Part 6: North to the Temples
On Thursday morning we head north out of Phnom Penh, traveling through Kompong Cham and Kompong Thom. Thom Tan tells me that in the late 1980s, when he was working as a classical dancer, he had taken the same road. In those days, it was a rutted, broken path through an area that was virtually uninhabited because of the presence of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the surrounding countryside.
Now, the road is newly paved and marvelously smooth. We sail smoothly along in an air-conditioned van, passing gleaming new tourist buses. A Lexus SUV with California license plates passes us and barrels down the road ahead.
More traditional traffic is also apparent: scooters, bicycles, lorries pulled by small ponies, and the occasional cow.
We have one stop to make near Siem Reap. A friend in Chicago has a sister living near a small village called Phum Gok Srok, just outside of Siem Reap city. We're to deliver three hundred dollars to her.
We turn off the main road, passing by the ancient ruins of the Bakong temple. The road becomes a narrow dirt path, scarcely wide enough for the van.
In 1991, on of the women who had traveled with me to Cambodia had a brother living in the rural Siem Reap. When she arrived in Phnom Penh, she had hoped that her brother or one of his children would come to visit her. In the end, however, no one could contact him: the area was so heavily mined that no one was willing to travel to his home to tell him that his aunt had arrived.
We stop for directions to the house, and I see a heartbreaking reminder that the legacy of those years remains: a small boy, surely no more than seven or eight years old, hurries across the road. He is missing one leg, but moves quickly on his crutches. The ease with which he moves suggests that he has been on crutches for a very long time.
He is my son's age. I look back at my son, who is holding a stuffed dinosaur, and I try very hard to suppress the image in my mind's eye, of my own child in that boy's place.
According to a Xinhua news item from November 25, "The Cambodian Mine/UXO Information System's latest report shows that mines or UXO injured or killed 36 in October, bringing the total number of dead or injured so far in 2005 to 775."
Seven hundred and seventy-five casualties, added to the toll of a war that ended years ago.
We find our friend's sister and continue on. At the outskirts of the village, we pass a new well, bearing a sign indicating that it was donated by "Wisconsin's People." I wonder how it came to be there, an inexplicable bit of kindness from strangers in a frozen northern farmland, most of whom will surely never find themselves in need of a drink in a faraway place called Phum Gok Srok.
By mid-afternoon, we're reached Siem Reap city, and we rent rooms at the Bunnath Guest House (firstname.lastname@example.org). It's $15 a night for a room with two beds, air conditioning, cable TV, and hot water.
At Srey's suggestion, our first stop is the Cambodian Cultural Village (http://www.cambodianculturalvillage.com). The Cultural Village can best be described as a tourist trap. In theory, it presents a representative sampling of different aspects of Cambodian culture. There are dance performances, Chinese temples, Cham temples, a man-made lake, a fake mountain, a small museum with historical artifacts, a theatre. There are also plenty of employees, trying to sell you tacky plates with your digital picture printed in the middle. Oh, joy.
The Cambodian Cultural village bears roughly the same resemblance to Cambodia as Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. bears to a typical American city.
For students of history and politics, however, there is indeed something here worth seeing.
It's to be found in the wax museum. The museum features nicely-designed dioramas featuring figures from Cambodian history. There is Jayavarman VII, Penn Nouth, Chinese explorer Chou Ta-Kuon, Sihanouk's mother and father, Ang Doung, singer Sin Sisamouth, and others. It's the next-to-last figure which is most interesting: An UNTAC peacekeeper.
UNTAC - the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia - came to Cambodia in 1992 in an attempt to end the long-running war between the Heng Samrin/Hun Sen regime, and a coalition of three guerrilla groups, including the Khmer Rouge. According to the terms of the peace accords, UNTAC was supposed to administer the country while the four warring factions disarmed, whereupon a new government would be chosen in democratic elections. It was the largest and most costly peacekeeping enterprise ever undertaken by the United Nations. Some 22,000 soldiers and other personnel came to Cambodia with the goal of ending the conflict. It quickly became apparent that things were not going to go as smoothly as the UN had hoped. The Khmer Rouge dropped out of the process and launched attacks against innocent civilians and UN peacekeepers alike. The Hun Sen faction, meanwhile, orchestrated a campaign of murder and intimidation against supporters of the other three factions. In the end, however, the elections took place on schedule, with an impressive turnout. The cost to the UN: $1.6 billion, and 83 dead, including 21 from hostile action.
So how is the UNTAC soldier portrayed in the Cambodian Cultural Village? Is he shown guarding ballot boxes? No... he is shown exiting a bar with a miniskirt-clad hooker on his arm. This, in effect, represents the official government position on the role of the United Nations.
Depending on your point of view, this might be funny, sad, fair, unfair, or some mixture of all of these. UN soldiers were notorious for whoring and drinking, and the UN's Chief of Mission - Yasushi Akashi - did not help matters when he replied to criticisms of the peacekeepers' behavior with the indifferent remark that "boys will be boys."
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine just how insulting this display would be to the families of the soldiers who lost their lives in trying to bring democracy to Cambodia.
Hun Sen, of course, has little use for democracy, particularly since he lost the 1993 election. By threatening to renew the war, he bullied the UN into accepting him as "co-Prime Minister." He subsequently seized complete control in a coup roughly four years later.
While the Cultural Village is a private venture, there is no question that it would not be there if the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party objected. It's also entirely consistent with Hun Sen's speeches, in which he claims that the only thing the UN brought to Cambodia was AIDS.
Leaving the Cambodian Cultural Village, we head to Angkor. The price for farangs like me is $20, or $40 for a three-day pass. Arriving late in the day, however, has its advantages: if you purchase a pass after 5pm, you'll be allowed in for the remainder of the evening, and the next day. Thanks to their Khmer mother, our children again get the benefit of the doubt, and get free admission. Or maybe they just get in free because they're still not full-size.
For the moment, we pass Angkor Wat to climb Bakheng. A temple at the top of the hill overlooks Angkor Wat, and it's a popular spot in the evening and morning, when the sun bathes Angkor Wat in a warm Kodachrome glow. Playing the role of pint-sized adventurers to the max, Sean and Anna make it all the way up the crumbling path to the top of the hill, then manage to climb the narrow, steep sandstone steps to the very top of the temple. They bask in their glory as the smallest conquerers of the mountain, until some fifteen minutes later when an even smaller boy shows up.
The day is overcast, so we're robbed of that postcard-pretty shot of Angkor Wat in the setting sun. No matter: the view is still impressive.
Incidentally, if you want to make it to the top of the temple in the evening crowds, there's a trick: don't bother with the front stairway. Walk around to the side, or the back. The stairs there are equally steep, but they'll be far less crowded.
By the time we make our way to the bottom of the hill, it's getting dark, and we retreat to the hotel.
Our first stop the next morning is Angkor Thom. There are several temples within the Angkor Thom complex. Particularly impressive are the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper-King, long stone walls adorned with elephants and garudas. Next, we stop briefly at Bayon, where a crew of workmen are sawing timber into planks using a two-man tandem saw. Then it's on to Preah Khan.
Preah Khan is surely one of the most underappreciated temples in the Angkor complex. Angkor Wat gets far more attention than the other temples. Angkor Wat is not just the largest temple at Angkor; it is, by most accounts, the largest religious building the entire world. Whether or not this is true probably depends on what one considers part of the building. If one includes the outermost wall and the stone causeway across the lake, it is almost certainly the largest.
To me, however, both Bayon, with its hundreds of stone faces, and Ta Prohm, with massive trees overgrowing the stones, are more interesting. Preah Khan, too, is marvelous. A long path through the jungle leads to a causeway lined with stone guardians and an enormous gate. Inside, the temple stretches on and on.
The path to Preah Khan cuts through a long stretch of forest, and as we are walking out, Srey points to the tangled undergrowth and laughs. "When I see this, it reminds me of 1979," she says. She had to venture into the forest to find firewood for cooking. The brush was so thick, however, that it was difficult to drag pieces back out. Young children proved much better at weaving through the dense growth, and she had to settle for the nearby small branches that the children didn't want.
Outside Ta Prohm, we sit down to rest in front of the temple, where a short stone causeway leads across a tree-lined pond. Srey points down at the black water. This, too, reminds her of 1979. Settling briefly in Prey Veng province, she found that the Khmer Rouge had thrown bodies into the wells, and the stench of death and decay hung over the fouled black water.
In the afternoon, we eat lunch at an open-air cafe near the entrance to Angkor Wat. A cat comes to sleep under the table while we eat, and two small girls try to persuade us to buy bracelets. They speak English in unison, twin parrots working from a script of one-liners. "Where are you from?" they ask. "We are from Canada," I lie. "Where are you from?"
"We are from the moon," they say. They hold out the bracelets. "You buy for your girlfriend?"
"Oh, no. I don't buy anything for my girlfriend."
"Sir, you buy for your girlfriend!"
"No, thank you."
"If you don't buy she don't love you!"
"No, no thank you."
"Sir, you make me feel upset!" they proclaim.
This last remark, delivered with a show of well-rehearsed synchronized sadness, amuses Srey so much that she decides to buy them off. "OK," says Srey, laughing. "Now I don't buy anything but I pay you."
Not to be outdone in generosity, one of the girls gives Srey a drawing of a flower to remember her. She writes her name, Parry, on the top of the drawing.
After lunch we walk to Angkor Wat. As we enter the inner compound, Srey points out one Apsara, smiling wider than the rest. This, Srey says, is the only apsara whose teeth can be seen. Popular folklore has it that she was being tickled by a monkey behind her.
We make our way to the top of the temple. It offers an impressive view of the surrounding jungle. Once you are at the top, however, it's a little difficult to find your way back down. This is because the stairs are so steep that you can't see them until you step out to the very edge of the tower and look straight down. Standing back from the edge, even a few feet, you can't see the steps at all.
Leaving Angkor, we head to the outskirts of Siem Reap, past the new airport, where a massive Air Vietnam jetliner is touching down. The airport, it turns out, is a mixed blessing. It has hurt the tourist business in Phnom Penh, since many visitors now fly directly to Siem Reap from Thailand, Singapore, and other cities abroad.
We stop briefly at the West Baray reservoir. Built sometime around the 11th century, it is astonishing to realize that this massive lake was excavated by hand. There is a small temple in the island in the middle of the lake; it was too late to go to the island, however, so we head back to the hotel to rinse off the dust and sweat.
In the morning, we toy with the idea of visiting Beng Mea Lea, a temple deep in the jungle about 60 kilometers from the other temples. Unfortunately, the weather looks a little threatening, and it turns out that I'm the only one who really likes the idea of bouncing across rough dirt roads for a couple hours just to see one more temple.
We ditch the Beng Mea Lea idea and instead head across town to the Siem Reap Crocodile Farm. In the cool morning, the crocodiles are nearly all motionless. At first, they don't even look real; they look like concrete models, covered with mud and left to rot in an abandoned corner of an old theme park. Once in a while, though, one will suddenly spring into motion, and you're suddenly reminded that you are looking at very, very dangerous animals.
On the way back to Phnom Penh we stop at Phnom Santuk, a mountain temple in Kompong Cham province. The legion of pint-sized guides accompanying us as we ascend the stairs inform us (several times) that there are 809 steps to the top. This is perhaps not an ideal undertaking for a hot, muggy day. The trip up the stairs is much like that at Oudong, but what greets you at the top is very different: an eclectic collection of old buildings, buddhas, and stupas.
On the way back down, one of the guides - a teenage boy - is holding my daughter's hand. The boy and another girl are talking, but I'm paying no attention.
I will not know what was said until weeks later, when my wife relates the story in the darkness before dawn, thousands of miles away.