Phnom Penh

Most of us don’t have a concept of living through and surviving horrific war crimes and nightmare genocides. Movies and news can’t make it real enough to emulate the feelings, and geographically it’s hard to relate to someone around the world who’s landscape and culture you’ve never seen. Before Cambodia, I’d watched the movie The Killing Fields, I had heard of Pol Pot, but I had no understanding of the breadth of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the regime that ruled and wrecked havoc in the 1970s. They marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and forced all the city dwellers to evacuate to the countryside and join their rural neighbors as forced agricultural laborers. Anyone could be charged with treason for any offense, from having a college education to stealing a banana to feed a starving child. The “guilty,” often forced to falsely confess to numerous other infractions as well, were killed. From 1975 until 1979, it is estimated that 1/4 of the Cambodian people were exterminated: ~2.2 million of 8 million.

I visited the incredibly emotionally fraught and bleak Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial – Phnom Penh’s killing fields. This is where prisoners and “enemies” of the Khmer Rouge were brutally murdered (some of the methods are simply unthinkable, but bullets were considered too expensive and precious) and buried in mass graves. The atrocities here were only discovered after the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh in 1979, and bone fragments and teeth are still found, rising to the surface after rain storms. The memorial has done an excellent job of preserving the site and sharing the history with an audio tour narrated by a Cambodian survivor, supplemented by the remembrances and testimonies of others. I listened to the entire tour, but didn’t make it to several of the sights described (I’m afraid I got a touch of food poisoning that day). The site is frequented not only by tourists seeking to understand the genocide but by Cambodians, some of whom are still waiting, with little hope, for a loved one to come home.

Central to the memorial is a large building called the stupa. This building is decorated in traditional Hindu and Buddhist symbols, and it houses the skulls and long bones of ~8000 victims, found in the mass graves. This is nowhere near all of them. It is overwhelming, and gut wrenching.

Also overwhelming is the fact that several Khmer Rouge leaders, including a man known as Duch who was responsible for the Tuol Sleng torture prison and sending people to Choeung Ek for execution, were only tried in 2010. As for Pol Pot, Brother Number 01, he died in 1998 under house arrest, insisting that he didn’t know about the killing fields and he wept for Cambodians.

If I wasn’t already sick to my stomach, that would do the trick.

A trip to Cheoung Ek must be complemented by a visit to Tuol Sleng prison. I went two days prior to this school-turned-torture-hell-hole.

The prison is preserved as it was found in 1979


The Khmer Rouge, exact in their book keeping, photographed all their prisoners as they came in; these photos are displayed throughout buildings C & D. The emotions on these faces are resigned, sad, defiant, sullen… But not hopeful.



They were kept chained in cells 3ft by 6ft- the classrooms were partitioned with brick or wooden walls- or chained together en masse.

Prisoners were forced into confessions of crimes against the regime, horrifically tortured to death or sent to the killing fields.

These classrooms were torture rooms

Some 17,000 passed thru Tuol Sleng; maybe 30 survived (most reports say 7).

The graves of the corpses found in Tuol Sleng at the liberation of Phnom Penh, 1979

As I sat there feeling poorly with my upset stomach at Choeung Ek, I thought about the meaning of suffering. Yeah, I felt crappy and feverish, but also felt an incredible gratitude for the life I have. There is no looming threat of death just for being an intellectual (to be honest, most of the folks I know, myself included, would not have survived the Khmer Rouge’s purges of the educated); there is no threat of starvation, very little of sickness from dirty water or living conditions. There are no life threatening tests, like the forced agriculture labor amid starvation Cambodians faced, to determine if I have the will to survive. I don’t feel any guilt over this, but I do feel incredibly fortunate and privileged, and in the face of these realities at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng, unbelievably thankful.

Phnom Penh was also a great city to visit, and the horror of the past doesn’t stunt the city’s appeal. People here are alert, and the week I visited, were actively engaging in largely peaceful protests against the government – actively engaging to never repeat the past. It was an electric atmosphere, and one totally different from how Americans engage (or don’t) with their government. I came away feeling the Cambodian people had a strength grown from their past and an awareness of their impact on their country’s future.


Temple Times Two!

Told you there were too many temples for 1 post!

This trip, with the tour company Beyond. Unique Escapes (yes, they have a period in the name) took me and two other tourists beyond the Angkor complex. Siem Reap is surrounded by farm lands and temples, and you need a car or motorcycle to get out to them. Car really- I’ve been told most places won’t rent motos to tourists here.

We started at Bakong, in the Roluos group of temples to the southeast of Siem Reap. These temples are older than the Angkor complex; they were built in the 8th century and were part of the previous capital.

The ruins are impressive, with the remnants of 12 elephant statues and over 100 lions. Some of the lions are now just stone lumps, but you can still see the open snarling mouths on others.

Our trip continued to the jungle temple of Beng Mealea.

This temple ruin was only recently opened to the public because the area was heavily land mined by the Khmer Rouge (Cambodia’s ruling party from 1970 to 1979, during which time they engaged in genocide and killed >2 million Cambodian people), and needed clearing first. The jungle temple really makes you feel like Indiana Jones- you scramble through the fallen stone blocks, up and over walls into galleries lined in tree roots, under an overhang of branches.


The recommended scrambling path

Some of the galleries have become swimming pools, flooded and full of tadpoles, with vine-draped trees growing out.


Stone might be permanent, but tree roots can force their way into cracks and split buildings apart.


For our rock scramblings, our guide offered us a snack after Beng Melea: the locally grown glutinous rice. It’s prepared with beans, a little salt and palm sugar in bamboo tubes, then roasted on coals. At some point (the cook recognizes when, but it’s a mystery to me!) the outer green husk of the bamboo is peeled away, but the rice continues to steam a while longer.

But the finished product is pretty good- a little chewy on the outside, a little salty and a little sweet, eaten straight out of the bamboo tube.

Our next temple was Bantaey Srei, literally translated as a fortress of the women.

Built of red sandstone, where other temples have blocks made from laterite clay, it has some of the best maintained carvings of all the temples around, including many devatas (carvings of women) from which the temple might get its name. The focal god for this temple is Shiva. Look at the details in the pediments above the doorways, the lintels and the doorways themselves. You can see dancing gods and demons on the pediments, naga (the many headed snake) on the roof, gargoyles at the corners and intricate scroll work- all from the 11th century.


Here, a lintel: Shiva rides a swan, and you can make out the pupils of his eyes!

Needless to say, I was impressed by the artistry of Banteay Srei. It was definitely worth a visit, even as it started to rain. Maybe especially as it started to rain, as that gives the sandstone an even more dramatic look!

I’ve really enjoyed being in Siem Reap- learning the history of Angkor and the temples, seeing the Cambodian countryside, and Khmer art. I had some delicious lok lak (thinly sliced grilled beef served over tomatoes, onions and cucumbers in sauce, with a condiment of salt, pepper and lime juice) at an out-of-the-mainstream local restaurant. I wandered tourist central, aka Pub Street. But we’re moving on. My next stop is Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, for a dose of the country’s more recent past.

Temple Time! (Part I)

The Angkor temple complex is one of the best known archeological, cultural and religious sites in the world- everyone recognizes the quincunx of towers (new vocab word! Meaning an arrangement of 5, like the five dots on the side of dice), particularly reflected in a lily pond at sunset. Like this:

But did you know that this temple, built in the 12th century, was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu? The structure is designed to represent Mount Meru, home to the Hindu gods: the five towers are the five peaks, surrounding galleries (large square buildings with covered passages) are mountain ranges, and the moat represents the ocean.

The quincunx and two galleries; the third gallery is down a long stone walkway, and the moat beyond that.

This moat also helped to prevent complete jungle encroachment when, after the death of its builder King Suryavarman II, his successor built the newer, larger Angkor Thom next door for the capitol of the Angkor empire. Then, sometime in the 13th century, Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist temple, and has been in use as such since.

And for tourism since the late 19th century

My first trip to Angkor Wat was for sunset on my last day of being 28.

There I am, so young, so carefree!

I stayed around the outside gallery and the temple exterior- the temple was golden (above pic), and the dark discolorations of the limestone looked velvety in the light of the setting sun.




I came back for sunrise the next morning. It was raining when I got up, and I suspected there was too much cloud cover for a good sunrise, but this was the promise I’d made: see the sunrise over Angkor Wat on my birthday. And a bazillion friends wanted to celebrate too!

Hey guys! You’re looking the wrong way! I’m back here!

I figured I would head inside the temple before the crowd hit. Turns out, it was a perfect time to go in and explore- all those sunrise enthusiasts left, for breakfast or their beds. There were maybe 50 people spread through the temple, leaving me examine bas-reliefs and devatas to my hearts content!

It’s a good thing I learned the word quincunx after the fact- I would have been giddily chanting it all day, like some demented monk


First and second galleries, each higher than the last


After Angkor Wat, my trusty tuk tuk headed into Angkor Thom, stopping first at Bayon- a temple covered in faces!

How many faces do YOU see?

So whose enigmatically smiling face is this? No one knows for sure. Scholars suggest it could be King Jayavarman VII or a bodhisattva (one who has attained enlightenment). Or it could be the Mona Lisa.

I tried, but it’s not me.

Angkor Thom incorporates some temples left over from the previous Khmer capitol Yasodharapura, like the Baphuon state temple.



The way up or down the side of Baphuon.

The Royal Palace is prominently demarcated by the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, from which the king could watch his parading armies.


Elephant relief

Terrace of the Leper King, just THICK with carvings

Detail from the internets

Terrace guard

Only foundations and side entrances remain of the great palace itself.

We zoomed out of the walled city via the Victory Gate, pausing at the temples Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda for some of the most persistent, tiny, child hawkers I have seen. It was raining on and off by this point, so forgive my lack of iPhone pics as I was juggling my umbrella, bigger camera and a pineapple snack.

This one of Thommanom is courtesy of Flickr

The last stop of the day was the jungle-encrusted Ta Phrom. Although it was decided to preserve this temple with the incredible tree growth, tree roots aren’t really good for continued stability. This temple is undergoing some SERIOUS restoration to prevent it from crumbling further, so many galleries are inaccessible. (It’s amazing how many folks in person and on the Internet complain about the restoration efforts and how the preservation of these sites impeded their own personal experience. Ugh.) I though the restoration was fascinating! They have taken apart the Hall of Dancers on the East side and are meticulously putting it back together with reinforcement, realigning the stones and the carvings. Khmer archways and the gallery passages are narrow and pointy- it takes a fair bit of precision to keep that from collapsing.

Like this arch at the South Gate, but a corridor! Pic from Flickr

They are also trying to rebuild parts of the temple that have fallen over 900 years into great boulder piles. Then there is the glimpse that the restoration provides into modern Khmer work ethic. It was about 2 when I wandered through, and a good portion of the men were still on lunch break, laughing and talking on the stone ground, showing no sign of getting back to work soon. A couple men were working to even out stone block with chisels, and the backhoe was running great puffs of diesel exhaust (standing idle), but largely there was not a hurry to be found.

Again, no iPhone photos, but I will leave you with these stunning images by photographer John McDermott.

This guy, called the Ansel Adams of Angkor

Should I come across a copy of his book, Elegy: Reflections of Angkor, it’s coming home with me!





Conundrum: too much beautiful

Hey everyone,

Here I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia, trying to figure out how the heck to share with you the wonders of Angkor. There are so many temples! Do I go on the order I visited? Do we go chronologically based on when they were constructed? Do I adapt all of Wikipedia to describe what I’ve seen? Do I just dump on all the photos and say ‘Here! Pretty!’? (At least I know the answer is no on the last one!)

Bear with me a little longer as I get this post under control. In the mean time, look how astoundingly beautiful Cambodia is!

On Phnom Kulen, which means mountain where lychee fruit grows

Imagine swimming in the pool at the base of this 10m waterfall, surrounded by crashing water, waves and cool mist while fishes nibble your feet. (Maybe the Coloradans don’t need to imagine, I hear there’s quite a bit of falling water there lately!)


Grab yourself a cold can of Bud Light, pretend it’s Angkor Beer (tastes about the same) and relax;

Cambodian beer water

I’ll post again shortly!