Some years ago I heard about the intriguing UNESCO Heritage site of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat lost temples. I flew to the capital of Phnom Penh from Hong Kong to view the famous ruins before I returned home. Although it was the monsoon season, I was fortunate to encounter sunny days, making a great background for interesting pictures of life in Cambodia today—and 800 years ago.
Cambodia is a developing country with a very low wage scale. Sometimes people from the countryside come into the city to work in construction jobs paying three dollars for an eight-hour shift. The rural areas are lush, with rice paddy fields everywhere; farmers plant other crops wherever there is fertile land. Free education exists only at the elementary school level—but just four hours a day. Families must scrimp if they want their children to get a good education. My guide lived two years in a Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh, doing chores in return for free housing and food while he studied for his high school diploma. The lack of resources dedicated to education will clearly limit Cambodia’s economic growth.
I visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, built by King Norodom in 1866, a bright- yellow complex of temples and the royal residence, designed in the Khmer tradition of many tiered roofs and tall towers. Although Cambodia today is over 90 percent Buddhist, some of their artwork and architecture reflects the early Hindu impact on the culture, such as a cobra with seven heads and the sacred naga snake. The Silver Pagoda in the palace compound contains 1,500 pure silver tiles on the floor and features a 17th century Buddha made of baccarat crystal, covered with emeralds and other precious stones.
That afternoon, after viewing Cambodia’s historic splendor, I was shown Cambodia’s recent horror. I visited an infamous high school, which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison (S-21) for torture and murder. During the brief period of Pol Pot’s communist rule (l975-1979), the Khmer Rouge regime killed about 2 million Cambodians, about one-fifth of the country’s population. While this prison was only one scene of such atrocities, the same “killing fields” occurred throughout the nation, resulting in mass genocide.
The perverted ideology of the Khmer Rouge considered anyone who was educated, a teacher, monk or city dweller a threat to their new order. The Khmer Rouge literally emptied the cities, creating ghost towns, forcing the people to work—or die—in the rural rice paddy fields so the government could sell more rice to purchase weapons. All Buddhist monks were defrocked and forced to work in the countryside. According to one Buddhist monk, who initially was reluctant to talk with me about this harsh period, the severity of the repression depended upon individual Khmer Rouge officials.
Touring the S-21 prison you enter the small cells, view the torture apparatus and photos of the resulting Khmer Rouge barbarity. A movie presented a grim documentary on the extent of the inhuman actions of Pol Pot’s often-young thugs. Several locations displayed collections of the skulls and bones of the victims later dug up from the killing fields.
After those depressing sights, I was eager to visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, which I reached after a six-hour bus ride. Between 802 AD and 1220 AD the Khmer kings built the city of Angkor Thom with its many temples, including Angkor Wat,. During the peak of their power, Khmer kings ruled most of Southeast Asia. Then the Khmer empire declined and after 1432 AD their impressive capital, temples and culture disappeared, leaving only rumors of the fabled city. In 1860 a French botanist re-discovered the 800 years-old city, which amazed the world with over 100 Khmer stone temples, statuary and artwork.
Angkor Thom, the lost walled city of the Khmer kings, encompasses about 24 square miles, which you can visit with a guide and driver, tuk-tuk (motorbike rickshaw) or travel on an elephant. The imposing temple of Bayon, with 37 towers (originally 49} and 216 carved Buddha stone faces, creates an imposing stone mountain, whose face towers’ features aren’t recognizable until one gets closer. Friezes of dancing girl asparas adorn the columns and walls, as well as representation of various demons and guardians. Bas-reliefs depict major battles and daily life under the Khmer kings. In the Ta Prohm Temple, tree roots force large stone walls to fall, standing as a monument to the power of nature. As you walk between temple ruins, you see the elephant terrace where Khmer kings reviewed their troops.
Angkor Wat stands out for its superb architecture and the condition of the bas-reliefs along its long galleries depicting historical events. On the bas-reliefs you can identify generals and kings riding elephants in battle, their rank distinguished by the number of umbrellas above them. Hinduism dominated in the Khmer Empire until the end of the 12th century, when Mahayana Buddhism briefly gained supremacy under another Khmer king, so many of the reliefs depict Vishnu, Shiva, and other figures and scenes from Hindu mythology.
France, Japan, Australia and the United States have agreed to take on individual temple restoration projects, a process that will take many years to reconstruct from the numbered—but scattered—stone blocks. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see the world pitching in to restore this incredible world heritage monument. Constructed during the Dark Ages in Europe, these impressive stone temples survived nature and even the Khmer Rouge.