Cambodia: The Bittersweet Smile of Khmer

By MUDI WANG


In the Temple of Bayon, at the heart of the ancient city of Angkor, there are 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara¹ carved on the four-sided sandstone towers. The gargantuan faces, which some believe represented the great King Jayavarman VII² of the ancient Khmer Empire³, have been on numerous online and printed travel guides to Cambodia. They are now collectively known as “The Smile of Khmer”.


"The Smile of Khmer". Photo by Author

I opened my eyes wide and found my forehead wet with cold sweat. It was 2 A.M. in Siem Reap, and out of the hotel room I could see it was dark out. In my dream were countless smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, stone-carved, titanic, just like those benign faces that I saw in Bayon; only, those in my dream were covered by dirt and blood, everywhere cut and bruised. They beamed bitter and crooked smiles — not of joy, but of numbness after too much suffering.


Yet why did such a nightmare occur to me? I closed my eyes tight, attempting to reconstruct an image of the previous day in my brain. But it was by all means a buoyant day at the temples of Angkor, some of the most majestic heritage sites of human civilization. 


Banyans devouring temple complex at Ta Prohm. Photo by author

A Day with Nothing Nightmare-provoking, only Fascination

All packed at 4 A.M., I was being (how astonishing!) an early bird that day, for a time-consuming tour of the temples of Angkor, starting from the world-famous Angkor Wat. Disturbed by the noisy groups, though, I spent barely an hour inside Angkor Wat before returning to the rented car and heading for Bayon. It was a few minutes past 7 A.M. when I arrived; the temple was in unbelievable tranquility. Climbing the stairs and wandering through the corridors, with scarcely a soul around, I felt as if I were exploring a labyrinth in a game of Assassin’s Creed


When I glimpsed down from a high platform, I saw them. The Smile of Khmer. Those stone-carved faces, compared to which I was no taller than a dwarf, somehow took away all the thoughts in my mind. The sole thing that possessed me at that moment was pure appreciation, of their life-likeness and stateliness. Benign and merciful, the countless smiles of Avalokiteshvara were in every direction I turned my eyes to. In a shower of the 7 A.M. sunlight, the scene brought about a spiritual, almost religious, catharsis. 


A corridor to a myth. At temple Baphuon. Photo by Author

After leaving Bayon, I saw a series of mind-bending sights in the other temples of Angkor: nature going wild at the jungle temple Ta Prohm (where the movie Tomb Raider was shot) as the roots of giant banyans grew into the stone bricks, devouring the temple complex; wide-eyed Grecian-style columns at the ruins of Preah Khan, where the “holy sword” of the Khmer Empire was said to be kept; perfectly symmetrical corridors in Baphuon, seeming to lead visitors into a myth… but none of these sights were as equally breathtaking as the sight at Bayon. 


It was when I walked through a dark tunnel in the ruins of Beng Mealea that I realized what the nightmare of blood-covered faces mirrored. 

6 A.M. – four hours after waking up from my nightmare. The temple complex of Beng Mealea, one of the inspirations of Miyazaki Hayao’s celebrated animated film Castle in the Sky (天空の城ラピュタ), normally does not see many visitors at so early a time. 


Ruins of Beng Mealea. Photo by author

In a high-spirited mood for an Indiana Jones adventure, I was sauntering in the expansive ruins without set routes. The second I entered a random tunnel, though, the gaiety somehow vanished out of a sudden. It was pitch-black in the tunnel. Twitters of birds faded away. What frightened me was how familiar and nerve-racking the surrounding tenebrosity was. 


It was not long before I realized that the indescribable horror stemmed not from any experience in Beng Mealea or other temples of Angkor. It stemmed from a visit, just before departing for Siem Reap, to somewhere dark, narrow and uncanny — somewhere marked by terror and suffering. 


Regulations of S-21 Prison. Photo by author

That “somewhere” was in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Once a prison and torture centre, today it is called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The venue was formerly the S-21 Prison under the Khmer Rouge regime, in power from 1975 to 1979, transformed from a secondary school. More than 17,000 prisoners were interrogated, tortured and executed in the prison; in early 1977, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day (Lonely Planet, 2019). Between 1975 and 1978, some 20,000 prisoners – including women, children and infants - were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek for extermination and were buried in mass graves (Lonely Planet, 2019). It was said that the fields stank for years of rotten flesh.


The ubiquitous absurdity surrounding the S-21 prison is frightening. One regulation set by the interrogators read, “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.” The exhibited photographs reveal that most of the prison guards and interrogators were teenagers, even young children. The greatest absurdity, yet, lies in the juxtaposition of the ephemerality of the Khmer Rouge rule and the scale of its terror. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, at least 1.5 million Cambodians were killed and the country’s professional and technical class exterminated (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). 


Photographic records of prisoners. Photo by author

In one of the rooms, I saw countless black-and-white photographs of prisoners, number-boards on their chest and numbness in their eyes.

It was those faces, as I realized in the tunnel of Beng Mealea a few days after my visit to the S-21, that were projected onto my nightmare.


On the iron grating of a cell, I discovered a Plumeria flower, already withered, possibly put there by some visitor for grief delivering. I gazed at it, and saw in it the withered dreams of tens of thousands of people, whose lives were so fragile and ephemeral in a time of terror, like flowers dropped to the ground by a malign thunderstorm.


A withered Plumeria flower on the iron grating. Photo by author

A leather-covered notebook was placed on the table of one exhibition room, on the pages of which visitors could write their comments for what they had seen. I took a deep breath before I grabbed the pen. There was a lot to write about, but eventually I wrote down only one sentence.


“Before today, I never knew it was on the iron grating that the most beautiful flowers grew,” I wrote.


The framed photograph of the Plumeria is still on my desk.









¹ Avalokiteshvara: the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and mercy in Buddhism. Japanese: Kannon. Chinese: Guanyin. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019.

² Jayavarman VII: born c.1120/25 – died c. 1220, one of the most forceful and productive kings of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire of Angkor (reigning 1181-c. 1220). Expanded the empire to its greatest territorial extent. Builder of Angkor Wat, Bayon and numerous other temples of Angkor. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019.

³ Khmer Empire (802 CE - 1431 CE): a powerful state in Southeast Asia formed by people of the same name. Covered much of today’s Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam at its peak. Capital city: Angkor. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013.

Angkor Wat: 12th century temple complex built by king Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-c. 1150). World’s largest religious structure, covers 160 hectares, and marks the high point of Khmer architecture. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019.

Khmer Rouge: a radical communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975      to 1979 after winning power through a guerrilla war. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019.

© 2020 by Komaba Times