“The land is sacred: It belongs to the countless numbers who are dead, the few who are living and the multitude of those yet to be born”
I was at the cusp of retirement age when I decided to take a trip to Cambodia.
From Hong Kong I flew via Bangkok to Siem Reap, which the pilot warned us was experiencing a violent storm. I was expecting a driver to pick me up but he didn’t show so I took a tuk tuk. Plastic flaps slapped against the side of the tuk tuk, and by the time I reached my hotel which was only a few minutes from the airport, I was drenched and so was my luggage. Plastic flaps don’t quite cut the mustard to keep torrential rain at bay. The trip was dramatic and the tuk tuk driver took no heed of the weather conditions, flying through deep puddles as lightening and thunder raged all round. As is so common in Asian countries, soon after arrival at the hotel the storm magically abated.
Siem Reap & Angkor Wat
Next day I took a trip around a now dusty Siem Reap which was a curious mix of local hovels and grandiose hotels that looked rather incongruous, in this remote city.
I found the food uninteresting, rather American in its way, with not much to interest the palate. I found this disappointing as I always look to the cuisine of a country to give me a flavour of its people.
Siem Reap is famous for Angkor Wat otherwise known as the City of Temples. A fascinating array of temples, the largest such complex in the world. There are Hindu Temples and Buddhist temples, according to who was the King of the day. Existing temples could have icons completely demolished or removed depending on the religious beliefs of the leader. The Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed religious temples and icons.
Having always had an interest in things Buddhist, I enjoyed the Buddhist temple which was completely taken over by tree roots and the Temple called Angkor Thom which had more than 200 Buddha faces carved into the rock.
Sou, our guide, took me to the local museum which housed 1,000 Buddhas. For about $US15 I could have my own personal tour guide and driver.
Phnom Penh – a beautiful city on a river with a broken heart
Flying on Cambodia Angkor Air from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh saved a six-hour road journey. Phnom Penh, at least near the river area, was a modern, French-inspired city now thriving after becoming a virtual ghost town during the Kmher Rouge regime from 1975-1979.
I stayed in The Quay, a five star hotel, and thanks to low season prices was dirt cheap. It was located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong River.
One of the biggest challenges in Phnom Penh was crossing the street. Wall to wall cars, thousands of motor bikes and tuk tuks on the road beside the promenade made it a difficult task. There was a constant stream of traffic and it was an art in itself to find a gap between the three main types of vehicle so you didn’t get bowled over. There are no zebra crossings in Phnom Penh!
On the first night I had cocktails and dinner on the rooftop of The Quay overlooking the promenade and the Tonle Sap.
The next day reality set in. A visit to the Killing Fields. Stepping inside this now beautiful genocidal memorial I was most struck by the awed silence of all the visitors who were led around the site with the help of a running commentary through earphones. We saw the tree where babies had their heads bashed in. The earth was peppered with torn fragments of clothing now partially buried. Nearby is a city dump and the smell wafted across the tranquil, now green and tree-covered site of mass atrocities.
Being faced with the reality at Choeung Ek is chilling. At the centre of the Killing Fields is a large Buddhist Stupa which is filled with thousands of skulls. For some odd reason tourists are allowed in although they have to remove their shoes. I felt no desire to walk into this stupa. The skulls, the legacy from the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, were packed in rooms to the top of the structure and stared out from empty eye sockets over the tourists.
The Kmher Rouge was a Kampuchean Communist guerilla group under the leadership of Pol Pot, which, on April 17, 1975, began a routine of torture, execution and starvation of its people. It forced city people into the country and proceeded to annihilate 30% of the population, or between 2-3 million people. Finally in January 1979 the Vietnamese invaded and freed Cambodians from the grip of the Khmer Rouge. 600,000 Cambodians fled to refugee camps in Thailand and relocated in United States, France or Australia.
Pol Pot’s ruthless reign was designed to purify Cambodia of capitalism, Western culture, religion and all foreign influences and to turn it into an agrarian and self-sufficient society. I bought and read the books of a couple of survivors who lost their entire families, mainly through starvation and execution.
Crimes punishable by death were not working hard enough, complaining about living conditions, collecting or stealing food, wearing jewelry, grieving over lost relatives and expressing religious sentiments. Educated people were routinely executed. Markets, schools, newspapers, religious practices and land ownership were forbidden. At least half the people who died met their demise as a result of starvation.
The other stark venue I visited in Phnom Penh was S21 known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. It was originally a primary school and became a genocidal prison where 17,000 political prisoners were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge, including one Australian.
A friend asked me t why I visit such places. A number of reasons.
A reminder of how lucky we really are
In New Zealand we live such a fortunate life having never really experienced such barbarism and have trouble grasping that kind of reality. It is a major part of Cambodian history and happened not so long ago. It is believed that every family in Cambodia lost a minimum of one family member. Yet, the people smile and show gratitude for every little thing. Many refuse to take even a one dollar tip.
I put their cheerfulness down to their Buddhist philosophy. We are all aware of holocausts and other historical events which defy our imagination and which we are reminded about constantly in unfortunate ways.
In Cambodia the population is quite accepting of their lot. They are busy moving on and rebuilding themselves and their country with the help of foreign nations and volunteer organizations.
Some Theravada Buddhist wisdom: Peace comes from within: Do not seek it without. Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; You are the one who gets burned. No-one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.
Anna is a New Zealand based Reiki Master who has lived and traveled extensively throughout Asia. If you want to get in touch with her then tweet us @philippinesLN and we’ll get you in contact.