10 August 2002

3. - 10 AUG: Angkor, Majestic Ruins and Tragic History

The mid-afternoon squall hit with but a few minutes’ warning. I was in the middle of a large courtyard at Ta Prom, negotiating my way amidst ancient crumbling stone walls and overgrown roots. The monsoon rain was thick, determined, unforgiving and very noisy, almost to the point of being overwhelming. The water level on the ground immediately began to rise (the ancient Khmer draining system either was wanting or was clogged up, and modern Khmer had not done anything about it yet) and after a half hour or so the awsome courtyard was transformed into a murky pond. Local guides waded across, ankle-deep in the murky water, looking for their clients who had sought shelter in those structures which still stand in defiance of centuries of assaults by both nature and man. As the rain pours from above my roofless temple tower I stood with a few others under the entrance vault; the walls were so thick that even without a roof I could keep dry if I was careful to keep my balance on the threshold. Inside the tower, a weird echo transformed our multilingual chatter in a true Babel...

The rain was a nuisance but the athmosphere it created was magic. For one, as the hordes of tourists disappeared from the open areas trying to keep dry inside the temples, it was finally possible to admire the unobstructed view of the awsome structures.The sight of the stark silhouettes of dark stone are veiled by a glittering curtain of massive amounts of rainwater. The rumbling rainfall, the dark sky, the unrelenting heat and the austere ruins suddenly emptied of people contribute d to create a mystical ambience: it all looked unreal, it felt as if we were in a film studio, I looked around to see if Indiana Jones was about to make a sudden appearance…

As I wait standing powerless for the rain to stop, I can not escape thinking about the past of Angkor. This great civilization was falling from its peak while in Europe the Renaissance was in full bloom, but there were no important contacts between the two. Marco Polo did not come here. It was then abandoned in 1431 and only occasionally visited by European traders, none of whom wrote much about it. I then zoomed fast forward a few centuries. While the heavy stones themselves have largely withstood the test of time, some of the architecture did not. When Henri Nouhot arrived at Angkor in the XIX century the stone structures had been almost enturely swallowed by the jungle, as one can still see in a few places, like where the invasion of nature has been left untouched for effect.

Moving forward still in history, and coming disturbingly close to our days, I tried to imagine the desperate plight of the thousands who sought refuge here in 1975. When the Khmer Rouge (KR) took power in April of that year, one of their first initiatives was to order the evacuation of all Cambodian cities. This was an essential first step to implement their mad plan for a pure agrarian and autarchic society. In a matter of days, they displaced the nation's entire urban population, scattering it about the countryside. To avoid resistance, people were told they would only be away from home for a few days, and that therefore they did not need to carry anything with them – that also ensured a richer booty was available when KR gangs on the loose looted the empty cities. We'll be here another couple of hours and while I am uncomfortable with the rain and heat my most serious problem is really just protecting camera and lenses from flooding; come evening time, a warm dinner and an air conditioned room will ease my sleep in a clean bed. They, on the contrary, were hiding here to escape deportation to forced labor camps and the killing fields. They were pursued by ruthless adolescent soldiers who killed at whim and, to prevent city dwellers from hiding or running away from where they were ordered to go, terrorized them by wantonly planting millions of land-mines all over the place, in rice fields, around monuments – many of which are unaccounted for and still buried around the countryside, occasionally emerging from the mud to kill and maime people many of whom were not even born when the KR were in power. Those wretched refugees experienced the same monsoon squalls I was seeing, but had no hot food, let alone a bed, to look forward to, only the stone floors of the ruins to lie on and swarms of mosquitoes for company. They did not know for how long they would be able to evade the advancing KR fanatics – hours, days, weeks? – and were suddenly forced on the run, time and again, with families often becoming separated for good and the weak and the old dying on the way. It is beyond me to try to imagine such untold horror unfolding amidst these timeless, majestic monuments of the great Khmer civilization.

That was not the last violence the monuments had to endure. After the Vietnamese overthrew the KR in Phnom Penh, battles continued in this part of the country for years, and in the 1980s KR and Vietnamese forces joined door to door battles at Angkor, thus causing even more senseless damage to the structures. Bas-reliefs which had survived for centuries, enduring the onslaught of yearly monsoons and the enveloping action of giant tropical vegetation, were blown to smithereens in a matter of days by the cross fire of opposing Communist armies.

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