from the Old Market in downtown Siem Reap. For a foreigner everything is incredibly cheap, a meal for two with beers at a restaurant can be had for 4 USD.
Malla at the Old Market in Siem Reap
There is a guy there! Jumping through a ring of knives
How many people can ride a bike? Well, how many are there in your family, that's how many. The bike can be used for transporting almost anything, from sacks of cement or rice, pigs (dead or alive) to king size beds. Take a good look at the photo below (right).

According to UNDPH (2009) 35% of Cambodians live below "the national poverty line", 0.45 USD per day. Over 70% of the labour force is involved in agriculture, which accounts for 30% of the country's GDP, but only 3% of it's exports.

There are very few cars in Siem Reap, but 80% of the cars were big 4 wheel drive Lexus SUVs. I think there are more Lexuses in Cambodia than in Finland although the total number of cars is 150,000 versus 3,200,000!

It's the old story, I guess; the rich ar getting filthy rich and the poor (in a relative sense) even poorer. According to the World Bank (Poverty Assesment 2006), the number of people living on less than 0.45 USD per day fell between 1994 and 2004 from 47% to 35%. During the same period the per capita consumption of the richest 20% grew by 45% compared to 8% for the poorest 20%.

Familiar from many other poor parts of the world, is the mother (?) carrying a small child and asking for money. I tried to do the right thing by bringing the couple with me in to a store and buying her a tin of milk powder. But I hate myself for suspecting that she will sell the can and get money for something else that the child might not benefit from at all. Or maybe she is just working for a Lexus guy and only gets a small commission!

A gift of milk powder
With the victim of a land mine

For most people of my generation, Cambodia has been a symbol of something dark and horrible. The Red Khmers, led by Pol Pot, committed probably the largest genocide in history – killing more than 20% of their fellow contrymen. The enormity of this terrible crime is simply impossible for most of us to understand.

Around the Old Market we were approach by a dozen of crippled persons, who had lost either a leg, or both legs or an arm – either during the civil war, or for stepping on land mines afterwards. We were touched by the dignity that most of these unfortunate souls showed. They try desperately not to appear as beggars and instead try to give us visitors a chance to pretend that we are paying for a service or a souvenir.

The man with Malla and me on the photo above is Phung, he is 46 years old and lost his leg on a land mine in 1989 – and he tells us that he has five children to support. I can’t help wondering why he made five children despite his condition.

View the sign by which Phung is introducing himself:

"If our fish cannot make you happy ..
.. we will not charge."
Doctor Fish Massage

A report like this may give readers the wrong impression, clearly there are signs of a better future for the long-suffering Cambodian people. Tourist-related statistics are soaring and tourism is probably the safest way for locals to get access to income.

Things are changing fast, and down town Siem Reap is rock and roll. The first bar was opened in 1998 and now several blocks form an area called Pub Street with hundreds of bars, clubs and restaurants. How about sipping your favorite beverage while the fish are eating away at your feet - and they are not Barracudas.

We liked Siem Reap very much, but it was with some hesitation we boarded the bus to the Capital Phnom Penh: Time to face the Killing Machine.

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