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Frank McGinity: Angkor Reveals Cambodia’s Rich Past Amid Its Rocky Present

One of the world's greatest empires is today a shell of its former glory and grandeur, but hope remains

By Frank McGinity |

It was a Hemingway moment. Here we were holed up in a bar at the La Residence d'Angkor hotel in the ancient city of Angkor, Cambodia, discussing the country's decline and fall. What went wrong? How could one of the most successful and exuberant societies in the world during the 13th century become one of the poorest today?

Our guide suggested maybe we could find out by touring the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Angkor Wat was the palace that anchored the kingdom of Cambodia. Under five kings, Cambodia flourished and comprised an area that included Vietnam and parts of today's Thailand. It was considered on a par with the Roman empire.

Angkor was the center, with more than 1 million inhabitants, making it the largest city of antiquity. The empire itself was the largest and most powerful in southeast Asia, with more than 90 provinces.

You can still see the grandeur in the buildings. Surrounded on four sides by a moat, the Angkor Wat palace is spread over approximately 10 acres. The buildings, while in various stages of decay, still show the many designs from ancient times and reflect the advanced nature of that society. According to inscriptions on the walls, the construction of Angkor Wat involved more than 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The kings loved to build temples to Buddha and other dieties in those days, and there are many throughout the Angkor area. Nearby Angkor Thom is another exquisite example of architecture during that period.

There are various reasons given for the decline of this empire after 1450. Surrounding nations began to take over parts of the kingdom through aggressive wars. And the location of Angkor did not lend itself to a strategic defense. Environmental factors and erosion are said to have been factors, as well. Probably the most important reason was not having a strong royal successor.

Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom is another exquisite example of architecture during that period. (Frank McGinity photo)

Cambodia muddled through the period from the 14th century to the 1850s, when it became a protectorate under the French. After World War II, King Sihanouk ruled the country until the Communists came to power in 1975. This started the darkest period in the history of Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot, an extreme communist, the country became a prison state. Peasants were mobilized into collective farms, required to work long hours in the rice fields with small rations to live on. Any person considered a dissident disappeared and was executed, hence the notorious name, "the killing fields." The city of Phnom Phen was evacuated under tortuous conditions. During this period, it is estimated that more than 1.3 million Cambodians lost their lives — 20 percent of the population — either through starvation or murder.

I asked several employees of La Residence of their memory or their families' recollection of this dark period in Cambodia history. Few countries in the world have ever endured a holocaust of this dimension. For this reason, I was surprise there wasn't much of a response, either because of the language barrier or because it was too painful to recall.

Cambodia today remains one of the world's poorest nations. According to John Scully in his book on Cambodia, between one-third and one-half of Cambodia's 13 million people live in poverty, earning less than $1 (U.S.) per day. Economic growth is slow and foreign investment is scared off because of corruption.

This scenario seemed in total contrast to what we experienced in Angkor. The city is thriving with tourists, the hotels are beautiful, the temples are historic and memorable. For a supposedly backward country, the Angkor museum is one of the most technologically advanced building I have seen on my travels.

And with drinks at La Residence, surrounded by lily ponds and smelling of jasmine, it was a small piece of paradise.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

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