Gaining Perspective at Phnom Penh

To say that I have been putting off writing this post would be an understatement. I have been willing it away.

Like millions of visitors to Phnom Penh, I have struggled with the things I saw when learning more about the regime of the Khmer Rouge…things that can never be unseen. To put it into words seems indomitable.

However, it is intrinsic to understanding more about Cambodia and, more importantly, the Cambodian people who have shown more resilience, industry and positivity than many nations would in the wake of such atrocities. For them, I am going to give it a try.

The first stop on this journey is Tuol Sleng. Formerly a school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s ruling and was turned into S-21, the notorious secret prison (one of 196) through whose gates more than 20,000 people passed to their deaths. Now it is a Genocide Museum.

When the Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh, something the Cambodian people were initially happy about after a drawn out war with Vietnam, Pol Pot began to target the educated and elite; teachers, doctors, military personnel etc. Basically anyone intelligent enough to question his way of ruling…and glasses wearers. Many were accused of largely fictitious acts of treason or fraternising with other governments. Typically, entire families of the accused would be taken and people wouldn’t know what charges were being levied against them.

They were brought here for interrogation and torture in a bid to extract a confession. If they didn’t die accidentally during this process, they were marched out to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields) to be killed and flung in mass graves.

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to spare an enemy by mistake” Pol Pot

We knew this would be a difficult day, but there are times when I was actually gasping for breath with the weight of it all. If it already sounds too much for you, you shouldn’t read on. Gruesome does not begin to cover it.

P1000634

We’re guided around three of the four main buildings. Our tour guide lost her father, brother and sister to the regime. She tells us very calmly and assures us that talking about it regularly and showing S-21 to visitors has helped her come to terms with it. But it brings tears to my eyes immediately.

We first walk through the rooms with original beds and torture implements left just as they had been found.

P1000636 P1000639

Victims found by the Vietnamese army in January 1979 are buried in unmarked graves in the courtyard.

P1000628

Some of the rooms are divided into 3ft by 5ft spaces that two people would share shackled together.

P1000653

Those considered VIPs, such as military personnel, would have their own rooms. Same conditions and torture, just more space in which to enjoy it.

P1000630P1000631P1000633P1000648

In the next sombre block, there is an exhibition where hundreds of black and white photos, of victims and perpetrators, stare hauntingly back at you.

P1000645 P1000682

On of only seven survivors is there, and I find his presence mesmerising. He managed to make himself useful to the Khmer Rouge leaders by painting portraits of them. This appealed to their vanity, and spared his life.

P1000690

We’re offered a photo with him when we purchase a copy of his memoirs. Somehow I can’t see a place for it amongst these images.

Torture devices are all around. The gallows in the main square were built for the school’s students to take exercise but were adapted by the Khmer Rouge. They would tie the prisoners hands and hang them upside down until they lost consciousness, then dip their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness allowing the generals to continue their interrogations.

P1000640

The final building holds an exhibition of eight Khmer Rouge combatants, and their stories of how they felt forced into the killings.

P1000668

We take some time to reflect.

P1000691

Then it’s time for us to make the journey that hundreds of thousands of Cambodian prisoners did on the way to their deaths, we tuk tuk out to Choeung Ek.

P1000743

It’s a long old dusty road, and a sad trip. When we arrive, we’re given our headphones and we pass silently through the grounds, witnessing horrendousness after horrendousness. From the point where the trucks would stop to deliver prisoners, to the serrated sugar palm they would used as a weapon of torture, to a series of mass graves.

One after another.

The uneven earth undulates before us, and we’re warned that the horrific crimes present themselves in the ground below. When we look down, garments of clothing, bones and teeth are in the process of rising to the surface. It’s an unstoppable sadness brought on by nature’s rainfall and erosion.

P1000719

Only some of the graves have been excavated, there are likely hundreds of thousands of bodies still to be found over time.

P1000708

Each is surrounded in friendship bracelets left by travellers wishing to pay their respects.

P1000707

We’re manoeuvred to the side of a nearby lake where we’re encouraged to sit or walk alongside it and reflect on the atrocities.

P1000713P1000714

A piece of music has been commissioned to help us do this. ‘A Memory From Darkness’ by Him Sophy. It is a most unexpected and welcome interlude, an opportunity to allow the emotions to flow over you.

From here we pass collections of clothes most recently found by the groundsman.

P1000718

But the worst is still to come. One of the final excavated mass graves is ahead of us, and next to it a large oak tree covered in friendship bracelets just as the grave walls before it. This is where babies and children were killed.

P1000727

They would either be thrown into the air and shot with a pistol or smashed against the tree. It is the most horrific thing I have ever known or seen, and it breaks me. There, by the tree, my spirit collapses. I can never un-know what I now know, and I’m different. Its as simple as that. I sit and weep.

P1000726

Towards the end, a sprawling tree serves as the spot where speakers were hung to play regime-friendly music drowning out the screams of the victims.

P1000731

The final stop is the majestic and graceful Choeung Ek Memorial built to commemorate every life lost during this harrowing era in Cambodia’s history.

P1000740

 

The design incorporates garuda birds, like those ridden by Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, alongside magical naga serpents said to have fathered the Khmer people. Together, they are a symbol for peace.

Categorised skulls are piled high within it.

P1000736

I lay flowers at the door. But we’re so saturated with grief, it is absolutely time to go.

On our journey back to town, the beautiful Khmer children give us unwitting comfort with their cries of ‘Hello’ from the roadside.

We’re stunned. And we’ll never be the same again.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Think of the saddest song that you’ve ever heard, and listen to that.

 

Advertisements

Tomb Raiding in Angkor Wat

Some things in life grab you and you’re instantly touched by their beauty, like the opening bars of Corsicana by The Antlers or the smiling face of a friend meeting you at the end of a long journey. Angkor Wat is one of those things, and my first experience of it is at the break of dawn.

Whilst also shorthand for the dazzlingly impressive 300 kilometre squared temple complex which sits valiantly astride the Tonle Sap river in northern Cambodia, Angkor Wat is also one of the largest temples on the site, built of sandstone and laterite in 1150 by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer empire for the Hindu god Vishnu. And it’s here that we start.

After whizzing through the streets of Siem Reap at 5am in a tuk tuk, we are now stumbling in pitch black along the moat over the river through entrance gates and over stone steps which we can’t even see. We’re not alone, the respectfully quiet chatter around us implies that we’re amongst hundreds of people making their way to the well documented vantage point to watch the sun come up over Angkor Wat, their darting torch beams the only thing keeping us from falling over.

We follow the masses and exit the causeway, ending up next to a lake on the – of the site. It has rather a communal festival feel with groups cross-legged on the floor chatting. As we wait for first light, the chatter dulls and quietens, and slowly the rising sun (albeit shrouded in wispy cloud) reveals those unmistakable and majestic corn-cob towers atop 1500 metres squared of intricate brickwork.

P1000061

And suddenly all at once we feel like we’ve been here a thousand times over.

P1000054

After we’ve taken it all in from a distance, Bette Midler style. We leave the throng at the lake, all draped over the library temples like they were built to take selfies on, and head for the temple.

P1000117

 

P1000050

It is said that Angkor Wat took thirty years to complete, and you can forgive the slow workmanship when you get closer. Every nook and cranny boasts such fine detail, with each turn a new feat of crafstmanship surpasses the last. Its 3rd enclosing wall is embossed with a series of bas-reliefs, a particular kind of sculpture designed to be viewed from many angles without distortion.

P1000067

Scholars have ruminated that this particular temple was built for funerary purposes since its bas-reliefs are meant to be viewed anti-clockwise, a direction that was associated with death in the Khmer empire.

We walk round the walls taking in each gallery depicting battle scenes and tales from Hindu mythology.

P1000069 P1000065P1000071 P1000070

These were once embossed in red and gold, but it has worn off from thousands of hands caressing the complex and detailed stonework. Two of the most famous are the Heaven and Hell gallery, and The Ocean of the Churning Milk.. The latter is concerned with the life story of Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. In it the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) line up against each other trying to churn the ocean to make amrita (the elixir of immortality.) I’ll tak a cup o’ that.

The pyramid at the heart of the temple is triple tiered. Up one level is the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, or it was until large numbers of the statues were removed for conservation and the remainder were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. We’re invited by a local to light incense and give thanks to Buddha by kneeling, clasping the incense between our palms, holding it to our foreheads and bowing three times. It’s a lovely, peaceful moment, but the bubble bursts almost immediately when the understandably industrious Cambodian invites us to donate $20 ‘for good luck.’

Nearby the Chamber of Echoes is a place where sound reverberates if you stand with your back to the wall and thump your chest. This what the locals do, three times, for good fortune. This time for free.

In the same cloister are the old library buildings and the south west and south east corner of the complex.

P1000083

Up another level is a stunning frieze of apsaras which are spirits of the clouds and waters from both Hindu and Buddhist mythology,  the emblems (and poster girls) of this beautiful country.

P1000090

It’s a steep climb to the third and final level, which only the high priest and king would have been allowed to visit in Khmer times.

P1000075

Here, your flesh will need to be covered to within an inch of its life to observe the tradition respectfully, a scarf over the shoulders won’t do. But, after the climb, in the excruciating heat, we are very much rewarded. The views outward are of the dense forests and rice paddies, the sheer scale bringing your jaw to a slack position.

P1000093

P1000096

The views inwards are just as gratifying.

P1000085

P1000094

Beautiful courtyards giving way to the 65 metre corn-cob towers themselves.

P1000103

If you can squint long enough into the debilitatingly hot sun, you’ll see garudas (large mythical birds), nagas (serpents) and apsaras (poster girls) on every inch of every spire.

On the way out at the gates, we stop in at the statue of Vishnu resplendent in saffron.

P1000126

Sounds just heavenly doesn’t it. Well, it does have its downsides. We are harangued relentlessly by local vendors to eat and drink almost constantly when outwith the enclosure walls. That I can deal with. The fact that they are all named Harry Potter, Lady Gaga, 007 etc, I can’t.

This could indicate numerous things; that Western tourists are so lazy they can’t remember a Cambodian name, that they’re so oblivious they can’t identify someone they just had a conversation with or that they are so xenophobic that the moment they see something which connects them to the part of the globe that they can relate to more closely they are so giddy with excitement they’ll by a $2 dollar Coke. Or all of the above.

We beat a hasty retreat after this due to the searing heat, returning the next day in late afternoon to the Angkor Thom complex and specifically the Bayon.

P1000139

When we reach there, a production team are setting up for a film shoot which is not uncommon here (parts of Tomb Raider were filmed at nearby Ta Prohm…of which more later.) In front of the temple, flight cases are lined up and lighting rigs are being assembled around us.

P1000144

But within the enclosure walls and away from the melee, we see the temple in all its uninterrupted glory. In this lower light, the setting sun seems to turn the stone pinkish in this dusky hue. It’s a beautiful time of day to see it.

P1000150 P1000164

The eye is drawn immediately, and mesmerisingly, to the temple’s unique selling point (marketing speak people…bathe in it) which is 216 faces carved into the temple’s 54 stone towers dominating the view from every enchanting angle.

Some claim that these were modelled in the image of the ever modest Khmer King. Others say that it is the image of Loveskara, meaning ‘Lord of the world’, the bodhisattva said to encompass the compassion of all buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism.

P1000171 P1000167 P1000160 P1000157

Not to be outdone, the Bayon has its own bas-reliefs adorning the walls…

P1000198 P1000177

…but many are unfinished and in poor condition, so I’d suggest swerving these and spending your time seeking out the faces and taking a moment to admire how the light dances upon the stone.

P1000165 P1000183

Next up the following morning is Banteay Srei, the veritable poster boy of Angkor Wat itself. Or perhaps we should we say poster girl given that it translates as ‘Citadel of women’, its intricate and detailed carvings in the fine-grained rose-pink sandstone lending themselves to the legend that it was built by women.

P1000217

This is the temple that adorns $2 dollar t-shirts the country over, and it’s understandable. Even if you’d spent a full week shuffling around temples in the excruciating heat, I defy your heart not to soften on sight of this charming beauty.

P1000219 P1000231 P1000239

This temple is the Kylie of Angkor Wat, positively diminutive compared to some of its contemporaries comprised as it is of one single level. It is richly embellished with floral motifs and scenes from the Ramayana, considered one of the great Hindu epics. The temple itself was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva in 967.

P1000220 P1000224 P1000229 P1000232

Mythical beasts with monkey’s heads and human bodies guard the temple steps.

P1000238

It’s a popular spot despite the 25km schlep from the main drag of Angkor Wat, so it is not conducive to linger here and the flow of visitors kind of carries you aloft towards the western exit. A local band of musicians raising money to support those affected by land mines plays us out with a beautiful soundtrack.

P1000250

It’s worth stealing one last glance over your shoulder at the resplendent temple before the off.

P1000253

Our penultimate stop is Ta Prohm, made famous by a lycra-clad Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. It was built in 1186 as a monastery dedicated to the deity Prajnaparamita. Over time, nature has battled with it and in this case, won. Enormous kapok trees wind their way over, above and through the terraces and walls.

P1000265 P1000270 P1000277 P1000282

Wandering around it feels like walking down London’s Oxford Street though, it’s overcrowded and mostly shrouded in scaffolding. We make a very sharp exit and head for Preah Khan.

Here, we find something unique to Angkor Wat…peace. It starts at the processional way entering the western gate.

P1000288

Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII on the site of a former royal city, and it was here that the king lived whilst he was overseeing the restoration of Angkor Thom. The name Preah Khan means ‘sacred sword’ is said to be a weapon that was ceremonially gifted by the king to his heir, so the person holding the sword hold’s the throne.

P1000329 P1000315 P1000291

Soon I’m clambering through the halls and corridors of the temple which once served as both a monastery and university. Nature has also had its way here and lichen encrusts the sandstone giving it a very ethereal feel here.

The walls are graced with yet more eye-catching carvings.

P1000297 P1000298

Taking respite from the sun, I grab a seat on the stairs facing one of the library buildings.

P1000310 P1000309

Right at this point I feel a calmness descend over me. The beauty of the temples hit me over the head from the moment the sun rose over Angkor Wat on the first day but it’s not until now, away from the bartering Lady Gagas and 007’s, that the serenity takes hold.

Maybe it’s the yoga, maybe it’s the full moon, maybe I just utterly love being back on the road again. But a switch flicks today for sure.

It seems like the right thing to do to pay my thankful respects at the stupa of Buddha on the way out.

P1000325

Our tuk tuk driver looks as knackered as us by the time we’re ready to traipse home.

P1000216

P1000129 P1000263

 

And the soundtrack was:

Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Sharon Van Etten ‘Are we there’

Daughter ‘If you leave’