Sunday, January 15, 2012

International Man of History in the Lost Temples of Cambodia!

So, this holiday season, I decided to go have a Holiday in Cambodia ('where the people dress in black', thanks Dead Kennedys). I hadn't been to Cambodia before, and heard it was nice and cheap, so off I go for my two week holiday break. I flew from Hanoi to Bangkok, spent a night there, then took the morning train to the Cambodian border. For some reason, flying into Cambodia is more than twice as expensive as flying to Bangkok, although it's closer. You can get from Bangkok to Siam Reap in Cambodia, but it takes a full day of travel by public transit.

So, I took the train to the border, and while on train, I met some young twenty two year old backpackers (this seems to be the only type of backpackers unfortunately), and we crossed the border together. The border used to be pretty strict between the two countries, but not so much right now. During the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia had some border wars with Thailand, which are mostly cooled off now, except in the northern provinces, where there's still an occasional shot fired back and forth. We split a minibus ride from the border to Siam Reap, as Cambodia has no functioning railway. In fact, there's a lot of things that Cambodia has non-functioning.

A little background on Cambodia: in the 70's a guy named Pol Pot had the great idea to overthrow the Western friendly government by starting another Glorious Revolution, of the naïve and bloody type that South East Asia is so famous for. His idea was to get rid of all the Western educated elite of Cambodian society and bring everything back to an idealized agrarian farming society, where everyone is equal and no one is taken advantage of by the spoiled, unproductive elite class of society. Well, as you probably heard, that didn't work out so well. Take this as a warning next time some hippy is trying to convince you we should all go back being anarchist organic farmers. They tried it here, and it left them dirt poor, corrupt, and in chaos.

Basically, they rounded up anyone who wasn't a farmer or worker and massacred them. This lasted a few years until their neighbor, Vietnam, got worried about the unrest spreading into their own country, and worried about the ethnic Vietnamese that were still stuck there. So, just a few years after fighting off the Americans, the Viets attacked Cambodia to get rid of Khmer Rouge. They did, very quickly and successfully, as the Vietnamese army was far superior to the rag-tag Khmer Rouge, and they were quite adept at jungle warfare. Only a few months after they attacked, the Vietnamese captured the capital city of Phnom Phen, and cleared the Khmer Rouge out. They set up a new government that was friendly to Vietnam, then left. The end.

Except that it wasn't. The Khmer Rouge just fled into the jungles where they kept waging a guerrilla war for the next 20 years, until due to shrinking numbers and support, they surrendered in 1998. When I was there, they were just beginning the trials of the Khmer Rouge, 15 years later. The current government is a 'democracy', but is in reality the standard Southeast Asia crony capitalist state, with a minority of extremely wealthy buying and selling the country as they see fit, and the average farmer has no land rights if a resort developer wants his land, including even building resorts of 'protected' wilderness reserves.

Twenty years of civil war left Cambodia as one of the poorest Southeast Asian nations, with basically no infrastructure. Until recently the roads in the country were little more than bombed out tracks, and still, many thousand land mines lay active and waiting for some poor villager to stumble upon them. Not to mention our great 'diplomat' and war criminal Henry Kissinger and his secret bombing campaign of Cambodia dropped more bombs there and in Laos than were dropped in the total of World War II. Lots of them are still unexploded, and there are plenty of signs warning you to stay on the trail for fear of mines. You see a lot of amputees in Cambodia.

Cambodia itself is like a more scenic, less developed and drier version of Vietnam. The air is far less humid, and they actually have sunshine there, whereas Vietnam skies are permanently gray, save a few rare days. The land in Vietnam is strange, basically every inch of land that can be farmed, is. Rice paddies cover EVERYTHING, and what is not a rice paddy is an impassable limestone mountain that juts vertically up. Cambodia seemed a lot more like a savannah, a lot of tall grass fields with some lovely trees reaching into the sky, and mountain forests. Most of the land in Cambodia is undeveloped.

Anyway, we arrived in Siam Reap, home of the ancient Angkor culture, famous for their massive city-temples which lay hidden in the jungles until the late 1800's, when the French stumbled upon them. The Angkor culture flourished from around 800AD to around 1200AD, then they collapsed into jungle covered obscurity. The reasons for their collapse were unknown for a long time. Archaeologists recently figured it out though. Like almost every other civilization collapse, this one was caused by environmental ruin. Americans, take no notice of the following, because of course, it couldn't happen to America, God loves us too much to allow our glorious empire to collapse for the same reason every other one collapsed.

The story goes like this: building a glorious empire requires a LOT of resources. For us, it's been cheap gas and land, for the Angkorians, it was cheap labor and an abundant agricultural land. The Angkorian kings got to the point where labor was specialized enough that not everyone had to be a farmer. So after conquering a bunch of land, they decided to build monuments to their own glory. Totally unlike our McMansions and SUVs. In fact, they convinced the locals that they weren't just kings, they were god-kings. And if you were a farmer living in a bamboo hut, when you saw one of their enormous stone temples that dwarfed everything you had ever seen in your life, it was pretty easy to believe. Then the next god king, after the original one, had to prove himself to be an even more powerful god-king by building an even bigger and more impressive temple to himself. And so on, and so on, until about 400 years later, when the area for hundreds of miles around was deforested, due to using the trees for building the temples, housing the workers, growing crops, and fuel. Bah, not a big deal, only stupid tree huggers should care about trees anyway, right? Wrong, forests main benefit to humans is that they provide a natural filtration system for water before it reaches rivers and lakes. So, the workers have to expend more and more energy to get the wood and stone which were so vital to their culture, unlike our billion dollar a day wars to extract a diminishing return of petrol, of course.

Quickly, their drinking and fishing water became too polluted with mud and silt. So drinking water becomes more scarce, fishing is finished, and there's no more forest to hunt animals, and the top soil in which crops grow has been washed away by the rains, as there's no tree roots to keep it in place and renew it. Then, collapse, the god-kings are finished, the jungle reclaims it's place, and the Cambodians go back to being simple farmers.

Siam Reap the city isn't much to write about, just your typical shambling, developing world collection of grand hotels and shanties. The first day we took a Cambodian tuk-tuk, which is different than a Thai tuk-tuk. A Thai one is a purpose built three wheeled pickup truck/motorcycle thing than runs on propane. The Cambodian version is much more ghetto. It's just a 110cc motorbike with a two wheeled carriage hitched to it. Anyway, we (I had buddied up with a young French guy) spent 4 days exploring the monumental ruins of the Angkor civilization, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. I'll be posting photos of all the ruins shortly, but let me just say, they are absolutely the coolest thing I have seen in Asia. The temple civilization covers around 100 sq. miles and contains about 25 temple complexes. Angkor Wat while the most famous, is actually the least impressive of them all. The far more beautiful and interesting ones were Angkor Thom and Beng Melea.

Angkor Thom is basically a collection of massive pyramids (photos coming soon), dedicated to mostly Hindu dieties, although several god-kings switched back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism, Buddhism is the current religion, but in the Angkor period, they were mostly Hindus. I was really surprised that Indian civilization had spread all the to even Vietnam. In the south of 'Nam, they also had a stint of Hindu culture called the Chams. The temples do have a decent amount of tourists (I was there probably in the most peak season, Christmas time), but less then most famous places in Europe by far, so the crowds didn't detract much from the awe and mystery. The absolute best thing I saw was Beng Melea though.

To get to the Beng Melea temple, you have to take a two hour ride by tuk-tuk (about 40 miles away), which eliminates the majority of tourists. When we entered, there was probably less the 24 tourists. The great thing about Beng Melea though is that they have a nice little walkway you can tour the temple on, but you are also free to wander off, and start climbing and exploring amongst the ruins. That was actually one of the coolest things I have done in my life, and I think that's saying a lot for a guy like me. While most of the other temples have been somewhat restored, Beng Melea was left to the jungle and ruin. Few buildings remain completely standing, most of the walls have toppled down over the years, and the jungle has grown over the whole thing. It felt like I was living an Indiana Jones movie, crawling through abandoned passageways and up massive temples walls with huge blocks of stone strewn everywhere. The whole time we were exploring, we saw not a single other person. It was great. Very much like the movie/game Tomb Raider, unfortunately minus Angelina Jolie.

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