Cambodia: Below the surface

Looking forward by reaching back

Email|Print| Text size + By Jehangir Pocha
Globe Correspondent / August 24, 2003

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The Buddhist monks' saffron robes contrast starkly with the dull gray of the stone wall behind them as they trudge past the magnificent bas-reliefs that line the walls of Angkor Wat. When they pass a couple cuddling under an arched doorway, their stoic faces crumble and they burst into giggles -- like the bunch of teenagers they are.

Every year across Cambodia, thousands of boys forsake the pleasures of carefree adolescence to shave their heads, don saffron robes, and spend at least a few weeks as monks.

It is an age-old practice: The eldest son of every family has traditionally been expected to become a monk, at least temporarily. During their reign, the Khmer Rouge, who considered monks parasites who begged and did no work, tried to stamp out the practice and destroyed about half the country's 4,000 Buddhist temples. And the Vietnamese-backed communist government that followed limited initiates to those too old to fight the war against Khmer Rouge guerrillas. But since those restrictions were lifted a dozen years ago, Cambodians have rushed to reembrace their Buddhist traditions.

After the United Nations' ambitious 1991-93 peacekeeping mission in Cambodia ended the nation's international isolation and strife, many thought the country's recovery depended upon adopting the modernity and trade that had been so successfully embraced by neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

But for Cambodians, reconstructing their traditions has proved more essential. While most of the aid going into Cambodia is directed at bringing the country into the 21st century, many Cambodians are working to revive the songs, dances, arts, knowledge, crafts, and even cuisine of previous centuries that the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy.

For visitors, exploring this phenomenon opens up Cambodia's fascinating and complex culture, while reminding them of the role culture plays in helping make sense of the world.

The temples at Angkor Wat have always been where the soul of the Khmer, as Cambodians call their race, has resided. After soaking in the restored beauty of the stone complex, wander its incense-filled inner sanctums to seek out the monks who tend these places. Many of the aged and bent priests risked their lives to hide relics and scriptures from the Khmer Rouge, and are now passing them on to another generation.

"I should be dead now. Perhaps I live because there is no one to take my place," says a priest with a wizened but smiling face. "After I teach these boys I can pass on peacefully," he adds as behind him student monks practice draping a statue of Buddha in saffron robes.

Since the days of the Indian-inspired Hindus who built the Angkor Empire, which was centered around this complex, and the Buddhists who replaced them, religion has been as essential to the Khmer people "as the air is to a butterfly," according to a local saying.

Whether driving on Cambodia's still bomb-cratered roads in battered Toyotas smuggled from Thailand or touring its somnolent rivers on wooden boats, a visitor will see a lush landscape dotted with Buddhist temples. To any of the millions who have lived through terrible crimes, it is here that their soul finds some ease. Even those who dismiss religion as a kind of opium agree that in a nation wracked with trauma and little psychiatric care, it is the only drug available.

If temples are Cambodia's refuge, then dance is its passion. The theatrical and resplendent classical dances of the ancient Angkors have been renowned and imitated throughout the region for centuries. Thai dance (and indeed culture) owes far more to the Khmers than they care to admit.

Intricate and graceful, Khmer dance is art of unwritten traditions passed on by masters to students after years of tutelage. There are 4,500 facial expressions alone; every gesture, even a raised eyebrow, has meaning.

After Pol Pot's regime banned classical dance as "counter-revolutionary" and massacred all but eight of Cambodia's dance masters, Cambodian dance faced extinction. Today, the pageantry that surrounded dance at the royal courts is re-created for tourists in Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, at ornate, open-air restaurants. Watching the dancers in their extravagant costumes, one almost forgets that each carefully choreographed move has been preserved by dedicated teachers and students who have put in years of study.

A seemingly endless buffet of Cambodian specialties accompanies the dance performance, and the two fit together perfectly. In a foreword to a new book that chronicles ancient Khmer recipes, Cambodia's King Sihanouk writes: "Traditional Cambodian cuisine is one of detail, of small amounts of fresh ingredients with intriguing textures, complex aromas, and exhilarating flavors, combined to create a distinctly light, delicate and healthy cuisine."

The idea of a monarch pushing a cookbook may strike some as odd. Yet it shows Cambodia has had to work at re-creating even basic things like traditional recipes after the Khmer Rouge years where most were forced to live on boiled rice and dried fish.

Fortunately, this is another battle the country has won. Excellent restaurants that serve up both the delectable dishes of the royal court and earthy country fare abound. Like Cambodia's culture, its food combines influences from India and China.

Fresh-water fish is at the center of many meals, flavored with ingredients such as prahok, a fermented fish paste, coconut, lemongrass, cilantro, tamarind, and, of course, fiery chiles. Desserts are sweet, gooey, freckled with coconut shavings and scented with exotic flowers.

Sihanouk has bragged that his own culinary creations were relished by his Chinese hosts Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping when he was in exile in Beijing during the 1970s. But it is his reputation as a composer of classical Cambodian music that endears him to many Cambodians.

Complex, even esoteric, the shrill tones and rumbles of Cambodian music make it an acquired taste. But roadside stalls that offer $2 ripoffs of the latest Britney Spears album have not yet lured Cambodians off their own beat. One vendor said one of his top selling titles was a compilation of traditional Khmer songs accompanied simply by a "chapei dong veng," a two-string long-necked guitar.

Perhaps it is because, as Sihanouk once said, "In an increasingly crass and corrupt world art provides the sense that something finer exists."

Performances of "ajai," a kind of ancient rap in which two singers improvise around an established harmony, and Pien Peat, the Khmer orchestra, are also being revived and can be found in most cities.

But it is not just the classic arts that are nurtured by the culture ministry and international aid programs that are resurfacing in Cambodia. A visit to the Russian Market in Phnom Penh reveals that Cambodia's traditional handicraft industry, which produces silks, sculptures, woodwork, and silverware, is also alive and well.

On street corners and in shabby old theaters another ancient magic, shadow puppets, brings to life the legends of Cambodia's past. The Hindu epic the Ramayana can run three hours, so get a comfortable seat.

Cambodians are also once again celebrating ancient festivals, banned under the Khmer Rouge as being superstitious. Buddhist New Year, in mid-April, brings family gatherings and folk-dance performances of traditional dances and forgotten songs.

But it is the Water Festival, which takes place on the day of the full moon sometime between late October and early November that is Cambodia's favorite and most exuberant celebration.

The 800-year-old festival marks a unique phenomenon -- a reverse in the flow of the Tonle Sap River, the only waterway in the world to flow in opposite directions at different times of the year. This curious water pattern not only keeps the land fertile, it keeps the Tonle Sap lake replenished with vast stocks of fish.

To celebrate the changing of the flow, hundreds of giant "pirogues," or canoes, race down the river to a cheering audience of a million people. Brightly colored floats, many in the shape of temples and "apsaras" (dancing goddesses) glide between them.

At dusk, people gather in groups to pay homage to the full moon with offerings of incense and fruit. The head priest lights a candle and reads the pattern of its melting wax to make predictions for the coming year. Even if the predictions are not entirely pleasing, the crowd bursts into cheers, and a massive fireworks display ends the day.

As night falls you can head for the exclusively titled, but commonly fraternized, Foreign Correspondents Club, a finely refurbished French colonial building with gently swooshing ceiling fans and a fine view of the Tonle Sap River. Wandering past other old colonial buildings near the club is like a journey back into time. This is a city where old men still peddle bicycle carts filled with crusty French bread down alleyways calling for customers, and an afternoon cooler still means a freshly cut water-coconut.

That the gleaming modernity of Malaysia or Thailand is absent here is both a blessing and a curse. From under the slow swirl of fans in the Foreign Correspondents Club, skeptics will tell you that poverty, not architectural romanticism, explains why Phnom Penh has no glittering skyline and why its people cling to old ways. But this is only half the story.

In 1995, a fire destroyed the Bassac Theatre, the home of Cambodian drama. The next day Em Theay, the head teacher and a survivor of the killing fields, insisted on continuing lessons outside, under the shade of coconut palms. Poverty may have prevented Cambodia from rebuilding the theater, but determination kept its art alive.

Jehangir Pocha is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

If you go ...

Sovanna Phum
111 Street 360, Phnom Penh

This center, whose name means "magic village," was created by students from the Royal School of Fine Arts as a venue for their arts. Performances of traditional dances, music, or shadow puppets are held every Friday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $2-$15. Visitors can shop for Khmer musical instruments and shadow puppets and also take classes in how to use them.

Cambodian Performing Arts Center
71 Street 598, Phnom Penh

The country's foremost dance school. Visitors can observe students as they train and the students usually put on small performances for them, but without their full costumes. Free.

Wat Thoam Langka
Sihanouk Boulevard, Phnom Penh

Near Independence Monument. Visitors can attend hourlong classes on Khmer Buddhism and meditation every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday evening. (Prices vary, but are around $5 a class.)

Grand Hotel D'Angkor
1 Vithei Charles De Gaulle, Khum Sway Dang Kum, Siem Reap

A heritage hotel that accommodates the rich and famous while they explore Angkor Wat. A classical dance is held every evening in the splendid performance hall. Dinner and dance, $16. Follow it with drinks in the convivial Elephant Bar.

Bayon II Restaurant
Wat Bo Road, Siem Reap

Named after the famous temple covered with the eerily smiling faces, this open air restaurant's dance shows are less fancy and less expensive but as interesting as the Grand's. Buffet lays out mix of Western dishes with traditional Khmer fare such as amok, a curried seafood fest, and crispy rice pancakes. Dinner and dance, $12.

La Noria Hotel
Riverside, North of Road 6, Siem Reap

This rustically elegant hotel hosts shadow puppet shows most evenings. Half the entrance fee of $15 goes toward supporting the local foundation that trains children in the art, while the rest buys a delicious Khmer or French dinner.

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