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Published: March 5th 2009
On top of the world!
Lorna enjoying the sunset at Angkor Wat
Our trip to Cambodia began with a 6-hour bus journey to Siem Reap. Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries and on our way to Siem Reap, we passed through several small villages where locals live in stilted houses made of palm leaves or wood. These tiny houses contain just one room for an entire family and typically have a stack of hay and a mud kiln out front, on which the women place large pots for cooking. Some are lucky enough to have a few cattle and also a well for running water, but many do not. This poverty is visible throughout Cambodia and serves as a constant reminder of the country's recent tragic history.
Before delving into this dark chapter of Cambodian history however, we decided to spend 3 days exploring the glory days of the Khmer empire at the ancient temples of Angkor. There are hundreds of temples contained within the Angkor complex. They were built over a period spanning 600 years between the 9th and 15th century when the Khmer empire was at its most powerful. We were surprised to discover that each temple is different from the rest, each having its own unique character
Two of the 216 gigantic stone faces on the temple's many towers
and charm. This is as a result of the temples being built out of different stone, under different rulers and also in honour of different religions.
We hired a local tuk-tuk driver (Sal) to bring us around the temples for the weekend. We started out on the first day by visiting Banteay Srei which, at 25km north of Angkor Wat, is a bit further out and more difficult to get to. It was built in the 10th century in honour of the Hindu god Shiva and is known as the "citadel of women" because of its fine carvings, which are believed to be too intricate to have been carved by the hand of man. The temple was built in a pinkish sandstone and is regarded by many to be one of the finest temples at Angkor.
On day two, we decided to visit the superstars of the UNESCO world heritage site, starting out with Angkor Wat. Considered by many to be the "8th wonder of the world", Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century and is said to be the largest religious building in the world. It is surrounded by a huge moat and consists of three
levels that are interlinked by galleries and corridors. There are many intricately carved bas-reliefs adorning its walls; one of the reasons why Angkor Wat is so celebrated. It was originally built as the king's state temple and capital city and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Many of the friezes contain imagery of Hindu epics, including the story of the Churning of the Ocean Milk, which is also replicated in the modern-day Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. We spent nearly 2 hours exploring this magnificent temple.
Afterwards, we headed to the nearby walled city of Angkor Thom. A causeway over a moat leads to the entrance of Angkor Thom; the South Gate, which is topped by the face of the Buddha of compassion. One of the most popular temples in the Angkor complex, the Bayon, is located within this royal city. The Bayon is an incredible temple and is famous for the 216 huge stone faces which are carved on its upper levels. Also contained within Angkor Thom is the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King which contains carvings of garuda (bird-like creatures) and naga (multi-headed serpent creatures). From there, we visited some of
the temples on the small circuit including Chau Say, Thommanon and Ta Keo which was never completed (supposedly because it was hit by lightning). We ended the day by visiting Ta Prohm, which was a highlight for both of us. Unlike many of the temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left pretty much untouched from the day it was discovered and has trees growing out of its ruins. It's also famous for having been used as a setting in the Tomb Raider film.
On our third day, we visited some of the temples on the grand circuit including Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup before finally returning to Angkor Wat for sunset. Watching the sunset at Angkor Wat was a breath-taking experience and a fabulous way to end our trip!
While in Siem Reap, we also visited the Cambodia Land Mine Museum. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, a legacy from the Cambodian Wars in the mid to late seventies. Great efforts have been made in recent years to clear the country of mines, however there are still an estimated 4-6 million unexploded and unmarked landmines
left in the countryside. Unfortunately, these are often discovered in rural areas by farmers or children out playing in fields. The Cambodia Land Mine Museum was opened by a man named Akira. At the age of 5, Akira was orphaned and conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army where he was taught how to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and make simple bombs. When the UN sent a peace keeping force into Cambodia in the late seventies, they hired Akira to help clear landmines. Since then, he has dedicated his life to clearing the country of landmines, founding his own NGO (Cambodia Self Help Demining
) to help fund his work. At the museum, there are over 50,000 de-activated mines on display. Akira and his wife also adopt children who have been the victim of landmines, as often their parents cannot support them and they are abandoned to the street. It's a very worthwhile project and gave us a real insight into Cambodia's violent past.
Nearly one-third of the Cambodian population was killed during the three years, eight months and twenty days of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer rouge took power in April 1975 and immediately set about re-engineering the
Known as the "Citadel of Women" for its fine carvings
country. They declared it Year Zero and evacuated people from the cities, forcing them out to the countryside to work in the fields. Many died of starvation, malnutrition, over-work and disease. Others were arrested based on their level of education - academics, doctors, teachers, engineers and even people who wore glasses were all killed.
In Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Tuol Sleng was originally a school, but was converted into a detention and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. It became the largest security prison in the state and was otherwise known as S-21. The Khmer Rouge divided many of the former classrooms into cells where prisoners would be shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Over 16000 men, women and children were brutally tortured here before being executed in the nearby Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Many of the torture implements are on display at the prison, along with photos of the victims lining the walls.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek was just one of many sites in Cambodia used by the Khmer Rouge to execute and bury large numbers
Bas-relief at the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat
of people. Today, it contains a monument to the over 2 million victims who died under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. It's an extremely moving place. Bones and clothing are still visible among the many mass graves at the site, while children can be heard laughing and playing at a nearby school.
The timing of our visit to these genocide sites in Cambodia was particularly poignant as, in the past 2 weeks, the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal began its first hearings in Phnom Penh. The tribunal is expected to try at least five former chiefs of S-21 with war crimes and crimes against humanity and is expected to last nearly 2 years. However, while we were there, local newspapers were reporting that the UN may soon cease to endorse the tribunal as there have been allegations of corruption within the Cambodian Court. Officials are also warning that the tribunal is heading for bankruptcy. This tribunal has been a long time coming for the Cambodian people (too late for some of the victims to see justice be served and also too late for some who should have been in the dock) and now, more than three decades after the
regime was toppled, time is running out. It would be a terrible shame for the Cambodian people if the perpetrators of so much devastation were not properly held accountable for the atrocities they committed.
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