Around Asia Effie-Michelle Metallidis is taken aback by the beauty of Cambodia's notorious killing fields.
'Same same but different': Cambodia offers bittersweet experiences
The first unsettling discovery in Cambodia is that the killing fields are beautiful.
Butterflies graze the trees that surround a memorial pagoda piled high with skulls; cotton clouds glide over gently sloping ground where millions were exterminated in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge regime. Ignore the signs that read "Mass Grave of 450 here" and the paper-thin bones collected in boxes throughout the site, and Choeung Ek is deceptively charming.
The second unsettling discovery is this: all the snack stalls at Angkor Wat are named after popular icons. Booth number 007 belongs to James Bond, two is Mr Rambo, six is Lady Gaga, and so on, until we come to Angelina Jolie at stall number three, which peddles Coke and Ramen noodles on the grounds of centuries-old ruins.
As someone who studied history, I don't know what is worse: the disappointment of finding the haunting fields you read about bursting with pretty butterflies, or that Tomb Raider now has a permanent address at the eighth wonder of the world.
"We love Angelina Jolie because she give us free advertisement," says Raj, our tour guide, explaining the Cambodian cult of Jolie. Determined to keep his pallid skin intact ("brown skin disgusting," he declared upon meeting us), he is showing us around the 14th-century ruins in a full-length shirt and a wide-brimmed hat in sweltering monsoon heat.
He points to a door covered by a gnarled tree in the temple of Ta Prohm. "In the movie, she go into that door and she jump into waterfall. But no waterfall inside, as you can see. Just dark and disgusting."
Raj has seen this site plenty of times, so he's a little jaded. Ta Prohm is one of the most captivating temples at Angkor Wat. Silk cotton trees that have sprouted over the centuries envelop the buildings, straddling crumbled roofs, snaking through windows and doors, reclaiming the architecture for the jungle.
It is a landscape of decaying grandeur that exemplifies beauty in ruins, and I idly wonder if I should bring my sketchbook back to sit in peace with the place, to revel in its aged elegance, to listen to the rustling of leaves, to - "Hey Effie, check it out," Patty says from the rocks above, stretching out into a Superman-like pose. "Does this look like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?"
And we're back.
Patty would be quick to point out that my level of stupidity has so far outpaced hers on this trip ("Hey Patty, Patty: get a picture of me with this temple. Can I import these tiles to the US?") But our level of absurdity has grown in Cambodia, mostly due to the severely depressing places we've visited.
There were the killing fields, of course. But they proved disarmingly manageable with their lack of dead bodies and inexistent storehouses of torture devices (taken down in 1979 when Vietnam invaded "Democratic Kampuchea" and annihilated all traces of the Khmer Rouge.)
Not so Tuel Sleung prison in Phnom Penh, which we visited a few days prior. Tuel Sleung, also known as S-21 or, more generally, the genocide museum, is a school that was turned into a torture prison for Cambodians during Pol Pot's Marxist campaign of terror.
There, rusted beds and shackles and shovels and blood stains on the walls stand as testament to the darkest expressions of human behaviour. Black-and-white pictures of how victims died hang in each room (the Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, kept extensively detailed records), and the last few exhibition halls show countless faces of victims - some stone-faced, some fearful, some smiling - which really breaks your heart.
As we walk through each room, there is palpable anger and fear in the air, which is an unsettling feeling compounded by legless mendicants begging at the front gate of the prison, giggling women who pass their time in front of unmarked graves in the courtyard, and a large sign visible above the barbed wire wall that reads: "After visiting Tuol Sleung Museum, Do Not Miss Your Chance to Buy Handmade Silk Products from Polio and Land Mine Victims".
Land mines, by the way, are another depressingly ubiquitous fixture of the Cambodian landscape - there is the Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap, the Land Mine Victims musicians that strike up a tune for tourists around town, and there are even T-shirts that read "Danger! Land Mines!", which are sold next to other T-shirts that read "No Money, No Honey", and "Same-Same, But Different".
All this makes for a bittersweet experience of Cambodia, where the tragic and the delightful sit side by side, biding their time along the Mekong, hawking their stories to anyone willing to stop for a moment.
Back at Angkor Wat, Raj pauses in front of a blackened building that used to be a library. "Djou know, in my country, Pol Pot using these papers to roll cigarettes?" he says of the ancient Vedic texts once housed there. Then, he snaps out of it. "What you do tonight? You wanna go dancing?" He shakes his shoulders. "Yeah, come on, let's go!"
Next week: Barely crossing the Cambodian-Vietnam border on the Mekong Express.????? Follow Effie's adventure at Around Asia.