The Kingdom of Cambodia, also called Kampuchea, had a rich history before it was part of Indochina and the Vietnam War. Ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples stand throughout the country. Encompassed by The Cardamom and Dangkrek Mountains in the north and south, respectively, the Mekong River cuts through Cambodia on its way to the delta in Vietnam. Cambodia provides rich wildlife, beaches and rivers, lush, tropical forests, and fascinating history
After a three-hour speed boat ride on the Mekong I exited Vietnam and went through customs and visa check on the river into Cambodia. As legend is told, Cambodia came into being through a union of a princess, daughter of the dragon king, who ruled over a watery land, and an Indian Brahmin (nobleman). For her dowry Father drank up all the waters of his land and gave it to his new son-in-law, who called it Kambuja. Cambodia’s religious, royal and written traditions stem from India, but the Chinese and Javanese were in the mix during the many invasions, rises and falls of kingdoms. The ancient temples reflect a surfeit of Hindu influence. Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmer, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and was at its nadir between the 10th and 13th centuries. Attacks, declines and weak King Norodom asks for French protection, when he saw the French gunboats in his harbor, thus making Cambodia part of French Indochina, la la la, 1953, led by King Sihanouk, Cambodia gained independence from France and King Sihanouk became the first Prime Minister, later deposed in 1970. Communist Khmer Rouge and king supporters struggled with the Lon Nol government supported by US. When Lon Nol visited China, the Khmer Rouge do the coup in 1975 capturing and evacuating (by telling residents that the US was going to bomb) Phnom Penh. The Khmer forced all who lived in cities into the countryside in forced labor camps. Cambodia takes a giant step backwards under the Khmer Rough led by sociopath, Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar, which he changed to Pol Pot, short for “Political Potential.” He abolished money, closed airports, blew up banks, closed schools, eliminated private property, forbade religion and family ties, attempting to become a classless, communist agrarian society overnight. More than 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution and/or genocide (execution criteria: Lon Nol supporters, intellectuals, teachers, educated, ethnically mixed, those who wore glasses or worked in a bank or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time), forced hardships, torture, starvation. In 1978 a Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and began a 10-year Vietnamese occupation and over 12 years of civil war. Currently more than 50% of the population is less than 21 years old, so few really remember the Vietnam War or the horrors of Pol Pot. Our guide remembers being a toddler when his mother (who is now Cambodia’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) dragged him from their home in Phnom Penh, walking forever, being hungry, eating anything—scorpions, spiders, leaves, drinking muddy water—living in a refugee camp with his mother and six sisters. He remembers his father killed by the Khmer Rouge since he was a military officer in the Lon Nol government. Sarin even knows the man who shot his father, that he’s now in his late 60’s, an old man with 5 children and grandchildren. Sarin says he’s Buddhist and forgives the man; revenge won’t bring back his father and it would destroy other families. Most of us sat there with our mouths open as he told his story. People had to dress in identifying clothing so that the Khmer wearing the red and white krama (scarves) could kill at will (hideously these krama are sold in gift shops). Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed almost ¼ of the population during his 3-year, 8-month, 21-day reign of terror (also called the years of zero). Pol’s slogan was, “It is better to arrest 10 people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.” Even today they are still trying to bring the Khmer leaders, who are still alive (Pol Pot died in 1998 under house arrest), to justice. Phnom Penh has left the infamous S-21 (Security Office 21) building as a museum with its tiger cages, torture chambers and pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge of those arrested, their torture and detention before sending to the killing fields (taking a lesson from the Nazis to document). The Choeung Ek, genocide center, a former Chinese cemetery, is the site of one of many of the notorious killing fields. It’s estimated that over 10,000 people were buried in shallow group graves with DDT to help speed decomposition. Now there is a 4-story memorial stupa with 8,000 skulls visible through glass panels. Also nearby is another detention building; as the killings escalated the Khmer lackeys couldn’t kill and bury quickly enough to handle the increased deliveries. Trees where babies were bashed to avoid wasting precious bullets are marked. The loud speakers, which played music to drown out the moans and cries, are still mounted in the trees. Today beautiful butterflies float and flit among the wildflowers growing in the shallow excavated graves. With the blooming plumeria all looks benign, but there is a historical horror that seems to vibrate and linger in the air.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, as legend has it, was founded by Lady Penh, another friend of Buddha. Government ceremonies are held in the beautiful pagodas and royal buildings. The famed silver pagoda has a floor made of silver bricks and there’s an emerald (jade) Buddha surrounded by many Buddha sculptures. To prepare for another journey to Cambodia, I must read the “Ramayana” as there were pictures, bas reliefs, mosaics of scenes from the story. In the museum bookstores, Obama books were featured. We heard lots of “Obama, okay” with the thumbs up gesture when locals found out we were Americans. He has already won many international hearts.
There are more than 1,000 temples in Cambodia with almost 300 around Siem Reap in the Angkor Wat and Thom complexes. 75% of the temples are Hindu, although the 95% of the population is Buddhist. The big one everyone knows, is Angkor Wat (complex of 80 temples, though only 40 remain) built by Suryavarman II, the king, who unified Cambodia and extended Khmer influence into Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar, and who came after over 300 years of a mind-numbing list of difficult-to-pronounce kings. Angkor Wat reflects strong Hindu influence because Sury 2 was devoted to Vishnu, the Hindu deity. As his reign declined, those annoyed-at-being-annexed Vietnamese rose up and sacked Angkor. Four years later (1181) King Jayavarman VII struck back and reclaimed Angkor. Jay 7, the legendary king who also built roads, 102 hospitals, schools, and other temple complexes across the empire, became the most prolific builder of Angkor. We even walked on one of his original bridges and roads. Angkor Thom, where “Lora Croft, Tomb Raider,” was filmed in the queen’s temple, is a testament to Buddhist art and religion. Jay 7 followed Mahayana Buddhism as did much of the population, but after his death, Hinduism returned as the state religion. And those Hindus destroyed much of the exquisite Buddhist sculptures and bas reliefs, which seems very unHindu-like. Although jungle, dampness, bat guano, and human pilferers have taken their toll on the Angkor temples, they are still very impressive—a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry and man’s need to provide beautiful devotional monuments to his gods—bas reliefs of the Goddess Durga (slayer of the powerful buffalo demon, Mahisasura), Guaruda (king of the birds, guardian with the parrot beak), Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu (Maukhalinga—the columnar form representing B,S, & V—penis by any other name), Hanuman, Lakshmi, Ganesha (lord of beginnings, obstacles, intellect and wisdom, who was created by his mother, Parvarti, from turmeric paste as her son and protector. When husband Shiva tried to enter the palace, Ganesha, not knowing his father, prevented his entry and Shiva whacked off his head, not knowing this was his son. Parvarti told Shiva to restore their son to life, but Shiva couldn’t find his head, so he gave him the head of the first living thing he came across, an elephant), Lakoshvara (shown with 2, 4, 6, 10, or 32 arms, but usually with 4 holding a rosary, flask with the waters of immortality, sacred book and a lotus), Bodhisattvas (those who haven’t attained enlightenment yet, but are compassionate beings who must save people and help them attain enlightenment), all the Hindu celestials and battle scenes between the Khmer and Chams. The Hindu gods, goddesses and stories kept me entertained for hours. I’m sparing you here.
We sat on the wall surrounding the moat, which represents the cosmic sea, to watch the sun set and the full moon rise over Angkor Wat. An exotic, mystical experience with the sound of tree frogs chirping and cicadas making a high-pitched sound, so much like an alien mind probe that I wanted to wear an aluminum hat. While we waited for the sun to set, we sampled smoked water snake (liked), roasted spider (straw with soy sauce), cricket, frog legs (like chicken), sweet sticky rice in bamboo, sipped the local rice wine (they need to send someone to Napa for lessons) and chatted with the vendors. One young boy selling sliced pineapple told us he liked school, but had to sell fruit to help his family. He could name the capital of each state we each said we were from. His English was almost accent-less. We bought every pineapple he had (then gave it to some begging children when we left) and told him to keep studying.
Siem Reap has a new, world class museum that beautifully displays the art from temples around the country. The 1,000 Buddhas room displays images carved from sandstone, wood, copper, silver, semi-precious stones. There were multi-media demonstrations, explanatory films, well-lighted displays—an excellent stop before going to the wats and a great gift shop. The well I bought is near Siem Reap and I hope to go back and visit in person and buy another well for another village. What fun to be able to do such a cool thing while I was there. If I knew pineapple boy’s name, I’d make sure he went to college.
Siem Reap is ripe for investing; if I knew what I was doing I’d put some money here. Before joining the World Trade Organization, Cambodia had no copyright protection; copycat fast food restaurants were spawned—KFC (Khmer Fried Chicken), Burger Queen and Pizza Hot—and are now gone. Unfortunately, these American franchises are making their way into Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In 5-10 years I expect Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to start looking like Saigon and Bangkok. Too bad. Now’s the time to go while there is only one KFC and a Swensen’s ice cream.
Tonlé Sap, meaning “large fresh water river” or “great lake,” is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and an ecological hot spot, designated by UNESCO as a protected biosphere in 1997. 700-800 square miles and 10 times that size in the rainy season. Tonlé Sap Lake/River is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia's dry season, the Tonlé Sap River drains into the Mekong at Phnom Penh. However, when the year's heavy rains begin in June, the Mekong River begins to rise, but instead of flooding its own banks, it begins to push the water of the Tonlé Sap River, reversing the river’s flow, and backing up into the lake. The waters flooding the lake, inundate the surrounding forests and fields, leaving behind fertile silt for rice cultivation. The pulsing system with the large floodplain, rich biodiversity, and high annual sediment and nutrient fluxes from Mekong makes the Tonlé Sap one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, supporting over 3 million people and providing over 75% of Cambodia's annual inland fish catch and 60% of Cambodians’ protein intake. At the end of the rainy season, the flow reverses and the fish are carried downriver. The reversal of the Tonlé Sap River flow also acts as a safety valve to prevent flooding further downstream. During the dry season (December to April) the Tonlé Sap Lake provides around 50% of the flow to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The lake occupies a depression created due to the geological stress induced by the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. In recent years the building of high dams in Southern China and Laos has threatened the strength and volume of the reverse flow into Tonlé Sap. The lake supports Cambodia’s river people and we cruised by the thatched roof houses on hollow bamboo rafts with TVs that run on car batteries. Viewed floating markets, hardware stores, beauty parlors, jewelry shops and schools. These folks are constantly on the move with rise and fall of the water.
The tour company I used, Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), not only visits the obligatory tourist sites, it includes home visits, factory tours, stops when something interesting presents itself, like the multiple wedding processions we observed, apparently December is the Southeast Asian June, and the partying goes on for days depending upon the family’s budget. On one home visit the mom let me make the desert which was a coconut paste I rolled into a ball, dropped into boiling water for 3 minutes, then rolled into coconut flour and put into a little banana leaf bowl that I had origamied (with a lot of help from the daughter) while the balls were boiling, then garnished with shredded coconut. Delicious. I really like the factory tours to see how things are made and hear the history.
Lacquer ware—I had never seen lacquer ware cups that started out as woven horsehair and bamboos strips; always thought lacquer was layered only over wood. The intensive labor was amazing with these cups—they have layers and layers of lacquer, then color, then more lacquer and remain flexible. Two are currently on display La Casa Leslieanna.
Gold leaf—starts out the size of a small ice cube, beaten until it can be halved and halved again and again. Using heavy 4 pound sledge hammers, three young men each hammered their small piece for three minutes pounding in a musical rhythm, then rested three minutes. Three on, three off—back-breaking work that results in gossamer thin gold leaf after 6-7 hours of pounding. Eating gold leaf with banana helps with cardiac problems—I wore some and ate some. Placing gold leaf on a Buddha image brings great merit to the faithful. We visited one temple where the Buddha was so thickly covered in gold leaf that I wasn’t sure it was a Buddha image. Here only men were allowed to apply gold leaf, which Bill and David gleefully did being the only men in the group--their one opportunity to be white male supreme. We all carefully watched as Bill had a tendency to scrape the gold under his fingernails in an attempt to pay for all the souvenirs he was buying; the little girls had his number immediately!
Paper— is made from rice, bamboo, banana leaf, elephant poop (although lots of pineapple fiber has to be added to the poop since elephants are inefficient digesters), even panda poop (Chiang Mai zoo has a couple on loan from China). As the rice mush dries in the frames, it sings, “snap, crackle, pop.” Really. The bamboo paper feels like wax paper and takes 3 years to make as it must soak in lye and water for three years, so the bamboo can be pounded without shredding.
Umbrellas—80 years ago a monk went to Burma sans umbrella and brought back the secret of paper-making to Thailand to, voilá, make umbrellas—teeny tiny, normal, room size and they will make any size to order. At the umbrella factory artists are available to paint on your clothes. My hat has birds and my shirt, an elephant. If I had known in advance, I would have brought shirts, camera bag, purses—they’ll paint anything within 3 minutes!
Tea—just like wine tasting in Napa, we saw the leaves growing, drying, being tossed for even drying, then into the tasting room, where we had lessons on tasting. Observing color, clarity, sniffing fragrance, slurping a taste and sloshing around in the mouth—great fun. They can reap a new crop every 45 days. The differences were so subtle to my dull palate, I bought the green tea with the healthful antioxidants.
Crocodile farm—Pralay village family raises crocs for export; the crocodile skin market used to be very good, but Malaysian competition and inflation have caused a loss of income, but this family had a beautiful house overlooking their Crocodile pens.
I, of course, had my picture taken and put on a plate (if there was something touristy, I did it, after all children and women have to make a living and I want to help the economy) at a viewpoint in the Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet and on several river trips. Savannah Susan, Traveling Nurse Judi and I ensured we had drinks in all the old colonial hotels, The Strand, Raffles, experiencing 19th century noblesse oblige. Susan and Judi, both nurses, tried to tell young people that the beetle leaf with lye, tobacco and beetle nut, was not good for their dental future. We indulged in Southeast beauty treatments with lemon wood paste, which we wore as ornamentation and sunscreen, gave Susan her first ever reflexology foot massage and walked through all the markets we saw—beautiful fruit and vegetables. Dragon fruit, which looks like a deep pink pineapple with white soft fruit and black seeds, tastes sort of like kiwi, only with less flavor. Rambutan, a round fuzzy fruit, served in its skin/shell that looks like an eyeball, so, of course, it was dubbed the “fuzzy eyeball” fruit. Jackfruit, papaya, mango, guava—we ate everything and didn’t get sick—the ongoing tourist myth. My wisdom: try everything and make sure you eat spicy foods at meals. The hot spices keep the stomach acidity high and will kill any invading microbe; and there’s always someone with a pharmacy in her purse.