Cambodia, The Churning of the Sea of Milk

In very ancient times the gods gathered to find a way to receive ambrosia, which would make them immortal like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The jar holding ambrosia lay on the bottom of the ocean and to obtain it Vishnu advised: “Call the demons to your aid and churn the ocean ...”. The gods tried to churn the sea with Mount Mandra, but despite all efforts they could not move the mountain. To unmount it Vishnu called for Vasuki, the king of snakes and it coiled itself around the mountain and unrooted it. The gods rolled the mountain to the shore of the ocean and placed the weight on the tortoise king, who walked into the sea. Then the daemons and gods, holding Vasuki like a rope, pulled him forward and backward to churn the waters. Vapour coming from the mouth of the snake condensed rising to the sky and rain fell to refresh the gods. A lot of foam and spray arised from the churned sea and with it Apsara dancers which are dancing to the music played by their husbands, the gods. This is the legend Samudra Manthanam, or the churning of the sea of milk.

The temples of Angkor and all over Cambodia are covered with endless artworks on this myth. They remind of the amazing high Khmer culture at a time when Europe was in its dark age. But today Cambodia is also just in the stage of waking up from more recent nightmares, of which for example the battles between Cambodian and Thai troops over the Temple of Preah Vihear (N14°23.392’, E104°40.809’) just are a few weeks back. Still today in the remote Cambodian North, troops hold posts on the roadsides with mounted Type 67 machine guns, in beach sandals and without sandbags or any cover and sometimes with a can of Angkor Beer to cheer themselves up until the next clash at this unresolved border line which dates back to the French Indochine.

Since the Independence from France in 1953 Cambodia had a history of turmoil, inconsistent leadership, a main military coup in 1970 and the attempt of the King to overthrow the US backed Military government by offsetting a civil war, which was soon used by the Khmer Rouge Rebels. The intensive bombing of the North East of Cambodia by the US Seventh Air Force to disrupt the Viet Cong turned the region into a crater landscape till today and at the time is said to be driving up the support of the rural population joining the Khmer Rouge. Around two million Cambodians fled the fighting into Phnom Penh, which fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The regime, lead by Pol Pot, announced the country to be “Democratic Kampuchea” and attempted by tyrannic means to revert Cambodia into a 11th century rural state. One Million out of an 8 Million population died of famine, disease and mass executions. Any form of education, intellectualism and cultural heritage was fought my all means. The interrogation prison S-21 in Phnom Penh reminds of this, and is besides German Concentration camps one of the most deeply depressing memorials I have ever seen. In 1978 Vietnamese troops invaded and attempted to end the Khmer Rouge Regime, but could not gain control over the whole territory. Until 1993 the Khmer Rouge were able to hold territories in the North and the South of Cambodia, devastating the land with anti-personnel mines and crippling in the later stages mainly farmers and playing children. The mine fields are up to today one of the major obstacles of development in some regions and are de-mined with international funding at a cost of 2 US$ per square meter. Despite a military coup in 1997 Cambodia is now relatively stable. Only very few former Khmer Rouge commanders have seen justice, to satisfy the demands of the countries providing financial aid. The cases are uncounted, in which people re-visit their past tyrants and take revenge into their own hand, many with a gun.

Today, Cambodia is growing at a very fast rate, specially the black segment of the economy. The government is corrupted, holding its own people hostage to receive foreign aid. The situation escalated briefly when law students recently protested that they have to bribe the judges to buy their jobs in the legal system. The police and the army deforested and degraded most of the forests in the North of the country and exported the wood. Military commanders run businesses all over the country, using their soldiers as free labour in anything from “import/export”, mining operations, logistics down to just shutting off a beach and collecting what is here called “tax”. It seems very obvious that a self-funded army is dangerous in such a country, but even the UN presence can only regulate this step by step. The police and the courts are selling justice to the highest bid and anything implemented by a government body is not an implementation of a rule, but just a “pain in the ass”. NGOs even have to pay off people when they bring their own money to build a school. Sometimes, the ones lining their pockets like this, later re-appear in the opening ceremony and are the ones giving the speech “donating” the school to the people in all pomp and glory. In the South of Cambodia also Russian “Investors” cherish the beauty of the seaside as well as the loose control of the origin of their funds and re-furbish the faded charm of the formerly French settlements in and around Sinaoukville with a “supply chain” that sometimes reaches back into human trafficking. 

Besides all, tourism is picking up in Cambodia as a very important industry. And the most important and most visited sites are of course the temples belonging to the Angkor complex, which is classified as World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The closest city is Siem Reap which developed since 1993 from a small village on the river to a nice and open city, which even has an own international airport.

Angkor (map here Map-AngkorMain.jpg) was first visited by the Portuguese Monk Antonio de Magdalena in 1586, but became popular mainly by the travel notes of the explorer Henri Mouhot who was supported by The Royal Geographical Society. In the centre of the Angkor complex, stands Angkor Wat (N13°24.784’, E103°51.850’, download plan of the inner structure here Angkor Wat Plan.png), which was built under King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as a temple and today’s largest religious building. Recent research by the University of Sydney shows that Angkor Wat was the centre of a large urban area which was the capital of the Khmer civilization (download article here: New Scientist 2010 Young.pdf). Angkor Wat is the best preserved temple and attracts a lot of visitors. However, I found the temple not the most impressive, perhaps because of too high expectations. 


A temple which is grown in my jungle is Ta Prohm (N13°26.009’, E103°53.712’, download map here map-ta-prohm-1.gif). South-East of Ta Prohm lies the very impressive complex of Banteay Kdei  (N13°25.786’, E103°51.546) which is built in the 12th century, decorated with Garudas and the four faces of  Avalokiteshvara. Beside you find the large former capital Angkor Thom with the decorated gates with faces. Form here it is easy also to pass Baphuon (N13°26.627’, E103°51.484’), Bayon (N13°26.475’, E103°51.484’), Kleang and the Terrasse of the Leper King, Terrasse of Elephants and Pimeanakas (all around N13°26.752, E103°51.508). The Hindu temple Pre Reep (N13°26.098’, E103°26.098’) is very different from the other mainly Buddhist structures: it is not built in a sandstone covered Laterite, but in red bricks and also follows a different geometry. On the geographically same side are East Mebon (N13°26.798’, E103°55.263’), Ta Som (N13°27.872’, E103°54.710’). 36 km NNE of Siem Reap lies the mainly in Laterite built Benteay Srei (13°35.930’, E103°57.881’), together with Lokei, and Bakong (13°20.115’, E103°58.553’) and Beng Mualia, Kohker (13°47.033’, E104°32.443’) surrounded by a large a number of Linga Temples.

I found Cambodia and amazingly interesting and divers country. And given that the current development only started around 20 years ago, it is another example how a country can be dragged out of poverty in a very short time. Sure, Cambodia is still poor. But if the corrupted government holds or even improves or changes to a better one, then Cambodia has for sure a good future. If not, then not.