When does History Begin?

Just returned from a week in Cambodia. Traveling with The Asia Foundation gave the visit an especially insightful focus on the country’s economic, social, and governmental development. What a story !…though only vaguely in mind to Americans, despite the fact that some of the most significant events occured quite recently and were in part the outcome of the regional destabilization our military activity in Vietnam caused. You’d think we’d be more aware, but attention spans are both short and narrow. There is no substitute for actually experiencing a place first hand.

In some ways, it’s amazing that this country still exists at all. Roughly one quarter of its people (especially including all “elites”) were annihilated in a few years in the mid to late ’70′s under Pol Pot’s ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime. Phnom Penh, now a blur of vibrant activity, was completely depopulated by the KR as it moved all of it’s people to agricultural collectives in the countryside under the inspiration of the worst of Maoist Chinese excesses. Eventually, the country was rescued by the army of its historical foe, Vietnam, supported by the Russians. The French, having stronger interests elsewhere, left peacefully in 1953…but it was another 45 years before that power vacuum was filled by a political stability that we would recognize as “comfortable” today.

You are struck by how gentle and open the Cambodian people are. They are very young (65% under 25), still very poor (GDP per capita under $600/yr), with a very weak education system and a culture of petty corruption at all levels. Still, they are optimistic, deeply devoted to their families, and eager to welcome visitors. It’s easy to see why many wealthy Westerners have engaged in private philanthropy to assist education and preserve local culture. The attraction of this place is stunning and the needs are very great. The Cambodians appear genuinely grateful for even small attention and meager support; but you feel that so much more is truly deserved.

Angkor: Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has the bustle of a developing country’s major city, a very fine National Museum, a royal enclave of exotic state buildings, reminiscent of Bangkok’s Grand Palace, and the Silver Pagoda (the King’s own Buddhist temple) where the entire floor is paved in silver tiles fashioned from melted coins. But the reason tourists come to Cambodia is its old capital, Angkor. Angkor Wat (the largest religious structure ever built) is merely the largest of hundreds of major and minor sites that together comprise an absolutely breathtaking assembly of ancient architecture and the evidence of a once great empire.

A few observations/recommendations:

  • Come in January, the dry and relatively cool season and spend at least 3 days; I would have been happy to spend twice that long. There are many 4 and 5 star accomodations and more on the way. You can “rough it” if you want but there’s no need to leave Western luxury behind.
  • Make sure you devote time to some of the “lesser” sites like Preah Kahn and Ta Keo; this place is immense. The UNESCO park that encompasses the major temple areas is 144 sq. km, about half the size of Chicago.
  • The great builder of many of these sites was the king Jayavarman VII (“J7″) who reigned for 34 years. All of his many constructions, start to finish, were done in that brief time, with gigantic pieces of stone quarried many miles away and moved only by human and animal power and then carved, with stunning beauty, after they were in place (as high as 280 feet above ground level): in only 34 years! The great European cathedrals were tiny by comparison and took centuries.
  • Religious extremism is nothing new: The Hindu pantheon and cultural legacy forms the backdrop for most of the architecture, but J7 used his building campaign to aggrandize himself, of course, but also to provide suitable venues for devotion to Buddha. Many hundred thousand statues and other carved images of Buddha were the central theme of these temples. The very next king reverted devotion to Hinduism and had all of the Buddha images removed or destroyed…all of them. An enormous amount of work, done, and then undone.
  • The city that surrounded and maintained these edifices in the 9th-15th centuries is estimated to have had a population of one million people! (The largest European cities at the time had maybe 50,000). All physical traces of their habitations (all wooden, including the royal palaces) are long gone to the monsoons and forests.
  • Consider what is means to “preserve” this world treasure. There are many competing points of view: all in evidence as you explore different sites that have been, still are, and are expected to still receive attention. Should we restore the structures to a pristine state, with toppled stones replaced and fresh stone installed where former pieces are missing (but… Buddha…or Vishnu?); should we merely make them safely accessible, as is, to modern tourists, enthralled by the “Tomb Raiders” romance; or something else? The monsoons, the forest, and earthquakes are not going away; and the people who built and used these temples are not coming back. When does history begin? *

*Thanks to John Sandey, our guide and teacher on our first encounter with Angkor and the author of this question.

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