You couldn’t imagine a more peaceful place than Cambodia in 1961. Sure, the Vietnamese to the east had split into a Communist North and Free South after the French defeat at Dienbienphu – but that was a problem of despised Cham (the ancient name for ‘Nam).
A flight on Royal Air Cambodia from Phnom Penh (the capital) to Siem Reap (near the ruins of Angkor) provided an unforgettable example of just how laid back the place was. It was a DC-3, and the stewardess served us a small cup of orange juice, then strapped herself in the jump seat near the exit door and fell fast asleep.The plane landed, taxied to the tiny terminal, the ground crew opened the door, and we all walked past her to deplane – she was still out cold in Z-land. Must have been a long night in Phnom Penh.
I stayed in this small hotel, Auberge de Temples, run by a French lady, right across from Angkor Wat. There were a handful of visitors and I was the only American. As I explored the magnificent ruined cities and temple complexes of Angkor Thom, Ta Prom, Ta Keo, Angkor Wat and others, they were like deserted lost cities that I had all to myself.Wow, is it different today. The road from the Siem Reap airport to Angkor is lined on both sides with one beautiful new hotel after another. Hordes of tourists from all over the world crawl over the ruins. It’s like tourism in Egypt.
Yet the difference between 1961 and 2017 is dwarfed by the Cambodia I saw the last time I was here, 30 years ago in 1987. I slipped across the Thai border with a group of KPNLF (Khmer People’s National Liberation Front) guerrillas who were struggling to liberate their country from both the occupational Vietnamese Army and the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
I came very close to getting my derriere blown away by a Vietnamese mortar barrage, and these guys helped save my hide:
It seems completely and utterly impossible that the sweet gentle people I met in Cambodia in 1961, and who are now just as sweet and gentle as they were back then, could have been swept away in a criminally insane frenzy of auto-genocide.
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia), known as the “Red Khmer” or Khmer Rouge, were able to seize power in 1976 after the U.S. Congress suspended all aid to the Lon Nol government struggling to hold off the Communist horde.
From that day until The Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and chased them into the jungle fastnesses of the Cardamom Mountains bordering Thailand in 1979, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered two million of their own people out of some six million – almost one-third of the entire population.
They did so in the name of creating a Marxist paradise based on what their leaders, such as Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan had learned from French intellectuals while studying in Paris in the 1950s. Their excuse for doing so was to recreate the “glory of the Khmer Empire” using forced labor and “killing field” concentration camps.
“Khmer” (actually pronounced kuh-my) is what the Cambodians call themselves. Hindu missionaries from the Kamboja tribe in India had been coming to the Mekong Delta region for centuries when a Khmer ruler named Jayavarman II (r. 802-850 AD) united a number of principalities, called himself Chakravartim, King of the World, and began building a series of Hindu temples and a capital city just north of the Tonle Sap lake.
For the next 400 years, the Khmer kings constructed over 1,000 stone temples in the Angkor area, culminating in Angkor Wat (Great Temple) dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu by Surayavarman II (r. 1115-1150), and Angkor Thom (Great City) by Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1219).
Jayavarman VII had converted to Mahayana Buddhism, and so dedicated Angkor Thom and its central temple of Bayon to Avakalokiteshvara (ah-vah-kah-low-keet-eesh-vah-rah), the “Buddha of Compassion.”
The famous faces of the entrance gates to Angkor Thom are of this Buddha.
Jayavarman VII was the last of the great Angkor kings, who built not only extraordinary temples (the towers of Bayon were reported by Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan to be covered in gold leaf), but hundreds of hospitals, schools, and rest-houses for traders and merchants.
As the Khmer Empire slowly crumbled, with the complex irrigation system unmaintained and harvests collapsing, a new empire, that of Siam, was rising in the west. The Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya conquered Angkor in 1431, and the Khmer Empire vanished into history.
For over 400 years, Cambodia and the Khmer people lived through their version of a Dark Ages, being fought over and caught between the Siamese to their west and the Vietnamese to their east. The Siamese, at least, treated them as Buddhist brothers, while the Vietnamese looked upon them as barbarians.
It was the French who came to their rescue and created the modern state of Cambodia. What triggered it was the revelation to the world of the lost civilization of Angkor by French explorer and naturalist Henri Mouhot (1826-1861) in 1860.
The establishment of “French Indo-China” began with French gunboat dominion over Saigon, the Mekong Delta, and southern Vietnam. With the Siamese preoccupied by wars with Burma to their west, the French supported the claims of a Khmer prince, Norodom (1834-1904), signed a treaty of protection with him in 1863, and oversaw his coronation as King of Cambodia the next year.
In October of 1887, the French government announced the formation of the Union Indochinoise (Union of Indo-China), comprised of Cambodia (capital at Phnom Penh) and the three regions of Vietnam (Tonkin or northern Vietnam, capital at Hanoi; Annam or central Vietnam, capital at Hue; and Cochinchina, southern Vietnam, capital at Saigon).
In 1893, France added Laos to the Union after threatening war with Siam king Chulalongkorn.
The French built roads and railroads, established a rule of law, there was peace, moderate prosperity, the kings were puppets, and taxes too high. Tax revolts started to break out in the 1920s.
What the French also did was clear the jungle off the Angkor ruins and restored them to world renown. As wealthy world travelers came to see them, Angkor restored the Khmer people’s pride in themselves and their history.
In 1941, the French placed Norodom Sihanouk, 19 years old and great-grandson of Norodom I, on the throne. He threaded one sharp needle after another, the Japanese during World War II, Charles de Gaulle who wanted to reassert French control after the war, Khmer nationalists who thought he was a French collaborator, communist guerrilla movements supported by Ho Chi Minh in northern Vietnam – among others.
The Viet Minh guerrillas led by Ho were giving the French so many problems that Sihanouk’s demand for full independence was granted, with Independence Day celebrated on November 9, 1953.
In May of 1954, the French suffered the massive military defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and Communist North Vietnam was created. This, of course, did not satisfy Ho Chi Minh, who wanted to “liberate” all of former French Indo-China under his communist dictatorship.
Thus he organized and supported Pathet Lao communist guerrillas in Laos, Viet Cong communist guerrillas in South Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge. Fortunately for Sihanouk, Ho focused more on conquering the south, allowing Sihanouk to maintain his balancing act.
So Cambodia saw some years of peace, during which Sihanouk unfortunately became more erratic and corrupt. He made deals with everybody, the U.S., Red China, the Soviets, and with Ho Chi Minh to allow North Vietnamese military bases and staging areas in Cambodian territory.
No amount of appeasement made any difference to the Khmer Rouge, led by the most educated men in the history of Asian Communism, sons of privileged landowners and civil servants sent off to get doctorates at the University of Paris, where their professors taught them the philosophy of Stalinist Marxism.
They returned to form the Communist Party of Kampuchea (an alternate term for Cambodia). In 1965, their leader Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar, 1925-1998) received several months’ training in guerrilla strategy in North Vietnam and Red China. In 1968, he launched the Khmer Rouge insurgency country-wide.
Atrocities began quickly. Anyone in Khmer Rouge-controlled territory who exhibited the slightest hesitation at obeying the edicts of the Angkar Loeu (High Organization, the leadership) was instantly executed.
The indiscriminate terror in the countryside swelled the capital of Phnom Penh with refugees. When the old capital city of Oudong was captured in March of 1974, its 20,000 inhabitants were dispersed into the countryside, every teacher and civil servant murdered, and the city destroyed.
On April 12, 1975, the U.S. evacuated its embassy and all U.S. personnel by helicopter in Operation Eagle Pull. On April 17, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh.
The genocidal reign of terror that followed – the entire population of Phnom Penh driven into the countryside to starve, the mass slaughters so vast they became infamously known as “Killing Fields” (where people would be shot for having a watch or eyeglasses – signs of Western intellectualism) – seems out of Hollywood’s bloodiest horror movie.
Then the Khmer Rouge leaders decided to re-establish the Khmer Empire at its peak under Jayavarman VII – which meant seizing the Mekong Delta from Hanoi and systematically killing every ethnic Vietnamese they could find in Cambodia.
On December 27, 1978, 120,000 Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia, seized Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, and ended the reign of terror. But not a communist dictatorship, so an anti-communist guerrilla movement, the KPNLF that I was with, fought the Vietnamese throughout the 1980s, while the Khmer Rouge hid in uninhabited forests.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about Vietnam’s disengagement. The KPNLF and a movement led by Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Ranaridth, formed political parties and elections held in 1993. Pol Pot died in 1998, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary surrendered, and the last Khmer Rouge commander, Ta Mok, was captured in 1999.
The nightmare was over. But the mystery remains. How could such a thing have ever happened? Part of the answer has to lie in it not being isolated or unprecedented.
Go to Japan today, bursting with modernity and peaceful prosperity, and it seems inconceivable that the folks there went criminally and militaristically nutso a few decades ago. The Rape of Nanking and other atrocities are on par with the Khmer Rouge.
The Chinese are still bitter over Nanking – but look at the atrocities and mass murder they have committed upon the people of Tibet, slaughtering over one million Tibetans. And the Khmer Rouge seem pikers in the genocide department compared to Mao Tse Tung, who oversaw the deaths of tens of millions of his own Chinese people.
To the south of Cambodia is Malaya. In Malayan police stations, especially in more remote areas, you’ll see something called a sanggamara, a six-foot-long trident with no middle prong. Its purpose is to pin a man against a wall with the prongs on either side of his neck – a man suffering from a violent, homicidal malady the Malays call amok.
Without the sanggamara and a convenient wall, the man would have to be disabled or killed, as someone with amok never gives himself up and stops engaging in a deranged murderous frenzy. With the sanggamara, he can be incapacitated until he recovers his sanity and becomes normal again.
Evidently, entire societies, not just individuals, can go amok. Today, the Palestinians make a good case. Governments can go amok, as in North Korea or Iran. Religions can go amok, like Islam.
It’s interesting that once the frenzy is over, it doesn’t usually return. Thus Cambodia today is once again peaceful and the odds are substantially that it will never ever again indulge in Khmer Rouge amok-ness.
It makes one wish for some sort of social, political, military equivalent of a sanggamara with which you could pin an amok society or government against a wall until it recovers its sanity.
If we can figure out what sort of sanggamara this would be, we would solve far more than the mystery of Angkor.
Meanwhile – this is a wonderful place to visit now. The best time would be September-October when the summer crowds are gone and it’s the end of the rainy season, when everything is lush and green with clear skies.
The best place to stay near Angkor is The Raffles. It’s pricey at €250, but there’s an abundance of terrific places at way under €100. And don’t pass up the beach resorts of Cambodia’s hot destination, Sihanoukville. You won’t believe how inexpensive the luxury there is. How about this for €65 a night?
Thus, there are a lot of good reasons for Cambodia to be on your Escape Artist itinerary.
Jack Wheeler is the founder of Wheeler Expeditions.