Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Cambodia Day 1: Phnom Penh

Praying Buddhas at the entrance to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
Blog Entry #41: Cambodia Day 1: Phnom Penh

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Changing tire on our Vietnam Airlines plane
Our trip itinerary allowed for 6 full days in Vietnam, which allowed Pat and me to take half of that time to travel to Vietnam’s eastern neighbor, Cambodia.  While the draw for most of our shipmates is the magnificent temple complex at Angkor Wat, equally compelling for me was the chance to visit the capital city of Phnom Penh and examine firsthand the complex legacy of the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975-79 when nearly 2 million Cambodians were killed.  I will write about our experience of this in tomorrow’s entry.
Flooding along the Mekong River in Cambodia
The first compelling part of our trip to Cambodia was the flight over the flood-swollen Mekong River: shortly after taking off from Ho Chi Minh City International Airport, we began to see flooded fields and countryside as we flew east.  While international news has focused on the floods in Thailand and especially Bangkok, much of Cambodia and southern Vietnam also is currently under water.

Flooded village along the Mekong River, Cambodia
Rice fields cover Cambodian countryside
Seeing the vast stretches of countryside now submerged in water is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable this region is to climate change and rising sea levels: much of the Mekong Delta is only 1-2 meters above sea level, and so a flood of this magnitude spreads far and wide, submerging not only the extensive rice paddies that cultivate the delta, but the villages that house the farmers.  We saw traces of roads between villages where only the rooftops could be seen above the waters.

Motorbikes wait out rain in Phnom Penh
As we landed in Phnom Penh, a major monsoon thunderstorm soon engulfed the city, so our first views of this much smaller city than Saigon were of rain-swollen streets and motorbikes taking cover on the roadside.  Still, we could see large government ministry buildings lining the wide “Conference of Russia” Boulevard that took us through the heart of the city to the old city center.

French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh
The weather and a flat tire on our plane had delayed our arrival by an hour, so we headed directly to the old French quarter along the Tonle Sap River that joins the Mekong River at Phnom Penh; there we had a lovely hour-long boat ride after the sunset, with the night sky periodically lit up by forks of lightning as the rain continued to fall.  Fish is a major part of the Cambodian diet, and all along the banks of the Tonle Sap River were small fishing houseboats, now lit up as people prepared their evening meals.

Apartment building in center of Phnom Penh
Trishaw drivers, Phnom Penh
It is always a bit disorienting to enter a new environment in the dark, and made doubly so by the rain, so waking the next day to sunshine and the streets of Phnom Penh was especially fascinating.  In contrast to Ho Chi Minh City where vestiges of the French colonial past are rapidly disappearing in the pace of blazing economic growth, Phnom Penh seems largely frozen in time, with only the occasional new bank building going up.

The Lonely Planet Guide describes the Khmer people of Cambodia as follows: “It is difficult to describe the Khmer people without jumping up and down on a springboard of emotion.  Their smiles will lift your spirit and then their stories send you crashing.  This is a nation of survivors.”

Celebrating our 11th anniversary at the Royal Palace
“The sights of Phnom Penh sum up the contradictions of Cambodia.  The stunning legacy of god-kings exhibited at the National Museum contrasts greatly with the legacy of the killers displayed at Tuol Sleng.  The grandeur of the Royal Palace is a world away from the gloom at Choeung Ek.  All around the city you can see evidence of both splendor and sorrow.”  These words were an accurate prediction of our own experience.  It was also a poignant place for Pat and me to celebrate our 11th anniversary together.

Tower of Royal Palace
We started our day by visiting the Royal Palace with its stunning Silver Pagoda.  Because I was personally more interested in the history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, I initially saw this visit on our itinerary as little more than “tourist filler,” but I was wrong.  In fact I was stunned by the incredible beauty and brilliant, calm harmony expressed both in the buildings and grounds of the Royal Palace, from the row upon row of kneeling Buddhas that line the walkway to the entrance gate, to the first view of the Silver Pagoda that dominates the grounds. 
The Royal Palace of the Cambodian Monarchy in Phnom Penh

Buddha Shrine outside Silver Pagoda
Gardners at the Royal Palace
Lion & 7-headed Cobra statues
Initiated by King Norodom in 1886 after the capital was moved to Phnom Penh, many of the buildings were completed in the early 20th century, and it now serves as the residence of Cambodia’s largely ceremonial monarch.  At the center of the Silver Pagoda is a 17th century Buddha statue carved from emerald, and throughout the gardens and buildings the centrality of Theravada Buddhism and the earlier influence of Hindu gods and goddesses pervades the site.

The National Museum courtyard
Lotus Flower
We also had the opportunity to visit Phnom Penh’s beautiful National Museum, which contains many of the countries finest sculptures from its many temple sites.  Particularly striking to me were the number of large statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, especially 4-armed Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection, and Shiva, the god of destruction.  I had not realized how pervasive and long-standing the influence of Hinduism had been on this part of the world prior to its conversion largely to Buddhism.  This would prove to be the case, too, in most of the temples at Angkor Wat, our destination later that day.
With our guide, "V", at the Royal Palace
First, however, we encountered the history of the Khmer Rouge and the infamous Killing Fields, about which I will records my thoughts in the next entry.
Phnom Penh at night from the Tonle Sap River

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