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Temples and tragedy: Angkor and Phnom Penh

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

I was on my way from Saigon to see the famed temples of Angkor. It was a long, hot, bumpy ride to Phnom Penh. There were miles of rice paddies and many, many water buffalo wading through the watery ditches and fields. Once we crossed the border into Cambodia, almost everyone we passed waved at our van - both children and adults.

water buffalo on the road in Cambodia

Some of the kids, upon realizing we were foreigners, quickly turned those hands over and outstretched them as they called out for money. The first time, it was like a punch in the gut -- that first realization that not all was as idyllic as it might have first appeared. I began to notice that most of the tilted shacks on toothpick stilts had no doors, providing fleeting views into dark rooms devoid of furniture.

rice paddies and thatch-roofed homes on stilts in Cambodia

The road was extremely rough - sometimes dirt, sometimes crumbling asphalt riddled with potholes. At one point, we had to wait 20 minutes while another van was pushed out of a huge hole full of water, since the makeshift bridge had given way.

About a dozen men in sarongs and sandals worked to dislodge it, and then quickly 'repaired' the bridge by reinforcing the rough logs with a few more rocks and sandbags. We held our breath as our driver inched our van across slowly, not sure whether we'd make it until we landed safely on the other side.

A painful past

Visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was beyond difficult. These were the places where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed during the Pol Pot years.

It's really too excruciating to write about, but I will say that it must have been the worst possible combination of evil, madness, ignorance and fear that conspired to allow such atrocities to occur in such recent times. I think back to my days in elementary school, when I had no comprehension whatsoever of what the few refugees who made it to North America had been through.

Mystical temples of Angkor

And finally the temples. They were as awe-inducing as anticipated. Giant moss-covered Buddhas. Crumbling stone structures entangled with jungle. Saffron-robed monks here and there standing out against the background of gray stone. Our guide took us to different parts of the huge Angkor site on three separate days, and even still we only saw a fraction of it.

Ta Prohm Temple in Angkor, Cambodia with tree roots growing over it

Perhaps my favorite temple was called "The Bayon". We saw it in the rain, which scared all other visitors away. That left only a mist-enshrouded stone structure surrounded by the greenest of green fields of grass.

Angkor Wat temple reflected in the water in the early morning light just after sunrise

A city lost

I'm always curious about whyruined cities were abandoned. In this case, one theory is that Angkor was sacked and looted during a period of war in the 1400s. The Khmer kingdom collapsed and the survivors scattered south and west to other cities. Other scholars think a pattern of monsoons and flooding made the place uninhabitable, or the opposite -- that a prolonged period of drought was to blame.

Whatever the reason, the temples were gradually taken over by jungle, known only to locals and a few intrepid explorers until the late 19th century. At that point, a few European archaeologists took a keen interest, and the French started restoring the site in the early 20th century.

Mona with the children

The Angkor experience was punctuated regularly by persistent pint-sized souvenir sellers. Over and over, I heard pleading cries of 'Madame, you buy postcard, one dollar?' Rejection was met with dramatic displays of pouting, at least until the next Sir or Madame came along, at which point the petite pearly whites were unveiled once again. It was sad to see such young children forced by circumstance into working instead of attending school, or playing for that matter.

Child labour is a significant problem in Cambodia, but instead of encouraging the practice by giving in to their pleas, I was advised (wisely) to support organizations or programs working to address the issues. I found the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights, a locally-established NGO operating shelters, education programs, health care, and rescue operations for children.

Random good stuff

On a lighter note, here are some Cambodian sights and experiences that made me smile:

  • The food, so full of rich flavours. My favourite was a dish called 'fish amok', a seafood stew in a sweet chili sauce.

  • Monks on motorcycles. They don't drive themselves, but often hop on the back to hitch a ride. To see them being motored around in their bright orange robes seemed amusingly paradoxical.

  • Signs, labels and business names with slightly off English translations. Some have spelling or grammar mistakes like the bottled water claiming to be "clean and safty for your health" and the furniture store called "Mattress of Furniture and Beds". Others are trying their hardest to portray a happy and positive image. Take "Restaurant Lovely" and "Beautiful Guest House" for example. Who wouldn't want to eat or stay with them?

saffron-robed monk riding on the back of a motorcycle in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Recommended reading and viewing

For inspiration before or while you're traveling in Cambodia:

  • Stay Alive My Sonby Pin Yathay is a true account written by a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. It's a difficult read emotionally, but powerful, providing first-hand insight into the horrors of the Pol Pot years.

  • A compelling piece of historical fiction, Temple of a Thousand Faces is set amid the temples of Angkor in the 12th century, when the Khmer empire was flourishing. It's full of princes, princesses, warriors, generals, allegiances and betrayals.

  • Of course, you must watch (or re-watch) The Killing Fields. The film is based on the true story of an American reporter covering the Cambodian Civil War and his local contact who becomes a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge.

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