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CAMBODIA: The Other Face of the Angkor

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on September 11, 2009 with No Comments

Angkor Temple

Reviving the glorious days of the past and overcoming the challenges of the present


 “Ready?” The tiny, thin man with dark skin and glassy eyes pointed at his scooter. His name was Vebol, and he was a 40-year-old driver from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

 I jumped on and put my arms around his lean waist, holding him tight. I have never been a fan of scooters or motorbikes.

 It was chilly and still dark outside the guesthouse. As Vebol raced along the road, the fresh morning air felt colder. I started shivering. I wondered if it was because of the weather or because I was scared of falling off the small and noisy scooter as it zigzagged down the empty street.

 It was 4:45 a.m., and we were on our way to see the sunrise lighten the ruins of the world-famous Temples of Angkor, the capital of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire built between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. The empire had stretched from Malaysia and Vietnam all the way to Myanmar.

 It took about 15 minutes to get from the center of town to the entrance of the Angkor complex. Although it was 5 a.m., hordes of tourists—mostly Japanese—lined up to buy tickets and find a good place around the temples to watch the sun come out.

Vebol got my ticket, and we rode inside the vast compound of palaces, temples, and public buildings. In the darkness, I couldn’t see much except the silhouettes of some Buddha statues as we passed through a monumental gate and crossed a short bridge.

“We are going to Banyon Temple, the best for sunrise,” Vebol said with conviction. I thought we were going to stop at Angkor Wat first, the largest religious building in the world and one of the most popular in the Angkor complex. But  I preferred to follow Vebol’s recommendation. Besides, the Banyon Temple was supposed to be one of the most impressive constructions within the fortified city of Angkor Thom, built by Angkor’s greatest king, Jayavarman VII.

 When we arrived in the Banyon Temple, it was so dark that I still couldn’t distinguish much of the building.

While waiting for the sunrise, Vebol and I chatted about Cambodia’s past and present.

“It is hard now. The king is good, but the government is corrupt,” said Vebol. “But at least, we have peace! During the war, much hunger and many people dead!” He was referring to the Khmer Rouge, a horrendous regime led by Saloth Sar—also known as Pol Pot.

Vebol hoped life in Cambodia would improve with the next election. However, Hun Sen had been Prime Minister since the fall of the Khmer Rouge and was not likely to give up his position easily. Although he denies it, Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge regimental commander.

Pol Pot’s Communist Party came into power in 1975 with radical policies to make Cambodia advance towards socialism: collectivism, revolution, the empowerment of the poor, the destruction of classes and to make Cambodia self-sufficient. Instead, the Khmer Rouge killed over 1.7 million men, women, and children in almost four years. During that time, innocent Cambodians also died of malnutrition and overwork. Although many described what happened in Cambodia as genocide, Pol Pot’s regime didn’t exterminate certain ethnic groups, but it was exterminating its own people.

Hun Sen is not the only Khmer Rouge commander who managed to get amnesty and to remain in power after the fall of Pol Pot’s rule. Khiew Samphan—the former President of Democratic Kampuchea—returned to Phnom Penh in 1991 as leader of the UN-sanctioned party, while Ieng Sary—first Vice Premier and Foreign Minister of Democratic Kampuchea—never faced formal charges.

Life after the war hasn’t been easy for Vebol. He had six kids, but one of them died at the age of two from malaria, a disease that still claims almost a million lives a year in Asian, African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern countries. Although malaria has been virtually eradicated in North America and Europe, 500 million people get sick with it each year.

Vebol told me his wife had also become ill. She had been spitting blood, and the family worried for her life. To pay for the hospital and the medicines, Vebol would have to sell his tuk tuk—his auto rickshaw—but most of his family’s income comes from him driving it.

Despite the long hours he spends transporting tourists with his tuk tuk and scooter, he struggles to cover basic needs such as food and education for his five children.

But Vebol remains hopeful. Angkor has become a source of pride for him, as it has for most Khmers in Cambodia, where everything from a beer brand to hotels to massage studios is named after it. An image of the temple even appears on the national flag!

Although Vebol welcomes tourists, he struggles to understand how they can afford some of the town’s hotels, which cost as much in one day as he and many Cambodians earn in a year—about $540.

“They come and stay in a $300 hotel, a $600 one, even one for $2000! They come to a night show here in the Angkor Wat and pay $70.  Why? They could see good traditional dancing for $12. Why don’t they give that money to the children of Cambodia?” he wondered.

In Siem Reap, extravagant hotels and restaurants contrast with the poverty and the day-to-day struggle for survival of many Cambodians.

As we continued to talk about the population’s daily concerns, the sun began to show its first beams. Just like that, what first looked like a pile of rocks turned out to be one of Angkor Thom’s most monumental buildings, complete with huge pinnacle towers of different heights.  The sun revealed the Banyon Temple’s enigmatic, smiling faces carved in stone as if somehow—centuries later—they were still keeping their eyes on intruders and protecting the royal city. Surrounded by a moat, this temple was decorated with more than ten thousand figures carved in pure stone, showing scary faces along with mythological, dancing, and even kickboxing scenes.

“We go now to Angkor Wat,” Vebol stated. 

Sunrise in Siem Reap

We jumped back on the scooter and rode north to the spectacular statuary of palaces, chambers, temples, towers, and causeways decorated with more carvings. Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world; Khmer King Suryvarman II built it to honor Vishnu—one of the Hindu gods thought of as the preserver of creation—and to be used as his funerary shrine.

Dozens of people stood in anticipation before the elaborate building. It looked like a painting in a perfect frame. The sun turned the sky different shades of blue, then to a bright, pink-orange. The shadows of the temple reflected on a nearby lake as the snap, snap of cameras captured every moment of the awakening of Cambodia’s ancient ruins.

Now that it was fully light, it was time to explore inside.

“I wait here! Come when you are ready,” Vebol said, letting me discover the temple at my own pace.

The photos I had seen didn’t do Angkor Wat justice. It was much larger than I had thought. The complex was built with tons of sandstone, and it had a long wall to protect its large rectangular galleries. Five soaring towers shot up from the center of the temple, where devatas (guardian spirits), lotuses, bas-reliefs, and Hindu and Buddhist religious scenes decorated the pillars, ceilings, walls, and other surfaces. The scenes reflected the empire’s conversion from Hindu to Buddhist as King Jayavarman VIII was deposed by his son-in-law Srindravarman.

I returned to the entrance beyond the walls, looking for Vebol. He was standing next to his scooter chatting with other drivers.

“Ready when you are!” I said.

“You like Angkor Wat?” Vebol asked.

“Like it? I love it! It’s very, very impressive, Vebol!”

Verbol smiled with pride.

We rode to the Baphuon, back in the inner royal city of Angkor Thom.

Built in the middle of the eleventh century, the Baphuon is a three-level temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, who is thought of as the destroyer or transformer. Although it seemed like a huge structure, the Khmer Rouge destroyed most of it. Now it’s going through extensive reconstruction.

I walked to the Terrace of Elephants. It was hard to miss with its carving of three-headed elephants sticking out of the wall of the 350-meter terrace. This was where public ceremonies used to take place.

I strolled to the nearby Terrace of the Leper King, getting lost in a hidden trench with hundreds of intricate carvings of dancers, evil faces, celestial nymphs, and god-like figures. Their enigmatic faces and eyes made me feel as if I was being watched!

There were so many amazing ruins that I closed my guidebook to fully immerse myself in the temples spread throughout the thick jungle.

Although this was supposedly the most visited site in Cambodia, these temples were deserted. Vegetation heavily covered some of the temples. As I rambled the quiet paths, I touched the well-preserved carvings and imagined the capital of the Khmer Empire in its most glorious days.

Among ruins
The heat and humidity had suddenly taken over, contrasting with the chilly weather of the early hours. I took my scarf off and went back to where Vebol was waiting for me. I bought some sodas for both of us, as we had a lot left to explore.

“No worries. I show you everything!” said Vebol.

From that moment on, I was at Vebol’s mercy. I don’t recall the names of all the temples he showed me, as excited as if he was a tour guide. When I least expected it, another stunning ruin came from nowhere in the middle of the thick jungle. I wondered how many more were hidden within the vegetation. I wished I had more than one day to explore.

Despite the many temples, some images stayed in my mind not only because of how impressive they were, but also because of what they made me feel.

Vebol and I were walking a path to a temple when we heard some soft and slow music coming from the distance. I saw a band on a side of the road. As we approached the musicians, I realized this was not an ordinary music group. A sign read, “We are landmine victims. We don’t beg, we want to work. Our music raises money to support children’s schooling and create jobs for disabled people.” Some of the musicians didn’t have legs or arms. One of them was missing an eye. It would have been easy for them to beg, and yet they were working. Despite the suffering inflicted upon their bodies, they managed to smile and play music cheerfully. Vebol and I stood there. They smiled at us, and although I smiled back, I knew that at any moment, tears would come. I had to go.

War victims

Aw kohn!” said a young man with a missing leg and a glowing smile as I placed my contribution.

 “Aw kohn (thank you) for the beautiful music,” I responded, hoping he didn’t notice my breaking voice.

“Okay?” Vebol asked as we walked away and I finally shed a few of the suppressed tears.

“I am fine. No worries. I was just moved by them,” I said.

We visited Ta Keo, a shrine that looked like a pyramid. Although it lacked the beautiful carvings that adorned the other buildings of Angkor, its staggering size of about 70 feet made up for the absence of decoration.

Our next stop was Ta Prohm. In the buildings we had visited earlier, I had seen Cambodians cutting the grass and plants that grew out of the ruins. But in this temple, nature had taken over. Huge roots and gigantic trees covered many parts of Ta Prohm. As I walked around and over the piles of rocks in the middle of the jungle, I felt as if I were in some sort of lost city. It truly looked like an Indiana Jones film set. This crumbling structure was founded as a monastery, and more than twelve thousand people were rumored to have lived here.

Nature taking over the temple

Near Ta Prohm, the complex known as Preah Khan stood. This temple stretched to cover 56 hectares. Like many of the other temples, it included elaborate carvings and rectangular galleries. Next to it, stairs bordered the Preah Neak Pean, a large pond with a Buddhist temple in its middle.

Vebol and I jumped back onto his scooter. We had one temple left, far from the central area of Angkor. It was called Banteay Srei.

“This road goes to the Thai border,” indicated Vebol as he drove the paved road surrounded by green fields, rice paddies, and rural communities.

About 30 minutes later, we arrived in Banteay Srei. It was much smaller than the temples we had seen during the day, but its intricate and decorative carvings of mythological scenes, devatas, evil-looking figures, and gods in the walls and doorways were absolutely breathtaking.  This sanctuary was constructed in the tenth century using red sandstone, which made it different from the other buildings in Angkor.

Our day trip was almost over. Vebol wanted to take me to another temple in Angkor for the sunset. We were going to stop at the Landmine Museum along the way.

Donate and help to clear the remnants of war

Donate and help to clear the remnants of war

“This is it,” said Vebol, stopping in front of a humble house along the side of the road. “Welcome to the Landmines Museum” read a blue sign at the entrance.

Aki Ra, a former child solder for the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, built the small museum in 1997. His parents were killed when he was five, and later he was forced to join the army or face death. Now, Aki Ra is committed to removing the mines that he once helped lay. His museum houses more than a collection of bombs, mines, weapons, and other explosive war remnants. With the help of his wife, Aki Ra also gives a home, education, and way of life to young Cambodian landmine victims.

Unexploded munitions—of which there are an estimated six million in Cambodia—kill and injure Cambodian civilians every day, especially farmers and children.

Although planted in the ’40s and ’70s, these fatal devices have proven resilient, continuing to explode on contact several decades later. According to Vebol, the green, beautiful fields I had just seen on each side of the road were very dangerous because there were still full of landmines.

The ongoing de-mining process is slow, dangerous, and expensive. According to the information at the museum, it costs $1 to produce a landmine and $1000 to destroy it. Despite efforts to ban the production of landmines, 13 countries—Russia, the US, China, Iran, and nine other Asian nations—still make them.

While Vebol and I viewed the war remnants at the museum, a boy who looked younger than 15 passed by using crutches. He’d lost his right leg and was one of the kids who lived with Aki Ra and his wife. Although he had found a safe home and survived, his life had changed forever due to a conflict he was not involved in. The museum served as a reminder that, although the war was over, the consequences of it were not.

“The sunset. Need to go for sunset!” warned Vebol.

Vebol in temple

We drove back to the Angkor temples. I couldn’t take my eyes off the stunning, deadly green fields on each side of the road as we passed by.

“Here!” said Vebol excitedly, stopping his scooter at the bottom of a high temple that looked like a six-level pyramid with sanctuaries and statues located atop a hill. It was the Phnom Bakheng. This is one of the busiest spots to watch the sunset, because from the top one could see the Angkor Wat in the distance.

Vebol and I sat to watch a bright sunset falling over the ruins of the ancient Khmer Empire.

“How is life in Venezuela?” Vebol asked. “Hard like Cambodia?”

“Yes, people also have problems there. It’s a different kind of struggle, but it is hard for many people, Vebol.”

“Tell me about your family,” Vebol said. He had never met a Venezuelan before, and he didn’t know what the country was like or how the people looked.

“Can you send me a photo of your family? I’d like to see them.” He grabbed a piece of worn-out paper and wrote his email.

 “Of course, Vebol. I will send you a photo so you can meet my family,” I responded. He gave me a big smile.

More people were joining us at the top. I told Vebol that I was ready to go. We drove back to the center of Siem Reap. Honking cars and dozens of scooters competed for space on the road. Vebol wove through it, skillfully zigzagging among cars, tuk tuks, and motorbikes.  I held him tightly and closed my eyes so I didn’t get more mortified.

“Thank you, Vebol!” I said as I got off the scooter. “It was a wonderful day!”

“My pleasure!” he said. “My friends at the temples say I am lucky man—I have a beautiful girl on my moto. Please come to Cambodia when you have husband and children. I take your family around. And don’t forget me. Write when you are home. I want to know you are okay. ”

“Take care, Vebol. Now go to your family and have some rest!” I suggested.

“No, cannot go home. I have to work for family! Lia suhn hao-y (Good-bye)!” he said, smiling and waving as he disappeared among the streets lined with expensive hotels where he could find some potential clients with money to spend.

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