Archive for the ‘ Indochina ’ Category





The perils of popularism 


Keyvan Tabari


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.





Our guide at the National Museum of Cambodia [1] began her introduction by saying that “the Khmer civilization is the oldest in South East Asia, as it dates back to the first century.” That was when Indian traders brought with them Sanskrit, Hinduism and Buddhism to the Funan area in eastern Cambodia. The Khmers were a mixed race who had themselves migrated here some three thousand years before from India, China and the islands of South East Asia. The Funan Kingdom was replaced by the Chenla rulers in the 6th century, who in turn lost power in 802 to Jayavarman II. He proclaimed himself devaraj (god-king) and was followed by a long series of god-kings until the 16th century.

We were impressed by the collection of artifacts in the Museum, but also a bit confused by the mix in their provenance. These Hindu and Buddhist treasures (mostly sculptures) did not follow chronology. “This is because the kings changed from Hinduism to Buddhism and then sometimes back to Hinduism” the guide said, “and people followed them, just like you are following me!”

Soon I found myself more interested in why the Cambodian people followed their more contemporary rulers. This is when we were visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum [2]. Formerly a high school, Tuol Sleng was where the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979, detained and interrogated at least 14,000 people [3]. Ten “regulations” of interrogation addressed to the prisoners were listed on a sign. “You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time,” one regulation read. “If you don’t follow the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire,” warned another. The third said: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” [4] Pictures of many detainees hung on the walls. They were tortured and executed with very few exceptions. Among the few who were spared were “a painter and a sculptor who made a portrait and a sculpture of Pot Pol, the leader of the Khmer Rouge,” our guide said. The picture of the sculptor was on the wall too.

Pot Pol called himself Brother Number One. Most of the prisoners here were the victims of internal purges that consumed the Khmer Rouge regime. Many were arrested following tips  given by those already in prison under torture. Subsequently, family members and associates were caught in a widening net to root out suspected enemies. The charges against them were: “CIA agents, KGB agents, traitors,” our guide said.

There was one more picture of note on the prison wall, that of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the former commandant of Tuol Sleng prison [5]. Duch had been a school teacher himself. After the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime, he disappeared in 1979. A British journalist found him twenty years later living in a small Cambodian town. Under international supervision Duch’s trial –the first of any Khmer Rouge leader- began on February 17, 2009 in Phnom Penh, just a few days before we arrived. Duch is expected to be a cooperative defendant, eager to tell his story. He says that he has converted to Christianity. He has implicated four other co-defendants who are the last surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Referring to them, Duch has told the investigators “I always reported to the superiors.” Duch has stated that he and his superiors were “skeptical of the veracity of the confessions” obtained under torture which were nevertheless used as “excuses to eliminate those who represented obstacles” to the regime. Many were marched for elimination to Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), ten miles away.

An estimated 1,700,000 people have died during the Khmer Rouge reign due to execution, starvation, overwork, or disease. “I fled Phnom Penh and lived anonymously in my husband’s village while he farmed,” our guide said. “But my two brothers were killed and my three- year old son died of diarrhea because there was no medicine.” Pol Pot emptied the cities. His vision of an agrarian utopia required the building of a system of canals, ditches and dikes modeled after a combination of the medieval Khmer network and the Chinese Communists’ harnessing of the Yangtze River Delta. All Cambodians were mobilized for this work. The poor and uneducated peasants were easy recruits. The urban and educated were often forced; they were deemed mostly corrupt anyway.

Sister Mary

When we later met Sister Mary (not her real name), the American nun who has been teaching in Phnom Penh for the last two decades, she reminded us that before the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians “had run to the countryside and joined the nationalist movement, out of nationalism, against General Lon Nol,” who had gained power in 1970 and ruled until 1975. That exodus was “also to avoid the American bombing,” she added. The U.S. was then fighting the North Vietnamese who were using the Cambodian territory to move troops south. Nol and his party, the Khmer Republic, had overthrown the King. That monarch was Prince Sihanouk whose time of reign in 1960-1969 was “the golden age” of modern Cambodia, according to Sister Mary. “Sihanouk called on people to support the Khmer Rouge, out of nationalism.” In fact it was he who gave them that very name, Khmer Rouge! He was the pioneer of modern Cambodia’s politics of “popularism,” harnessing the power of popular support.

For the last 25 years Cambodia has been ruled mostly by Hun Sen who was himself a Khmer Rouge commander before deserting when he suspected that he would be arrested by a suspicious Pot Pol. He fled to Vietnam and returned when the Communist Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. First gaining power under their protection, Hun Sen has continued in office by winning elections held after the Vietnamese departure. For a while (1993-1997) he shared power as the “Second Prime Minister” with Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranariddh who was the “First Prime Minister” because his party had won more votes. In 1997 Hun Sen staged a coup and removed the First Prime Minister.

Many observers believe that the Cambodian government is not anxious to revisit the Khmer Rouge events. The pressure comes from the outside world. To prevent “local favor,” the “hybrid” tribunal trying the Khmer Rouge leaders, consisting of two U.N. appointed judges and three Cambodian judges, has been set up to rule by super majority. The waning local interest was also shown in the fact that there was no Cambodian visitor in the Tuol Sleng prison on the day I was there. Perhaps the shock wears out. I saw a few of the Western visitors spending more time in the prison’s souvenir shop which purveyed unrelated items.


In the lobby of Phnom Penh’s fashionable Raffle Hotel Le Royal, a picture of a smiling Jacqueline Kennedy and her beaming host Prince Sihanouk, riding in a convertible, adorns the wall next to the dinning room where in the 1960s the Prince gave a State Dinner for the First Lady. At the brand new United States Embassy a few blocks away, a spokesman told us that the Americans were once again wildly popular in Cambodia. “The U.S. has 85% approval rating in Cambodian, the highest of all nations.” The American policy toward Cambodia changed after the Khmer Rouge was gone and the Vietnamese ended their occupation.  The United States is once again training the Cambodian military but it also has a “strong AID (Agency for International Development) program in health, education, and democracy training for internal governance of the political parties,” we were told. At different times there are “60 to 70 Peace Corp volunteers in 8 to 10 provinces of Cambodia, mainly teaching English.” Cambodia annually exports “some 2 billion dollars to the United States, mostly in textiles.” It is still a poor country with “$500 per capita GDP; one-third are below the poverty line, at subsistence living. But it has lots of water.“


Phnom Penh is located at a four-way water intersection [6]. Called Four Faces (chattomukh), this is where the upper Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers merge and split into the Basak River and the lower Mekong flowing to the South China Sea. I walked the few blocks from the American Embassy to Phnom Penh’s waterfront. This is a crowded city as ten percent of Cambodia’s 14 million population live here.

In the main city park there was an elephant for fun rides. The park is built around a small hill, the only one in the city. According to legends, Phnom Penh got its name from a temple built in 1372 on this hill (phnom) by a rich woman, called Penh, to house four Buddha statues swept to her in a tree during the flooding of the Mekong. The spirit house in front of the City Hall was a reminder of the continuing influence of pre-Buddhist religions. The women in head scarves at a café on the side street were Muslim [7].  Not far away was a big Mosque [8]. Alongside the Mosque was a guest house. It was called “Same Same But Different” and offered rooms at “$2/$3/$4” with Cable TV [9]. In the café next door, the TV screen was showing an Indian musical. To the right of the café was the “John Lennon Bar & Hair Dress” [10].

Not many of Phnom Penh’s professional and skilled residents survived their exile by the Khmer Rouge. As Sister Mary told us: “Only 3 teachers of the university and 30 of its students came back.” Many new arrivals are from the rural areas. I sat down to talk at length with one.


With a smile of modesty, he said that his Cambodian name translated into English as “Excellent” -not altogether inappropriate as he was among the few who had won a scholarship to Cambodia’s only public University (Royal University of Phnom Penh). Only three percent of students are so chosen. “They are the best and the brightest,” in Sister Mary’s words. They constitute 30% of the University student body, the rest are paying students. The University depends on their payments to sustain itself. “There are private schools too but this public University is considered to be the best,” Sister Mary said.

The scholarship was only for tuition; Excellent had to come up with his living expenses. He did not work because, he said, “there was no job for him.” His father was a farmer and they lived in a village 200 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. Excellent was lucky because his grandfather’s sister lived in Phnom Penh. Excellent stayed at her house. The Great Aunt’s husband had been a taxi driver who had retired when his son got a job as a teacher. He said “now my son has to support me.” Excellent bicycled to school which took him thirty minutes. “Those who have motorbikes are the rich students.” They were lounging on the lawn as we spoke [11].

Excellent said he “worked especially hard” to learn English well. He had taken two years of English outside high school when he lived in his village. In Phnom Penh, he sometimes went to where the tourists were to practice his English. He was twenty years old and in the second year of the University. He would love to have a chance to study abroad. “Best is the US because of the high tech,” he said. Excellent was taken aback when I asked if he “dated” girls. When he recovered he said emphatically, “No. Some break the rules. Not me. Not until I get married.”

I wanted to know what Excellent thought was happening in his country. “Cambodia has progressed, especially in education and agriculture,” he said and added “nobody now supports Pot Pol.” He repeated what you hear from many in Phnom Penh: “three million were killed.” Excellent said that “100% of his village voted for Hun San.” His explanation was that Hun Sen “is a powerful man.”  Excellent volunteered that “they also love the King and Sihanouk; independence from France was Sihanouk’s great work.”


The King of Cambodia lives in a palace compound not far from Phnom Penh’s Central Market, which has many buildings in the traditional architecture of “tiered roofs and topped by towers which are symbols of prosperity.” In May he comes out and with the Royal Ox symbolically plows a field in the compound while the Queen spreads rice seeds. On the day of my visit the King was not in his residence [12]; he had gone to China to see his ailing father, Prince Sihanouk. Now 84, Sihanouk has been suffering from cancer for the last thirty years and, hence, in 2004, abdicated in favor of the current King, Prince Norodom Sihamoni. Some say that by abdication Sihanouk was expressing his displeasure with the state of affairs in Cambodia.

A map of Khmer in its golden years is on prominent display in the Palace with a saying by Cambodia’s most revered King, Jayavarman VII of the medieval times: “The King was suffering from the disease of the subjects more than his because it is the pain of the people which makes the pain of the King and not his own one.” [13] Sihanouk himself is memorialized in a pavilion dedicated exclusively to his colorful career as a politician who since 1941, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has served in a greater variety of political offices than any other person on earth. These included two terms as King, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia’s non-titled head of state, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile. There are pictures of Sihanouk here with many of the major world figures whom, at different times, he befriended and denounced. In contrast, the current King’s coronation photograph, also on display in the Palace, shows him as almost overshadowed by the man standing sternly behind him, Prime Minister Hun Sen [14].

The French colonial rulers have also left a memorial of their glory in the Palace grounds which were established in 1886 after the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh. It is a gingerbread building first erected in Egypt where it was used to accommodate the Empress of France on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal [15]. Neither is Buddhism left out in the Palace grounds. All the pavilions are painted yellow and white: “The yellow represents Buddhism and the white represents Brahmanism.” A great hall serves as the forum for the ranking monk in the country to deliver a sermon four times a month. They are the days before the new and full moon and when the moon waxes and wanes. This columned pavilion is without walls “so that the moonlight can shine completely inside.” On the day we were there, four musicians were playing traditional Cambodian music [16]. Another aspect of the traditional Cambodian culture was on view in another room: small silver elephants commonly given as royal gifts with beetle nuts inside [17].




The local guide who met us at the Siem Reap airport was blurry-eyed. He had not slept the night before because his wife was giving birth to their second child. On the way to our hotel, we passed the hospital where the baby was born. There was a big crowd outside. “These are the relatives of the patients. They come and stay in the hospital too,” our guide said. “Hospital Jayavarman VII” was a hospital “only for children.” It was by far the preferred one in town. It was private but it was free. It was funded by an Austrian doctor (Beat) who was also its main physician. He was called Beatocello because he also played the cello. In fact, he supported the hospital by his fund-raising concerts. In our hotel we saw a poster announcing his next concert, “Music by Bach, Songs by Beatocello” [18].

Siem Reap is Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination. Last year more than 2 million visitors came here. The attraction is the nearby Angkor Wat which together with less famous other temples constitute the largest collection of religious ruins in the world, dating from the middle ages. Siem Reap has rows of luxury hotels; it is a destination for the rich and famous. “That one is the most exclusive hotel here,” our guide said as he pointed to Amansara. “It charges about 1,000 dollars a night. Its owner lives in Indonesia. He does not welcome American guests.”

I ran into some Americans who could certainly afford Amansara’s prices in the fashionable Elephant Bar of the Raffles Grand Hotel which was just across the street. They were on the National Geographic’s private 18-day jet tour around the world that cost each person over fifty thousand dollars. I complemented a woman among them for the exquisite scarf she was wearing. “This was a gift under my pillow when we arrived in our room last night,” she said. That tour had such perks! She was a widow. “But what made me come on this tour was my brother-in-law’s recent death from cancer,” she told me. “Seeing how my sister suffered, reminded me that life is short. What other ways could I spend my money better?”

Not all hotels in Siem Reap were full. “There are about 10,000 hotel rooms here. Many of them are owned by top Cambodian government officials,” our guide said, “and they don’t care if the rooms remain empty.” He explained: “These are for money laundering purposes.” The rigged accounting for the alleged income from the rooms, he said, provides cover for the wealth of the corrupt owners “stolen from the government.” Our guide pointed out “there is a similarity between the Cambodian government and the hospital where my child was born. They both depend on foreign aid.” The guide estimated that “two-thirds of the Cambodian government’s budget come from foreign aid.”

In our guide’s opinion there was “legal corruption” in Cambodia. By that he meant that free elections resulted in the victory of the incumbent party because it was able to win the majority of the votes in the non-urban areas by showering “the rural communes and its head with gifts, money, and some infrastructure construction.” As we drove around the Siem Reap Commune we noticed campaign posters from past elections on billboards. Curiously, some of them were in English, as though to win over foreign observers. The poster for the majority party showed three somber looking men with glasses in dark suites and ties. One was Hun Sen, the others were the leaders of the Senate and the lower house [19]. There were posters for two opposition parties. “They won in the cities,” our guide said, “but Hun Sen’s party won the overwhelming majority of the seats with rural votes. This is a one party democracy.”

The Siem Reap area was once a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. Their presence continued until recently. As late as ten years ago, our guide said, “tour groups had to have the escort of a truckload of men with AK 47s to protect them against armed Khmer Rouge young men who controlled those areas,” he pointed to the fields we were crossing. “There you can now see government development projects, including a golf course being built.”



Contrary to some misconceptions, Angkor was never a lost city. It was too big to be lost even in the dense jungles of western Cambodia. It is the visitor who gets lost in Angkor. There are still close to 100 structures, including 44 temples, that remain from the capitol of the mighty Khmer kingdom which flourished here in medieval times. At its zenith it was the biggest city in the world, covering 155 square miles with about one million residents.

Angkor was the victim of the increasing significance of global navigation in the 16th century. The rise of the much more accessible Phnom Penh on the Mekong River led to the decline of Angkor. No longer the country’s capital, it fragmented into small villages. Its neglected monuments were soon engulfed in the jungle. In the ruins only sturdier materials survived. We saw sandstone structures on laterite foundations, but their wooden doors were missing. The evidence of decay was visible in colors — green caused by lichen, black by moss, and red from oxidation.

The biggest temple, Angkor Wat, is the only one that has remained in continual use. Around it, we saw some faint traces of a once bustling city life, such as streets that marked the living quarters of the residents. The temple itself had been off limits but to the royal family, their entourage, and the priests. Its four gates had each admitted a specific group. “The steep difficult steps [20] were to make the temple look like mountains. It was not for all to be able to reach god,” our guide said. “People lost ears or fingers as punishment for entering a temple where they were not allowed.”

King Suryavarman II (1112-52) built Angkor Wat in a size commensurate for celebrating his vast expansion of the Khmer empire into what is today Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure, covering 22 acres and rising 213 feet. It was conceived as a Hindu house of the gods, with its five towers symbolizing Mount Meru surrounded by a vast square-shaped lake symbolizing the primordial ocean. The tallest tower was the home of Vishnu. Angkor Wat’s most famous bas-relief, on the western wall, is about the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” from the Hindu epics in which Vishnu is shown churning the ocean with the help of gods (devas) and demons (asuras) to obtain an elixir of immortality. The bubbles have turned into apsaras (heavenly nymphs).

Suryavarman’s legacy was surpassed by a later Khmer King. Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181 to 1219, was the true master builder. He founded the citadel of Angkor Thom (Grand Angkor) which contains many of Angkor’s other impressive monuments. “He built 100 temples, 120 rest houses, and 102 hospitals,” our guide said. Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist and this accounts for the horizontal design of his temples; there are no towers symbolizing Hindu mountains. Instead, there are enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara (the Buddha of Compassion) carved everywhere, all likeness of the smiling King Jayavarman VII himself. We saw them on the arched entrance to the Angkor Thom, and in the Bayon, the King’s state temple. “There are 216 such faces in Bayon,” our guide said.

Jayavarman VII also erected a temple to Shiva (Ta Phrom), dedicating it to his mother, and another temple to both Shiva and Vishnu (Preah Khan), dedicating it to his father [21]. I found these two temples unusual as they contained inscriptions, a rarity in Angkor monuments. The Sanskrit writing on the walls of Ta Phrom says that it once contained many precious stones and golden dishes. The stele in Preah Khan identifies it as a monastic site.

More can be learned about Angkor from its carvings. Garudas (mythical birds’ heads on human figures) were carved on Preah Khan’s entrances to ward off evil spirits. The mythical animals of Hinduism and Buddhism are also present on the balustrades of the bridge to the south gate of Angkor Thom (giants and serpent nagas), and the gate itself (an elephant). The carvings of the sacrifice of buffalo [22] related to “a ceremony customary before and after battles,” our guide said. The large bas-reliefs in Bayon glorified Jayavarman VII’s war against the Chams. That tribe from central Vietnam had rebelled against the Khmer king in 1177, and occupied his capital. Then a mere exiled prince, Jayavarman VII was able to defeat and expel the Chams three years later. In the carving, “the Chams are shown wearing helmets, the Khmer fighting without helmet,” our guide pointed out [23]. In Bayon there were also bas-reliefs that told us about the daily life in King Jayavarman VII’s court. Some others depicted laborers at work, and even men at leisure playing chess [24].

The elaborate artistry in the carvings, however, was most refined in Banteay Srei (Citadel of the Women) outside of Angkor Thom. This temple to Shiva predated Angkor Thom by two centuries. On its pink and yellow sandstone walls one finds Angkor’s best preserved carvings of vines, flowers, and miniature temples as well as violent scenes of Hindu epic legends [25.1, 2]. These were drawn “based on Hindu documents,” our guide said, noting that at the time Hinduism was the religion of the kingdom. There were also inscriptions in the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali and the old Khmer [26].

The splendor of Banteay Srei had an unsavory influence on Andre Malraux who came to Angkor in 1923 when he was only twenty two. The future first Minister of Culture of France stole four carved Apsaras from the temple. He was arrested by the French colonial government, given a year’s suspended sentence and forced to return the treasures. Malraux’s interest in Angkor was only in line with his earlier illustrious countrymen. A French missionary, Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, is credited with having rediscovered the long forgotten Angkor in 1850, and a French naturalist, Henri Mouhot, is credited with creating the Western fascination with Angkor with his report on his expedition to Angkor in 1860. This is not to say that Angkor had not been known to others. Portuguese explorers had come across Angkor three centuries earlier, and Zhou Daguan, an emissary from China, which had commercial interests in Khmer, wrote a book in 1312 on his observations on the “customs of Cambodia” during his one year stay in Angkor Thom. Zhou Daguan’s observations were used by our guide. Pointing out a building across the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom, he told us “according to the Chinese Ambassador, if there was a dispute, the two parties to it were put in that building until one got sick and came out first; he was ruled guilty” [27].

One Angkor temple, Ta Phrom, is a especially popular temple with tourists [28] because it is most covered by the huge trees of the surrounding jungle [29.1-3]. Walking around in 43 degree centigrade heat and 83 percent humidity, we saw trees growing out of the temple [30]. The face of an Apsara looked at us from the roots of one tree.  Our guide said, “trees attacked this temple more because it was on the ground and not on a hill and no one took care of it.” He pointed out the tree types: almond, mahogany, and ficus (silicon cotton).


Angkor is dear to Cambodians. Angkor Wat is the symbol of the Cambodian state which even the Khmer Rouge respected and chose as the logo for their flag. Admission to the “Angkor Archeological Park”  is free to Cambodians who often come here to picnic; we had to pay forty dollars for a three-day pass.

There are some 40,000 Cambodians living in the park. “They live in ways often not much different from the times of the Angkor temples,” our guide said. As we drove to Banteay Srei we saw farmers’ houses built on stilts for ventilation. There were hammocks under the buildings. “It is cooler there during the day; at night they go upstairs to escape the mosquitoes.” These villages have no electricity. “They use kerosene lamps. They use car batteries for TV and cassette players.” Their water comes from wells. Most do not have toilets, “only open air in the bushes,” the guide said.

The landscape was flat except for one hill with a temple on the top, which is “now a watch tower for soldiers,” we were told. The fields are flooded in the rainy season of May to October. Rice is grown here but with “the help of cattle, not machines.”  Men farm one-half of the year and “rest the other half, or go to the jungle and collect woods for charcoal, or go to town for construction work at two to tree dollars a day,” our guide said.  Women “raise chickens, garden vegetables, and take care of kids.” The guide continued: “most marriages are arranged. Girls marry around 18 and boys around 22. Parents negotiate how much the boy has to pay for the wedding. The girl has to be virgin.” Villagers eat more fish here because it is cheaper than chicken. “But there is no restriction to eating anything. They eat anything that is edible. In the jungle they use sling shots to kill snakes and iguanas which are used to make soups. Crickets are common food as are water beetles.” We stopped on the road to see how sugar was made here. In a big wok a man was boiling the sap of the sugar palm to make syrup [31].  We bought some sugar palm juice from a woman who had a dark mark on her forehead. The mark was from “cupping,” a traditional medicine treatment for headache in which a cup with alcohol is put on the forehead [32].

Back in our bus we were now riding parallel with boys on bicycles, wearing in uniforms of a white shirt and blue pants, coming back from school. Elementary school is free, but there are still living expenses. In the parking lots of the temples we were besieged by many boys and girls urging us to buy their trinkets with the refrain: “one dollar, one year of school! [33]” There were insistent beggars too. A young German tourist stopped me to ask, “How do you say no to them politely?” A friend warned me about an intolerable sight he had just seen “a horribly disfigured beggar up the road.” He was shocked but also felt guilty that he had not given the beggar money.

Siem Reap has the densest concentration of land mines from the Soviet Union, China and the United States which were put in the ground by various factions in the wars from the 1970s to 1995. Near the Angkor temples I saw small groups of musicians who had lost limbs, playing traditional Cambodian music [34]. It was boisterous. The central instrument was khim, the Khmer version of the santoor, a hammered dulcimer that originated in ancient Persia [35]. They had CDs for sale which on the cover said (sic): “Buy one CD of the cripple is that you have supported the cripple musians projested in Cambodia.”  I bought one; the recording is equally poor.

“Some farmers are lucky,” our guide told us. “Wealthy people want to build vacation homes here. Occasionally land is bought from the farmers for such homes that could cost up to $50,000.” The “Royal residence” of the King in Siem Reap faced our hotel. A few blocks away there were massage parlors with their soliciting young girls sitting on the sidewalks [36]. I asked directions to the old market from a man who was walking his motorcycle. His accent indicated that he was European. He said he was a volunteer with a “Christian Church group. There are several such organizations here.”


The Mormon Church’s missionary work in Cambodia has been notable recently, but the Catholics have long been the biggest Christian group. At 20,000 they constitute still a very small fraction of the population. The first Cambodian Catholic Church I saw was floating on the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) [37]. Its congregation was from the Vietnamese minority of Cambodia [38]; the women wore the distinct Vietnamese conical straw hats. The unique aqua culture of the Great Lake is related to its connection to the Mekong River. Monsoon rains of the autumn cause flooding in the Mekong which flows through the Tonle Sap River to the Great Lake, expanding its normal size nearly ten times. The flow is reversed in the rest of the year. This process results in an ideal breading ground for fish. “There are over 300 different kinds of fish in this lake,” our guide said. “In my grandmother’s time there were even Dolphins here. They made oil from them.”

Nearly ten percent of the population of Cambodia are fishermen. Many of them are in Tonle Sap which supplies the Khmers with some 80 percent of their protein. We boarded a boat on the shallow canal [39] in the swamp near Siem Reap which led to the 120 kilometer-long Lake. It was February, in the dry season. Houses floated on rafts near the banks [40], anchored by mere sticks [41], fish nets hanging on their sides. “They are pulled up to the ‘hills’ in the rainy season,” our guide said as he pointed to about five places that served as unpaved launching areas for this feat. On one, workers were bringing white bags of sand for crocodiles to lay eggs [42]. This reminded our guide of the carving of crocodiles in the Angkor temples. “The battle with the Chams you saw in those carvings was on this lake,” he said.

All was peaceful now in the floating village which was engulfing us today. There was a market, a food vendor [43], a mechanics shop [44], a school [45]; and a white boat belonging to the fisheries police [46].  A new Buddhist temple was under construction.  There were solar panels on a Catholic church [47], TV antennas on some houses, vegetable gardens attached to others [48], and even a basketball court on a floating raft [49].



Before there were paved roads, foreign visitors to Angkor boarded steamboats in Phnom Penh that had to await the tide and the ebb of the flow of the Mekong into Tonle Sap. They would then use the connecting narrow waterways to Siem Reap. Those waterways are now not navigable because of the many bridges since constructed over them for local roads. On the more prosaic bus we drove faster to Siem Reap, but we found a page from a gifted writer of those leisurely bygone days on our hotel bed which had been turned over for the night. This is how H. W. Ponder described his first impressions of Angkor Wat:

No one who has ever watched, from the inner causeway [50], the dim grey mass of the huge temple gradually taking shape and emerging from the darkness, will be likely to forget the sight. Long after all the other stars are extinguished, the ‘Morning Star’ shines on ever more faintly till it too dies in the strengthening light; and vague figures move like ghosts across the colourful scene, taking this way to the village so as to place a flower or a taper at the feet of one of the temple gods: in utter silence save for the bamboo water-containers slung from someone’s carrying pole, which clack softly together as they swing to and fro.

That night we watched Cambodia’s folkloric dancers recreate the construction of a different stone causeway across the ocean to Lanka City by Hanuman (the Monkey King) with the help of the Golden Mermaid to free Queen Sita. This was a story from the legend Ramayana. There were other dances in the performance. The dancers in the  Blessing Dance “prayed and wished good things to happen to the audience [51];” the Coconut Shells Dance was about the ethics of courtship between young couples, in which “women use coconut shells to keep misbehaving men away;” the Peacock Dance “observed the nature of the peacocks [52];” and the Apsara Dance depicted “friendly and playful Celestial Dancers who are featured by the thousand in the Angkor temples performing for the gods to encourage rain, good crops, prosperity and protection of the Kingdom [53].” I joined them on the stage to say Amen! [54]


The article entitled Cambodia ;  Perils of Populism was published on the Website of on August 11, 2009, which has the related pictures.