So starkly sits Siem Reap, this comfortable, clean modern town nestled in beside one of the worlds great archaeological sites: the great city of Angkor. Sipping delicious coffee in a chic cafe the world of Siem Reap whizzes by in the early hours before our bus to Phnom Penh and into another layer of the complicated story of Cambodia. Where in the 12th century Angkor was the largest city in the world with the Khmer empire spanning much of what we now call south east Asia, Cambodia as a nation is just climbing back to its feet from knockout blows delivered by both outside forces and it’s own decay. How the mighty have fallen. From the dizzying heights of an imaginative flight back in time visiting the great temples we jump on our bus towards a contrasting story, a tragedy of Angkorian proportions written in still wet ink on the timeline of this culture’s epic saga.Angkor was the greatest place on earth, arguably the seat of this planets most concentrated power but unlike the stories that follow many of histories greatest civilisations Angkor never fell to the crushing blow of a conquering invader. Many factors contribute to a great demise but overall Angkor was, put simply, left behind; a christmas toy that no longer amused a privileged child. Chasing easier trade routes the power of Angkor moved closer to the Mekong, a global wonder left to the creeping reach of a relentless jungle, treasures abandoned by the skewed priorities of the powerful. The mini van pulls up and now we too have left Angkor behind to stand on the banks of the Mekong in Phnom Penh, this part of the Mekong more of a harbour than a river.
Entering Cambodia the pervading message from all sides painted the warning message of a poor country: watch out for scams, it’s a bit of a mess, internal troubles are rife. Admittedly Siem Reap booms on the tourist dollar and the riverside promenade of Phnom Penh is the essence of wealthy Cambodia but even through these tinted lenses Cambodia spreads its wings far beyond the poor country that, in truth, it really is. Or are our expectations just getting used to less developed countries? A broad paved promenade in Phnom Phen positively explodes with life; children launch into informal games, families enjoy the cool breeze and grand lawns of well kept gardens showcase the royal palace. Cambodia has many faces; past greatness, recent tragedy, present struggles just a few but none of those are the faces we see now. Sharply dressed young boys and girls hang out with their mates in orange monks robes displaying no social separation based on the fashion of the day. Is it possible that Cambodia, this story of great bounty gone sour, just might have a burgeoning cosmopolitan sunrise about to break the horizon?Emboldened and enlivened with positivity for the faces we’re seeing and stomachs so blessedly stable it’s time to get back on the street food wagon. We know that it’s a ticking time bomb this eating off the street but we can’t help it, we’ve been walking past delicious food for so long that the declaration can no longer remain just a threat, today is the day; It’s time to start the meat-on-a-stick festival. Like stringent calorie counting dieters on a designated monthly ‘fat day’ we’re pigs at the trough with a basket loaded up with fish cakes, fish balls, spring rolls, chicken drumsticks and noodle soup. Meat really does taste better when it’s wickedly skewered on a stick and drowned in hoi sin, chilli or fish sauce; or all of them. Cambodia is already far more than the warnings predicted.
The many faces of Cambodia are on show in just this one day but there’s one we’re going to stare into the eyes of tomorrow that threatens to steal the glory, the fun, the promise and the hope away from all others. There’s a gap in the chronology here, a little space missing like so much of this country, wrenched away and dislocated from a path that all the other faces tread. Upon entering Cambodia I reflected on Cheav, a juggernaut of a person who I’m not only lucky to work with but to call a friend. He was born in the same year that this countries darkest period began. His story carried him to Australia and on a different path, shunted sideways like a car blindsided crossing an intersection along with the rest of his country; violently, suddenly. He was one of the lucky ones.It is easy to feel like we’re metaphorically in a room, the faces of Cambodia like a gathering of friends, we all know there’s another face in the dim corner so easy to ignore, the outsider we need to talk to but find no joy in doing so. We know that avoiding that face forever serves no purpose beyond the temporary comfort of denial that we indulge in for just one more day. Our room of faces that all look a little like Cheav: past grandeur, new found optimism, cheeky confidence and modern chic take one final cheers to the clink of beer glasses before we all welcome back the dislocated chunk of history to the crowd. None of us like his face but we all want him closer, now ready to let go of the false security of insecure denial. His name is S-21 and tomorrow we will seek escapism no longer, tomorrow the crowd of many faces that is Cambodia grows by one.