At the Banyon Temple of Angkor Thom, part of Cambodia's Angkor temples in Siem Reap.
There’s a certain formula that seems to work best when writing a review or an assessment. Start with the good. Then the negative. Then throw a little sugar at the end to smooth things over. Neat and clean, but you always remember the negative.
While sitting in intense heat covered in sweat or driving down country roads on the back of a tuk-tuk, I’ve thought for a long time about how to write about Cambodia.
I was there for only eight days, following the tourist trail from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. But of all the spots I visited on our trip, I feel this place has stuck with me the most.
Entering Cambodia was probably one of the best introductions I’ve ever had to a country. We took a ferry all afternoon up the Mekong River after a three day tour through Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. A large empty boat with only 10-15 other travellers all heading to Phnom Penh.
It was warm inside so we bought a couple Angkor beers and climbed on the roof with a friendly Israeli couple. From here, we enjoyed the hot sun as our boat floated up a river drowning rice fields, banana leaves and dilapidated shacks completely flooded to their thatch roofs. Yet, it appeared life was continuing as normal and people were busy along the shore.
As we enjoyed this glimpse of daily life, we started to hear shouts from deep in the trees,
Children frantically waving. Enormous smiles that only seemed to get bigger when we waved back.
This was our introduction to Cambodia. An afternoon of scenery and excited, smiling faces.
I would suppose it was one of the best parts of this country and what makes me wish I was back sitting on a plastic stool, drinking Angkor beer and eating pistachios: The people.
Genuine. Friendly. A warmth that seemed to glow.
But the thing about Cambodia is that it breaks your heart.
I flip through pages of a Phnom Penh English newspaper and two stories catch me. First, several workers at a garment factory have to be hospitalized after a dangerous pesticide was used inside. The major Western retailer who subcontracts the factory doesn’t comment. You probably own their clothes. I know I do.
Second, and this is just a brief, a man responsible for an NGO dedicated to helping the poor has been charged for sex crimes related to children as young as seven. A truly hideous industry in this country. Organizations have ads everywhere calling on tourists to protect the children and report suspicious behaviour. The sheer magnitude of the campaign says something about the size of the problem.
Cambodia is a shattered country and it’s clear that years of war have left many parts behind. Infrastructure is rough and many in the country live in poorly constructed shacks made of wood, bamboo or sheet metal.
Poverty is on full display in the capital. Perhaps tourist dollars draw more beggars, but it’s hard walking past a mother with baby sitting on the street asking for change. Or the little girl who tugs on my wife’s shirt asking for money or food in Siem Reap late at night. Or the man with a burned face I try hard to forget. Missing limbs. Deformities. Makeshift crutches or wheeled contraptions used to pull oneself across the street.
It was our second night in Phnom Penh and we went out for a drink and sat outside enjoying the warm weather. It was nearly midnight on a Tuesday or Wednesday and across the street on a walkway along the Mekong were children who clearly appeared like they had no home to go to. Or didn’t want to.
It’s not that hard to determine why the country is in such a state. A simple review of the recent history lays it out pretty clear. Although the bigger why – why this could actually happen, why could humanity act in such a horrendous way – that Why hangs in the air like a foul smell that frequently overwhelms your senses.
In brief, (according to my general understanding): Under the background of a war going wrong in Vietnam, U.S. backs a puppet to take over rule of Cambodia. U.S. military begins campaign of intense bombardment to attack Vietcong bases inside Cambodia. Cambodian communists (Khmer Rouge) gain strength and local support. Fighting across the country heats up. U.S. leaves. KR take over the capital and government collapses.
The Khmer Rouge then seek to transform the country according to their wild communist ideology. Cities including Phnom Penh (pop. one million +) are emptied including the sick and injured (hospitals were cleared out). Peasant life is seen as the ultimate standard in their warped communist vision and everyone is sent to work on collective farms.
Supposed elite intellectuals are subversive and rounded up to be tortured and killed. Anyone with a university education or glasses or soft hands. All brutally murdered along with their families.
After nearly four years of Khmer Rouge rule, Vietnam invades Cambodia and swiftly takes the capital sending the KR into the jungle and starting a guerrilla war that would last until 1998.
As noted, the war and genocide left the country years behind along with an assortment of grim reminders that continue to kill more than 200 people a year. Millions of deadly munitions – be it unexploded American bombs or landmines both sides laid in years of conflict – are scattered across the country.
We visited a museum documenting the ravages of landmines and cleanup efforts. I feel proud and a little smug about Canada’s efforts to eliminate these weapons, which are specifically designed to maim, not kill (The convention to end the use of landmines is named after Ottawa after all). Our guide then tells me at the end of our tour that the Harper government has reduced its funding of international landmine action by 57%. Disappointment.
Sometimes when chatting with Cambodians I would feel a little uncomfortable asking about their families and where they grew up. Between 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge killed nearly one third of this country of eight million people.
On our first full day in Phnom Penh we saw this legacy first hand. We began with a tour of the S-21 prison, a former school converted into a prison and torture chamber for supposed subversives.
The rules for prisoners at the Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. After facing torture and unbelieveable hardship, most prisoners would be executed.
This is a disturbing place. At first, the cells appear nearly abandoned. Stained cement floor, stained walls with frayed yellow paint. A simple iron bed sits empty in the middle.
On the wall is a large picture showing that same room, that same bed, with a dead or nearly dead body lying on the floor shackled to the bed post. Tortured spirits follow you out of the cell.
The KR took headshots of everyone who entered the prison. Walls and walls of photos of men, women and children of all ages. Some stare blankly, others look scared, some even smile. Defiance I hope, but it could be that they think the photo is for a sunny purpose. Or sheer madness.
After touring the prison for a couple hours, we go to the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. This is where the prisoners would be taken for execution. Such massacre sights can be found all across the country. It is believed that many more have not been found or the risk of landmines is too great to search at this time.
A pagoda filled with bones stands at the centre to honour the victims. Visitors are also guided through the area with one of the most detailed and respectful audio tours I have ever heard.
The only thing I can compare this site to is the concentration camp I once visited near Munich. Both places fill you with utter despair. However, these killing fields are raw and even more grotesque.
As mud comes up from the ground after a heavy rain, it brings with it pieces of clothing, bones and teeth from bodies still buried. As you walk along the paths, you really need to watch your step, feeling that accidentally stepping on a shirt or what looks like a spine fragment only disrespects these poor souls further.
I see these items in the ground near a children’s mass burial site with a truly sinister tree beside it and feel tears roll down my cheek.
Sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Given such horror, it’s refreshing to know that Cambodia has a place that instills deep pride. Its image is on the country’s flag along with their favourite beer.
And they’re damn right to be proud.
The temples of Angkor Wat are one of the largest religious temple sites in the world. These ancient shrines with statues of Hindu gods, animals and faces are glorious.
They look even more ancient with the roots of giant trees twisted throughout along with vines and giant green foliage. The cackle of the jungle provides the soundtrack with its squeaks and squawks from birds, monkeys, frogs and cicadas.
Walking along the temples you envision yourself as the first to discover them.
You’re reminded of the beauty of this country and, perhaps why, despite all the tragedy, Cambodians still seem to smile so bright.