Angkor Wat is, of course, the grandaddy of the lot. Bordered by a moat, which stretches over 1km on its longest sides, the temple rises out of the water as if built on an island in the middle of a giant lake. A closer look at the walls of the entrance to the temple, however, yields evidence of a violent past out of place in such a peaceful setting. Bullet holes created by Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers in the final days of the regime serve as a reminder how fortunate it is the temples still stand at all.
Built by one of the Khmer empire’s most powerful leaders, Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the best place to get lost in a maze of rooms and galleries featuring stunning bas-reliefs telling epic Hindu tales. The most famous of these depicts the story of The Churning of the Ocean Milk. Strange as the name is, it relates to a fight between good and evil. If you only take the time to study one of the countless reliefs etched into the walls of all temples in Cambodia, make sure it’s this one. Stretching more than 50m in length, the relief features thousands of perfectly carved demons, gods and angelic creatures pitched in battle.
Stunning though it is, Angkor Wat is perpetually heaving with tourist traffic. The temples of Ta Prohm, which featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Preah Khan – a crossroads of religion thought to be a Buddhist university, but which also has dedications to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva – are among the best places to soak up the tranquillity of the ancient site.
Ta Prohm is also home to what must be some of the world’s most photographed trees, towering giants that encapsulate how, over many centuries, the jungle slowly swallowed the seat of the Khmer empire. Smothering the walls, roofs, doorways and collapsed sections of Ta Prohm, the weight of the ancient trees’ roots is gradually crushing the temples beneath them as the trunks reach up into the heavens – in much the same way as the temples once did.
Cambodia’s Bloody Past
When, on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to officially end a long-running civil war, there was jubilation on the streets.
Days later, the Khmer Rouge expelled its own people from the city, forcing millions into the countryside to become slaves for the communist government of the Democratic Kampuchea.
It was the beginning of more than a decade of atrocities committed against the Cambodian people. Seen as capitalists and therefore enemies of the state, the educated class – or ‘new people’ – were singled out by the Khmer Rouge, who would tell them: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” The land and power were given back to peasants, or ‘old people’, who were favoured by the regime.
Genocide, starvation and oppression dominated the Cambodian landscape for more than 15 years. In the absence of skilled labourers – anyone with an education was executed summarily. In a few short years the nation, which was once the envy of Southeast Asia for its forward-thinking, cosmopolitan society, became the world’s greatest humanitarian shame.
More than 1.5 million people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the effects of the oppressive regime are still apparent. War tourism thrives in Phnom Penh. The Killing Field of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng (or S-21) Genocide Museum are sober reminders of the country’s disturbing recent history. Once a Phnom Penh school, Tuol Sleng became a place of unimaginable torture for political prisoners of the Khmer Rouge and was the last stop for many on their way to the killing fields just 14km away on the city’s outskirts.
A now peaceful site, the killing fields were uncovered when the United Nations arrived in 1992. Besides the paths, which weave their way among the mass graves, the only monument to the horrors that took place here is a looming glass tower containing 8000 skulls exhumed from the fields.
It’s difficult not to feel uncomfortable when, for the first time, a desperately poor tuk-tuk driver, old enough to have lived through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge first hand, spruiks for a fare to the genocide museum and killing fields. Still, it’s well worth taking them up on the offer – and the money’s guaranteed to go to someone who needs it.
»The Killing Fields (1984), Christopher Hudson, Pan Books.
» First They Killed My Father (2000), Loung Ung, Flamingo.
» Brother Number One: A Political Biography Of Pol Pot (1999) David Chandler, Westview Press.
» Voices from S-21: Terror And History In Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (1999) David Chandler, University of California Press.
Laos might not actually have too many beaten tracks – or quality paved roads, for that matter – but Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam’s smaller, poorer cousin has busted out of its reputation as a destination only for the intrepid and is well and truly on the South-East Asian backpackers’ circuit.
The mountainous north is still preferred over the south, partly because of its accessibility from northern Thailand but, thanks largely to Si Phan Don – the Four Thousand Islands on the Mekong River – the word is out and more travellers are making the long, tough trip south from the capital, Vientiane.
What not to miss
Nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang could be a serious contender for the most beautiful city in South-East Asia. Boasting gorgeous gardens, historical buildings and a laid-back lifestyle, Luang Prabang is the kind of place in which you’ll plan to spend two days and won’t leave for two weeks.
For a breathtaking view of the Mekong and the mountains that encircle Luang Prabang, the walk up to the temples atop Phu Si is worth the effort – particularly at sunset. Further down the road is Wat Phuttabaht, a temple built around what is thought to be one of Buddha’s footprints. Take a closer look, too, at the flowerpots at Wat Phuttabaht – a none-too-subtle reminder of Laos’ dubious honour of being the most-bombed country on Earth. Here, flowers are held not in vases, but in the torn- out shells of US bombs dropped on the country in the years preceding the Vietnam War.
Don’t leave Luang Prabang without gorging yourself on the food on offer at the night markets. The local delicacy – a whole Mekong River fish stuffed with lemon grass and slow-cooked over hot coals – is every bit as good as it sounds.
Si Phan Don
The Si Phan Don – meaning Four Thousand Islands – in southern Laos has gone from being Laos’ best-kept secret to biggest tourist drawcard in what seems like little longer than the 19-hour bus run from Vientiane. Don Det and Don Khon are the locations of choice for getting off the tourist trail for a couple of days, so head here, grab a hammock, a cold Beer Lao and relax in Laos’ version of Thailand’s Koh Tao or Cambodia’s Kep. Just about the only mandatory activity is taking a boat trip on the Mekong to spot a rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.
Vang Vieng exists for one reason and one reason alone: tubing. The premise: grab an inner-tube, get a lift 5km up the Nam Song (a branch of the Mekong), jump in the river and let the current carry you down, stopping to drink ice-cold Beer Lao and dive into the river from rope swings along the way. Without doubt one of Asia’s most fun days out, tubing at Vang Vieng is the kind of activity that can exist only in a country where the concept of ‘public liability insurance’ is yet to take hold.