The Jewish Chronicle Online recently reported that Jerusalem has been named among the top ten tourist destination cities in the Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. For those who have visited amazing sites such as the Western Wall and the City of David, this may come as no surprise. But are you surprised to learn that Siem Reap, Cambodia also ranks among the top ten? Many people are, because Cambodia is still a country that is often misunderstood.
What many people know of Cambodia is the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979, which was led by Solath Sar, who is also known as Pol Pot. Pol Pot wanted to make Cambodia into an agrarian society, forcing city dwellers to move to the countryside to work on farms, essentially as slave laborers. In addition to forced slave labor, the people of Cambodia were deprived of proper nutrition, medicine, and health care. The result was that millions of Cambodians perished. Many died of malaria, which could have been relatively easily treated at this time. However in the conditions they were forced to live and work, and with no treatment, it spread quickly and killed many. Hundreds of Cambodians were taken to a secret prison is Phnom Penh, where they tortured and interrogated, and eventually put to death. Due to the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, about 21% of the total population, or approximately 2.5 million Cambodians, died.
As Jews, how can we not feel empathy towards the Cambodians for their suffering? We can feel nothing but compassion and understanding for their hardships. We know that today, each Cambodian has a personal story about how his or her family was touched by the genocide, and the survival stories are deeply haunting. The Cambodian peoples have experienced their own holocaust. Yet much like the Jewish people, today their persecutors have fallen, and they are able to stand proudly.
By visiting Cambodia today, it is hard to believe that the country was once the victim of such a cruel regime. Everywhere, you find yourself surrounded by a magical sense of intrigue that is unique to Cambodia.
In Siem Reap, you can visit the nearby temples of Angkor, which was the capital of the Khmer Empire from 882 to 1350 AD. In 1992, Angkor was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this time, it underwent a considerable number of restoration projects, so that today visitors can witness Angkor, and namely its chief temple called Angkor Wat, in all of its glory. The building of Angkor Wat itself is considered to be the world’s largest religious building- and remember, that’s just one building of many! The whole area of Angkor is stunningly expansive and ornate, and displays its own unique type of architecture. You’ll see decorative towers, shaped like lotus buds, climbing towards the sky, and gigantic expanses of murals, carved walls, and moats. Overall, the effect is quite stunning. To get a look at what Angkor Wat, the cherished symbol of Cambodia, watch this short video clip.
You may also be surprised to learn that in Cambodia, you will find a Chabad Jewish Center. Their building is located in Phnom Penh, and they host a variety of events, including synagogue services and adult education. They also hold holiday celebrations, such as this Chanukah party in Siem Reap. Browse around Chabad Cambodia’s site while you are there. I always find it fascinating to learn about Jewish culture in some of the far corners of the world- where we may least expect to find it!