Monday September 13th to Monday September 20th
We walked on a wooden plank laid across a stream and then along a muddy path to the Cambodian Immigration point. There was a minimum of fuss at the quiet border station. It was then up river for a couple of hours and then another hour or so on a bus and we arrived in the capital Phnom Penh. This city of about one million people is at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers. It has some wonderful old French style buildings many of which are, unfortunately, crumbling. Still, it has a certain charm and the saffron robed monks walking the street add to it.
We visited the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, set in immaculate gardens. The Royal Residence is closed to the public (because the royal family lives there) but we still got to see many other impressive buildings; The Throne Hall (1919) which, of course, contains the throne, is used for coronations and important ceremonies. On the roof is a 59m high tower inspired by the Bayon at Angkor. The Chan Chaya Pavilion where performances of classical Cambodian dance were staged and through which guests enter the Royal Grounds. There's also a small building with an elephant dock which was used to mount elephants and an iron house that was given to King Nordom by Napoleon III.
Nearby is the Silver Pagoda which is so named because the floor is covered with 5000 silver tiles that each weigh 1kg. Inside is the Emerald Buddha, said to be made of Baccarat crystal. In front of this stands a life-size gold Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. In front of this is a miniature gold and silver stupa containing a relic of Buddha (yes, THE Buddha). This hall is filled with many other treasures. Fortunately, the Silver Pagoda was preserved by the Khmer Rouge to demonstrate to the world its concern for the conservation of cultural relics. Unfortunately, Pol Pot didn't have the same concerns and 60% of the pagodas contents were destroyed by his insane regime.
Even more unfortunately, the damage to the Silver Pagoda was the least of Pol Pot's crimes. We visited the Tuol Sleng Museum. In 1975 Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. Between 1975 and 1978 around 20,000 people came through here and more than 7000 of those were sent to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek, 15km away. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records and photographed each prisoner. Today the buildings are maintained as a museum displaying thousands of photos of the people tortured and killed in the prison. There are also displays of some of the torture devices, the cells that the people were kept shackled in and photos of tortured and dead men, women and children. It was horrific stuff.
If that wasn't enough, we took a short trip out of town to The Killing Fields. In this extermination camp called Choeung Ek there are 129 mass graves containing an estimated 17,000 bodies and this was just one of hundreds of extermination camps around the country. Estimates vary but approximately two to three MILLION people (yes, that's 2,000,000 - 3,000,000 people) out of a population of only 10 million, were killed. To save bullets, many were bludgeoned to death or there necks cut with the serrated edge of the saw palm leaf (Cambodia's national tree). Children where bashed against trees, babies thrown in the air and shot. In 1980 the remains of 8985 people (many of whom were bound and blindfolded) were exhumed from 86 of the graves. There skulls are kept, sorted by age and sex, in a tower monument. Bits of human bones and clothing litter the ground.
This whole period in Cambodia's (often sad and violent) history took some time for us to comprehend (if we do, in fact, comprehend it). Pol Pot came to head the Khmer Rouge which had staged a Chinese style communist revolution (Khmer is the name of the main ethnic group of the area and Rouge, of course, is French for red). The Khmers have a glorious history of successful agriculture, trade, military victories and religion over thousands of years. He wanted to re-create the ancient days and his idea was to turn everyone into a rice farmer. Literally within hours of his taking power, city dwellers were forced to leave their homes and march to the country to farm. Needless to say, starvation was the result. And, of course, anyone with money, education or an objection was killed. But then he began to fear the people who were doing the killing so he had them killed. He had also started several border wars with Vietnam which ultimately lead to their invasion of Cambodia and the overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979. A few weeks after we were there (Oct. 2004) we heard that the U.N. and the Cambodian parliament had approved a tribunal to try the surviving members of Pol Pot regime (Pol Pot himself is dead). Our impression was that Cambodians have moved on from those horrific days and feel little need to revisit them. We also feel, having seen the poverty in Cambodia, that there are much better uses for the $50m the trials will cost. Perhaps it could be used to clear land mines that claim 40 to 50 people victims per month. (Cambodia has one of the world's highest number of amputees per capita - 1 in 275).
Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor
Our guidebook is somewhat out of date in its description of the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. It describes a long torturous journey but, fortunately, they've recently re-built the road and the bus ride wasn't too bad (Having travelled South America by bus, we can handle anything).
The main reason for going to Cambodia was to see the famous temples of Angkor. These temples -- there are over 100 of them spread over a large area -- were built between the 9th and 14th centuries C.E. when the Khmer civilisation was at the height of it's creativity. Angkor rates among the top architectural wonders of the world.
We hooked up with a British/Aussie couple who had just started their travels and hired a car and driver. You can buy 1 day, 3 day and 7 day passes for access to all of the temples. We bought a three day pass but thought we'd probably only use it for 2 days because usually, after one day of wandering around temples, we get "templed out" and bored. Not so with Angkor. There are hundreds of structures here and each one is unique. The Khmers went through a change from Hindu to Buddhist architecture over the centuries and each king tried to top the one before.
The biggest and most famous is Angkor Wat. Built by Suryavarman II in the mid 12th century with Hinduism as the dominant religion, it is architecturally and artistically breathtaking. Its massive three-tiered pyramid is crowned with a beehive-like tower and rises 65 metres above ground level. It is the centrepiece of the temples at Angkor. We came here for a short visit at sunrise on the first day (that was misty) then again on the second day for a more careful inspection. On the third day, we just couldn't leave Angkor without returning to see it one more time.
Angkor Thom (Big Capital) is a 3 sq.km royal city that is walled and moated and contains many temples. It was built by Jayavarman VII who was Buddhist. So many of the temples around Angkor were built by him, amongst the four of us we started to refer to the them as being built by "J7" because Jayavarman is hard to pronounce.
Ta Prohm was perhaps our favourite. It has been left as it was found -- partially swallowed by the jungle. Most of the temples were, in fact, in this condition when restoration began. The trees are intertwined with the carved stone, it's dark and quiet. It has that eerie feeling of a lost city in the jungle. Anyone who has played the computer game "Lara Croft Tomb Raider" will know what we mean. (The movie "Tomb Raider" was filmed in Cambodia. It was the first movie in 40 years to have permission to film at Angkor).
We visited many other temple and each one had some little surprise or unique feature. Many of the temples are in a serious state of disrepair but there are also many that are absolutely splendid. Individually, the temples are simply marvelous, but as a grouping the temple of Angkor rank up there with the Great Pyramids at Giza, the Taj Mahal in India and China's Great Wall. We hope that Cambodia will continue to receive the help it needs to restore and maintain this amazing architecture.
Despite the history, poverty and land mines, we found the people of Cambodia to be happy and friendly. The touts try as hard as in Vietnam but with much more humour and sincerity. The many people selling postcards around Angkor seemed bright and cheerful. Even when we didn't buy, they were still ready to talk to us rather than scowling and walking away. The kids were always ready with a come-back. When Peter said he didn't want any post cards, he just wanted peace and quiet, the little boy quickly replied, "OK sir, two dollars for peace and quiet". We had to laugh.
Our guidebook was NOT out of date in it's description of the road between Siem Reap and the Thai border. Rumour has it that the airlines had bribed the government NOT to repair this section of road so we bumped and banged along to Thailand. Crossing the border was like travelling to another planet. Big, modern buses and high quality, limited access highways took us the rest of the way to Bangkok.
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