Who knew… Cambodia!
This country has blown me away. Of all of the countries I’ve visited, these people are the kindest, “smiliest” people I have ever met. When riding bicycles through the countryside we were greeted at every turn with a huge smile and “Hello!” by children and adults. There were virtually no beggars or homeless people, and if you looked into a retail street stall, the person working would ask if you wanted to look more and then backed off if there was no interest. A gentle people… And poor.
And then there was this. All of my life I have heard about and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh and Cambodia, and I finally had a chance to see them first hand.
These are excerpts from Wiki that give a brief overview of the atrocities:
“In March 1969, President Richard Nixon authorized secret bombing raids in Cambodia, a move that escalated opposition to the Vietnam War across the United States. Nixon believed North Vietnam was transporting troops and supplies through neighboring Cambodia into South Vietnam. He hoped that bombing supply routes in Cambodia would weaken the United States' enemies.
The bombing of Cambodia lasted until August 1973. While the exact number of Cambodian casualties remains unknown, most experts estimate that 100,000 Cambodians lost their lives, with an additional two million people becoming homeless. Enhancing the destruction, in April 1970, President Nixon ordered United States troops to occupy parts of Cambodia. American soldiers withdrew, but their presence, along with the air strikes, convinced many Cambodians to overthrow their government, leading to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a communist and despotic government.
Pol Pot transformed Cambodia into a one-party state called Democratic Kampuchea. Seeking to create an agrarian socialistic society that he believed would evolve into a communist society, Pol Pot's government forcibly relocated the urban population to the countryside to work on collective farms. Pursuing complete egalitarianism, money was abolished and all citizens were made to wear the same black clothing. Mass killings of perceived government opponents, coupled with malnutrition and poor medical care, killed between 1.5 and 2 million people, approximately a quarter of Cambodia's population; a process later termed the Cambodian genocide.”
The irony is that Vietnam was the country that liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge’s four year massacre (1975-79), but not for humanitarian reasons. Vietnam was looking to create a friendly government to help protect its border. Yes, even the Communists have factions…
And the land mines that left thousands limbless are sniffed out by trained rats and dogs yet today in the Cambodian countryside. The open mass graves known as the killing fields are used as a way of sharing this horrific story with the world, even though the Cambodian children are not taught about it in school…
We have not met a single Cambodian that did not loose a family member under the Khmer Rouge… The movie “First They Killed My Father” (2017) is based on a true story of a 5 year old that survived under the Khmer Rouge and provides a glimpse into the horror….
Whew… And yet there is so much more - beauty and poverty and happiness and suffering…
Most of central Cambodia is a delta, what I call a wetlands. The water from China flows down the Mekong River in the wet season and at the confluence in Phnom Penh, the Tonlé Sap River changes direction and flows north towards the largest fresh water lake in SE Asia. In the wet season this lake becomes 4x larger and 5x as deep overflowing its banks into the surrounding land. During the annual dry season the water subsides which allows the farmers back into the fields to plant rice. As the water is drawn down, the river literally changes direction and heads south again; this phenomena, unique in the world, occurs during the time of the famed “Water Festivals” across the country!
It is estimated that 1 million people live in floating villages on lakes and rivers across the country, moving their homes with the changing water levels. We took a 6 hour boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang; the boat stopped at various points dropping off eggs, buying snails and picking up passengers from their floating homes. We wondered out loud what it must feel like to rarely set foot on solid ground….
And we saw huge fields of beautiful pink lotus flowers spread across the countryside along side the watery rice fields. The workers harvest the long stems and symbolic flowers which are sold in the market for food along side the exotic looking dragon fruit, mangos, papayas, sweet bananas, avocado and a plethora of brightly colored fresh veggies. LOVE the food!
The country uses both Riel and US dollars with an exchange rate of 4,000:1$. One afternoon in Siem Reap I made my way around the City and had a delightful afternoon with change left from a $20.
60 minute massage by a blind technician $9
Lovely veggie salad $5
Mango smoothie at a street vendor $1
Buddhist Temples dot the country side and cities. Most are incredibly beautiful, intricate and well maintained. I wonder if the gentle nature of the people is influenced by this reflective philosophy? Each village has a “Public House” which is an open air covered concrete slab, but it provides travelers with a free place to stay if they don’t have the means for more. We saw hammocks and fire pits being used by families and learned that each of these free houses are supported by the community. The walls are lined with names and donation amounts - their version of a donor wall!
No visit to Cambodia is complete without a visit to the amazing temples of Angkor Wat built in the 12th century. Words feel inadequate when you learn about the stories and symbolism behind the bas relief carved onto the walls, and realize childbirth, storytelling and revelry is part of our human condition. Oh, and getting on a bicycle at 5am in order to see the temples at sunrise is a worthy effort!!
We had the joy of riding bicycles in both the cities and countryside of Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh (a couple of “Holy Shit!” moments in PP - lol) and each had it’s own unique flavor and beauty. The guides lead us through village after village on twisty and rutted red clay paths dodging water buffalo, fording streams that were well over its banks and at one point we were stopped by a farmer herding ducks. The common denominator was the greetings effused by the locals as we passed! We were able to visit rural families that supported themselves by making sticky rice, rice paper, fish paste, rice wine and it seems that all supplemented their diet by fishing. They live a simpler yet physically (coupled with limited health care) more challenging life. The life expectancy of a Cambodian is 70 years vs 77 years in the USA and 84.6 years in Japan.
And riding in Phnom Penh was an adrenaline rush to say the least!! The roads are full of tuk tuks, small cars, people, motor bikes carrying more passengers than you can imagine, dogs darting across the road, cows wondering aimlessly and scooters coming at you from ALL directions!
A local told me, ”once you make a move to cross the road, just keep moving - the oncoming traffic will part like flowing water around you.”And so far it has worked - lol!! There are very few stop sign or traffic lights, and I noted that the motor bikes turning right didn’t even look - they just merged into a sea of vehicles…
So the dry season brings in the wedding season! Huge tents are placed in the middle of the street cutting off traffic, and the celebration is three days long… Starting at 5am till 10pm…. And the music is bizarrely loud!!!!!! So loud that I wondered how much damage is done to their hearing… Wedding music greeted us upon the arrival to our hotel in Battambang and we wryly pulled out the ear plugs and placed them on the night stand- lol.
Cambodia is a complicated country given the current 40 year Prime Minister was a past Khmer Rouge military leader; he is the head of the People’s Party and even though they have elections, the opposition parties have all been eliminated. It is a safe country full of Buddhist Temples, capitalism and a corrupt government…
Did I tell you how much I loved this country?