We awoke at four o’clock in the morning in order to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise. On the road to the temples I drank in the chilled, dark, pre-dawn air; relishing every breath because I knew what roasting heat lurked as the vanguard of the rising sun. We arrived just as dawn was spreading her rosy fingers across the eastern horizon. Brilliant pink, red, and golden clouds drifted slowly across the deep blue canvas of the early morning sky. The black silhouette of the massive temple reflected majestically on the mirrored surface of the enormous moat that encircles the site.
We spent an hour or so wandering around the expansive grounds which are meant to represent the structure of the world. The massive moats and ponds are the oceans and seas, courtyards that are the size of soccer fields represent the continents, while the great towers evoke the solemn dominance of the mountains. Thousands of monks and nuns strolled around the area, collecting trash, meditating in the cool morning air or preparing for the birthday celebration of Buddha (which was that day).
Over the next few days we visited dozens of sites, too numerous to mention them all. We walked the mile-long Elephant Terrace where the god-kings of old lounged as parades of horses, elephants, and thousands of soldiers gave testament to their military might. We bathed in the cool waters of Kbal Spean, also known as the river of 1000 lingas because of the 11th century carvings that cover the river bottom.
The most impressive site, however, was a temple called Ta Phrom. It is a gorgeous, ancient structure that is being reclaimed by the voracious jungle. Enormous trees grow up through the walls and around the stone pagodas in a seamless interweaving of the human and natural world. Crawling through the darkened corridors of Ta Phrom felt a little like the Raiders of the Lost Ark so I kept a sharp eye out for poison tipped blowgun darts and golden idols. If only I’d brought a bag of sand…
The town of Siem Reap is located near the shores of Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The boundaries of the lake change dramatically between the wet and dry seasons. Since time immemorial, the people have found unique ways to deal with the ever-changing landscape. Houses constructed on the plains around Tonle Sap are built on stilts up to thirty feet high like spindle-legged elephants wandering through the dust of the dry season. However, during the wet season the lake water laps at the doorsill. Some residents have done away with stilts all together and actually built floating villages on the surface of the lake. These villages are complete with houses, grocery stores, schools, bars and everything else you could need... all floating on rafts. We took a boat out late one afternoon for a visit. It was truly amazing. You could live your entire life in one of these villages and never set foot on land.
Leaving Siem Reap we took the road south to the capital Phnom Penh and it seemed to me that we were taking a highway through history; leaving the wonders of the ancient world and moving into a time when the horrors of the Khmer Rouge washed over Cambodia like a river of blood. Much like the western calendar was divided into two parts when a knife cut the umbilical cord of baby from Nazareth, the history of Cambodia is also cleft in twain, but with a much bloodier knife.
On April 17th, 1975 Khmer Rouge forces, under the command of Pol Pot, entered Phnom Penh and changed history forever. As a young man, Pol Pot studied in France and became an active member of the French Communist Party. He admired Mao Tse Tung and fiercely studied China’s Cultural Revolution. With Mao in mind, he attempted to help his country take a “Great Leap Forward.” Unfortunately for Cambodia, Pol Pot must never have finished reading the Chinese history or he would have known the tragedy that was about to befall his country.
Pol Pot envisioned a country where the peasants were the esteemed members of society, where everyone lived with the common ideals of an agrarian, communist society. To make this a reality, the Khmer Rouge declared war on Cambodian civilization as a whole. In order to expunge the history of the country and cut ties with capitalist influences, the Khmer Rouge declared it the Year Zero, a new beginning. The army emptied the city of Phnom Penh of its several million inhabitants in just over three days. City folks or “New People” were seen as the enemy and forcefully transported to the countryside to toil along side the peasants on communal farms. Temples, books, and works of art were destroyed in an attempt to purge the country of any ideas other than those of the state.
Any form of perceived resistance was met with swift and brutal execution. Teachers, doctors, scholars, and ordinary citizens were exterminated by the thousands. Wearing glasses or even having soft hands was enough to get you killed. Because all loyalty was supposed to be to the state and the state alone, the Khmer Rouge purposefully separated families in an effort to stamp out any familial loyalty. They outlawed love (seriously) along with reading and writing so that people could not communicate with the outside world.
|Courtyard of S-21|
|Prisoners were kept in 4x6 cells in the classrooms|
|Most of the rooms were kept exactly the same as when they were found, bloodstains and all .|
|One of the last prisoners to die in S-21|
|Of the 17,000 prisoners who went into S-21, seven survived. This guy was one of them.|
|View from inside the Killing Fields|
|The Khmer Rouge would sometimes use sharp palm branches to slash the throats of the victims|
One of the saddest sights at the Killing Fields is called the Killing Tree. The Khmer Rouge had a saying, “To kill the grass, you have to tear up the roots.” With that in mind they executed entire families, including children, if one member was thought to be a dissident. The babies were held by their legs and bashed against the tree until they died, then they were thrown in a pit with their mothers.
After the horrors of the Khmer Rouge it is amazing that any Cambodians survived, but the thing that is most astounding about people is our resilience. The Cambodian people have an indomitable spirit that can never be broken. Eventually, the king returned and life began to return to normal. Citizens returned to the capital and began to rebuild with renewed vigor. The city is now a rising star in Asia. Molly and I spent our last afternoon in Phnom Penh touring the beautiful royal palace and silver pagoda that were thankfully spared during the madness.