Journal April 4, 2010
Waking up in Battambang at the solemn hour of 8am may be a regular thing for most people. But after a day-and-a-half of trains, buses, hiking and sweating all while breathing in the most putrid collection of gaseous excretions that I have ever had the extreme displeasure of inhaling, I could have used the morning to sleep in. But there is no rest for the weary, especially when good photography awaits – besides, the stench was already forming a purple hewn fog along the rotting baseboards of my tiny hotel room and the heat entering the failing seals of room was giving it a stir and sending it right at me. Time for the breeze off the causeway and then to climb some temples where just a few, short decades ago thousands of people were bludgeoned to death by tyrannical, genocidal communists, the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge (literally Red Khmers) were the Communist guerillas in Cambodia in the early 1970s. They were created, trained, funded and equipped by North Viet Nam. After the United States Congress, in violation of its treaty obligations, cut off all military aid to South Viet Nam and Cambodia, both countries fell to Communist rule in April of 1975. South Viet Nam was conquered by North Viet Nam and Cambodia was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Over the next three years the Khmer Rouge killed nearly half the population in Cambodia. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, the agrarian, totalitarian and admittedly psychotic ass-hat, Pol Pot, personally saw to the deaths of at least 2000 local farmers in this area alone. The bodies were strewn about the temple that I was to see this morning and there was definitely an eerie and ominous feel to the place.
The ride to the cave monastery was great. A little dusty, but there was plenty of local flavor floating around on makeshift carts and trailers, weighing down already overburdened motorbikes with as many people they can carry, hauling good supplies – babies, pork backs, groceries, toilets, monks; you name it.
Climbing the cliffs to the “Killing Cave,” there is a rather peaceful and calming sense to the place. The bluffs overlook what appear to be thousands of hectares of farmland in every direction. Once atop the mountain, though, all that can be seen is the old and new construction of temples and places of meditation. You would never really guess, by the way it looks now, that the terrible atrocities were acted out on innocent people here – and only a short time ago.
The first temple you see is about five meters wide by about 10 long. This is where the Khmer kept more than 1000 men, women and children at a time while they awaited a swift clubbing and a 20-meter tumble to their deaths at the bottom of the Killing Cave.
Buddhist shrine built in dedication of these poor souls’ suffering. Prayer flags lead the way down to the dungeon-turned-cave-temple. At the bottom, there is also a reclining Buddha. There are classes taught there for young children and there are many ceremonies every month in remembrance of those who’ve passed.
The rest of the grounds are full of wonderful eight-door temples, newly constructed visages cresting the walls of each of these buildings. They stand right beside the older, more disheveled buildings, though, which makes me think that the older buildings will be coming down soon, rather than maintained any further.
One of the most amazing things that I have had the privilege of experiencing in my time in and around Southeast Asia over the past months is to have met and spoken with several monks. The first monk I met was in Malaysia in January. That conversation was wonderful. It was a tribute to the standard of peace, openness and intelligence to which they hold themselves. His name was Lampau Chamnin and he was the chief monk at the Jumnean-Wat-T-humsua (Tiger Cave temple) in Krabi before visiting his brother, Naichan Sararaks, who maintained the temple in Malaysia I was visiting when I met him. I have met others since then and all of my interactions with them have been pleasant and uplifting. But the young monk I met at this temple was
especially memorable because of his enthusiasm and sparkling smile that erupted when I spoke to him and introduced myself in combination with a proper “wai” greeting. He spoke excellent English and couldn’t stop asking questions about America and Alaska and he would pause to give me time to speak — as they are taught to make a conscious effort to do — and I responded with questions and answers of my own. There was nothing terribly amazing about the situation; only that I was offered a glimpse into the mysterious life of dedicated, ascension-seeking monks. His name, as best as I can figure the spelling, was Ranae, and he was 15-years-old. He knew much about America. It seemed to be a research passion of his. He had been at that monastery for one year of his three year commitment. Most, if not all, Southeast Asian Buddhist-born men are expected to dedicate two years of their life as a monk — one in their young years and one as an older man. I have been writing quite a lot of notes on my experience with the Buddhist element here. I will be writing a reflection piece on this in a later blog.
Once I left there, it was off to climb the 386 stairs to the fire temples. The ride there was full of wonderful those slice-of-life shots that I love so much. There were children playing, people going about their business, carrying, toting and hauling things here and there. There was a real sense of “real” here that I had hoped to find – especially after the rancid aroma from the French colonial town of Battambang.
I paid my two dollars, signed my name in the guestbook and snapped a photo
of the very courteous official who took my money before heading up the stairs.
Now, some might think that 386 stairs is an auspicious task in the dry Cambodian heat. But as long as you keep looking down and take it slow it’s a lot easier. But since I did neither of these, I was in for some sweaty pain. At one point I finally decided to keep looking down at the steps in front of me rather than all of the steps above me I was worn but not dead. And it was okay; right about the time I felt like I was about to fall over dead, I realized I was halfway there.
Once up to the top, I snapped a few photos, enjoyed the view and kept trying to tell the lady who had followed me up with a fan that I couldn’t pay her any money. But she was persistent.
The ruins atop the temple were great. Some of the oldest collections of construction that I have seen were there. It was nice to get up and see the area as well. There was a temple that was dedicated just to the burning of bodies during the Vietnam war. And there was still a holding area where the
German guns were kept. I didn’t know that the Germans supplied arms to the
communists, but here it was: proof positive.
One of the saddest things that I have seen so far (besides the evidence of absolutely atrocious acts against innocent people by totalitarian regimes) was that a lot of the carvings from these great temples have long since been broken off, looted and sold to the European art market. Normally, it’s not even done very well, so there are just score marks where most of the faces of these carvings used to be. So if you ever find yourself in a street market in Asia, please do not buy relics that are said to be real. There are castings of these beautiful pieces that do not support destroying the country’s heritage.
From there the driver, Chan, took me to a motorized bamboo train that I could have sworn was approaching 100 miles per hour with nothing between me and a grizzly death but a loosely strung patch of sun-beaten reeds. It was quite a thrill – to get off. Once I felt the cool, calming feeling of solid ground under my feet, I was happy to pay the driver a little too much money to never do that again. And then it was back to the hotel.
I have just finished editing the day’s photos and writing this journal entry and now I am headed out to the market to go get some photos of pigs hanging by their tails and ladies carrying little baskets around on their heads.