Cambodia feels a world apart from Taiwan. There’s an intangible glamour to this sweaty, scruffy country in the heart of Southeast Asia. The capital city, Phnom Penh, has an energy that can’t be felt in the metropolises of Taiwan, China or Japan.
People here don’t subscribe to the same traditions and beliefs of prim and proper East Asia. Here, the people are loud and colorful–if you upset a Cambodian, you’re going to hear about it.
Phnom Penh’s riverfront bustles with tourists and Cambodians.
But this humble country is a vortex of positive and negative energy, metaphorically akin to the classic struggle between good and evil. One of the oddest things about being in this country is knowing that so many of the people you meet and see have survived an unimaginable hell, and yet here they are, trying to make the most of what life they have left. I find myself wondering who among me was a child soldier, or who supported the mind-blowingly genocidal propaganda of Paris-educated Pol Pot’s regime. Do I pass former soldiers on the street? Were any of these people responsible for the mass killings?
On the other side of the suffering, it’s too easy to picture today’s Cambodian children starving, their bloated bellies round with air and skin dripping from malnutrition. (Reading first-hand accounts of survivors from the Khmer Rogue reign, a wild Communist faction that destroyed Cambodia from 1974-1979 hasn’t helped my imagination.)
The fact is that everybody here over a certain age lived and suffered through the Khmer Rogue and the nearly 30-year civil war that followed. Accounts vary, but it’s widely accepted that some 2 million out of Cambodia’s 7 million residents were killed in just four years during one of the most murderous regimes the world has ever seen. Many people survived by fighting for the bad guys.
Mehak Sokhom, a 25-year-old Cambodian who lost his family and his left arm to a landmine 10 years ago, lives in dismal poverty, unable to get a job because of his disability. He spends his days speaking to visitors of Siem Reap’s relatively unknown War Museum about the underground war still raging against Cambodia’s farmers.
What makes Cambodia unique in the encyclopedia of political experiments gone awry is that the bloodshed here is so real and raw, the stains still drying, and yet Cambodia is one of the few places on earth where the past is so closely intertwined with the present, like a dream you can’t quite rip apart from reality. Tuk tuk drivers paste their rickety carriages with advertisements for rides to the Killing Fields, a ghastly mass grave of thousands of men, women, children and even foreigners just outside the capital city limits. Laundry crusts in the dust from Tuol Sleng, a hellish elementary school-turned-prison that served as the epicenter of the Khmer Rogue crazy. Cambodia’s current president lost an eye as a high-ranking general for the Communist party. He spends his time trying to stall a joint United Nations/Cambodian war crimes tribunal attempting to prosecute his former comrades.
A 13-year-old girl selling books to tourists along Phnom Penh’s shabby riverfront poses for her friend, who took control of my camera for the night. The ubiquitous children hawkers speak excellent English and are ready to make friends with anyone who will spend time with them.
Unsurprisingly, none of this has stumped growth. Cambodia’s tourism scene is surprisingly developed, and Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and party beach towns like Sihanoukville are cities on the rise. There are only a few buildings more than five or six stories tall in all of Phnom Penh, but the Koreans and Japanese are moving in quickly with grand plans for heavenly skyscrapers. (The Japanese actually own the Killing Fields, charging tourists an entry fee in exchange for paving the roads from Phnom Penh.) Whatever the price, Phnom Penh will soon be the Paris of Southeast Asia, they say.
The growth continues outside the capital. Siem Reap, an outpost near the Thai border sprouting out of the massive Angkor Wat temples, is finding its footing again as a haven for counterculture. And waves crash against strobe lights in hip clubs along the Gulf of Thailand in Sihanoukville.
All this suggests Cambodia has far better days ahead than behind. It’s clear its people have made a collective decision to move on, perhaps because it’s the only thing they can do. Like the dawn breaking on a sleepless night, there’s no choice but start the day. The ghosts from too-recent atrocities live peacefully with the good people here now. Like yin and yang, Cambodia’s horrific modern past balances out with the passion of its people alive today. And life goes on.
The sun sets on boats moored in the Gulf of Thailand on Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville, a busy stretch of sand with beach chairs and drinks galore.
Suggested reading list on Cambodia’s recent history:
For an emotional read that can put any of your problems in perspective, check out these excellent books on the Khmer Rogue reign of Cambodia:
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung–firsthand account of a well-to-do Phnom Penh family turned upside down by the Khmer Rogue.
When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rogue Revolution by Elizabeth Becker–A former war correspondent for The Washington Post (and current New York Times reporter) who was one of the few journalists allowed back into the country before the Khmer Rogue’s fall analyzes the United States’ involvement in the war.
Stay Alive, My Son by Pin Yathay with John Man–Yathay was a former engineer for Cambodia’s Ministry of Public Works when his country descended into hell.
Amber Parcher is an American journalist living in Kaohsiung. She writes for The Washington Post, Monocle Magazine, Taiwan Business TOPICS, Waakao.com, and, of course, GuanXi.
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