Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's a Holiday in Cambodia...

This festive season I thought that I’d leave the somewhat dispiriting anti-Santa vibe being promulgated around Indonesia and go on an ASEAN voyage of discovery. My comparative study tour to Cambodia went without a hitch, although it wasn't at the taxpayers’ expense, as such jaunts so often are here (when politicians undertake them at least).

Shame that, but no matter because the Rp.1,000,000 fiscal exit tax has now been abolished (as of January 1st) which, along with the continued expansion of regional carriers, particularly the ever ambitious AirAsia, should open the region up to Indonesian travellers like never before. I wonder what they'll make of cities such as Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh in comparison with their own urban centres? 

Certainly Phnom Penh was quite delightful and I'm sure that at least two or three of my six and a half regular readers must have been there before. The city makes for a pleasant change from Jakarta's demographic black hole that's for sure. However Phnom Penh and the country of Cambodia beyond has a dark recent history, one in which demographics also played their part (25% of the population were offed, that's two million people).

I thought that I would get the dark side out the way first and check out the Khmer Rouge's genocidal Killing Fields. Perhaps in retrospect though, this was a rather un-life affirming way of spending a jolly Christmas Boxing Day (December 26th). “Ho Ho Ho, happy Christmas Mister Cambodian 'tuk-tuk' driver, and how are you this fine day Sir?”
“Genocide Mister? You waan see genocide?”
“Erm...will there be turkey?”

I soon found myself checking out the many skulls on display at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (a memorial and museum), which lies some 15km from town. Most disturbing of all was the tree behind the memorial, upon which thousands upon thousands had their brains smashed out (why waste bullets, ay?). The victims included kids who were swung by their feet headfirst into the trunk. Nice.

On a neighbouring tree hung a sign written in stuttering English which said, "Magic tree: the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed." Words fail me. During periods of wet weather in this now peacefully bucolic part of the world, teeth and fragments of bone still find their way to the surface of the mud from the now exhumed mass graves below. Appalling as such scenes are, events like this and the Nazi Holocaust still manage to exert a ghastly fascination in the face of humanity pushed to its extremes.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign was almost certainly, despite some pretty stiff competition, the world's worst stab at communism to date. These guys promulgated an ideology so pure that even redemption was ruled out and the slate had to be wiped completely clean in order for a fresh start. Religion may well be an opiate but at least you get to reach paradise after a lifetime of obedience. By the Khmer Rouge's account, you have to die in order to realise a paradise in which you will play no part.

Mind you, at exactly the same time as all this was going on, Indonesia was, percentage wise at least, offing similar numbers of East Timorese, and certainly not in the name of communism. I think it's fair to say that Marx's critique of capitalism didn't include a discussion of how not enough kids were having their brains smashed out against trees. Where Marx differed from those other turn-of-the-century arch atheist provocateurs, Freud and Nietzsche, however was that he ultimately believed that humans were fundamentally rational creatures, and could therefore achieve a peaceful and egalitarian brotherhood of man on Earth. Boy did the Khmer Rouge prove him wrong on that score.

Cambodia is now a country reborn however and a fantastic place for a holiday. Tourism and the economy are booming and the capital is a fun place to spend a few days, checking out the amazing temples and enjoying the riverside bars and restaurants. In fact, the sunny, easy going and historically rich Phnom Penh vibe is far closer to Yogyakarta than Jakarta.

I also followed the well worn tourist trek up to Siem Reap in order to check out the breathtaking Angkor Wat complex. Like Java's iconic Borobudur, the temples here sit in a beautiful area of countryside, however the sheer scale of the complex itself is something else entirely. That people managed to build things such as the pyramids and the temples of Angkor without forklifts, pneumatic drills, huge trucks and hard hatted workmen with their bum cracks showing over the top of their jeans drinking tea out of flasks, always seems completely implausible to me. The temples can be cycled around in a couple of days via lovely, shaded, leafy lanes and well deserve their so called “Eighth Wonder of the World” status.

And so the skies continue to open up over the ASEAN region, the fiscal tax is gone and there's never been a better time for Indonesians to check out their near neighbours. Will this adversely affect domestic tourism though? Your move RI.