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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Travel: Angkor, the mysterious temple complex of Cambodia

By Ellen Creager Detroit Free Press

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — For something so ancient, the rock face looked as content as a man who’s just eaten a big slice of peach pie.

“Who made you?” I whispered. “Were you lonely when nobody came to visit for 400 years?”

No answer. Just a smile.

That is the fascination of Angkor, the mysterious temple complex of Cambodia. As at the pyramids of Egypt or the temples of the Maya, visitors here must infer the nature of a civilization from the astounding architecture left behind.

Angkor, located in the city of Siem Reap in central Cambodia, probably should have been a winner in 2007’s New Seven Wonders of the World contest. In scope and beauty, it easily beats Mexico’s Chichen Itza and possibly even Peru’s Machu Picchu. It likely lost because fewer people have seen it than the other attractions. Although 2 million tourists a year visit Angkor now, the site was basically covered by the jungle from 1500 to 1900, then off-limits to visitors due to war and political instability in Cambodia from the 1960s to 1998.

Its masterpiece is Angkor Wat, a funky temple built in the 12th century in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu. Stunningly original, the temple’s five towers were built using porous clay foundations and sandstone exteriors. Put together with an unknown mortar, its stones were stacked like a Jenga puzzle, each piece fitting atop the other into tall spires.

Yet Angkor Wat is only one of 72 major temples, and the Angkor ruins area is more than 1,000 miles square.

The rise-and-fall story of Angkor is dramatic enough to fill 10 history books. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the great Khmer Empire spread over what are now parts of Laos and Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Its center was Angkor, the home of the kings, temples, fountains and gold.

A series of attacks by the Siamese and exhaustion of the land by over-farming led to the abandonment of the city in the early 15th century, historians believe. That’s when most of Angkor fell victim to the jungle for 400 years. There it sat, while nations rose and fell, while America was discovered, while Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

When French archaeologists in the late 19th century rediscovered Angkor and started pulling the vines away and looking at what remained, they were astonished. We still are.

It takes all day for even a bare-bones tour. You can start before sunrise and watch the sun come up over the towers of Angkor Wat, stay all day, then watch the sun go down from a hill nearby.

Some of the ruins have been sufficiently restored so that you can wander the halls and climb the steps. Yet most are only partly put back together, giving the ruins a tumble down feel, as if you’d just stopped by after an earthquake.

Angkor Wat, built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, is the star of Angkor. But I preferred the Bayon, a nearby temple with 49 towers emblazoned with nearly 200 huge carved images of a pleasantly smiling face. Historians believe the images represent either King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple in the late 12th century, or the Buddhist “compassionate being” Lokesvara, or both.

Yet, the Bayon is not just a happy-face ruin. It’s also an ancient art gallery, with wonderful bas-relief murals depicting the ordinary life of the Angkor people — gambling, in childbirth, dancing, cooking, playing, hunting and fishing. These murals not only are a kind of Facebook posting of daily life back then, they illuminate the high standard of living at Angkor in its heyday, when people had enough to eat, safety, leisure and time to create such art.

You don’t need a guide to visit the Angkor complex, but I would recommend it. The complex is so huge that it helps to have someone show you high points you might miss on your own.

Many tourists get around by tuk-tuk, a cart with an awning pulled by a motorcycle driver. Other sightseers visit by car, van, tour bus, bicycle or even by elephant, depending on what kind of tour they book.

Inside the complex, it’s not just sightseers. Local people gather sheaves of rattan, the reed used to weave baskets. Cattle wander amid the chaos. An ice cream truck parks in a field. At most of the popular temples and sites, persistent children sell sticky rice, baskets, scarves, bracelets, guidebooks, bananas, pineapple chunks and Fanta Orange.

The average tourist needs at least two days to see Angkor, but archaeology buffs will want to stay longer.

One of the most photo-friendly sites is Ta Prohm, a temple-monastery. Today, visitors can see the temple much as it was found in the early 1900s, with giant kapok tree roots winding through the doors and windows, so that the stone temple appears to be part of the natural landscape. Also lovely is Neak Pean, a pond with a fountain as elegant as anything you’d find at Versailles.

Today, the Angkor Wat complex is in no danger of fading away. Huge luxury hotels have opened pell-mell outside the park just in the last three years. About 3,000 new hotel rooms are about to be added to the 7,000 already here.

Naturally, environmentalists aren’t happy about the unregulated hustle and bustle right next to a UNESCO World Heritage site. They worry about the water table under Angkor being sucked dry by hotel wells. They worry that the site’s fragile ruins can’t handle the traffic.

Still, I keep thinking that the kings who built Angkor would probably love all the attention.

From the 1960s to 1998, Cambodia was either at war, crippled by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, or unstable. Now, the fledgling democratic nation is trying to make up for lost time in expanding tourism at a frenetic pace in Siem Reap/Angkor, the destination for half of all tourists to Cambodia.

Ready or not, Tourism Cambodia expects up to 3 million tourists at Angkor by 2010.If you go . .

GETTING THERE: Fly into Siem Reap’s 2-year-old Angkor International Airport from nearby Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; or Singapore. No direct flights from the U.S.

VISA: Needed but easy to obtain through Cambodia’s e-visa program. Get it before arrival for $25 at

LODGING: Most hotels in Siem Reap are new and less than a mile from the gates of the Angkor complex. Try Tara Angkor (about $90-up,

MONEY: Cambodia uses the riel, but it also uses U.S. dollars; no need to exchange money.

TOURS: Most tourists to Angkor go as part of a larger tour of Southeast Asia. However, it is possible to fly in on your own and hire an Angkor guide through your hotel.

TICKETS: A one-day ticket to Angkor is $20; a 3-day pass is $40; purchase at the Angkor entrance gate; if you’re on a tour your guide will take care of this.

SHOPPING: Siem Reap has nice handicrafts at local markets and roadside shops. Look for textiles, baskets and marble statues of Buddha.


Take a break from the heat every two hours while touring the ruins. Weather can be humid and in the 90s. Wear a hat and sunscreen; carry water.

Read up on Hinduism and Buddhism and the history of Cambodia to better appreciate what you are seeing.

Try to shoot Angkor photos in late afternoon when the light is best. Also shoot in black and white for a quaint result.

Learn a little of the Khmer language, although most Cambodians who deal with tourists speak some English. For instance, “Angkor” means city. “Wat” means temple.
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Masters of Cambodia's killing fields face justice at last

Vann Nath, centre, and Bou Meng, to his right, pictured in 1980 with other survivors. Both will be in court this week as their tormentor goes on trial

Anne Barrowclough in Phnom Penh

Him Huy, a seasoned executioner at Tuol Sleng, studied the list of names of people he would kill that night. When the silent, terrified prisoners had been lifted on to his lorry he drove them out to the pretty orchard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. There, he took them one by one to the ditches that had been freshly dug, forced them to kneel and clubbed them to death with an iron bar.

“Sometimes it took just one blow, sometimes two,” he told The Times. “After I clubbed them someone else would slit their throats. But every time I clubbed someone to death I would think, tomorrow, this might be me kneeling here, with one of the other guards killing me.”

In the orgy of cruelty unleashed on Cambodia during the insane years of Pol Pot's rule, Tuol Sleng, formerly a high school, was to become a symbol of the apocalyptic state the Khmer Rouge created. Enveloped in secrecy and identified only by the code name S-21, it existed solely to interrogate and kill the men and women incarcerated behind its walls, the vast majority of whom would never leave it alive.

From 1976, until Vietnamese troops took over Phnom Penh in January 1979, as many as 17,000 men, women and children were taken to S-21 to be interrogated for counter-revolutionary crimes, and then killed. Only 14 are known to have survived, although recent evidence suggests that five child prisoners may have escaped and still be alive today.

Thousands of innocents died here - but so too did members of Pol Pot's own circle, Khmer Rouge soldiers and the prison's own guards. “Out of my interrogation unit of 12, only I survived,” said Prak Khan, a soldier who became a torturer at the prison.

The man who presided over the atrocities of Tuol Sleng with fanatical devotion was Kang Kek Ieu, also known as Comrade Duch, who was posted to S-21 in 1976. He goes to trial this week, accused of crimes against humanity.

Today Cambodia is, on the surface, a peaceful country with a thriving tourist industry. Casual conversations with Cambodians reveal nothing of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. But behind the superficial serenity, the people are still traumatised by their memories. In interviews with The Times, the prison survivors, guards and even those who carried out the worst atrocities described Duch as a man of almost sub-human cruelty, who instilled terror into prisoners and guards.

Bou Meng, an artist who was taken to S-21 in 1977, remembers how Duch would visit the room where he and dozens of other prisoners were shackled to the floor. “He ordered me to beat the man beside me with a bamboo cane while he watched,” he said. “Then Duch ordered the man to beat me. You could see the pleasure in his face.” Duch was a frequent visitor to the torture rooms, where he drove the interrogation units to ever-harsher techniques as they worked through the day and night in four-hour shifts.

“The sound of screaming was all around us all the time,” said Vann Nath, a former prisoner and now a renowned artist.

Duch brought the orderly mind of a dedicated teacher to S-21. He kept a meticulous record of the prison's workings and read every confession. Often, he would send them back with corrections marked in red pen, as if they were the test papers of a reluctant student. “Sometimes the confessions came back saying, ‘must get more from the prisoner',” said Prak Khan.

The prisoners were deemed guilty simply because they had been accused - and it was the interrogators' duty to force them to admit that guilt.

Many admitted to crimes they did not even understand. “I had not even heard of the CIA,” said Bou Meng. “But they beat me with bamboo rods and electric cables until I confessed that I worked for the CIA and the KGB.”

“We kept torturing them until they confessed,” said Prak Khan. “If they didn't, the torture got worse. We pulled out their finger and toenails and gave them electric shocks. Sometimes we would tie a bag over their head so they suffocated. We'd take it off just as they were about to fall unconscious. If they still didn't confess, they'd be killed.”

Some inmates were sent to a clinic to “donate” blood to the army hospitals. Prak Khan, whose interrogation room was adjacent to the doctors' clinic, said: “They would bring the prisoners blindfolded and tie them to the beds with their legs and arms spread out. They attached lines to their arms. The tubes led to a bottle on the floor. They pumped all the blood out until the bodies were limp. Then they threw the bodies into pits outside.”

The routine was always the same for the prisoners taken to S-21. Told they were being taken from their homes to work as teachers, doctors or mechanics, they were handcuffed on arrival, photographed and forced into cells, often 60 at a time, where they were shackled by the ankle. They were banned from speaking to guards or each other. At night they were not allowed even to turn over without permission.

“If the guards heard our shackles they would beat us,” said Chum Mey, a mechanic. He spent his first two weeks being tortured day and night. “They pulled out my fingernails and toenails. Then they put electric wires in my ears. I heard the generator and then I felt the fire coming out of my eyes. After 12 days and 12 nights I signed their confession and they took me to a big room with other prisoners. Every night we waited to hear the trucks come. If midnight arrived and they hadn't come we knew we would live another 24 hours.”

The guards lived through their own hell. Him Huy, known to the prisoners as “Cruel Him”, said: “One day I would be guarding prisoners with another soldier and that afternoon the other soldier would be arrested. You always expected to be arrested.”

Prak Khan often recognised old friends among the people taken into S-21. “When I heard the names of people I knew, I pretended I didn't know them,” he said. “If I showed I recognised them I would be killed too.”

After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, Duch disappeared into the jungle. In 1996 he met a group of American missionaries and converted to Christianity. A journalist discovered him working as a medical orderly in 1999 and he was arrested, at last, by the Cambodian police. On Tuesday Bou Meng, Chum Mey and the S-21 guards will be among the scores of Cambodians who will crowd into a courtroom to see their tormentor brought to trial.

Duch has since apologised to the survivors of S-21 but it is not enough. “He asked my forgiveness,” said Bou Meng. “I could not give it to him.”


In 1975 the army of the Khmer Rouge, a Maoist guerrilla force, took Phnom Penh. Their leader, Pol Pot, claimed he wanted to create a Utopia of radical egalitarianism in which money was abolished, possessions were banned and private property was destroyed in favour of rural collectives

He unleashed a reign of terror which converted a peaceful, sleepy country into a huge concentration camp. Cambodians became slaves in a new Stone Age, likened to oxen and exhorted by their leaders to admire the beast who eats “where we tell him to eat” and “never thinks of wife and children”

1.7 million people, a quarter of the population, died of famine and disease or were executed for “counter-revolutionary crimes”

Thousands were killed for wearing spectacles, which marked them out as intellectuals. Knowing a foreign language became a death sentence; babies and the elderly were murdered because they were useless for work

The mass graves in which the victims were thrown are still being uncovered; it is estimated that a minimum of 20,000 killing fields are scattered through Cambodia.

No other country has lost so great a proportion of its population in such a short period in the pursuit of an ideal

Pol Pot's rule ended in 1979 when Cambodians opposed to his regime joined Vietnamese forces to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. He and a substantial number of troops retreated to the Thai-Cambodian border, set up a new headquarters and continued a civil war for the next decade

After Pol Pot ordered the murder of a loyal deputy he was tried by a “people's tribunal” of his own colleagues and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in his own bed shortly afterwards
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