Because of the magnificant tourist-pulling power of the temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap has spawned guesthouses at a constantly increasing pace after the crippling years under the Khmer Rouge regime just decades ago. It still remains very much a provincial town, with relatively small shops spanning a fairly small area, but the enormous hotel mansions dotted about mean that those with money can stay in the utmost of luxury and promise that the future of Siem Reap is only going to be bigger and pricier.
Angkor Wat attracts tourists for good reason. The vast stretch of temple ruins whisper memories of an ancient Empire running from Burma to Vietnam, steeped in grandeur and sacred reverence for their god-kings. The opulence of days long gone jars discordantly when reflected through the postcard of an impoverished beggar child, desperate to sell you ten such images for a dollar. Bands of monkeys irreverently scale the crumbling facades and the majestic structures struggle for recognition through strangling tree roots as the jungle strives to suffocate its ancient legacy. Although the Khmer people used to believe their temples had been created by supernatural creatures, French historians from the colonial era largely crushed that myth, deciphering ancient script and images to place the buildings in a precise chronology, dating back to the early ninth century A.D. Mystery still surrounds many of the temples, but I have to admit that the romantic edge is sucked out by the hoards of other visitors blocking your view. Climbing the steepest hill for a sunset scene, it was impossible to photograph anything without someone's cap and sunglasses shifting into view. The hill was actually crawling with tourists; apparently there can be up to 1000 people all clambering up there to teeter on a free bit of rock, trying to catch a glimpse of the sunset sky.
The more remote temples still manage to retain an eerie atmosphere however and - when your fellow tourist isn't in the way - the buildings in themselves are undeniably amazing (photos to come).
Ta Prohm is one of the more popular temple sites because the hulking great tree roots spilling over the top of its walls and winding irreverently round its statues look like shots straight out of Indiana Jones. In fact, I think I'm a prime example of the deterioration of society when I say that these impressive and oh-SO-ancient structures were not only reminiscent of the sets in action films but also reminded me of Chessington World of Adventures. Perhaps the day you realise that Angkor Wat reminds you of a theme park is the day you realise your soul is made of plastic and actually has Ty Warner TM stamped on its side, but I prefer to think that it highlights how incredibly unfamilar and exotic these buildings were. If we respond to new things by attempting to associate them with the familiar then the nearest I could get was the Tomb Raider ride. Connecting the genuine with the fake in this way made for a seriously surreal experience. (It also showed me that the good people at Chessington do a surprisingly good job.)
Yet even the handiwork of age-old craftsmen is too contrived for nature's liking at Ta Prohm. Abandoned to the jungle, the battle between man-made construction and natural destruction makes for some impressive photos (still to come..). This off-beat ambience is enhanced by what has been a constant feature of South Eastern Asia; cicadas. Their constant high-pitched droning, which at times sound like a chorus of angels, at others like a kettle at boiling point, constitutes a rather tense soundtrack and injects a sense of drama and importance into every activity.
Whilst, for the imaginatively inclined, this can seem to colour the experience of one sight with the sepia glaze of cinematic epic (ambling up to snap another temple becomes a slow motion advancement towards judgement day, etc.), it can also resonate with the horror of another. Our cicada-borne soundtrack dropped a note at the landmine museum, where the careless piles of old grenades and bouncing betty landmines were chilling in the utter casualness of their display. Weapons of war aren't hard to get hold of in Cambodia. There's no distance to dust them with the curious glamour of old battle relics. Rather, our guide could point out the mine style which blew his own leg off, the type which killed his brother and sister. Land mines still scatter the landscape long after the original reason for them has been resolved and people are being killed or injured by them every day. Once the pointlessness of this ongoing terror hit home I found it almost unbelievable that countries still continue to manufacture these things. Although most of Europe has agreed not to, the usual suspects refuse to let go of this weapon which has proved so successful at maiming the innocent.
The soundtrack deserted us altogether in Phnom Penh at the S21 museum and the killing fields, which make for an experience so depressing that it seems not even cicadas go near them. The S21 museum is an old high school that was converted into a Khmer Rouge prison where "dangerous" people like doctors, teachers, students or members of the previous regime were brought to be questioned and then exterminated. Apparently the statistics show that the Khmer Rouge managed to slaughter 1 in 7 Cambodian people either through direct murder or starvation. The makeshift cells of the prison have all been left in place and weapons of torture mingle with an artist's impression of their uses (the painter was a prisoner himself and one of the 7 people found still alive at the prison when the Khmer Rouge fell). The comprehension that such a radical and barbaric regime could take hold so recently is shocking. And, while I've been taught all the ins and outs of the Nazi crimes, I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never really heard of the Khmer Rouge, let alone understood the extent of their deeds until I visited Phnom Penh. Photos of ex Khmer Rouge soldiers and fighters in their present day status as smiling rice farmers, gazing fishermen and grateful grandmothers line the walls of the rooms in which they or their superiors used to bludgeon whole families to death. But those are the braver ones. Admitting their involvement means they could be next in the long and ongoing trial of perpetrators of Khmer Rouge crimes and there must be hundreds of guilty ex-soldiers roaming utterly unpunished today.
In the killing fields a giant glass case filled with skulls stands in memory of those killed. A musky smell of human bone seeps from the memorial as, by the King's request, parts of the casing lies open to the air so that the spirits of the dead may come and go.
The fields themselves have sprouted new grass, but fragments of tooth, bone and clothing emerge from the pathways as frequent visitors pummel the earth of mass graves not yet excavated. I suppose, as always, the point of putting yourself through such hideously morbid experiences is to learn from them. It certainly puts the characteristically cheerful disposition of the Cambodian people into admirable perspective. And it is amazing to see how far the country has come in only 20 years - plush hotels stand in a city that used to be deserted of citizens let alone tourists and hospitals care for the weak in a country where all forms of study were forbidden and all doctors were killed. So it felt a little bit unsavoury when on the bumpy ride back from the killing fields our driver asked, "You go shooting range now?" Playing with guns couldn't be further from our minds.