In a recent blog describing Bagan in Burma, I mentioned that it ranks as one of the world’s great archeological treasures, along with the Great Pyramids and Angkor Wat. Before I visited Bagan, I had the chance to visit Cambodia and see Angkor Wat. Ever since I saw an old black and white picture book in Paris while I was studying there, I had wanted to get to Cambodia to see the ancient ruins of Angkor. And I wanted to get there before it was overrun with tourists. I decided to visit in January 1992, when the scars of Cambodia’s twenty-year long war were still visible. In fact, as I was to learn, the fighting hadn’t quite stopped at that point.
While flying into the capital Phnom Penh as far as the eye could from our plane were bomb craters. The enormous UN cargo planes standing on the tarmac were highly conspicuous, bringing in the first of 20,000 peacekeepers (mostly Canadians and Indonesians) and their equipment. The French influence around the city is great, including the wide boulevards and the French colonial architecture.
The mighty Mekong River flows through Phnom Penh and meets the Tonlé Sap River which flows to and from the magnificent lake of the same name north of the capital. The Tonlé Sap River flows back and forth, depending on the seasonal monsoon, thus cleansing the lake which provides an abundance of fish for the nation’s tables. The bridge going across the river in the city was destroyed in 1972 and was still that way until 1994. It was interesting seeing the collapsed structure tumbled into the vast river, like some giant fallen dinosaur skeleton.
Siem Reap is the ancient capital where the Angkor Wat ruins are situated. Flying there from Phnom Penh on a Russian plane was an experience. Our Russian pilot openly wore a .45 on a holster. The Grand Hotel D’Angkor, one of the old hotels built by the French during the colonial period, was way past its faded glory. The only amenities when I visited in 1992 were mosquito nets. Today it is a five-star hotel (I visited again in 2000 and stayed there). The only other people staying there were peacekeepers from Australia and New Zealand. I had many interesting conversations with them over breakfast each morning.
The temples that dominate around Angkor Wat were all built in the 12th and 13th centuries, of local sandstone. They vary in color from dark grey to brilliant pink. They were originally Hindi, but then subsequently the structures were built in Buddhist style. Many of them were built by King Jayavarmann II, who also directed the construction of large man-made lakes to support a huge population, perhaps as large as 1 million in the area at that time, which would have made it one of the world’s largest cities. On the initial approach to the main temple complex one crosses a 100-meter wide moat on a bridge flanked by balustrades of warriors struggling with a giant serpent in some sort of tug of war.
One thing that makes this area special are the enormous banyan trees that soar above the temples. Whereas the Bagan temples were in a desert plain, the Angkor complex sits in a thick rain forest. The original French archeologists decided to leave several temples as they originally found them in 1863. Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn have been both left to the jungle. They were two of my favorites.
Banteay Kdei, another temple, has such realistic and fantastic frieze sculptures that you can practically hear the figures pounding on anvils and elephants trumpeting as they carry warriors into battle. These carvings are the most detailed and intricate I have seen on temples anywhere, whether it be India, Egypt, Burma, or wherever.
Neak Pean is a unique and beautiful temple meant to resemble a lotus flower. It sits on a small island and the reflection in the surrounding water is perfect symmetry.
But wherever I went and however impressive the sites were, one could never escape the reminders and sounds of the war. Young soldiers, some as young as perhaps 14, were posted outside each temple. At times I heard gunfire in the far distance, generally automatic weapons. But on the final morning I was there, I heard the whump of mortars. That very morning an Australian soldier told me I’d be advised to leave the country, as a Khmer Rouge offensive was expected. As I drove out to the airport, I passed the Tuol Sleng torture center, where in 1975 the Khmer Rouge had begun their gruesome, dystopian experiment leading to the Killing Fields. Fortunately, today the Cambodians are doing much better and have seen peace since the end of the 1990s. They deserve it, because they were gracious and wonderful hosts to me.