The Wonder of Angkor

Today I am disappearing into pictures from Cambodia. It’s cold today, and Memphis finally got some snow (very dusty, powdery stuff). As I reminisce, I realize that I never wrote a post about the Angkor Temples. For something so wondrous, and vast, and well-known, it surprises me that I didn’t blog about this part of my trip. I want to improve my reporting skills, going back in time to report events that already occurred, instead of only writing things down as they happen. I have a lot to learn and improve upon. In Cambodia, and in my processing of experience in Cambodia, I caught myself up in the recent history, the tragedy of genocide, the hatred and the bloodshed. 

Journalist Joel Brinkley attributed a lot of Cambodia’s current, utterly corrupt state of affairs to part of an ancient culture of tribute made to kings, lords, rulers and so on down the line of power. Those in the king’s favor won land, titles and wealth, mostly in the form of commodities like grain, which was always in high demand. Mr. Brinkley argues that this was how Pol Pot (the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge party) and his cronies, and how the current leadership “gangs” still function today. He makes a very convincing argument.  But there’s more to ancient Khmer culture than just warlords and cronies. There is magic that exists today, still painstakingly preserved, in northern Cambodia.

 Something major is missing from the current political structure, aside from humane treatment of constituents and fair voting processes. Little regard is left for ancient cultural and religious traditions–at least in the government halls–that helped to grow the Khmer empire into the most expansive kingdom in southeast Asia long ago. The beauty is lost, but thanks to extensive restoration and preservation efforts by the colonial French, the Angkor Temples tower over the Cambodian countryside today, testifying to the sacred wonder of a glorious bygone era.

 Angkor Wat

View of the main temple complex from the lily-padded lake.

Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the Angkor Temples. Its renown and majesty is comparable to El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid, if you’re familiar with Mexican heritage. But Angkor Wat was built to honor a Hindu god. When the empire later converted to Buddhism, new statues were built to honor these gods. If you ever go to Angkor, get a guide for Angkor Wat. The other temple structures are less detailed and far more open, leaving you free to wander at your own leisure. But the stories that are packed into every stone of Angkor Wat demand that you understand them to appreciate the temple’s full worth. There are usually English-speaking guides standing outside the main entrance to the temple, and they wear beige shirts and carry books of photographs. (And if my memory serves me correctly, my guide wore a name badge around his neck as well.) These men are well trained and extremely knowledgeable. You can negotiate a price, but I believe I paid mine $10. He will also take you all the way up to the top of the temple, which allows you to see for miles around and stories below, a breathtaking sight. 

Bayon Temple
Do you see what I see? These sweetly serene faces are carved into the peaks at Bayon temple.

Bayon temple, a little ways away from Angkor Wat, is much 
more open and ruinous. In fact, I think we just wandered in to this one. Bayon has not been as neatly preserved, but that makes for much of the fun. You cN wander in between the half-open hallways and climb up and up until you come to the rooftop. These smiling faces greet you, but don’t let the photo fool you; each one stands several hundred feet high. 

Bayon is part of a long strip of open, ruinous temples where you can wander. Many are just as grand in structure and purpose as Angkor Wat, but not nearly as protected. 

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, as you must (because the temples are located some 20 km outside of town), ask him to take you to Bayon temple and to wait for you. Take your time, and don’t allow yourself to feel rushed. As a thank you, you can buy him lunch at one of the conveniently located tourist restaurants erected in the fields across the way 🙂
Ta Prohm, aka “The Tomb Raider Temple”

This was my personal favorite. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (so did everyone else, probably). Ta Prohm temple’s level of preservation falls below Angkor and Bayon, and for good reason. No where else in the world have I seen nature attack man-made structures so violently and remain such a powerful presence. The root structures of Siemp Riep’s trees have split the bricks of temples during centuries of abandonment, creating a space so magical and other-worldly, you can’t believe your own feelings. Just take a look at some of the effects of mother nature having her way:

Exploring these magnanimous temples, I felt eight years old again, as if I were wandering through the woods behind my house, feet muddy, streams trickling behind me, everything quiet save the crunch of twigs beneath my shoes. Nothing compares to that feeling. If I could, I would spend a week just sitting in these temples, breathing in the ancient mystery, pretending I’m on a quest for a hidden treasure. Who knows, there very well could still be some buried underneath these giant trees, waiting to be unearthed 🙂

References and Further Reading:


Cambodian Complexities: I have a feeling we’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto

Today I’m typing from a close friend’s apartment in the Udom Suk neighborhood of Bangkok. Yesterday I walked through graves in Cambodia: the Killing Fields, one of many sights where the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s most notorious mass-murdering regime, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Khmer people not more than thirty five years ago. As I walked, my audio tour guide gently reminded me not to step on any bone fragments, as such remains tend to surface after the rainy season and the soil shifts. I couldn’t take any pictures ( I was allowed to take pictures, but emotionally I could not), but I found part of a jawbone with a few teeth lying half-exposed beneath the dusty soil, and pieces of what looked like arm or leg bones appeared near by.

I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
The complexities of Khmer culture, both ancient and modern, overwhelmed me as soon as I stepped off the bus in Siem Riep. Before that, as my bus chugged slowly across the border from Aranyaprathet, Thailand into Cambodia, I was surprised at how similar it felt: rows of young and old women selling fruits and snacks, car repair shops and convenience stores dotting the drab, dusty landscape. But as we left the border town, I was struck by verdant beauty: miles and miles of lush rice paddies, palm trees and mangroves. Milky-white cows grazed on bright green grasses as local farmers squatted by their rice crops preparing to harvest. It was so calm, and it was so beautiful. I felt a sense of peace I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Yet when we arrived in Siem Riep, the town closest to the famous Angkor temples, I realized that things operate differently here. First, there were no taxis–two or four wheel–in sight. As soon as I was off the bus, twenty or so men approached me asking if I needed a tuk-tuk, which is a motorized rick-shaw, the Cambodian answer to taxis. My first instinct was to walk away and search for a “legitimate” taxi driver, but as I did so I noticed that there were no taxi drivers. There were only rows of tuk-tuks parked along the street. I guess there was no other option. 
As it turns out, there isn’t, at least if you’re a foreigner, and especially if you want to see the Angkor temples, about 15 km outside of town. My first morning there, on the way to Angkor Wat, I turned around in my seat and couldn’t help laughing: a sea of tuk-tuks paraded down the road behind us, fading into the horizon, as if this were a rehearsed, daily ritual. After spending a few days in Siem Riep, I believe this is exactly the truth. The part of Siem Riep that I saw seems to have been constructed entirely for foreign backpackers, and the glow-in-the-dark signs that hang overhead state my case: “Night market” and “pub street” illumine two crossroads like cheesy Christmas lights in a shopping mall. Rows of rowdy pubs with a ninety-eight percent foreign clientele make it hard to believe that this is still Cambodia, the small and ancient country that was up until very recently a United Nations protectorate. 
It’s easy to forget this if you stay in Siem Riep, but as soon as you leave–on a drive through the countryside if you have a nice tuk-tuk driver who’s willing to take you, or on a speedboat down the Tonle Sap–you realize how poor most of Cambodia is, and it hits you in the face like the hard, strong sun. Most of Cambodia’s people are farmers–not commercial farmers, but subsistence farmers. Many take boats into the Tonle Sap river to fish and sell their findings at market, but they rarely make a large profit. I’m no expert on Cambodian economics, but I know that, materially at least, most of these people have very, very little. 
Still, I couldn’t help but be taken in by the natural beauty and picturesque tranquility of the fishing villages that dotted the landscape as my speedboat whirred past. Mangrove forests, floating houses and family fishing boats came to greet us like beacons into another world. This was truly foreign to me–a lifestyle so untouched by modernity, yet so at peace with nature. I admit I felt jealous of them. 
One of many fishing boats we passed. 

Homes built along the water. These are not built on stilts, though most houses are, to protect from floods.

There was something that appealed to me about this lifestyle. And yet I wondered what they thought of me and the other tourists in the boat. As we passed, many of them smiled and waved. I wondered how genuine was this gesture. There’s no way of knowing, though to me it felt truthful. And that, in the midst of everything else, made me feel welcome.

There was one more place I had to visit before I left Cambodia.  I know most people don’t travel for the museums, but I do. Having written a paper on the Cambodian genocide last spring, there was no way I was going to Cambodia without visiting Tuol Sleng, the former prison and interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge.
Tuol Sleng, or S-21 as it is also known, stands in the middle of Phnom Penh, the capital city. From the outside, it is nondescript and seems to blend in with the other beige cement buildings around it. But as soon as I stepped inside I felt chilled. Tuol Sleng used to be a high school; it was built in the sixties during a brief period when Cambodia had a sovereign leader, before the civil war began. When the KR took power, they emptied the city and turned Tuol Sleng into their interrogation headquarters. Here, they imprisoned and tortured thousands of innocent people: members of the opposition government, those with educations, those with glasses, and their families. They also imprisoned a string of westerners here. Their testimonies remain, displayed on the third floor in the original Khmer script for all to see. The kinds of confessions people made up are absurd. The whole thing is absurd. It’s impossible to comprehend.
So I just cried. I cried a lot, and I couldn’t really stop, but I told myself to keep it together, because these stories needs to be told. I felt so grateful to the hard-working men and women who are now running the museum and guiding tourists like me; they have a great responsibility to share these stories. It’s chilling and gruesome to walk through the prison cells, and even worse when you continue on the 15 km journey outside of the city to the Killing Fields, where the mounds dug as mass graves are still deeply imprinted in the earth. I don’t think I had ever been that close to human bones before. It’s a terrible sight. 
So what now? I left Cambodia early; I didn’t want to stay. I confronted reality, and it overwhelmed me, so I left. But for the million and a half that died under the KR, and for millions still living in poverty or under threat of land-mine explosion today, they can’t leave. This is their reality. 
I didn’t stay long enough to ask anyone about it. My tuk-tuk driver, Alex, told me a little about his life as a boy. He is twenty-six years old, and his parents survived the Khmer Rouge. But he didn’t talk about how. He told me how he used to go on the Tonle Sap every day in a boat to fish for extra food to sell at market. He said they were very poor. 
Sympathy, empathy, guilt and a host of other feelings overtook me during my five powerful days in Cambodia. It’s a lot for anyone to stomach, and I try not to shame myself for it, though I wish I had answers and cures. If all I can do right now is to tell this small story to someone else, then I can be happy with that. And maybe you can share this with someone else who may not know about it.  I visited Cambodia, and I found a world that was simultaneously untouched and hopelessly crushed by modernity. It isn’t fair. Cambodia is so beautiful, and I wish I had stayed for a much longer time.

If you’d like to read more about Cambodia’s recent history and to learn about excellent recovery projects like Land-Mine removal, I recommend these sights:
De-mining efforts in Cambodia (this contains information about the Land Mine Museum near Siem Reap, which I also visited. It chronicles the efforts of one former KR child soldier in de-mining Cambodia and helping land-mine victims. Absolutely worth a visit if you are ever in Siem Reap). 
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