Thailand is diverse, yes, and distinctly Thai all over – green curry and lemongrass, laid-back beach boys and lady boys laying back. It’s a sophisticated up-and-comer with a cool middle-class that loves skinny-mocha-latte-frappuccinos and travelling the world. Bangkok is ablaze with passion, neon, creativity, vice and above all, vibe. Laos too, has a distinct flavour. Its natural beauty is breathtaking; the people are genuine and extravagantly generous with their smiles. Their history of invasions and secret wars is harsh and life is hard – but simple – and in one way or another, almost entirely dependent on the mighty, glorious Mekong River that holds the country up from Northwest to Southeast like an ever flowing spine.
But what do we capture when we need to wrap everything we experienced in Cambodia into 90 seconds of digital visuals for our latest project for Stray Asia?
Let’s take its history: Reaching way back, we have the most powerful and robust relic of all of ancient South East Asia – Angkor Wat. Built around 900 years ago, it’s staunch, sculpted stone walls and thrillingly intricate spires tower over the jungle and dominate all constructions in SE Asia bar the most recent of skyscrapers. It’s the jewel of a massive 1000sqkm temple and ancient city complex, atmospherically only partially reclaimed from the jungle into which it was lost by 1300AD, way before Angelina Jolie clambered seductively around Wat Tha Phrom in the perfect set for Tomb Raider. Angkor Wat is even the centrepiece for the nation’s flag and pride, and many visitors to the country come to see this impressive place, and almost nothing else.
Those that do stick around to explore Cambodia a little further often find themselves entering the dark domain of one of the most destructive and depraved eras in human history. Rural born Saloth Sar, who later adopted the name ‘Pol Pot’ (short for ‘Political Potential’) led the nation to catastrophe in the 1970’s in his attempt to re-boot society. He envisioned a simpler lifestyle of agrarian self-sufficiency – a brand of communism that would see society return to the iron-age.
When his party, the Khmer Rouge, came to power in 1975 he declared it “year zero”. It seems he attempted to “fix” the issues he perceived by switching society off and switching it on again – only “switching it off” meant exterminating anyone who stood for society’s progression or the betterment of themselves and their lifestyles. Doctors, teachers, engineers and academics were first – rounded up, tortured, worked to the bone and often killed – most of the time along with their families. With the utter breakdown of society that followed, millions more starved. You can go see the evidence today in a Phnom Penh middle school transformed into hell, where innocent people were imprisoned and tortured, and many died. It’s now a gory museum, Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21.
Then there’s “the killing fields”. The remnants of a human slaughter factory turned into a memorial site and museum is sadly only one of dozens of similar (but as yet closed to public) sites in the country. In the most graphic but poignant of ways you can pay your respects before a towering stupa filled with the skulls and bones of over 3000 victims of Pol Pot’s regime, the evidence of their violent deaths brutally apparent in the holes, slashes and fractures of their remains. The killing fields are gut wrenchingly confrontational, yet an incredibly important experience to appreciate Cambodia as a whole. Go there, stare the darkest aspect of human nature in the eye sockets and be thankful for the life you’ve led. Reflect on what you can do to make sure humankind doesn’t try to dissolve itself again.
Pol Pot didn’t quite see his dream realised. Once the world understood what was happening, the Vietnamese army rolled in to salvage what it could of Cambodia. What was left of the country (only about ½ the population by that stage) put its strongest, bravest foot forward to start the long, slow battle towards a better life. And they’ve come a long way. Whilst this part of Cambodian history cannot be ignored, neither can the backdrop to this tragedy – the pure physical beauty of the country. Lush, green rice fields and one of planet earth’s most unique, reversible river-systems, the Tonle Sap, which runs inland in the dry season and back out to sea in the wet, like an enormous lung, breathing in and out with the rhythm of the tropical seasons.
We are welcomed by dozens of laughing, curious kids at our homestay near Battambang, who can’t wait to show us around the neighbourhood, play catch in the rice paddies and leap headfirst into haystacks to see who can bounce off furthest. Whilst the owners of our stilt hut for the night share a communal bucket shower with adventurous (maybe just sweaty) members of our group, others cook mouth-watering dinner. A local group of musicians have a night off and play music so we can join in dancing with the elders. Everyone is so genuinely sweet and interested; we leave reluctantly the following morning.
Then there are the gorgeous beaches and islands off Sihanoukville in the south. A thumping seaside hedonist resort around Serendipity Beach, the further away beaches are idyllic and splashed with sumptuous colour every sunset – go there and you might just catch the best sunset you’ve ever seen in your life. Get to Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island) to swim through the shimmering green phosphorescence at its brightest under a new moon after the generators are switched off for the night, or explore the salt & pepper farms around Kampot that flavour Cambodia’s tastiest national dishes. Finally, you’ll have to be bunkered up in your hotel room with food poisoning to miss the coolness of the capital Phnom Penh. Big city lights, bustling makeshift markets, artistic community projects that rival Siem Reap’s fantastic Cambodian youth circus (a MUST visit!), amazing food and world-class street art grapple for your attention.
So how do you wrap all that up in 90 seconds without being all doom and gloom, without ignoring the ghastliness or not taking things seriously? How do you capture the darkness and the light? What is Cambodia’s flavour?
The common thread to these stories was standing right by us the whole time. It was plainly evident in the curiosity and welcome on the faces of the people of Cambodia. Energy and sass of the youth and wisdom and wrinkles beyond words in those old enough to remember. And in every face blinking back at us, whether in smile or in furrow, was hope moving forward. Something we recognise easily, and probably the best thing in all our faces.