On January 7, 1979 — 20 years ago today — three years of horror came to an end in Cambodia. On that day, Vietnamese troops roared into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, displacing the communist Khmer Rouge government that had ruled Cambodia since April 17, 1975. The Vietnamese, despite being hardened by 30 years of war, were truly shocked at what they discovered in Cambodia: an entire country dismantled and displaced, with millions of Cambodians forced to work in agricultural labor camps. There were no more schools, no offices or businesses; money and family relationships were totally banned. And throughout the countryside, Cambodia was pockmarked by sunken depressions of dirt, as if hell itself had sucked in cavities of earth in the hopes of devouring the world above it. As the world soon discovered, these earthen depressions were indeed the stuff of hell, for each marked the spot of another mass grave: the graves of the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians slaughtered by their own ountrymen.
In the short span of time from April 1975 to January 1979, the Khmer Rouge managed to starve and murder as many as two million Cambodians – two out of every seven people in a country no larger than the state of Missouri. In the 20 years since, little has been done to seek justice in the memory of those who died. This past year, Pol Pot, mastermind of the genocide, died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack. His three senior henchman, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, have been granted amnesty by the current Cambodian government. It is as if the world would rather forgive and forget rather than face up to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.
In honor of the two million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge and the countless others whose lives were destroyed by their policies, I would like to present a new website:
From Sideshow to Genocide:
Tales of the Cambodian Holocaust
http://edweb.gsn.org/sideshow (now http://edwebproject.org/sideshow/)
This website is a virtual history of the Cambodian genocide, covering events in Cambodia from the turn of the century to the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The website is divided into three main chapters. In “Cambodia Before the Holocaust,” visitors can explore the effects of the Vietnam War and US Cold War policy in Cambodia. “The Khmer Rouge Years” covers the bloody Khmer Rouge regime and its relentless oppression of Cambodian citizens. “Survivor Stories” recounts the tales of Cambodians who managed to escape the Khmer Rouge, written in their own words. Sideshow also includes a guide for online resources related to Cambodia, the Vietnam War, holocaust studies and other subjects. In the coming months, the website will also include a collection of lesson plans for use in schools as well as information on current events in Cambodia.
Over a year in the making, From Sideshow to Genocide is designed as an educational resource for schools and the general public. However, it should be noted that the subject matter might be somewhat graphic for younger audiences. I highly recommend that students view this website with their families or teachers and discuss the issues raised here in order to better understand the gravity of the events surrounding the Khmer Rouge genocide. It is all too easy for genocide in all of its evil forms to seem distant and unreal to those who have not experienced it. Therefore it is my hope that this website will help eliminate the disconnect to these events and allow all of us to bear witness.
Please feel free to share this invitation with your friends and colleagues. The more who know, the harder it will be to forget.
January 7, 1999
On January 7, 1979 — 20 years ago today — three years of horror came to an end in Cambodia. On that day, Vietnamese troops roared into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, displacing the communist Khmer Rouge government that had ruled Cambodia since April 17, 1975. The Vietnamese, despite being hardened by 30 years of war, were truly shocked at what they discovered in Cambodia: an entire country dismantled and displaced, with millions of Cambodians forced to work in agricultural labor camps. There were no more schools, no offices or businesses; money and family relationships were totally banned. And throughout the countryside, Cambodia was pockmarked by sunken depressions of dirt, as if hell itself had sucked in cavities of earth in the hopes of devouring the world above it. As the world soon discovered, these earthen depressions were indeed the stuff of hell, for each marked the spot of another mass grave: the graves of the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians slaughtered by their own ountrymen.
January 8, 1998
Hi everyone. My travel companion, Susanne Cornwall, has asked me to post her journal diary for our recent visit to Angkor. Hope you enjoy it…. -ac
From the window of our Royal Air Cambodge flight, I could see the vast green expanses of Siem Reap. Jungle Green… Rice Paddy Green… There is no crayon in the Crayola box that can express the depth of this color. And Angkor is covered in green, surrounded by it. Green creeps into the stone ruins, between rocks, up towers.
The ruins at Angkor go on and on. They are grander than I expected, larger, fuller, healthier than I imagined. Angkor is friendly and magical. It’s almost as if nothing happened here… almost as if the war never touched Angkor. Of course it did – rows of headless statues and amputees in every wat remind me that this too was the front-line. But today it is so peaceful. Children climb on the ruins as if they were in an enormous playground. If Phnom Penh is like a city of children, then Angkor is like a magical land of children. At every turn they hang out, play, run, try to sell their wares to tourists. They bombarded us with flutes, T-shirts, wooden boats, film.
“You buy madam? You buy?” “If you buy, you buy from me.” “Cold drink, madam? Cold drink, mister?”
We are surrounded by child merchants. Women also sell film and water, but the overwhelming majority of people at Angkor are under seventeen.
The beauty of this place amazes me. In all my travels, I have never seen anything that compares. Petra in Jordan comes close, but the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal cannot rival the majesty, the aura of Angkor. The war did not destroy it. Like the people here, Angkor is an enduring witness. Land mines have been cleared from the area. Restoration is in progress. Bamboo scaffolding supports some of the ruins. Angkor is a rugged survivor. One thousand years of time and four years of the Khmer Rouge, and it is still quite clearly one of the wonders of the world.
Spanning from Charlemagne to Joan of Arc (802 AD to 1432 AD) Angkor rose, thrived and fell. Some 750,000 people lived here during its height. The city was founded by Jayavarman II in 802 AD. Many more kings built many more temples over the years. Hindu, then after 1181, Buddhist tradition dictated the layout of the stone structures. That is why Angkor Wat’s towers, constructed between 1112 and 1152, were built in imitation of Mount Meru (the holiest mountain in Hinduism). In contrast, Angkor Thom’s stones, sculpted between 1181 and 1201, are covered with faces of the Buddhist Avelokiteswara. The 12th and 13th centuries saw the pinnacle of the complex. But after suffering two defeats to the Thai army, in 1351 and 1431, the Khmer court abandoned the city for Phnom Penh. Vines moved in. Trees dug their roots into the ruins. The jungle encroached upon the massive gray stones. Jungle Green … Rice Paddy Green crept through this magnificent ghost town.
Our plane touched down in Siem Reap at 7:15 AM. A literal mob of men stood at the airport door offering guides or taxis. Andy walked headlong into the mob and pointed to one man. Later Andy explained that to me that he’d selected this man out of the crowd because he was the smallest. If he tried to cause problems for us, Andy figured he could take him on. We were still feeling paranoid and overly cautious. The man Andy chose grabbed his wrist and led us through the crowd to his car.
“My brother,” the man said pointing to the driver. “Do you need a guide at Angkor? My brother will take you everywhere.” “How much?” We asked. “Twenty dollars a day,” he said.
That is the going rate, so we agreed. We gave the man the fee for tickets into Angkor – forty US dollars each. Like Phnom Penh, the US dollar is the preferred currency. He dropped us off at our hotel, The Golden Apsara Guesthouse, then went off to buy our tickets. The hotel was nice. A good bathroom with toilet paper. Three beds, each a little wider than your average dorm room bed. A balcony, air conditioning, nice paintings of Angkor Wat in the hallway, and orange curtains, almost the shade of a monk’s saffron robe. A cat perched on the rooftop of the next building over. Geckos scurried around on the balcony. The hotel manager only spoke French. I actually had my first chance ever to use my 7th grade French.
“Vous avez une corbellie?” I asked holding my empty water bottle.
He nodded and threw it away. Even in France everyone spoke to me in English, so it was fun to finally get to use all those years of vocabulary. After maybe twenty minutes, the man we met at the airport rode back on a moped with the tickets.
“He’s 27,” one guy pointed to the man with the tickets, “but he’s small,” he laughed. The driver told us he was 29 years old and his name was Rang. Rang took the tickets from his brother, and we hopped in the car.
Angkor is about 15 to 20 minutes away from the hotel, and the drive brings us straight through the heart of the city. Siem Reap is much calmer than Phnom Penh and much smaller. It is a village more than a city. One of Sihanouk’s palaces dominates the center of town. Huge paintings of the king are set on the street corners. Red and blue banners decorated with the white outline of Angkor Wat stream across the road sides. Mopeds and bicycles make up about 90% of the traffic. Like the capital, no street lights dictate the flow. School children, stray dogs, and roosters sidestep mopeds on these dirt roads. Homes and merchant stalls line the river banks.
The first structure that welcomed us to Angkor was the South Gate of Angkor Thom. It is a huge archway crowned with four smiling faces, each looking out on a different north, south, west direction. The stone gate is twenty meters tall. It is an imposing introduction, but the mysterious smiles on the four heads of the bodhisattva Avalokiteswara are welcoming. Under the green shades of the forest, the grin looks peaceful.
Angkor Thom, some 10 square kilometers large, was built by King Jayavarman VII between 1181 and 1201 AD. A moat – crocodile-infested according to legend – surrounds the city. A square wall, eight meters high and 12 kilometers long borders the city. There are four gates, each topped with four smiling faces of the Buddha. We entered through the South Gate and drove on to the Bayon.
As soon as we got out of the car, a swarm of children surrounded us.
“Flute?” “Boat?” “Film?”
We encountered the same thing at every stop.
“No thank you,” we smiled and kept walking.
Stone steps lead up to this huge “castle” of rock. Two pools, one on either side, reflect the ruins. From a great distance, I thought, the Bayon could look like a natural formation of rock with gargantuan stalagmites jutting out of it. As I got closer and climbed higher up the rock staircase, the details began to emerge. Intricate bas reliefs of women, dances, battles. A woman maybe fifty years old pressed her palms together and returned my wei (a bowing greeting you make with your hands clasped.) Her white cloth draped over the rock she was sitting on. When she smiled I could see her teeth were brown and black.
I climbed up another set of stairs to the top level – the top level I could climb to anyway. The tallest tower still rose far above me. This was, for me, the most mysterious ruin. Dozens of faces, all bearing that enlightened grin, are carved into the rock. Some of the faces have roots and leaves running through their cracks and crevices. Andy and I split up and wandered around. A man, sitting on the ground, played a two-stringed instrument. It was about the length of a woman’s outstretched arm, and he held it against him, as if it was a cello. The music echoed throughout the ruins, adding depth and mystery to the site. The instrument appeared to rest on the musician’s thigh, but once I walked around him I could see that he had no thigh, no right leg at all. Land mines loomed even under the soil of Angkor. The tourist areas are all cleared, but in the outlying fields, the threat is still there.
I walked in a circle around the upper deck of the Bayon. People sat on the rocks to write or take photos. There were actually about fifteen tourists up there, maybe less, but I felt alone anyway. The music and the majesty seemed to silence everyone. Most of us just wandered, pressing our palms from time to time against the chiseled rock faces. Various shrines are set up within the ruins. Women encourage passers by to light an incense stick for Buddha, and of course to make a contribution.
Outside and in front of the Bayon I snapped a picture of an elderly woman sitting by one of the pools. I gave her one dollar, as she requested, and I respectfully weid to her. She smiled, laughed and weid back.
We met Rang back at the car, and he directed us to the next set of sites. As he pointed down the dirt road, I noticed that his pinkie fingernail was about an inch long. I’d seen that on other men here as well. I wondered if that was current fashion or tradition.
Our next stop was the Baphuon. The steps were on the far side of a huge puddle of water, and to the right stood the Terrace of the Elephants. A whole parade of pachyderms carved into a 350 meter long wall. We walked along the terraces, careful to sidestep puddles, until we came to the Terrace of the Leper King. A nude, sexless statue sat cross-legged on the top. According to legend, at least two Khmer kings had leprosy. What a view the kings must have had from this spot, I thought. Elephants cloaked in fine cloth, musicians drumming and piping, raised parasols, swaying palm leaves.
From there we climbed down and journeyed away from the road, down a dirt path. We passed a circle of boys who were kicking their flip flops in the air and betting on the results. The dirt path narrowed and led us to Tep Pranam and Phimeanakas – a Buddhist terrace and the site of a palace. There’s not much left of those structures now. Three little girls skipped alongside us. They followed us down a dirt pathway, across a field of grazing cows, under a series of windblown banners and to North Kleang. We passed a number of large linga shaped ruins that were well over fifteen feet high – probably more than that. Music of that multi-rhythm Asian flavor poured through the forest, but since the gathering of trees between the musicians and us was so thick, we couldn’t see them. I wanted to track down the performers, but the path that would have brought us to them was slushy with mud. Besides with the midday heat bearing down on us, we were two disgusting bundles of sweat. It was time for lunch and a shower. Rang told us that Angkor empties out from noon to 2 PM everyday because of the heat. And while it may sound like a great time to explore the ruins all by yourself, it’s not. The heat is just too much.
Rang drove us out of the park and back to town where we ate at a great little restaurant called The Bayon. It was laid out around a courtyard, and the host pointed a fan directly on us. It was perfect. A woman we’d met at the Phnom Penh airport that morning walked over to our table to say hello. She was traveling alone, and we asked her to join us. She was from Manchester, England on holiday for two months. She’d been to Hawaii, Samoa, Australia and Vietnam. Her husband didn’t enjoy traveling, and her children were all over thirty, she explained, so she just went out on her own. She planned to take the “Palace on Wheels” train trip across India next year. We exchanged travel stories and shared chicken and fish in curry and coconut milk and a plate of fried rice.
After a quick shower at the hotel, we decided to check out the market down the street. Across the dusty dirt road and down about a block, we found the open air market. Dozens of merchant stalls sat under a large tent. The whole market was no bigger than a small city block. Fish mongers displayed their products in piles (not as if they had to, the smell was advertisement enough). We walked under the tent and into the maze of stalls. Many of the merchants rested in hammocks. One young merchant fell asleep on a glass cabinet full of watches. A woman sat at a cloth stand and rocked an infant in a hammock. Women sold miniature figures of the Bayon heads, wood carvings of the Angkor sites, paintings of Angkor Wat, rubbings of the bas reliefs. An elderly book seller stood in front of his collection: “Brother Number One: Pol Pot,” “The Tragedy of Cambodian History,” and other Khmer Rouge era studies.
We hurried back to the hotel and met Rang. Refueled and rested we went directly to Angkor Wat. Rang said we could meet him at 4:40, and we’d drive to Phnom Bakheng, a hill where we could watch the sun set. We waved good-bye to him and started down the stone bridge that spanned across the moat.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s signature piece. Historians believe it was built during the reign of Suryavarman II (1112 – 1152 AD) to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and to serve as a funerary temple for the king. The details are incredibly well preserved. The most significant features of the wat are oriented towards the west which is traditionally the direction of death. Like many temples in Angkor, the highest tower represents Mount Meru, the mystical center of the world according to Hindus. The surrounding towers represent the lower mountains.
As we walked down the sandstone causeway and through the gate, the outline of Angkor Wat was slowly revealed. Breathtaking, incredible, superb – all the superlatives apply. It is a monument to mankind. The complex is enormous. The moat is 190 meters wide; the outer wall is 1025 by 800 meters long. The 475 meter long avenue leading to the wat itself is lined with naga balustrades (statues of snakes). The avenue is cradled between two pools. Strewn with lily pads and pink flowers, the pools reflect the ruins. Jumping fish and restless insects make the waters shimmer. I have seen places like this in storybooks. Old fairy tale books that my grandmother would page through as I sat on her lap.
Inside the wat, we climbed up stone staircases and walked around the different levels. Women with shaved heads sat by statues. They asked us to donate money and to light incense. The levels are difficult to walk around because every few steps, you have to jump over a foot-high, foot-wide divider. We figured maybe the floor was designed like this to slow invading armies, but then again if invaders got that far it was probably too late. Who knows. Out the tall windows, we could see the endless landscape of trees and rice paddies. We got up to the second highest level and found a rather perilous-looking stairway up to the top of Angkor Wat. A rusty metal handrail ran up the narrow stone steps. I don’t remember how many steps there were, but they were set at a step angle. I held onto the railing like a mountain climber grasping a rope and looked only at the few steps directly below me. It wasn’t exhausting; it was just a little nerve racking.
Finally we reached the pinnacle of Angkor Wat. We circled the level and looked out at the view, then we lit incense at the shrine of a reclining Buddha. On its way out the window, the smoke drifted past a saffron cloth twisted around a chunk of stone. Three children sat under the shade of the temple playing a game with marble sized stones. We rested for a while at the top, met other tourists from Washington, D.C. and Australia, then we went back down the way we came. From a few feet back, it looked as if the staircase dropped off like a cliff. In truth, going down was ten times easier than going up. A group of women were gathered at the base of the stairs like a sort of congratulatory committee.
We walked down the various levels and towards the entrance of the wat. Just as we were leaving we found a troop of traditional Khmer dancers preparing for a show. The covered entrance was their dressing room. Teenage girls prepared their elaborate stupa-like headpieces and adjusted their golden sequined costumes. Younger girls put on lipstick and red rouge. One of the girls giggled as I took her picture. Boys smeared white paint on their faces and applied lip color. A dog wandered around sniffing at the costumes and makeup. Little children from all over the park gathered around the dancers. They rested their elbows on the ground and pressed their palms against their cheeks… and watched the backstage frenzy. Young performers tried on their plaster masks, painted to look like Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and his crew.
After about forty minutes of prepping, the young cast was ready to go, and Andy and I parked ourselves in front of the stage. The performance was for a group of French tourists and our “seats” were the stone steps directly in front of the dancers. Little kids leaned on the stone railings to watch. With Angkor Wat as the backdrop, the performance began. The band played xylophone-like bells, drums and other instruments that I’d never seen before. Women in stupa headpieces and sequined dresses came out first. The clicking of the cameras almost created a counter rhythm to the music. The young women gracefully reached out their arms and struck poses. The next number was the coconut dance. Young girls, dressed in red and white, tapped coconut shells on the stone stirring up a rolling rhythm. Then the boys came out, smiling and sneaking up behind them. They tapped coconuts with the girls and danced around in a circle. The last dance was performed by the youngest children. It was a scene from the Ramayana. The girls had red sequined mermaid-like fins attached to their backs, and the boys were dressed up like monkeys. The monkeys scratched and rolled in perfectly timed movements. The boy who played Hanuman, the white masked monkey god, was amazing. His movements were so controlled. He mastered that part.
The whole time we were a little worried because this unexpected event was making us very late for Rang. As soon as the performance ended, we hurried back across the field, over the causeway and down the steps to Rang. He didn’t seem surprised that we were so late. We decided it was too late to climb up the hill to catch sunset, so we headed back to the hotel. We ate fried rice at a local restaurant called the Singapore. Christmas lights were strung all over the outside of the restaurant… in the bushes, across the awning. Geckos scampered across the walls, Cambodian TV played in the hallway, and friendly locals drank and laughed at the next table.
The next morning, November 10th, Rang picked us up at 5:15 AM, so we could make it to Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise. The streets were empty. When we arrived at Angkor Wat, we found that it was empty too. We looked around for the best shot and decided to stake out a corner of one of the reflecting pools. Because it was dawn and we were directly in front of a muddy swampy pool, the mosquitoes were out in full force. I put on my nylon anorak, pulled the hood over my head, crouched down and waited for the sun to rise. Andy had brought a krama, a Khmer scarf, and he wrapped it around his head. As the sun rose higher, the number of mosquitoes decreased, and the number of tourists increased. Monks from the building next door began the morning chores, sweeping their courtyard and collecting their wash.
Finally, the sun got to just the right height, so we took some shots of Angkor Wat silhouetted by the sun, reflected in the pool, from the left corner of the water, from the right corner of the water, and from just about every other angle until we decided we’d taken enough pictures. As we walked back to the causeway, an amputee held out his hat. Children followed close behind us. I don’t remember looking back at Angkor Wat. I should have. That was the last time we would visit it. At least for this trip.
We met Rang back at the car. He was so nice to us. He taught us how to say “thank you very much” in Khmer – “Ah cone chair-eye.” That is my own personal interpretation of the spelling of course. To pronounce it correctly, you have to flip the front of your tongue against the roof of your mouth between the “chair” and the “eye.” We got it after a while, but in the meantime, Rang, Andy and I laughed at our pitiful attempts. Just plain old “thank you,” by the way, is just “ah cone.”
From Angkor Wat, we took a brief detour back to the Bayon to get some morning photographs. Then we began to make our way through what is known as “The Big Circuit.” Our first stop was a mysterious maze of fallen rock and endless hallways. Very little restoration has been done to Preah Khan, so I really felt like Indiana Jones tromping through some abandoned temple. Walking toward the ruins, we passed a line of statues lined with cobwebs. Light poured in from the thick canopy of palm trees above. The sun came down in shards of light, illuminating the morning mist. A boy maybe twelve years old, followed us through the arched entryway and into the ruins. He didn’t say anything. He just followed.
Preah Khan is truly a maze. I don’t know if it was that we were there so early or just that most tourists don’t go there, but the temple was completely abandoned. We three were the only ones in the entire Preah Khan complex. Intricate spider webs spanned across the archways. Detailed reliefs rose out of stone pillars. Green leaves draped in from above; green grass crept in from below. At one point we wanted to press farther into the ruins, but a jagged pile of rocks stood in our way. Andy started to turn back to look for another path, but the boy spoke up for the first time and pointed to the pile of rocks.
“Very nice this way,” he nodded.
We decided to follow his lead. He navigated his way over the rocks, and we followed him. Some of the stones were slick with moss, and a couple times I almost lost my footing, but it turned out to be worth the trouble. On the other side and around the corner was a large courtyard. Stone lions stood guard next to a platform. A ruin, surrounded by columns was positioned at the far end. We found a pond choked with lily pads under the shade of the palm trees.
Like many of the magnificent ruins at Angkor, Preah Khan was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. The name, Preah Khan, means “Sacred Sword.”
Past the courtyard, the stone floor dropped off into a muddy plain. It wasn’t so muddy that we couldn’t walk on it though. A small thin snake with dull green stripes hugged the walls of a crevice. I bent down to watch it slither off into the cracks between the stones. When it was gone, I joined Andy and the boy in the muddy plain. Every time I took a step, dozens of little frogs, each about the size of my thumbnail, darted up. From the plain we could see how a large, canvas colored tree had grown right through the ruins, pushing its roots through the walls and across the ceilings.
Except for our footsteps and the chirping of various insects and frogs, the ruins were quiet. Hiking around the fallen rock and overgrown roots was a chore, but I found Preah Khan to be one of my favorite stops at Angkor. I felt a little bit of what it must have been like before the tourist trade. Lonely, green, overgrown and untouched. I was afraid that all the boy wanted was money, but all the same I liked that he was there. He’d led us over the rocks after all, and I was also glad that we were sharing this experience with a local who’d probably navigated these ruins since he was three. It’s not that I felt safer with him there; we were safe enough. It was even fun to get lost, but somehow he added something to that place. I felt somewhat like an explorer and somewhat like his guest. When we left, he didn’t ask for money. He didn’t even try. I smiled and waved good-bye to him. He smiled shyly, waved back and then sat down on the stone railing that led into the complex.
At the next stop, we started to walk through an archway of trees. We only got a couple feet before we could see that a large, ankle deep puddle stood between us and Preah Neak Pean. Men stood around offering to escort tourists across the puddle on their bicycles. For one dollar a per person, they’d load us on the back of their bikes and ride across to the other side of the muddy puddle. A thick, swampy gathering of trees blocked any chance of going around the puddle. If we took the bikes, mud would no doubt spray up on our clothes, and when you’ve got two pairs of jeans for three weeks, clothes become pretty important. Instead we ducked down, looked at the ruin from afar and went back to Rang.
Ta Som, the next ruin down the circuit, was an adventure. There were no other tourists there. We had the whole complex to ourselves, so we split up and made our own ways through the cavernous ruins. Spider webs clung from doorways onto chunks of fallen rock. I squeezed through a crack in the wall and found myself in a small courtyard. Huge fallen stones lay in piles. Details of flowers and dancers were carved into the rock. I felt guilty about using these glorious pieces of art as stepping stones. I thought suddenly how happy I was that we’d come to Cambodia. A little reckless courage pays off, I thought. It was just then that I realized Andy was nowhere in sight. I called out to him, but there was no answer. It was exciting to be lost and alone in this deserted ruin. I climbed over the piles of rock, steadying myself by pressing my palm against the central tower. I squatted into a little doorway and climbed over more rocks, which were teaming with red ants, then through a doorway and out into a clearing. I followed a dirt path and finally met up with Andy again. We walked to the end of Ta Som where an old man swept fallen leaves into the river. An enormous tree, maybe three stories tall, grew out from around the doorway, and a large spider hung from one of its branches.
From Ta Som, we drove on through the Eastern Baray, which is now only a field of rice paddies, then on to a large four-cornered ruin called the Eastern Mebon. Stone elephants stood guard on each corner. They seemed to be staring out into the vast expanses of surrounding rice paddies.
At Pre Rup, we found yet another steep staircase. I told Andy to go on without me. After sixteen temples, I was getting tired. Instead I sat in the shade of a tower. A little girl selling flutes sat next to me. At first she pushed her flutes ceaselessly… then her cloth… then her film. After a while, she gave up on me and just sat there. She had a floppy denim “Guess” brand hat on her head. We were the only people in the courtyard. A few tourists walked by now and then, but on the whole it was quiet. I asked her what her name was. She answered, “Ah soon” (or something close to that). I told her my name and after a few minutes she was explaining to me how to say hello and hat in Khmer.
When Andy walked back down the staircase, she said, “your friend?”
“Yes, that’s Andy,” I nodded, then asked, “How do you say good-bye?”
“Lia suhn hao-y,” she answered.
“Lia suhn hao-y, then,” I stood up.
“Lia suhn hao-y,” she smiled.
From there we went back to the Bayon. It’s not the official next stop along The Big Circuit, but we wanted to go back there and sketch in our journals. Sitting on a step next to the amputee musician, I drew a rough rendition of a Bayon head. It was wonderful to sketch a Bayon face, shaded by a rock and accompanied by the two stringed instrument. Every once in a while, kids would come and sit with the musician. The guards always struck up conversations with him when they passed. He made pretty good money by Cambodian standards. More than half of the tourists who passed him felt compelled to give him money. His music helped create a mystical feeling there. How could you not thank him with a buck? He put the money in a small wad and threw it to a friend, then continued to play with an empty hat in front of him. He smiled at me from time to time. When we left, I dropped some money in his hat. He weid and thanked me. But it was I who was thanking him. His haunting melody brought life to the weathered stones.
We ate lunch at the Bayon Restaurant in town again, then went to the market to buy souvenirs. We’d come to the right place. The market boasted cloth, carvings, T-shirts, books, postcards. Andy bought a wooden boat. I picked up a pair of Khmer-style masks from a couple of eleven-year-old merchants. The masks look like the painted plaster ones we’d seen on the performers the day before. Each one of these hand made souvenirs cost me three US dollars. I didn’t even attempt to haggle. How do you haggle with children over three dollars? After all, it wasn’t a bad deal.
After lunch and shopping, we went to Banteay Kdei where we were immediately greeted by two boys. One of them was a tiny little kid. He stayed by my side the whole way through the ruins. The older boy walked next to Andy. Both boys explained the history of Banteay Kdei and pointed out different features. I asked the little one his name.
“Da,” he said. I would guess he spelled it differently, but that’s what it sounded like to me.
“How old are you?” I asked.
Da looked confused. The older boy spoke with him in Khmer then answered, “Seventeen. He’s seventeen.”
Andy and I laughed. There was no way this little guy was more than ten years old.
“Oh, seven,” the older boy corrected himself. “He’s seven.”
When we asked the older boy how old he was he told us that he was sixteen. Andy told him that’s impossible. He was small and thin and looked twelve years old, tops. The boy simply shrugged his thin shoulders and replied, “Cambodians are smaller.”
Andy and I felt bad for contesting him. Maybe malnutrition in the wake of the Khmer Rouge reign stunted his growth. Overall I found it very difficult to determine children’s ages in Cambodia.
“Built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century,” Da pointed to the ruins. Our impressive young guides led us through Banteay Kdei pointing our details here and there. Da and I walked a few paces behind Andy and the older boy, and I could hear that sometimes Da was just repeating his friend, pretending the words were directly from his own memory. When he smiled up at me, I could see that his two front teeth were just coming in.
Afterwards, we gave them some money for the tour. They ran off laughing and wrestling with each other. Andy and I crossed the road and sat at the edge of Srar Srang lake. Da and the older boy joined us there for a while, then waved good-bye as we got back into the car and headed for Prasat Kravan.
At Prasat Kravan, Andy bought a charcoal rubbing of the temple’s bas reliefs from a boy who was no more than six years old.
“That’s definitely the youngest person I’ve ever done business with,” Andy shook his head and laughed.
Little girls played jump rope in front of the ruins. One child balanced her baby brother on her hip. Boys rested on the rocks, and dogs challenged roosters.
Next stop was Ta Prohm, a 12th century temple built by Jayavarman VII in honor of his mother. As usual an army of T-shirt vendors rushed us. In all the commotion, a kid cut in and offered to led us through the ruins. We said no thank you, crossed onto the grounds, then suddenly realized that in Ta Prohm, it might be best to follow a local guide. I ran back out and found the kid standing by a truck holding a drum. He was strikingly handsome with his high cheekbones and wavy black hair. He looked about fourteen years old to me. Meas (pronounced May-ahs) it turned out, was eighteen years old. That means he was born in 1979… the year the Khmer Rouge fell.
He told us he knew where to find all the best photographs and “the tree that looks like a snake.” He directed us through the fallen rocks and overgrown trees. Ta Prohm has been completely left to the elements. No restoration projects have been undertaken. No efforts have been made to rescue the ruins from the trees. The site looks very much like it must have appeared to the French explorers who rediscovered it. The stone is wrapped in roots and cloaked in vines. The jungle has such a fierce stranglehold on the ruins that if the trees were removed, the structure would crumble. Meas pointed out a root that looked like a boa constrictor… wrapped around the ruins, dripping from level to level. He climbed up a steep pile of rock and motioned to us to join him. Even in his flimsy blue flip flops, he could scale the ruins faster than a cat. We followed him up the rocks, but of course we didn’t look even half as graceful as he did. From the top, we could see piles upon piles of rocks split by roots, and we could hear countless frogs screeching in the river.
Meas told us that he sold drums at Angkor. He didn’t talk much during the tour, but he was sweet. We could have searched for those photos for hours if we’d explored Ta Prohm alone. He pointed out features and took us to sections that we might have missed without him. We gave Meas three dollars, thanked him and said good-bye. From there we went to Takeo, another temple where we basically got out of the car, looked up the steep staircase and got back in the car.
Sunset was approaching by that time, so Rang took us to the base of Phnom Bakheng. This ruin sits atop a rocky, sandy hill. Rang told us that the sunset view from the top is spectacular. Four children, each of them no higher than my elbow, joined us as we tromped up the hill. They laughed and posed for our cameras. The boys, Lee, Hing and Phaeng, were complete hams, but the girl, Suan, was a little camera shy. The kids directed us up the hill, told us the Khmer word for tree, and held my hand when we climbed the stairs. Actually I would have been better off on the steep staircase if Lee and Phaeng hadn’t each taken a hand, but they were cute and wanted to be polite. At the top of the hill, the children played tag, using a medieval stone table as base. Two little girls in pretty dresses sat by smiling and watching. More people gradually traveled up the hill, tourists and locals alike. The sun set over the ruins throwing gold light onto Phnom Bakheng. It was a perfect way to end our trip to Angkor. Finally the sun was just about gone, and we walked down the hill by the dwindling light.
I went to Cambodia to honor the survivors and to pay respect to the dead. I also went there hoping to find the country that lay beyond the Khmer Rouge history. Travelers can’t help but see the tatters of the recent horrors, but then they can’t miss the spirit of survival either. Cambodia has the energy of a restless teenager and the soul of a wise old man. For the tourist, Cambodia is an adventure. For the local, Cambodia is a challenge. Either way, it is an exciting, beautiful, graceful and remarkable country.
December 8, 1997
Hi everyone. Last week, I posted my diary entry for a day I recently
spent in Phnom Penh. Susanne Cornwall, my perennial travel partner, has
just finished typing up her journal for that day as well and she’s asked
me to post it online. I hope you enjoy it. -ac
Phnom Penh Visit, November 8, 1997
I’m on a plane to Cambodia right now. Andy and I plan to stop first in
Phnom Penh to witness the Killing Fields, then we will travel on to
Angkor to explore the ruins.
A couple weeks before this trip I fished out an old copy of National
Geographic from 1960. Inside there were dozens of pictures of Angkor in
that glorious old grainy film… the majestic Bayon heads, the incredible
outline of Angkor Wat. However, I found myself drawn not to the pictures
of the monuments, but to the pictures of the people. Children playing in
the ruins. A boy holding a toddler on his hip. I couldn’t help but wonder
‘what happened to these people’? This article was printed fifteen years
before the Khmer Rouge’s reign of horror, but these children were
certainly effected. It is said that as many as two in eight Cambodians
were murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge. Did these children
survive? Those magnificent ruins faded into a backdrop for me as I zeroed
in on the children’s eyes.
I cannot think of Cambodia without thinking of the Khmer Rouge. It is an
unfortunate association. Cambodia has a fascinating history full of great
kings and jungle temples. Thousands of years of civilization. But my
impression of Cambodia has always been based on what happened over a
period of less than four years.
April 17th, 1975 was declared by the Khmer Rouge as Day One – Year Zero.
“History begins today,” they told the people of Cambodia. The capital,
Phnom Penh, was emptied out. All city dwellers were evacuated to the
fields. This was to be an agricultural utopia. Pol Pot’s forces took a
strangle-hold over the nation. Like a house with boarded windows and
locked doors, Cambodia became a mystery to the rest of the world. Inside
the worst massacre in my lifetime was raging. People were shot if they
wore glasses, if they spoke French, if they were too educated. Sons
bludgeoned their parents with shovels. Children starved to death. Finally
in December of 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded the country and drove the
Khmer Rouge back into the forests. Thousands of families had been wiped
out. Skulls littered the rice fields. Blood seeped into the dirt. Vietnam
called Cambodia ‘hell on earth.’
It has been almost twenty years since Pol Pot disappeared into the
jungle, but the country is still struggling. Bandits roam the forests,
land mines are buried in the fields. King Sihanouk’s popularity is
strong, but new issues grow out of old horrors. The US government
considers Cambodia a highly dangerous destination. Americans are advised
against any non- essential travel to the country. So why am I going
there? I’ve asked myself that countless times. Certainly it is largely to
see Angkor. The ruins are reputed to be among the most incredible
man-made structures in the world. But I know it’s not just that. In a
way, I am drawn to Cambodia in the same way a person is drawn to look at
a man’s scars when he rolls up his sleeves. But much more than morbid
curiosity, I am amazed by this country’s perseverance. I respect these
survivors with my entirety. Day One, April 17th, 1975 was my third
birthday. This massacre, this perversion of humanity, occurred during my
lifetime. While I ran around in sundresses and played with Star Wars
people in the sandbox, Cambodia tore itself apart. I have come to witness
Cambodia’s memorials. To see the era after the aftermath. I want to find
the face of survival. As far as I can express, those are my reasons.
All the same, I must admit I am worried about our safety. For weeks I
have found myself muttering, “Please Lord, no bandits, no land mines, no
kidnappers.” Andy knew a woman who was shot by bandits three years ago.
She was on a private visit to Banteay Srei when she and her husband were
ambushed. The coup this past July intensified my concerns, as have the
recent reports of tourists who were attacked on the streets at night. But
I am willing to take the risk, because this is a trip I feel compelled to
take. Besides I’m on the plane to Phnom Penh. There is no turning back.
And in truth, I don’t want to turn back.
We arrived at Phnom Penh’s Ponchetong International Airport around 11AM.
We walked from the plane, across the pavement to the terminal. Another
American, a man in his early 30′s, snapped a picture of the airport from
the outside. He turned to Andy and me and said, “got to get that shot.”
We waited in line for visas – a cold assembly line process – until our
passports were stamped “Cambodge” with thick black ink. We headed through
the terminal to look for our pre-arranged guide. I was surprised to find
the airport in such stellar condition, considering that the control tower
and radar had been destroyed in the recent coup. By the main entrance,
young men motioned to us, called to us, offering taxis. We made hotel
reservations at the terminal’s hotel desk. Still no guide. Finally a
young man stood in the crowd holding up a sign that read “Susanne C and
Andy C”. He smiled kindly and directed us to the car. On the way through
the parking lot, a teenager walked alongside me trying desperately to
sell me a newspaper. The headline read “Verdict on Pol Pot” and the
teenager kept saying “Pol Pot,” and looking sadly up at me. Pol Pot, the
leader of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, was tried in some undisclosed
jungle court several months ago. He’s living out the rest of his
miserable life in a mosquito infested hut with his wife and 12 year old
Our guide’s name was Rith. He was a young attractive man with a blue polo
style shirt and trim black hair. Automatically I liked him. While driving
to the hotel he asked what we wanted to see. Too embarrassed to say we
were mainly interested in the genocide monuments, we waited for him to
reel off the sites. We nodded when he got to Tuol Sleng (the Khmer Rouge
prison) and the Killing Fields monument. We also agreed that we wanted to
see the Silver Pagoda.
Driving through the city was fascinating. It seems to be a city of
children. Well over half the people we saw were under 17 years old. Paved
main streets branch off into dirt roads. Concrete lays uprooted long the
sidewalk. Motorcycles dart in and out of cars, cyclos, and vendors
pushing carts. There are no functional street lights. People cross when
they can. Traffic moves with subtle anarchy. (Still better than LA on a
sunny day.) From behind the car window I could see naked babies, children
with backpacks in school uniforms, young merchants balancing baskets on
their heads. Teenage women ride side-saddle on mopeds, their long dark
hair swept over one shoulder. The city is teeming with life and youth.
Over half of the current population wasn’t even alive during the Khmer
Rouge’s reign. A boy no more than nine years old drives two little girls
on his moped. A woman washes her baby in the shadow of an old French
The buildings look as though they could have once been grand, modern. But
dust and decay coat much of their once glorious facades. Chunks of
concrete lay where the streets roll off into dirt roads. Dogs lounge in
the shade. Puppies play around the food stalls. It seems to be a city
without a time period. It’s not like going back in time, not as if
technology just hasn’t arrived yet. I’ve been to places like that…
Varanasi, India, and to an extent, Venice, Italy. But Phnom Penh isn’t
like that. It was like too much time had passed, and a once prosperous
city was worn out, frayed. But what I saw in the buildings I did not see
in the people. Young children ran and laughed. Women on mopeds smiled
shyly at me. The city I now call home, Washington, D.C., seemed sterile
compared to this action and youth. “Life goes on” the old saying goes. So
Rith dropped us off at the hotel and said he’d be back at 2PM to show us
the city. He walked us up to the Hawaii Hotel’s main desk and waited
while we checked in.
“How old are you?” I asked. “29,” he smiled. “I was born in the year of
He was born, then, in 1968. He was seven when the shit hit the fan here. I
wish I could have asked him about his life, but that would be terribly
inappropriate. He would offer the information if he wanted to, I figured.
Everyone my age or older here is a survivor, a witness, a victim. My train
of thought was broken when the hotel staff greeted us with pink papaya
drinks. The air was heavy and humid, and those drinks were damn good.
The hotel was strangely empty. We were the only customers in this enormous
dining room with straw woven chairs and glass chandeliers. It seemed so
strange to be the only guests in this grand room. Outside the window,
children played on the curb. Schoolboys walked by. Two other tourists,
American men in their thirties, followed a guide to a car. All the
foreigners here seem to have the same look on their faces – a look that
seems to say, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing in Cambodia, but it’s
After lunch we figured we had some time to kill before Rith came back, so
we headed out to the nearby market. We dodged cars, crossed the streets,
passed toddlers walking clumsily on the sidewalk, and stopped in front of
the flower market. Young women sold flowers from buckets in their stands.
Awnings or sheets of cloth covered the stalls.
The market was laid out like a starfish. A main domed building poured
outside into rows of cloth covered stands. The outside merchants sold T-
shirts, Khmer cloth, flowers. Amputees gathered around the stands. When
they saw us, they immediately came over holding out their hats, asking
for money. A uniformed amputee stretched out his hand. It was
heartbreaking. One T- shirt at the stand where the amputees hung out said
“I survived Cambodia.” I thought that was horribly tasteless considering
what had happened here in living memory. I can’t imagine a tourist
arrogant enough to think that his little trip to Cambodia was some kind
of ordeal that merited such a T-shirt.
We walked into the domed marketplace. It was enormous. Sunlight shot
through slits in the high ceiling and fell on the mazes of merchant
stalls. Watches, radios, gems, clothes – you name it. Wooden reliefs of
Angkor Wat sold next to underwear. Middle age women tried on bras over
their clothes. A boy maybe 10 or 12 years old came up to us. His brown
shirt was torn and ripped, and he was speaking in very broken English and
French. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying, but he clearly
wanted money. I wasn’t carrying anything under a five dollar bill, and
Andy argued that we only had five singles, and we needed them since it
was a weekend and we couldn’t cash our traveler’s checks. I know in
theory that you are not supposed to give money to children, but I wished
I had a buck on me anyway. He tailed us through the market, following not
more than an arms-length away. Most of the time he walked right next to
my elbow. We had become involved in a tragic game of dodging and hiding.
We walked faster. We slowed down. We tried to weave into the maze of
cloth stands. He never missed a turn. Finally, I realized that every time
we went near the police sitting at the entrance, he had to back away. So
we stood at a stand there and pretended to be interested in the gems.
“What’s this?” Andy pointed to a large fang. “Tiger’s tooth,” the woman
answered and laid it on top of the glass in front of him.
Finally, when the boy wasn’t looking, we dodged into the outside market
stalls. The market really is a maze of people, cloth and stands, and
after a few turns we knew we had lost him. A young girl smiled at Andy
and pointed to her cloth. He smiled back and said no thank you. She
laughed shyly and waved good-bye. Andy bought some scarves, but after
maybe twenty minutes we decided to leave the market. The boy and the
amputees reminded us that we could not be invisible observers here.
At 2PM we met Rith and the driver in the hotel lobby, and headed out to
our first stop, the Silver Pagoda. Housed in a gated courtyard near the
palace, the Silver Pagoda and its adjoining grounds are incredible.
Sweeping roofs, panel paintings of the Ramayana, lion statues, and stone
nagas create a majestic display. Even more incredible is the fact that
these structures, the Emerald Buddha and the solid gold/ diamond studded
Buddha survived the Khmer Rouge.
I walked around aimlessly for a while just taking in the enormity of it.
Inside the Wat Preah Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is even more
impressive than the grounds that surround it. The structure is called the
Silver Pagoda because the floor is covered with 5,000 silver tiles
weighing one kilogram each. It was built under King Norodom in 1892 and
was apparently inspired by Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. At the far end of the
Pagoda is a gold painted platform where the Emerald Buddha is seated. It
is actually made out of Baccarat crystal. In front of the Emerald
Buddha’s platform is a life-sized standing Buddha made out of solid gold.
700 diamond pieces dot the statue – as a tika on its forehead, as the
eyes, as a string necklace. I still can’t believe the Khmer Rouge didn’t
melt it down, sell it or destroy it. Supposedly they left it in tact to
inform the world that “all is well in Cambodia.”
The grounds, like our hotel, were strangely empty. Especially since we’d
just come from Bangkok where the wats were so choked with tourists that
you couldn’t avoid getting twenty of them in every photo. Suddenly a
group of school children arrived – boys and girls about junior high age
in blue and white uniforms. They pointed at us, smiled, waved and finally
approached us with a camera. They wanted to take our picture. We happily
agreed and the kids gathered around us for a shot. After their photo we
asked them to pose for us. It was a wonderful experience. They were so
cute and excited. I guess they don’t see many tourists anymore.
Outside as we waited for the car, an amputee limped up to us asking for
money. In the distance ten foot pictures of Sihanouk and his wife were
plastered onto stone fences. The Cambodian flag – blue and red with an
outline of Angkor Wat – flapped in the wind.
The drive to Tuol Sleng wasn’t very far, but once we left the main
street, the dirt roads were bumpy and punctured with pot holes. More
children, dogs and vendors lined the streets. A sign on the white gate
read, in English and Khmer, “Tuol Sleng – Museum of Genocide.” Children
peddled bikes too big for their bodies around the gate. An old woman
stood next to her fruit stand. Boys played tag. We drove past the sign
and into the prison.
Some 17,000 people were brought here during the Khmer Rouge’s reign.
Seven people survived. In this gentle setting that used to be a high
school, victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured and murdered. Men
missing legs came up to us as we got out of the car. We paid the entry
fee of two US dollars and met our guide, a middle aged woman named Pala.
The campus consisted of four buildings congregated around a grass
courtyard. The bright sunlight revealed where paint had chipped off the
walls. A thin, lanky man swept off the 14 graves in front of the first
building. In these graves lay the last 14 people killed at Tuol Sleng. A
monk in saffron robes and black rimmed glasses followed in the tour
The first building housed prisoners on two stories. They were chained to
metal bed frames. No mattresses, only hard metal. On the walls, hanging
above each bed, were photographs of the dead found in each room after the
Vietnamese wrestled the city from the Khmer Rouge. In one cell, a
photograph showed a naked body, wretchedly twisted, handcuffed and
shackled. He had been killed with a shovel. White bits of cheekbone were
exposed. A pool of blood gathered under his bed. This was the very room
where he was found. The room where he was tortured and murdered. I looked
around the cell. In his anguish, that prisoner must have focused on the
bits of dust encrusted in the walls. He must have seen how the plaster
had fallen off the walls in fist-sized chunks. He must have seen those
spots where the paint changes hue on the ceiling. This room had been a
tomb for the living, and I was surprised somehow by the amount of light.
The window was covered with a series of slates which allowed strips of
sunlight to pour through. Past the window slates I could see a little
girl on a tricycle, riding just outside the prison. I could see green
trees, houses, people working in their backyards. I turned around and
looked out towards the outside hallway. The monk in the small tour group
behind us was standing at the cell window looking in. He had his hand up
to his mouth. The prison reflected in his thick glasses.
Our guide Pala pointed out a sign hanging in the hallway. It had been
translated into English. This sign greeted the prisoners of Tuol Sleng. It
stated such prison rules as “The prisoner will not cry or yell out while
receiving lashes.” Each line of horror was stated as a matter of fact.
The next building was even more haunting. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous
records of their work. Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival. Some
were photographed in their rooms, chained to their beds, but most of the
prisoners were forced to sit on a thin wooden chair with a rod stemming
out from the back that dictated where their head should be. This
collection of photos is the victims’ last testament. A woman, hair
cropped holding a baby stares out from one photo. A boy with his mouth
bloodied and swollen. Blood smeared up his cheek. A young man with his
arms pulled behind him stares into the camera. His eyes bulge with
terror. Every shot is black and white, making them seem ever the more
like evidence. Rows upon rows of evidence. Walls and walls of evidence.
Some of the victims smiled innocently into the lens. Shards of sunlight
poured across the pictures. The few foreigners who died at Tuol Sleng
also have a place on the wall. An Australian businessman who missed his
chance when the world evacuated from Phnom Penh. A westerner with a
scraggly beard and wide horrified eyes. One photo struck me the hardest.
A boy no more than twelve years old with cuts on his cheeks and around
his eyes. A heavy metal chain hung around his neck like a leash. Tight
jaw, dark eyes.
I cannot understand what happened here. How could this happen? How could
anyone torture these children, these women with babies, these young men?
I know the history. I have heard the Khmer Rouge rhetoric about creating
a utopia. Andy and I discussed the theories. Brainwashing created a world
in which a person was a cog in the system. The individual soul was
disregarded. Murder was commonplace, systematic and nonchalant. But I
still cannot understand how a person could bludgeon that little boy in
the photograph to death with a shovel. In the same way, I cannot
understand how the Nazis could have murdered so many millions of men,
women and children. Again I know the history, I understand the rhetoric.
But such mass cruelty is still beyond my comprehension.
I believe that violence is innate in man, but I believe that what
happened here was not innate. This was a perversion of humanity, a
malignancy on mankind. The prisoners here were hung from the high
school’s gymnastics bars and dropped to the ground. Their fingernails
were torn out while their hands were clamped between two pieces of wood.
They were held underwater, electrocuted, lashed. God, how could this
We walked past the walls of photos to another room. Pala pointed to two
more rows of photos showing boys about 13- or 14-years-old in cloth caps.
“These were the interrogators,” she stated. “Interrogators, killers, same
13-year-old killers? These were the guards? The ones who tortured mothers
and children with such ruthlessness? They had been brainwashed, I know.
They were, in a way, victims too. But that doesn’t mean that I feel any
sympathy for them. Next to the pictures of the boys were pictures of the
young female cooks.
In the next building over, rooms were divided into small brick cages.
Inside, I couldn’t stretch out both arms the cages were so small.
Prisoners here were starved until their ribs showed through their skin.
They were shackled and left to await torture or disposal.
“Why didn’t they escape, some people ask me,” Pala said. “Why didn’t they
Clearly, the brick walls were pretty flimsy and a good knock could topple
“They were too weak,” she continued, “to push down the walls.”
After a beat she began again. ” I lost my own family during the Khmer
Rouge. My husband was killed with a bamboo stick. My daughter was starved
to death. My brother was killed with a shovel…”
She listed off the members of her family and their violent deaths. Some
light crept into the room illuminating the thick gobs of concrete between
the bricks, the holes in the plaster walls that served as doors, the
wooden slates over the windows.
“I wanted to commit suicide,” Pala’s voice was low. “But I did not.” The
whites of her eyes were faintly pink, but I could tell she was past
crying. Now she was telling us her story to share her pain, her country’s
anguish and to make sure that her family somehow lived on.
“You understand, lady?” She kept asking me, in case I didn’t understand
I understood what she was saying, but not why, not how. I didn’t
understand like she did anyway. I had come to witness the aftermath, and
I found it, twenty years later, still imprinted on her face and in her
Outside a group of boys played volleyball. The net was strung up between
the back of a barrack and a palm tree. Two puppies tumbled around in the
courtyard. Of course to them, nothing happened here. A young boy rode a
bicycle up to the door. Andy bent down and took his picture. The child
gripped the handlebars and smiled broadly.
“My nephew,” Pala smiled.
The building was covered with barbed wire so that the prisoners didn’t
kill themselves by jumping to their deaths before “confessing.” They were
not given spoons in case they used them to slit their writs.
The fourth and final building housed paintings by one of the seven
survivors of Tuol Sleng. The three by five foot paintings showed guards
ripping out people’s fingernails, prisoners being whipped by five guards.
One painting showed a blindfolded, half starved man being carried like a
hog at a luau. Another painting showed a man, thin and bent, sitting in
one of the brick cells with a shackle around his ankle. Pala explained
that was a self portrait. In the next room hung instruments of torture,
and down the hallway, was a bust of Pol Pot. The nose had been hacked
off, it looked like, with an ax.
The final room displayed a map of Cambodia that covered the whole wall, 10
feet high maybe, ten feet across. The map was made of human skulls. Skulls
of the victims. Red lines, to represent blood, drew the Mekong River and
Pala walked us outside. We thanked her , not really knowing what to say.
Andy asked if we could take a picture of her, and after she agreed, we
each took one photo. When I snapped the picture she wasn’t smiling, but
her jaw was strong and tight and her chin was pointed slightly upwards. I
thought to myself, even if the picture doesn’t come out, I will never
forget that profile.
The Killing Fields
After Tuol Sleng, we drove in silence out of town to the Killing Fields
of Choeung Ek. Paved roads ended at the edge of Phnom Penh. Our journey
was dirt roads the rest of the way. The driver had to maneuver around
barrel- sized potholes. Raised houses with corregated metal roof tops
lined the roads. Some roofs were actually made of palm leaves, though
most were wood and metal. Dogs played under the shade of a drop cloth
awning, while children held kite strings and played tag in their school
clothes. A young man with his shirt off stood on the balcony of his
wooden stilted home. A bright pink towel, hanging on the railing next to
him, blew in the wind. We crossed a bridge and saw the homes standing
right up alongside the river. Every once in a while, I could see the vast
expanses of rice fields and distant palm trees. It was just as I had
After about thirty minutes we arrived at the Killing Fields Memorial. We
paid the very small fee (one or two US dollars each), then walked up to
the three story high Memorial Pagoda. Inside piles upon piles of skulls
are stacked according to age and gender. “Female, 14 to 17″ read one
card. We were close enough to touch them, although I felt that would be
disrespectful. Pile of bones. Thousands of lives. The towering Pagoda
shelters more than 8000 skulls. When the interrogators at Tuol Sleng were
done with their victims they told them they were going to be sent home.
Instead they were taken here and killed.
Behind the Memorial Pagoda are the mass graves. Pits of bones with grass
and dirt thrown over them. Andy brushed his hand through the dirt. A bone
came up under his fingers. He quickly covered it back up. Across the pits
I could see the river. On the other side of the Pagoda, rice fields
yawned and stretched under the setting sun. It is incredible that this
peaceful, quiet place was the Killing Fields. Rith, our guide, walked
around with his hands in his pockets. Women watched two boys picking
fruit out of the upper branches of a vine covered tree. I took a picture
of three children who were playing just outside the gate.
We drove back the way we had come. A little boy waved, and I waved back.
He ran alongside the car for several strides just to smile and say hello.
The sun slid past the palm trees and down into the rice paddies. Again we
sat in silence.
Rith and the driver dropped us off at the hotel. He gave us his business
card, so we could write to him. It turns out he is a conservation
specialist at the Silver Pagoda. We thanked him about half a dozen times,
said good-bye to the driver and went inside.
While Andy showered, I stood on the balcony outside our room watching the
traffic on the street below. The city has not yet recovered, but there is
an overwhelming sense of hope. Phnom Penh is a city of survivors and
their children. They have not pushed the horrors of the past aside. They
acknowledge the past; they live alongside their memorials; they set up
shop and play tag in the shadow of Tuol Sleng… and they carry on with
hope and grace.
I hardly slept at all that night. Every time I closed my eyes I saw
images of Tuol Sleng. When the alarm went off at 4:50AM, I was already
awake. That morning we left Phnom Penh and set out to experience the
grandeur of Angkor.
November 10, 1997
|Andy and some new friends at sunset, Phnom Bakheng|
Lunch was again at the Bayon Restaurant. We hadn’t had any breakfast that morning, so we attacked several plates of baguettes and jam with ravenous abandon. During our extended break, we returned to the central market to buy souvenirs. Susanne picked up two papier mache masks like the ones used the previous afternoon by the Khmer dancers. The masks were wrapped and boxed for safekeeping, but I worried they wouldn’t make it in our backpacks. At $3 a mask, Susanne said, it was worth trying. I thought about buying a wooden ornamental pipe, but every pipe I found had Chinese characters on them – not very Khmer if you ask me. I got a bit frustrated that every item on sale looked like it was made in Hong Kong, and I really wanted to bring home something that would say “Cambodia” to me when I thought about it. I bought a small wooden boat modeled after the boats used in the Bonn Tuk Oum festival, but I still wasn’t completely satisfied. I’d look more later, I guess.
|Da, our young guide to Banteay Kdei|
At 2pm we met up with Rang and returned to Angkor’s Big Circuit. We started with Banteay Kdei, a large 12th century Buddhist temple. Several girls were selling t-shirts outside and we suggested to them that we might buy one after we visited the temple if they stopped hounding us. They backed off and sat down, waiting impatiently for our return. We were joined by two boys, one of whom couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, the other perhaps 12 or 14. We weren’t looking for a guide, but the older boy began to spout interesting facts about Jayavarman VII and the use of avian Garuda images on Buddhist temples. We invited them along. I asked them how old they were, and the older boy said he was 16. “No way,” I said, “12, 14, right?” To this he responded “No, sir. 16 years old. We Cambodians are much smaller than you.” True, whenever we had asked others how old they were, we always seemed to guess five years too young. Maybe it was true – Cambodians certainly are smaller, so maybe that makes them look younger as well. I also wondered if malnutrition made a difference, but I didn’t ask. I’d have to check with some Khmer friends back home. We also asked the younger boy, whose name was Da, how old he was. “Seventeen?” he said with some doubt.
|Da and his friend lounging at Sras Srang|
Banteay Kdei was devoid of visitors so we admired its carvings and its ancient moat in peaceful solitude. The moat now looked like a pond in a city park, complete with crickets and floating lotus. The t-shirt girls then reappeared, and after haggling down to $3 a shirt we bought a couple of them. Before driving off, we crossed the road to Sras Srang, a 12th century reservoir with a short terrace and several nice statues. The two boys horsed around on one of the statues by the water’s edge. We soon said goodbye and returned to Rang’s car.
We then paid a brief visit to Prasat Kravan – five brick towers from the 10th century. They were restored in the 1960s to the point that they almost felt like replicas of what the original towers might have looked like. I didn’t care for the freshness of the brick; it just didn’t seem like they fit into the rest of Angkor. The site also had an inordinate number of kids for such a small temple. About 25 children jumped rope, played tag and messed around on the temple platform. Some of the kids were selling charcoal rubbings so I approached the youngest of them asked to see some. He couldn’t have been more than five or six, but he rolled out his pictures and said, “10 dollars, mister.” I found a beautiful image of a royal court scene, so I pointed to it and said “five dollars.” The little boy turned to some older children and conferred with them in Khmer, holding his hand in front of his lips so I couldn’t see what he was saying. He then turned back to me and said, “six dollars.” I figured the older kids would have told him to press for eight dollars, but who was I to argue? I counted out my singles one by one and made the deal with him. We were both quite happy.
|A tree-entwined passageway, Ta Prohm|
For the next temple, we headed to Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is a popular destination here for it’s the only large temple at Angkor that is still fully encroached by jungle. So a visit to Ta Prohm isn’t too far removed from what the French explorers of the 19th century would have found here. At the entrance to the site, a young man offered to be our guide. At first we weren’t interested but then I remembered that the LP guide suggested to get one of the local kids to show you around, since they knew all the great photogenic spots. So we ran back after him and agreed to hire him for part of the afternoon. His name was Meas and he was 18. Again, I would have said 15, but I kept my mouth shut. As we approached the temple a high pitch shrieking sound emanated from the forest. It was like a far alarm going off in a stairwell – I didn’t think nature made noises this loud. We asked Meas what the sound was but he didn’t know the English word for the particular animal that was making all the noise. After playing a brief game of charades and hand gestures we concluded the noise was coming from hundreds of small frogs.
|Susanne and Meas contemplating Ta Prohm|
Ta Prohm was an Indiana Jones adventure brought to life, or perhaps the Disney World Jungle Cruise. Either metaphor would have been appropriate: towers of stone twisted by tree roots, some hundreds of years old; bas reliefs distorted by seven centuries of lichens and moss. We climbed through the rubble, marveling at the Tolkeinesque sight of these gargantuan trees had taken root and spread over the temple walls, producing some of the most famous and recognizable images of Angkor. The further we ventured into the temple, the older and grander the trees seemed to grow. At the center of the temple courtyard, Meas scampered higher and higher in his flip flops as we tried to keep up. The next thing I realized we were perched high atop a shattered temple wall, 30 feet or more from the ground. I was too awestruck by the view to be terrified of a misstep. The forest was alive with the chirps and calls of birds, monkeys, more frogs. It was an uncanny, otherworldly experience. Cautiously we returned to solid earth and backtracked to the entrance of the temple to meet up with Rang.
Lee, Phaeng and Hing
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It was getting close to 4:30pm and we still had the Ta Keo temple on our itinerary, but we were both beat and eager to get to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. Rang took us by Ta Keo for a brief look, and we stepped outside for a few minutes to appreciate it. But Phnom Bakheng beckoned us, so we purchased some bottled water and headed to the foot of the hill. We slowly climbed the 300-foot mound, its gravel path providing less than adequate footing. Eventually we reached the top, the highest point at Angkor. Four kids had followed us up the hill and we soon struck up a conversation with them. There was one girl named Suan and three boys: Lee, Phaeng and Hing. They spoke little English but were very giggly and outgoing. Suan tried to help me up the temple steps by grabbing my hand, which actually made my balance on these aging steps all the more difficult. But I didn’t want to spoil the moment.
Two Khmer sisters, Phnom Bakheng
Up top, we could see Angkor Wat in the distance, but without a telephoto lens or binoculars it was hard to get a clear view of it. Facing west, though, the sun descended over the waters of the Tonle Sap, reflecting reddish hues across the temple terrace. The kids were having a merry time playing tag and they mugged for countless photos, which we couldn’t resist. We had our own little photo shoot going on with these youngsters, taking at least a roll of film’s worth of pictures. There was also a Khmer family, sitting on the rocks with their cameras and cans of Coke. They had two little girls who were sneaking peeks at me and Susanne. I smiled at them and said “Johm riab sua.” After some motherly encouragement, the smaller of the two girls ran towards me, bowed her head with her hands pressed together by her chin and yelled “Johm riab sua!” back to me. Her parents laughed approvingly. I reciprocated the bow and then said to her in Khmer, “Aw kohn charan. Sabai te?” to which she responded with another enthusiastic “Johm riab sua!” I quickly grabbed my Cambodia guide and looked up the phrases for “What is your name?” and “My name is Andy.” I struggled terribly; Khmer is so difficult for westerners to pronounced. I kept on trying to get the words for “my name is” – khnyom chhmeu, if I remember correctly – but they didn’t roll of the tongue the way I had hoped. Nevertheless, the girl played along with my conversation until she got a case of the shy bug and ran back to her daddy. It was my first and last productive conversation in Khmer.
I sat on the terrace peacefully as the sun set over Angkor. For me, this was closure for Cambodia. The last three days had gone exceptionally well; I really was going to miss this country and its beautiful people. Susanne also seemed quite content at this fleeting moment. As the sun vanished below the horizon, we made our way slowly down the hill’s gravel slope. The four kids were now joined by two others as they led the way down. At the bottom of the hill, though, they all turned to me and said “now you pay – one dollar to each.” I was so disappointed. I tried offering them the handful of riels I had left and the last two dollars left in my pocket. They pouted and continued to demand more money. This really ticked me off, because it was clear they were having a good time up there, and to expect a dollar for each and every one of them was stretching it for me. Susanne seemed to feel sincerely bad about not having enough money on hand, but after seeing their testy reaction, I decided it was tough luck for them. They’d get more money from tourists after school tomorrow.
Rang took us back to Siem Reap and drove us around on a wild goose chase to find some baguettes for the next morning. None of the bakeries were open but we managed to find a food stall with a brick oven and fresh bread. They only accepted riels, so Rang ran across the street, got a couple dollars changed for us, and made the purchase of four baguettes for 100 riels each. Back at the hotel, we made plans for Rang to take us to the airport the next morning. Meanwhile, I paid him the balance of his fee plus an extra 20 dollar tip. He was worth every penny, as he served as our driver, translator, guide, concierge, and any other position we might have needed to fill. We then returned to our rooms and packed, for tomorrow would be a travel day. It was almost time to leave Cambodia.
Once again our pre-dawn alarm managed to get us up for an early morning adventure. Rang wasn’t downstairs with the car just yet, so we stood outside admiring the clear night sky, the fresh air and the marvelous view of Orion and the Pleiadies. By 5:15am, Rang’s car pulled up in front of the hotel and we were soon on our way to Angkor. Today would be dedicated mostly to the circle of ruins collectively known as the Big Circuit, but first we had a more pressing agenda: to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
The number of stars dwindled and the sky turned from black to dark blue as we pulled up in front of Angkor Wat’s stone causeway. The sun would rise soon after 6am, so that gave us about half an hour to find a good spot. The causeway was deserted apart from some cows grazing to the left of the first gate. Most people go to the Bayon for sunrise, but I figured that there would still be some folks who would come to Angkor Wat, right? But as we entered the main courtyard and approached the wat, we were still the only visitors inside, save a few local Khmers who were starting their work day at a renovation site.
A grassy area behind a large pond appeared to boast the best view of Angkor Wat, so we placed ourselves there and waited. Within a matter of seconds, flies swarmed around our faces, darting back and forth in front of my eyes. To make matters worse, our bug spray was back at the hotel. Susanne took cover under her anorak while I wrapped my trusty krama scarf around my face and head to keep the pesky beasts at bay. A Spanish couple arrived with their Khmer guide and he commented that I was using my krama “like a real Khmer.” He asked me where I bought it, and I told him about the Central Market in Phnom Penh. “Oh, no, no,” he exclaimed. “Kramas made in Siem Reap, not Phnom Penh. Buy kramas here from now on. Better for Siem Reap.” “Not better for Phnom Penh,” I replied, smiling. “Next time,” he repeated, “buy in Siem Reap. Very good kramas.”
|Wide-angle view of the Angkor Wat pond|
The flies died down as the sky brightened. Several bats swooped over the pond, savoring mouthfuls of bugs with each pass. I rooted for the bats. More tourists entered the courtyard but there were still no more than 15 of us at the time. While we maintained our spot near the pond, the others gathered on the causeway itself, about 100 yards in front of the wat. They were treated with the first rays of sunlight that morning – the stone towers obscured the sun from reaching our pond spot as quickly. Eventually, we were greeted with the yellow beams reflecting off of the shimmering pool in front of us. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Well worth the wait, even with all of those flies.
Before beginning the Big Circuit, I asked Rang to stop briefly at Angkor Thom’s South Gate and the Bayon as well, just for a quick photo shoot. The rising sunlight was spectacular – a thick, bright orange from the morning humidity – I thought it would be a waste to not try to capture it. After a few photos I hopped back into the car and we drove north through Angkor Thom to Preah Khan, which is believed to be a temporary residence for Jayavarman VII. Preah Khan is a large stone temple that remains in good condition, despite the piles of rubble that litter the site. As soon as we entered it, a young boy latched on to us and followed us around. He started to point out things that we already knew – “Preah Khan, very big, very old” so I told him we really weren’t in need of a guide. Undeterred, he continued to stalk us, always within a 20 foot range.
|Andy by a large tree behind Preah Khan|
We climbed through an obstacle course of stone to reach the east side of the temple, where large trees had sprung from the walls of the temple itself. We cut through the center of the complex to a small stupa, about waste high. Bats flew through the corridor, prompting me to wrap my krama around my head. As we exited the temple, the young boy simply walked away without asking for money. That was a first for us at Angkor. He might have just been a bit lonely – we were the only visitors there at that time of day – and we felt bad for ignoring him so much.
Rang drove us east to the temple of Preah Neak Pean, but our stay was quite short for the only entrance to the site was flooded from the monsoon. Some local kids offered to push us through the water on their bikes, but the thought of having water and mud spraying all over our clothes caused us to decline their generosity. We moved on to our next stop, Ta Som.
|Main Courtyard, Ta Som|
Ta Som was a minor temple built by Jayavarman VII. No one ever visits it, and the LP guide barely gives it a sentence’s mention. But we decided to check it out nonetheless. The path to Ta Som was covered in sand – I felt like we were at the beach. Passing through a stone gate we found a small temple whose insides were a complete mess. Columns overturned, boulders and other debris littered about like a earthquake victim, but the anarchy of the stones made the temple into a venerable jungle gym for our climbing pleasure.
|Susanne wanders the hallways of Ta Som|
Susanne disappeared amongst the debris in her own little adventure while I wandered to the gate on the far east side. I found a skinny old man who appeared to be the keeper of the temple, and he used a broom a palm fronds to sweep leaves off of the sandy stone path. “Johm riab sua,” he’d say to me every time we made eye contact. Hello, hello. He appreciated the company, even for a few minutes. I noticed his homespun cigarette smelled like pot – no wonder he was so happy to be at his job this morning. Susanne soon met me at the east gate, near the old Khmer, having finished her climbing about the ruins. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said. “It was really great.” “Thanks, I missed you too.” She took me into the courtyard and over the obstacle course she herself had just conquered. I had forgotten that climbing on dangerous rocks could be so much fun.
|Andy captures an elephant at the Eastern Mebon|
We returned to the car and drove through the Eastern Baray, an ancient 14-square kilometer reservoir now used as a giant rice paddy. The only visible remnants of the original structure was the Eastern Mebon, a 10th century temple fashioned with the typically Angkorian five-towered quincunx on a three-tiered platform. The Mebon gave us a great view of the rice paddies, and the temple itself had some elephant statues in excellent condition at each of its four corners. But soon enough, we were ready to move on. Our next stop, Pre Rup, turned out to be a larger replica of the Eastern Mebon, so Susanne sat down in the shade and chatted with a young Khmer girl in a floppy Calvin Klein hat while I climbed around the ruins. It was now just after 10:30am and we were running a little ahead of schedule, so Susanne and I suggested we return to the Bayon.
|Avelokitesvara heads, the Bayon|
We settled ourselves in front of a particular Avelokitesvara head that was relatively close to eye level, and proceeded to spend the next hour drawing it. The head was just a few feet from that amputee musician who played the Khmer folk cello. We sat there sketching the face, listening to the sound of Cambodian melodies rise through the air. We noticed that the musician had a friend nearby, to whom he would hand any recent donations from tourists – that way, the musician’s money bowl always seemed pathetically barren. In the time we sat there, he probably collected five dollars in small bills, not bad money by local standards. Several Khmer teenagers approached us to watch us draw; they smiled when they saw what we were doing. By 11:30 we were both satisfied with our work so we paused for a few more pictures of us standing by the stone face. We then returned to the car and drove back to Siem Reap for our lunchtime break.
November 9, 1997
|Novice Monks, Angkor Wat|
The rest of the day would be dedicated to Angkor Wat, the most famous of the Angkor monuments. Occupying more than two square miles and surrounded by a 500 foot wide moat, Angkor is the pinnacle of classic Khmer architecture. Dedicated to Vishnu and its builder, King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat served as the king’s funerary temple. The temple itself faces west, acknowledging the setting sun and the symbolic passage from life to afterlife.
Angkor Wat maximizes its symbolic potential by serving as a physical representation of both time and space. As you walk inward – across the causeway and moat through the main gate, along the internal causeway and up the tiers to the summit – you in turn go back through time, from the present moment to the birth of the universe at the top of Mt. Meru. Similarly, by going inward you cross the rivers and oceans, the land of the continents, the sacred foothills, and (again) the summit of Mt. Meru, the symbolic center of the universe and the source of all life.
And despite our profane reality of sweat, tourists and children selling flutes and postcards, Angkor Wat delivers a profoundly holy and thoroughly mystical experience. I’ve got a noticeable bounce in my step as we walk down the causeway to the main gate – I still can’t believe I’m actually here. The sun begins to shine brightly as we reach the gate, a shadowy stone arch that obscures the view of the structures beyond it. I’m sure this was the intended effect, for as we cross through the darkness, suddenly the arch opens to reveal the full glory of Angkor Wat itself. Another long causeway terminates at the temple entrance, its column-studded base stretching far to the left and right. Another row of columns cover the second tier of the temple; above these I can see the temple’s five towers that make Angkor Wat so recognizable. I wonder how high we can climb inside. As we reached the columned entrance, I am greeted by the first of many old Buddhist nuns inviting me to light some incense. I decline for now – I figured I’d wait til I reach the top. The old nun smiled and said “Sok Sabai.” “Aw kohn, Sabai te,” I say back – “thank you, be well” – at least I think that’s what I said.
|Susanne standing in temple courtyard, Angkor Wat|
Just beyond the entrance I saw dark corridors extending both left and right, running in a square around the central tier. The corridors were shaded on both sides by stone columns that are chiseled so intricately you would swear they were wood and carved with modern molding tools. It’s somewhat difficult to walk through the corridor for each compartment is separated by raised stone blocks as high as 18 inches above the ground. Walking became an introductory step aerobics class as we maneuvered our way down the corridor. Well worth it, though. The path took us about 30 minutes to walk all the way around, so we moved up to the second tier: four stupas stand at the corners of the tier, with large courtyards and courtyards-within-courtyards in each quarter of the tier. We decided to cut through to the back and then walk around along the sides. The view of the surrounding landscape is lovely, and we weren’t even halfway up. In one corner we found a western couple who appeared to have claimed the sunniest spot in which to sit and enjoy a soda. Susanne noticed that there was a nice view of them from another courtyard window, so she offered to take their camera and get a picture of them. It turned out that one of the two tourists, was from Bethesda, about half an hour from my apartment in Arlington. Small world.
I’ve already gone through a roll of film at Angkor Wat and we’ve only been here for about an hour. I’ll relent on my snap-happy enthusiasm but also note to myself that I could always buy more film. Besides, I’m not exactly in the neighborhood every day.
|Bas relief detail, Angkor Wat|
We decided to climb up to the third tier, an imposing task considering the steps are thin and rise at about a 75 degree angle. We walked around to the south side and found a set of reinforced steps and a handle rail leading to the top. As we began the climb, a nun at the bottom courtyard said something in Khmer that I took as meaning Be Careful, Kid. Luckily we made it to the top unscathed, albeit severely out of breath and sweaty. As with the two levels below, the third tier is divided by quadrants of courtyards (that were once shimmering water pools) circumscribed by dark columned corridors. In the main corridors extending cardinally from the center of the summit, old nuns sat on the floor and chatted with younger women and a couple of park policemen enjoying a cigarette. The nuns smiled as us and laughed as they asked, “Sok Sabai te?” which I now began to regard as the official form of hello inside Angkor. “Sok sabai, aw kohn cheran, sok sabaiiii….” I replied.
At the very center of the tier were four small shrines, one facing each direction, all containing statues of the Buddha at different stages of life. We paused at the Buddha facing north – a reclining Buddha in the midst of achieving nirvana. We had reached the top of Angkor Wat and I felt it was time to give thanks for our safe journey through Cambodia, so I lit some incense and a candle, leaving a dollar on a silver plate in front of the statue. Hopefully the Enlightened One would appreciate the gesture from a couple of itinerant Judeo-Christian farangs such as ourselves. I also thought about Susan Hadden, the former head of the Alliance for Public Technology, who was killed in an ambush visiting Angkor’s Banteay Srei temples two and a half years ago. I’m not sure if any of her friends or colleagues had had the opportunity to visit Cambodia since her tragic death, so honoring her memory with some incense seemed like the right thing to do.
It was about 3:45 pm now and we were supposed to meet Rang at 4:45 in order to climb the hill at Phnom Bakheng, which apparently offers the best view of Angkor Wat at sunset. But as we returned to the base of the temple, we found a group of kids dressed in classical Khmer dancing costumes – girls in golden apsara outfits and boys in colorful harlequin ensembles. In the distance I noticed a minivan and several men carrying xylophones up to the causeway. There was going to be a performance! Susanne and I had been disappointed in our inability to find traditional dance performances during this trip, so we decided to hang out, get a good seat and see what happened next. At first we got a little over-anxious and tried to snap some pictures while the kids prepped for the show. The boys hammed it up for the cameras, but the girls were much more intent on getting ready to dance and ignored our gestures to take a picture of them. Meanwhile a small crew of men set up a red cloth on the causeway – the stage, undoubtedly – and placed their instruments off to the left side of it. Having noticed this, I placed myself strategically at the left corner of the front stage, leaning on an ancient stone pillar next to the gamelan orchestra.
Susanne continued to get pictures near the dancers while I held our place. About a dozen chairs were set up in front of the stage and soon they were occupied by a large tour group made up of French and German retirees. I guessed that explained the reason for this “impromptu” performance. I glanced at my watch and saw it was now 4:10pm, half an hour before our rendezvous. Well, Rang might have to wait a bit – this was the chance of a lifetime, to see Khmer dancers in front of Angkor Wat at sunset – there was no way I’d miss this. Besides, we could always climb up Phnom Bakheng for tomorrow’s sunset.
|Listen to the Petal Dance with RealAudio!|
By 4:30pm the gamelan orchestra started to warm up, so Susanne returned to our front-row position. Within a minute or two, the musicians broke out full swing into an overture. Fortunately, I had just hit the “record” button on my tape player. Soon the Apsara dancers glided gracefully to the stage, bathed in warm orange hues from the setting sun. I couldn’t believe our good fortune for being here at this moment. The dancers demonstrated a traditional flower dance, where bowls of flower petals are balanced in the palm of one hand and eventually tossed in the air as an offering of good luck. Susanne and I went trigger happy, taking almost a roll of pictures each in a few minutes. But we knew that some of these pictures would be classics, so it was worth taking extras just in case they captured a particularly magical moment.
|The monkey god Hanuman in a dance from the Reamkin
For more scenes from the performance, visit The Children of Southeast Asia
|Listen to the Coconut Dance with RealAudio!|
We stayed at Angkor Wat for two more dances – a wonderful percussive number where boys and girls skillfully collided coconut shells to a rhythm, and a scene from the Reamkin (the Cambodian interpretation of India’s Ramayana epic), a reenactment of the monkey god Hanuman courting a beautiful maiden. The young boy who played Hanuman wore an ornately painted mask, and his movements were incredibly crisp and precise. I ran out of film and audio tape at the end of this performance, so we took this as our cue to meet Rang back at the car. Once again, we found him standing by his Camry with a gleeful grin on his face. Before I could finish apologizing for being late, he said, “Yes, Apsara dancers, I know,” and agreed that we could always climb Phnom Bakheng for tomorrow’s sunset.
We chilled out at the hotel, writing in our journals on the balcony as dozens of geckos congregated on the ceiling over our heads, waiting for the arrival of the evening mosquitoes. We eventually crossed the street to the Singapore Restaurant for another order of fried rice and some hot Singapore coconut curry chicken. The cafe had a bit of a bug problem, so we spent our meal blowing small flies off the table. More geckos crowded the walls while a TV played Khmer music videos at full volume. The videos reminded me of ones I had seen back in India, though I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.
We hit the sack at 8pm. Tomorrow we would meet Rang at five in the morning to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat. Despite my high level of anticipation awaiting another glorious day at Angkor, I managed to get a good night’s sleep.
|Avelokitesvara head, the Bayon|
4:45am, and it’s black as pitch outside, yet we’ve got no choice but to get out of bed. Our morning flight to Siem Reap had been changed from 7:30 to 6:30, which meant we’d have to ride through the streets of Phnom Penh before sunrise. Just a day or two before, I was nervous about the prospects of a pre-dawn drive through Phnom Penh. Bandits, corrupt cops, hottentots, we’d inevitably be kidnapped and sold for scrap. Now, of course, I realized that this was an absurd overreaction on my part. At 5:30am, the streets of Phnom Penh seemed safer than Washington DC would have been at the same time. Just don’t let the cabby take any short cuts down some hidden alleyways, I grimaced.
We rode along the quiet treelined boulevards and reached the airport in about 15 minutes. Susanne and I picked up our boarding passes, paid the $10 departure tax and waited for boarding as two large groups of German and Japanese tourists crowded the departure lounge. They looked well traveled, sporting Saigon and Luang Prabang t-shirts. Susanne talked with a woman from Manchester, England who had spent two months alone wandering the South Pacific, Burma and Vietnam before coming to Cambodia. Meanwhile I worried we’d get hassled because of the size of our backpacks – there was a 10 kilogram per passenger limit on baggage, and I’m sure our packs exceeded the limited, but no one asked us anything except “carry-on bags?”
The sun rose at 6am, not long before we boarded the flight. Before the July coup there were seven flights a day to Siem Reap. Now there were only three, and until the end of the rains last week, they were largely empty. Our flight had about 40 people on board, more than half full. We munched on angel cake muffins and coffee during the brief 35 minute flight. I had hoped for a stunning view of Angkor on the way down, but instead had to settle for rice paddies, stilt houses and the occasional humble wat.
Siem Reap is perhaps the smallest airport I’ve ever seen, even beating Connecticut’s New Haven airport. A few steps inside and we were already at the exit, as two dozen or so frenzied taxi drivers waited outside ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. We too would have to choose a driver from amongst this crowd, so we paused for a second, put on our game faces and then opened the door to face the music. All 20 cabbies charged us, shouting “Siem Reap! Siem Reap! Angkor! I will drive!” About six or seven of them pressed into me and pawed at my hands and shirt. It was time to choose, so I decided to grab the smallest guy I could find – that way, if he proved to be a difficult person, I’d look all the more intimidating to him. Maybe. I looked at a small, smiling young man to my left and said, “You! Golden Apsara Guesthouse.” He charged forward, as did the other drivers – apparently they could all get a commission from this particular hotel. I asked him how much the ride would cost, to which he responded, “Free ride – courtesy service to Golden Apsara.” I suppose his commission would surpass the price of the cab ride. “OK, let’s go.” We pushed through the crowd, caught a breath of fresh Cambodian country air, and climbed into the little man’s Camry. Another young Khmer, this one grinning even more than the first man, closed our doors and got into the driver’s seat. We started the short ride into Siem Reap, the only major town around Angkor.
|Rang, our driver and guide to Angkor
Interested in hiring Rang next time you’re at Angkor?
The driver didn’t talk much, but the first man told us a bit about the area. The town had about 70,000 residents but it felt much smaller to me, like a pleasant country village where everyone knew everyone else and exchanged gossip over Tiger beer and Mild Sevens cigarettes at the local garden cafe. The only traffic was the occasional motorscooter or young boy herding the family cattle down the road. The first man asked if we wanted a driver for our stay. “He will drive you – his name is Rang,” he said, pointing to the driver, who repeated “Rang,” smiling cheerfully. “20 dollars a day.” This was the going rate in town, so we agreed to use him as our escort for our stay. We arrived at the hotel, a quaint villa in need of a fresh whitewash, but quite nice by our flexible accommodation standards. The owner, an older gentleman who spoke fluent French but no English, showed us a large room with three beds, ceiling fan, a refrigerator, bathroom and a spotless floor, $20 dollars a day. Fair enough. We gladly dropped our backpacks to the beds.
Susanne and I changed clothes and prepared our film supply for the day while Rang arranged our two day passes to Angkor for $40 each (the passes would have been good for a third day if we’d had the time). $40 may seem rather steep compared to practically every other entrance fee in Asia, but considering that here were the greatest archeological ruins on earth and one of the few steady sources of hard currency for this poor country, $40 seemed a small price to pay. Rang returned about 20 minutes later. He still had that large grin on his face, as if her were excited for us, this being our first visit to the famed ruins of Angkor.
From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the Khmer kingdom at Angkor was the most powerful and architecturally prodigious culture in southeast Asia. The Khmers had lived for centuries in this region, which had earlier been known as Funan and Chenla, but they were often dominated by the regional superpowers of the time, namely China to the north and Java to the south. In 802 a Khmer official in the Javanese court returned to his homeland, declared himself the god-king Jayavarman II and decried full independence from Java. Jayavarman II became the first of many god-kings of the Khmer court at Angkor. As god-kings, Jayavarman and his successors commissioned stone temples to themselves as well as to the Hindu god Shiva, often patterning the structures into a three-tiered representation of Mt. Meru, the mythical centerpoint of time and space. By around 880 CE, the monarch Indravarman became the first god-king to construct massive irrigation works that allowed Angkor to expand in size and population.
The next three centuries would see a series of political waves fluctuating between growth and decline. Angkor reached its first peak with the ascension of Suryavarman II in 1112, who expanded the kingdom into Vietnam and Thailand and built the famed Shiva temple of Angkor Wat. Yet the southern Vietnamese state of Champa would not be subjugated. In 1177, the Chams initiated a covert counterattack, quietly sailing up the great lake of central Cambodia, the Tonle Sap. Within a few years, the Chams sacked Angkor and executed the king, but the Khmers immediately regrouped for an attempt to take back Angkor. A cousin of the former king led the charge, retaking Angkor around 1180. He was eventually crowned as Jayavarman VII. For the next four decades, this Jayavarman would reign through Angkor’s greatest period.
Jayavarman VII is best known for constructing Angkor Thom, the nine-square-kilometer walled city that would serve as the royal capital for 400 years. Jayavarman VII commissioned the Baphuon Palace as well as the Bayon, famous for its scores of smirking stone faces. On the cultural front, Jayavarman VII officially converted the state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism, though the conversion process had been going on in Khmer communities for some time. Instead of constructing monuments to Shiva and Vishnu, Jayavarman VII glorified images of the Buddha and his incarnation as Avelokitesvara. Jayavarman VII’s reign was the pinnacle of Khmer culture, and after his death things began to slip away. By the 15th and 16th centuries the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya was in ascendance, and after several half-hearted attempts at destroying the Khmers they sacked Angkor in 1431 and 1594, eventually ending its term as Khmer capital. The Khmers eventually regrouped in their new capital at Phnom Penh, many miles away to the south of the Tonle Sap, but the glory period of Khmer history was over.
Angkor was not known in the west until it was “discovered” by French explorers in the mid 19th century. They brought home tales of adventure – as well as unbelievable etchings of Angkor itself – back to an eager French public. Through the turn of the century to the 1960′s Angkor was a popular spot for globetrotting European Asiaphiles, but civil war in 1970 and the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 made Angkor and surrounding Siem Reap province a rebel hotspot. Khmer Rouge cadre buried thousands of landmines in and around Angkor, occasionally kidnapping and killing tourists as well. As recent as 1995, Dr. Susan Hadden of the Alliance for Public Technology was killed in a bandit ambush near the grand ruins of Banteay Srei, just north of Angkor. I didn’t know Dr. Hadden well, but we had emailed each other on numerous occasions in the summer of 1994 while I was constructing my EdWeb website. Her death at Banteay Srei was a chilling reminder that even with the end of the fighting and a strong UN presence, Siem Reap province was still a dangerous place.
With this long history of glory, intrigue and murder in my mind, we were now in a car passing the entry checkpoint into Angkor. The checkpoint consisted of a small roadside kiosk where several bored policemen sat around while a smiling woman checked visitor passes. We drove north until reaching a T in the road. We turned left and continued along a wide body of water that Rang pointed out to us to be the moat of Angkor Wat. The moat was over a mile long on this side and at least 500 feet wide. But on the other side of the water, all I could see was forest, dense and lush from the recent monsoon rains. Somewhere within this verdant island fortress was Angkor Wat. I eagerly awaited my first sight of it.
We hooked a right and hugged the left-hand side of the moat, again heading north. As we approached the moat’s western causeway I finally saw the five stupa-like towers of Angkor Wat. Even with this passing glimpse I was awestruck, perhaps less with what I saw and rather because I was so amazed that I was even here in the first place. But before I could have any sort of metaphysical epiphany, we whizzed by Angkor Wat, heading north towards the walled city of Angkor Thom. The greatest temple on earth would have to wait, and I would have to settle with only a teasing taste of it. Angkor Wat vanished behind us, again shrouded by its dense forest cape. I had always envisioned Angkor to be a massive open expanse of monuments, like the pyramids of Giza or the central plain of Chichen Itza in Mexico, but much of Angkor was separated by miles of trees and swamp land. Angkor wasn’t a single archeological site – it was an entire city preserved by centuries of outside ignorance of its existence.
|Angkor Thom south gate|
Soon we reached the south gate of Angkor Thom. A stone causeway took us over a statue-lined moat. At the end of the causeway stood an intimidating stone arch topped with the face of the Avelokitesvara. We paused for a few snapshots but clouds obscured much of the sunlight. We’d have to return for some better pictures later. About a kilometer further down the road the forest turned swampy as the dry earth metamorphosed into frog-infested wetlands. It was in these damp marshes that stood the Bayon, the jewel of Angkor Thom. No one is really sure if the Bayon was a temple or something entirely different, and only recently did archeologists conclude that it was built by Jayavarman VII. Mysteries are the Bayon’s specialty, for it is best known for its 54 stone towers topped with over 200 faces of the Avelokitesvara, each visage bearing an enigmatic, patently Buddhist smirk.
Khmer children swimming in front of the Bayon
From a distance the Bayon looked like a jumbled mess – a bunch of ruined towers surrounded by heaps of stone rubble. We exited the taxi on the Bayon’s east side and headed up its crumbling causeway. We were hounded by kids and young woman selling flutes, knives, statuettes, drums, water, film and many other things we simply didn’t need. They pestered us for about 50 feet and then retreated for the next round of tourists – standard operating procedure for the touts of Angkor. We climbed the steps to the first tier of the Bayon. In each direction were long shadowy pathways decorated with bas reliefs in surprisingly good condition. An old monk manned a small Buddha shrine in one of these corridors and he tried to get visitors to light incense and candles for a small donation. I lit some incense for good luck and left him a few hundred riels – small change but nonetheless appreciated. He smiled and said something like “Sok sabai,” which I took for meaning “be well,” based on its similarity to Thai.
Listen to the fiddler play!
Maneuvering through an obstacle course of tumbled stone Susanne and I climbed a staircase to the second tier, home to the many faces of Avelokitesvara. It was from here that we got our first sense of the magnitude of these faces. Everywhere you looked – in every direction, at every possible angle, it seemed – was this huge, peaceful grin, its eyes closed as if in a state of meditation. Most of the faces were 10 to 20 feet above us, some even higher, so we wandered the Bayon’s many passages for a closer look. Around one corner, not far from the steps leading to the central third tier tower, sat a one-footed amputee playing a two-stringed folk instrument held like a cello. His haunting melody echoed through the central Bayon and the quality of his playing seemed to increase with the approach of each visiting tourist. I paused to record some of his performance, as well as to take pictures of a marvelous stone face not far above eye level, adjacent to where the musician sat.
Susanne and I spent the next hour or so climbing each level of the Bayon, marveling its many enigmatic faces. The sun dipped in and out of the clouds, so getting those perfect photos became quite a challenge. We’d have to return here when the sun was bright and warm, we concluded. I purchased a large bottle of water for two dollars (ten times the going price in Bangkok – that’s supply and demand for you) and got a few more pictures from the far end of the Bayon’s eastern causeway. Susanne and I met Rang at the car and he took us what turned out to be only a few hundred yards to the southern end of a large open field. On the left, just ahead of us, I could see a series of raised terraces decorated with elephant bas reliefs and lion statues. To the right there was a row of eight thin towers similar to the Mayan pyramids at Tikal. We started with the terraces on the left. The first platform, the Baphuon, was once Angkor Thom’s city center but was now an empty space save a pyramid in the distance, surrounded by scaffolding and flooding from the recent monsoon.
Statue of the Leper King
Further afield stood Phimeanakas, the walled palace of Jayavarman VII, now a series of grass covered terraces. We climbed the wall of the eastern terrace, careful not to sink too deeply in its mud. On the other side of the wall, a long bas relief of an elephant procession stretched for over 100 feet. Susanne had joked before the trip of hoping to see an elephant parade somewhere on the trip – here was her lucky chance. We then reached the Terrace of the Leper King, so known because it is believed that some of the Angkor kings suffered from the disease, though there is no hard proof of this claim. We climbed the top of the terrace to find a nude, sexless statue that has also been a mystery to archaeologists. It’s a replica of the real statue, now displayed away from the elements in Phnom Penh. We descended the terrace steps to admire more bas reliefs and then returned to find Rang. He told us we still hadn’t really seen Phimeanakas, so we should go back and look. What had we missed?
We cut west through the small temple complex of Tep Pernan, now closed for renovation. Amidst the trees and cows we found a long wall with several children playing on it. There was an arched gate further along the wall, so we cut through and walked up the grassy hill where more children played. Past the hill we saw what we had earlier missed – a tall, three-tiered temple that served as the center of Jayavarman VII’s palace.
Detail of bas-relief, Terrace of the Leper King
We admired it for a while before cutting back through the archway. Three young girls, maybe 8 to 12 years old, followed us and tried to sell us flutes. We told them we weren’t interested, but apparently they were interested in us. So they stopped trying to sell things to us and instead followed us around just to see where we’d go next. We headed back to the main field past the terraces and crossed the street to check out some of the stone towers we had noticed earlier. These towers, known as Prasat Suor Prat, are part of the Kleang group of ruins. There wasn’t much to do here apart from walk around the towers because they were too steep to climb. Those little girls with the flutes continued to follow us, keeping a safe distance so they could giggle and point without retribution. We could hear traditional Cambodian music blaring from speakers behind a thicket of trees, but the closest path to take us around the trees was too far removed for a quick inspection.
We returned to Rang and drove back to town for lunch at the Bayon Restaurant, a quaint garden cafe regarded as the best place to dine in Siem Reap. We ordered fried rice and green chicken curry in baby coconut, literally served inside a baby coconut. The English lady from Manchester whom we had met at the airport was there as well, so we invited her to join us. We swapped traveler’s tales and I sampled her fish curry in coconut (better than my chicken curry – more peanuts) as well as a pineapple plate for dessert. Rang took us back to the hotel for a 90-minute break. Earlier that morning when he suggested this afternoon siesta, I thought it would be a waste of precious time. In retrospect, it was the best advice we could have followed. Climbing ruins is exhausting work and results in amount of sweat too graphic to acknowledge in writing, so an hour and a half of air conditioning and a cool shower was welcomed relief. Susanne and I found ourselves with some extra time to check out Siem Reap’s central market. There wasn’t much action there, but we managed to find a shop that sold postcards at six for a dollar. We bought 12 of them and returned to the hotel to relax and meet up with Rang for the afternoon.
November 8, 1997
|Closeup of skulls at the killing fields
of Choeung Ek
8am, Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport, departure gate 41. I’m sitting at the only gate that has free seats available. To my right an anxious crowd gets ready to board a flight to Singapore. Just beyond them it’s mayhem as people vie for standby tickets to Ho Chi Minh City. But here at Gate 41, I’ve got all the stretching room I need, because through the doors just ahead of me sits a Royal Air Cambodge ATR 72 bound for Phnom Penh. I wonder if we’d be the only people on this flight. Perhaps we were indeed crazy for even wanting to go in the first place.
But this was a trip I had to make. Ever since seeing the film ‘The Killing Fields’ years back I’ve struggled with answering the difficult question of how on earth an entire nation could literally commit suicide. Suicide. Our world is full of countless histories of atrocity, where one culture vents its wrath on another culture. This century alone, we’ve witnessed Jews, Armenians, Roma, Bosnians, Tutsis, just to name a few, led to their deaths for reasons no more logical than hate or fear itself. Yet in Cambodia, there was no dominant ethnic group oppressing a minority, no country wiping out its neighbor in the name of nationalism. In Cambodia, Khmers killed other Khmers, first over political struggle, then over social ideology, and finally over bloodlust and paranoia as ends in themselves. This small Asian nation not much larger than the state of Missouri exterminated as many as two million of its own brothers and sisters. Two out of seven Khmers starved or murdered in less than 45 months: April 17, 1975 to January, 1979.
As a Jew I’ve always struggled with the legacy of the Holocaust, and over time I’ve begun to understand just how Germany could have committed such an egregious crime against humanity. As abhorrent as the Holocaust was, from a strictly historical and disinterested perspective I can understand the chain of events that led to it. Same thing in Bosnia and Rwanda – terrible events, though not entirely unpredictable. But Cambodia made no sense to me. How any country could perpetrate in my lifetime a crime so hideous as to have 11-year-old boys literally executing their own parents with a blow of a shovel to the back of their heads, all for the “capitalist” crimes of speaking French, wearing glasses, being a teacher, was beyond my scope of understanding. I had to experience Cambodia as a nation, as a people, as a culture, just to begin to understand it.
Right now, I’m flying at 15,000 feet over western Cambodia, on our way to Phnom Penh. It’s a beautiful day, and I can see dense forests below. I thought I’d be uneasy at this particular moment, but I’m actually quite excited. Back in Bangkok, our travel agent had made arrangements for a guide to pick us up at the airport and take us around for the day, so we’d never have to worry about being alone. There are about 30 people on our flight – Thais, Khmers, Japanese, Indians, even a few Americans. I had been nervous we’d be on a deserted flight. Why the hell would anyone come to Cambodia unless they had to? Well, it looks like we’re not alone. Cambodia possesses one of the most unique cultures and histories in Asia, and to experience this nation, it would seem I’m willing to put my faith in humanity ahead of the obvious risks. I will be on guard for these four days in Cambodia, but I will enjoy it. Damn it, I will enjoy it.
It’s 10:30am, and our plane is descending into Phnom Penh. I’ve filled out my visa application and customs form. There’s no turning back now. Like it or not, within the hour I’ll be on the ground in Cambodia.
The plane completes a rather bumpy landing in near-perfect weather – 80 degrees, crisp and dry, sunny. Thank goodness for the end of the southeast monsoons earlier this week. Pochentong International Airport is no larger than an American municipal airport. The arrival lounge is clean and orderly, a surprise considering that artillery shells decimated the control tower and radar system four months ago. Inside the terminal we queued through a line of immigration officers who sternly examined our visa applications and passports. At the end of the queue, a young female officer looked up at me and gave me a beautiful Khmer smile, a singular gesture that cut through so much of the residual doubt and weariness in my head.
Having paid the $20 dollars cash required for the visa stamp, Susanne and I completed immigration, breezed through customs and made reservations at the tourism desk for a downtown Phnom Penh hotel. The Hawaii Hotel was a three-star located near the Central Market, and at $42 a night it was well above our usual hotel budget. But Cambodia was still near the top of the U.S. State Department Traveler Advisory List: kidnapping and murder of Westerners was not unheard of here, so we decided to ere on the side of caution. First, though, we needed to meet our guide for the day, whom we had hired through the MK Ways travel agency in Bangkok. We were expecting a man to greet us with our names on a placard, but outside we could only find a horde of young and eager taxi drivers, all of whom shouted for our attention. We remained inside the terminal, away from all of the ravenous touts, and waited. After 10 minutes of mild concern, we saw a smiling young man holding a sign bearing our names – it was welcome relief. We introduced ourselves to the guide; his name was Rith (pronounced like the word ‘writ’) and he was 29 years old – a bit of a shock for he didn’t look a day over 21. We informed Rith of our reservations at the Hawaii Hotel, so he gathered our car and driver for the short drive to downtown Phnom Penh.
|Susanne crosses the street towards the Central Market|
Phnom Penh is alive with people. A city of around one million residents, yet I doubt there are any buildings in town that are over four or five stories tall. Motorcycles and scooters whiz by in packs like bicyclists in Beijing. There are so many cars and people moving about, yet I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as traffic, especially after having experienced the hellish gridlock of Bangkok. The moldy whitewash buildings look warn and tired, yet still possess an eerie French Colonial ambiance. A ghost town repopulated, quite literally. I wondered if the streets of Port au Prince or Dakar ever felt like this. Many of the streets are potholed or unpaved, and there are no working traffic lights, yet nearly every car I see is a Toyota Camry, a Honda Accord, or a new model Nissan pickup truck. Here was a city a hair’s width away from anarchy, yet its assortment of automobiles were more akin to American suburbia. A first of many paradoxes, undoubtedly.
But beyond the dustiness of the streets and the peeling white paint, Phnom Penh was bright and vivacious as sunbeams shone off turn-of-the-century villas along treelined boulevards. The people here went about their daily business in a cheerful way, despite the decades of suffering and despair. A bicycling boy in a school uniform rides by, ringing the bell on his handlebar to compete amongst the motorscooters. Well dressed teenage girls sharing a cyclo taxi covertly point and giggle at young men while waiting to turn at an intersection. Men talk on cellular phones and scoop heaping spoonfuls of curry and rice into their mouths at a streetside cafe. This is not the Phnom Penh I expected.
Rith dropped us at the hotel and we agreed to regroup in two hours, around 2pm. This would give us time to freshen up and eat lunch, but we hadn’t anticipated being out of our guide’s protective reach for any length of time that day. At first we contemplated holing up at the hotel, but Susanne and I agreed that it was certainly safe enough to visit the Central Market as long as we looked out for each other and used some common sense. We locked up our valuables in the room and with only our cameras in hand, we walked outside and strolled to the market.
|Cyclo taxis, Phnom Penh|
The sky was bright and blue as men approached us on three-wheeled cyclos, motioning to see if we wanted to hire them for a ride. I’d motion back to say no, and in most cases, they would pedal away, with only one or two of them pestering us for patronage. We had to dodge the traffic to cross 53rd street – no stoplights in town makes this an adventure every time – in order to reach the outer stalls of the Central Market. Rows of fresh flowers and vegetables greeted us on our right, while to the left women squatted over small charcoal fires to tend to roasting peanuts and chestnuts. Many of the stalls were devoted solely to touristy items like t-shirts (“I survived Phnom Penh”, “Tintin in Cambodia,” “Danger: Landmines”), Angkor paperweights and small Buddha statues, so considering the current dearth of visitors to Phnom Penh, I wasn’t at all surprised by the continuous calls in French and English beckoning us to visit their shops. I paused at one stall where a lovely girl, perhaps 10 years old, was selling kramas, those ubiquitous checkered cotton scarves you see Khmers wearing in all types of weather. I was interested in buying a krama, so I asked how much they were. One dollar each for the big ones, three for two dollars for the smaller ones, she said (Cambodia is largely a U.S. cash-only economy thanks to consistent inflation that has brought the Cambodian riel down to 3600 riels per dollar). I wasn’t ready to buy anything just yet, so I made a mental note to return here on my way out and told her I’d be back. I guessed from the look on her face that she heard that a lot from Westerners.
At the center of the stalls is a large orange building with a roof of concentric circles thinning out into a pyramid. “An art deco ziggurat,” in the words of the Lonely Planet guide. We entered the building and were amazed to find a brilliantly lit arcade of gem sellers, wristwatch dealers, makeup counters and perfume shops. Cambodia’s answer to Macy’s. But as we wandered awestruck through the aisles, the sobering reality of Cambodia set itself upon us. A young boy, perhaps 12 or 14, ragged, half blind and with a noticeable limp, began to follow us around with his arms outstretched. “Papa, monsieur. Mama, madame. Papa…” he chanted, his blank, sunken eyes staring at us. I tried to ignore him, for I knew that giving alms in such a public place would take the finger out of the dike and release a flood of needy street urchins upon us. So we began a sad, sad game of cat and mouse as we tried to lose him in the maze of stalls. But it was to no avail for he would keep up with every turn, arms outward, “Mama, Papa…” Susanne noticed that he would back off when we neared the policemen sitting around the market entrance. So I visited the counter closest to the police, feigning interest in some jewelry. The poor wretch darted away, fearing retribution from the cops. Meanwhile, I pointed at a piece of ivory sitting in the gem case, asking the saleswoman what it was. She handed it to me as I realized it was a tiger’s canine. “Very cheap, monsieur,” she said. “You buy, yes?” Embarrassed and a bit saddened that I hadn’t recognized what it was, I handed it back to her and declined politely.
Susanne and I returned to the young girl with the collection of kramas. I selected two scarves: a black and white and a red plaid with yellow threads. As I removed two dollars from my pocket, another wave of beggars surrounded us, most of them amputees from landmines. They were the first of many amputees I’d see in my short stay in Cambodia, a country where one out of every 250 people had been maimed by landmine explosions. I handed the two dollars to the girl and thanked her – “Aw kohn,” the only Khmer I knew at this point. The beggars got very close to me and pressed at my arms and shoulders. “Monsieur, monsieur,” they said in unison. I thought to myself: even if I did give them the couple of dollars in my pocket, it wouldn’t change anything. I couldn’t save these poor souls even if I tried, so I closed my eyes, swallowed hard and walked away, not looking back. We crossed the road back to the hotel, with me left feeling a little blank and unsure.
|The Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh|
Rith and our driver met us downstairs at 2pm. Our first destination was the Silver Pagoda. The Pagoda was part of the King’s palace compound, but the rest of the palace has remained closed to the public ever since King Sihanouk returned to the throne a few years back. Through the compound gates we found a glorious courtyard bedecked with stone stupas and golden pagodas of all shapes and sizes. This was Phnom Penh at its proudest. The pagoda was built in 1892 by King Norodom, Sihanouk’s great grandfather, as the eternal residence of Cambodia’s Emerald Buddha, a Baccarat crystal statue modeled after the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. The pagoda’s main courtyard is used for the interment of royal ashes under its stupas. We circled the Silver Pagoda, marveling at its size and glistening panels. Inside, Rith noted that the floor was constructed entirely of solid silver tiles, over 5000 of them, each weighing more than a kilogram. At the center of the temple was a golden shrine for the Emerald Buddha. In front of it, though, stood a sight even more impressive – a solid gold, life-sized Buddha statue weighing nearly 200 pounds. Beyond my initial shock over its mere existence, I was puzzled as to how on earth this treasure could have survived the destruction of the Khmer Rouge. As Rith explained, the answer was quite simple. The Khmer Rouge had a public image to protect among the international community, despite its attempts to isolate Cambodia from the rest of the world. So they kept the Silver Pagoda as a token conservation effort, just in case foreign dignitaries might want to visit it. Nevertheless, the gold and crystal Buddhas were still quite lucky, for more than half of the other priceless relics kept at the Silver Pagoda were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
Rith led us to a tree-enshrouded hill, an earthly representation of the mythological Mt. Meru (the nexus of time and space in Hinduism and Khmer Buddhism). A group of Khmer schoolchildren was playing there and we soon caught their attention. Next thing I knew, we were posing for pictures together, laughing over their bad English and our worse Khmer. Eventually it was time to move on so we returned to the car, were approached once again by an amputeed beggar in military fatigues. The car drove off before he could get very close, though, as he struggled across the road on one crutch.
Our next stop was Tuol Sleng, the infamous S-21 interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge. Before 1975, Tuol Sleng was a typical Phnom Penh high school. From 1975 to 1979, though, it was without a doubt the most horrible place on earth. Within these walls, 17,000 prisoners, including entire families, were incarcerated, interrogated and tortured here, all for the soul purpose of extracting confessions from them before execution. Of the 17,000 inmates who entered Tuol Sleng, only seven people – seven – are known to have survived. The rest of them either died inside or met their fate in the killing fields of Choeung Ek, just outside of town.
|Wooden gymnastic beams used by
Khmer Rouge for hanging and torture
My first impression of Tuol Sleng was its familiarity – it reminded me quite vividly of my own high school in Florida, which was built in a similar outdoor courtyard style. As I looked around I saw my own high school draped in barbed wire, with the gasps, moans and screams of the damned emanating from inside. I was snapped out of this ghoulish daydream when Rith introduced us to Phalla (pronounced “Palla”), a Khmer woman who would be our guide. Phalla appeared to be in her mid 40s and she had a round and freckled complexion with almost Polynesian features. Immediately I wondered what had happened to her during the Khmer Rouge years – she would have been in her mid-twenties at the time, perhaps my age or younger. But I knew this wasn’t the moment to ask such things; maybe she would tell us in the course of the tour.
On the far left end of the courtyard, Phalla showed us the graves of the last 14 victims of Tuol Sleng. They were all killed in the days and hours leading up to the successful occupation of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in early January of 1979. Condemned internationally as a ruthless invasion, no one in the West could have realized at the time that this occupation was tantamount to the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by Russian forces during the waning days of World War II. Phalla brought us to a series of stark, grim rooms lit only by meager sunlight, each containing a rusty bed frame, a pair of leg shackles, plastic gas containers for urine and feces, and a large black and white photo of the victim found in that room. Cell by cell, Phalla told us in graphic detail the method of execution applied to these last victims of S-21, their throats slashed with rusty knives, their faces caved in with shovels. Each story seemed more hellish than the one preceding it. We visited five of these rooms, more than enough to visualize the horror that had taken place there. “You do not need to see them all, sir, ma’am,” Phalla said to us. “I think you have seen much to understand…. Do you understand?” It wasn’t a rhetorical question on her part – Phalla repeatedly asked us if we could understand her English, which was actually quite good. But each time she asked “Do you understand?” I could only hear the deeper question, “Do you see what happened here? Do you see what happened to us?” All I could do was nod my head and say “Yes,” my eyes fixed on hers as if my soul depended on it.
|Tuol Sleng’s Security Regulations|
We continued the tour by entering a complex of prison cells, cubical enclosures made of thin brick and mud plaster walls. Phalla pointed out that even a child would have the strength to knock down these walls – the plaster creaked as she pressed it with one hand – yet the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were so weak and exhausted from torture and malnutrition they rarely attempted a breakout. No will to escape. I squeezed between two of the walls to get a prisoner’s perspective. I’d estimate the space was three feet wide and five feet long – not enough room to sleep flat on the floor. The air was thick and filled with dust, a million specks of dirt illuminated by horizontal rows of sunlight. Ten seconds in the cell was enough for me – claustrophobia set in as I squeezed through the wall to freedom.
The prison cells were followed by empty rooms that featured row after row of black and white portraits of prisoners. The Khmer Rouge photographed each inmate before sending them off to death by bludgeoning at Choeung Ek. The walls stared back at me: face after face of children, the elderly, mothers and babies, the beaten, the doomed. Many of them had thick metal shackles around their necks. Others had their heads propped upwards by sharp clamps, for they lacked the strength to sit up. But their faces spoke volumes. Some of them looked confused or frightened. A few even looked angry. But most of them, above all else, looked totally hopeless. Hopeless from having accepted the fact that they were the walking dead, with no chance of reprieve.
As we crossed over part of the courtyard to the next complex of buildings, I noticed some boys playing volleyball directly behind the rooms with all the inmate photographs. Volleyball! I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then I thought about it and realized that Tuol Sleng, as horrific a place it is, is only one set of buildings in a country that has seen countless atrocities in countless places. If every single place in Cambodia that had seen such atrocities were cordoned off from returning to the mundane pleasures of normal life, there might be no plot of land large enough left in the country for a few boys to play a simple game of volleyball. And by playing this game on this very spot, they seemed to be reclaiming Tuol Sleng for themselves: “Damn the Khmer Rouge and what they did to us!” I wondered if these boys ever thought about it – none of them was even old enough to have lived during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The next several rooms continued to display more photographs, including postmortem portraits of those who died in custody of excessive torture, as well as pictures of the living conditions in the mass detention cells upstairs where hundreds of people were shackled to barren floors, huddled together 24 hours a day. The meticulousness of these murderers! Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with record keeping. But unlike the Nazis, who merely kept a running tally of the dead, the Khmer Rouge managed to take a picture of every prisoner that came through Tuol Sleng. 17,000 photographs, 17,000 dead. I stared at the faces of the condemned and read the documents charting those who had confessed, those who died in custody, those who committed suicide, and those who were transferred to the killing fields for “processing.” Suddenly I realized how the Khmer Rouge – a fighting force of ignorant, prepubescent country boys led by a well-educated cadre of former monks and teachers – could commit these crimes against humanity. The Khmer Rouge didn’t hate their fellow Khmers, at least not in the common emotional sense. Hate is too draining of an emotion to sustain for so many years. No, for the Khmer Rouge to kill or starve two million of their own people, they were warped by years of war and brainwashing to no longer care. To no longer recognize the value of an individual, the value of a human life. And by no longer caring, the Khmer Rouge stopped seeing their victims as people, members of families. The Cambodian people were objectified, commodified until they were seen only as tools of the Khmer Rouge machine, and when a particular tool malfunctioned or refused to work properly, it was coldly discarded, without compassion or notice.
I have read reports of incidents where Cambodians killed certain individuals, gutted them, and roasted their livers on sticks before sharing it as a communal meal. There was a time when I would think of the image and it would shock me. But now, as I stand here at Tuol Sleng, I am no longer shocked, for now I understand. The Khmer Rouge successfully reduced all Cambodians, if not the human condition itself, to nothing but raw meat. And Khmer society was consumed because of it. What a calamitous waste.
As Susanne and I stared at the pictures on the wall, Phalla began to say more about her own experiences during the Khmer Rouge years. She was from Phnom Penh, not far from Tuol Sleng. When the Khmer Rouge arrived on April 17, 1975, the people of Phnom Penh celebrated, for they thought rebel occupation of the capital meant the end of the five-year-long civil war. But within hours, the Khmer Rouge started to evacuate the entire population of Phnom Penh into the countryside, where the people would serve on collective farms. April 17, 1975 was Day Zero for the new Cambodia – Democratic Kampuchea as they called it. Everything before that moment was now meaningless.
Phalla and her family were evacuated and forced to work in the fields. Over the course of four years, she and her kin were moved like cattle across the country from one farm to another. And despite the success of their farming, hundreds of thousands of people starved to death, for the crops were all destined to feed Khmer Rouge forces in their continuing struggle against Vietnam. If you were caught eating your own crops, you faced summary execution – though more often than not, you’d first be brought outside of the camp to an empty field so no one would hear you scream.
|Pen Phalla, Tuol Sleng guide and Khmer Rouge survivor|
“There were times when I wanted to kill myself,” Phalla admitted. “I was sent on a boat from Battambang and I wanted to jump off and commit suicide. I wanted to jump in the water. But then I thought of my daughter, and I could not jump. I could not commit suicide.” In most cases, the Khmer Rouge made it very difficult for Cambodians to kill themselves. They took away their kramas so they wouldn’t hang themselves. Prisoners had to eat their daily rice ration with their hands, lest they hack at their wrists with the dull edge of a spoon or the points of a fork.
The last room contained a map of Cambodia displaying the major collective farm camps as well as the forced migration routes that crisscrossed the countryside. The map, about 15 feet square, was made almost entirely of human skulls. Phalla began to speak.
“My husband was killed with a bamboo stick. My daughter starved because I had no food for her. My mother and father were killed with shovels near Battambang. My sister, her husband and children were killed with knives in Kratie. My aunt, uncle and their family drowned while trying to flee into Vietnam. It is very sad.”
Susanne and I were speechless. What could we say? Phalla stood there with a closed-lipped, bittersweet smile on her face – I could see she was reminiscing about earlier, happier times. Perhaps she was thinking about her dead child – if she were still alive, I bet she would have been about my age, perhaps a bit younger. I wanted to give her a hug, do something, but all I could manage was to bow my head and stare at the floor in silence. I had expected Tuol Sleng to be a grim place, but I assumed that my experience there would be on par with a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I could not have been more wrong. While the Holocaust Museum is a powerful, fitting reminder that allows current generations to bear witness to the Holocaust, it is but a museum and nothing more. Tuol Sleng is a living instrument of genocide. It served as the base for some of the worst atrocities we have known this century. And to be told the tale of Tuol Sleng by a survivor of the killing – this courageous, persevering survivor – made me feel somewhat small.
Choeung Ek memorial pagoda
We parted company with Phalla and Tuol Sleng and began the 30 minute drive to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. While Tuol Sleng served as the place where 17,000 Cambodians were condemned to death, Choeung Ek is their final resting place. Here, amongst the rice paddies and water buffalo, Khmer Rouge soldiers carried out the orders from Tuol Sleng, bludgeoning thousands of people to death with shovels and hoes, burying them in mass unmarked graves. In 1980, 8985 bodies were exhumed here, with the remaining 8000 corpses left in situ. Today, a small pagoda stands at Choeung Ek to commemorate the dead. 8000 of their skulls sit inside as evidence, arranged in stacks according to age and sex.
We arrived at Choeung Ek just before sundown. The drive took longer than planned because the main road had been washed out during the monsoons. Children flew kites along the rice paddies while cattle and chicken wandered the streets like a village in India. We were the only people at Choeung Ek that evening, save some local children who were playing in a tree not far from the entrance. We approached the pagoda and ascended it from the front. Directly inside sat row after row of human skulls, each tier labeled for gender and age. Male: 10-14 years. Female: 15-21 years. This was the end result of Cambodia’s failed four-year flirtation with communism. No justice for the workers, no liberation of the village farmer. Only a pile of skulls.
Though the remains were protected on three sides by a thick pane of glass, the stacks of skulls in front of us were open to the elements. I got closer and closer, staring at the cold, off-white bones. For reasons I still cannot understand, I had the urge to reach out and touch them, but I resisted. I circled the pagoda as the fiery red and orange hues of the setting sun reflected off its protective glass. Behind the pagoda I found a series of earthen pits – the remnants of the mass graves. I walked between the rows of pits and mounds, then crouched to the ground, wanting to get a closer look. I ran my hand through the soil, and as if reaching from the grave, a long, thin, white bone protruded out of the ground. I stared at it for a few seconds and touched it, possibly to prove to myself that it was real. I heard Susanne and Rith coming in my direction, so I did the only thing that seemed right: I gently pushed the bone fragment back into the ground and covered it with soil, hoping that I had disturbed its eternal rest for only a brief moment.
We returned to Phnom Penh in silence. What do you say when you’ve just borne witness to genocide? The streets teemed with activity as hundreds of motorscooters, bicycles and Toyotas passed by. Every now and then I’d see a large tent extending from an open-air restaurant as well dressed Khmers stood around and chatted over champagne. Ah yes, it was wedding season, Rith had mentioned earlier. Rith broke the icy silence by asking when we were flying on to Angkor. The next morning, I said. The smalltalk continued haltingly as we drove to the hotel. There was only so much to say. And to think that we were only here to experience this for a single day. Rith and his fellow Khmers would relive the memory every day for the rest of their lives.
Rith dropped us off at the hotel and wished us a safe journey to Angkor. We thanked him for his kindness and help – Susanne and I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to visit Phnom Penh on our own. We then departed, returning to the Hawaii Hotel with an empty stomach and a heavy heart. We had hoped to get an early night’s sleep, but Susanne and I talked much of the evening about the tragedy of Cambodia and its legacy. We had come here to Phnom Penh to learn about the Cambodian auto-genocide and to work our way to Angkor, but what we really found here was the courageous spirit of the Cambodian people. Whether the tragedy is indeed over for Cambodia remains to be seen – Hun Sen’s violent coup this July and the extrajudicial killings that followed it hearken back to a time most Khmers thought had long passed. But it was clear to me today in the eyes, the words and the smiles of the Khmers we met that the brave Cambodian people will survive, no matter the odds.