I wasn’t sure what to expect about Cambodia when I arrived in this complex and also simple place. An unfamiliar language, complicated history and seemingly veiled cultural customs I was a little apprehensive and a little disconnected. I didn’t feel grounded here. However, it didn’t take long for Cambodia to sink her teeth in. Here are some reasons why I fell in love with this battling underdog of a country.
When you think of Cambodia, images of orange clad monks and soaring spires of Angkor Wat immediately jump to mind. It would be remiss of me to say that Angkor Wat is not everything you imagine. Impressively maintained and restored, the ghostly corridors and haunting murals tell of a time not forgot by the Cambodians. The UNESCO world heritage site contains some of the best preserved murals, frescos and examples of Khmer Architecture. Walking through the entrance, you find a certain serenity and peace. And you won’t be alone in appreciating it. Angkor Wat draws thousands of tourists daily. So be prepared to share this special memory with hundreds of your fellow nomads.
However, the strength of Cambodia’s architecture does not finish with Angkor Wat. The mysterious, and equally enchanting Bayon Temple is only a short tuk tuk ride away. Bayon is the last mountain temple that was built in the style of Khmer Arts and consecrated to Buddhism.
Bayon Temple is one of the most famous after Angkor Wat, and millions of tourists come to see it and gather their iconic picture. Bayon Temple was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat and was built on top of another older monument. A total of 216 faces are carved into its walls and holds carvings that hold combinations of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes and timelines. The similarity of the faces on the temple compared to statues of the king has led many to believe that the 216 faces represent Jayavarman VII himself. Walking through the narrow and contorting corridors is a surreal feeling indeed with the piercing eyes watching you from every wall.
Wat Kesararam is a beautiful pagoda in Siem Reap. The crowning glory of this pagoda is the colourful murals and paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings. Murals painted on the outside are more subdued and, like the colourful images within, depict stories of the life of Buddha. Sadly, in amongst all this beauty, this site also served as a security office, prison and even killing field during the Khmer Rouge reign.
Gleaming in gold, the Royal Palace of Cambodia is a fine example of Khmer architecture with a slight French touch. Constructed after King Norodom relocated the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh in the mid-19th century, it was built atop an old citadel called Banteay Kev. This site was especially chosen by a Commission of Royal Ministers and Astrologers because it had great geographical significance in relation to the King, who was regarded as a direct descendant of the gods, whose role it was to live and govern on earth under the influence of heaven. It has consistently remained the home to the royal family, with exception to the Khmer Rouge era. The ornate gilded rooftops of the palace dominate the diminutive skyline of Phnom Penh.
The heartwrenching history
Before arriving to Cambodia, my knowledge of the atrocities that had happened here where not deeply understood.
As morbid as it may seem, visiting the S21 and Killing Fields of Phnom Penh allowed me to grasp that horrors that this People have endured and are slowly recovering from.
The killing fields, otherwise known as Choeung Ek, is the site where the Khmer Rouge executed over 1 million innocents between 1975 and 1979.
Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The glass sided stupa houses more than 5,000 human skulls. Many have been shattered or smashed in. The Cambodian government encourages tourists to participate in visiting the site so as to educate and prevent the atrocities from repeating themselves.
I found the whole experience really grounding. Hearing the stories of survivors of the genocide, by way of and audioguide, made the experience even more immersive.
We followed this with a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former Chao Ponhea Yat High School which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees". The five buildings of the complex were converted in 1975, just four months after the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War, into a prison and interrogation center. Tuol Sleng was just one of at least 150 execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates as the numbers grew. Buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire. Classrooms converted into tiny prisons and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides. The 1,000–1,500 prisoners housed at any one time were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.
Walking the halls, in the intense heat and humidity of the day, listening to the stories through the audio guide, I could only imagine the pain these innocents felt. It was an overly emotional experience, especially when hearing the story of New Zealand nomad, Kerry Hamill, who was captured by the Navy and imprisoned when he accidentally sailed into Cambodian waters at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime. Brutally tortured for 2 months before his eventual execution. Sadly, the Khmer Rouge soldiers responsible for his death are still yet to receive their sentences nearly 40 years on.
Resilience of the people
My first night in Phnom Penh I went to see a theatrical performance of cultural dance by the Cambodian Living Arts Organisation. Seeing the bright colourful costumes, the entrancing stories and incredible displays of athleticism and grace that only dancers can show I was left hooked. Then I heard about how the Cambodian Living Arts came to exist. The organisation was founded by genocide survivor and musician Arn CHORN-POND.
After returning to Cambodia, He was horrified to find that 90% of the master artists of Cambodia had bern executed. Cambodia’s artistic and cultural heritage was at risk of becoming extinct. The Cambodian Living Arts organisation was founded to restore Cambodia’s artistic and cultural foundations, by locating and allowing the remaining Master artists to pass on the traditional dances, songs and stories to the next generation. Thus preserving the heritage of Cambodia.
The hard truth is that Cambodia has experienced a huge developmental and cultural setback on account of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Despite this the strength of their spirituality, their huge capacity to forgive but never forget has allowed them to embark on a road of recovery. I feel we are yet to see the best of Cambodia. An exciting future awaits.