Angkor Before the Khmer Rouge: A Snapshot Essay

Thailand069Christmas of 1965, while Americans back home were beginning to learn where Saigon was, the Barlow family was preparing to leave Bangkok for a few days in Cambodia, the country separating Thailand from Vietnam where peace was becoming rare.

We had come to Southeast Asia six months earlier, to a part of the world we had known nothing about but were eager to explore. Though we had been nosing about the south of Thailand around the schedules my father’s work as a Fulbright Scholar at Thammasat University and our schooling, we had not yet ventured out to the surrounding countries.

We were a little unusual for Americans of that time. For a country built by travelers, this might seem a little strange, but many of the people of the United States had turned away from the rest of the world since World War II, focusing on building their lives in this relatively new country. Geography, in U.S. schools, was mainly that of North America, and History rarely went further.  What lay beyond diminished in importance each year we grew at home.

Cambodia_1997_CIA_mapAs we Americans no longer traveled, we had forgotten how. We carried hard-shell suitcases when we were forced to go anywhere and looked for home abroad instead of seeing the homes abroad. Mostly, we were scared of the food and drink, not to mention the beds and the toilets and the transportation.

The five of us had begun to leave the cocoon that our country had been creating for us, eating street food and traveling by public transportation, learning to squat in foreign toileting facilities, to drink with care and not paranoia, and to sleep wherever we must.

My father John was about to turn 41 when we left Bangkok for Cambodia. A WWII veteran, he had endured battle on Leyte Island and was game to try just about anything, He had never retreated to home with his fellows but had continued an avid interest in other cultures, particularly Asian ones. My mother Dulcie, three years younger, tagging willingly along, her own desire to explore growing to match his. I had turned 13 a few days before this trip and Joel had reached 11 a few months earlier. We were the perfect age for exploration, our own predilections hardly formed. Michael would soon turn 6, wide open to wonder.

Border BridgeI don’t remember how we got to Aranyaprathet, the Thai city across the border from Cambodian Poipet, but we likely traveled by train. We had to walk across the disputed border, slipping around a rickety wood and iron gate on a bridge with a shell hole separating one of its metal posts, a hole created during a hot period of the border dispute.

There was plenty of real fighting further to the east, of course (there had been another bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve), but this area was not part of any conflict at the moment. We boys felt safe enough, as kids often will, to marvel at the metal twisted apart by cannon fire, never seeing it as a sign of any danger for us.

Thailand103Cambodia, to us, immediately felt poorer than Thailand. That did not surprise us, for we had been warned to expect that. We walked into Poipet where we picked up the train that would take us the 50 kilometers to Sisophon where the train turned south and we could find a bus for the final 100-kilometer leg of the journey. We were headed for Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat, the great abandoned temple that was the objective of our trip.

This train, pulled by a coal-burning tiny locomotive, was not nearly as nice as the ones we regularly rode in Thailand. It contained a box car that was, I guess, the lowest-class ride.  Our father hustled from the train before it left, snapping this picture, one that not only contains his three sons but some of the box car passengers and a couple of others leaning on glassless windows.

Thailand077By this time, we were used to Thai houses on stilts and to water buffalo, but we hadn’t seen homes quite as obviously poor as the ones our train passed by. We had all seen poverty before, particularly up in the hollers from Dulcie’s native Western North Carolina home, but I don’t think any of us had seen anything quite as barren as this–aside, perhaps, for John, whose experiences in the Philippines he generally kept to himself and whose parents had lived for years in Mexico. Real poverty was kept hidden from most of us Americans, even in our travels.

“Kept hidden”? More accurately, we hid it from ourselves.

Thailand102We weren’t really poverty tourists, though, for we really did know nothing of what the reality of Cambodia might be or the extent of real deprivation in a region that we new had abundant resources. We were travelling to see what is really one of the wonders of the world and were doing so as cheaply as Dulcie, who took care of all our finances, could manage. We learned a great deal, as a result, seeing things that made events, including the civil war that would break out in five years, unsurprising.

The tragedies that would unfold in Cambodia during the 1970s resulted from the intersection of willful ignorance on the part of Cambodia’s ruling elite and the American government’s lack of understanding of the peoples of the Southeast Asian countries it was trying to manipulate–and sometimes bomb–for what it mistakenly believed could be the success of its own geopolitical machinations. But that was to come.

I don’t recall how long we were on the train from Poipet, or if there were stops before Sisophon. It was a hot day, that I do remember, with no place to escape it.

Thailand101The station at Sisophon was more impressive and memorable than the one at Poipet. Or I think so, for I don’t recall the latter all. In this picture, Dulcie is standing, as is Michael in a red shirt nearby. Joel sits on a suitcase a little further to the right. I am also sitting, on the cement at the far right of the picture, reading something, as usual.

We must had just arrived when John took this picture, for we quickly left the station in search of a bus to Siem Reap.

Thailand056At what passed for a bus station,  we came across a motley group of “farang” (as Westerners were called, back in Thailand) also hoping to get to Siem Reap. Among them were a couple of Germans in lederhosen (really–you can see the behind of one in the picture) and an American woman somewhat older than John and Dulcie. The group got to talking about the possibility of pooling resources and hiring  a small bus for the dozen or more of us.

We managed  to do that, or thought we did. What we discovered, as we went along, was that we had only rented the inside. The bus continued its regular route, picking up and depositing people and baggage (including chickens and goats), but carrying all of that on the roof. Business, of course, has to continue as usual.

Thailand091It hardly seems possible that we got to Siem Reap before nightfall, but I believe we did. Dulcie had reserved two rooms for us in a cheap old but well-kept French colonial hotel called “L’hotel de la Paix.” It had no air conditioning, but we expected none, and its electricity was somewhat sporadic. The water, we had been warned, was not to drink.

I don’t remember how the rest of the family felt about the hotel and its restaurant, but I was in awe of it, for it spoke to me of the mysterious past, of Europe’s confusing and chaotic attempts to establish control over cultures far removed from its own. I knew of colonialism from my own reading but did not understand it and had never before seen its remnants. We had spent a few days in Hong Kong on our way to Bangkok but Hong Kong, even then, was a modern city, its colonial heritage visible but hardly important in its modern urban activity. It spoke to me of “today,” not the past.

Thailand, I guess I should mention, had never been colonized and was quite proud of the fact. It did not contain the detritus of fallen empires that I already wanted to explore. The Hotel de la Paix, then, was my introduction to the mysteries that had made the novels I had been reading possible, including Conrad’s Lord Jim, which I had recently finished. Romance and tragedy fascinated me. And here, finally, was a place connecting it to my mundane life. I was thrilled.

Thailand070Tomorrow, though, I would be in for one of the biggest surprises geography has ever offered my life, one that made me forget about the hotel for at least the rest of this trip if not for the twenty years before I would again  spend time in post-colonial countries. Perhaps my parents had some idea of what we would be seeing, but I had none.

All the better: the shock of discovery would drive most every other thought away.

Angkor Thom, though I did not really understand thatt at the time, centered by Angkor Wat itself, was and is one of the world’s greatest ruins, the remains of a magnificent civilization hardly known at all to Americans of the 1960s–or today, for that matter.  Every other great artifact of the past I would encounter over the years came with advance warning: I had read about it or, at least, had heard about it. Though my father had tried to give us all a little idea of what we would be seeing, he knew hardly more than we, having experienced no more of this splendor than any of the rest of us. And Angkor had never been on American cultural radar.

angkor1Angkor Thom, we discovered when we reached it the next morning, is no place just to see. No photographs can encapsulate its dynamics. It has to be experienced, walked and touched.

There is so much of it that we were overwhelmed right from the start, wandering through what was then a relatively empty (considering its size) city of stones and trees. There were other tourists around, but we would often see no one  but other members of our family.

It really was that empty–of people.

Every inch of everything was otherwise filled. It all seemed either carved or growing, and sometimes both. Much had been destroyed, of course, but enough remained for me to imagine the boulevards peopled and the stone topped with wood and paint and pride.

Every turn brought something new and yet all of it seemed the same. For there are threads running through the stones that draw the disparate into a whole just as the forest did, the forest that had hidden the city for centuries.


The steps to the tops of the ruined edifices were steep and unguarded. Tourists could go pretty much where they would, and could take away what they wanted. We could see where this had happened but, almost from the beginning, we began to think of that as sacrilege. This was a place of awe; it should never change.

Thailand059What I remember most clearly are those stairs. I would not see anything comparable until visiting Teotihuacan in Mexico almost twenty years later.  The people who climbed those steps must have really wanted to reach the top, must have had good reason for the climb. These stairs were not meant to ease the way but to make the ascent itself a victory. What I could see around me after making the climb was always worth it, but the view was sweeter for the ascent. In a land of no towering mountains, the builders still understood what it means to reach, to climb.

Thailand063But height is not what makes Angkor Thom magnificent. The breadth does that. And the trees and ponds, and the dry waterways that once surrounded many of the palaces, including Angkor Wat itself.

No, it’s not the height. It’s not even the breadth, not as seen only from above, at least. But it is the breadth as it is experienced on the ground. The breath of the small, single step.

Speaking of the small, my greatest disappointment in Angkor Thom was the lack of signs of daily life, of the common people who certainly kept this fantastic city going–who built it, in fact. Their lives, obviously, were not built in stone so have disappeared with their mortal beings. This added to the sense of sad emptiness that tempered my joy at the abundance of Angkor Thom.

Thailand086This emptiness was not complete. One of the little people did remain–at least, in the palace this gardener came to build. The story–though it makes little sense, the evidence is there–is that lowly worker grew frustrated by the king and refused to fetch him a fresh cucumber from the garden. When the king bent to pick one for himself, the gardener seized his chance and knifed him. Taking over, he built his own palace, one garnished with stone cucumbers. They can be seen atop the buildings in this photograph.

Thailand082One of the things that tickled John’s fancy during our walks through Angkor Thom was placing young Michael in the laps of particularly ferocious-looking statues and taking a picture. Though Michael loved Angkor Thom as much as the rest of us, here he looks like he would rather be somewhere else.

No, that’s not the case. Even at five he knew he was somewhere special and I doubt he would have traded the experience for anything else, not even at the time. and young age

Ours was a trip of innocence, based on attitudes soon to be abandoned by Americans as the realities of the Vietnam War started to teach us that the world is not the playground we had seen it as since our tanks rolled over Germany and our bombs stunned Japan into surrender. Though the Soviet Union and China unexplicably resisted us, we felt that history was on our side and that our “way of life” would inevitably triumph (an attitude that would be announced as triumphant some two-and-a-half decades later in Frances Fukuyama’s sadly mistaken The End of History). We felt secure and confident–and able to help. Though my parents and I had read Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American and my parents, at least, had taken it to heart, we still didn’t understand that the answer to world problems was not for Americans to help others become like Americans. We still didn’t know that we were not the pinnacle of human desire.

One of the frustrations of the Americans who support Donald Trump so ferociously is that the dream of American exceptionalism we all grew up with has proven just a vanishing cloud, that we were never atop a mountain but had merely climbed a pile of snow, now melting. The British, whose world domination ebbed as our own flowed over foreign shores, also are suffering their refusal to accept the reality of the world. We see it in their struggle with Brexit.

Such struggles aren’t new, of course. I am sure the citizens of Angkor Thom felt much the same way as they viewed a world around them that could not match the splendor of their home.

Given what I saw in Cambodia, and in light of the tragedies the country has experienced since, it’s no surprise to me that one of my enduring favorite poems is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “OZymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

It’s when we don’t take that into account that we, as cultures and empires, get into trouble. And we are in such trouble right now.

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