Things to do before you die: get your Indiana Jones on.

Siem Reap and Angkor, Cambodia: seven things the photographs can’t tell you.

Angkor Wat itself: the largest religious building in the world.

1.  It is almost impossible to secure a visa to enter Cambodia in advance of arrival: visas are issued at the airport.   We arrived in Siem Reap from Bangkok.  Behind a long counter sat twelve officials in sharp uniforms.  A queue formed in front of the left-most official.  At the front of the queue, you hand over your passport, a completed visa form, and some money to Official No. 1, who tells you to join a second queue at the extreme right-most Official No. 12.  Your stuff starts the long journey through Officials 2-11, each of whom undertakes one activity in relation to a form, your passport, or the money.  Ten minutes later, your passport arrives (with visa) at the desk of Official No. 12, whose job is to hand your passport to you.  Only then may you proceed to immigration for clearance to enter the country.

Me and a Ficus tree at Ta Prohm.

2.  In a room also containing Robert Mugabe, Adolf Hitler, and Saddam Hussein’s psychotic son Uday, Pol Pot would probably have been ostracised as a bona fide lunatic smear of shit on the face of humanity.  Sadly, Pol Pot killed himself before he could be flushed down the justice system’s toilet and left to rot starving in a sewer.   Between 1975 and 1979, somewhere around 2 million murdered, the year re-set to ‘0’, forced reversion to agrarianism, and the eradication of anyone with an education, or artistic expertise.   Even now, 40% of the population is under the age of 15.

In the tuk-tuk on the way to Banteay Srei (the Women's temple). The driver had a name unpronounceable with a Western mouth.

3.  What it’s like to ride in a Cambodian tuk-tuk: an often elaborately-decorated trailer hitched to the back of a moped.

The Bayon. Possibly an ancient university. Wherever you look there is a huge face in the rock.

4.  Beggars in Cambodia are predominantly children, some as young as four or five years old.  They crowd tourists, offering trinkets in plaintive voices speaking perfect English.  Advice is not to buy anything from them since it perpetuates their working when they should be in school.  Knowing this doesn’t stop you feeling inhuman the first, second, or third time a small child bursts into tears and screams “you bad tourist!” because you refuse their offer of four bracelets for US$1.  Eating in restaurants that donate a percentage of their profits to helping children off the streets and into school feels better, but you still won’t forget the children’s faces.

You are permitted to clamber all over most of the buildings.

5.  Angelina Jolie is, as far as Cambodians are concerned, a benevolent goddess beamed down to us in a ray of sunshine and floating on a cloud of happiness.  She visited Cambodia when filming Tomb Raider, and adopted her son Maddox shortly thereafter.  We ate in the Red Piano, a bar proudly displaying photographs of her with the owner, and still serving the cocktail named after her.

The Tomb-Raider door: not a movie set.

6.  The air in and around Angkor is delicately scented with a wonderful hint of something between green tea and rose incense, but in town in the evening there’s a fug of cloying smoke from cooking fires and rubbish-burning.  It is marginally less pleasant than smouldering rubber and charcoal and it will choke you, cause your eyes to stream, and your clothes to stink.

The tree is several hundred years old. The building and the tree could not now survive without each other.

7.  The heart-warming generosity of spirit, friendly smiles, and welcoming nature of Cambodians is astounding.  Of all the countries I have visited, I have never wanted to return to one so badly as I wish to see Cambodia again.  I’m left with a sense that I merely scratched the surface of the deep joy this country, and its people, could bring to the world.


5 Responses to “Things to do before you die: get your Indiana Jones on.”

  1. 1 Jenn @ Juggling Life September 29, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    The school I student-taught at last year did an art project/partnership with a school in Cambodia and then sold the artwork and the school got the money.

    It’s very interesting to hear that take on Angelina–not the spin the Western media put on her at all.

  2. 2 Stacie September 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

  3. 3 Online RSA September 30, 2010 at 1:10 am

    It’s so sad, Cambodia is a gorgeous country but so torn apart.

  4. 4 Rima October 4, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Those trees! Amazing.

  5. 5 Bella Rum October 4, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    So very interesting. I’ve heard about the children, but I can’t imagine it.

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