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Posted by Tim on Jan 24, 2006
An Introduction to Cambodia

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.


A Descent into Hell

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.


The Miracle of Cambodia

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.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Klaus-Spotting

Klaus-Spotting

Ten of our Favorite Angkor Photos

Ten of our Favorite Angkor Photos

The Long Road to Krong Koh Kong

The Long Road to Krong Koh Kong

other jess
January 24, 2006 at 8:00am
I finished an interesting book on Cambodia a few days ago called The Gods Drink Whiskey. It is about the author's experiences teaching Buddhist philosophy in Cambodia a few years ago, and it echoes much of what you've written here.
Amie a.k.a. Koreen's sister
January 24, 2006 at 9:31am
Once again you gave me goose bumps. Since you guys are there do you know what is the most effective way we can help Cambodia? What charity or agency is doing the most good?
Seattle_Jackie
January 24, 2006 at 9:42am
Cambodia (the land, the people, government, customs)seems like it would be one of the most "opposite" of what we know here in the US– literally and figureatively.

I think the miracle you spoke of sums it up… I'm looking forward to more pictures from this part of the trip!

(Go Seahawks… SUPERBOWL! yay!)

KerryGirl
January 24, 2006 at 10:05am
I hate to say this bro, but it seems that hope shines even in the most supposedly darkest of places. As for miracles, they happen evey day, but often we are too distracted to notice…

Now as for the SuperBowl, I'm rooting for Pittsburg but in truth I don't care who wins just as long as everybody has fun. Personally I'm dying to see what scandals will be created during this year's half-time show. :D ;)

Take care you cute hedgehoggies and rock on! :)

daddy
January 24, 2006 at 12:51pm
i'm glad you are finding this to be a happier experiecne then i thought you would, i have to admit after talking to larry i was some what more concern than i had been with other redelvoping countries you've been to . please keep using your unerring good sense and please don't even get close to any minefield. keep enjoying yourselfs i'm envious of all you two have seen and done in your lifes . there can't possibly be any better good will ambasadors then you two hedgehogs have proven to be as always love we miss you both, woof meow chirp and binkies
daddy
January 24, 2006 at 12:54pm
ps someday someone is going tohave to tell me how you get post smiley face here love me
Ali & Chris
January 24, 2006 at 6:27pm
Hi-ho Hedgies,

I wish everyone could read your blog that way 1)the world would know more about "other" people out there in "those" places beyond our shores and 2) get inspired to get out there and see it, learn it and love it first hand. If I were a high school current events or geography teacher I'd make you standard reading. :)

You guys are truly an inspiration and we're so glad we met you in Argentina…we hope to see you in San Francisco when you get back to the US.

Long Live the Hedgehogs,

Ali & Chris

Shana
January 24, 2006 at 9:33pm
i agree, this site should be required reading! as always, it's amazing just to travel vicariously through both of you. thank you.
Janet
January 25, 2006 at 8:25pm
Every step you two take is a bit of geography and history lesson. Hopefully the next generations are as interested in world events and as enthusiastic as you are. We live such closed lives and think internally when there is so much out there. Not that I'm an ostrich, it's out of sight-out of mind. Being of the Vietnam war era I read, watched and heard first hand from those who fought there. It's heartening to know this country can recover. Peace, and always love:)
MoonUnit_Polka
January 26, 2006 at 4:19pm
"We have found here a people happy to welcome us, eager to talk with us, and excited to learn from us."

Hmm…not something typically experienced in the DC area. :) I couldn't even imagine what a change it would be to submerge myself in that kind of culture.

Juno
January 26, 2006 at 7:30pm
I cannot WAIT to see the pictures of Cambodia, I have been waiting for this leg of your trip and I can tell I will not be disappointed!

P.S. Our baby arrived on Jan. 6, a big boy 10lbs 13oz and his name is Eli Magellan. Maybe one day he will live up to his middle name and circumnavigate the world like you Hedgehogs!

Andy Eakins
January 27, 2006 at 7:33am
Having traveled through Cambodia just a few months ago, I find your words so much more eloquent and descriptive that I am ever able to portray to people about this beautiful country.

I always felt that Cambodia was the last place that deserved all the bad things that have constantly happened to it, but is the most deserving of all the good things that should happen to it in the future. The people are truly remarkable.

I know this story will also take another heart rendering turn when you reach Lao. We'll wait with baited breath.

Happy traveling.

Tim the hedgehog
January 30, 2006 at 4:21am

Since you guys are there do you know what is the most effective way we can help Cambodia? What charity or agency is doing the most good?

Hey Amie, sorry it has taken us so long to get back to you, but we wanted to do a bit of research first. :)

From our experiences in Cambodia, we'd recommend two organizations:

[URL=http://streetfriends.org]Fr…] is a wonderful project working to save the children of Cambodia. Each day, they interact with over 1800 children through a wide variety outreach programs, health services, and business training initiatives. We'll be writing more in the future about our touching experiences with two of their programs in particular. :)

[URL=http://www.magclearsmines.o…] (the Mines Advisory Group) is a Nobel-prize-winning international organization dedicated to clearing landmines from some of the world's poorest countries. Not surprisingly, Cambodia is their highest priority. They even have a secure web site that accepts online [URL=https://secure.silkmoth.net/…].

paul
January 30, 2006 at 6:29am
wow, you have tought me the history of Camdodia. Very well writen and full of feeling, power and honesty.

take care
paul

KerryGirl
February 3, 2006 at 8:39am
Wow there's a charity agency named ager me! (MAG) Mind you this joke is funnier when take into account my explosive temper… Ah, tis fun to be a Scots-Irish lass. ;)

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