Cambodia Comes Back
By Andrew D. Blechman
Register Staff Writer
Intrepid travelers are discovering the mind-bending splendor of Angkor Wat, and shivering their way through the horrifying stacks of skulls at Pol Pot's Killing Fields.
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia — In the pre-dawn darkness, five moped drivers jockey for position on the rutted dirt road, racing against Mother Nature and each other to deliver their sleepy cargo to the heart of the once-mighty Khmer Empire before sunrise.
"Good morning," mouths a young, yawning Canadian backpacker as we buzz past her moped on one side and one of Cambodia's many Killing Fields on the other.
Minutes later we are standing in front of the soaring stone splendor of Angkor Wat.
We are alone, five strangers in the stillness of the already soggy dawn, comforted by the knowledge that the temple before us is ours alone to explore.
By mid-morning other tourists will have arrived. But not many. And there are plenty of temples to go around.
For the past 25 years, Cambodia has suffered through civil war, carpet bombings, a genocidal dictatorship and foreign occupation.
That tends to put a damper on tourism, particularly considering that the Khmer Rouge —who made the word Killing Fields a household term—are still well-armed and hiding along the Thai border. And then there are the minefields, which give a whole new meaning to the cautionary advice: Don't stray off the path.
But minefields and Maoist guerrillas aside, Cambodia is essentially at peace. And since the United Nations sponsored elections in 1993, intrepid travelers are once again discovering the mind-bending splendor of Angkor Wat and shivering their way through the horrifying stacks of skulls at the former Pol Pot regime's numerous Killing Fields. He ruled from 1975 to 1979.
Each year that the Khmer Rouge fail to resurface means one more year of peace for Cambodians and a quantum leap in tourism and commerce. Cambodia—like Vietnam and Laos—is becoming a destination of choice for young, adventure-seeking Europeans and Americans.
For now, Cambodia remains unspoiled by Angkor Wat key chains, laser-light shows and diesel tour bus fumes. A high-end resort hotel just two miles from Angkor Wat is scheduled for completion in late 1997.
I flew to Cambodia from the hub of Southeast Asian travel: Bangkok. The flight to Phnom Penh cost $130 one-way.
After paying a $20 visa fee at Phnom Penh's airport and haggling with a horde of taxi drivers, I settled on Khem Sokhan, a 43-year-old Cambodian father of five with a large, nervous smile and flawed English. For $5 we drove into Cambodia's sleepy provincial capital.
In the rice paddies on both sides of the undivided road, one sees the awkward juxtaposition of Cambodia's past and present. Among the houses on stilts and naked children playing in the streets are Toyota dealerships and spanking-new gas stations with uniformed attendants.
But gas stations and dealerships aside, Cambodia is still a two-wheeled nation of mopeds and "cyclos"—pedal-powered rickshaws. Gasoline is sold from pushcarts stacked with recycled, petro-filled soda bottles.
One remnant of French colonialism is evident everywhere: pushcarts stacked with tasty baguettes and even pain au chocolat.
Phnom Penh isn't a noisy city, but it's hard to imagine it was ever totally deserted.
Two weeks after capturing the capital in April 1975, Premier Pol Pot had relocated the city's entire population. For the four years of his regime, it was empty except for a core of Khmer Rouge fighters and their prisoners.
While the country's population labored in rural rice paddies for the good of the revolution, grass grew between Phnom Penh's empty sidewalks and boulevards.
The national bank was razed, the library turned into a stable, a junior high school transformed into the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison, where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands of Cambodians and a handful of Europeans because of their educated backgrounds and "deviant" beliefs.
Nearby is the former French Embassy where about 1,400 foreigners and Cambodians—including New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg and his interpreter Dith Pran—holed up and awaited rescue.
A short taxi or moped ride away are the infamous Choeung Ek Killing Fields, where survivors of the Pol Pot regime unearthed 129 mass graves and nearly 9,000 corpses. Many of the skulls and bits of clothing are stacked atop one another in a Buddhist stupa (shrine) beside the large open graves.
It was not my intention to dwell on the morbid—this was a vacation, after all—but viewing Cambodia's tragic past is unavoidable. More than one million—one in seven—Cambodians either died of starvation or disease in the rice paddy concentration camps, or were executed during Pol Pot's four years of power.
Everyone has a story to tell. Khem's family fled to Vietnam but his friends perished. My moped driver in Angkor lost his father to the Killing Fields. The owner of the guesthouse I stayed in labored in the rice paddies and lost his uncle, aunt, cousin and nephew. My temple guide lost his brother and two uncles.
"We all lost family," said Lap Tek, 39, a guide to Angkor Wat. "It's a very bad history. It's hard to understand or believe . . . You have to use your imagination."
Flying to Siem Reap—the village beside Angkor—I sat wondering just how many killing fields pockmarked the rice paddies below me.
After landing at the Siem Reap airport, I rode into town on the back of a moped. For some reason, mopeds can't be rented, but moped drivers can, and cheaply.
The roads are muddy, and as in Phnom Penh, only one in about 20 streetlights is functional. Walking at night is safe and quiet, granted you can dodge the sparkle of moped lights weaving across the pothole-strewn streets.
Food stands border the tree-lined riverside and serve sumptuous bowls of spicy noodles, grilled fish or soups well into the night and for a fraction of a dollar. Don't be surprised to see young Cambodians prowling for large cicadas beneath the food-stall lights. They like the way they taste.
Cambodians are eager to practice their rusty French or newly learned English. Several moped drivers stopped just to talk and try out new vocabulary words and phrases.
Unfortunately, some drivers stopped to pimp young girls. There is just no escaping prostitution in Southeast Asia. It's everywhere—Bangkok, Saigon, Phnom Penh and even tiny Siem Reap.
Although best known for Angkor Wat, the area around Siem Reap actually includes dozens of impressive temples. You can spend days touring them. A three-day pass to Angkor costs $40; seven days cost $60.
The temples of Angkor were built by Khmer kings during the seventh to 11th centuries when they ruled a nation that extended from Vietnam to southern China to the Bay of Bengal.
A million people once lived in the vicinity of Angkor, but only their stone temples remain. Palaces, administrative buildings and homes were all made of wood because stone dwellings were reserved for the gods.
The Roluos Group—a collection of three pre-Angkor temples located several miles into the rice paddy vortex—is stunning. The earliest kings of the Khmer Empire built them as places where they alone would worship the gods.
The temple of Bakong, with its moat and soaring inner towers, is meant to represent the center of the world. The moat is the world's ocean, the tall center sanctuary the Khmer equivalent of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. A bridge symbolically links the two worlds.
Atop the temple the kings would pour libations over a giant stone phallus or leave offerings beside a statue of Buddha, depending on the religion of the day—Hinduism or Buddhism.
The walls of the inner sanctuary are covered with pictures of United Nations helicopters, drawn by children. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks watch over the temple, and can be seen chanting several times a day. One was even listening to a transistor radio.
The next day I awoke early to meet my guide. Twelve hours with the venerable, chain-smoking Lap Tek cost just $20 and another $15 for a car and driver. The owner of my guesthouse gladly set up the tour on a moment's notice.
Lap Tek took me on the Grand Circuit of Angkor. Although Angkor Wat gets all the attention because of its size and photogenic qualities, in many ways the temple of Bayon, with its 216 giant, smiling Buddha faces, is the true masterpiece. It has more nooks and crannies to explore than the federal budget.
Built at the end of the 12th century, Bayon shows the effects of the empire's changing religious beliefs. It began as a temple to the Hindu god, Shiva. It then became a Buddhist temple and was decorated with the phantasmagoria of smiling Buddhas.
Later, it was returned to a Hindu shrine. The giant Buddhas were left untouched because they resembled the four-headed figure of Brahma, but other, smaller bas-relief Buddhas didn't fare so well. Visitors can see the rudimentary attempts to carve them into flowers or chip them off altogether. Each temple has its share of children peddling trinkets or adults selling incense and services. At the Bayan, beware of the man with the three-volt flashlight who excitedly points it down an empty well and then charges fifty cents for his services.
Next, we explored the Elephant Terrace where Khmer kings would ceremoniously address their troops. It is all that remains of the palace besides a small temple where the king would climb the stairwell each night to sleep with "the soul of the serpent." The phrase is a euphemism for the king's nightly foray with one of his 5,000 concubines.
About 20 miles from Neak Prohm rests Banteay Srei, one of the smallest temples, but known for its spectacular stone carvings. Unfortunately, it isn't particularly tourist-friendly. Because of recent Khmer Rouge incursions and general banditry, the military requires about $100 in escort fees.
After a lunch of sour soup and grilled fish, it was time to cross the moat and enter the mysteries of Angkor Wat.
More than a mile-square and containing a stadium's worth of stairs, Angkor Wat isn't for the faint of heart. Thankfully, at the top of almost every stairwell is a Cambodian girl with a bucket of cold drinks to wash away your sticky, sweaty thirst.
The laws of supply and demand aren't lost on these smiling waifs.
"A cold drink, Sir? Just $1." In town, the lychee nut sodas cost a quarter.
After circumnavigating the entire inner wall to admire the carvings depicting battle scenes, Hindu myths and legions of heavenly dancers, Lap Tek and I ascend the steep stairs to the top of the lotus-topped central tower.
We sit and listen to Buddhist monks chant through the musky, filtered light. Little, gravity-defying gecko lizards dart across the walls and ceilings.
Lap Tek is silent. He looks out upon the 30 years worth of slave labor, which Angkor Wat required. A sadness mists his eyes.
"Tens of thousands died then, too," he says.
IF YOU GO
Visas: Visas can be bought easily at the Phnom Pehn airport for $20. It's a good idea to travel with small denominations of American dollars. Everything, it would appear, costs about $1 in Cambodia—from a moped ride to a roadside snack.
Getting there: No U.S. airline flies into Phnom Pehn. From Bangkok, you can fly Thai Airways, Royal Air Combodge and Vietnam Airlines to Phnom Pehn for about $130 each way.
Where to stay: Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana, 313 Sisowath Quay (phone 855-23-426-288; fax, 855-23-426-392) — very fancy, very western and on the water, $130 and up. Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, Samdech Sothearos Blvd. (phone, 855-23-360-026; fax, 855-23-360-036) — posh, bungalow-style, $180 and up. The Sheraton Cambodia Hotel, Street 47 (phone, 855-23-360-395; fax 855-23-361-199) — near the beautiful temple of Wat Phnom, $100 and up.
Where to eat: The Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia, delightfully sandwiched between the Tonle Sap River and the National Museum, offers a taste of colonial Indochine with its rattan chairs, lethargic ceiling fans and wandering gecko lizards. There's no place better to drink a gin and tonic. A bowl of pasta, roast beef sandwich or Waldorf salad all run about $6.
La Paillotte, beside the Central Market at 234 Market St., offers authentic French food. The coq-au-vin is $7 and the boeuf bourguignon runs $9. The hotel's not bad either, for budget travelers.
PonLok Restaurant, down the street from the FCCC on Voie Sisowatt, serves authentic Cambodian food. The food is fresh and the picture menu is worth a thousand words. Most entrees are about $4.
Siam Reap (Angkor)
Getting there: A flight to Siem Reap (Angkor) from Phnom Penh costs about $110 round-trip on Royal Air Cambodge. It's also possible to go by boat.
Where to stay: Ta Prohm Hotel, 29 Samdech Sothearos Blvd. (phone 855-23-360-775, fax. 855-15-913-638) — a grand hotel right in the heart of town, $90 and up.
Hotel Nokor Kok Thiok, Airport Road (phone, 855-23-963-488, fax, 855-063-380-022) — on the road into town, nice and clean.
Nokor Phnom Hotel, also on Airport Road (phone, 855-63-963-463; fax, 855-15-920-485) — top floor has views of Angkor Wat.
Where to eat: Bayon Restaurant at 98 Wat Bo Road has a great little courtyard and grilled fish. Chivit Thai is a new restaurant across the street which serves delicious food in a beautiful home on stilts. Neak Pean - the picture menu makes eating easy, 53 Sivatha St.