"I feel so awful!" I was sprawled on the bathroom floor, wrapped around the base of the toilet as if it were a giant ceramic egg I had recently laid. My blubbering comment --directed at my poor mother and sounding like wailing a six year old-- was unnecessary for the following reasons:
- Firstly, I had made it at least 30 times in the last hour.
- Nobody making regular attempts to pass their colon out through their throat is feeling in the peak of health.
- There was bugger all anyone could do about it.
We had crossed the border from Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Thus far, I was unimpressed. Although my head was currently stuffed down a toilet bowl.
The day had been spent admiring the city's Royal Palace; a site filled with white and gold pavilions, topped with the towering spires or 'prangs' characteristic of Khmer architecture. With a history embedded in both Hinduism and Buddhism, Cambodia's distinctive designs are drawn from possibly the most visually beautiful religions in the world.
… OK, so toilet bowl or no, I might have been slightly impressed.
The palace is also the current home of the Cambodian King, Norodom Sihamoni. Pictures of the king at 61 show a remarkably young looking man, which our Khmer guide jokingly ascribed to his continual single status.
(At least, I think that was a joke.)
As with the UK, the monarchy fulfills a primarily ceremonial role in Cambodia. Unlike the UK, the king is an elected position, not a birth right. That said, the current king is the son of the previous king, selected by a nine-member council after the abdication of his father. Since he has no children, presumably choosing his successor will require more of a shuffle.
We'd gone on to visit the Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom, traveling there by cycle rickshaws. All I can say is the drivers pedaling could handle the heat far better than me. I greatly enjoyed the ride, but suspected I looked like a lolling overcooked salami in the 30+ degree humidity.
(If anyone might be suspecting how this trip ended badly, you're 50% right. For the record, I was wearing a hat, sunglasses and sun block and cannot help the fact I was designed for a life of ice fishing. As a side note, I was not wearing the shady Vietnamese hat I had purchased the previous week. This was due to the instructions our guide, who told me I couldn't wear it when visiting the palace. Presumably, this is linked with tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam, but it was surprising, since the hat is worn by farmers, not warriors.)
To one side of the temple, the celebrations for the Lunar New Year were underway. Unlike Vietnam, this is not the official Cambodian festival, which occurs in April to tie in with the end of the harvest. However, the Lunar New Year is popular, and the temple area was full of incense sticks, food offerings and venders selling fake money to burn for your ancestors.
In the afternoon, we visited the Killing Fields. There is nothing fun or nice about this place. The site marks the mass graves of almost 9,000 people murdered in an attempted genocide in the late 1970s.
In the shadow of the Vietnamese War, with Cambodia being bombed as the Viet Cong travelled through their borders, the Khmer Rouge came to power. Driven by an ideology of a rural society, the Khmer Rouge arrested and murdered professionals, intellectuals and foreigners down to the last baby in their family. It was a slaughter that would see 1,000,000 people killed and a further 1,000,000 dead through the disease and starvation that the Khmer Rouge policies enforced. The resulting death toll accounted for a quarter of the country's population at the time.
So … this wasn't a cheerful place.
The memorial by the site of the mass graves near Phnom Penh contains thousands of human skulls, exhumed and kept as part of the Buddhist tradition. When I first entered, I was stunned at the number on the shelves near my eye level. Then I realised the stupa extended up for level upon level above my head. Tourists are encouraged to visit the Killing Fields and our guide mentioned to us several times that we could take photographs. However, I couldn't bring myself to immortalise such a memento.
Despite the creation of a genocide tribunal, relatively few members of the Khmer Rouge have been prosecuted. If one was inclined to search for reasons, then the fact that the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is a former Khmer Rouge member might be a place to begin. In power since 1985, Hun Sen is one of the world's longest serving Prime Ministers. According to our guide, his party lost the last election but he refused to step down; a move that went unchallenged due to his control of the military.
While Cambodia's architecture is the most beautiful I have ever seen, there was a discomfort in the country that was not felt in Vietnam. In Phnom Penh, unmarked black cars dropped off school children and the restaurants we ate it were clearly only for tourists: indications of large divides in wealth. The local currency, the riel, is also not well respected and everyone from restaurants to the tuc tuc drivers in town prefers US dollars. Even the cash machines dispense USD. Our guide also told us stories of how treatment in hospitals could be withheld until it was clear how you could pay. The people we met were really lovely and the market place haggling was more relaxed than in Vietnam, but there was a tension that was hard to ignore.
Also, we all got horribly sick.
Appropriately, our problems really started to mount up in the Killing Fields, after which we proceeded to fall like nine-pins, My father took ill at the site and two others of us followed a few hours afterwards. The remaining two in our group were also not feeling their best, although the visuals (and plaintive moaning) that night were rather less than delightful. While the heat certainly hadn't helped, the most likely explanation was food poisoning. My inclination is to blame the restaurant we had eaten at the night before: not least because it was named after the ill-fated voyage of the 'Titanic'.
I managed to finally stop vomiting around the time hospitals were being seriously discussed. Wise move, body, wise move.
The next day I awoke feeling battered but better and realising (not for the first time) that my mother is a saint. The third member of our party to fall ill awoke the next morning and went downstairs to enjoy a cooked breakfast. My father and I (still green around the face) decided he should donate his body to medical research.
We left Phnom Penh that day to travel to Siem Reap, visiting Cambodia's most famous heritage site: the temple complex of Angkor Wat and later, Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider temple. An amazing visit… but one where cuisine was kept to a necessary minimum.