all photos by nacrowe
in december of 2015 i took a trip by myself to CAMBODIA while on winter break from my teaching gig in JAPAN. i was there for over a week and split my time between SIEM REAP and PHNOM PENH. if you are interested in seeing my selected photos from that trip click HERE.
i was very excited to visit the region as i had been interested in the history and culture surrounding BUDDHISM and HINDUISM going back to my high school years when i first took a comparative religions class freshman year.
ANGKOR WAT was an obvious highlight that i'd put on par with visiting THE PYRAMIDS, MACHU PICCU, THE COLISSEUM, GREAT WALL OF CHINA, CHRIST THE REDEEMER STATUE, THE TAJ MAHAL or even SUN STUDIO in MEMPHIS. it is often regarded as the most refined architectural expression of the HINDU concept of MOUNT MERU in the world and seeing it in person met and exceeded the hype surrounding it.
but what made the 12th century expanded structure compelling to me as an english teacher were its endless depictions of deities that seemed perfect for understanding the concept of POST-STRUCTURALISM, something i was teaching at the time due to the IB CURRICULUM my school employed. case in point is BAYON temple, which is at the center of the ANGKOR WAT complex and intriguingly showcases 216 depictions of the boddhisatva AVALOKITESHVARA, meant to depict his infinite compassion in almost kaleidoscopic fashion. it really is something to behold. but knowing the backstory of the structure also clues you in to the fact that the depiction of this boddhisatva was very similar to the MAYAHANA BUDDHIST king that had it built, JAYAVARMAN VII, so its very much understood that people also understood it as a depiction of his omnipresent power. when you are at the upper levels of this temple, it is possible to be surrounded on all sides by these lumbering heads peering outwards from several massive towers. later on when hindus took over the complex they chose instead of scratching out the face (as they had done with smaller depictions throughout the complex), instead choosing to add dots on the foreheads. thus transforming them into SHIVA. when later THERAVADA BUDDHISTS (a more strict sect with no belief in boddhisatvas) took over control they reinterpreted the site as the traditional GAUTAMA BUDDHA.
so summing all that history up into post-structuralism. one signifier: the statue. four concepts signified: AVALOKITESHVARA, JAYAVARMAN VII, SHIVA and GAUTAMA BUDDHA. pretty incredible.
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM
whereas ANGKOR WAT was a mind-blowing, reassuring experience for what the heights of human creativity and collective cooperation are capable of, sites surrounding PHNOM PENH associate with the brutality of the KHMER ROUGE during the CAMBODIAN GENOCIDE of the late 1970s showcased the opposite, what humankind is capable at its most base and deplorable. it is estimated that 1/4 of the population perished during that campaign of terror. an estimated 1.5-2 million people. teachers, workers, professors and their families. basically anyone that was perceived as a threat to the regime.
now i know some people may find offense to my visiting sites that are associated with war crimes. i get it. my response is that it is our responsibility to understand the past and be a witness to history. too many times in western media atrocities are gleaned over and DISNEY-fied as to not disturb viewers or children. this leads to a distortion viewpoint and ultimately a confirmation bias that inaccurately depicts the reality of world events. i have seen this time and time again and i really feel that it leads to a lack of curiosity and compassion on our part.
so go ahead and think what you will, but visiting the TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM was a visceral experience for me. as a teacher it was astonishing to walk through a former school that was turned into a unnamed torture center, as they had in various other anonymous similar sites throughout the country. POL POT was a teacher by the way. i won't even get into the ways that people were tortured, mostly because it may be misconstrued as celebrating extreme sadism (which i understand) but also i don't think its that interesting a detail. what i did find interesting was the spirit of reconciliation that took place after the war and to this day, my tour guide having lost an uncle to the regime. everywhere you went you met people with relatives, parents, sisters, brothers, friends, etc. that were maimed or killed. much like visiting BOSNIA or speaking with people in KOSOVO during my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA, there is something about these experiences were people choose to pull together as a community. they choose to seek common humanity. for me that was the power of visiting CAMBODIA, a beautiful country with a complicated history. one of my top trips ever.
whenever i feel down about the cultural and political tribalism going down right now in the UNITED STATES, i wince at the idea of what is to come but also hopeful that we can muster a collective effort towards reconciliation post-TRUMP regime. if CAMBODIA could heal than so can we.
but man, shit is seriously fucked right now. kids in cages.