AUTHOR: LOIS OLIVE GRAY PHOTOS: KAY ELLEN GILMOUR, MD WEBSITE: WWW.KAYGILMOUR.SMUMUG.COM
CAUTIOUS CAMBODIA Designed Travel: Asia Transpacific Journeys - 4th on this tour of Asia: Sept 26 to Oct 30, 2007 In Order of Visit: Bhutan - Laos - Vietnam - CAMBODIA - Indonesia (Bali)
Table of Contents GETTING THERE ....................................................................................... 1 FACTS ABOUT THE CAMBODIANS.......................................................... 6 ANGKOR COMPLEX ................................................................................. 7 OUR EXPLORATIONS ............................................................................... 9 ANGKOR WAT ........................................................................................ 13 CITADEL OF THE LADIES ........................................................................ 21 TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS .............................................................. 26 PHNOM PENH ........................................................................................ 32 THE KILLING FIELDS .............................................................................. 37 LADY PENH & HER KINDLY TEMPLE............................................................. 37 OUR GUIDE’S TOUCHING FAITH .......................................................... 38 GOODBYE AND GOOD LUCK TO CAMBODIA ..................................... 39
GETTING THERE After a short flight from Saigon, we landed in Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor Wat. Our hotel was the Raffles Grand Hotel d' Angkor, a storied Colonial property from 1929. It had been renovated and upgraded about 5 years before. Still has an Old World atmosphere with a tiny elevator cage right out of old movies. Comfortable rooms and good meals here. The grounds of the hotel are quite splendid and large, so we enjoyed walking around there in our free time. When evening came, there was another surprise to see. Hanging among some very tall trees across from the hotel's front door was a large colony of fruit bats looking like hanging baskets.
Comfortable and Spacious Rooms
A Bit Tight in the Elevator
As we flew we had seen an amazingly huge lake which we would later explore and understand. It is seasonal due to the monsoon rains—Tonle Sap Lake, contains 60% waters from the Mekong River and 40% rainwater at its times of greatest volume. When the rain stops, the lake shrinks to a much smaller area. But we would explore the lake later in the Cambodian portion of this trip.
OME CAMBODIAN HISTORY What a brutal and unhappy history the Khmer peoples of Cambodia have endured since their glory days during the 10th through 13th centuries when the Khmer Kingdom was the most powerful in Southeast Asia! Most (95%) of the 14,000,000 citizens of the country today are the direct descendants of the people who built the Angkor complex, the engine of the growing tourist industry in the country. Four percent are Vietnamese immigrants and one percent are listed as “other” in the official census figures. Repeated invasions by the Thais and the Chams of Vietnam weakened the Khmer Empire and finally led to its dissolution. By 1863, the last Angkor king requested a protectorate status under the French. In 1878, Cambodia became part of French Indochina. The Japanese occupied the country during World War II and when that conflict ended, the French gave Cambodia its independence in 1953. The country struggled along after that, not really embracing any particular form of government or satisfying the population with greater economic stability, more control over individual lives, or more influence over relations with other regional or world neighbors. Finally in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge overran the country after a five- year uprising. This takeover by Pol Pot and his henchman led to the most vicious regime the poor Cambodians had ever experienced, indeed one of the most horrific in world history. Pol Pot drove the people almost completely out of the cities, particularly from Phnom Penh the capital, into the countryside where survival was never assured. Over 1,500,000 people were destroyed, through execution (specially used against the educated and middle classes), starvation, and extreme forced hardship. Men and women were sent to separate camps and children were sent to special children’s facilities. No one knew if the rest of his/her family had been killed or died for three deadly years. Youngsters did not know if 4
they were orphans or had any siblings left. Citizens were summarily executed by brutal military guards and revolutionary soldiers for the most capricious reasons: soft hands, signifying the person had not performed physical labor in the past, indentations alongside the bridge of the nose, signifying the wearing of spectacles suggesting the person was an intellectual, questioning authority figures about anything, or becoming ill and unable to work.. Those appalling years were a nightmare from which the people have not yet fully awakened. In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, driving the Khmer Rouge, including leader Pol Pot, into the countryside and ending the reign of terror. However, then began a 10-year occupation by the Vietnamese. At least, the wholesale murder of the Cambodian people was halted. When the Vietnamese withdrew under UN authority, a 13-year civil war erupted between remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other elements in the society that wanted to control Cambodia’s destiny. More civilians and more fighters died, reducing the overall population further. Cambodia’s treatment at the hands of the great powers engaged in their own affairs is shameful to encounter. The little country was truly a pawn in the Cold War and astonishingly enough, the US joined China in wanting to support the Khmer Rouge despite the horrendous record that group had amassed during its time of control. China and the US wanted to thwart Vietnam at all costs--the US for obvious reasons and the Chinese because they wanted to oppose the Soviet Union which was supporting Ho Chi Minh. The consequences to the Cambodian people was of little concern to either government. Finally, the UN did step in and brokered a compromise but even though it brought an end to outright military conflict, it planted the seeds of further conflicts and hindrances to the recovery of the country. Since the 1998 Peace Accords, a coalition form of government has obtained in the country, under a constitutional monarchy. However, the real power is wielded by Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who has controlled the country since l985. Elections in 2003 went smoothly and relatively peacefully but it took a year of wrangling thereafter to form another coalition government. New elections are scheduled for 2008 and 2010. Because some economic progress has been made and there is relative peace in the country, it can be hoped that future political maneuvering will result in more progress and more freedom for the people. Interestingly enough, our guide told us that the Cambodian people are so disgusted with their King 5
Norodom Sihamoni, that he is guarded by three levels of security: the local police in Phnom Penh, an army security unit, and closest of all to his person, mercenaries from North Korea!
FACTS ABOUT THE CAMBODIANS First of all, because of their awful recent history, the median age of the population is young (21); after all, 34% are under 14 years of age! Only 3.5% are over 65. Average life expectancy is only 61 years. Despite the ruthless attempts of Pol Pot and his communist cohorts in destroying all religious practice, 95% of the people are Buddhist, though it was difficult for us to assess how deep a connection with religion the average Cambodian feels. Unlike Bhutan, and even Laos, we were not able judge for ourselves the level of religious zeal that is present in the population. The official language of the country is Khmer, French is also spoken fairly widely in the wake of the French presence over the last century. There is a growing interest in English but it is not spoken by many. Our 39-year- old guide reported that he had taught himself the language because he could see what a useful skill such proficiency could be for him. The general literacy rate is 74% and he is so convinced that education and literacy are absolutely vital to the stability of Cambodia and the eventual loosening of the autocratic and corrupt government of Hun Sen, that he himself funds a school for youngsters to take English lessons. He pays teachers and buys supplies for the students, paper, pencils, books, and the like. And he is not a well-to-do person. He himself is a law student because he is also sure that only when the country can depend on the rule of law will stability and democracy be tenable. Though Cambodia is one of the poorest nations on earth, it is not without some natural resources that could help it to succeed in lifting its population out of their current misery. Tourism is a large part of Cambodia’s present income and it seems to be a growing sector; there were over 2,000,000 foreign visitors in 2007. Most of the tourists come from Japan, followed by China, South Korea and the USA. However, the country also has a thriving textile and garment industry that has managed to escape even the USA’s failure to renew an early trade agreement that 6
provided Cambodia a fair playing field entry into our country’s markets. Even the loss of that market did not destroy the textile industry and today textiles and garments comprise 70% of exported goods. Because of this industry and the rise of tourism, Cambodia’s economy grew at an astounding 8% in 2007. Oil and natural gas have recently been discovered offshore but have not been exploited as yet. Other natural resources with development potential include wood and wood products, rubber, cement, gemstone mining, and hydropower. So the outlook for Cambodia does not have to be grim; political developments and continued stability and peace will determine if the country is ripe for foreign investment. Our guide’s assessment is correct however; the country desperately needs education and skills training for its young people, 50% of whom are below 21. At present there are insufficient jobs for so many present and potential workers. The infrastructure to create and/or attract industry is sadly lacking and the present rapacious and corrupt central government does not seem too concerned with the volcano just beneath the surface. How long will young people remain unemployed, docile and passive when they see more and more everyday how the rest of the world is living—even their very closest next door neighbor, Vietnam! Hun Sen had better wake up and begin to care about the people he ostensibly leads; they will be marching over him one day.
ANGKOR COMPLEX The Angkor complex represents is one of the most important archaeological sites in South- East Asia. It's temples (wats) span the entire range of Angkor (Khmer) art from the 9th to the 14th centuries and include a number of indisputable artistic masterpieces such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Banteay Srei. Angkor Thom, located in the Angkor complex, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century byKing Jayavarman VII. 7
As we learned in dramatic fashion, the area of Angkor Thom is much larger, more complicated and fascinating than we expected. The entire complex comprises many temples, reservoirs, palaces, walls and bridges, monuments and the remains of both Hindu and later Buddhist cultures that have dominated the siteover the millenia. Several archaeologist / historians have postulated that a significant cause of Cambodia’s continuing dysfunctional government and the socio-economic poverty of its people can be traced to their proudest heritage - the Angkor (Khmer) Empire. Studies of the Angkor sites comprising the kingdom with their Sanskrit etchings and pictorial carvings of their history have taught these expertsmuch about the Empire. During its entire span, it was a totalitarian society ruled by its kings who considered the people under them, not a responsibility, but a commodity to be exploited. Like Egyptian pharaohs, these Angkorian kings fought to increase their lands and power, tried to outdo their predecessors in the magnificence of their monuments, subdued the people to their will through might and the use of religion. The religion of the Empire alternated between Hinduism and Buddhism. The oldest ruins were built by Hindu princes and kings, but as the years rolled on, kings who called themselves Buddhist would destroy Hindu carvings and statuary and replace them with Buddhist symbols and writings. Kingship seemed to oscillate between Hindu and Buddhist monarchs so that the monuments were constantly being altered and re-decorated and new ones being built. Very little of all this construction redounded to the good of the people, nor was it meant to do so. The mighty edifices were meant to awe the people and keep them in thrall to their rulers. Even after the final death throes of the Empire, the Cambodian people have been fed on the stories of their past glory. More modern rulers have exploited their credulity and respect for power and made them believe that their sacrifices are needed to rebuild the Empire and return the country to its former grandeur.
Even the terrible Khmer Rouge used these stories in their justification for the ruthless changes they sought to make in the society. Many academics thus believe that the Angkor (Khmer) Empire is both a blessing and a curse for the people because so much of its glory was built at the expense of the common folk who did not really participate in the opulence at all. Perhaps part of an education for everyone in the country should be a new understanding of just what was glorious about the Angkor (Khmer) Empire (the art and architecture) and that which was deleterious to all but the highest nobility and priests (the totalitarian government, the bloody conquests, the hardships of the common people). Literacy and education are indeed necessary for the whole Cambodian people! With that understanding, we could tour the national park with some skepticism as well as appreciation and admiration. We had had the misconception that Angkor Wat itself was the only site we would be visiting. How wrong could we have been!
OUR EXPLORATIONS There are many ruins spread all around the city of Siem Reap. They date from different centuries in the history of the Angkor Empire and are not engulfed in jungles through which we would have to hike. Instead, they are right outside the little city and all are reached on paved roads! And what wonders they are! Archaeologists speculate that at least 1,000,000 people lived in the city of Angkor Thom at the height of its power. There are no structures in the entire complex that date later than the 13th century. After that date, the Buddhist kings were in the ascendancy most often and they built with wood rather than brick, sandstone and laterite. Wood is quite perishable in a wet climate so these buildings did not last long. Though the Buddhists did deface some of the older Hindu temples in order to add Buddhist decorations and representations, they did not build their temples and monasteries to endure as had the Hindu kings. Therefore, the huge edifices that we can visit today are chiefly Hindu and most of them are dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction. In the Hindu pantheon, however, Shiva is not a destroyer in the sense we think of that 9
word; rather he is the god that destroys the reincarnation wheel and allows individuals to start again on their pilgrimage to a higher plane of existence. Because he smashes the current wheel, Brahma the creator can start the universeanew. All the structures in Angkor are built within enclosures, sometimes walls, sometimes moats, to protect them from evil. Sometimes there are multiple such enclosures to breach before a visitor can stand in the inner sanctum. All the temples and shrines are elevated through terrace construction or pyramid building. The majority of these religious edifices were meant to symbolize parts of the Hindu Universe, with Mt. Meru, home of the Hindu gods, represented by thehighest elevation reached in the construction. The Hindu religion is hierarchical; the gods and deities are highest and the people are lowest; therefore the temples and other structures are solid symbols of the difference in importance and holiness between them. Common people have to climb to reach the level of the holiest ones. With an ankle sprained on our second day of this 6 week journey, I was impressed by this separation in every temple or monastery we visited—the rock steps were always steep and naturally there were no handrails. Going down these precipitous stairs was a lesson in patience and forbearance.
TA PROHM Ta Prohm is the other well-advertised single temple in the whole compound. It is the “Jungle Temple” because it has been left pretty much unexcavated so that it is easy to see what happens to these mighty works of man when nature is allowed to reclaim her own! The enormous silkwood trees, the banyans, and kapoks are assaulting the walls and roofs of the temple and gradually bringing them down.
The grasping octopus roots of these trees rise over the thick walls and crush them under their living weight or cleave them in half with their probing “fingers.” This temple is probably the most photographed, after Angkor Wat itself, because of this striking ongoing drama of nature against man’s constructions.
The trees are often more than 60 feet in height, their trunks are thick like oak trees, their amazing buttress-like roots seem to reach out like elephants' trunks, and they can begin their lives in crevices in the monumental walls and roofs of the building so that they are already bearing down on the structures even in their “saplinghood.” The bark of these trees is smooth and gray, adding to their strange likeness to elephants and octopi. In this moist and warm environment, their youth is short and they grow to greatness quickly. We were shown many that are only 20 or so years old and are already giants in the ongoing siege. The Angkor compound is a marvelous sight and site experience. Small wonder that the Cambodian people are proud of this heritage and long to recreate that glory in the modern world. At present, though, they must exploit its tourist value to earn hard currency for their development.
Many countries of the world contribute money and expertise to the restoration efforts ongoing at the many temples, but this progress seems as slow as Cambodia’s socio-economic advancement in bettering the lives of the people.
ANGKOR WAT Only the largest of these buildings, Angkor Wat, represents the entire Hindu Universe. It is actually the largest religious structure in the world and it represents the very highest expression of the Khmer Empire. Its walls contain over 600 meters of bas relief carvings which tell stories from the Ramayana, one of the favorite Hindu scriptures. It is also important to note that these
Christianity, Islam and Judaism understand that expression. They were meant to be the abodes of the gods! That was the reason for their stupendous size, 13
their unapproachability, the complex and magnificent decorative features, the amazing etching of Sanskrit texts, and the huge friezes relating the stories of the exploits ofthe gods. A picture of Angkor Wat is at the center of the Cambodian national flag, the only state banner in the world with a building so emblazoned.
One can visit Angkor Wat at any time, but the most special kind of experience comes with a dawn call. After we had seen the splendid edifice during the day, we were up at 4 a.m. to next morning to make the trip out to the site. Then we could watch the moon descend from its empyrean realm, shedding silvery white light on the mysterious walls and statues as well as splashing across the reflecting moat. The sun hurried her along with his pinkish golden glow in the east, lighting a fire on the tips of the towers and igniting the moat with molten gold. It was clear that every tourist in Siem Reap had been brought out to see this natural “light” show and it was also obvious that we were all hushed in our response to the glorious view. There weren’t even any audible “ooohs and aaahs” as the show progressed. We were all lost in our own thoughts and reactions to this beauty.
Our wise guide had us up early every morning (not as early as 4 a.m. on the other days) for the least crowded explorations of the various complexes, so we were never as aware of the number of tourists visiting Cambodia as during that sunrise show. Since Cambodia is very hot and quite steamy as well, these early morning climbs and photo-shoots were much more comfortable than they would be later in the day when the temperatures really begin to reach higher and higher.
Every one of the different buildings was unique, interesting, often flabbergasting in its ornateness, the sharp etching that still remains, the crispness and realism of the artistic representations
accomplished in creating detailed and creative friezes as were the Greeks who carved the Parthenon lintels and friezes. The enormous sizes of the structures were also stupefying—corridors went on forever in every direction from a central shrine, roofs reached for the treetops, walls were often 3-4 feet thick. The construction materials were also impressive: sandstone for the fine carving, laterite for the rough walls and steps, and bricks for more facings. The sandstone and 15
laterite must have required prodigious effort in their quarrying as well as in their transportation to the building sites.
Even in this somber atmospheric temple site, there was something amusing happening in its surrounding grounds. A wonderful troop of monkeys was playing in the huge banyan and kapok trees and finding seeds and fruits for both nutrition and play. The youngsters in particular were fun to watch as they tussled, leapfrogged each other and even adults, hung upside down from branches by whichever appendage was handy. One young one actually fell to the ground with quite a "thud" and sat looking a bit shocked for a moment or two before he raced from the ground back into the trees.
TONLE SAP LAKE In this little country, nature has yet another marvel to reveal. In addition to its powerful jungles, Cambodia also contains the strange Tonle Sap River and Lake phenomenon. This lake is formed by the river, a tributary of the Mekong River, but its bizarre mystery lies in its seasonal backward flow. In the dry season, Tonle Sap is fairly small, about l meter deep and about 2700 kms of surface area. However, when the Mekong is full and fast flowing in the monsoon season, the Tonle Sap River reverses it course and backs up into this part of Cambodia creating a lake that is many times larger than at the dry season. It deepens to 9 meters and now covers 16,000 square kms. of surface area! This changing lake is vital to Cambodia because the flood season replenishes the soil on farmland, because the flooded farms become an enormous fish and marine life nursery, and because 60% of the country’s protein for human beings comes from this lake. The lake also is an asset for Vietnam because its acceptance of the excess waters of the Mekong prevents massive flooding in Vietnam along its course as well as in the delta area.
About 3,000,000 Vietnamese immigrants follow the backward flowing Tonle Sap up into the Tonle Sap Lake to join the native Cambodians in a floating and fishing life. When the river flows back to the Mekong, the Vietnamese follow the flow back to their own country. This dependence on the lake by the Khmer and Vietnamese people has been a fact of life since time immemorial and they seemto accept the annual migration with no real problems. Our boat ride on this wonderful lake showed us that all the people live on boats and floating houses and there are public gathering places floating on the lake as well - schools, a basketball court, churches, many little shops and businesses (like one where batteries could be recharged), even a tourist facility with a cafeteria and lots of souvenirs for sale. A whole social system follows the flood and people change their lives according to the size of the lake. When the lake shrinks, the roads reappear, the houses dry out, and people live on shore rather than on thelake. These folks are truly "Nomads of the Water."
CITADEL OF THE LADIES Banteay Srei is a small temple complex dedicated to Shiva but called the Citadel of the Ladies because of the intricate and delicate carvings of many female figures. Red sandstone is the medium and it has allowed for amazing longevity since the complex was dedicated in the 10th century. Though the buildings are small compared with the large structures in the Angkor Wat complex, they are many and beautiful.
The ride out of Siem Reap took us about 40 kilometers north so we were able to see some more of the countryside with its rural scenes of water buffalo and farms. It is hot and very humid at this time of year and the crops were flourishing. The distances and separations of this complex from Angkor Thom were dramatic proof of the enormous civilization that once covered this land.
EAST MABON When we left Banteay Srei, we next visited the complexes of East Mebon and West Mabon (also known as Pra Rub). East Mabon was famous for its intact statuary of elephants and lions and was believed to have been built in 962. Another truly impressive testament to the architects and engineers of this Khmer civilization. It was surrounded by a large reservoir which is now completely driedup.
West Mabon is a temple complex built in 967 in the middle of the largest reservoir in the Khmer Kingdom. That body of water has long since disappeared, remembered only because of the huge depression surrounding the temple— much larger than any moat would have been. However during and after heavy monsoon seasons the depression often refills with water. To the Hindus, this huge reservoir and other small bodies of water surrounding temples were representative of The Sea of Heaven. There were statues of animals and humansdecorating the walls and terraces, along with many carvings in stone.
TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS The Terrace of the Elephants supports what was once a reviewing stand in front of the Royal Palace. The platform itself was apparently constructed of wood mounted atop the elephant terrace. The terrace is 1000 feet long and 10 feet high with 5 separate staircases leading up from the ground. It is believed by archeologists to have been used by the kings to review their armies as they either headed off to battle or returned victorious. The elephants appear like columns holding up the structure. Between the columnar figures are scenes carved in the stones depicting elephants engaged in many different activities, most of them involved in war. The whole structure is quite remarkable because of its immensesize and its current state of preservation.
Preah Khan, meaning the "Royal Sword) is an enormous complex believed to have housed 100,000 officials and servants. It was constructed in the 12th century in a flat design with 4 amazingly long halls leading away from a central Buddhist sanctuary. As is true of so many temples and palaces in Angkor Thom, there are Hindu statues and carvings within the Buddhist central square. Like Ta Prohm, this unrestored temple is being swallowed up in the sinuous arms of the predatory trees.
NEAK PEAN This hospital complex was our next spot to explore. Sick people would come to this area to consult the "doctors" for diagnosis and treatment. The complex comprises 4 large pools with entry arches representing Earth (a human face), Wind (a horse), Fire (a lion) and water (an elephant). When the doctor had made his determinations, the patient was instructed to swim/bathe in the appropriatepool for treatment.
TA SOM A small 12th century temple just east of East Pean is noted for the exquisite carvings of four faces in each of two entryways. There is only a single shrine here, but there is no agreement on just what it was honoring. A sacred fig tree has completely invaded the structure and made it unsafe for exploration although a project has been started to shore the temple up.
PREAH KO ("ROYAL BULL") TEMPLE The Preah Ko Conservation Project is restoring the Preah Ko temple. It is dedicated to the memory of 3 founding kings of the Khmer Empire and their wives. There are 3 sandstone statues of bulls on the platform representing the Nandi Bull of Hindu faith, the sacred mount of the deity Shiva. Six brick towers are the memorials to the kings and their wives. Dates from 879.
PHNOM PENH We did not meet the same kind of idealists in the capital city of Cambodia once we had wished Mr. Seone farewell and thanked him for his excellent guiding skills in helping us understand more about Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap. The capital is filled with traffic in nightmarish proportions. The central city is still very French in its architectural style and even our hotel here was an old French property built in the 20’s and recently refurbished as a Raffles Hotel (the Siem Reap hotel was also a Raffles renovation of a 20’s era French hotel).
PHNOM PENH RAFFLES HOTEL The capital has little to recommend it to tourism really, but it is dominated by the Royal Palace compound (built from 1917 to 1919). The buildings were wooden and burned in the 60’s and then were rebuilt to the same plans. Strange that such a poor country would spend so much money on an unpopular monarch. The not too beloved king is a virtual prisoner in the compound so it is a lucky thing for him that it is quite lavish and lovely. There is plenty of gold leaf on the pagoda tops of the 32
buildings, lots of Buddha carved of jade and emerald. There is even a temple called the “silver pagoda” whose floor is “tiled” in solid silver blocks. Quite astonishing in this poor country. The chief reason his people do not like this new young king (in his 30s) is because he refuses to participate in the extradition of his father from exile in France to be tried for crimes against the people. The Cambodian people think that his father cooperated with Pol Pot and did nothing to protect his people. Rather, they believe he profited by the persecution of the upper and middle classes with confiscation of their property and wealth, not to mention the decimation of their numbers. They want him to answer charges of genocide and crimes against the people. The young king has shown no willingness to cooperate with this demand. Of course, it is also true that the young king has no real power. He can consult with Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, but he cannot coerce his cooperation. The grounds are spectacular and the buildings stupendous.
Our tour of the city took us to the French downtown where we saw the typical French type architecture in the Post Office Building and the National Museum as well as other governmental type structures.
The museum was very interesting, chiefly because of the guide we had. She told us that the museum had been looted during Pol Pot’s time but that many of the treasures are gradually being returned to the museum from private collectors around the globe as well as from some governments, chiefly France. The building looks rather like the Cham Museum built by the French in Da Nang with the same open-air construction around a central patio area. There were many fascinating pieces from the ancient times and arts & crafts works of more current vintage aswell.
THE KILLING FIELDS Our lady guide of about 40 years was disarmingly forthright about her sufferings during the era of the “Killing Fields” and also informed us that her miseries have not ended with the change in government. She too was separated from her family and lost both parents and ended with only a married sister for immediate family. The reason she still suffers is because there is a prejudice in Cambodia against orphans that continues even today despite all the orphans left by the genocide. The prejudice is rooted in a Cambodian interpretation of Buddhist conceptions of the reincarnation wheel. They believe that if you come back to human form after death as an orphan you must have been a pretty wicked person in the former life and therefore deserve to be shunned and shamed. Therefore, no one will marry an orphan or accept one as a friend. This lady appears to be living a very lonely life except for the relationship she has with her sister, nieces and nephews. Another sad story in a country filled with them.
LADY PENH & HER KINDLY TEMPLE
The capital city takes its name from a Lady Penh who founded a large temple on the highest hill in the area in 1467. The hill is also named after her and the temple still stands and is considered quite sacred to the Buddhists believers. Many make pilgrimages to the temple, climbing up the steps to make offerings of fruit and flowers, but most interestingly, of birds. We were quite taken with the practice because it did not involve the killing of the birds. Rather it seems that the bird vendors were making the “killing.” They sell their birds from cages to the faithful who then release the birds to bring their prayers to heaven. We are just sure that these pigeons are the “homing” variety who no doubt return to their owner’s cages each night to be sold again to another worshipper. Not a bad deal for any of the parties to the sales: the faithful make their offering, the sellers don’t have to keep finding new birds, and the birds are fed and cared for tenderly. One of the gentlest customs we have seen in Southeast Asia, especially heartwarming that these people who have been treated so cruelly by their countrymen can conceive of such a kindly method of making their animal “sacrifices.”
OUR GUIDE’S TOUCHING FAITH All of us were impressed with Mr. Seone's ideals, his practicality, his pursuit of education, and his selflessness. He is realistic in his recognition of the importance of education for his young compatriots and their hopes for the future. He is also realistic in improving his own education by studying law. He knows that only education and the rule of law will allow his country to escape the constrictor coils of a corrupt government. He works hard for his family and the young people in his life through his establishment and personal monetary support of a school for the teaching of English to those youngsters. He is proud of his country’s heritage and its natural beauty. He is optimistic about its future. His faith in the power and willingness of the UN to protect his country from further ruinous civil wars and invasions by more powerful neighbors however is not so realistic in our jaundiced eyes. We have seen the UN powerless to stop the slaughter in Darfur, the current unrest in Kenya, the ongoing catastrophe in Zimbabwe. Not only is the UN impotent, its most powerful members do not have the will to stop these tragedies. Yet Mr. Seone believes that because his country now has a government sanctioned 38
under the constitution of the UN itself, stability and prosperity will ensue. We respected his trust and we can hope that he is rewarded for his efforts with progress in his lifetime towards the goals he seeks. Mr. S told us his own personal story of misery during the Pol Pot regime. He was a boy of 10 when Pol Pot emptied the cities. He and his siblings were separated from their parents as well as from each other. During that time as he struggled to survive, he had no way of knowing whether or not he had family any longer. He really could not explain his own survival except as “luck” because he cannot remember any methods he could have used to avoid death. It could have only been that his fate was not to perish then. When the Vietnamese conquered Cambodia and sent Pol Pot into rural exile, he was totally dumbfounded to learn that his mother and one sister had survived and that by some miracle his mother was able to find them both and thus re-unite what was left of the family. Perhaps it is that inexplicable “luck” that helps Mr. Seone feel such optimism today. If only we could sense the same intimations of success that he does. He and his people do deserve something better than a return to their past Angkorian Empire. They deserve to live in dignity, safety, peace and prosperity that extends to all the citizens, not just the high, mighty and powerful!
GOODBYE AND GOOD LUCK TO CAMBODIA We left Cambodia with gratitude for the experiences in Angkor Thom and for our meeting with the idealistic Mr. Seone. Their sad past echoes everyday in the lives of the citizens of Cambodia and it is difficult to find ourselves believing that we caught many intimations of a more hopeful future any time soon. May Buddha bless the efforts of such selfless and optimistic people as our guide.