Cambodia is a land locked country the size of the state of Missouri bordered by Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north and Thailand to the west and north. It was the political and religious center of the great Khmer empire which dominated the region for the centuries between 800 and 1400 AD. Its great capital at Angkor was the goal of our visit.
Like Vietnam, Cambodia was part of the French Indochina colonial empire. During the Vietnam War, Vietnamese communists used eastern Cambodia as a staging post and a segment of the Ho Chi Minh trail ran along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. The US responded with large scale bombing in which many thousands of Cambodians were killed. This gave rise to the Khmer Rouge Maoist movement under its leader Pol Pot. In the years immediately after the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 this regime killed nearly 2 million Cambodians, one of the worst acts of genocide in history.
The Khmer Rouge expanded its influence and killing into the Mekong Delta of Vietnam which resulted in Vietnam’s invading Cambodia and overthrowing the Pol Pot Government in 1978. Because China was supporting Cambodia and Russia was supporting Vietnam, China in turn invaded northern Vietnam. They found the battle hardened North Vietnamese army to be no pushover and matters were settled with a withdrawal by both countries from their neighbor’s territory. Vietnam continues its historical fear of Chinese dominance while Cambodia expresses concern over the progress and potential threat of Vietnam.
In our experience only the great Mayan city of Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle can come close to comparison with Angkor, the most remarkable architectural ruins in Southeast Asia. This complex of city, religious center and temples covers an area involving about seventeen miles to circumnavigate. Khmer craftsmanship reached its peak at Banteay Srei, a complex of sandstone construction with delicately carved figures, bas-reliefs and lintels. Angkor has suffered war damage, looting and the relentless infringement of the surrounding jungle.
As our post-trip began we landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia where we were met by our OAT guide, Thai, a 32 year old Cambodian. He gave us information on his country on the ride to our hotel. One-third of the people in Cambodia were killed during the Pol Pot regime. In 1980, Vietnam freed the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge regime and in 1989, Cambodia became a separate kingdom. The average age in Cambodia is 35. In 1998 the country became a constitutional monarchy. Tourism is increasing annually.
Thai grew up in a floating village. In 1994 he became an English teacher and in 1997 a tour guide. There were 50 guides in Cambodia in 1997 and there are now over a thousand. Thai was one of only 3 children from his floating village who left to become further educated. 90% of children attend primary school but only 40% go on to middle school and 20% continue to high school.
Our hotel, Stung Siemreap, was located on a small side street just off the main shopping area. The lobby was bright and attractive with a strong lemon smell ; this was a result of a lemon grass preparation used to discourage mosquitoes.
After checking in and a brief rest we were taken to the Cultural show at Angkor Mondial restaurant. This restaurant was the venue for a very lovely dance performance of both folk and traditional dance by quite skilled performers.
The next morning we began our long awaited visit to the temples and ruins of Angkor. We first visited the Terrace of the Elephants, a structure that stretched from the Baphon to the Terrace of the Lepers. The entire surface was covered with nearly life-sized images of elephants in a procession accompanied by the their mahoots. We next visited Ta Prohm translated as “ancestor of Brahma” . This was perhaps the most thrilling stop. The immense temples and structures of Ta Prohm are encased in immense tree roots.
These structures were originally a very powerful Buddhist monastery covering more than 3,000 villages and maintained by 80,000 attendants including 18 high priests and 600 temple dancers. It was believed to be built from sandstone collected 40 miles away and carried by elephants to a canal. From the canal, boats carried the sandstone to Lake Tonle Sap and then on to the temple probably again by elephants. The area was originally discovered by the French during the colonial period. Preservation has been the limited in this area and only minor restoration performed which has resulted in maintaining the jungle atmosphere present when the first archaeological explorers first began their work.
We then stopped at the South gate of Angkor Thom. This gate is the best preserved of the five gateways to Angkor Thom . This ancient city was founded in the 12th century and surrounded by a 26 foot wall running for over 7 miles in circumference. The most impressive of the gates may be the four gigantic stone faces facing N,S,E and W.
From this gate we walked to the Bayon which is the city’s most unique temple. The temple is built in three levels representing a symbolic temple mountain with 54 towers bearing 200 huge, calm, smiling faces. The bas-reliefs along the galleries depict both scenes of everyday life as well as battle scenes.
After a home-hosted lunch in a small nearby village we drove to the highlight of our Cambodian visit – Angkor Wat – the immense temple dedicated to Vishnu. This is the single largest religious monument in the world. The name, Angkor Wat, means “the city which is a temple”. It was originally built by King Suryavarnman II between 1115-1150. In the 17th-18th century it was named Angkor Wat by the Buddhists. The temple is built facing west and is believed to represent the funeral temple of the king – facing the sunset. The temple is reached by walking along a long causeway supported on each side by balustrades depicting the naga or serpent.The layout is based on a mandala or the sacred design of the cosmos. The outer walls represent the edge of the world, the moat outside the first wall over which we walked represents the cosmic ocean. Within the galleries of the outer wall were miles of intricate bas-reliefs depicting furious battles as well as extremely delicate aspara dancers. The middle of the complex is a raised area of five towers built in the shape of a lotus and representing the mythical Mount Mera.
The next day we had a boat ride on Tonle Sap Lake. Thai told us about the area during our bus ride. Waterborne diseases are a problem in the region which floods annually. Typhoid and dysentery claim the lives of 2 out of 5 children before the age of 5. Rice and lotus as well as crocodiles are the main source of income in the area. There are more than 50 floating villages on the lake with over 2 million people. The homes on the river move further up or down the river every few weeks as the river rises or lowers depending upon the season. As well as the homes we passed by a church for the local floating village community. Buildings are towed as the village moves. Boats pick up the children and transport them to the floating schoolhouse. Children learn to swim before they walk since they are always on the water.
In the afternoon we drove to Banteay Srei temple. This unique temple is a remote complex dedicated to women. It is built in pink sandstone with the most beautiful and intricate carving we had observed up to this point. It was founded in the second half of the 10th century by Hindu priests. Unlike the Angkor temples it is not a royal temple. Many representations of Hindu Shiva, Pavrati, the monkey-king Hanuman, Krishna and the demon king Ravana are etched in great detail throughout the complex. There were very few visitors at this site so we had ample time to stop and admire this well-preserved complex. Thai related to us that prior to 1998 it was too dangerous to drive to this area over the dirt and muddy roads covered with land mines. In 2000 the road was paved and many of the land mines removed. In this area 2 out of every 10 families have experienced physical injury or death from land mines.
Our last day in Cambodia was a visit to the Killing Field Museum. On the way, Thai gave us some history. From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge conducted brutal and constant killing of Cambodian citizens in the worst civil war in history. The Khmer Rouge Regime came into power after the US left Vietnam but supported a weak Cambodian government. The people dissatisfied with the Lohno government were convinced by Pol Pot that the Khmer Rouge would bring peace to the country. He told the residents of Phnom Phen that they should leave their homes because the US was going to bomb the area. Before leaving their homes they were asked to write down their names and careers. They then walked miles away from their homes before told to return. What they saw upon return was the destruction of their city by their government. They were then told that the country is now ruled from Angkor and every citizen is equal.Those who questioned or opposed the Khmer Rouge were immediately killed. The citizens were required to give up everything for the revolution. People were starving but were not allowed to grow their own food. No schools or monasteries were open. Everywhere there was killing. Children were told to join the Khmer Rouge and were “brainwashed” into killing anyone who spoke against the government. Every family lost members. Teachers, engineers, doctors and all of those in intellectual positions identified from the career lists were taken away on trucks- called coconut trucks – to Phom Phen where they experienced horrendous torture. They were required to write down “confessions” of pervious government connections and names of others who had worked in the government. They were then driven outside of the city and killed. 1,008 persons were killed in this immediate area. In 1998 a Buddhist Monastery was built on the grounds we were visiting. Here a memorial was established to the 1.7 million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge.
We left the area deeply saddened and moved by Thai’s vivid depiction of this time which he so clearly remembers. Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia cannot move on as easily since there has been little closure to this horrendous period of history.