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Kaleidoscopes of Cambodian impressions

Ask the Russians what they know about Cambodia, and most of the interlocutors will "hang" for a long time in silent bewilderment

Then someone will remember the case of the billionaire Polonsky, with a scandal, but unsuccessfully trying to hide in this country from Russian justice. Someone more advanced in history and politics will mention the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. There will also be those who will remember one of the architectural wonders of the world - the Angkor Wat temple, promoted in videos and films about exotic travels.

Kaleidoscopes of Cambodian impressions

As for me personally, it was the desire to see and touch the stones of Angkor Wat that became the most important incentive to visit Cambodia. Moreover, getting to the heart of Angkor, the city of Siem Reap, turned out to be not so difficult and not very expensive. Thailand, chosen as a holiday destination by a considerable number of Russian tourists (especially residents of the Far East, at least until the recent collapse of the ruble), is precisely the “door” to that exotic world, almost wide open. A two-day tour from Thai Pattaya to Cambodia, depending on the chosen travel agency, cost a ridiculous 110 - 140 dollars. Moreover, due to the abundance of travel agencies in Pattaya, in which our compatriots work, there is a serious struggle for Russian tourists - with the provision of all kinds of bonuses and discounts. So the purchase of a more advanced tour to the Khmer country - for three days - cost me only $ 230.

At the same time, the quality of tourist services, the richness of the cultural program, and even accommodation, despite the seemingly "junk" prices, turned out to be quite decent. For example, I lived for three days and two nights in a small but cozy "Monica Angkor Hotel", built, like many similar buildings, in the French colonial style. There was a swimming pool, the room was provided with the necessary amenities, with access to the Internet and even a TV channel in Russian. Moreover, payment at the hotel was accepted using UnionPay cards, with which Russian tourists usually conveniently travel to China. The favorable price / quality ratio is due to the fact that Cambodia is a country for tourists even cheaper than Thailand. However, cheapness (read, general poverty of the population) has its pluses and minuses.

The latter are warned on Internet forums by those Russians who know Cambodia not as a tourist, but as an almost permanent resident. Here are just a few of the warnings:

1. "Corruption is a basic law and a daily norm of life in Cambodia."

2. "Even compared to neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, there is really no infrastructure in Cambodia."

3. "Unsanitary conditions, unsanitary conditions and once again unsanitary conditions - that's what Cambodia is."

4. "Even easily treatable diseases can quickly become life-threatening if, God forbid, Cambodian doctors intervene."

As for the first, corruption, it is said that it begins already at border checkpoints. There, under various pretexts, they try to shake off the required 20 dollars for a visa, but more. But personally, I was obviously lucky with the choice of a tour operator: it took our tourist group a minimum of time for all the formalities. And all the payment was carried out by the guide centrally, from the money that was taken from us for the whole tour in Pattaya. Nevertheless, the thesis about the "norm of life" for three days was confirmed by the stories of Russian guides and observations of the daily life of Cambodians. For example, representatives of the police in Angkor Wat and other temples as a souvenir for sale offered tourists ... their uniforms, from cap to pants.

“Here, as a rule, they do not steal, but they try to make money on everything, without exception. Even children will offer you the services of a guide and a porter of small things, ”Inal, a young man from Russian North Ossetia, who has lived in Cambodia for several years, enlightened us. He also spoke in detail about the peculiarities of local politics, economics, ethnography and sociology.

So, with regard to corruption and everything connected with it. Unlike the time of the Khmer Rouge rule with their cruelty, hunger, hard labor in the communes and regulation of everything and everyone, today's Cambodia is almost a kingdom of freedom. Earn as much as you can, live what you want. I mean, survive. After all, society is divided into two strata that almost do not intersect in everyday life: the people and those in power or in power (even the smallest, like a policeman or village headman). The people, in contrast even to the time of the previous monarchy (1953 - 1975), which was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge, does not pay taxes at all, but does not receive any social assistance either. At the same time, begging of an entire country from the international community, its dependence on foreign economic and humanitarian aid is commonplace. They say, we suffered from the bloody regime of Pol Pot, now help us all - the UN, superpowers, charities. The local elite lives on due to "cutting" of this aid and widespread corruption. Even the police pay a purely symbolic salary: if you want to live better, do your best. So they strive to sell capi and uniform pants to tourists in Angkor ...

The economy, first of all, the mining and textile industries, is developing, but in a specific way - the country, its resources, even land (which, it seems, cannot be sold to foreigners) is shamelessly sold off. Chinese capital is especially profitable. However, its economic expansion is just as active in Thailand and Laos ...

As for the second accusation against Cambodia - the lack of transport infrastructure, then, indeed, only memories of the border Poipet and 150-kilometer Road 6 from it to Siem Reap, with its potholes, chills motorway enthusiasts. And the contemplation of what kind of wreckage and in what quantity Cambodians ride them (the speech circulation of "a bunch of people" is just right here) is not for the faint of heart.

Unsanitary conditions are, alas, also a familiar part of the life of ordinary Cambodians, but, fortunately, only outside the habitat of tourists. However, the climate itself is very conducive to it - hot and humid. But it seems that the inhabitants there are not particularly concerned about cleanliness. Particularly shocking was the traditional excursion to the Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap Lake. The fact that houses, schools, even a Christian meetinghouse are placed on rafts is a fascinating exotic. As well as the fact that the kids swim between all these buildings in ordinary metal basins. But the fact that latrines in these floating buildings "work" right under themselves, into the water, to put it mildly, makes you shiver. After all, people living on it use this water for hygiene, cooking and drinking ... Yes, thank God, hotels for foreign tourists in Cambodia are like a different Universe, almost not in contact with local life.

As for the meetings with Cambodian doctors, fate had mercy on them, so I cannot testify on the fourth point of warnings from the forum.


Yes, in this country, almost everything is exotic, and for this it is worth visiting Cambodia. So we stopped on the side of the same road No. 6. On both sides of it there was a swampy area overgrown with high dense grass. The ramshackle hut of either a fisherman or a shepherd, and behind it steep-horned buffaloes slowly graze. Idyllic picture ...

Driving along the highway along the villages and townships, you can get an idea of ​​local housebuilding traditions. They are specific. Houses (for the most part - almost huts) of an indispensable two-story, pile-and-pillar structure. Downstairs there is an open, without walls, room for livestock or, depending on income, for mechanical vehicles. This lower floor is also used for communication with family and friends, for relaxation. The construction of a dwelling on stilts is also convenient in case of floods, especially in the valley of the main river - the Mekong and Tonle Sap Lake. And at the top of the hut there are living and sleeping apartments. However, against the background of poor houses, there are sturdy, almost fashionable by Cambodian standards, houses of wealthy people and, apparently, somehow involved in the local government and "sawing".

The main population of the country is youth and children. There are many of them, and as everywhere they are kept in cheerful, noisy flocks. In the quarter of a century that have passed since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime, who starved, slave labor and executions killed about a third of the population of their own country (2,5 million out of the then seven), the demographic situation was not simply corrected. Today, Cambodia is home to up to 15 million people. And, for all the poverty, there is no hunger in the country. Nature allows for up to three harvests of rice a year: the Mekong River and Lake Tonle Sap flood vast territories during the summer monsoons, bringing fertile silt there. Fruits and vegetables are abundant. And there are a lot of fish here. It is not only caught with nets, hands and everything that is possible, but also ... dug out of the silt, after the water leaves. And in general, it seems that there is no such living creature that Cambodians would not eat. Rats, snakes, worms, larvae of all kinds of insects ...

However, in the restaurants of Siem Reap, they also serve European food, and the numerous tourists from India - even according to the vegetarian menu.

Before introducing tourists to antiquity, according to the unshakable tradition of the countries of Indochina, they are immersed in shopping. Jewelry stores full of local silverware and stones that claim to be precious (rubies, sapphires). A crocodile leather shop at the farm, where you can admire hundreds of these still living reptiles, motionless, like dirty green logs, lying in the sun. A shop with a variety of silk products at a silk factory owned by a Chinese business, with really ridiculous prices (labor is very cheap here). Duty free with French and other alcohol, local (amazing in taste and aroma!) Coffee and pepper. True, much of what is offered in these stylish stores can be bought even cheaper in local shops and markets, but for this you need to have a reserve of time and courage to immerse yourself in the thick of local life on your own.

To anyone, but for me, the local architecture turned out to be more interesting - mansions and villas left over from the French era, until then seen only in films. They give Siem Reap an incomparable charm. Cambodia, as you know, became independent only in 1953, but after that, not only politically, but also culturally, it was oriented towards the former metropolis.

But also the local cultural flavor, dating back to the depths of centuries, is found everywhere.

First of all, these are chapels with statues of Buddha and small altars decorated with garlands of flowers. And against their background - shaved-headed monks in orange robes. However, the dominant now in Cambodia, as in other countries of Southeast Asia, Buddhism rests on the centuries-old foundation and a mixture of religious and cultural traditions of Hinduism. And most of the temples in the vicinity of Siem Reap, starting with Angkor Wat, now used not only as objects of pilgrimage for tourists, but also as Buddhist sanctuaries, were originally built to worship Hindu deities, primarily Shiva and Vishnu. The same deep layer of local cultural heritage is shown to tourists as an element of the excursion program. So, one evening we were brought to a cozy restaurant, where charming local girls and strong guys in the dance show "Apsara" perform ancient Khmer dances, which were born in the era of worship of new Hindu gods.


Of particular interest, of course, are the architectural monuments of the era of the Cambujadesh empire, which in the Middle Ages occupied the territory of not only Cambodia, but also almost all of today's Thailand, Laos, as well as a significant part of southern Vietnam.

The fact is that the Angkor Wat temple complex is only the most famous structure outside Cambodia in a huge "constellation" of similar cultural monuments of the XNUMXth - XNUMXth centuries. In general, Angkor is a generalized name for the medieval capital, more precisely, a colossal metropolitan agglomeration, spread among the jungle on an area of ​​up to a thousand square kilometers north of Lake Tonle Sap. Moreover, according to some authoritative historians, for example, Damian Evans, who studies the phenomenon of Cambodian civilization, this "mega-capital" in the XNUMXth century was the largest human settlement in the then world. Then, during the heyday of the empire, from one and a half to two million people lived in the metropolitan agglomeration!

Moreover, it is not entirely correct to use the term “city” in this case. After all, medieval Angkor, judging by the archaeological excavations, is a concentration of dozens of large, hundreds of medium and thousands of small monumental stone structures surrounded by hundreds of thousands of huts of the common people, along with fields and vegetable gardens from which these people fed themselves and supplied the administrative and priestly elite of the empire ... The role of transport arteries in Angkor itself and beyond was played by a dense network of canals and huge reservoirs (barays), they also provided water supply.

At the same time, the center of the metropolitan agglomeration periodically moved. Almost each of the kings who bore the frequently repeated Indian names (Jayavarman, Rajendravarman, Suryavarman, Indravarman and others) moved the administrative and cult center to one or the other end of the metropolitan agglomeration, building there a new main palace-temple. At the same time, cult, intellectual, and economic activities continued in the sanctuaries, which had lost their former leadership status.

To visit and at least briefly inspect only the main temples-monuments of Angkor, you need to spend several full days. Moreover, those who like to travel on foot in Angkor should give up this commendable habit. Not only because the time costs will increase many times over, but also because the forces may simply not be enough. Indeed, many of the favored buildings, sometimes several tens of meters high, must also be climbed, moreover, along high and very steep steps (staircase angles up to 60 degrees!), Polished with the feet of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. God forbid you slip and fall from those heights - you won't collect bones!

Usually Russian tourist groups visit such temples as Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, Angor Thom complex (with a square layout, measuring three by three kilometers, with the Bayon temple of face towers in the center), Ta Keo, Ta Prohm (they were filmed in it episodes of the film "Lara Croft - Tomb Raider"), and even a couple of structures. Moreover, the majority of even strong and healthy tourists, after a full-fledged voyage along them, already feel like squeezed lemons. Therefore, a more convenient option for a thorough and unhurried acquaintance with Angkor is to stay in Siem Reap for five to seven days. If possible, the Banteay Srei Temple is worth a visit, with thousands of figures and subjects carved from pink sandstone. Unfortunately, it is located a little to the side - about 30 kilometers from Siem Reap. And I did not manage to get to know him on that trip - the excursion there was not planned, and there was not enough time for an independent voyage. All that was left was to admire the photographs from the guidebooks.

In fact, most of the buildings in Angkor are not just architectural monuments. These are many kilometers (in their total length) of "stone chronicles" - reliefs carved on the inner and outer walls and illustrating ancient Indian epic poems, first of all, "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata", as well as events of military history and even the daily life of the empire Cambujadesha.

Much has been written about the monuments of Angkor - both by professional art critics and ordinary tourists. And on the Internet - a lot of photographs of these structures, taken from all angles and in different lighting. But it is one thing to read or view what was learned and transmitted by someone on the monitor, and quite another to feel that beauty and power yourself. Only when you see these huge structures made of stone and pictures on their walls, you are convinced: this is the product of a high mind and talent, and the work of hundreds of thousands of people ...

There is a brisk trade in souvenirs in the shopping arcade at the exit from Angkor Wat. Among them, a special place is occupied by picturesque canvases of local artists, who not only captured this ancient temple of the Hindu god Vishnu, but also gave free rein to their imagination about the events that once took place there. And I could not resist, I bought a large canvas, where the temple surrounded by the jungle and washed by a canal is depicted in the rays of the setting sun. Even now, when I look at him, I seem to be returning there again.


If most of my fellow travelers on a tour to Cambodia limited themselves to visiting several monuments of Angkor, then I was drawn into the hinterland - to the national park on the Phnom Kulen plateau, more than forty kilometers northeast of Siem Reap. Fortunately, I had that extra day.

The plateau region is famous not only for its picturesque 20-meter the waterfall, the Buddhist temple Preah Ang Thom, where pilgrims go, and the heritage of Hinduism - the river "1000 Lingams", where the sacred symbols of this religion, which were brought to Cambodia by the brahmans from India 2000 years ago, are carved on the stone bottom. There are also the ruins of the first capital of the Cambujadesh empire. It was there, according to historical chronicles, in 822 AD, Jayavarman II, the ruler of the small peripheral principality of Indrapura, proclaimed the independence of the Khmers from the island state of Java (his metropolis was on the modern island of the same name) and conducted a Hindu religious ritual, declaring himself a devaraja - a god king. And then he slowly but persistently began to collect Cambodian lands into a single state.

Just a few months before my trip to Cambodia, there were reports on the Internet that Damian Evans (an archaeologist from the University of Sydney who has been researching the ancient monuments of Cambodia for many years), based on aerial photography and location, discovered the previously unknown city of Mahendraparwata in the south of the Phnom Kulen plateau. Some media outlets and authors on the Internet called this find almost the discovery of the century.

This is not entirely true. Mahendraparvata, although significantly inferior to the later metropolitan agglomeration in Angkor, still occupied a fairly extensive area, about 6 by 10 km. And in 2013 Damian Evans discovered its central part, previously hidden by the jungle. However, the ruins of several buildings and part of a stone wall on the northwestern outskirts of Mahendraparvata have long been known. They are just a few hundred meters from the Preah Ang Thom temple and very close to the waterfall, where tourists are constantly taken.

However, the scientific merits of Evans, and his courage must be given credit. The fact is that the Phnom Kulen plateau is a remote and very dangerous territory: numerous minefields have remained here since the times of the Khmer Rouge and the civil war. The guide warned us about this: “Try to follow only me and along the path. Do not climb into the thickets even when you need them. Although the sappers are working here, they do it slowly and without much fanaticism. Therefore, sometimes even local residents become victims of old mines. "

From the site of the temple, in which a huge statue of the pacified Buddha lies, a wonderful view of the virgin forests of Phnom Kulen opens. It is from here that the great empire of Cambujadesh, as they say, “came and went” ...

Of course, both Phnom Kulen and Angkor (for all the vastness of the ancient capital) are only a small part of what Cambodia is able to interest and even amaze travelers with. Some of them choose the capital of Phnom Penh or the seaside Sihanoukville as the goal of the voyage, someone goes to the Preah Vihea monastery in the very north of the country. But everyone finds there exactly what he is interested in, what he was looking for for his soul in this exotic country.
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