I participated in a jaunt with relatives to Kien Svay outside of Phnom Penh to try our luck on harvesting some Chinese apples. Someone in the family had a friend who knew a friend with a farm. (The degrees of difference between myself and the people I come into contact with are astounding.) Anyway, my aunt knew this friend from Pot. (Many Khmer people refer to the period as just “Pot” rather than “Pol Pot,” or “Pol Pot regime,” or “Khmer Rouge,” or the spectrum of other academic like terms. Just “Pot.”) Anyway, when my aunt told the friend about my research, said friend of my aunt stated there were a number of these memorials around. (This was a surprise to me because I felt like most of the family I spoke with so far haven’t heard of any genocide memorial sites.) One site he mentioned by name was on the grounds of the temple at Champuh Ka’ek. After a long vocabulary session with my aunt, we finally translated champuh ka’ek to “crow’s beak.” This would be the first genocide memorial I would visit since coming to Cambodia for this grant research.
Once apple harvesting ended, and we pendulum-ed on the highway several times after getting lost, we finally came to the entrance of the temple. I expected to see another rendition of the several other temples stationed along the length of the highway. But Champuh Ka’ek was different. My jaw dropped. (And I very rarely externalize my reactions. My thoughts are typically internally manifested.) The grounds were in phenomenal condition. Like in a movie. Everything was so clean, especially in comparison to most old structures in Cambodia. The pagodas and the landscaping were perfection, even in comparison to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. And don’t even get me started on the orchard of mango trees. If Disneyland decided to add another land themed around Southeast Asian culture, it would look like Champuh Ka’ek.
My apologies for that unnecessarily long tangent. It was just that pristine. Back to our analysis.
After moseying around a bit, my cousin Tho asked a nearby monk if he knew anything about a genocide memorial on the grounds. The answer was yes, it was “Over there,” he pointed. Alas, on the far side of the cluster of golden-topped temples, tucked behind some trees, was a white structure – the genocide memorial at Champuh Ka’ek, the first one of the memorials for me to visit this time around in Cambodia.
The cement structure, painted white, is a four-sided stupa with those oh so familiar kbach art style of flower, leaf, and scroll motifs. The core of the stupa consists of two glass cases, one small case on top and one large case on the bottom, filled with bone remains of Khmer Rouge victims from the nearby area. The case can be seen from all four sides of the structure. There is no inscription on the site.
The basic design of the stupa didn’t strike me so much, but the lotus pond around it did. In contrast, it had a very modern, geometric look to it – no kbach detailing, minimal with sharp corners and clean lines. Just plain grey concrete, with the added exception of algae growth (which I’m assuming was not intended in the design, but was rather just propagated by natural biological processes). The lotus ponds were situated at each of the four corners of the stupa, and from each pond rose a lamp post. At least I think they’re lamp posts. It would be interesting to see what it looks like at night, if there is anything to look at.
Situated at the corner of each pond was a pole from which a white flag was hoisted. (I really need to figure out what these flags are because I look at them and the first thing that popped into my head was: Mayan Robot. Inappropriate, I know. If anyone can enlighten me and speed up my research process, please step forward.)
Inside the main pagoda we spoke to a monk to find out more information. This interview didn’t reveal too much since the monk mostly answered, in a nice way, “I don’t know,” to most of the questions. He did tell us the wat did function as a prison during the genocide. That gave a little for us to go on. But not much. Fortunately, a good conversation with Andy Brouwer helped fill in some holes. According to Andy, this stupa was not the original memorial. Rather, the original memorial was an enormous wooden structure housing a large amount of bone remains. Andy had seen a photograph of the memorial and wanted to visit the site itself, however when he had gotten there they had just, a handful of days before, taken down the wooden structure and replaced it with the cement stupa, then unpainted at the time he came. The amount of remains in the current stupa are significantly less than they were in the original wooden structure. Apparently funds were made available for the new cement stupa to be built.
What struck me most about the compound was the stark contrast between the collection of pagodas on site and the memorial itself (even though the stupa memorial is a so-called upgrade, in appears it look to be markedly neglected). They’re not exactly consistent in terms of size and state of condition. What I found that I want to look into more, is the growing popularity of this temple in recent years. Apparently, this is a “super lucky” wat. Many people – the well endowed included – visit the site to pray and give donation. Thus, the temple possesses the financial resources which allowed it to expand and continue to be maintained in such pristine condition.