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THE BECOMING OF CAMBODIA
By Chris McBeath
For Travel Writers Tales

PHOTO: ANKOR WAT SUNRISE

Edible tarantula. Deep fried grasshoppers. And crispy worms oozing a succulent liquid. This wasn’t exactly on my agenda but bug-infested foodie markets are just some of the unexpected ‘pleasures’ in store when traveling through rural Cambodia.


PHOTO: BANTEAY SREI TEMPLE

Along with the wonders of Angkor Wat, Bayon and other fabled temples, you’ll find clusters of clay-brick homes rooted among rice paddies, silk farms, and hard-working fishing villages on stilts where low tides maroon fishing boats in the muddy quagmires.

Temples and arachnids aside, my trip to this still-developing country actually involved a more personal mission: to understand the probable fate of Fila and Lily Tan. These delightful sisters had been my best friends at school in England. The gentleness of their names reflected their natures so sadness of their sudden disappearance from my life has stayed with me all these decades. By scanty accounts, they were becoming too westernized so had been repatriated before western values took hold. But this all happened during the lead-up years to the Pol Pot and the bloody violence of the Khmer Rouge so as Lily and Fila grew into womanhood, I often wonder how – and if – they survived.


PHOTO: SKULLS

For anyone wanting to appreciate the vibe of today’s Cambodia, a visit to the Killing Fields is a worthwhile, albeit haunting education, and Tuol Sleng prison, a school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture center, is a grueling witness to the regime’s cruelty. One of the original classrooms now exhibits photographs of former prisoners. I looked into their sunken eyes and thankfully none belonged to either Fila or Lily. I light a Jos stick of remembrance and move on.

To visit this side of Cambodia’s history is to explore the dynamics of a country that is only just now finding its footing as an independent nation free of despots and invasions. Tribunals involving the Cambodian genocide only came to a conclusion in 2014 with the conviction Pol Pot’s high command. Lesser known is the fact that that although deposed in 1979, Pol Pot himself remained an important member of Cambodia’s coalition government until 1993. But like many communist countries, politics of today and yesteryear are not openly discussed.

But it’s only against this backdrop that you can appreciate the resilience and happy generosity of the Cambodian spirit, especially in the countryside where villagers still work cooperatively for the greater good of the community, and family holdings are still farmed in much the same way as in previous generations. Learning English is seen as the passport to a better life and as dusk falls, it’s not unusual to hear youngsters singing their numbers and nursery rhymes before supper. As a visitor, pack a deck of playing cards (and be ready to teach a game or two) as well as some children’s books.

Although the countryside has yet to yield to the strains of tourism, evidence abounds that this is changing. Traveling the highways is to see a mess of construction be it hotels, homestays or souvenir supermarts with western toilets and plenty of parking for tour busses.


PHOTO: “TOMB RAIDER” TA PROHM

Ankor Wat epitomizes the growing tourism picture. As the country’s number one draw, it attracts over one million visitors a year although the jungle-engulfed Ta Prohm is almost as popular – in large part because of Tomb Raider. Filmed in 1991, it was the first movie to be shot here since Lord Jim in 1965, and it prompted a meteoric rise in Cambodia’s hitherto non-existent movie industry. Not only did Tomb Raider employ 400 locals as extras (including 100 Buddhist monks), the $10,000/day location fee contributed to the preservation of Angkor Wat. In terms of a more commercial legacy? Head for the nearest bar and enjoy a Tomb Raider cocktail -- a blend of Cointreau, soda and lime, said to be Angelina Jolie’s favourite drink during filming.


PHOTO: BUDDHIST BLESSING

As for the famed Ankor Wat, the complex is filled with intriguing carvings, detailed reliefs and extraordinary ornamentation that reveal an antiquity of unheralded wisdom, history and story telling. Be prepared to join the throngs of early rises to watch the sun rise over the temple tops; prepare for long waits to climb the steepest steps up to the central tower; and then follow the Buddhist chants to where monks with perpetually happy faces will bless you with a corded bracelet for protection, joy and good luck.

And with those sentiments tied around your wrist, how could you not try some toasted tarantula?


PHOTO: DEEP FRIED TARANTULA

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PHOTOS – all photos by Chris McBeath 1)Ankor Wat sunrise 2)Banteay Srei Temple 3)Killing Fields Memorial of Skulls 3)“Tomb Raider” Ta Prohm Temple 5)Buddhist Blessing at Ankor Wat 6)Deep Fried Tarantua

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