Friday, March 12, 2010

Cambodia

Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to see most of Cambodia. Partly because we spent way too much time in Vietnam and partly because getting around in Cambodia is near impossible because the roads are pretty much impossible to navigate. There are only a couple of roads that are even paved. The bus we rode in on from Saigon was a trial to say the least. We came in on a night bus. Usually you can hop on a sleeper. The thing is in Cambodia no such bus exists. Why you ask? Because sleepers are top heavy and since the roads in Cambodia are all laced with cliffs, bar ditches and pot holes they are basically too dangerous. So you have to travel all the way through in a coach type bus and go through bobble head syndrome and hope for the best. As a matter of fact our bus broke down on the way to Cambodia. We arrived 3 hours later than expected. Not exactly a fun time. But all said and done it was totally worth it.

A little history: Cambodia is a very convoluted, conflicted country. Nonetheless, there is a magical aura that surrounds Cambodia that casts a spell on the many who visit it. When you visit Cambodia you are not visiting the country of Cambodia, rather you are visiting the Kingdom of Cambodia as they say. Just in case you don't know that you are in a kingdom, the king's face is plastered on every street corner. Just to give you an idea of how sporadic this country is how's this? You can ascend to the kingdom of the gods at Angkor Wat which is a spectacular fusion of symbolism, symmetry, and spirituality all rolled into one or descend into the bastions of hell at Tuol Sleng and come face to face with the dreaded Khmer Rouge and their killing machine. Basically an era of machine warriors that had no regard for humanity whatsoever and were charged to commit genocide. This is essence of Cambodia! A place with a glorious past, a tragic present and an uncertain or unwritten future. All this being said and done, the years of fear and loathing are now over. Peace has come to this beautiful yet blighted land after 3 decades of war. Cambodia used to be the heart and soul of the Khmer Empire. We have already mentioned this empire to you through our Vietnam travels. That is because this empire was so vast back then that it once stretched across what is now Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Huge! As it was, Cambodia was the nerve center for this once huge empire. The sacred skeleton of this once unbreakable empire was of course the fabled temples of the Angkor Wat.

The veneer of democracy is wearing thin in this country. Elections come around every 5 years but the Cambodian's People's Party(CPP) continues to rule the roost so there is no separation between party and state. The leaders are good at walking the walk when donor countries are in town but as soon as they leave they go back to their swagger ways. Corruption in Cambodia has been elevated to an art form. This is a country where there are still refugee areas within it's own country border lines. How's that? Pretty sad state right? With all of this, they still manage to maintain an uplifted spirit. We saw it many times while we were there.

The good, the bad, and the ugly is the best way to sum up the history of Cambodia. Things were good in the early Khmer years, unrivaled in the region for 3 centuries. From the 13th Century, the bad set in as ascendant neighbors steadily encroached upon and chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it got really ugly as brutal civil war culminated in the very unfortunate genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge(1975-1979) led by none other than Pol Pot who is basically considered the Hitler of Cambodia from which the remnants of this horrible time are still visible in the people's eyes and in their lives.

This was one of the most bloody revolutions the world has ever seen. For 4 years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were either tortured to death or executed outright, including a vast majority of the educated class. Thousand of people who spoke foreign languages or who even wore spectacles were branded as "parasites" and systematically murdered. It was dubbed as a social cleansing. What a wacko! How many many Hitlers do we need before humanity realizes how barbaric these type of actions are? All in all over 2 million Cambodians were killed as a result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge.

Finally, in 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The survivors fled westward to the jungles bordering Thailand. In the subsequent chaos, millions of Cambodians set off on foot looking for any surviving family members that had fled to the hills, etc. amidst all the bludgeoning that had happened. Their efforts were neglected and the result was a famine in 1979 and 1980 that killed hundreds of thousands more. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge maintained a guerrilla-type warfare throughout the 1980's only because they were financed by China and Thailand and believe it or not indirectly by US support mainly because the US was understandably or misunderstandably against any possible Vietnamese-backed communist government idea. Makes you wonder all the more what the hell we were doing in Vietnam. Why knowingly back a regime that was led by a certified mad man? How does that make any damn sense even if your intentions are valid and not necessarily right as far as I am concerned? I must admit that just being here has taught me more than I could ever learn about our involvement in the eventual development of what is now known as southeast asia and has shed new light on how I view these people and my country for that matter. The truth is I am a bit miffed at the way we chose to involve ourselves in this part of the world especially after what I have learned while here that I most likely would not have learned from a history book because it would have most likely been taken out of context and more importantly I have now been among these people long enough to see how they live and what their depiction of history is here and I have become friends with many of them as a result. My perspective is now different. Enough said.

The Rise and Fall of Angkor: The Khmer empire was alive and well in 802 A.D. The region of Cambodia back then was ruled by a guy named Jayavarman II. During his rule, a new state religion established the Khmer ruler as a Devaraja(a god-king) and the Khmer era was born. Overstretched outposts, overambitious construction and increasingly belligerent neighbors eventually weakened the Khmer rule and Angkor was sacked in 1432. The city was abandoned and the capital moved to Phnom Penh what is now a very cool town. Enter the French: For once, the French protectorate actually did its job and protected Cambodia's dwindling borders. The French controlled the country from 1864 up until Cambodia reached independence in 1953. It's crazy to think that a country with this much history achieved independence at a far later date than a country like the USA that is only + 200 years old! Hard to imagine. But that's what turmoil in a place like this will get you. Makes you wonder if Afganistan or Iraq will ever finally join the ranks of a peaceful ending to a very rocky past.

A new world emerged after they achieved independence. Cambodia's young king Norodom Sihanouk soon began his crusade for complete freedom which the French finally reluctantly granted them in 1953. For 15 years, King Sihanouk dominated Cambodian politics. The late 50's and early 60's were Cambodia's golden years as the economy prospered while the neighboring countries grappled with domestic insurgencies. Unfortunately, in a military coup, the army overthrew him in 1970 and he fled to Beijing. Under pressure from the Chinese, he reluctantly threw in his lot with the then weak Cambodian communist party,yes,that dreaded Khmer Rouge, which boosted their support dramatically.

During the 1960's, Cambodia was unwillingly sucked into the Vietnam conflict with the U.S. As the story goes, we began secretly carpetbombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia and shortly after the 1970 military coup, American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country to root out Vietnamese communist forces once and for all. We failed, of course! Fast forward to present day. While hardly a triumph for democracy, the first parliament did witness the Khmer Rouge's eventual demise in 1998 after it was decimated by a series of mass defections. Just like all other ill-guided military regimes, eventually there will be mutiny. Two decades after the tragic Khmer Rouge revolution, a historic agreement occurred between the UN and the Cambodian government. The first trial court was created to try the remaining surviving Khmer Rouge members and bring them to justice for the horrible crimes they committed against humanity. But it was already too late. Pol Pot escaped justice because he died before the trials had a chance to convict him for all the evil he committed against humanity itself. Mini-me Hitler escaped unscathed and unpunished just like the real Hitler did.

And now I will talk about the best part of Cambodia and why we even came here. The Angkor Wat is considered the 8th Wonder of the World. In my opinion this magnificent monumental area should be elevated to the top 3 Wonders of the World. I would even dare say the it outranks the Taj Mahal since I have been fortunate enough to have seen them both. Really, no contest as far as I'm concerned. This place is magnificent! How in hell did such an ancient society that ruled this part of the world for so long go unnoticed for such a long time? Hard to believe when you witness this place with your own eyes. I always imagined this to be a small temple that was just hidden away in the jungle growth that preserved it for so many years. Boy was I wrong! There are a maze of HUGE temples here that were uncovered, not just one. I forget what our guide told us exactly but I think the number of temples that were uncovered ranks around 100!! How do 100 temples remain completely hidden for so many years???? The answer is rather complicated and the main reason I will tell you as our guide informed us is very simple. Because of the ill-gotten nature of these people for so many years no one was allowed to become educated for soooo long up to the 19th Century. It took a French botanist/naturalist/explorer named Henri Mouhot to uncover the mysteries of the Angkor Wat in the late 1860's. As our guide put it the people were brainwashed for centuries and never allowed to learn, explore, etc. As I put it to our guide, it's kinda like slavery in my country. The people in this part of the world lived lives that were very similar in nature to the slaves? Is that why this place was never found? Is it because only a select few knew about the origin of species in this neck of the woods and that they were all unwilling to divulge the truth or share their freedoms? And he says to me, precisely! That's exactly how it was. King Jayavarman VII is considered the Angkor Wat's greatest king and he is still considered a national hero for vanquishing the occupying Chams and taking the Angkor empire to its greatest glories. As a result, he is nearly as omnipresent as the temples he once ruled that still stand today after all these years.

I think one quote I saw sums Cambodia up the best: If Jayavarman VII and Angkor are loved and Pol Pot is hated, the mercurial Great Heroic King Sihanouk(the last of the god-kings) is somewhere in the middle because he ultimately proved to the people to be human. To many Cambodians, he is the nation's father. To others, he will always be known as the one great leader who failed them because in the end he sold out to the Khmer Rough. Ironically, his contradictions are a reflection of what Cambodia is today. Understand his legacy and what he was faced with to survive in order to achieve freedom and you'll understand what much of Cambodia is today.

It is impossible to explain to you in words what it was like to walk among these people and in and about their temples and past. Surreal is about the best way I can explain it. As some researchers have tried to explain: a walk from the outer causeway of the temples to the inner confines of the temples is a symbolic trip back to the first age of the universe's creation. That's kinda what it feels like and more. Need more illustration? The Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world and it'll blow your socks off if you ever get the chance to see it in real life. Surreal, simply surreal.

We will try to post some pictures for you to see but I will tell you right now that it will not do an justice as to what this place and country really looks like and how it makes you feel when you walk along the spirit filled ruins.....

2 comments:

Margie March 14, 2010 at 6:52 PM  

Mr. Chris
I never knew the Khmer Empire was so vast or so long lasting! Way cool!
M;-)

Anonymous,  March 23, 2010 at 2:18 PM  

Hi guys! I've been reading bits and pieces of your trip in between emails :) Your travels look great! Love the pictures. So happy for you guys!! Miss you!

Anj

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