Sunday, 8 June 2008

Heaven And Hell In Cambodia

Sitting under the shade of a tree, on a hot day in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15km from central Phnom Penh, I felt horrified thinking of the suffering of the thousands of innocent people who were killed here by the Khmer Rouge regime.

A tiny ant was walking on my arm. Without giving it a second thought, I brushed it away. It rolled over but managed to regain its balance. Immediately I regretted the recklessness of my action.

In ordinary circumstances, I would not have cared about the life of an ant. But I'd just seen more than 8,000 skulls of victims arranged according to sex and age under glass panels in the memorial stupa on the Killing Fields.

My travel partner helped me get the ant off my arm and lowered it to the ground. "There you go," he said to the ant and we watched it walk away.

Before setting off for Cambodia, I'd had visions of touring the magnificent temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, which I eventually did. Cambodia's intense history, however, left a stronger impression than I'd expected.

Phnom Penh Before travelling on to Siem Reap, my partner and I spent two nights in the capital city, Phnom Penh.

There we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which also bear witness to the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the US-supported Lon Nol government, seizing Phnom Penh. In the name of its 'peasant revolution', the Khmer Rouge ordered the mass exodus of two million Phnom Penh residents to the countryside, where they were forced to carry out hard labor. From 1975 to 1979, more than two million of the country's seven million people lost their lives.

The Tuol Sleng Museum, formerly Tuol Svay Prey High School, was transformed into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. It was renamed S-21. A number of prisons, such as the S-21, were scattered across Cambodia. In S-21, some 17,000 former government officials and intellectuals were tortured. The prisoners were later transported to Choeung Ek and killed - most bludgeoned to death in order to save bullets.

We took a guided tour around the museum. A Cambodian woman guided us from room to room, showing us the metal bed on which the prisoners died. We saw the claustrophobic chambers made of red bricks inside the rooms, in which prisoners were kept.

Hundreds of pictures of former prisoners and guards were displayed in the museum. The Khmer Rouge was very detailed in their documentation, taking pictures of prisoners when they first arrived at S-21.

It was inevitable that visiting the two historical sites would be emotionally draining. It was important though for us to visit them to grasp the intensity of the tragedy.

The remarkable thing about Phnom Penh is that, apart from the two historical sites, the city has a fun atmosphere. Almost 30 years after the end of the holocaust, Phnom Penh is thriving. Old French colonial houses stand alongside the traditional Royal Palace.

Big land cruisers, as well as scooters ridden by youngsters, fill the streets. At night, as the air cools down, Phnom Penh residents flock to the parks in front of the royal palace and near the National Museum (this park boasts a dancing fountain, with dangdut tracks included).

After a bittersweet journey through Phnom Penh, we committed ourselves to a six-hour bus ride through the flatlands of Cambodia heading to Siem Reap, the gateway to the temples of Angkor.

The construction of new buildings and new roads shows that the once still backwater is facing rapid development. Near the Tonle Sap riverfront, guesthouses and cool restaurants and bars flourish, giving tourists a place to relax after a long day of temple traipsing.

It would take more than a day to explore the 100 or so temples of Angkor, built between the ninth and 14th centuries, the time when Khmer civilisation experienced the height of its extraordinary creativity.

Staying in Siem Reap for five days, we chose the US$60 seven-day pass over the one or three day passes.

On our first day, we hit Angkor's star temple, the 12th century Angkor Wat, the biggest and one of the most preserved temples in Angkor.

The tips of the towers of Angkor Wat slowly emerged in sight as we neared them on a motorcycle-powered cart (tuktuk). I felt like I was in the mythical land of a children's storybook.

The wide moat surrounding the temple is breathtakingly beautiful.

Constructed by Suryavarman II, the Hindu temple oddly faces the west, believed to be the direction of death. The temple is thought to be a tribute to Vishnu, the Hindu deity the king identifies with, as well as his tomb.

Read counter-clockwise, the bas-relief tells various stories, the most intriguing of which is a depiction of heaven and hell where doomed souls are dragged along by devils.

Other temples in the complex are equally impressive. One of the Angkor kings, Jayavarman VII, reigned from the late 12th century to the 13th century. A Buddhist god-king, he constructed the fortified city of Angkor Thom, which is home to the Bayon temple and other structures.

The Bayon consists of 56 towers carved with 216 giant faces of Avalokiteshvara looking down.
Some scholars suggest that the faces may also be a representation of the king himself.

Some of the temple ruins in Angkor have been abandoned for hundreds of years and thus swallowed up by the forest. Tall trees grow on temple rooftops with their gigantic roots covering the buildings.

Angkor in the end does not only hold evidence of the extraordinary creativity of the ancient Khmer empire but also bears witness to the powerful forces of nature.

(By PRODITA SABARINI/ The Jakarta Post/ ANN)

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