Siem Reap, Cambodia
19.12.2012 - 21.12.2012
DISCLAIMER: My goal with these entries is to give you accurate insights into the places that I have been fortunate enough to explore. Sometimes these accounts are not easy to read, but they depict my reflections in a raw and honest manner. Please note that this post contains disturbing history and pictures that may be difficult for some to view. However, I encourage you to view this post in its entirety as it contains important history and possible ways we can make our future brighter than our past.
When I arrived in Siem Reap, I was met at the airport by a lovely Cambodian man who simply introduced himself as Mr. Jim. Mr. Jim was tasked with taking me from the airport to the hostel which was a somewhat perilous journey for the uninitiated such as myself. Although the highway is only one lane in each direction, the locals have implemented a three-lane system in each direction with rampant precarious passing. The best way I can describe it is a constant game of chicken...but on a freeway.
The talented Mr. Jim
When I finally arrived at the hostel, I thanked god for retaining all of my appendages and began to formulate the details of my plan for this stop in the journey. The main purpose of my trip to Cambodia was to visit the ruins of the ancient Angkor empire. I have been fascinated by this kingdom ever since I read a brilliant account given by Jared Diamond in his book, “Collapse.” The kingdom was founded by King Jayavarman II in 802 CE and was finally sacked by the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya (see previous blog post for history of Ayutthaya) in 1431. Research was recently published showing that it was in fact the largest urban center in preindustrial times with the civilization covering over 1,000 square kilometers (Evans et al., 2007).
The Angkor kings invested a considerable amount in an extremely sophisticated irrigation system that spanned the empire. When the population finally exceeded its carrying capacity, the water table fell below the line of irrigation system and critical parts of the kingdom were deprived of water resources. This resource shortage was instrumental in the eventual victory of the Ayutthayan empire over the Angkor empire. Following the fall, the population migrated to Longvek. The grounds of Angkor would lay untouched until French explorers discovered the massive kingdom in the late 19th century.
I set off to explore the ruins with Mr. Jim at the wheel after I had unpacked and gathered the necessary gear. He first took me to the Banteay Srey temple at the Northeastern end of the former empire, and we worked our way through the numerous sites in the fallen civilization. I was impressed by the intricate stone carvings that adorned the doorways, pillars and wall panels in each of the sites.
The road to Angkor
The massive stairs at Pre Rup
The smiling faces of Bayon
Bathed in sunlight
One of my favorite sites was Ta Prohm, a former monastery and university formed under King Jayavarman VII. This temple is unique because many massive trees have grown through the ruins with the roots artistically covering the base structures. This site is also renowned for its appearance in the movie “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie.
Masonry at Ta Prohm
In the shadows
A view unobstructed
On closer inspection
Mr. Jim took me to a lovely traditional Khmer restaurant when I decided I finally needed a break. I had a delicious mild green curry with spinach served nicely in a coconut.
Eating a delicious traditional Khmer dish
...And apparently making a friend in the process
Two Cambodian girls playing outside
When I finally felt refueled, I headed out to my last stop on my Angkor trek - the famed Angkor Wat. This was the main temple of the civilization, and the massive size of the structure is nothing short of impressive. I was able to explore the structure a bit before sunset and found countless sandstone murals throughout the edifice.
A view from afar
Serpent guarding the temple
From the inside of the complex
The sun starting to fade
It wasn't exactly an easy walk down
When the sun was about to clock out for the day, I hurried outside of the structure so that I could get a few shots in the remaining light. I positioned myself just to the right of the temple and got a few great shots as the sky shifted through the spectrum.
It was just a bit humid
Angkor in all its majesty
The silhouettes of Angkor
The sun making its final descent
I was also fortunate enough to learn a considerable amount of contemporary history during my time in Cambodia. To give myself a break from the temples, I visited the local War Museum which was staffed by former soldiers in the conflict between Cambodia and the Khmer Rogue.
In 1970, the United States feared that an underground Marxist uprising would soon allow Cambodia to fall into the hands of Communists. As a prevention tactic, they supported and financed a coup d'etat of the ruling government by General Lon Nol. The general successfully drove the Communists to the North, but financing from China allowed the Communists led by Pol Pot to take the capital in 1975. Pol Pot began a process of "social re-engineering" which placed people from urban areas into forced labor camps in the countryside. It is currently estimated that during the 15 year war, Pol Pot was instrumental in over one million people dying from torture, starvation or disease. Pol Pot's Khmer Rogue and Vietnamese army (composed of forces from the United States, Vietnam and Cambodia) laid over 16 million mines during the conflict.
My guide at the museum was a former soldier named Sonh, who had lost his left leg to a mine during the war. He said that there were between 4 to 6 million mines still left in the country. You read that correct - 4 to 6 MILLION. We talked at length, and he recommended that I visit a museum in the North end of town to learn more about the clean-up effort.
Different forms of ordinance that have been unearthed by the Cambodian Government
My guide at the Military Museum who was brave enough to share his story
The Siem Reap Landmine Museum details the efforts of Cambodian activist Aki Ra and his organization, Landmine Relief Fund, to demine Cambodia. Aki Ra was a former child soldier who was given a gun at the age of 10 and forced to fight as a child soldier for the Khmer Rogue. He was also forced to lay mines (also known as ordinance) and became an expert at working with numerous types of explosives. He would later defect to Vietnam and fight against the Khmer Rogue until the war ended. In 1993, Aki Ra joined the United Nations in their efforts to demine Cambodia. He would later start his own organization which has cleared over 50,000 pieces of ordinance since its founding. In 2010, Aki Ra was honored at the CNN heroes banquet for his efforts and accomplishments in landmine disposal and removal.
Arriving at the museum
Munitions disposed by Aki Ra and his team
Warning sign found in front of numerous fields in the rural areas of Cambodia
Another warning sign but tailored to children; an overwhelming number of landmine victim are small boys
Speaks for itself
CNN Heroes Award presented to Aki Ra in 2010
When I arrived at the museum, I was admittedly a bit surprised to be greeted by a cordial American wearing Vietnam-era BDUs. He introduced himself as Bill Morse and began to tell me his story. He had been in the Vietnam war and had heard about the efforts of Aki Ra from a friend back in the United States. He was so inspired by his story that he flew to Cambodia to meet Aki Ra. He told Aki Ra that he would help the demining efforts in whatever way he could and began to raise money for the organization in the US. He grew such an affinity for the cause that he and his wife decided to move to Cambodia to assist full time in 2010.
My guide at the museum, Bill Morse
Bill and his wife, Jill
My visit to these museums profoundly affected me. It reinforced my belief that war is an awful thing where many innocent civilians and combatants die for causes that are often unclear. However, there are still many people in this world dedicated to ensuring that atrocities like these are prevented in future generations. Cambodia has one of the highest amputee rates in the world as a legacy of this awful war with an estimated 40,000 amputees living throughout the country. There are unfortunately new casualties every month from these destructive devices (see story below), and I applaud the efforts of organizations like these to prevent further casualties from occurring.
From October 2012
It is easy to quickly regress from a desire for activism to despair when I experience things like this. Although I know I cannot help this cause directly at this time, I decided that I could show my support through a $50 donation to their mission. I urge you to be unconventional this Christmas and give someone a gift by making a donation in their name to a cause that you support. Whether its the Landmine Relief Fund or another NGO, individuals fighting for those less fortunate work tirelessly to make the world a better place. Whether it's $5 or $10,000, your contribution could make someone's holidays just a little brighter and could even save a life.