Cambodia is an astounding place.
What's astounding isn't the choking density of the tropical rainforest, or the glorious majesty of Angkor Wat (the largest religious building in the world), or the power of the mighty Mekong River. (Well, actually, all of those are astounding, but none are the astounding bit I'm talking about here.)
What's astounding about Cambodia is...
Well, actually, let's get back to that in a minute.
In the decades following WWII, Cambodia was more or less (this is all vast oversimplification) ruled by King Sihanouk. In 1965, Sihanouk broke off diplomatic relations with the US and allowed the North Vietnamese to use Cambodian territory in their war against it and South Vietnam.
In 1969 the US began a secret campaign of bombing raids against targets within Cambodia, which killed up to 250,000 civillians over the following four years.
In March 1970, while he was on a trip to France, King Sihanouk was deposed by General Lon Nol. In exile in Bejing, Sihanouk worked to take back his crown by aligning himself with a Cambodian revolutionary movement called the Khmer Rouge. Because it had the king's seal of approval, many peasants left the fields to join this band of rebels.
In the meantime, in an effort to flush out the thousands of North Vietmanese troops hiding there, the US and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia. This war was played out atop the civil war that had engulfed the tortured nation. The US supported the Lon Nol regime, while the North Vietnamese supported the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, in the meantime, was changing. Originally a grassroots coalition composed of a variety of different factions, it was gradually consolidated under the leadership of staunchly anti-Vietnamese, anti-Sihanouk communist hardliners.
In 1975, just a fortnight before the fall of Saigon, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. The residents of the city, weary of war, welcomed them as liberators.
No one could have forseen what was about to happen.
The Khmer Rouge, still under a leadership completely unknown to the outside world (Pol Pot would not reveal himself until late 1976), set about its plan of brutal social re-engineering. The capitol city of Phnom Penh, indeed all the cities and towns in the country, were completely emptied. Millions were sent into the fields, to endure backbreaking hardship as slave labor. Currency was abolished, and all governmental services cancelled. Grass grew in the empty streets of Phnom Penh, streets that echoed at night with the screams of suspected enemies of the regime. Countless numbers were executed for the most trivial of offenses. It was declared to be Year Zero.
The lights had gone out in Cambodia. It would be a long time before they came back on. By then, an astonishing one in four Cambodians had been tortured and killed.
In the end, it was the Vietnamese that brought down the rule of the Khmer Rouge, invading on Christmas Day 1978 and taking the country in less than two weeks. The Khmer Rouge melted into the jungle, to terrorize the nation for a further two decades. Astoundingly, they were given technical support by the British and huge quantities of money by the US, which for a time even helped them retain their seat at the UN.
The 1980s and 1990s were tumultuous and difficult years for Cambodia, and it is really only since 1998 that it has been able to start to get onto its feet again. The Khmer Rouge are gone now, and Pol Pot is dead. Trials of the other ringleaders are slow in coming and knotted with sticky politics. The country is controlled by the same Cambodian People's Party set up by the Vietnamese in 1979.
I didn't quite know what to expect from Cambodia. Prior to researching our trip, all I knew about it was what I'd learned from Apocalypse Now and The Killing Fields. And as grim as they were, things only got worse the more I learned.
What could it possibly be like? What would the people be like in a place that just three short decades ago was perhaps the scariest place the world has ever seen?
Well, my friends, that is the astounding part.
The people of Cambodia have been, without exception, the most heartbreakingly sweet and gentle people I have ever met. They are resiliant, they are strong, and they are kind. They greet us with enthusiasm and with broad, warm smiles. Their children chase after us in packs, waving at us with amusing exhuberance and gaily shouting "hello!" at the top of their lungs.
We have found here a people happy to welcome us, eager to talk with us, and excited to learn from us. Moreover, we have found here a people with so, so much to share with us.
I never could have guessed it would be like this. I would never have imagined we'd so quickly fall in love with this country.
The problems they still face are overwhelming: governmental corruption on a truly massive scale, the recent disconcerting signs of political oppression, the grotesque scourge of child-sex tourism, the lingering threat posed by the world's largest minefield, poverty on a truly suffocating level, and an entire generation that was systematically cleansed of its most educated citizens.
Reading about Cambodia makes you want to cry. But being here, meeting all of these wonderful people, I can't help but feel that maybe, just maybe, they've got a better chance than we think.
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