Thursday, April 13, 2006

Kingdom of Cambodia

So our next stop through southeast Asia was the incredible country of Cambodia. Now, I gotta be honest...before this trip, all I knew about Cambodia was a vague (and I mean vague) recollection of some cruel genocide at some point in time. And even though our stay was quite short, it was an action packed trip with a ton of culture, history and as always, shopping in the agenda.

We flew into the capital of Phnom Penh, which sits at the union of 3 rivers and is an extremely charming French-influenced Indochinese city. So, time for a few facts..early Cambodia (super early, 100 A.D) was heavily influenced by India (love it!). In fact, the religion, art and even language took deep root in this period, known as "Funan" era which lasted well into the 6th century. Besides Indian influenced rule, Cambodia was ruled by leaders from Thailand, Vietnam and Mongols before the French just basically took over in the late 1800's. The reason for all of these fun facts..besides the fact that they are of course fun, is that it sets the scene for this city. There is a cool blend of these different cultures and ideas. We didn't have much time but we were able to see the ancient Silver Pagoda, the Buddist temple-monasteries known as Wats, what remains of the French colonial architecture and enjoy a fabulous Italian dinner along the serene riverfront.

We actually met up our friends Seema and Anar who were part of our Cambodian adventure tour...and after a nice happy lunch, we were in for a brutally eye opening look at this country's bloody history. So, as I was eluding to, Cambodia's history is not only violent but actually scary recent. The rule of the Khmer Rouge (which began in the early 1970's), started initially as an offshoot from a revolutionary movement against the widespread corruption that was destroying the country.


The initial intention of this regime was to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant dominated farming cooperative, however the way this was gone about was completely appalling in that it was executed as a "cleansing" mission. A couple of the places we visited were S21, which was a high school turned into a torture and dentention center and then the Killing Fields, where in the span of 3 years, 17,000 innocent people were basically taken to be killed and buried in mass graves. An extremely disturbing fact that we learned was that in the 3 year period of Khmer Rouge (1975-1978), approximately 2 million people were killed. It was extremely depressing and quite surreal being there, in those fields, seeing and stepping on the skulls and bones of the victims that still lie embedded in the ground and to know that there were numerous mass graves yet to be unearthed, made us shudder and think that was some type of ancient cruelty from centuries ago rather than just 30 was devastating to see how much evil there is despite how far we've come.
On a lighter note (I'm sorry..there is NO good transition from that..I tried to think of soemething witty but I thought it would just come out tacky) after we drank ourselves to numb those disturbing sights, we headed out to the city of Siem Reap.

Here lies the absolutely breathing temples of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Cambodian empire from the 9th to 14th century. We got a 3 day pass to try to see as many of the more than hundreds of temples that were built that basically represented the political, social and religious epicenter of a civilization that had a population of 1 million people (that's a lot of people in the 10th century)!! As I mentioned earlier, this period was heavily influenced by India and therefore in these temples, reside a large number of Hindu sculptures and dieties. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat, which we visited at sunrise and was awe-inspiring in its magnitude and beauty. Some of our favorite temples were the Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm and the Bayon. It was indescribeable walking around and immersing ourselves in these beautifully sculpted relics for 3 entire days.

Not to put a damper on things, but of course, these structures were also all heavily bombed and damaged during the Khmer Rounge, but thankfully are undergoing serious rennovation. All in all, it was definitely one of the most spectacular sights on our entire trip and it is amazing that these ancient ruins were just recently discovered in the 1800's.
Next, we went back to Phnom Penh, and relaxed for an evening before we headed out for our last world trip destination: Vietnam!!

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