Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire: Transforming Horror to “A Profound and Wondrous Experience”
At first blush, the phrase killing fields seems like the kind of term no traveler would ever want to hear while taking a trip for business or pleasure – particularly a “bucket list” expedition one has planned for a lifetime. But those words are currently not only being whispered, but uttered openly during innovative, life-changing educational tours of spiritual and historical sites across Southeast Asia.
“When we told people we were going on this trip, almost everyone asked ‘Why there?’ muses Ruth. An Ohio resident, she made new friends while dining with the family of a retired teacher as part of Angor Wat at the Mekong River: Life Along the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, one of the most popular tour packages regularly offered by Road Scholar, the not-for-profit educational organization launched by Elderhostel more than three decades ago.
“We were able to glimpse and understand some of the complexity of Vietnam and Cambodia – from the many decades of terrible suffering in the French and American wars, the reunification of Vietnam, the Killing Fields of Cambodia – together with the rich heritage of culture and religion, and the vibrant, resilient human spirit,” explains Roger, a Michigander who describes his trip as “a profound and wondrous experience.” In addition to exploring Ho Chi Minh City, he sailed with his group along the Mekong River to Cambodia earlier this year, and gave the experience a five-star rating.
“Although I have always wanted to go to Asia,” I could not have imagined how this trip would make a difference in the way I view the world,” adds Ruth. “We saw historic sites and the everyday life of the people – how they live and work, and interact as families, neighbors and co-workers. The activities were sometimes challenging but varied and interesting on topics including history, art, music, language, and commerce.”
Contemplative travelers have, for centuries, been awed by the ruined city of Angkor and its namesake temple complex, Angkor Wat. Anthony Bourdain has described the vestiges of the Hindu-Buddhist shrines as places which “seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there, with your eyes open, and lived to see it.”
The heart of the Khmer Empire from roughly 802 to roughly 1431 A.D., Angkor was birthed by Jayavarman II, the 9th century Cambodian king and Hindu practitioner whom historians regard as the likely founder of the Khmer Empire. Covering roughly 250 square miles and “one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia,” according to UNESCO historians, Angor was also “the largest pre-industrial city in the world” during its heyday, notes archaeologist-author Ashley Richter. The city’s ruins are located north of Tonlé Sap, a river and vast lake situated in the Lower Mekong Basin, and still show evidence of the Khmer Empire’s network of canals, dykes and reservoirs, communications systems, monuments, and temples, including the iconic Ta Prohm temple popularized in the Angelina Jolie film, Tomb Raider.
Erected to pay homage to the Hindu god Vishnu and the dead King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat’s was designed to inspire spiritual thoughts of Mount Meru, the five-peaked mountain home of Lord Brahma and the Demi-Gods that was believed to be the center of the world for and sacred to Buddhist, Hindu and Jain adherents. Among its most iconic images are its bas-reliefs, towers, and three rectangular galleries, stepped and rising toward heaven – all of it surrounded by a moat and outer border wall.
The complex metamorphosed over centuries into a Buddhist shrine as the Khmer Empire transitioned from one spiritual practice to the other at the behest of King Jayavarman VII. A good measure of the Hindu carvings were preserved during this transition, and can still be found today, side-by-side with the masterworks created later by Buddhist artists.
Against this backdrop of hope and awe is another that is equally profound and equally demanding of silence and sincere reflection – the Killing Fields of Cambodia, where more than a million intellectuals, Buddhist monks, Cambodian Christians, ethnic Chinese and Cham, ex-government officials, and other opponents of Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge regime were persecuted, starved, and slain in a genocidal frenzy from 1975 to 1979 – their remains forever co-mingled in mass graves scattered throughout the countryside. A Buddhist monument in the village of Choeung Ek memorializes the fallen, as does a genocide museum in Tuol Sleng.
Timeless in their respective messages, the Killing Fields and Angkor Wat mesmerize with their stunning intensity, illustrating with a clarity possible like nowhere else on Earth that humanity has the capacity to reach toward the light even in the darkest of times, and are worthy additions to the bucket list travel itineraries of any contemplative traveler.
If You Go
The price of each Road Scholar tour of Southeast Asia varies by date, as does the activity level with participants likely to stand for up to an hour and walk for at least a mile each day in hot, humid weather – often along uneven pavements and climbing stairs without railings (although less strenuous options are available). Dress appropriately for the weather, and be prepared with adequate supplies before departure; it’s important to keep cool and well hydrated not only to stay healthy, but to remain mindful and be able to find one’s spiritual focus.
And focus is the key because there is so much to see. In addition to Siem Reap’s historic and spiritual allure, Mother Nature is ever present – and quite spectacularly so at the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre. The largest butterfly sanctuary in Southeast Asia, the BSBC supports local conservation and poverty reduction efforts through the funds it raises from tourist admission fees ($4/adult U.S.), and can provide a welcome respite from the weightier matters experienced throughout other stops along the expedition.
Road Scholar’s 2017 programs include the services of the not-for-profit’s knowledgeable and highly rated subject matter experts; prices range from roughly $2,495 to $5,340 with overnights or stops likely in Châu Đốc, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Mỹ Tho, Phnom Penh (Killing Fields, National Museum of Cambodia, Royal Palace), Sa Đéc, and Vinh Long. Meals and snacks may be purchased quite inexpensively – about $6-10 per serving (U.S.) for those interested in noshing along the way – as can vibrantly colored items of clothing and an affordable assortment of knick-knacks for “show and tell” nights with future dinner companions as you recount the sights, sounds and smells of an ox cart ride en route to a floating village in the Kampong Tralach District of Cambodia.
The most memorable moments, of course, will be made during the expedition to Siem Reap, watching the sun rise at Angkor Wat before exploring the Ta Prohm temple and archaeological holdings at the Angkor National Museum.
To learn more about these and other Southeast Asia expeditions, visit Road Scholar’s website.