I'm flying and crying. Figuratively of course- I'm on board Thai airways flight TG 652 en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong, listening to a melancholy mix of music on channel 9 of the IFE ('In Flight Entertainment' as it's known in the business). I left Phnom Penh this morning on a 1 hr flight to Bangkok and now Roy Orbison and KD Lang are accompanying me on my second leg, "crying, crying over me". I too am crying (on the inside) over leaving an amazing place called Cambodia.
You see unlike the rest of my trip, the last 5 nights have been spent in a country I not only had never visited before, but knew practically nothing about. The trip has been as much about learning as it has sightseeing. And now I know more about Cambodia's real past and have experienced its food and met its people, I realize what a special place it is. I'm sad to leave after 5 days; I could stay another 50.
As a child I only remember hearing little soundbytes about Cambodia, like, "The Pol Pot Regime", "Democratic Kampuchea" and "The Khmer Rouge". I never bothered to understand these in more detail. I also remember the movie, "The Killing Fields" but thought it was to do with the Vietnam War.
Does this sound like your knowledge of Cambodia? If not, well done for being aware of SE Asian affairs 1975-1979. If it does sound like your knowledge, I'm glad I am not the only ignorant one!
My teammates over at "Valley Girl Guides" sent over this easy to digest synopsis of Cambodia's dark years:
"so like this really bad guy called Pol Pot or something basically literally took over the country of Cambodia and on 14 April 1975 his people, The Khmer Rouge, closed down all the schools, banks, markets and OMG- malls. O.M.G! As if that wasn't bad enough he forced people to move out of the cities by telling them the US was going to bomb them. As IF the United States would ever drop a bomb and kill innocent people!! He made them work in slave labor camps in the countryside. Like where there's dirt and stuff. He wanted everyone to work in the fields to grow like a LOT of food but it was literally, impossible. So this guy, who already sounds totally annoying right? He makes his people totally kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians because they were too smart! Just like that! Even babies- like omg- think about that next time you're shopping at Barney's, people! Your mom was buying Maybelline at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1978 and some woman in Phnom Penh was having her fingernails ripped out. Crazy right?
Like 20,000 people were tortured in a converted school and then pushed into shallow graves nearby. That's what they call the killing fields. The whole thing is literally heinous but nobody could stop him as he closed off the country to outsiders. Well anyways, Vietnam came to their rescue in January 1979 when they kicked him out and occupied (that means took over) Cambodia. There's other stuff too but you have to buy the full version. $19.99 from any good travel book store in The San Fernando Valley."
You get the picture. There was a genocide 30 years ago during which time the country saw no visitors, let alone tourists, and the capital city of Phnom Penh lay empty- a ghost town. And now?
Now I have been there I want to tell you all to go to Cambodia!! I understand Cambodia a lot better and you need to as well. Besides, they need our tourist dollars!
Their history is one filled with pain and tragedy, yet present day Cambodia is also filled with so much joy and optimism. Sometimes I would feel like people were walking around like they had just discovered joy, and they wanted to share their discovery with others! I've never met people so ready to smile or laugh. Don't get me wrong- it's far from utopia- in fact the poverty is depressing in places. It's more the way people are towards each other, just the way 2 random strangers would interact sometimes, that impressed me. In comparison one would think Westerners were savages, the way we instinctively (and rightly so!) approach strangers with mistrust and fear. Perhaps strangers are more like friends when you have shared such a dark existence in your collective past.
It's hard to describe, and that's why you need to go there and meet the locals yourself. Like 25 year old Tuk-Tuk driver "Jack", who left his 7 brothers and sisters and parents in the village to drive tourists around the temples of Angkor Wat. He learned English from monks, paying $10 per month and in just 6 months can speak enough to communicate pretty clearly.
Jack was so keen to work, dedicated and motivated- it was a pleasure to behold. No room for British Chavs or Aussie Boguns here. Everyone is hungry to do well and motivated to learn. Little kids don't beg for money; instead they will sell you something for a dollar and impress you with their acquired knowledge of capitals and world leaders. It's a sales tactic but wow at least they have one!! India's 'lazy' beggars should get trained by Cambodia's kids on entrepreneurial street skills.
Finally, not only is Cambodia home to warm and welcoming people, it is also home to the most amazing temple complex on Earth, The Temples of Angkor Wat, and amazing art and artifacts from the Khmer Empire on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. If those are not enough reasons to visit, I don't know what are!
Wow that was a heavy post. In part 2 I will talk about the lighter side of my stay...