Cambodia – Glories and Darkness
Flying into Siem Reap International Airport was like landing on an ocean. Vast swathes of water glittered in the sunlight, with just an occasional causeway, island or floating community to show that we were descending into the green heart of Cambodia. This chance to experience a country and a people who have seen such glories as the great Khmer Empire and such darkness as the Khmer Rouge genocide, was too fascinating to miss.
I was travelling with Senior Discovery Tours on their ‘Ancient Kingdoms of Southeast Asia’ tour with a group of like-minded and redoubtable Canadians. Our journey in Cambodia would take us from the great lake of Tonle Sap to Siem Reap and the nearby archeological wonders of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom; then south through the Cambodia rural heartland to its capital of Phnom Penh.
Tonle Sap – Cambodia’s Beating Heart
Siem Reap is situated close to the shores of Lake Tonle Sap, the largest lake in SE Asia. This is one of the richest freshwater fisheries in the world and is home to 800,000 people who live in and around the lake in 172 floating communities. It’s a water world full of meandering channels, floating vegetation, occasional islands and trees. This vast lake acts as a remarkable natural reservoir: in the dry season the lake is drained by the Tonle Sap River which joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh – but in the wet season, the Mekong water levels rise so much that it backs up the Tonle Sap River, which then reverses its flow into the lake, swelling its area from 3,000 square kilometres to 13,000 square kilometres.
We visited one of the floating communities called Chong Kneas, which has 3,000 people living their lives on the water. They make their living by fishing and their village boasts floating homes, shops, chapels and schools. Everyone gets about on boats of all sorts and sizes. As we entered the expanse of Lake Tonle Sap a spectacular sunset descended on us, backlighting the occasional boat racing home to the village before an approaching storm struck.
Angkor is one of a handful of global icons - the experts at Lonely Planet rank it as the number one ‘Best Site on the Planet’. Angkor was for six centuries the site of successive capitals of ancient Khmer Kingdom. It extends over a mind-boggling 400 square kilometres and includes a multitude of temples, reservoirs, canals and communication routes. Construction of this elaborate temple complex – built in honour of the Hindu god Vishnu – began in 879 AD, but much of the site was lost for centuries before being rediscovered by Henri Mahout in 1860.
Angkor Archaeological Park contains the remains of these different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century, which include the most famous Temple of Angkor Wat, the atmospheric site of Ta Prohm; and the immense ancient city of Angkor Thom. We visited them in this order.
Angkor Wat – Global Icon
I have been fortunate enough to see the lofty Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramids of Ancient Egypt and Petra, Jordan’s ‘rose red city half as old as time’…But nothing could prepare me for the thrill and awe of seeing Angkor Wat for the first time. It is the world’s largest religious building, representing heaven on earth. It was built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II, one of the Khmer god-kings and it is the heart and soul of Cambodia. We approached its splendours not from the usual West Gate, but from the East, through a monumental gate and across a causeway over the surrounding moat.
The three iconic towers appeared gradually through the trees before the full grandeur of Angkor Wat was fully revealed. We circled the great laterite and sandstone walls before entering the heart of the site. Then time seemed suspended in the shimmering heat as we fully explored the huge structure with its maze of colonnades, courtyards and towers. One of the most striking features of Angkor Wat is the vast array of bas-reliefs chiseled into the outside wall of the temple complex. There are over half a kilometer of rich scenes from life nearly a millennium ago – everything from battle scenes to courtly life is represented. It remains a living temple: the grey stones were often brightened by the saffron flash of visiting monks.
Ta Prohm – Nature and Man in Harmony
Ta Prohm is where the works of Nature and Man are entwined in an embrace both deadly and romantic. Deadly, because the great trees that are an integral part of this site are slowly tearing the walls apart. Romantic, because the massive roots appear as a living part of the ruins. To visit Ta Prohm is to inhabit Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (part of Tomb Raider was filmed here). It’s a wonderland fusion of nature and architecture.
The God-King Jayavarman VII built this in 1186 AD to honour his mother and as his personal monastery. We entered through the East Entrance into a fantasy land of towers, courtyards, walls and doorways – all held in thrall by Mother Nature. Strangler Fig trees and Silk-Cotton trees compete with architectural wonder to create the most atmospheric ruins I have ever experienced.
Angkor Thom – The World’s Largest Religious Site
Angkor Thom is huge beyond belief. Lost to the jungle until it was rediscovered in 1860, this was both a temple complex and a city. Founded in the 12th Century it was successively Hindu and then Buddhist. Its population was over one million, making it the largest city in the world of its time. The walls that encompass the city are three kilometres in each direction. We entered through the South Gate across a bridge lined by giant heads of gods, through the monumental gate and along an avenue with ruined buildings inhabited by a troop of monkeys.
This led to the Bayon, the state temple of Jayavarman VII. Gazing over the ruins of this once great metropolis from soaring towers are over 200 massive faces of the god Avalokiteshvara that may be in the likeness of the god-king himself. These benign stone faces now gaze impassively over their ruined domain. Before we left Angkor Thom we also strolled the Terrace of the Elephants – where the god-kings watched games of elephant polo - and the Terrace of the Leper Kings – where we explored a narrow passageway with startling bas-reliefs.
The day’s drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was a wonderful opportunity to witness the rural life of the country. Nearly 80% of the people still live in the country, so this is a vital part of the visitor experience. We stopped at Kompong Kdei, a small village that boasts the longest corbelled stone arch bridge in the world. It has 21 corbel arches sustained by 20 pillars which all are made of laterite. It spans the Chi Kreng River and is 86 meters long, 16 meters wide and 10 meters high above the level of the river bed. Most amazingly, this bridge is almost a thousand years old and is contemporaneous with Angkor.
Near the halfway point we diverted to see another extraordinary site deep in the heart of the Cambodian countryside: Sambor Prei Kuk. This is the greatest pre-Ankorian group of structures in Cambodia. It dates back to the Chenla Kingdom of the late 6th to 9th century, and was established by King Isanavarman I as a central royal sanctuary and capital, known then as Isanapura. Europe was still in the Dark Ages when these Hindu temples were built of unmortared brick. There are ghostly images carved into the brickwork and the towers are overgrown with grasses and trees; they a like a shadowy preview of the Angkorian glories to come. I climbed through massive tree roots into the interior of one tower – the inner space of 14 centuries ago was heavy with shadows, dreams and reflections.
Route 6 curls east and south through Kompong Thom towards the capital city. Endless green and watery paddy fields stretched to a flat horizon, interspersed with occasional villages. Fish ponds were common, with fisherman perched on platforms in the middle waiting to strike. Grain is spread out to dry in front of homes, most of which are built on stilts to rise above the wet season floods. Some of the villages are themed by artisans, for instance one was full of stone carvings, mostly Buddha figures. Sometimes yoked oxen pulled wooden carts beside the road. Spirit houses of all kinds glinted in gardens. Water buffalo grazed contentedly in the paddies. Gaudy modern temples blazed in the sunshine. Palm trees planted on sinuous dykes reflected in still waters. Then these peaceful scenes gave way to the outskirts of the reborn city of Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh – The Pearl of Asia
In the 1960’s Cambodia’s capital was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. Until the Khmer Rouge took the city in 1975 and expelled its two million citizens from the city in an act of political and genocidal insanity. We explored Phnom Penh in all its current glory and all its past darkness.
The Royal Palace is a glittering jewel box of beautiful golden rooved buildings set in magnificent gardens and which are still the home of today’s constitutional monarch of Cambodia, King Sihamoni - who also happens to be a devout Buddhist monk. Part of the palace complex is the Emerald Temple, which is also known as the Silver Pagoda due to its solid silver floor. Inside are statues of Buddha of all kinds from tiny personal offerings to a solid gold statue with 90 kilograms of gold and 2,086 diamonds. The Emerald Buddha - who gives the temple its alternate name - is a carved emerald Buddha which originated in Sri Lanka. An ornate marble royal stupa completes this perfect ensemble.
The National Museum of Cambodia shows off the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. It displays a thousand years of evolving artistic expression and what made it all the more interesting was that a few days ago we were exploring many of the temples in Angkor Wat where these statues and bas-reliefs had previously resided. I was very happy to lunch at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Sisowath Quay. The FCC is a venerable old French colonial building where reporter hung out whilst reporting the momentous events of the 1970’s. From its rooftop terrace there is a fine view of the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers, around which the city has grown.
The Killing Fields
After the glories, the darkness…….. To understand today’s Cambodia it is necessary to glimpse the horrors of forty years ago. We visited both the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. These sites document the unspeakable carnage that took place 1975 – 1979 under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps 2 million Cambodians died in this home-grown madness, enabled by Cold War politics. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are where countless thousands of innocents were slaughtered in unimaginable brutality. A marble tower in the now peaceful gardens houses huge numbers of skulls of the victims found here in shallow mass graves. A tree used by the Khmer Rouge to crush the skulls of babies is now adorned by sad ribbons of regret. Birds sing. The sun shines. The world turns. Memories fade.
Tuol Sleng was a former high school that was converted into Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge. It became their biggest detention and torture centre, all documented by the regime. Almost no one left alive. There are 17,000 photographs of victims on the walls – endless images of blank, uncomprehending faces, men women, boys, girls…all with numbers hung around their necks.
For me, the only way I could connect with such horror was to select just one of these victim’s photographs displayed in the museum. Victim 160, a boy, perhaps 16, tousled black hair, smiles with the boundless optimism of youth at the camera. He is so alive, so vibrant, so positive…yet he never had a chance. I spoke with him in my mind as tears welled up. ‘I know you had a name, 160, and I wish I could call it out to you. But know that you are remembered and that your life mattered very much. I will not forget you. And I will pass your story on to my sons and maybe one day they can come here and speak with you too.
How to put this juxtaposition of glory and evil into perspective? On the walls of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh, someone has framed this quotation from author Lillian Smith: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world, it goes an equal distance into the world within”. In Cambodia, I know I have travelled very, very far. It has been an utterly memorable journey.
Planning Your Trip
I travelled with Senior Discovery Tours, a leading tour company specializing in trips for the mature traveller. Their website is www.seniordiscoverytours.ca and their telephone number is 1-800-268-3492. I am pleased to wholeheartedly recommend them. Their truly all-inclusive tour used the finest accommodations in Cambodia and sourced the best local restaurants to sample the Khmer cuisine. The itinerary was comprehensive without being over-busy. Their Tour Manager Lucia was superb, as were their local guides, Rath and Red.
Recommended reading: Lonely Planet Laos; Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman & Claude Jacques; River of Time by Jon Swain; and Stay Alive, My Son by Pin Yathay (but be prepared for tears).
I would recommend the accommodations I experienced on this trip:
Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa
Central Park, PO Box 93145, Siem Reap 011-855-63-760-428
Intercontinental Phnom Penh Hotel
296 Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, Phnom Penh 011-855-23-424-888
Grateful thanks to Lucia Biason, the Tour Manager on our trip and to Oedile Daniels who made it all possible back at Senior Discovery Tour’s base in Toronto. Also to our local guides in Cambodia Rath and Red - and to all our fellow travellers who made the trip such a delight.
Copyright ©2016 Chris Robinson