You don’t see many elderly people in Siem Reap. There simply aren’t many elderly alive in Cambodia. 70% of Cambodia’s population was born after 1980. If you know some of Cambodia’s recent history, you know where this is going. For those of you that don’t, let me fill you in a bit. In 1975, after the Vietnam War leaked into Cambodia, destabilizing the country and causing the citizens to seek new leadership, the Khmer Rouge took control. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to return the country to ‘year zero’ by creating a pure agrarian society. In order to accomplish this, all educated people were at risk of being killed because education leads to class distinctions, and class would not exist in the new society the Khmer Rouge were creating. Wearing glasses or carrying a book were viewed as indicators of education and often led the person to be killed immediately or sent to a prison camp to be tortured for information. Many ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese were also killed at this time. Many others were killed for no apparent reason. Countless children were left orphaned as their parents were taken to the killing fields and dumped into mass graves, sometimes while they were still breathing (children were not spared during this time either, and many died with their parents). During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, about a quarter of the country’s population was destroyed. The Khmer Rouge genocide killings most subsided in 1979 when the Vietnamese temporarily took control of the country, but they continued to fight for control over the next two decades.
Cambodia didn’t really stabilize until the late 1990’s when a coalition government was formed and almost all remaining Khmer Rouge forces surrendered. Having had only about 20 years to rebuild their country and their lives, the Cambodian people still face immense challenges. Poverty is rampant across the country, and many people beg on the streets to survive. Because most of the educated people were killed during the war, the country has had trouble rebuilding its infrastructure without the human resources required to do so. The weight of the war is still very heavy in Cambodian lives, but this doesn’t stop them from maintaining a friendly nature. When I arrived in Siem Reap, everyone I met greeted me with a smile (although often paired with offers to sell me something). But it’s not the Thai smile, the smile that comes out full blast with no reserve. It’s a different smile. It’s weighed down by recent history, and that weight makes laughter rare. Cambodians don’t seem to be a particularly happy people to me, but then again I only visited for five days.
It felt strange to arrive in Cambodia, coming, as I do, from the country that is largely (and rightfully) blamed for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. If it weren’t for the bombs that the US dropped across Cambodia, seeking to kill the Vietnamese soldiers taking refuge there, it’s likely that the Khmer Rouge never would’ve been a problem for the Cambodian people. But I faced no discrimination during my time there. If Cambodians hold any resentment toward the American people, they don’t show it.
Despite the many sources of unhappiness and hardship in Cambodia, there is one source of unbroken beauty: Angkor Archaeological Park. The park is composed of several capitals of the ancient Khmer Empire. The many temples found there are between about 700 and 1200 years old. The crown jewel of the park is, of course, Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I got to experience the majesty of Angkor Wat when I woke up at 4:30 am to watch the sunrise there on my second day exploring the temples. Words can’t describe the beauty. Despite there being hundreds of people at the site that morning, there was still an air of peace. I sat on a ledge connected to a smaller temple in Angkor Wat’s front yard, along with about twenty other people scattered over the ancient stairs and ledges. And we waited. The sky began to turn dark blue, then pink, then light blue, welcoming the sun as it peeked over the three towering spires rising from the wat. The reflection of Angkor Wat’s silhouette sat quietly in the two small ponds in front of the entrance. As the sun rose, it was as if the temple was heaving its first deep breath, taking in the cool morning air.
The site of Angkor Wat is huge. It took me more than an hour to explore it, and I certainly could’ve spent more time doing so. It’s an amazing, expansive monument that truly deserves its reputation as an architectural and archaeological wonder. But despite all its beauty and grandeur, Angkor Wat was not my favorite temple. My favorite turned out to be Bayon, which I visited on my first day in Cambodia. The temple is only a fraction the size of Angkor Wat, but it is still incredibly popular among tourists because of the unique carvings around the structure. It’s a compact temple that juts into the sky with several towers, almost all of them decorated on each side by smiling stone faces. There is debate among historians as to who the faces are meant to depict: some say it is one of kings of the Khmer Empire, others says it’s one of the many gods of the Hindu religion that was dominant during the period. Whoever it is, the faces are incredible. They are all similar, but slight differences show varying degrees of happiness or mischief, making each face unique. They watch you as you follow the paths through the temple, silently laughing at (or with) you. The temple displays complexity in all of its carvings though, not just these faces. The amount of detail rivals that of Angkor Wat, which claims power in size and popularity, but not, in my opinion, in intricacy.
At one point while exploring the temples, I crossed over a river on a bridge lined on each side by stone men holding onto a long, horizontal pillar. Like at Bayon, the faces of the men (soldiers, they seemed) were all similar but subtly different. Many of the heads had clearly been replaced by new, restored versions. When I asked my driver why some had new heads he told me that some had been stolen and some had been destroyed during the war. No place was sacred when the bombs were flying in the 1970’s.
In total, I visited about 25 temples over three days. Many of them were large and awe-inspiring. Most of them are in various states of restoration. Some of them are completely original, showing the disintegration that has occurred in the last millennium. My guide was kind enough to show me several that are rarely visited by tourists, including one that sits quiet and secluded down a small, pot-holed dirt path in the forest. This particular temple, Ta Nei, has received almost no restoration work and therefore remains in a completely natural state. It’s not the most beautiful of the temples due to its partial collapse, but it was the most peaceful one that I visited. I had been exploring the more popular temples that morning, including Angkor Wat, and by early afternoon I was ready for a break, both from the crowds and the heat. Ta Nei provided the perfect place to regroup. I sat in one of the moss-covered windows, leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and listened to the birds and insects in the surrounding forest. No one disturbed me. Some minutes later, a strong, cooling breeze blew through the motionless, crumbling temple, reminding me that I still had more to see that day. I left my spot in the window and returned to where my guide was waiting with the tuk-tuk.
One of the most picturesque temples that I visited is Ta Prohm. This temple is particularly famous because it was where part of Tomb Raider was filmed. The temple has had quite a bit of restoration work done to it, but many parts of the temple have been untouched because of the large trees that have twisted their roots around the ancient stones. It’s fascinating to see the way the trees support themselves, seemingly strong and sturdy, on a structure that, left to its own devices, will eventually disintegrate. Transience and endurance mingle beautifully at this site.
During my first day, I asked my guide to drive to Bateay Srei, a temple that is located about 35 km (22 miles) from the main area of the park. It’s a hike, but it gave me the chance to get a few glimpses of the Cambodian countryside with its expansive rice fields ending at lines of swaying palm trees, cows grazing on the side of the road, small, green hills rising at the horizon, and local Khmer (another name for Cambodians) people performing daily duties around their stilt-supported homes. The Landmine Museum is also on the road to this temple. It is a very small museum created by a former Khmer Rouge soldier that defected to the Vietnamese Army. After the war ended, he dedicated his time to seeking out and disabling the many landmines that were scattered in the fields of Cambodia. These landmines were left by the US, Vietnam, or the Khmer Rouge and caused injuries to thousands of innocent people (the landmines are still a problem today as farmers or children step on them while in the fields). The man who created the museum has also built a small relief center for children injured by landmines. I was happy to visit the museum and offer support to this man’s work, but it was difficult to see as it forced me to come to an even deeper recognition of just how much my own country had harmed the people of Cambodia. This recognition grew more when I visited a small killing field area in the center of Siem Reap. The fields themselves were located about 300 meters away, and I didn’t see them, but I did see the nearby buildings that had acted as a prison camp where people were held before being marched to the fields to die. The most striking part of this site is the large pillar filled with the skulls and bones of some of the people who died at the site. It was, naturally, disconcerting. I wanted to cry, but I was too distant from it. I didn’t know the people who had once filled the empty, white skulls in the pillar. I hadn’t watched them die, and I had no reference to begin to imagine the pain and emotional agony they had faced in their final hours. I could sympathize, but at a certain point my brain shut it down. Even imagining that kind of pain was beginning to cause some mental distress. It was incredibly difficult to see. But, as the old saying goes, we need to learn about history in order to keep from repeating it, and my discomfort was worth the awareness I received during my overall stay in Cambodia.
In the evening of my second day, I braved a rainstorm and went to the circus. But this is a very special circus, my friends. This is Phare, an NGO that takes in destitute children, pays for their education and their meals, and trains them in the circus arts. These children are trained for eight to ten years and are then able to perform in Siem Reap and in countries around the world. This circus gives them a chance to build a life for themselves, and seeing the incredibly positive energy of the performers showed me just how much things like this are needed in Cambodia. The show was amazing. It took place in a relatively small circus tent, and it was packed to the brim. The show was complex in its storytelling and displayed the amazing talents of each performer. Watching it brought me child-like joy, and I left with a huge smile. I would recommend it to every single person visiting Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is a city of contradictions. Extreme poverty exists alongside the money that flows toward one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Five star hotels have been built next to the small shacks of the locals. An incredibly violent recent history is overshadowed by the thousands of tourists that swarm the city to see a piece of a brighter past. Siem Reap was not a major city until very recently when the country opened its doors and invited tourists to see this place that had been living in shadow for so many years. It was built for tourists and because of that, it’s not the best place to experience true Cambodian culture. But while I may have only gotten a small glimpse into the culture, seeing the many temples of Angkor Archaeological Park did allow me to experience an important part of the history, an opportunity that I’m incredibly grateful for.
The last temple I visited was situated on top of a small mountain and required a fifteen minute hike to get there. As I stood on top of the temple, overlooking the forests and fields that covered everything I could see, I wondered what the next twenty years would hold for Cambodia. If I were to come back in the future, would I find a happier people? Would I find a people that had come to terms with the violence that destroyed their lives for so long? Would I find a country that had moved past its grief and regret and entered a time of peace and acceptance? The innocent people of Cambodia did not deserve the suffering inflicted upon them, and I hope their future offers them space to heal and time to be happy.