Even the casual traveler will be struck by the sheer weight of Cambodia's recent and tragic history. The ghosts of nearly 2 million people, tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge, seem to still inhabit the streets of Phnom Penh in search of justice. Despite this gloomy atmosphere,
the surprise is that Cambodia remains a country of strong-willed and hopeful individuals. In many ways, the stone cities of Angkor fully embody this strength and resilience. It is this enduring pulse that beats in Cambodia's tangled jungle heart.
Phnom Penh. Like most colonial cities, Phnom Penh has a split personality. It has its orderly side, built along a grid of sprawling boulevards and its newer, more chaotic side that is a result of a haphazard race towards development. The effect is both charming and
strange as colonial buildings make way for tire shops, bicycle stores, banks, gas stations and other prosaic structures.
But just when the proliferation of corrugated sheet metal and exposed wiring threatens to overwhelm, Phnom Penh reminds the visitor of its much older roots that lead back to a proud lineage of Khmer kings, artisans and architects.
We experienced this epiphany immediately at the
Cambodian National Museum. Apart from bats, this interesting red building houses some of the most sublime Khmer artwork rescued from wars, destruction by nature, and theft by collectors. The museum serves as the perfect starting point for any tour of Cambodia since the works found
here span the range of Khmer artistic achievement.
In particular, the multi-armed torso of a bathing Vishnu, which was found at the bottom of a pool in the Western Mebon, is certain to astound lovers of great art. The refinement and scale of the sculpture provides a fascinating insight to the obvious talent and devotion of the ancient Khmers.
Phnom Penh is also home to the Royal Palace, more notable for its lack of artwork than its abundance. As a symbol of royalist oppression, the palace did not escape the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and thousands of priceless art and Buddhist scriptures were burned, destroyed or simply thrown
into the Thonle Sap River.
The full tragedy of the event can be appreciated by viewing the remaining pieces at Wat Phra Keow. Here, we were amazed to see that hundreds of spectacular gold and silver Buddhas, with diamond encrusted eyes and coats of precious gemstones, were still intact and preserved; a testament perhaps to
the enduring power of beauty to conquer even the hardest heart.
Siem Reap. With its rustic innocence, still unspoiled by the influx of mass tourism, Siem Reap has many things to recommend it. The sight of simple country folk moving about on bicycles, drying rice on the curb, carrying bales of kindling and giving out rice and alms to monks serves
as the perfect tonic to Phnom Penh's urban sprawl. And of course, its location at the doorstep of the legendary ruins of Angkor only adds to the charm.
Like most travelers to Siem Reap, we wasted no time in heading straight for Angkor Wat, the place we had read and heard so much about. Indeed, the buildup to our temple visit was almost unbearable since the monolithic towers of Angkor Wat were emblazoned on everything from the Cambodian national flag
to beer labels and bank logos.
The temple did not disappoint. Exceeding even our unreasonably high expectations, we had to agree that the magnificent temple, with its sprawling moats, detailed carvings and galleries, artistically placed pools, delicate windows and gigantic towers representing the cosmos
was indeed the full flowering of the Khmer aesthetic and technical ability.
Built by the Suryavarman II (1113-1150) as a representation of the entire Hindu cosmology, the purpose of Angkor Wat is shrouded in mystery. Since it breaks with Khmer tradition and faces west towards the sunset, many scholars believe that Angkor Wat may have been an elaborate tomb. Others believe that
the temple may have been dedicated to Vishnu who was associated with the West. Whatever its purpose, we were overwhelmed by Angkor Wat and returned to it continuously throughout our stay watching sunrises and sunsets from its eternal parapets and walkways.
To be sure, there were other notable places in Siem Reap. There was Ta Prohm, the Khmer city notable for the fact that it has been left in a largely unrestored state, choked by thick jungle vines and roots. There was Prea Khan, the temple that housed the sacred sword of the Khmers before it was removed
by the Vietnamese. And there was Banteay Srei, a relatively small temple but well worth visiting for the breathtaking artistry of its carvings.
Also impressive was the city of Angkor Thom, largest of the Khmer era citadels, built by the great Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) in a remarkable frenzy of civic development spanning twenty years. From its massive southern gate (sized to fit elephants), to its libraries and hospitals, bridges, thick fortifications,
moats and reservoirs, terraces, parade grounds, and temples, Angkor Thom astounds the visitor with the sheer scale of its vision.
At the center of this city is the indescribable Bayon, a wonderful structure of 54 face-towers (37 of which are left standing today). Unlike its well-known cousin, Angkor Wat, the Bayon is best appreciated up close, since the temple seems like a jumble of rocks from a distance. But up close, the gigantic
faces on each of the towers seem to come to life, peering from windows, over doorways, engaging the visitor in silent conversation.
Walking through the upper terraces in the changing afternoon light, with hundreds of gigantic faces smiling down at us, we felt a sense of relief. Seeing these giant, enigmatic smiles echoed in the smiles of the Cambodian children we met along the way, made us believe that even in the face of such suffering
and adversity, life endures and survives.