Seeing the world, one country at the time

Cambodia in a Nutshell


Cambodia is a country with a rich artistic and cultural history, which was aborted with the takeover of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in April, 1975. Cambodia, in a nutshell, is the dichotomy of before and after this date. It could be compared to the line that separates September 10th from September 11th, 2001 for Americans. Cambodia’s tourism industry revolves around two major eras: the glorious days of the Khmer empire which built the World Heritage renowned temples of Angkor, and the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge, whose murders and atrocities are memorialized in the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields. The contrast is so shocking that you have to stop and ask yourself “HOW could this have happened?!”

How did the people lose the skills and talent to build such graceful and intricately detailed buildings and instead become capable of brutally killing and starving their own, and halting every trace of progress? Compared to its neighbors to the west and north, Thailand and Laos, the Cambodians seem a somber and soulless lot. The war weighs on their collective memory. The smiles of the Laotians are missing, yet Laos suffered their own losses during the “Secret War” of the 1970’s. The grace and service of the Thai are rare. They seem to have an ingrained fatalism, perhaps the result of a long history of being ruled by others, followed by their betrayal at the hands of Pol Pot, when they believed they had finally gained independence.

Life as they knew it ended in 1975 and had to start from scratch five years later when the Vietnamese, whom they had been fighting and had been taught to hate and fear, liberated them from the Khmer Rouge. Within four years, a quarter of the population had been wiped out; a quarter that consisted of the learned and educated: all teachers, doctors and politicians. Under the Khmer Rouge, there was no available medicine, no schools and no real government save an omniscient “Angkar” who controlled every movement of its people, taught them to turn on each other and to kill. How could the Cambodians trust their feelings? How could they feel at all if they were to survive?

It is not possible to discuss Cambodia without mentioning the Khmer Rouge. Visits to their torture chambers featuring quotes by the Khmer Rouge soldiers about their role in the destruction of their country, and personal accounts of the victims make it difficult to understand how the people can trust and be joyful. They are experts at suppressing pain and memories. The hope for the future lies with the children; those who don’t own those memories and will grow up without fear to be a part of the rebirth of their land and culture.

On the surface, Cambodia is jungle and bad roads, weapons stashed along the Ho Chi Minh trail and landmines that kill on average two Cambodians per month even today. It is also the powerful Mekhong that transports goods down toward the delta in Vietnam and is home to the rare Irawaddy dolphin. It is dust and red mud caking your skin and splattering your legs and clothes as you walk on the wet roads. It is never ending rain that seeps into your brain and leaves mold on your clothes and curls the edges of books. It is vendors selling carts full of crickets, spiders, beetles and grubs as women and children crowd around sampling heads and legs before they ask for a bag full of crispy brown arachnids. It is noodle shops, markets reeking of old meat, and fish so fresh that their necks are broken just before they’re handed over to the buyer. It is baguettes with cheese or pate and chili sauce. It is rice paddies with huge water buffalo cooling off as their owners pull at the bright green plants under their conical straw hats.

It is amputee victims from the millions of landmines set by their own people during the Khmer regime, and begging children and mothers who crowd around you holding empty baby bottles and claiming they have no milk for the babies who cling to their hips. It is children selling books and bangles and scarves at every temple, and thousands of Japanese and Chinese visitors being shuffled around by umbrella-toting guides between tour buses. It is the extraordinary Angkor temples with their intricate carvings, giant sculpted stone heads, elephants and lions swallowed up by gigantic trees. These innumerable temples reaching into the jungle are still being discovered, excavated and reconstructed with the aid of millions of US tourist dollars.

It is also Tuol Sleng, the school where thousands were imprisoned and tortured, and the Killing Fields, where bones continue to emerge from the ground and skulls are piled high in a memorial to those massacred by the Khmer Rouge. It is the sublime National Museum with its vast collection of statues and buddhas, and the boardwalk on the riverfront with its chic restaurants and distinguished French colonial buildings. It is the Royal Palace with its various gilded and brightly decorated pagodas, where King Sihanouk lived before he was forced into exile during the war and where some of the Khmer treasures not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge are still found. It is the art and music schools where they are trying to revive traditional arts before the few who still practice the skills are all gone. It is the beach huts of Sihanoukville filled with European backpackers and older men who like the easy Asian life and women. It is fresh seafood and one dollar whisky and the old French colonial towns of Kep and Kampot.

Our Cambodian tour began in the north, where we arrived by car from Laos and crossed on a small open boat piled high with backpackers, locals and motorcycles. Immediately we noticed the contrast from Laos. Here there were guides and touts right off the boat, whereas in Laos, getting any information took some effort. We traveled with our Dutch friends Margreet and Herbert from southern Laos, where we had met. We liked their company enough to travel far out of our way into Ratanakiri province near Vietnam to join them on a trek in the new Virachay national park. Little did we know the adventure that awaited us.

Getting there was no small feat, over the worst roads we had seen yet. The only trek available was for four days, including a day on the Ho Chi Minh trail, used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War to transport troops and goods out of sight of the Americans. It was an intense four days of hiking in thick jungle and forging our own trail, in the company of red ants, leeches, mosquitoes and daily rain which tried my patience. We discovered that we were the first to hike this “trail” and were being used as guinea pigs. When it was all over, I was covered in bites and scratches, wearing wet mildewed clothing and losing two big toenails due to tight wet shoes.

Heading back to the Mekong we followed it south to Kratie to see the Irawaddy dolphins, though in the high waters of rainy season, it was difficult to spot them. From there we continued south to Phnom Penh and visited the Killing Fields before splitting from our friends. We visited the National museum, the Royal Palace, Tuol Sleng (S-21 prison) and the renovated riverfront. A highlight was spending time with Nicole, an old friend of mine from ISB days in Bangkok who now lives in Phnom Penh, and met her husband Tom and children Violet and newborn Ryan.

Next on the itinerary was Siem Reap, tourist trap extraordinaire, where we were suddenly inundated with amputees, beggars and touts. They made us crazy after a while and walking in the city I would devise the best ways to avoid them, taking different streets. At the temples they assaulted me instead of Lars, until I learned to use him as a human shield. It rained every day and although the temples were beautiful and totally worth the hassle, the weather hampered our movement and made for lousy photography. We were happily reunited there with our Dutch friends and their company brightened the gray days. We stayed a week waiting for the sun to peek through. I was so happy to leave even though we had a great hotel with a bathtub and TV for seven dollars a night.

The four of us traveled together south to the colonial town of Kampot where it rained too much to leave the hostel, let alone see anything of interest. We chased the sun to the beach at Sihanoukville, a hangout for the French during the colonial period. The sun was nowhere to be found so we spent a couple days lounging in bars along the beach. When it rains nonstop and you don’t see the sun for weeks, drinking seems to be the only joy in life. We understand our Scandinavian countrymen better now, stuck in their dark cities during the winter months. No wonder they become depressed. Must remember to buy sunlamp before next winter in Oslo!

Wanting nothing more than to be dry and clean, Lars and I left for Thailand, but had to backtrack to Phnom Penh and then take a bus over the second worst road in the country. We thought our teeth, bones and all our expensive tech equipment would rattle apart. As soon as we crossed the border into the comfort of Thailand, we knew we were in a different world and again, the war’s effects on Cambodia struck us. They got left behind and they have so far to go to catch up, but at least they are on their way.