Cambodia: Of Glorious Kingdoms and Degenerate, Hateful Despots

That Cambodia has such a contrasting history was known to me when I first planned my trip out. That it would affect me so hard and so emotionally was something that was unexpected. I am a whirlwind of emotions. I know not what to feel.

In a nutshell, I primarily toured two of Cambodia’s biggest and most historic cities – Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh, the current capital. The contrast of their histories, that a country could undergo such changes through the course of time – going from the impressive Kingdom of Cambodia to the despicable Democratic Republic of Kampuchea – truly shocked me.

I spent 2.5 days touring the magnificent Angkor Wat and its sprawling temple complexes.  Armed with an awesome guidebook that explained the temples and a great tuk-tuk driver who understood my craving, I set out to fully immerse myself into the glory of Cambodia’s past. The many temples in Angkor Wat Complex date from ~900 A.D – ~1200 A.D. The majority of these temples were created by kings who had adopted Hinduism after seeing how successful the Indian traders were back then and consequently attributing that success to a divine power brought on by Hinduism. I loved this – loved seeing the far-out influence of India so far back. It truly brought delight to me seeing images of Kurukshetra (the battle in the epic, Mahabharata) etched marvelously on the walls of Angkor, to see the god Indra depicted on pediments of the temple at Ta Phrom. Angkor Wat – the defining temple of this complex – is the primary and most astounding homage to Hinduism.

Apsaras at Angkor Wat

What made my visit transcend the ordinary for me was figuring out when to beat the crowds at the different temples. I pranced around in the temple of the many faces, Bayon, during early A.M. hours – having the whole terrace to myself. I moved about in Angkor Wat during late sunset hours – climbing on window sills and pedestals to get a better look at the voluptuous Apsaras (divine goddesses) that dot the edifice. It was wonderful.

A corridor at the Tuol Sleng Prison - the barbed wire was to keep prisoners from committing suicide by jumping off

And then Phnom Penh happened. And it brought my glorious thoughts of Cambodia crumbling into the depths of deep sorrow for the Khmer people who underwent the horrific reign of Pol Pot from 1976-79. 3 years and over 3 million Khmer killed.

I thought that I had prepared myself well for what to expect – I had read a gripping, first-hand account of the Reign of Terror in Loung Ung’s autobiography: At First They Killed my Father. I realized, however, that the images from the book were fresh in my mind – bringing to life the people (her parents) and the atrocities that had occurred at both the Killing Fields and at the Tuol Sleng Prison. The Killing Fields was were 126 graves were found, each with over 100+ bodies of men, women, and children. Now the site houses all the bones of these victims in a tall, glass pagoda. I couldn’t step in to see this pagoda, filled with skulls and bones. My heart couldn’t bare it – I couldn’t stop my tears, I couldn’t stop my pain. I walked around and saw that some graves had been dug up and were now devoid of the skeletons they housed. But text markers had been placed to designate what they contained. There was also a tree that was marked – this tree was one where guards smashed the heads of babies against in order to deliver a quick death.

A typical prison cell at Tuol Sleng - cramped and one tiny window

Moving on to the prison was akin to adding salt to an already deep gash. The prison was converted from a school and housed all the prisoners under Pol Pot’s regime. It was also where they were interrogated, tortured, and then murdered. Innocent young girls, handsome young men, kind old grandparents – each and everyone was a victim under this regime. Each and everyone (save 7) did not survive this prison. Approximately 20,000 people were killed at this site (and then buried at the Killing Fields).

It was too much; I have never felt such sadness, despair, pain within me. Nothing has moved me so deeply as the sites at Phnom Penh had. I cried for Loung Ung, I cried for her family, I cried for the many others who faced the same plight as her.

And, Justice, Ha! True Justice still fails to be delivered. Pol Pot died a peaceful death in 1998 (albeit under house arrest).

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2 thoughts on “Cambodia: Of Glorious Kingdoms and Degenerate, Hateful Despots

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been meaning to visit this country! I find it admirable that people living in this country can still smile even though life is not easy for them.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! Cambodia was a marvelous place – I just wish I could’ve been there longer. The people indeed do keep smiling but the poverty that I witnessed there was the worst I had seen in that region yet. Do let me know if you decide to visit and I’ll certainly give you some pointers 🙂

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