Cambodia 1998: Jayavarman & Pol Pot

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Participating in anti-Vietnam war protests three decades ago had indelibly imprinted Cambodia in my mind. The temples at Angkor Wat were among the few major archaeological sites I had not seen. Visiting the country offered an exciting prospect. War and civil strife for several decades had ravaged Cambodia.  People were no better off in 1998 than in the mid-1960s.   In contrast, neighboring Thailand has multiplied its income per person almost tenfold during the same period.  After I made all my arrangements, protests against the outcome of the July 1998 elections became violent.  I postponed my trip until mid-October, after discussions for peace among the political factions had begun.  Although the city is ancient, the name Phnom Penh came from a lady (Penh) who built a Buddhist temple on the summit of a small hill (Phnom) about two centuries ago.  I visited such a temple, but no one could confirm whether it was Madam Penh’s.  Getting around Phnom Penh was difficult and slow, even though I had use of a hardy Toyota Land Cruiser.  The roads are narrow and full of potholes.  Also, every imaginable kind of vehicle is on the road, ranging from trucks and cars to mopeds and bikes.  The building stock of the city is old and run down and not much construction was underway.  I did not notice a single modern or high-rise structure.  Phnom Penh looked like many Asian cities of the 1960s.  Even the upper class residential areas that housed embassies and expatriates were not attractive.Palace

On my first day, I had lunch at a restaurant along the Mekong river recommended by a local person.  I was the only customer.  Although I ordered Cambodian food, I got mediocre Chinese instead, about as expensive as in the hotel.   As I was advised not to stray far, especially in the evening, I ate most of my meals in the hotel.   Many soldiers and Khmer Rouge defectors carry guns and some become unreliable after a few drinks.

Driving along the Mekong river, I noticed several cafes and restaurants.  Many of these may had been opium dens in the old days.  On my last day, I drove over a bridge to an island in the river.  Its main street had restaurants cheek by jowl, mostly Chinese, some large and fancy.   I regretted not discovering this street before.  Apparently, a substantial proportion of Phnom Penh’s residents are of Chinese origin.  Always prominent, they have gained in importance after Pol Pot exterminated millions of educated Cambodians and millions more fled in fear.

Phnom Penh’s main tourist sites are the King’s palace and the adjacent National Museum.  The palace is on the banks of the Mekong, surrounded by a high wall.  It comprises several buildings set in a large garden.  These structures include the Silver Pagoda, Throne Hall, Royal Treasury, Pavilion of Dance and the Private Palace.  I hired a guide at the entrance.  Entry into the complex is into a large concrete courtyard filled with artistically placed bushes and flowers in neatly separated areas and huge carved stone pots.  It is cornered by four large stone stupas, carved intricately.  All the buildings had many tiered multicolored A frame tile roofs with a stupa rising in the center and a three or four feet curved spire at each corner, like a flame.  Ornately painted in red and gold A sections face each direction.   Broad flights of steps lead to gilded doorways in buildings.  Some structures have painted walls and all have carved red and gold shutters.  The whole aspect was similar to the King’s palace in Bangkok, but on a smaller scale.

Palace I

Only the Silver Pagoda is old.  Its floor is made of silver bricks, each weighing several pounds.  It houses a couple of hundred Buddha statues of varying size.  The pagoda is in active use by the public for prayer and offerings.  The King used to greet distinguished guests in the Throne Hall.  It is a large, plush and heavily carpeted room with a throne at one end.  The Pavilion of Dance has costumes on exhibit.  The dresses are made of bright colored silk with intricately woven patterns in gold.  Thai dancers use similar costumes.  Thai dance and costumes came from Cambodia, borrowed when the Thais defeated the Khmer Empire in 1431AD.  The museum is next to the palace.  It is a large building with similar architecture, but not as well maintained.  It looked in need of renovation.  A slow walk through the exhibits served as a good introduction to Angkor Wat, the site for the most notable objects.  In particular, a statue of Jayavarman VII, the last great Khmer monarch, was imposing and repeated in profile many times in Bayon, his temple in Angkor Thom.

Every former communist capital I have visited has a central market.  Phnom Penh was no exception.  The central market was located in the middle of a large square, which had small shops and stalls along the road on all sides.  These shops sold everything, including currency, although the US dollar was used freely for transactions.  Inside the enclosed market, the wares were pretty much the same–fake fancy watches, jewelry, boomboxes and other electronics gizmos, garments such as Nike T-shirts, etc–the usual items found in a third world market.  The stalls looked so similar, it was easy to lose direction.  I also found an equally large older market called the Russian Market named after the Russians who used to shop there when they dominated the region.  This too was full of hundreds of stalls selling everything imaginable.  In it there was an area dedicated to selling antiques where I bought two opium pipes made of intricately carved bone and a bowl of fruit made of silver.  Prices were much lower than elsewhere in Asia.


On my trips, I try to search for a modern painter, preferably in the abstract style.  I walked along a street of shops full of souvenirs and paintings near the museum.  Virtually all the art was descriptive and uninteresting.  Few shopkeepers spoke enough English to get information about painters.  Eventually, I found a lady who spoke some English, whose husband was an artist with a studio nearby.  She took me there.  Most of his paintings were at a hotel near mine, ready for an exhibition opening the next day.  He had photographs to show me, however.  I liked his work and negotiated a deal for a painting of an Apsara, dancers that are carved in all Angkor temples.  When I later saw the framed painting, it seemed too big to carry on board planes and too fragile to check-in.  I walked to the hotel that had the artist’s work on exhibit.  I selected another painting of a temple on silk with an appealing balance of colors.  After protracted negotiations with the artist, I succeeded in buying it and having it packed to take on board for flights back.

Before visiting Angkor Wat, the best of Cambodia, I wanted to see its worst aspects—the remains of Pol Pot’s terror campaigns.  In Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge converted a high school into a torture chamber.  Tuol Sleng was now a museum.  About 20,000 men, women and children were processed there.  They were brutalized until they confessed.  Then, they were photographed with numbers hung around their necks and murdered.  I walked through the chambers and saw the victims’ photographs—a chilling experience.  There was worse to come, however.  One afternoon, I drove to the “Killing Fields,” made famous by an American movie.  These mass graves are located about 10 miles from Phnom Penh.  The road was awful and the journey took about 45 minutes.  En route, we drove though poorer sections of Phnom Penh, which had shanty-towns of huts made of whatever is available, much like slums in India.  In contrast, the countryside was a lush green with paddy fields and the houses, built on stilts, looked big and spacious in comparison.  There was little traffic on the road, mostly children coming back from school getting rides on bicycles or mopeds.  The site of the mass graves was also a museum.  As I walked in, I noticed a tall modern stupa in front.  When I got closer, I saw skulls stacked in layers through large glass doors.  At the lowest level, below the skulls, the victims’ clothes lay in a pile.  The mass graves were behind the stupa, now just ditches overgrown with grass and shrubs.  Each ditch had a signpost giving details of the number of dead found in the grave.

Village House

Early in the week, I found Diethelm Travel, the travel agency recommended by a colleague, to arrange my trip to Angkor Wat.  They arranged my flight, airport taxes, transportation, entry fees and a guide for the day tour.   I took the first flight out from Phnom Penh at 6:30 A.M. on an Air Cambodge turbo-prop.  It was comfortable and took about 45 minutes to reach Siem Reap, the small airport near the Angkor complex.  I found my guide and we set off towards the town of Siem Reap and the Angkor complex in a minibus all to ourselves. The area has over 300 monuments because several capitals of the Khmer Empire were located there.  My one-day trip covered the four main archeological sites.  The guide informed me that our first stop would be Angkor Thom and Bayon, followed by Ta Prohm in the morning, Preah Khan at midday and Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  The schedule was arranged to provide the best light for viewing the temples.

Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire (Kambuja) in 790 AD and moved his capital to several locations in the Siem Reap area.  The Khmers abandoned the area within a year after the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431 AD.  After they left, the tropical jungle over-ran all the structures.  Only the strongest stone and brick buildings, mostly temples, survived, although in a damaged state.  Most buildings were made of wood, however, and they did not survive.  Luckily, a group of Buddhist priests settled near Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple.  Because of their care, Angkor Wat is better preserved than the other structures.

Killing Fields

In 1860, a wandering French naturalist, Henri Mauhot, found Angkor Wat and Khmer architecture became known to the world again.  Earlier Khmers followed Hinduism, but later Mahayana Buddhism spread through the empire.  Temples were built in the city-center, near the King’s palace.  They were considered the home of gods, not meeting places for the faithful.  Hindu gods lived on Mount Meru, the center of the universe.  Temples were built like pyramids on ascending terraces.  The central shrine was a tower (prasat) for the main deity and other towers for his spouse and/or vehicles.  The main Emperor-builders were Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD), who built Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple; and Jayavarman VII (1181-1220 AD), a Buddhist, who built Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.

We reached the gates of Angkor Thom in about a half hour of leaving the airport.  Originally, Angkor Thom was a square, walled city more than eight miles in circumference and surrounded by a wide moat filled with crocodiles.  Causeways bordered by balustrades of nagas (fan of snake heads) gripped by demons and giants guard the five gates into the city.  The gates are monumental structures with flanks decorated with three headed stone elephants. We entered through the South gate.  The vast central towers are shaped as four huge smiling Buddha heads, one facing each direction.

Our first stop was Bayon.  This Buddhist temple was the most fabulous of Jayavarman VII’s designs.  He was a devout Buddhist who shied away twice from asserting his right to the throne because of his beliefs.  Eventually, he ascended to the throne and proved to be a vigorous King, known for his cruelty to enemies.  By the time he built Bayon, he believed he was the living Buddha.  Bayon has no moat, surrounding walls or outer enclosures.  It is a pyramid temple built on three receding platforms.  It has a central tower and fifty-three secondary towers, each with four huge faces of Buddha/Jayavarman.  These faces are crowned with jeweled diadems, earrings dangle from elongated ears and pearl necklaces hang around their necks.  Along the outer wall of the central sanctuary and inner walls of the enclosure are bas-reliefs, totaling about three-quarters of a mile in length.  The carvings on the outer walls depict common life and those on the inner walls show gods doing legendary deeds.  Apsaras fill spaces on pillars and devatas (gods) inhabit niches beside doors and windows.  Scarcely a square foot of space remains uncovered with sculpture or decoration.  The temple has a hypnotic and haunting aspect.


A few hundred yards from Bayon is the Grand Plaza, the epicenter of the empire. Originally, it was a wide, open space surrounded by noble buildings that have not survived.  Jayavarman VII added the Royal Terrace.  This viewing platform is about 1150 feet long and 10 feet high.  A bas-relief of elephants, garudas, lions and devatas covers the entire platform.  In the North East corner, he also built the Terrace of the Leper King.  The terrace is a 23 foot high platform richly carved in seven or eight layered rows.  The carvings portray Apsaras, mythological animals from Mount Meru, kings and queens and princes and princesses.   Sections of this sculptural feast still remain to inspire imagining the whole.

The next two temples we visited were Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, a few miles from Angkor Thom and from each other.  Jayavarman VII built both temples quickly, in about 5 years, to honor his mother and father, respectively.  Preah Khan was the site of Jayavarman’s victory over the Chams and his first capital.  The general style of these temples is the same as Angkor Wat.  They have moats, enclosures, galleries, libraries and towers, but the central section is not a pyramid.  As Jayavarman was a Buddhist, Hindu myth and Mount Meru were not important to him.  Thus, these temples are at ground level.

Ta Prohm remains almost as it was found in 1860.  Repairs were confined to checking further deterioration.  Quadrangles were cleared of bush and undergrowth but the trees have not been removed.  Huge old fig trees have overtaken the temple.  Vast tree trunks spring from gables and towers.  Their roots stretch over long distances across rooftops, over eaves, down walls, around stones into the ground.  They look like huge pythons wrapped around the temple. Much of the building is in ruins with rubble lying around.  The central mass of masonry consists of chapels connected by vaulted corridors.  From either side, extend terraces with lesser sanctuaries. Refined carvings cover vast areas of masonry.  Images of deities and Apsaras are sculpted in niches cut in garden walls.  Besides short flights of steps, figures of grotesque demons, hooded nagas and lions stand on guard.

Preah Khan

The guide left me at Preah Khan to wander around the temple on my own while he went home for lunch.  As the site is isolated, I asked if it was safe.  He said that security was no longer a problem.  Nevertheless, I was concerned because there were only a couple of other visitors.  We were easily outnumbered by hawkers selling soft drinks, curios and film.  Some police were visible, but they did not inspire confidence, as they were busy trying to sell us their police badges.  An impressive causeway with a balustrade of giants and demons holding nagas guard the way to the entrance.  Preah Khan has a similar structure, decoration, sculpture and carving as Ta Prohm.  Walking around the temple and grounds is easier as the jungle has been better cleared and less rubble remains.

We reached Angkor Wat, the grand finale of the tour, at about 2 PM.  Suryavarman II built it over a period of 37 years, mostly during his reign, and it was finished after his death.  Unusually, the temple is outside his nearby capital, Yasodhrapura.  Angkor Wat is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.  It is the second largest religious structure in the world.  The largest, Banteai Chmar, is also in Cambodia.  The main shrine symbolizes Mount Meru and the gates and cloisters depict the outer reaches of cosmic reality. The moat around the temple, a mile long on each side, represents the seven oceans that surround Mount Meru.  Angkor Wat has three terraces with a central cluster of five towers. The central tower has two lateral wings of galleries that terminate in four smaller towers.  A soaring pinnacle shaped like a bursting lotus bud crowns each tower.  The top of the main tower is about 250 feet above the surrounding forest.  The walls of the central sanctuary measure more than half a mile in circumference.

Angkor Wat

The entrance is a causeway lined with gigantic nagas, forming a balustrade.  The temple is decorated everywhere, adorning the structure from the lowest foundation to the loftiest pinnacle.  The greatest treasure is the bas-relief covering the walls of the gallery around the lowest terrace.  This vast frieze of pictorial carvings is 8 feet high and half a mile in circumference.  It covers the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and scenes from Suryavarman’s battles.  Protected by the gallery roof, the bas-relief is well preserved.  My guide explained the epics with some embarrassment, as he knew that I am of Hindu origin.  He need not have worried, because I know little about Hindu mythology.  Some carvings have taken a black or red hue, from recent rubbings for prints.  The galleries, stairways, libraries, and shrines are covered with apsaras and devatas in a variety of dress and pose.  Sculptures of animals are also everywhere: lions stand on staircases; moneys leap on lintels above doorways; and nagas on causeways.  In some places, the carvings are mysteriously unfinished.  Angkor Wat is clearly the ultimate expression of a great civilization.  I wondered how the Khmers descended from such heights to the depths of Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Bas Relief

My hotel in Phnom Penh, Le Royal, was managed, and perhaps owned, by Raffles of Singapore, one of the best hotels in the world.  It looked imposing from the drive-in.  The main building was newly painted with four or five stories, stretching about 60 yards.  The entrance porch is about 50 feet high.  The entrance lobby was equally imposing, as it flowed into a lounge surrounded by an oval stairwell that rose the full height of the building.  The reception area to one side was incongruously small as was my very modern room with a spacious bathroom covered in marble in one of the side buildings.

Built during the French colonial era as a hotel, it was architecturally in the “barracks style.”  The hotel has four buildings, one behind the main building and one on either side.  In between was a large courtyard with two pools, one for swimming and the other for wading.  Grass and tropical plants border the pools.  The main building housed most of the common areas such as restaurants, bars, lounges, shops.  Behind the entrance lounge was a small “Writer’s Bar” where Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad imbibed and chatted.  The building on the far side had exercise facilities, the business center and a cafe.

Temple Children

The service at the hotel was impeccable.  Staff at the entrance, reception, concierge, room service, and cafe remembered my name and waitresses at the “Elephant Bar,” remembered my preferences and reproduced my orders the next day.  This attention, and a poor understanding of English, did create a comic situation, however.  I awoke at 5:30 AM on my first morning and ordered a pot of coffee.  On the second morning, my doorbell rang at the same ungodly hour.  When I opened the door a smiling butler stood outside with a cup of coffee.  I told him that I had not ordered anything.  When I eventually awoke and ordered a pot of coffee, only one cup of coffee arrived.  I said I needed at least two cups of coffee.  The butler promptly came back with another empty cup.  The next day, I made sure to emphasize I wanted a pot of coffee that was enough for at least two cups.  I did get the pot of coffee, but with two empty cups.  Overall, the hotel was extremely comfortable.  It had good amenities, great service but mediocre food.

On the way back to Siem Riep airport, I stopped to see the Grand Hotel.  It is a smaller version of Le Royal, with only three buildings enclosing a large swimming pool, obviously designed by the same architect.  It was recently refurbished, identically to Le Royal.  Because some old features were retained, the rooms had more character.    Some rooms had a view of Angkor Wat’s towers.  My flight back to Phnom Penh was about an hour late.  Apparently, the delays increase as the day progresses.  I left Phnom Penh the next day, happy to have seen one the World’s wonders.


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