Published in The Sunday Telegraph, 2010
Aki Ra was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. After the war, he learnt how to clear landmines, working first with the UN and then on his own. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still clearing mines and runs the Cambodia Landmine Museum just outside Siem Reap, as well as a residential school for at-risk children.
Sovann Koth was a child soldier in the Cambodian army, often going without food or water. He was told that if the Khmer Rouge caught him, they would eat him. Koth is now a tour guide and hopes to open a hotel one day.
I went to Cambodia to see the temples, but as I watched the sun rise at Angkor Wat on my last morning, it was Aki Ra, Sovann Koth and the many like them who occupied my thoughts. Yes, the temples are beautiful and awe-inspiring, but I found the descendants of those who built them over 800 years ago more so.
Like many, I suspect, my recollections of what happened in Cambodia in the Seventies and Eighties were pretty vague. And the more I read about the genocide, the civil war, the disease and destruction, the less certain I felt about going. Would its grisly past insinuate itself into its present?
Well, how could it not – though my introduction to Cambodia was gentle enough. Song Saa is a new 27-villa resort spread over two tiny islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It offers the type of barefoot luxury that is common in the Indian Ocean but which, for now at least, is unique in Cambodia. Building it has been a labour of love for its Australian owners, Melita and Rory Hunter. They have a long association with the country and were determined to provide luxury that trod lightly on the environment, was in harmony with nature and benefited the local community. The result is a special resort – barely visible from the sea – with great food (the chef used to work on North Island in the Seychelles where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent their honeymoon), fabulous villas designed by Melita, a beautiful beach, a holistic spa and unfailingly charming staff.
If all you want to do is kick back in some style and comfort, this is the place to do it. But if you want to get more involved with the local community, meet the villagers, go out with the fishermen or see how one of the resort’s local agricultural schemes is working, you can do that too.
During our stay, Song Saa arranged for two monks to come and give us a blessing. In Cambodia, you’re never very far from a monk. Though the Khmer Rouge reduced their number to just a few hundred, there are around 60,000 today and most villages support a small monastery. After a great deal of chanting, one of the monks tied a piece of scarlet yarn around my wrist for luck.
Inauspiciously, it fell off the following day, but perhaps it was just the heat as by then I had swapped the cool breezes of Song Saa for the sweltering temperatures of Siem Reap. It was 7.30am when Sovann Koth picked me up from La Résidence d’Angkor, one of the city’s loveliest hotels, and already the day was on the uncomfortable side of warm. By the time we finished our first temple, Angkor Thom, I felt queasy. After two more temples, I’d had enough. We found a lump of masonry in the shade and sat down.
I asked Koth why he had taken a photograph of the priest blessing a party of Japanese. Surely it was sacrilegious? Koth laughed. “He was a fake! The priests who offer blessings for money in the temples are all fake. I wanted him to know that I had seen him.”
We talked about the ancients; about the difference between worldly and divine apsaras, and the many carvings and bas-reliefs. Then Koth told me about his time in the army and about his six children, three of whom he and his wife had adopted. They hoped to adopt more, he added.
Orphans are an emotive subject in Cambodia. Orphanages proliferate, though 75 per cent of their occupants are children who have been abandoned rather than orphaned. Some of the orphanages are set up purely to make money, while others encourage unhelpful hug-an-orphan tourism. I wondered about the children who sell postcards at the temple gates. “They go to school for half a day and come to the temples for the other half. If you buy, you encourage their parents to send them, but if you don’t buy you reduce the family’s income.” Koth sighed. There’s no easy solution to many of Cambodia’s troubles, it seems.
Next up, beautiful Ta Prohm, a jungle temple held together by vast, pale tree roots that twist through its crumbling walls and towers. Koth pointed to a spot where tourists were taking it in turns to be photographed. “This is where Angelina comes out of the temple in Tomb Raider,” he said, adding that he liked Jolie – whose land purchases and adoption of a Cambodian boy have aroused much criticism – a lot.
Later that day, I went to meet a fashion designer called Eric Raisina. In his tiny workshops, Raisina has spent the past few years teaching his 30 staff to dye, weave, cut patterns and make up garments – skills, like so many others, that have been practically lost in the past 30 years. Raisina’s designs sell mainly to expats and visitors; local girls prefer the sexy, kooky styles affected by South Korean pop singers.
My guide the following day worried about these fashions in the way that fathers of girls do the world over. He liked traditional things, he said, like the singer Sinsi Samuth. “He was Cambodia’s Elvis Presley. But he was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975…” It’s salutary how many conversations in Cambodia end the same way.
We were driving out of Siem Reap, having watched the sun rise at Angkor Wat (which was pretty crowded despite the early hour), to visit Aki Ra’s landmine museum. In a collection of small, stifling rooms we inspected mines, bombs and other explosives, all dug up by Aki Ra.
There are still around a million live landmines in Cambodia, and though injuries caused by them are significantly reduced, there were still 211 such accidents last year. We watched a film about Aki Ra’s heroic endeavours and I left with a lump in my throat and two bars of $10 landmine-shaped soap – “a soap to wash landmines away”.
As I left Siem Reap that night, I thought about all the people I had met. The waitress determined to be “a manager”; the driver learning German; the receptionist who was studying marketing; Sovann Koth and his plans to to open a hotel.The horrors of the past have not been forgotten and there is still much about the country that needs fixing. But the positivity of the people I met was humbling and it’s this that I will remember long after I’ve forgotten which king built which temple.
- 2014 update: get further information on Song Saa at www.songsaa.com