travel & nature photography
Text and images © marcus karlsen / no use without written permission
Cambodia are friendly people, amazing temple ruins, tropical paradise, culinary delights and untouched nature, but also Pol Pot, genocide, torture and years of civil war. A land of extreme contrasts.
Cambodia still breaths out after years of civil war and genocide. Despite the bloody history the first thing we notice is the friendly and positive atmosphere. Everywhere we are greeted with smiles and friendliness. Now that the civil war is finally over people are optimistic about the future. We sit at one of the sidewalk restaurants on the promenade along the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. It is not a day since we left Norway and we let all the new smells and visual impressions sink in. The city has a quiet and relaxing atmosphere. Under a tree slumbers a rickshaw driver in anticipation of new customers, some boys are fishing in the river while some workers lay down a cobblestone pavement in a very leisurely pace. 25 years ago, during Pol Pot's regime life here was different.
It is quiet, dead quiet. No sound of small birds chirping or winds rustling in the leaves, no people talking or laughing, not even the everlasting sound of the locust, quiet, quiet as the grave. Even nature knows all the horrors that happened here. We are at Cambodia's Killing Fields, Choeng Ek, just outside Phnom Penh. Here Pol Pot's troops liquidated 17 000 people between 1975 and 1979. A total of 2 million people died in Cambodia during his reign of terror. Men, women and children, all of which could conceivably be opponents of the regime were dragged out of their homes, tortured and put to death. 25 years ago children's heads were smashed against the tree trunk in front of us. Still we can see teeth and bones on the ground. It's almost as we can hear the silence broken by the screams of terrified mothers who were forced to look at before they were killed themselves. How can people bring themselves to do such horrific acts? Amid the mass graves a simple memorial is erected. Skulls and bones from 8985 people are displayed to remind us of the horrors and make sure something like this never happens again.
Having experienced Cambodia's gruesome history up close, we decide to go to the more unknown coastline in search of warm winds and pristine tropical beaches. Highway 4 from Phnom Penh to the coastal town of Sihanoukville, paid by the United States, is perhaps the only positive Americans have contributed to the country. This is probably the only road in Cambodia that does not look like a cattle trail. The bus races down the paved road, the speakers pounding Asian pop music. The bus driver has one hand on the wheel while he continuously bumps the horn with the other. Cows, chickens, cyclists and peaceful villagers are plunging down in the ditch when the bus comes racing down the road. After three hours risking our lives we turn into the bus station in Sihanoukville. The next day we can relax on the fabulous beaches, eating watermelon and mango under straw umbrellas while listening to the waves rolling on the beach. When we think of the neon bars and the crowded beaches of the Mediterranean, we feel privileged.
We jump on a couple of mopeds and drive out in the countryside. Past lush green paddy fields, small wooden houses on stilts, huge water buffalo and smiling, waving people. We stop at Ream National Park and join a boat trip. We lie on deck looking up at the blue sky while the boat slowly slides down the river. Above us fish eagles soar, looking for prey, suddenly one plunge down to catch a fish. From the mangrove forest along the banks we can hear the intense sound of cicadas. Colorful kingfishers scout for possible meals and around the bow of the boat small fish are bouncing out of the water. We are not alone on the river, some fishermen in hollowed logs set nets while other boats are heading upriver with goods. We disembark at a small fishing village and continue on foot through the jungle. The thermometer shows 42 degrees Celsius, and it feels more like a sweltering jungle hell than a tropical paradise when we step over tree trunks along the tortuous path. The impression is changed as we walk out of the woods. A white sandy beach as far as the eye can see, turquoise blue sea and green palm trees. After we have washed away the sweat and irritation in the warm sea water we are finally there, in the tropical paradise. We have the beach all to ourselves and enjoy the silence. Several hours later we head back towards the boat. The day is perfect when later in the evening eat Amok, fish in coconut sauce and Cambodia's national dish, at a restaurant in Sihanoukville. At the horizon the rolling sea is drowning the fiery sunset.
Back in Phnom Penh we board the boat that will take us to Siem Reap and Angkor, capital of the ancient Khmer Empire. 24 kings with wonderful names like Jayavarman, Suryavarman and Yasodharapura built temples continuously for more than 500 years and created some of the world's most magnificent buildings. After the kingdom collapsed in 1431, the city, containing over 100 temples, was abandoned and left to nature. It was largely forgotten until 1860 when the Frenchman Henri Mahout stumbled across it in search of butterflies in the Cambodian jungle. Our expectations were sky high and Angkor should not disappoint.
The fresh morning breeze blows the last sign of sleep out of the corner of the eyes. It's only 5:30 and we are sitting on the back of a tuk-tuk on the way to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Along the road people have already started the day. We raced by families that rolls their straw mats and make breakfast. Everyone tries to do away with as much as possible of the daily chores before the heat sets in. We pass through a forest where monkeys play in the treetops. Then it is there, Angkor, the holy city and the world's largest religious structure. We pass over the 180 meter wide moat, through the gate in the outer ring wall and in front of us is the temple Angkor Wat. Behind the huge towers, shaped like lotus buds, the sun rises up like a fiery orb. The towers represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. And Angkor Wat is really suitable for a living god. Railings shaped like a Naga, the sacred serpent that lives both on earth and in the sea, leads us to the temple's entrance. The walls are covered with beautiful reliefs and large stone lions are guarding the entrances. We climb up steep stone steps and reach the top of the central tower, the temple's holiest place and previously only reserved for kings and high priests. There is a maze of corridors and archways which all lead out to a wonderful view of the surrounding jungle. As the sun removes the morning haze several other temple complexes appears above the treetops. This is a view worthy of a king. Climbing down from a Khmer temple is always worse than getting up. Each step is almost a meter high and only a few centimeters wide, more like a steep hill than a normal staircase. Even wearing hiking shoes we cling to the boulders while orange-clad monks quickly navigate up and down in their flip-flops.
The Bayon temple may not have the same views as Angkor Wat, but this temple has its own specialty. Wherever we go we have the feeling of being watched. All of the 54 towers are covered with four huge faces of a smiling bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Angkor's famous smile. An old woman takes us into a dark room with a huge statue of Buddha. We light incense in front of the statue and it is like being taken back a 1000 years in time. We leave the Bayon temple and explore the rest of Angkor Thom on foot. Sometimes we are followed by young children with the sales instincts intact. "One dollar Miss, only one dollar Mister." Whistles, bells, bracelets, postcards, drinks and snacks are selling like hot cakes. It's hard to say no when a little boy or girl with huge brown eyes first put a little note in your hand that says "I wish you good luck forever, I wish you good luck on your journey, I hope you come here again "and then ask if you can buy just one little thing? We end up with bracelets, bells and postcards in many different varieties.
A few miles away, we find our favorite temple. Ta Prohm is not like the other temples of Angkor. It is left in nature's hands. The roots of huge trees penetrate the ruins, and branches and leaves covers the beautiful moss-covered reliefs. On our way through the temple, we must navigate through huge boulders that have plummeted to the ground. The sun's rays filters through the canopy and the light plays on the beautiful ruins. Overhead parrots are flying between the trees and small squirrels are jumping happily between boulders. Here we get an idea of what it would be like when Henri Mahout discovered the ruins in 1860 and made them known to the western world. Even now, nearly 150 years after the discovery by Mahout, much of Angkor's history remains a mystery. We hope it stays that way, and that the mysterious atmosphere of Angkor will not disappear with the increasing mass tourism.