Glory, Horror and Hope in Cambodia
Updated: Jul 3
Angkor Wat is the first place that comes to mind for most people when you mention Cambodia, and for good reasons, as these amazing temple ruins have become the national symbol. Angkor Archaeologic Park covers more than 400 square kilometers, the largest religious monument in the world, containing the capital cities of the Khmer empire during
the height of their glory.
Construction on Angkor Wat (Wat means temple in Cambodian & Thai) was started by King Suryavarman in the 12th century as an homage to the Hindu god Vishnu. Two of the defining characteristics of this magnificent structure are that it is built in the temple-mountain style, imitating Mount Meru where many of the Hindu gods dwell, and the concept of concentric galleries, starting with the 5km long moat around the temple, an outer wall, and concentric galleries within the building. The distinctive 5-tower quincunx stands in the middle – a powerful image replicated on the Cambodian flag and patriotic posters and a constant reminder of the former glories of the Khmer people.
The causeway leading up to the west-facing entrance was closed for construction, so we crossed the 3-meter-deep moat (no crocodiles these days) on a floating pontoon bridge. The mid-morning sun was already blazing and many in the moderate crowds were carrying parasols, especially the Chinese. We were fortunate to have Tony, the spouse of our hotel manager as a tour guide for the “small circuit”, as he was well-versed in the history of the Khmer people and the amazing structures they erected, and also explained local customs as our tuk tuk driver carried us between town and the temple complex.
Late in the 12th century the temple was converted to Buddhism and it remains that way today. (We were blessed by some resident monks as we walked through) Sometime during the 16th century it fell into neglect with the relentless jungle covering up many buildings and monuments. French explorers “rediscovered” the complex in the mid-19th century and were instrumental in the restoration of the buildings and grounds.
Real history buffs could likely spend days just in the main temple, but a couple hours was enough for us, as we observed many of the large towers, galleries, and walls covered with bas-relief carvings in the sandstone. One of my favorites is in the eastern gallery depicting the famous Churning of the Sea of Milk, an epic story in the Hindu canon that really should be made into a movie! Hello Dollywood?!?!
Exiting Angkor Wat through the eastern gate we walked down a dirt road towards Ta Prohm Temple, hearing the strains of local music in the air as we approached a clearing. Six Khmer
men were sitting under a tarp playing traditional melodies on stringed instruments, percussion and a type of flute. A sign proclaimed they were landmine victims who were trying to support themselves and families by playing music instead of begging. Most had visible signs of loss of limbs, hands or feet. We encountered several groups of these musicians throughout our stay in Siem Reap. A heartbreaking reminder of the cruelties of war.
Ta Prohm is one of the few temples that has not undergone extensive restoration, although
we did see some ongoing work with piles of numbered blocks being sorted. Over 12,000 souls made this their home with some 80,000 more nearby before the fall of Khmer in the 15th century. Added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1992, it is one of the most visited sites in the Angkor region, and the amazing trees are a major reason for this. Gigantic thitpok & silk-cotton trees (there is some controversy on the actual taxonomy of the trees) have grown here as the jungle took over, with their persistent roots winding their way through the sandstone structures. You may have seen images of these gigantic trees and fantastic root systems in scenes from Tomb Raider or Jungle Book.
Several temples have small rooms that seem to amplify sounds. The guides instruct visitors to stand against the wall and thump your chest, noticing that the resulting sound is much louder than normal. One theory is people came here to “beat their worries away”, or possibly a type of prayer. Or maybe just made up for the tourists…?
Angkor Thom covers almost 9 square kilometers and was the last & most enduring capital of the ancient Khmer empire. Surrounded by another moat and laterite walls, the complex holds many temples, terraces and galleries, with the magnificent Bayon temple standing at the center. One of the last temples built at Angkor, Bayon features 216 gigantic faces carved into towers that bear a resemblance to King Jayavarman VII, the monarch who was responsible for their construction. Other scholars maintain they are representative of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitsvara.
Feeling kinda “templed out” we returned to town where Tony dropped us off at Viva, where an advert for $2 margaritas had piqued Susie’s interest! Chimichangas were tasty also.
Next day (Jan 14) we were again up early. The air temperature was almost cool so we sat outside for breakfast at the hotel and enjoyed talking with the wonderful employees. Siem Reap Palace Residence is a small, modern, 4 story hotel with a lovely pool that has only been open for 4 months. Every person on their staff was extremely friendly and helpful, to the extent that they called UPS every day to check on a late credit card delivery for me, and actually drove to the UPS office to retrieve it when the package had not arrived by the day before our departure! Yay Siem Reap Palace! Boo UPS. We felt like we had made some very nice friends and were sad to say goodbye when we left.
Siem Reap has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades, due almost entirely to tourism. The Angkor Wat complex has seen attendance drop slightly this year as the US/China trade war affected the Chinese middle class, the single largest group of tourists by
far. But over 2 million tourists annually to the region is still a lot of people, and we saw large crowds everywhere.
The village grew along the Siem Reap River, from a few Buddhist temples, shops and homes to a bustling city of almost 200,000. Tourism is the driving force now, with every type of café & restaurant, and accommodations from cheap hostels to $1000 per night luxury resorts. The market area near the river is always busy and Pub Street is a wild collection of bars, hawkers & tourists, lit up by garish flashing lights by night. If you don’t want to eat any of the scorpions, snakes or maggots from the hawker-lady, you can take their picture for 50 cents!
Today Tony is driving us in his Camry to some of the temples outside the central Angkor complex. Our first destination was a 10th century temple called Bantea Srei, located about 15 km north of town. The main temple was built to honor the Hindu god Shiva, while later buildings were dedicated to Vishnu. They are notable for the intricate bas relief carvings in red sandstone, and a generally smaller scale that Angkor Wat. Bantea Srei was built in the flat temple style rather than the mountain temple. Think “ranch house” vs “2 story”.
And now for something completely different – the Cambodia Landmine Museum. This
sobering facility was built by Aki Ra, who was inducted into the Khmer Rouge at 10 years of age around 1980. He learned about landmines as a soldier for them, and after he defected to the Vietnamese army in 1987. Ra continued training in mines and unexploded ordnance with the United Nations when they came to Cambodia. He opened the first museum in 1997 with his collection of weapons, and as a home for children orphaned by the wars, who have all grown up and moved out.
There are conflicting reports on the number of bombs that the US dropped on Cambodia during the Indo China wars, but many estimates are well over 2 million tons. A significant number did not explode on impact and remained live and dangerous. Approximately 10 million landmines were laid in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese armies and were placed everywhere: forests, fields and roadsides.
An estimated 4 to 6 million unexploded mines and ordnance still exist, depriving people of the use of thousands of hectares of farmland and roads. “Don’t walk where the cows
haven’t” are words to live by in many parts of the country. Cambodia has the highest per capita number of amputees in the world. This museum is a testament to the inhumanity of war and the efforts to recover from the ensuing horrors.
*BREAKING NEWS: Trump administration just loosened restrictions on landmine use in the US military.
And now for something completely different – a chance to give back to the local community. Susie made contact with a wonderful organization called Touch*A*Life which provides support for poor and displaced people. We spent 2 days with a great group of folks chopping vegetables, bagging soup and packaging rice & omelets. It was an engaging group of young and old, locals, expats and tourists from many different countries, coming
together to deliver hope and help to less fortunate souls.
Wednesday, we packed about 250 meals, then served lunch to a couple dozen children. After cleaning up we loaded the food into their tuk tuk and drove to several tiny villages to distribute the packages. It was both distressing and gratifying to see the villagers, from infants to elderly, gather to receive their food packages. One of the regular volunteers with medical training would help people with aches and pains, dispensing over-the-counter remedies as needed. Sore throats and minor cuts and bruises were the most common complaints.
Saturday is the biggest day with more volunteers prepping almost 750 meals, and having a great time doing it! Although there were many tears shed over the very-strong onions! About 2:30 five of us climbed into the overloaded tuk tuk with 3 others following on mottos and headed off to some other villages on the worst dirt roads you can imagine.
Once again, we witnessed a small miracle as the children queued up behind the wagon to receive their meals. The omelets were thin triangular slices in baggies and marked with the number of pieces in each bag. Robert (?) would be standing outside with the list and tell us “I need a medium bag for 6”. We would then pull out a medium sized cloth bag, add 6 packets of rice, 6 bags of soup and a 6 pack of omelet slices. We also had a bin of small banana clusters that were also handed out.
By the time all the bags of food were dispensed, it was almost dark, and everyone was starting to flag a bit. It was nice to be able to stretch our legs since all of the supply bags being emptied. But every single one of us had a gratifying sense of being part of a wonderful experience that brought a little happiness into someone’s life, and that is truly an amazing feeling.
After 9 nights and 10 days in Siem Reap it was again time to move on. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there, walking the streets, seeing the amazing Phare Circus and Angkor National Museum, and sampling local foods from little cafes and food carts. Hop on the bus, Gus, and off to Phnom Penh. (see previous post for trip details)
Cambodia is a relatively small and poor country compared to neighboring Thailand & Vietnam, and the capital city is correspondingly smaller with around 2 million inhabitants. Located at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh was
considered one of the loveliest French Colonial cities in the 1920s. It is still the nation’s cultural, economic and industrial center, with major business in garments, trading, real estate and tourism. Chinese influence has steadily increased with massive investment and construction on many fronts – part of China’s ambitious world-wide Belt & Road Initiative in 70 countries.
We stayed on the 7th floor of a nice hotel overlooking the Tonle Sap and the busy road alongside, within walking distance of several cafes and shops, and nearby Wat Phnom. This is where the city supposedly got its name when a wealthy widow name Lady Penh found a Koki tree with 4 Buddha statues floating down the river and ordered a hill built to support a temple built from the wood. Thus Phnom Penh: “Penh’s Hill”.
A jarring reminder of the horrors Cambodia has endured in recent history is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, aka the S-21 Prison. Touring this facility is a sobering reminder of how inhumane humans can be. Audio players are available to hear about the history in detail
while walking the grounds.
Pol Pots vision for a completely agrarian society and utter annihilation of any opposition led to the deaths of 2 million people – 25% of the population. Professionals, teachers, doctors, anyone with glasses and “soft hands” was a target. S-21 was just one of many interrogation and torture centers where prisoners were forced to confess crimes and indict friends and neighbors, and then they were killed. This former high school had about 20,000 souls pass through between 1976 to 1979, when the Vietnamese took control of Phnom Penh. Only 12 people were known to have survived S-21. It was a difficult process to walk through the former classrooms and see graphic photos and descriptions of what took place there.
For the first year of S-21 prisoners were executed and buried near the prison, but available space ran out, so they began to haul the detainees to the Boeung Choeung Ek ("Crow's Feet Pond") extermination centre, fifteen km south Phnom Penh. The infamous Killing Fields. They were held until darkness fell, when generators powered up lights and loudspeakers playing Khmer Rouge martial music and propaganda. This was the cue for the guards to kill the prisoners with whatever they had available: knives, pickaxes, shovels, machetes or sharp palmetto fronds, and shove them into mass graves. Bullets were too scarce and expensive.
The present-day site has many markers and depressions to show where graves have been
excavated, and “new” bones and remains are often found. A tall Buddhist stupa was built as a memorial, and the acrylic glass sides display more than 5,000 human skulls and bones. Audio players are also available here.
As if these reminders of recent horrors were not enough, the ride to and from the killing fields passed though some of the worst slums on the outskirts of the city. Flimsy shacks of every description, with dirty kids playing outside, and mounds of trash and garbage along the streets and piled against buildings and fences. Very sad.
Back to the hotel to take a shower and decompress. Whew – that was a lot. But we actually made dinner reservations at a French restaurant we passed whilst walking around yesterday, so buck up – let’s go eat! Le Palais de Poste is housed in an immaculate French Colonial Building, originally constructed as the Bank of Indochina during the French Protectorate’s era of the 1900s. The interior has beautiful mosaic tiles, wood frame stained glass windows, and period-correct artwork. The food was exquisite, and the wine was great, so it was a good thing we saved some $ having noodles and rice for many meals this month!
Past time to blow this pop stand and get back to the beach. Booked a bus to take us south to the coast. The bus company’s tuk tuk picked us up at the hotel and drove to the bus terminal where several buses and minivans were loading. We showed our ticket to several people who kept handing it off to another, and none seeming to speak English. Finally, someone pulled us to the side and pointed at another tuk tuk. What? It seems they brought us to the wrong terminal, so off we go again. Probably going to miss the bus. And they drop us back at the hotel, jabbering at the valets. Into another tuk tuk and off again, with a stop at the shop where we bought the ticket to argue over whose fault it was, and another stop to cram in 3 large Europeans with massive luggage.
Arriving at the next terminal we see one Ford Transit Van, loaded and waiting, apparently on us. In we all go, heading south. The seats are small & I move across the aisle to an unoccupied seat next to the window – also without a seat belt. Not too alarming until we get out of the city congestion and the driver picks up speed. Apparently speed limits are merely a suggestion for some people.
Most of the road between Phnom Penh and Kampot at the coast is under destruction. There is a narrow 2 lane, partially paved center lane, with wide gravel shoulders on either side. The big trucks and busses stay in the center lanes, but all other vehicles feel free to pull off either side, at any time to pass. So there is 2 way traffic in the center, and along each shoulder there is 2, 3 or more “lanes” of traffic going both directions! And since it is gravel, we are usually driving through a giant cloud of dust. And not going slowly, either! Yikes. Never again. I later learned this is another huge Chinese project to build a toll road between the capital and the coast.
The van pulls into a terminal when we reach Kampot, which is a large tourist destination. Half
the passengers disembark. The road splits here, where we follow it east to Kep, and the westward lanes go to Sihanoukville. That is another area of gigantic Chinese investment, where they have built many fancy resorts and over a hundred casinos. Many locals are disturbed by the increase in property taxes, congestion, corruption and organized crime. Glad we are going the opposite direction.
Kep is a fairly small town about 15 km east of Kampot, and we are staying on “Kep beach” just west of town. Our small hotel overlooks the beach on the very north end of the Gulf of Thailand. The choppy water is warm and cloudy with silt or sand – not clear blue like it was around the Thai islands. There are some small shops, cafes and portable stands along the beach road, and a small restaurant in the hotel.
We are very glad to be back near the ocean, in a small, quiet location again. Just spending time walking the beach and streets, and meeting some nice folks. But wait – it is almost Chinese New Year – and even though there are few Chinese people here it is a HOLIDAY WEEKEND! Haha.
And it was really fun. There are large sidewalks running along the beach, and a jumble of tarps and canvass has been installed overhead on bamboo & aluminum frames. The “rug ladies” (my label) stake out a section of sidewalk and unroll large rugs, sweeping them off periodically with their banana tree brooms. Then they stand in the road, dressed head to toe in long sleeves, gloves and large bonnets, and flag down passing cars to get the to rent their space. Someone told us the rug ladies rent the space from the government. Who knows.
By mid afternoon the road along the beach looks like Ft Lauderdale at Spring Break – pretty much stopped dead, except for the motos weaving in and out. People are arriving in all forms of transport: the requisite Lexus SUVs, minivans, pickup trucks with the inlaws in back, big trucks with the whole clan, and of course tour buses. The ones that have done this before bring their coolers, chairs (not many), hammocks, and BIG speakers. Let the party begin!
Kep is know for its crab fishery, and the “crab market is just down the road. Many families
stop there first to grab large bags or prawns and crabs, then bring ‘em over to their favorite rug, crank up the tunes and have a picnic. The kids are running wild on the beach and the water is full of waders and swimmers. You have to walk out about 3 km before it gets deep enough to swim. There is not a single woman in a bathing suit – all of them in their street clothes. Most men also.
A couple of jet skis are buzzing around and a small boat stays busy pulling a large inflatable with 4 or 5 people on it, all wearing identical helmets and life jackets. A rousing game of volleyball kicks off at one end of the beach, while a teenage couple take turns photographing each other. It really is fun watching everyone enjoying the beach, and there was not a lot of evidence of drinking. We were a mite worried that the beat might go on well after our bedtime, but they mostly cleared out by midnight. Only to come back again the next day! Saturday was New Years Day, and they partied from Thursday to Monday. On Tuesday the city (?) took down the tarps and the rug ladies rolled up their goods and went home. Now someone needs to call the trash collectors….
We walked down to the crab market several days and had a delicious dinner each time, trying different versions of crab dishes while watching the sun set over the gulf. One morning
we walked through Kep National Park, an easy 2 hour hike through some low hills with nice views of the ocean. We met Linda & Andy, a very nice young European couple running the Backyard Café & Casa Kep just up the hill. They bake the most delicious bread and have different sandwiches, coffee and treats. Wonderful time visiting with them.
Tuesday, we hired a tuk tuk to drive us our to Sothy’s Pepper Farm, where they grow the famous Kampot Pepper. Famous? Well, they would like it to be. The name is now protected by World Trade Association status of Protected Geographical Indication, like – to use widely known examples – Champagne from the region of the Champagne in France. Our guide gave us a short description of the growing process and the 4 types of pepper: green, red, black and white. She also gave us samples to taste. She gave us the green first which was
uncomfortably hot and ruined my taste buds for the other 3. Should have saved that for last!
The flavor of the pepper is influenced by the quartz content of the soil in the area, along with cultivation and storage. All four varieties come from the same pepper berries, with the harvesting time and processing changing the end product.
OK folks – that’s it for now. Thinking about Vietnam next, but first….maybe a Cuba Libre.
< see photos pages for more >