Contrasts in Cambodia
I admit it. I didn’t do my homework before we left for Cambodia. I assumed our hotel would be fairly modern like those in urban Thailand. But as our tuk tuk driver took us past Siem Reap out into the countryside, what I saw were rice paddies, farmers bent over their fledgling plants, skinny cows tethered near a ditch…
We had booked the hotel in our usual way using Trip Advisor and Hotels.com. They said this was a new “boutique” hotel and rated it very well. The reviews were glowing, although one warned of the “dim” lights in the room. The tuk tuk drove by the river, then turned onto a small dirt road, then onto an even smaller dirt road. We passed wooden houses on stilts, with chickens in domed bamboo cages plopped down over each bird. There were all kinds of things in the yards; things for cooking, things for planting, other things, lots of things. Children were playing all around and they smiled and waved at us as we passed, which started to make me feel better.
Pulling up in front of the hotel fueled these positive feelings. Statues, manicured greenery, a paved walkway, and a very warm welcome at the open-air reception. We were given a cold drink and a wet cloth to wipe off the dust from the ride. There was a display of various kinds of rice, gingers, seeds and local spices, an open-air dining room and more helpful staff than you could shake a stick at. Our room was a detached cottage, as were all 8 others. The room was “dim”, to be sure, but it had several shuttered windows that we could open for light. The problem was when we opened them we invited in all kinds of flies that annoyed the heck out of us, and more dangerously, the possibly of malaria-carrying mosquitos which we had been warned to avoid.
Ah, but it was peaceful, with a beautiful pool, attentive staff and quiet surroundings. The services included having a tuk tuk and driver at our disposal to go into town whenever we wanted and a cell phone to summon it when we wanted to be picked up. And what an eye-popping ride it was in our tuk tuk, pastoral and oh, so interesting. Kid’s playing in the river, fishermen throwing nets and picking out little silver fish we later saw for sale in the markets, motorbikes transporting numerous people all at once, locals gathering around food stalls all along the side of the road. If only we’d had goggles to protect our eyes from the dusty wind, and cushions for the bumps….and maybe seat belts.
A Blessing in the village
That sweet pastoral atmosphere at our bungalow began to change. Music began playing quite loudly from somewhere nearby. The village was having a “blessing”, we were told, for the new year to make the crops grow and the people prosper – it would only go on for a couple of days. In the morning we were waked up at 5 am by loud music again. “They are playing it while the morning food is being prepared”, the hotel staff said. Monks began chanting through loudspeakers right after breakfast and continued until early evening. Then more music as villagers gathered after their work was done. It was explained to us throughout the day and we thought, no problem, we support local customs. Two days passed and this local custom was still going on.
“Oh, it will be over by 1 pm today,” our hotel staff told us. Then, “Oh, it will only last until tomorrow morning”. We woke up the following morning at the crack of dawn, again to music – competing music. This additional music was coming from another direction. “Oh, this is wedding season and the neighbors on the other side of the village are having a wedding celebration. It will only go on for two days….”
We are all for honoring, and even participating in, local customs, but when our sleep is impacted for days on end, we can get a little cranky. Besides that, the evening music was beginning to sound different. “Is that Cambodian reggae? I asked Phil. We approached the hotel about what could be done. The hotel had a “brother” hotel in the town, we were told. (I let them know that we say “sister” hotel in America. Am I just a natural-born teacher, or what?) They offered to transfer us there at no additional charge and we accepted. Our tuk tuk drove us there and as we turned down the first dirt road and then the second dirt road in town, Phil exclaimed, “Oh, my God, this is not good.” But it was good. Excepting that the street was more funky than many we have experienced in our travels, the hotel was wonderful. Another fabulous pool, attentive and abundant staff, QUIET surroundings, and a marvelous spacious room with good wi-fi and good lighting. We had the same tuk tuk service as before, with a hotel cell phone for summoning our driver, so what else did we need? Trip Advisor and Hotels.com were back in our good graces.
Imagine my surprise when the hotel presented me with a birthday cake delivered by a gaggle of young Cambodian men singing “Happy Birthday” in English. It was made more special when I learned that Cambodians don’t typically celebrate birthdays. It a little disconcerting that they put my age on the cake in candles.
Heaven and Hell
There were 2 things I wanted to see, which are important in Cambodia’s history, the famous temple Angkor Wat and the atrocious Killing Fields. I figured the two sites would be very contrasting and I was right. The first was quite awesome and inspiring while the other was like descending into Hell. I felt I needed to explore both.
This awesome, massive, ancient ruin sits about 6 miles outside the town of Siem Reap. Phil and I are usually independent travelers, reading about and then taking in sites on our own. But for Angkor we were smart enough to hire a guide. Phil did his usual good studying of descriptions and reviews online and picked one called Happy Angkor Wat Tours. We got lucky with Happy. The young owner and founder, Hongt Bumleat, was educated at the university in Cambodia’s capital. He initially became an English teacher but wasn’t happy, he said, because foreign teachers were favored and paid much more money than locals. Lucky for us his English was good. Bumleat knew his stuff about Angkor and made our exploration interesting and enlightening. He and his driver picked us up early in the morning so we could beat the crowds to the back entrance of the temple.
Heaven is what King Suryavarman II had in mind when he build the temple Angkor Wat in the 12th century. He dedicated it to the Hindu god Visnu, though later rulers re-dedicated it to Buddha. This massive temple is the largest religious monument in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How big the King’s vision must have been when he designed it to symbolize the universe, physically, spatially and spiritually. Its middle tower stands for Mt Meru, the mythical center of the universe and home of the gods. Smaller peaks surrounding it represent other mountains while the courtyards below symbolize the continents. A 600 foot wide moat surrounds the temple and runs for nearly a mile in each direction, symbolizing the ocean. The entry bridge, taking humans to the “abode of the gods”, is lined with naga or serpents who played a role in the myth of how the universe was formed.
Scenes from mythology and from the King’s court are carved in bas relief, or raised carvings, around the temple, about a half mile’s worth of the them. Interesting how the King is often depicted as bigger than life in them. There are lots of women whom our guide explained were the King’s concubine. Angkor Wat was built from sandstone, mined some 30 miles away and floated on rafts through the river. It is an awesome building feat for those days.
Angkor Wat, the temple, sits in Angkor, the city. There were over 1000 temples in Angkor, built between the 9th and 15th centuries. At its peak ancient Angkor was the largest preindustrial city in the world, 390 square miles, with a population of over a million. This was at a time when London’s people numbered only 50,000 by comparison. Today there are several temple ruins being restored in Angkor. One of the most interesting is the Bayon, built by Jayavarman VII. It has 52 Gothic towers with a total of 216 enormous smiling faces looking down at you from every direction (we heard various numbers given). These are said to be the compassionate faces of Buddha or of the King himself. This temple’s near-mile of bas relief has more than 11,000 figures. It shows scenes of everyday life in those days, from fishing to farming to gambling.
The ruins of Angkor were “re-discovered” in the late 19th century. They had all but been swallowed by the forest. Many were caused to tumble due to roots and branches from trees. Some of them are inextricable from the trees these days, as they would likely crumble if the trees were removed. We saw evidence of huge termite mounds, which in many cases had undermined the foundations. Phil and I often remarked to each other “Tomb Raider” or “Angelina Jolie” or “Indiana Jones”. It felt like all of those and much more.
Angkor Wat is a source of national pride for the Cambodian people. Its image adorns the country’s flag. It’s like the heart and soul of the country. Unfortunately, there is another Cambodian tale, a very contrasting one. We flew to the capital city Phnom Penh to take it in.
Hell in Cambodia
For 3 years, 8 months and 20 days beginning in April 1975, Cambodians lived in sheer hell at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, with its leader Pol Pot. Pol Pot had become a follower of Marxism and Mao while studying in Paris. He concocted a plan to create a peasant-based agrarian society and annihilate anything “modern” that “corrupted” people. This included all schools, churches, family ties, modern medicine, and 3 million of the country’s 8 million people. Parents, his thinking went, corrupted children so they had to be separated. Children were taught how to torture people and animals, and became pawns in the Khmer Rouge’s torture games. The story is a horrid one, of heinous acts of cruelty and death, and is told in graphic detail by two museums in Phnom Penh, S-21 and The Killing Fields.
It is very hard for me to tell this story and, due to something rather odd, hard to include photos of what I saw. As a 20 year old, I lived in Germany and became very interested in what happened in the Nazi era. My father had been captured and taken as a POW during the Battle of the Bulge. While in Germany I visited the concentration camps with their ovens where millions died. I talked with many of my German neighbors and co-workers about their experiences. I got an introduction then to the vastness of “man’s inhumanity to man”.
A strange thing happened while visiting the places of horror in Cambodia. Phil agreed to do the photographing for me when we visited The Killing Fields. I was content to walk the now-peaceful grounds and reflect on what I was learning from the excellent audio tour provided. But when I viewed Phil’s photos afterwards I saw that there were not many shots of the displays or points of interest, and I asked Phil why. “Couldn’t do it” he said. “I couldn’t take pictures of the mass graves and other evidence of the killing.” What’s more, after I downloaded the photos he did take to my computer, they disappeared, poof! I have never lost photos this way before so I found this very eerie. There is talk in Cambodia of the ghosts of the dead, and it seemed like we simply weren’t supposed to have pictures. I downloaded a recovery program onto my computer and was able to get some of the photos back but not all. I find this event odd but somehow it seems significant.
The Genocide Museum aka S-21
Security Office 21, now called the Tuol Slang Genocide Museum or S-21, is a former high school in Phnom Penh. The residents of this city had been forcibly marched to the countryside and made to work long, tireless hours in the fields. Many were old, sick, young, or untrained in how to tend fields. If they were “intellectual”, meaning if they had been a teacher, doctor or office worker, or even if they wore eyeglasses or had soft hands, they were likely brought into S-21. The Khmer Rouge used this place as a detention center for over 17,000 “suspects”. Here they were interrogated about their so-called crimes, and tortured relentlessly until they “confessed”. Confession reached, they were taken by truck about 9 miles away to the “Killing Fields” where they were brutally killed en masse. This gang, like the Nazis, photographed and documented everything that went on at S-21, and the museum displays thousands of these photos.
The Cambodian people, like the Germans, think that it is important to memoralize what happened to the people during this reign of terror. The official brochure states, in English and in their own language, why they maintain S-21. They write (in not perfect grammar):
“…making the crimes of the inhuman regime of Khmer rough public plays crucial role in preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.”
The Killing Fields of Choeung
We took a tuk tuk ride to the outskirts of Phnom Penh to The Killing Fields. It is one of over 300 killing fields that existed in Cambodia during the rule of this mad man and his henchmen. A memorial stupa is erected on these grounds of a former orchard and it houses over 8000 skulls and the ragged clothes of the victims. Bones and clothes still surface here when the monsoons come and they continue to be harvested and displayed. There are 123 mass graves.
“The Magic Tree” is pointed out, so called because it “magically” covered up the screams of the victims. A large loudspeaker was mounted in the tree, from which political music blared to muffle the sounds from the surrounding villagers. Another tree here is significant as it is where babies were killed, often in the presence of their mothers. I cannot bear to tell you the method used; just imagine the most efficient and effortless inhumane method. The story told is that a villager came to scavage for food after the place was abandoned. While digging for potatoes he came upon thousands of corpses of babies beneath this tree.
It was the Vietnamese who brought an end to the Khmer Rouge rule in 1979. But this story still has an unfortunate ending in my mind. This deranged leader, Pol Pot, never came to justice. He retreated to the border of Thailand and continued to rule Cambodia for quite some time. The Khmer Rouge remained the recognized government and kept its seat in the United Nations until 1993, even though these atrocities were known to other nations (including mine). Pol Pot lived out his life, remarrying and getting to play with his grandchildren until age 82. This while some of his victims didn’t live past their first year. In 1994 members of the Khmer Rouge were granted amnesty, and some of them are still active in Cambodian politics today.
The Cambodia we saw on our visit is a very poor country. Many Cambodian people live on very little money, about $750 a year, I understand. One brochure I saw asking for aid said that many of its people live on $.40 a day. Between 70-80% live in the rural countryside doing subsistence farming. There is little in the way of infrastructure out in the countryside. We heard complaints from Cambodians about political corruption. The country ranks as the 17th most corrupt country out of the 177 ranked in the world.
People we met told us that much of the opportunities are going to foreign companies. While at the airport we were surprised at how many Chinese were waiting for flights. One of the staff said that they fly 10 planes a day to China and all of them are full with Chinese workers. I asked her why Cambodia had so many Chinese workers when the Cambodians need work themselves. She replied that many companies, like many of Cambodia’s resources, are owned by foreigners. Human rights is an issue as shown by the episodes just a few months ago of striking garment workers being gunned down, and of activists being arrested for “creating disorder”. We read in the local English speaking paper about these activists being “invited” to come to the police station. The paper showed photos of the “invitees”, bloody and handcuffed. Deforestation, land mines left over from civil wars, land grabbing from the poor – all of these are issues facing Cambodia today. One evening Phil walked outside our hotel without me and was badgered by men trying to sell him everything from opium to women. (I don’t think he accepted either….)
There are a lot of things about traveling to other countries that make me grateful for the “checks and balances” system in my own country. We’re off to Vietnam and will see what it’s like there. Stay tuned. I’d love to have you with us.Tweet