We spent about 3 weeks in Cambodia. It’s a country with a grand ancient history, grim recent history and very cautious optimism (and some pessimism) about the future. We learned a lot which gave us pause to be thankful for our lifestyle and opportunities in the US! We don’t pretend to have any broad understanding of Cambodia. In this blog we are just writing some things we learned when we were there.
A collage of photos of Cambodian people, which we feel conveys the resilience and gumption of the people, is at the end of this post.
The recent history of Cambodia is very complex. Much of the recent history is influenced by interventions from Cambodia’s neighbors, as well as the big guns of the world including Russia, China, and the USA. From about 1965 until 1999 there were terrible things going on in Cambodia. We are not going to attempt to record the details here. This web site provides a brief history of Cambodia.
Ancient history – Center of a great empire
At one time the area that is now Siem Reap was the center of a great empire.
Temples are really the reason we came to Cambodia. Angkor Wat in particular is famous. But the entire country side is littered with them. The Khmer civilization during the the Angkor period from 800 to 1300 A.D. included lands in what is now South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and even Myanmar. It was a very advanced civilization with a series of about 1,000 kings, each of whom built temples,
reservoirs and health care systems to prove their kingliness / godliness. Many of the temples are incomplete because every time there was a new king he started a new one from scratch! Angkor Wat is the most famous, but there are many other temples in various states of ruin and restoration. We particularly enjoyed seeing the ones where the giant strangler figs have roots that are growing in, over and around the stones. They sometimes cause the building or wall to fall apart, but occasionally bind it in place.
The empire was powered by both plentiful rice resulting from their sophisticated irrigation systems, and plentiful fish from the huge fresh water lake. They needed plenty of rice and fish – Angkor Wat was built over 40 years, from 1012 to 1052 by a million people.
The people of Cambodia are justifiably very proud of their ancestor’s accomplishments.
A slide show of our favorite temple pictures is at the end of this post, below the collage of pictures of people.
All the people we have met are friendly, helpful, and they smile easily as they go about daily life. There are markets, motorcycles carrying almost anything you can imagine, people growing rice, building houses, minding their families, selling things, repairing things, lots of people in the streets because the businesses are all inside/outside. People living their lives. Hopefully enjoying many of the good things in life. A collage/slide show of the people is at the bottom of this post.
From about 1960 through about 2004 Cambodia has been torn by war. This reached an apex from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge created their own holocaust, killing about 2 million intellectuals, doctors, policemen, anyone who wore glasses, and anyone who hinted at resisting them. They moved everyone from the cities out to the country where many starved. One result of all this war is that the country has very few intellectuals, teachers, doctors or older people. Another result is millions of land mines scattered across the countryside generating a continual stream of amputees as well as land that cannot be farmed.
A related topic is the USA’s action in Cambodia. When the Vietnamese moved the Ho Chi Min trail into Cambodia, the USA carpet bombed the areas of Cambodia where they thought it ran. And then for some reason we don’t really understand, the US bombed Phnom Penh. Several Cambodians said the bombs caused incredible horror, yet they don’t seem to hold it against Americans.
.Remember the domino theory?
A number of Cambodians said that they worry that their country is being taken over by Vietnam. We won’t go into all the reasons here, but it is interesting. Remember the domino theory which was the rational for the Vietnam war? The theory postulated that if we did not stop Communism from advancing in Vietnam it would advance to take over all of SE Asia. Based on our conversations with Cambodians, it now looks like there was something to that the domino theory.
We had two experiences that suggested to us that involving the police in a situation costs a lot and does not help resolve anything.
Our friend Jim told us that when he had to return to the US for a month or so he lent his “moto” to a friend. When he returned, the friend refused to return it. Jim went to the police and requested their help. They asked for the equivalent of $600, which Jim paid. But then nothing happened. Eventually Jim had to re-possess the moto on his own.
The other experience we had with the police was when we were riding in a van as part of a tour. A lady driving a nice Mercedes rear ended us fairly violently. She and our driver got out, looked at the damage for less than a minute, returned to their vehicles, and drove away. There was no exchange of contact information, and certainly no asking the police for a police report. We asked our guide about this and he said it is always best to not involve the police.
We heard many stories about corrupt officials at higher levels using their positions and power to build their own wealth.
Our friend Jim told us that weddings are the biggest expense for families in Cambodia. A dowry may be $5,000 equivalent, and the wedding party costs are about the same. This is a big deal considering that the average annual income is about $1,000. Here we have seen several wedding “chapels”. Generally these are outdoor affairs where there is a tarp tent cover around a large area, and then lots of colorful fabric creating the “walls” of the wedding chapel. Peek in and you will see colorful furniture, often plastic, and people dressed in very fancy, shiny, colorful clothing. Music of course. In fact the little resort we stayed at in Battambang was near a wedding chapel and there was music going all the time. We were told that they have 3 weddings per day there.
Photos of the Cambodian People are below here. Click one to see a slide show.
Below them there is a slide show of favorite photos of the Khmer temples.
Favorite photos of temples