The first time I visited Cambodia was in 1996 on a Flag showing mission with ships of the Eastern Fleet. Cambodia had a duumvirate Government than with two Prime Ministers, two Defence Ministers, etc and one figurehead King. The Khmer Rouge was active and one of their ex-star
Obergruppenfuhrers, by the name of Hun Sen, was running the Cambodian Government, while the second PM, Prince Norudok Sihanouk was going hammer and tongs at him. All high sounding CBMs by the United Nations seemed like diplomatic piffle, because whatever judgements the Courts pronounced, the King would absolve both of them to keep the peace. But what amazes me is that Hun Sen with his Pol Pot history of genocide came through with a steady moral compass and an even keel. And he chose to cling onto both life and office with the tenacity that puts the biblical Methuselah to shame.
A lot has changed since then and Cambodia is now a developing country with the IMF prescribing hard medicine, which means that tourists like us with INR in our pockets found it pretty cheap to guzzle local draft beer at 50 cents a mug-full and savour local fair. Under these conditions, it was a Roman banquet every day of our stay. So we gladly forked out the money to the ladies, who went about the night market shopping for bargain deals.
The highlight of our tour was the ancient Hindu temples. Siem Reap is known for the Angkor temples with Angkor Wat as its jewel. The largest Hindu temple complex in the world is a massive structure surrounded on all sides by a moat, which was built in the 12th century CE. The Angkor Thom is the second most visited temple after Angkor Wat, and the Bayon Temple, with its massive carved stone heads and giant roots reclaiming the ruins, is a spectacular sight. Lord Shiva’s facial features seem to be at the forefront of most of the temple entrances. It is an image that transcends time. Bantaey Srei is another group of smaller temples and the only ones made from pink sandstone. It boasts the best, most intricate temple carvings of all. I must also tell you that the stairs of these temples are pretty steep. So when I emerged on terrafirma after climbing down the side of Mount Everest, I was navigating my way on ground as only a Master of a very large Supertanker would handle a large wooden steering wheel.
As we trundled out from these glorious ruins, the last vestiges of the evening sun made me wonder how fragile everything in our world is. And I couldn’t help thinking that all the Rishis and Munis of that time, tellers of fortunes of Kings and Emperors all around the world had perhaps never anticipated that their prognostication of the future of these mighty temples could be so far off the mark. But in the rubble of the 12th-century stones, the poetry of the past wasn’t difficult to find.
A visit to the ‘Killing Fields’ in Cambodia is a must. But before going there, please ensure that you sit down, loosen all items of clothing, take off your spectacles and remove your dentures, because what you will witness will be gruesome. In Cambodia, a genocide was carried out by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979 in which nearly three million people were put to death. Pol Pot wanted to create a form of agrarian socialism which was founded on the ideals of Stalinism and Maoism. And anybody who opposed it or spoke about it, turned up for work the next day with his head screwed on back to front. You know, I spent almost five years in my school’s chemistry lab playing with sulphuric acid and am fine. Sure, one of my arch enemy’s socks and shoes got burnt when I accidentally dropped some acid on them, but Pol Pot took it to the other extreme when he chopped off people’s hands, smashed their skulls with stones and hammers and sawed-off their legs. Pol Pot’s regime, which included one woman, tore through Cambodia like a Sukhoi 50 combat plane on excess torque, taking the minute hand of his country’s clock backwards by more than a century. Hitler’s genocide was not even a patch on this monstrosity. And woe betides anyone who dared to appear on television and poke fun at the Khmer Rouge.
When I emerged from the Killing Fields, I fatuously declared that Pol Pot was the most barbaric tyrant the world has ever seen. Running through my mind that morning was a welter of feelings, fear, sorrow, lost hope as I was unable to understand the pathology of human phenomena such as this.
We also visited the Boat Houses on the lake Tonle Sap. An entire village lives there. They have a school, temple, crocodile farm, library, church, market, et al. But like Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education” So, you find small children driving high-speed boats, selling snakes to tourists and begging for money. I also saw children tending to vegetable plants on their boathouses. Vegetables that looked nice and fresh and fat and juicy. I’ve tried my hand attending to a kitchen garden at home. But my brinjals always turn out awful and my Bhindis take the colour of a U-boat. I guessed the elders were just eating, sleeping and mating, which made me wonder if you took away the rumpy-pumpy from the equation, what would be left?
USD is the de facto currency in Cambodia. It’s accepted everywhere. The only time you’ll ever see Cambodian Riel is when it’s given to you as the small change from USD transactions. To my mind, Cambodia is in penury today as cheap Chinese imports flood their market. Corruption is also a major factor, especially in Government dealings.
But the visit to Angkor Wat nullified it all. In all my photographs you can see me holding my selfie stick like the prow of INS Vikramaditya, the snub of a Sukhoi 30 or the firing barrel of a Vijayanta tank.
Captain (IN) Anil Gonsalves, joined NDA in 1975 and passed out with the 54th course. He specialised in Anti-submarine warfare and was Fleet ASW Officer. He commanded CGS Rajshree and INS Mahish. After leaving the Navy prematurely, he joined the Offshore Division of Shipping Corporation of India and commanded a number of Platform Support Vessels and top-of-the-line Dynamic Positioning Vessels. He is now fully retired and lives in Pune.