Cambodian Temples of the Killing Fields
Jan 20, 2002
David Rich 1200 Words
T h e T e m p l e s o f t h e K i l l i n g F i e l d s
We went to Cambodia to see the temples at Siem Reap, from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to the exquisite Banteay Srei, but the ghosts of the Killing Fields dogged our every step. The specter of the Killing Fields was particularly vivid to Ronnie, who drove us around in a Datsun so beat up, it rasped, clunking around the temples for three days. Ronnie had avoided the extermination of the Killing Fields by hiding out in the remote forests of northern Cambodia, speaking to no one while surviving four long years on a few hundred of the millions of cobras populating Southeast Asia.
Ronnie added something like, "And don't forget the crunchy insects." "Insects" wasn't the word he used but we got the general idea when he pantomimed with a real live grasshopper that had flown onto the car at one of our stops, snatching it faster than I could see, like those fast-draw guys who ask, "Would you like to see that again?" Other than the word for "insects" his English was superb. From his description I could almost taste braised cobra, flavored like chicken, though he had meager opportunity to cook his prey. We could also taste those nasty tobacco-spitting grasshoppers for which Ronnie was visibly thankful. Crunch. I couldn't believe he'd done that, faster than you could say riki-tiki-tavi. It was my fault for asking Ronnie how he existed out in the wilds as far away as possible from other human beings, in the company of cobras, to avoid Pol Pot.
The temples were built from 802 to the 1400s, their construction ending scant years before Columbus headed west. Their beauty helped counteract the horror described by Robbie. The best known of the 295 temples was Angkor Wat (1113-1150), a square kilometer complex, perfectly symmetrical, bordered by a wide moat and accessible to non-swimmers by a stone-carved bridge from the west. The temple sat smack-dab in the center of the compound, 660 feet tall, surrounded by rectangles of continuous galleries and hundred-foot palm trees. The northwest reflecting pool was perfectly placed for the pictures you've always seen of Angkor Wat: one of the three archeological wonders of the world along with Peru's Machu Picchu and the Rose City of Petra in Jordan.
Angkor Wat's first level contained the world's largest series of detailed stone carvings, primarily depicting Hindu epics. The second floor had housed 1000 Buddhas where fragments remained, an example of periodic religious tolerance. The third story view was earned by climbing the steepest steps outside Uxmal in Maya-land on the Yucatan peninsula. The dominant sight on the way up was a thicket of butts suspended overhead, wobbling from the strain of forty-five-degree steps. The view of Angkor Wat spread out below counteracted the trauma of the ascent.
Between temples, Robbie told us how his parents were killed, slowly over months, and how his siblings had starved to death because they weren't as adept with cobras, stories heard from witnesses and guards, other relatives, and friends. Twenty-five years later the stench of their passing was practically palpable, partly because we'd visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and knew a shadow of what he spoke.
At flagellation central in Tuol Sleng, a former high school, thirty-two prisoners were chained feet to feet in each ten-by-ten-foot room and tortured an average of five months before being taken to the local Killing Fields, clubbed in the head, and toppled into mass graves. Children were disposed of by a whack against a tree. Many victims were decapitated and most women died naked.
Angkor Thom (1181-1219) meant "great city" and it surely was, covering four times the area of Angkor Wat, it's more famous cousin a mile away. Angkor Thom was crammed with remarkable ruins. The gamut ran from the sprawling Bayon in the center, 216 smiling faces thirty feet tall on fifty-four all-seeing pedestals, to the Terrace of the Elephants, a hundred yards of life-sized elephants popping out of a solid stone wall, to the Terrace of the Leper King with galleries of bas-reliefs and a statue of the Leper King himself, who perhaps was Jayavarman VII, in charge of the slave labor who built the place. This left 293 temple compounds and Robbie had saved the best for later.
Robbie bounced us jarringly out to the jewel of Siem Reap, Banteay Srei (967-973 C.E.), expanding on how to properly stalk, skin and devour a cobra, chewy piece by resilient morsel, adding how grasshoppers tasted nutty. We escaped to the "Citadel of Women," the intricately carved pink sandstone of Bantaey Srei, where we'd arrived at sunrise when the color was most spectacular. The eerie light backlit vast multitudes of exquisitely carved temples glowing pinkly in the dawn, making Banteay Srei a photographer's Mecca, the very best of the best.
We could stay no longer, listening daily to the history of Ronnie. Fortunately, many fast hydrofoils left Siem Reap every morning at 7 a.m. For the first time in memory, I was grateful for a 5 a.m. wake-up call.
Super fast boats were anchored half aground at the end of a road carved in foot-deep corduroy, ending abruptly at floating villages of Vietnamese where Ronnie dropped us at dawn. We climbed on top of a hydrofoil and waved, staring at Ronnie's dust-enshrouded Datsun bouncing along until it disappeared, though he'd never escape our minds. We sat broiling on the hydrofoil over four hours down the Tonle Sap River to Phnom Penh thinking about what we'd seen and heard, practically smelled and tasted. The first two hours left me alone with my thoughts across a lake so vast no land could be seen on either side. The last two hours along the river's enclosing banks was an alluring relief, sprinkled with net fishermen and bounded by floating villages. I thought I was feeling better.
The charm lasted until arrival in Phnom Penh with its curious history, the most ghastly and expensive of Southeast Asian capitols. It had been evacuated during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, remaining vacant from 1975 to 1979, except for prisoners destined to visit the Killing Fields. Neither the capitol nor the countryside had recovered from four years of massacres.
Upon hearing the story of Ronnie people would ask politely, "How many died?" From the look on their faces, I knew what they were thinking: Surely not more than on 9/11? There has never been the outrage over the Killing Fields as over the demise of the World Trade Center, and their courses persist in divergence. Precisely nothing has occurred as a result of the Killing Fields; no indictments and little outrage. Pol Pot is dead, but his three top commanders reside quietly in the rural northwest of Cambodia, unmolested, protected from investigation by a Chinese veto on the U.N. Security Council. The Khmer Rouge was aping Chairman Mao's leadership in the Cultural Revolution, purging intellectuals and suspicious citizens from the population of Cambodia. The temples at Siem Reap are appropriate memorials to the 1,700,000 souls who were tortured and executed in the numerous local Killing Fields, 560 dead Cambodians for each person who died on 9/11.