This is the third article of a series I have dubbed, “Catching Up,” also known as, “An Attempt to Redeem Myself.” The series will cover the period between January and March when there was a big gap called, “The Time When I Wrote Nothing.” We continue this series with a report of the day I spent riding around to different memorial sites in Battambang with Sanvasak Som.
A yellow bicycle and I stood on a street corner in Battambang, early in the morning, as the citizens of Cambodia’s second city commenced daytime mobilization. I had one hand on the bike and the other with a phone to my ear, supporting what was a confusing phone conversation with a man who I assumed was a local policeman, the uncle of my friend Angela, who I bused with to Battambang from Phnom Penh. Uncle Policeman picked Angela and I up from the bus stop and took us to dinner. Over our meal of steak and fries, he asked me about my research and then kindly gave me his number in case I was ever in need of assistance. Thus, I presumed it was Uncle Policeman who was ringing me up that morning, asking me if I needed help getting around. I rambled for a good five minutes until I realized it was not Uncle Policeman. It was Sanvasak Som.
Sanvasak, or Sak as he goes by, was referred to me by Andy Brouwer. Some years back while in Battambang, Andy found a good friend in Sak, not to mention someone who was well grounded in the local history. After spending a Battambang day with Sak, I not only affirmed Andy’s opinion but concluded that Sak is possessed with something that is rebellious for Cambodia. He is a preservationist.
Once I established (much to my embarrassment) that it was not Uncle Policeman on the other end of the line but in fact Sak following up on my phone call from yesterday, the conversation proceeded with more clarity. Sak called to tell me he was unoccupied that day and offered to take me to genocide memorials in the vicinity. I gladly and most instantly accepted the gracious offer, since I am always in support of local insider knowledge. Plus, as cute as the yellow bike was, I was not keen on pedaling it distances liberally soaked in a solar bath.
After meeting up for an introductory chat at Cafe Eden, we set off on what would be a long day of riding along Battambang’s dusty red roads. (I should not have worn a white shirt that day. It is not white anymore, and I don’t think it ever will be.)
Samrong Knong: Memorial Imported from Abroad
The first stop of the day was the wat at Samrong Knong. Once you pass through the front gate you will find the newly built pagoda on your left and the original pagoda on your right. The two are very different from each other. The new is big and colorful. The old is small and multiple shades of brown. Sak briefly acknowledged the new pagoda but promptly led me through the tree-lined entrance to the old pagoda. Though forsaken and worn down, the old pagoda had a mystical charm to it. The warm hues invited. The wooden carvings called you to touch it, and dig your fingers into the crevices of a story. The elegant craftsmanship of the roof spoke the language of understated elegance. And I could tell that Sak loved it.
His comments lamented that in lieu of restoring and maintaining the old pagoda, funds and attention had instead been diverted towards building the new pagoda. We made our peace with the old pagoda and continued to the back of the temple and behind a gathering of trees, where the memorial at Samrong Knong stood.
While circling the memorial and walking along the side road, Sak recounted his experience as a child during the genocide. Then he spotted an orange flowering tree. He walked up to it and motioned to the blossoms with a story: While in the fields during the Khmer Rouge years, he and the other boys working noticed that the tree was a popular perch with the birds. The boys climbed the tree to investigate the matter. They discovered that the blossom contained a nectar. It was sweet. It was good. And they were hungry.
A distinctive feature of the memorial at Samrong Knong is the bas-relief encircling the base of the structure. It is made of concrete and depicts a narrative of the Khmer Rouge’s arrival in Battambang in April 1975 and life under the regime during the genocide.
I have never seen a memorial with a bas relief, either in pictures of sites that I have seen or at memorials I have been to. It was clearly installed for a foreign audience, as the text in the narrative was only in English. The text painted on the front and back of the memorial was in both English and Khmer, however they were not direct translations. According to the text on the front, the memorial had been designed by a Cambodian man by the name of Ban Doeun and funded for by Cambodian communities abroad in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France.
As indicated by all of the accompanying text (more text than I had ever seen at any memorial), we had here a memorial born out of international collaboration, for an international audience. Clearly the international crew of Cambodians had a different idea of what a memorial could be in comparison to other more localized productions.
Samdech Mony: Bright, Shiny, and New
We left the memorial, and the orange flowers, and headed north towards the war at Samdech Mony. Like at Samrong Knong, the memorial at Samdech Mony was another unique case. According to a local woman who was around the site that morning, the remains found in the area were originally stored in two stupas located behind the main pagoda, in a grove of trees. The two structures still stand. Sak circled those two structures too, noting the painted ceramic tiles that could be cleaned and the rows of statues crammed inside one.
More old things, left off to the side, in the shadow, forsaken again.
The new memorial that had replaced the two now browning misfits stood in an exposed clearing. The contrast reminded me of what we just saw at Samrong Knong. The new structure, set against the backdrop of a sea of white stone Chinese funerary tombs, was big and it spoke color. It was painted a bright blue, splashed with gold paint that reflected a blinding glare amped up by the sun. Gold inscriptions denoting the names of donors and the donation amounts also wrapped the main body of the structure. The entire stupa was enthroned on a series of elevated, circular steps, with the top tier painted in a pink design inspired by the lotus petal. The door to the bottom tier was open and we took a look inside.
In addition to hosting a spare floral porcelain plate here and there, it was filled with dozens of colorful containers, each tightly wrapped in string, reminding me very much of the urn that sat on the altar at the stupa ceremony in Takeo. Well, it turned out that these were urns. According to Sak, it was a “memorial for the poor.” The cremated remains of those who did not have a family stupa or could not afford to have one built were placed in there.
Just one tier above that, was a glass door, left open. Some water bottles were tossed about. Cobwebs had collected in corners. But really, the main subjects of this space were the bones. They were jammed inside, disheveled, as I have seen at other memorials. They were certainly not all of the remains that were stored in the original two stupas. What there was left was jammed inside, disheveled, sprinkled with scraps of paper and fake flowers, and tangled with something that looked like an old white t-shirt and something that looked like an old white rice bag. Before I knew it Sak had pulled a skull out, laid it on the ledge of the second tier, and started to examine it. Part of me was horrified and part of me did not think anything of it at all. Sometimes I worry whether I’ve become desensitized to the remains, and sometimes I wonder whether this is an important issue at all, seeing that Cambodians seem to have a relationship with death that is very different from Western culture.
The same protocol occurred. We made our peace with the site and headed back to downtown Battambang, parted for a lunchbreak, and reconvened for the next leg of riding that afternoon.
Lunchbreak Thoughts on Preservation
During my lunch break, I examined my white shirt in its progressively not-white status, inhaled a meal of rice and stir fried vegetables, made some scheduling notes in my agenda, and stared into space. Going from site to site was frustrating, not only because the climate was physically draining and I felt like a filthy, sweaty disaster, but because I was starting to get tired of the genocide memorials, similar to how I got tired of seeing temple after temple at Angkor. I caught myself saying, without any consideration, “It’s just the same thing, over and over again.” Then I caught myself asking, with some shame, “Wait, did I just say that?” I started out this project with the belief that memorials preserve memory. Post-greasy vegetable lunch and mid-way through staring into space, I was starting to question what exactly these memorials even preserved.
How can you begin to preserve the history of the genocide when you cannot even preserve the relics of the past that preceded that history? Where is the effort to take pride is what is already here in Cambodia, and seek to improve and protect it? In some cases, I believe we are preserving the wrong things.
Phnom Sampeou: Talk, Caves, Bats
Sak and I reconvened for the afternoon session. I found him in a new clean shirt, fit to be seen in public. Meanwhile, I was still in my dusty white gear, and I’m pretty sure I had a nice tan line developing on both my feet outlining the pairs of flats I chose to wear that day. (This might be why lots of women wear socks in addition to their footwear.) All set, we headed west.
Way back in the fall, an uncle emailed me an article about a place called Phnom Sampeou and the “killing caves” there. I glanced at it and put it aside. The words “killing caves” didn’t elicit feelings of excitement. I filed the email away as food for thought. Five months later, I unintentionally ended up at the caves anyway.
The drive towards Phnom Sampeou was a generously breezy affair. As for the drive up the mountain, I was just glad the science of engines, spinning wheels, and balance kept the motorbike going forward because that it was a precariously steep and rocky incline to the top.
Once at the top, the main pagoda stole the attention. It was the largest building in sight near the entrance, and on top of that, it looked like it had just benefitted from a fresh coat of paint. A bold and brightly multicolored mural wrapped the exterior wall of the pagoda, and at the back stood a worktable covered with cans of paint spilling with yellows and greens and blue and reds. Sak and I encircled the pagoda and ended up sitting on the front steps for a long talk. I learned that the pagoda was formerly a Khmer Rouge prison. Prisoners there were subsequently executed in the killing caves nearby where several small memorials at Phnom Sampeou were scattered inside.
Talk about the history was rather brief in comparison to what there was that Sak had to say about present day Cambodia. I could sense traces of exhaustion, disillusion, and lament in his voice – a sentiment of mourning for the death that occurred in Cambodia, not only of human life during the genocide, but of a reverence for the pure, old, original, classical, traditional, and simple in Khmer society. In its place is a confusing clash of the excessive, indulgent, and whatever is believed to be new and modern. The result is an abstract Cubist painting with an identity crisis.
After the very long talk and the following short walk through of the caves, we ended up sitting at the foot of the mountain, along with the crowds of other visitors that day, waiting for the bats to come out. I was told that the flight of the bats at Sampeou was like clockwork. Near sunset, thousands of them come streaming out of the mountain’s orifices. I sat on a stone ledge, dazed and tired from the heat, the dirt, the walking, and the talking, and then, they really did come. It was a graceful ballet that took place across the sky, a wind tunnel of dark shapes swerving and drawing undulating curves. Farther away from the foot of the mountain, along the highway that takes you away from Sampeou, the bats are a beautifully hypnotic sight. Why? Because they are untouched, in their natural state. They are pure, old, original, classical, traditional, and simple. Perhaps, when preservation is concerned, it is simply best to not interfere, best to leave things are they are.
Thank you Sak, for your guidance and knowledge.