Monday, January 19, 2009

Weighing Angkor

Monday, January 19, 2009
Weighing Angkor

The grand temple deep in the Cambodian jungle displays the glory of the Khmer empire

January 18, 2009
The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

If all those lists of Places to See Before You Die seem to include Angkor Wat, there's a reason. It really is one to visit before that large, final stamp in the passport.

The man who "discovered" it for Europeans in 1860 had no doubts. "It is grander than anything left to us by Greece and Rome," said French explorer Henri Mouhot. Certainly, sitting high on the great temple's steps as the sun rises, while squeaking bats whiz past your ears, is one of those special moments in a lifetime of travel.

Angkor Wat is, in fact, only the centrepiece of a huge, sprawling complex in northwestern Cambodia. With its exquisite carvings, it was the glory of the mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Indochina in the ninth to fifteenth centuries. It was abandoned after being sacked by the Thais in 1432.

The jungle quickly took possession. Today, huge trees dominate many of the sites, their roots knocking down temples or wrapping walls in embraces like giant squid.

Reminders of the region's violent history are all about, starting with ancient depictions of the 32 levels of hell and its gruesome tortures - freely adapted by the Khmer Rouges during their heinous rule from 1975-79. There are pillars pocked with machine-gun fire from the civil war, which ended in 1991. Red signs still warn "Danger!! Mines!!" A sad practice is the looting of Angkor. Statues, or often just their heads, have been chopped out and carried off by art thieves plundering this priceless asset. Things have improved since the war ended, but the jungle is thick and the thieves well-organized.

Looting has a long history here. One embarrassing incident occurred early in the last century, when the celebrated André Malraux, later to become a French icon as Charles de Gaulle's minister of culture, organized a heist from a temple deep in the jungle. He was discovered and arrested. (I heard a guide relate this story to a group of French tourists at Angkor. They were shocked. "Ah, non," they murmured. "Pas possible.") Politically, the country is more stable than Canada. After 23 years as prime minister, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party received a fresh mandate last year in an election judged dirty-but-not-too-dirty by foreign observers. As the Economist quipped, "Until fairly recently, Mr. Hun Sen's critics had a tendency to die violent deaths. As he has felt surer of his position, politics has become more peaceful." No tale of Cambodia is complete without mention of Norodom Sihanouk, the pudgy, personable bundle of energy who first took the throne as king in 1941 and abdicated, for a second time, in 2004. Sihanouk led the country to independence from France, attempted (in vain) to preserve his people from the Vietnamese War next door, was overthrown by a U.S.-backed junta and even allied himself for a time with the Khmer Rouge (who, by his own account, killed five of his children and 14 of his grandchildren).

He was also a movie superbuff, directing and starring in long films of his own creation. One of them, Shadow Over Angkor, just might have been the worst movie ever made. It received a grand showing by the Cambodian embassy in Beijing in 1970, shortly before Sihanouk was to arrive for a visit. When the lights went up, veteran diplomats struggled for adjectives.

"Incomparable," breathed one, as he shook a Cambodian hand. These guys are good.

I was in the audience, too, a correspondent in Beijing. A week later, I covered Sihanouk's arrival. But there was a twist. While the prince had been away in France, melting off pounds at a fat farm, plots were being hatched at home. Ironically, Sihanouk's execrable film portrayed just such a plot, by CIA-backed generals, to overthrow him. In movieland, Sihanouk triumphed. In the real world, he got the chop.

The coup came while Sihanouk was on his way home via Moscow. He learned about it abruptly from Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. "We were in a car on the way out to Moscow airport," Sihanouk related wryly, "and Kosygin turned to me and said: 'You are deposed. Good luck.' " Then it was out of the car, up the ramp, and one poleaxed prince was on his way to Beijing. He would spend years there in exile, a pawn of the Chinese, reduced occasionally to handing out trophies at basketball games.

In Beijing, there were press conferences, interviews and lunches, all dominated by the former playboy. It was impossible not to like him. He could run through anger, supplication, injured innocence, slyness and dazzling happiness in a single sentence.

But always, underneath, there was sadness. For years he walked the tightrope. It was often an inglorious exercise, requiring ladlings of smarm and concessions to more powerful neighbours, but for a time it worked. Alone in Indochina, Cambodia knew peace. After Sihanouk's ouster, the horrors came - massive U.S. bombing, Khmer Rouge barbarism and the boot of the traditional enemy, the Vietnamese.

He is in Beijing now, for cancer treatment. Soon he will die. At least he tried.

Norman Webster is a former editor of The Gazette.

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