December Tales Siem Reap III: Wat Tmei

Yutney near an informational board near the memorials - Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

Yutney near an informational board near the memorials – Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

Prei,” said Yutney, as he gestured his arms across the tamed concrete courtyard of Wat Tmei, also known as Wat Adthekaram.

Prei, ” I repeated. I learned this word a couple of years ago.

Yutney was familiar with Wat Tmei in the city of Siem Reap from his army training days in the 1980s. He had been plucked from Battambang, where he was during the genocide, and taken north to Siem Reap to fight against residual post-1979 Khmer Rouge forces. At that time, he explained, Tmei did not host the pagoda complex that stands there today. When he was a soldier, the site was for the most part prei, a “forest.”

I was told that a number of the local memorials currently standing in Cambodia are not their original structures. Rather, they started as simpler forms made of less sturdier materials. A common sight was a roofed platform, raised above the ground, constructed from wooden planks or bamboo poles, and holding the skeletal remains of genocide victims uncovered in mass graves nearby. In time, if the funds and support were made available, a new structure was built, usually larger and made of materials towards which time and weather would be more friendly. The new structure might also be more architecturally complex and bear a design anywhere between the traditional regal stupa to the modern minimal box look.

The two memorials against the landscape of trees - Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

The two memorials against the landscape of trees – Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

The two memorials at Tmei are an example of the old and new structures both still existing side by side. When Yutney drove the tuk tuk onto the premises, it wasn’t a difficult task to spot what I was looking for, which wasn’t the case at Wat Kesararam from where we just came. The center was vast and open, hosting three large and distinguishable structures. The left structure was a shrine for the Buddha, the middle was the old memorial, and the right was the new memorial. Initially I was confused because the middle structure was larger than the one on the left, so before Yutney pointed out to me which one was new and old, I assumed the larger middle structure was the new one. However, this I wasn’t sure of, because the middle’s glass encasement was empty while the right’s was full of bones. As far as I could tell from the old memorial, the only damage I saw was a broken pane in the glass encasement. Structurally it seemed sound. The fact that it was still standing said something, right? But I am not an architect so this evaluation of mine is not so credible.

Cracked pane of the clear encasement in the old memorial - Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

Cracked pane of the clear encasement in the old memorial – Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

I asked Yutney about the reason for the new memorial. He did not know the specifics of the change, but he was able to attest that when he was stationed there as a soldier, before either of the structures were built, the remains were kept on the second floor of a school on sight. He pointed to what is today a modern white-washed building. Yutney stated that the remains were moved to the old memorial when it was built, and then moved again to the new memorial when that was built, however he attested that there were many more remains than what is currently contained in the new memorial. He did not know where the rest of the remains were.

School building where the remains were originally kept before the memorials were constructed - Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

School building where the remains were originally kept before the memorials were constructed – Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

Throughout the conversation, Yutney continued to survey the 360 degrees of the property and nodded his head in confident reminiscence. “Prei,” he chanted in remembrance.

I first encountered the word prei three years ago while writing my undergraduate thesis . Prei, which is used to describe the forest or the wild in the Khmer language, is the theme of At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler, edited by Judy Ledgerwood and Anne Ruth Hansen. [1] Each of the articles reflects on what Ledgerwood and Hansen call the “most provocative and influential historical essay” by the esteemed historian of Cambodian history, David Chandler. [2] The essay, entitled “Songs at the Edge of the Forest: Perceptions of Order in Three Cambodian Texts,” look at Khmer history and literature to understand the 19th century Khmer perception of the symbolism found in the edge of the forest, that is, the liminal space between wilderness and civilized society, disorder and order, nonsense and sense, confusion and clarity. [3]

I tried to imagine the forest in Yutney’s memory. There were still some trees lining the outer wall of the temple, and some kept standing inside the complex. However, the forest of Yutney’s past had long since been brought into order; the wilderness chosen to remain was structured, arranged, and manicured. This contrast portrays what Alexander Laban Hinton identifies as “the tension between a vision of what should be and the reality of what is.” [4] This tension might prove helpful in understanding first, the pursuit of progress in modern Cambodian history, and second, the purpose behind a Khmer individual or community’s decision to construct a genocide memorial.

Progress Out of the Forest

In his essay, Chandler explains that 19th century Cambodian thought associated the wilderness and disorder of the forest with what was bad and the civilization and order of the space outside the forest with what was good. The “vision of what should be” that Hinton identifies only existed outside the forest, thus progress in society could only be achieved if the forest was cleared, that is, if disorder was made into order. This was the exact mission of each governing power in modern Cambodian history.

Take the Khmer Rouge for example. The reality for Cambodia to them was decay and corruption caused by the cultural infiltration of the West. The vision for Cambodia to them was to build an agrarian utopia that hearkened to the glory days of the Angkor era. They attempted to clear the forest.

Next, you have the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) assuming control in 1979. The reality for Cambodia to them was a nation in ruins left behind by the genocide. The vision for Cambodia to them was to legitimize the authority of the new government and make Cambodia a functioning society. They attempted to clear the forest too.

Each successive governing power set out to clean up what they saw as the previous era’s massive failure at fostering and nurturing a civilized society. Each attempted to bridge the gap between “a vision of what should be and the reality of what is” in order to create positive historical movement, in other words, that which is called historical progress.

Order from Clearing the Forest

In light of Yutney’s preoccupation with the forest that he once knew, I pose the question of whether genocide memorials also attempt to establish this social order that Chandler and the rest of the essay authors in At the Edge of the Forest identify. In the years immediately following the genocide and even up until today, people unearthed mass graves – the killing fields in popular language, which in Khmer is vwil pikiet, literally translating to “field kill.” When a killing field was discovered, a common practice was to place the remains in some form of a memorial at places like Wat Tmei.

Thus follows the journey of the remains of a victim:

from the uncontained natural sprawl of a killing field,
to a contained memorial of human design and construction;

from the disordered wild where the anonymous bones of one body tangle with the bones of another stranger,
to the ordered society where skulls and ribs and ulnas are sorted and stacked accordingly by age and gender;

from the wild forest where scandalously uninhibited trees and twigs and leaves do not hold back,
to the tamed concrete courtyard where tidy huddles of tourists line up,
where I stand snapping my purposely-posed photographs and taking bulleted notes on graph paper.

If we follow this logic, the irony is that the memorial’s attempt to do exactly what the Khmer Rouge tried their hand at – to create order, to clear the forest.

Stacked remains and stacked lists of the names of donors - Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

Stacked remains and stacked lists of the names of donors – Wat Tmei, Siem Reap

[1] Anne Ruth Hansen and Judy Ledgerwood, ed., At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler (Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2008).
[2] Anne Ruth Hansen and Judy Ledgerwood, “At the Edge of the Forest: Narrative, Order, and Questions of Meaning in Khmer History and Society,” in At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler, ed. Anne Ruth Hansen, and Judy Ledgerwood, 1-17 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2008), 2.
[3] Hansen, “At the Edge of the Forest: Narrative, Order, and Questions of Meaning in Khmer History and Society,” 6.
[4] Alexander Laban Hinton, “Songs at the Edge of Democratic Kampuchea,” in At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler, ed. Anne Ruth Hansen, and Judy Ledgerwood, 71-92 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2008), 71.

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