Thanks Rob Lowe

Teaching the literal usage of literally to students is literally the most difficult thing I’ve had to do at work all year.

Literally 90% of the time people say literally they mean figuratively which is literally the opposite of literally; this is particularly endemic in American sitcoms which are, quite literally, the most pervasive source on the literal usage of the word literally for literally for whole of China.

It’s literally figuratively driving me mad.

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The Killing Fields + S-21

Anthony Rae Photography Tuol Sleng S21 - 18

I haven’t really been sure how to write about this since I visited last month. Doesn’t feel right to ‘review’ something like this. I could reel off the history of the Khmer Rouge and the statistics regarding their atrocities. But it seems a little disingenuous of me to be relaying all that information on here, as if I am some sort of authority, given the fact that I visited the infamous Killing Fields in a state of relative ignorance.

Like many people who visit Cambodia, I’d made a slap-dash effort at informing myself of the places recent tragic history before I visited. I had heard of the Killing Fields and had a rough idea what had happened during the 1970s, but I knew nothing of the torture/detainment centre ‘S-21’. I had some sense of the weight of the events before I arrived and so it seemed sensible to at least get the sparknotes down. I was literally only finishing up the last podcast I’d been recommended as I arrived on the dusty entry road to Phnom Pehn.

Growing up where and when I did, I spent a lot of time during my education studying the Second World War. Perhaps a disproportionate amount of time, in retrospect. As such, I didn’t feel ashamed of my relative ignorance; a part of that is simply a product of my formal education. I felt, very consciously, like I was observing places like S-21 and the Killing Fields through that particular ‘UK History Syllabus circa. 2005’ lens which, somehow, made it more shocking than I had anticipated.

What disturbed me a lot was the allocation of resources during the whole genocide. Great care and expense was taken to thoroughly document and photograph each victim, though ammunition was considered too valuable to be used for executions and most were murdered brutally with whatever blunt objects were available.

S-21 has rooms filled entirely with the portrait photographs of those who had been captured for torture and, eventual, execution. In the fourth of such rooms I was struck by a single portrait of a man probably a similar age to me. Instead contrast to the solemn, knowing stares that surround his small remnant he wears a ridiculous beaming smile. I remember my stomach sinking as I saw this photograph. I wonder what was going through his head.

Angkor What?!

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After a wonderful stay in Malaysia, I flew from Kuching to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A funny little town; it serves primarily as a stop-off point for people visiting the Angkor compound. At the start of the 20th century the temples were re-discovered and the village of Siem Reap gradually grew as the temples attracted increasing numbers of visitors

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I’d been warned that Siem Reap was extremely touristy (Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. More on that next time) with little to offer in and of itself other than being a convenient jumping off point for Angkor. Actually, I found it to be a very nice place to stay. It helped that the hostel was amazing (Big up to Luxury Concept Hostel; neither luxurious nor conceptual, you are, however, certainly a hostel!) In the day there are some wonderful restaurants, relaxing bars and the pub street transitions into a small but vibrant night area later on. You need a good place to relax after making your way around Angkor all day.

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I made the foolhardy decision of taking my first day in the Angkor complex by mountain bike. I’d been told it was a big place but I severely underestimated the size of the area.   And my ability to ride a mountain bike in 35 degree heat. My logic was that it’d give me more freedom to explore some of the more undisturbed temples without worrying about my driver waiting. Turns out, if you do go to more temples in this manner, by the time you get there you find yourself exhausted, stumbling around the ancient ruins like some cretinous, sweaty Khmer ghost. I managed it, sans camera due to further idiocy, but it was more of a whistle stop tour.

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The best way to do it is, without a doubt, get yourself a tuk-tuk. Preferably a driver too. It seems a little less…intrepid. It’s also true that you’re a little less flexible. But it’s totally worth the trade off, assuming you’re visiting when it’s hot.

Which is all the time.

It costs you like $8 more than just hiring the bike and you can split the cost between more people if you have a group. The guy will wait for you at the entrance/exit of each place you want to go and gives you plenty of time to look around.

The compound itself is really quite something. Strangely, the most famous temple (Angkor Wat) was actually the least impressive, in my opinion.

 

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The vista as you approach the water-enclosed compound is iconic, of course, and the towers look great through the wilderness. But the inner parts of the area are less interesting and, overall, it serves mostly as a nice introduction to the later Angkor Thom (Yorke?) and Ta Prohm.

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The Bayon temple was my favourite. Intricately designed, you find yourself getting lost incredibly easily. The architecture is almost fractal and you quickly lose your sense of place and direction. The large faces on the upper towers are still very clear and visible, while the lower areas are coated in smaller carvings. At one stage every inch of every building in Angkor would have had similar carvings. An insane amount of labour. In fact, I learned that the amount of stone used to build the compound was far in excess of that required to build the pyramids and was transported a huge distance to the compound. The place would be a massive project even now, I imagine, so it’s incredible to think of the time and energy spent on creating this place at the height of the Khmer Empire so long ago.

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The temples don’t feel too ruined either. I mean, they are literally ruins. But after spending so long in China I find myself constantly assuming places are going to completely lack authenticity; reconstructions surrounded by food carts and public toilets. But the site has only the most minor of compromises allowing for tourists. A few wooden steps for the steeper temples and the occasional scaffold to hold up dangerous rooftops. But nothing to ruin the atmosphere too much. Also, as mentioned, the place is huge so it doesn’t take much to get away from the crowds if you so wish. You can easily find a temple for yourself to peruse if you’re so inclined. Just watch out for spiders.

Next stop was Phnom Penh (Pronounced…pphhhffff). More on that later.