Cambodia: A Land of Ancient Triumph and Recent Tragedy

Cambodia has had a turbulent past. Years of suffering under the Khmer Rouge have crippled the country, causing those affected to look further into the past to the greatness of Angkor. While the mighty Angkor history may provide solace and strength, will it be able to help these people navigate the future?

I visited Cambodia in the spring of 2008 as temperatures were soaring. A full days journey by riverboat and bus brought me into the capital city of Phnom Phen from Vietnam. The bus seemed to stop in what looked to be the middle of nowhere and soon became swarmed by touts. The air was hot and sticky, and even nightfall was not able to dispel the heat of the day in this place. Feeling not too confident with navigating this forlorn area of town on my own in the dark, I decided to follow one of the touts who had climbed aboard the bus to advertise this $1 hostel rooms. The room was basic. Not too clean, not too dirty. It was definitely a "shoes on" sort of shower situation, but never mind.

There is a lot to see and do in Phnom Phen. There are temples, monuments, bustling markets and enough exotic food to make your head spin. One thing which can not be missed during any visit to Phnom Phen is a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum.

The Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian king and ruled from 1975 to 1979. During these four short years, an estimated 1.4 - 2.2 million people died, either as a direct result of torture and executions, or from the starvation and diseases which were rampant during this time. The Khmer Rouge's dramatic social engineering policies saw mass exodus from the cities as the entire population was forced to labour in agricultural work camps. Tuol Sleng was originally a high school, but was soon converted into a high security prison where detainees were systematically photographed, interrogated, tortured, and eventually sentenced for execution.

Out of an estimated 17,000 people imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, there were only seven known survivors.

Visiting Tuol Sleng is a sombre experience, walls are lined with rows upon rows of photographs. Old men, pregnant women, and small children are represented in high numbers. Cabinets are filled with skulls, and rooms showcase examples of devices of torture.

The effects of a mere four years under Khmer Rouge rule can be still observed in the population today. Families are still struggling to re-stabilize themselves after losing a high proportion of their male members, and jobs are still a hot commodity in a country where many of the cities were completely destroyed. A lack of jobs are not the only factor affecting the recovery of Cambodia's economy - another debilitating factor is the complete lack of education received by children growing up during and shortly after the Khmer Rouge period, not to mention the systematic execution of any Cambodians who held any form of education. Physical disabilities caused by torture, land mines, and chronic hunger still affect many people today.

Despite the heaviness that descends over you after a trip to Tuol Sleng, it is an absolute must for any traveller to Cambodia. Before a visit to Tuol Sleng, you may view the poverty of the country with pity. But after understanding what they went through you will likely be in awe of how they have recovered from the scars caused during this period.

No matter where you go in Cambodia, you can not escape the iconic image of Angkor Wat, pride of the Cambodian people. It is found on the flag, on postcards, on t-shirts, and even on the national beer.

After spending most of the day bouncing along the rough roads leading away from Phnom Phen, I arrived in Siem Riep. The usual deluge of touts descended upon the bus. One thing I learned in Southeast Asia - If you can't beat 'em, join 'em! I began to query the touts, "How much is the cheapest room?", "How much to go there?", "But lonely planet says this one is the best..." Soon we found a friendly young man who promised us a free ride into town if we would stay at a specific hostel. Bungalows were only $3 a night, and from that he would get a commission. I accepted his offer aware that nothing comes for free, and was not surprised when he soon also offered his services for guided transport around the Angkor temples. His price was good $12 for the whole day, for two people, so I struck up a deal.

The great temples of Angkor, which are now a UNESCO heritage site, were constructed between 800 and 1200 CE and served as the seat of the Khmer empire. The Angkor complex contains over a thousand temples, many of which have been restored. The site supported what would become the largest city of the pre-industrial world, and offer insight into the life of the time, as well as how different religions ebbed and grew in their influence. Hindu symbols mix with serene Buddhist expressions throughout the complex. It is now the largest tourist destinations in Cambodia.

There is plenty to see at Angkor, and not all of it is within easy walking distance. If you are in a hurry, you can see the main sights in a day. But such a important national and historical sight deserves some time and reflection. One popular budget option for Angkor transportation is to rent a bicycle. Most guesthouses and hostels offer a rental service. Be warned though, the climate here is very hot, so make sure you are prepared for the exertion. Another popular way to see the temples is to hire a tuk tuk driver to show you around. With a bit of haggling, this option is also quite budget friendly.

In a country where politics and ideals can so easily pull people apart, it is pride in the history of Angkor that unite all members of society.

Government office and schools no longer place revered photographs of revolutionary hero's, but instead place idyllic images of Angkor Wat. Hopefully, Angkor can act as a powerful enough symbol, so that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are never again repeated. 

After sweating it out for what seemed like eternity, I finally crawled to the top of the stairs at one of Angkor's great pyramid shaped temples. Sitting at the top was a young man who was employed as a caretaker. He began to chat to us about his life working at Angkor. He works 12 hours a day, six days a week, for $20 a month. While not working at Angkor he helps his family work on their farm. He dreams of becoming fluent in English and working in a hotel. With the money he could make from tourism, he will be able to look after his family.

We returned to the tuk tuk for which we had negotiated the previous day. The driver today was the nephew of the man who we originally struck the deal with. He drove his uncles tuk tuk and aspired to save enough money, and improve his English well enough so that he could one day buy his own tuk tuk and make a good living off the tourists. He lounged in the shade of the tuk tuk while we explored the temples and sweated profusely in the midday heat. He may be lounging in the shade of the glory of Angkor, but his eyes were looking steadily to the future.

Cambodia is still one of Asia's poorest countries. Despite this, the youth of Cambodia look forward with surprisingly great optimism despite the recent past, and I feel it is this optimism combined with past knowledge, that will propel Cambodia to a peaceful future.

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This post is a guest post by Jade Johnston.  Jade is a writer and founder of the website http://www.ouroyster.com/. She has lived in six countries and travelled dozens more since she left her home country of Canada when she was twenty. Her partner and her now live in Wellington, New Zealand and are planning their next big RTW trip.

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  1. Nice post. Truly sad history.

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  2. Cambodia has always been somewhere I have wanted to go. With the amazing temples and such an interesting past (sad, yes, but I'm happy to see them getting past it). Thank you for the insight into someone from Cambodia!

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