Cambodia, another South East Asian country remembered for all the wrong reasons.
A 5am start saw us on an early flight to Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia. If we thought that an early start and flight meant an easy day we were wrong. The heat seemed to be more intense here than it had been in Vietnam but at least we were expecting it now.
Our first visit of the day (we had requested this visit before we left the UK) saw us arriving at the gates of what, many, many years ago had been a Buddhist temple at Choeung Ek. We in the west would know it by its less nice name, the Killing Fields. It is one of thousands of mass grave sites uncovered after Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in the mid 1970’s and driven back to their strongholds in the north of the country.
There are no words that can do justice to the disgusting, hideous awfulness of what went on in this place. The site contains many mass graves and to date about 8000 bodies have been unearthed. There are still other bodies buried here, as you walk around you spot something sitting just below the surface and it is a piece of bone or a scrap of clothing. There are various ‘pits’ that have been excavated and they all tell the story of who was buried, sometimes alive, there. This ranges from a pit containing hundreds of men’s bodies that had been decapitated to the pits where the naked bodies of women and children and babies were found. I will not go into detail about how these poor people were killed suffice to say that no bullets were used, they were too expensive. Killing implements ranged from farm tools to razor sharp palm fronds that were used to hack the heads off the victims and the many sturdy trees that grow in the grounds.
The Cambodian government has built a memorial to all the estimated 3 million citizens that were executed by the Khmer Rouge and this sits tall in the middle of this site. It is 20 metres high and filled with some of the skulls of the victims unearthed in the Choeung Ek pits. It was a sobering experience to walk around it.
After Choeung Ek we went on to visit Toul Sleng or S21 as it was known. This was a secondary school that the Khmer Rouge ‘converted’ to a prison to house the hapless victims of their brutal regime where they tortured them and got them to confess to being paid by the CIA or the KGB. If they confessed or if they did not after approximately two weeks, they were sent to the killing fields from which no one returned. Usually their only crime was that they were educated, sometimes being able to do no more that read and write. After walking around for an hour or so you became numb with the horror of it all and it was difficult to take any more in. But I am firmly of the opinion that Pol Pot had a serious neurological defect to put it mildly.
The day finished with a tour of the Silver Pagoda which was beautiful. I was expecting a pagoda painted silver or something, but no, the silver bit comes from the fact that floor is covered completely in silver. It is mostly covered with red carpet but in places you can see the exquisite carving and markings on the silver tiles. It was built for the king and is still part of his residence in the capital. He wasn’t home though so we didn’t get invited in for tea.
The next day we flew to Siem Reap which is effectively the airport for all the tourists wanting to visit Angkor Wat and it’s nearby temples.
Angkor Wat was the reason for my desire to go to Cambodia. There are only 2 buildings in the world that I have wanted to visit, The Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat. I am very lucky to have now done both and neither have disappointed.
Angkor Wat is the name of the most famous temple complex in this area but the biggest one is Angkor Thom. They were originally dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva but later became Buddhist temples. The Cambodian people have this very practical attitude to these two religions and most practise a bit of both.
They are utterly magnificent in their scale, presence and state of repair considering they are between 1000 and 800 years old. We think we are so clever being able to build buildings like the Shard in London but when you consider these peoples had no heavy diggers, metal scaffolding or lifting equipment you can only marvel at what they achieved. It took them 39 years to complete Angkor Wat but what an achievement.
Almost every surface is carved with intricate detailed carvings that tell stories of the gods. Angkor Wat is 1km square and the main temple in the middle has a carving on each of the 4 sides that runs along the whole of each side. I cannot even begin to imagine to skill required to carve that, the detail is phenomenal.
Where I could not find words to describe the horror of Choeung Ek I am almost speechless at the magnificence of Angkor Wat. Two complete ends of the spectrum and I count myself a very lucky and privileged person to have seen both, even the heat and the humidity didn’t dim the experience. I feel that I can home now for a rest.
After 2 days at Angkor Wat we flew from Siem Reap to Bangkok and then had an 11 hour flight back to the UK.
What a trip, one that I would thoroughly recommend but if you go, be prepared, it was hard work.
I am now planning my next adventure.
By Lynda Davey