Lost to the Jungle and Found Again

We left our hotel in Siem Reap at 4:30 a.m., bound for Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. The young man at the front desk was chipper, handing us a small pack lunch of cucumber sandwiches and tiny bananas. We climbed into the tuk tuk and our driver, Mr. Kun, wheeled onto the empty streets and took us up a back road, where the air was cool. We passed women on bicycles carrying bundles of wood, riding the opposite direction, into the city. Morning markets were in full swing, packed with locals. Dogs slept in the road.

When we arrived at the temple the sun was barely hinting at its rise. Hundreds of tourists poured across the stone causeway that spans the moat. The temple is so large, however, that once inside the gates the crowds dispersed easily. The sun came up slowly from behind the cloudy horizon, casting pink and yellow darts onto the cumulus giants huddled in the southern sky. Straight above us the air was crisp and clear. We watched frogs hopping into the reflecting pools. The temperature rose quickly.

Emily and I were on honeymoon in Cambodia. Millions of tourists descend on Angkor each year, boosting the economy of Cambodia but especially the nearby city of Siem Reap. Like us, these tourists make their way to Cambodia primarily to see Angkor, to watch the sun rise above the ancient stone spires.

Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the vast Angkor complex, the crown jewel in a megacity of ruins in western Cambodia. The seat of the Khmer people for hundreds of years, Angkor grew into a sprawling urban center built around sophisticated water management infrastructure and breathtaking religious monuments. By the 15th century the empire had fallen into decline and Angkor was abandoned, swallowed by the jungle. The restoration and preservation of the city began in the 19th century, and today Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the largest archaeological site in the world, spanning more than 100 square miles.

The grand temples were beautiful, but no more so than the anonymous ruins that dot the forest. You can feel the jungle creeping, aching to return to the spaces from which it’s been cleared. Tourists can, and do, go where they please. People climb all over the magnificent hulking stones, even on those that feature intricate bas relief carvings. There are no guards or guardrails prohibiting tourists from causing damage to the temples or to themselves.

It wasn’t surprising that, in the tourist areas, young children were working, selling trinkets to tourists, greeting them in a parade of languages until they hit on the correct tongue. What was surprising was to see just how young the Cambodians are — the median age in Cambodia in 2010 was about 23 years old — and to learn more about how this came to be.

Four days earlier we had been in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, about 200 miles to the southeast of Angkor. We were there to tour the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is a harrowing monument to the defining tragedy of modern Cambodia. The building was originally a high school, but was seized in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge regime and converted into a prison named S-21. It was here that, between 1975–79, the Khmer Rouge regime held and tortured 19,000 “enemies of the Cambodian state,” most of whom were later marched 17 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields. Almost all of these victims were falsely accused.

It’s hard to imagine that Tuol Sleng was ever a place of learning. The rooms are dim, dank, and cold. Our museum guide had lived through the Khmer Rouge regime — he was a young boy at the time. Two of the seven surviving prisoners (you read that number right, just seven survivors) were on the premises, selling their autobiographies. Graphic photos covered the walls of the cells, as well as paintings depicting the types of torture methods that the prison guards employed. Waterboarding, submersion tanks, electrocution, and worse.

The Khmer Rouge, in just four years, had killed a quarter of their country’s population — about 2 million people. Cambodian families were torn apart, society decimated.

Back in Angkor, after touring the temples, we sat at a cafe across the street from the moat that encircles Angkor Wat, eating breakfast with our new Cambodian friends, Peter and Dara. We got on the subject of the Khmer Rouge, and Dara told us that as recently as the mid-1990s only two of the temples at Angkor were safe enough for visitors to explore.

By 1979 the Khmer Rouge forces had been driven out of Phnom Penh and the leadership forced into exile following an invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, but Khmer Rouge partisans survived on the margins for years, holding control over rural areas in the west of the country around Siem Reap. Dara told us that his uncle was Khmer Rouge — staying affiliated was a strategic decision, a means to keeping one’s family safe. Otherwise, the Khmer Rouge could paint a target on you. Peter recounted tales of people gunned down on main thoroughfares. Not too long ago, this tourist oasis was the Wild West.

In this country you can feel buried by story after story of loss, dislocation, and pain. As a tourist, you can’t help but find solace in the optimism of the people you meet here. Angkor was made, lost to the jungle, and eventually, found again. Cambodia is being made anew.

Neil visited Cambodia in November 2013.

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Originally published at neilfreese.com.