My legs are stiff and sore, the result of climbing countless steps on our journey to heaven. Many of the great temples of Angkor are designed as representations of Mount Meru, the holy mountain of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist faiths, the five spires of the temples symbolizing the five peaks of the mountain. The most famous of these temples, Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, looks like it only has three spires when viewed straight on, but it too is a symbol of heaven on earth. We stood in queue to climb to the top of that building, waiting our turn to see heaven.
My soul is sore and aching, rubbed raw by the plight of the once-proud Khmer people. At its height, the Khmer ruled much of the area around the Mekong River, which is to say, most of Indochina. Vietnamese, Champa, Siamese all bent knee to the mighty rule of the Khmer kings, and to show their subjects, and the world that saw them, their might and piety, they each of them built temples – most Hindu, though some Buddhist in the later years of the empire. For a time, Khmer power was unequalled in the region, with records from Arab traders during the caliphate’s height looking favorably on the might of the Khmer – high praise, indeed. But then as empires do, it fell apart, first to the Siamese, and then to the Champa and the Vietnamese. A small state etched out amongst regional giants soon became a protectorate of the French Empire in the later days of the Age of Colonization, until a world war of a unique sort came to Cambodia; the Cold War.
I don’t know if I can adequately describe the convoluted political intrigue that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Much of it came well before I drew breath, or during my infant years, from Cold War policies that were already becoming obsolete by the time I was able to understand them. The spread of communism – or stopping it – became the driving force in Southeastern Asian politics, culminating with the Second Indochina War, or as we in the United States know it, the Vietnam War. The United States’ involvement in 1960-1970s Southeast Asia politics is infamous, and among our many failures1and it must be said that responsibility must also be shared by our acrimonious partners in world affairs at the time, the USSR in the region was the destabilization of Cambodia, which led to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge taking control of the country in 1975. What happened then is one of the great tragedies of the modern world; Pol Pot’s regime attempted a program of social engineering to reduce Cambodia to the Communist agrarian ideal, they did so by executing nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population, culling the educated; lawyers, engineers.
Jayavarman VII was one of a few Buddhist Khmer kings. As a Buddhist, he believed that his rule was to improve the lives of his people, leading to the great works he made. He’s best known for building the old capital of Angkor Thom and for the construction of Bayon, a gorgeous temple-mountain, somewhat in the style of his Hindu predecessors. But Bayon lacks the elements that make the Hindu temples so famous, the stories of the gods and demons carved into the walls. Instead, the carvings we saw in Bayon were of the people; the daily lives of Jayavarman’s subjects. We saw people cooking, fighting, drinking, dancing, fishing, going to war. Praying. Healing the sick. Jayavarman is also known for his 102 hospitals that he built. It’s the hospitals that scratch at my soul. Though it was his ancestor, Suryavarman II, that build the temple that would become the symbol of Cambodia and the Khmer people, Jayavarman VII is remembered as the greatest of the Khmer kings in no small part because of his devotion to his people.
Of course, in the religious realm of Khmer, the kings of Cambodia had to show their devotion to the Hindu Gods, or, in the latter years of the Empire, to the Buddha. Many kings would build their own temples in the Angkor region, each more impressive than the last. The temples were to honor and house the gods, but only the king and his high priest could actually pray and use the temple. The common people had to pray outside, worshipping at the base of the mountain while their leaders would climb the steps to heaven.
The Khmer temples all use the concept of towers to represent Mount Meru, the holy mountain, surrounded by four other peaks. As such, many of the temple mountains have five towers, including of Angkor Wat, though from straight on, like the stylized version that appears on the Cambodian flag, it appears that it only has three. Meru is the center of Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist cosmology, which is not surprising as I learn more of the history of Buddhism and Hinduism. They are related religions, not too dissimilarly from Christianity and Judism. The Buddha, when he was a prince of India, was a Hindu, much like Jesus was born in a Jewish family. There is still, it seems, a kindred religious spirit between Hindu and Buddhist followers, as there is often cooperation and understanding between Christians and Jews – though, not always, as history sadly shows us. This same spirit would be similarly sundered during the later years of Khmer Empire, when Jayavarman VIII, a devout Hindu, took control of the Empire and started to wage war on the Buddhist traditions. David, our guide2this link is actually his brother Ratanak’s, site, who we had booked originally but had to back out due to a family emergency. Update, Feb 2016, my parents booked a tour with Ratanak and absolutely loved it. We too had a great time with David, so, highly recommended!!, pointed out on many of Jayavarman VII’s temples how nearly all the depictions of Buddha were smashed or defaced during the return of the Hindu kings. This instability, coupled with the decline in Khmer’s power after their golden age and the ever-present threat of 13th and 14th century Mongolian Empire, led to a weakened empire that soon found a rising Siam next door. The Siamese swept through Cambodia, eager to reclaim what was theirs, and claim much of what was not, and Angkor, and all of its works, would be largely abandoned as the Khmer government moved to what would later become Phnom Penh. The Khmer empire would never recover.
This is a lot of history, but its history that’s important in Cambodia. Not only for the cultural and engineering treasures of the Angkor period of its history, but also for the recent events, as sad as they are. To walk around Cambodia is to be reminded, on every level, the vicious blow the Khmer people were dealt by their own during the terrible years of the “Killing Fields.”
At the time, Southeast Asia was in massive flux. The colonial period in the region had ended with misery and hellfire as the world went to war for a second time in three decades. The Empire of Japan had declared its Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and swallowed nations, and by the time the Pacific War had been conclusively brought to a close, the Indochina Peninsula was ravaged, but rebuilding. Within twenty years, most nations had broken their bonds to their colonial masters. Singapore was embarking on its “miracle”, Malaysia and Indonesia were establishing themselves as their own nations, built on the trade that had built the colonies they had thrown off. The colonial period’s ending, and the recovery after World War II had created many opportunities for growing nations, and for a moment, in Cambodia, free from the war that had begun to convulse its neighbor, the future looked… well, it looked possible.
The Khmer Rouge killed all the doctors.
This is a country that, due to its geographical particulars, has a high rate of dengue fever, as all nations around the tropics do. The Khmer Rouge interred hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, where tuberculous tore though people like wild fire. When the Vietnamese invaded and toppled Pol Pot’s regime, the damage had already been done to a population significantly lessened by their own government. But it didn’t end there. The Khmer Rouge simply melted into the jungle, and began a resistance/civil war that lasted in name to 1991, but the effects of that war carried well into the twenty-first century, in effect, leaving Cambodia in a state of war for well over 20 years. Twenty years of land mines and guerrilla warfare, cutting the rural populations off from medical attention, along with the rampant cases of tuberculous due to the Khmer Rouge’s rule. Twenty years of being cut off while the AIDS epidemic rocked the world in the 1980s and 1990s, when condoms were not at all available in the area.
Imagine trying to rebuild against that stacked deck, where every birth in a depopulated country is laced with the fear of transmitting disease and germ to the newly born; condemned before they’ve even drawn in a breath simply because they were born Khmer. Charged with being the new generation of their people, but already facing an early death, 20 years after the last shot was fired. Couple that, in your mind, with the all-too-well-known issues that many post-colonial states face on a governmental level; corruption is rampant in Cambodia. Though nominally a democracy, their Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is widely considered a dictator, and has vowed that should he be removed from power, or die prematurely, that war will reign once again in Cambodia, a not-at-all veiled threat against his political opponents.
Take all of that in, and contemplate the heartbreak that is Cambodia.
Now, enter Dr. Beat Richner.
One of my friends here from the writers’ group3Should I make up a pseudonym as I have for “Emma”? wrote a piece about her travels to Cambodia, which led us to a conversation about Siem Reap. She mentioned the children’s hospital in town, named after Khmer’s greatest king, Jayavarman VII, and how it was run by a Swiss doctor that gives a weekly cello concert as a fundraiser for his hospital. Beverly and I took a tuk tuk down to the hospital on Saturday night, something we couldn’t miss after hearing our guide refer to Dr. Richner as “a living Buddha.”4David also explained that only some schools of Buddhist teaching embrace the concept of the “living Buddha”, and that his faith was not one of them. High praise, indeed.
Dr. Richner, or “Beatocello” as he’s known on stage, is a charming, talented man, and that is, honestly, an understatement at best. He had worked in the country back in the 70’s with the Red Cross, before leaving ahead of the Khmer Rouge’s advance. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, he came back to Cambodia and reopened the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital. Receiving no public assistance from the Cambodian government, and minimal support from the countries of the world, Dr. Richner began to give shows with his cello, using his talent to raise money for his hospital. Today, as he explained, 85% of Cambodia’s children are treated in his five hospitals, all free of charge. His success, and while a medical success for sure, is greater than just the lives saved within the bricks of his hospitals. He’s educated Cambodian doctors, and was proud to announce that his hospitals only employ three foreign staff members; himself, head pathologist Dr. Denis Laurent, co-founder of the first hospital in Phonm Penh, and the cello, which was made in Italy.
During his concert, Dr. Richner played a movie from 2007 showing the history and effects of his hospitals, and took time between his pieces on the cello to talk about the need to donate to the hospital. He spoke with such an earnest voice and without shame, he asked for donations. Without hyperbole, he explained the absurdities surrounding the world’s mission in poor countries, slamming the World Health Organization’s global policies, defying the common thought of how aid ought to be given5“Patients should not be given care beyond their means,” so as to not develop a dependency on health care, as if it were an addictive drug. One does not have to look far to see what country has espoused THAT particular belief.. He openly discussed the disgusting levels of corruption within the country, while, with a detachment that only a doctor can deliver, discussed the conditions in Cambodia that led to the epidemics ravaging the country.
Contemplate the heartbreak that is Cambodia.
When we visited each temple, Bev and I were instantly mobbed by children hawking postcards, t-shirts, toys and souvenirs. Their tenacity is to be lauded; even the most successful salesman would learn a lesson or two from them. Their adherence to the first rule of salesmanship was a wonder to behold. They not only didn’t take no as an answer, they took no as “maybe” and tried harder. Many of the kids would flash terrible sad eyes, the puppy dog look heartbreakingly sincere. Some would claim that they had no money to go to school, or to eat.
And yet, I gave nothing, bought nothing. To purchase from them would be to feed into a system that encourages shameful hawking of frivolous goods. Though school was not in session, as harvest was coming, I’d been repeatedly told not to fall prey to their hawking, as it would do nothing, help nothing, change nothing about Cambodia. I’ve heard tell that the children at temples are “employed” by cartels of leeches, and its not hard to imagine an enterprising person of questionable morals using children as salesmen and emotional blackmail – tugging hard at the heartstrings while masking the truth.
Still, still. After leaving Banteay Srei, a particularly determined young girl of about five or six followed me all the way to the car after repeated “No, thank you, sorry,” to the point where she simply stood outside the car door staring at me with eyes close to watering. My only defense was to ignore her. I couldn’t keep her gaze, no matter how hard I tried. As David pulled away on route to our next temple, I lowered my head and dried my own eyes. I’ve met plenty of beggars in San Francisco, in Portland, in major cities worldwide, and sometimes I’ll give, when my soul is light and I feel that the small favor, the tiny boost in two people’s lives is worth the continuation of a practice that has nothing to do with the symptoms that created it. But here, in a place where the heartbreak is so ever present, when the truth is nowhere near, nowhere to be seen…
Contemplate the heartbreak that is Cambodia.
Ta Prohm, the famous “Tomb Raider Temple”, is named such because it was used as a location in the 2001 film with Angelina Jolie. The film is a watershed moment, but not because of the contents of the film6I mean, come on, really, but rather because her visit to the nation led to Ms. Jolie’s continuing humanitarian mission. Ta Prohm is an eerie place, with sprung trees growing from the very rocks, it seems, twisted roots creating an aesthetic of pure jungle mystique. It’s fitting that Jayavarman VII built the temple to honor his mother, as Ms. Jolie’s trip to Cambodia led to her adopting her first child two years later, a Cambodian boy. Jolie has said that motherhood is what finally centered her as a person, and seeing what she’s done since, I can’t find it in me to argue.
Watching Dr. Richner play his cello, hearing him say “without justice, there is no peace” over and over like a mantra, I couldn’t help but think of my own role in the human condition, my own social work, and what more I can do. I don’t think I’ll be adopting multiple children like Ms. Jolie and Brad Pitt, but dropping a hundred dollars and change in the donation jar felt hollow to me, felt escapist, as if I were buying some small salvation after hearing my people’s role in this misery. Sure, it was all I could do at the moment. But now, sitting in my fancy coffee shop in Singapore, contemplating life in the jungle of human misery, I can only think “what more?” like a penitent. Maybe it’s the Catholic in me. Maybe it’s the realization that I can do more, that I have done more, in the past, to help more fortunate people, but people in need of help none the less.
Maybe it’s enough to be aware of what’s out there.
We travelled to Cambodia to see temples. Not to pray, or honor the gods, but to see the triumph of humanity, the works of the past and the splendor of kingdoms long since faded from history’s pages. My first thought when we saw our first temple, Prasat Kravan, was not of the gods, or of splendor, but at the amount of work required to move the large stones that were used to build the temples. Slaves, but also subjects of the king themselves, told that the gods were watching, that they too were honoring the gods by breaking their backs. In this, and in the conditions of Cambodia, what we saw was something more – that the works of humanity also have their dark sides. That in some ways the works of man are marks of indelible evil that ripple through generations. And yet, when looked at their modern states, the temples are in many ways a salvation of Cambodia, a means to jumpstart their economy via tourism. But, that salvation will not come until the people are truly free – when disease doesn’t come as a precondition of being born, when their government actually embraces the good that can come from empowering its people, as their great king once did. And when justice comes to hold those systems of empowerment in place.
We went to Cambodia to see temples. We left with our eyes opened.