Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sources of inspiration: Cambodia // Lush and lovely // With brutal history and a brand new future // top 5 things to see and reasons to visit this beautiful country 

As you all know I love to travel and get a taste of new cultures. I have seen some amazing places, met some amazing people and every time I pack my back I have no idea what is to come. I travel without expectations. Some people thinks that is impossible but trust me, with my background you don’t dare to expect much, it is something I mastered without knowing but it is wonderful to start a new experience without any expectations attached to it. So I didn’t know what to think of Cambodia, I only knew I was very much intrigued by this war torn country. I love traveling through Asia and Cambodia became a destination I had been wondering about for a while.  

Every year I take a break in December and January. I pack my bags and go somewhere warm to escape from the holiday mayhem. After a few very busy months, renovating the new studio, starting productions, and well, running my business, I couldn’t wait to take off and explore Cambodia. Via Bangkok I traveled to the Cambodian border where my experience exploring this amazing country began. 

Scarred generations 
Cambodia has been a Buddhist country and temples are scattered throughout the country but it is facing so many challenges, the country has had a taste of freedom for just 16 years now. And I will type down some of my worries and a little history in a nutshell here. After the Vietnam war exceeded Cambodian borders the Khmer Rouge Army tried to keep out Vietnamese communists, their fights spread out throughout the country and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge soldiers seized the opportunity to take over the capital of Phnom Penh and ordered all civilians to leave and work as farmers. Leader of the army Pol Pot wanted to make a secular state, free the country from religion, his solution: killing all Buddhist monks. All educated people and intellectuals could be a possible treat for his ideology so any hint of that and they would get killed. The people of Cambodia should work their lands and free themselves from capitalism. They were forced to work on rice fields, pieces of land burned down to grow crops, crops to trade for supplying the army. it is such a sad story. Supported by China, the Khmer Rouge army kept on fighting up until the UN interfered in 1993. What happened in the early nineties, well, nothing constructive really, there were elections and the main pawns of Cambodians bloody history are housing the government up until this day. My guide called them ‘flexible.’ That sure is one hell of a positive way of looking at it. When you think about it Cambodia nowadays is still controlled by those with blood on their hands. But a new generation is standing up now, informed by media, they can obtain information, read, think and discuss. They educate themselves.  

My guide is one of those, from my generation. He grew up with a ‘missing’ dad, his older brother was killed by the army and he spend his childhood in a Buddhist monastery. He became a father a day after we visit Angkor Wat with him. He would talk about his past with defeat and repressed anger. He know damn well what is happening. This March Cambodia will have new elections, the prime minister, former head of army, has stated he won’t be going anywhere. Meanwhile Cambodia is paying back their bills to China, the war has left them in great dead for supplying their army with weapons and munitions, so China is building airports, factories, Phnom Penh is turning into an economic anonymous city with a skyline all thanks to foreign investors. What will happen to this country after the elections? What will happen when Cambodians realize they have paid enough, settled the bill? What will happen when China owns all this land and Cambodians want back their country? They are still trying to keep up their democratic appearance. Of course things are way more complicated that how I see them, how I type them down. I hold my breath for what is yet to come. Hope my guides daughter will grow up in piece and prosperity.

1 // Angkor Wat 
Cambodia is very proud of it’s Khmer history. Angkor is one of the world’s most famous archeological places and protected by Unesco, you have probably heard about it, seen photo’s. Maybe you remember the jungle temple from Tomb Raider? From the city of Siem Reap it is a quick drive to the most visited place in Cambodia. The site extends over 400 square kilometers where you can see old remains of Cambodians civilization; the Khmer Empire. You can easily spend three days driving around the old temples, (there are over a thousand), reservoirs and old Khmer architecture but if you only spend one day, do visit Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Angkor Thom and the Ta Prohm jungle temple. Rent a tuctuc and a driver to navigate the area. The temples are breathtaking, I always feel pretty insignificant watching those giant structures. The magnificence of these old creations is breathtaking. The religious sculptures, statues and craftsmanship. The interior detailing. It sure makes you think ‘how the hell did they manage to complete such an impossible task’ with such eye for detail and beauty. It is truly genius. Angkor is a wonderful place and definitely one of the high lights of my travels. A must see.  

2 // Tonlé Sap 
When I was traveling on the bus in Cambodia I loved starring out of the window and seeing the typical Cambodian houses. Built on wooden posts, their homes are protected against floods, entirely made out of wood and painted in vivid colors. So wonderful. Cambodia can be pretty wet and people are used to live with and on the water. The Tonlé Sap lake is the biggest body of water in the country and stretches out from Siep Reap all the way to Phnom Penh were you can travel further over the Mekong River. I love traveling over water. I am a little bit of a water rat but I won’t advise you to swim in Tonlé Sap! Hell no! They have some crocodiles up there. Yikes!But I do try to travel over water if I have the chance. Just rent a boat and explore the lake for a day. You can see how people live on the water. Entire villages, schools, markets, they are all floating and it is wonderful to see how Cambodians live on their colorful boats, doing laundry, kids playing, just a glance of their every day life. 

3 // Phnom Penh 
The Capital of Phnom Penh is a rapidly growing melting pot and you can hardly spot any authentic Cambodian architecture. Next to the National Museum and the Palace there is not a whole lot of typical Phnom Penh left in the city center. But it is very likely you will visit this city to see some historical places. Not far from the city center you can visit the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. A former school that was used by the Khmer Rouge army who turned it into the notorious S-21 prison where over more than 20.000 people were executed and approximately 17.000 people were imprisoned. Inside of the old class rooms on the ground floor you can find thousands of photographs of the people that were taken to this prison. The rows of photo’s are endless as are the rows of cell blocks on the second and third story. I wondered around the third story when I got all weezy and light headed. It is not a place you enter that lifts your spirit obviously. It will stay with you for a little while. 

4 // Taste of Cambodia
Let’s talk about one of my favorite things in the world: Food. The Cambodian cuisine is absolutely amazing. The country is rich, fresh vegetables, fruit, spices. Cardamom mountains and rice fields. Because of it’s Buddhist background Cambodians do not eat a whole lot of meat and it is pretty easy to veggie your way around the country. But if you are not a vegetarian there is even more to explore. When you leave the big cities behind and travel through more remote area’s you can find some pretty interesting stuff for lunch. Marinated scorpions, spiders, frogs and tiny insects are a popular snack for the less wealthy. Stop at one of those tiny local markets and try one! And if you like cooking do visit a market to get your hands on some spices. They’re fresh and cheap. I loved the Cambodian dishes. There is so much variety in taste and ingredients and it might be good to know for European travelers: their dishes are not filled with chilly. Cambodians do not eat very spicy, they proper adding a little black pepper. I really liked my Pomelo salad with small pieces of pork and pak choi with a soy sauce dressing. Delicious! Oh and the salad with chicken lettuce and fish sauce was amazing. Do indulge in fruit: Pineapple and Mango. They are so sweet and crazy juicy. And the best thing about it all, everything is still organic. No crazy pesticides or big multinationals importing food. You eat local food in Cambodia. My rash (that was stuck on my face for the past 10 months) disappeared after a few days. While I am typing this, being back home, it is returning again. Says a lot about the food right?  
The French also left their mark in Cambodians meals today, you can find baguettes all over the country. And they are good! Cambodians are also pretty heavy coffee drinkers, you can find a proper Arabic coffee every few blocks. So don’t hesitate and try as much as you can. I loved the Cambodian cuisine. 

5 // Ghosts of the past 
Not very far from Cambodians capital there is another sinister place that is worth the visit but that will haunt you for days. Cambodia has a violent history and when you visit the country you will first and foremost enjoy the scenery, the welcoming people, the delicious food, but this is a must see when you are traveling through this country. The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek is now a memorial site open to public from 1988. When you visit this place you will follow a path which leads you to the numerous mass graves that are scattered around the plot. ‘Don’t step on bones’ a sign says. Bodies were exhumed and smashed skulls and bones are now carefully protected by the walls of the newly build stupa that holds over more than 5000 skulls. While typing this I still cannot seem to grasp what I have seen here, and what has taken place during those years the fields were a place of execution. In the small aula you can see a short video about the process of discovering the graves and the research that began after that. 

Well, with the Killing Fields I am ending this travel post. Cambodia was a wonderful place to visit even though there are some things you rather not see, don’t avoid what is part of their history. It gives you insight for a more in depth experience. Hopefully the elections in March will turn out for the better. My thoughts are with the people I have met during my trip. Hopefully Cambodia will remain ‘safe and peaceful'. Again, I feel so lucky to have been born into a country where safety is a common good.