This is a continuation of Ann’s description of her “Ancient Kingdoms” trip to SE Asia. For the first entry covering Thailand, click here, and for the second entry covering Laos, click here
Feb. 7th to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The next day we were on a one hour flight to Phnom Penh, the largest city as well as the political, economic, and cultural center of Cambodia. The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy but now under a sort of democracy but according to our extremely forthright new guide, Leng, elections are rigged so that the ruling power still retain corrupt people from the original Khmer Rouge, which Leng referred to as the period of the Cambodian Holocaust. It was in Phnom Penh where almost every single person, a teacher or a tailor, were rounded up and marched to the countryside, and there they were worked or starved to death. The city's small class of skilled or educated professionals was systematically murdered by Pol Pot's henchmen, or fled into exile. All money, homes, and possessions were confiscated and often burned and family members dispersed. Even our guide, who was 4 at the time, said his father left the house & never returned.
Despite being liberated from the homicidal Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese back in 1979, Phnom Penh hasn’t fully recovered. However, things are slowly improving, although roads remain shabby, traffic appeared chaotic and poverty was very evident many places we went. It appears that this institutionalized government corruption has put wealth into the hands of a new rich class who can afford the upscale restaurants and fancy hotels and naturally the increasing numbers of tourists are helping to improve the infrastructure as well as the developing economy. And it certainly seemed as if the young men and women were grabbing life in bucketfuls to live as fast and furiously as they could.
After checking into our hotel, we enjoyed a visit to the Champey Academy of Arts, a sort of makeshift school where children ages 5 and up can attend classes in music, dance and painting for free. The school was established to reintroduce Cambodian’s songs and movement and instruments to the next generation since all of this was totally destroyed under Pol Pot. We were treated to a dance demonstration by a group of adorable youngsters and even participated in one of their dances.
Today, February 8th, we entered into a very dark period seeing for ourselves the results of a madman let loose. It was 40 years ago that the dictator Pol Pot murdered his own countrymen in Cambodia, killing all the doctors, teachers, Buddhist monks, nuns, engineers and anyone with a degree or wealth. His idea was to create a revolution to turn Cambodia into an agrarian style socialistic society. He literally forced these men, women and children to relocate to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labor projects. The combined effects of executions, forced labor, malnutrition, and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population. In all, an estimated 1.7 to 3 million people, of approximately a population of 7 million, died due to the policies of his three-year premiership. In 1979, after the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, Pol Pot fled to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. From 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power, with nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia.
We were told that the war nickname “Pol Pot” was chosen from the following two words: Politique Potentielle or political potential! The man was a pathological egomaniac, xenophobic, and determined to show up the other communist countries by his single minded goal of a pure communism on the fastest track ever achieved! To do this, his power had to be absolute & all means justified the ends. He slaughtered in the cruelest imaginable way to achieve his goal! Hard to believe such a despot existed and in our recent lifetime. If you wore eyeglasses you were jailed & killed. He was determined to eliminate anyone he suspected of having an education!! Neighbors were tortured to expose neighbors, mostly with fabrications and lies. Women and children ended up in one of the hundreds of killing fields. To achieve his goal of a utopian farm nation, all private property was confiscated; there were no books, money, prayers or music and definitely no expression of love or sex which was strictly forbidden. His was a paranoid drive to rid the country in the service of his anti intellectual policies so that he would have only an uneducated rural peasantry left to be indoctrinated with his "ideal" ideology.
There is so much more, but it is impossible to relate it all. We met this morning with one of the last two survivors of the Tuol Sleng Prison where only seven people of the 16,000 imprisoned there came out alive after being repeatedly tortured, starved and shackled in their cells. Mr. Chum Mey, a man 85 years old who lived through the Khmer Rouge, the darkest time in his country was blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back and accused of being a CIA operative, a lie told by a neighbor. He spent only four months in prison cell #22 but during that time suffered a broken finger from attempting to defend himself during beatings. He had his toenails pulled out and was tortured with electric shocks placed in his ears. His wife & two children were murdered, but because he was a farmer and mechanic who could repair tractors and sewing machines, he proved useful in being able to fix typewriters in the prison where coerced confessions were recorded. He lost six of his siblings, only his youngest brother survives. In 1979 he remarried and had six more children and now has four grandchildren. He retired in 1993 and has written a book about his experiences called simply, Survivor.
I have a photo of the jail cell he was locked in for four months, shackled to the floor, before this prison was liberated by the Vietnamese.
As you can imagine, walking through Choeung Ek, one of the many killing fields used to exterminate men, women and children was extremely painful. The murders took place in the dead of night, people having been bused to the site, digging their own graves and then being bludgeoned to death. To cover up the screams loud speakers were strategically placed in tree tops blasting music so any neighbors were unsuspecting of the crimes being committed. After walking through both the prison and killing fields, everyone had very heavy hearts, but eventually even the Cambodians are looking toward a brighter future. This city now has a vibrant urgency to make up for the horrors & nightmare of the past. They recently built a huge casino and are driving nice cars or riding on their motorbikes, eating out & apparently enjoying themselves. Life is returning to Phnom Penh because it is a city of young people who have only read about or heard from their families what happened in their country but are personally untouched by it. It is only their parents and especially their elderly relatives whose memories are still strong. I personally will never forget seeing bones and bits of cloth rising up from the sandy floor of the killing fields and especially the killing tree, so called because that is where children were bashed to death. The inhumanity that can exist in this world with a Hitler or a Pol Pot must never be forgotten.
Of course it was a very sad and somber group who left behind these horrific images to continue touring that day and attempt to enjoy our typical Cambodian lunch. Afterwards we drove by air conditioned bus to the King's Palace, a very large compound which was exquisitely kept & beautifully landscaped. The Cambodian King, King Norodom Sihamoni is a figure head only, with no power at all, a man who was a dancer & dance teacher in France, he is 62 years of age and unmarried, but currently residing in the residential portion of the Palace grounds. Here we also marveled at the extravagant Silver Pagoda, a structure with a floor which is covered with five tons of gleaming silver! All of this manicured beauty helped lighten a most sobering day.
Now back in the hotel, I'm enjoying my cool room and trying to rest and regroup a little before joining everyone on our rooftop bar for a drink before dinner. Several of us are having a little tourist tummy, I’ve heard the words Pepto Bismol mentioned more than once today. The temperature was over 90 degrees too, extremely hot & uncomfortable. Not to mention such an overwhelmingly sad day, we are all feeling the effects of witnessing so much horror inflicted by one single madman.
We’re on our own for dinner again, but a group of us are crossing the street for a bite and surprisingly, it turned out that even Ole and Leng, our local guide, joined us as well and they were even more surprised when our entire group insisted on treating them to their dinners! It was our trip leader Ole’s birthday yesterday, so we were happy to do it. This little restaurant is run by a charitable group called Friends who take homeless boys & girls off the street & train them to be kitchen workers or waiters! Their shirts say student or trainer on the back. I had a grilled piece of Mekong fish with steamed white rice. But first, fried tarantula was served as an appetizer!! I have a great shot of it. Dinner turned out to be a really light and fun evening, but by 8:45, we were all ready to cross back over & head to our rooms or beds. I still had to pack.
Feb. 9th, Siem Reap
We had an incredible flight, on time & smooth, landing just before lunch in Siem Reap where we will visit Angkor Wat tomorrow. After lunch at a local Tropical restaurant, we spent over two hours in the impressive, archeological Angkor Wat Museum, which is dedicated to the collection, preservation and presentation of Angkorian artifacts. This very modern building, built just 8 years ago, houses many of the antiquities from that historic period. Most beneficial was being able to walk around the large scale model of the Angkor temple area which provided a very useful reference prior to seeing the real thing the next day. Here we could easily observe the overwhelming size of this immense complex. Plus, I had to admire the bountiful gift shop which was so filled with tempting items for purchase; I could have spent another two hours here just browsing and shopping!
Feb. 10th, Siem Reap
Over a million travelers visit Siem Reap every year to explore the Khmer heritage with the primary attraction being Angkor Wat and the Angkor Temple Region, which is the largest ancient religious site in the world. Understandably, this holy city has turned into one of the world’s premier travel destinations. The Angkor Temple Complex has been designated a UN Heritage Site and consists of hundreds of structures from the 9th to the 14th century that tell the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. This vast collection of historical structures are decorated with intricately carved, priceless Khmer artwork that provides an archaeological and a pictorial history of an empire that ruled much of southeast Asia for five centuries. And it spreads over approximately 96 square miles! These structures consist of partially renovated temples, pagoda and imperial residences including recently discovered ruins which have been virtually untouched for the past 500 years.
Basically it is impossible to do justice to the Angkor complex in the short time OAT has allotted to us and no photo can do justice to the Khmer temples or carvings. And in fact, it is all so sprawling and breathtaking in its size and scope that no attempt to capture it properly could ever be achieved by me, that I am sure.
But here is where OAT shines and our Leader, Ole, really knows his business! We were up again at 5:45 and had a 7:15 departure from the hotel. Believe me when I say this wasn’t a vacation. We needed to stop at a checkpoint, be photographed and carry a personal Angkor Pass entrance card made to be prominently worn for any inspector to see. Then we drove on to the East Gate of Angkor Wat and began our exploration there walking toward the West Gate for our departure a couple of hours later. The best part is that we arrived there so extremely early, not only beating the hordes of people who began arriving by the droves as we were leaving, but there was still a bit of the cooling morning breeze before the heat became oppressive and nearly impossible to bear. From there, we passed through the South gate of Angkor Thom, the capital city of Khmer rulers and saw the Bayon Temple. But don’t worry; we were still far from finished with temples that day.
Before we could barely catch our breath, we were dropped off in a nearby village, Srah Srong , very poor, but boasting a few homes recently constructed and in fairly good shape for this was where we were having our home-hosted lunch. Many of us brought little gifts to present to our hostess who was to prepare our meal. Here we were divided into three small groups and I ended up with Margaret, Dr. Frank, Ed, a gentlemen from VA and the artist, Hiroko. We later found out that all three meals were identical but I believe in my heart that ours was the best!
We were lucky to have the daughter of the house assist us in communicating with her mother. Her English was very good and so all of us were able to enjoy a lively conversation. Prior to eating, I helped her mother prepare our dessert, Plai Ai, very traditional and sweet. I began by placing a tiny lump of palm sugar into a small patty of glutinous rice flour and rolling it into balls for boiling in a pot of water. They are ready when the balls float to the surface. We began with a shredded chicken soup, followed by three stir fried dishes, a vegetable dish, a fried fish & lastly, a stir fried beef, tender & delicious. This was followed by the sweet rice balls. We could not stop complimenting both of these very gracious women on their delicious lunch.
So now a brief return to our Angkor Paradise Hotel for a quick rest which should go without saying was sorely needed by one and all. I could hardly believe that we were shortly boarding our bus and about to see yet, another temple. This time it was a most unusual one and although I was happy to wander through this archeological treasure, we walked and walked around and around until I thought I would fall down. This was Ta Prohm or the Jungle Temple, so named because the ruins are buried in a dense jungle of trees and roots, discovered by the French in the 1800s, and today almost exactly as it was first unearthed. Afterwards we found an embankment to sit on just opposite Angkor Wat to watch the sun set around it, although that evening was very overcast. Ole and our Cambodian guide brought all of us some local snacks to enjoy (like snake and frog legs) and local wine to share in a toast.
On the long bus ride back to the hotel, a few of us decided we would attempt to go to dinner if we could still stand. One of the choices was the Raffles Hotel, a taxi ride away or the Foreign Correspondents Club which sounded so exotic. However, an hour later, when we were meeting downstairs for a drink, we all looked at one another and threw our hands in the air in surrender! After getting up at the crack of dawn, walking around three ancient temples in the broiling heat, miles and miles of walking, climbing and straddling over treacherous rocks and boulders, root strewn paths, up and down uneven steps every five feet, it was a miracle that no one fell down and broke their head or twisted an ankle or slipped on the rocks. I especially felt very lucky to have escaped that day uninjured. But we were all so beat that six of us ended up crowding around a table for four and ordering dinner in the hotel and shortly after, totally collapsing.
Feb. 11, Siem Reap
Still reeling from our prior exhausting day, we nevertheless were awakened at 6:30 as we were about to embark on a cruise on the Tonle Sap Lake, roughly translating to “Great Fresh Water Lake”. This took us on a part of the Lake that eventually empties into the Mekong. Here we went past a floating village, the inhabitants so terribly poor, (approximately 80,000 people live on the water permanently, spread over 170 floating villages) with many hundreds of families in this village, living in shack-like structures bobbing on the water, eking out a subsistence living solely by fishing. These floating huts have no doors, no electricity, and no plumbing, only rudimentary apparatus for cooking their family meals.
Although this is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, it creates severe hardship for families to live in one place all year round. The water levels drastically change in size all through the year, in the rainy season between June and October; the lake is massive, flooded with water from the Mekong River. In the dry season, from November to May, the lake shrinks to such a degree that its flow reverses to deposit water back into the Mekong. So the poor villagers we saw actually have to move their floating “homes” four times a year, they hitch their flimsy makeshift shacks to their small fishing boats & tow their houses away so they won’t be swamped by flooding waters. They are used to their hard lives as this is a multi generational way of life going back hundreds of years. The little children go by boat every morning to school but only through elementary. After that, they have to travel much farther for more schooling depending on the ambition of the child & parents, but mostly if the parents can afford it.
Unlike much of the Cambodian job opportunities, the income is also reliable, but life on the water is difficult. Among these families, there is a high infant mortality rate and many children are orphaned or malnourished from lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fishermen sometimes travel two days to reach the middle of the lake and spend up to a week at a time out fishing. Large waves, limited food and dangerous conditions take their toll. The life expectancy of a fisherman is 54 years. Still it is one of the world’s biggest inland fisheries, producing over 400,000 tons of fish and feeding over 3 million people!
Of course we couldn’t miss one more temple, this one still beautifully preserved and very ancient, called Banteay Srei, or Citadel of Women. It was build in AD 967. The temple's modern name, citadel of beauty—is probably related to the intricacy of the bas relief carvings found on the walls and the tiny dimensions of the buildings themselves.
Later, I sat in an original handmade oxcart (with totally no suspension, believe me) driven by two snorting harnessed oxen for about a fifteen minute ride on a bumpy cart path abutting a narrow canal. At first I thought I can't do that, and as I was the last still on the bus Ole yelled over to me, "come on Ann you'll have your own wagon!"
Today, those of us who didn’t already own pants with an “elephant” design on them hurried to catch up as we all decided tonight was the night we would wear them to dinner. And indeed that is exactly what we did, as you can see from the photo and a shot of all the women, minus one.
So tomorrow we are leaving Cambodia behind after many days of intense experiences. It appears to me as if, as I mentioned earlier, the people are running to catch up with the pleasures denied their parents and grandparents, they are rushing as fast as their motorbikes and cars will take them, setting up roadside picnics where food is prepared all along huge stretches of highway with carpets strewn about replacing tablecloths, eating out and celebrating a renewal of life. Although still a horribly poor country, with a life expectancy of 65, you can see construction going on all over the city and countryside with the wealth still concentrated in the hands of a very few.
Well I’m almost packed once again for our last flight tomorrow to Ho Chi Minh City, no need to put suitcases into the hall at break of dawn, and blessedly for the first time there is no need to set my clock. We are not leaving the hotel for the airport until 11:30! Looking forward to the last leg of the trip, Vietnam.