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Memories are made of this

Memories are made of this

I AM planning my return to Siem Reap from my small home in Canberra, Australia, rifling through my old passports as an aid to a failing memory. The passports tell me that I have been coming to Cambodia regularly for just over 20 years.

First I came for adventure and stories as a photojournalist. Then as a communications officer with a global aid agency. Then as an uncle with a favoured niece. Now I’ll return as a father with his eldest son.

No other country appears so often in my packed passports, and no place other than Siem Reap has such a hold to keep drawing me back.

Perhaps it is because Cambodia, more than any other country, is never the same place twice, and because Siem Reap seems to change by the minute.

I first came to Cambodia in 1989. Entry into the Kingdom and travel for foreigners was very restricted while the war sputtered throughout the countryside. Siem Reap was off limits to most, but somehow I managed a pass and a ticket.

The plane that took me to Siem Reap from Pochentong was an old Russian Antanov. Inside the plane was standing room only, and as the atheists in the pilot seats launched the plane in a spiraling climb, the air-conditioning filled the cabin with rivulets of steam, while the speakers played Russian ballads extolling the virtue of collaborative farming.

When I landed in Siem Reap I was hustled from the airport by an official driving an old Soviet-style military 4X4. I was whisked to what is now the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, but then it was a much humbler government guest house. It was the only hotel in town, and I was the only guest. The lodging was sparsely furnished. The tiled floor in my room had a large blood stain, and the plumbing did not work. From my balcony, I could see loudspeakers. They barked into discordant life just before sunrise and sunset announcing the beginning and end of the curfew, with a political rant for the workers.

The next day a guide and driver arrived and, despite the heat, both wore immaculately pressed shirts and ties. The car was a shiny, black Russian Zim limousine.

There wasn't much to see in town; a quiet village with some battle-scarred French colonial and Chinese buildings. The forests that led to the gates of Angkor Wat were tall and green, the buildings still overgrown and eerily quiet. I had the entire temple complex to share only with my guide. This would never happen again and I sensed then how privileged I was.

As a journalist I had been at pains to find out what the security situation was here. The guide assured me the government had the area under control. I found this hard to believe since the Khmer Rouge were just outside the airport in Phnom Penh. As we were coming out of Ta Prohm in the slanting afternoon light, a 30-caliber machine gun opened up in short bursts. An AK-47 barked back, and the guide and I had taken cover between stones and tree roots. The shooting stopped after about half an hour and the Zim, with its now very nervous driver, raced back to the hotel.

At night the streets emptied, leaving only the sound of dogs barking. The hotel staff had fled and left me alone. I discovered the inn had been a hospital during the Lon Nol days. Many had died there, and people believed their spirits still haunted the cavernous rooms.

On the second night in Siem Reap I came down with dengue fever, and was sick for three days and nights.

Perhaps the fever burned those images into my mind of my first day in Siem Reap and the overgrown temple complex, so that they resonate in my memory like hand-painted photos that fade to sepia. Memories of bullet-holed buildings, truckloads of fighters resting in hammocks strung between sugar palms along Highway 6, the waiter unused to wearing shoes.

Over the next 20 years I watched Siem Reap change. During the election, movie stars, models and celebrity journalists from the Asian wars came for the last hurrah to chaos before peace ruined their party. Hotels began to pop up along dusty lanes, and the road to democracy was emerging as a curved path. The French Foreign Legion came and went, as did the Democratic Kampuchea and the Minefield Bar, its Rambo owner and his pet python Gorbachev.

Each of my subsequent visits became a series of still frames. In my mind they all come together like a stop-motion movie where forests and mines are cleared in a flash, buildings spring like mushrooms from dusty rice paddies, cyclists, cycles and buffalo-drawn wagons morph instantly into motorbikes and silver conga lines of tourist buses.

In my mind, the nascent city springs from the village of Siem Reap like a brightly coloured phoenix calling for my return.


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