After completing our tour of the military ruled Myanmar (Burma) in the spring of 2003, Jean and I flew into the nearby parliamentary monarchy of Cambodia.
We wanted to visit Cambodia to see the world renown Angkor Wat Temple. It had been built by the Khmer people, the ethnic group of Cambodia. It was built in the twelfth century as a tribute to their Hindu religion and designed to represent Mount Menu of Hindu mythology. As the people’s religion changed to a form of Buddhism, many Buddha images were added and it became a Buddhist Temple.
Its importance is evidenced by the temple’s image appearing on the national flag.
When we first viewed the temple from our bus window, we were overwhelmed by its size and beauty. Upon entering its gates, we found it much larger than we first thought. Soon we were climbing around and over this partially decaying structure. It felt similar to climbing the mountains of Colorado, a few trails but mostly we were precariously stepping over and around stone blocks.
In some decaying areas we found tremendously large roots of ancient trees. They were so large that huge stone blocks had broken and dislodged into rubble. Most areas were still where they had been placed by the ancient builders. In some protective walkways, there were infinite numbers of pictures carved into the stone walls of Hindu and Buddhist history.
After several hours of climbing and viewing, we were taken to other magnificent areas and temples that were also a part of the former capitol city. The most significant other temple was Angkor Thom. It was of great importance but did not contain the imposing structure we had just experienced. It had been the civic center of the city which contained many temples and miles of canals and reservoirs.
The Angkor complex make up the largest group of religious buildings in the world. For over nine hundred years, Angkor Wat and the whole area has been a wonderful gift to the world.
We left the ancient world of the Khmer people and were taken to Phnom Penh where we encountered the modern world of Cambodia. Much of the architecture reflected the country’s being a protectorate of France for ninety years ending in 1953.
Our hotel was a large elaborate complex of French style that had been restored. and modernized. We were very comfortable there but we had an experience in our room which indicated that everything had not been completely restored.
When we travel, we always leave the light on in the bathroom all night with the door slightly ajar. Somehow the door had closed but luckily I found the door in the dark. I grabbed the doorknob and as I turned it, it came off in my hand. I could hear the knob assembly hit the bathroom floor.
I immediately called the hotel office and was promised that someone would come to my rescue right away. Thirty minutes later help had not arrived. This is devastating to an old man in the middle of the night. Luck was with me. On a nearby table were several large water bottles. Some were not completely full and by emptying some bottles into others, a couple of them became empty. No further explanation if necessary. I dressed and complained to the office clerk in person. Help arrived immediately. The rest of our time in our hotel was great.
I vaguely remembered reports in the seventies of the communist’s killing fields in Cambodia. I was amazed to find that the torture and killings of these docile people were comparable to that of the Nazis and the Japanese in WWII.
In April, 1975, The Khmer Rouge (French for Red Khmer) took over the country under the brutal communist leader Pol Pot. Pol Pot envisioned a nation of busy productive peasants living off the land. To enforce his laws, Pol Pot put in power illiterate rural people who had fought with the communist.
To accomplish the new laws, city dwellers were ordered to evacuate their homes and move to the country. Many were forced into work camps. All people who were defined as intellectuals by the leaders were eliminated. This included teachers, craftsmen, and people of the art world of dance, painting and music and even everyone who wore glasses. Unwittingly, these ruthless leaders ended the lives of close to two million neighbors and friends – 20% of the population.
We were taken to a large former school building in Phnom Penh that that had been used as a prison with torture chambers. We talked to a man who was the sole surviver of this facility. He told us of the horrendous fate of the prisoners. He said that after they were tortured for a few days, they were taken to the killing fields and executed. He survived because the leaders of the prison found that he was a painter and they wanted him to paint their portraits. He was saved by the bad guy’s egos. No doubt, he took his time with his artistry.
The next day, we traveled for a couple of hours over unbelievably treacherous rough roads to view the killing fields. In a secluded tree lined area we found a half dozen or so shallow open pits in the ground. We were told that the prisoners were forced to squat with their heads bent over the edge of a pit. Then the executioner would savagely lop off prisoner’s head.
We were quietly led to a windowed tower that was probably twenty feet high that was a memorial to those who had been killed here. A view into the windows revealed that the tower was filled with skulls of many of the victims. Our trip back to the hotel was very quiet as we reflected on the day of disbelief.
That evening, our sadness quickly turned to fear. The fear was for our lives resulted from our trip for dinner at the Foreign Correspondents Club several miles into the busy city traffic. We were placed in a rickshaw type seat that was pushed from behind by a native on a three wheel bicycle. Being shoved into the busy undisciplined traffic. was deathly frightening. If there are any rules of the road for the streets of Phnom Penh, none of the drivers knew or honored them. Luckily we arrived at the club unharmed. It took a bit of liquid refreshment to settle our nerves. Fortunately, our trip back to the hotel was by bus.
During our trip, we were taken to a woodcarving workshop and sales room. We were told that the carvers were trained by craftsmen from surrounding countries. This was necessary since the Khmer Rouge had eliminated all of the craftsmen of all trades.
One evening, we were entertained by local dancers in their gorgeous colorful costumes and head dresses. Each graceful movement of their bodies and hands had been taught to them by artist from Thailand. Like the craftsmen, there were no local dancers in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge was driven from the country.
As we left Cambodia, we knew that the sadness of the destruction that the Khmer Rouge had imposed on these lovely people would remain in our hearts forever.
We also will remember the fabulous ancient Angkor Wat area and the wonder and amazement it has furnished the world.