PHNOM PEN – Twenty-nine-year-old Chabad Rabbi Bentzion Butman often stands in
front of the two-story, balcony-laden Jewish Center located at No. 32, Street
28, in Phnom Penh, the capital of the ancient country of Cambodia, thousands of
miles away from his hometown of Lod, Israel. At the front gate is a sign that
says, “The Jewish Center” followed by the words, “No Jew will be left
Once called the “Pearl of Asia” and noted for its French
colonial architecture, Phnom Penh may be a metropolis with only about 100 Jews
out of a total population of about 1.5 million. Yet, the Jewish community was
large enough to be cited by The Economist last summer as an example of Chabad’s
reach to residents and travelers.
The rabbi says he and his wife Mashie
settled here to help the Jewish community, even if there are only 100 Jews
“That’s what we mean when we say, ‘No Jew will be left behind,’”
said Butman, who added that the Jewish community is composed of NGOs, embassy
people and ex-pats. “I wouldn’t say it’s tough, it’s a challenge,” he said of
his adjustment to this ancient land to which he came at the end of
Cambodia’s capital does not stand as the only Jewish presence in
this country of 15 million. About 60 Jews reside in at least 20 towns throughout
the country now booming with tourism, including Siem Reap, about 350 km. from
Siem Reap, a tourist boomtown, remains home to about 20 Jews,
some of whom work in local hospitals. The town is bursting at the seams
because Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat, the “mother of all temples,” and
the heart and soul of Cambodia as well as the largest religious structure in the
world. This 12thcentury Khmer temple stands adorned with elaborate bas-reliefs
and its edifice contains the longest continuous relief ever carved. No wonder
it’s considered the eighth wonder of the world.
Just walk down the long
causeway and view these magnificent ruins and you will be reminded of that “ah”
moment, the same inner joy and excitement a traveler feels when viewing for the
first time the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China and Petra, and
certainly the Kotel.
An Israeli I once met described these Cambodian
ruins as “mahshehu” (something). I agreed.
Angkor Wat is so famous that
its picture is front and center on the Cambodian flag. But like many sites, it
is advisable to visit in the early morning, especially in the early part of the
year, to see the vast complex.
WE DIDN’T listen and got there at noon;
the crowds were sparse and it was very hot, almost like Masada, mid-day in
August. So we returned and came back before sunset, easily sauntering through
the ruins and pausing on the paths where we observed monkeys scattering up and
down stone terraces. These playful animals tease and pose for pictures though we
were warned not to get too close as they are wild.
Even the children
trying to sell souvenirs didn’t bother us. They were wonderful and practiced
their English on us.
Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat which forms a
giant rectangle measuring 1.5 x 1.3 km. The site remains in a remarkable state
of preservation, so archeology buffs may want to spend a full day or two
exploring the walls. Be ready to almost crawl up worn, century- old stone
This mother of all temples was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
It holds the temple mausoleum of King Suryavarman II (1113-50) its builder. From
the 9th century through much of the 15th century, Cambodia was home to one of
the world’s most impressive civilizations. By the 15th century, Khmer
civilization collapsed; its people dispersed. The city itself lay forgotten
until the 19th century when it was rediscovered.
Angkor Thom is the name
of the walled city constructed at Angkor.
Angkor Thom was the capital of
King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219) where the architectural design and decoration
symbolize the Hindu view of heaven. The city is about 2,250 acres. A million
people lived here between the 10th and 15th centuries, more than lived at that
time in London, England.
At Angkor Thom, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we
stared at ancient, serene faces etched into the stone walls dating back to the
Unbelievable are the thick air roots of Banyan trees that
inhabit the area and literally grow out of ancient stones. A good photo-op is
the South Gate. And make sure to stand on the Elephant terrace (the façade is
covered with stone-elephants).
Many of these temples, we were told, bear
silent witness to the encroaching power of the jungle with its huge tree roots
overhanging and grasping the walls as would an octopus. This phenomenon can be
seen at Ta Prohm, a ten-minute drive from Angkor Thom.
undergoing a rebirth. Gone are the Khmer Rouge; the Vietnamese invaders who
occupied the country; the United Nations democracy-restored period and the era
of warring prime ministers.
And the people are pulling this land out of
its miserable past. Very few senior citizens walk the streets of Cambodian towns
and cities. Not out of fear, it’s just that few elders inhabit this kingdom. A
whole generation was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
guide tells us confidentially that he was tortured during the brutal years of
Khmer Rouge rule. As they did with thousands of others, they tied him up and
attacked him with hot irons. Nobody knows why he was freed. “I have a second
life,” he told me. He is pleasant man with a wife and young son whom he
He jokes that when he was young, “they taught me how to harvest
rice. Now they teach students how to harvest US dollars.”
personnel at the luxurious Sofitel Hotel Resort and Golf Club tell me tourists
are coming to bike, trek and to take part in adventure tourism and experience
this ancient Angkorian civilization.
More than one-and-a-half million
Cambodians died in this, the “most radical revolution the world had ever seen.”
The Khmer Rouge literally announced “Year Zero,” when they took over the country
on April 17, 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon. They initiated “killing
fields,” set up by the tyrant Pol Pot. Massive piles of bones throughout the
country attest to this grisly activity. Others simply starved to death. During
the Khmer Rouge terror, all civilians in cities were evacuated to form rural
cooperatives. Phnom Penh became a ghost town.
Abolished were private
property, religion and traditional customs. Hard labor in the fields, starvation
rations and brutal purges killed off a fifth of Cambodia’s population. In 1979
Vietnamese troops toppled the Pol Pot government. In April 1998, the death of
Pol Pot was announced. Meanwhile, much of the country’s infrastructure had been
On my trip, I found today’s Cambodians
resilient. Truly, they are the brave people of Cambodia who had been
brutalized, in this case not by a foreign evil, but by their own flesh and
blood. You see suffering on the roads around the temples, where small groups of
musicians perform Asian selections. They are maimed individuals working for
donations. The tragedy hits home.
But it is not just the ruins of Angkor
Wat and Angkor Thom that tourists flock to. Like all travelers we took part in
elephant rides, drove around in motorbike taxis, and visited the famous night
market of Siem Reap where shopping easily meets the tight-budget expectations of
visitors: T-shirts, jewelry, crafts and silks. After walking and standing in the
market, we re-energize our feet in relaxation pools.
was taken over and made a protectorate by the French in 1863, a nationalist
movement did not arise until the 1930s. It strengthened in 1940-41 when the
French submitted to Japanese demands for bases in Cambodia. In 1953, Cambodia
became independent. And then came decades of civil war, brutality, bombings and
invasions by nearly everyone, including the US, the Vietnamese and
Throughout my trip, I felt sure that tourism will increase. As
Cambodia opens up more to business and commerce, it is likely that as have
Thailand, Vietnam and China, Cambodia will welcome businesspeople eager to
participate in a burgeoning economy.
Cambodian tourism– now about 3
million a year – is growing by “leaps and bounds,” says Michael Kong, director
of Lotus Tours, New York. The company has three kosher tours planned for the
next few years, to be catered by Butman and led by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, author
Ben G. Frank, journalist and travel writer, is the author of
the just-published The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to
India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press).