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Angkor Wat-tage Overload

So many temples, so many tourists . . .

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Our trip to Siem Reap by road from Phnom Penh reinforced one of our initial observations of Cambodia and her people: this is a special place. Unlike most of the terrain we have covered since leaving Tibet, Cambodia is a sudden expanse of rural beauty. The rice paddies do stretch for miles around, but instead of many small dingy road towns and tourist trap shops, the country is dotted with endless palm trees across the flat-scape of paddies, punctuated by tidy rural villages comprised of huts with frontages of pink or white water lily ponds bordered by banana trees and inhabited by friendly smiling locals going about their daily business farming, cooking palm sugar or tending to their children. In contrast to her growing neighbor Vietnam, we quickly notice a distinct reduction in the number of motorbikes, in favor of cheaper bicycles, which only further enhances the idyllic scenery. While Siem Reap, the gateway to the magical realm of Angkor Wat, held the promise of 5 star luxury hotels and amenities, our overland journey showed us the real treasures of this recovering nation and reminded us yet again how lucky we are to be able to journey to such places.

Jacquie, me and my parents at Bayon temple
Monks wander and wonder just like us

Our ultimate destination in Cambodia was, Angkor Wat, the “City of Kings”. Stunning ancient temples and spires set amongst the jungles of northern Cambodia are set upon by legions of tourists eager to snap photos, climb around, and look for spots where nobody else has trekked. Which is impossible. This complex of ancient ruins covering some 60 square miles and serving as the Khmer kingdom’s capital from 802 to 1295 A.D. are truly a remarkable site to behold. In actuality it’s dozens of sites to behold, from Angkor Wat which lends itself as the very symbol of Cambodia on her national flag, to fascinating jungle scenes at Ta Prohm (also used in movies like Tomb Raider and Two Brothers). Many temple sites have been restored to pristine condition with nicely kept grounds, while others have been maintained as they may have been found 146 years ago, in cool jungle settings, with trees growing over them, obliterating them in places, and in others wrapping their roots around structures looking like so much wax dripping down a huge candle and pouring itself over ancient stone.

A few scenes from our first day touring the temples

The intrepid photographer
Close encounter . . . ?

From Sunrise to sunset there are perfect places to go, and must-see views to be had, and everyone else knows them too. While the number of temples, spires and Buddha representations seem to be innumerable, the number of tourists easily outnumbers them, 10 to 1. And yet, there are moments of magic, when the crowds melt away in the mid-day sun, or the sheer amazement of certain structures make the noise of buses, tuk-tuks and minivans packed with every nationality (led by the Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Americans) fades to an imperceptible hum. Such are the qualities of this area that you can scant believe it was built a thousand plus years ago.


My Mom and Dad take an elephant to one of the hilltop temples

Despite being pillaged during years of conflict and by Khmer Rouge, or French archaeologists after it’s “discovery” in 1867, the area offers many amazing vistas, and many temples are inscribed with beautifully intricate reliefs depicting anything from glorious battles, to scenes of everyday life a thousand odd years ago. One could be lost in the details of a single wall, and spend days shuffling along foot-by-foot enraptured by the pictures. Of course, at $20 a day, or 3 days for $40, it makes sense to cover as much ground as possible. And this is best achieved by Tuk-Tuk. While we spent our first day with my parents in a mini-van and a guide (both nice to have when travelling with a group of 4), Jacquie and I set out on day 2 around Angkor via Tuk-Tuk at 5AM to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. In many places, we have ventured out earlier than seems reasonable, and waking ourselves at 0445, this felt like one of those days. Surely we would be rewarded by a quiet, wondrous sunrise? But no – as during the day, the crowds descend early, and as we pulled up to the gates of Angkor, behind us down a straight strip of road a mile long, all you could see was headlights bumping toward us to capture the same view.

The view at sunrise . . . oh so early!

Our sunrise adventure at Angkor Wat

It is honest to say that our build-up and hopes for the event were higher than what we actually witnessed. In our minds, we would witness a crimson sky burning beyond the towers of Angkor Wat, the hushed tones of monks traipsing in the background our only disturbance. In reality, the crush of onlookers jockeying for prime pond-side space and noise of the multitude of different touring nationalities was more than we expected. Yet, the event was worth our early morning endeavors despite the loud company, to witness the natural glory of sunrise to behold this amazing man-made wonder.


Posted by lloydthyen 22:54 Archived in Cambodia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Bloodshed and Butterflies at the Killing Fields

Face-to-Face with Cambodia's Gruesome History

overcast 25 °C

With the sun just starting to burn through the morning haze, it promised to be a beautiful day. All around us, birds sang sweetly while monarch-patterned butterflies flittered from wild flower to wild flower. Children teased each other, delighting in the coolness of the day, and betrayed only by the sounds of their young voices being carried in the wind from the school a few feet away.

Have the 20,000 souls found their peace, here at the most well known of Cambodia's Killing Fields?


Cambodians don't like to talk about the genocide that saw up to 25% of its population (about 2 million people) murdered between 1975 and 1979. For many, it's just too personal: it would be hard to find a family here that did not lose a loved one. For others, silence is the only appropriate response to events that defy logic, that can never be understood. The genocide is not discussed openly. But it is far from forgotten.

The Memorial Stupa at Choeng Ek. The covered structure on the left is a former burial pit.

At Choeng Ek, about ten miles south-west of Phnom Pehn, visitors walk around the sunken pits from which thousands of bodies have already been exhumed. But it's not all butterflies and wild flowers. At several times during our tour, and even though we were sticking strictly to the trail, we were horrified to realize that we were walking on some recently exposed human bones. The Cambodian guides - perhaps in the pursuit of an extra dollar of two - do seem to focus on the most gruesome details, and we have no doubt that some of the "clothing" emerging from the dirt was far more recent than 1979, but the bones were - regrettably - real and we think a raised walkway is the least these victims deserve.

The Memorial is simple and effective. Shown in the picture above, it is glass-sided, with shelves lining the entire interior, from floor to ceiling. Human skulls and bones are alternately neatly lined up or heaped on the shelves. There are more than 5,000 skulls here. Skulls that have been punctured, crushed, sliced. Gruesome - yes, but it couldn't be called gratutious. Literally eye-to-eye with death, this monument delivers its promise to never let Cambodians forget. Fear. Horror. Terror. Is it possible it was only thirty years ago?

Eye-to-eye with death. Enough said.

The fact that Choeng Ek is one of more than three hundred "Killing Fields" throughout Cambodia gives us an idea of the scale of the atrocities here. Pol Pot’s regime was nothing less than a terrifying social experiment to transform the population – almost overnight – into a pliant, agrarian workhorse. His soldiers included impressionable young children who could be transformed – with staggering ease as it turned out – into violent killing machines, sometimes tasked with the “official destruction” of even their own families.

In many cases, prolonged torture and interrogation preceded inevitable death. Security-Office 21, or S-21, was created to manage anti-Angkor elements and, while it was a highly secretive organization during the late seventies, it now evokes images of the most terrible war crimes for all Cambodians. At Choeng Ek, a Cambodian message humbly assesses that the Cambodian genocide was more terrible even than the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe during World War II.

An important S-21 facility was located right in the heart of Phnom Pehn, in a site formerly used as a school.

Tuol Sleng was a school before it was a detention centre.

Having been quickly abandoned as the Vietnamese approached Phnom Pehn in 1979, the complex was discovered by a photo-journalist who - literally - followed his nose. He photographed the hastily-killed victims still lying on metal bed-frames, and it is these harrowing images that are now used to remind visitors of the horrors executed here. The exhibition's simplicity is its strength; some rooms house only a single bed frame, and a single photograph of a violently mutilated victim.


Much is known about Tol Sleng's residents because documentation was meticulously maintained regarding the prisoners' backgrounds and their subsequent 'confessions' of crimes against the regime. In total, the centre is believed to have housed about 20,000 inmates over its four-or-so years in operation, the vast majority ultimately finding their deaths at Choeung Ek, the most famous of Cambodia's Killing Fields, located about 10 miles southwest of the city. Pol Pot's regime targeted the educated (doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers), the disabled, those who wore glasses, even those who spoke foreign languages. In short, only faithful farmers and labourers capable of 16 hour days were spared. With so many hours in the fields, these labourers should have been well rewarded for their work, but rice was being sent to China in exchange for military equipment, and many Cambodians starved to death during this period.

A monk contemplates Cambodia's violent past at Tuol Sleng.

Cambodia’s war criminals have still to be brought to justice. A Khmer Rouge tribunal has been underway for several years and – like most tribunals – will doubtless continue to be mired in complexity. It has just been announced, however, that the S-21 cases will be separated from the others to accelerate the trials of former S-21 Director Eav, known commonly as ‘Duch’ and other leading “Brothers”. The tribunal noted that this was possible only because of the “relative simplicity” of the case, which must point to the very detailed documentation of inmates at Tuol Seng.

Of note, and according to the Cambodia Daily, “only one person has so far come forward as a civil party to the tribunal proceedings”. This is in large part due to the fact that so few Tuol Seng residents – less than two handfuls – survived to tell the tale. Maybe it’s also partly due to Cambodians’ desire to put the past behind them. Or maybe it’s that they’re still afraid to talk.

Posted by jacquiedro 16:20 Archived in Cambodia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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