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February 02 Issue

Cambodian Temples of the Killing Fields
Dave Rich

Welcome to the Terrace of the Elephants, a hundred yards of life-sized elephants popping out of a solid stone wall ...

I went to Cambodia to see the temples at Siem Reap, from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to the exquisite Banteay Srei, but the ghost of the Killing Fields dogged every step. The specter of the Killing Fields was particularly vivid to Ronnie, my driver for three days around the temples, who avoided extermination by hiding out and speaking to no one while subsisting four years on cobras and insects. It was my fault for asking Ronnie how he’d survived.

The temples built from 802 to the 1400's C.E. helped counteract the horror described by Robbie. The best known of the 295 temples is Angkor Wat (1113-1150), a square kilometer complex, perfectly symmetrical, bordered by a wide moat and accessible to non-swimmers by a stone-carved bridge from the west. Angkor Wat sits smack-dab in the center, 660 feet tall, surrounded by continuous galleries and 100 foot palm trees. The northwest reflecting pool is perfectly situated for the pictures you always see of Angkor Wat: one of the three archeological wonders of the world along with Machu Picchu in Peru and Petra in Jordan. Angkor Wat’s first level gallery contains the largest series of detailed stone carvings in the world, primarily depicting Hindu epics. The second level housed 1,000 Buddhas but only fragments remain, an example of periodic religious intolerance. The third level view is earned by climbing the steepest steps outside such as Uxmal in Maya-land on the Yucatan peninsula. The only sight on the way up is butts suspended above your head, wobbling from the strain of 45 degree steps, nevertheless the view of Angkor Wat spread out below justifies the ascent.

Between temples Robbie told me how his parents were killed and his siblings starved to death. I’d visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh (the capitol city was evacuated and vacant from 1975 to 1979) where 32 prisoners in each 10 foot by 10 foot room were chained feet to feet and tortured an average of five months before being taken to the local Killing Fields for a club to the head and a topple into a mass grave. Children were disposed of by a whack against a tree. Many victims were decapitated and most women died naked.

Angkor Thom (1181-1219) means "great city" and it surely was, covering four times the area of Angkor Wat, it’s more famous cousin a mile south. Angkor Thom is crammed with incredible ruins from the sprawling Bayon in the center, 216 smiling faces 30-feet tall on 54 all-seeing pedestals, to the Terrace of the Elephants, a hundred yards of life-sized elephants popping out of a solid stone wall, to the Terrace of the Leper King with galleries of bas-reliefs and a statue of the Leper King who perhaps was Jayavarman VII, the king in charge of the slave labor who built the place.

Robbie drove to the jewel of Siem Reap, Banteay Srei (967-973 C.E.), explaining how to stalk, skin and braise a cobra, declaring that grasshoppers taste nutty. I escaped to the "Citadel of Women", the intricately carved rose sandstone of Bantaey Srei. We’d arrived at sunrise and the color was spectacular, highlighting exquisite carvings, a photographer’s Mecca, the very best of the best.
Fast hydrofoils leave Siem Reap at 7 a.m. at the end of an hour-long road carved in foot-deep corduroy, ending at floating villages of Vietnamese. It requires a 5 a.m. wake-up call and four plus hours down the Tonle Sap River to Phnom Penh. The first two hours are across a lake so vast no land can be seen on either side. The last two-plus hours down the river proper is alluring, sprinkled with net fishermen and bounded by floating villages.

The allure lasts until arrival in Phnom Penh, the most ghastly and expensive of SE Asia capitols. Everything is priced in U.S. dollars. Neither the capitol nor the countryside has recovered from the massacres of 1975-79. You ask politely, how many died? Surely not more than died on 9/11 for there has never been the outrage over the Killing Fields as there’s been over the demise of the World Trade Center.

It's to the world's shame that precisely nothing has occurred as a result of the Killing Fields. Pol Pot is dead but his three top commanders reside quietly in the northwest of Cambodia, unmolested. In the aftermath of 9/11 more civilians died in Afghanistan than the 3,000 in New York. I dedicate the temples at Siem Reap to the 1,700,000 souls who were tortured and executed in the Killing Fields (For the record 560 times as many as died on 9/11 in New York).

© Dave Rich 2002

More from Dave Rich who is at this moment in Myanmar (Feb 2002)


Dave Rich -after three months in China where the media consists of serendipitous bullhonky sprinkled with crapulous creativity. I finally found out what was really up with Brittany Spears.

Dave Rich - lousy Lao whiskey flowing like water. Water is far superior and less vindictive.... Laos is Mexico on downers and in slow motion

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