If you ask the average person for their views about Cambodia, probably the first thing they’ll say will be “Pol Pot” or “Khmer Rouge”, followed closely by “riddled with landmines”. Telling your friends (or even worse, your parents) that you’re planning to visit Cambodia will generally elicit comments along the lines of “why?” Very few people will know anything about the country save a few snippets of remembered newspaper coverage about genocide, civil war…. Even fewer will know that the Cambodian (known as Khmer) empire was once the centre of the area formerly known as Indochina and covered much of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, leaving behind its influence in beautifully detailed stone architecture that, even today, still enthrals and mystifies the experts. Through these magnificent structures we have come to learn much about the former greatness of the Khmer nation – tragically, a greatness that was also to be in part a catalyst for what was to follow, but in more recent years a symbol of hope and strength for the Khmer people as they begin to rebuild their lives and rediscover their cultural heritage.
The great temples of Angkor in the North of Cambodia have, in recent years, been given increasing television and magazine coverage – their huge scale (covering an area around the same size as Manhattan) and their intricate detail have brought many experts and conservationists, and of course tourists. The varied structures, featuring images of ancient daily life interspersed with religious symbols and dating from between the 9th and 13th centuries, have been extensively renovated since they were “discovered” by the French in the 1860s . The renovations, combined with extensive studies by many experts from around the world of the inscriptions and pictures embedded in the stone, have resulted in a (at least partial) picture of how the Kingdom was founded, evolved and finally abandoned to the jungle.
The Angkor Kingdom was founded in AD802 by Prince Jayavarman II, who returned to Cambodia from Java where he had spent most of his adult life, and proclaimed his newly-formed nation independent. To strengthen his position, he arranged a coronation ceremony by a Brahmin priest and pronounced himself a “god-king”, thereby making himself “all powerful” and commanding complete allegiance from his subjects. He was the first in a number of such god-kings, and during a period from the latter part of the 9th century until the 13th, this control made available a vast pool of labour which was used to build an advanced and prosperous agricultural civilisation, utilising the unique flood patterns of the nearby Tonle Sap lake to enable up to three rice harvests to be made a year. Houses, roads, canals and fine temples were constructed by successive generations, each god-king competing with his predecessors to build more and more splendid structures. Depicting apsaras (dancing nymphs), linga (phallic symbols), lotus flowers, elephants, and sacred Sanskrit text, the many ornate temples were geometrically perfect and at the time were probably decorated with gold leaf and precious gems. The Khmer empire continued its expansion, at times including a large part of Thailand, South Vietnam, Laos, part of the Malay peninsula and the borders of what is now Burma.
Jayavarman VII came to power in 1181, and was responsible for the building of the mighty Angkor Thom, the “great city” which covers around 9 square km and was originally home to maybe 50,000 people. Its crowning glory, the enigmatic heads of the Bayon, took 21 years to build, and to complete it, Jayavarman took thousands of peasant from the rice fields – thereby unintentionally signalling the beginning of the end. Rice yields decreased, and without resources to support it the empire began a gradual decline. Over the next two hundred years, a number of factors – the introduction of Theravada Buddhism which undermined the prestige of the king and priests, the continuing aggression of the Siamese – combined to reduce the ability of any king to maintain complete control and resulted in the gradual decay of the temples together with the collapse of the finely-tuned agricultural system. Finally, the Siamese seized the initiative and captured Angkor in 1431, driving the Khmers away and merging the city into their own Kingdom.
From there, the history of Cambodia was largely uneventful until 1863, when the French arrived. Invited by King Norodom to provide assistance in protecting his country from continued invasion by Siamese and Vietnamese forces, France persuaded the King to sign a treaty making Cambodia a French colony (together with Laos and Vietnam – the area during that period was known as Indochina). Cambodia finally regained its independence in 1953, and with it rifts began to develop between different groups – the Khmers and other ethnic minorities, the city-dwellers and the farmers. These problems intensified throughout the 1960s as the country slipped into economic decline – and then came the Vietnam War. King Sihanouk made the decision to allow North Vietnamese troops to use Cambodia as a route into South Vietnam, further inflaming Cambodia’s elite to such a degree that he was ousted from his post while on a trip to Moscow; while one of his former army marshals abolished the monarchy and pronounced Cambodia a republic.
It was around this time that the Khmer Rouge were formed and began to build up their power, promoting themselves as the representatives of the exiled King – but in fact they were headed by a group of communists. Eventually, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, and many hundreds of thousands of people were driven into forced labour in the countryside.
The thinking behind this exile and what was to follow was, at least in part, due to the known success of the Angkor era and a desire to return to those days of perceived greatness. A number of the Khmer Rouge leaders, jaded by the impact of colonial domination, had in the past openly discussed their opinions that “in order to secure true economic and political independence, it is necessary to isolate Cambodia completely and return to a self-sufficient agricultural economy”.
Until the Vietnamese invaded and “liberated” Phnom Penh in 1979, it is estimated that around 1.7 million people died, through either execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, starvation or disease. Even today, some people still don’t know what happened to their family – the lack of dental or other records have made identification of the remains that were found almost impossible.
Since that time, Cambodia has been gradually rebuilding itself, both from an infrastructure and emotional point of view. The Cambodia of today, while moving with the times, has managed to retain its unique character and (so far) avoid total globalisation – there are very few recognisable store chains, and it is a common sight to see Buddhist monks in their saffron robes walking along the street. Cambodia is also blessed with a tropical climate and delicious cuisine – truly a combination that many travellers are seeking.
In the years that we have been here showing the delights of this tiny country, more and more people have been visiting – many have been uncertain as to what they will find, but all have returned home vowing to return (and many have). And what really captures our client’s hearts is the people. Despite all the tragedy and heartbreak that everybody in this tiny country has endured, somehow – incredibly – the Khmer people manage to still have a warm and willing smile when you meet them, to offer friendship and hospitality without expecting anything in return. The people that we meet on our travels never fail to touch me with their simplicity, their kindness and their courage.
If you ask the average person who has been to Cambodia for their views, probably the first thing they’ll say is “beautiful”, or “amazing”, followed closely by “go there”.
This article is dedicated to the family of Gim Tee.