Wat Maha Leap is one of the few remaining wooden pagodas in Cambodia, many others having perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China the Khmer Rouge obliterated most holy buildings and any other structures that were more than just functional. Angkor Wat was one of the few exceptions, owing to it’s Khmer heritage and unique and special place in Cambodian history. Wat Maha Leap survived only because it was converted into a hospital during the period between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were in control. As Loung Ung wrote, most hospitals around the world are seen as places of recuperation and the focus is on getting the patients being restored to health. Under the Khmer Rouge though, people went to hospital to die. Other people we have talked to have confirmed this, the hospitals were rife with infections and the “medical staff” had no medical training. As such the bodies of 500 Khmers are buried in the gardens of the pagoda. The pagoda has been restored as the Khmer Rouge had left their own marks on the building, painting over the gilded columns and doors and generally leaving the place in a state of disrepair.
Thursday, 11 June 2009
Cambodia: Kratie and Kampong Cham
We arrived in Kratie in the middle of a thunder storm, the rain driving down almost horizontally towards us and the roads and sidewalks immersed in dark, muddy water. I did a very quick sortie for accommodation and, given the weather conditions, we checked into the first recommendation for Kratie in the Lonely Planet. Usually such an establishment has succumbed to the Lonely Planet Effect, in other words the price has shot up, and the staff are sometimes complacent. To be fair the accommodation was cheap (US$4.00 per night) for a double room with a balcony and the people working there were an absolute hoot. The other great thing about our guesthouse was that it directly overlooked the local market down below which was a constant source of fascination. I got into the habit of getting up at dawn and going into the meat section where all varieties of fish were hacked up, live chickens tied together squawked in anticipation of their final hour and slabs of unidentifiable meat attracted flies that were intermittently shooed away by sleepy eyed termagants. Commonly a pig would be driven by, bound to a custom made plank above the front wheel of a motorcycle, legs pointing heavenward and squealing with fear at this ungainly method of transportation. Sadly for the pig I fear that things were about to get a whole lot worse too. On my morning saunters through the aisles I thought about vegetarianism for about a nanosecond, and then conceded that it was easier to just not question the origins of my meals. And this was not a bad decision: I can highly recommend the pork, the fish can be a bit iffy and generally the chicken is as fresh as the new day. And that is because it is.
Whilst there is not a huge amount in Kratie, bar the markets and the waterfront that overlooks the Mekong River, it has a seductive charm and a soothing atmosphere. Sunsets by the river are rewarding and the crumbling buildings imbue the town with a sense of times past. It is one of those places that, in spite of limited in what it can offer, makes you want to stay longer. I could happily have spent a few more days there, but the thirty day visa is a relentless motivator. The main reason that the town exists on the tourist map is that you are almost guaranteed to see the Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins if you charter a boat for a couple of hours. Having seen countless dolphins before (admittedly mostly jumping through hoops and taking fish from a bikini clad nymph at the Durban sea front) we decided that instead we would hire a couple of men on motorbikes to take us out into the outlying country to see the rice plantations.
This turned out to be quite good fun and Nipun joined in the hard work of planting for about ten minutes before the mud, sun and posture became a bit too much. I passed up this golden opportunity and took the photos instead. Our motorbike guide was a constant source of information, prattling on about subjects ranging from the rice plantations to villagers being caught making, ahem, “boom boom” with livestock. He was delighted with this last tale and when I told him about a similar highly publicised incident in Zimbabwe where the perpetrator was made to marry his sweetheart (in this case a cow) his delectation was suitably increased. We ended up the trip by going to the market again, this time tasked with purchasing some fish and vegetable as we had been invited to lunch with him. My decision on the fish was fairly straightforward, being the specimen with the least flies buzzing about it.
Our next stop was four hours South by bus, the equally sleepy town of Kompong Cham. Whilst hardly a bustling metropolis Kompong Cham was positively frenetic compared to Kratie. Immersed in books we missed the bus stop and had to walk a kilometre back into town and from the moment we stepped off the bus tut tuk drivers and “motos” (motor cyclists who, for a fee, will put you on the back of their bikes and whisk you off to your destination) clamoured for attention. We walked the kilometre and found a café to have a coke in, whereupon the wind picked up and seconds later the rains were upon us. When we finally got going again we explored the town. Kompong Cham is a provincial capital and during the colonial days was an important trading hub. An impressive new bridge spanning the 1200 metre wide Mekong (the first in Cambodia to do so) ensures a steady flow of traffic through the city and the central street and roundabout is a constant source of activity. The promenade is glorious and lined with restaurants and guesthouses, whilst across the river the old French Light House catches the setting sun and turns to an evanescent, eldritch pink in the evenings. As the sun drops further the promenade fills up with people who come to do their daily exercise. The groups vary from footballers and volleyball players to others who form in front of large speakers to stretch and do a gentle workout to golden classics such as Footloose. The atmosphere is convivial and one of the idiosyncrasies that made Kompong Cham so worth the visit. Whilst we sat in the Mekong Crossing that evening, Nipun immersed herself in the Lonely Planet. A Cambodian gentleman in his fifties approached to chew the fat whereupon Nipun looked up and said “Are you Mr. Vannat?” I have to confess to some confusion at this point. Mr Vannat nodded his affirmation whereupon Nipun read out “Mr Vannat is an experienced local guide and if you sip an evening drink overlooking the Mekong, he’ll likely find you before long.” He had taken about half an hour to find us. We ended up going out into the country with him the following day, his 1955 jeep still going strong along the potholed dirt roads and thick monsoon mud. Among the sites we stopped at were the rubber plantations and Wat Maha Leap.
Next to the pagoda is a Junior School, catering for 350 vociferous children all shouting “Hello” at the same time. As their vocabulary is limited and “Hello” gets attention they scream it. Over and over. It is strangely endearing if not a little overwhelming. The juxtaposition is a little eerie in some ways, just thirty years ago these children would have had their childhoods snatched away from them. They would have been forced into labour and some into the Khmer Rouge “army,” many would simply have perished. All would have been scarred. Today, not fifty paces from the mass graves and a hospital that was more of a mortuary, these children bound about with massive smiles and bags of energy. I suppose that is not really eerie, rather it is rejuvenating and an immensely powerful testament to what peace and relative prosperity can bring to a country. It is a soothing sight in a country that has been through such a dramatic and unforgiving past.