Looking for an exotic destination in Southeast Asia, my family and I decided to go to Cambodia.
The first thing that came to my mind while planning the trip was war and the killing fields, the second was communism, the third was the Angkor Wat temple being a finalist in the new Seven Wonders of the World, and the fourth and last was jungles and malaria.
Today Cambodia is an extremely fragile country at the mercy of foreign tourists, and also perhaps at the mercy of the presently silent members of the Khmer Rouge, who are still just in hiding, waiting for the right moment to shake up the system. It must be said that what savaged the country the most was not the French colonisation of Indochina and not necessarily the war against Vietnam, but the Khmer Rouge terror, which lasted almost thirty years.
In 1976, Pol Pot, then the prime minister, announced that the Year Zero of Democratic Kampuchea, which is what the victorious Khmer Rouge had renamed Cambodia, and began a campaign to collectivise the land. What the people didn’t yet know was that simple citizens would be enslaved and the country’s intellectuals would get killed. This policy lasted for no more than three years, after which Pol Pot had to flee into the jungle after Vietnam invaded the country, leading to the government’s downfall. Even after a peace agreement between Cambodia’s warring factions in 1989, Pol Pot refused to cooperate with the new government and continued leading frequent campaigns of blood and terror until 1997, when he was finally arrested by other members of the Khmer Rouge. He died under house arrest in 1998.
The legacy of these conflicts today is almost general poverty and the more comfortable citizens lacking the willpower and the manpower to help raise the land themselves. I want to think that most of this laziness comes from the people’s exhaustion, having survived the terrors of war and still believing that progress goes hand-in-hand with a fearless army.
According to some recent conflicts near the Thai border on behalf of a temple called Preah Vihear, which UNESCO recently declared a World Heritage Site, many young Cambodians decided to step forward and sign up for the army, and even many war veterans reenlisted, just to protect their country and disregard the local belief that bad karma would automatically follow military action.
Some say that despite some institutions giving their sweat and blood to clearing mines from the country and the work of the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Centre, Thai soldiers, among others, keep getting injured along the border, which was supposedly cleared of mines. Certainly, the Cambodian government has denied all allegations of having planted new mines in the area.
If this is true we may never find out. However, what we do know is that today the government provides a large amount of support for education and medical care, even in small villages in the most remote regions. The only factors that prevent children from going to school in Cambodia are their own families. Some parents didn’t have the chance to study during the darkest chapter of their country’s history, and so they don’t understand the importance of their children attending classes. They seem to believe that their children need to learn a different kind of lesson, which is to start working as soon as they’re able. Of course, lack of money for school supplies would be another factor, so local charitable institutions advise tourists that instead of giving street children money, they should instead buy them a ready meal or such school supplies as pencils or notebooks.
Travelling off the beaten track, we saw many rice fields, now more commonly known as killing fields, and tried to hear the screaming stories that the winds tell of a bloody era. We also saw the residents of common straw houses, who care little about the chic brick houses in the neighbourhood that belong to such politicians as the ones from the Cambodian People’s Party, which is the king‘s party.
We also saw tuk-tuks, which are motorcycles with a covered rear compartment that takes up to four people, coming and going, buffaloes and cows on the verge of the highway, tourists on strolling elephants, serious and dubious massage establishments, half-naked children suffering from skin diseases, and many others victims of sexual crimes as we passed by sellers of silk shawls, coconut-water, and soda along dusty roads.
The scene in Siem Reap, the nearest town to Angkor, is similar. The dust in the air is the same, if not worse, due to being mixed with the fumes from motorcycles, whose drivers buy their fuel in soft drink bottles from the same aunties who sell roast chicken, glazed with a crunchy thin crust of dust and pollution, outdoors. Families of up to four or five heads squeeze on top of one hand-me-down motorcycle, while rural workers are crammed up to the roofs of cattle trucks that drive them out to the fields.
The privileged children, who are allowed to attend school, go by bicycles which are often three times larger than they are. Meanwhile, the children who can’t go to school for one reason or another try to learn a foreign-language word here and there while they offer tourists their cheaply made Angkor souvenirs, t-shirts, or postcards.
I’m sure that animal rights activists haven’t discovered this place yet because of the widespread killing of crocodiles and snakes for profit in and around the region surrounding the giant Tonle Sap lake. Here is where many Thais buy the animals, which are kept on farms before they become handbags, wallets, and belts. Here is also where hungry tourists with no taste at all can taste something different, rather than the delicious Amok cuisine.
Just to summarize, it is easy for me to describe my visit to Cambodia today – it was simply amazing. It is impossible to leave there with a poor impression. Everything I saw and experienced was unique and strong. Cambodia was actually never on my list of places I wished to see before I die, but its rich history, from Angkor’s golden days until the end of the red terror, is certainly unparalleled and outshines the country’s poor infrastructure, fragile economy, and doubtful national awareness of the power people have in their hands. And I’m happy I got to see all that.
Luciana B. Veit