The shocking thing I learned in Cambodia

Say you’re an adult American who went to decent elementary and high schools; maybe even attended a good college. At some point during your life, you become aware there’s an amazing edifice in Egypt called the Great Pyramid of Giza. Although Egypt today is a pretty grubby, unstable place, you like to travel and resolve to see it. Only after arriving do you learn that Egypt once was the center of an advanced civilization, one that shaped a big portion of the ancient world. You might be shocked by the fact that somehow, you never heard of this.

That’s how I feel about Cambodia. Prior to this trip, I associated this little country only with American bombing raids toward the end of the war in Vietnam and the genocide that took place during Pol Pot’s regime. And, oh yeah. The largest religious building in the world was there, legendary for its beauty.

Nat before the moat
The moat of Angkor Wat. You walk across the causeway to get to the wall.

Travelers to Vietnam, like us, often tack on a side trip to this place, Angkor Wat. The closest Cambodian town to it is Siem Reap, which Steve and I reached Saturday via our speedboat up the river from Phnom Penh. With the help of our elegant Golden Butterfly guesthouse ($33 a night including a free half-hour transfer from the boat and two one-hour full massages), we arranged for a tuk-tuk driver and English-speaking guide to take us to the famous temple first thing Sunday morning. My first clue that this structure is more than just an building came when we drove along the man-made moat that surrounds it. As wide as 2 football fields, it forms a perfect rectangle almost a mile long in one direction by more than three/quarters of a mile in the other. Beyond the distant inner side of the moat, we could discern a great wall.

I’d seen plenty of pictures of Angkor Wat over the years, but none of them communicate the vast scale of the complex.After climbing out of the tuk-tuk, we crossed a long elevated causeway that took us over the moat. We passed through beautiful stone gates, then crossed an even longer, more majestic causeway spanning a vast green expanse. Only past a second gate does one truly behold the wat itself, composed of 5 separate towers, the central 100-foot-tall one built on three levels.All the central towersWe explored the first and second levels of the inner compouScary staircasend, then climbed a scarily vertical set of (modern) wooden stairs to get to the top of the central tower. There we surveyed the grand and beautiful composition surrounding us.

Not just the big picture is mind-boggling. The ancient Khmer laborers built most of these structures from big gray sandstone blocks that were quarried more than 30 miles away and floated down the river on rafts. Craftsman carved beautiful images on a staggering percent of their surfaces, images that tell elaborate stories from Hindu mythology.

Carvings detail
One tiny section of the ceiling

At some point, I realized this was the first time in my life I’d been in a country where Hinduism is practiced. The wat was built by Suryavarman VII (between 1113 and 1152) to honor the Hindu god Vishnu. This great Khmer king was renowned for his tolerance, however, and also revered the Buddha (just as many Cambodians today observe practices from both religions). He did this while reigning over the greatest expanse of territory in Khmer history, including big chunks of what today is Vietnam, Thailand, and southern Laos. Like the Romans, Khmer engineers created a far-flung, complex network of roads and irrigation channels that laced together the realm.

Buddha gate
This wonderful gate has four large faces of the Buddha carved into it, one on each side.

They also built temples; more than 1800 of them have been identified in what today is Cambodia, according to our excellent guide, Tep Nat. In the two days we spent with him, we didn’t get close to seeing any of the oldest Khmer temples (some go back to the 600s). But the guide took us to a few built in the mid-900s. He showed us the celebrated Ta Prohm temple, crumbling and literally being consumed by gigantic trees (the movie Tomb Raider was filmed there.) Although some sites were crowded with cocky young Chinese Beautiful People and boisterous Korean groups and a potpourri of other international visitors, Nat several times led us to back entrances and adjoining pathways through the fantastic green cathedral of jungle, where we were the solitary worshippers.

Strangler tree

Fallen column

Like Varik, our guide to the 60s architecture in Phnom Penh, Nat a few times expressed regret at all that the Khmer people have lost over the centuries. Still, things sometimes improve. At one point, Nat mentioned he was keeping a written record of his life to pass on to his three young children. That memoir is already more than an inch thick. Just a baby when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, he lost his father, two brothers, and numerous other relatives during that dreadful period. Life as a subsistence farmer (how most Cambodians today survive) didn’t seem promising to him, so he worked for a while as a fisherman and then a waiter (in Phnom Penh). Civil war — between Cambodian government forces and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge — raged during most of his childhood and teenage years. That conflict killed around 5 million Cambodians (dwarfing Pol Pot’s toll of 2 million victims). But the war finally ended in 1998, and Nat moved to Siem Reap the next year, sensing opportunites there. He did odd jobs at first. Then he bought a motorbike to make a living with it, then moved on to tuk-tuk driving (struggling along the way to teach himself English). He finally saved up enough to go to guide school and got his guide license in 2007.

He confessed to us that his dream was to one day save up enough money to visit Singapore. He yearned to see what life in a modern country was like. I could have told him. But sometimes you have to go to a place yourself to get it.


An alternative to the killing fields

“You want go to killing fields?” “Go to killing fields?” We must have heard that question 20 times during our brief stay in Phnom Penh. I found it repugnant — Cambodia’s ghastly genocide turned into the town’s biggest tourist attraction. As Steve points out, I shouldn’t blame the Cambodians. We’ve paid our entrance fees at plenty of other testaments to human barbarism around the globe. And I think visitors to Cambodia should know about what happened here (now almost 40 years ago). Almost everything I know about it comes from reading A Cambodian Odyssey, the memoir written by Haing Ngor — the Cambodian doctor-turned-actor who won an Academy Award for his performance in the famous movie. His book recounted the horrible events so vividly, I’ve never been able to shake the memory of them. It also made me aware that virtually the whole country became a killing field during the four bloody years during which the Khmer Rouge rampaged. So why go to one particular spot?

But what else to do on the single day we had to explore the city? (Although we arrived at mid-day Thursday, the heat was so stunning, we couldn’t drag ourselves away from our hotel’s awesome pool.) Fortunately, I had posed this question to the Goddess Google, and she had whispered back: take one of the Khmer Architecture Tours.

Online, I learned that Phnom Penh has a tiny private organization dedicated to educating visitors about the architectural innovation that flowered in the city during the 1960s. Its members give a couple of private tours; one concentrates on the work of the Vann Molyvann. I’d never heard of the guy, but the website made it sound like he was a major figure in architecture, designing at least 100 significant works between 1960 and 1972 (when the looming catastrophic political events prompted him to leave the country). Steve and I love looking at buildings, so we booked the Molyvann private tour ($30 per person, including the cost of hiring a tuk-tuk for half a day and a professional architect to serve as guide.)

Phnom Penh's central market, designed by French architects and recently refurbished, is a cool and elegant architectural icon.

We were scheduled to do that at 2:30 in the afternoon. In the morning we caught a tuk-tuk and walked around the center of Phnom Penh for 3 hours, following the self-guided map published by the KAT organization. It rained for the first hour, so the heat didn’t feel lethal. Cambodia today is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its capital shows the strain. It has a couple of glitzy high-rises, and some upscale neighborhoods that look almost chic by American standards. It has coffee shops to rival Starbucks and fancy cosmetic stores and at least some gleaming supermarkets. But stinking heaps of garbage collect along plenty of streets, and the power goes out frequently. On our walking tour, we saw structures built at various points in the first half of the 20th century. Though we could see the former beauty of them, most looked sad and unkempt.

While the walking tour was interesting, the highlight of the day was our outing with Varik Roeum, our 23-year-old KAT guide. A charming fellow who just completed his architectural studies a few months ago, he spent almost 4 hours with us, during which we talked about topics ranging from Indochinese alphabets to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. As we chatted, we drove to see three examples of Molyvann’s work: a low-income housing project built between 1965 and 1967, the Teachers Training College facility (now the Institute of Language) built on the Royal University of Phnom Penh campus and inaugurated in 1972, and the massive National Sport Complex dedicated in 1964.

Some of the campus buildings designed by Molyvann
Part of the Foreign Language complex
Details evocative of Angkor Wat

Seeing these buildings, learning from Varik about the innovations that went into their design, made us think: this guy really WAS a genius. His works have the look of the 60s about them — the use of concrete, the sharp geometries. But more than 50 years later, they’re still functioning well, letting in light and air in ways that make them both livable, beautiful, and economical. Molyvann at times pays subtle homage to classical Khmer detailing, but more than anything, we sensed an intelligence keenly attuned to the ever-important question: how can I create a sustainable building that these particular inhabitants at this particular site will be happy living and working in?

“No one is doing ANYTHING like this in Cambodia today!” Varik lamented. Architectural students don’t learn about Molyvann in school; Varik’s passionate enthusiasm only developed after he heard about the KAT group from a fellow student (the group itself was started by a knowledgeable British architect.) At the National Sports Complex, where we watched a horde of Cambodians using the stadium — jogging, strolling, playing soccer on the field — Varik said there were rumors it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for more gleaming, fast-money developments. “I hope it’s just a rumor,” he said. But other Molyvann masterpieces have already fallen victim to the wrecking ball.

The Sports Palace within the complex, with natural light and air flow

I told him I hoped so too. Some Khmer masterpieces have long withstood the attack of brutes and barbarians. Right now we’re blasting up the Tonle Sap River toward the most famous one of all: Angkor Wat.