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Cambodia – after the apocalypse


It takes only an hour to fly from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. In the Cambodian airport kids with sad eyes are waiting. They hardly smile back. The streets are dark and empty, even though it is before 22:00. A strange anxiety is spreading around. The inner fear hidden so far under the mask of adventurousness is creeping out with a shy wave. My mind is teeming with the warnings given earlier by my friends. Being aware that Killing Fields are 17 km from Phnom Penh is horrifying. A glowing arrow pointing to Mecca is glued onto the ceiling. The small hotel is managed by Muslims. I leave my things, take a torch and decide to go out. My steps towards the exit cause dismay. There isn’t a living soul in front of the building. I’m supposed to be careful. The city lives its own life even though at first it seemed dead. The pub „Heart of darkness”, whose name perfectly reflects the atmosphere of the vicinity, is teeming with all kinds of hot heads. At the wharf taxis are roaring, there are rickshaw men and boys on scooters who will take you wherever you want for fifty cents. They transport everything: their mothers-in-law, rice bags, old cartons, butchered or still squealing piglets. The streets are strewn with cripples who live only thanks to people’s mercy. In some restaurants you can order happy pizza with hashish. Finally, there is a thick, deep darkness and an unnatural quietness if only you wander off from the river.

S-21 – documentation of the crime

The road is full of holes like a sieve, actually it’s hard to call it a road; it’s some kind of a hellish path with trash and mine holes. The life of residents in the capital goes on the shoulder. From all sides people are holding their hands or legs they used to have towards you. They are not aggressive, but their eyes won’t allow you to pass them indifferently. You feel guilty that you have two legs, two hands and healthy eyes. In the clouds of dust a young boy is selling French loaves and frogs’ legs, a legacy of the colonisation by the French. Suddenly barbed wire entanglements appear round the corner: this is the wall of Tuol Sleng. It used to be a school, but in 1976 it was taken by the Red Khmers and turned into „Security Office 21”. Today it houses the Museum of Genocide. A visit in this museum is one of the most depressing experiences in your life. In former classes turned into prison cells, iron beds and rusty boxes for insects, which helped get confessions, frighten. Girls and boys aged between 12 and 15 and trained by the Red Khmers watched their prisoners. The regulations hang in the hall. You have to answer my questions immediately, not wasting time for thinking. While applying electric shocks you are not allowed to cry…
There is something inside human beings that tells them to record their own cruelty. Since the Red Khmers fully documented their crimes, documents and photographs of those they murdered hang today on the walls. Before and after tortures. Gaunt and swollen. The live and the dead. The walls are full of photographs from top to bottom – over 17 thousand people were taken from Tuol Sleng to Choeng Ek, where they were executed. The kitschy paintings make you shiver – tortures painted with a few strokes of the brush can be easily imagined as if it were you. In the last room a map of Cambodia made of skulls reminds of the recent history of this country. Outside the life goes on. The streets of Phnom Penh, matt from the dust, bring to mind a battlefield, the time after the Apocalypse. Cambodia is licking its wounds.

Killing Fields

Killing Fields in Choeng Ek start 17 km from Phnom Penh. For two dollars you can arrange a meeting with death. At the same time nature screams with its whole being, denies what happened here. Everything around is alive. Annoying flies are buzzing. In the nearby ponds water lilies are blooming. During the 1970s nearly 17 thousand people were taken here after prison tortures. The Red Khmers clubbed most of them (if they didn’t die from hunger and exhaustion) to death with maces so they didn’t lose precious bullets. Dead bodies were buried in mass graves, 450 people in each grave.
Today the graves are covered with grass. You prefer to think that the shreds of clothing and the pieces of bones protruding from the ground are your sick imagination. But you cannot delude yourself. The pyramid made of 8 thousand skulls speaks for itself. This view brings a lump to your throat. The skulls are placed evenly by sex and age. At the height of my eyes lie those with this label: „Men, around 40”. I bend lower: „Women, around 20”. The atrocity of this place contrasted with life-throbbing nature is indescribable. Fortunately, there is no fear in the skulls. There is no hint of scream, pain or exhaustion on the lips. Only human skulls arranged in rows left. Pol Pot needed them dead.
A walk across Killing fields suddenly opens my eyes to all people around me. Do they paralyse you? The suspicions whether the person you have talked with participated somehow in the genocide. The partisans of the Red Khmers were mainly comprised of youngsters, they were 12, 15 and as cruel as only a child can be. They were like you and me, normal, ordinary people – Ly Hieng tells me. Today they are still alive, unpunished. When asked what happened to his family, he answers; unfortunately, few Cambodian people could answer like that. Luckily, they all are alive. When he was three, his parents escaped with him and his sisters to Vietnam. Dreamily, he asks if I have seen Angor. I will go there too someday, he says with hope in his voice. Somebody interrupts our conversation. Nearby the kids are floating about, the youngest ones are drawing with sticks in the sand, the older ones are sniffing glue from tissues from time to time. They hide them behind their backs and cheer up only at the sight of another whites approaching the gate.
The sun burns, overpowers. Gaunt cows are grazing in the field behind barbed wires. The grass screams with green. At night the clash of life and death in Choeng Ek prevents you from falling asleep for long.

The pride of Cambodia

„Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams.”
Sooner or later everybody who at least by accident came across photos from this place will go to Angkor. The magic of this city is given off from a distance, it speaks from movies, photographs and oral stories. It attracts to charm with its beauty and mystery as soon as you reach it, to evoke a spontaneous explosion of delight. The easiest way to get here is from Siem Reap, where the airport is located. Some people arrive by plane right from Bangkok to go only here, not to venture in other regions of Cambodia. It is worth renting a scooter and spending here at least a week – the temples scattered across the jungle stretch over many kilometres. It is the most expensive Cambodian site for travellers: a one-day entrance ticket is USD 20, a three-day ticket USD 40, a one-week ticket USD 60.
The first look from a distance gives you the image of what you’ve been waiting for. The huge stone gate Angkor Thom makes a hypnotic impression; it makes you stop, bow your head in front of a row of demons and good deities. But you are not ready for what your eyes will see yet. Gradually newer and newer figures are emerging: divine birds, three-headed elephants, celestial nymphs. When the dawn has come, people from all parts of the world are setting off to explore Angkor.

Bayon Temple

There are over fifty towers seen from a distance. Their tops surprise with forms – outlines of human faces. Crossing the temple doors, you feel that this place really lives. Nuns with shaved heads are bringing flowers in front of Buddha statues. They are burning incenses, praying, resting. On the walls there are scenes showing the everyday life of the Khmers during the 12th century. Going up the slippery steps, through dark niches, narrow corridors, I finally get out into the inner courtyard. And then a miracle happens! There are about two hundred smiling faces full of peace and mildness around you. There are high brows, mouths with corners slightly lifted up around you. Their almond-shaped eyes are looking at you. They’re looking at you in silence, from all sides, right on the opposite side, on each side, behind you, they are in front of you, behind you, and anywhere you will turn. And above all: above you. You want to look at the sky, here they are: huge, smiling faces with passionate lips. The king perfectly chose this part of the temple for a symbolic representation of Mount Meru inhabited by gods. Since people feel like in heaven, anywhere you look, mildness floats from their eyes, and the huge lips seem to say what you always wanted to hear. They are everywhere, and there is no way to free yourself from them, yet you don’t want to at all as the overpowering peace grounds you, not letting you turn back. You move here in a strange slowed-down motion as if frozen in time. It’s because of the surprised pose, wide-open eyes and the gaped mouth. It’s because of a moment of daydreaming and at the same time a faster heartbeat, alternate bliss and rapture. The view makes you lose your words, it gives them back only so that you can tell about heaven on earth in Bayon Temple.

The Kingdom of Trees – Ta Phrom

Ta Phrom… I’ve been dreaming about this for months. Crossing a huge gate, I quickened the pace. The words of a writer enamoured of this stone city were ringing in my head: „Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams.” And you go there as if guided by angels, as if carried by a dream you have never dreamt before. You hold your breath to enter the greatest Kingdom of Trees, where nature rules with absolute power, crashes temples with its weight, ravenously throws itself at them to swallow them in one gulp. The stones become green in the sun. Hungry trees cover Ta Phrom with its arms like snakes, in last twists, convulsions.
You are disappointed. In front of you there are stones and trees linked together in an eternal embrace. The temples bend under the load of greedy branches. Before your eyes nature is fighting against history. You hear a stone rumble, a stone complaint of ceilings, reliefs covered by pulsating tree veins from under the hanging thickets. Since trees are dancing daringly here, they won’t let go from their iron grip. The roots and lianas falling down from a lintel cover stone casings like chains, like huge umbilical cords covered by bark, combined into one with stone. Apsaras, divine dancers, are looking at all this with a mild smile on their sculptured lips. Light is sneaking into the collapsed chambers, where the broken representations of the divine bird Garuda fall into ruin, through small stone windows.
Today Ta Phrom, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII, is completely swallowed by the jungle. It was left in the same condition as the French explorers found it in the 19th century. Today it is too late for any actions – if the trees covering it were removed, the temple would collapse. Greedy kapok trees reign here undeniably and take you into a different world. The silence in Ta Phrom is heavy, overwhelming, dreamy.
A Cambodian man without one hand is leading me into newer and newer corners, low reliefs hidden under roots, entrances collapsed under rubble; he cheers up like a child when he sees my blissful face. His chin is pointing to the scattered statues of Buddhas with cut heads in a dark niche. „Khmer Rouge,” he says, „Khmer Rouge,” he repeats quietly. The partisans of the Red Khmers did not hesitate to violate this sacred place in a barbaric way. Even today tourists are warned against turning aside from marked paths, there are still signs: „Danger: land mines!” everywhere. It is difficult to write about Ta Phrom in prose. It is a perfect place for incurable romantics and history enthusiasts; at first it’s breathtaking, then a sigh escapes everyone’s chests, no exceptions. It’s perfect to sit down and write poems. To stay until the evening, when the stars start to write in the sky, write down their stories… To observe how the shadows are creeping on the serpentines of the enormous roots of trees covering the temple… Until a silky night falls down on Angkor and music is heard in the Kingdom of Trees.

A miniature of the universe – Angkor Wat

Although Cambodia has never been conquered by India, it failed to defy India’s overwhelming influence. First legends about the establishment of this country tell about the marriage of a Cambodian princess with an Indian prince who instilled the faith in Indian gods in Kampuchea. Visiting Angkor Wat is thus returning to the roots, to India. A great architectural complex was funded in the 12th c. by Suryavarman II in honour of Vishnu. It still has its charm even though it was taken out of the jungle’s clutches. The symbolism of this place makes you go back in time, to the times before the ancestors of your ancestors, to the time of creation.
We’re getting to the front, along a stone path on a moat covered by water lilies. The turrets of Angkor Wat, emerging in front of us, are the same turrets that can be found on the Cambodian flag. Here is the national pride of Cambodia. A religious anthem to honour Vishnu, carved in stone with a great sense of proportions. The composition and ornaments of Angkor Wat are breathtaking. Just like in Ta Phrom, your head bows before the power of the jungle, here you are astonished with the precision and beauty of reliefs. They stretch for tens of miles and tell stories of Indian epics and poems. Battles between Vishnu and demons can be found on the walls, fights of the royal army, there is Hell and Heaven. Another scenes take you to the main temple which embodies the mythical Mount Meru. The five turrets are the tops of the mountain. The walls of Angkoru are the edges of the world, and the water filling the moat – a vast ocean from which spirits and demons drank the nectar of immortality. The artistry of Khmer sculptors created a wonder – a stone miniature of the universe.

Youth among ruins

Barefoot children are looking at themselves in the water surrounding Angkor Wat. With messy hair, naked, and they are not afraid of strangers. They can’t remember the Zero Year and Pot Fields. They grow up to the age of 8 or 9 in the shadow of ruins that are several hundred years old. The girls, like small apsaras, divine nymphs, are folding their arms. Around there are ruins, temples redolent of peace, whispers of the past war and a jungle hiding the unknown. The world looks completely different there.

A lesson of humility

An expedition to Cambodia can give you different experiences. For some people it’s a way to fulfil thrill-seeking and the uncertainty waiting here on every step. For others it’s a way to appreciate the place and times you were born in. Having travelled through Cambodia, many people bless in mind their own country, where you can move freely, not coming across signs with mine warnings. A walk across Ta Phrom is a lesson of humility towards nature. The time spent in a place where only nature rules allows you to gain a perspective on your life. I want to go back to Cambodia even though I was writing these lines with mixed feelings during nights. Volunteers who want to teach Cambodian children English are welcome.

Images © Fleur van Monsjou