Cambodia: Serpents, skulls, spiders & Siem Reap

by Betsy Herbert

Children playing in the city of Battambang, Cambodia.

Children playing in the city of Battambang, Cambodia.

Most people come to Cambodia because the fabulous temples of Angkor Wat are on their bucket lists. Many tours of Cambodia, though, save Angkor Wat for last. What you see on your way to Angkor Wat will no doubt change you, shock you, deepen your experience of Cambodia, and maybe even inspire you to act on this experience.

Prelude to Cambodia. When we left Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, our tour group was dreading the 7-hour ride on a public bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We assumed the bus would be hot, crowded, dirty, and generally uncomfortable. We were blown away when the shiny, new bus arrived on schedule, complete with A/C, upholstered seats, and wi-fi!

But our mood soured when we arrived at the Vietnam/Cambodia border in 90 degree heat, where hundreds of bus passengers were clamoring to cross the border, crowding into a small, stuffy building to wait (standing room only) for a few Vietnamese border crossing agents to process each passport to allow its holder out of Vietnam.

After about an hour and half, all of our tour group’s passports were processed, except one … you guessed it . . . mine. This time, the Vietnamese agents did not want to allow me to leave the country because my Vietnam visa was not valid (my photograph was stapled in the wrong place). I explained that this visa was issued to me by Vietnamese immigration in Hanoi only 10 days before (after I was detained at the Lao/Vietnam border for several hours). I was now mortified at the thought that a whole busload of tired people would have to wait for my second visa problem to be resolved.

Thanks to our bus driver who intervened, a Vietnamese clerk made a phone call to the Hanoi immigration office that had issued me the visa and it was all sorted out in about 15 minutes. Onwards to Phnom Pehn!

Serpents.

Phnom Pehn is a lovely city in terms of its architecture, wide boulevards, plazas and river views.

Phnom Pehn's architecture blends French and Cambodian/Khmer cultural styles. This stone balustrade along a bridge in Phnom Pehn uses the image of the mythical seven-headed serpent that represents power, water, and fertility in ancient Khmer culture.

Phnom Pehn's architecture blends French and Cambodian/Khmer cultural styles. This stone balustrade along a bridge in Phnom Pehn uses the image of the mythical seven-headed serpent that represents power, water, and fertility in ancient Khmer culture.

Skulls.

Undoubtedly, though, the most indelible impressions of Phnom Pehn are two landmarks of Cambodia’s recent gruesome political and social history, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Memorial, infamously known as “The Killing Fields.”

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that was transformed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into a torture center, where more than 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured from 1971 to 1975.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that was transformed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into a torture center, where more than 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured from 1971 to 1975.

Just outside of the city, in what at first seems to be a peaceful rural retreat, lies the Choeung Ek Memorial, infamously known as “The Killing Fields.” The American movie of the same name was filmed on site. This was the execution ground for the torture victims of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Pehn.

The Killing Fields are covered with mass graves and execution sites, some designed specifically for women and children. Nearly 9,000 corpses have been exhumed. The atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge executioners, as described by the guides, were horrific beyond belief. Many visitors on the day that I was there were visibly shaken and sobbing.

Four-foot bamboo pole fences surround the execution sites of the Killing Fields. Over the years, visitors have draped countless Buddhist prayer bracelets on the fences as tribute to those who died here.

Four-foot bamboo pole fences surround the execution sites of the Killing Fields. Over the years, visitors have draped countless Buddhist prayer bracelets on the fences as tribute to those who died here.

In the center is a Buddhist shrine or stupa where some 8,000 skulls of the victims are stored. You can pick up a flower at the entrance to the stupa, go inside and view the skulls—on display behind glass—and pay your respects.  

On display behind glass are some of the 8,000 skulls of victims executed by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Pehn.

On display behind glass are some of the 8,000 skulls of victims executed by the Khmer Rouge at the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Pehn.


After returning to Phnom Pehn, our group was somber. We strolled along the Mekong river to the Sisowath Quay and boarded a river boat for a quiet cruise around the harbor at sunset. It was a good way to reflect on what we’d seen earlier that day.

A quiet river boat cruise on the Mekong River in Phnom Pehn was a good way to reflect on what we'd seen earlier that day.

A quiet river boat cruise on the Mekong River in Phnom Pehn was a good way to reflect on what we'd seen earlier that day.

Who the hell was Pol Pot? Pol Pot and his infamous Khmer Rouge movement took over Cambodia in 1975--shortly after the end of the Vietnam War--and ruthlessly ruled the country until 1979. Pol Pot's vision was to transform Cambodia into a communist, classless, peasant society.  His methods were brutal and treacherous, resulting in the murder of 1/4 of the Cambodian people. He targeted anyone who was educated, professional or a civil servant, tricking them into identifying themselves, and then rounding them up, imprisoning them, torturing them, and executing them.

Same as it ever was. The Khmer Rouge was finally deposed in 1979 by Vietnam's invading army, but Pol Pot died in 1998 without being brought to justice. Some of Pol Pot's commanders, including the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, defected to the Vietnamese just before the Khmer Rouge was driven out.

In 2014, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal of the United Nations convicted several of Pol Pot's top officials of genocide and war crimes, after many years of trial. However, Prime Minister Hun Sen has obstructed further trials of Khmer Rouge officials (such as himself) who switched alliances to Vietnam shortly before the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen has been Prime Minister of Cambodia for some 30 years, where he is essentially a dictator, as the lead of the "Cambodian People's Party." Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights violations around the world, summarizes Cambodia's current government in this way:

"Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been in power since 1985. His rule continues to rely on security force violence and politically motivated prosecutions. Security forces enjoy impunity for serious human rights abuses, including killings and torture. The government often restricts peaceful protests, and has imposed legislation regulating civil society and the internet that violates the rights to freedom of association and expression. Forced evictions and illegal land acquisitions by politically powerful individuals and their business partners cause social conflict. Government officials and judges are mired in corruption. Garment industry workers, who are mostly women, suffer sexual discrimination and other violations of their rights." [https://www.hrw.org/asia/cambodia] [01/31/2016. Italics are mine.]

Corruption and environmental degradation. Of particular interest to me, as an environmental writer, is the phrase in italics above, "forced evictions and illegal land acquisitions by politically powerful individuals and their business partners."

Cambodia's forests are being logged at an unprecedented rate. According to one report, [http://forest-trends.org/releases/uploads/Cambodia%20Concessions%20Report%20small%20size.pdf] between 2004 and 2014, the amount of land leased to corporations had almost quadrupled. More than 3/4 of the land granted to corporations by the government is located within the boundaries of Cambodia's most prized forests, which are designated as "protected areas."

In its quest to boost the county's economy in the short term, the Cambodian government awards corporations a long-term lease to clear land for "agricultural development" within older mature forests. But in reality, no agricultural development occurs rather, the land is heavily logged. The effect is to convert the best forest ecosystems in Cambodia into huge tree plantations which do not support the biodiversity or watershed services that an old forest provides.

While there are Cambodian laws on the books to protect the environment and indigenous people’s rights, several reports cite serious flaws in enforcement. The government threatens and intimidates local people who protest these controversial land giveaways. This is a serious environmental problem with long-term consequences.

I was able to discuss some of these political/environmental issues with several Cambodians who will remain anonymous. They want Americans to know what is going on in Cambodia and how difficult it is to change from inside this oppressive country. My conversations made me appreciate how valuable our First Amendment rights are under the Constitution of the United States.

Spiders.

The dietary choices of the Cambodian people are somewhat more far-ranging than the typical dietary choices in the West. Insects and spiders are widely consumed in Cambodia. Though I could not force myself to even sample these delicacies, I had to admit that they're a great, low-cost source of protein. Nuff said.

Some of the local snacks offered for sale on the road from Phnom Pehn. they include grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, and grubs.

Some of the local snacks offered for sale on the road from Phnom Pehn. they include grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, and grubs.

Fried tarantulas were offered at a local restaurant outside of Phomn Pehn. Some of our tour group chowed down, but not me!

Fried tarantulas were offered at a local restaurant outside of Phomn Pehn. Some of our tour group chowed down, but not me!

Spider's revenge? Not sure. But when we visited the city of Battambang we decided to join the locals for a ride on their famous bamboo train. It's a tourist draw, but it is also used to tranport rice and other goods from Battambang. The trains no longer run out here, so the locals have put motors on small platform cars like these. 

That's me in the front on the left sitting with my Australian travel buddies on a "Bamboo Train" car. We had a wild ride!

That's me in the front on the left sitting with my Australian travel buddies on a "Bamboo Train" car. We had a wild ride!

We headed down the tracks just before sunset, saying hello to the locals, and noting tree branches full of spiders above.

We headed down the tracks just before sunset, saying hello to the locals, and noting tree branches full of spiders above.

We traveled along the tracks in a caravan of these cars for a few miles just before sunset, passing under tree canopies where huge spiders hovered above us in their webs. I was glad I had my hat. After we watched the sunset, we returned to the station, but now it was dark. I tried not to think about the spiders above, which we could no longer see.

After some time, I heard some screams from the car behind us. When we got back, one of the passengers from that car told us that after huge spider had fallen on his wife's leg, he swatted it and flung it off the car. No harm done. I was so glad it wasn't me, because I probably would have flung myself off the train.

Siem Reap.

We left Phnom Pehn headed for the city of Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat. On the way, we stopped to visit a cottage industry and fair trade organization called the Santuk Silk Farm, where local women are trained in the traditional craft of silk weaving. This farm does not raise its own silk worms; the silk worm cocoons are imported from Thailand. It would require a much larger piece of land than Santuk Silk Farm has in order to grow the number of mulberry trees needed to supply the quantity of raw silk that they use for weaving.

Spinning silk thread from silk worm cocoons at Santuk Silk Farm on the way from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat.

Spinning silk thread from silk worm cocoons at Santuk Silk Farm on the way from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat.

We then headed to Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake that serves as Cambodia's primary source of fish, and is home to the famous floating villages. The size of the lake naturally increases four-fold during the monsoon season, forming the center of the Mekong River floodplain in Cambodia. Water washes down from the surrounding forests during the monsoon. Because of the Cambodian government's practices of awarding public lands to private commercial forestry operations here and throughout Cambodia, and because of overfishing and development in the floodplain, this invaluable natural resource is at great risk. 

We hired a boat to take us out on the Tonle Sap to view the floating villages. The poverty here is evident, and apparently typical of the rural areas of Cambodia. We admired the resourcefulness and spirit of the people who call this place their home.

Two young boys from the floating villages of Tonle Sap at the helm of our river boat.

Two young boys from the floating villages of Tonle Sap at the helm of our river boat.

Life in a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Life in a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Angkor Wat.

I’m glad we waited until near the end of our Cambodian trip to visit the world-famous ancient temples of the Angkor Wat complex, the most popular destination for travelers to Cambodia. The Angkor temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries when the ancient Khmer empire included all of Southeast Asia. The architecture was designed to reflect the balance, symmetry and composition of the cosmic world as perceived by its religious rulers.

The most famous temples of this 160 square kilometer site are Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm, my favorite. Below are some photos:

Exterior reliefs at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Exterior reliefs at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Receiving a blessing and a woven bracelet from a Buddhist monk at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Receiving a blessing and a woven bracelet from a Buddhist monk at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Angkor Wat and reflection.

Angkor Wat and reflection.

Angkor Wat at sunrise.

Angkor Wat at sunrise.

The crowds at Angkor Wat just before sunrise.

The crowds at Angkor Wat just before sunrise.

Intermission between dance performances at Angkor Wat.

Intermission between dance performances at Angkor Wat.

Angkor Thom in late afternoon.

Angkor Thom in late afternoon.

Entrance to Ankor Thom.

Entrance to Ankor Thom.

Huge stone head outside the entrance to Angkor Thom.

Huge stone head outside the entrance to Angkor Thom.

Entrance to Ta Prohm, which is being reclaimed by the jungle.

Entrance to Ta Prohm, which is being reclaimed by the jungle.

Tree growing from ancient walls of Ta Prohm.

Tree growing from ancient walls of Ta Prohm.

Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm were truly inspriing sites, and a great way to end a fascinating time in Cambodia.

After my tour in Cambodia, I returned to Thailand, to relax on the beach in Phuket for 10 days. I would then be off to Perth, Australia.