We take an early boat south to Cambodia, reluctantly leaving Laos, the Land Of A Million Elephants And A White Parasol, as it was once named. The change in country is immediately obvious from the moment we cross the sleepy border post. It’s in the houses, which are far smaller and mostly less well-constructed than in Laos, although they most have elaborate tiled roofs, unlike in Laos, where they are mostly corrugated iron or thatch. In both countries, the wooden or bamboo houses are raised high off the ground on stilts with an external stairway. In Laos, the newer ones have concrete stilts replacing the wood, whereas in Cambodia, newer houses have just concrete stilt bases that support wooden stilts.
Women here dress in brightly patterned pyjamas, unlike in Thailand and Laos, and the people speak Khmer, a language with a distinct Sanskrit-related script and vocabulary. And the change is obvious in the vegetation. We see no lush jungle here, just mile upon mile of deforestation, perhaps too littered with landmines to farm, because there is no obvious agriculture on our route from the country’s far north. The government here has been busy selling off the national forests to every logging company that comes by bearing a clutch of dollars, and it shows.
This is a sad, troubled country, reeling from decades of brutality, famine, torture and genocide. The ghosts of the disappeared, the murdered, mingle with those who live with bruised memories, with the maimed, with the untried perpetrators, and with those who will still be murdered by residual explosives. Billboards in even the smallest village we pass mark the often misspelt Cambodia Peopels Party offices. The elected communist government that is mired in corruption and which is busy selling off the poorest people’s lands to a new, young, wealthy mafia, or to Russian oligarchs, does not bode well for these battered Khmers.
This is a country struggling for an identity, trying to emerge from the past, but failing. It is a place where the ATMs dispense only American dollars, where the road signs are in French and where international NGOs perform basic government functions from health to education. National pride and identity is rooted in its Angkor monuments; the Angkor Wat temple is depicted on everything from beer to banknotes. The Khmer empire was an important and impressive civilization that built some of the finest architecture in the region, if not the world. But the temples are in ruins, the city was abandoned more than 500 years ago and there has been precious little to be proud of here since.
We stroll around the very pleasant city of Siem Reap with its modern restaurants, chic bars and boutique hotels. Women speak in cliches from American movies produced years before they were born. “Love you long time,” they murmur at Nick as we, hand-in-hand, pass by. T-shirts with ‘No money, no honey’ hang from a market stall and are bought by young American women in tour groups, with pink cheeks and blonde hair and shiny painted lips, whose plump bodies spill richly from candy-coloured mini-dresses.
Down by the river a woman is selling scoops of fried crickets from a basket on the street. We buy a few and I eat them leg by leg, delaying the body till last. They taste good – a generic fried fat flavour with crunch.
A large sign outside the Red Cross building states that there is a severe epidemic of haemorrhagic dengue fever here and requests blood donations, particulary from those with types A and B.
The market delays us with its cheap photocopied editions of Lonely Planet guides, but we don’t buy. Instead, we get green mangoes to snack on while we look for an early dinner spot.