Sunday, November 11, 2007

War tourism in Cambodia

The guy next to me in the office penned the following 'war tourism' article that appeared in today's Times Online.

Cambodia's genocide museum
The Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a shrine to suffering under the Khmer Rouge - by Nick Ray, The Times (UK)

Tuol Sleng, or S-21 Prison, in Phnom Penh is an open wound for many Cambodians. My wife, Kulikar, shivers at its mention. Her uncle, Ang Choubee, was incarcerated there, tortured and executed. Kulikar flipped through Choubee’s folder, scanning the record of his arrest and execution, and broke down in tears. All that remained of her uncle was the mangled frame of his spectacles, a telling symbol of the communist regime in the Seventies that targeted intellectuals. Nothing prepares you for an encounter with Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the original Khmer Rouge security prison: the rusty manacles spattered with the stains of suffering; the graphic photos of the last victims bludgeoned to death. This is a walk on the dark side of humanity. Wandering through room after room of black-and-white photographs of the anonymous victims of a revolution, some faces are defiant, some terrified, while others are bemused. All look imploringly at their audience; they seem silently to utter the same question: why?

Haunting images implant themselves in the mind. A young woman, Chan Kim Srung, holds her newborn baby. They were “smashed” soon after May 14, 1978. A popular Khmer Rouge slogan was to “pull the roots when cutting the weeds”. It’s hard to imagine this place, which was built as a high school, as a playground. There are a few clues in the courtyard, including some climbing bars, but our guide, Chamreoun, soon shatters any illusions of normality. “Here is where they tied the prisoners upside down and dumped their heads in jars of water,” he tells us. One of the rooms is lined with primitive paintings depicting the brutal forms of punishment meted out for disobeying the rules. As many as 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of this prison and were later executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Driving out towards the killing fields, it is almost impossible to make sense of the violence unleashed in this indolent land, to square the heavenly vision of rural Cambodia today with the hell of the past. Prisoners arrived at Choeung Ek under the cover of darkness and were executed with hoes and spades to save precious bullets. Many of the mass graves remain undisturbed, fragments of bone poking through the baked earth. Clothing fragments are mixed into the soil as if the ground opened up and swallowed the living. The remains of 8,985 bodies that were exhumed are on display in a memorial stupa. We burn incense to remember them.

The killing fields of Choeung Ek were one of hundreds of mass grave sites scattered throughout the country. In Battambang province in the west of the country there were widespread killings. The holy mountain of Phnom Sampeau is littered with shrines and stupas. This brutal civil war rumbled on until 1998. After 30 years of turmoil, if any country has a shot at making a success of its history, drawing in visitors to teach them vital lessons about its terrible past, surely it is Cambodia. But it’s not just “war tourism” that is bringing people to the country. Angkor has a spectacular collection of temples, the south coast conceals tropical beaches and the forests of northern Cambodia are home to rare wildlife and dramatic waterfalls. However, more than its culture and nature, the Cambodian people are the national treasure. The Khmers may have been to hell and back, but somehow they returned with a smile. As we cruise down Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh’s lively riverside boulevard, in the back of a tuk-tuk, we pass designer restaurants on every corner, bars packed with bon viveurs and the beautiful people parading the latest selection of designer mobile phones. Blending in are cyclos that double as family saloons carrying up to six people, an elephant sauntering along the promenade on the hunt for bananas, and pigs and chickens dangling off motorbikes on their way to market. Old Asia meets new Asia and it makes for a dizzying ride. The past has not been buried, it has been disinterred and dragged up for all to share, lest the world forget. But the new Cambodia is looking forward to a brighter future with open arms. Link: Times Online.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Here's a report from today's newswires on a visit to Cambodia by Jeff Kingston:

The milking of Cambodian treasures and heritage by Vietnamese, Thai and foreigners

Cambodia's jungle treasure still stuns the senses
Special to The Japan Times

Certainly, locals are sharing very little in the tourist income, as foreign investors are creaming off most of the profits. The lucrative ticket concession is held by a Vietnamese company, the soon to be opened Angkor National Museum is controversially owned by a Thai company, and international investors prevail in the booming hotel and services sector ... In exchange, Cambodians are getting low-paying jobs and are mostly on the outside looking in on the milking of this cash cow.
These days any number of people will delight in ruefully declaring how such and such a place has been ruined — overrun by tourists and commercialism — and, as if to rub salt into the wound, they'll tell you that if you'd only visited it when they first did, you too could have savored Paradise.

These killjoys may be right in some instances, but they're dead wrong when it comes to Angkor, the stunning and magical "city" of over 200 temples built between the ninth and 13th centuries around what is now the modern Cambodian town of Siem Reap.

I first visited in 1996, and then again in 2000, and indeed the inroads of mass tourism were already evident, but muted. In 1996 there were about 55,000 arrivals, and in 2000 some 194,000. It was a tranquil place still emerging from the ravages of civil war.

So, having heard dire reports from recent visitors, and seeing that 2006 arrivals topped 850,000, I returned with some trepidation to probably the world's most stunning sacred site.

I am happy to report that the massive and widely dispersed Angkor temple complex retains its mystique — and that it's absorbing larger numbers of tourists without losing what makes it so appealing.

Angkor retains its allure because the temples, carvings and bas-reliefs chiseled out over the centuries are awe-inspiring and unrivaled.

Crowds? Yes, they are present, but it's still possible to find times and places to be alone and gaze upon wondrous sculptures amid jungle surroundings — with your only distraction being the cacophony of tropical birds. I viewed sunrise at Angkor Wat from the eastern steps in a "crowd" of five! And as my guide informed me about the rich iconography, showing me some of his favorite carvings of apsara (dancers) with bare breasts shiny from frequent caressing, I encountered very few people. I was told that Cambodians have traditionally brushed the breasts of the apsara for good luck, and this has caught on with foreigners. Yes, well.

As we made our way down to the stunning bas-reliefs that adorn the terraces of Angkor Wat, depicting battle scenes and tableaux featuring various kings and gods, I was virtually alone, my steps echoing in the corridors as I lingered over these marvels of artisanship.

But back to the start: The best way to get around the temples is by remork, a comfy, canopied carriage hauled by a motorcycle that quickly cools you off even as you regard with some sympathy all those cyclists peddling furiously toward heatstroke and sunburn. But if by chance a tour group should suddenly descend on your Arcadian idyll, just relax awhile and they'll soon trundle off to another temple on their checklist.

This way, the lingering tourist is rewarded in ways entirely unknown to all those furiously paced sightseers eager to pack in everything during a two-day whirlwind tour. There are, too, temples far off the beaten path and only recently opened to tourists, such as Beng Melea, where contemplative silence and solitude can be yours.

For those with an adventurous spirit, the Angkor region has much to discover. But when you need a break you can wander over to the local food stalls, pull up a bench, crack a cold beer and ruminate over some freshly chopped boiled pig tongue for a princely sum equivalent to about $1.

These days Siem Reap boasts many accommodation options, ranging from backpacker guesthouses to five-star resorts. Queen among the latter is the Amansara, a boutique hotel situated on the grounds of what used to be Prince Sihanouk's state guesthouse. The renovation was extensive and the facility now boasts two large pools, attractive grounds and beautifully appointed, spacious rooms — some with their own plunge pools. The lap of luxury doesn't get much more sybaritic than this, and it's not hard to appreciate just how superb Khmer cuisine can be. This is gourmet grazing served in an elegant setting by friendly, professional staff.

But if you are feeling templed-out (the guides arrange well-paced tours designed to avoid overdoing it), there are other temptations and opportunities for guilt-alleviation should the need arise.

Toby Anderson, the general manager at Amansara, is proud that his resort beat out competitors from around the world to win the travel industry's coveted Virtuoso Award for Best Community Service Program — a testimony to his efforts to support local nongovernmental organizations.

The hotel's Green Trotter program is designed to link wealthy guests with needy NGOs via onsite visits. Guests receive a brochure that provides contact info and descriptions of eight NGOs that Toby knows and supports, and the hotel arranges appointments. He explains that there are many other worthy organizations in Cambodia's growing civil society, but he has selected those operations that also have the capacity to handle visitors; most of them run on shoestring budgets so they can't afford to pull staff away from saving lives to explain their programs to curious tourists.

Anderson estimates that some 40 percent of guests make site visits, and he strongly encourages them to make significant cash donations — not promises — to support these initiatives. These range from rescuing street children from sex-tourism, and educating and housing orphans, to environmental preservation programs and reviving the nearly lost art of traditional silk weaving.

In fact, one of the targeted NGOs was recently blessed by a sudden, and much appreciated, $20,000 wire transfer from an Amansara guest — exactly the type of outcome the program aims for.

On my own visit to the Sangkheum Center for orphans, I was struck by the dedication of the volunteers, mostly former backpackers, and the enthusiasm of the students; they routinely arrive 20 minutes early for classes, which are in addition to public-school instruction. The orphans live in attractive bungalows far removed from any Dickensian images, and the facility produces silk and ironware products that help offset costs. In addition to the 48 resident orphans, the facility caters to some 150 local neighborhood kids, offering classes in English and computers.

Siem Reap is a town that is developing rapidly, and the road in from the airport is lined with glitzy new hotels. Given the stunning features of Angkor, more might have been hoped for from the architects, but obviously commerce has trumped heritage. Anderson, however, is hopeful that the pendulum is swinging inevitably toward preservation — precisely because it makes most commercial sense.

The Cambodian government is aware that Angkor is their golden goose, and it knows that preservation is the best way to sustain this revenue stream. The strong UNESCO presence is another encouraging sign, providing advice, technical assistance and funding.

However, from a tourist point of view, the new toilet facilities located near some of the temples are a welcome convenience and help limit littering.

It is also miraculous how much more peaceful it is now that the authorities have somehow managed to rein in the trinket-selling children. On past visits this was a perpetual hassle impossible to shake off, and it certainly detracted from the contemplative experience. Now, those youthful hawkers remain at the entrances and exits and ply their sales trade without overly bothering visitors.

But then, departing from the swish new airport, I reflected on all the changes swirling through this once sleepy backwater where construction sites now abound. Certainly, locals are sharing very little in the tourist income, as foreign investors are creaming off most of the profits. The lucrative ticket concession is held by a Vietnamese company, the soon to be opened Angkor National Museum is controversially owned by a Thai company, and international investors prevail in the booming hotel and services sector.

In exchange, Cambodians are getting low-paying jobs and are mostly on the outside looking in on the milking of this cash cow. Managers say they would like to promote Cambodians into managerial roles, but they complain they have not had much success with the limited talent pool.

It's worth remembering that civil war raged here until 1993, and so this war-traumatized nation is still recovering and it will take some time for educational investments to pay off.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.