Cambodia has definitely made its mark in the history books. It has been both the stage for some of the brightest periods in South-East Asian history, but sadly also one of the darkest. The brightest period does not need an introduction: Angkor. The darkest period is sadly lesser known…
Let us begin with the good part: the Khmer civilization that produced the temples of Angkor, not just that one temple which everybody knows from the photographs, Angkor Wat, but a grand temple complex built by consecutive megalomaniac kings, spread over several hundred years and many square miles of jungle. You can easily spend several days exploring this wonder of the world of which the Cambodians are so justly proud.
And that is what we did. We explored for four days in Angkor of which two by bicycle. We really enjoyed the slower pace of cycling Angkor, we rode on top of the city walls of Angkor Thom, ended up at places where no other tourist was in sight, and enjoyed Angkor’s special atmosphere undisturbed.
Because Angkor is definitely a very atmospheric place. It still lies seemingly hidden in the jungle which contributes to a large extent to its mystical quality. Temples are often overrun and overpowered by branches and roots, rugged stones are torn apart by tree roots, entire trees grow through or on top of temples, impressive foliage provides new roofs for ancient ruins, and all of this is enveloped by the sounds and smells of a tropical forest.
As soon as you set foot in a temple, you cannot fail to notice its permanent guardians: the cicadas. Everywhere you turn, you can hear their constant high pitch sound, which mimics an old fashioned school bell in overdrive. Meanwhile huge jet black butterflies flutter through all this splendor, making it all the more mysterious. If you only look around, you can see amazing natural beauty, not only butterflies in all forms and colors, whole colonies of the most diverse ant-tribes, spiders in all sizes often with spectacular webs, monkeys that really fancy your lunch, and … you name it.
Meanwhile the grandeur and precision of the man-made mountains and lakes, makes you ponder, full of wonder, “How the hell did they manage to build this”? Most of all it makes you dream of times past of kings on elephants, of queens and concubines, of fights with bow and arrow and forests of gleaming spears, of thousands of workers dragging in massive stones and chiseling magnificent reliefs, of fragrant incense and orange-robed monks, of ancient mystery and power.
The trees, the roots, the cicadas, the fluttering butterflies, the smiling faces of the Bayon who seem to be staring at you from all directions, chiseled scenes which stir everybody’s imagination, the wafting incense in the temples, the grandeur of it all, Angkor truly breathes atmosphere.
On the other side, Cambodia has seen some of the darkest days in history under the Pol Pot regime. In the 70’s the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, ravished the country. Simply put, after the communist Khmer Rouge won the civil war, everybody living in the cities was evacuated to go and work on the fields. The Khmer Rouge (Maoists) wanted to return to a fully agrarian society, in which everybody was working the land and everybody was treated equally as in the idealized “traditional” Cambodian village. Those Cambodians who were westernized, had worked for the previous capitalist government and/or were rich, had to be cleansed and re-educated. Families were torn apart to work in different types of labor camps, food was rationed to be able to export the harvested food to China in exchange for weapons, everybody denounced everybody, hunger and survival became everybody’s biggest concern, staying together a luxury. The country became in essence one big fence-less prison filled with terror, death and fear.
Nobody was safe, and fear and hunger dominated the lives of the Cambodians. More than two million perished, about a quarter of the entire population. It took an invasion by Vietnam to put an end to this ordeal. A piece of history that the people of Cambodia today, (most of whom have not lived through the period themselves) have not to been able to shake of. The scars of this darkest of times are clearly still very fresh in the minds of the Cambodian people and until the present day it still has a big impact on their lives and national economy. If you want to know more, and want to understand the country better, you could watch the movie “The Killing Fields” or read the book “First they killed my father” by Loung Ung. We have seen a lot, but the realization of what happened here, especially that the target was its own people, leaves you devastated and without words.
In Phnom Penh you can visit two places that literally give you goosebumps. Firstly, The Killing fields (Choeung Ek), just outside the city, where people were brought to be executed and which is still strewn with skulls and human remains. Secondly: Tuol Sleng, a former school in the middle of the city center where the Khmer Rouge jailed about 20.000 people during their reign of terror and tortured them incessantly. Once you entered through the gates, survival was no longer an option. Only a handful have lived to tell the tale of the horrors committed. A school were kids used to play, was turned into a prison with prison cells the size of a toilet, for the lucky ones… many were just chained together in rows on the floor of a classroom. A school, symbol of life and future, suddenly turned into a sign of death and emptiness. We really couldn’t stomach it.
Two periods in history that reflect both the greatest pride and greatest fear of the Cambodian people. Two extremes that deeply color this country, be it not always in the most beautiful of colors. Sadly the troubles have not been entirely cleared up as many of the Khmer Rouges former associates are still involved in government, the country is marred by corruption and still largely dependent on foreign aid.
Time will have to tell whether Cambodia can ever regain its balance.