I was having one of those rambling conversations with the Aussie who owns the B&B where I was staying in Siem Reap and found myself saying that what I missed in Cambodia were the temples like the ones in Thailand and Laos, two countries I had just visited. He was rather aghast for hadn’t I just visited Angkor where the temples were built for the gods?
But Angkor is about ancient glories, now “rediscovered” and restored. Those temples are not animated, not part of people’s everyday lives. And where were the monks? This is a Buddhist country but the few monasteries I saw were uninviting, too new, their colours all wrong. I was unaware of anyone visiting them and didn’t see stands with marigolds and banana-leaf towers for sale outside their walls.
I stayed across the road from a monastery in Phnom Penh and occasionally saw monks on their morning rounds. They travelled in pairs, always just two and not a line of them as you would see in other countries. One carried an umbrella to shelter them from the sun, something else I had never seen on morning rounds. They collected money, not sticky rice and fruit, and the alms ceremony was private, the person giving alms kneeling before the two monks who chanted the blessing over them.
Cambodia was once considered the most Buddhist country in Southeast Asia but that changed when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Then most of the temples were turned into prisons or pigsties or torn down. In fact, all religion was banned and the feeding of monks became a crime punishable by death. Within four years the monk population dwindled from 60,000 to fewer than 1,000. Where did they go? Most went to their death in one of the “killing fields” around the country.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge (a left-wing Communist movement known in English as the “Red Cambodian”) introduced a radical agrarian revolution. They wanted to completely restructure Cambodian society and tried to do this by forcing people to leave the cities and systematically killing about two million of them, mainly from the educated and middle classes. They also tried to destroy all forms of artistic expression and many classical dancers, writers and artists were executed. Angkor was miraculously spared.
There are two monuments to those who died in the Killing Fields and if you visit them you will understand why it has taken the country so long to get back up again. One is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, which was once a school but turned into a place of detention, interrogation and death under the orders of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. The classrooms became small cells for prisoners and the front of the buildings were covered in barbed wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by jumping down. Photos of the many who were killed there look out at you.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is about 15 km out of the city, easy enough to reach by tuk-tuk. It is the most famous of the 300 Killing Fields spread around the country. There is an audio tour of the grounds that ends at a Memorial Stupa. The person on the tape talks about how people were killed, about the grave where they found 166 victims without heads, the glass box with victim’s bones and teeth, another with their clothing, and stories of survivors. The stupa marks the location of 125 mass graves, 43 of which remain untouched, and is a memorial to the 17,000 people executed there. The skulls of 8,000 victims are displayed, many of them bludgeoned to death to save bullets. I chose not to take a photo of the skulls.
Pot Pol died in 1998 and a war-crimes tribunal was formed only in 2005 to hear cases of those accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Only one sentence has been passed and that was for the man who ran the Toul Sleng torture center.
Cambodia is now a young country, with more than 50 percent of the population under age 21. The tuk-tuk driver who drove me around Phnom Penh quietly told me that some people say the Killing Fields never happened. I later read that it is not openly discussed.
But even an outsider can tell that the monks were made to disappear.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012