Saturday, August 23, 2008


This is a late update. We returned to Sydney over two weeks ago and I'm only now getting a chance to update the blog with the last leg of the trip.

After visiting Mai Li's family in Malaysia, we took a five-day trip to Cambodia with four others in Li's family -- her sister and her sister's husband, visiting from England, her cousin and her aunt.

Angkor, the seat of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries, is one of the ancient sites in the world I most wanted to see (the others at the top of my list being Machu Picchu in Peru and Teotihuacán in Mexico). Discovered submerged in the rainforest by the French in the late 19th century, it underwent a decades-long programme of restoration which is still ongoing, having resumed in 1993 after a 23-year interruption by the Cambodian civil war. The site has been open to tourism since about 1999. A friend went there in 2002 and said it was the most spectacular of the ancient sites he had seen (which included Machu Picchu and Teotihuacán). "Go now," he said, "before it is destroyed by tourism." Unfortunately, we weren't timely in taking his advice, and now it is common to be mobbed outside the temples by locals, many children, wielding counterfeit guide books so numerous and of such high quality they could only have been supplied by an organised syndicate. They don't take no for an answer when you don't want to buy one, not the first time and not the tenth time, and so you develop an unpleasant strategy of completely ignoring them until, after fifty metres of hounding you, they drift back to the next tourists.

And there are a lot of tourists. There is a massive influx of tourism dollars into Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex, and corruption is rife (Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International). The corruption is not readily apparent (except when our tour guide had to bribe a police officer), but the cost of a ramshackle boat tooling through a "floating village" on Tonle Sap lake, paid to some mysterious office miles from the village, was US$90 for six of us for an hour. That might be a usual price for somewhere like Australia, but not in a third world country. One wonders where the exhorbitant profits go, because it sure isn't to the barefoot teenaged boat pilot. I also saw on ABC'S Four Corners (an investigative current affairs programme, for any non-Australians reading this) that the money paid to enter the Angkor temple complex (US$40 per person for three days) ends up in the hands of one man, a politican, and there is no accounting.

But all of this aside, it is worth going. The Cambodian people are friendly and we felt very safe, and though the distasteful aspects are here to stay, including the volume of tourists, Angkor is an incredible place. At over a thousand square kilometres, it was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The main temples are enormous, and each has its unique characteristics. The most famous, Angkor Wat, has walls a kilometre long on each side and is surrounded by an outer wall which is itself circumscribed by a wide moat. The name actually means "the temple [which became a] city." My favourite temple, the Bayon, features more than thirty towers adorned with ten-foot tall faces, typically on four sides. Inside it is something of a compact maze, due to the number of times successive rulers and conquerers added to it, and outside is a host of well-preserved bas reliefs. The French chose to preserve another temple, Ta Prohm, in its "natural" state as an example of how most of Angkor looked when it was discovered. Overgrown with massive tree roots, it looks straight off an Indiana Jones set. Indeed, it was used as a location in the film Tomb Raider.

This is the last entry for the trip, but check back in a little while for links to the photos as I get them uploaded.

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