A Country Reborn
More than a decade after the
war ended, Cambodia is not
only eager to change its war-
torn image, but also working
hard to catch up the world...
Boy and Bomb. Landmine Museum, Siem Reap
An oversize green army cap on his head, a red checker scarf around his neck, a pair of black rubber sandal on his feet, he leaned nonchalantly against an aerial bomb more than twice of his height. He appeared to be no more than ten years old, but his outfit makes him look as if he was a juvenile soldier just stepping out from the rank of Pol Pot’s jungle guerilla.
Jackfruit and Anti-Personnel Mines
No, this is neither 1970s’ nor 1980s’. This is 2006. He was just another ordinary rural Cambodian boy whose attire reflects the images of the country’s violent past. Two enormous rusted bombshells, apparently dropped by American planes but unexploded, made up the entrance of this modest Landmine Museum. Beyond the gate, a few hey huts were filled with landmines of various sizes and shapes, engraved with different foreign languages: Russian, Chinese and English. The museum was non-governmental. It was being taken care of by several families living in the adjacent houses. There is no ticket kiosk, although small donations were appreciated. A dozen of anti-personnel landmines were stringed up casually on a tree along side with a huge jackfruit. The villagers’ nerves had been numbed by the lethal weapons around them. No matter how the visitors demonstrated astonishment or disbelief, life carried on as usual in this small settlement outside the boundary of the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Buddhist Parades As Part of the Daily Life in Cambodian Towns and Country
Time flies. It has been more than a decade since Cambodia’s warring parties ceased fire, when the last faction of Khmer Rouge surrendered and King Sihanouk was reinstated as head of the state. The little boy may have been born lucky. But his parents, elder brothers and sisters and other villagers must have their own emotional or physical scars bore with them for the rest of their lives.
A Rural Wedding Procession Cambodian Style. Near Angkor
The Cambodians were able to live a few years of peace after the nationalistic King Norodom Sihanouk declared independent from the French colonists in the 1953. Unfortunately, peaceful days always live too short. By mid-1960s, the Viet Cong army virtually took over the jungle in Eastern Cambodia as base camp. On one hand, the kingdom had never been a powerful role in the regional theater. On the other hand, Prince Sihanouk  had always been left-leaning and sympathetic to the North Vietnamese. Such political calculation was enough to invite a 14-month heavy bombardment campaign by the Americans.
Cambodian Shadow Pupets
As much as Prince Sihanouk wanted to strike a delicate balance among the regional powers, and to stay out of the Indochina conflict, his effort nevertheless in no way pleased the US. At the end, this artistic, romantic, film-making and song-writing prince lost his grip to the country, and was dethroned during his visit abroad by the CIA brainchild Lon Nol. What followed was the downward spiral to peril of the country and its people – the invasion of the US and South Vietnamese troops, the corruption of the puppet Lon Nol regime, both of which directly led to the rise and popularity of the later-notorious Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge did not reveal much of its atrocious sides until it defeated the highly unpopular Lon Nol regime, and marched into the capital city of Phnom Penh. Once they did, it was all too late. The Cambodians saw their country plunged into destruction overnight. A monstrous ideology drove Khmer Rouge to evacuate urban population to the countryside. They outlawed private properties and currency, implemented a full-scale collectivism. Religion was not tolerated. Many civil servants and intellectuals were executed with absurd accusations. One to three million citizens perished by starvation, diseases and political persecution during the Khmer Rouge rule in this country of little more than 7.3 million population.
Water Dwelling on the Great Lake of Tonle Sap
I was greeted by my chauffeur Channam at the Siem Reap Airport, the gateway to one of the most prominent world heritage: the Angkor Archaeological Site. Short, lean, and with a tanned complexion, Channam was a shy and cordial gentleman who professionally put on his numbered chauffeur jacket at all time. He was as entrepreneurial as any of his country, working hard seven days a week to save up money for his first business. In the next four days, he would be driving me with his motor tricycle around the city and the 300-sq-km archaeological site situated between the sacred mountain of Kulen and the great lake of Tonle Sap.
A Quiet Corner at the Hustle Bustle City Center of Siem Reap
Despite decades of ordeal, today’s Cambodians have little time for sorrow and grief. They are now busy to turn the country from a hotspot of war to a hotspot of economic development. Although the country isn’t blessed with industrial foundation and much natural resource, invaluable cultural heritage is enough to stimulate a vibrant economy.
Tourists Flood the South Gate of Angkor Thom
Today’s Siem Reap is a large dusty construction site. New buildings spring up across the town. On the city’s main streets, Channam was navigating his tricycle in the soup of import cars, motorcycles and bicycles. In the mean time, I was like a spectator admiring the seemingly countless high-end hotels spread down the road. As I wondered if these hotels would ever be filled, Channam smiled with confidence:
“Don’t worry, they will be filled” .
Buddhist Nuns Pay Pilgrimage to the Angkor Ruin
Indeed, hundreds of thousands of tourists each year flock from all over the world to Angkor to admire the great cultural heritage of the Khmer Kingdom, and spend their dollars, euros or yens that energize the local economy at the same time. Like people in other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodians are known for their exceptional hospitality to foreigners. That’s why tourism and other private business are booming in this once poor and sleepy city. Posh shops are found all over the town, selling everything from handicrafts to Louis Vuitton.
The Modern and Cozy Airport at Siem Reap Exemplifies the Government's Determination to Promote Tourism
Compared to the private sector, the state’s ambition is even bigger. To cater the large influx of tourists, Siem Reap now sports one of the best built and managed regional airports in Southeast Asia. And the grand National Museum is soon due to open. A multi-lane modern highway has replaced the dusty road linking the city to Angkor. Even the all-uniformed cleaning crew on the streets reflects the government determination to align the country (or at least Siem Reap for current stage) with the world standard, although the inertia of old working habits does sometimes maintain its momentum.
When visitors arrive in the Siem Reap Airport, they would be greeted by more than ten officers behind the immigration counter. But this does not suggest that the entrance formality would be processed in more than ten parallel queues. Instead, a visitor’s passport would be handed over from one officer to another, each of whom appears to be responsible for a minute task: inspecting the passport, attaching the visa, stamping, signature, collecting fee and so on.
An Angkor Park ticket laminated with the visitor’s photo. Three days are barely enough for a general tourist to sample a few centrally located sites and temples.
But Cambodia is definitely learning, like the creation of APSARA Authority managing the Angkor heritage. Started as a research committee, APSARA was founded by Royal Decrees and under the supervision of two government ministries. The goal was to improve the operational efficiency of different functional agencies, including the protection, maintenance and conservation of the large Angkor archaeological area, fund raising, planning and managing tourism, coordination with foreign governmental and research organizations and institutions, and even policy making related to local issues such deforestation and reduction of poverty. I tasted its efficiency at the Angkor Visitor Center, where I was greeted with courtesy and then photographed. Two minutes later, a dated ticket laminated with my picture was already on my chest, and $40 was changed hand.
The Road to Angkor
Our tricycle returned to the main road after the visitor center. It slowly cruised pass the local pedestrians and bicyclers who were on their way to schools and work. The vast Angkor Archaeological Park is not just an open-air museum for visitors. It’s the home for the locals: a playground for children, a workplace for adults, and a serene garden for the retirees.
The road leading to Angkor Wat was wide and straight, sided with giant trees of millennium age. The sound of the small gas motor echoed in the breeze. The mixed perfume of jasmine and plumeria filled my nostril. Channam turned his head and seemed to have said something to me.
“What?” I woke up from pondering.
“How beautiful!” his English was always correct but short and simple.
“Indeed. But what was it like of this Angkor City during its golden age?” I reflected while staring at the image of the majestic Angkor Wat on the golden ripple of the moat.
The Interior of Angkor Wat
Given the sheer size of today’s ruined city, and adding the comparable population, I could envisage a picture of a bustling city state in front of my eyes. But perhaps Zhou Daguan, a contemporary of Marco Polo and a diplomat from the heavenly Middle Kingdom, was one of the few foreigners who were able to truly feel the prosperity of this Khmer Empire. He was profoundly impressed by the grandeur, the complexity, the mathematics perfection, the craftsmanship of the colossal temple mountains, the abundance of treasure like pearls, diamonds, silk, gold, gems, sandalwood, the list goes on and on. It is said that thousands of villages and their inhabitants had to work hard to support these Angkor temples and their daily rituals.
In his book The Customs of Chenla, the Chinese emissary detailed everything he witnessed during his diplomatic mission to this land he called Chenla, including the customs and the daily activities of the ordinary citizens, as well as the lavish ceremonies of the royal courts. In accounting a royal procession of King Indravarman III, Zhou wrote:
When the king goes out, troops are at the head of the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing flowered cloth, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands, and form a troupe. Even in broad daylight, the candles are lighted. Then come other palace women, carrying lances and shields, the king's private guards, and carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold, come next. Ministers and princes are mounted on elephants, and in front of them one can see, from afar, their innumerable red umbrellas. After them come the wives and concubines of the king, in palanquins, carriages, on horseback and on elephants. They have more than one hundred parasols, flecked with gold. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant's tusks are encased in gold.
Traditional Khmer Dances Reenact the Glorious Days of the Khmer Empire
Such extravaganzas, as historians speculate, weren’t exactly rare occasions over the four hundred years of heydays of the Khmer Empire. “Everyday begins in a pomp of flaming colors” might be more precise in describing the daily life of the royal courts. Historians debate if that might be partially responsible for the decline of the glorious Angkorian dynasties. What we know, however, is that good life came abruptly to an end at mid-15th century, when the Angkorians were defeated by the Thai army, who sacked the city into ruin (ironically, in Khmer language the name Siem Reap stands for “Siam, the ancient name of Thailand, Defeated”).
Wood could be burned, treasures could be looted, men could be killed. But the millions of bricks and stones which made up this quintessence of human civilization withstood hundreds of years of abuse by harsh environment and by human beings ourselves. We might wonder how they could remain virtually intact under the anti-cultural ideology of Khmer Rouge, or under the madness of 540,000 tons of bombs. In addition to be thankful to the Gods these temples worship, we must believe that even evils have a sense of pity.
Two girls are taking a handicapped boy with a bike to school.
On the last day of my sojourn, Channam drove me to another cluster of temples called Rolous group east of Siem Reap. It was an early morning. The monastery and the village next to the Bakong Temple had just waken up for another day – monks returned from alms collecting, herds of cattle roamed through in front of the temple, kicking up dusts that blended in the golden rays. Birds sang over the branches, and fish stirred ripples in the emerald pond. I raised my telephoto lens when I spot a group of children approaching from the end of the road. In my viewfinder, two small girls in school uniforms were hauling a younger handicapped boy, perhaps a victim of landmine, with a bicycle on their way to school. The girls had to struggle to keep a balance of the bike almost taller than them. Cambodia, after many years of trauma and devastation, is like these children. It may still be immature, and may still require maintaining a delicate balance for each step forward. However, if there is one thing I was convinced during my trip, it is that the country with both proud and shameful pages on its history book has again reborn. Resilience is Cambodia’s hope for the better future.
King Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father shortly after independence. Even after his father’s death, he remained with the title of Prince until his reinstatement in 1990s.