My impulsive decision has never worked out so well. When I talked to friends about some exotic place to visit just one day before the Easter Holidays, it seemed that Cambodia was only choice because it was easy for a Chinese national to get a Cambodian tourist visa. The plane ticket to Phnom Penh was expensive, but I really couldn't complain too much for such last minute travel plan.
I have heard about the great ruins in Angkor, Cambodia. That was the only place I wanted to go in Cambodia, so I wasted no time in Phnom Penh. Still, what I saw in that ancient capital of the Khmer empire truly amazed me. With no doubt I believe this ranks as one of the most spectacular cultural achievements in the world. Being from country with an ancient civilization, I could be excused for claiming that the ancient Khmer civilization was rather unsophisticated in many areas, but the monuments in Angkor, constructed from ninth to fifteenth century with exquisite craftsmanship, sheer imagination, and powerful symbolism, surpass anything ever built by the Chinese. What a great empire the Khmers once had! My only regret was that although I could tell Vishnu statues from Shiva lingas after visiting temples in Nepal last year, much of the Hindu symbolism manifest in the monuments of Angkor was hidden from my eyes. The Buddhist images were easier to appreciate, but they were intricately woven into a potent mix with Hinduism. The two religions coexisted in Angkor until just before it was captured and sacked by the Thais in mid-fifteenth century, when the ancient Khmers abandoned Hinduism altogether. Supposedly, there was also a change from Mahayana Buddhism to Hinayana Buddhism around the same time, but I was too ignorant to tell the differences from what I saw. I felt a little less guilty after I told myself that I will visit Angkor again when I become more enlightened.
After the amazement of Angkor, the temples back in Phnom Penh seem rather ordinary, especially because they look the same in style as those in Bangkok. But Phnom Penh is amazing in a different way. Cambodia is officially still a communist country, but the day time buzz and night time sleaze rival even Hong Kong. It is hard to believe that the war stopped less than a decade ago, and the feared and despised Khmer Rouge made the city a ghost town just twenty years ago. On the twenty-minute ride from airport to downtown, I counted seven modern gas stations lining the sides of the avenue. Businessmen, some of them Chinese investors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Mainland, walk about with their cell phones and mistresses. Out at night in the disco clubs, teenagers in their international dress codes drink, dance, and have fun. But inside the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, the contrast could not have been greater. Here in a former high school building barely more than twenty years ago, thousands of innocent people branded as enemies of the state, Vietnamese spies, or parasites because they were educated or wore spectacles, were tortured to death. On display were gruesome pictures of tortures conducted by the Khmer Rouge, taken by the Khmer Rouge themselves, who like the Nazis kept meticulous records of their own crimes. Out in the bright early afternoon sun, while I was still shaken with disbelief, men with missing limbs begged for money and hawkers tried to sell me everything from Coke to Khmer Rouge memorabilia. Of all the Cambodians I talked to, including quite a few taxi drivers and hotel assistants, none disputed my claim that no one in Cambodia knew why Khmer Rouge committed such unspeakable crimes.
Cambodians seem to have a short collective memory. Perhaps that is the only way a people could cope with the wholesale genocide committed against them by their own compatriots. The usual principle "enemy of enemy is friend" does not apply in Cambodia. Vietnamese are universally hated in Cambodia but many people, especially country folks, voted in the UN-sponsored election for Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was installed by the Vietnamese after they drove out the Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge is cursed beyond redemption, but the Chinese and the Thais, both offered military help to the Khmer Rouge, are well liked. Cambodia is destined to rise again to take its respectful place in the world of nations. But for all the glory and sophistication of their ancient civilization, until understood by the Cambodians, the recent dark past warns outsiders that Cambodia may yet make another ugly turn in their extraordinary history.