The sign of the Sinh Office of Ho Chi Minh City spoke in 12 hours.
It mentioned a modest price of a few million Dongs. It didn't mention the type of bus or anything else about the route.
When it comes to agencies from third world countries, you either leave or stay. There is no time for indecision and to wait for honest answers is to be naive. Aware of this, we bought the tickets and thought about what the next day could book.
We left the chaotic De Tham Street around eight in the morning. Three hours later, we arrived at the border. And at the beginning of a long torment.
The area that marks the division between the Vietnam and Cambodia establishes an obvious separation in the landscape. All of a sudden, soggy rice paddies and other green fields give way to parched vastness. Two huge arches stand out from it that mark the exit from one country and the entry into the other.
The driver advises everyone to leave the bus. He points rudely to the nearest gate, a good 500 meters away.
There are 40 degrees outside, an oven that makes walking a punishment. It would come to repeat itself from the Vietnamese to Cambodian barrier, where the queue, increased by the prepotent laziness of the soldiers on duty, is longer than the previous one.
Some time later, the hitherto acceptable asphalt turns into an earthy succession of conventional holes, ancient craters caused by bombs dropped during the Vietnam War and bumps and unevenness subsumed in dense dust.
The route also starts with “esses” and jumps. That's not all.
Cambodia's Post-War Road Torture
We took 150, maybe 200 km of bumps. Some passengers' bladders are in the last. We are among the most afflicted. For luck and convenience, the grumpy driver is saturated with discomfort and decides to stop.
We are already walking over the savannah of Southeast Asia when we notice that the rest of the tour elements swoon. A signpost had passed us by unnoticed. We walked among mines.
The affliction gets worse but, since nothing had happened on the way, on the way back, we just have to identify and step on the footprints on the ground. We avoided the unexpected catastrophe but didn't get away from the driver's irritating sarcasm: “Could have been close, couldn't it? Next time, see if you can remember that you're not walking around Paris!”.
Despite the time elapsed since the atrocities because the country became popular, that Cambodian was still absolutely right.
In 2010, Kang Kek Lew became the first khmer red to be convicted of his war crimes during the Maoist Pol Pot regime. Many more were to follow, but Prime Minister Hun Sen sacrificed the convictions for political stability.
It was seen as a protection to several guerrilla leaders, now present in local and national institutions of the Cambodian government. If former criminals remain undercover in power, Cambodia remains one of the most vulnerable nations in Asia, dependent on assistance from developed nations and Chinese investment.
As we progress in the country, we notice the amount of parched fields still infested with mines and uncultivated, the predominance of basic housing overcrowded by families and their domestic animals.
Cambodian palm tree behind Cambodian palm tree (borassus flabellifer), stilt after stilt, well after sunset and five hours late, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh. We only have a short night's sleep to recover in the capital.
The Dazzling Navigation from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
The trip starts early, departing from a dock over the Tonlé Sap River that joins the Mekong there. The Tonlé Sap changes direction twice a year, reversed by the flow of the main river which the rainy season makes excessive. Futuristic but worn boats await us which, in three stages, fill with foreigners.
We set sail. At great speed, the boat leaves the riverside villages that appear along the way. And it makes the small boats of the fishermen that feed them sway.
Two-thirds of the way along, the bed widens and gives way to a shapeless immensity. From a river, the Tonlé Sap becomes a lake. Two more hours of navigation, we reached the vicinity of Siem Reap. But we are in the middle of the dry season. At this point, the banks are inaccessible to larger boats. And this retreat from the lake forces a complex transshipment.
Coming from floating branches, dozens of tourist recruiters working for guest houses they approach us in small boats. In a divisive process, they try to convince as many visitors as possible to proceed with them.
Without valid alternatives, that's what we do.
A day and a half after leaving Ho Chi Minh, we had arrived in Siem Reap. The temples of Angkor seemed closer than ever. The hour of reward was approaching.
The City Legacy by the Mighty Khmer Civilization
Built between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, when the Khmer civilization was at its height, the temples of Angkor testify, more than their grandeur, to the enormous architectural creativity of a people who dominated Southeast Asia.
The more than one hundred temples of Angkor that we had before us are the living vestiges of an administrative and religious center that housed hundreds of houses, public buildings and palaces built in wood and, therefore, disappeared. According to Khmer belief, the right to dwell in stone or brick buildings was reserved only to the gods.
Several centuries later, Cambodian and UNESCO they granted visitors from all over the world the privilege of admiring them. We were determined to make the most of the blessing.
We head opposite the complex entrance, eager to find the furtive ruins of Ta Phrom (ancestral Brahma) one of the few temples that has not been robbed of the jungle's original protection.
We found it faithful to the imagination of travelers, surrounded by tropical trees with tentacle roots that cling to the aged walls and walls.
There, the exotic singing of birds breaks the silence and reinforces an atmosphere of pure mysticism. Contemplated in this way, the abandoned temple does not do justice to the grandeur of the civilization that built it.
And yet, an informational plaque confirms that there were 12.500 people living there or serving there. Two thousand seven hundred officers, six hundred and fifteen dancers and more than 80.000 souls from the surrounding villages worked to secure supplies and other services.
It is proven that Angkor was more than an artistic or religious place. It hosted impressive cities that also served the Khmer people.
We return to Angkor Thom stronghold in search of Bayon.
Like Ta Prohm, this building also groups narrow corridors and dizzying flights of stairs. In it stands out the collection of fifty towers decorated with two hundred mysterious smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion.
And King Jayavarman VII's inspiration for building the city.
The Religious and Khmer Magnitude of Angkor Wat
We moved to Angkor Wat, the most imposing of all Angkor structures, considered the throne of the Khmer Empire and the largest religious building in the world.
Many of Angkor Wat's features are unique to the temple ensemble. One is its West orientation.
The West is, in the universe khmer, the direction of death. This finding led several scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat had been erected as a tomb.
The idea was further leveraged by the fact that many of its bas-reliefs were created in such a way as to be interpreted in the opposite direction of the movement of the hands of a clock, an option with a history of Hindu funerary rituals.
On the other hand, the Hindu god Vishnu has always been associated with the West. Accordingly, the most widely accepted explanation today is that Angkor Wat was initially a temple, later the mausoleum of Suryavarman II, the sixteenth king of the Khmer empire.
Cross the bridge over the outer moat. We pass into a darkroom. As we leave, we have an unexpected and majestic view of three huge towers in the distance. And ahead, a huge avenue leads to the central temple.
We walk through it side by side with a group of Buddhist monks who, with their orange costumes, lend color to the place and who photograph themselves non-stop.
We ended up talking, despite their limited English that they have the opportunity to practice: “We are not khmer, we are Thai. We see Angkor from time to time.
It is a sacred privilege for us to be able to pray here in peace. For a long time, we ran our lives every time we tried.”
Arriving at the inner courtyard of the temple, we examine the ground-floor galleries and face the frightening staircases that lead to the upper levels, determined to gain access to the open view over the surrounding complex.
At that time, we understood the monks' speech a little better. And we confirmed that the long and painful journey from Ho chi Minh had been worth it.
Cambodia: From Fratricide to Forced Oblivion
Devastated by war and Pol Pot's bloodthirsty regime, Cambodia has been off the tourist map of the world for more than twenty years.
After the ceasefire and the relative stabilization of the political situation, the country gradually opened up to foreigners. It exposed to visitors the state it had been in: an almost total destruction of its meager transport network and most of its important infrastructure.
A population oppressed by the violence of the Khmer red and the widespread corruption of a government sold to all kinds of interests.
A territory full of unexploded mines that prevent the peasants from returning to cultivate the fields and, even today, it kills several people a day.
In 2003, the situation in Cambodia was still very fragile.
Politically, the country remains divided by past conflicts: the leaders are seen as having been pro- or anti-Vietnamese; former supporters of the barbarism perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge or opponents.
This last opposition is a real open wound in Cambodian society. After the 1998 elections, a significant part of the Khmer guerrillas left the jungle.
He surrendered to the government forces of the newly created coalition that united the two largest political forces in the country, the CPP and FUNCINPEC.
On December 25 of that year, the leader of the coalition, Hun Sen, was presented with a request for authorization from the main leaders. khmer red to surrender themselves to the government.
Hun Sen had always been an advocate of a trial of those responsible for the widespread genocide in which he had plunged the country.
However, inexplicably, the leaders khmer Reds had a VIP reception on arrival in the capital. Hun Sen came to defend the overriding need for national reconciliation and avoided punishing his former enemies, as the Cambodian population hoped would happen.
This turnaround is still a latent cause of instability today. As members of the Khmer Red guerrillas returned to their homes, many of them came to live side by side with people they had tortured or mutilated, or whom they had murdered as part of their family.
The fear that a fair trial of high ranks khmer Red flags might scare the remaining ex-guerrillas back into the jungle and rekindle the conflict has been a strong deterrent.
Even so, accustomed to suffering and being silent, Cambodians cling to the only option given to them: forgetting what was left behind.