The Liberty Gazette
February 20, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I had come face to face with the building married to the impression formed in my youth, the scene of escape hours before Saigon fell to the communists. It was time to head back to the Tân Sơn Nhất airport to board Vietnam Air for a half-hour flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.
Linda: We picked our accommodations on Airbnb. Our hosts had a spacious, modern high-rise only a block from the lively riverfront of the Tonle Sap. Less congested than Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the shopping, night life, and tourist district touts open-front restaurants where traditional Khmer and Thai herbs and spices arouse the senses: jungle cardamom, lemongrass, and kaffir lime; basil and lotus stem. Their “Asian spring onion” looks similar to flower chives but doesn’t smell like an onion—it smells like dinner! On podiums along the sidewalk the menus tempted us. I wanted to stop in every café.
Imagine Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard, except on each block the buildings are densely packed together. Across the busy four-lane road people jog and workout on public exercise equipment installed on the spacious pavement of Riverfront Park. Everywhere, tuk tuks (motorcycle-carriage vehicles) are for hire. One can barely walk three yards without an entrepreneur offering a ride in his tuk tuk.
Phnom Penh, translated as “Penh’s Hill,” was named for a widow who had a temple built there. Borrowed from Sanskrit, the word for temple is wat. In 1372, Lady Penh found a Koki tree floating down the Tonle Sap after a storm. Inside the tree were four bronze Buddha statues. She believed this was a divine blessing, and asked villagers to help her build a wat out of the Koki wood to house the statues. Wat Phnom still stands and is open to visitors. Inside are many more Buddha statues, much burning incense, and a place for worshippers to pray. We removed our shoes, as required, and entered to witness the sacred practice of their faith.
Cambodia’s modern wats, lavish and intricately carved, are many, but these are not the only buildings that capture attention. Over the years, Phnom Penh has become known for its architecture. In the 1920s, the “Pearl of Asia” was one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina, strong in tourism and trade. French colonial buildings can still be found along grand boulevards. Our stay was next to the Royal Palace and near the National Museum, both architecturally and historically significant. This is the Angkor region of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
From the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, Angkor was the seat of the Khmer Empire, the largest empire of Southeast Asia. Over 4,000 ruins, surviving ancient wats, including mammoth Angkor Wat, remain as evidence of the world’s largest pre-industrial urban center—greater than New York today.
The most important part of visiting this city was yet to come. Join us next week for a chat about survival and restoration after genocide.