I want to share with you some of my observations and reflections about Cambodia. I have spent a week in Cambodia which is a mere moment but I still thought it might be useful to share what I have learned, as going somewhere else often teaches us about ourselves more than the place itself. I am traveling with my friend Jake (who is like my kid brother). With his input I wrote this narrative (and he takes the photos!) so we’re a good team.
The three things that stand out for me about the Cambodians is that they are resilient, optimistic and passive. The country is a unique melting pot of Hindu and Buddhist. Their food is a mix of Vietnamese and Tai. It is definitely a place worth visiting for a couple of reasons. It is only now developing so it is great to see it in its more untouched form. It is going to grow pretty quickly though in the next ten years. I suggest looking into the country’s more recent civil and political history. We as Americans can learn so much about how good and evil can produce tragic consequences. Are there mistakes we can try to avoid making?
We started our journey in Seim Reap which is a small city next to the ruins of Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is a cute little city still untouched by real congestion and industry which is nice. As an American I take it for granted that we have lots of cars on the road, to have restaurants everywhere which means that the smells of food are everywhere particularly the grease of French fries and the like. We always hear people playing loud music in their cars or coming from the stores and of course where there are stores and restaurants there are people. I never realized how much our air quality and our experience of walking around changes with not just pollution but noise and smell.
It was hot and yet I did not feel so hot there. There was a gentle breeze. The streets were pretty clean. No real smells. No loud music. Very few cars. Mainly Tuk-Tuks which are these two seater buggies pulled by a motor bike. Most private citizens get around on motorbikes or bicycles. Lots of flowers growing and the greenery is lush. The people speak quietly and are friendly. The people are poor and it feels like you are going back in time when you visit. I guess I felt as though I got a glimpse of what the simple comforts were that we lost with modernization.
It is worth visiting Angkor Wat, an ancient urban civilization that was once the capital of one of the most powerful empires in the world. 50 thousand civilian slaves and religious volunteers built this monumental temple by hand and it was complete in less than 40 years. To contrast this with a western structure, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris took more than three hundred years to complete. The temple grounds span the size of half of Central Park and the temple structures form an impressive symmetrical master plan. Laser technology scans the surrounding area for clues that help to inform us of how these people lived. With this technology, archeologists have discovered that at the peak of the Angkor Wat civilization, more than 1 million people lived here. At this same time, only 50,000 people populated London. This ancient civilization existed from 800 to about 1400. These temples have little written historical documentation. Archeologists study bas reliefs and carvings depicting daily life to better understand how the society lived. Again, laser technology continues to reveal new secrets. These tools give us an idea of how awesome and impressive this empire was. All the homes in the area either had their own personal pond for swimming and and drinking water or shared it with one or two other families. These ponds were fed by a sophisticated interconnected dam system which collected water during the rainy season. It seems to have been rich with food and a nice life style.
Also worth a visit is the temple of Ta Prohm. This is the temple made famous by the movie Tomb Rader. It is a temple which they decided not to restore and so it is rather scary looking because the trees are growing into the temples as if it is eating away at it. Good material for a scary movie. Unlike in other tourist locations here, you can just walk around and touch stuff. It is amazing how they have barely protected some amazing global treasure so check it out before it gets so busy that everything is behind ropes.
The temples tell the story of the religion of the people who built them. They started off as a Hindu society. There are many depictions of Shiva or Vishnu and there is even depictions of Lord Garuda who is a lesser known God. The presence of these gods indicate that they had a fairly advanced form of Hinduism. At some point there must have been a quarrel between Shiva and Vishnu. As a result of this quarrel, the society decided to combine the two gods into a single new god called Harhara. As an Indian I am tickled by this solution since Indians are very particular about only worshiping one or the other and make a rather big deal about it.
Then in the later centuries it appears that the Buddhist showed up and so now there are galleries filled with lots of statues of Buda’s everywhere.
Why did this civilization die? This is interesting. From examining the trees in the surrounding areas it is believed that the killer of this civilization was not war but climate change. In the 1200s there were extreme droughts and then later there were extreme deluges. People began to die from famine as a result of broken dams and deteriorating infrastructure. Eventfully the society simply moved away and left Angkor Wat to the jungle. I guess they probably didn’t believe that climate change could do such damage ;).
What do Cambodians live like? We went and visited the villages of Cambodia which are interesting to experience. Admittedly we went to where the rich people live but I think that that is almost more telling than seeing the way the poor live. The houses are one or two rooms and I don’t mean bedrooms but just rooms. The room is used for everything. A family of 4 or 5 will live in these rooms. Later, when the children get married, they will build their own home next to the parents’ home. The house is built on these stilts that raise the house up and protect it from the rainy season. The water comes up very high here so lots of times you walk here in the rain with the water up to your knees. A good floor is made of bamboo which is a really nice strong wood. Btw, they even make bikes here from bamboo. A rich home has running water and electricity but no refrigeration or indoor plumbing. The stove is old fashioned. No air conditioning here. A man’s wealth is counted in terms of how many cows he has and each cow is worth about 1 thousand dollars. They mainly eat rice and fish and some vegetables and fruit. On special occasions you might have dried meat like pork or chicken or cow. One way to supplement their diet they eat roaches and snakes. Check out the photo of Jake eating the snake. J The women here are traditional staying close to home and marriages are pretty much arranged in a style similar to India. Girls must have an impeccable reputation when she marries and the boy gives a dowry if he wants to wed.
The Cambodian people live simple lives and have few possessions. The possessions that they do have are taken care of with great pride and will later be passed on to their children. Homes are clean and organized and the surrounding community is well taken care of by the locals. It is interesting to see how under communism each family is given a plot of land which is theirs- something we Americans thought about many times but never did. You do see each family show pride in their little spot.
The villages are collected up into a set of four or five villages and the set equals a community or something we might call a county. On the hill there is the local temple. That is where the Buddhist monks live. 96 percent of the people here are practicing Buddhists. The monks provide education to the children up until the age of about 12. High school education requires money and the kids would have to go to the city for that. Very few can afford that because that means being able to buy a scooter and going for about an hour or two each way to get to the school.
In the morning the monks go begging for the daily meal and the kids follow along the monks and also beg for small change and food. Usually parents want their daughters to marry a guy who was trained in the temple.
It is important to realize that about 60 percent of the economy here is still agriculture and this is one of the deep effects of the Khmer Rouge. I will get to that effect in more detail in a bit. For the most part people don’t know how to do much more than farming and have to be taught.
Next we went to Phnom Penh which is the capital. On the face of it the capital is rather boring. This city is rapidly becoming industrialized while it is trying to catch up as it grows. It already has about 15 percent cars on the road, lots of motor bikes and Tuk-Tuks. You feel the dust. The eyes burn. The main industry there is garment making because it is way cheaper than China. They over work these people and pay them maybe $200 a month and there are no laws to protect the workers and think of Cambodia as a colony of China. Lots of rich Chinese business men come here and have bought up the main industries and factories.
One of the things that is very interesting is what they do with the cars here. They bring in fancy used American cars and then fix them and then use them. It is a serious business. So if your car was in a crash and then went back to the dealer it can come here and they have these shops that completely redo it and use it. There is real potential here when it comes to the manufacturing because the people here are hardworking and overall very pleasant. There is a lot of potential, just keep in mind there are very few industries here so far and the people are poor and the education is extremely limited. However, overall there is an air of optimism.
Now here comes the most sobering part of my trip so far. I went to visit the killing fields. As you will see in the photos they have not tried to curate it in any way. They just left it there for us to see. As you walk through the cells of the prison you still see the blood stains and the tracings on the floor of where people stood and were beaten. People were made to eat and drink their own excrement. They were forced to make confessions through lots of torture. Ultimately, these confessions were false statements because this was the only way to get the torture to stop. It begs the question – why do we Americans believe that torture would ever get us the truth? Or would ever be useful?
In the killing fields you see the old rags of the clothes that people were wearing as they were killed. In the temple where they stored the skulls that they found, you can still smell death. The smell is unmistakable.
I think it is important for all Americans to know the story of what happened here not for the purpose of finger blaming at Americans or Russians or the Chinese… but for us to understand what happens when we as individuals more so than nations stop paying attention to what we are doing and how not paying attention has real consequences for all of us.
In Brief, the Americans were fighting in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese and the Russians. The North Vietnamese set up camps in the jungles of Cambodia where they would be safe from the Americans. So even though Cambodia who was technically neutral, it was still bombed by the US. Sometimes we made mistakes when we bombed and there were many deaths and casualties. These mistakes lead to careless deaths for no reason at all. We get mad when someone is accidentally killed by a cop in our home and how would it feel if the cops for no good reason just dropped bombs on our homes.
By 1970 in the thick of the Vietnam War, the Cambodians ousted their king and brought in a government supported by the Americans. So the American continued to bomb in order to get the Vietnamese communists. I learned on this trip that we Americans dropped more bombs in Vietnam and Cambodia then we did during the entirety of World War 2. In fact we dropped so many bombs up and down the river that they sometimes use the steel from these bombs to make gongs and bells now for their temples.
Meanwhile a man who the world will call Pol Pot set up camp in the jungle and gets trained in the ideology of Mao. They make a distinction here between Mao and Marx. Here Maoism means get rid of the educated class. All forms of education or western influence must be eradicated so that the culture can go back to its glorious period of ancient times when people were pure. Purity means going back to the times of farming and agriculture.
Does that sound familiar? Reactionary ideology always imagines a beautiful past that usually never was. What were these glory days and what were they actually like? Notice how they usually pick a time from the past which we don’t really remember so it might feel more glorious because we get to imagine what that world might be like rather than remember what it actually was. Also, note that they never tell us why we decided to give up those glorious times to begin with.
Back to the story – Pol Pot is preparing to fight the American backed government and gets help from the Chinese. Eventually Nixon has to resign and Ford pulls out of Vietnam and then Cambodia. We did one last attempt of a lot of bombing and then left.
The Khmer Rouge came in and at first everyone celebrated. Finally, this was pure Cambodia: they got rid of the foreigners! At last they had their home back. Of course we never know how much worse life can get.
There were 2 million people in the capital at that time, as many people had sought refuge in the cities. The Khmer Rouge came in and suddenly gave people 72 hours to evacuate. Many were forced into labor camps and told to forget anything they had ever learned. Families were separated and children taught to sell out their parents if they knew anything that undermined the regime. Children were asked what their parents did for a living, and if they spoke the truth that they were a teacher or knew some English, their parents were killed. Often, the regime would also trick people – asking doctors and teachers to volunteer to help – and then once those people self-identified themselves to the regime, they were killed.
The capital city was soon turned into a ghost town as people were murdered or sent to the country side to become farmers. All forms of anything intellectual were gone. Anyone educated was taken to the killing fields and murdered. It was a war against knowledge. Artists gone. Doctors, teachers, mechanics journalists were all killed. You were not supposed to know how to read and write. If you knew English or French you were taken to the killing fields. People would be blind folded and taken in trucks and then they used axes and hatchets to kill people and then cut their stomachs open as they dumped them into the ditches. They did not want to waste bullets so they killed them in other brutal ways. It is estimated that they killed 1.3 million people in the killing fields and probably around another one million starved to death. The people were taken to the country side and given such meager rations that they could not survive. They were told that they had to learn to live with less so that they could be strong. The army would steal from them.
So they got rid of all their intellectuals in a matter of four years from 1975 to 1979. We have an example here of a people that killed off a fourth of its own kind. And just as significantly it killed off its own talent and human resources. To this day we don’t know all that went on. Unlike the Germans, the Khmer Rouge were not extensive record keepers.
Eventually it was the Vietnamese that came in and restored order and then the United Nations in 1991 that brought a form of pseudo-democracy. What is important to recognize, is that the people here are so grateful for peace and stability and the ability to live again and be happy. One out of four people were killed so there is no family was untouched. Yet they forgive the past and focus on creating a better future for themselves.
There is a lot one can learn from the Cambodian experience. We learn that human spirit is capable of surviving anything and in a matter of a few years a human is also capable of starting life again and creating a better future. It is also very important to recognize that when you eliminate knowledge you eliminate your future options. Germany still does not have the academic institutions of its hay day and China is desperately trying to catch up and Cambodia is limited for as long as their educational institutions are scarce.
People can only do so much without education. We should consider the consequences of trying to erode expertise and knowledge. We have never seen any group benefit from saying to its people don’t learn. So when our politicians try to dumb us down we should as individuals say: No.
As an American I am grateful to have been an American. We don’t always get things right and we can be discriminatory but we draw upon our ideals to fight for the rights of our citizens and that is something that has helped our nation through everything. I also think that we as individuals should step back and ask ourselves what responsibility do we have when bad things happen around us. It is very easy to blame our leaders when bad things happen. After all, they were the ones who gave the orders. And if we the individuals refuse to follow these orders we will be made to suffer. But, we as individuals enact these orders and without us they cannot be enacted. Have you noticed that there has never been a single evil leader who actually did the damage himself? It was done by his people. This means that each of us as citizens of our nation and our globe have the power to stop when we believe that things are wrong. It means that we as individuals have the power make decisions for ourselves for what we think is right and wrong. We don’t have to count on our nations or our leaders to do the work. We may not always be popular or even be right. But it is those few choices we make every day in our lives that transforms our lives and the lives of those around us. That is ultimately the power of choice given to each of us. We get to decide how we will live and die.