Khmer Khabar (Part Two)

  • One of the entrances to the temple complexes that is still used to this day.
  • Trees have sprouted up in the middle of temples and cities since Angkor was inhabited centuries ago.
  • A stela of a Khmer woman.
  • The central tower of Angkor Wat.
  • The remains of buddha statues that are still venerated today.
  • One of hundreds of smiling buddha faces found through out Angkor.
  • The group at the door that was featured in Tomb Raider. It’s sad that pop culture has traveled this far.
  • Angkor Wat.

The second half of our trip to Cambodia was much lighter than the first. After about three days in Phnom Penh, we boarded a plane and traveled to Siem Reap in the north-western portion of the country. Today, Siem Reap is a small tourist town that must get nearly 90% of its business from hotels and tourist trapping gift shops. Driving around the city there is not much else besides a few small bike rental shops and restaurants, but the city’s nameactually refers to the defeat of the Siamese (Thai) army by the Khmers in the 17th Century. A common theme of Thai-Cambodian-Vietnamese history is war between the different groups. Of course, the reason for our visit to this area was to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and the surrounding Khmer temples. As soon as we got unpacked at the hotel, we were off with our tour guide to see the park.

Chris decided that we should take tuk-tuks for the day because the open carriage allowsyou to see more than a tour bus; so after we tracked down enough to carry the whole group, we were a caravan of four carts each being pulled by a motorcycle. It took a while to drive into the park. The entrance is placed pretty far away from the temples and despite there being over 300 temples in the immediate area, it’s a bit of drive between some of them. After about fifteen minutes of riding through the jungle, we came up to our first destination.

The thing that is immediately apparent about Angkor Wat is the moat. As you drive upthrough the jungle the road abruptly turns to run alongside it. The water then quickly turns away at a 90 degree angle, revealing that is it in actuality man-made. The trail shortly follows the turn and then on the right-hand side the towers of the entry gate begin to rise from behind the trees. As you get closer, you realize that there is a giant cluster of tuk-tuks, buses, cars and bicycles all trying to park as close as they can to the bridge that crosses into the temple complex. Throw in dozens of Cambodian sellers of trinkets, drink and food into the mix and you have a bit of a circus.

Despite all the commotion, the complex was incredibly impressive. Our tour guide was in a bit of a hurry to show us everything, something that a few of us rectified by coming back the next morning, but we managed to see and learn a lot. Angkor Wat means temple-city, although the actual complex that the world thinks of as Angkor Wat was in reality just a temple. The way that the towers rise up out of a square courtyard represents how the mythical mountain home of the Khmer gods rises up over the physical world, which is defined by the four cardinal directions or four corners of a square. All the temples that theKhmer built face East, except for Angkor Wat, and no one really knows why this is the case. When the Khmer’s were using the temple for worship, the different levels of the complex were segregated in terms of class, with only priests being allowed at the top.

After we left Angkor Wat, we got back on our tuk-tuks and drove around to see some ofthe other famous temples, including the one that Angeline Jolie made famous in Tomb Raider (hurray!) and another that is known for housing hundreds of depictions of the Buddha. This later one included a huge dark room in the center of the tallest tower that was housing what had to be hundreds of bats.

One of the most interesting things about the Angkor complex was the fact that it was at the center of the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. Viet Nam, which was never heavily Hindu, was saved from these conflicts, but in ancient Cambodia there was a lot of bloodshed between the two religious groups. This is evident in the ancient templesbecause some are built to Buddha, others to Shiva and some started off serving one and were later retrofitted to host the spirit of the other. In the end, Buddhism won out with the vast majority of Cambodians today being Buddhist. Many of the temples at Angkor were also active religious sites with monks attending to various altars for the Great Buddha.

After a whole day climbing around temples we headed back to the hotel and the pool. Some of us had not had enough, however, and we got up at four the next morning to visitthe park again and see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. When we got back to the temple it was still pitch black but that hadn’t stopped a handful of visitors from coming to the temple. At five they let us cross the long, stone bridge to the man-made island. The only thing that lit the way across the uneven stone road was the other visitors’ flashlight and my iPhone. Once we got back to the temple, we set out to see the places we were forced to rush through the other day. Exploring the long halls and giant rooms of the temple alone in thedark was completely worth getting up so early. It was an entirely different experience than visiting in the middle of the tourist-filled day. In the quiet and the dark the temples’ steles and sculptures seemed closer and more real. It was much easier to imagine the people that had once built and used such an important space.

After we got to the courtyard with the highest towers, we may have bribed the security guards to let us climb to the top of the tower before it officially opened at 7:30. Weexplored the top floors for a good hour before the sun rose around 7. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and the sunrise was not much, but the experience of getting to sit withone of the world’s most famous sites almost completely alone for hours was well worth the trouble and a few dollars.


One Quarter

  • In the courtyard of the compound are large flowering trees. Visitors would take the flowers and place them around the prison to remember the people who were brutalized there.
  • A photograph of a victim who passed through the prison.
  • An average cell at the school-turned-prison.
  • Numbers painted on the wall at Toul Sleng were used to organize the keys to prisoners’ cells.
  • The tall stupa that holds the bones of the Khmer Rouges victims. In the foreground are the excavated grave sites.
  • Paper cranes left as a prayer by Japanese visitors.
  • The branches of the “Magic Tree” that was used to hang speakers that drowned out the noises of the Killing Fields.
  • A Chinese gravestone that attests to the older use of Choeung Ek.

It is hard to travel to Cambodia and not have mixed feelings while there. If you have traveled to other South-Eastern Asian countries you will notice the poverty and lack of investment in infrastructure, public institutions and people. Despite a growing population Phnom Penh appears largely like it did fifty years ago. Although the nation has a wealth of historical and cultural treasures, many of them are ran and funded by organizations and companies from other parts of the world. Instead of in Viet Nam, where the people seem to  have struck a balance between tolerating visitors and holding onto their own traditions, Cambodia reminded me of a family that is forced to sell its oldest heirlooms in order to pay the mortgage. Everywhere there are people, especially children, being abused by and forced to cater to tourists because there is still no better option.

Much of this has to do with the recent history of the country. I had the urge to not automatically associate everything I learned about Cambodia with the civil war and genocide the people have endured, but it is nearly impossible to not do so. The lack of stability, growth and opportunities all stem from the fact that for sixty plus years conflict raged. Our trip to Cambodia focused heavily on the history of the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-communist group that ruled during the late 70s and perpetrated genocide against its own people. Although it was hard to be immersed in the places where these atrocities took place, what we learned was that much more powerful because of that proximity.

There are two main locations in Phnom Penh were visitors can learn about the history of the Khmer Rouge Genocide: Toul Sleng Prison and Choeung Elk.

Toul Sleng was a high school that was turned into a mass prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge. The large compound is made up of four or five plane, white concrete buildings and two large courtyards. Much of the space has been left intact from when the Khmer Rouge were forced to flee Phnom Penh after Viet Nam invaded to remove the government. There are a good deal of artifacts left, beds, chains and weapons used to torture, but what stands out most are the hundreds of photographs of both victims and perpetrators that are displayed on the walls. The Khmer Rouge left meticulous records and the center now uses them to educate visitors on the scale and severity of their crimes.

We were guided through the center by a woman who had lived through the period. She told us about the horrid conditions and disgusting methods that were used to gain “confessions.” Basically, everyone who was educated, urban, belonged to a minority or the upper class was rounded up and brought to this or similar centers. Under the guise of trying to protect the perfect classless society, young brainwashed cadres would inflict any type of misery they could think of on these people and then take them to Choeung Ek to be killed. It’s hard to write about this in any sensible order, as if there was some logic that was underneath these actions. Instead the entire period was just defined by insanity.

When we came to the end of the tour there was a room with a large map that showed where the Khmer Rouge had driven out urban populations to live on large farm communes in the country. Here our tour guide quietly and without emotion showed us where she and her family were taken from a mid-sized city, separated and driven all around the Cambodian countryside in various worker parties. She was the only one who survived out of a family of four.

Surprisingly, our guide’s story of coming back to work at one of the very places where the worst crimes were committed was not unique. I got the impression that many of the people working at the now Toul Sleng Genocide Museum were people deeply affected by the Khmer Rouge. With a quarter of the population being killed, between 1.5 and 2.5 million people, it is hard to imagine that anyone was left unaffected, but these people have the rawest and most intimate connections to these places. Bou Meng, one of the few survivors found by the Vietnamese at the site, was even present selling his memoir. I had the greatest respect for these people who have committed their lives to teaching others about what the Khmer Rouge did. I do not know if I could of made the same choices they have.

Choeung Ek, or the Killing Fields as it is more colloquially known, was the next location we visited. Originally a Chinese cemetery, the large area of fields and tree groves is where the Khmer Rouge brought their thousands of prisoners from Phnom Penh to be executed. The site is now dominated by a large stupa, a Buddhist worship structure, that holds the remains of over 20,000 people and large spans of excavated mass graves. I found the site important to visit and see but again the touristic aspect bothered me.

The site is run by a Japanese for-profit company and even the Cambodians have to pay a small fee to enter. The museum and grounds are also not kept up to the standards of a memorial. There are hawkers and beggars in several locations and chickens running around the mass graves. I wondered if a Western terministic screen was causing me to pass judgement and miss the point. The entire time I was there I found myself asking, “What is an appropriate memorial?” but I could not help but be bothered.

It was a challenging and hard two days in Phnom Penh. There was a lot of things to process emotionally, both from the past and present. However, I am glad that I got to see these important sites. It is crucial that they are preserved and people are learning about them and those facts made it easier to deal with rougher aspects of our visit. I am hopeful that these spaces continue to be protected and improved upon.

Khmer Khabar (Part 1)

  • Typical building style in Phnom Penh.
  • The skyline of the capital city, which really only includes about half a dozen buildings over six or seven stories.
  • The gatehouse to the Royal Palace that sits along the Mekong River.
  • The tuk-tuks or motorcycle powered carriages we took all over Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat.
  • A delicious chicken burger with pesto mayonaise that I had at the Friends  Restaurant , a NGO that takes in children living on the street and trains them how to be chefs, waiters and restaurant owners so they can earn a decent living. The organization also runs a school next door.
  • The international flag of buddhism that is found all over Cambodia and Viet Nam. These flags were flying over a pagoda in Phnom Penh.
  • The Royal Palace seen through the gate. The palace was only open to the public between 2 and 5 PM and women were required to cover their knees and shoulders. Because of the restrictions we never made it inside.
  • The Cambodian Independence Monument is an example of classic Khmer architecture. The figures covering the structure are nagas or sea serpents, which represent the sea god are found all over Cambodia.

Sorry for the delay everyone. It has been a crazy last week traveling around Southern Vietnam and all over Cambodia, but I have not forgotten about you and the blog! I have pictures, videos, and plenty of news ( or khabar to continue with the alliteration theme) and stories to share.

My trip to Cambodia started a week agotoday. We were meeting as a group in the backpacking area of District 1 (the central part of the city) to catch a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. However, I had to leave a bit early to head to the doctor and get an ongoing throat issue cleared up. (Don’t worry I’m fine now.) After my appointment I walked out of the modern office building that the clinic is located in and began searching for a taxi. Since this was the third day of Tet the streets were deserted and there were not that many options from which to chose.

At the end of the street I found a man lounging on his motorbike though and he asked, “Ride!” Since the streets were deserted, the driver looked respectable and had a helmet and I had the address I was going to written down on a piece of paper I decided to give a motortaxi ride or xe ohm a shot. As with a lot of things in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to haggle about the price first which I was agreed upon at 30,000 dong or ba moui dong. The drive was nice and scenic, going past many of the city’s main sites. I had luckily picked a good driver who wentslow and I managed to enjoy the ride.

When we got to the bus station (which is really just a street filled with buses), I got off and tried to pay the driver but he insisted that we had really agreed upon 40,000 dong. I still am not sure if this is because 3 and 4 sound similar in Vietnamese, being ba and bone, or if he was just taking advantage of an obvious newcomer to the country. Unfortunately he was holding my bag hostage and I wasn’t in much of a position to argue. Also, the different of 10,000 dong equals about 50 cents so I ended up giving in rather quickly. Afterwards, I managed to find the other Americans and we boarded the bus for Cambodia.

The ride was rather uneventful. It started with the playing of calming music and video-recorded scenes of Vietnamese wildlife (a staple of travel no matter what type of transportation you are using here) and ended with an intense and incredibly long Chinese kung-fu movie. At the Cambodian-Vietnamese boarder we had to disembark three times, once on the Vietnamese side, again on the Cambodian side to get out visas and immigration paper work figured out, and finally to eat lunch at a rather questionable Cambodian road-side restaurant. (I’m still amazed that the only thing that has given me food poisoning up until this point is a Ho Chi Minh City Pizza Hut.) For being one of the poorest countries in theworld, Cambodia has a pretty elaborate immigration system with fingerprint scanner, digital cameras and rapid medical checks.

When we got to Phnom Penh after 6 hours on the bus I was struck by how different it is from Ho Chi Minh City. The streets are far less crowded with maybe only a third the traffic of Saigon. Instead of blocks that house dozens of smaller apartments, stores and pagodas all stacked on top of each other, each city block is taken up by one large, Soviet-looking concrete building. A few French colonial buildings remained but they were far and few between. The most noticeable buildings in the area were definitely the Buddhist pagodas which all had large courtyards and tall red and gold roofs. On some of the larger boulevards there are large monuments that celebrate Cambodian independence, the monarchy and “friendship” with Viet Nam. (The two countries have a bit of a conflicted history.)

Overall, the city definitely had some beauty, especially in the large public parks along the rivers and near the King’s palace estate in the downtown area, but it was simultaneously obvious how depressed Cambodia is. Phnom Penh and the country as a whole is not developing nearly as fast as Viet Nam. The buildings are of a poorer quality, there are far fewer businesses, more people sleep on the street and beggars can be found on every corner that also has tourists. I had wanted to mentally separate the current country I was visiting from the long history of civil war and genocide that usually come up when people think of this place, but it was incredibly difficult to do so. It was clear that Khmer people are just recently emerging from a long struggle and that the outside world is just beginning to take notice.