I write “surprising” because knowing a bit of this country’s traumatic history of the past 50 years, I find the people to be so gentle and outwardly well-adjusted. The Cambodians I’ve come in contact with are the most gracious and hospitable I’ve met so far on this Southeast Asian journey.
Cambodia has suffered immensely. From the American carpet bombing of the borderlands alongside Vietnam, to the short, genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, to the ensuing civil war that didn’t end until 1990, life here for most was a prolonged agony. And yet, the country is recovering, rediscovering its pride and slowly reestablishing its traditional Khmer culture. However, it is desperately poor, and corruption is a big problem.
During my short visit I saw plenty of evidence of the poverty but only learned about the corruption by hearsay, both from an American woman volunteering for an NGO and from an Australian expat running a guesthouse in the town of Battambang.
I spent a short time in the capital, long enough to visit the memorial on the Killing Fields and the horror of S-21, the school that Pol Pot turned into a prison and torture center, now a grisly museum. The Khmer Rouge documented their work thoroughly with photos of their victims both before and after they tortured them. Roomfuls of these photos are on display in what were once classrooms.
By any civilized standards, Pol Pot was insane, and he bred insanity in others. His was a revolution that consumed itself and virtually every government worker, teacher, and educated person in the country. No one knows exactly how many were executed, but the total was at least one quarter of the country’s population. It seems the communists were going for a tabula rasa, a society created from scratch with only uneducated, rural people as its citizens, and they murdered everyone who did not fit that profile. Those that actually did the killing were often teenagers, chosen and trained by their elders for their work. I was curious about what happened to these young killers. The American NGO volunteer told me they were given amnesty and that many are living as dysfunctional, middle-age adults with a high percentage of spousal abuse and alcoholism.
Beyond these memorials to evil, Phnom Penh has a pleasing character. Much smaller than the cities in Vietnam and China I visited, it is easier to negotiate. It’s river front along a tributary of the mighty Mekong has a broad esplanade backed by popular bars and restaurants.
Behind these is the Royal Palace, not a single building but a large complex surrounded by a high wall and containing temples, stupas, throne rooms, and royal residences. To look upon it at first is breath-taking. What kind of culture gave rise to such exuburent architecture and wild colors? Among the many structures are beautifully cared-for plantings and many flowers.
Cambodia is officially a kingdom whose current monarch is the son of the mercurial King Sihanouk, who, in order to survive, changed his political stripes several times in his long career. The king no longer governs the nation. It has an elected government and a lively political scene, one of whose parties contains a number of former Khmer Rouge members. Many compromises were made in order to end the civil war.
Like most tourists in Cambodia, I went Siem Reap to visit the numerous temple complexes, foremost of which is Angkor Wat. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of Angkor Wat in the national psyche. Its array of three towers is portrayed on the national flag, and the same image figures on many signs and souvenirs. Angkor Wat is indeed a remarkable temple, and there are many others nearby, different but impressive as well. I spent three days walking among the greatest of them while also visiting a few of the lesser ones.
The two obstacles to these visits were first, the immensity of the complexes and second, the weather. I could only spend six hours in the heat before my energy flagged and my brain fogged up. At the end of that period I would ask my tuk tuk driver to take me to a restaurant or back to the hotel where I would shower and lie down in my air-conditioned room for a while.
I don’t exaggerate when I write “immensity.” Angkor Wat is a giant rectangle measuring 1.5 kilometers by 1.3. It is surrounded by a moat 190 meters wide, as wide as two American football fields placed end to end. To enter, I crossed the moat on a causeway and passed through a gate into a first enclosure. I crossed another wide expanse to a second enclosure, on the outer walls of which, thousands of figures are carved in bas-relief.
These were for me the most exciting part of the temple. In great detail they depict a) the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Hindu Mahabharata epic; b) the Army of Suryavarman II, the Khmer king who commissioned Angkor Wat in the 12th century; c) the 37 Heavens and 32 Hells of Hindu mythology; and d) my favorite, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk in which 88 demons and 92 gods grasp an enormous serpent and engage in a tug of war. According to the myth, their contest lasted 1,000 years and their churning action brought up the elixir of life from the ocean’s bottom.
Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to to Vishnu. Later, under another king’s rule it became Buddhist, then Hindu again, and finally Buddhist. The great majority of Cambodians are Buddhist; however, I’ve visited enough of their temples to note that certain beliefs associated with Hinduism, specifically the stories in the Ramayana, are important in Buddhism as well.
When these temple complexes were rediscovered in the 19th century, the jungle had claimed them, and they were crushed and overgrown. Today, they are being continuously restored and cleared. Ta Prohm is the one exception; it’s a ruin that remains engulfed by the roots of enormous trees that tower over it. Given how natural processes have had their way with these masses of sandstone and laterite, I can believe that if we left her alone long enough, nature could reclaim anything man has built.
As a town Siem Reap is not a bad place to spend a few days. It looks as prosperous as it is. It has some very high-end hotel properties and lodging of every category below those. I stayed in a spotlessly clean guest house where it is mandatory to remove shoes before entering the lobby and whose motto is, “Don’t tell anyone.” The restaurant scene is unusual, too. I ate mostly Khmer dishes, but one evening I ordered a steak dinner that came with mashed potatoes, green beans, and mushrooms. It was excellent. Where did the chef learn to turn out western food of that calibre? The same restaurant served frozen margaritas for $1.50.
I went from Siem Reap to Battambang, my final Cambodian destination, in eight hours on an ordinary river boat. Besides its complement of tourists, it carried locals from village to village. There was not much comfort to be had on its hard wooden seats nor much relief from the deafening noise of its unshrouded engine. Fortunately, I carry a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones, and I’ve never needed them more. They made the engine noise tolerable. Due to the noise there was little conversation among us. Some of the river life was interesting to watch.
We passed a large floating village where every dwelling and shop is built on a raft. During the rainy season they must all rise together. Every child we passed would wave and holler to us; we would wave back. People’s lives here are sustained by the river. They fish in it, wash in it, swim in it, cook with it, and sadly, they put unclean things into it.
A note about Cambodian dwellings in general: Most are built high on stilts. At first I thought this must be for flood protection. Then I came to realize that during the really hot hours of the afternoon, the space beneath their houses provides shade and respite from the sun.
Battambang was different, a much quieter town than Siem Reap. It has some lovely old French colonial buildings and a large modern-looking market building that looks as though it was damaged during the war and never completely repaired.
There, on the morning of my one full day, I witnessed an enormous procession. It was an important Buddhist holiday, and there were hundreds of saffron-robed priests in town. Many chanted as they walked hairless and barefoot down the main street. The priests were followed by women dressed in white and other people in ordinary clothing.
Not far from Battambang I witnessed an unusual site. Up on a cliff face is the mouth of a large cave. At precisely 6:30 pm a stream of small bats began to emerge from the cave. There were many, many thousands of them. In the twilit sky they soon formed a ribbon reaching as far as the eye could see. I was told that they would stream from the cave for as long as half an hour. By my crude calculations this would make their number more than a million. It must be a large cave.
I saw other bats near Batambang, also, large ones that hang upside down in trees. I’m told they are fruit-eating bats and that their habitat is protected by the monks of the nearby monastery. Otherwise the locals would hunt them for food.
The one Battambang attraction I took care not to miss was a ride on the bamboo train known as the Norry. It’s simply a bamboo platform set on a pair of railroad axles and powered by a small gasoline engine, a V belt, and two pulleys.
The boy driver sits on a wooden rail at the back of the platform and keeps tension on the belt while the passengers sprawl on the bamboo in front of him. It may reach a speed of twenty or twenty-five mph, but by riding so close to the rails and with the clackaty-clack and the loud growling sound it makes, the effect is pretty exciting. It runs down a disused piece of narrow-gauge track whose rails are warped and whose joints no longer fit correctly. This adds some interesting motions to the platform. There is only a single track, so when one norry meets another coming from the opposite direction, one has to be disassembled and carried to the side. Fortunately, this doesn’t take long as there are only four parts and nothing to unfasten.
My communication problems were less in Cambodia than in China and Vietnam. Many young people speak some English and French is still used here as well.
I enjoyed my time in Cambodia very much. I wish its people only good luck and hope they continue to enjoy a much deserved era of peace.