The pinks and purples of sunrise share the landscape with the yellow and orange robes of a group of monks outside the temple ruins at Angkor. Prior to the ascension of the Khmer Rouge, there were some 80,000 Cambodian monks but when Buddhism was restored in the 1980s, there were only 3,000 left.
Cambodia – Long Read

Horrors and glories of the past

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Cambodia – Long Read Horrors and glories of the past

Hello Cambodia, which has a strange relationship with history. The horror of the Khmer Rouge regime is a part of the past most Cambodians would rather forget, but the glories of places such as Angkor Wat stir feelings of pride and reverence. Is it possible for a country to have such a conflicted view of the past while still keeping its sights fixed on the future?

Willem Dercksen
Willem Dercksen Journalist

On display in one of the many corridors of the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap is a vintage photograph from 1933. It shows a flock of tourists arriving in the ancient city of Angkor not by car, but by elephant. I find this photo amazing not only because of the world wonder in the background, but because it reveals just how much trouble our ancestors went through to reach the then newly-discovered temples.

Much has changed from the days of that 1933 photo: the temples were restored to their former glory, the area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site and visitors now arrive comfortably by plane. Mind you, the elephants are still there – not to help you conquer the jungle, but as a splash of local colour.

Aboard the broad, grey backs weary travelers can catch a hike up the temple mountain of Phnom Bakheng and soak up the spectacular sunset amid the temple’s 1,000-year-old stones.

From the banks of the Tonlé Sap River (a branch of the Mekong), Phnom Penh looks like city of opulence. The view is largely dominated by the shimmering, golden rooftops of the Royal Palace, whose walled compound houses the Chan Chaya Pavilion, the Throne Room and the Silver Pagoda – a beautiful temple with floors of pure silver. Among the many treasures it contains, the most famous and exquisite is a golden Buddha studded with 10,000 diamonds.

I find a place to sit on Sisowath Quay, the riverside promenade outside the Royal Palace, where I meet a young woman who wants to try her English with me. Her name is Lov Chankakada, which means ‘born on a Monday in July’. She is a young accounting graduate who now works in a restaurant to pay for her English studies. Cambodia’s population is extremely young, about half its 15 million inhabitants are under 20, and also highly ambitious, as I am experiencing every day. Practising English seems to be Cambodian youths’ favorite pastime.

Lov has high hopes of one day working for a large company. I ask if she finds it at all strange that such a poor country would have such a luxurious palace. “We Khmer love the King,” she sighs. “He helps many people.” I try to read her face, I am not sure whether she means it. King Sihanouk, known for his high-pitched voice, abdicated the throne in 2004.

Onlookers seeking refuge from hot midday sun

His son and now king is Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer who was educated in Czechoslovakia and North Korea. Succeeding his charismatic father wasn’t easy, but king Sihamoni now seems to be respected, if not loved. “You know,” Lov continues, smiling, “the palace is not really his – it belongs to the people. He just lives there.”

We chat and watch a parade slowly work its way down the boulevard, onlookers seeking refuge from hot midday sun in the cool shade by the river. I notice the curious mix of people on the streets: fruit and drink vendors mingle effortlessly with soothsayers, beggars and orange-robed monks; a family scatters the ashes of a relative in the river; hordes of street children gaze at each passerby with pleading, almond-shaped eyes.

When I meet the ten-year-old Ken Navy and her two-year-old sister, strapped to her hip with a cloth, Lov acts as my translator. Ken, a child of the streets, doesn’t know where her parents are or if they’re even alive. “Somebody brought us to Phnom Penh,” she says. Ken and her sister scavenge the streets every day looking for food, water and a place to sleep. She refuses to go to an organization for street children. “I want freedom,” she explains, but her eyes betray her words and it becomes clear she’s been sniffing Yamma glue. The money she makes begging will soon be handed over to an older boy in return for drugs, food and some degree of protection.

On the other side of the social spectrum the rich minority – the constant stream of tourists, the foreign diplomats and aid workers – certainly know how to entertain themselves. Their attentions are bent toward the city’s many excellent restaurants, clubs and bars. These are the places that suit any fancy, where a few dollars can get you far. My favorite spot is the always-packed Foreign Correspondents Club, or FCC, on Sisowath Quay.

A relic of the opulent Indochina era

The second floor offers a fantastic view of the boulevard and river below. There is a small restaurant at the back overlooking the National Museum and the top floor has a bar and roof terrace where you can wine and dine under the stars. Foreign newspapers cover almost every surface and inspiring press photos adorn the walls. It is a relic of the opulent Indochina era, but you won’t meet many Cambodians there.

It was extremely hot the day I first visited Choeung Ek, better known as The Killing Fields, but every time my thoughts wandered to what happened here I felt chilled to the bone. The infamous site where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered thousands of innocent people is right at the edge of Phnom Penh.

One of the first things any visitor is confronted with, is a mound-like memorial hill, or stupa, filled with thousands of human skulls. It’s only later that you start to notice the bones and articles of clothing that surface, especially during the rainy season, forming eerie heaps on the paths between the mass graves. More than 17,000 people lost their lives on these fields. Before being executed, many of the victims had to suffer through brutal hearings and unspeakable torture in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) (see mini-feature). It is these places we visit when we spend time in Cambodia, but for most of the 1.7 million victims who perished in this hell on earth, no grave or shrine exists.

No visitor to Cambodia can ignore the country’s history. The streets are filled with vagrants, homeless children, landmine victims and starving mothers begging with babies in their arms.

We dismantled mines almost every day

“I lost both hands detecting mines,” explains Tok Vanna. I met the 34-year-old Tok at his mobile bookstall, where I bought a secondhand copy of a guide book. He skillfully took my $5 bill with the stumps of his hands and placed it in his breast pocket. “I fought in the government army against Pol Pot. We dismantled mines almost every day, it wasn’t a difficult job. But everybody makes a mistake sometimes, right?”

Between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap lies the combined lake and river system of Tonlé Sap – a must-see for any visitor to the temples of Angkor. The express boat will get you there in about six hours, which is much faster than making the 300km journey by bus. This lake boasts a unique ecosystem: within the course of one year, water levels can vary from one to nine meters in depth. During the rainy season, water will flow from the Mekong River into the Tonlé

Sap River, quadrupling its volume. The swampy forests transform the lake into a thriving fish sanctuary and local radio announcers broadcast the prime fishing spots every day. In the dry season, the region is a massive and much-needed catchment area. The dramatic changes to this landscape force the residents of the surrounding floating villages to relocate up to eight times per year.

Due to these fluctuating water levels, boats are unable to moor at Phnom Krom, the only hill between Siem Reap and the lake. At the top lie the sacred ninth-century temples to the gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The Khmer originally worshipped Hindu gods until Buddhism reached Cambodia in the 12th century.

The solution is simple: the boat stops where the water meets the road. Young men from the floating village of Chong Kneas scramble toward us, hoping to make a dollar by carrying our luggage over the wobbly gangway to dry land.

After my first trip to Cambodia, friends chastized me for not visiting the temples of Angkor. Now, several trips later, I realize my grievous oversight. What was I thinking? Nothing compares to the dozens of gorgeous, crumbling relics that are scattered over a vast area spanning 400 square kilometers and have been a World Heritage Site since 1992.

Splendid bas reliefs and all those identical smiling faces

“The Bayon Temple touched me deeply the first time,” says Cécile Califand. Cécile is a French native who now works for the Siem Reap APSARA, the government organization responsible for protecting the Angkor region.

“Only later did I develop a keen eye for the Angkor relics, finally grasping the underlying symbolism,” Cécile continues. “But it is only now that I am beginning to get a sense of appreciation for the enormity of the area, the splendid bas reliefs and all those identical smiling faces.” she says.

Faces have been carved into each of the 54 towers (37 of which still stand) representing the former provinces of Cambodia. Each tower has four carved faces, one for each direction the wind blows. The images were likely modeled after the faces of Buddha and King Jayavarman VII, who reigned during the construction of the Bayon at the end of the 12th century.

“Look at all the water reservoirs and irrigation canals,” she said. “The complexity. At their peak, they allowed more than one million people to live in and around Angkor Tom, the capital of the Khmer Empire until 1432. Without this infrastructure, these temples never could have existed.”

Stone-hewn Buddha faces adorn the temple’s entrance

Ta Prohm is another picturesque jungle temple. I can see why it was one of the chief locations for the filming of Tomb Raider. Beautiful stone-hewn Buddha faces adorn the temple’s entrance gates, but they do little to mask the violence that plagued the area: the paths are now dotted with landmine victims playing traditional Cambodian instruments.

The temple itself, originally a Buddhist monastery, has been largely reclaimed by the surrounding jungle, many of its walls and galleries strangled by the roots of ancient trees. For those seeking peace and quiet, the best time to visit is late afternoon when most tourists start heading back to Angkor to soak up the beautiful light of the fading day.

At the eastern entrance to Ta Prohm stands a 150-year-old fiscus pilosa, the most photographed tree in all of Cambodia. Most mornings, the area erupts into utter chaos as tourists scramble to get a picture with the colossal roots. It is an interesting anthropological phenomenon to see the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans pose routinely with expressionless faces, where most Western visitors prefer to wait until the stage is cleared to get a photo of just the tree.

Ta Prohm also boasts one of the most famous faces in Cambodia: the 80-something Neam, who has been immortalized, broom in hand, on the cover of a guide book. All vendors are refused entry and have to jostle for a spot in the roped-off area outside the temple grounds, Neam, who conducted restoration work for the French until the 1960s, is the only exception. He is considered a part of Ta Prohm.

Its pleasures are of a more worldly kind

I return to Siem Reap, the provincial town that serves as a hub for most visitors and must be the extreme opposite of the famous temple complex. It is modern, chaotic and its pleasures are of a more worldly kind. Countless massage parlors are calling out to “soothe” the weary traveler. Some salons cater primarily to those seeking medical massages or foot reflexology, while others boast private rooms or offer “full-body-dance” by an apsara dancer, whatever that means. In Siem Reap, a happy ending is always around the next corner, it seems. I settle for a refreshing beer on the rooftop of my hotel.

The next day, I wake up early to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which, with three of its five towers emblazoned on the national flag, has become an iconic Cambodian symbol. It was built at the start of the 12th century as a state temple for King Suryavarman II (or possibly as a burial tomb), and unlike the other temples, the entrance to this one faces west instead of east. Many Cambodians still believe this architectural wonder was built by the gods.

The frogs are giving a concert while the eastern skies start to glow like a blacksmith’s oven. Only a handful of people have come to watch this spectacle, which implies that thousands of other visitors rate their sleep higher than watching sunrise over Angkor Wat. I think that is mind blowing.

I am confronted by the sheer vastness of Angkor

The sun shoots up in the sky like a balloon, the coolness of the night is quickly replaced by the heat of the day, and the gates to temples are opened.

As soon as I step through the entrance, I am confronted by the sheer vastness of Angkor. I have to sit for a minute and decide what to do. I watch some of the other visitors and I am thankful I didn’t join a tour, or hired an audio guide. I wouldn’t want somebody talking in my ears right now. I need to simply wander around first, take it all in, and hopefully get lost at some point. Which seems easy enough, because the complex has three levels and soars to a height of 65 meters. Out of deference to this temple, no building in Siem Reap may be higher.

The first level contains the familiar bas reliefs depicting the war between the Khmer and the Cham, a group that inhabited Central and Southern Vietnam at this time. The Khmer can be easily identified by their long ears and thick lips and the Cham by the curly hair covering their ears. This level also contains a stone tableau with scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana. But I didn’t notice any of that on my first visit: all I experienced was the utter brilliance of the place and the presence of millions of people that once lived and worshipped here.

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